Monday, June 23, 2014


In reading about Blues Hall Of Fame* inductees, I went off on several rabbit-trails.  Easy to do on Wikipedia and its related links.  Josh White’s entry included some political discussion, including in particular that he had been interrogated often by the House Un-American Activities Committee despite being a friend of the Roosevelts.  The writer went out of his way to deplore this, noting that he wasn’t a communist and had merely been involved in many social justice causes, especially desegregation.  There was a short section in particular in which Eleanor Roosevelt was reported to have told him that her intervention, even though she was FDR’s widow, would do him more harm than good because she herself was being regarded as a “pinko” by the Right Wing media.

Yes, “Right Wing” was capitalised, and I had to make sure there wasn’t some formal organisation in the 1940's by clicking the link.  It lead to Wikipedia’s general page on right-wing politics, not a specific group, as one might have thought from Wiki.  So this tells you a bit about Wikipedia’s author right there, I suppose.  A bit fevered.

Yet it is true that HUAC did a lot of bad stuff, connecting a lot of dots across long distances in order to draw their inferences about who was supposedly sympathetic to whom.  But in the case of White in specific, I was left with the impression that they could have been accurate.  Just because people say they aren’t associated with Group X doesn’t mean it’s true.  It used to be joke in conversations about Latin America in the 60’s.  “No communists, Senor.  No one here but us agrarian reformers.” Think also the Mafia, another group no one belongs to.

I’m not saying we should have been interrogating people because of their political beliefs – that was ultimately the issue that Americans recoiled at and slowly put a stop to in that era.  However much we deplored communists and worried about them, we eventually decided that freedom of speech trumped our fears.  

I am also not presently interested in the discussion that there were indeed important governmental and entertainment figures, including a vice president, who were indeed communist sympathisers (he later apologised and sort of recanted); nor that the folks they supported abroad were much more dangerous than many are willing to admit even today.  Horowitz and Radosh could tell you much more than I could anyway.

What I noticed in the Josh White article, and then in many of the follow-up links both on Wikipedia and off, was that the type and amount of evidence they were using - to claim that HUAC was persecuting decent people - was of the same quality, or less, than what HUAC used to accuse in the 1940's.  It was the same sort of "well, a guy said," and guilt by association they were complaining about.

It is related to a series of ironies that have formed a lot of my political, cultural, and religious beliefs. There were people who were skeptical enough, or wise enough, or merely contrarian enough to question the prevailing American/civil religion/traditional narrative back many decades.  They became influential in some intellectual, artistic, and seminary circles in the 20's and 30's.  They gained steam and became fashionable in the 40's to 60's.  Question Authority, as the bumpersticker used to say.

It was a good thing.  The narrative needed deflating, and even destruction in some places.  Read some primary source material of textbooks, magazines, and popular books (rather than what we think we remember about them now, with favorite anecdotes) if you doubt that. Yet there was the usual human flaw in all this: it turns out that they didn't want so much to question authority as to become the new, unquestioned authority.  The prisoners did not want everyone to be freed - they wanted to become the new jailers.

I oversimplify, of course.  Movements are varied and so are motives.  Even within single individuals motives are mixed.  Yet it is painfully obvious once one is willing to look.  ("You can see a lot just by looking," as Yogi Berra said.)  

I don't think I have an especial brilliance.  Some cleverness and a good memory is half of it.  But the other half is a simple cast of mind that seems to be uncommon.  There are those who question the old narrative.  I also question the new one. At my best, I go a third step and question my own. The union men, the folkies and roots music crowd, the one-worlders questioned whether America really was for the common man after all, as it claimed.  It turns out those were very good questions, and a lot was said publicly and hammered home that made us better.

But then we ask whether the folkies and roots music crowd; the artists and academics, the union activists, and the religious left were really for the common man either.  It seems they put their own tribe in power and are now trying to kick over the ladders of the others.  Because the problems of the last era are not 100% solved - and they aren't - they see no need to consider the problems they themselves have brought in. They cannot even see it or consider it. It is a common story in history, but that doesn't make it right.  

*Not a place.  This exists only as a list. 

Update:  In response to a private question.  Henry Wallace.  Praised the Siberian death camp of Magadan in 1944.  A Soviet spy was one of his speechwriters.  Still, he later said he had gotten it all wrong, which I greatly admire in a public figure.


Anonymous said...

"ask whether the folkies and... the artists and academics, the union activists, and the religious left were really for the common man... they put their own tribe in power and are now trying to kick over the ladders of the others"

i applaud your well-stated insight there - good work!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I won't say they're worse - certainly not by any great margin. But no better. And the whole point of going along with them is that they were going to be better.

Korora said...

"Because the problems of the last era are not 100% solved - and they aren't - they see no need to consider the problems they themselves have brought in"

And the worst possible position for social reform is to have overcorrected in some areas and undercorrected in others--a state of affairs that invites Morton's Fork in that whichever way we go the shouting is likely to drown out the thinking.