Was McCarthyism to blame for the "black silence of fear," and how did the impact of McCarthyism and anti-communist campaigns on American political life affect the media and popular culture? The...
Was McCarthyism to blame for the "black silence of fear," and how did the impact of McCarthyism and anti-communist campaigns on American political life affect the media and popular culture?
The legacy of anti-communism and McCarthyism is stark. They took their toll on the American left and the communist party dwindled into insignificance. Because political activities could get you in trouble, prudent folk avoided them. To the despair of intellectuals, many middle-class Americans became social conformists. A silent generation of students populated the nation’s campuses, while their professors shrank from teaching anything that might be construed as controversial. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it “the black silence of fear” that seemingly blanketed the nation, and meaningful political dissent had all but withered away.
Certainly, the "black silence of fear" notion is a part of McCarthy's legacy. I do think that one has to see how McCarthyism was part of the time period and not the only element that defined it. McCarthyism fit so well within the 1950s time period because its social ethos emphasized conformity and capitulation. This idea was a part of the social theory that helped to dominate the time period. Anticommunist campaigns were simply an extension of this social theory into the realms of media and popular culture.
One aspect of this social theory that cradled both McCarthyism and anti communist campaigns was the "other- directed" nature of American Society. Sociologists Glazer and Riesman indicated in their work that Americas in the 1950s has moved away from internal reflection and the inner sensibilities of what was deemed right and wrong. Rather, much of American society became focused with the pursuit of "other- directed" elements such as external praise and social advancement. In shifting from the inner to the outer, conformity and compliance became values that were respected. This made it easier for McCarthyism and other anticommunist campaigns to take a hold because compliance and a sense of temporary social acceptance were revered.
Another aspect of the 1950s social theory that supported McCarthyism and other anticommunist campaigns was the adherence to "the organization." When William Whyte writes The Organization Man, he articulates a social condition in which individual ascent in the "organization" becomes the most important element. Individual identity and uniqueness was discouraged in favor of conformity and the banality of assimilation. Again, Communism being cast as "the other" helped to facilitate this aggressive desire to eliminate it and remain part of the "inner circle." The success of "the organization" and the unquestioning respect of power structures within it enabled McCarthyism and anticommunist campaigns to take hold in the media and popular culture because it espoused social values that were intrinsic to the time period. It is in this where one can see the social theory of the time period as having contributed to the success of the "black silence of fear."