Not long ago I saw a rerun of the movie about Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was a famous Hollywood screenwriter who got caught up in the red scare of the 1950’s and was subsequently blacklisted. Despite his talent (he won two Oscars for his work) for a decade he was barred from writing under his own name.
When he was finally rehabilitated, he harkened back to the days when he was persecuted for his political opinions. In a speech accepting an award for career achievements, he said, “it was a time of fear.” For him, it certainly was. He and his colleagues had to scramble for a living against a tide of disapproval.
Contemporary liberals want us to forget that many of those singled out by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were, in fact, devoted communists. Thanks to the Venona papers, we have learned that more than a few were actually Soviet spies.
In other words, the search for traitors following WWII was a witch-hunt in which there were genuine witches. Rooting these folks out of positions of power and influence was therefore sensible. That those who were caught should be punished, and consequently fearful, was not altogether unwarranted.
Fast forward to today. We are living through another period of widespread fear. Nowadays people are also losing their careers and reputations because of their political beliefs. Many ordinary Americans are justifiably terrified that if they say the wrong thing, they and their families will become pariahs.
Liberals, however, are not worried about the damage currently done to innocents. Although they regularly portray themselves as the blameless victims, they refuse to recognize that they are the instigators of the modern persecutions.
Today it is political correctness that generates innumerable casualties. A search for racists and sexists is producing the contemporary blacklists. As a result, those individuals who do not subscribe to the progressive agenda often find themselves in as much jeopardy as their Marxist forebears.
The anxiety these days is palpable. Nasty jokes about blacks, women, or gays are forbidden. Merely suggesting that those who belong to protected categories might be less than perfect is greeted with insults and threats. Our politically correct taskmasters believe it is their responsibility to educate—and sanction—anyone who disagrees with them.
The upshot is that many moderates and conservatives keep their mouths shut. Calls for a national dialogue about race, for instance, regularly degenerate into one-sided lectures. We recently witnessed this with the lessons imposed on Starbuck’s baristas because of their alleged unconscious racism.
People are naturally apprehensive when they don’t have to exhibit evidence of prejudice or discrimination in order to be targeted. A white skin, combined with a less than enthusiastic proclamation of liberal orthodoxies, may be enough to destroy one’s reputation.
Even conservative blacks are not exempt. The slightest suggestion that they might have a positive opinion about Donald Trump puts a bull’s eye on their backs. Now, if they are in the entertainment industry, they must fret about whether they will be employed. What is this, if not a blacklist?
The same exclusiveness goes for our universities and news purveyors. Indeed, a reflexive animus toward conservative sentiments is so pervasive within these precincts that it affects liberals too. Progressives never even contemplate the validity of outlawed ideas lest they be accused of apostasy.
Reproaching blacks (women or gays) for being in the wrong is strenuously ruled out of bounds. According to leftists, condemning athletes who take the knee for the national anthem is racist. So is reproving the Black Lives Matter movement. Criticisms of this sort ostensibly demonstrate insensitivity.
The politically correct abuse has gotten so ruinous that people are afraid to assert that alllives matters. Likewise, to so much as suggest that blacks might be racist is grounds for excommunication. Just ask Kanye West what it is like to advocate that African-Americans modify their outlooks and become more independent.
Given the heated state of the culture wars, social intimidation is rampant. Old verities about honesty, personal responsibility, and fairness go undefended lest this elicit vengeance. Accordingly it is judged better to say nothing than something one might regret.
Nonetheless, Edmund Burke was right. We must have the courage to overcome our fears. Trumbo stood up against the blacklist although he was guilty of subverting our liberties; should we do less when we are innocent?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University