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On "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been"

Todd Reese

Fear, Shame, and Self in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been”

Edwin Rolfe’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” investigates the ways that the tenets of McCarthyism coerced a shift in national identity that appropriated both the past and present American self. The speaker, through a display of anxious responses, appears to go beyond providing an anti-communist panel with the required answers. Instead, the guilt-ridden, staccato responses suggest that the speaker signifies the greatest possible triumph of anti-communist ideology; in empathizing with the subaltern, the speaker feels that he has betrayed not only his nation—but also himself. Granted, the speaker’s responses are a result of direct threat of state violence, drawing into question serious doubts whether those responses can be seen as indicative of the character of the speaker. However, the language and tone of the text provide evidence of a sincere shame on behalf of the speaker that he desires an explanation for as much as the state does. The brief and timid lines allow space that seems to beg for affirmation—both from the members of the court and, perhaps, from the speaker himself.

Throughout the piece, the speaker shows complete resignation to his guilt. In fact, when confronted with evidence of said guilt, he offers no defense of himself, pleading, “you don’t need to show me the photograph / I was there I admit I was there.” It appears that this refusal to look at the evidence is as much for the comfort of the speaker as it is to appease the court. It’s as though the instance of his ‘crime’ captured in film is more than he is prepared to handle. While he doesn’t feel the need to defend his actions, there is an attempt to explain them. The only possible reason he can imagine is “everything [he] did was done through weakness if you will.” This statement offers evidence of the grip of McCarthyism, implying that actions born out of anything other than self-interest now constitute weakness. Further, this instance of “weakness” would be, more often than not, criminalized. Indeed, the speaker makes it perfectly clear that until he was “approached…with that innocent petition” he “gave nothing to / any man / except myself my wife my children.” He seeks desperately to convey to the court that his actions are as unacceptable to him as they are to the state.

Further explaining his empathetic tendencies, he seems to be at the source of his “weakness” when he closes his statement saying, “perhaps because I still retain / a fleeting childhood picture of my great grandfather’s face / he too was a refugee.” As the title suggests, the expectation from the perspective of the state allows no leanings at present or at any time in the past that would constitute an action born of anything but self-interest. For the speaker, this task proves impossible. Try as he might, (and through the anxious and shameful responses to the court—it would appear he has tried to the best of his ability) the speaker is not capable of fully repressing the memory of his refugee great grandfather. This proves problematic for the speaker, because the state propagates an ideology that demands the citizen to not merely change who they presently are but also change who they always were.

Through the lines such as: “please believe me,” “I admit it,” “but please,” and “if you will,” the speaker seems to try to convince himself that he is “like you like every other man” just as much as he tries to prove this to the court. While the courtroom scene provides anxious responses from a speaker in fear of imprisonment, it also gives evidence of a speaker that is already, albeit not successfully so, policing himself. McCarthyism, as explicated in this text, was an ideology that had the capacity to create immense anxiety in the mind of the citizen. By stipulating that citizens must revise their own life narrative in a way that disavows anything but self-interest, the state creates a circumstance in which the individual that fears coercion must police himself or herself. Establishing binary opposition between the American self and the communist, the state crafts the model of the American citizen, and the citizenry (either afraid of communism or afraid of their own government or afraid of both) amend the outlying tendencies until they perfectly fit that model.

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