Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) This installment focuses on the nascent new McCarthyism in the mainstream US political-media establishment, with Batchelor reporting on attempts in Congress and other official agencies to recreate a version of the McCarthy-era House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which conducted a witch hunt that ruined many lives and chilled public discourse for years.
Cohen raises and discusses a number of related issues, including:
§ Do people younger than he and Batchelor actually know what happened during the McCarthy era?
§ He points out that the current neo-McCarthyism might be traced back to the 1990s when a few Americans (Cohen included) were critical of the Clinton administration’s blanket support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s domestic policies that savaged Russian society, and who were labeled “pro-Communist” for their dissenting views. The small group of Americans (again including Cohen) critical of US policy and the growing demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, nearly a decade ago, were quickly labeled “pro-Kremlin” and “Putin apologists,” a slurring that intensified and spread through the media when the Ukrainian crisis erupted in 2014. This kind of Kremlin-baiting defamation of political opponents became a national phenomenon with the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, whom the Clinton campaign assailed, along with its media supporters, as a “Putin Puppet” and “Kremlin Agent.” It did not end with the election, as evidenced by a front-page Washington Post story, on November 25, alleging that scores of US Internet publications were conduits of “Russian propaganda” and “fake news” that gravely threatened American democracy and may even have contributed to Clinton’s defeat. Cohen emphasizes that there is no actual evidence for any of these allegations and that American publications are scarcely without their own “post-truth” practices in reporting on Russia.
§ Cohen also points out that today’s neo-McCarthyism, unlike its predecessor, is coming mainly from self-professed liberals and their leading media outlets, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and MSNBC, which thereby betray a fundamental democratic principle—protecting, even encouraging, free speech in the form of minority opinions. Democratic Senator Harry Reid, for example, following in McCarthy’s footsteps, insisted that the FBI investigate two of Trump’s American supporters for their alleged “Kremlin ties.” Cohen adds that this is very much an elite project and apparently did Clinton no electoral good. He thinks that a strong editorial in an elite, opinion-shaping newspaper such as the Times, Post, or Wall Street Journal might end the new McCarthyism, but they remain silent, even complicit, while largely banning dissenting opinions about the origins and nature of the new Cold War and featuring only those who blame only “Putin’s Russia.”
§ Apart from damaging personal reputations and narrowing the range of opinions permitted in mainstream mass media, neo-McCarthyism is already having a predictably chilling effect. Young scholars and journalists are worrying—some of them in correspondence with Cohen—whether they should be cautious in what they write and say publicly for the sake of their careers. Accordingly, as the dangers of the new Cold War grow, few Americans are willing or able to ask publicly, in mainstream media, if US policy, not just Putin, has contributed to these new perils. President-elect Trump has suggested that he may do so, which may be another reason why neo-McCarthyism has grown, not diminished, since his election.
§ Cohen concludes by arguing that people who otherwise disagree about current events, including those who strongly disagree with his own views on the new Cold War, should unite in protesting neo-McCarthyism so that public space remains for all opinions, those unpopular today and those that may be tomorrow.