The Rise of Post-McCarthyism

Changes in human society are usually caused by social ‘mutations’ that, like in the natural sciences, create new ‘life patterns’, which constitute the development of these mutations. From a society of nomads to a society of permanent settlements and social revolutions: socialists, communists, capitalists, Nazis, nationalists, religious fundamentalists, and various other philosophies. All of these social revolutions are embedded in human society and have changed its form.

One of the famous phenomena that have left their impression on humankind was McCarthyism. U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy gave his name to political persecution based on disloyalty to the administration’s policy, and created a social concept that engulfed an entire nation, the strongest nation in the world. McCarthy’s meteoric rise to power was fraught with suspicion, surveillance, persecution and hostile publications, and cast a heavy shadow on human society. In fact, the methods and systems, which are identified with his name, have become known to all, and have been adopted by various powers and regimes throughout the world.

Similar to Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of Nazi Germany from the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s to the end of World War 2, who left his mark on public opinion to this day and throughout the world, McCarthy’s views pervaded as a movement and worldview, rather than as a passing trend. Like other movements, McCarthyism has reached its “post” phase.

Like other extreme movements such as post-Communism, post-Fascism, Nazism and pan-Islamic Fundamentalism, post-McCarthyism should be defined as one of the dangerous phenomena in human society. To define post-McCarthyism, one must understand how McCarthy’s ideas developed and became a powerful tool that affected first American politics and then the whole world.

The American nation was terrified by the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe. The way to increase terror in American society and to create shock waves that would promote active initiatives was paved by the trial of Alger Hiss, an American government official who was accused of being a Soviet spy. Hiss was eventually convicted in 1950 not of espionage but of perjury for having denied previous contacts with communists. He was publically tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which raised ‘awareness’ of the danger of communist spies in the U.S.

Following this trial, McCarthy delivered a speech to women in Virginia, in which he accused many Americans of communism and communist ties and sympathies, and was amazed by the coverage it received. The resonance of his speeches prompted the Senate to establish a committee, which eventually refuted most of his allegations, but was unable to dispel the cloud that McCarthy had cast on American society. During the years 1950-1953, McCarthy accused the government of not dealing with this problem, which gained him access to many media outlets. There is no doubt that McCarthyism caused the great defeat of numerous Democratic candidates, and many attribute the Republican victory in 1952 and Eisenhower’s presidency to McCarthy’s popularity. Historically, it is hard to find a one-man system that caused such a widespread governmental shock in American politics. McCarthyism has become a political tool of attack, learned and used by many in the U.S. and throughout the world.

In 1995, the Venona Documents, translations of encoded Soviet messages that provided U.S. leadership with insight into Soviet intentions and treasonous activities of government employees, were released to the public. Experts believe that McCarthy did not have access to the Venona project, but that the FBI had provided him with some information.

In 2009, the Texas Board of Education suggested changing textbooks to say that the Venona documents confirmed McCarthy’s suspicions, which once again provoked the controversy between historians concerning the veracity of McCarthy’s allegations. However, today a form of consensus has been achieved that most of the people he had persecuted did not really constitute a national threat.

This could supposedly have marked the end of the McCarthy saga. But, in fact, the end of the cold war and the increasing worldwide struggle over public opinion, the enormous growth of public information, the lack of privacy and incessant intrusion into individuals’ private lives – have revived post-McCarthyism. It is used primarily as a tool of political elimination, by means of spreading suspicions and providing the public with access to these suspicions.

Political elimination has been part of the political setup throughout history. Leaders in ancient times were eliminated no less than in the modern world. The methods of elimination were adjusted to the times – poison was common during the Greek and Roman periods; violence such as stabbing and assassinations were common at the beginning of the 20th century. Bombs were used after the invention of gunpowder. Legal elimination started during the Nazi regime and its showcase trials, a method adopted by the Communist regime behind the Iron Curtain, and by other regimes that used the legal system to eliminate political rivals by means of arrests, showcase trials, and executions. This has changed with the development of the digital world as social networks and the media have infiltrated our lives. Post-McCarthyism is a star in this era without receiving due credit; namely, no reference is made to the source of evil – McCarthyism.

Today’s world is fraught with incitement, casting suspicion and settling accounts through deliberate leaking of information on global networks. With the decline of the nation-state and the amplified status of social networks, global power is increasing. Social and political changes happen on these networks. The ability to ‘eliminate’ a rival through social networks can be found today even among schoolchildren. This phenomenon does not end at school; it has spread like wildfire to higher education institutions and other communities that are united by various common denominators. These online ‘shares’ are called ‘viral’ for good reason. They are similar to viral infections that spread and cannot be stopped.

Some countries base their struggle for public opinion on online viral means and a real or fake virtual reality that is disseminated uncontrollably on various networks. Modern dictatorships that want to present themselves as democracies use social networks to spread their ‘truth’ and undermine their opponents. Use of public and private means such as internet networks on one hand, and the media on the other hand reveals the incessant struggle over public opinion.

Every potential leader today is exposed to political elimination in various ways, and survivability requires new means to deal with new dangers. Reality has proven that contenders for world leadership, and their need of achievements in the struggle for global influence, require not just financial power, not just nuclear and military power, but media power and the ability to influence the masses. For example, at the time, the fundamentalist regime of Iran identified an immediate danger to Iran not in the U.S. and other Western countries, but in neighboring Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Iran’s leadership concluded that a global power would find it difficult to become a real threat and act physically without being challenged by tangible danger. Therefore, Iran made known that Saddam Hussein had and threatened to use mass destruction weapons on neighboring countries including U.S. allies in the region, and could be a threat to the West with his secret stockpile of mass destruction weapons. The ‘smoking gun’ was never found. But, the West eliminated the immediate danger (to Iran) personified by Saddam Hussein due to false information, disinformation, and fake news.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who believed that the Turkish army’s attempts to maintain the secular Republic’s democracy was an ongoing threat, presented to the world an unreasonable, unplanned and failed rebellion that allowed him to imprison over half of Turkey’s generals. To eliminate his rival, Fethullah Gülen, he blamed him for organizing the alleged coup, although this was not true, and the coup was probably initiated by sources within the Turkish government and supported by the president himself. Erdoğan has been using these accusations as a hatchet to eradicate his political rivals.

All these help countries fighting for their status to use the struggle for public opinion to achieve their goals. Our world is caught up in a relentless, ongoing war, using various law enforcement and legal systems and drumhead court-martials to change political reality. The ballot box is not the optimal place to change the government, and is often not strong enough to preserve the winners of the political struggle that was decided by democratic means. In fact, post-McCarthyism challenges the existing organizations, which were put in place to preserve the public’s rights, and casts doubt on the possibility to provide any system with objective judgement to reach objective conclusions.

Human society and its future leadership are facing the challenge of external pressures, anarchism, and the loss of objectivity and self-judgement, due to the need of most governments to win the sympathy and widespread support of various populations. We are living in a world in which everyone is given the right to tendentiously publicize one’s thoughts and information, instead of a world based on true law and order, and on the concept of “Truth springeth out of the earth…” (Psalms 85:12).

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center