Trivializing Communism

I don’t agree with everything that CNN columnist John Avlon writes in his denunciation of Republican Rep. Allen West for claiming that some 80 Democratic House members are “communists.” But this part is right on target:

The ghost of Joe McCarthy’s ulcerous accusations hung over a disturbingly casual comment this past week by U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Florida.

When asked by a constituent at a town hall, “What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists?”

“That’s a fair question,” West replied. “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party….”

The number West picked out was apparently based on the number of congressmen affiliated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This is an organization of the most liberal members of Congress, but to call them communists is a slander splashed with blood.

Communists, of course, murdered more than 100 million people in the past century, if you add up the rough total of butchery by Vladimir Lenin (Soviet Union), Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Mao Zedong (China) and Pol Pot (Cambodia)….

A military man of West’s rank understands the magnitude of his misstatement. So I’m assuming that he was sincere in the accusation.

To equate liberals in Congress with communists is like equating conservatives in Congress with fascists…

To this day, many in the West have a tendency to ignore or downplay the true magnitude of communist crimes. I discussed the harm that neglect causes in this post. However, accusing garden-variety liberals of being communists doesn’t help matters. It merely serves to trivialize communist atrocities by using them as a tool of cheap political rhetoric. Unfortunately, West’s comment is far from the only example of such trivialization of communism in recent conservative political rhetoric.

I don’t agree with Avlon’s suggestion that such rhetorical excesses are “asymmetric[ally]” present mainly on the right. The left has for years similarly trivialized racism and sexism by accusing conservatives and libertarians of these offenses even in many cases where the charge was ridiculous. Democratic claims that the GOP is waging a “war against women” are a notable recent example.

But the left’s rhetorical trivialization of racism and sexism does not justify the right’s tendency to do the same with communism. People who genuinely understand that communism is one of history’s greatest evils should take accusations of being a communist seriously, not use them as cheap political talking points.

UPDATE: It’s actually not entirely clear to me whether Avlon really means to say that exaggerated rhetoric of this type is present mainly on the right, or whether he means to condemn both sides of the political spectrum equally. Some parts of his piece lend themselves to the former interpretation (e.g. – when he implies that prominent left-wingers don’t make accusations comparable to West’s and would be greeted with greater outrage if they did) and others to the latter (e.g. – the very end of the article, where he calls on both sides to police their rhetorical excesses). Readers will have to decide for themselves what they think Avlon meant to say. In any event, this ambiguity in his article doesn’t affect the main point of my post.