We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
When I was growing up, I knew all about the evils of Communism. My mom had escaped Communist China after all. I knew that Communist countries allowed no freedom of speech or thought. I had been taught by my teachers that our first amendment guarantees freedom of speech and assembly and that those rights are precious and necessary for a democracy to function. Totalitarian dictatorships, like in China and Russia, led to millions of people dying because anyone who disagreed with the government was murdered. In it's purest form, Communism sounded nice, with its emphasis on the working people and its vision of everyone sharing everything so that hunger and poverty would never exist. But the Communism that was actually put into practice broke people's souls by denying them a chance to express their deepest convictions. I shuddered at the thought of having to live in such a repressive society.
In 1946, 90 million movie tickets were sold every week. Hollywood enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and its power to influences the masses was unrivalled. But Hollywood also frightened some politicians. It was a hotbed of liberalism and luxury lifestyles and had a lot of Jewish and foreign workers. That terrified some Congressmen who believed that Hollywood could poison the minds of Americans by tainting them with Communist propaganda.
The Depression had revealed a crisis within capitalism. Seeing people so desperate they had to pick food out of the garbage made many in Hollywood want to consider alternatives to the established economic order. Many of the new screenwriters and directors had parents who were socialists and radical idealists though a few hailed from Middle America. Quite a few had Russian Jewish ancestry. It was fascinating to read about the political journeys of so many of the blacklisted who from a young age had been exposed to anarchist speakers and union organizing. The Hollywood community was thus receptive to Communist ideas and during World War II, with Russia as an ally, produced several pro-Stalin films. But contrary to later accusations, most in Hollywood always thought of themselves as proud Americans and believed in America's promise. The films they produced were only meant to prick our conscience at failing to fulfill certain aspects of American democracy. Some of the progressive causes Hollywood took up in the 30s and 40s were FDR's New Deal, socialist muckracker Upton Sinclair's campaign for governor in 1934, the Scottsboro trial where nine blacks were unjustly accused of raping a white girl, and later the Zoot Suiters. Hollywood's political activism rarely went beyond domestic involvement, but it was deeply concerned by international events. Many Hollywood people joined the American Communist Party because of fascist atrocities during the Spanish Civil War. Alvah Bessie, one of the famous "Hollywood 10," spoke for many in Hollywood when he said, "I thought that this was the only organization that was actually fighting Fascism in the world, that was…fighting unemployment, racial discrimination, national chauvinism."
Only a small number of named Communists actually testified before the House Committee. Some fled the country and never returned. Most however, had their careers ruined with the introduction of blacklisting. If it was suspected that you were Communist, or a Communist sympathizer then you might be blacklisted. The Hollywood guilds, studio bosses, and producers, who tended to be conservative and supportive of the Committee's work, instituted the blacklist. All those with Communist ties, either real or imagined could not get work directing, acting or screenwriting. Some liberals, though not Communists, had supported the Hollywood 10's civil rights. They became blacklisted by association. With their careers in shambles, some wrote under alias names. Others gave up and moved into different careers. A tragic few committed suicide.
It has taken five decades for the scars to heal from the Hollywood Blacklist and for some, the scars have yet to heal. In 1997, all four Hollywood trade guilds apologized for their role in supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee. That same year, the Writers Guild restored some credits to movies that had used either an alias or never acknowledged the work of the blacklistees. Many still await to be credited for their contributions. But it wasn't just the Hollywood workers who lost out because of the government inquisition. We, the American people, lost out too, because who knows what awesome movies would have been made if the best and the brightest people in Hollywood had not been so savagely silenced? Some of my friends joke that we're the last group to be born before Star Wars came out. We cannot imagine our childhood without Luke, Hans Solo, Boba Fett , Yoda and Darth Vader. I mourn for all the lost treasures we never knew and the movies that could have changed and enriched lives in much the same way that the Star Wars movies did mine.
Americans have always cast themselves as beacons of democracy and freedom, in contrast to the repressive evils of Communist dictatorships. But the hunting down of American citizens all on the basis of their political beliefs smacks of hypocrisy. True, we didn't slaughter millions of people for their beliefs as occurred in Russia, but ruining livelihoods and stomping on people's dreams is a sin we shouldn't overlook if we believe in our democracy. Actor Gregory Peck during the Red Scare said, "There is more than one way to lose your liberty-it can be torn out of your hands by a tyrant-but it can also slip away, day by day, while you're too busy to notice; or too confused or too scared. " So next time you're at the theater enjoying "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or "Traffic," remember Peck's words. Appreciate that we not only have the freedom to watch these great movies, but that Hollywood has the freedom to make them.
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