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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

June 5, 2018: McCarthyism Contexts: Roy Cohn

[On June 9th, 1954 laywer Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for McCarthyism, leading up to a weekend post on that moment and historical turning points!]
On the figure who embodies American hypocrisies—and perhaps something more.

Great American Hypocrites is the title of one of Glenn Greenwald’s books, a work that focused explicitly on hypocrisies at the core of the 21st century Republican Party. While I certainly agree with Greenwald’s premise and his specific examples, and similarly feel that hypocrisy has become a core ingredient of a party’s entire political platform in a way that it has perhaps never before been, I would also emphasize just how strong a role hypocrisy has played in American narratives throughout our existence. That argument could go back, for example, to the official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which depicted a Native American begging prospective arrivals to “Come over and help us”: the seal reveals not only a core hypocrisy in the Puritans’ perspectives, since (as William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation and many others documents demonstrate) the local Native tribes quickly (well before this seal’s creation) and thoroughly became the Puritans’ greatest perceived obstacle to overcome on the path to building their city on a hill; but also another and more subtle hypocrisy in their experiences, since without the early aid of local Native Americans such as Squanto (as Bradford does admit, to his credit) the Plymouth colony (and thus likely the Puritan settlements that followed it) would almost certainly have failed.

I could probably maintain a daily blog on such American hypocrisies and not run out of examples any time soon, but for this week’s series I wanted to focus on a figure whose public and personal lives and identities perhaps most fully embody (in every sense) these national hypocrisies: Roy Cohn (1927-1986). Cohn rose to prominence in political and public life as one of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s nastiest attack dogs, a lawyer who seemingly thrived on ferreting out hidden and secret (and, as ever in the McCarthy era, dubious at best) details of the lives of government employees and other McCarthy targets and helping expose them for a paranoid and fearful nation. As was generally the case in the anti-Communist witch hunts, Cohn was never averse to directly linking homosexuality and other forms of “deviant” behavior to Communist leanings, since, in this perspective, one kind of secret life was likely to echo and reveal others. It was only decades later, when Cohn was publicly diagnosed in the 1980s with the decade’s newest and most threatening disease, AIDS, that the truth of Cohn’s own very secret (he had been famously linked to various famous women over the years) gay identity was similarly revealed. While it is of course both unfair and ultimately impossible to speak with any authority about any other individual’s sexual and intimate experiences and life, it’s perhaps least unfair to do so when that individual has made identifying and attacking the sexual preferences of others part and parcel of his career and legacy—after all, if Cohn believed, as both he and McCarthy stated explicitly on numerous occasions, that being homosexual should disqualify someone from taking part in political life in America, then his own identity as a closeted gay political figure was ideologically as well as personally hypocritical.

The truths of both individual identity and communal existence, however, are really more complicated than that, and while it’s tempting simply to point out Cohn’s hypocrisy, and more saliently to use it to critique the profoundly destructive and illegitimate roots of McCarthyism more broadly, there’s significant value in trying to imagine and analyze this very complex and certainly very representative American’s life and perspective. By far the best such imagined version of Cohn produced to date, at least to my knowledge, would have to be that created by playwright Tony Kushner in his two-part, Pulitzer-winning, innovative and brilliant play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991-1993). Kushner’s play has a lot to recommend it, including some of the most raw and powerful depictions of AIDS yet produced in any genre or medium, but without question one of its strongest elements is the characterization of Cohn, a vulgar, violent, petty, power-hungry aging lawyer and Washington player who also manages to be funny, charismatic, likeable, and ultimately even sympathetic as he struggles with both the disease that he refuses to admit he has and the ghosts of those (especially Ethel Rosenberg) to whose destruction he contributed so centrally. In a play full of interesting characters and show-stopping moments, Cohn is perhaps the linchpin and certainly the anti-hero and villain and star, and I can’t think of a better description of national hypocrisies more generally.
While I earnestly hope we can find our way back to a politics that isn’t quite so dominated by  hypocritical positions and narratives, it’s hard to imagine an America devoid entirely of Roy Cohns. And perhaps, Kushner’s play intimates—despite the destructiveness that comes with such figures—we wouldn’t want to. Next context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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