How the Hollywood Blacklist Gave Us the Term “Witch Hunt”—And Why the Phrase Would Be Best Forgotten

Image result for daniel day lewis crucible
Daniel Day Lewis stars as John Proctor in the 1996 film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Editor’s Note: Before you read this post, here’s a weird story about how it was almost published elsewhere.

I initially wrote this essay, and sent it off to various online publications to see if it might be posted somewhere a little more prolific than my humble WordPress site. After many solicitations, I found an editor that was interested, who emailed me to say that they “would be delighted” to publish the essay on their website. That editor and his publication will remain nameless, but suffice it to say it was the website of a relatively venerable magazine of the left.

I was told it would go up on a Thursday, so I emailed the editor the next day after I didn’t see it posted. They replied to me more than four days later, albeit apologetically, and let me know they were having some technical difficulties, but that they were editing it as they typed. Another two days passed, when they let me know that the essay was posted, and that I could give it a quick review before they tweeted it out.

About an hour after I reviewed the essay—I had just found a couple of small bugs—I got another email from the editor, letting me know that they had to take down the essay, for reasons that were “complicated.”

It would be another two days before I got a full explanation. Apparently, the claims that I state about the playwright Arthur Miller raised the hackles of a senior editorial board member, who I guess had some kind of personal relationship with Miller. To be clear, I don’t make any claims that literary scholar Alan Wald hasn’t already published in a peer-reviewed book. And I don’t think my essay denigrates or demeans Miller’s character in any way. But these are touchy subjects still, I suppose, even though Miller passed away thirteen years ago.

That this editorial board member saw the essay as it was being posted doesn’t explain the initial delay—that which was blamed on technical difficulties—and I now wonder if there’s more to the story. But I suppose I’ll never know.

Anyways, here it is: “How the Hollywood Blacklist Gave Us the Term ‘Witch Hunt’—And Why the Phrase Would Be Best Forgotten”

* * *

Call it the new law of public discourse: every serious accusation, if given enough time, will be met with cries that it is part of a “witch hunt.” In 2018, those cries are heard most loudly on the part of the privileged and the powerful. President Donald Trump, finding his administration under investigation by an independent counsel for campaign violations, peppers his tweets with the phrase liberally. And male celebrities from Liam Neeson to Woody Allen, reeling from the speed at which their friends are being found out to be rapists and misogynists, are cautioning the people to temper themselves, lest the hoi polloi become perpetrators of a witch hunt that might snag some innocent man in its drag net.

Actual witch hunts still occur around the world, but in Europe and North America we can generally say that they died out with the onset of the liberal Enlightenment. Before then, waves of paranoia and suspicion would periodically sweep communities, causing mobs and government figures to place on women their fears and anxieties about that which was unknown, uncertain, or precarious in the world. Scapegoating the women as witches, these people could regain control. Often they would concoct absurd show trials, or devise impossible tests, by which the accused women might be able to prove their innocence, all as a means of restoring a sense of law and order to their communities.

Arguably, we owe the presence of the witch hunt allegory today to the Hollywood blacklist that began in 1947. At the dawn of the cold war, the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) opened an investigation into whether communists had infiltrated Hollywood. In the wake of their investigation, the major movie studios agreed to stop employing anyone with connections to communism. As the red scare spread to the stage, radio, and television, some of those who were accused found they could be welcomed back into their employers’ good graces by “naming names,” or cooperating with HUAC by renouncing their former radical allegiances and pointing their fingers at their colleagues.

Although the blacklist has been memorialized in self-referential Hollywood movies like Guilty by Suspicion and Trumbo, few remember the details, such as how Hollywood really was a hotbed of radical activity. Turbulent labor union activity in the 1930s had birthed institutions like the Screenwriters Guild, which in turn fostered a progressive atmosphere where industry men and women, many of whom were secular Jews, made common cause not only with workers, but also with other minorities. Instead of remembering these details, we remember the blacklist chiefly through allegory. The premise of the witch hunt that it birthed is so powerful that it has prevented more realist accounts of the blacklist from being remembered.

For this we can thank the playwright Arthur Miller. Miller’s friend and colleague, stage and screen director Elia Kazan, was called to testify before HUAC in 1952. He was asked to name the names of those he knew to be communist or sympathetic to communism. When Kazan gave up eight names of his friends in show business, it destroyed his friendship with Miller. In the midst of their falling out, Miller wrote The Crucible, a dramatization of the Salem witchcraft trials. In these trials, which took place in 1692, twenty Massachusetts men and women were killed—mostly women—as social anxiety fostered fear and hysteria. The Crucible premiered in 1953. Two years later, Miller himself was called before HUAC.

Miller saw a connection between how the community members in Salem turned against each other by pointing fingers at others and accusing them of being witches, and how Hollywood’s conservatives and left-liberals alike turned on one another in order to be in the government’s good graces. In both cases, according to Miller, the accused were victims of circumstance, and not witches or communists, respectively. The red scare and the witch hunt were alike in that the innocent were being painted as guilty. Miller centered his story around John Proctor, a landowning farmer who refuses to implicate others as witches even as he is ultimately forced to confess to being one.

Here’s the irony: it’s quite likely that Miller was in fact a communist, although he always insisted otherwise. Miller, like many other victims of the red scare, clung to a conception of civil liberties that privileged the right not to disclose one’s political affiliations, even decades after the red scare had passed. This has made the work of determining who exactly was a radical difficult for historians studying this era. But literary scholar Alan Wald, in connecting various dots across a pseudonym that Miller used in writing for the New Masses and the presence of that name among the members of a Communist Party writers’ unit, has shown that Miller was a dedicated man of the left, at least in the 1940s. This wasn’t a witch hunt, it was a culture war.

This is not to say Miller, or any of Hollywood’s communists “deserved” their treatment. But it is to make a couple of points. First, that the allegory doesn’t hold up as an appropriate or useful means to understand the culture wars of the 1940s and 1950s, any more than the allegory works for the culture wars of today. It paints those who were actively engaged in the left-liberal movements and debates of the thirties and forties as ideological naifs. And second, adopting the narrative that the witch hunt story emerged as a natural consequence of the 1950s red scare obscures how left-liberals strategically sought out this narrative exactly because others had become closed off. On stage or on screen, you couldn’t tell a story about labor unions or radicals. It was even risky to tell a story about immigrants or minorities, unless those stories hewed to a “consensus” vision of America. Writers turned to allegories such as the Salem witchcraft trials because they had few other valid means of resistance. It was intended to be an act of subterfuge, and at the same time it was one of last resort.

Two months after Miller’s play opened on Broadway, the popular television show “You Are There,” which was secretly being written by three blacklisted radical screenwriters, aired their own episode on the Salem witches. Variety noted the similarities, and it also called the episode “a powerful documentary for our times,” and said it “underlined in strikingly dramatic terms the lethal threat of false accusations and mass hysteria.” The trade magazine took it for granted that its readers would understand why the trials were relevant. The witch hunt had entered public consciousness.

Another popular television show written secretly by blacklisted writers, The Adventures of Robin Hood also used the witch hunt theme. In one episode, villagers accuse a poor woman of being a witch after she is found with a gold plate that she couldn’t possibly afford. The villagers believe it is alchemy, but in fact she has been given the plate by one of Robin Hood’s merry men, who is also her son. After the Sheriff of Nottingham learns of the accusation, he stirs the villagers up, capitalizing on their hysteria to draw Robin into a trap. In this and other episodes of the show, the writers played up story lines in which villagers accused one another of crimes and brought on mob rule in attempts to speak to the reactionary politics of the United States.

The witch allegory even spread to comedy films. 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, in which Kim Novak plays a witch, features a toss-away joke where James Stewart asks her if she is guilty of perpetrating “un-American activities.” By this time, the allegory must have been well known. But if it ever had any political teeth to begin with, it had certainly by now been de-fanged. Miller and the entertainment industry left had never been engaged in a pursuit of moral individualism—they were interested in class war. The story of witch hunts permitted them to keep speaking, but the cost was that they could only talk in a register of civil libertarianism, of individual freedom that centered freedom of conscience and moved the social issues that they were captivated by to the margins. Tom Joad was out. John Proctor was in.

It’s important to emphasize that witch hunts are more than simply false accusations. What distinguishes the former from the latter is an element of mob justice or collective irrationalism. For a false accusation to develop into a witch hunt, the accusation must lead to a zealous political or social pursuit of punishment, often driven by fear or paranoia. Furthermore, witch hunts, as the concept is deployed metaphorically, are often characterized by plots in which individuals turn on one another, influenced by the mob to capitalize on their social relationships by betraying a friend or community member. In these instances, it’s the men like John Proctor who serve as the stalwart righteous individuals. Cool headed, rational, and possessed of an iron moral will, they offer contrast to an array of ills: the faceless mob, the institutions that direct it, and the selfish individuals that those institutions have corrupted.

The rhetoric of a “witch hunt” takes contests over power—ones between those with power, and those challenging power—and turns them into contests between those who are ostensibly “rational” and those who are ostensibly “irrational.” No wonder then, that as liberal Enlightenment ideas spread across popular thought, the literal witch hunt became less of a reality and more of an allegorical lesson, an admonition to conform to a model of the autonomous, free-thinking, liberal, individual self.

When The Crucible was turned into a feature film in 1996, it only made sense that the most celebrated authority of the Hollywood blacklist—Victor Navasky, whose Naming Names won the National Book Award—would write about it. Navasky’s 1980 history of the Hollywood blacklist picked up the witch hunt allegory and ran with it. Ostensibly a man of the left, he framed the blacklist as a battle between the individual, rational mind on one hand, and the imperious government institutions that might corrupt it and bend it against one’s fellow man on the other. It was a story that perfectly coincided with the coronating moment of the Reagan Revolution. In his November 1980 review of Navasky’s book, even the conservative godfather William F. Buckley himself approved of Navasky’s framing of HUAC. It turns out no one likes witch hunts. Americans all agreed.

Sixteen years later, in writing about Hollywood’s The Crucible, Navasky highlighted the capacious potential for its underlying allegory. It wasn’t about “McCarthyism” at all, he declared, but “rather it was about something more universal—fear of forces one can’t understand and control.” He went on to suggest that it could be read, in 1996, as being chiefly about the contemporary rash of allegations of child molestations that had proved to be unsubstantiated.

By this estimation, the movie must be important, powerful, and meaningful. After all, who would argue that parents and caretakers shouldn’t be falsely accused of child molestations? The problem with the witch hunt allegory is that it serves no agonistic purpose. What appears on the surface to be politically incisive is both reductive and anodyne. Consider that if stories of witch hunts were dangerous, they wouldn’t have appeared on syndicated television in the mid to late 1950s. They are inoffensive precisely because no one understands themselves to be dupes to social panics or “fake news.” Everyone agrees that witch hunts are bad, because they tend to understand themselves as privileging logic, free thinking, and the “rule of law.”

Yet the phrase endures. And we should note that right-wing politicians and conservative white men are not the only ones who still use it. Last year, Julie Garfield penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Memories of a Real ‘Witch-Hunt.’” The author is the daughter of John Garfield, a popular actor by the late 1940s, and one of the Hollywood blacklist’s most notorious victims. After being called before HUAC, Garfield tried to exonerate himself, but upon losing his job and failing to find anyone that would publish his statement of innocence, he suffered heart failure and died. Julie Garfield summarizes her father’s experience this way: “My father was not a Communist, but he declined to name people who might have been. The experience ruined his career.”

The truth is more complicated. If not a communist, Garfield was at least an active advocate for left-wing causes. But his daughter’s essay, in highlighting how he was a victim of a witch hunt, turns his role in political struggle into an argument about individual morals. In this telling, Garfield suffered not because his politics opposed those of the powerful, but because he practiced Sartrean individualism, a complete, rational devotion to freedom of conscience, even as he was an innocent, falsely accused victim of a paranoiac irrational American political culture.

John Garfield
John Garfield in the great 1947 film, Body and Soul.

Julie Garfield saw it fit to rebuke Trump’s invocation of a witch hunt by one-upping him with a story that was more “real.” But in the end, references to witch hunts do no one favors. Most allegories work to strip what is specific and realist, and replace these with what is abstract and metaphysical. A rhetorical strategy adopted by an embattled left, the opaque phrase “witch hunt” may now be wielded by any American who so chooses to pick it up. But just as tarring something as a witch hunt does little to reveal the underlying motivations and power dynamics behind the allegedly unjust attack, so does combatting a charge of leading a witch hunt require more than simply waving away the charge, characterizing one self as a free thinking, morally upstanding individual. If one finds oneself in either place, it’s not important to state whether you are “for” or “against” witch hunts, a question that privileges abstract individual ethics as the subject of public discourse at the cost of any social material context. The question is whether you are for or against justice, or in other words, how one orients themselves in relation to society.

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