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.