A Ghost Travels Around the United States

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on March 5, 2020

Dashiell Hammett interrogated in Congress for being a communist in 1953

I was remembering the interrogation of the writer Dashiell Hammett by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s collaborators in 1953 during these days of scandal because Bernie Sanders spoke fairly well about Cuba.

Amidst an eagerness to find traces of communism anywhere and at any price, the author of The Maltese Falcon had to explain whether some of his works were related to social problems. Hammett recalled a short story called Night Shade, in which he pronounced himself against racism. After talking around for a while, the inquisitor then demanded him to clarify whether the story in any way reflected Communist positions on racial problems. No more than other political parties, Hammett replied.

Although Senator McCarthy’s political activity was short lived, McCarthyism as a trend, has however, survived him to this day. The ism in his name can be read as the institutionalization of anti-communism, a socio-cultural phenomenon that has penetrated American society and casts its long shadow over the electoral contest that defines the Democratic candidate for the White House.

Anti-communism is a ghost that is exploited equally by both political parties. Joe Biden and others in the Democratic leadership have borrowed the tactic employed by the Republicans, using old Cold War rhetoric to warn of Sanders’ communism. The young people don’t seem to care; not only because they are not contaminated by the rhetoric of a stage they didn’t live in, but also because in the polarized and harsh environment of social networks, attacks on the favorite, whoever he or she may be, bounce back into the echo chamber of the fans. Information that you don’t like is simply discarded.

English speakers call it an echo chamber, the phenomenon that describes an individual’s inability to hear on social platforms more than the resonance of his or her own voice. The term is gaining ground in technical literature and refers to the way in which citizens inform themselves at a time when technical gadgets have led to the emergence of identity ghettos, where a kind of sectarianism reigns among groups. Only opinions that strengthen prejudices and beliefs are seen and read. In such an environment, not only is the political debate devalued, but it is eliminated by the roots.

Joseph McCarthy would feel very comfortable if he had the opportunity, right now, to attend the race to reach the White House in November. Sanders’ demonization for praising the education and health in Cuba, which has angered McCarthyists in both parties, is marginal in a context where anti-communist propaganda is more blatant now than in the 1940s and 1950s, it is Donald Trump’s comfort zone.

Sanders lost his momentum in the Democratic primary when several Democratic candidates endorsed Joe Biden for fear of the left-wing bias of the poll favorite, whose most radical proposal is to extend Medicare to unprotected Americans and charge a deserved tax on billionaires. An offer infinitely closer to Franklin Delano Roosevelt than to Karl Marx.

Democratic pragmatism pushes America further into the arms of McCarthyism. Trump appropriated long ago the theory of the communist plot and has shown that his thing is not just an open shift to the extreme right, but the witch-hunt, the blacklists headed by the media and the separatist adherence as a form of anti-establishment party revolution, of willingness to change in the face of the status quo of a society in the midst of a moral crisis.

At the Democratic candidates’ debate in Las Vegas, the exchange of arguments between Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders was a déjà vu of Dashiell Hammett’s interrogation at the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was led by Senator McCarthy. The billionaire former mayor of New York City, with a fortune exceeding $60 billion, angrily rejected Sanders’ proposal that workers could be allowed to participate in the management of the companies that employ them.

“Absolutely not!”, Bloomberg said. “We’re not going to kick capitalism out… Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn’t work.” It was the first time that the McCarthyist attack came from the Democratic leadership. Sanders reacted with “I’m talking about democratic socialism, not communism, Mr. Bloomberg… What you’ve just said is a low blow.”

But it was more than that. McCarthyism in the US still works and the proof is that the Democrats’ Super Tuesday managed to resurrect Biden with great possibilities of leaving the favorite Sanders, undeservedly suspected of being a communist, out of the electoral game.

Source: La Jornada, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau