McCarthyism is Corbyn’s alibi

The legitimate language of dissent is being abused by politicians of Left and Right alike

Nick Cohen

The corruption of language always precedes the corruption of society. You should know that trouble is upon you when words are turned upside down and pulled inside out. The most violent twisting in our day is found in the propaganda of vicious men and women who want the world to see them as victims rather than aggressors. They would have you believe that spite from their lips is no longer menacing but a legitimate response to the provocation of powerful and sinister forces.

The viciousness cannot be doubted. No one can hold on to the old national myth that Britain is a gentle, moderate country. Read the papers or surf the web and it seems as if it is on the verge of civil war. The Daily Mail calls judges “enemies of the people”, Conservative politicians who oppose Brexit “traitors”, and members of the House of Lords “saboteurs” for defending British membership of the single market.

The Corbyn Left uses identical language to denounce Labour MPs and supporters. Here is Chris Williamson, a Corbynite MP, on his colleagues who broke with their leader when he implied that Russia might not have been behind the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury. They were “baying for blood”, he said, and had to be purged. “We mustn’t allow the tiny minority of irrelevant malcontents that sit on the green benches on the House of Commons to deter party members.”

So similar is the invective, you could write a catchall piece of prose that might appear as easily in the Mail or an Owen Jones column:

An elitist hatred of the people/Labour members (delete where applicable) drives the coup-leaders and malcontents. Don’t listen to them. They have no honest motives, only grubby personal ambition and a desire to please their corrupt friends in the liberal elite/neocon establishment. Here is our ultimatum. They must shut up and respect the referendum result/Jeremy’s mandate. If they persist with their treason, we must crush, expel and deselect them before they sabotage the people’s will.

Like gangsters and spoiled children, Right and Left know the best way to justify their malice is to blame their crimes on everyone but themselves. In a textbook example of the manoeuvre, Jeremy Corbyn cast himself as a victim of “McCarthyite intolerance of dissent” after he was criticised for refusing to accept Russian culpability for the Salisbury attack.

Far from being sinister, Corbyn said he was the moral equivalent of the leftists and former leftists whom Senator Joe McCarthy persecuted because they were once members of the American Communist Party. Understand the true meaning of the word, and you will understand his brazenness. In the 1950s, Hollywood scriptwriters and directors were fired, not because they were producing communist propaganda or were still communists, but because they had once been communists in their youth. McCarthyism, if it means anything in the 21st century, means the punishment of people for opinions that are irrelevant to their work. Now Corbyn and the wider Left say it is “McCarthyite” to hold politicians to account for political opinions, which are the essence of their work. They damn the normal mechanisms of democracy as persecution and demand the sympathy we feel for the persecuted for themselves.

Broadcasters could expose the shabbiness of the enterprise by asking whether it would be “McCarthyite” for the Left to deselect right-wing Labour MPs for their political views, and watch the squirming that would follow. They might also probe its theft of the honourable titles of “dissenter” and “dissident”. Both invoke images of an authoritarian state persecuting the powerless for their opinions. Protestant dissenters did not enjoy civil rights in 18th-century England. More recently, Soviet, Cuban and Venezuelan dissidents were imprisoned by the very regimes Corbyn and Williamson supported, while Russian dissidents were murdered by the very regime they seek to excuse. The willingness to steal their suffering and hijack their bravery while campaigning for their oppressors is as repellent as it is two-faced. But it remains essential to Corbyn’s supporters. Their hold on the Labour Party depends on portraying him as a Christ-like figure forever being crucified at Calvary by the Pharisees of the media and Pontius Pilates of “the establishment”.

Journalists make a living from language. We ought to love it and defend it from those who would debase it. We should ask all who claim to be dissenters and dissidents, who is persecuting them and how they are suffering. If the secret police have not smashed down their doors in the middle of the night, we should expose them

If journalists asked tough questions, I am certain the replies would invoke that most slippery of modern words, the “elite”. Anti-elitism is a powerful force in democratic societies. Putting yourself against the elite puts you on the side of the masses — “the people”. The huckster politician can pretend that he or she is at one with ordinary voters, and share their outrage at how the privileged have rigged the system. The Left has had huge success in turning its opponents in the Labour Party into a Blairite elite. But it is dwarfed by the success of the Right in portraying itself as a populist opposition when it is in fact in power. It’s something to behold. The Right is pushing for a hard Brexit, the consequences of which half of those who voted to leave the European Union do not understand, and never had explained to them. It has the power and controls the state. By any reasonable definition of the word, the Right is the British elite that matters most.

Yet still Right and Left persist in portraying themselves as the underdog and the little guy; as dissenters and dissidents risking all by speaking truth to a “McCarthyite” power that only wants to suppress it. Broadcasters and indeed the rest of us ought to be far more suspicious. They should recognise the rhetorical trick, and understand what it portends. In the struggle against such an evil elite, any tactic, however brutal, can be justified. Old restraints can be cast aside. Indeed, they must be cast aside because the elite recognises no rules and accepts no limits on its behaviour. No one has the right to complain, for Left and Right are the victims here, the dissenters and the dissidents, and everyone knows that victims should never be blamed.

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