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Jewish World Review March 26, 1999 /9 Nissan 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Left refuses to let bygones be bygones

(JWR) ---- (
WHEN THE MOMENT CAME and a frail-looking Elia Kazan walked up on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last Sunday to receive his honorary Oscar, it was almost anti-climactic.

An unsuspecting observer would never have noticed anything out of the ordinary, except that some people in the audience were conspicuously not applauding.

Kazan, the director of such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and Splendor in the Grass, "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, denouncing friends who had been in the Communist Party with him. This caused his nomination for a lifetime achievement award to be rejected by the American Film Institute in 1989 and by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1996. Now, the controversy over Kazan's Oscar has turned into one more round in the never-ending debate over communism, anti-communism, and the American left.

During other recent skirmishes, usually occasioned by revelations about Cold War-era Soviet espionage in the United States, left-of-center commentators have mocked the right's insistence on keeping the Cold War battles alive and clinging to its "mummified sentiments" about communism, in the words of The Nation's Eric Alterman.

But the uproar over Kazan makes it clear that the left is not prepared to let bygones be bygones, either.

Many angrily argued that Kazan was a traitor who didn't deserve to be honored. Others demanded that he apologize for his actions, to which Kazan's wife responded by suggesting that the left apologize for its support of Stalinism. During the Academy Awards ceremony, about 300 anti-Kazan protesters gathered outside the pavilion -- along with a smaller pro-Kazan rally organized by the Ayn Rand Institute, which hails Kazan as an American patriot and a hero in the fight against communism.

The truth is probably far more complex. Kazan may have been motivated in part by the desire to protect his own career. And the people he named weren't especially dangerous. They were not Soviet spies with access to U.S. military secrets but, as Salon magazine columnist Steve Erickson put it, "hapless Hollywood nitwits" deluded about "the Stalinist paradise."

Even the historians whom the left accuses of trying to whitewash McCarthyism, such as Ronald Radosh and Harvey Klehr, stress that while Joe McCarthy proved right about the extent of Soviet penetration of the U.S. government and Soviet control of the American Communist Party, his tactics -- and his demagoguery -- were wrong. The blacklists mostly targeted people for their political beliefs, not for illegal activities, which in itself was un-American.

(George Will argues that society, including the film industry, had a right to ostracize people who sympathized with a brutal regime intent on destroying democracy; but the government had no right to enforce this ostracism.)

Kazan came to understand the murderous and repressive nature of communism early on, though he remained a man of the left for many years after that. It probably would have been far better if, instead of lending legitimacy to HUAC, he had denounced both communism and the violations of civil liberties that helped give anti-communism a bad name.

So the choice Kazan made was morally ambiguous. But the people who clamor against him have made some pretty awful choices themselves. Many were loyal to a dictatorship that killed more people than the Nazis and squelched freedom just as ruthlessly --- so loyal they supported the purges of leftists who didn't follow the party line. Many kept making half-excuses for that regime even after its atrocities had been fully exposed, defending the "noble" ideals on which it was based and insisting on something of a moral equivalency between communism and Western democracies.

It ill behooves those who have made mistakes of this caliber to engage in moral posturing. A little humility might be called for. But none is in evidence as leftists not only vilify Kazan but try to discredit, using absurd logic (for instance, that Soviet operatives lied about their recruitment successes in reports to superiors back home), the damning disclosures about American Communists in the 1950s and about such left-wing idols as the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss.

Who is clinging to mummified sentiments now?

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Cathy Young