Jackie Kennedy Onassis once said: “All the changes in the world, for good or evil, were first brought about by words.”
Eloquent, empathetic, insightful words inspire. They are the linchpin in governing ourselves, building community, creating equality. Hate-language, on the other hand, spreads panic, prejudice, and persecution. Persuading by manipulating fact to play off an audience’s fears or lack of knowledge ranges in severity, of course, from relatively harmless salesmanship to the treacherous weaponry of demagogues and cult leaders.
That’s why fact—comprehensive, multi-faceted, and carefully substantiated by legitimate sources—is so critically important in our national dialogue. It separates hyperbole from reality, hysteria from reasonable discourse, bias from fairness, and, yes, peace from violence.
McCarthyism is a case in point of what happens if we aren’t discriminating, analytical consumers of information and political or cultural rhetoric. As I explained in my last blog (9/19), Senator Joseph McCarthy launched himself into the national spotlight by waving a piece of paper and claiming, “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” (In the end, McCarthy only investigated four people. The list was fake, the number hyped.)
His accusation that our State Department was crawling with commies seemed legitimate because there had been recent documented cases of treason. His speech came fast on the heels of the sensationalized trial of a former State Department official. A few weeks earlier, Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjuring himself when he denied passing top-secret reports to a Soviet spy ring during WWII. A double agent, Elizabeth Bentley, had named 150 Americans as spying for the Soviets, including 37 federal employees—a few of them close advisors to FDR on foreign and economic issues.
The country had been riveted. Elements of the Hiss trail read like a Sam Spade detective novel and spread about as fast as today’s memes of cats doing silly things. For instance, a Time magazine editor and confessed courier for the Soviets testified that Hiss had hidden strips of microfilm containing State Department documents stuffed inside pumpkins for him to pick up. The documents were linked to Hiss because of a quirk in type that would only occur from a malfunctioning key—like the one found on his personal typewriter.
In the same month, physicist Klaus Fuchs confessed to spying for the Soviets while he worked at the Manhattan Project developing our atom bomb. And by early summer, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would be arrested, eventually convicted and executed on the charges of handing the Soviets our nuclear technology.
The country was primed and vulnerable to alarmist rhetoric, the type of language Trump would later approve and call “truthful hyperbole” in his book, The Art of the Deal.
Words matter. Isn’t that what we teach our toddlers and kindergarteners? Forgetting that ourselves is dangerous.
Journalists eventually exposed McCarthy’s exaggeration about the State Department. But the majority of Americans just didn’t seem to care. Many dismissed it as liberals persecuting a well-intended and needed crusader. Just as Wisconsin voters hadn’t cared during his run for Senate when newspapers revealed that McCarthy calling himself “Tailgunner Joe,” was basically a lie. (McCarthy walked with a limp that he claimed was ten pounds of shrapnel shot into his leg during an air battle. McCarthy did serve, but as an intelligence officer. He debriefed combat pilots in the Pacific. He didn’t fly missions. The only time he manned a tail gun was when he convinced off-duty pilots to take him up to shoot at coconut trees and the like. His limp came from tripping during an initiation ritual—running a gauntlet of sailors with an iron bucket strapped to one foot.) Americans loved his backroom poker-game bluff, his unsophisticated Midwestern bluntness, and that he hung on his wall a ten-foot poster of Jessie James with the headline “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
So his unsubstantiated accusation against the State Department shot through the nation with the 1950s equivalent of “going viral.” It wasn’t just the federal government going after “the Red Menace.” Local councils and citizen groups hunted their communities to root out hidden “subversives,” commie-sympathizers or “fellow travelers,” progressives with any hint of socialist attitudes, anyone who seemed connected to foreigners or loved foreign culture, or who dared to stand up for our First Amendment rights to have differing opinions. Even candy that sported educational wrappers with fun facts about foreign nations was boycotted because one was about Russia.
Favorite targets—educators and librarians. (More on that next week during Banned Book Week!)
It wasn’t until 1953 that newspapers and broadcasters began to realize their part in fanning the fires: constant first-page, banner headline coverage of McCarthy’s barrage of slanders and accusations legitimized them. It was a quandary repeated during Trump’s campaign and endless tweets. As one Washington Post reporter said, “You had to take (McCarthy) seriously. It was a period of national turmoil.”
The three networks and radio stations across the nation even caved to McCarthy’s demand for 30 minutes of air-time to rebuke Truman’s criticism of him, after he threatened to ask the FCC to investigate the licenses of any news station that didn’t carry his speech. In that half hour the Senator decried “the whining, whimpering appeasement” that he felt characterized American foreign policy. He even proclaimed that Truman had coddled communists within his administration, which “sold out the nation to its enemies.” He stopped just short of accusing the former president of treason.
Such over-the-top attacks finally kicked the public into questioning McCarthy’s claims, and the press to offer more analysis of his pronouncements, citing McCarthy’s lack of documentation or proof, while still reporting his statements, perhaps now “buried” on page two. For many Americans, though, that recognition of the need to fact-check his rhetoric came too late. As the same Washington Post reporter added, “Careers and families were destroyed, people committee suicide…It was the closet we ever came to a real totalitarian atmosphere.”
Today the media is now doing similar analysis with Trump’s speeches and tweets, rather than simply reporting them with a smile about his outrageousness. Of course, the poisoning of thought possible is even larger these days, given social media and the internet. As we learn more each day about how Russian agents seeded propaganda and outright lies into our election conversation and how hate groups can reach out to one another to mass together in tragedies like Charlottesville, it becomes critically important that we, as citizens, take responsibility to determine the truth within the headlines, facebook posts, instagrams and tweets.
This is particularly urgent with students—who will be our next voters—to know how to dissect the new-media influences that have bombarded and fed them since childhood. How to avoid “clickbait,” and to do on-line research that gets them to substantive, legitimate sites and which don’t leave them susceptible to customized results or trolling.
Librarians can help.
YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) has created a tremendous tool kit for educators to teach literary in the age of “fake news” and to help teens learn to research, contextualize, and analyze information. Frankly, it’s useful for adults, too! I learned some things I’m going to avoid from now on.
Take a look: