Magazine article The Spectator

Persecution Mania

Magazine article The Spectator

Persecution Mania

Article excerpt

New Hampshire

`ARE you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?' What's so wrong with asking that question? And what's so wrong with answering it? Elia Kazan did: he had once been a member of the Communist party, and he named a few others who had been as well - some with their consent, though others felt and continue to feel betrayed. Kazan was not furtive or shameful about what he did. After testifying to Congress in 1952, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling communism a `dangerous and alien conspiracy' and urging American liberals to `speak out' against it. Half a century later, we're still waiting.

But, on Oscar night later this month, American liberals will speak out - against Elia Kazan. Blacklisted authors, the Committee Against Silence, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the Los Angeles and Orange County Green parties, the California Association of Professional Scientists and many other groups will protest at the `lifetime achievement' award being given to the director.

In the movie business the Cold War remains the last good war, the only one in which Hollywood itself took the heavy blows. A year or two back, I was out in Los Angeles taking part in some debate about movies and, apropos the cinematic depiction of persecution, I scoffed: `When was the last time anyone in Hollywood was persecuted?' `The 1950s,' snapped Lynda Obst, the producer of Sleepless in Seattle. I didn't quite know how to explain to Lynda that what happened in America in the Fifties was not what most societies have traditionally understood by 'persecution': for example, Bernard Gordon, a McCarthy-persecuted writer who's organising the protest against Kazan, was obliged to work under assumed names and only recently received his proper screen credit for Day of the Trids and Hellcats of the Navy. I think my old Vermont neighbour Alexander Solzhenitsyn would have regarded being forced to adopt a nom de plume as strictly Persecution Lite. But who knows? To deny a person the right to celebrity is arguably the most American form of oppression you could devise. Perhaps that's why the fact that the Soviet Union went belly up a decade ago seems barely to have impinged on showbiz proponents of the theory of `moral equivalence'.

Then there is the TV series The Cold War, the Jeremy Isaacs behemoth currently lumbering along on CNN. `The idea,' Sir Jeremy explained, with disarming honesty, 'was to tell the story of the Cold War not wrapped in Old Glory but from the viewpoints of both protagonists' - not a courtesy he extended, on his previous epic The World at War, to the Third Reich. But, with this war, there are apparently no goodies to cheer on. `In the Soviet Union and in America, the Cold War was fought by fear,' explains the narrator, Kenneth Branagh. `The Soviet Union raised fences against the outside world. The Gulag, the secret universe of labour camps, swallowed the lives of millions. Both sides turned their fear inwards against their own people. They hunted the enemy within.' As evidence of this, familiar images of the Eisenhower era drift by. 'Leaders of the American Communist party were jailed, and the persecution spread. Left-wing labour organisations were banned, radical groups indicted, demonstrations broken up.' That Stalin guy was an amateur compared to Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. These days, even the New York Times sheepishly concedes that Alger Hiss was, indeed, a spy, but The Cold War presents him only as an early victim of Richard Nixon, `an ambitious young Republican'. Say no more.

The House UnAmerican Activities Committee did not show America in its best light: it was in itself a very unAmerican activity. But, just for the record, those communists who went to jail were convicted under the Smith Act for conspiracy to overthrow the United States government by force. It was the AFL-CIO - the equivalent of Britain's TUC - which kicked out the Red-fronted labour organisations. …

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