“Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”
With those words Republican Senator Joe McCarthy set off a 10-year witch hunt in the US for just about anyone whose political colour was a redder shade of pink. He was finally censured by the Senate but not before he ruined a lot of lives and dealt a body blow to democracy in the USofA.
Whenever I came across the old news reels of that time, I thanked God I didn’t live in a country that would permit that sort of bigoted, callow, scape-goating attack on its own citizens.
I can’t say that anymore. In the House Finance committee, a week or so ago, MPs were hearing expert testimony on the impact of Bill C-38, the Budget Implementation Bill. Randy Hoback is a member. He’s the Conservative MP from Prince Albert Saskatchewan, which is not far from Tommy Douglas’s old riding.
Hoback attacked the credibility of United Steel Workers economist Erin Weir by demanding, “Have you or have you ever been a member of the NDP party, or are you presently a member of the NDP party?”
Clearly Hoback is not as eloquent as Joe McCarthy was, and so he blunted his own attack. But his demand resounds like a siren.
Was it a question of his own making? Or was it one that the Prime Minister’s Office put in his mouth?
Not that it really matters … for it begs another, more important question. What are we becoming that a democratically elected Canadian can even ask such a thing, and in such a manner, in the heart of our Parliament?
© David McLaren May 2012
Click here for the exchange between Hoback and Weir posted to YouTube.
Click here for Edward R Murrow’s ‘See it Now’ attack on McCarthy that helped to put a stop to the red baiting. It was 1954, a time before teleprompters. And click here for Walter Cronkite’s memory of that time.
They both include descriptions of how McCarthy worked: by rumour, quoting out of context, disinformation, unfounded accusation, and fear.
Oh, where are the Edward R Murrows today when we need them?
When McCarthy went after Hollywood, some, such as Jack Warner, Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper cooperated. It was writers like Ring Lardner, John Howard Lawson, Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller who did not. Some went to jail for their trouble.
Click here for a glimpse of that story.
Finally, click here for a lonely independent film that shows the extent of the reach of the House American Activities Committee that went on (and on) from 1947 to 1975. The film shows just how easy it is for citizens’ words and affiliations to be used against them and for dissent to be portrayed as sedition. One of the things that helped to discredit HUAC’s red baiting was a 1960 demonstration organized and run by students of the University of California who protested the Committee during hearings in San Francisco. In response, the House cobbled together footage of the demonstration and used it to claim the brutal battle between police and students was instigated by the students themselves who were, of course, communists—all 10,000 of them.