Nat Hentoff on ‘McCarthyism’
April 26, 2005
One thing that worries me greatly is the lack of historical perspective often demonstrated in modern politicized debates. It seems that people call each other “Nazis,” “fascists,” “communists,” and so on rather lightly and with precious little understanding of what those terms mean historically. David and I both believe the term “McCarthyism” is being badly abused in the current debate over bias and academic freedom at Columbia University. While FIRE certainly recognizes there are serious issues concerning students’ and professors’ rights in this case, comparing it to the serious abuses that took place under the reign of Senator Joe McCarthy is irresponsible. As esteemed FIRE Board of Advisors member Nat Hentoff puts it in his column in yesterday’s Village Voice:
I am of an age to have experienced McCarthyism directly from the source and his followers, as was revealed years later in my FBI files (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act). It was there I learned the names of the towns in Russia from which my late parents came, and in which I was accused of being at “radical” meetings in other countries where I’ve never been and of mocking FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The ravening senator from Wisconsin and his acolytes—including many in the press (anyone remember George Sokolsky?)—were dedicated to suppressing speech by “subversives,” “fellow travelers,” and other unpatriotic dissenters.
To call what the students in Columbians for Academic Freedom have been doing “McCarthyism” shows the need for much more teaching in schools, including universities, about that fear-ridden period of actual McCarthyism in American history—and what could happen again if there is another 9-11 or its equivalent.