Posted tagged ‘witch hunts’

Searching for witches

November 14, 2009

Today, November 14, is the 101st anniversary of the birth of Joseph McCarthy. A lawyer from a farming background, McCarthy was elected a US Senator in 1947, an office he held until his death ten years later. After an initial period in the Senate during which he was largely unnoticed, he shot into fame (and then notoriety) in 1950 by launching accusations of communist sympathies and treachery against various state officials and, later, army officers. He then presided over the Senate Committee on Government Operations, in which role he again made accusations of subversion and espionage against a number of people – generally without presenting any evidence to substantiate his claims. Eventually his methods brought about growing popular disapproval, and in December 1954 he was censured by the Senate. After that he slipped into obscurity and alcoholism, until his death in 1957.

McCarthy’s activities gave rise to the term ‘McCarthyism’, still much used, though often I suspect by people who have only a vague or even no idea where it comes from.*  His accusations and investigations stimulated Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, which is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials. Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate, is a fictionalised account of McCarthy.

But what Joe McCarthy should still be teaching us is that witch trials corrupt any society in which they take place, even where the concerns on which they are based have some validity. A mature democratic society must learn to deal with its problems without resorting to McCarthyism, and we should all become alert to the danger when we are found dismissing or criticising whole groups of people within the community – not even excluding bankers and politicians. This is a lesson which every generation has to absorb and live out. McCarthy has at least taught us that much.


* This includes my spellchecker, which recognises ‘McCarthyism’, but not ‘McCarthy‘.