In March 1947, US President Harry Truman enacted an Executive Order which required all federal employees to be screened for loyalty as a way of rooting out those who would seek to “alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means”. The move was a response to the growing strength of Soviet Communism following World War 2 and started with relatively innocent intentions – a point we would do well to remember here in New Zealand.
Within months of the order, it was being used to justify a range of human rights abuses and by the time Senator Joseph McCarthy had come onto the scene three years later, it was being enthusiastically adopted by states, private companies and other organisations. Actors, journalists, high-profile Americans and business people were blacklisted and outed as communists in a purge which continued for almost 10 years during which time hundreds were imprisoned and as many as 12,000 lost their jobs, livelihoods and/or reputations. Many even committed suicide in the face of the public hysteria.
McCarthy didn’t start the movement which bears his name, but he became the personification of it, and the term “McCarthyism” has come to refer to movements which seek to dismiss or even eradicate viewpoints which are at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy.
Sadly, McCarthyism is alive and well in the 21st century and is always just a populist surge away from reigniting the kind of purge which took place in the US in the 1950s. Here in New Zealand the “woke” movement has already morphed into a form a McCarthyism and we see it specifically in initiatives such as the “cancel culture”, which seeks to remove things and people which don’t toe the prevailing ideological line. In many respects, the 21st century form of McCarthyism is even more insidious than its namesake because it has moved beyond simply ostracising an individual for what she or he believes to identifying groups to blame for the supposed ills of society.
In New Zealand, as in many western nations, the blame culture has become a form of modern witch hunt which promotes the idea that society’s problems could all be solved if we would simply deal to those who have supposedly created those problems. Jews, Christians, foreigners, white privileged men, baby boomers – these are just some of the groups which have been identified as “the problem” by various movements, ably supported by a youthful media, which, in the main, has no sense of historical context.
At best, these movements are simplistic and childish; at worst, they are dangerous and lead, inevitably, to puerile moves to control thought. In New Zealand, we’re seeing this in the early moves to control hate speech in an environment where some of the things which are supposedly “hateful” are simply ideas and views which are at odds with the populist line and where the real motivation is to censor opinions which offend that line.
No section of our society is immune from this – not even property – and over the past 20 years, in particular, we’ve seen repeated attempts to fix the housing market by identifying and punishing different groups who are supposedly responsible for the woes of the market. If I asked you to name a group identified by the principles of ethnic purity, race-blaming, the promotion of segregation and ageism you would probably name the Ku Klux Klan – but here in New Zealand those things are the staples of our simplistic and clumsy solutions to the housing crisis as we’ve variously enacted a foreign buyers ban, blamed so-called “white privilege”, targeted the boomers with special rules and legislation, and attempted to introduce a capital gains tax. Make no mistake; such measures are insidious, divisive and destructive.
So am I suggesting that successive New Zealand governments (which have all been guilty of this stuff) are fascists? Of course not. But I’m certainly suggesting that, in an attempt to curry populist support, successive Kiwi administrations have allowed themselves to be captured by movements which are more focused on punishing groups that they don’t like than actually fixing the housing market.
Sadly – and despite failed repeated attempts to solve the housing crisis through this nonsense – we’re already seeing signs of the “new” targets of this mob mentality, with property investors and speculators now seen as the cause of all of the problems besetting the housing market. Note the recent decision to introduce a capital gains tax on property investment (under the cover of the Bright Line Test) and to ignore a century of common tax law by disallowing deductions on interest for those operating a property business. These measures have nothing to do with ‘fixing’ the market – they’re about punishing those who are deemed to be the ‘cause’ of the collective woes of those who feel disenfranchised and are little more than a tarted up exercise in social scapegoating.
Expect to see this rhetoric ramp up even more over the next 12 months as woke commentators, economists and politicians all jump on the bandwagon to condemn property investors and promote their latest simplistic mantra in an ideological feeding frenzy.
None of it will solve anything, of course – but as an exercise in identifying a section of our society to blame for our collective problems, Joseph McCarthy would have been proud.