We forgive you, Senator McCarthy: Our Scares While in the Red

Senator McCarthy during the McCarthy-Army hearings. The exact moment of his doom.

Following January’s Arizona shooting , a call for civility in political discourse rang out. Who could resist repeating the phrase that famously ended Senator McCarthy’s career as a communist hunter: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

And doesn’t the rhetoric employed by television and media and reality shows and network news and the other side, doesn’t it seem dangerously indecent? Both Glenn Beck and the ACLU caution us that an epic storm approaches. We see the other side stumble to anger and catalogue signs of the end times: wars in the middle east, an antichrist coming to power, and a steep decay of decency beyond our control.

Approaching doom puts us under enormous stress, which dulls our tolerance for cognitive work, and leads us to rely on stereotypes as mental shortcuts. Our calls for civility in discourse are up against a manipulative press, an actual idealogical divide, and our own tired minds.

So I’ll admit that the 2008 elections exhausted me, sating the part of me that enjoys political conflict and scandalizing the part that believed in political efficacy. Close observers of the election noticed the sinister maneuverings of whichever group they most reviled, reinforcing the tragic chasm of partisan divide while masking the horrors of what said close observers revealed: our government is run by career politicians motivated by short-term gain.

As partisans we pretend like the problem is on the other side, like as liberals we pretend we’re not racist, and as conservatives we pretend that systematic oppression is an invention of PC. In this context, the most abhorrent stances become sympathetic, because if someone is on your side, you will commit the mental energy needed to hear them out. If they aren’t, their most reasonable arguments go unheard.

In the light of the new red scare, in which TV personalities act as if Communist is a dirty enough word to mean automatic impeachment and journalists pretend their suggestions of Tea Party violence don’t play on fears of an uneducated, religious, gun-toting underclass, it’s time for a collective deep breath.

We’ve relied on American complacency to keep us from painful revolt. In this moment, we are too angry, too tired, and too afraid to depend on our laziness during global turmoil. Let’s use that energy to listen to each other. Let’s find the best solutions without worrying which camp they come from. Let’s clean up a toxic discourse. Let’s forgive Senator McCarthy.

Despite your toxic influence on our rhetoric, we forgive you, Senator McCarthy. We forgive you, sensationalist journalists. We forgive you, career politicians. We hope you’ll forgive us, and give us a fighting chance.

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