Sunday, June 13, 2004


Following up the previous post about Pogo: the most famous series of Pogo strips, which made the strip the subject of controversy and has defined it ever since, is the 1953 story that satirized Senator Joseph McCarthy, in the form of "Simple J. Malarkey," a bobcat who looked just like the Senator. (By the time Malarkey returned to the strip a year later, he had even picked up McCarthy's famous catchphrase, "Let me finish... let me finish.") The story was about the attempt to rid the Okeefenokee Swamp of subversive elements. The message is clear, and it's brilliantly written and drawn. It was the first direct parody of McCarthy to appear in a comic strip, though Kelly had satirized the general phenomenon of McCarthyism a couple of years earlier.

But there are a couple of lesser-known things about this story that I wanted to point out. First, Malarkey doesn't appear much in the story; the villain for much of its length is Mole McAroney (later renamed Molester Mole), a shifty, mouthless character who joins forces with the local pious hypocrite, Deacon Mushrat (whose speech balloons are in elaborate Gothic lettering, to denote his pretentiousness) to rid the Swamp of treacherous "birds," and to get subversive content out of the local entertainment. Malarkey shows up several weeks into the story, but he's not seen doing the things we now associate with McCarthy -- the I-hold-here-in-my-hand speeches, the interrogations. Rather, his main concern is with grabbing power; he takes over the Deacon's anti-bird organization, the "Boy Birdwatchers," renames it the "Bonfire Boys," and he and Mole kick the Deacon out. A lot of people now talk of McCarthy as though he single-handedly invented the whole phenomenon that now bears the name "McCarthyism"; as this story correctly notes, he was more of an opportunistic bandwagon-hopper, riding a phenomenon already started by others (some of whom, like the Deacon and the Mole, were crushed by the very people they brought in to do the dirty work for them).

The other, more important thing, is thiis: the Mole is engaged in what we would nowadays call a witch-hunt, though in this case he's hunting first for subversive germs -- spraying everyone with pesticide to protect them from unseen germs -- and then for "migratory birds," reclassifying everyone in the swamp as a migratory bird. But he is assited in this hunt by two characters, the Cowbirds, who are Kelly's representation of Communists. The Cowbirds are treacherous, devious, paranoid, change their opinions according to orders from the Party, and love to "name names." In a later strip, with a pig who looks like Kruschev, the Cowbirds are his right-hand men. (Cowbirds are parasites, which is why Kelly drew his Communist characters as those particular birds.) When they offer their assistance to the Mole, they name Pogo as a possible subversive, pointing out why he can't be trusted: "He once befriended us, and everybody know what scurvy scum WE used to be."

The point here is that the anti-Communist witch hunters, represented by the Mole, are actually serving the interests of the Communists. This was a common theme in the '50s among traditional anti-Communist liberals: that by using Communism as an excuse to go after anyone whose politics they didn't like, the McCarthyites were discrediting the threat of Communism and playing right into the Kremlin's hands (tm). Actual hard-line Communists, of the sort represented by the Cowbirds, often welcomed the chance to exploit the political climate to ruin people whose politics they didn't like and to generally stir up trouble. Kelly's theme, in the strip, is not that Communism doesn't represent a threat, but that what's going on is distracting from that actual threat.

Another work of the Cold War era that uses this theme is, of course, the book and movie The Manchurian Candidate. In reviewing the sacrilegious remake, one reviewer wrote that the original was about a "right-wing conspiracy," which is precisely what it wasn't about; Richard Condon's big joke was that the McCarthy-style politician was actually a puppet of a Communist conspiracy. As in Pogo, extreme right is really indistinguishable from the extreme left.

Unfortunately the only Cold War-era attack on McCarthyism that most people are familiar with is Arthur Miller's dreary The Crucible, whose theme, so far as I can make it out, is that there were never any real witches and therefore there were never any real Communists either. Maybe the local Wiccan organization will sue Miller for denying their existence. Meanwhile, high schools would do much better to teach Pogo instead.

By the way, speaking of The Crucible: you know how people sometimes wonder why college students are more right-wing than they used to be? I blame the practice of teaching The Crucible in high school. Teenagers suffer through that play, along with a mess of commentary about how in the '50s there was a dark and evil conspiracy to hunt Communists, yada yada. Then they get to college, start reading on their own, and discover that Communism was evil, the Rosenbergs were guilty, etc. Then they're so disillusioned with everything their teachers told them that they go overboard and start campaigning for a flat tax and wearing business suits with little U.S. flags on the lapel. So if there are any teachers reading: if you don't want your students growing up to be Republicans, I beg of you, don't teach The Crucible. You'll thank me later.

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