Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Of Witch Hunts and Whiners

  Norman, Norma  & Cousin Mitzi  (c.2008)

  Norman, Norma  & Cousin Mitzi  (c.2008)

About a month ago, '45 began characterizing his many woes as "The single greatest witch hunt of a politician in history"  To say this whine is childish and betrays an appalling ignorance of American history is putting it mildly. Perhaps even worse, it both demeans and utterly trivializes the debasing, life-shortening horrors of the real victims of American witch hunts - from Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba (the first of the so-called "Salem Witches"); to Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Eugene Debs and U.S. Rep. Victor Berger (victims of the post-WWI "Red Scare"  overseen by then-U.S. Attorney General A. MItchell Palmer); to John Garfield, Zero Mostel, Norman Corwin, Norma Barzman, Marsha Hunt and literally hundreds of members of the so-called "Hollywood Blacklist"; to the literally thousands of gay and lesbian government employees whose lives and careers were upended due to Senator Joseph McCarthy's so-called "Lavender Scare." (Eerily, one of the people most responsible for this "scare" was Senator McCarthy's chief counsel, the young Roy Cohn who, it turned out, was himself a closeted gay man and would, many years later, become '45's personal attorney.)

The history, reality and psychological underpinnings of conspiracy theories, witch hunts and blacklists have long been a personal political and academic passion.  Indeed, my senior thesis at University, written more than 45 years ago, researched the impact that McCarthyism had on the 1952 presidential election between Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson and General Dwight David Eisenhower.  Talk about a real drubbing: Republican Eisenhower beat Democrat Stevenson by 6.7 million votes and demolished him in the Electoral College by a margin of 442-89. That year also saw the G.O.P.  recapture both the House and Senate. One big reason for this Republican sweep could be laid at the feet of McCarthy and his "reds under the bed" conspiracy, which Governor Stevenson refused to endorse.  His so-called "effete, Ivy League, blue blood" background (he was a Princeton grad, his paternal grandfather was Vice President of the United States and his maternal great-grandfather had been Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager) did not sit well the majority of American voters. They were in the mood for a witch hunt against anyone who had ever belonged to, supported, or made a donation to a group like "Committee For the First Amendment," "The American Civil Liberties Union," or the "Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions." (HICCASP)

The latter two groups - made up mostly of Hollywood progressives - were the special targets of Senator Joseph McCarthy, California state Senator Jack B. Tenney (who chaired a California version of HUAC and Hollywood film censor extraordinaire. Joseph Breen.  Together, they carried out out one of the nastiest witch hunts in all American history; by comparison, the current '45 imbroglio has as much to do with a real witch hunt as a jug of $10.00 moonshine has to a bottle of Armand de Brignac Brut Rose.  As a Hollywood Brat, I have gotten to know, interview - even befriend - a number of those who were blacklisted and exiled from what was once called "The Land of Mink-Lined Swimming Pools and Plastic Palm Trees."  

For several years, my late cousin Mitzi would invite a group of blacklistees to her house on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills to eat and share memories of times past.  (That's Mitzi in the photograph alongside the legendary Norman Corwin (1910-2011) and screenwriter Norma Barzman, the exiled wife of screenwriter Ben Barzman - best known for the 1948 classic "The Boy With Green Hair."  Now nearly 97, Norma is one of few surviving members of the Hollywood Blacklist. Their senior surviving member, my friend Marsha Hunt, will become, god willing, 100 this coming October 17.  The longtime honorary Mayor of Sherman Oaks, Ms. Hunt still lives in the same house (on the corner of Fulton and Magnolia), just around the corner from ours that she occupied when I was a kid delivering her papers for the now defunct Valley Times.

These artistic souls, along with hundreds and hundreds of their colleagues now deceased - understood the meaning "witch hunt" in a way that our current POTUS could never possibly fathom.  They all woke up one day to find that they were being reviled, hunted down and eventually stripped of every ounce of their creative worth just because certain people claimed they were traitors . . . or sexual deviants.  Most lost their jobs and livelihoods, some actually committed suicide and, if they chose to keep working as actors, directors, cinematographers, choreographers or set designers, had to either leave the country or - if they were screenwriters - to employ a "front" - a person who would put their name on a screenplay for which they had never so much as typed a single letter.  

This, my dear '45, is what a witch hunt is truly like.  These people did not suffer from persecution complexes; nor did they believe that the entire world revolved around them.  They - like the witches of Salem, the Native Americans of America's great heartland or turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe - were subjected to their contemporaneous witch hunts because they were "different," "foreign,"  or had beliefs and ideas that were out of the mainstream.  Then too, they frequently served as convenient scapegoats for ignorant, bigoted, amoral politicians seeking to better their lot in life.  The bulls-eyes were placed on their backs without their knowledge, without their consent, and generally speaking, without due cause.

On the other hand, it is you, Mr. '45, who have put the bulls-eye on your own back - by showing total contempt and disregard for the high office to which you were elected; by being both an enemy of - and stranger to - the truth; by offending far too many decent people and showing far too little concern for anyone or anything which cannot benefit you on a personal level. Yes, you still do have a cadre of  diehard, zealous supporters out there; men, women and children who still believe that everything you say is the god's honest truth and that anyone who disagrees is part of an evil conspiracy meant to bring you down. But please do remember something history teaches: that conspiracies are, far more often than not, built on foundations made of sand . . . and that demagogues are self-deluding builders of sand castles.  Quit whining about witch hunts; you haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about. To paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "I've known victims of witch hunts; some of them are - or were - friends of mine.  Believe me Mr. T.,  you are no victim of a witch hunt."

Mr. President: might I strongly urge that in place of whining, it might benefit you both personally and politically to engage in the study of history.  It has a lot of revealing things to teach . . . even to someone who thinks he's the smartest kid in the class.

148 days down, 1,309 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone