When you hear someone call something “McCarthyism” what they really mean is the “Red Scare” that inspired McCarthyism. The panic and hysteria that communists were in our midst after the Rosenberg story broke, is what drove McCarthyism – and that was when a witch hunt goes too far. It took President Eisenhower to name the problem and solve the problem by launching a massive campaign to bring down Joe McCarthy and the hunt for communists.
But make no mistake, up until Joseph McCarthy and Hollywood’s Black List, Americans were afraid of communism infiltrating their movies, their schools, their books, and their freedom. To understand the fear of communism, however, is to understand why it was so frightening to Americans. This is the thing most Americans do not know. They remember that McCarthyism means witch hunts and that it was bad, but they don’t remember that Stalin’s Russia was a terrifying time in their history. Hundreds of millions were killed, starved, beaten, tortured. They had no access to any literature that went against the doctrine. They were policed constantly and under surveillance constantly by an army of young people (the same was true during the Cultural Revolution in China). George Orwell’s 1984 is about Stalin’s Soviet Union. Take away everything the main character held dear – history, language, books, love, freedom of thought and expression, and you might as well put a bullet in his head. You’ve killed everything so why not finish the job.
In America right now we are living through something like the Red Scare. We saw some of it during the Me Too era, which devolved into a kind of mass panic, where every male suddenly looked like a rapist and a harasser. Due process flew out the window – even a guy asking a girl out for a drink could be considered a crime. When that calmed down, the next wave of panic that hit was the fear and fury around racism. Both of these things, unlike, say, witchcraft, have their roots in reality. But figuring out who is a racist and who isn’t is like trying to figure out who is a commie and who isn’t. It exists inside the minds and hearts of people. Yet, in our culture right now, it is once accused, forever guilty. It is one tweet, or one Halloween costume, or something said thirty years ago. These things are “proof” of guilt. And yet here we are.
Scott Feinberg has written a piece about which members of the HFPA are “good” based on what the publicists think of them. This is apparently to help them figure out who gets to get on the lifeboat as the Titanic is sinking.
In the wake of the Feb. 21 Los Angeles Times exposé about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s demographics and behavior, no constituency has been harder on the group behind the Golden Globe Awards than the community of entertainment industry publicists. Indeed, back in March more than 100 PR firms from both sides of the Atlantic notified the HFPA that they would cut off their clients from the organization unless and until the HFPA enacted “transformational change,” and they have been true to their word.
On Wednesday evening, the HFPA will vote on a slate of bylaws that, to many, would represent that sort of change. Not only would the organization significantly tighten its ethics policies, but it would also begin the process of recruiting Black journalists to become members (there are currently zero) and moving inactive members to non-voting “emeritus” status (a move that has prompted several senior members of the group to threaten legal action).
Ahead of that vote, The Hollywood Reporter consulted eight top industry publicists — men and women of varying ages who represent individuals, studios, networks and awards campaigns — and granted them anonymity in return for candor about which of the 84 current HFPA members they hold in the highest regard and would work with even if those individuals did not have a Golden Globe ballot.
In other words, we set out to try to determine which current members the publicists regard as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
It’s hard to know what that means exactly. Does it mean the publicists found these members to give them time to pitch their clients? Or does it mean they are genuinely impressed with them as non-racist valid members?
Ironically, Feinberg was once himself a target of the kind of mass hysteria we see online. This was when the Academy invited many new members to try to change their demographics. Feinberg pushed back on that and suddenly a massive Twitter storm went after him. The same happened to Anne Thompson, a well-respected journalist, like Feinberg, who happened to casually tweet about the Color Purple. Even when she apologized and deleted the tweet – the answers that came to her were, “an apology isn’t good enough. Tell us why you tweeted that.” Both of these examples are good illustrations of why the press has become so quiet, compliant, and afraid. No one wants to be a target, so no one says anything. They obediently go along with the status quo out of fear. And so it went with the Red Scare and eventually McCarthyism.
Twitter has connected people in such a way that news can travel extremely fast. It also produces a mass hysteria reaction in people, one that they can’t really control. It is fight or flight. It is an adrenaline rush and it is fear. We are helpless against what has been deeply embedded in our DNA for millions of years. Social media leads to mass hysteria – they knew that as far back as 2013. And in 2015.
As long as the media feeds off social media panic – and corporations bow to the pressure within days – we’re going to be living with this ongoing “persecute and fear” dynamic at play every second of every day on Twitter to varying degrees.
We are really looking at two different problems here. The publicists aren’t mad because the HFPA is being labeled “racists.” They are mad because they have long been frustrated with the elitism and entitlement of the HFPA that deny them access unless they have “important” and well-known clients. They did not like that the HFPA had so much power and played favorites.
I would be hard-pressed to find any corner of the awards race that isn’t about preferential treatment, exclusivity, and the people outside the circle of that who fight their way in. Clearly, the HFPA felt no pressure from anyone because they had such a successful show, and they had so much influence over the awards race they could do whatever they wanted. They weren’t under the control of the studios or publicists. In fact, the opposite was true. So if they weren’t doing what the publicists wanted them to do what options did they have? They could not threaten them or take away their advertising. Anyone who works the beat knows what a big deal it is to get that nomination, even if everyone knows that the nominations are usually suspect, having a lot to do with preferential treatment.
But none of this has anything to do with the charges of racism. This is where we get into a sticky area. Feinberg’s article is about HFPA members the publicists respect but it has nothing to do with which ones aren’t racist. I expect that hunt will come later.
Where we are now is in the phase of widespread panic and fear. How we got here is we had a Utopia of “good” that Trump simply kicked down. We had been building a country very Hamilton-like that was representative of all, progressive, enlightened and above all – did not offend or marginalize anyone. Rising alongside this were those who didn’t want to live the way the Left was telling them they had to live. They were angry but had no voice until Trump showed up. Trump said everything you couldn’t say. He broke every rule. The shock of it sent the Left into a tailspin. It was an existential threat on so many levels that, even now, we have not yet recovered from.
And with any massive witch hunt, you need a catalyst to drive regular fear into full-blown panic. With the Salem Witch Trials, it was the constant attacks by Native Americans, along with the Small Pox virus, along with an extremely harsh winter and then the young girls started exhibiting symptoms that sent that community into a tailspin. With the second Red Scare, there was World War II. Imagine Americans learning about the concentration camps for the first time and the horrors of the Holocaust? It was also that Stalin, as with most communists, wanted to take over the world just as Hitler had wanted to do. With Stalin, he wanted to spread the ideology. Americans fought for many decades to keep communism from spreading in our country and throughout the world. When the Rosenbergs were unmasks as spies that kicked the whole thing into a new level of mass panic.
Now, of course, in addition to Trump we had the Weinstein revelations, then COVID, then the murder of George Floyd. These were all too much for our community on the left, a community that wants to be seen as “good” but now had to contend with not just Trump but the part of the country they had suddenly become aware of. But our fear can’t really touch Trump or his movement or even anyone on the right. It only has impact on those who still value being thought of as “good.” Once targeted as “bad” that is when one is in the danger zone of losing everything.
Now we are in the first phase of fear which produced the Hollywood Black List and the early stages of the Salem Witch trials where witches accused people who then were forced to confess and live or not confess and be hanged in the town square. In our community, an apology often suffices as a confession but one is still regarded as the thing they were first accused of. If you do not apologize you must then be shown the door.
Ironically, in our bid to rid our utopia of Trump’s influence, we have inadvertendly become like the very thing Americans feared during the Red Scare.
Hollywood has turned into a machine of suppression, persecution, and purges so that no one feels like they can write honestly – not in the industry, not in the media that covers the industry. Or as Freddie DeBoer put it in this podcast episode:
We have descended into a world of constant recrimination of mutual surveillance, where we always look at each other and judge each other and never stop judging each other, where we have ritual show trials where we have witch burnings … We are constantly scourging each other, destroying each other and seeking out heretics to punish.
This will end the same way that all mass hysteria episodes and subsequent witch hunts end. It will go too far and and the whole thing will collapse. We have not yet seen our Joseph McCarthy to push these extremes to their limit but we are certianly in the phase where people are starting to notice.
This is the time to remember which side of history you want to be on. Are you someone who stayed silent and compliant? Are you someone who fought back? Are you someone who joined in and cheered on the witch hunts?
Clearly, from what I’ve been seeing and reading most of those who cover the Oscars are very much playing ball and few are risking dissent. I understand it because they can only hurt you if you have something to lose. If you have a job or a project you want to release or a book you want to publish. Otherwise it’s just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
I still have not heard what exactly it is people want from the HFPA. I gather publicists would like them to go away permanently, to not have to battle with a group that plays favorites. But what do the Scarlett Johanssons and Mark Ruffalos of the world want? What is it they hope to accomplish here? What is the end goal? An approved list of films and contenders that meet a certain criteria? Do they want to dictate what the Globes should do with their power and influence? And does that mean more equity in the awards race? And how does that manifest itself?
Because we’ve seen again and again that changing the demographics of the voters doesn’t necessarily change the nominations – and it doesn’t often change the votes. Last year Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand won Best Actor and Actress even though it was the most diverse year in all of awards history. The demographics of the Oscars match the demographics of the country. That is, 60% white and 13-16% Black. Should the demographics of the Oscars shift even more? Will bringing in a few Black HFPA members change, in any way, how their votes come down? This part isn’t discussed. We seem able to name the problem but have a harder time naming the solution.