Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A book recommendation

Yesterday Glenn Greenwald wrote a post - The Islamic Enemy Within - in which he observes

Pew released a new poll today regarding the political beliefs and attitudes of American Muslims and -- needless to say -- our right-wing warriors, within hours of its release, have exploded in shrieking alarm. These revelations about American Muslims are "hair raising!," and the warrior-pundits are working in unison to milk every ounce of anti-Muslim fear-mongering that can be squeezed from this new poll.

It is literally difficult to overstate the prominence that fear and hatred of Muslims assumes in the worldview of these right-wing war proponents. They frantically search every news story for any possible angle to seize in order to exploit anti-Muslim hysteria. It is the centerpiece, the animating "principle," of the vast bulk of their public commentary.
and after demonstrating the distortion and hypocrisy inherent in the fear-mongering of the "right-wing warriors", Greenwald states

The U.S. already has at least 14,000 people held in detention around the world without charges of any kind -- the vast, vast majority of them Muslim, many of whom have been tortured. And yet, there is a sizable portion of the country -- and clearly large portions of the GOP base -- which believe we have been too restrained against our Islamic Enemy, that we need more torture and more detentions and still fewer restraints, that the principal failing of the Bush administration is that they have been too meek and too compromising when dealing with the Great Islamic Threat.

The group that has embraced this worldview is a minority group, though a large and influential minority. But the danger of laying the foundation for policies of the type they have sought and continue to seek is that once they take root, once the premises on which they are based become accepted and lose their taboo, much larger-scale abuses are easily imagined.

For a country that has been primed to view Muslims, including American Muslims, as a mortal threat, and which has come to embrace policies of torture and arbitrary, indefinite detention as ordinary and normal -- really to lose any moral or political limits of any kind -- another terrorist attack or even general instability can easily generate all sorts of excesses, as can a new president who campaigns on an ethos of eroding still further our moral and legal limits. Exactly that has happened many times in the history of our country alone. The mix of mindless anti-Muslim hysteria and an open embrace of torture and limitless detention is truly toxic, and yet that has become the central, defining trait of the base of the Republican Party.
In a follow-up post today, Greenwald again demonstrates the bigotry and hypocrisy of Malkin et all

The hysteria over the Pew poll about American Muslims continues unabated, with the focus now on the finding that while 80% of American Muslims oppose attacks on civilians in all cases, 13% said they could be justified in some circumstances. The "discussion" illustrates some standard failings of our political discourse.

Michelle Malkin went to National Review to proclaim that the poll "should be a wake-up call, not another excuse for the mainstream media to downplay the threat of homegrown jihad." Mark Steyn said it demonstrates the existence in America of "a huge comfort zone for the jihad to operate in," and Jonah Goldberg warned how "significant" this is. On CNN last night, Anderson Cooper was horrified -- just horrified -- that "so many" American Muslims would support such violence.

The reality, though, is that it is almost impossible to conduct a poll and not have a sizable portion of the respondents agree to almost everything. And in particular, with regard to the specific question of whether it is justifiable to launch violent attacks aimed deliberately at civilians, the percentage of American Muslims who believe in such attacks pales in comparison to the percentage of Americans generally who believe that such attacks are justifiable.
Which brings me to the book recommendation - The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism by Haynes Johnson - a timely book about the parallels between the anxiety over communism in the 50s which led to abuses of civil liberties and the anxiety felt today over terrorism. I'll let the review from Publishers Weekly speak for itself and then I will quote a passage from another review; after which I think the point and importance of the book will be clear without needing further comment from me.

Pulitzer-winning journalist Johnson (The Best of Times) offers an engrossing account of the career of red-baiting demagogue Joseph McCarthy and a chilling description of his legacy for today. The focus is on the disturbing questions raised by McCarthyism: how could a little-known freshman senator, driven by Cold War paranoia, quickly amass the power to intimidate senior colleagues, bully the media, terrorize innocent citizens and even threaten two respected presidents? Why did fellow Republicans not reject his sleazy, dishonest tactics when they were personally revolted by them? Most urgently, are we seeing the birth of a new "age of anxiety," in which terrorism replaces communism as the bogeyman? Johnson's answer is clearly yes. He traces the current climate in Washington directly to the 1950s: "McCarthyism was a major factor in the rise of the radical Right and the polarization that plagues American life, pitting group against group and region against region, sowing cynicism and distrust, and manipulating public opinion through fear and smear." He reviews recent events,including the use of the Patriot Act to stifle dissent, the abuse and detention of thousands of American Muslims guilty of no crime, and politicians' readiness to impugn the patriotism of opponents without evidence. Johnson's own critique is not ideological; rather, his most important argument may be that ideological polarization continues to prevent us from rationally assessing and dealing with real threats.
And from the Christian Century review:

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of five national best sellers, Haynes Johnson has written what is not only a brilliant history of the McCarthy era but also a warning about our present fears and political caution and about right-wing demagoguery. He cites the most important studies of McCarthyism, from Thomas C. Reeves's The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy to Ellen Schrecker's No Ivory Tower to William Manchester's masterly history, The Glory and the Dream. And like Samuel Johnson, he has ransacked entire libraries in order to write his book.

Most of the volume is devoted to an account of the history and effects of the McCarthy era, but when Johnson finally draws parallels between that time and ours, the meaning of the title becomes clear: thanks to McCarthy and his present-day adherents, we continue to live in an age of anxiety. "Half a century later," Johnson writes, "a considerable bloc of Americans still bear allegiance to McCarthy's memory and remain devoted to his anticommunist (or, now, anti-liberal) cause."

Fears following September 11, 2001, for example, parallel those of the cold war. After September 11, Johnson writes, "Americans, the most optimistic of people, now faced unnerving official terror warnings.... Their television screens broadcasted alerts. Their newspapers published emergency preparedness articles full of alarming instructions on how to protect themselves from biological, chemical or radiological attacks. Their government authorities, already vastly expanding the surveillance and interrogation of citizens suspected of being security risks, advised them to be on the lookout for terrorists." Fifty-five years earlier America had been gripped by similar fears: fear of a cold war turning hot; fear of a Soviet Union that had detonated an atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons; fear of traitors within who were stealing the fruits of victory. Civil defense shelters blossomed in American cities. Children were taught how to crouch under classroom desks, as if that would stave off the effects of nuclear attacks.
And from the conclusion

In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that Americans are never safe "against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire." Niebuhr demanded both modesty about our virtue and "a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy's demonry and our vanities." Haynes Johnson awakens us anew to that prophetic call.

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