It’s being called the ‘new McCarthyism’. This spike in media censorship and relentless demonisation of those considered to be enemies because they hold different points of view. It’s gone global. But first, a bit about McCarthyism. The old one.
At the end of World War II, US President Harry Truman signed an executive order which required all civil service employees to be screened for loyalty. The order required that federal government employees be investigated whether they had had any past links with ‘un-American’ organisations, and which could undermine the loyalty of a government employee towards US interests. Between 1949 and 1955, various committees were formed to root out ‘the enemy within.’
In a 2014 essay, ‘Creating the Idealised Nemesis,’ author and literary critic Alexander Chirila writes that, between 1920 and the beginning of World War II, the US had largely followed an isolationist path by refusing to play any major role in international politics. However, after it decided to join the war in 1941, the isolationist policy was abandoned. By the end of the war in 1945, the US had become a major international power. But so did its erstwhile war ally, the Soviet Union.
The far-right going mainstream can hardly be challenged by the liberal-left spiralling into acts of demonisation and reckless accusations as well
Chirila wrote that the shift from voluntary isolationism to active international interventionism triggered a suspicious mindset within America’s body-politic. This resulted in certain policies and narratives that were constructed by segregating what was ‘patriotic Americanism’ from what wasn’t. So anything that allegedly wasn’t ‘patriotic’ became ‘communist’ and thus ‘dangerous’.
Interestingly, though Truman’s executive order was signed in this environment, it was also lobbied for by those who believed that, during the unprecedented four terms of President F.D. Roosevelt (1933-45), ‘communists’ within the US had already ‘infiltrated’ the American state and government.
Most large businesses had explained Roosevelt’s economic policies as being ‘socialist.’ When Truman became president in 1945, a firebrand senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, claimed that the federal government was crawling with socialists and communists who were working against domestic and international US interests. In 1950, McCarthy brandished a list in which he claimed were names of 205 state employees who were or had been members of communist organisations.
Committees sprang up within government agencies and in various private companies to identify possible communists ‘working to weaken America.’ The hysteria spilled over and even Hollywood script-writers, actors and directors suspected of having communist links and sympathies were reined in. E. Schrecker, in his 1998 book Many Are the Crimes, writes that the FBI doubled the number of its agents to help the government investigate possible ‘communist saboteurs’ in various fields.
Dozens of state workers, artists and others were investigated and demonised. Many lost their jobs and could not find any other means of income. The hysteria was also used by lobbies who were against public health services. According to an essay in the 1994 anthology Psychiatry in Transition, these lobbies claimed that forced vaccination, mental care services and the fluoridation of water were ‘plans of communist world government.’
The hysteria began to subside after McCarthy looked more and more like a demented, egotistical demagogue, and when the government of Dwight Eisenhower (1952-61) realised that the commotion was doing more damage than good to the American image. McCarthy was increasingly discredited by certain journalists and he died in 1957 due to alcoholism. But his name became associated with a tendency that makes unabashed and reckless accusations of treason and unpatriotic acts without offering any convincing evidence. This tendency became known as McCarthyism.
Till the end of the Cold War in 1989, McCarthyism was often seen as a demagogic, right-wing tendency, even though deadlier purges of this nature took place in the Soviet Union, China and in Cambodia against so-called ‘counter-revolutionaries.’ Recently, the social psychologist Lee Jussim and controversial clinical psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson have been turning the idea of McCarthyism on its head by explaining ‘new McCarthyism’ as the liberal-left version of old McCarthyism.
In an essay for Psychology Today, Jussim cites the findings of an elaborate 2014 research, which says that there has been ‘a rising tide of leftist intolerance’ on American campuses. It has resulted in harassment, even violence, directed at speakers from non-left backgrounds. Speakers who present perspectives challenging ‘leftist sacred cows’ such as affirmative action, diversity programmes and feminism have been subject to aggressive, intolerant, ‘proto-authoritarian’ tactics, according to him.
The report concluded that “students and teachers who refuse to hear opposing viewpoints will be less likely to learn critical thinking skills and less able to defend their own beliefs once off-campus.”
Professor Peterson blames post-modernism for the intolerance exhibited by the liberals and new leftists. He describes post-modernists as ‘cultural Marxist conspiracy theorists’ who emerged in the 1970s after Marxism failed to win the class war. He adds that post-modernists readjusted Marxism’s core axiom of class struggle to other frameworks of perceived group power struggles: race, sex, ethnicity, etc. Whereas post-modernism had already disintegrated by the 1990s into meaning nothing more than empty intellectual kitsch, Peterson says it went on to create subjects such as sociology, anthropology, gender and ethnic studies, which he believes use ‘unscientific methods’ to reach conclusions that have more to do with peddling ideologies than intelligence. He says these create ‘cult-like behaviour’ which can explain the manner in which so-called neo-leftists have been reacting to opposing points of view. Peterson’s own views have often been criticised as conspiracy theories.
But in an environment where the far-right is going mainstream in various countries, it can’t be effectively challenged by the kind of liberal-left Peterson is critiquing. Simply because, it seems, more than anything else, causes being championed by the new liberal-left are a way to just appease individual existential crises — that old post-modernist trap. Thus, the reactionary behaviour and thin-skinned responses which are coming from a disposition of misplaced arrogance, self-righteousness, and an assortment of intellectual and emotional insecurities.
The response (to the far-right) would require a more informed (and less reactive) retort which should involve making pragmatic alliances. But such alliances cannot be made when the new liberal-left too spirals into acts of demonisation and reckless accusations. In fact, Peterson believes that it is this which has given birth to dangerous reactions in the shape of the rise of the far-right and the discrediting of once powerful ideas such as democracy and socialism.vvvvv