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All’s Well That Ends Mel?

July 31st, 2006 · 8 Comments

In response to a proposal that Hollywood boycott Mad Mel, David Bernstein of Volokh Conspiracy wonders why, if this is acceptable, the anti-communist blacklist of the 1950s “remains one of Hollywood’s deepest shames.” He adds:

I’m not going to shed any tears over Mel Gibson’s self-destruction, but I haven’t shed any over those poor unfortunate Stalinists who temporarily lost their jobs in the 1950s, either.

This doesn’t seem quite right to me. In principle, of course, I don’t think anyone is obligated to hire, collaborate with, or for that matter work for, anyone whose views they disdain. But I can think of plenty of reasons you might quite reasonably look askance at the blacklist but not a Gibson boycott.

First, there’s some difference in the nature of the targets. In one sense—from a consequentialist perspective—it was probably worse to be a communist propagandist in the 50s than an anti-Semite today, precisely because communism was a genuine threat to the U.S., while Gibson is so strikingly aberrant at a time when respectable American society speaks with a single voice to damn his views. But it’s in part for that reason I think we’re entitled to judge Mel a bit more harshly: He’s got no excuse. Someone who defended Stalin or Stalinism now would have to be branded a fool or a monster; someone who did so in 1950—when the notion that communism might represent a benign new form of economic organization was still plausible to many perfectly intelligent people—might be cut a little more slack. The Soviets’ role as our bestest wartime buddies was still a recent memory, after all, and the most unabashedly pro-Soviet film ever to come out of Hollywood, Mission to Moscow, was produced at the behest of the State Deparment and the Office of War Information. (HUAC, ironically, would use it as evidence of communist subversion.) Moreover, my sense is that partly as a function of that situation, the line between full-on communists and people who generally held left-wing views was rather fuzzier. Plenty of people who were not, in fact, convinced communists might well have been members of the party for a few years at one point or another.

That, I think, makes for another difference when we consider how the respective ideologies get translated into art. That is, while outright communist propaganda is obviously bad, it’s not clear that leftist ideas are per se morally repugnant (as opposed to merely misguided or wrong), even if you can plot them on a left-right gradient as moving in the direction of communism. That is, if someone writes a film highlighting the suffering of poor workers and denouncing the unfairness of economic inequality, however foolish we might think the remedies they’ve got in mind, and however hard a full-on communist might clap at that film, it is not in itself morally grotesque. You can’t make any such comparable claim about anti-Semitism: Suggesting that Jews as a class are venal or treacherous or whatever is intrinsically repugnant, even if you don’t attribute the most awful possible stereotypes to them or call for a Final Solution. I expect this is also why, as conservatives and libertarians so often note with chagirin, it is still acceptable to make a hammer-and-sickle into an ironic fashion accessory in a way that would be horrifying to attempt with a swastika: People see communism as a set of ideals that might be perfectly praiseworthy if they could be implemented, even though it turns out that attempts to actually do so yield misery and brutality. The problem with Naziism, by contrast, was not that it didn’t work as its architects had imagined, but that it did: It was a toxic end, apart from the horrific means it employed.

Finally, people’s reaction to the backlist has to be seen in relation to HUAC: It seems very doubtful we would have had the former without the latter. It would be one thing if studio heads had spontaneously decidied they didn’t want to be associated with some set of people who hold repugnant views, despite the relatively tighter grip they then kept on the political content of films they released. It seems like quite another when they do so in the panic following a series of hearings in which writers are subpoenaed and grilled about their political views. If Congress were making a show of calling in actors and directors to inquire into their feelings about Jews, I expect I’d regard it as craven to suddenly boycott Gibson then, insofar as unde the circumstances the more important objective would be to take a stand against this sort of inquisitorial posturing.

Tags: Art & Culture



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Reality Man // Jul 31, 2006 at 2:45 pm

    In addition, it was never clear how many of the blacklisted were actually communists and how many were just named by others to save themselves or were just useful targets for McCarthy. Persecution for your beliefs is bad enough, but persecution for holding beliefs you don’t even hold is worse. Gibson used the basic anti-Semitic formula in his rant: “The Jews / all the Jews in the world / international Jewry / the international Jewish conspiracy are responsible war / capitalism / communism / lying about the Holocaust / killing Jesus, etc.”

  • 2 Gene Callahan // Aug 3, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    When someone actively works towards massive property theft, totalitarianism, mass murder, etc., that’s OK, because lots of cool people then were into that, and being an ex-Marxist is still a pretty hip thing.

    But when someone drunkenly blurts out a negative opinion of an ethnic group they normally keep to themselves, immediately apologizes for it, and has never shown any sign of actually wanting to put his repressed feelings into policy or action, that’s really deplorable and calls for a boycott — because, after all, the slightest hint of group judgments (at least of approved groups) is really uncool.

    Morality designed by the social approval rating given to a moral stance.

  • 3 Gene Callahan // Aug 3, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    And Julian, do you support a boycott of everyone in Hollywood who has ever expressed a negative opinion of Christians? That would probably clear out about half the town. How about of all those who have criticized Caucasians, as a group, as being guilty of genocide, colonialism, etc.? People make whole movies patently devoted to the idea, “Whites bad, people of color good.” (And my opint here is not that many, many Europeans haven’t done really horrible things, for which I think it’s fine to condemn them, but that many works pin the blame not on individuals but on the group itself — obviously a racist view.)

    There are plenty of people in the entertainment industries who have repeatedly, non-drunkenly and unapologetically gone after one or both of those groups. Gibson’s problem is not “ethnicism” per se, but ethnicism directed at a PC-favored group, instead of at an acceptable target.

    It’s too bad Gibson has fallen prey to such collectivist thinking. At least he tries to keep it to himself and recognizes it as a problem. He is being hung out to dry here because of the glee his critics feel at trashing a prominent Catholic. If it had been Danny Glover drunkenly muttering about “the damned fundies running this country,” the same people who are howling about Gibson would be saying, “Well, good for him!’

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Aug 6, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    …Because Gibson was wrong, and Glover would have had a point. But that aside, this business about ex-Marxists being “hip” is silly misdirection; the point is that how you judge someone who holds stupid or repugnant views has to depend to some extent on context, given that we all make judgments about what it’s reasonable or unreasonable to believe in a highly socially dependent way. So someone who holds racist views in 2006 ought to be judged a lot more harshly than someone holding identical views in 1806, not because the view was any less wrong or repugnant previously, but because the modern person can be expected to know better. Someone who thinks thunderstorms are caused by Zeus hurling bolts forged by Hephaestus today is an obvious lunatic; someone holding the same view in Greece a couple millennia ago might not be.

  • 5 Gene Callahan // Aug 9, 2006 at 9:10 pm

    “…Because Gibson was wrong, and Glover would have had a point.”


  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Aug 10, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Do you believe in “truth” and “falsehood,” Gene? Is it remotely relevant to you that one claim is actually perfectly accurate and the other is insane? I’d hate for these details to get in the way of your beautiful symmetry here, but it seems like they might be pertinent.

  • 7 Gene Callahan // Aug 10, 2006 at 11:46 pm

    No. it’s this: Gibson’s claims are regarded as “repugnant” regardless of their truth value — he is not merely taken to be making a statement that is mistaken (the sun goes around the earth) but that is impermissible to even state, whatever it’s factual basis (Satan is Lord). None of Gibson’s detractors bother to examine his claim — which, I think, would come out as, some Jews a very powerful, and others are quite powerless, just like with most groups). Gibson’s statement is just ruled out as being beyond examination. On the other hand, Glover’s (hypothetical) statement would be regarded as OK even if it might turn out to be mistaken. In reality, the hypothetical Glover claim would turn out to have much the same status as Gibson’s — some fundamentalists are very powerful, while others have no power. Both claims would be guilty of collectivist thinking. But both sorts of collectivist thinking are not equally condemned — as Julian has demonstrated, in the zeitgeist its perfectly OK to lump Christians together as a group, but repugnant to do so with Jews. Now, I think both kinds of collectivist thinking are equally wrong — my point is that one is outre, and the other quite acceptable. And the only difference is prevailing fashions in thought.

  • 8 Gene Callahan // Aug 11, 2006 at 12:06 am

    Let me clarify a bit. Certain Jews, say, Paul Wolfowitz, exert far more influence than their ideas deserve. Other Jews, say, the Orthodox Rabbi Israel Kirzner, to whom I dedicated my first book, have far less influence than their ideas deserve. Likewise, certain fundamentalist Christians, like Pat Robertson, have more influence than is warranted. Others, like my sometimes co-author Bill Anderson, have less than warranted. To say “the Jews” control things, as Gibson did, or to say “the fundies” control things, as out hypothetical Glover did, are both to confuse the property of an instance of a class with a property of the class. It is deplorable that Gibson did this. But he is to be subject to boycotts, while our imaginary Glover subject to praise, entirely because it is fashionable to engage in certain forms of collectivist thinking but not in others.