How Communist Did You Have to Be to Be, You Know, COMMUNIST?

By Don Hall

The creation of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) was a reasonable reaction to the fear of communism. Looking at the Soviet Union at the time and the ideological split between the ideas of Capitalism vs. Communism as well as the discovery of Soviet spies within our midst following WWII, it just made sense to empower members of the government to investigate our society's infiltration by a rival superpower.

Americans had just participated in a harrowing world war against both Naziism and the Imperialism of Japan and would do just about anything to avoid another war. So it was natural to investigate. The rhetoric of the day was an evolution of the anti-Nazi and Japanese propaganda used to get the citizenry ginned up against real enemies—the machine had been set in motion and the machine was hungry for more fear and paranoia.

The problem, of course, became the increasingly blurry line of the definition of what made one a Communist versus a Communist Sympathizer versus Someone who Had Gone to a Meeting About Communism versus Someone Who Knew a Communist or Communist Sympathizer or Someone Who Had Gone to a Meeting. As the fervor and rage against the idea of Communism went from concept to practice, weeding out the purveyors of a competing set of beliefs became a wide, broad swipe at anyone willing to leave it up to common sense and critical thinking to decipher the pros and cons of the this Evil Ism.

So, at the outset of the early 1950s, the HUAC was no longer simply investigating communists but anyone who might have randomly said or written something that could be connected to communism. Anyone who was not an immediate decreer of the slightest possible pro-communist idea was labeled a problem. The Black List was informally instituted by the Hollywood bosses—not because of any actual government mandate but because those on the committee could destroy the reputations of those studios by simply implying that they were sympathetic to communism. So the studios blacklisted writers and actors in order to avoid public scrutiny.

The interesting thing was that the HUAC had very little actual power. Subpoenas and questions but those who plead the Fifth were in no legal jeopardy. It was in the power of public opinion, the power of innuendo, that was terrifying. Pick out an individual who wouldn't play by pure ideological lines and destroy their lives with the mere suggestion that association with that individual would lead to a public relations nightmare.

You didn't have to be a communist, you didn't have to have friends who were communists. All you had to have was the whiff of possibility—you said something to someone, you complained about your job, you cheated on the wrong girlfriend—if the Committee decided you were a communist, the power of public opinion and the scrutiny of those self-righteous fear mongers using hyperbolic language to paint you as a communist, you were guilty of being a communist.

This is the way of humanity. What seems like a good idea (root out those elements in a given society hell-bent to subvert it) becomes a cause, which then becomes a tribe, which then works more to sustain the existence of the tribe than the initial idea. You know, because of humans. What happened with the HUAC is the same thing that happened with those zealots terrified of subversive women (they called them witches). Start with an agenda and once all the real witches have been identified and dealt with, find lesser and lesser witches until all the group is doing is manufacturing the witches by redefining what it is to be a witch.

Language is malleable and when the agenda is punitive to those who don't think like us or don't see our particular view of society, the descriptors can expand both vertically and horizontally.

Today, instead of communism, we see that every straight, white male is a predator and a racist. Is it true? Of course not. But the groups who benefit from lumping in all straight, white males into an increasingly narrow lens aren't looking to combat the Steve Bannons of the world anymore. They'll settle for for lesser and lesser witches, those who may have attended a party and were in the same room as a guy who told a rape joke or a nasty racist anecdote. At this point, merely disagreeing with the stance of the self-imposed Accountability Coalitions is enough to get you labeled the enemy.

These tribes of Feel Police, of Thought Punishers, in the name of fighting shame and oppression, shame and oppress views that contradict their own. Despite the hypocrisy, there is the question of measurement. How does one monitor the thoughts of others? By what metric does one use to determine fealty and ideological purity in another? How racist do you have to be in order to be, you know, racist?

Once your agenda has caved in upon itself, it becomes corrupt. What was once progressive becomes regressive. You become so busy policing people’s thoughts and opinions that you lose track of what actually matters.