THE MAN asking the question at the town hall in Jensen Beach, Fla., on April 10 appeared to be your average citizen lofting an inquiry to his duly elected representative in Congress.
“What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists or international socialists?” the man asked, but asked in such a way as to suggest he might be a plant, or at least someone who knew perfectly well his question would be provocative, that he was throwing bright red meat to a very political animal.
Republican Rep. Allen West did not disappoint.
“It’s a good question,” he said. “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party … They actually don’t hide. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”
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As you might expect, the actual Congressional Progressive Caucus was quick to disagree.
“We hope the people of Florida’s 22nd Congressional District will note that he repeatedly polarizes the American people instead of focusing on their interests,” the caucus’s co-chairs, Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said in an April 11 statement. “When people like Rep. West have no ideals or principles, they rely on personal attacks.”
“We will not engage in base and childish conversations that lower the high level of discourse Americans rightly expect from their representatives.”
Head unbowed and apparently unbloodied, West amplified on his comments a week later. ““No, I don’t regret it whatsoever,” West told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. “I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to be afraid about the fact that I called a spade a spade. That’s my responsibility to the American people.”
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SADLY, we’ve been here before. It’s the latest example of the politics of division, drawing sharp and usually imaginary distinctions between one American and another, for the purpose of political advantage. And on the weight of historical evidence, it’s been a divisive strategy used by extreme conservatives, from the era of the Palmer raids to the present day poisoned by the fictions of the birther movement … and right between them, the era that defined the practice, the grim years of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The exhumation of the malignant spirit of Tail Gunner Joe didn’t just happen last week. On March 1, 2010, Keep America Safe, the right-wing advocacy group headed by the group’s chairwoman and co-founder, vice-presidential daughter Liz Cheney, released a Web video suggesting that lawyers at the Justice Department responsible for defending military prisoners in the war on terrorism share the ideological viewpoints of the al-Qaida network.
A few days later, on March 3, a story in Politico reported on Republican fundraising documents apparently lost or forgotten at a Feb. 18 Republican National Committee leadership retreat for donors and fundraisers, at a hotel in Boca Grande, Fla.
The docs, found by a Democrat at the hotel, were part of a PowerPoint presentation that included a graphic that highlighted desired motivational triggers for getting donations from conservative supporters.
One slide in the deck reads: “What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the House or the Senate? Save the country from trending toward Socialism!”
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And the McCarthyite spirit has trickled down to angry nativists outside the political world. In July 2010, a letter sent to Utah law enforcement officials, state government officials, TV and radio news outlets and The Associated Press anonymously outs about 1,300 residents of Utah as undocumented immigrants.
The letter written by “Concerned Citizens of America” — “a large force of tax-paying citizens … who live throughout the state of Utah” — conjured an enemies list with names, addresses, phone numbers, personal information and even the due dates of at least six pregnant women.
A spokeswoman for Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert told Homeland Security News Wire that the information was “contained entirely in the Department of Workforce Services database.”
Release of the information was a violation of federal law, specifically provisions of Title II of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), enacted by Congress in 1996. The law’s Privacy Rule regulates disclosure of protected health information — the same information contained in the letter itself.
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“This is a very serious crime,” said Ernie Gamonal, vice chairman of the Utah Democratic Hispanic Caucus, to Homeland Security News Wire. “In the United States of America, we don’t make ‘black lists’ anymore.”
Or we shouldn’t. West’s sweeping, hysterical j’accuse, Cheney’s wanton fabrications, the RNC cynical fundraising tactic and the letter by “Concerned” xenophobes are proof that we still do. They’re revisitations of an us-versus-them mindset that pits neighbor against neighbor and breeds suspicion like a virus. McCarthy would be proud.
Someone once made the debatable observation that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action with the expectation of different results. It may or may not be the definition of insanity; it’s certainly the old ugly reliable of American politics. In the heat of an already contentious presidential campaign, the country’s facing a revival of its worst historical actions. It’s still possible to achieve the triumph of different results.
Image credits: West: Associated Press. McCarthy: public domain.