Old is New Again
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.