September 24, 2011


My Father Was a Communist (Erik Tarloff, Sep 21 2011, The Atlantic)

My father, Frank Tarloff, a Hollywood screenwriter, was blacklisted by the entertainment industry in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era. For those unfamiliar with the blacklist, here's a brief explanation of its workings: People in the industry who were named by others as having had Communist affiliations were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and interrogated in open hearings about their political beliefs. They were also required to identify others who held similar beliefs. Witnesses who cooperated were usually able to resume their careers. Witnesses who refused to cooperate found themselves instantly unemployable1; their names were listed in a variety of publications (Red Channels being the most famous), and they were thereupon treated as radioactive by talent agencies, producers, studios, and sponsors.

Despite the grim consequences, a large majority of the witnesses refused to cooperate. Frank, like many others in his position, testified to the committee that while he would answer any questions about his own beliefs, he would not throw former colleagues to the wolves in order to salvage his career. [...]

Now, let's flash forward to some time in the mid-'90s. Frank was invited to appear on an LA radio show to talk about his experiences of the blacklist. By then, Joseph McCarthy, the movement he led, and the blacklist that resulted were all in total disrepute, and my father agreed to the interview with the reasonable expectation that he would be treated as a victim of a deplorable aberration in American history.

That isn't quite what happened. The interviewer began the dialogue by asking if my father would feel equal outrage had the blacklist targeted Nazis rather than Communists. Wrong-footed, Frank fumfered some sort of response. After the interview, both my parents emerged from the studio in high dudgeon. "How dare he?" was the gravamen of their scandalized indignation. And when they told me about the interview later that day, I made matters worse by suggesting the interviewer had posed a legitimate question. There was a distinct chill in the parental household for some time thereafter.

But it is a legitimate question. Unless one is prepared to defend Communism on its merits, or, alternatively, is merely defending one's comrades out of a kind of tribal loyalty2, then one is, I think, obliged to consider whether punishing people for their political beliefs is always wrong, or wrong only when it's one's own side that is being persecuted3.

Now, I concede there's one important distinction to be made here. Americans of my parents' generation joined the Communist Party out of genuine idealism, no matter how misplaced. With 25 percent unemployment, Jim Crow laws in operation in the South and de facto segregation common elsewhere, and fascism on the rise in Europe and effectively unopposed by the continent's democracies, Communism might have looked like a reasonable political recourse. Whereas it's hard to imagine anyone becoming a Nazi out of anything anyone would recognize as idealism.

In addition, my parents' and their friends' notion of what Communism actually consisted of was not especially highly evolved. When we were teenagers, my great friend Zachary Leader asked my father if he had ever read Das Kapital. Frank replied, "Are you kidding? No one could read that [****]. We invented our own Communism." The Communism they invented was a system where everything was fair, everyone was nice to everyone else, and nobody suffered deprivation. That it contradicted human nature, ignored history, and defied the laws of economics were considerations they chose to ignore. They meant well.

But good intentions can excuse only so much. By 1938, it took a rather willful blindness to deny that the Soviet Union was perpetrating barbarities on a scale that rivaled Hitler's Germany. And it took a comparable refusal to face facts to fail to notice that, far from being independent and home-grown, the American Communist Party was taking its orders directly from Moscow.

That last bit is, of course, treason, by definition. The refusal to help crush the domestic Communist movement warranted stiffer punishment than private blacklisting. The real question is whether it was appropriate for the federal government not to seek such punishment against the conspirators.

Posted by at September 24, 2011 7:48 AM

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