Right-Wing Witch Hunts, Then and Now

Debbie Almontaser and Hallie Flanagan have more in common than their decision to wear headgear. They both were targeted by public witch hunts for their educational and cultural activities. Both were smeared by small-minded xenophobic right-wingers. Both stood up to their accusers. Both belong in the Bill of Rights Hall of Fame. Flanagan was targeted in 1938, Almontaser in 2007—70 years and the witch hunts are still with us. This time the villain is not alleged communist subversion, but alleged Muslim terrorism. New cast, same script. The underlying frame is called “countersubversion,” which has made repeat performances throughout U.S. history.

In 2007 Almontaser was removed as the principal of a new Arab language public school in New York City by spineless NYC Department of Education bureaucrats and was abandoned by a teachers union leader who picked politics over principles. The story was first covered last August by Anthony DiMaggio (ZNet, August 2007). 

As DiMaggio reported, the media frenzy was led by the New York Post and New York Sun. Alicia Colon, a reactionary op-ed columnist in the Sun, played a starring role, with prompting from academic Daniel Pipes, on various websites. 

Colon set the stage in one of her columns: “So whose insane idea was it to have an Arabic public school in Brooklyn open this September? Are they out of their minds? Have they learned nothing from the Netherlands about the danger of pandering to multiculturalism? 

“When I first heard of this proposed school, I thought it was a joke. But then I read Daniel Pipes’s column about this disguised ‘madrassa’ and discovered who the major principals were. Now I can’t dispel this feeling of disbelief and outrage. This proposal is utter madness, considering that five years after September 11, ground zero is still a hole in the ground and we’re bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again. Smart, really smart.” 

Okay, let’s start with the fact that Arabs speak a shared language and Muslims practice a shared religion and the two groups may overlap in some nations, but to lump them all together is ethnic and religious stereotyping. The terrorists of 9/11 were sent by a tiny group of Muslims—not the combined world population of Arabs and Muslims. This is the type of ignorant bigotry Almontaser has been confronting for years as a teacher and school principal.

Almontaser was accused of supporting terrorism when she explained that the word “intifada” in Arabic meant “uprising” or “shaking off” and that, therefore, an “intifada NYC” t-shirt produced by Arab Women Active in Art and Media did not mean a call to violence. That group shares office space with an organization for which Almontaser serves as a board member—so guilt by association is alive and well. Almontaser suggested the t-shirts were more likely an “opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society.” This explanation was manufactured by the New York Post into an uproar in which Almontaser was cast in the role of supporting violence and terrorism in the Middle East, which she has never done and denies vigorously. In fact, Almontaser is a well-known expert on diversity and building bridges across communities and has worked with the Anti-Defamation League in anti-bias workshops.

Here is Almontaser in her own words: “Since September 11, I have been involved in so many projects to safeguard my Arab, Muslim, and South Asian neighbors in Brooklyn. This all evolved from my membership in the Brooklyn Dialogue Project. It is a group of Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and others who meet on a monthly basis to talk about world issues and give each other a sense of hope and support. Immediately after September 11, some members of the dialogue called to check up on how my family and I were doing. Based on the concerns and issues I raised, I was invited by these members to go to their churches and synagogues and to speak on behalf of the Arab-American and Muslim communities in Brooklyn.” 

Compare the tone and content of Almontaser’s words to Colon’s when she describes a sinister motive behind the name of the school where Almontaser was to be founding principal. Colon writes: “What is particularly galling about this disastrous endeavor is the school is going to misleadingly be called the Khalil Gibran International Academy, as if we’re stupid enough to believe that the school will only be teaching Arabic language and not Islamic culture.” 

Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet—which was not about Mohammed—was a Lebanese Christian. Maybe it was named for one of the Arab writers best known in the West? Colon’s column was titled “Madrassa Plan Is Monstrosity.” How did an Arab language school in New York City get to be called a madrassa? Madrassa just means “school” in Arabic, but Colon has to know that the current usage by Islamophobes suggests a terrorist training academy. There are already several other similar schools for other languages. No one is warning that three new French language public schools in New York City might be training pupils how to use guillotines. And what about t-shirts? “Libertie, equalitie, fraternitie,” sounds like subversive terrorism to me. 

Colon cited the online musings of Pipes, who Colon said prompted her concern with his column about the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), that stated: “I strongly oppose the KGIA and predict that its establishment will generate serious problems. I say this because Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage….learning Arabic in and of itself promotes an Islamic outlook.” 

Really? Inevitably? Then someone had better warn the Defense Language Institute where the Department of Defense teaches Arabic to apparently scores of potential terrorists lurking in the U.S. Armed Forces. Pipes goes on to claim that Almontaser said, “Arabs or Muslims…are innocent of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” Not really. 

Well-known investigative reporter Larry Cohler-Esses of Jewish Week tracked down the full quote and reported that Almontaser had actually told some students, “I don’t recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims…. Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and have stolen my religion.” Just what I would want a real educator to say. Leave the door open to more discussion while showing appropriate disapproval. Almontaser deserves an “A,” not expulsion.

Countersubversion Panics 

The anti-radical frame of countersubversion emerges from the colonial period when in the northeast there were moral panics based on Christian apocalyptic fears that Satanic agents in the form of witches were undermining the plan to build a godly Christian society to welcome the return of Jesus Christ. Whenever you hear the phrase “shining city upon a hill,” remember that was to be a heteropatriachial Christian theocracy that executed witches and dissenters. 

In the late 1700s an early countersubversion movement pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts targeting, among others, alleged subversive Irish-Americans. In the mid to late 1800s, some xenophobic activists launched “nativist” anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements, using fears of subversion to mobilize a mass reaction. In the 1900s, fear of communist subversion “was being developed as a weapon to isolate labor organizations and control the untamed urban masses,” writes M. J. Heale. This “legitimated the use of strong-arm tactics and the expansion of police powers.” Throughout the last century the most prevalent form of countersubversion was “red scares,” such as those that promoted the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1921 and their eventual execution, and the McCarthy period, including the execution of the Rosenbergs.

Civil liberties attorney and activist Frank Donner has studied countersubversive movements that have assisted in building public support for government repression. According to Donner: “The American obsession with subversive conspiracies of all kinds is deeply rooted in our history. Especially in times of stress, exaggerated febrile explanations of unwelcome reality come to the surface of American life and attract support. These recurrent countersubversive movements illuminate a striking contrast between our claims to superiority, indeed our mission as a redeemer nation to bring a new world order, and the extraordinary fragility of our confidence in our institutions. This contrast has led some observers to conclude that we are, subconsciously, quite insecure about the value and permanence of our society. More specifically, that American mobility detaches individuals from traditional sources of strength and identity—family, class, private associations—and leaves only economic status as a measure of worth. A resultant isolation and insecurity force a quest for selfhood in the national state, anxiety about imperiled heritage, and an aggression against those who reject or question it.” 

Donner used the term “subversification” to describe the process by which dissidents are made outlaws.

Back to the Future 

To understand the current subversification of Debbie Almontaser, we must return to yesteryear when Hallie Flanagan was subversified during the Roosevelt administration. Leo P. Ribuffo writes that in the 1930s conservatives adapted “venerable countersubversive themes,” called “Roosevelt’s program un-American,” and “routinely compared the whole New Deal to ‘Russianized’ government.” 

In 1935 the Roosevelt administration supported the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which sought to ensure that working people had the right “to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” Right-wing critics howled that this and other Roosevelt policies were greasing the collectivist skids down the slippery slope towards socialism and communism. As one right-wing libertarian later wrote, the U.S. was on the “road to serfdom.” 

The Roosevelt administration also designed government programs that selected African Americans and other people of color for training and jobs. Roosevelt sent another culture shock through many ultraconservatives when his Administration funded a works program for the arts. A National Archives exhibit explains: “For 11 years, between 1933 and 1943, federal tax dollars employed artists, musicians, actors, writers, photographers, and dancers…. Visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and playwrights concentrated many of their creative efforts on the patterns of everyday life, especially the world of work. A recurring theme was the strength and dignity of common men and women, even as they faced difficult circumstances.” 

FTP all-black production of MacBeth in 1936

The program was accused of communist leanings, supporting the rights of workers and labor unions, and promoting New Deal propaganda. To right wingers, the worst cultural subversive scheme was the Federal Theater Project. Especially controversial was an event in Harlem where a young Orson Welles assembled an all-black cast from one of the Federal Theater Project’s negro units to create a 1936 production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Today it is considered a milestone in theater history. 

To xenophobic countersubversives, the Federal Theater Project (FTP) was a sinister plan to undermine the morality of America and thus weaken it for a communist takeover. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (its actual name, but known as HUAC) under Congressperson Dies launched an investigation of the FTP. Enter Hallie Flanagan, stage left.

The Subversification of Hallie Flanagan 

Hallie Flanagan’s work in experimental productions and playwriting at Vassar College attracted international attention and praise and Roosevelt appointed her the national director of the FTP. Flanagan was hauled before the witch-hunting HUAC in 1938. By then, it was already evident that some right-wing fanatics saw the problems posed by labor unions, communism, and integration as a single topic, and were organizing to smash these strange ideas and their purveyors. 

Flanagan was questioned about her research trip across Europe during 1926-1927 (as the first woman awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship) to gather information about different theatrical styles and methods. Her talk of “class” and “workers” in an article on the subject smacked of communism to the Committee, but Flanagan noted that issues of social and economic class had been a subject of plays written before communism existed. Flanagan cited as examples such historic theatrical luminaries as playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Euripides.

When asked at the HUAC hearing what her duties were at the Federal Theater Project, Flanagan replied, “I have been concerned with combating un-American inactivity.” Congressperson Joe Starnes of Alabama, however, wanted to investigate fellow-travelers, including those other playwrights with apparent communist sympathies. Flanagan testified as follows before Congressman Dies’s committee on December 6, 1938: 

MR. STARNES: You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist? 

Flanagan’s HUAC testimony as portrayed in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock

MRS. FLANAGAN: I am very sorry. I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe. MR. STARNES: Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper reference, because that is all that we want to do.  MRS. FLANAGAN: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.  MR. STARNES: Put that in the record because the charge has been made that this article of yours is entirely Communistic and we want to help you.   MRS. FLANAGAN: Thank you. That statement will go in the record.  MR. STARNES: Of course, we had what some people call Communists back in the days of the Greek theater.  MRS. FLANAGAN: Quite true.  MR. STARNES: And I believe Mr. Euripides was guilty of teaching class consciousness also, wasn’t he?  MRS. FLANAGAN: I believe that was alleged against all of the Greek dramatists.   MR. STARNES: So we cannot say when it began. 

Although Starnes’s attempt to intimidate the unflappable Flanagan by threatening to summon Marlowe and Euripides in front of the committee made Starnes a laughingstock in artistic communities around the world, the FTP was killed by countersubversion in 1939. (Hallie Flanagan’s testimony and the events surrounding the opening in 1937 of The Cradle Will Rock, a FTP musical by Marc Blitztein and directed by Orson Welles, were incorporated into the 1999 film about the FTP, Cradle Will Rock, directed by Tim Robbins.) 

Flanagan died in 1969. That same year the John Birch Society launched a campaign against sex education and abortion and the National Taxpayers Union and Accuracy in Media were founded by right-wing ideologues looking for a voter base. Within the decade, the Christian right would be tapped as the new electoral foot soldiers reuniting the reactionary and xenophobic culture war with right-wing economic libertarianism and anti-collectivism. This culture war was a repeat of the 1930s and 1940s attacks on diversity and difference in the artistic (and social) world. Now the same type of xenophobic counter- subversive moral panic is sweeping up Arabs and Muslims.  

The Christian right had been the foot soldiers in the battle against teaching evolution in the 1920s, chronicled in the play Inherit the Wind, later made into a film. After Roosevelt was elected president, Christian right activists joined in the anti-Roosevelt campaign, which was not only built around countersubversive themes of anti-collectivism and anti-communism, but also with subtexts of anti-integrationist white supremacy and anti-Jewish conspiracism. The major operational target, however, was organized labor and the Dies Committee provided the public forum to produce massive media smear campaigns. 

Spreading this countersubversive message through church channels was a group called Christian America. The conservative National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942, also “assailed the ‘revolutionary’ activities of the New Deal and the infiltration of government, the unions, and churches by ‘reds,’” reports Heale. This type of attack lasted well into the 1950s. HUAC hearings into Hollywood Reds were designed to garner headlines, but the main target was organized labor and cultural diversity. “Morality” during these moral panics means white middle-class patriarchal Judeo-Christian morality. 

What we learn by looking at the interrelated currents of this period of the late 1930s and early 1940s is that ultraconservative strategists saw connections and frames linking several overlapping social and political movements. These included the southern-based states’ rights movement; Christian right concerns over a sinful culture; white fears about increasing rights for blacks and other people of color; and a conspiracy theory about Roosevelt and communist subversion that went far beyond legitimate concerns about communism as an ideology. To put it another way, ultraconservatives who wanted to garner public support for attacks on the rights of workers, immigrants, and people of color could exploit fears over communism, race, sin, and states’ rights.

Terrorist as Scapegoat 

How did the identity of the subversive menace switch from communists to terrorists? According to Donner, “American conservatism—today called the New Right, though it is hardly new—is at root a politics of fear and negation. It cannot function without an enemy, a hostile ‘they,’ a scapegoat.” 

Donner explains the first step: “By the late sixties the fear that anti-communism might be played out as a political strategy had set in motion a drive to reinvigorate the myth of subversion with the emotions that are stirred by social and cultural change. The Nixon administration sought to channel the energy of anti-communism into a Kulturkampf against an enemy who combined in one sinister stereotype all of the then prevalent varieties of protest and dissent. The objective was to associate political nonconformity—especially opposition to the Vietnam War—with forms of behavior that touched the most exposed social nerves, and thus to encourage a grass-roots conservative consensus while at the same time strengthening and expanding countersubversive intelligence agencies.” 

In a prescient 1978 article, Donner reasoned that, “The Communist menace, in its familiar guises,” was losing its power to build public countersubversion, and that “terrorism” was a “more promising scapegoat.” While Donner did not predict the specific end of the Cold War, he did foresee that in the future, countersubversive movements and intelligence agency claims would be needed “to replenish the supply of subversives from the ranks of dissidents.” There was “too much at stake for conservative power holders to abandon a countersubversive response to change movements.” As long as the culture of surveillance was institutionalized as a mode of governance, intelligence operations would serve to not only blunt protests against government foreign policy decisions, but also to “discredit the predictable movements of protest against the threat of war, nuclear weaponry, environmental contamination, and economic injustice.” 

Central to rationalizing surveillance and disruption was the fear of revolutionary violence. Donner explained that “appeals relating to collectivism and statism have little power to stir mass response. But the charge of violence, however mythic it has become, is the rock on which the intelligence church is built. It accommodates repression to democratic norms that exclude violent methods.” Thus the terrorist is the new countersubversive scapegoat. 

Donner warned that the “co-star in the script for the revival of domestic countersubversion” was an “influential grouping of foreign policy and military defense hawks” including some Cold War Democrats and “the Committee on the Present Danger” (CPD). CPD members were the core of what became the neoconservative movement’s foreign policy ideologues promoting aggressive militarism, redrafted in the texts of the neocon Project for a New American Century. 

The neoconservatives are part of an anti-Islamic pro-militarism Bush administration coalition including most of the Christian right, Christian zionists, supporters of the Likud line in Israel, nativist anti-immigrant xenophobes, anti-Islamic and anti- Arab bigots, and gung-ho military cheerleaders. “The potential for an alliance even more durable than in the fifties between nativism and this elitist sector has been strengthened by the emergence of a sense of the decline of America’s role as a world power,” wrote Donner more than 25 years ago. His nightmare is our reality. 

Today there are no Congressional investigating committees like those chaired by Dies and McCarthy, but the new witch hunt is propelled through smears carried in right-wing print media, right-wing talk radio, right-wing Fox television “news,” attack websites, and blogs. Anti-immigrant nativism, with its fear of alien ideas, foreign tongues, false gods, and dark complexions can be found from the distressed alleys of urban decay to suburban gated communities to pastoral rural townships to the carpeted enclaves of corporate suites to the ivory towers of academia. When witch hunts feed these countersubversive fears, we need to be standing up and guarding the backs of our neighbors, our friends, our families. 

Somewhere, as you read this, some hapless government employee is trying to craft a memo to the bullies at the Department of Homeland Security explaining that it will not be productive to open up surveillance on one Jimi Hendrix; but that potential terrorist suspect Bob Dylan, who wrote the lyrics, is still alive. The movie line “round up the usual suspects” has a different meaning to countersubversives. The fault, dear brutes, lies not in our stars, but in your hells. 


Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates. The views here are his own. Portions of this article first appeared as “Frank Donner: An Appreciation,”CovertAction Quarterly, Summer 1995; and in Repression and Ideology: How Police Justify Labeling Demonstrators as “Terrorists” by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons. To stay current on the new witch hunt, visit this page  at www.publiceye.org.