Robert N. Lee

Why Tailgunner Joe matters and doesn’t matter…

Note: shutting down my Facebook account recently, I found and saved a few posts from my old blog that’d gotten crossposted to Notes, and this one, I reread and remembered how much I liked it, so I thought I’d put it up again. -R

…and why you’re dumb if you listen to Ann Coulter on the subject.

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Thanks to Ann Coulter, largely, Joseph McCarthy comes up a lot these days in conversations with conservatives in a way he just never used to: as a forgotten hero, his reputation recovered. He never used to come up that way because even conservatives largely remembered him as the embarrassing grandstander and public hysteria ringmaster he actually was.

How this happened – and it just happened over the last decade or so – is sort of interesting and sort of boring, depending on how familiar you are with the kinds of bad amateur research and investigation that feeds populist counterinformation like conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, UFO cultism, paranormal crapola, searches for Noah’s Ark, etc.

I don’t bring these categories of popular nonsense up to smear Coulter as a Nazi or whatever, she clearly isn’t – it’s just that people with an extreme bent to prove something whether it’s true or not and seem scholarly doing so tend to do the same wrong things. And how the sections on McCarthy in Coulter’s book Treason came about and how similar they are to other junk “research” methods is important, if you want to understand this currently popular and utterly false revision of recent history. (Michelle Malkin did the exact same stuff for her book In Defense of Internment, defending a practice the involved North American governments have long since apologized for. I’ll get to that a bit later.)

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So anyway, conservatives raise McCarthy up all the time, now, as an American hero unjustly smeared by filthy leftists, which is so hilarious it’s sort of impossible to address seriously when it comes up. If you know anything about the history of the period in the US, it’s rather like somebody claiming that Billy Carter was a great statesman unjustly spurned by his jealous sibling in the White House.

What you have to understand is that the person you’re talking to doesn’t know anything about Joseph McCarthy, except what he read in Coulter or somebody else did and told him about. Coulter managed to rehabilitate McCarthy in the minds of Americans in which McCarthy had never habilitated at all – not much of a feat. She built a whole new Tailgunner Joe for them via a pretty standard combination of rhetorical fallacies.

She presents him as a victim of liberal persecution via ad hominem, thus changing recent history: no, the way you remember things is wrong, everybody didn’t pretty much agree McCarthy was an asshole, once. That’s just how the liberals brainwashed you.

She conflates McCarthy’s relatively brief reign of hoohah with the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which actually went on for four decades or so entirely without him, as he was a Senator. And all.

And she changes the subject, changes the whole question of Joseph McCarthy, really, for an audience primed to listen to anything she says without question and, frankly, wanting shortcuts to knowledge. This is the most powerful portion of the Joseph McCarthy image lately constructed in the American conservative mind: Coulter managed to convince an awful lot of know-nothings that McCarthy was dismissed from his rightful place in history due to left jealousy over his wild success in hunting communists.

There’s the big disconnect, and what you know because you actually read a book once and they didn’t: Coulter fans don’t know that even if you’re totally sympathetic to US twentieth century anti-communist efforts, McCarthy didn’t catch any communists. There was all kinds of for-real communist catching going on before him at the federal level, and after, and some really important communist catching going on while he was all over the teevee for a while, and…he had nothing to do with any of it.

So they don’t know why you might snicker when they insist Joseph McCarthy was a victim of leftist persecution. They actually think the guy did anything.

Poor dopes.

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I don’t want to get into a liberal fight about the feds going after communists, back in the day. Suffice it to say they caught a few real fifth columnists and mostly just went apeshit in some very stupid ways.

I mean, really: going after teachers and the movies? And writers, particularly? So…you want to make enemies of the people who teach your children and tell all the public stories for generations to come.

That worked out just swell. And every time a conservative bitches about it, you should kick him or her in the crotch. Don’t screw with the teachers and storytellers next time, idiots. They raise your kids for you. (Oppressive and conquering governments have a historical weak spot this way, though, and so the story of the world is full of conquerors giving the recently enslaved the “women’s work” and then wondering why they get beaten a generation later. Um…)

But whatever: HUAC and the FBI and Army and State Department and Department of Justice and etc. did an actual job, going after communists, ugly as anybody might find it. About that, we can all agree, even people who’ve only read Ann Coulter on the subject.

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And let’s be honest about this, too: part of the reason Coulter was able to sell this story to conservatives, lately, is there’s a history of conflation of HUAC and McCarthy in the popular imagination, primarily due to a bunch of still-pissed liberals and leftists telling that story over and over. As teachers. In the media.

And it isn’t true. There’s a drunken buffoon who held the public in thrall for a while, and there’s the serious and ongoing efforts that wrecked thousands of lives and careers, and there’s value in drawing the obvious connections between these things, but…people were fired and their lives ruined because they actually were communists. Or were once. Or signed a sheet of paper, once. And that’s one whole set of wrongs and problems.

And then there’s the drunk superstar who played commie hunter on teevee for a few years and then scandaled out and further embarrassed himself by sticking it out in the Senate for another few years and then dropped dead from licentious behavior, like a good superstar.

And that’s a whole other problem, now, because now that guy’s fucking Howard Roark for the kind of stupid people who worship Howard Roark. And there are lots and lots of them.

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And then there’s Joseph McCarthy, the Red Scare Class Drunk. Probably thought he was the Class Clown or Most Likely To Succeed, even, thought wrong. No wonder Coulter loves him so much, she seems to be on a similar career arc for similar reasons.

The story of Joseph McCarthy is pretty simple and found elsewhere in history and story, nothing too surprising to anybody: he caught a wave of popular sentiment and was a useful circus act to people actually doing a job for a while, and then he started believing his own bullshit and biting the hand that fed him. Edward R. Murrow didn’t bring McCarthy down, McCarthy going after the fucking Army brought McCarthy down.

The whole thing only ran three-four years, stupids.

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So anyway, Coulter and Holocaust deniers: where do they get this shit? How dare I compare Ann Coulter to a Holocaust denier? Or Michelle Malkin? Who is so very Asian?

Also pretty simple: none of these people are historians or researchers, nor are they journalists or private investigators or anything of the sort. And these are all real jobs, with standards and techniques like any other job you only learn on the job. Outsiders wanting to play at these fields for credibility’s sake tend to make one big giant common error, anyway: mistaking going to the library for research.

No, that’s seventh grade research, for your first ever paper of twenty pages or more. Actual research is done by the people who wrote books in the library and lots and lots of people who helped them with those books. And now you know. There’s a whole brochure about how to do research as a job down at the welfare office that liberals provide to sneaky brown and yellow people, go read it.

Anyway, Coulter’s an attorney with a very brief track record and TV star who spews bile at a level just this side of Michael Savage. Malkin’s a…soccer mom from hell with a BA in something who blogs a lot. Neither of these people would know what actual historical revisionism was if it bit them on the ass, but they do have a vague sense that this is valuable, revisiting the popular story of some past event, because sometimes the popular story is bullshit and harmful bullshit, besides.

We all do. We are all that postmodern, pretty much, anybody reading this, anyway. Yay, us.

This is, of course, thanks to the efforts of decades and decades of liberal and leftist historians and other academics and journalists, you know, given the whole philosophical dichotomy between “conservative” and “progressive.” You’re welcome. Some of them got killed for it. It didn’t make them nasty bitches like you two, I notice, and you seem to think everybody’s out to get you and be in no actual danger.

What’s up with that?

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So Coulter or Malkin wants to write a book and they differ only from 9/11 truthers in that they can hire Advanced Objectivism grad students to do this for them: they go dig up some past historical controversy at the library that’s long settled, present it as their own startling and new findings, and pretend it wasn’t settled. Even better, they can present the notion that this long-past controversy wasn’t wrongly applied to whatever point they’re trying to make as The Man Trying To Keep the Truth from You.

So Coulter brings in the Venona project as though it mattered to Joe McCarthy and Malkin drags crap about MAGIC into her screed about why Japanese internment was awesome and Guantanamo Bay is even better. And none of these things matter at all.

Because Ronald Reagan already apologized to Japanese-Americans, that’s how much we all already know that bullshit was bullshit.

Jesus Christ, lady. Have you no shame?

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The reason McCarthy’s a joke, if you’re a conservative who bought that late silliness and is still reading, is that it’s not a surprise that McCarthy had some actual communists on his lists, and they’d turn up, some of them, in the Venona records. You’d know that if you’d read a book on the subject that wasn’t written by Ann Coulter.

See, McCarthy had lots of for-real subjects of investigation on his lists when he got all over TV claiming the federal government wasn’t taking good enough care of commies within its ranks. When he went after the State Department, for instance, he had a whole bunch of names the State Department might want to take seriously to throw around. But that’s because the State Department had already taken them seriously. All those names had already been investigated, some of them cleared, some of them drummed out of government service.

That’s where McCarthy got his bullshit lists, from work other people had already done. On top of that, he just made shit up.

McCarthy launched investigations where there had already been investigations, further demoralizing already-demoralized people in the process. It’s partly why he outlived his usefulness as a teevee star for his actually-working superiors and…lost his job. Very publicly.

Joseph McCarthy is like the Howdy Doody of fifties American conservatism. Why would anybody be compelled to sell you a different story about that, exactly?

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I guess it fits, though: selling a discarded puppet of days past as a hero.

I wish that didn’t fit.

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