History’s Great Lowlifes: From McCarthyism to Twitter

Some day I want to write an essay about history’s great lowlifes. Harvey Matusow would be one. John Doggett would be another. (Doggett was the guy who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Anita Hill was an erotomaniac who made up fantasies that he was interested in her because she couldn’t handle being rejected by him.)

These are men, sometimes women, who crave escape from their anonymity, who want to be noticed, and will do anything, destroy anyone, to get that notice.

What fascinates me about these guys is how parasitic they are on one of the nobler aspects of democracy.

Democratic movements and moments have a way of churning up anonymous men and women from the lower ranks, giving them a much longed-for opportunity to demonstrate their heroism and greatness. That’s the conceit of the musical Hamilton, and it’s not entirely untrue. But even if you don’t want go to Broadway to get your history, you can’t read the history of the labor movement or the civil rights movement or the women’s movement without being awestruck by the individual talent and personal courage that breaches the storied pages of these sometimes impersonal struggles.

History’s lowlifes prey on a similar dynamic but for ends that are far more sordid and insidious. Their preferred venue is not the open contest for democratic rights but the staged assault on justice and dissent. Where the genuine democrat displays her mettle and achieves her greatness in a revolution or social movement, history’s lowlife finds his level in a more populist (or pseudo-populist) and poisonous setting: the inquisition.

Like other, more genuine democratic moments, inquisitions summon men and women from below. Unlike other, more genuine democratic moments, they summon men and women who are willing to play their toxic role in a ritual of degradation. So out of McCarthyism you get Matusow; out of the Anita Hill hearings, you get John Doggett.

On Twitter, you can see some potential candidates for History’s Great Lowlifes.


  1. Phil Perspective June 3, 2016 at 1:52 pm | #

    On Twitter, you can see some potential candidates for History’s Great Lowlifes.

    Some of them even have blue check marks!!

  2. Dan June 3, 2016 at 2:29 pm | #

    A colon after “On Twitter, you can see some potential candidates for History’s Great Lowlifes” would have created the greatest blog post cliffhanger ever.

  3. Roquentin June 3, 2016 at 2:38 pm | #

    When Stalin decided it was time to put Yehzov in the ground, he fainted and cried during the trial where he was sentenced to death in 1940. He was to be executed for a litany of imaginary crimes, and what he’d done to countless others was now going to be done to him. In my imagination, I see him shocked , thinking “But I did nothing wrong! I did everything you asked” as if that had mattered in the least for the hundreds of thousands he’d sent to their deaths.

    I read a good biography of Stalin by a Russian named Radzinsky a few years back. The way he wrote about people going to trial and getting sentenced to death, thinking that if they just stayed loyal that it would never happen was pure dark comedy.

  4. Joanna Bujes June 3, 2016 at 2:38 pm | #

    Doestoevsky was a genius in capturing these characters.

  5. Doctor Jay June 3, 2016 at 3:08 pm | #

    David Greenglass

    • Carter June 4, 2016 at 1:44 am | #

      Actually, given how the Rosebergs (and Julius in particular) maintained their innocence to the bitter end, there’s a pretty good argument that Julius Rosenberg is more deserving of such a title. Greenglass was at least trying to protect his family, what was Julius Rosenberg trying to protect?

  6. John June 4, 2016 at 8:11 pm | #

    Self and other rating is how people develop inferiority and superiority feelings, not just of specific qualities our resources possess, but of the whole person. It is one of the most unhealthy acts you can commit against yourself or others. Painful emotional disturbances result from rating persons rather than behaviour. p. 37
    Overcoming the Rating Game by Paul Hauck

  7. David Green June 6, 2016 at 10:09 am | #

    Thus the ongoing fascination with Roy Cohn.

Leave a Reply