Published on August 2, 2020
I was a Senate page boy for a couple of summers in the early Eisenhower years. Joe McCarthy was in full cry. I would ride in the Senate elevator with him sometimes or sit near him in the toy monorail subway car that runs between the Capitol and the Senate Office Building. He had black smudges under his eyes and a hearty Elks Club way with the tourists he encountered in the halls of the Capitol. He wore rumpled dark-blue suits and gravy-catcher ties, and from time to time he would emit a mirthless chuckle (heh heh heh). If you got close, he gave off a whiff of last night’s whiskey.
Years later, that smell—stale, heavy—merged in my mind with the moral odor of McCarthyism, a sour American memory. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, the Carmelite known as “The Little Flower,” was said to have emitted a strong scent of roses at her death—“the odor of sanctity.” Joe McCarthy produced the opposite effect.
So does the cancel culture, which is the 21st century’s equivalent of McCarthy’s marauding. The country’s myriad cancelers emit the odor not of sanctity but of sanctimony, and of something more ominous: the whiff of a society decomposing.
What’s happening on the American left—with surreal rapidity, like the fall of France in 1940—is sinister. Wokeness and the cancel culture represent not idealism but virtue gone clinically insane. Look up the word hysteria: “a psychological disorder whose symptoms include . . . shallow, volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior.”
The indignant woke, who imagine themselves to be righteously awake and laying the foundations for a more just and humane world, ought to pause—to draw back for a moment, and consider the possibility that they are, as it were, fast asleep, caught up in strange, agitated dreams: that they have become a mass joined in a cult of self-righteousness, moral vanity and privilege. One of these days, they will have to be deprogrammed and led back to the real world. Woke institutions will need to be fumigated.
The woke are especially obsessed with two areas—sex and race. In their dream, nature’s basic working arrangement—sex, male and female, the business of procreation that ensures the survival of the species—dissolves in a frolicsome alphabet soup of identities; human meaning works itself out not in the mind, not in thought or art, but in the territory that lies south of the navel, in restless genital experiments. Men become women on their own say-so, and may bear children, if they choose: Death to the one who denies it! Even pronouns have become narcissistically discretionary.
As for race: In the eyes of the woke—and in most media accounts—this summer’s eruptions (protests, demonstrations, riots, precinct-house occupations, and the “summer of love” in Seattle’s “occupied protest”) have been “overwhelmingly peaceful.” It’s not really true, but the woke are addicted to the meme of their own harmlessness, and so they will it into truth. Destruction, in fact, has been extensive—and inexcusable. Those hardest hit have been residents and shopkeepers in black and other minority neighborhoods that are left in the wreckage after those who did the damage—among them many white anarchists and antifa people—have gone back to their parents’ basements.
Michael Tracey, a journalist from Jersey City, N.J., returned from a monthlong tour of cities around the country, inspecting the damage. He reported, in an article on the website UnHerd: “From large metro areas like Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, to small and mid-sized cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana and Green Bay, Wisconsin, the number of boarded up, damaged or destroyed buildings I have personally observed—commercial, civic, and residential—is staggering. Keeping exact count is impossible.”
McCarthyism and the cancel culture—which is the military wing of wokeness—are most alike in their power to conjure fear. It was fear that kept McCarthy up and running for several years, and it is fear—of losing a job, losing an assistant professorship, losing one’s good name, one’s friends, fear of saying the wrong thing and bringing down ruin on one’s head, fear not to sign a party-line faculty petition—that fortifies and sustains the cancelers.
What can be done? The gravest casualty of the 1960s was adult authority, which vanished from the land around the time of 1968’s Tet Offensive. Ronald Reagan provided an apparition of authority for a while, but then Bill Clinton, frisking with an intern, restored the adolescent model. The best remedy for the cancel culture would be resistance by strong adult leaders—university presidents, newspaper publishers, heads of corporations and so on—capable of standing up to Twitter. But the odds are against such a miracle. The woke, like hyenas, hunt in packs, and those in authority are craven.
In time, McCarthyism burned itself out. The senator—censured by his colleagues in 1954—withdrew into alcoholism and died three years later. Wokeness will prove harder to kill than McCarthyism. McCarthy was a B-movie monster. Wokeness is a zombie apocalypse.
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.