The mob fervor extended to the state governments and the private sector, too. States enacted “loyalty oaths” requiring people employed by the government, including tenured university faculty members, to disavow “radical beliefs” or lose their jobs. Many refused and were fired. Hollywood notoriously rooted out real and suspected communists, creating the infamous “blacklist” of people who were informally barred from any work with Hollywood studios. The “red scare” even nearly toppled America’s favorite television star, Lucille Ball, who had registered to vote as a communist in the 1930s.
Today’s “cancel culture” is nothing more than McCarthyism in a woke costume. It stems from a noble goal — ending racial discrimination. Like its discredited cousin, however, it has transmogrified into something sinister and inimical to freedom. Battling racism is good and necessary; trying to suppress voices that one disagrees with is not. Woke McCarthyism goes wrong when it seeks to do the one thing that America has always sworn not to do: enforce uniformity of thought. Indeed, this principle, enshrined in the First Amendment, is so central to American national identity that it is one of the five quotes inscribed in the Jefferson Memorial: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Weiss’s resignation letter describes numerous examples of her colleagues judging her guilty of “wrongthink” and trying to pressure superiors to fire or suppress her. She explains that “some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name.” Others, she wrote, called her a racist and a Nazi, or criticized her on Twitter without reprimand. She notes that this behavior, tolerated by the paper through its editors, constitutes “unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge.”
Sullivan’s reason for departure is less clear — though he said it is “self-evident.” He had publicly supported Weiss, writing: “The mob bullied and harassed a young woman for thoughtcrimes. And her editors stood by and watched.”
In other words, both Weiss and Sullivan — like so many others — seem to have left their jobs because they were targeted for refusing to conform to its ideas of right thinking. Do you now or have you ever thought that Donald Trump might make a good president? Congratulations, president of Goya Foods: Your company is boycotted. Are you now or have you ever been willing to publish works from a conservative U.S. senator that infuriated liberal Twitter? Former New York Times editor James Bennet, the bell tolls for thee.
The mob even sacrifices people whose only crime is familial connection on its altar. The stepmother of the Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, Melissa Rolfe, was fired from her job at a mortgage lender because some employees felt uncomfortable working with her.
Such tactics work best when they force people to confess to seek repentance for the crimes they may or may not have committed. McCarthy knew this, and so he always offered lenience to suspected communists who would “name names” and turn in other supposed conspirators. The woke inquisition uses the same tactic, forcing those caught in its maw to renounce prior statements they find objectionable. NFL quarterback Drew Brees surrendered to the roar while noted leftists such as J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky are being pilloried for their defense of free speech.
McCarthy was enabled by a frightened and compliant center-right. They knew he was wrong, but they also knew the anti-communist cause was right and were unsure how to embrace the just cause and excise the zealous overreach. It wasn’t until McCarthy attacked the U.S. Army that one man, attorney Joseph Welch, had the courage to speak up. “Have you no decency, sir?” he said as McCarthy tried to slander a colleague. The bubble burst, and people found the inquisitorial emperor had no clothes. The Senate censured him in 1954, and McCarthy died in 1957, a broken man.
It won’t be as easy to defeat the woke movement. There isn’t one person whose humiliation will break the spell. This movement is deep, decentralized and widespread. But it can be beaten if someone’s courage can awaken the center-left as Welch’s did for the 1950s center-right.
Can Joe Biden be that person? If elected, he might have to as the frenzy shows no signs of abating on its own. But if a man who says he’s running to save the soul of America cannot defend America’s heart and soul, millions will have the right to ask him Welch’s immortal question: Have you no decency, sir?