The New McCarthyism
27 June 2012, 13h45 EDT (GMT-4)
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Although Canadians have always prided ourselves on being a courteous and tolerant people, our political culture is becoming disconcertingly hysterical and destructive. In my Insight broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda, I argue that this development is not only unworthy of our national identity, but also a fundamental betrayal of the very ideals of democracy. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.
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There is no worse cancer in a free society than the thuggish impulse to equate dissent as disloyalty. Well before the Roman Republic, free citizens of free nations understood that the greatest patriot is the person with the courage to be the lone voice in the crowd crying out that the Emperor has no clothes. The test of our society’s democratic nature is our instinct to value the right of our fellow human beings to disagree with us.
Because of this, the most perverse aspect of McCarthyism is not that it sought to stifle public debate, but that it did so while wrapping itself in the flag of liberty. During the heydays of the Cold War, US Senator McCarthy and his political accomplices stigmatised thousands of Americans who dared to express dissent as Communist agents. They blacklisted, persecuted, and publicly humiliated innocent people. They attacked free thought as subversion against the state. At its height, the McCarthyists denounced vaccines, fluoride, and public literacy as tentacles of an elaborate Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the American government.
The history of McCarthyism and of the House Un-American Activities Committee has become a cautionary tale to the unwary: the greatest threat to our democracy is not barbarians at the gate, but politicians amongst us ready to pursue their ambitions by demonising anyone who dares to stand up and speak out.
And yet, it seems that history has taught us nothing, as Canadian politics fall thoughtlessly into the clutches of a new McCarthyism.
When Canadians oppose a Cabinet Minister’s plans to expand police powers, the Minister vilifies them as allies of child molesters.
When interest groups support the government, opposition MPs regularly smear them as bigots. When the courts review the conduct of an election, a party campaign accuses the judiciary of attempting to overthrow democracy.
When political parties discuss forming a coalition government - a pillar of Parliamentary process - political operatives claim those parties are fomenting a coup d’état.
When environmentalists criticise government policies, Senators savage them as being anti-Canadian and question whether they would accept funds from terrorists or - and I am not making this up - Martians. Yes, as in creatures from the planet Mars, though presumably carrying Canadian currency.
Senator McCarthy no doubt knew of Marx’s assertion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Fifty years ago, American Senators insisted that their opponents were all Communists; today, Canadian Parliamentarians would have us believe that their opponents are all child molesters, subversives, and extra-terrestrials.
McCarthy was a greater traitor to his country than any imagined Communist, and Canadian politicians who ape his methods are just as surely betraying ours. Their behaviour is a public obscenity and a disgrace to the democracy we elected them to serve. Americans eventually roused themselves from the nightmare of their McCarthyists and cast them aside. The time is long overdue for Canadians to do the same.