Turns out, it’s really 1950.
That was the glorious year one Joseph McCarthy, a decidedly unphotogenic U.S. senator from Wisconsin, earned a lifetime spot in the Tabulation Hall of Fame by producing his famous list of 205 Communists he claimed were lurking at various pay grades inside the State Department. It caused a sensation, not only in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he made the inflammatory charge, but also throughout an America made skittish by the postwar ascendance of Red China and the Soviet Union.
Never mind that when pressed, McCarthy had to revise his list downward to 57 names. The Red Scare, cranked up three years earlier in the House of Representatives by the Committee on Un-American Activities, was kicked into high gear by “Tail Gunner Joe” and his powerful allies, notably J. Edgar Hoover, the sepulchral director of the FBI.
The decade of the 50’s would be besmirched by inquisitions and innuendoes at the highest levels of government, as hysterical public officials sought to reveal the insidious hands of Marx and Lenin manipulating patriotic Americans undercover from libraries, embassies and deepest, darkest Hollywood. More importantly, reputations were besmirched by the careless use of the word “Communist,” to the end that careers were cut short and lives shattered by what was essentially a federally sanctioned witch-hunt.
You might be surprised, depending on how long you’ve lived here, to learn that Birmingham and Alabama were trying to ferret out Commies long before Joe McCarthy made it fashionable. Because of the perennial tension between labor and management in this steelmaking town, Bolshevism was thought to be rampant in these parts. Diane McWhorter’s invaluable Carry Me Home cites Birmingham as the area headquarters of the international Communist Party in the early 1930s and, according to the Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties, the city even enacted a statute imposing fines and jail time for each day a Communist stayed in the city limits.
Now a savior has risen up out of Vestavia Hills to stand in the very parapets Joe McCarthy abandoned under fire in 1954, and it is our very own Spencer Thomas Bachus III, knight of the 6th District, who, alone among his peers in the House of Representatives, has the vision to see the old threat’s resurgence. Indeed, he shared that vision with the good burghers of Trussville last week, and it was not a cheering prospect: “Some of the men and women I work with in Congress are socialists.”
Not just some, either, but precisely .039 percent of the membership of the House of Representatives. Using information unavailable to the mortal man, the Invulnerable Incumbent has compiled a list of 17 socialists he has spotted plying their heinous trade among the solons.
One was easy to catch at it, since it’s on his business card. Bernie Sanders of Vermont won eight terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2006 as a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. It was a political affiliation so repellent to Bachus that he actually co-sponsored at least one bill with Sanders in 2003, according to The Washington Post.
As for the other 16 on the SpenceList — we don’t know who they are, at least as of press time this week. It’s the same sort of gimmick Joe McCarthy used in Wheeling in 1950, when he told the people he had a list of Communists who posed a threat to the nation but wouldn’t reveal their names. Fear is a much easier commodity to market when it’s not too specific.
Yet how much fear can you really whip up out of 17 socialists anymore? You might make it work in Trussville, where I have actually heard yahoos worry aloud about the pernicious influence Hugo Chavez exerted upon the community because there was a Citgo gas station on Edwards Lake Road. (It’s now a Shell station, so they’d best keep alert for an influx of Dutchmen and Limeys.) However, in those areas of the 6th District served by Social Security, the national highway system, Medicare, public schools, community law enforcement and suchlike, most folks comprehend that socialist principles infuse the founding documents of this land, in part by way of the New Testament.
If Spencer wants to really scare us, perhaps he could come up with a list of congressmen in league with the banking cabal that still threatens to overturn the global financial system. As the ranking member of the House Committee on Financial Services, I bet he could spot the pernicious banksters a lot more easily than socialists. And I’ll bet there are a lot more than 17.
Speaking on behalf of capitalism for a moment, let me draw your attention to an occasion exalting it. Saturday is Record Store Day, only the second such, but worthwhile nevertheless, because it draws attention to one of the truly endangered entrepreneurial undertakings: the non-chain music store.
I love me some internet, but it’s been no friend to the neighborhood music retailer in recent years. No matter how vast the recorded riches available online may be, there is still no substitute for walking into a music store and absorbing the sensory riches of browsing among tangible stacks of albums and discs.
Birmingham has always had great music stores, from Lawrence Hi-Fi and Rumore’s Record Rack way back in the day, to Charlemagne and Renaissance in the present, and we could mention Odyssey, Magic Platter, Laser’s Edge and a dozen others whose shelves have fed our cravings for music that matters throughout the years.
Merchants are an integral part of any city’s music community; good as it may be, you can’t hold a scene together with just MySpace. Record Store Day is a simple reminder that if music is the food of life, we should always try to eat local.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com