On Newt Gingrich and the House Un-American Activities Committee

My grandparents changed their name in the 1950s. From Myrowitz to…well, a nice Anglo-Saxon name.

There’s a CNN story from June being circulated on Facebook: Newt Gingrich wants new House Un-American Activities Committee. I didn’t see it at the time, probably because I thought, like many Americans, that Gingrich had been relegated to the dustbin of our history, irrelevant. This, of course, is no longer true. I have to tell you, even in a week of horrible news, of nearly every post on social media triggering some sort of negative reaction, this one might be the one that makes me coldest.

I realize that some of you might not know what the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was. After all, I didn’t learn about it in school — in fact, almost ironically, I found out what it was from a movie — and it is a part of history that we are almost pathologically ashamed to mention, so we hide it away, in the back of the closet, as if that would make it disappear.

From 1938 until 1975, HUAC was a House of Representatives committee whose sole purpose was to investigate Americans citizens— both private and public figures — and organizations on charges of disloyalty and subversion, because of suspected communist ties. As part of the McCarthy era and McCarthyism (but noting that Joseph McCarthy, as a Senator, was not part of HUAC), it helped inflame the rabid anti-communist fears and the real persecution of American citizens. Both intellectuals and Hollywood creatives especially came into their focus. And what McCarthyism was really after was Jews.

Hollywood, in particular, bore the brunt of the consequences. A blacklist was in place starting in 1946 — just a year after World War II ended, remember — and there were a ton of Jewish names on that list. (See for yourself.) These writers, directors, producers, musicians, actors, and entertainers were banned from working in show business, and lost their jobs, their homes, even their lives. Simply because there was a possibility that they may have, at some point in their lives, been interested in communist thought. Most never regained their status in the industry.

This was wrong.

I am writing this clinically, because like so much else, we need to distance ourselves for our own sanity, but I don’t think it’s getting across the fear of the time. Fear that HUAC contributed to. And that fear has indirectly shaped my family.

My grandparents changed their surname in the 1950s.

I’ve always known this; my grandmother told me, when I was quite young, that they changed it because in the '50s, “It wasn’t a good idea to seem Jewish.” (It kills me that, not even ten years after the Holocaust, there wasn’t a bigger outcry against clear anti-Semitism. But it was cloaked anti-Semitism. Just like it is cloaked now.)

My grandfather was a performer, an actor, for most of his life. While we never talked about it, I, as a child, inferred that the Jewish name was a liability, one that made it hard to find work, because Jews were likely to be un-American, likely communists, according to public opinion.  We now have a perfectly fine, if bland, Anglo-Saxon family name, and with it, at least for me, the constant subvocal reminder that it isn’t always safe to be either Jewish or interested in ideas that could change the world.

Regardless of what Mr. Gingrich thinks, HUAC’s actions were, themselves, unAmerican. We are guaranteed, under the Bill of Rights, the rights to speech, to assembly, to religion (or lack thereof), and by extension, to thought. We are promised the right to explore new ideas and encouraged to consider better ways to structure our world — that’s part of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence. 

And even if these rights weren’t guaranteed, persecuting people for having ideas or believing in causes doesn’t work. That’s how you create radicals, and enemies, and dangerous situations. The ideas don’t go away, even if they may go underground for a bit. And when they come back, you often aren’t prepared for their new strength. The only ways I know to truly disempower an idea is to either show why it is ineffectual (think how experience has shown us communism seems to lead to authoritarianism) or by showing why another idea is better.

Harassing people and destroying lives at the governmental level does not show any of us that democracy is any better than whatever our ideas are.

And, in the mix, HUAC hurt everyone else, too. Think of all the movies we didn’t get to see, the radio shows we didn’t hear, the theatre left unproduced. And in academia, think of the voices silenced, the ideas lost.

Mr. Gingrich is proposing this new HUAC should address the Muslim community (and in other places I’ve seen ideas floated that Muslims should be forced to register with the government — if that doesn’t terrify you, then please go read some German history circa the 1930s).  We can’t let this happen. We cannot let any community be targeted and torn apart for believing in ideas. We cannot let other children grow up, decades from now, with constant reminders that their lives may not be safe. It is unacceptable.

To do so would be to become less American.

 

Coda:

And if the worst comes to happen, and Mr. Gingrich gets his way, there are ways to protest. I leave you with two of them — two of my heroes from the McCarthy era:

Screenwriter Howard Lawson, testifying HUAC, 1947.

 

Thomas: Are you a member of the Communist Party or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Lawson: It's unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this committee the basic principles of Americanism.

Thomas: That's not the question. That's not the question. The question is—have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Lawson: I am framing my answer in the only way in which any American citizen can frame his answer to...

Thomas: Then you deny it?

Lawson: ... a question that invades his ... absolutely invades his privacy.

Thomas: Then you deny ... You refuse to answer that question, is that correct?

Lawson: I have told you that I will offer my beliefs, my affiliations and everything else to the American public and they will know where I stand as they do from what I have written.

Thomas: Stand away from the stand...

Lawson: I have written for Americanism for many years...

Thomas: Stand away from the stand...

Lawson: And I shall continue to fight for the Bill of Rights, which you are trying to destroy.

Thomas: Officer, take this man away from the stand.

Academic William Mandel testifying before HUAC, 1960. All of it is good, but this is the best part:

“Honorable beaters of children, sadists, uniformed and in plain clothes, distinguished Dixiecrat wearing the clothing of a gentleman, eminent Republican who opposes an accommodation with the one country with which we must live at peace in order for us and all our children to survive. My boy of fifteen left this room a few minutes ago in sound health and not jailed, solely because I asked him to be in here to learn something about the procedures of the United States government and one of its committees. Had he been outside where a son of a friend of mine had his head split by these goons operating under your orders, my boy today might have paid the penalty of permanent injury or a police record for desiring to come here and hear how this committee operates. If you think that I am going to cooperate with this collection of Judases, of men who sit there in violation of the United States Constitution, if you think I will cooperate with you in any way, you are insane!"