In the early 1950’s, Hollywood was attacked by censorship. Joe McCarthy (unfortunately, from Wisconsin), with the help of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), started hunting down every supposed communist in Hollywood – and the rest of the country – getting several of them blacklisted and banned from working in the US. Blacklists which, in some cases, still stand. All of this was discussed in the 2007 film “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
In this era, several people in Hollywood “named names.” When called up to testify to HUAC, they gave out the names of other communists, actual and suspected, in Hollywood. Most of them did this because they wanted to avoid the blacklists. One of them, Elia Kazan, didn’t do it so that he could keep working.
What was the result? He was shunned by large parts of the community for decades. When, in 1999, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by the Academy, several members (including some who’d never lived through the McCarthy era) booed him. The man was undeniably an artist of incredible skill… but he spoke out for what he believed in, and was silenced for it.
How, pray tell, does this differ from what McCarthy himself did? That Hollywood didn’t have the power of the government behind it? If anything, that makes it worse.
You had a group of people who’d experienced first hand the pains of being censored; of being told that you’re not allowed to speak your beliefs, and that you’ll be punished if you do. And they go and punish Kazan for doing just that. Others who named names were forgiven, but not Kazan – because he sincerely believed he was doing the right thing.
Censorship isn’t just what the government does. It comes from government bodies, and it comes from private groups. The government uses laws to punish people in the name of protecting the public from content they feel shouldn’t be seen. The entertainment industry censors the messages in their films for the sake of the almighty dollar. The actors and others working in the industry do it because they don’t want to support messages they disagree with… and they penalize the people who do disagree with them, publically castigating them and effectively blacklisting them from working in major projects.
Which of these is the worst of the different types?
Ultimately, McCarthy was recognized as a lunatic, and his career (and efforts) were brought to an ignominious end. The people who spoke out against him have come to be viewed as heroes.
But the people who agreed with him have been demonized, or at least had their agreement brushed under the rug.
Now, was Kazan right to name names? I don’t know. He believed he was. Others believed he wasn’t. But was it right to punish him for what he did? No more than it was right for HUAC to put people on a blacklist and prevent them from working for their political views. The only difference is who won in the long run. But freedom of speech, the sacred right so often cited by the opponents of censorship, cuts both ways. If you want to be free to express your opinions, regardless of who disagrees with them, without fear of punishment, then you have to be willing to grant the same freedom.
Unfortunately, I doubt we’re ever going to see that message come out of Hollywood… not really something that’d sell a lot of tickets.