The roots of red-tagging
The current wave of red-tagging in the Philippines, where the government “tags” or describes certain people as being communists, has become more vicious in recent weeks, attacking journalists, actors, NGO workers, religious, educators, and members of Congress and, lately, even those who organize community pantries or food banks for the poor.
Red-tagging’s roots are not Filipino but American, where the term “red scare” is sometimes used. The first red scare came after the Bolshevik victory in 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union. The US saw the new powerful communist state as a threat to American capitalism.
World War II saw an uneasy alliance between the Allied forces (the US and several western European countries) and the Soviet Union against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) but after the war, the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union intensified. The communist victory in China in 1949 and the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 fanned anti-communist paranoia and a new red scare.
A Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in the US Congress, its most vocal advocate being Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who with support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched “witch-hunts” against so-called communists, mainly targeting writers, actors, academics, scientists, and politicians.
Signs of being a communist were often arbitrary including support for public health, vaccination, and mental health care services; even fluoridation of water supply, all signs of too much government intervention, which was equated with socialism and communism. A third red scare emerged during the Trump presidency, anyone with ideas more liberal than Trump being called socialist or communist. Given Trump’s ultra-right views, that meant many more “communists” being tagged.
Back to the 1950s: Loyalty checks became common in US government agencies and at least 3,000 federal workers were fired for suspected communist sympathies. Suspects were subjected to character assassination, the most frequent one being labeled as homosexual or sex perverts. In an era where homosexuals were strongly stigmatized, the accusations led to several suicides among the victims.
McCarthyism’s viciousness (and his attack on Hollywood personalities) made him lose public support. Moreover, toward the end of the 1950s, the US Supreme Court under Justice Earl Warren rendered several decisions that declared it illegal to fire someone supposedly because of membership in the communist party.
By the 1960s, McCarthyism seemed dead but it turns out the FBI continued with its counter-intelligence program. If you have Amazon Prime, look up “Seberg,” a film about American actress Jean Seberg who had made a name as part of French New Wave cinema. In the late 1970s, Seberg began to support civil rights groups, including the radical Black Panther Party. The FBI then began stalking her, tapping her phone and launching character assassination including false allegations that she was pregnant with the child of a Black Panther member.
In 1979, Seberg committed suicide.
Following the passage of a Freedom of Information Act, American civil liberties defenders were able to obtain many documents revealing the extent of the FBI’s so-called counter-intelligence program.
And the Philippines?
We used the American playbook (or in Filipino, “sirang plaka” or broken record) forming our own Committee on Un-Filipino Activities (CUFA) in 1949, going after the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap) and so-called sympathizers, which meant, at that time, anyone who opposed American policies like the maintenance of military bases in the country.
The most prominent victim of the Filipino version of McCarthyism was Sen. Claro M. Recto.
CUFA was renamed CAFA and continued with its activities, in 1961 naming UP professors as communists. UP students headed by Reynato Puno and Heherson Alvarez protested. The rest of the 1960s saw more civil unrest, a new communist party, a New People’s Army, followed by martial law, which saw the CPP and NPA gaining even more followers. The communist insurgency is the longest in Asia, now more than 50 years running.
Red-tagging continues, more vicious now in its use of social media, and putting lives in danger given the impunity among our military and police seeing red as authorization to pull the trigger.
What makes a communist these days in the Philippines?
One is reminded of a Declaration of Conscience issued by seven American Republican senators in 1950 as a reaction against McCarthyism. The Declaration reiterated the right to uphold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, the right of independent thought. A perfect fit for the people being red-tagged these days — and anyone who cares enough to help the poor.
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