Several years ago I was gifted a 400+, six volume set of books called “Thought Control in U.S.A.” Put out by the Hollywood A. S. P. Council after a 1947 conference in reaction to what would, in the 1950s, become the infamous blacklisting of Hollywood during McCarthyism. The text includes lectures, papers and testimony at the conference by writers, actors, academics, and others. Below is a 10 minute speech edited together from the words of these activists.
The political events of the past few years have a strangely familiar ring. In fact, we might define the American way of life as an uninterrupted struggle by the people to establish, preserve and extend basic civil rights against a powerful few, who would impair or abolish them.
Today our American cities, by and large, reflect our society, our economic way-of-life, and the determination of some to maintain the status quo. Our towering skyscrapers advertise to the world the importance and power of the giant private corporations in our economy. The many churches demonstrate our financial as well as our spiritual devotion and our attitude toward religion.
We terrorize, intimidate and silence the voices that speak for liberalism and progress in sociology, politics and economics. Why not use the same hysteria against the artist? Why not declare that any art work that attempts to record, examine or comment upon contemporary life, paves the way for conclusions that might then also be labeled radical?
The artist is one of the most valuable assets a nation has. Yet America is content to let her artists scramble for a living. There is enough money in the American treasury to carry on experiments in newer and more efficient methods of exterminating mankind. Is it too much to ask that a tiny segment of this amount be put to the use by our country’s artists?
Yes, when the former President of the United States has said, “so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people.”
We come to see ourselves as others see us. Told that it was somehow ill bred for a creative artist to concern himself with matters more concrete than his own psyche, the musician’s art became less actively identified with the social scene, the product of his talent became a luxury, and he himself became economically expendable.
Just whom is such a state of affairs designed to benefit? Surely not the musician, who forfeits his franchise as a human being when he accepts less than the full privileges of citizenship. Surely not the people, who have relied on the artist in every age to discover and codify the multiform needs of the human spirit.
Who does profit, then? The men of ill-will, who would make the hands of history stand still forever at the hour of their own greatest aggrandizement.
Reaction is in mortal terror of the artist’s power to create. It must, at all costs, keep him from realizing his potency as an intellectual and moral force in his community, as an agency of progress throughout the world—as, in short, a citizen of his time.
Like anyone else, the musician must eat. He must have a roof over his head. He must earn his living by the labor of his hand and brain. For, let’s not be highbrow about it, the musician, like all productive workers, is a laborer.
Let me appear to digress for a moment, to make a generalization about the function of dramatic fiction. Drama deals with the strains to which human relationships are subject and the conflicts that result from them. These strains and conflicts spring from many forms of antagonism and aggression. To control these, society has produced religions, philosophies, systems of ethics, of government, of law, of political and economic control. None of them, so far, has worked perfectly, or even well. Religions and their ethical codes have not abolished sin. Legal codes and their enforcement have not done away with disorder. And the economic systems have not produced universal security and justice.
The fact is, the aggressions and strains continue, and are exacerbated by the religions, the laws, the philosophies, the systems, because they often oppose the deepest instinctual needs of human beings, even as they seek to guide them to fulfillment. And, unhappily, they have a faculty of generating great and belligerent loyalties—the kind that make bigots of the religious and nationalists of the patriotic.
Faced with objective censorship, writers have tried to deal with it—because a writer not only writes for expression, but also to communicate. This means that he always exercises some censorship in relation to his audience.
In some cases, the writer loses the very audience he is trying to reach. He hesitates to explore new areas because he has been taught for many years to make work to which no one will object. Obviously, the only way to do this is to stop from reflecting any of the real conflicts and stresses of our society.
The choice becomes clear; fight back or keep silent; and silence is a terrible admission of defeat; but beware, it is in the nature of thought control that it can never be satisfied; that the greater the control, the greater demand for freedom it creates; whence a greater urge to control.
We can choose between being good citizens or bad citizens. It’s quite simple to be a bad citizen. All you have to do is to close your ears and eyes. Refuse to listen or to talk. Overlook racial intolerance, ignore starving nations abroad, and hungry families at home. That is all. It’s harder to be a good citizen. To look squarely at the injustices and inequalities of our world and know them for what they are.
The artist is the enlightener of the human struggle, or he is nothing.
The history of literature is dominated by writers, distinguished in their lives and work by their compassion for people and their love of people; distinguished further by their partisan espousal of the social movements in their time that were forward-looking, often radical. And how could it be otherwise? Writers, being human, have been moved by the suffering of other men. What is a writer to use as his material, if not the lives of his fellows? And if his heart be compassionate, his mind inquiring, his eyes perceptive, how can he avoid the portrayal of an imperfect world—or close his own heart to the longing of a better one? Since writers began to write, men have been in turmoil, and the world has been either in motion or convulsion. There has been not one day of tranquility, one day without human suffering, one day in which some human hearts have not hoped and dreamed of change.
Out of this fundamental has come much of the world’s literature. Out of it also has come the fact that vast numbers of literary men and women have been guerrilla fighters for unpopular causes. The list of the great in literature is heavy with the names of those who in their time were objects of censorship, who were social radicals, who were the subject-matter of police reports and the object-matter for slander, ridicule, misrepresentation. Some grew weary, some became smug, some were confused, some were intimidated.
We are writers; we cherish the arts, we cherish our freedom.
This is our heritage. What we inherit, we have an obligation to defend and to enrich and to pass on. And if we do that, then we will be worthy of the name of writers.
And who is that most dangerous sort of writer? The academic, whose work is threatened by an ongoing witch hunt.
First, we must define what we mean by an academic witch. A witch is one who, dressed in black cap and gown, consorts with the devil in any of his many disguises: racial equality, Communism, unionism, free love, progressive education, and so on.
The Salem witch was immersed as a test of innocence. If he drowned, he was proven innocent. The academic witch today is grilled. If he denies his subversive connections, he is obviously lying. If he admits and defends his unorthodox views, he will promptly lose his job.
Academic freedom is never secure against attack so long as there exists some unpleasant social fact that an educator is indiscreet enough to turn up, or some disagreeable social problem that he is not tactful enough to ignore.
It is during these periods that the term radical is slug around with abandon. And radicalism is a conveniently flexible term that can mean almost anything. It usually indicates that the teacher deals with social problems realistically, that he has a sense of justice, a sympathy for oppressed groups, or a social conscience.
Before scholars at our formal institutions of education turned their attention to the dangerous thoughts of the social sciences, the enemies of intellectual freedom had begun their work.
Take, for example, the scientist.
More serious to the scientist than this restraint in his freedom of expression, is the restriction of the subject of his investigation. To the scientist, the search for truth comes first.
The choice of the scientist to work for industry is no more free than that of any other worker: he can work or he can starve. Many choose positions at universities and colleges at much lower salaries but with somewhat more freedom than industry offers. Since most positions for men trained as scientists are with industrial firms, most of these men must work for industry and submit to the thought control involved therein.
This creates a suppression of the scientist’s socially-useful results and diverts his efforts into socially-harmful directions. When a useful discovery is suppressed or obstructed because it would be unprofitable to a private interest, the inventor is disheartened and is less likely to apply himself to further discoveries. The joy of scientific work comes from the discovery of the beauties in the laws of nature, and the enhancement of human welfare through their application.
And just as devoid of real progress, just as tied to the marketers and the big businesses is entertainment.
Twist the dial to a network station and we encounter the soap opera. We encounter dozens of soap operas. We twist the dial desperately, but there is no escape. So, we watch and are treated to a veritable orgy of suffering in an unreal world compared to which Alice’s Wonderland has the clarity and authenticity of a documentary.
We can turn the channels endlessly, only to encounter everywhere the fog of thought control. We must know and publicly brand thought control for what it is. Its results are the general debasement of culture, the corruption of creative talent, the pollution of public taste, and the progressive deterioration of public intelligence. It seeks to perpetuate social myths, acceptance of which immobilizes social action for true democracy.
Why do big corporations find it desirable to advertise free enterprise? Is it because they see a depression coming, and they don’t want people to blame the system? Is it because they don’t want people to think depressions might be unnecessary if distribution were better planned?
Big business wants to control the world. To do this, they may try to drag America further into war, but big business can’t go to war against the pressure of an informed public opinion. Hence, the drive for thought control.
Today we stand on the brink of a new era and, with increasing anxiety, watch a world drama rush though the daily headlines of our newspapers.
Acts of violence and destruction head the list of newsworthy items. The more startling or horrible a story is, the more newsworthy it is considered.
These things lead up to a distortion of the news itself or to misleading the casual reader into believing an inaccurate head is the truth. This is thought control.
With all their faults admitted, no one can possibly assert that newspaper owners are criminal enough to provoke war. Yet in almost every crisis the tension is increased by the newspapers.
Here, another question arises. Why do those who oppress, single out journalists as their first targets? Do they not firmly believe that physical terror is more decisive than all ideas and ideals? Oppression cannot win if it does not first destroy the ability and the will of the people to think. To make people think, to support them with the tools that they need in order to think freely and correctly, is the most urgent and holiest mission of intellectuals, writers, journalists, and artists. Oppression cannot succeed as long as these men fulfill their mission, because in contrast to old-fashioned dictatorship, the new oppression is dependent on the ideological support of a large part of the intelligentsia, the middle-class, the workers.
We must reject as utterly fallacious, as well as suicidal, the notion that culture must be noncontroversial. If culture is to survive at all, it must take sides against the forces that would destroy it. The writers, actors, directors—all creative people must proclaim their bias against oppression and for peace and democracy.
[These words are not my own words. They were spoken by silenced writers, actors, scientist, academics, musicians and artists at a conference on Thought Control in the United States in 1947. Sadly, they are as true today as there were 62 years ago.]
Conference on Thought Control in the U.S. and Salemson, Harold J. and Progressive Citizens of America. Hollywood Arts, Sciences, and Professions Council. Thought control in U.S.A. / [the collected proceedings of the Conference on the Subject of Thought Control in the U.S. … ; edited by Harold J. Salemson Hollywood A.S.P. Council, Hollywood, Calif. : 1947