Tuesday, July 1, 2008

DALTON TRUMBO AND AMERICAN EVIL

ANDREW O'HEHIR, SALON No one has ever summed up the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s -- and, by extension, the entire history of that decade's anti-Communist witch hunt -- any better than this:

"The blacklist was a time of evil. No one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew or were diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us -- right, left, or center -- emerged from that long nightmare without sin."

Those words were spoken by Dalton Trumbo in 1971, when he received a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America -- as he noted at the time, an award bestowed by those who had fought for him, those who had betrayed him and those who had only the vaguest notion who he was. In "Trumbo," the new film directed by Peter Askin and adapted from Christopher Trumbo's off- Broadway play about his father, the speech is given an electrifying reading by actor David Strathairn. "Trumbo" is a terrific picture, a blend of interviews and archival footage and readings of Trumbo's letters and speeches that vividly illustrates why the blacklist remains an urgent issue 60 years later. . .

Historians in recent years have legitimately attempted to wrestle with the era's complexities and shine light into its darker corners. It has long since become clear, for example, that many American Communists, Trumbo included, succumbed to the paranoia and authoritarianism that by Stalin's time were ingrained doctrines of their faith. . .

Along with honest historical inquiry, however, has come a smug, contrarian right-wing campaign to muddy the waters and make the paranoid derangement of '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. . .

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.) . . .

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. . .

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. . .

1 Comments:

At July 8, 2008 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We should not speak of the "McCarthy era" as though it were something of the past; it has become a permanent part of American society. The CPUSA, whatever its faults, was one of the main engines of social progress in our nation in the thirties and forties, playing a spearhead role in unionization, the fight for a decent standard of living for the average man and the fight against racism. For this reason, with the rise of the security state under Truman that continues to this day, it was crushed and the political power of the average American has been in precipitous decline ever since. Anton Vodvarka, Hartly DE

 

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