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January 31, 2010
Yesterday someone on Copyediting-L brought up the term "fellow traveler." She was surprised to see it used in a clothing catalogue to mean "traveling companions," without apparent awareness of its other meaning. In the ensuing discussion it turned out that quite a few CELmates (as subscribers to Copyediting-L, aka CE-L, often call ourselves) weren't aware that "fellow traveler" also means one who sympathizes with the Communist Party, and that in the U.S. it was used by Senator Joe McCarthy and others to smear people they didn't like and destroy their reputations and/or careers. Some of these people were USians, and though they were all younger than I, they weren't that much younger.
Besides, I was three years old when Joseph Welch stood up to Senator Joe in the Army-McCarthy hearings. That is to say, I didn't see them live -- my family got its first TV in 1956, so my parents could watch the party conventions in that presidential election year -- or read about them in the newspaper. When I saw hearing footage for the first time, I was at least in high school and probably in college. Arthur Miller didn't live through the Salem witch craze either, but he still based his play The Crucible on it. The Crucible was produced on Broadway in 1953, when anti-Communist hysteria was at its height in the U.S. It was no secret that Miller was using the hysteria of 1692 to explore the hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I probably saw The Crucible for the first time before I saw footage from the Army-McCarthy hearings. By the time I did, I knew about Joe McCarthy, I knew what "fellow traveler" and "Commie sympathizer" meant, and I knew about the Salem witch trials.
I did not know about these things because I'd lived through them. I did not know about them because anyone in my family circle had been personally affected by them -- my father's contempt for McCarthy and his ilk was obvious, but he was no "red diaper baby," and neither was I.
Short version is that you don't have to have been around during the McCarthy era to know its basic vocabulary. You do have to have some curiosity about it, though, and that probably means that you sense some connection between you and it. By the time I was immersed in the antiwar movement, I identified with McCarthy's victims and knew absolutely that I was the potential target of any future witch-hunter. In my lifetime my society has tossed up other words for people of suspect loyalty, words devised to keep people in line. White sympathizers with the civil rights movement were called "nigger lovers." Feminists, and any women who dare to think for themselves, are called "dykes." And in these days of anti-terrorist hysteria, people of suspect loyalty are called "Muslims," which is to say that all Muslims are considered of suspect loyalty.