The New McCarthyism
October 16, 2001
Charges of anti-Americanism are themselves anti-American
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th October 2001
The charge of “anti-Americanism” is itself profoundly anti-American. If the United States does not stand for freedom of thought and speech, for diversity and dissent, then we have been deceived as to the nature of the national project. Were the founding fathers to congregate today to discuss the principles enshrined in their declaration of independence, they would be denounced as “anti-American” and investigated as potential terrorists. Anti-American means today precisely what un-American meant in the 1950s. It is an instrument of dismissal, a means of excluding your critics from rational discourse.
Under the new McCarthyism, this dismissal extends to anyone who seeks to promulgate a version of events other than that sanctioned by the US government. On September 20, President Bush told us that “this is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” Two weeks later, Colin Powell met the emir of Qatar, to request that progress, pluralism, tolerance and freedom be suppressed. Al-Jazeera is one of the few independent television stations in the Middle East, whose popularity is the result of its uncommon regard for freedom of speech. It is also the only station permitted to operate freely in Kabul: many of the images of the bombing of Afghanistan we’ve seen on TV were recorded by its cameramen. Powell’s request that it be squashed was a pre-emptive strike against freedom, which, he hoped, would prevent the world from seeing what was really happening once the bombing began.
Since then, both George Bush and Tony Blair have sought to prevent Al-Jazeera from airing video statements by Bin Laden, on the grounds of the preposterous schoolboy intrigue that they “might contain coded messages”. Over the weekend the government sought to persuade British broadcasters to restrict their coverage of the war. Blair’s spin doctors warned “You can’t trust them [the Taliban] in any way, shape, or form.” While true, this applies with equal force to the techniques employed by Downing Street. When Alastair Campbell starts briefing journalists about “Spin Laden”, it’s a case of the tarantula spinning against the money spider.
If we are to preserve the progress, pluralism, tolerance and freedom which President Bush claims to be defending, then we must question everything we see and hear. Though we know that governments lie to us in wartime, most people seem to believe that this universal rule applies to every conflict except the current one. Many of those who now accept that babies were not thrown out of incubators in Kuwait, and that the Belgrano was fleeing when she was hit, are also prepared to believe everything we are being told about Afghanistan and the terrorism in the United States.
There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. The magical appearance of the terrorists’ luggage, passports and flight manual looks rather too good to be true. The dossier of “evidence” purporting to establish Bin Laden’s guilt consists largely of supposition and conjecture. The ration packs being dropped on Afghanistan have no conceivable purpose other than to create the false impression that starving people are being fed. Even the anthrax scare looks suspiciously convenient. Just as the hawks in Washington were losing the public argument about extending the war to other countries, journalists start receiving envelopes full of bacteria, which might as well have been labelled “a gift from Iraq”. This could indeed be the work of terrorists, who may have their own reasons for widening the conflict, but there are plenty of other ruthless operators who would benefit from a shift in public opinion.
Democracy is sustained not by public trust but by public scepticism. Unless we are prepared to question, to expose, to challenge and to dissent, we conspire in the demise of the system for which our governments are supposed to be fighting. The true defenders of America are those who are now being told that they are anti-American.