11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New McCarthyism, Just Like the Old McCarthyism

Just as it is possible to have anti-Semitism in countries in which there are Jews, so, we now know, it is possible to have McCarthyism in a post-Communist world.

Van Jones signed a petition. President Obama is attempting to indoctrinate school children with socialism.

Not only are the words familiar. So is the effect. As of today, Van Jones is out of a job and simple ideas like staying in school, studying, and working hard will be banished from children's ears.

And, of course, "the public option," the least socialist approach to health care that retains a shred of decency, is teetering on the brink of extinction.

And that is the McCarthyist goal: to purge government of progressive people and ideas. It was highly effective in the fifties and early sixties, and it is proving frighteningly effective today.

McCarthyism was successful because of the complicity of liberals. Robert Kennedy not only served on McCarthy's staff, he came to national prominence with his fulsome anti-labor tract, The Enemy Within. The ACLU refused to defend Communists. In New York, the American Labor Party purged its leftists and became the toothless Liberal Party.

In a world with real Communists, JFK could at least assemble a kitchen cabinet of anti-Soviet liberals and reach out to true leftists like Michael Harrington whose anti-Soviet position was unassailable.

In a world without Communists, Obama does not have that cover. Everyone, including himself, is now a target. Every decent idea will be attacked.

And by firing Jones (does anyone actually believed he jumped?), Obama has become complicit.

It's a commonplace to understand that, having been too young for the civil rights movement, Obama was electable because he did not carry its baggage. But it's also true that he was too young to have personal knowledge of fifties McCarthyism and thus seems oblivious to the dangers of complicity.

Having picked off Jones, the right will move on and select its next victim. And as it does so, Obama's circle of advisors will become inextricably more conservative. We are already seeing this on health care, where Max Baucus carries more weight than Nancy Pelosi or Howard Dean.

There is only one defense against McCarthyism and that is to stand firm, to refuse to abandon good people and good ideas. The question is not whether an idea is "socialist;" the question is whether it is good. The question is not whether someone signed a petition, the question is whether he or she is the right person for the job. (If someone is anti-abortion, does that disqualify them for a job in the Department of Transportation? I wouldn't want an anti-abortionist in a position dealing with health or human rights. But in transportation, one's stance on abortion is irrelevant.)

Perhaps now that he, and not just Van Jones, is the target, Obama will finally stand up and fight.

Progressives need to stand tall as well. We can't hide, we can't pretend, and we can't allow the new McCarthyists to stigmatize us. There can be no more "resignations."

Disgusted by the Kennedys back-tracking on civil rights, James Baldwin rightly warned of The Fire Next Time. None of us should want that book to become a prophetic text once more. But if we continue to bow to McCarthyism, I fear it shall be.