The Hollywood Blacklist and the Jew: An Exploration of Popular Culture

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The Hollywood Blacklist and the Jew: An Exploration of Popular Culture

Paul Buhle, who founded the Oral History of the American Left at New York University, is interviewing entertainment blacklistees for a book about Jewish influences on American popular culture. His latest published volume is Images of American Radicalism (Christopher House), a massive pictorial history.

When Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota demanded in February that National Public Radio turn over the personnel files on all its employees to the Senate subcommittee on communications he chairs, a small stir passed through the ranks of civil libertarians, all the way up to The New York Times. Withdrawn quietly after objections, Pressler's move was perhaps only a trial balloon in a larger war over the use of tax monies for agencies dubbed "liberal" (however contradictory the real evidence) by the new Republican Congress. But what sequence of events might have been set in motion if NPR had actually turned over those dossiers?

Jewish old-timers--who remember better than anyone the McCarthy era's blacklist that played a central role in the film industry and television for several decades--heard ominously familiar signals in the Gingrichites' rhetoric. Pressler's offensive, together with the recent speech by Barbra Streisand at Harvard University defending liberalism and asserting the right of Hollywood celebs to speak out on political questions, evoked some vivid memories of 1947: Katharine Hepburn decrying the emerging militarization of the country and the planet, Dixiecrat J. Parnell Thomas chairing the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals pronouncing a universal ban on any writer, actor, director, producer, or technician unwilling to sign a loyalty oath.

One subtext of McCarthyism, nominally the pursuit of "communist subversion," was simply to stay in line or else. An ordinary person resisting the demands of the era could kiss a career, and in many cases a secure identity in mainstream American life, goodbye. Not very surprisingly, at least a hundred homosexuals were fired for every political "subversive" discovered in civil service. A second subtext, barely disguised, was anti-Semitism. The message--from rural Southern barber shops to Senate chambers--that "Jews control Hollywood" and that Jews were poisoning America had a special meaning to those faced with "investigation."

To clear oneself, to resume something like a normal life, it was never enough to declare personal departure from the Left (most intellectuals had already quit or were on their way out of the Communist Party, disillusioned by Stalin's tyranny and Russian anti-Semitism). One had to name names, most especially those of intimate associates who had shared decades of participation in social movements. A blacklistee recently reminded me of the race memories stirred by the red-hunting committees. In earlier days the czar, caliph, or general had demanded something strikingly similar: We let you live, Jew, if you inform on your friends. Otherwise...

It is an apt moment, then, to go back to the scene of the crime (or supposed crime, for conservative think-tankers and Christian Coalitionists still consider McCarthyism a healthy purge of poisonous symptoms). Ours would hardly be the first such trip. Since the days of The Front--written, directed, and acted by former blacklistees, with the notable addition of Woody Allen--and Barbra Streisand's more popular The Way We Were, fictional renditions of that era have proliferated in theater, television, and film. The American Movie Channel and BBC are each preparing treatments of the Hollywood Red Scare. NPR has planned for 1996 a drama series written by Tony Kahn, son of Gordon Kahn (sometime scriptwriter for Roy Rogers films and author of Hollywood on Trial), about the blacklist's withering day-to-day effect upon a Jewish family. …