Paul Greenberg

Once upon a different time the communists and their fellow travelers had a simple slogan and strategy: No enemies to the left! It sounds better in French -- pas d'ennemis `a gauche -- not just because so many things do, but because the concept originated with the French, and explains why their intellectual life can be both so rich and so mistaken. Sometimes fatally. Why? Because those who are willing to sacrifice enduring principle or even elemental decency for a transient political alliance may find themselves the first put up against the wall. See Petrograd, 1917. Or maybe, soon enough, Cairo, 2011. The bright dawn of revolution has a way of fading stage by stage to black repression. It is a dangerous calling, being a foil for some small but well-organized conspiracy, whether Communist, Fascist or Islamist.

No enemies to the left! It was the motto of every rebirth of the Popular Front in Europe, and isn't unknown in this country. See the misadventure that was Henry Wallace's presidential campaign in 1948; his Progressive Party had to be strangest assortment of mixed species since Noah's Ark -- its youthful idealists marching side by side with cynical old veterans of The Party.

As for Henry Wallace, who was the very soul of naivete, he deluded no one that year more than himself, for he would prove more pawn than player. But progressive, enlightened, well-indoctrinated American progressives weren't about to recognize any enemies to the left.

A mirror image of the same, fatal illusion can be found on the right. So long as those rousing the rabble are doing it in a supposedly conservative cause, they mustn't be criticized. It's considered a kind of ideological treason to point out their flaws. I know. I've tried -- and I've got the angry e-mails to show for it.

Just try noting Bill O'Reilly's closed mind, or Glenn Beck's tendency to substitute rant for reason, and stand back for the irate reactions. ("I generally admire your columns, but ...") Even those of my valued correspondents on the right who recognize that the El Rushbos and Ann Coulters are demagogues of the more vulgar sort don't much like to be reminded of it.

It's no coincidence that Ms. Coulter should have written a defense of Joe McCarthy, or that it was as wrong-headed as he was. But even if the Limbaughs and Coulters are demagogues, dammit, they're our demagogues. No enemies to the right!

Even the best and ordinarily most honest and thoughtful of conservatives can make the same, dangerous mistake. The late great Robert A. Taft, Mr. Integrity himself, might privately describe Joe McCarthy's wild charges as nonsense but play along with Tail-Gunner Joe anyway. ("If one case doesn't work out, just bring up another.")

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.