Sen. Joseph McCarthy is rightly remembered as a liar and a villain: he knowingly made up facts and destroyed the reputations of people who were not involved in communist conspiracies against the United States. It’s entirely fitting that his name has become synonymous with persecution and witch-hunting.
Complicating the matter in terms of McCarthy’s legacy — though certainly not his integrity — is the fact that there absolutely was a Soviet conspiracy that had penetrated deeply in the United States’ government and that Tail-Gunner Joe was one of the major popularizers of that conspiracy’s uncovering. Perversely, and in no small part, the truth was exposed by a pack of lies.
As Ross Douthat argues, riffing off this John McWorter piece (which I don’t fully agree with, but heartily recommend), something similar is happening with regard to the current spotlight on policing in the wake of the Ferguson fiasco. On the one hand, it’s abundantly clear that the actual circumstances of Michael Brown’s death had nothing whatsoever to do with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “Black Lives Matter!” narratives that have been invented to describe it. On the other, as Douthat puts it:
When the Ferguson protests first broke into the national news I wrote a column about the problem of militarized police forces, a couple of blog posts about changing conservative attitudes toward criminal justice and the cops, and a post pushing back against conservative defenses of police militarization. All of these pieces reflected my (pre-existing) view that many of the grievances impelling the protestors in this story are legitimate, that with crime rates at their lowest post-1960s ebb we can afford to undertake reforms to reduce incarceration rates and limit “warrior cop” (and related) excesses, and that conservatives, in particular, have both a moral obligation to take the lead in such reforms (as many conservative-governed states and some national Republican politicians have done) and a political incentive to show minority communities that the G.O.P. is capable of questioning abuses of state power (and unionized overreach!) even when it isn’t a Republican constituency getting the short end of the stick.
I still believe all this. But I also think it’s clear that from the point of view of actual persuasion, as opposed to just mobilization — of reaching people who don’t follow these issues closely, or who might generally incline toward a different narrative, more pro-cop or just more pro-status quo — Ferguson is turning into a poor exhibit for the policy causes that it’s being used to elevate.
I think Douthat is understating the problem: one of Ferguson’s ultimate legacies is likely to be greater skepticism of arguments critical of some police tactics, because a major case premised on those criticisms has been shown to be based on misrepresentations and outright lies, and not for the first time. This is an entirely rational response, even if it’s the wrong one.
Joseph McCarthy left a lot of victims, not the least of which was the anti-communist cause; to this day, it’s frightfully easy to find educated non-leftists who can tell you exactly who McCarthy was, but who couldn’t identify Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs to save their lives. Likewise, we’re witnessing a cultural moment in which Michael Brown’s name and image are known by everyone, while Cory Maye‘s is largely obscure.