Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Warning From The Past

Saw a quote online the other day about we (obviously) don't live in the future nor, really, in the present. What we're doing is constantly reliving the past.

Apropos that, from Salon:
'50s America seem somehow justified. If American Communists held a misguided faith in the Stalinist Soviet state, the thinking goes, and if some tiny percentage of them were Soviet agents or spies (and let's stipulate that those things are true) then all 80,000 or so were, prima facie, seditious revolutionaries and threats to democracy -- and the Hollywood 10 really were trying to pervert healthy Americans with Red propaganda concealed as entertainment. Not all versions of the neocon rehabilitation of McCarthyism are quite so baldly ludicrous, but all must make the imaginative leap that a tiny, ineffective and consistently persecuted political movement, which throughout its brief heyday attempted to reassure the public that "Communism is 20th century Americanism," was in fact an immensely powerful and sinister force.

All disputes about history are really arguments about the present, and that goes double in this case. Contemporary right-wingers don't care about the real story of Dalton Trumbo, his nine original co-defendants or the dozens of other blacklistees that followed. (A random assortment: John Garfield, Dashiell Hammett, Judy Holliday, Langston Hughes, Gypsy Rose Lee, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Dorothy Parker, Edward G. Robinson, Artie Shaw, Orson Welles, Josh White.) In fact, as Askin's film makes clear, Trumbo was a witty, irascible, mule-stubborn individualist who grew up on Colorado rangeland and was a poor candidate for Marxist-Leninist groupthink. He was a Communist Party member for, at most, four or five years, and like most other American Reds of the period -- like, say, my mother -- he was more attracted to the excitement, the sense of action and heady adventure, than to the core ideology. (No, I'm not a neutral observer of this issue, if that's even possible.)

What the more intelligent neocons see in the 1950s crackdown on Communism is both an underlying pattern and an instructive example, having to do with power and how to wield it. The real target of the Red Scare was not the handful of prominent lefties like Trumbo who had their livelihoods destroyed and their reputations ruined but rather the rest of society, which proved by and large to be craven, suggestible, and downright eager to hew to a new standard of patriotic conformity. Whether this was accidental or intentional, pursuing a highly unpopular minority provided authoritarian elements in this country with a test case: How far could constitutional rights and liberties be eroded by government-sponsored fear-mongering? The answer was pretty far, and would-be dictators from J. Edgar Hoover to Dick Cheney have been renovating and repeating the pattern ever since, with a different half-imaginary enemy in the gunsight.

In one devastating letter read in the film, Trumbo observes that the liberal producer who doesn't believe in the blacklist but apologetically tells him he can't hire a known Communist because "that's the country these days" is more oppressive than any congressional blowhard. His eloquent anger toward the country that he believes betrayed freedom, principle and basic human decency in its moment of postwar crisis is matched by his confidence that if he could poll the entire American population on one question -- "Would you like a man who informs on his friend?" -- the universal answer would be no.

But the lesson of "Trumbo" that clearly resonates in 2008 is that even in an increasingly pluralistic society, public tolerance can readily be turned against those who hold troubling ideologies or alien beliefs, and in that situation terrible things become acceptable. Some of those things are small, like the cruelty and ostracism Trumbo's daughter endured in elementary school, and some are larger. One of the anti-Communist movement's darkest triumphs was the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, which envisioned the suspension of constitutional rights in a national emergency, and funded the creation of six concentration camps for American civilians who "probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage." It was passed by Congress over Harry Truman's veto, but without much public debate.

Not much about this act is easily available online, a startling fact in this age of information overload. Congress repealed it in 1971, and the six camps -- some of them formerly used as Japanese-American internment camps during World War II -- fell into disrepair. But it obviously struck some people as a good idea, and so today our secret prisons are in other countries and governed by no law, and so far they have not housed any cantankerous Hollywood screenwriters. No one, as Trumbo said, who lived through the blacklist years emerged from them unscathed by evil, and now that evil has been visited on later generations. His wife and kids loved him, and he finally got his Oscars. Surely that counts for something.

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