The Un-Americans JEWS, THE BLACKLIST, AND STOOLPIGEON CULTURE
By JOSEPH LITVAK
Duke University Press Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4484-1
Chapter One Sycoanalysis
A sycophant will always say to himself that in biting what has some value he might thereby make a little profit. -ALAIN BADIOU, "The Word 'Jew' and the Sycophant"
Lillian Hellman recounts the following exchange with her lawyer just before what would become her famous "uncooperative" testimony-her refusal to name names-in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952:
"Don't make jokes."
"Make jokes? Why would I make jokes?"
"Almost everybody, when they feel insulted by the Committee, makes a joke or acts smart-aleck. It's a kind of embarrassment. Don't do it."
Hellman took her lawyer's advice and maintained an impeccably dignified, resolutely noncomic bearing throughout her appearance, the fame of which derives from her courageous refusal to "cut [her] conscience to fit this year's fashions." For all the deserved fame of her testimony, however, Hellman's repudiation of mere show in favor of "the good American tradition" made her a fairly typical uncooperative witness. Accusing HUAC and its many informers-the "cooperative" or "friendly" witnesses-of a contemptible trendiness, Hellman pointed to a larger irony, whereby the congressional investigation of alleged Communist influence in show business itself became an exercise in show business: a media spectacle-one of the first of the postwar period-acted out before newsreel cameras and then, a little later, with the triumph of a new technology, under television's menacing (if distracted) gaze. The converse irony is that Hellman, like so many other left-wing figures from Hollywood and Broadway, emphatically identified herself with the very Law that was investigating and ultimately persecuting her. To put oneself on the side of this Law, to align oneself with a certain righteous left, moreover, one did not need to avoid the comic as rigorously as did Hellman. Even those uncooperative witnesses who "ma[d]e jokes" and "act[ed] smart-aleck" did so, as Hellman's lawyer explained, because they felt "insulted" or "embarrassed," their "embarrassment" and their wounded pride testifying to a seriousness, at least about themselves and their reputations, that in turn bespoke an underlying respect for the norms of self-presentation in the postwar American public sphere.
Not that HUAC was appeased by these displays of respect. The committee itself, I propose in this book, was so enraged by jokes and other manifestations of the comic that it was prepared to end the career of anyone who used them, or who might have used them, to "act smart-aleck," even if that behavior, originating in embarrassment, revealed a fundamentally law-abiding disposition. In its investigative, and punitive, zeal, HUAC deployed a hermeneutic of suspicion too implacable to be taken in by mere assertions of patriotic probity, or by the kind of joking that pays tribute to seriousness by dreading the loss of its own face. Behind both straight seriousness and comic seriousness, HUAC detected the clear and present danger of forces whose radicalness consisted in their lying beneath and beyond the saving disciplinary reach of insult and embarrassment, and that, since they could not be rehabilitated, had to be destroyed. It was just such destruction, in fact, that the practice of blacklisting attempted, and in large part achieved. Imposed by the committee on the film and television industries, which proved all too eager to enforce it, the blacklist, in effect from 1947 to the mid-1960s or later, constituted a purge of all those who would neither discuss their politics with HUAC nor "give" it the names of their fellow Communists (names that it already had). As the following chapters will show, however, the committee's official project, the investigation of Communism, served mainly as a screen for its even more obsessive and therefore much less avowable business: going after those smart alecks who, without even having had to appear before it, embarrassed it by their very being-by embodying not just the comic, but the whole scandalous, indeed criminal, conspiracy of smartness, acting, pleasure, happiness, imitation, mobility, and play, centered in yet reaching well beyond Hollywood and New York, that I will be delineating here under the rubric of comicosmopolitanism.
HUAC was not about to be put off the scent of this conspiracy by the uncooperative witnesses' frequent professions of patriotism, religiosity, and other forms of good citizenship. If comicosmopolitanism is more often a matter of unintended meanings and of performative implications than of explicit political and ethical belief, this covertness corresponds exactly to the committee's relentless suspicion that jokes were being made at the nation's expense even when, as in the case of Lillian Hellman's testimony, or of her work as a playwright and screenwriter, nothing funny seemed to be going on. As far as HUAC was concerned, in other words, making jokes was not merely a tactical gaffe that uncooperative witnesses might have avoided if they had just not let themselves get so flustered, or if only they had had a lawyer as astute as Lillian Hellman's. Rather, their making of jokes, or, more precisely, their quasigenetic propensity to make them, whether or not they ever did, was the reason the uncooperative were subpoenaed by HUAC in the first place. Once in front of the committee, they had to be made examples of, in the pedagogical sense, since they already exemplified the operations of an obscure and sinister international network of comedians, next to which "Communism" itself might aptly be said to function as a Red herring, its legendary drabness and humorlessness conveniently drawing attention away from the more driving preoccupations of those who made such a spectacle of investigating it.
Even before the uncooperative witnesses arrived in front of the committee, in order to arrive in front of it, that is, they had to have been perceived as insulting it, essentially and fundamentally, by representing the "un-American activity" of an intolerable enjoyment: an enjoyment that-insofar as it seems to bear the distinctive mark of the Jews, who have long been thought to have a particular gift both for the comic and for cosmopolitanism, and who have almost as long been resented for "controlling" American mass culture-might as well be called en-Jewment. HUAC's acting chairman, Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi, was less circumspect in his Jew-hatred than some of his colleagues on the committee (which included the by no means philo-Semitic Richard Nixon). In a statement that has become a set-piece of blacklist historiography, Rankin revealed the "real names" of various Hollywood figures-not Communists, but merely liberals-who had signed a petition criticizing the committee's encroachment on the First Amendment:
One of the names is June Havoc. We found out from the motion-picture almanac that her real name is June Hovick.
Another one was Danny Kaye, and we found out that his real name was David Daniel Kaminsky.
Another one here is John Beal, whose real name is J. Alexander Bliedung.
Another one is Cy Bartlett, whose real name is Sacha Baraniev.
Another one is Eddie Cantor, whose real name is Edward Iskowitz.
There is one who calls himself Edward Robinson. His real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg.
There is another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg.
When uncooperative witnesses make jokes or act smart-aleck in the course of their almost always bullying and unnerving interrogation by HUAC, these local transgressions merely confirm what the committee and other enforcers of Americanism suspect, and prosecute, as a prior degeneracy: a "subversive" tendency much broader and deeper than any particular political ideology, as Rankin's attack on the Hollywood liberals shows; a "subversive" tendency, indeed, of an ontological or even racial kind.
Madeline Gilford, the wife of a blacklisted actor and a blacklistee herself, relates how, posing as an NBC secretary, she called a Syracuse grocer, then terrorizing NBC by threatening to boycott products advertised on shows with blacklisted personnel:
"We're not gonna carry those products [Kellogg's cereals and Pet Milk], if you're gonna have those people on your shows. You people down there in New York may think it's all right, but it isn't all right with us up here in the country. I told him [the network executive] you can't have those people on like George Kaufman and Sam Levinson," and he proceeded to name only Jews, so "you people down in New York" was another euphemism.
Kaufman and Levinson were hardly Communists, but they did not need to be: it was enough that they were comic denizens (one as an author, the other as a performer) of the New York-Jewish world of show business. If the defenders of "the country" were insulting, this is because they felt insulted by the very presence, "down there in New York," and in all sorts of less obvious cultural and academic nooks and crannies, of what they apprehended as virtually a race of jokers, far larger than the considerable parade of witnesses whom, in an exercise of synecdochic justice, HUAC summoned before itself.
For its part, the committee itself was as synecdochic as the justice it meted out, so fashionable, as Hellman perceived, was the anticosmopolitanism it represented. Here, for instance, is Congressman George Dondero of Michigan, not a member of HUAC but what we might call a fellow non-traveler:
The art of the isms, the weapon of the Russian Revolution, is the art which has been transplanted to America, and today, having infiltrated and saturated many of our art centers, threatens to overawe, override and overpower the fine art of our tradition and inheritance. So-called modern or contemporary art in our own beloved country contains all the isms of depravity, decadence, and destruction....
All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art.... All are instruments and weapons of destruction.
Like the Syracuse grocer, Congressmen Dondero and Rankin, less wary than most of their colleagues, come close to articulating the inarticulable fantasy behind the anti-Communist fashion show of which HUAC, before and after Joseph McCarthy, was the nation's principal impresario: a fantasy of revenge against those who had inflicted on it, and on the nation as a whole, the massively insulting joke-depraved, decadent, destructive-of comicosmopolitanism and en-Jewment themselves.
To be a cooperative witness, as I have noted, one had to do more than just renounce Communism: one had to recite for HUAC the names of one's associates in the Party, thereby becoming what I will be calling a sycophant-literally and archaically, one who shows the fig, or, by extension, one who points the finger at fig-thieves, or, by further extension, an informer. In keeping with the more familiar understanding of the term, the sycophant, the object of sycoanalysis-the discipline introduced and unfolded throughout these pages-certainly flatters the committee, mitigating the insult that the uncooperative and their fellow-traveling, indeed all-too-nomadic, kind have already inherently inflicted upon it. An uncooperative witness, of course, is one who refuses to inform. But behind this refusal lies the image of another refusal, even more outrageous in the minds of those who would avenge it: a refusal of that American seriousness that HUAC sees itself as both protecting and, since its members, after all, belong to the House of Representatives, representing. I have suggested that anyone capable of feeling insulted and embarrassed, as many uncooperative witnesses undoubtedly were, cannot have relinquished all claims to seriousness, at least in relation to him- or herself. But despite their often explicit endorsement of this value, and despite their not infrequent recourse to the language of dignity, pride, and strength, the most uncooperative of the uncooperative witnesses-the least righteous of the left-incur the wrath of the committee by rejecting its very rhetoric of national self-presentation: by enacting a comedy grounded not in the anxious imperative to cover or to recover from embarrassment, but, on the contrary, in an indifference to embarrassment and therefore to the norms of citizenship that it presupposes.
Consider, for instance, this excerpt from the HUAC hearing of the actor Lionel Stander in 1953:
MR. VELDE [THE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN]: Let me tell you this: You are a witness before this Committee-
MR. STANDER: Well, if you are interested-
MR. VELDE:-a Committee of the Congress of the United States-
MR. STANDER:-I am willing to tell you-
MR. VELDE:-and you are in the same position as any other witness before this Committee-
MR. STANDER:-I am willing to tell you about these activities-
MR. VELDE:-regardless of your standing in the motion-picture world-
MR. STANDER:-which I think are subversive.
MR. VELDE:-or for any other reason. No witness can come before the Committee and insult the Committee-
MR. STANDER: Is this an insult to the Committee?
MR. VELDE:-and continue to-
MR. STANDER:-when I inform the Committee I know of subversive activities which are contrary to the Constitution?
MR. VELDE: Now, Mr. Stander, unless you begin to answer these questions and act like a witness in a reasonable, dignified manner, under the rules of the Committee, I will be forced to have you removed from this room.
MR. STANDER: I am deeply shocked, Mr. Chairman.
The "subversive activities which are contrary to the Constitution" turn out to be those of the committee itself, whose members Stander characterizes as "a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (643). Anticipating this punch line, Congressman Velde would avert its "insult" by threatening the witness. But this is an insult that pays a hidden compliment: implicit in Stander's disapproval of the subversive activities perpetrated by the committee is a regard for the law and the nation, albeit a more benign law and a more democratic nation than those the committee purports to defend. Stander was not the only uncooperative witness to accuse it of the very un-Americanism it claimed to be investigating. "You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves" (789), Paul Robeson would reproach his interrogators; after laughing during his testimony, and being warned, "This is not a laughing matter," Robeson replied, "It is a laughing matter to me, and this [hearing] is really complete nonsense" (774). However provocative and even antagonistic, Robeson's attempt to shame the committee, like Stander's attempt to charge it with subversion, or like Hellman's tactic of smearing it with fashionability, still plays by the rules of a national style of seriousness that the committee itself enforces, far more aggressively and vigilantly than any particular ideology, anti-Communist or otherwise. For Robeson to describe the hearing as a "laughing matter" is for him to dismiss it as "complete nonsense"-as though the comic were equivalent to the merely absurd. Similarly, for Stander to invoke the Constitution against the committee is for him to confront one earnestness with another.
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