On McCarthyism, Old and New

by Jonah Goldberg

Charlie Cooke, writing about Ted Cruz and the left’s insipid invocations of McCarthyism, says:

All is fair in love, war, and politics, and as illiterate as the comparisons to McCarthy may be, I suppose I would almost be disappointed if someone, somewhere, did not choose to advance them. But for the more serious-minded among us, it is truly peculiar to see the specter of McCarthy dragged into quotidian party politics when it is so desperately needed elsewhere. Certainly, Cruz’s style can rub the wrong way. Certainly, his debate-champion mien is occasionally inappropriately deployed. But the truth is that if Arthur Miller were writing The Crucible today he would likely be less interested in effusive senators from Texas and more interested in the more modern pathologies that the Cruzes of the world tend typically to disdain. Presumably, Miller would look at our universities and our media, at our malleable “speech codes,” our self-indulgent “safe spaces,” our preference for “narrative” over truth, and at our pathetic appeasement of what is little more than good old-fashioned illiberalism, and he would despair. Ted Cruz, frankly, wouldn’t enter into his thinking.

I agree almost entirely with Charlie’s larger point, but I must dissent on one specific claim and one larger assumption.

First, on the specific claim: If Arthur Miller were alive today he would almost certainly be interested in crafting melodramatic partisan hooey aimed at the likes of Ted Cruz. The presumption in Charlie’s “presumably” above is entirely too generous. Miller was not a fearless artist seeking truth and defending freedom. He was cast that way because his partisan passions aligned perfectly with those controlling the commanding heights of the culture (in much the same way, Charlie’s bête noire, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is held up as an unbiased champion of science only by biased champions of a specific agenda). I think Milan Kundera, not Arthur Miller, would be the better choice to tackle the totalitarian homunculi of today’s college campuses.

Second, I’m also deeply ambivalent about the tendency of conservatives to drink too deeply from the well of McCarthy-era mythology. Whenever people on the right make an argument about “the new McCarthyism” or the “real McCarthyites” today, they buy into the liberal narrative about the old McCarthyism. I don’t go nearly as far as the recently departed M. Stanton Evans (Rest in Peace, Happy Warrior) in defending McCarthy. I think there was much to criticize about the man and his tactics. But McCarthy was on the right side of a very big and important argument. The premise of The Crucible is that anti-Communism was analogous to phobias about imaginary witches. The analogy doesn’t hold. There may have been no real witches in Salem, but there most definitely were Stalinists in our government and elsewhere in American life who were loyal to a foreign power and eager to undermine our country. Maybe the threat was exaggerated. But you can’t exaggerate a lie. It was a simple, real, and palpable truth — unlike the premise of The Crucible, a mediocre play that remains popular because it turns an inconvenient truth into a lie and casts the truth-tellers as deranged and paranoid liars.

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