Those who condemn the betrayals of the witch-hunt era need to look now at their own.
It is just a little over two years ago that I wrote my first column for Salon, a piece about Elia Kazan in which I called for an end to America’s “longest blacklist.” I did not say so at the time, but I felt a kinship with Kazan in the fact that the invitation to write for Salon had ended my own long exile from the literary culture, the result of a kind of graylist in force for ex-radicals like myself.
My timing was off (as has frequently been the case in my life). I had no idea the shunning of Hollywood’s greatest living film legend would come to an end only two years later, or that it would come as a result of an honor bestowed on him by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself. At the time I wrote my first Salon column, I was significantly ahead of the curve. Now, as a result of the iron law of Salon deadlines, I find myself behind it. I will try to use the fact that the pressing issues of the controversy are over to analyze the passions behind it, and see what they reveal.
Ostensibly, the anti-Kazan anger was over the informal blacklist of Communists that was introduced into the film industry by the Hollywood studio heads some 50 years ago. Abe Polonsky and Bernard Gordon, two minor film professionals who organized the anti-Kazan protest, had been among those blacklisted at the time. The protesters’ charges against Kazan were that he had been an “informer” for the blacklisters, had collaborated with witch hunters and had betrayed colleagues and friends. For these crimes, they argued, the film community should have continued to shun him, should not have given him an award.
Let me begin by making my own views of congressional investigations like the one Kazan cooperated with clear. The purpose of such investigations is to determine whether there should be legislation to deal with certain problems and how that legislation should be designed. It was legitimate for Congress to hold hearings inquiring into the influence of an organization like the Communist Party in an important American industry like film, as it was previously for legislators to inquire into the influence of organized crime in the union movement and other areas of American life. The Communist Party was conspiratorial by nature and set out to control unsuspecting organizations that it infiltrated. Its purposes were determined by the fact that it was financed and directed by a foreign power, one that its members worshiped. Kazan deeply resented the way the Communist Party had infiltrated and taken control of the Group Theater, where he was an actor and director, and used it for its own political ends.
What was not legitimate was for congressmen to use such hearings to attempt to expose the influence of Communists or gangsters to the public at large. Such public hearings were, in effect, trials without the due process protections afforded in a court of law. By opening the testimony and questioning to the public, this in effect, was to try all uncooperative witnesses who were called before committees acting as juries, judges and executioners. The mere charge of being a gangster or a Communist was enough to ensure a public judgment that was punitive.
By this standard, all congressional investigations that are open, whether they are of organized crime or Communists or executive misdeeds, such as the Iran-contra hearings, are equally illegitimate and also qualify as witch hunts. Oliver North, when he appeared before the Iran-contra committee and had to sit in the dock while senators and congressmen who enjoyed legal immunity denounced him as a liar and traitor to the entire nation, had no more constitutional protections than did the Communists. On the other hand, I don’t remember protests issuing from liberals over the attempted public hanging of North and the other Iran-contra figures. Perhaps that’s because the political shoe was on the other foot. Yet the only way to avoid such abuses of congressional power is to require that all congressional hearings be closed.