On Being Called a Commie
In the age of databases, everything published is virtually eternalexcept for blogging. This new form of online discourse allows anyone to be a pundit by linking to another piece and then dissecting it. What's more, bloggers can manage their own archives, making it possible for them to say the most outrageous things and then hit the delete key when the objections roll in. Unless you've downloaded the original blog, you can't prove it ever existed. It's gone to that great cookie in the sky.
A certain gay conservative and former Gap model, who shall be nameless, has been blog-bashing me for weeks. I won't go into the substance of his rants. (You'll find a typical exchange between us in a forthcoming issue of The Nation.) What I want to discuss are his repeated references to me as a Marxist and a Communist. Now that he's removed these remarks from his archive, I feel like the victim in that Alfred Hitchcock story in which a woman bludgeons her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then serves the cooked evidence to the police. The vanishing accusation is the perfect weapon for a writer who wants to plant a thought he knows is indefensible, hoping it will be echoed by his allies. In this case, it has been.
Camille Paglia, a friend of this Creature From the Blog Lagoon, has taken to calling me a Stalinist. She doesn't mean that I'm a follower of Uncle Joe. The S-word is a hardcore version of the term politically correct. But the fact that Paglia has chosen this loaded epithet to describe meon the neocon Web site run by David Horowitzis telling. It's not hard to see why Red-baiting remains alive on the backlash right. It's the coward's way of contending with threatening ideas.
Most people shrug when I mention these attacks. After all, being called a Commie these days is about as meaningless as being called an onanist. (Look up that word and you'll see what I mean.) Certainly it's not the shot to the heart it was during my childhood in the McCarthy era.
Long before I knew what a Red actually was, I had several friends whose fathers lost their civil service jobs because of blacklisting, and other friends whose last names suddenly changed for reasons mysterious to me. I can still recall the panic on my father's face when he discovered that my after-school Jewish culture program was run by leftists. As he explained to me, he was a federal employee. In fact, he was a postal worker. That ought to give you some idea of how far the terror wentespecially among Jews, who were already regarded as an alien presence. Red-baiting was a very effective way to control millions of people who had no connection with Communism. Apparently it still is.
But there's another reason why this innuendo makes me see red. In the 1960s, I traveled widely in Eastern Europe and wrote about the role rock music played in the youth culture of those "satellite countries." I met many kidsand older folkswho saw a powerful metaphor for freedom in the music I loved simply because it was sexy. I will always remember the elderly Czech professor who pleaded with me to explain a particularly cryptic song. "Tell me, please," he entreated. "What is this Surfing Bird? What means 'Bird is the word'?"
In '68, the Soviets crushed an uprising in Prague just as the Democrats were convening in Chicago. I was among the thousands of kids running wild in the Windy City's streets, and when the police beat and gassed us I felt an intimate link with the young Czechs facing down Russian tanks. We were all in revolt against the empires that directed our lives (in my case, toward war; in theirs, toward misery), and I fervently believed that the solution in both countries was an explosion of democracy. I had no illusions about Communism in that regard. My hero in the '60s was neither Lenin nor Trotsky but Walt Whitman.
Yet my life experience is no defense against being called a Commie, because Red-baiting today has nothing to do with Marxism. Its very remoteness from current reality allows the word to connote something utterly hyper-real: an archaic personality type, militant and (in this reflexively flexible time) rigid. Of course, those traits apply to every conservative with a talk show, but only a lefty can be called a Stalinist. In that respect, Red-baiting is pretty much what it always was: an attempt to delegitimize the left. In my childhood, it described anyone who dissented from American foreign policy or who believed in government as an instrument of equality. Today it's applied to those who stand for a certain concept of social justice. A Commie in our time is someone who remains committed to liberation politics; in other words, a proponent of the socialas opposed to the personalagenda of the '60s.
The great irony is that we liberationists did bitter battle with Marxists who regarded sexism and homophobia as a distraction from the class struggle. This distinction has been lost to today's Red-baiters. They regard unregenerate feminists and gay radicals as the enemy within, and they are willing to make alliances with anyone who stands against this militanceeven race-baiters like David Horowitz. The perpetuation of male power is the issue that now defines the right. Fundamentalists, libertarians, and even backlash liberals can unite in the conviction that those who threaten the sexual order are subversives; that is to say, Commies.
But the backlash has a way of biting the hand it feeds. Consider Bill Maher, who took the name of his late-night talk show from an attack on political correctness. Right-wingers flocked to his program, along with liberals eager to prove they could take a joke. But one thing Maher never kidded about was feminism. He brayed about the need for a "men's agenda," and though he often expressed his support for gay rights, he railed at any sign that homosexuals wanted their own institutions, such as same-sex proms. As long as he stuck to bashing pushy women and queers, Maher was the rogue of the moment. Then came 9-11, and he made the mistake of saying something truly politically incorrect. He called the terrorists courageous, and that was that; Maher lost his show.
There's a lesson here about the true meaning of labels. Political correctness ought to describe blind adherence to the dominant ideologyand these days, that means American nationalism. But you'll never hear a guy with an eagle tattoo called p.c. In practice, the term applies only to those who fight the power. It's an enforcer of the order, just like its synonyms, Stalinist and Commie. In the fall of Bill Maher, you can grasp the clear and present danger of Red-baiting, even in a world without Reds. It shuts down critical thinking, and in that sense, it's the most effective instrument of conformity we have.
Richard Goldstein is the author of The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right (Verso).
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