Thursday, March 31, 2005


Social McCarthyism

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank says that the Schiavo case is a precursor of things to come. Republicans, he says, think the case has mobilized their conservative base -- read ultraright Christian fundamentalists -- for battles in the coming months over the appointment of federal judges and, possibly, a supreme court justice.

If Milbank is right, we may soon witness a variety of hysteria not seen in this country since the late 40s and 50s. Then the victims were socialists, communists, labor activists, actors, artists, and writers. The new McCarthyism -- Social McCarthyism -- will target scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers and others who oppose breaking down the barrier between religion on the one hand and law, politics, public education, and public life on the other.

Perhaps that is the way we are headed, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Perhaps, instead, the Schiavo case will come to be seen as the moment when mainstream Americans finally woke up and began to defend themselves by building a powerful social movement based on reason and rationality.

Those of us who were appalled by the religious zealots and opportunistic politicians who mobbed that Florida hospice to deny Terry Schiavo her right not to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state. Who understand the danger of mixing politics with religion. Who defend science education in public schools, now have a decision to make.

We can wait while the religious right bulks up even more. We can delay until it has accumulated more political power than it already has. We can wait until more laws have been mangled, more right-wing judges appointed, or we can begin to fight back, now.

For too long we have been polite. We mostly remain silent when we hear right-wing zealots spout their fantasies. We don't speak out for much the same reason we don't tell four-year-olds the truth about Santa. But, there's a problem with that -- four-year-olds aren't taking over the government. They aren't passing laws that every house has to have a chimney.

Speaking out is important, but it is not enough. We need to begin to build powerful, well-financed, politically connected institutions that can defend science education, freedom of thought and expression, separation of church and state, and the rule of law.

Some of us believe that it can't happen here. That a small minority of zealouts -- numbering perhaps less than 20 percent of the population -- can take over the country. History shows otherwise.

If we are to prevent it from happening here, we will have to do it ourselves -- there is no one else.

We can stop them now, or we can try to stop them later -- or we can wait until it's too late to stop them. It's up to you, and it's up to me.


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