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From Joe McCarthy to Glenn Beck -- Time to End Fear of the Witch Hunt

09/01/2010 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I listened to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" speech hoping to find something of substance to write about. I found a stringing together of such empty phrases it does not bear discussion. The more important issue is why a man whose megalomania seems to have no bounds can become such a phenomena (he knows not only the truth, but truly knows God).

The obvious part is the power of Rupert Murdoch's media empire and America's taste for celebrity, no matter how banal. Much more importantly is the utter vacuum of vision or inspiring ideas in mainstream culture. The problem is most acute in the US, but when one sees the rise of right-wing fanaticism in Europe and the mediocrity of discourse in Canada, it's clearly not just an American problem.

That being said there is something specific about Beck, Palin and the momentum the far right has created after the disastrous Bush/Cheney presidency. At President Obama's inauguration in January of 2009, who could have imagined the same people who defended every illegal action and strategic blunder of the Bush regime could have so quickly found a new breath of life.

I think the roots of this goes back to another man who talked about God and country and prayed to the American flag -- Joe McCarthy and his Senate Committee on Government Operations. McCarthy purged progressives, socialists and communists not only from Hollywood but also in unions and government and many other walks of life. Through a reign of psychological terror he successfully made the word socialism synonymous with Stalinist styled communism and shut down rational debate about the great problems of our times.

There was a startling moment in the 2008 US presidential elections where we got a taste of the attack that was to come. It was in the last couple of weeks of the campaign and in a last ditch attempt, McCain accused Obama of being a socialist. Harkening all the red baiting feelings he could muster, McCain tried to stem the Obama tide.

Obama responded with imagination and even some courage. When asked about McCain's "charge" he answered, "My bible teaches me I am by brothers keeper", a theme he had introduced in his 2004 speech to the Democratic Convention. He didn't back down and succumb to the cold war rhetoric.

Unfortunately, it's an Obama we have seen little of since he became President. It turned out his brothers were the mavens of Wall Street and true to his word, he has looked after them.

Under right wing pressure, and perhaps showing his true instincts, he caved on the public option for health care insurance reform. The very concept of a public option held great promise, and could have been applied in other sectors as well starting with finance and even auto. But this time when accused of being a "socialist", he withered and defended his "private-free market" pedigree. Of course, he embraced public financing when he came to bailing out the banks and big auto, but only so they could be returned to private ownership as soon as possible.

Obama promised "change you can believe in", a phrase that at least he and his handlers seem to have had the humility to drop. That would have meant a rupture not only with Bush but also with decades of policies that had seen a massive shift of wealth from the many to the very few.

Many expected and hoped for an investigation into the crimes of Bush/Cheney, something that would have put the right on the defensive for a decade. Instead, Bush is appointed to "help" the people of Haiti.

Obama promised to undo the many violations of individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution that we witnessed under the Bush/Cheney "war on terror", instead we see a continuation of those policies. From Iraq and Israel to Afghanistan and Iran, there has been no change in the basic premise of the need for American domination of the Middle East and Eurasia.

The key point is that it's plain to see that new social solutions in the public interest must be found to the economic and climate change crisis. If we don't, we are headed into decades of economic stagnation and environmental destruction.

Plain to see unless one is completely wedded to the status quo (and many are doing quite well within that thank you very much), or stuck dreaming about a free market capitalism with low-to-no taxes and next-to-no government -- something that never existed and would be a field day for monopoly corporations. The latter dream, in spite of it's claimed fidelity to individual freedom, leads to a Mussolini style corporate-fascism.

So, who opened the door to the Beck/Palin spectacle? Those who are afraid to fight for the concept "we are our brothers keeper" and are scared to openly discuss and advocate public interest socialist solutions.

I don't really pin the blame on Obama. Other than his inspiring rhetoric about change and such, when it came to concrete policy, he campaigned for a mildly reformed status quo.

It's up to the rest of us to demand rational policy in the interests of ordinary people. The starting point for that is to jettison the ghosts of the cold war, to confront all the babble about God and country, and to openly talk about what modern socialist and democratic public policy might look like. It's time to end fear of the witch-hunt.

As Mark Twain wrote in The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously in 1922, "After ages of transmitted prejudice and silly teaching, only one person in twenty puts any real heart into the harrying of a witch. And yet apparently everybody hates witches and wants them killed. Some day a handful will rise up on the other side and make the most noise -- perhaps even a single daring man with a big voice and a determined front will do it -- and in a week all the sheep will wheel and follow him, and witch-hunting will come to a sudden end."

It was August 31,1954, 56 years ago today, that a special Senate committee began hearings that led to the demise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. It's far past time to bury his legacy -- before a couple of political buffoons reclaim it.