The American playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) is remembered today for, among other controversies, her written testimony given to the anti-Communist House on Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Hellman was notoriously self-dramatizing and her autobiographical works were later subject to skeptical reevaluation, but in refusing to answer questions from the Red-scared HUAC, she provided one line which has gone down in authentic history: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Hellman’s words are relevant today, in a new climate of McCarthyism which seems bent on finding not Communists but racists under every bed. Canadian TV pundit Stockwell Day was recently dismissed from his seat on a CBC news panel for expressing doubts that systemic racism existed in Canada, while the same network’s Wendy Mesley was suspended for speaking an unspecified racial slur on air, in reference to racist language. In the US, New York Times Op-Ed editor James Bennet was fired for approving the publication of an essay by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, which called for using soldiers against the mass protests arisen in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police.
These and comparable episodes are related to the “cancel culture” of social media, whereby any online post deemed offensive results in an electronic mob descending on the offender to render him or her nonexistent on whatever platforms were used to give offense. In a world where most time is screen time, cancel culture is virtually lethal. But the current zealotry also takes down old-fashioned talk show hosts, columnists, and others whose utterances were not just careless Facebook or Twitter quips but honest opinions, misstatements, or editorial decisions suddenly judged unacceptable.
Admittedly, free speech is not uncontested speech. As with the original blacklist of the HUAC era, no one has an inherent right to be a Hollywood screenwriter or Ivy League professor; the same goes for prominent journalists and talking heads today. You can say whatever you want, but you can’t necessarily get a prestigious forum in which to say it. Yet the rush of suspensions and resignations does resemble a form of pre-emptive panic against racism that targets not the conclusively indicted but the circumstantially suspect.
The Red Scare seldom apprehended bomb-plotting revolutionaries or active Soviet agents; more often its victims were naive or luckless individuals who’d joined in a parade, attended a meeting, or signed a petition, sometimes long in their past, and then found themselves hounded for their history. Likewise, today’s purges are not exposing secret neo-Nazis or KKK memberships but perfectly decent people whose language or positions – or embarrassing party photos from decades ago – contravene contemporary racial orthodoxies. Anti-Communist and anti-racist logic also runs on the witch-hunting premise that, if you admit the wrong, then you’re guilty, but if you deny it, you’re obviously covering up, and therefore even guiltier. These are the “pinks” and “fellow travellers” of the present, whose careers and community standings can be destroyed on the merest accusation.
Both anti-Communism and anti-racism are, of course, worthy projects. The horrors of the Gulag and the ghetto, the oppressions of Joseph Stalin and Jim Crow, are rightly reviled. Influential people attempting to foment a political coup, or install a society-wide caste system, ought to be pointed out and prosecuted. But these are not the people most affected by the curtailment of thought and word enforced in the name of opposing Communism or racism. It is instead the quietly dubious, the already contrite, and the easily cowed who are most often sacrificed on the altar of good causes – the Stockwell Days, Wendy Mesleys, and James Bennets left friendless and alone when they forget to censor themselves according to the latest moral style. Whether in 1952 or 2020, the burgeoning blacklists consist mostly of those who cannot or will not cut their consciences to fit this year’s fashions.