Blacklisting someone over political and personal beliefs used to be really bad.
Indeed, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, many people in my generation endured innumerable turgid and sanctimonious rehashes of the Blacklist Era, both in documentary and fiction genres, instructing us that silencing people and cutting off their employment over their political and personal beliefs was one of the worst events of the 1950s, whether that pressure came from politicians or from employers who were afraid of contradicting the prevailing political narrative. In fact, as Hollywood insisted for decades afterward, that was not just wrong — it was flat-out un-American.
Hollywood was right. Oh, the didacticism of these productions usually rendered them so tedious as to be unwatchable, although a few — High Noon and The Crucible come to mind — rose above the sledgehammer approach to become classics in both literal and analogical contexts. Even when wielded with a sledgehammer, though, the truth of the argument was never in doubt. The American tradition is all about free speech, debate, and the marketplace of ideas. Bad ideas will die of their own accord, eventually, even if they don't die quickly enough for some.
Unfortunately, we then entered an era of political correctness — and have fallen back to the blacklist mentality once again.
The latest cycle of speech banishment started a few weeks ago with Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty. The patriarch of the most successful reality show clan offered his thoughts on homosexuality to a reporter from GQ, describing his family as "Bible-thumpers." Robertson offered his view of sin, being specifically asked to elaborate on the point after his less-specific view that American culture was in decline because of its sinful orientation. "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men," Robertson replied, then paraphrased 1 Corinthians to expand the universe of sin to idolaters, drunkards, prostitutes, slanderers, swindlers, and so on. He topped it with this memorable quote: "It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me."
Now, anyone familiar with Christianity would have recognized the main argument as a clumsy representation of the cross-denomination understanding of 1 Corinthians, and the latter argument as a crude but accurate take on male heterosexual orientation. Paul's letter itself was written to the church in Corinth for the same problem Robertson described in the U.S., which was a church corrupted by the cultural values in which it lived. Robertson is not a theologian or a minister. He's a small-business owner and an entertainer. And even if his presentation was not quite up to par, it still reflects the mainstream understanding of Corinthians among Christians and the corrosive nature of sin.
However, the outrage industry swung into action almost as soon as GQ hit the publish button. Instead of debating Robertson on the merits of his argument, or at least on the presentation of 1 Corinthians, people demanded that Robertson get fired for what is basically mainstream Christianity — and the kind of provocative speech that got Robertson hired in the first place. Amazingly, A&E at first buckled under the pressure, announcing that Robertson was indefinitely suspended. That is, Robertson was suspended until A&E viewers made their displeasure known by tuning out. When it became clear that the economics of the situation favored inclusion rather than exclusion, A&E reversed course and reinstated Robertson without losing a frame of Duck Dynasty production.
Now let's turn our eyes to California, which will hold its gubernatorial election in November. Incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown already has a challenger — Tea Party conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. Donnelly cut an amusing bilingual web ad with Maria Conchita Alonso, best known for her star turn in Moscow on the Hudson. Alonso provided snarky Spanish-language translations for Donnelly's arguments, including "We're screwed."
Cutting an ad for a Tea Party candidate, however much tolerance that exchange displayed, was a bridge too far in San Francisco. Alonso had been cast in a production of The Vagina Monologues, which Alonso would have performed in Spanish. When her producer discovered her support for Donnelly, Alonso lost her job. "We really cannot have her in the show, unfortunately," producer Eliana Lopez told a local TV station. "Doing what she is doing is against what we believe." She's out of work because she endorsed a Republican.
Unfortunately, the blacklist lesson taught by the entertainment industry for so long doesn't appear to have sunk in for the entertainment industry, but they're not alone, either. On the opposite coast, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared anti-abortion and gun-rights Republicans not just wrong, but persona non grata. Incensed by Republicans running against his SAFE Act — which was so badly written that it had to be immediately amended to keep from disarming the police and pretty much everyone else — declared opposition to the law "extreme," and worse.
"The Republican Party candidates are running against the SAFE Act — it was voted for by moderate Republicans who run the Senate! Their problem is not me and the Democrats; their problem is themselves," Cuomo told The Capitol Pressroom on Friday. "Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that's who they are and they're the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that's not who New Yorkers are."
The anti-gay remark, it should be noted, applies to Republicans who hold the same position on same-sex marriage as Barack Obama did until the middle of 2012. And according to most polls, the abortion position is hardly extreme, especially among Republicans. Cuomo is certainly free to consider these positions incorrect and argue for his own positions. Instead, he told the press that he felt those political positions were in essence illegitimate for public consumption.
That was the point behind blacklisting, too. The idea was to force people out of the public square, either by silencing them through economic penalties or by attempting to shame them out of it. The same people who used to lecture us on diversity and tolerance are attempting to impose another blacklist to shut down those they see as their enemies in politics.
At least when this one ends, we won't have Hollywood producing tedious dreck about the era, since they'd have to cast themselves as the villains. That's a relief for anyone who had to sit through Citizen Cohn.