"We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell on them."-- Lillian Hellman, "Scoundrel Time" (1976)
Hellman knew something about scoundrels, having lived more than a decade through the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the Hollywood blacklist of Communists and all manner of "fellow-travelers" that outlived even Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself. She saw her career as a successful playwright and screenwriter evaporate overnight after she fell under suspicion for her sponsorship of the Waldorf Conference, a pro-Stalin international peace and cultural gathering in 1949. Her longtime lover, detective writer Dashiell Hammett, was imprisoned after taking the Fifth about his Communist affiliations before a congressional investigating committee; his health, already fragile, collapsed completely and he died a few years after his release. Hellman was forced to sell her farm that had helped support them and for nearly a decade was barely able financially to scrape by.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a contemporary who also had been a Communist and one of the Hollywood Ten--the "unfriendly witnesses" who refused to cooperate with congressional investigators--published a political tract in 1949, The Time of the Toad. Borrowing a parable from Emile Zola about consuming a live toad every day to inure oneself to the "aggressive mendacity" of the newspapers of Zola's day, Trumbo wrote bitterly of his own era. It was a time, he said, when "the nation turns upon itself in a kind of compulsive madness to deny all in its tradition that is clean, exalt all that is vile, and to destroy any heretical minority which asserts toad-meat not to be the delicacy that government edict declares it."
The hounding by congressional investigators, attacks in the press, and loss of work were difficult enough to endure. Worst of all, perhaps, was the rejection and betrayal by those who'd been friends, supporters, allies, and employers during the good times--but who abandoned them and even named names when the chips were down in those dark times of scoundrels and toads.
If all that sounds a little too familiar, it should. In our own era, what began as a legitimate expose of a powerful Hollywood studio head who used his position to sexually abuse dozens, if not hundreds, of victims has morphed in just two months into a daily compendium of lurid sex charges, from potentially criminal to less than inconsequential, and a full-blown moral panic. It has swept up dozens of not only Hollywood players, but prominent media and journalism figures, and numerous politicians. And most recently, and notoriously, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, the former entertainer who just announced his resignation.
With apologies to Donovan, it's become the season of the witch.
Of course there were no witches in Salem in 1692, nor were there in the 1940s and 1950s. There were actual Communists and sympathizers in Hollywood, just as there are actual sexual harassers and assaulters today. But simply being a Communist and believing in Communism, like all political beliefs, were constitutionally protected activities under the First Amendment. Except that in that era, when the law gave way to mass hysteria.
Sexual harassment or assault, by contrast, obviously warrants discipline at the very least and criminal prosecution wherever legally appropriate. But then and now, what's lacking is any shared obligation to respect constitutional rights, ensure due process, or maintain a sense of proportion in considering the alleged offense. And that's the thing about moral panics: they may begin with a legitimate societal concern--drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, human trafficking--but they can devolve into Prohibition, movie and broadcast censorship, banning comic books and rock 'n' roll, and general crusades against anything in popular culture challenging the official conformist line. And if you're not careful, you'll soon find yourself succumbing to irrational fears of satanic ritual abuse, "backward masking" in rock lyrics, and secret pedophilia rings run out of suburban pizzerias.
As Jon Stewart once put it, the media dial has moved from "blackout" to "circus," the only two settings it has. After years of mostly ignoring the issue, apart from the occasional high-profile story about a Bill Cosby or Roger Ailes--or Donald Trump--sexual harassment has virtually swamped other news.
And so Al Franken. Despite his apologies and pledge to cooperate with an ethics investigation, skittish Democrats abandoned him anyway and left him no choice but to quit. Alabama's Roy Moore, by contrast, accused convincingly of far worse sexual misconduct with teenagers, defiantly held his ground, rallied his base, and the Republican establishment, sensing a pending win, came crawling back to support him.
Maybe the best analogy here is to be found in The Devils of Loudon, Aldous Huxley's historical account of how Cardinal Richelieu conspired with Louis XIII to exploit popular fears of demonic possession and sexual abuse to destroy an independent Protestant stronghold and solidify the Catholic Church's religious and political dominance in 17th Century France.
It's not witches, but the witch-hunters, that we should really fear, for they lead us to abdicate our responsibilities to be fair, thoughtful, measured, and rational. In Franken's case, choosing expediency over justice, acting with haste rather than wisdom, the Democratic congressional leadership burned the witch.
But I believe it was a rash act that will come back to haunt them.