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The Myth of the Tolerant Left

October 31, 2002

A stubborn myth holds that the Left in America has always stood for tolerance and freedom of speech, while suffering persecution at the hands of such benighted forces as the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hollywood “blacklists,” and McCarthyite “witch-hunts.” People who swallow the myth are therefore surprised when, for example, campus leftists shout down, harass, and even physically attack conservative speakers. Isn’t this out of character for the Left? Aren’t we seeing a form of role reversal?

Not really. The myth of the tolerant Left won’t survive a reading of Daniel J. Flynn’s book Why the Left Hates America (just published by Forum/Prima).

Consider the House Un-American Activities Committee, one of American liberalism’s bêtes noires for its investigations of suspected Communists. It was actually founded at the instigation of a left-wing New York congressman named Samuel Dickstein, who wanted to investigate the Ku Klux Klan, “fascists,” and other miscreants. For its first few years it was known as the Dickstein Committee, and liberals had no objections to it.

Later, however, it was chaired by Congressman Martin Dies of Texas and began turning its attention to Communist activities in this country. At that point liberals changed their minds and decided that the Committee was the American version of the Spanish Inquisition. As for Dickstein himself, Flynn notes that he later became “a paid agent of the Soviet Union.”

Then there was the notorious Smith Act, passed in the early 1940s to outlaw groups seeking the violent overthrow of the United States. The Communists supported it and sought the prosecution of their Trotskyist enemies. As Flynn observes, “Communists began to cry foul only when the Smith Act was later used against them.”

Our tears are likewise solicited for the Hollywood Ten, a group of Hollywood scriptwriters who were “blacklisted” for refusing to testify about their membership in the Communist Party. They claimed that Congress’s inquiry into their party activities was unconstitutional. But as Flynn notes, the Hollywood Reds had long conducted their own blacklist of anti-Communists in the film industry, even informing on them to the FBI. One Hollywood agent, a Communist, had even blackballed one of his own clients, a writer named Martin Berkeley.

[Breaker quote: Reds and pinkoes]The great director John Huston offered a further reason for the Hollywood Ten’s refusal to testify before Congress: “It seems that some of them had already testified in California, and that their testimony had been false. They had said that they were not Communists, and now to have admitted it to the press would have been to lay themselves open to charges of perjury.”

The American Left has always fought for tolerance, free speech, and civil liberties only for itself. This fact is most strikingly illustrated by the career of William Z. Foster. Foster served as head of the Communist Party of the United States of America at the same time he sat on the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union. It takes no great sagacity to see that he defended the Bill of Rights only insofar as this served the purposes of Joseph Stalin. Eventually, when the Soviet Union formed an alliance with Nazi Germany to invade Poland, Foster and other Communists were forced to resign from the board.

The ACLU points out that it has sometimes defended the rights of Klansmen, and so it has — but only for tactical reasons, not principled ones. It has never invited the Klan’s Grand Imperial Wizard to join its national board. And it has made posthumous apologies for expelling its Communist board members.

As for Joe McCarthy, the infamous Wisconsin senator came late to the anti-Communist struggle, and his aim was limited: to get Soviet agents out of the U.S. Government. Quite a few of them had found perches there, and in fact McCarthy underestimated their number. He did make some sloppy charges, but much of the blame for the panic he created on the Left was due to liberals themselves. By encouraging an alliance with the Soviet Union, they had helped the Reds blur the border between liberalism and Communism.

This didn’t stop liberals from feeling outraged when they were confused with Communists and fellow travelers. Needless to say, their indignation was directed not against the Communists, but against the anti-Communists.

Today the Reds are gone, but the pinkoes we have always with us.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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