Defending Rights & Dissent mourns the passing of longtime board member Victor Navasky. Victor was a pioneering journalist, editor, and publisher.
“Victor was a powerful voice on our Board of Directors for over 30 years. His deep knowledge and astute analysis of the impact of political repression on individuals, civil society, and the historical trajectory of the U.S. was a guiding force for Defending Rights & Dissent,” said Executive Director, Sue Udry. “I was honored and delighted to have been able to work with Victor for the past 15 years. He taught me so much, was always supportive, and, he introduced me to the best Italian restaurant in Manhattan. As the world remembers him for his work at The Nation, his impact on journalism writ large, and as a historian, we will remember him as an integral part of Defending Rights & Dissent. I will miss him.”
Victor’s journalism was very much connected to his enduring passion for civil liberties. In 1970, Victor published a groundbreaking article for The Atlantic Monthly on the US government’s spying on Martin Luther King. The product of “six years of analysis and detective work,” Victor was aided by access to the original wiretap request from J. Edgar Hoover to Robert F. Kennedy. Although Kennedy and King were both dead, Hoover remained alive and in charge of the FBI at the time.
The Atlantic described him as a “lawyer turned writer,” but Victor would continue to make monumental contributions to both journalism and civil liberties. Victor went on to write a searing indictment of Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice, Kennedy Justice, and the definitive account of the Hollywood Blacklist, Naming Names. He also, in 1978, became editor of The Nation. Victor explained that his decision to leave The New York Times to run The Nation was out of admiration for its defiance of McCarthy and Hoover.
Like all great historians of what we now call “McCarthyism,” Victor recognized the name was at least partially misleading, as Hoover did as much to incite the “anticommunist hysteria” which “began before Senator Joseph McCarthy arrived on the scene and persisted long after he drowned in alcohol.”
Victor understood the incredible toll that “McCarthyism/Hooverism” had on American democracy. The purging of people with the “wrong” views led to shattered lives. But it also deprived us of great artists, journalists, and activists. Forcing these people out of our society deprived the American people of the chance to engage with their ideas. Victor recounted a chance encounter with Jack O’Dell, one of the two alleged Communists the FBI used to justify wiretapping King. O’Dell explained to Victor why he joined the Communist Party, as he viewed them as the only party doing anything to advance civil rights and left when he no longer saw them as the best vehicle for achieving racial equality. Writing in The Nation Victor pondered,
But listening to O’Dell now, it occurred to me for the first time what we as a country and a culture had lost by disqualifying this energetic, articulate, charismatic and wise man from making his case in his own name and voice.
And I began to consider how stigmatizing people with the red brush had deprived the rest of us of interaction with people whose ideas might have not merely deepened and clarified the national and international conversation, but whose advocacy, intelligence, passion and information might have brought us to an improved understanding of the political and cultural situation, and perhaps even have transformed it.
I began to wonder what we had lost by not permitting O’Dell (and other communists and former communists who were not willing to renounce their past) to publicly participate in our politics.
Historical counterfactuals never “prove” anything, but before I mention other ways the consequences of our anticommunist obsession continue to bedevil us, indulge me while I cite but one example of how things might have been different had Jack O’Dell and his ideas been accorded the respect, attention, and presumption of possibility accorded members of the establishment and mainstream politicos.
For Victor, the social costs of McCarthyism were high. The Vietnam War, the Arms Race, and the creation of the CIA could all be traced back to them. But they also had a living legacy in our country’s approach to healthcare, fears of “big government,” and the lack of class analysis in American politics. And, of course, as we are once more embroiled in heightened tensions with Russia, Victor saw the legacy of McCarthyism in the tarring of anyone who might question the prevailing foreign policy consensus as an enemy agent.
Victor was also conscious about making sure the witch-hunts of the McCarthy-era did not reemerge. Victor was amongst those civil libertarians and historians of the McCarthy period who view the Reagan Administration and the New Right as working to revive the McCarthy-era abuses under the guise of “counter terrorism.” In 1981, we helped organize a “No More Witch Hunts” rally in Chicago where Victor told the crowd, “The Unamerican Activities Committee is gone, but in its place we have the new Senate subcommittee on Terrorism and Security – it’s very much still here. We don’t hear as much these days about the American Legion and the pressure groups of the 1950s, but as you’ve heard earlier, there is the Heritage Foundation.”
1981 might have been the first time we worked closely with Victor, but the collaboration continued, and he soon joined our board. And he stuck with us all these years.
Defending Rights & Dissent traces its origins back to the National Committee to Abolish HUAC. As Hoover believed abolishing HUAC would naturally lead to the end of the FBI’s internal security program, the FBI ruthlessly sought to destroy us. At the same time, we were finally understanding the full extent of the FBI’s illegalities towards us, the Reagan administration and otherwise were trying to revive the national security state and limit the Freedom of Information Act. It is here where Victor’s story intertwines with us, as it is during this era that he joined our board of directors.
Throughout Victor’s tenure, Defending Rights & Dissent fought to defend the gains of the mid 1970s and warned throughout the Reagan and Clinton years how fears about terrorism were being used to undermine them. After the tragic and criminal September 11 terror attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, many opponents of civil liberties cynically used the nation’s grief to further get their way. Many of the crimes of the Cold War are repeating during the War on Terror.
As Victor always reminded us, the social cost of McCarthyism and the crimes of anti-Communism, very much continue to shape our political present. New witch hunts and new abuses will threaten our civil liberties. We will miss Victor deeply, but we will take all we’ve learned from him and remain eternally vigilant.