Opinion

Comparing #MeToo to McCarthyism Distorts History

McCarthyism is top-down persecution, the conservative establishment’s fear of an attempt to rebel against it. #MeToo is exactly the opposite

Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1950.
Herbert White / AP

You must know the frustration when certain groups of people blindly compare themselves to a persecuted minority. It can drive you mad when manipulative comparisons ignore the essence of true political critique: power relations.

And now some (including Bill Maher) are howling: “#MeToo is McCarthysim!” And all reasonable people – or at least all reasonable women – put their hands on their heads in despair amid this insulting  manipulation.

McCarthysim is top-down persecution that relies on the enormous social and political power of its leaders and their control of the political and legal authorities. It attacks a subversive political minority that’s trying to change the outdated social power structures. McCarthysim, my foolish Cossacks, is precisely the powerful conservative establishment’s fear of the attempt to rebel against it.

Likewise, McCarthyism was characterized by strong opposition to feminism and sexual deviation. Prosecuting sexuality under McCarthysim was a tool to defend the institution of the family and the social status of men. This point is particularly relevant given the claims that crop up as if the essence of the contemporary approach to sexuality were similar to the persecution of the LGBT community in McCarthy’s time.

Caitlyn MacGregor, with '#metoo' written on her face and wearing a pink 'pussyhat,' attends the second annual Women's March in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 20, 2018.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

Feminists and LGBT liberation activists were the very movements that spoke about the personal as political. They did so because silencing the personal as something not to be talked about was the establishment’s method for preventing women and queers from addressing their oppression and fighting for their rights – as with violence in the family, rape, abortion and the right to sleep with whomever you choose.

Precisely because of this, the #MeToo movement (I’m a little sick of this phrase, let’s call it what it really is: feminism) doesn’t offer sexual conservatism but rather the opposite, sexual liberation. It’s based on the fairly obvious understanding that sexual freedom and freedom from sexual violence are two sides of the same coin. The moldy opinion piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine summed it up well: “Within a few weeks, the righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power had morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.” (Oh, no!)

In contrast to their claims, the thing all the poor Cossacks have joined in on to protect – via their desperate shouting – isn’t sexual freedom, certainly not sexual freedom for queers, but rather what Sullivan inadvertently let slip: the patriarchy. This institution is anything but identified with sexual liberation. Rather, it’s identified with preserving male control and the institution of the family, just like the McCarthy campaign.

McCarthy was also convinced that he was the one being persecuted. The American unions and the communists were fairly weak in terms of power and influence. But McCarthy, like Sullivan and other journalists striving to protect the established order and its rulers, convinced American society that unions and communists were an enormous danger with unbelievable capabilities that threatened what was holiest in the world: the status of men. Therefore McCarthyism wasn’t a right-wing movement. It unified Republicans and Democrats, just as right-wing and left-wing men today are united against #MeToo.

Perhaps then it’s also not surprising that the one who started McCarthy’s political downfall was of all people a woman, the Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. She was the lone woman in the Senate then and the only Senator who dared stand up to McCarthy in 1950 at the height of his power. Delivering what became known as her Declaration of Conscience, she said of McCarthy: “I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.” McCarthy’s response was: “There’s too many women in the Senate!”

Without the manipulation that completely ignores the balance of power and reality, not only does #MeToo look nothing like McCarthyism, the opposite is true. It’s similar to communists, blacks and queers who fought to change the social order and were denounced by those enjoying this order, who saw them as a dangerous force and did everything in their power to stop them. And they have a lot of power, today as well.

This isn’t to say that the contemporary movement for change doesn’t make mistakes or include stupid people, horrible statements and dangerous acts. No social change or political movement is innocent of these failings, and it’s important to address them. But Sullivan and his ilk don’t offer serious and honest criticism but rather embarrassing and dangerous manipulations designed to preserve the existing order that they are masters of.

Dear Cossacks, take a second look at McCarthyism. Now look at yourselves. Now look back at McCarthy. It’s not for nothing that he looks exactly like you – a white, conservative man. Now back to yourselves; you are Senator McCarthy. He also didn’t know he was such a person. He was sure he was defending his country from a gang of crazy radicals who had come to destroy the institutions of power and the institution of family. Just 70 years later we look at him and tremble.

So you don’t know it right now, but in another 70 years people will read your texts with the same embarrassment with which we read the headlines from the mainstream newspapers during the Red Scare. They may even call you Sullivanists.