“Islam radicals” hearing recalls Hollywood witchhunt

Rep. Peter King’s, R-N.Y., congressional inquisition of the purported “radicalization” of U.S. Muslims that opened yesterday is taking place the same month as the 60th anniversary of another all-American witch hunt. The hearing invoked by King, the Homeland Security Committee’s chairman, is reminiscent of another House committee and of something Ronald Reagan famously said during a debate: “There you go again.” Reagan should know; as Eugene Jarecki’s new HBO documentary reveals, the former Screen Actors Guild president was an FBI informant during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings investigating the so-called Red Menace in Tinseltown.

The Hollywood Blacklist began in 1947 with a probe of alleged subversion in the motion picture industry that began when talents, including Reagan, testified before HUAC. Ten filmmakers refused to cooperate with the congressional committee, declining to confess they were Communists or to inform on others suspected of being radicals. Charged with contempt of Congress the Hollywood Ten were ultimately fined and imprisoned. With Reagan’s connivance, movie studios refused to hire suspected “subversives”; “friendly witnesses” who “named names” could keep making movies. 

The worst was yet to come from 1951 to 1953, when the Cold War intensified. Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund noted in The Inquisition in Hollywood: “As severe as it was, the fate of the Hollywood Ten turned out to be only a small foretaste of the political, professional, and human destruction that was to occur in Hollywood shortly thereafter.” This second wave of purges began March 21, 1951, when Larry Parks – Oscar nominated for his portrayal of Al Jolson in a 1946 biopic – testified in Washington. The former Communist Party member pleaded with HUAC’s anti-heresy zealots who coerced him to confess and finger suspected “commies”:

I don’t think this is American justice to make me… crawl through the mud… This is what I beg you not to do…I am no longer fighting for myself, because I tell you frankly that I am probably the most completely ruined man that you have ever seen.

Parks – whose acting career was destroyed, even though he eventually informed on others – was the first of around 110 Hollywood artists subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in 1951, including: actors John Garfield, Will Geer, José Ferrer, Sterling Hayden, Howard Da Silva and Gale Sondergaard; screenwriters Budd Schulberg, Waldo Salt, Paul Jarrico, Richard Collins, Martin Berkeley and Robert Lees; and director Edward Dmytryk. In 1952 Elia Kazan, Edward G. Robinson, Clifford Odets, Abe Burrows and Lillian Hellman testified. In 1953 Jerome Robbins, Lee J. Cobb and Lionel Stander appeared before the Committee.

Since the colonial era’s Salem Witch Trials, reactionaries here have periodically pursued, purged and persecuted those different from them and guilty of being “out of the mainstream.” After World War I the Palmer Raids rounded up and deported radicals such as anarchist Emma Goldman, just as La-La-Land leftists and Communists were targeted during the HUAC/McCarthy Era. During the 1960s/1970s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO covert eavesdropping and agent provocateur operation was aimed against anti-war, minority rights and other activists, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That other King – Peter – is in the not-so-grand tradition of grand inquisitors such as Torquemada, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Sen. Joe McCarthy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, etc. The Islamophobic 10-term congressman sits on the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is one of the Beltway’s biggest blustery, bellicose buffoons and bullies. King, who voted for the Iraq War, bashes the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” and WikiLeaks, claiming that website’s release of classified information was “worse even than a physical attack on Americans… worse than a military attack.” King called for designating WikiLeaks “a terrorist organization,” and supported “efforts to fully prosecute WikiLeaks and [Julian Assange] for violating the Espionage Act.”

Critics of King’s congressional jihad on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” contend that the not-so-gentle gentleman from Long Island is stigmatizing and singling out Muslim Americans, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, disputes King’s contention that the Islamic community and its leaders don’t cooperate with law enforcement authorities, and states that Muslims were involved in preventing almost half of the thwarted terrorist attacks in the U.S., such as the attempted Times Square bombing. Potok asserts that America’s biggest homegrown terrorist threat comes from rightwing “Patriot” and “militia” groups. But don’t expect Tucson mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner, who attempted to assassinate King’s colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and shot 18 others at a Congress-related event, to testify during King’s hearing: Loughner was born Christian.

The first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who testified yesterday at King’s Islamo-bashathon, added: “It is worthwhile to find out what turns somebody from a normal citizen into a violent radical, but to say that we’re only going to do it against this community and we’re about to change the debate to vilify this community is very scary and clearly has McCarthyistic implications.” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., has likened this religious profiling of Muslims to the U.S. internment of residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

King’s auto-da-fe started March 10 in the Cannon House Office Building, where State Department official Alger Hiss, accused of being a Soviet spy, was interrogated by HUAC in 1948 – and where Larry Parks was crucified 60 years ago. Will King and his fellow cross examiners ask their witnesses: “Are you now or have you ever been Islamic?”

There was something inherently stage-like about HUAC’s hearings; Ceplair and Englund wrote they “dramatized the Committee’s theatrical genius.” The HUAC show trials in 1947 that resumed March 21, 1951 have an inherently dramatic, Greek tragedy-like quality, and launched the national political careers of future presidents Reagan and Richard Nixon.

As the King’s leech attaches itself to the body politic, who knows what that grandstanding grand inquisitor really seeks from his crusade against the latest incarnation of the bogeyman and “un-American”? A 2012 U.S. Senate seat? In any case I’d bet a King’s ransom there’s an Iran-Contra or Watergate scandal lurking in this demagogue’s past that could cause him to abdicate.

We should never forget what Larry Parks (whose widow, actress Betty Garrett, died Feb. 12) told his HUAC tormentors: “I do feel that this Committee is doing a really dreadful thing that I don’t believe the American people will look kindly on… as honest, just and in the spirit of fair play.” To paraphrase philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember Hollywood history are doomed to repeat it.”


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.