Red Scare Redux 2017: From Right-Wing Radio to Brooklyn

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have ushered in a tide of blatantly racist, classist, sexist and politically repressive nostalgia, encapsulated by his ominous slogan, “Make America Great Again.” As Trump and his Republican allies work to dismantle civil, voting, reproductive and immigration rights, another vestige of the past — anti-communism — has begun to reappear.

Fox News is but one purveyor of this ideology. As commentator after commentator sees it, communism stifles the spark that promotes competition and human advancement. In fact, any positive mention of communism is quickly and repeatedly condemned. For example, when MIT Press published a book called Communism for Kids, in April, newscasters immediately made it headline news, denouncing the text as “propaganda and revisionist theory” and lampooned the idea that capitalism causes misery among a swath of the population.

The network, of course, is far from alone.

Michael Savage’s “The Savage Nation” on routinely lambastes CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper, calling them “mouthpieces of the far left, part [and] parcel of Pravda or Izvestia.” Similarly, Glenn Beck’s Mercury Radio Arts has aired a four-part series called “The Truth About Communism.” “The difference between Communism and the Hitler faith was very slight,” Beck rails. “The Communists of the Reichstag voted almost uniformly with the Nazis; they voted in lock step. The slogan for the Communists and the Reichstag, first brown, then red.”

The communism Beck conjures is rife with deprivation, want and well-worn stereotypes and is likely motivated by the millions who voted for socialist Bernie Sanders — no communist he, but that does not seem to matter. The series began in March and gave Beck a platform to warn that “communism” may be making a comeback. To support this thesis, he apparently dusted off a 1950s playbook full of warnings. “You can’t own land or make money from owning land,” he says of communism. “No matter how hard you worked to acquire your property or how many generations have owned it, your land is no longer yours.”

He has also pontificated that communism zaps human motivation, since “everything belongs to the collective.” In Beck-world, money is the sole motivator of creativity and innovation (a conclusion that is certainly worth debating) and since communism threatens money as we know it, he argues that it poses an enormous danger to everything red-blooded Americans should hold dear.

Then there’s Breitbart News, where anti-Castro commentary is a regular feature. Trump, himself, has both feet firmly planted on this bandwagon, recently telling fans in Miami’s little Havana that “we will not be silenced in the face of Communist oppression any longer.” Indeed, he fulfilled a campaign promise by directing the Treasury Department to end the US-Cuba people-to-people tourism program. Under the administration’s new rules, the only people who will be allowed to visit Cuba are those traveling with pre-approved sponsoring groups. What’s more, Trump has repeatedly labeled Cuba a security threat to the US, charging that the tiny island has shipped weapons to North Korea. He has also criticized the country for granting asylum to Assata Shakur, who he calls a “cop killer.” His call for Shakur’s extradition has gotten significant play on right-wing radio and in conservative print publications and blogs.

And let’s not forget May Day. Ilya Somin is a professor of law at George Mason University, home of the Koch-funded Mercatus Center. Mercatus exists to “bridge the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems,” and not only promotes capitalism as the best possible economic system, but trains scholars to value rivalry in business and oppose all manner of regulations — including licensure of businesses. Somin is a close ally of the Mercatus faculty and has the Center’s support for his campaign to turn May Day into “International Victims of Communism Day.” “We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day,” he wrote in a Washington Post editorial. “It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the 20th century’s other great totalitarian tyranny.”

California Legislators Declare “Communism Has No Place in California

Anti-communist grumblings have also grown sharper in state legislatures.

Several months ago, Rob Bonta, a Democratic California Assembly member, introduced AB22, a bill to remove a nearly 70-year-old statute that makes it illegal for members of the Communist Party (CP) to work in that state’s government. He called the law a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and association, and pointed out that a 1960 Supreme Court decision made employment bans based on CP membership — or membership in other organizations that advocate revolutionary change — unconstitutional.

Despite this, conservatives quickly mobilized to oppose the bill. Led by Republican Janet Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American state senator in the country, opponents declared that “communism has no place in California.” They further dubbed the bill “an outrageous piece of legislation which inadvertently hurt the Vietnamese-American community and countless veterans who have fought to defeat communism.”

Others, including Southern California Assembly member Randy Voepel, chimed in to declare communists in North Korea and China an ongoing threat to US safety.

Bonta eventually withdrew the bill, and apologized for his lack of sensitivity. He did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview.

Anti-Communism Rises in Brooklyn

Brooklyn’s tony Park Slope neighborhood is the site of a different kind of Red Scare. It’s where Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate (PSC), along with her assistant principal, a paraprofessional and two teachers, are being investigated by the New York City Department of Education for allegedly belonging to a communist organization.

Park Slope Collegiate is a sixth-to-twelfth grade public school, one of four programs co-located in what was once the massive John Jay High School. Bloomberg became PSC’s principal in 2004 and has tried to promote the school’s mission as a “truly integrated school — racially, ethnically, economically, and academically.”

Throughout her tenure, Bloomberg has been an outspoken advocate for racial justice. She has denounced the use of metal detectors and called out inequities in resource allocations and funding. For example, one of the schools in the John Jay building, Millennium High, is largely white, mirroring the upscale neighborhood in which it is located. (In contrast, PSC is 79 percent African American and Latinx.) When Millennium was given $115,255 for coaches and sports teams during the 2014-15 academic year, Bloomberg took notice — first asking Millennium to allow students from the other schools in the building to join its teams; when the request was rebuffed, she demanded parity for all John Jay programs. As she pointed out, the inequity was blatant: the three other programs combined received just $41,045 for athletics.

The situation got even worse the following year, 2016, when Millennium received funds for 17 teams, including fencing, baseball, basketball and table tennis. Meanwhile, only four teams existed at the three other schools; after Bloomberg and others protested this imbalance, five track teams were added, but the total still paled in comparison to Millennium.

“Jill is all about the students,” Patrick Lloyd, the parent of a PSC student, told Truthout. “She is very professional. In fact, she does all the things people in academic circles talk about as being important. If students are fighting, she promotes conversations to resolve the issue. She knows every kid by name and knows where he or she is supposed to be at all times. She also does something a lot of other people don’t do. She fights back [against injustice] and encourages the students to fight back.”

No one knows for sure what put Bloomberg and PSC on the radar of the school district’s Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation (OSI).

Michael Aciman, deputy press secretary for New York City’s Department of Education (DOE), told me by email that, “Ms. Bloomberg has been a strong advocate for her school community, and the recent concerns she’s raised regarding the John Jay campus have nothing to do with the current investigation. OSI has an obligation to review and investigate all reports of misconduct that it receives, and the complaint against Ms. Bloomberg contains allegations that, if true, would be a violation of several Chancellor’s regulations.”

What are the allegations? I ask. What regulations has Bloomberg been accused of violating? Who made the complaints? “Due to the ongoing investigation, we cannot confirm additional details,” Aciman wrote.

Furthermore, no one seems to know how long an investigation can take or whether the five-month-long brouhaha is near completion. “OSI sent someone to the school building on March 2,” Bloomberg explained. “He said I was the subject of an OSI investigation, but that was all he’d tell me. The investigator then asked to speak to the assistant principal and in speaking to her, indicated that they were investigating whether two teachers and I are members of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and are recruiting students to attend meetings and events.”

Bloomberg emphasizes that she is not in the PLP, but also makes clear that membership in such an organization would not be incompatible with teaching. She acknowledges that she has been vocal in protesting racism and encouraging the students to speak out against discrimination. For example, when PSC’s girls’ volleyball team was mistreated by security guards at another school, the team — backed by Bloomberg — held public protests. This resulted in both media coverage and a public apology from the offending security personnel.

This was not Bloomberg’s first brush with DOE authority. After Eric Garner’s 2014 murder by police, PSC staff organized an assembly to discuss what had happened. “The superintendent told me that I needed to take a position of neutrality on this, but we can’t be neutral when it comes to racism. The DOE itself should not be neutral about racism,” Bloomberg said.

Patrick Lloyd agrees, which is why he wanted his daughter to attend PSC in the first place. He’s still glad she’s enrolled there. At the same time, he is appalled that students were pulled out of class and questioned throughout the spring semester — without parental permission — about whether they’ve been encouraged to attend protests, meetings or study groups. “My daughter was absent the day the investigators came to talk to her. When I heard about this, I wrote [the Department of Education] a cease-and-desist letter stating that they cannot speak to my child without my permission,” Lloyd said. A number of parents have since drafted similar missives.

Student Amanda Lee, a rising senior and captain of the girls’ volleyball team, calls the investigation ridiculous. “The only time I ever heard the word communism in school was in 10th grade global studies,” she told Truthout, shaking her head in disbelief. “The teacher was talking about capitalism and communism and was very pro-capitalist. He said communism was bad and told us that if we had a pair of sneakers, we’d have to share them with our friends. That was it. If I didn’t research communism on my own, I wouldn’t know anything else about it.”

Indeed, the situation playing out in Park Slope represents a type of Red Scare that goes far beyond the verbal prattle of far-right talk shows. It also reminds us that we can’t expect the Democratic Party to protect us from this type of ideological posturing. “In a Democratic city, with a Democratic mayor and a Democratic Department of Education head, this situation reeks of McCarthyism,” Patrick Lloyd concludes. “It’s a good lesson, reminding us that even when we elect Democratic officials to a run a city, there can still be witch hunts.”

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