Scare Words Leave Scars on Everyone

By Carl Mirra

The 2020 U.S. presidential election has liberals and reactionaries alike unearthing “scare words” like socialism in response to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Such words should have been buried in 1991 with the end of the Cold War.

Starting with his characteristic wit and humor, Howard Zinn’s 1989 essay below from Newsday skillfully transitions to the seriousness of such discourse. Scare words are used to “end rational discussion” and “arouse hatred.” In fact, all the uproar over “Socialist Sanders” comment that Cuba has commendable literacy rates is designed precisely to “stop thinking” and “arouse hate.” Curiously Mike Bloomberg’s praise for Mohammad bin Salam and insistence that Xi was not a dictator was largely ignored.

Zinn recalls a 1948 pamphlet, produced by the House Un-American Activities Committee, “100 Things You Should Know About Communism.” It defines Communism as “a system by which one small group seeks to rule the world.” Ironically, readers can decide for themselves whether today’s capitalism fits that definition.

There is much chatter on how to stop fake news. There is one easy step we can all take. Follow Zinn’s advice to stop yourself from being aroused to hatred by scare words.

The news clipping below was retrieved from the Howard Zinn Archives at the Tamiment Library and shared with HowardZinn.org by Carl Mirra, associate professor, Adelphi University. 

Scare Words Leave Scars on Everyone

By Howard Zinn
Newsday • January 22, 1989 • Transcription of news article


Click to view an image of the original article.

In 1948, a series of pamphlets were distributed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, entitled, “100 Things You Should Know About Communism.” When I came across this in my files (they have files on me, I have files on them), I was impressed that this committee knew 100 things about communism. The pamphlets had questions and answers:

Question 1: “What is communism?” (The idea is to start with something easy.) Answer “A system by which one small group seeks to rule the world.”

Question 76: “Where can communists be found in everyday life?” (This question interested me because there had been times when I was in need of a communist and didn’t know where to find one.) “Look for him in your school, in your labor union, your church, or your civic club.”

Question 86: “Is the YMCA a communist target?” (This really worried me. I always wondered why there was so much chlorine in the YMCA swimming pool.) Answer: “Yes, so is the YWCA.”

In 1950, Rep. Harold Velde of Illinois, a former FBI man, later chairman of HUAC, spoke in Congress to oppose mobile library service in rural areas because, he said, “Educating Americans through the means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any other method. The basis of communism and socialistic influence is education of the people.”

Let’s skip to 1987, the year of the Contragate investigation, to Robert McFarlane, who conspired with John Poindexter, William Casey, Oliver North, Richard Secord, and almost certainly George Bush to violate the laws and the Constitution to give weapons to terrorists in Central America. McFarlane later said he knew the policy of getting arms to the contras would not work (not that it was wrong, but it would not work). He said: “Where I went wrong was not having the guts to stand up and tell the president that. To tell you the truth, probably the reason I didn’t is because if I’d done that, Bill Casey, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Cap Weinberger would have said I was some kind of Commie, you know.”

Our bizarre preoccupation with communism, which mystifies most people in other countries, has lasted a long time. Ronald Reagan, in his first presidential campaign, said, “Let us not delude ourselves. The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren’t engaged in the game of dominos, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.”

These are absurdities. But they represent something terribly serious. Because there are certain words calculated to stop thinking, end rational discourse, arouse hatred — words that are murderous. In our time, we have seen words used in that way: The words “n-word” and “Jew” have led to lynchings, to mass murder. The word “Communist” has been used to justify the support of dictatorships (in Chile, the Philippines, Iran), the attempted invasion of other countries (Cuba), the bombing of peasant villages (in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, El Salvador), the destruction of the economy of a small, poor country (Nicaragua). The word has also been used to justify the hard-earned salaries of the American people to finance billions of dollars worth of stupid weapons.

Is it an exaggeration to call such words “murderous”? A dispatch from Seattle, Wash., June 10, 1986, said: “A self-proclaimed soldier against communism faces a death sentence after a verdict today by a jury that found him guilty of murdering four members of the Charles Goldmark family. Rice has said he killed the Goldmark family because he thought they were part of an international conspiracy among Communists, Jews and the Federal Reserve Board.”

Defense lawyers said this belief was evidence of the killer’s mental illness. But the only thing that would cause me to think he was mentally ill was his accusation against the Federal Reserve Board. Otherwise, he belongs in the White House, certainly during the Nixon years, when “communism” was a reason for killing peasants in Southeast Asia, and when the president queried H.R. Haldeman (source: the Watergate tapes) on how many members of the Chicago Eight were Jews.

The word “Communist” used as an epithet, as an inducer of fear and trembling, is calculated to stop rational discussion of communism itself. We do need a sober critique of the Soviet Union, whose policies have given socialism a bad name. For me, reading Karl Marx, Eugene Debs, Helen Keller (how many of her admirers know she was a socialist?) and Emma Goldman, socialism had a good name. Any true socialist must feel anger and indignation at what has been done to human beings in the USSR. But there is a difference between such indignation and a hysterical, indiscriminate hatred that causes us to threaten to obliterate a nation of 280 million people — the very people we say are suffering under communism. There is a difference between a reasoned criticism of socialism and working to improve human rights, and the use of deadly weapons by us, or by our mercenaries, to prevent change in countries that desperately need change.

This country is not the same after the lessons of the civil rights movement. That movement, at its grass roots — at the level of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Rosa Parks and Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black people of Montgomery and Selma ― was not deflected from its work by the charges of communism. Harry Truman called the 1960s sit-ins inspired by Communists. When asked for proof, Truman said he had none. “But I know that usually when trouble hits the country the Kremlin is behind it.” The FBI tried to link Martin Luther King to communism. The movement was not deterred.

In the 1950s the House Un-American Activities Committee had been powerful. By the 60s, the American public was having doubts about it. In 1970, discredited and ludicrous, HUAC was abolished. Its interrogations now seemed laughable, as in this 1958 exchange between the committee and Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Papp was asked: “Do you have the opportunity to inject into your plays any propaganda which would influence others to be sympathetic with the Communist philosophy?”

Papp replied, “Sir, the plays we do are Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare said, ‘To thine own self be true.’”

Richard Arens, staff director for the committee, said, “There is no suggestion here by this chairman of anyone else that Shakespeare was a Communist. That is ludicrous and absurd. That is the Commie line.”

The use of scare words is profoundly undemocratic. It stifles debate; it creates an atmosphere in which people are afraid to speak their minds, honestly, afraid to examine all ideas. This has been true in the Soviet Union as well, where words such as counterrevolutionary, bourgeois, and Trotskyite have been used to stifle discussion, weed out heretics, send people to Siberia. Perhaps now Mikhail Gorbachev understands that the Soviet Union must get beyond it murderous words because it has serious problems it must solve.

For us, in the United States, there is too much to do for us to bankrupt ourselves for fear of communism. There are people without a place to live this winter, and others who can’t pay their rent, and elderly people in nursing homes who can’t go down to the dining room because there’s no money to pay someone to push their wheelchair. But there’s money for the B-1 bombers and the Stealth fighter and the Trident submarines. With hungry children all over the world, we need to stop spending $300 billion a year for military junk, and use the money for human needs.

To do all this, we need bold solutions, and therefore we need an open debate not limited by fear that names will be called: Communist, socialist, anarchist, even liberal. We should not be afraid to talk about redistributing wealth and a world community, or to renounce the nationalism that insists on being Number One.

Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright, was never allowed to read his statement when called before HUAC. Here is part of it: “We are living in a dangerous world. Our state of civilization is such that mankind already is capable of becoming enormously wealthy but as a whole is still poverty-ridden. Great wars have been suffered. Great ones are eminent, we are told. Do you not think that in such a predicament every new idea should be examined carefully and freely?”