I was just a pre-teen in the early 1950s, but I was old enough to remember quite vividly the McCarthy hearings on TV. In the midst of the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy sought to identify Soviet spies and sympathizers who worked in the U.S. government and other high-profile industries, particularly Hollywood filmmaking and television.
As I highlight in my forthcoming memoir, One Legged-Mongoose: Secrets, Legacies and Coming of Age in 1950s New York, I watched some of the hearings on TV with my father. Senator Joseph McCarthy was a dour man who pressed people before his committee to admit their communist affiliations. In a two-year period, McCarthy held more than 150 hearings and destroyed hundreds of lives. While the hearings may have nominally been about finding communist spies in the government, it wasn’t long before he was going after artists, writers, and activists — basically, anyone who could be linked to any left-wing sympathies, with or without evidence.
A Family Of Activists
My father was one of those activists, although with a profile small enough to avoid the wrath of McCarthy. He came to this country as an impoverished immigrant at the age of 15, and before he owned his own store, he went on worker’s strikes and helped organize the textile union. He came by his fear of government power honestly: I can recall his anguish while looking at a photo of a group of his friends—teens at the time—left behind in Ukraine. “All dead,” he said.
As a youngster, he frequented what was considered a “far-left” camp in the Hudson Valley. An aunt told me it was run by commies, but she whispered, your dad wasn’t a communist; he went there because the girls were “fast.”
When I was growing up, I inherited my father’s disposition toward looking out for those in need. My younger brother, Stephen, encountered constant bullying while growing up, which added to my loathing of those who abuse power. (Getting retribution also contributed to me becoming an accomplished street fighter.)
As McCarthy’s witch hunt strayed further and further into ordinary society, it was largely condoned by other members of Congress and President Eisenhower, who were for the most part publicly silent on his red-baiting tactics. (As an aside, a young lawyer on his team was Bobby Kennedy, while his Chief Council was Roy Cohn, who would later become a mentor to Donald Trump.)
As those in power remained quiet, McCarthy seemed unstoppable. That is, until he made unfounded allegations against the U.S. Army, which opened its own hearings on McCarthy. When McCarthy accused a young lawyer working for the army of having communist ties, Joseph Welch, the chief prosecutor, famously said, “Until this moment, Senator, I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” When McCarthy pressed on, Welch interrupted in anger: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency.”
After that, the dominoes began to fall. CBS News anchor Edward R. Murrow famously broadcast in 1954: “This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent… We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result… We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
I watched that at the time. And, of course, it’s easy to draw parallels to what is happening today with the polarization of our country. I think about the insurrection on January 6 and how many of those in Congress conveniently downplayed the events and those responsible for it. Many of those who issued harsh condemnations at the time have moderated their stances for political gain.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (no relation to the Senator) allegedly blasted President Trump during a phone call while the insurrection was ongoing and afterward decried Trump’s actions. But it wasn’t long before McCarthy changed his tune and returned to become Trump’s avowed loyalist.
No dominoes have yet fallen for Trump’s actions. No one person’s words or actions swung the pendulum. No one had the clarity and impact that was required. Instead, people continued to criticize the other side rather than coming together to call out genuine threats to our Constitutional government. Historians and sociologists will debate for the next hundred years why this happened.
Artists and Writers
Much like in the past, it has been writer and artist-activists who speak out against abuses of power. While their impact may be slow, it is cumulative.
My wife, Livia, and I have collected contemporary art since our early twenties. A driving force for us is often artwork that has a powerful emotional impact. It speaks to the beauty of one’s own culture while acknowledging the oppression still found in society. In 1982 we were moved by a painting by German artist Anselm Kiefer. It was an eerie image that must have been a crematorium at a concentration camp.
An exhibit of art from our collection is currently at the Hudson Valley MOCA, entitled “HOW WE LIVE.” The curators included artworks from 21 countries, each touching on a social issue. One sculpture, by Paulo Nazareth, a young itinerant Brazilian, appears to be a clear acrylic block in which is embedded a box of Aunt Jemima’s Corn Meal and a sack of Uncle Ben’s rice. It’s a brilliant work bringing into sharp focus the inclusion of racist tropes in everyday commerce. It was about two years after this work was made that those products were finally renamed. It has taken similarly as long to change the name of the Washington Redskins, but it finally did happen.
Recently Livia and I purchased a painting by A.A. Bronson. He was one of the three founders of the artist collective, “General Idea,” whose focus was the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. His partners died of HIV. In his work White Flag #8, Bronson put white paint, chalk, glue, and honey on a sizable representation of an American flag, and the result is a moving tableau, a political statement that brings the viewer deeply into the conversation.
Artists and writers as activists have always played a significant role in speaking to the injustices they see. As the McCarthy hearings showed, there’s often considerable pushback. But the voices of the storytellers and out-of-power thinkers are necessary. They may not have the immediate impact of an Edward R. Murrow, but each work of art and writing adds to the shape our society takes.
When silent majority activists finally stood up for what is right, McCarthy was quick to fall. Here’s hoping that more of us can overcome the bullies to fight for our beliefs, get our voices heard, and stand up to criticize those who are unwilling to call out abuses of power.
Marc Straus, M.D., is an oncologist and former Chairman of Oncology and Professor of Medicine. He’s also an art collector, gallery owner, author, and poet. He has authored some 100 scientific papers and edited three textbooks on lung cancer in addition to three collections of poetry.
The MARC STRAUS gallery represents 24 artists from 16 different countries. Originally focused on emerging artists not previously exhibited in New York, it is now mixed with a few mid-career and late-career artists from the U.S., Asia, and Europe. See marcstraus.com for more info.
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