Visitors to the “Blacklist” exhibition at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee will be impressed by its evocative audio-visual presentations and engaging interactive displays. Ellie Gettinger, the museum’s curator, deserves high praise for designing an appealing exhibition, which immediately captures and sustains attention. Undeniably, “Blacklist” has been professionally and artfully crafted.
Above all, the exhibition vividly exposes the vicious and illegal ways in which J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and film studio executives gratuitously deprived American citizens of their constitutional liberties. The “Blacklist” exhibition, when focusing upon the abuses of state power, accurately captures the injustices committed by those sworn to protect American liberties.
“Blacklist” operates much less successfully when portraying American Communists. The exhibition fully ignores that many of those persecuted in Hollywood, as members of the Soviet-controlled Communist Party of United States of America, were dedicated to the destruction of capitalism and American constitutional government.
Involvement in the CPUSA cannot be equated with participation in the Rotary Club, an Elks Lodge or even the Socialist Party. The CPUSA required strict secrecy, rigid discipline and unquestioning obedience to orders from the Soviet Union in Moscow. Hollywood members of the CPUSA routinely engaged in espionage, subversion and infiltration of unions and progressive political parties.
By presenting communists as quirky dissenters or liberals in a hurry, the exhibit implies that anti-communism resulted from irrationality or paranoia. HUAC and the FBI certainly traded on demagoguery and suspicion.
Yet, we should not forget that the American left detested and feared the CPUSA. Groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, labor unions, the Socialist Party and liberal Democrats regarded the CPUSA as one of America’s greatest threats to progressivism. In large part, these different groups developed their negative attitudes — not because they suffered from a culture of fear — but because they had been regularly spied on, subverted and infiltrated by the CPUSA.
Moreover, members of the infamous Hollywood Ten and many of the film colony’s communists defended and justified Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and ignored the persecutions of Jews after World War II.
It would be an absurdity to create a museum exhibition commemorating the pro-Nazi German American Bund of the 1930s and 1940s, though the FBI and HUAC did in fact abuse this group’s civil liberties as well. It should, likewise, be unacceptable to romanticize American Communists.
One need not, and should not, claim that the FBI, HUAC, or McCarthyites were justified in their activities. However, we should never make the mistake of transforming the Hollywood communists into innocents. Claims that they did not know of Stalin’s crimes will not do. Overwhelming archival evidence from the United States and the former Soviet Union reveals that they knew about communism’s crimes. They knew and we know they knew.
Museum exhibitions should hesitate to celebrate such people. Hollywood communists, particularly on account of their artistic genius, should be held to account — if not by the FBI and HUAC — then at least by history.
Associate Professor Eric Pullin of Carthage College is chair of the department of history and director of the Carthage College Honors Program. He is a member of congregation Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale.
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Point/Counter-point: Read also, “Blacklist exhibit informs, but won’t tell you what to think.“
What do you think of the Blacklist exhibit? Visit and decide for yourself!
What: Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare.
When: Open through March 10.
Where: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is at 1360 N. Prospect Ave.
More info: 414-390-5730. JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.