Decency and the sense of shame that comes from violating standards of decency depend upon a tacit consensus on what it means to do right by others. Decency is not justice; since the tacit consensus of the 1950s did not include full civil rights for African Americans, or for that matter virtually anyone who was not a straight white male, very decent folk all over the country lived with perfect complacency in a caste society. Yet it is only when behavior formerly seen as unexceptionable begins to become a source of shame that broader social change becomes possible. That is as true of sexual abuse today as it was of racism half a century ago.
So yes, the social consensus of the 1950s depended on shrouding the most divisive issues in silence. Decency served as the nonpartisan virtue of that culture. Indeed, the supreme attribute of mid-century Hollywood films was the quiet, undemonstrative heroism of the decent man. Think of almost any film starring Henry Fonda. Twelve Angry Men doesn’t focus on Fonda’s politics any more than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reveals Jimmy Stewart’s, but in the fortitude with which they stand up to prejudice, vitriol, ignorance, laziness, and impatience we recognize the mark of the decent man. No less do we recognize the substantive moral qualities of tolerance and fair-mindedness they embody.
McCarthy ultimately fell on the wrong side of the Fonda line. He had gathered strength throughout the early 1950s as he attacked institutions such as the State Department, which many Americans regarded as a nursery for the pampered elite. Swinging his wrecking ball at the Army, a revered institution that had protected the nation from the fascist threat, was a reckless move. (McCarthy had begun drinking heavily by this time.) Yet it was a purely personal attack that provoked Welch’s famous outburst. Challenged to produce his list of alleged subversives, McCarthy tried to change the subject by smearing Welch’s legal colleague, Fred Fisher, a private citizen with no connection to the hearings. That was a shameful act. Many people who shared McCarthy’s view of the communist menace still recoiled at his willingness to trample on the reputation of an ordinary American. Violent partisan difference could obscure, but not quite obliterate, the sense of how men and women should treat each other.
To register the difference between that world and our own, one should first note a striking role reversal. McCarthy was a rogue figure, if an immensely powerful one, sitting in the witness box. The congressional members of the Subcommittee on Investigations constituted the chorus of decency (though some, like Senator Karl Mundt, the chairman, had eagerly joined McCarthy’s red-baiting crusade). In last week’s drama, it was the witness who stood up for the traditional American value of straight shooting, not to mention the moral authority of law enforcement. It was the United States Congress that played the rogue.