Illiberalism, then and now
This has been a banner summer for free speech in America. Facing a pandemic, soaring heat, and unhinged levels of police and allied white-supremacist repression, millions have taken part in what is likely the largest mass protest movement in U.S. history. Ordinary citizens are forcing the issues of systemic racism and unaccountable police power out of the ghettoized fringes of discourse and into the center of national debate.
Yet, to a small but boisterous corner of the media world, the protests and the social change they promise are a threat. A clique of reactionaries, most in their late thirties, have forged careers in a dying media industry as self-appointed gatekeepers of liberal discourse.
Though this clique’s interests vary, all are known for their eagerness to defend longstanding, discredited orthodoxies (Hip-hop makes Black people stupid and violent, transgender people are mentally ill) as if they are edgy, threatened speech. Many got their start denouncing students slightly younger than they are for, say, blocking right-wing provocateurs from their God-given right to collect speaking fees. As demands for change move into the streets, certain older people in positions of power, who fear their status or salaries might get lost in the tumult, are turning to these ex-campus cops for backup.
That alliance bore fruit this week, with the publication of an open letter in Harper’s Magazine. Organized by the anti-anti-racist memoirist Thomas Chatterton Williams— an “ex-black man” who believes it is incumbent on Black people to “unlearn race”—the letter argued that the Black Lives Matter uprising was giving rise to “its own brand of dogma or coercion.” The writers warn that “blinding moral certainty” is “constrict[ing]” the free exchange of ideas—the key threat being that artists, writers, and journalists faced “dire professional consequences” if “they depart from the consensus.”
(This was not Williams’ first attempt at delegitimizing the protests. He had previously joined conservative pundits in accusing BLM’s defenders of supposed public health hypocrisy for marching while businesses were closed for COVID-19. That line of attack has dissipated in light of evidence that in cities with major protests, virus transmission rates went down.)
The letter would have merited little attention if only the reactionary clique or their favorite “contrarian” defenders of the status quo (Stephen Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, et al) had put their names on it. What got everyone’s attention was the inclusion of public intellectual A-listers including Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, and Salman Rushdie.
The letter’s bland tone (its defenders describe it as “anodyne”), and lack of specific examples may have confused some of the older celebrities used to signing general defenses of “free speech.” But for many, the core argument—that “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” was threatening their social position—was clear.
One of the signers, Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist and physician with one of the fanciest jobs in academia, said as much on Twitter. He told lawyer/blogger Ken White that “calling for job loss in response to something someone said” was his primary fear. (Christakis is best known outside his field for an episode where he and his wife, Erika Christakis, defended the right of students to wear racist Halloween costumes. She resigned her lectureship just before he received his top-level promotion.)
When White seemed to dismiss the concern, Christakis replied:
Extreme or not, it’s a revealing comparison. Likening anything happening in Black Lives Matter or the broader push for social justice to McCarthyism—the most notorious campaign of state-sanctioned job-canceling in American history—gets what is happening in America right now completely backward.
The Long Version
The period known as the “McCarthy Era” started before the weasel-faced Wisconsinite became a senator. In the early days of the Cold War, as the United States and Soviet Union turned on each other over the issue of controlling the formerly Nazi-occupied portions of Europe, conservatives realized the usefulness of alleging Communist subversion among their liberal opponents. Southern Democrats alleged Communists were behind efforts to end racial segregation. Republicans used the specter of Soviet influence to discredit the New Deal.
Realizing the slander could be a potent weapon in local congressional races, President Truman, a liberal Democrat, announced a broad anti-Communist strategy to outflank the opponents to his right. In foreign policy, he promised to pursue a strategy of anti-Soviet “containment.” At home, he punched left: painting the most progressive wing of his party as “soft on Communism,” and ordering every single current or prospective government employee—roughly four million people—to be immediately investigated for “disloyalty.”
The irony was not lost at the time: a liberal, in order to placate fears of authoritarianism on the right, was imitating the tactics of the most totalitarian Communist regimes. Nor did it work for him, politically. The Republicans (and Southern Democrats) were much better at red-baiting than he was. Congressional candidates such as Richard Nixon dominated races by accusing their opponents of toeing the “Moscow line.”
At the same time, House Democrats launched investigations of their own. It wasn’t Senator McCarthy, but the House Committee on Un-American Activities—chaired by conservative Texas Democrat Martin Dies, Jr.—that launched the 1947 probe into alleged Communist subversion in Hollywood. That ended with several in prison and hundreds of writers, actors, directors, and musicians losing their jobs.
(A year earlier, HUAC, which had existed since before the war, had briefly debated also investigating the Ku Klux Klan. They decided against it. Mississippi Rep. John Rankin remarked: “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.”)
In 1949, the Communists won the Chinese Civil War, and the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb. A year later, Joe McCarthy, a then-unpopular first-term senator from Wisconsin, gave a speech at a Republican women’s club in West Virginia. After “the usual conservative bombast about traitors in the federal government,” as the legal scholar Geoffrey R. Stone has written, he departed from his script and made an insane allegation: He claimed to have “here in my hand” a list of “205” known Communists working inside Truman’s State Department.
It was a bald-faced lie. There was no list, as a Senate investigation quickly confirmed. But instead of admitting he’d been caught, McCarthy doubled down. He accused the colleagues investigating him of being “egg-sucking liberals whose pitiful squealing would hold sacrosanct those Communists and queers who sold China into atheistic slavery.” Voters ate it up. McCarthy became a national celebrity. Conservatives learned a valuable lesson: When caught in a lie, turn up the volume.
McCarthy, aided by his most trusted advisor, Roy Cohn (pictured with him above), began holding televised hearings, which they used to punish rivals and settle political scores. Merely being threatened with allegations of Communist sympathies (or homosexuality, which McCarthy considered one and the same) was enough to make a witness a pariah—costing him or her his job, friends, even their life.
Both the HUAC Democrats and McCarthy intimidated the country into submission. The toll was astounding, as Stone writes:
More than 11,000 people were fired from federal, state, local, or private employment for alleged disloyalty. More than a hundred were prosecuted under the Smith Act because of their involvement in the Communist Party. One hundred thirty-five were prosecuted for contempt of Congress because they refused to cooperate with HUAC. Fear of ideological contamination swept the nation.
Yet for all this, McCarthy never “produced the conviction of a single spy or uncovered a single Communist working in a classified defense position.”
McCarthy’s end came when he went too far, and tried to humiliate the U.S. Army. After saying that a decorated battlefield hero had the “brains of a five-year-old,” he accused an Army-hired lawyer of harboring Communists on his staff. His popularity plummeted. The Senate censured McCarthy in 1954. He died two years later of alcoholism.
The “intolerant climate” alleged in the open letter is the opposite of McCarthyism. The witch hunts of the Red Scare were made possible by McCarthy and HUAC’s government power—the ability to intimidate, arrest, and persecute political opponents, rivals, and ordinary citizens. In short, they created a police state.
The people the letter seems to be aimed at—protesters, activists, and those who sympathize with them—have far more in common with the people the McCarthyites attacked: opponents of segregation, LGBT folk, and anti-fascists. (A common reason for being fired during the scare was having supported efforts to help refugees from fascism during the 1936 Spanish Civil War.)
Rather than being a sign of rising censorship, the tea-cup tempests in which many of the letter’s signers have found themselves are a product of entire classes of people emerging from decades, if not centuries, of censorship, and thus finally having a chance to push back on orthodoxies and take a leading role in public debate.
I say seems to be aimed at because the letter is purposefully vague about what it is even talking about. Instead of specific evidence of rising censoriousness, it offers only vague allusions to possible recent events, leaving it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the surely scandalous details. In this, the letter writers more closely resemble McCarthy and Cohn.
The closest analogue to McCarthy living today, of course, is Roy Cohn’s own protege: Donald Trump. No one has learned more (or less) from his example—to follow lies with more lies, to sow paranoia, slander and defame at will, and use all the powers available to him in the police state for his benefit. Just this week, we have seen officers hounded out of jobs for upholding the law instead of the president’s will, and threats to tax out of existence universities that refuse to conform to his ideology.
The letter-writers called out Trump by name, noting that he is “a real threat to democracy.” Williams justified his decision to nonetheless focus on the strongest voices speaking out against Trump, at great personal risk, by telling the Times that their supposed illiberalism “both fueled and echoed” the president’s.
It’s a nonsensical statement. My pointing that out doesn’t impinge on his right to say it.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, looks at the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the rise and fall of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Update 7/25/20: Added context on Yale professor Nicholas Christakis’ past.