Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

299 Topics: McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities; Famous Songs: Dixie; to overrate versus to overestimate; that versus so; the stakes are too high

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 299.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 299. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at eslpod.com. Download this episode’s Learning Guide, an 8- to 10-page guide we provide for all of our current episodes that gives you some additional help in improving your English.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about McCarthyism and something that was known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This was a time back in the early 1950s when there were a lot of people concerned about the influence – possible influence of communism in the American government. We’ll also continue our series on famous songs, talking about a well-known song from the southern part of the United States, Dixie. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

This Café begins with a discussion of McCarthyism. “McCarthyism” (McCarthyism) is now a noun in English; it’s the practice of making “accusations” or saying bad things about other people, especially people who are not loyal to their government and want to have a new government, even though the person making those accusations doesn’t have any real “evidence” – doesn’t have any proof. The word McCarthyism comes from the name of a U.S. Senator from the middle part of the 20th century, a man by the name of Joseph McCarthy. We’ll talk a little bit about Senator McCarthy.

A senator is one of the two representatives that each state in the United States sends to Washington, D.C. Senator McCarthy was serving in the Senate, meaning he was “in office” we could say, during a period of time in the United States known as the Red Scare. “The Red Scare” (scare) was a period during the late 1940s through the late 1950s where there was a great fear – people were scared – of communism and the influence of communism in American policy – in American politics. Of course, both the Soviet Union at the time, and China, beginning in the late 1940s, were communist governments, and there was a great sense that the United States was threatened after World War II by the two great communist powers, especially the Soviet Union.

Many people thought that there were communists who were influencing American policy, that there were some American government officials who were communists. Politicians, of course, saw an opportunity here; they played on the fears of many Americans. When we say they “played on,” we mean they used it for their own advantage. In this case, politicians like McCarthy knew that people were afraid of communism and communists, so they tried to become more popular and get more votes by accusing other people of being communist. The general term we have for politicians who play on people’s fears and emotions instead of their logic and reason is “demagogue” (demagogue). Senator McCarthy was probably the most famous demagogue of the 20th century.

Well, who was Joseph McCarthy? McCarthy was born in the state of Wisconsin, which is located in the northern central part of the United States, next to the great state of Minnesota. McCarthy was born in 1908. He studied engineering and law and served or was part of the Marines during World War II. He became a senator from the state of Wisconsin beginning in 1947. So if you do the math – if you calculate you will see that he was only 39 years old when he became a senator.

A few years after entering the U.S. Senate, McCarthy made a speech in 1950 which became famous throughout the United States. It was called the Wheeling Speech, because it was made in the city of Wheeling, West Virginia. West Virginia is located in the eastern central part of the U.S., just north and west of the state of Virginia. In the speech – in this Wheeling Speech, McCarthy said that he had a list of employees – people who worked for the United States State Department who were also members of the Communist Party. Well, this captured the attention of people across the country, and very soon McCarthy, as a senator, was using one of the Senate committees, or groups, to investigate the possibility of there being communists in the U.S. government. The committee ended up concluding ultimately that most of the accusations that McCarthy made were not true – were false, but McCarthy continued to be popular. When people spoke about McCarthy and criticized him, he sometimes accused them of being communists. So, McCarthyism is a very negative term in American politics, referring to someone who accuses the other side in a particular debate of being un-American or not being loyal to the United States.

Now, around this same time there was another committee, which is sometimes confused with Senator McCarthy, called the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy was a senator, so he was never involved in this committee. The House Un-American Activities Committee did, however, investigate some of the same issues that McCarthy was interested in. It wasn’t just McCarthy who believed that there was communist influence in the American government in the 1940s and 50s.

The House committee held many “hearings” or special meetings where they asked experts to come in and talk about some topic. All of the committees, or most of the committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives hold these hearings (notice we use the verb “to hold” a hearing) basically to have a group of people come together to tell the members of the House or the Senate what they know about a topic or to be asked questions. Most of these hearings are public; that is, anyone can go and watch them. Sometimes they’re on television if they’re about a topic that many people are interested in. There are sometimes private hearings when it is about a sensitive security issue.

As I said, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is sometimes called simply the HUAC Committee, had been holding hearings even before McCarthy’s Wheeling Speech. In fact, in 1947, three years before the McCarthy speech, HUAC held a famous nine-day hearing into the Hollywood industry. That is, into the people and businesses who make movies and television shows. That, of course, is the main, or one of the main industries here in Los Angeles. Hollywood is located here in Los Angeles; it’s a neighborhood. But more generally, when people say Hollywood they’re referring to the businesses, even if they’re not here in Los Angeles. There were more than 300 Hollywood professionals who were accused of being communists; these accusations certainly hurt their careers, or many of their careers. Ten of them, who later became known as the Hollywood Ten, were blacklisted for being communists or for their support of communism. “To blacklist” (blacklist – one word) means to put someone’s name on a list of people who should not be given jobs by anyone in that particular industry. So if you are actor and you are blacklisted for your political associations, you won’t be able to get a job in the movie industry or in the television business. Nowadays on the Internet, blacklist, and the opposite whitelist, are used to talk about particular websites that are considered suspicious or that have participated in spamming, and sometimes those websites are blacklisted. So the term is used more generally, but back then it referred to people who were unable to find jobs in their particular industry – in their business – because of their political associations. So, the atmosphere in the late 40s-early 1950s, as I say even before McCarthy, was certainly one of fear of suspicion of people having communist views and influences. That’s not to say that no one had communist views or influences; some people did actually believe in the communist idea and a few were even members of the Communist Party. However, the fear lead many politicians to begin accusing lots of people, many of whom had no association with communism.

Getting back to Senator McCarthy: Throughout the period of time that McCarthy was making accusations after the famous Wheeling Speech, he often “changed his story,” that is, he would tell different groups of people different things. He would change the number of people, for example, who were on his famous list of communist at the U.S. State Department. I should explain the U.S. State Department is the part of the government responsible for international relations, so obviously it would be a very sensitive area for someone who was not loyal to the United States. McCarthy changed his story several times about the number of people on his list, and this got a lot of other politicians to become suspicious of his accusations. Journalists also began to investigate the claims – the statements that McCarthy made.

In 1954, one of the most famous journalists of the 1950s and 60s, a man by the name of Edward R. Murrow, used his television program called See It Now to expose McCarthy. “To expose” means to tell other people about something that is being done that is wrong, or someone who is doing something wrong. What Murrow did was show a lot of recordings of McCarthy speaking about trying to find these communists. He concluded that McCarthy was really confusing the public. He tried to remind Americans that people who make accusations against others need to show proof – they need to show evidence of that, and McCarthy had not done that. Instead, he was playing on these political fears that people had.

In June of 1954, Senator McCarthy’s popularity decreased, or fell “dramatically,” that is, a lot. There was a hearing in 1954 were McCarthy was questioning a lawyer for the U.S. Army, a man by the name of Joseph Nye Welch. This hearing was a public hearing. In it, McCarthy accused a number of people of being communists, but this lawyer, Welch, came to their defense; that is, he defended them, he said, “No, you’re wrong.” In his comments, he said, “Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” “To gauge” (gauge) means to measure. So Welch was saying that until that moment in the discussion – in the hearing, he had never realized how “cruel,” or mean, and “reckless,” or careless, McCarthy was.

When McCarthy continued to make the accusations during the hearing, Welch finally said, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” This quote is famous in American politics, especially the history of American politics from the 1950s, and you will often see it in discussions of McCarthyism. Welch was saying that McCarthy had no “sense of decency,” that is, he had no ability to tell what was right from what was wrong. By asking those questions, Welch was saying that McCarthy had gone too far or done too much and he could no longer recognize right from wrong. When he said those words, the people in the room – in the hearing room began to clap loudly.

Almost overnight, or right away, McCarthy lost a lot of his popularity in the United States. At the end of 1954, the U.S. Senate punished McCarthy, saying that he had committed many mistakes in his accusations. McCarthy died three years later, in 1957; he was only 48 years old. Some people say that he was an alcoholic, and his alcoholism – drinking too much alcohol – contributed, or was part of the reason for his death. Although there were some Americans who most historians believe were, in fact, communists, including most famously Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs – we’ll talk about those cases in some other Café. Most of the Americans accused of being communists were innocent, were not, in fact, guilty of what McCarthy had accused them of being.

Our next topic is a continuation of our series on famous American songs. Today we’ll talk about a song named Dixie (Dixie). “Dixie” refers to the southern part of the United States, the southeastern part, what we sometimes called the “Deep South.” These were the states that had slavery and tried to separate from the U.S. during the Civil War of the mid-19th century.

The song Dixie was actually written by a “northerner,” someone from one of the Northern states, a man by the name of Daniel Emmett. Now what’s interesting is that the song was originally performed in blackface. “Blackface” (one word) refers to the practice where white singers and dancers – performers – would paint their face black so that they looked African American, and they would talk in an accent common among African Americans at the time. They were, of course, making fun of African Americans, often, in their performances.

The song became so popular during the American Civil War, in both the North and the South, that each side actually wrote different words for it. But it was most popular, and most associated with the Confederate States. Those are the Southern states, as I mentioned, that tried to separate from the U.S. Many people find the song racist, discriminatory against African Americans. Others see it as part of Southern culture and history. We’ll start by singing the first verse of the song, and then we’ll go back and explain what it means.

I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times they are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born, early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

The song is about how the man misses being in the American South; he was there and he is no longer. When the song was sung in blackface it was supposed to represent former slaves, slaves who left the South and who now miss the South even though they were free and living in the North. This was a common theme in blackface, what was called “minstrel” performance, that the slaves had a happy time in the south, that things were really better when they were slaves. Most of the slaves would probably not agree!

The singer begins by saying, “I wish I was in the land of cotton.” Cotton was grown in the American South. That was the main economic – or one of the main economic activities of the American South. So, the land of cotton would be the Confederate states. “Old times they are not forgotten,” which means this singer remembers how his life was and what he did while he was in the South. Then he sings, “Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.” He’s far away; he’s asking you to look over all the way down into Dixie from the northern states. Somewhat of a poetic way of putting it, I guess. Then he says, “In Dixie Land (that is, in the South), where I was born, early on one frosty mornin.” “Frosty” comes from the word “frost” (frost), which refers to a very thin layer of ice that is sometimes seen early on a cold morning when the temperature has gone below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are many other verses of the song. The next part of the song is the chorus, the part that repeats, and I want to sing that for you briefly also. Here we go.

Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie.

The singer says, “I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! hooray!” “Hooray” (hooray) is a cheer; it’s something you say when you are happy when your team wins. It’s an old expression; you won’t necessarily hear it at a Los Angeles Lakers game for example, but most people understand what it means. The second line of the chorus is, “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand.” “To take your stand” means to defend yourself not to change anymore or to defend in a battle where you are, you’re not going to go back any farther. “I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” And then the last two lines are “Away, away, away down South in Dixie,” meaning very far down South, and then it repeats that line.

Before we get to your questions, I want you to listen to a 1916 – almost a hundred year old recording of this song, just part of the recording that I found on the Internet. We’re going to hear just the first verse and chorus sung by two of the most popular singers of the early 20th century, Ada Jones and Billy Murray. After that, we’ll answer a few of your questions.

[recording of song]

I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie.

[end of recording]

Our first question comes from Brian (Brian) in China. Brian wants to know the difference between “overrate” and “overestimate.” To “overrate” or “overestimate” can both mean to believe something is worth more than it really is. “He overrated the value of his car. He overestimated it.” He thought it was worth more money than it really was.

However, “overestimate” is usually used to talk about the worth of something in money or using numbers. “I overestimated the price of my car by 22 percent,” or, “My friend overestimated how much money he would need for gasoline on his trip.” The opposite of “overestimate” is “underestimate,” when you think it’s lower than or less than what it actually is.

“Overrate,” more generally, is used to describe the quality of something that you think is better than it is. It’s not talking exactly about numbers or about money typically. So we might say, “The movie was overrated,” or, “The value of a master’s degree is overrated.” What we’re saying is that people think it is more valuable than it really is.

You can’t use “overestimate” when you’re talking about general quality of things, at least not in the sentences that I just gave. You could not say, “That movie is overestimated,” that doesn’t make any sense. You could say, “The movie is overrated,” that makes sense.

Whereas you can sometimes use “overrate” in the same circumstances that you use “overestimate” as I gave earlier (he overrated the value of his car; he overestimated the value of his car), they could actually refer to two slightly different things, even when the sentence is otherwise the same. “To overrate” might be talking about the comfort or the kind of woman who would be attracted to a man who owned a car like that. That’s one difference between the two when they’re used in similar circumstances.

Fabienne (Fabienne) in France wants to know the difference between the words “that” and “so” in a sentence such as “It’s that big” and “It’s so big.”

“That” in a sentence refers back to something previous in the conversation or something that both of the people who are talking understand. For example you might say, “You know the house that we saw last week over in Santa Monica? Well, my brother’s house is that big.” It’s the same size. I’m referring first to something that we both understand or both know.

When we use “so” in this sentence, we really mean “very.” “That house is so big.” That means that house is very big. You’re not referring to any other house or it’s not related to some understanding you have of the other houses that you both know about; it just means “very.” You can, however, add more information. For example you might say, “Your house is so big you can have a party with 100 people.” That’s how big it is; it’s so big you could have a big party.

“That” refers back to something that you have already talked about or understand. It might not always be something specific, as in the example I gave of a specific house. Someone may say, “Well, I’m going to go to Harvard University,” and you say, “Well, it isn’t that good of a school.” The “that” refers to perhaps schools that are better even though you don’t have a specific school in mind.

So to review, when you say “it’s that big,” you’re referring to some other specific or unspecified object or quality. When you say “so,” “it’s so big,” you mean it’s very big, or it’s big enough so that…and then you can add information. “He’s so stupid he can’t add two plus two.” Which everyone knows is five!

Ekkapop (Ekkapop), from an unknown country, and a name I’ve never seen before and am probably mispronouncing, has a question about an expression: “the stakes are too high.” “The stakes” (stakes) refers to something that is in danger of being won or lost such as money or property. When you go to Las Vegas to gamble you can have high-stakes or low-stakes gambling. That means you can gamble with a lot of money or with a small amount of money. “High-stakes” means that it is a very valuable or important thing that is at risk that may be lost unless you do something. “Students prepare to take the SAT exam every year; it’s a high-stakes exam,” meaning if you do well you could go to a very good university. If you do poorly, you will go to a less good university. So, when someone says “the stakes are too high,” they mean that things are too important, and usually they’re going to add some more information: “The stakes are too high for us not to get involved,” or, “The stakes are too high for us to simply ignore the problem,” it’s too dangerous; there’s too much at risk.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse, copyright 2011 by the Center for Educational Development.

McCarthyism – the practice of saying that other people are not loyal to their government and want to overthrow it, even though the person making those accusations doesn’t have any real evidence

* Many actors and other performers couldn’t work under McCarthyism.

Red Scare – the period from the late 1940s to the late 1950s when many people were scared of communism, particularly the idea that communists were trying to spy on Americans and influence the United States

* This book is about the Red Scare and the steps the government took to counter the influence of communism in the U.S.

to play on – to use something for one’s own advantage; to gain something by using the weakness of others, especially strong feelings or emotions

* The insurance salesperson played on the family’s fear of fire to sell them an expensive insurance policy.

demagogue – a politician who uses other people’s fears and desires, rather than logical thought, to get support

* This candidate for governor is a demagogue, who likes to give emotional speeches to get people very angry.

hearing – a special meeting where experts speak and a committee tries to learn the truth about something

* There will be a hearing next week about price-fixing among the major oil companies.

to blacklist – to put someone’s name on a list of people who should not be given jobs by anyone in a particular industry

* After one of our band members got drunk and started a fight in a bar, we were blacklisted and couldn’t get any other jobs playing in bars or clubs.

to change (one’s) story – to present something as true after one has already claimed that something else was true

* You said the dog ate your homework. Now you’re changing your story and saying that you left it at home.

to gauge – to measure; to estimate; to determine

* To gauge the popularity of the new product, our company announced a contest to see how many people would be interested in winning one.

sense of decency – the ability to know what is right, moral, ethical, or good

* Put your clothes back on! Don’t you have any sense of decency?

Dixie – the entire southern region of the United States, which generally includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia

* We traveled through Dixie last fall and visited most of the southern U.S. states.

blackface – the offensive practice of white performers painting their skin so that it is dark, like an African American

* Wearing blackface to play this role is insulting!

frost – the very thin layer of ice that is often seen early on a cold morning when the ground is frozen

* Be careful when you go outside to play. There’s frost on the ground.

to overrate – to believe something is worth more than it is, often used to describe the quality of something that is believed to be better than it is

* This movie is overrated! My friends told me that it was the best action movie they’d seen in years, but I thought it was boring.

to overestimate – to believe something is worth more than it is, often used to talk about the worth of something that has a value in money or numbers

* The event organizers overestimated the number of people who would attend and only half of the seats were filled.

that – a word used to refer back to an amount or degree that the speaker and listener both understand

* - You look tired. Maybe you should go to bed at 9:00 p.m.

* - I’m tired but not that tired.

so – very; extremely

* Your dress is so cute! I want one exactly like it.

the stakes are too high – the risks are too great; what is at risk is too important for one to gamble or wager to win

* Jake wants to report the illegal activities at work, but he thinks the stakes are too high, since he may lose his job and not have money to feed his five children.

What Insiders Know
The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is considered one of the greatest “contemporary” (belonging to the present; living in the present period of time) American “playwrights” (person whose job is to write plays). One of his most well-known and well-respected plays is called The Crucible.

Arthur Miller was one of the people called to “testify” (give official statements in court or before a committee) by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities. The Committee “convicted” him (found him guilty of a crime) for refusing to “identify” (give the names of) other people who attended meetings he attended, meetings at which the Committee believed such activities took place.

Arthur Miller’s response was to write The Crucible, a play about the witch trials that took place in a town called Salem, in the state of Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. “Witches” are women who use evil magical power to control or to harm others, and the witch trials were supposed to identify witches so that they could be “executed” (killed). However, the “so-called” (claimed but not proven) witches were often normal people identified because of the unnatural “zeal” (energy and enthusiasm to do or to find something) to find witches. Many “innocent” (person not guilty of a crime) women died during those witch trials.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as an “allegory” for the actions of the Committee on Un-American Activities. An “allegory” is a story or poem that shows the hidden meaning in something else, usually something related to a “moral” (what is considered right or wrong) or a political issue. In 1953, the play won the award for “Best Play” at the Tony Awards, the “annual” (each year) awards given to the best theater productions.