When the Fourth of July rolls around, I can't help but think of my late colleague John Patrick Hunter and the famous "petition" he asked people to sign on July 4, 1951.
The petition was nothing more than excerpts from the Declaration of Independence — which, after all, is why Americans celebrate the Fourth — and the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
Hunter, who had joined the staff of The Capital Times only months before, spent the afternoon at Madison's Vilas Park, where hundreds of people were picknicking and waiting for the evening's fireworks show. He wound up asking 112 people to sign. Just one did.
Some declined to sign just because of personal principle, but most were visibly afraid Hunter's petition was some radical — or even communistic — cause that could get them in trouble, perhaps even ruin their lives, if they put their signature on a document that called for unalienable rights.
Hunter's story provided proof of just how much fear and paranoia gripped Americans because of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy's witch hunt to uncover what he insisted were communist subversives plotting to destroy America. He claimed they infiltrated everything — from all levels of government to the entertainment industry, from the media to the unions. Then President Harry Truman used Hunter's story to discredit McCarthy and to point out how dangerous his "red scare" was to the country and how many innocent lives he had ruined.
We've been reminded of the incredible destruction of lives during the McCarthy era by two recently published books, one by acclaimed author David Maraniss about the ordeal suffered by his father Elliott at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee — "A Good American Family," and the other by R. Richard Wagner on the history of gays in Wisconsin — "We've Been Here All Along." Wagner's book documents how McCarthy not only aimed to purge Americans for their political views, but conducted an equally vindictive witch hunt called the "lavender scare" against "queers," insisting that "homosexuals" were as much a security risk as commies and needed to lose their jobs and dignity.
It's been 68 years since John Hunter conducted his test of just how much damage unprincipled politicians can cause a citizenry. McCarthy, the Un-American Activities Committee and the many others who decided that only they were the true Americans, finally got their comeuppance. But there's no denying that their intolerant views live on, resurfacing to fight mythical subversives and the "unworthy" in our midst.
Those alleged communists of the '50s have been replaced with immigrant asylum seekers and people who practice the Muslim religion. Families who have been in the country, sometimes for decades, are torn asunder for having an undocumented immigrant among them.
Today we're witnessing horrific examples of domestic terrorism — not only against Muslims, but against Jews and others who don't match the white supremacists' view of the world, including, once again, attacks on gays.
We are living in a time when it's not a U.S senator from Wisconsin leading the intolerant among us, but the president of the United States himself — not screaming about communists, but about "socialists" who are the enemy of America and need to be demonized.
As the Nation magazine recently pointed out, "Just as McCarthy did, Trump now operates within a polarized political world in which partisan advantage overwhelms the public good."
The bottom line is that you can divert people's — and the media's — attention while dismantling environmental rules, eviscerating policies aimed at helping the poor and enacting programs that clearly benefit the already wealthy by pitting Americans against each other: the good guys who support Trump, no matter what, against the un-American heathens who oppose him.
That's how Joe McCarthy flourished for so many years. Republicans who were working overtime trying to dismantle FDR's New Deal were fine with old Joe providing a perfect smokescreen.
It wasn't until McCarthy overstepped his hand by having the audacity to question the loyalty of some members of his own party that McCarthyism finally bit the dust.
Might that happen to Donald Trump's practice of vilifying Americans who don't agree with him and the cadre of ideologues with which he has surrounded himself?
Good question. How many people would sign John Patrick Hunter's petition this Fourth of July?
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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