By Fred Gardner
In January 2011 an anthology of articles by a New Yorker writer named St. Clair McKelway arrived at the Alameda library and I checked it out. The first paragraph of the introduction by Adam Gopnik states that McKelway was “as well known to New Yorker subscribers as any of the writers whose names are more familiar now, as well known and as keenly relished by readers as Liebling and Mitchell and White and those few others whose reputations have been rehabilitated, as they liked to say in the old Soviet Union…”
A.J. Liebling never had to be “rehabilitated” because he never fell out of favor, and neither did E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style (a book Gopnik ought to read; he writes like he gets paid by the word). And WTF does the old Soviet Union have to do with St. Clair McKelway’s reputation?
That piece of excess verbiage caught my eye because I had just gotten an email from David Bearman, MD, who said of the California medical board, “They operate like the Russians in the good old days of the gulags.” I’m going to start keeping a file of gratuitous anti-Soviet put-downs (GASPs). They’re like little pledges of allegiance recited semi-consciously, subtle little loyalty oaths to our own wonderful system.
Liberal Chris Mathews was at the time putting down Rep. Michelle Bachman for asserting that the founding fathers wouldn’t rest until they’d abolished slavery. Mathews’ high-volume scorn was on target. But this is the same Chris Mathews who, in a repeatedly aired MSNBC promo, was praising us, the wonderful resilient democratic American people, for having survived/overcome “McCarthyism.” I wish I had the exact wording; his point was that “McCarthyism” was a thing of the past, our society had advanced beyond it successfully. That is as wrong as Rep. Bachman’s moronic statement about slavery.
McCarthyism prevailed. It has almost completely achieved its purpose. The American working class neither survived nor overcame it. Getting rid of Communists in government and the unions was the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the New Deal and the Four Freedoms promised by FDR in ’36 (including “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”). The disappearing of the New Deal has taken decades. Social Security and the public sector unions (except for the “first responders”) are melting.
McCarthyism —the mass firing of leftists and the undoing of their “influence”—provided a cover for the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs. Chris Mathews seems to have only recently discovered the disappearance of the manufacturing sector. To listen to him and Big Ed Schultz on MSCNBC you’d think it had happened overnight, but the process has been going on since the 1950s.
My father did some work for Spalding Sporting Goods in the 1950s. One night he came home from a trip to company headquarters in Chicopee, Mass. —this was around ’56— and said, “You’re not going to believe this. The women aren’t sewing the baseballs in Chicopee anymore. They built a plant in Haiti. They’re paying the women there a nickel an hour!” [Sewing through leather is hard work that deforms the hands.] The next year he came home and said, “You’re not going to believe this. They’re not making the tennis racquets in Chicopee anymore. They’re making them in Pakistan…” The writing was already on the wall and it spelled “The Companies Will Operate Where Labor is Cheapest.”
The U.S. working class may have been relatively well off, but the only way to protect its interests in the long term —obviously!!!‑—was to organize the workers of the war-flattened world. But the AFL-CIO leadership was preoccupied with fighting “Communist influence” in unions overseas when they should have been organizing overseas for higher wages and better working conditions. George Meany and Walter Reuther got medals of Freedom while U.S. corporations began the process that some clever HR type would eventually dub “outsourcing.”
The ultimate triumph of McCarthyism was to delegitimize the idea that workers have interests that conflict with the owners’. Guilt by association (with the bad Soviet Union), the essential McCarthy technique, made working-class consciousness taboo.
I know a young civil engineer who has been devoting some 30 hours a week to union work. The county is pushing for a two-tier pay scale, which would mean reduced wages and benefits for workers hired from now on. The rank-and-file are going to go for it because they feel no allegiance to their future co-workers. The idea that they would ‑the idea that working people would have a working-class identity strong enough to encourage solidarity- seems impossibly retro. My young friend is in political despair. His wife is a hard-working, devoted teacher in an inner-city public school. That these people are being blamed for the fiscal crisis of the state is an extension of McCarthyism.
PS After the above ran in Counterpunch 2/4/11 readers pounced from different angles. A card-carrying liberal tried to excuse Adam Gopnik’s flaccid prose. He concluded by asking, “Soviet Union bad, no?” Like he just needed me to swear one more loyalty oath… Another CP reader, mistaking my anti-anti-Communism for pro-Communist sympathies (McCarthyite logic, BTW), felt impelled to explain that Stalinism was antithetical to working-class interests. No argument there, comrade. I was writing about gratuitous anti-soviet put-downs (GASPs), the ones that come out of left field, as it were.