“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.”-Cicero, Roman philosopher and statesman
America is in the midst of an epidemic of historic proportions. The contagion being spread like wildfire is turning communities into battlegrounds and setting Americans one against the other. Normally mild-mannered individuals caught up in the throes of this disease have been transformed into belligerent zealots, while others inclined to pacifism have taken to stockpiling weapons and practicing defensive drills.
This plague on our nation-one that has been carefully cultivated and spread by the powers-that-be-is a potent mix of fear coupled with unhealthy doses of paranoia and intolerance, tragic hallmarks of the post-9/11 America in which we live. Everywhere you turn, those on both the left- and right-wing are fomenting distrust and division. You can’t escape it. We’re being fed a constant diet of fear: fear of terrorists, fear of illegal immigrants, fear of people who are too religious, fear of people who are not religious enough, fear of Muslims, fear of Christians, fear of the government, fear of those who fear the government. The list goes on and on.
The strategy is simple yet brilliant: the best way to control a populace is through fear and discord. Confound them, distract them with mindless news chatter and entertainment, pit them against one another by turning minor disagreements into major skirmishes, and tie them up in knots over matters lacking in national significance such as whether a Christian pastor should burn a Quran or if a mosque should be built two blocks away from Ground Zero. Most importantly, keep the people divided so that they see each other as the enemy and screaming at each other so that they drown out all other sounds. In this way, they will never reach consensus about anything or hear the corporate state as it closes in on them. This is how freedom-loving people enslave themselves and allow tyrants to prevail.
This Machiavellian scheme has so ensnared the nation that few Americans even realize they are being manipulated into adopting an “us” against “them” mindset. Instead, fueled with fear and loathing for phantom opponents, they pour millions of dollars and resources into political elections, hoping for change that never comes. All the while, those in power-bought and paid for by lobbyists and corporations-move their costly agendas forward, and “we the suckers” get saddled with the tax bills.
We have been down this road before. A classic example is the fear and paranoia that gripped the country during the 1950s. Many huddled inside their homes and fallout shelters, awaiting a nuclear war. It was also the time of the Red Scare. The enemy this time was Communist infiltration of American society.
Joseph McCarthy, a young Republican senator, grasped the opportunity to capitalize on the popular paranoia for personal national attention. In a speech in February 1950, McCarthy alleged having a list of over 200 members of the Communist Party “working and shaping the policy of the U.S. State Department.” The speech was picked up by the Associated Press, without substantiating the facts, and within a few days the hysteria began.
McCarthy specialized in sensational and unsubstantiated accusations about Communist infiltration of the American government, particularly the State Department. He also targeted well-known Hollywood actors and directors, trade unionists and teachers. Many others were brought before the inquisitional House Committee on Un-American Activities for questioning. Regarded as bad risks, the accused struggled to secure employment. The witch hunt ruined careers, resulting in suicides, and tightened immigration to exclude alleged subversives.
“McCarthyism” eventually smeared all the accused with the same broad brush, whether the evidence was good, bad or nonexistent. McCarthy, like many do today, appealed to the low instincts of envy, paranoia and dislike for the intellectual establishment.
“The real scoundrel in all this,” writes historian David Halberstam, “was the behavior of the members of the Washington press corps, who, more often than not, knew better. They were delighted to be a part of his traveling road show, chronicling each charge and then moving on to the next town, instead of bothering to stay behind and follow up. They had little interest in reporting how careless McCarthy was or how little it all meant to him.”
Moreover, the anti-Communist crusade elicited the involvement and tacit support of various liberal groups and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Incredibly, from 1953 to 1959, the ACLU refused to defend alleged Communists who were under attack or had lost their jobs.
Little substantive commentary was coming from the news media. No one with any power was willing to take on the popular McCarthy-much like the lack of head-on commentary from today’s major network mouthpieces concerning possible government corruption in high places.
However, on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow, the most-respected newsman on television at the time, broke the ice. He attacked McCarthy on his weekly show, See It Now. Murrow interspersed his own comments and clarifications into a damaging series of film clips from McCarthy’s speeches. Murrow ended the broadcast with one of the greatest news commentaries of all time, also a warning.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it-and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Good night, and good luck.
Of the 12,000 telephone calls received within 24 hours of the broadcast, CBS reported that positive responses to the program outnumbered negative ones 15 to 1. And McCarthy’s favorable rating in the Gallup Poll dropped from 50% to 46%, never to rise again. Before 1954 ended, McCarthy’s political career was finished.
Murrow had guts-something lacking in most of today’s television commentators who are more adept at reading teleprompters than tackling issues-and he spoke truth to power. Indeed, Murrow’s hard-hitting approach to the news cost him, and cost him dearly. See It Now occasionally scored high ratings (usually when it concerned controversial subjects). However, in general, it did not score well on primetime television. When the quiz show phenomenon began, entertainment more and more became the focus of television. The conscious decision of executives to exchange knowledge for entertainment bewildered Murrow. As he remarked, the television industry “seems determined to destroy itself.”
See It Now was cancelled in 1958. CBS founder William S. Paley complained that the program “gave me a stomachache.” From there, Murrow produced a series of occasional television special reports that defined documentary news coverage. But Murrow’s reporting brought him into repeated conflicts with CBS heads and Paley. And after his last documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” which was a report on the plight of migrant farm workers in the U.S., Murrow resigned from CBS.
A heavy smoker all his life, Murrow developed lung cancer and died at his home in 1965. But his timely warnings still present a challenge to us today. As Murrow said to his staff before the historic March 9 broadcast: “No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.”