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Everything Old is New Again
June 11, 2004
By punpirate

Peter Allen's charmingly choreographed song in "All That Jazz," "Everything Old is New Again," was likely never meant to be a political statement, and yet, it's very true in a political context.

Generation X'ers and Y'ers likely see Bush II as springing full-born from the side of his host, the conservative religious right, and that all the rhetoric defending him, his people and his policies is new and recent. It's not.

In the course of some research for another project, I stumbled across Frank J. Donner's The UnAmericans, a 1961 book on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). In it, I was struck by the similarities in tactics and language used by the right in the '40s and '50s with what is pervasive on the airwaves today.

Most people have, including myself until reading Donner's book, believed that HUAC was a creation of the McCarthy era, and that its primary focus was on Hollywood. Donner explains that, no, HUAC came into existence in 1938 as a temporary committee with a mere nine-month mandate to gather facts and issue a report.

Nevertheless, the House committee survived throughout the war years and into the early 1960s. It began with the premise that unionization was ostensibly a Communist plot to subvert the United States, and its roots were watered by industry and by fascist interests in the country. HUAC used familiar tactics to suppress dissent and gather public support for its activities to those used now by the right.

Ask yourself if you've felt this about the current government:

... our entire society is still infected with the contagion of caution, fear and silence. At the root of the conformity which has engulfed us is a pervasive self-censorship, a loss of the sense that freedom is every American's birthright. Our people have come to live in terror of being publicly identified with the minority. The questioners, the "agin'ers," the come-outers and the dissenters simply feel themselves to be too menaced by their environment to question, to be against, to come out and to dissent. As the domestic frontiers of our freedom contract, the Government drenches the world with renewed boasts of our free democratic life - an irony which has amused even our friends and well-wishers abroad.

In 1950, the all-purpose moniker of derision was "Communist." Today, it's "liberal." In some ways, the two derisive terms are now connected in the modern American mind, shaped as it has been by the press. Note, too, that the last line in this quote mirrors George W. Bush's repeated assertions that terrorists "hate us for our freedoms," at precisely the same time that the government is contracting those freedoms through legislation such as the USA PATRIOT Act for the ostensible purpose of fighting terrorism.

Ultimately, the Committee objected to any program related to the New Deal, and in that offensive, showed its true purpose:

... the Committee was discovering other powerful reasons to remain in existence. An antisubversive probe had found broader objectives than the exposure of individuals or the probers' political self-aggrandizement. The ultimate aim was the exploitation of anti-Communism as an instrument of political leverage, a means of handicapping the achievement of legitimate national goals. The [Martin] Dies Committee unceasingly attacked the New Deal by discrediting its programs as communistic and un-American. It undermined the implementation of these programs by exposing and calling for the dismissal of "subversive" New Dealers.

In the same way, denigration today of the Democrats and of liberals, in general, has clear political aims. Just as in the '40s, the right wing today seeks to undo the lingering programs of the New Deal - Grover Norquist, queen bee of the Washington right, has been quoted as saying that the right's objective today is to shrink the size of government until "it can be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the tub."

In short, the right has never let up in its determination to overturn New Deal legislation, to delegitimize progressive politics and to return the country to the days of Mark Hanna, McKinley and the robber barons. The methods employed sixty years ago are exactly the same as those used today. The banal and scurrilous terms used to describe Eleanor Roosevelt ("traitor" and "Communist") are remarkably like those used by the right in recent times to describe Hillary Clinton when she was a Democratic president's wife.

The internet and email have made it much easier and quicker to register displeasure with legislators, but the right's rhetoric has not changed significantly in that time. Donner describes some hate mail directed at critics of HUAC:

When a Congressman votes against an appropriation measure for internal improvement, he may get disapproving mail. But a vote in the House against HUAC results in a shower of abuse, obscenity and hate. Many of these letters are unprintable. Here are a few mild samples of congressional mail after the 1961 vote on HUAC's appropriation:

"Please, get yourself a one way ticket to Red Nazi Russia."

"Drop dead. This would the height of responsibility to this wonderful Christian America."

"You are sharing the objectives of the insidious and diabolical Communist Conspiracy. Such flirtations with treason are gaining for you and the despicable notoriety of being at the very least an unbalanced, soft headed, bleeding heart. We, who now reverently treasure the memory of our Nathan Hales, have a venomous contempt for you Benedict Arnold types."

The rhetoric (and the lack of education implicit in it) is strikingly similar to that received by any politician today who dares to ignore the right's agenda. Note, as well, that "Christian America" was a theme all those many decades ago - it's not new today - it's just better organized, thanks to direct mail, multi-level marketing and televised preaching.

Over forty years ago, Donner wrote:

Hate groups are established fixtures in American public life. Their pathology has been frequently described by social scientists as an expression of prejudice rooted in hate and defeat. They emerge in response to a need for a scrapegoat [sic], an outlet for the aggression spawned by frustration. Their world is one of black and white, of sweeping, unalterable generalizations. To the bigot - organized or unorganized - the country is on the brink of disaster. He sees and invents evidences of imminent doom everywhere. He is obsessed by the conviction that there is one evil which explains all the ills of his society and of the world. Salvation can come only by destroying, by liquidating or punishing his "pet hate" - be it Catholic, Negro, Jew or foreign born. The word of the hate group is structured on myth, stereotype and falsehood. It protects itself from the inroads of reason with an enormous arsenal of polemic and rhetorical weapons. The spokesman of the hate group masterfully echoes all the paranoiac [sic] fears of his followers and makes every challenge a confirmation of the power of the enemy. He slanders, lies, exaggerates and forges to keep alive the particular terror on which the particular group feeds. The successful merchant of hate develops a special fear-breeding vocabulary which oozes contempt and aggression. He a master of propaganda - the more lurid the better.

How similar is this to George W. Bush's pronouncements on the endless evil of nebulous terrorism? Too closely aligned, I fear. Bush and his speechwriters know the "fear-breeding vocabulary" of "contempt and aggression." Pre-emptive war is a natural outgrowth of the sort of paranoia the neo-conservatives have exhibited in the last couple of decades. Bush needs, desperately, to "keep alive the particular terror" which will ensure his political survival.

Later, Donner says:

In addition to their special obsessions, the hate groups share an enthusiasm for the political and social canons of the extreme right. Thus they believe that America is not a democracy but a republic, that the income tax should be abolished, foreign aid ended, States' rights restored and the powers of the Supreme Court restricted.

Today, the right continually decries that we are not a democracy, but, rather, are a republic. There are no fewer than four bills in Congress today calling for drastic overhaul of or elimination of the income tax. The right has consistently supported Jesse Helms and his ilk in reducing or eliminating all foreign aid, especially dues to the United Nations. There is a bill current in the House today to restrict the powers of the Supreme Court (HR 3920, "Congressional Accountability for Judicial Activism Act of 2004"), which intends to negate rulings by the Supreme Court which affirm the separation of church and state.

HUAC in the '40s and '50s gained support from a variety of fascist groups - William Dudley Pelley, who created the Silver Shirts in admiration of the Hitler Youth, said, "I formed the Silver Legion in 1933... to propagandize exactly the same principles [as HUAC]." The Ku Klux Klan's Imperial Wizard, James Colescott, asserted, "[the Committee's] program so closely parallels the program of the Klan that there's no distinguishable difference between them."

Today, we have Trent Lott of Mississippi, at the time the presumptive leader of the US Senate, saying that if Strom Thurmond had been elected in 1948, "we wouldn't have had all these problems."

Today, we have the right in Congress, in the White House, in the Supreme Court, on radio and television, in print, saying exactly the same thing, albeit with a bit more sophisticated delivery. Lewis Powell's so-called "Manifesto" laid out the means by which the right should once again take control of the public mind, and the right has funded that effort with renewed zeal.

Frank Donner is a voice from the past, saying over forty years ago what many of us are saying now - that the right has and will use any means, including slander and lies, to obtain its goal - complete domination of the political landscape and the country.

In that context, this from Eric Hoffer, in his The True Believer, is necessary: "No group is more dangerous than when it has almost reached its goal."

The right in our country has very nearly reached its goal of one-party, single-ideology rule. In that sense, they are dangerous.

The 2004 election will be a watershed event in our country's history. The right, ever since Franklin Roosevelt sought to remake the country into a place where ordinary people could flourish, has been seeking to undo Roosevelt's efforts, on behalf of big business. Make no mistake about it - the current administration's wars are ones of opportunity, paid for by the ordinary taxpayer. The current attempts by government to restrict individual rights are in line with the aims of HUAC and the fascists who supported that committee. The rightist aims of the Bush administration are not new or unique to our times - they're actually as old as the desires of the robber barons of the Gilded Age, desires which Franklin Roosevelt thwarted, a long time ago.

Roosevelt prevailed, and so can we - as long as we keep in mind that everything old is new again.


punpirate is a New Mexico writer who thinks Reagan's term in office isn't the only history around.

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