Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rogin's McCarthyism

There's a lot to read about McCarthyism. When I was finishing my dissertation proposal circa 2006, I felt reasonably sure I'd read most everything out there, from old-fashioned catalogues of misdeeds like David Caute's The Great Fear to many studies on specific industries like Hollywood or academia or even the discipline of anthropology, to rigorous analyses of institutions like that of Ellen Schrecker, whose work is still the gold standard in my opinion. And there's the pro-McCarthy stuff, like M. Stanton Evan's revisionist biography of the man, or Ann Coulter's Treason. Of course, more stuff is always coming out at a rate that's hard to keep up with. In the "currently-on-my-bedside-table-waiting-to-be-finished" list there's Haynes Johnson's history that attempts to connect McCarthyism with the War on Terror, and David Everitt's very promising looking account of blacklisting in the broadcasting industry. I'm also trying to track down a copy of Richard Power's history of anticommunism, which I gather from reviews is sympathetic to the McCarthy cause.

What most of these works lack, however, is intelligent analysis of the big picture. The trend has definitely been to look at the small details, examining how blacklisting worked in particular contexts. That's fine as far as it goes, but it seems that many scholars have given up trying to explain why McCarthyism as a phenomenon happened the way it did, and when it did.

Perhaps part of the reason is that the early phase of McCarthy historiography dwelt a bit too heavily on the big picture, at the expense of reality. As early as 1954, a group of left-leaning (at the time; many would drift into neoconservatism) scholars convened a faculty seminar at Columbia to try to explain McCarthyism. Their responses were published in a book edited by Daniel Bell, The New American Right. Largely, their focus was on psychology, asking what it was about the psyche of the American people that lead to McCarthyism. In essence, they decided it was a combination of authoritarian personalities (borrowing from Adorno) and status anxiety on the part of newly-emboldened middle-class ethnics, revolting against the old WASP elite. In their telling, the old agrarian radical populist tradition was fundamentally transformed into a right-wing movement. The New American Right makes for juicy reading, and its authors went on to great prominence in political and academic worlds, but it's hard to take their analyses seriously today, especially after a critique launched at the book by the then-young scholar, the now-late Michael Rogin.

Rogin's doctoral dissertation, later published as Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Spectre was a full-throated takedown of the New York intellectuals work, crucially coming from a leftist perspective. Rather than admit McCarthyism's success as a social movement, he showed (in painstaking empirical detail) that there was no continuity between previous radical populist traditions and McCarthy, nor was there genuine mass-based support. Rather, McCarthyism was pushed by the same right-wing elites who have always existed, aided both by a timid liberal press and a Republican Party savvy enough to use McCarthyism to win the 1952 election, and then dump it as soon as he encroached upon conservative elite institutions such as the Army and the Executive branch. In other words, McCarthyism was not a genuine social movement, but rather a manipulation upon the part of conservative elites to create the impression of one. The New American Right authors took McCarthyism as an excuse to reject overheated populism, and started their slide towards Humphrey-Nixonism; Rogin showed that it wasn't democracy that was the problem, but its perversion by center-right and center-left.

Rogin on McCarthyism is not as fun and sexy as his later work, but it's still quite relevant today, especially since the right wing in this country has very successfully claimed the mantle of agrarian populism: in the conservative evangelical movements of the 70s and 80s, in the red state-blue state binary of the 2000s, and in the Tea Party today. One of the depressing things about reading early Rogin, however, is how much has changed since he wrote the book in the early 1960s. As much as we talk about astro-turfing in the Tea Party today, I don't know of many who would say that right-wing populism isn't a real thing, a genuine social movement. A wrong-headed and dangerous one, but one that has a considerable amount of staying-power and traction amongst a large chunk of this country's population. I think Rogin was very right that McCarthyism did not fall into that category, but, depressingly, I do think that by the 1970s the conservative elite had their way, and a right-wing mass-based social movement was born, and, so far, here to stay.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reboot; and, The Investigator

[yeah yeah yeah, apologies for long blog absence, grovel grovel grovel]

Other projects have kept me away from my book this past year, but as the summer comes to an end I'm finally turning back to it. Large chunks are written, and with a slightly less trying teaching schedule this year, I think if I can focus (always difficult for me!) and buckle down, having a complete draft by the end of next summer is not unreasonable. So as I try to think of ways in which this blog space might be useful for me, it seems like rather than providing an outlet for procastination, it could actually help me narrow and focus my writerly energies a bit. So, blog readers (if any be left), keep me honest: I'm going to post regular updates on my writing progress, and keep the content focused on the subject of my book: music and the cultural politics of McCarthyism. If I write anything here about music after 1954, slap me in the face, electronically or literally depending on your geographic distance. Okay? Alright.

So let me start off with my current task: re-writing the introduction. In addition to doing the usual literary maneuvers of an introduction--a snappy beginning, a discussion of theoretical apparatus, an overview of the chapters, etc.--one of the things my introduction needs to do is talk about "actual" music and McCarthyism. The scare quotes are there because not a whole lot of my work is actually about McCarthyism, per se, in the sense of discussing blacklisting of composers, or musical representations of McCarthyism, or heck, Joseph McCarthy's own personal musical taste. (I've never found any biographical discussion of the last point, but boy would I like to know more.) I'm not going to go into the lengthy discussion in this space of why that is (short version: it's not very interesting), but I do feel a bit obligated to cover some of that stuff in the intro. I talk a little bit about blacklisting in popular music, but also about this amazing artifact:

There is very, very little music that is literally "about" McCarthyism, in the way that the film and theater world very quickly responded to the situation. But here is one! To a point--it is actually a radio play, although it does have an original score. It was written by Reuben Ship, a leftie writer from Canada who was deported out of the US in the early 50s for working to unionize the television industry. His response was The Investigator, a very thinly-veiled portrait of McCarthy, broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1954. Although never broadcast in the US at the time, an LP was released, and I bought a copy on eBay. For more, including the complete recording, see Gerald Gross's short article, or this very thorough Wikipedia entry. Or, read my book someday!