Once upon a cold war I wrote A Journal of the Plague Years, a book about the show-business blacklist. Covering the events of the forties and fifties, I showed how a small, well-organized group of intimidators could destroy livelihoods and sometimes lives. I warned readers to be on their guard: given new political hysteria on the right, the blacklist could happen again. About the recurrence, I was on the money. About the direction, I was all wet.
The original blacklist began after the House Un-American Activities Committee probed Hollywood in 1947. HUAC claimed that the studios overflowed with directors, performers, and scenarists in lockstep with the Communist Party line. Terrified, the Association of Motion Picture Producers announced that it would take action against all "alleged subversive and disloyal elements." Panic spread to radio and TV. Anxious to avoid an investigation, the networks hired private investigators and consulted freelance blacklisters.
The freelancers sold rosters of "subversives," filled with undifferentiated facts and innuendo, and they wrote warning letters to advertisers and networks threatening major disturbances if they used blacklistees. The threats were effective. Making matters even worse was the inability of networks and advertising execs to make distinctions, lumping together the authentic Stalinist with the director who raised money for Russian war relief and the actor who signed a petition to integrate baseball. All this sorry business went on until the late fifties, when lawsuits finally put a stop to it.
Fifty years later, most people think the blacklist is as defunct as the Soviet Union. Actually, like Dracula, it has recently risen from the grave with a new thirst for blood. But with this difference: the new blacklisters come from the left. Case in point: the demonization of Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
The broadcaster's most virulent enemies run a website called stopdrlaura.com, subtitled "A Coalition Against Hate." Actually, it's a coalition for hatefulminating, intimidating hate. Why expend so much rage on a radio talk-show hostess? For one reason: Schlessinger, an Orthodox Jew strong on family values and scriptural tradition, used the word "deviant" when referring to some homosexual behavior. She compounded that faux pas by reminding listeners that the Bible doesn't look kindly upon homosexual practices. Plainly, according to the Coalition, this is "hate speech." Ergo the lady must no longer speak on the airwaves.
How best to accomplish this? Why, by the time-honored bombardment of executives and sponsors with phone calls and threatening mailoften sent from the same address. To heat up the intimidation, the Coalition recently listed the addresses and phone numbers of 11 top administrators at Viacom and Paramount, producers of Dr. Laura's show, along with advice to readers: "Message: Cancel Dr. Laura." Advertisers received an open warning: "If Procter and Gamble has bought this show, then it has bought trouble."
P & G got the message. The company withdrew its sponsorship from Dr. Laura's show. United Airlines, AT&T, Xerox, and American Express have since followed suit. Given that Dr. Laura's astronomical ratings indicate that millions of Americans agree with her defense of traditional morality, the executives of these companies were the more craven for taking the course of least resistance, principle be damned. As for the Coalition, it can hardly be blamed for filling the atmosphere with hot air, which helps to steam up the looking glass and cloud the eerily familiar and deeply unflattering image that the mirror reflects. Change "homophobics" to "subversives," and you could swear you were back in the McCarthy era.