Scoundrel time (Jan/Feb 08)

Friday, 01 April 2011 08:02

Being appointed by Gordon Brown as the first Muslim minister and invited to the USA by the Department of Homeland Security did not prevent Shahid Malik from being detained and searched at Washington DC airport. In the USA now, simply being a Muslim is enough to be regarded as a possible terrorist. Such paranoia in America is not new. What Muslims are experiencing there now is similar but worse than what anyone considered to be a communist experienced in the USA in the 1950s.

The USA is a huge country containing many diverse people but they are held together by two ideas, that of God and the American people. Consequently, the great majority of Americans say that they believe in God. Moreover, it’s not enough to be American in citizenship or residence. You must be American in your thoughts. A lack of right thinking shows that you are un-American. (It’s impossible to be un-British because the British can’t agree on what being British is.) In 1938 Congress set up the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and in 1947 this committee was given extraordinary powers to examine witnesses who were suspected of un-American activities and to deny work to anyone whose answers to the Committee’s questions were unsatisfactory. From 1950 to 1954 the Committee was headed was headed by Joseph McCarthy, described by the British journalist James Cameron as ‘a chancer and an opportunist and a liar’.

Under McCarthy the committee wanted to find those people who had been members of the Communist Party or who simply had left-wing or radical views. Much of the committee’s activities concentrated on Hollywood. Any actor, director, or writer who fell foul of the committee could be sent to jail or blacklisted. The only way a person could protect himself when appearing before the committee was to deny having any left-wing links and then name those of his friends and colleagues who did. Threatened with the loss their well-paid jobs, a luxurious lifestyle and cheering fans, many people named names. Among those who betrayed their colleagues were tough guy actor Humphrey Bogart, playwright Clifford Odets and director Elia Kazan.

Hollywood’s golden couple were Lillian Hellman and her partner Dashiel Hammett. She was a brilliant dramatist and he a writer famous for his detective series The Thin Man. In the 1930s many people, unaware of the crimes of Stalin, joined or were sympathetic to the Communist Party because it seemed to offer hope during the great economic depression. Even though American communists did little more than discuss these ideas, Hammett was sent to jail, his income seized by the Internal Revenue, and he never worked again. Hellman’s crimes were that she was Hammett’s partner and she had visited the USSR at her government’s request for a cultural event.

It took Hellman nearly 25 years to feel able to write about what happened to her after she received a subpoena to appear before the Committee. When she did write about these events, she called her book Scoundrel Time. In this she wrote, ‘I had, up to the late 1940s, believed that the educated, the intellectual, lived by what they claimed to believe: freedom of thought and speech, the right of each man to his own convictions, a more than implied promise, therefore, of aid to those who might be persecuted. But only a few raised a finger when McCarthy and his boys appeared.’ She concluded, ‘Simply, then and now, I feel betrayed by the nonsense I had believed. I had no right to think that American intellectuals were people who would fight for anything if doing so would injure them.’

Before Hellman appeared before the Committee she wrote a letter to the Committee chairman, stating that she was prepared to answer questions about herself but that she wouldn’t answer questions about other people. She knew that this was contempt of court, and for that she would be jailed. It was only a legal technicality which saved her from jail, but she, like Hammett, was blacklisted and unable to work. Hammett died not long after his release from jail. Hellman lived in near-penury until McCarthy left the scene and she could return to writing. But what followed was the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, the only president forced to resign his presidency.

In her letter to the Committee Hellman spoke of the need for people to treat one another within the rules of ‘simple human decency’. Survivors of the psychiatric system know what it is like to be betrayed, and to be treated without human decency. Indeed, few people over the course of their life escape being treated without decency. We should bear these experiences in mind whenever we hear the word ‘Muslim’ being used in the way the word ‘Communist’ was used in the 1950s to destroy innocent people.

Lillian Hellman Scoundrel Time Macmillan, London, 1976.