Bronze-level articleRed-baiting

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Red-baiting is a bullshitting tactic that is today used mostly by the right-wing. It consists of making a false and/or groundless accusation that some person is a communist or fellow traveler, often with the aim of discrediting them or destroying their reputation. It also serves to discourage similar dissent. This makes it similar to the association fallacy except the association itself is bogus.



Red-baiting was a very popular tactic during the American Red Scares, particularly the Second Red Scare in the 1950s; its most notorious practitioner during that time was Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), for whom McCarthyism is named. The tactic was successful in dividing American liberals from those to their ideological left in subsequent decades. Thus liberal Democratic Wisconsin Congressman Robert Kastenmeier, who served from 1959 to 1990, instructed his staffers in the 1960s to avoid contact with student activists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.[1] Madison was in his constituency. The likely result of this de-linking was that the students were even more radicalized.

A variety of wingnuts also exploited the Red Scares by using Red-baiting to claim that their opponents were all communists, thus handily pushing their own agendas. A notable example is the Mormon and John Birch Society member W. Cleon Skousen, who published a book entitled The Naked Communist. This book outlined a 45-point "communist" program including such planks as the legalization of homosexuality (in reality, communist countries are not known for being "gay Meccas"), expansion of civil rights, and an increased role for psychiatrists. Skousen and his books have been a major inspiration for Glenn Beck.[2]

Red-baiting has also been employed by right-wing anti-science and denialist movements to tar scientists who made ideologically inconvenient discoveries as dirty commies. This tactic was seen prominently in the anti-relativity and anti-water fluoridation movements as well as among global warming deniers.[3]

Present day

Even in the present day, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's tacit abandonment of communism, Red-baiting is still popular among the American right wing. Glenn Beck and various talk radio figures liberally use such terms as "communist" and "Marxist" to refer to anything they dislike.

Popular targets at present are U.S. President Barack Obama, who is said to be a crypto-communist pushing "Obamunism," and the Democratic Party; in 2009, the Republican National Committee was pressured to adopt a plank stating that the Democrats are a socialist party.[4]

Fallacious use

When McCarthy and other anti-communist figures in the U.S. government went after communists in the Hollywood movie industry, it resulted in the harassment of some people who were in a position to make quite a bit of noise. A great many allegorical works, written in opposition to Red-baiting, poured out of Hollywood and Broadway during that time, including Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman's film High Noon, and play and film versions of Inherit the Wind, the latter of which caused a tempest in a teapot when creationists mistook its allegory for flat factual claims.

These efforts, as well as the reckless and paranoid behavior of McCarthy, saw a sort of stigma settle over emphatically anti-communist views. With this state of affairs, the term "Red-baiting" has itself seen some fallacious use, mostly as an attempt to ridicule criticisms of communism in which no false accusations are actually made.

For example, the term is occasionally used with regard to the affair of the "Hollywood Ten," screenwriters who were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 to testify concerning their political activities.[5][6] This, however, ignores that: (1) the Hollywood Ten actually were communists; (2) they were arrested only when they refused either to state that they were communists or to exercise their Fifth Amendment right not to do so. The charge was contempt of Congress; they were not prosecuted for being communists, which was not a crime.[7]

Another use of the term is in response to any suggestion that the Soviet Union was attempting to infiltrate and influence non-communist governments during its flourishing period (also satirized using the phrase "Reds under the bed"), equating these with far-out conspiracy theories such as those of the John Birch Society. But it is an historical fact that there were a significant number of Soviet infiltrators working in non-communist countries, especially in the UK. Some well-known examples:

  • Soviet nuclear weapons were developed partially with information stolen from the U.S. atomic bomb project. German-born Briton Klaus Fuchs appears to have been the primary conduit for such information. (Note, however, that great powers spy on one another as a normal practice. Had the two post-war superpowers both been democratic or communist or one democratic and the other fascist, they would still have spied on one another's nuclear weapons programs.)
  • George Orwell had great difficulty publishing his anti-communist satiric fable, Animal Farm. It was later revealed that a Soviet infiltrator in the British government had put pressure on publishers in this regard.[8]

See also


  1. Cathy Wilkerson. 2007. Flying Too Close to the Sun. Seven Stories Press. ISBN 9781583227718. pp. 91-92
  2. Skousen
  3. The Socialist Haunted World: Relativity, Fluoridation, and Climate Change as a Socialist Plot
  4. GOP Pressured to Adopt Plank
  7. Seven years later, however, membership in the Communist Party USA was criminalized, when it was determined that that organization was exclusively a front for Soviet espionage; by that time very few of the U.S.'s communists were actually in the party, which contained more FBI informants than actual members.
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