Nameless, Unreasoned, Unjustified Terror

Last summer I jumped into the rabbit hole that is the twisted imagination of Charlie Manson, courtesy of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, which covers “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” Now Karina is starting a new series of episodes about The Blacklist of the 1950s and 60s. If you’re at all interested, I suggest subscribing now. You Must Remember This combines two of my favorite things- movies and history. If you've never heard of it, The Blacklist refers to a group of writers, directors, and actors who were barred from working in the entertainment industry because of actual or alleged ties to Communism.

The writers and directors who were affected by the Blacklist were also inspired by it: Arthur Miller's stage play The Crucible, blacklisted writer Carl Foreman's script for High Noon, and Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, the rare film that defended witnesses who named names. I imagine Karina will get to these in a future episode.

The Blacklist is one of those things that I have a very visceral reaction to whenever I think about it. For the people whose patriotism was questioned, there was no way out. If a witness before a Congressional committee said you were a member of the Communist Party, it was taken as gospel.

600x600bbEven if the witness was mistaken.

Even if you had the same name as someone else.

Even if you went to a couple of meetings and decided it wasn’t for you.

Even if the witness was making it up to save their own skin.

To deny the accusation would only confirm it. To question the merits of the proceedings was to admit guilt.

Paranoia is a hell of a thing. People believed Communists had infested the entertainment industry, and it was so. If you tried to convince them otherwise, you were part of the conspiracy.

Communism in particular seems to provoke paranoid feelings in people in power, wherever they are. I suppose this is part of the point- “A spectre is haunting…” and all that. Yet a lot of the anxiety around Communism treats it like a disease, something you can catch if you’re exposed to it.[ref]This might be because it grew up in the multitudes of the general population. Lots of unsavory things sloshed around among the masses.[/ref] If you, as say, a Tsar, didn’t keep dangerous ideas away from your people, they might become sick with Communism.

I was first exposed to this “idea-as-germ theory” by Dan Carlin’s also excellent podcast Hardcore History. In his series on World War I, Blueprint for Armageddon, Dan describes how Germany helped send Vladimir Lenin from exile in Switzerland back to Russia in 1917.

IMG_0311The hope was that Lenin’s Communist ideas would take root, and this would encourage Russia to withdraw from the war. It did, but there was some blowback: German soldiers being infected by Russians they met on the Eastern front.

This paranoia seems like a disease of its own sometimes, and one that mutates to resist new treatments. No one is immune. Given the right circumstances, symptoms will flare up.

Have I mentioned that I love Karina’s title? Beyond the famous song it refers to,[ref]Which plays at the top of every episode[/ref] there’s an exciting urgency to it. You Must Remember This:

Just a few years before The Blacklist became an institution in Hollywood, over 100,000 people of Japanese origin were “evacuated” from their homes on the West Coast, and sent to internment camps further inland. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the paranoia said that spies and saboteurs were working inside the United States.[ref]An ugly, racist Yellow Peril was a big part of this as well.[/ref]

Two-thirds of those sent to the camps were American citizens. None of them were charged with a crime.

The man who signed off on all of this was President Franklin Roosevelt, the same man who had warned the American people in his first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself- nameless, unreasoned, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

If only he’d remembered this when the paranoia came for him.