Senator Joseph McCarthy is frequently portrayed and invoked as a cartoon villain of sorts: his fanaticism in rooting out perceived Communists from 1950 to 1954 was a fabled pursuit denounced as quixotic and ultimately detrimental. Allegories to past inquisitions have been made in popular works such as the 1692-1693 Salem witch trials (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), the 1925 Scopes trial (Inherit the Wind), and others. The Salem witch trials in particular were an example of people losing their lives due to accusations of being something they were not. Using the tools of the modern age, today’s politicians and media figures have reinvented the tactics bequeathed to them by a 1950s senator from Wisconsin.
The definition of McCarthyism in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is: “a mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges”.
McCarthy would frequently make claims without evidence that were entirely based upon hearsay and hysteria. Everyone from U.S. military personnel (General Zwicker, who was told that he was “unfit to wear the uniform” by the senator) to CBS journalists like Edward R. Murrow were accused of harboring Communist sympathies. While it would later be proven after the end of the Cold War that some individuals such as Julius Rosenberg were, in fact, committing espionage for the Soviet Union, McCarthy regularly flung invectives and accusations without any evidence. When Edward R. Murrow confronted McCarthy with the senator’s own contradictory statements, McCarthy lashed out by accusing Morrow of being a Soviet agent. McCarthyism would soon end up fizzling out, due to fallout from the Army-McCarthy hearings, his interview with Edward R. Murrow, and President Eisenhower’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers to limit McCarthy’s influence.
Merriam Webster’s definition of McCarthyism lists a second definition: “broadly: defamation of character or reputation through such tactics.” Over the past decade, it has become fashionable to accuse individuals — both public figures and private citizens — of being white supremacists. These claims are frequently made without any evidence and sometimes with much proof to the contrary. Nick Sandmann’s smearing by CNN stands out as an example of this phenomenon. The same treatment materialized for Kyle Rittenhouse. You don’t even have to be white to be labeled a white supremacist — Larry Elder was accused of being the “Black face of white supremacy.” Even more incredulously, Virginia Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears was described by MSNBC guest Michael Eric Dyson as follows: “There is a black mouth moving but a white idea running on the runway of the tongue of a figure who justifies and legitimates the white supremacist practices.”
Many of these accusations make very little sense. Ben Shapiro, a devout practitioner of the Jewish faith, was recently assailed as not only a white supremacist but also a Nazi and a fascist. It is worth noting that anti-Semitism is a core belief of Nazism and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. While Shapiro has been an ardent defender of free speech and individual rights, fascism, like communism, is a philosophy that does not believe in individual rights. A common thread unifying fascism, communism, and the ideology pushed by American wokesters is collectivism and utter hatred of individuals who do not conform. The old Japanese saying, deru kugi wa utareru, translated as “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” appears to be collectivists’ and cancel culture enthusiasts’ Golden Rule.
It’s hard to put your life back together after being crushed by a media steamroller. Richard Jewell, the hero who was falsely accused of the 1996 Atlanta bombing, was ultimately exonerated, but not without stress that most likely contributed to his death at age 44.
The media’s failure to take responsibility for inflaming racial tensions has almost always led to retaliatory actions. Just as McCarthy accused government institutions of harboring Communists, resulting in the loss of innocent peoples’ livelihoods, modern media personalities and social media users have been baselessly accusing others of various “-isms.” The 2016 Dallas police shootings, for instance, were committed by Micah Xavier Johnson with the goal of killing police officers in response to the highly publicized police shootings of African-Americans at the time. The Dallas police chief stated that the suspect “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” Five years later, the advent of DiAngelo-Kendism and divisive approaches to discussing race have only expanded. The November 2021 Waukesha, Wisconsin vehicle ramming attack, occurring one day after the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, appears to have been committed by a suspect who was both anti-Semitic and “called for violence against white people,” according to the New York Post headline.
Today’s journalists are fond of patting themselves on the back with glib tweets and snappy catchphrases like “speaking truth to power.” Except that in many cases those with the mainstream media on their side are the ones with the power. The example of Edward R. Murrow’s fact-based critique opposite Joseph McCarthy’s baseless allegations on CBS is most certainly relevant today. While today’s crop of blue-check journalists with snarky social media posts may see themselves as the inheritors of Murrow’s legacy, many are in fact more akin to McCarthy and his unverified, politically motivated allegations. Why was journalism so trusted in the mid-20th century compared with today? The trusted journalists embraced a nonpartisan objectivity, one that is disingenuously scorned by partisan media personalities today, like Jake Tapper and Lester Holt as “bothsidesing”.
The scorched-earth approach towards demonizing one’s opponents has shown time and time again to be destructive. In the past few years, Nick Sandmann, Ben Shapiro, and Kyle Rittenhouse have been media targets in a process that not only evokes McCarthy’s witch hunts but also one of Saul Alinsky’s rules in Rules For Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. … Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.”
One might not expect McCarthyism to have much in common with the approach of Saul Alinsky, who was part of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet both the Wisconsin senator’s and the Chicago organizer’s tactics invoke the destruction of the individual in favor of an alleged “greater good”. If the lessons immortalized by the plays The Crucible and Inherit the Wind are ultimately forgotten, Americans will stand to inherit the whirlwind of mass hysteria and personal destruction wrought by today’s social media landscape.