Point-blank: A new McCarthyism

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 19 Apr 2022

“When you observe the hysteria that has swept American political circles and their media, you realise that McCarthyism was not an anomaly in American thought which otherwise believes in freedom and democracy. It is an ingrained trend in American society.”


So said the famous American playwright, Arthur Miller (1915-2005), in an interview I conducted with him in 2002. George Bush Jr had assumed office the previous year and, by the end of that year, the US had invaded Afghanistan and was itching to do the same to Iraq.

Anyone who voiced an opinion opposed to war or contrary to the prevailing mood was viewed with suspicion. The Patriot Act, enacted in October 2001, had granted security agencies unlimited powers to detain people for lengthy periods without trial based on mere suspicion of terrorism, which allegation was directed at many Arabs and Muslims. 

Today, the US is gripped by the same intolerant madness, this time directed at everything Russian. Major sports organisations are cancelling matches with Russian teams and boycotting Russian athletes. Warner Brothers has cancelled the release of The Batman in Russia. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York has vowed to stop engaging Russian artists. Politicians are accusing each other of working for Putin. It is the same climate that pervaded the US in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. 

McCarthyism derived its name from the senator in charge of Senate investigations into leftwing intellectuals suspected of communist sympathies. Arthur Miller, one of the most influential US playwrights of the 20th century, was hauled before the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In his testimony, he refused to divulge names and information about others in exchange for his acquittal (in his interview with me, he told me that others brought before HUAC, such as the Hollywood director Elia Kazan, did name names).  

It seems well worth contemplating the above-cited remark by the famous writer whose works lay bare US consumerist society and exposed its hypocrisies. These are on full display again today in the facility with which US politicians point accusing fingers at other countries while mouthing pieties about democracy, human rights and freedom of expression, and in their intolerance for dissenting views at home and their readiness to restrict rights and freedoms when it suits them, whether in politics, sports, art or literature.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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