Dr. David Shevin photograph

Thirty Years of Treason

February 1, 2005

So 2005 begins with the undermining of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the nomination of a new attorney general who holds the presidency unaccountable, as well as having authored a defense of torture as a method of interrogation. Add to this the bipartisan intelligence reform passed by congress as the last year ended. We see in law now more wiretaps, a basis set for a national identity card, and a weakening of "guilt by association" statutes, so that organizational memberships can be used in prosecutions. It sure looks like more hard times for basic civil liberties, but this is hardly the first time our culture has behaved this way.

One book worth digging off the library shelf to help understand how our culture likes to justify these actions is THIRTY YEARS OF TREASON, a 1971 history compiled by the drama scholar Eric Bentley in 1971, and reissued by Nation Books a couple of years ago. Subtitled "Exerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968", the book is far more than a compilation of testimonies. Bentley has interlaced the transcripts with personal recollections, letters, documents, manifestos, and declarations to bring the major witnesses selected to life, and to set the context of the statements. The age of loyalty oaths, blacklists, and flimsy accusations is summarized effectively in this volume, a book both outrageous and stirring in the range of heroes and villains presented.

The last decades have seen plenty of documentation regarding the congressional investigations of the entertainment industry, and lots of that testimony is before us. The extremity of persecution of Bertolt Brecht is recorded, and the predictable lineup of famous cases is present so that we can hear their own words. We read the friendly testimonies of Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, and Ronald Reagan. Reagan's words are interesting in that the committee did not press him to "name names"; the then Screen Actors Guild president walked after some general and commonplace anticommunist remarks.

The words of the resisters are even more interesting. A prophetic Paul Robeson in 1956, denied the opportunity to read his prepared statement to the committee, spends hours of testimony challenging his questioners, throwing assumptions back rhetorically, and attempting to open a debate on the issue of race and politics with the congressmen engaged in his "un-American activities". In contrast to the tactic of engagement, the dean of American folksingers Pete Seeger, in 1955, charts a course of absolute noncooperation. How amazing it is to watch his rhetorical agility as every query on a performance is directed to the art rather than the political culture of the gathering. Every time that Seeger is redbaited, he evades the question. So frustrated were the committee members with his testimony, they issued a Contempt of Congress citation on him, and the performer spent a good fifteen years fighting that sentence in the courts before it was rescinded.

While the entertainment stories are moving, it is important to note that this was hardly the only industry where red scare tactics broke careers and left progressives destitute and unemployed. Teachers, lawyers, and public servants were called to close scrutiny. Some of the most intense investigation fell on the labor unions and, in later days, the antiwar movement. Pacifist and world figure Albert Einstein, who was not among those called to testify, published an open letter to his teaching colleagues calling for an absolute resistance to the overt attacks on academic free inquiry in 1953: "Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short, for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the of the cultural welfare of his country."

Bentley's analysis of the later testimonies before the committee is instructive. He reminds us that the path of sunshine is the route that worked in reclaiming individual liberties. With the country torn over an unpopular war, the congressional testimonies of "Chicago conspirators" Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis and Dave Dellinger provide a final chapter to the committee's final days, before it reorganizes and fades as a "Committee on Internal Security". The movement these folks championed was adept in press relations and open in their testament to associations and intentions. Writes Bentley, ."The radicals of the sixties put the Committee - for the first time - on the defensive. Earlier, the witnesses were generally meek; now Committee members were generally meek. And in seizing the offensive, the new types of witnesses seized what was dearest to HUAC's patriotic heart: the headlines."

Of course, not all of the affects of the Committees work fell into "newsworthy categories. I can remember nights that my parents, a salesman and a social worker, sat up at the kitchen table listing all of the organizations where they had contributed or attended meetings. The tone of accusation and conspiracy at the time left no one untouched, no heart without fear.

What did that past teach us? That the only answer to fearmongering is fearlessness. That the only response to the abridgment of constitutional protection is to reassert the first amendment, our best protector. Thus, our health tip for the day. Freedoms of speech, assembly and association atrophy when they are not exercised.

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