I recently watched George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a film in part detailing how journalism successfully fought against McCarthyism, for the first time. I don’t plan to use this post as a review of the film, but it struck me how different the characters and institutions were from the 1950’s and today. While some of the scenes were dramatizations quite a few scenes were simply rebroadcasting or recreating what occurred in the past, frame for frame.
McCarthy, a junior Senator from Wisconsin, spent his tenure mostly accusing others of being Communists and thus traitors to America and its values, particularly in government, military and Hollywood. While there certainly were Communists in government, even with security clearances (as there are millions employed in these institutions), McCarthy used these accusations as a means of political control. Any person who opposed him or caused some irritation would be elevated to the public face of Communism, resulting in job loss, death threats, financial harm, ostracism.
What became the central issue of McCarthy’s war on Communism is that he waged it with an absence of proof, only loose affiliations and the implicit accusation itself (If this person weren’t a Communist, why would they be accused of being one?). The absence of due process and the evidence of any truth of the accusations publicized on national television began his downfall, loss of power, and his own ostracism – a publication brought to the public through the rave journalists who thought their job was to discover and present the truth.
The 1950’s were a frightening time. The Cold War was going strong and many Americans feared not only Nuclear War but also that their country was being invaded by an invisible force that sought to perverse their values and erode their freedom. Yet, despite some reasonable fears, we allowed truth to prevail both in our political institutions and in the public discourse.
And yet, despite this victory for due process and truth, it feels that victory would not be attainable today.
Roger Cohen in the New York Times argues, accurately I feel, that Trump symbolizes the end of truth in the political discourse. However, accurately, he notes that Trump is less a phenomenon and more of a reflection of a global shift and trend:
Trump is not alone. There is a global movement of minds. As John Lanchester has observed in The London Review of Books, “I don’t think there’s ever been a time in British politics when so many people in public life spent so much time loudly declaring things they knew not to be true.” The successful arguments of the “Leave” campaign for Britain to quit the European Union “were based on lies.” The charlatan trafficking most vociferously in these untruths, boorish Boris Johnson, has just become Britain’s foreign secretary.
Facts are now a quaint hangover from a time of rational discourse, little annoyances easily upended. Volume trumps reality, as Roger Ailes understood at Fox News, before a downfall that coincided with the apotheosis of his post-factual world.
Whatever our political beliefs, there is large agreement that truth should matter. While I believe that truth still exists as an important foundation in our society, I fear that people on various sides of the spectrum place a greater weight on it depending on the person and outcome – a cognizant dismissal when the accusations offer a reality that is far more desired.