|Fewer than 200 people were sent to prison during the McCarthy era for their political beliefs [GALLO/GETTY]|
Several Fridays ago, I attended an excellent panel discussion on Occupy Wall Street sponsored by Jacobin Magazine. It featured Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean – representing a more state-centered, socialist-style left – and Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard, representing a more anarchist-inflected left.
Natasha Lennard is a freelance writer who’s been covering the OWS story for the New York Times. After a video of the panel was brought to the Times‘ attention, the paper reviewed it as well as Lennard’s reporting and decided to take her off the OWS beat. Despite the fact, according to a spokeswoman for the Times, that “we have reviewed the past stories to which she contributed and have not found any reasons for concern over that reporting”.
Even more troubling, Lennard may not be hired by the Times again at all. Says the spokeswoman: “This freelancer, Natasha Lennard, has not been involved in our coverage of Occupy Wall Street in recent days, and we have no plans to use her for future coverage.”
This is hardly the first time that the mainstream media has fired reporters for their political activities, even when there’s no hint of evidence that those activities have led to biased or skewed coverage. Even so, it’s worrisome, and ought to be protested and resisted.
Such political motivated firings fit into a much broader pattern in US history that – in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea – I call “Fear, American Style”. While people on the left and the right often focus on state repression – coercion and intimidation that comes from and is wielded by the government (politically driven prosecution and punishment, police violence, and the like) – the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state. More specifically, in the workplace.
Think about McCarthyism. We all remember (or remember learning about) the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, the Rosenbergs, HUAC, and so on. All of these incidents involve the state. But guess how many people ever went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Fewer than 200 people. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. Guess how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance for their beliefs? One to two out of every five. And while we don’t have exact statistics on how many of those workers were fired, it was somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000.
There’s a reason so much of US repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer often is not. The Bill of Rights, as any union organiser will tell you, does not apply to the workplace. The federal government can’t convict and imprison you simply and transparently for your political speech; if it does, it has to paint that speech as something other than speech (incitement, say) or as somehow involved in or contributing to a crime (material support for terrorism, say). A newspaper – like any private employer in a non-union workplace – can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.
On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind “the private life of power”: the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that the private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.
It was also true in the 19th century. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it while he was travelling here in the 1830s. Stopping off in Baltimore, he had a chat with a physician there. Tocqueville asked him why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma”. The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.
If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skillful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.
After the Civil War, black Americans in the South became active political agents, mobilising and agitating for education, political power, economic opportunity, and more. From the very beginning, they were attacked by white supremacists and unreconstructed former slaveholders. Often with the most terrible means of violence. But as WEB DuBois pointed out in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, one of the most effective means of suppressing black citizens was through the workplace.
The decisive influence was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure. Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being ‘safe and sane,’ and their careers were closely scrutinised and passed upon. From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro was compelled to give up his political power.
In the past few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields – and it’s considerable – it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. He received his PhD from Yale and his A.B. from Princeton. Read his blog here.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.