"Exhuming McCarthy" by R.E.M. (Berry Buck Mills Stipe)
Document, 1987 (5 C!s)

begins with the sound of a typewriter

You're beautiful--more beautiful than me
You're honorable--more honorable than me
Loyal to the Bank of America

It's a sign of the times
It's a sign of the times

You're sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen.
Sharpening stones, walking on coals,
To improve your business acumen.

Vested interest united ties,
landed gentry rationalize
Look who bought the myth,
by jingo, buy America

It's a sign of the times
it's a sign of the times

You're sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen.
Sharpening stones, walking on coals,
To improve your business acumen.

Enemy sighted, enemy met,
I'm addressing the realpolitik
Look who bought the myth,
by jingo, buy America

"Let us not assassinate this lad further Senator, you've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

We're sharpening stones, walking on coals
To improve your business acumen.
Sharpening stones, walking on coals,
To improve your business acumen.

Enemy sighted, enemy met,
I'm addressing the realpolitik
You've seen start and you've seen quit
I'm addressing the table of content
I always thought of you as quick
Exhuming McCarthy (Meet me at the book burning)
Exhuming McCarthy (Meet me at the book burning)


Ah, 1987. The Moral Majority are running the show, the PMRC is busy trying to ban records, and in the era when another country is called the ever-so-Star Wars "The Evil Empire," R.E.M. is feeling a bit of cultural deja vu.

And so, on what is already a politically-charged album, they offer us this little song to remind us where we've been and looked like we were heading again.

Musically, this is a little different. It begins with the sound of a typewriter--or perhapse a stenograph, like they use in a courtroom. The song bounces between bright pop verses and a funk-driven chorus (which, I believe, is a subtle reference to Prince's Sign O' The Times--Prince being one of Tipper Gore's targets with the PMRC). Finally, it works in a sound clip from the actual McCarthy proceedings--the most famous clip of the event (see below).

Now, most people know who Senator Joseph McCarthy is--he's even given us a word in the English language, McCarthyism:

Mc·Car·thy·ism
n.
  1. The practice of publicizing accusations of political disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence.
  2. The use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods in order to suppress opposition.

Thank you, American Heritage Dicitonary.

So, in essence, the song begins as a rather sarcastic aside to the Standard Bearers of Moral Decency in America, before beginning its attack on those who'd rather swallow jingoistic propaganda, accept the myth of American History (glossing over slavery, genocide, sexism, racism, classism, and so on) for a bit flag waving and love of military buildup and displays of strength, while trashing the most important thing about this country--The Constitution of the United States of America, the only thing (short of a rapidly-disappearing natural beauty) that makes it worth living here.

The lyrics are fairly straightforward: realpolitik being "A usually expansionist national policy having as its sole principle advancement of the national interest" (AHD), and business acumen means having a quick, keen insight on business. Now, as for doing primitive things like "sharpening stones and walking on coals to improve your business acumen"--gives a pretty dim view of the military-industrial complex. Look ahead to the line "I always thought of you as quick" against this section, and we see an economy which takes primitive, backwards routes in order to achieve its goals. One can't escape the economic views, critical of capitalism as being a sort of Social Darwinism--however, I wouldn't go so far as to say R.E.M. is communist or socialist, only critical of what they see as an unfair system, which has replaced democracy as our ruling form of government.

By the way--the theme of "book burning" also shows up in "It's the End of the World as We Know It"--the anti-intellectual climate of the times certainly had the boys worried.

Finally, let's look at the sound clip played at the break:

"Let us not assassinate this lad further Senator, you've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

The "lad" in question was a young lawyer Fred Fischer, who worked for the firm of Hale and Dorr, a Boston firm hired by the United States Army. The reason for this hiring was that Senator Joseph McCarthy was attempting to have one of his own lawyers, a G. David Schine who was drafted by the Army, released from service so that he could come back and work for McCarthy and Roy Cohn. Special privileges, eh? The Army thought it ridiculous, and was fighting to keep Schine in the Army. This battle between McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee and the U.S. Army was so intense, that it resulted in thirty-six days of television coverage of the congressional hearings. The army was represented by Joseph Welch. On June 9, 1954, as Welch cross-examined Cohn, McCarthy attempted to disrupt the proceedings by insinuating that Fred Fisher, a young attorney for Hale and Dorr who was not working on the Army case, was a Communist. The transcript of the outburst is as follows:

Welch: Sen. McCarthy, I think until this moment --

McCarthy: Just a minute. Let me ask, Jim -- will you get the news story to the effect that this man belongs to this Communist front organization.

Welch: I will tell you that he belonged to it.

McCarthy: Will you get the citations -- order the citations showing that this was the legal arm of the Communist Party and the length of time that he belonged and the fact that he was recommended by Mr. Welch? I think that should be in the record.

Welch: Senator, you won't need anything in the record when I finish telling you this. Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. When I decided to work for this committee I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim: "Pick somebody in the firm to work under you that you would like." He chose Fred Fisher and they came down on an afternoon plane. That night when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case was about, Fred Fisher and Jim St. Clair and I went to dinner together. I then said to these two young men: "Boys, I don't know anything about you except I've always liked you, but if there's anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case, you speak up quick."

And Fred Fisher said: "Mr. Welch, when I was in the law school and for a period of months after I belonged to the Lawyer's Guild," as you have suggested, Senator. He went on to say, "I am the secretary of the Young Republicans' League with the son of the Massachusetts governor and I have the respect and admiration of my community and I'm sure I have the respect and admiration of the 25 lawyers or so in Hale and Dorr." And I said, "Fred, I just don't think I'm going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out and go over national television and it will hurt like the dickens." So, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar, needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I'm a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.

McCarthy: May I say that Mr. Welch talks about this being cruel and reckless. He was just baiting -- he has been baiting Mr. Cohn here for hours, requesting that Mr. Cohn before sundown get out of any department of the government anyone who was serving the Communist cause. Now, I just give this man's record, and I want to say, Mr. Welch, that it has been labeled long before he became a member as early as 1944.

Welch: Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyer's Guild.

McCarthy: Let me finish this.

Welch: And Mr. Cohn nods his head at me. I did you, I think, no personal injury, Mr. Cohn.

Roy Cohn: No, sir.

Welch: I meant to do you no personal injury and if I did, I beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

McCarthy: I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch.

Welch: I'll say it hurts.

McCarthy: May I say, Mr. Chairman, as a point of personal privilege, that I'd like to finish this.

Welch: Senator, I think it hurts you too, sir.

Source: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/welch-mccarthy.html. An mp3 of this can be found there also.

It was, in fact, legal to belong to various communist and socialist organizations throughout the 1930s and 1940s, especially as the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II. In some circles, it was even fashionable. I don't mean to argue the morality of the issue, but instead point out that one of McCarthy's tactics was to go after people who had once belonged to a communist or socialist organization but had since become disenchanted. Moreover, the argument was for Cohn to come up with the names of these communist moles within the U.S. Armed Forces; McCarthy tries to suggest Fischer, who was not, in fact, working for or part of the U. S. government. McCarthy's bullying style, displayed in black and white VHF, finally brought America to its senses, more or less, and the hearings were eventually brought to a close, having found far fewer Communists than they claimed, and having caused the country to view its own citizens, your own neighbors with suspicion in a way that you would think could only happen in totalitarian regiems like the U.S.S.R.

Hm. This is sounding a little too close to home...

By the way, the newly released "secret transcripts" can be found here: http://www.gpo.gov/congress/senate/senate12cp107.html

Friends, let's not exhume McCarthy again--the corpse is rotted, foul, only bones.


Says haze: Incidently, I was a member of the National Lawyer's Guild in law school, just like Fred Fischer was, and the idea that it is a "Communist front" is ridiculous. Keep in mind there were Communists in the Guild, lots of them. It was definitely left-wing (still is). But it didn't take orders from Moscow.

ME: Ah. A perfect example of what McCarthy was doing--"There are Communists in the Guild; the Guild must be Communist." Guilt by association, etc.

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