I thought it ended with Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare of the early 1950s, one of the more shameful eras in American history, when free speech was truly silenced and thousands of innocent reputations destroyed.
McCarthy, an ambitious US Senator from Wisconsin, you may remember, who took advantage of Americans’ fear that communists were lurking under every bed, charged that ‘hundreds’ of known communists resided in the State Department. He then began his infamous closed door hearings, where he bullied hundreds of intellectuals and artists, particularly those from the motion picture industry, ‘out’ the hidden communists, forcing them to lie and smear their friends in order to save themselves.
In this atmosphere of fear, where disagreement would mean that you’d be called in next, many people shamefully sat back in silence or complied with McCarthy and his political henchmen, including a young and ambitious Richard Nixon.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but we’re seeing another type of McCarthyism emerge in our time – one where the press has forgotten what it’s supposed to be here for and free speech is being dangerously eroded.
Some of the people engaged in neo-McCarthyism, to my shame, are journalists and tech owners. They have decided what is acceptable PC opinion and what is not, and often based on the fair wind of social media opinion, they mercilessly censure anyone who has opinions that are not acceptable to the journalist or his publication, regardless of the facts.
I’m not talking about terrorists or extremists, who advocate positions that are harmful to particular groups.
I’m talking about the deliberate demonization and punishment of people to have an opinion different from the publication’s, and indeed an opinion different from popular opinion.
Taken down by a Tweet
Take the recent case of the conservative UK philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who’d just been appointed Chair of ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful,’ a commission established by the British government to improve the design and look of houses, villages and towns.
Now, Scruton isn’t exactly my kind of guy. I fiercely disagree with many of his more controversial opinions, among them the view, which he expressed in 2007, that homosexuality is ‘not normal’ or that Islamophobia is a ‘propaganda word.’
However, what I am really shaken about is the tendency now, by virtually all the media, to draw and quarter anyone with an opinion that is not considered politically acceptable, and the Establishment to go along with it.
In Scruton’s case, what ultimately sank him was his unwise agreement to be interviewed by the New Statemen, a left-leaning UK publication, ostensibly to discuss the reissuing of a few of his books.
The interviewer, the New Statesmen political George Eaton, duly tape recorded all his comments, says Scruton.
When talking about the Chinese Communist Party, as the article itself would make clear, Scruton apparently said: ‘They’re creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done. . . Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.’
In other words, he was saying, the authoritarianism of the Chinese state is destroying individualism and individual freedom.
Nevertheless, on Twitter, two days before the article was published, Eaton posted a Twitter thread about how he’d got Scruton to make outrageous remarks, and as an example, simply quoted the last sentence, without the accompanying context, which essentially left the impression that Scruton had made a racist, ‘they-all-look-alike’ type of comment.
Eaton later said he’d edited Scruton’s comments on account of space.
Immediately after the Tweet, journalists called members of the Conservative party to condemn these remarks. The opposition, the Labour Party, began calling for his head.
Within four hours of the Twitter post, with no attempt to verify the facts, Scruton was fired by the British government, the prime minister quoted as saying his comments were ‘deeply offensive and completely unacceptable.’
I guess this situation sticks in my craw because it offends my sense of responsibility in journalism. In my investigative reporter days, I had been fastidious about the standard journalistic practice of gathering at least two independent sources of evidence as the minimum requirement before I would regard something as fact.
It was such a hard-and-fast rule with me that one evening in during the writing of my first book, The Baby Brokers, an exposé of the private adoption market, I had stayed up that entire night, poring over what I had about a fellow who’d set up a string of adoption agencies in different states and countries. His practices seemed highly dubious – and he’d even made a veiled threat during one phone interview – but I was weighed down by the knowledge that one slip-up could unfairly ruin this person’s life, even if, to all appearances, that person was somebody trafficking in human beings.
I don’t have it, I finally decided at 6 a.m. about one accusation I’d been preparing to make. I can’t confirm this as a fact. Although my gut forcefully argued otherwise, I softened the story.
Now, the Scruton case is an extreme example of a right-wing influencer who has been silenced. I’m not defending what he said. I’m defending due process, our very basic right to be innocent until proven guilty. And I’m defending his right to have said it – for one good reason closer to home.
Just consider where this type of censorship is heading. The media and social-media mob have moved over to health and are now attacking any individual or organization who questions whether cholesterol really does cause heart disease (it’s never been proven to do so – see my blog: https://lynnemctaggart.com/the-big-fat-lie/)
In this fevered climate, they are censoring any individual or publication who simply questions vaccination or supplies evidence demonstrating that it may not always be a good thing (for instance, new evidence shows that measles actually kills cancer).
Facebook and Amazon are pulling down ‘anti-vax’ books and posts.
And in America and the rest of the West, the public is forgetting all the lessons of the McCarthy era. They’re standing by and allowing free speech to be eroded so that the media of all varieties, including the Twitter mob, now determines what is ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ opinion.
In the end, McCarthy in all his bluster was taken down by a mild-mannered lawyer named Joseph Welch. As his power began to ebb, McCarthy decided to take on the US Army, claiming that commies were also lurking in the forces. Welch was hired to defend them.
As Welch successfully countered each one of the increasingly outrageous charges, an outraged McCarthy got out of control, finally claiming that Frederick Fisher, one of Welch’s junior associates, had been a long-time member of the ‘legal arm’ of the Communist Party.
This was finally too much for Welch, who cried out: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”
When McCarthy said nothing, Welch then asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
At that moment, the emperor finally was seen not to have any clothes. The courthouse audience of media reporters and citizens burst into a round of applause.
Exposed as the bully-boy he was, McCarthy lost the hearings, the US Senate condemned him, and he died a few years later, an alcoholic.
All it takes for neo-McCarthyism to carry on and free speech to get eroded, is for all of us to stand by in silence and keep on doing nothing, as all those citizens did for so long in the 1950s.
Or, like Welch, a few of us could stand up to the bullies who are telling us what to think and say and remind them that free speech in any society dies as long as its citizens are complicit in the idea that only one kind of thinking is the ‘good’ and acceptable kind.