“I’m gonna go home and sleep with my wife!” my 7-year-old announced as he trotted off to brush his teeth and wash his face for bedtime. It’s currently his favorite line from Clue, one of the few movies that our family re-watches regularly. You probably have your own favorite line the film. (I hope you do.) It’s a silly movie with some of my favorite actors, and “you either get it or you don’t,” as Adam B. Vary has written in his exploration of the film’s cult following.
At this year’s re-watching over Christmas break, a line stuck with me that I’d often laughed at before, but this time for it’s seriousness:
“Communism is just a red herring.”
It’s a line that repeats in the movie, stated by Leslie Anne Warren’s Miss Scarlett and Tim Curry’s Wadsworth, in two of the different endings of the film (which famously has three different endings–just as the board game can end in different ways).
The movie is a sex farce but also a commentary on McCarthyism. And, as such, it’s another movie for our time (though, no, I do not want it to be remade).
Playing with the murder mystery genre, Clue brings guests to a creepy mansion where, given pseudonyms (Col. Mustard, Professor Plum, Mrs. White, etc.), they discover they share a secret: they’re all targets of blackmail at the hands of their host, Mr. Boddy. We quickly learn the secrets he’s holding over them: war profiteering, political bribery, running a brothel, and more. They’re capitalists at heart, selling what they have to the highest bidder. But they have to fear being called communists. As we learn from Wadsworth, his own dear wife was blackmailed because she was friends with socialists.
The characters can invoke combatting communism as their motivation, but as we learn, “Communism was just a red herring.” It’s a comment that invokes the mystery genre, and it’s power is in how the line reminds us of how easily we are deceived into giving our attention to unlikely enemies in order for our attention to be shifted from more blatant dangers.
More than 65 years after the official censure of Joseph McCarthy, we encounter politicians who use the threat of communism as a political cudgel to try to beat their opponents–and shift attention from their own exploitation of capitalism to enrich themselves.
While some critics of Bernie Sanders argue that his long history as a socialist democrat means his nomination to the Democratic ticket will be a gift to Donald Trump, the fact is, Trump will call anyone who supports any kind of public good a communist. And his supporters often agree. Witness the number of people in rural areas who vote against Medicaid expansion, even though doing so results in the closure of their own hospitals.
Democrats will be “socialists” and “communists” as long as they don’t offer a compelling–and accurate–counternarrative. Republicans raid the public coffers, taking money that Americans have collectively decided we want to devote to common causes, including care for the elderly. Every modern Republican has wasted and mismanaged money and redirected funds from the purposes that the people have decided toward the wealthy. (Democrats are not immune from this, either, but it’s a matter of policy for Republicans.)
It’s time for Democrats to speak about this accurately. Communism is just a red herring. Voters are being asked to ignore the real threat of income inequality and the consolidation of power to an ever-smaller group of people with no claim to the world’s wealth except heredity and instead fear public transportation and a healthcare system that takes care of all people.
It’s something we can say “no” to. It might require some fighting, but as Col. Mustard says, “This is war, Peacock! Casualties are inevitable!”