Monday, September 26, 2011

Blackslisting in the 1950s and a couple of thoughts from it today

Erik Tarloff, the son of Frank Tarloff, a screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950s for Communist affiliations, writes about his father in a piece for The Atlantic melodramatically titled, My Father Was a Communist 09/21/2011. (One early Cold War paranoia film was called I Married a Communist.) The writers known as the Hollywood Ten were the most famous targets of the blacklist, though Tarloff was not among the ten.

This is an interesting topic in itself. But it also relates directly to a couple of current concerns.

The Encyclopædia Britannica's current article on the Hollywood Ten describes the ten and the era succinctly:

... 10 motion-picture producers, directors, and screenwriters who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947, refused to answer questions regarding their possible communist affiliations, and, after spending time in prison for contempt of Congress, were mostly blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. The 10 were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo.

The group originally included the German writer Bertolt Brecht, but Brecht fled the country on the day following his inquest, and the remaining 10 were voted in contempt of Congress on Nov. 24, 1947. Convicted in federal court the following year, they were given sentences of six months to one year in prison. (While in prison, Dmytryk broke with the rest and agreed to cooperate, admitting being a communist and giving the names of 26 others.)
Ten years ago, it might have been more of a challenge to try to describe the Red Scare atmosphere of 1948-54, in particular. But if you've spent some time listening to FOX News, or Glenn Beck, or the Tea Party types, you pretty much get the idea.


In the case of Hollywood, rightwingers got it into their heads that Commie conspirators were sneaking Red messages into movies. ("Red" referred to Communists in those days, not Republicans.) Since there were few if any obvious examples, it was kind of like the fear of backwards messages on rock songs that were supposedly going to convert listeners into Satanists or something, a rightwing fad of the 1970s.

This obituary of the Tarloff, Obituary: Frank Tarloff by Dick Vosburgh The Independent 09/29/1999, includes the following story:

One of Tarloff's favourite anecdotes concerned the day he warned his landlord that he'd soon be called before HUAC: "I'll be refusing to give the names of Communists," he told him. "So if you don't approve of that, I'll understand if you ask us to leave." The landlord was a member of the Los Angeles underworld, and, although not a political animal, had no sympathy with squealers. "Don't worry," he told Tarloff. "As long as you don't rat on nobody you're welcome here."
HUAC was the House Un-American Affairs Committee, which before the Second World War had investigated both Nazi and Communist activities but achieved its greatest prominence during the postwar Red Scare and various investigations, notably the investigation of Alger Hiss which made Congressman Richard Nixon a national figure.

It wasn't illegal to be a Communist or a member of the Communist Party (CP, or CPUSA as the FBI preferred) in 1953 when Frank Tarloff was blacklisted. But the Truman Administration in 1948 had successfully prosecuted the top leaders of the CP under the Smith Act for being unregistered agents of a foreign power and for having conspired to advocate the overthrow of the US government. In 1954, the Communist Control Act outlawed the CP itself in all but name.

When actual CP members were called before an investigating committee at that time, the Party line was that they should refuse to testify on First Amendment grounds of freedom of speech. The political-legal argument was that it was unconstitutional for the government to investigate the personal political beliefs of individuals. But the courts at the time recognized only the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination as legally justifying a refusal to testify. The CP, it appears, was happy to have individual members in that situation become martyrs to the cause and go to prison.

The younger Tarloff's explanation of this in a footnote is confusing:

The earliest uncooperative witnesses invoked their First Amendment right to free speech as the basis for their non-cooperation, and subsequently were convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to prison. Later witnesses who, on the advice of counsel, relied on their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, escaped criminal prosecution, although they still sacrificed their careers. Of course, to any rational person, this distinction makes no sense: Since witnesses were not being accused of a crime, self-incrimination should have been an irrelevant consideration, whereas they had been exercising their right to free speech. But such were the times, and such are the vagaries of the justice system.
I think Erik Tarloff here is trying to argue in favor of the First Amendment option, though he might have mentioned that at least one later Supreme Court decision seemed to validate it. But arguing that the Fifth Amendment shouldn't have been appropriate doesn't take full account of the real risk of being prosecuted in connection with CP membership at the time, not unlike the way in 2011 members or even contributors to organizations officially labelled "terrorist" by the federal government risk prosecution and serious jail time.

Soviet espionage of later decades in the US tended not to rely on CP members or the ideologically committed, but instead used less romantic methods of bribery and blackmail. But that had not been the case in the 1940s, and revelations about atomic espionage, above all the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in connection with it in 1951, meant that there were real legal risks involved with admitting CP membership.

Erik Tarloff raises an important civil-liberties point:

The interviewer began the dialogue by asking if my father would feel equal outrage had the blacklist targeted Nazis rather than Communists. Wrong-footed, Frank fumfered some sort of response. After the interview, both my parents emerged from the studio in high dudgeon. "How dare he?" was the gravamen of their scandalized indignation. And when they told me about the interview later that day, I made matters worse by suggesting the interviewer had posed a legitimate question. There was a distinct chill in the parental household for some time thereafter.

But it is a legitimate question. Unless one is prepared to defend Communism on its merits, or, alternatively, is merely defending one's comrades out of a kind of tribal loyalty, then one is, I think, obliged to consider whether punishing people for their political beliefs is always wrong, or wrong only when it's one's own side that is being persecuted.
He goes on to point out (in a footnote) that his father supported the right of Nazis to march in the famous case in Skokie, Illinois.

Erik has framed it as a fairly straightforward civil-liberties question. But if we ask about Congress or other government bodies investigating private groups constituted as political or religious entities, it's a complex question, in practice. And it relates to two current concerns.

One is the designation of groups as terrorist groups and the drastic laws penalties a person can incur for giving "material assistance" to a group officially so designated. Laws apply to political and religious groups. Political parties can't just send money to the party leaders' Swiss bank accounts. A group organized as a tax-exempt religious institutions can't carry on partisan electioneering in its own name.

And the laws don't allow political parties, lobbyists or churches to run criminal enterprises, whether it's money-laundering, gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking or stockpiling arms to murder public officials. Although thanks to the NRA and the Republican Party's fetish for guns, the lst item probably has more legal latitude than the others. A criminal enterprise can't legalize itself by declaring itself a church or political group. Still, this is why we need to cops and prosecutors and justice officials who are scrupulous about following the law in making these investigations and determinations. The same goes for Congressional or legislative investigators.

Another way it relates to current concerns is the matter of how to research political groups, fringe or otherwise, and who should be doing it. Erik Tarloff mentions the publications like Red Currents that listed alleged Communists and sympathizers. This kind of thing is kind of a small-town conformity approach. "That ole boy ain't acting right. So nobody better give him no job until he straightens up." The fact that Hollywood media moguls were willing to play along with that is pitiful. So is the fact that too many slezy members of Congress and legislative bodies were willing to feed the fires. And there was a whole tawdry crew of paid informers, stool pigeons and fanatics who got into the act of red-hunting in those days.

All that said, if you're going to find out what a political group and individuals who identify with it stand for, you would obviously need to research what those groups say in their meetings, media appearances and publications. "Guilt by association" was all-too-common in the McCarthy era. But guilt-by-assocation refers to guilt by irrelevant association, e.g., you signed a Communist petition so you must be a Communist; this guy was a member of the CP so he must be spying for the Russians, etc. But it's not guilt-by-association to associate people with positions that they've taken in public. The two main CP leaders in this period, Eugene Dennis and William Foster, were official officers of the Party, spoke on the Party's behalf, and published articles under their own names in Party publications. It would hardly be irrational for people to associate themselves with actions and ideas with which they had publicly associated themselves.

So it's a perfectly legitimate and even necessary thing for reporters and scholars and political activists to investigate political groups and draw conclusions from their findings. That's no excuse for sleazebags like Andrew Breitbart or his disciple James O'Keefe to use tapes edited to create a totally misleading impression. This has come up recently in the press with whining from Christian Right leaders over writers from sites like Talk to Action and Religion Dispatches who have investigated the public activities of Rich Perry backers who have associated themselves with the extremist New Apostolic Restoration. Dave Neiwert has done excellent work over the last two decades or so conducting professional journalistic investigations of far-right groups.

Even public figures have a right to complain about unethical or illegal actions by investigators. But any of us who take public political or religious positions can't really object if people associate us with positions we take in public. If I publicly identify myself with the Democratic Party and publicly say I support Social Security and Medicare, all of which I've done here multiple times, I would look pretty silly whining that someone else was associating me with the Democratic Party or saying that I support Social Security and Medicare. But something like that is just what some of the mealy-mouthed leaders of the New Apostolic Restoration are doing in response to careful research by people like Rachel Tabachnick.

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