Last week something happened so unbelievably vile it shocked even me. Allen West, a Florida congressman, told a town hall meeting: "I believe there is about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party [in Congress] who are members of the Communist Party."
Ungrammatical, but a smear nevertheless. Not even the demagogue Joe McCarthy ever went that far. Sixty years ago, McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, terrorized the nation by claiming the government was full of secret Communist agents. He hauled people up before his committee and interrogated them.
Innocent people's lives were destroyed. Men and women were ordered to give the committee names of any people they suspected of being Communists. If they refused, they were blacklisted, denied the right to work, hounded by federal agents. Some committed suicide or left the country. This went on for several years. The country was enveloped in a form of hysteria today known as the "Red Scare."
People were scared into paranoia. Some saw Stalin's spies everywhere. Ironically, McCarthy never uncovered a single Communist. He probably wouldn't have known one if he saw one. He was merely a drunken demagogue looking for a cause on which to rise to power and fame. Eventually, the courageous journalist Edward R. Murrow managed to do a TV show exposing his lies.
Soon after that, the Senate sensed the nation finally had enough. They censured McCarthy in 1954, effectively taking his power away. He then swiftly drank himself to death. The country learned a lesson from that: Recklessly labeling people "Communists" was beyond the limits of what was acceptable politically.
Even the right wing pretty much stopped, except to mutter that liberals were "soft on Communism." There was a big difference, however, between then and now. There was an authentic threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Communism appeared to be a fast-spreading ideology. And there had been real Soviet spies, including the State Department's Alger Hiss.
Today, however, Soviet-style Communism is virtually extinct, except in a few backwaters like Cuba, where it probably won't last longer than the Castro brothers, and North Korea. What the Chinese call "communism" is really capitalism with a political dictatorship.
Communism today is about as serious a political threat as the possibility someone might try to make us a British colony again. Yet the stigma still lingers, and being called a Communist is no laughing matter. This very month, a Florida baseball manager named Ozzie Guillen was suspended without pay for saying he admired Fidel Castro for surviving decades of assassination attempts.
Ozzie didn't praise Castro's politics; he called Fidel "a bullshit dictator." Guillen just admired his tenaciousness, saying "everybody's against him, but he still survives." And for that, in a nation where we allegedly have free speech, he may yet lose his job.
But if you can't say anything good about those on the far left, the reverse isn't true. When lunatics and liars charge that President Obama is a Muslim extremist and a radical socialist who wasn't even born in this country, nobody raises an eyebrow.
Now, evidently, you can even call U.S. representatives members of the Communist Party. Even Joe McCarthy never did that.
How did we come to this? Twenty or so years ago, the extreme right wing in this country began pouring out exaggerations, smears and hatred of a kind virtually unknown before.
Their leader was the clown prince Rush Limbaugh, who spawned a whole host of imitators. They were aided in their ability to do this by an explosion of media access, thanks to new technologies, including new forms of radio, and the World Wide Web.
The stage for today's slime culture was set back in 1987, when the Reagan Administration dropped the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast stations to give both sides of an issue equal time.
Standards got looser still, and our political discourse became more and more coarsened. Rick Santorum charged that President Obama "would go down in history here as the president who has embraced radical Islamic groups," which is a scary lie.
Allen West's bizarre Communist charge takes the cake, however. Author Mike Ranville, who wrote an excellent book about the Red Scare a few years ago (To Strike at a King, Momentum Books) pointed out to me that the very first figure McCarthy came up with when he was denouncing Communists in the State Department was 81 — the same figure West used.
West is a bizarre piece of work. A former battalion commander in Iraq, he got in trouble for apparently having his men beat and detain a civilian Iraqi police officer because of an alleged plot to ambush the future congressman. West then fired a pistol next to the frightened man's head, after which he confessed.
It turned out there was nothing to Allen West's suspicions. He was disciplined — some felt he should have been court-martialed — and fined $5,000. He left the service; tried to teach high school, then worked for a military contractor. After losing once, he managed to get himself elected to Congress in the GOP landslide two years ago.
Republicans loved him because he is virtually the only African-American to embrace the Tea Party movement, and the only Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus. (He actually lives in a place called Plantation. You just couldn't make that up.)
But how do his masters feel after West's stunning smear?
Actually, it seems West is probably too ignorant to know what a Communist is. He added that the "Communist Party" was called the "Congressional Progressive Caucus." There is such a group.
Calling them Communists is sort of like saying Tea Party Republicans are members of the Nazi Party. But the really shocking thing was that, as far as I can tell, nobody in Congress denounced West. At the very least, decent members of both parties should be demanding his censure, maybe even his expulsion.
Evidently everyone is so brutalized these days that such a smear goes virtually unnoticed, or nobody wants to stoop to dignify a gutter clown like West. There were people who thought Adolf Hitler was a joke too. Edmund Burke knew better. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," he said.
If we have any leaders left, they ought to do something.
Point to ponder: Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Trayvon Martin case is that everybody seems to have an opinion about what actually happened — and nobody really knows a thing.
Yes, we know an unarmed black teenager was shot to death by a gun-toting "neighborhood watch" captain, and we know a political firestorm has now unfolded in this nation.
But beyond that, dear reader, you and I know as much about how the actual events unfolded as we do any other local crime committed more than a thousand miles away: not a damn thing.
People's theories about the case are interesting, however, in this sense. What somebody thinks about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman tells you absolutely nothing about the killing itself — but tells you volumes about the person voicing the opinion, especially regarding their racial attitudes.
Having said that, here's something to consider. Imagine that I, a middle-aged white guy in a suit, decide to take an evening stroll through some tough neighborhood on the east side of Detroit.
Further imagine that I am unarmed. Suppose some black guy with a gun started chasing me and then blew me away.
Do you really think it would take a month and a half and a national media campaign before the cops arrested him?
Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.