by Victor Navasky ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 29, 1980
The liberal-left crossfire originally touched off by the House Committee on Un-American Activities' investigation of Hollywood and Broadway communism brings us, now, a withering look at the ""reluctant"" informers--by the author of Kennedy Justice and editor of The Nation. Why, Navasky asks, did ""approximately one-third"" of those who testified before the Committee clear themselves (and get off the black- and graylists) by identifying former Communist associates--despite their distaste for the proceedings and the moral stigma of squealing? First, for latecomers, he reviews the careers of the ""espionage informers"" (Chambers, Bentley) and the ""conspiracy informers"" (Budenz, Matusow, et al.) to establish how all Communists became suspect and how ""naming names"" became ""the guarantor of patriotism."" Then, narrowing in, he looks at the Hollywood machinery for securing clearance and at the three components of Hollywood's ingrown ""informer subculture""--lawyer Martin Gang's focus on the immediate interests of his clients, therapist Phil Cohen's strictures on sacrificing oneself for an abandoned cause, organized Jewry's concern for Jewish victims (and the Jews' reputation)--that, Navasky posits, encouraged the utilization of that machinery. Plausible enough--but what is not proven by the existence of this ""subculture"" is that the ex-Communists would not have informed, in any case, sooner or later. This unlikelihood emerges from Navasky's discomforting interrogation of several informers, in the course of which he elicits their reasons/excuses for collaborating--no one was hurt (i.e., they named only persons already known to the Committee), disillusion with communism, economic need and/or family crises, paramount loyalty to country. To Navasky, none of these reasons is acceptable--on some solid, some dubious grounds. But then, in Navasky's view, there is no acceptable reason for informing. He will not grant the aversion of most ex-Communists to ""taking the Fifth"" (against self-incrimination), whereby current Communists avoided naming names or going to jail; he will not acknowledge that, since only one or two persons (under clouded circumstances) successfully took the First, others saw no choice but to collaborate or endure the blacklist indefinitely; he will make no allowance for their desperation--or forgive those who have since repented. To informers of every ilk he holds up as ""moral exemplars"" the figures of Dalton Trumbo and Albert Maltz, of the Hollywood Ten--who, however, stood on no principle and (as Trumbo points out) would, as Communists, have taken the Fifth; and Lillian Hellman, who (far less vulnerable than others) did take the Fifth. Navasky is right to remind us of the circumstances that fostered informing, along with other capitulations to tyranny. He is not wrong in suggesting that some social interventions are politically insidious--or, briefly, that principled resistance by a strong figure (like Elia Kazan) might have made a difference. But the heroes and the villains are not so clearly distinguishable as he would have them. A new uproar can be expected.
Pub Date: Oct. 29, 1980
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1980
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