The lessons we should have learnt from McCarthyism

August 28, 2023 10:27
Photo: Reuters

In February 1950, then Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (a junior senator from Wisconsin) declared that there were 205 card-carrying Communists employed in the US Department of State. With irreverent nonchalance - as one would expect from a serial liar specialising in fabricating mistruths and half-truths - McCarthy later walked back on this very number, vacillating between a range of numbers.

Not getting the facts right never deterred him from spewing vitriolic, haranguing comments pointing to alleged ‘Communists’ deeply embedded in the American state. The resultant campaign, to purge the country of infiltrating spies carrying purported water for the Soviet Union and the newly established China, became one of the most infamous fiascos in American public history. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December 1954, and died in May 1957.

Sixty-six years later, McCarthy’s legacy lives on - though this is by no means something to celebrate. The China Initiative - introduced during Donald J Trump’s tenure as a campaign to ‘root out’ so-called “economic espionage” - has led to the Department of Justice spearheading a number of deeply spurious cases in which innocent academics, scientists, and researchers have been excoriated for conducting standard, industry-norm research collaborations with China. Some of the cases were premised upon false evidence gathered and offered by the FBI.

The case of Chen Gang, an MIT professor, was particularly striking. Gang was accused of failing to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards from China whilst receiving federal grants from the Department of Energy. As it stood, such allegations were demonstrably false - the open letter by 170 faculty members pointed to how Gang was acting in accordance with established protocol and practices, and that the contract between Gang and the university in question did not, in any meaningful sense, enrich Gang financially. It was MIT, not Gang, who would receive the funds of $25 million over the five years.

Gang’s case was eventually dropped in January 2022, as prosecutors acquiesced to the demand of dropping the charges against him. Yet for hundreds of others who were less fortunate - such as Cleveland Clinic researcher Qing Wing, or even the convicted and imprisoned Zhengdong Cheng - to work with China or to even possess close personal ties with select Chinese researchers, could be fundamentally career-ending, especially for those with an ethnic Chinese background. It is a sad day indeed that the US, once a country known for its openness and capaciousness, has now turned inward; in so doing, it has also turned away, and will proceed to turn away even more, talents from its own soil.

McCarthyism teaches us a number of valuable lessons, that we have clearly failed to heed.

The first, is that it is never a sound idea to politicise and weaponise identities - whether it be as a positive marker of purported loyalty or value (e.g. “all ethnic Chinese must be/should be loyal to this amorphous, nebulously defined motherland” (even despite many of them identifying with the countries to which they migrate, as opposed to their country of origin)) or as a negative source of stigma (cf. the New Red Scare purge against ethnic Chinese scientists in the US).

Arbitrary discrimination is anti-merit. It is also deeply pernicious and devastating in the effects it leaves on individuals. Those academics in the US falsely accused of espionage - held in detention, interrogated with supercilious presumptions, and openly denounced by the very people they had wanted to serve - have found themselves subject to some of the most excruciating humiliation they have ever endured in their lives. And for what? For the sake of a few departmental chiefs scoring personal political victories as domestic politics becomes increasingly geo-politicised.

The second, is that the endless paranoia and scaremongering concerning individuals, rooted in baseless yet compelling speculations over their education, upbringing, and ethnicities, would only to the detriment of their host societies. And this doesn’t just apply to the West - e.g. the US or the UK, in particular.

It also applies to states in Asia, with extremists and political hacks opting to frame any and all dissenting viewpoints as being ‘brainwashed’ or ‘controlled’ by foreign influences. A healthy, organic society ought to have a diverse range of viewpoints and voices that are willing to speak truth to power - as opposed to sycophants and obsequious charlatans who derive financial gains from speaking un-truths, practising newspeak, and toeing the line of the powers that be. There is nothing wrong with reasonable, sound disagreement with so-called political orthodoxy. To brand this as a sign of espionage is not only farcical, but also downright un-conducive towards critical debates over the merits and demerits of policies at large.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly. McCarthyism proves to us all that we human beings most certainly possess the capacity for evil. There was nothing banal about Joseph McCarthy’s evil - his attempts at purging opponents and rooting out so-called communists were pre-mediated, lucidly thought through (though perhaps erratically executed), and driven by fundamental malevolence. McCarthy’s vision of an America, ‘liberated’ from voices whom he despised, is a borderline-security-state that excludes voices that contradict the neoliberal consensus that he represented. He might not have been inherently evil (who is?), but his actions were intentionally evil - perpetrated with the objective of securing his own career advancement.

So let’s not overuse the ‘Banality of Evil’ trope. Not everyone is an Eichmann (whose thoughtlessness also made him culpably evil, and whose heinous crimes were far worse in comparison to McCarthy’s). Not everyone is a Joseph McCarthy, either - but there are many more McCarthy’s out there than we’d like to believe: conniving, conceited, and iniquitous politicians, eager to climb the greasy pole by throwing others under the bus.

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Assistant Professor, HKU