Guest: Navasky, Victor
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Victor Navasky
Title: “Naming Names”, Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. The other week, Victor Navasky, Editor of The Nation was my guest. And what he had to say was so provocative, and there were so many loose ends to our discussion, that I invited him back for today’s program, not quite to tie them all together, but something like that. Let me begin as I began before, indicating that THE OPEN MIND revolves around “Naming Names”, Victor Navasky’s detailed study of the Hollywood blacklist that a generation ago, plagued American life, particularly the creative arts and the uniquely visible motion picture industry, and that has left its scar even in our own time. Those were strange and difficult days, particularly when enormous pressures were put upon people to name names, to inform on old friends who, to one degree or another, had ever been involved with radical or Communist Party meetings or activities. Now, Victor Navasky isn’t sympathetic to naming names. And I’ve asked him not to do so here today. You can read them in his book; and they are public figures. But they also aren’t here to explain or defend or excoriate what they did to themselves and to others. And I’d rather not extend what Mr. Navasky has called “The informer principle” to THE OPEN MIND. Anyway, let me introduce Victor Navasky, lawyer, journalist, now Editor of The Nation. And let’s focus on the larger, less personal questions that he raised in his new book.
Victor, I’m glad you’re willing to come back…
NAVASKY: My pleasure.
HEFFNER: …and continue our discussion and pick up some of those loose ends. One of the things we were talking about, and I said I was going to get back to it, was this question of “Naming Names”, to refer again to the title of your Viking book. You were perhaps a little bit concerned when I said, “Let’s not name names on the air”.
HEFFNER: and I wonder if we could just pursue that and then pursue that matter of the historians and the journalists’ liberty to name names, and the prerogatives he takes upon himself.
NAVASKY: Right. Well, the “informer principle” that you refer to in “Naming Names”, I argue that the Fifties was a period when that principle seemed to invade our culture, and that the test of one’s patriotism was, if one had been accused of having been a member of the Communist Party, was one’s willingness not only to confess one’s own political sins, but one’s willingness to implicate others; to name their names before the same forums that one was accused of. I don’t think that’s the same thing as naming names in a television program. And I don’t believe – I mean, I’m happy to obey by the rules, because it’s your show, and it’s your rule, and I thought last time we talked it turned out to be a useful rule because we got onto other things – but it seems to me in principle that, while there are, you know, McLuhan is right and television and print are not the same things, it’s like saying The New York Times shouldn’t cover X’s speech because he’s not there to defend himself and explain what he really meant. These are people who, 25 and 30 years ago, in a public forum, got up and named the names of people whom they have been politically active with 15 or 20 years earlier, some cases 5 years earlier, and went through a public ritual with public consequences that helped – to my way of thinking anyway – pollute the possibility of trust in the Hollywood community, and corrupt the political system. They weren’t unique in that. I think the committee itself was the primary cause of it. And I think there are a lot of other people who helped it happen. But nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s not only legitimate to name them in later years, but it’s important to do so, because in my view, one of the reasons the blacklist was able to perpetuate itself for so long was that people didn’t generally talk about it in the kind of detail that history permits and that journalism requires.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “journalism requires”?
NAVASKY: Well, for example, the Hollywood blacklist was in force from 1947 through the late Fifties. You could tell it was in force if you worked in the business, because if you had not had a political past yourself but tried to hire someone who had, you quickly found out that if someone’s name was on one of the forbidden lists, you were not allowed to hire them. If you were a producer or a host of a show like this, you wanted to have X on the show, and that name would be put up against the list. And if X had been named before the Un-American Activities Committee, or if X’s name had appeared in Red Channels, you would not be allowed to have X on your television show. So you would know there was a blacklist. If you were X, you would know there was a blacklist because, or suspect it, because all of a sudden whereas the previous year you had made $75,000 or what ever and had worked steadily, you couldn’t work anymore. Nevertheless, and if you read the trade papers, you’d know there was a blacklist because the Hollywood Reporter and the Hollywood Daily Variety used to list little ways to get on and off the list. And if you read the gossip columns you’d know there was a list because the gossip columnists would refer coyly to, “So-and-so is on the list”, or “So-and-so is in trouble”, or, “So-and-so better watch out”. But if you read the news columns of the papers, you would know that there were hearings held, but you wouldn’t know there was a blacklist in operation in the way it has subsequently been documented because it wasn’t reported on as part of the news, as a general proposition, until a little magazine called Frontier out in California devoted a whole issue to is, and the Fund for the Republic, an offshoot, little foundation that was set up by the Ford Foundation, commissioned a study by John Cogley and the ACLU commissioned a study by Meryl Miller, and when the studies came out, they were reported on as news. One of the problems with those studies was, though, that the studies dealt in X’s and Y’s, for the most part. They didn’t deal in real names and flesh and blood. So that when the main response to the Fund for the Republic study, aside form a lot of good reviews, was that the House Committee on Un-American Activities called the authors of the study before the committee to denounce them and to ask them who the people were behind these X’s and Y’s. Well, they refused to say, I think quite properly. It was none of the committee’s business. And also, had they said so, yet other people would have lost their jobs. But the result of it was that the truth of how that thing worked never got across to the wider audience. The allegations in those reports were never subjected to the traditional crossfire in the marketplace of ideas. And the tragedies of human lives in that period were not communicated in a way that flesh and blood people and real people, living, dying, drinking and getting divorced, communicate a story. X’s and Y’s can’t do that.
HEFFNER: well, you know, two things. Number one, it’s not Heffner’s rule that you can’t name names.
NAVASKY: No. Well, I know.
HEFFNER: You’re going to name all the names you want. This is not the House Un-American Activities Committee or anything like that.
HEFFNER: You’re going to do what you want.
NAVASKY: It’s a request.
HEFFNER: Well, it’s my feeling that there is something demanded by fairness and balance. And I’m not talking about the rules of the FCC; I’m just talking about the rules of common decency…
HEFFNER: …in terms of naming names here. But, you know. Going back to your other point about putting flesh and blood…
NAVASKY: Just if I can interrupt a second?
NAVASKY: Why is it – I won’t name this anyway – but would you have the same problem if I said to you, “I thought So-and-so behaved in a heroic way”, and if I named So-and-so and told you why? That would not be indecent to your view?
HEFFNER: Does that seem so strange? Victor, does that, that you want to praise someone, and I’d say, “Don’t name names”?
NAVASKY: Well, I mean…
HEFFNER: Do we need him here to say, “Hey, never mind that praise. I didn’t deserve it?” That’s not what we’re talking about.
NAVASKY: Well, I may praise someone for a reason that he or she would find obnoxious. None of them are here to explain themselves. It’s a congenital defect of the medium. But the question is, why should we protect people who this author believes behaved in a way which was fundamentally indecent years ago, as opposed to people who I may misconstrue as having behaved well, when they may turn out to have behaved indecently in your view, or in someone else’s view? It’s just a peculiar ground rule, which, as I say, it worked out will last time, so I’m…
HEFFNER: Well, it may not work out well this time. So we ought to discuss it further. Because, look, I’m old enough to remember those days, and remember them very well. I remember when a little book of mine was put on a list, along with books by Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson, but because I was a pro-Roosevelt New Dealer, there was something suspect in those days about my history of the U.S. But isn’t the whole business of naming names, of saying we have to put flesh and bones and blood on these charges, these kind of charges, isn’t that something akin to what was being done at that time? Not by the informers, but by the very committees that said, “Come up here and name names. And they may not have the opportunity at the very same time that you’re naming names to reply to what you’re saying. But we want you to name names anyway”. That’s the sort of thing that I was concerned about here.
NAVASKY: Right. Well, I think it’s in the nature of both the journalistic and the historical enterprises that one tries to get at the truth. And that it was in…
HEFFNER: Do you put the things together, journalism and history?
NAVASKY: Yeah. I think historians are slow, you know. Yeah, they are a form of journalists. I consider them mere historians. I think journalists are pretty good as a class.
HEFFNER: Mere historians?
NAVASKY: That’s right. I think journalists, it’s a high calling, to me to be a journalist.
HEFFNER: Forgive me. You’re a journalist, and I was a historian…
NAVASKY: That’s right. Right.
HEFFNER: …so I take a somewhat different point of view.
NAVASKY: But I don’t know. I mean, obviously I do put them together in that sense, that they’re both in the business of seeking out the truth. And to do that, there’s always a point at which you ask yourself, “Am I invading someone’s privacy in my effort to get at the truth”? And then you have to make discriminations and judgments along the way. As I argued in “Naming Names”, I did not feel that the Un-American Activities Committee was in the business of seeking out the truth. I demonstrated, I thought, in the book, that the committee knew the answers to the questions it was asking. It already had the names in that case. The reason it made the names public was a form of punishment. It put people through a ritual. They had gotten these names from double agents. The reason that I talk about real people in “Naming Names”, rather than…
HEFFNER: Not to punish them?
NAVASKY: It was not to punish them. In many cases they’re dead. It’s not to punish them at all, but to try and learn something. And the reason that I sought them out and talked to them was not to punish them at all, because to do that, someone suggested to me, there ought to be a book called, “The Men and the Boys”, and you run in one column the good guys, the other column the bad guys. That’s not the way I think of it. That’s not the way I approached it. And that certainly wasn’t the way I came out of it after talking to the people who had been put through this ringer of having to betray their friends before the committee. I don’t consider them, I think that they did something that was wrong, but I don’t consider them evil people. I can’t know, you know. Maybe there are some, and some of them are, and some of them aren’t.
HEFFNER: Well, I was interested particularly that, in terms of what you’re saying now about you’re not considering them evil people; you are considering a phenomenon.
NAVASKY: As a class, yeah.
HEFFNER: All right. You’re talking about a historical or human phenomenon.
NAVASKY: That’s right.
HEFFNER: And we had talked a bit last time about the ways in which they were pressured to name names by their own devices, by their own desire to stand out, by their lawyers, their therapists, by circumstances of not being able to work without naming names, etcetera. We talked, because you mention it in your book. We talked about experiments, psychological experiments that do relate to this question of who will and who will not succumb to this kind of pressure.
HEFFNER: Who will or who will not turn coat. And you indicated that in the Milgram experiments, which we won’t go into here (we did, a bit, last time), and other experiments, there’s an indication that about one-third…
NAVASKY: Well, it was actually – I may have misspoken myself – in the Ash experiments, it was almost precisely one-third. In the Milgram experiments, I think it was more than that who went along.
HEFFNER: And in Hollywood, you were saying?
NAVASKY: In Hollywood almost precisely one-third, about one-third of the people who were called went along. They named the names. And two-thirds refused to do that.
HEFFNER: Okay. I have been reading your book on Kennedy Justice, when I was reading “Naming Names”. And I wondered as I did that, and I wondered in terms of your experience as an editor and your experience as a political scientist, historian, lawyer, whether you think that that one-third division reflects why you would assume to be the dividing line between the men and the boys as you said before? One-third of us men, and the rest boys?
NAVASKY: Yeah. I don’t know.
HEFFNER: One-third good guys and two-thirds bad guys?
NAVASKY: No. No. I think it may well have been an accident that the numbers ended up the same way. And the most interesting thing about the Milgram experiment to me, and the Ash experiments, were the conditions under which people didn’t go along, under which fewer than a third went along (in the Ash case), and fewer than a majority in the Milgram case. And one of the conditions were, when they had an example of someone else who wouldn’t go along. So that, and indeed I like to think that the experience before the Un-American Activities Committee then of people who resisted and survived, or at least and are regarded by the culture today and the younger people today as heroes and heroines, will prevent it from happening again in quite the same way.
HEFFNER: Victor, you’re saying that when people stood their ground, others stood their ground?
NAVASKY: That’s right. In the Milgram and Ash experiments that’s right.
HEFFNER: And in Hollywood?
NAVASKY: And in Hollywood, I think that the examples of some lent courage to others. And that’s why some of the people who named names were so hated. Because in one or two cases they were people of such stature and such economic security and such political articulateness, that when they caved in and when they took ads in newspapers – in one case a man took an ad in The New York Times, urging others to do likewise – people, some people said to themselves, “If he can’t resist, how can I, a poor extra on the lot, or a second screen or script writer or reader? How can I resist if this great director can’t stand up to the committee”? So, yeah, there is a force in a personal example that sometimes speaks louder than the most eloquent statement, you know, petitions that can be signed or letter written, especially when one puts oneself at risk as some of the people did.
HEFFNER: Is it your impression that today the kinds of pressures that were exerted in those days could not any longer be exerted? That perhaps unions would stand their ground more firmly? That perhaps individuals, there would be more individuals who would stand up and be counted what you consider the right way rather than the wrong way?
NAVASKY: Yeah, it is my impression that we have learned something from that period and that it couldn’t happen again in quite the same way. However, I would say, if I may name the name of our president, Ronald Reagan in the recent presidential campaign, he publicly told Bob Shear of The Los Angeles Times, when he asked about the blacklist, that there was no Hollywood blacklist. And then he said, “If there were a Hollywood blacklist”, — having denied that there was one – “it was a blacklist by the communists against others”. And then he went off into a denunciation of quote “godless communism” close quote, which he ways is still with us. Now, if he – and there’s no reason to doubt that he believes what he said — assuming he believes what he said, then one has to say, “Okay, here the leader of the free world didn’t learn the lesson of that period. And he’s going to have as much or more say about what happens in the next four years as you and I and anyone else in the immediate environment…”
HEFFNER: A little more, I suspect.
NAVASKY: Yeah, a little more. Although presidents have less power than we used to think they did. But he will have a little more. And so, you know, maybe it’s too optimistic to say it can’t happen again. But I, yeah, I would think it can’t happen in quite the same way, partly because of the example of the people who resisted and the example of the people who went along. If you are a director in Hollywood and get called before one of these committees, assuming that there is a report by the Heritage Foundation which his a kind of right-wing think tank in Pennsylvania, which has included among its advisors, Mr. Meese, who is a Reagan advisor, which has recommended that the House Un-American Activities Committee on a similar Senate committee be reestablished…assuming that such a recommendation is acted upon and the committee is reestablished and you get called up there for having me or whoever on your program…
HEFFNER: I’ll deny it, Victor, I’ll deny it.
NAVASKY: …and ask the question – right – when you consider how the culture regards the people who did go along, the people who named the names, the informers, which is so awful that you don’t even want them called that on this program, I think it’s going to be harder for you to be an informer, if you were ever so inclined to be one, because of that negative example. So I think there is a function in learning that history.
HEFFNER: You mean I might not name names because Victor Navasky wrote a book called “Naming Names” that made the predecessors of naming names look not-so-good?
NAVASKY: I wouldn’t presume to say it that way.
HEFFNER: No, but seriously…
NAVASKY: Yeah, but seriously, I would hope that the example of that period, that we have something to learn from the example of that period. However, whether it’s in “Naming Names” or by looking at Hollywood on Trial, a film that was made recently, or in other, David Coates’ book, or other forms…
HEFFNER: Do you, you know…Let’s go back to something we talked about on our first go around. When I watched our show on the air, I was taken, if you’ll forgive me, by a question I asked, and particularly by the answer you gave. This question had to do really with the impact of the media, and with whether, indeed, there had been any influence on the part or by those who had participated in the party apparatus, upon the material that was coming out of Hollywood. I gather your answer was, “No, by and large”. But I also gathered that your answer was, “How could it have been particularly influential”?
NAVASKY: That’s true. And there’s a third thing I should have said, which is, even if it had been…
NAVASKY: …even if it had been the Un-American Activities Committee, to me, was not an appropriate forum to make inquiry into that.
HEFFNER: What would have been the appropriate forum?
NAVASKY: Because to me, that is what the left used to call “thought control”. That was, the way they were conducting their inquiry, it was an attempt to punish people for trying to insert their ideas, if they had, or if they had succeeded, into mass media. The appropriate forum would have been Bosley Crowther. It would have been you and I writing articles. It would have been you and I talking on television and pointing to the propaganda in a movie that we saw, in movies that we saw. It would have been other capitalists setting up other enterprises where they would make conservative movies or anti-communist movies or anti-Stalinist movies. Has happened to some degree. It would have been…That’s what my understanding of the marketplace of ideas is all about. It is not punishing people for trying to express their ideas.
HEFFNER: Now, I gather…
NAVASKY: And with the arm of the state doing that, that’s when you get into really dangerous territory.
HEFFNER: Victor, does that put you in the libertarian camp? If we had an economic question concerning control over the marketplace, trustification, conspiracy and restraint of trade, using any of those older phrases, would you say the free marketplace of ideas demanded that those issues too be handled by the counterpart of Bosley Crowther and others and you and I, or would government have some role?
NAVASKY: Yeah. Well, I am not a libertarian, and I’ve never practiced law. I went to law school, but I don’t practice law. But I do remember from law school the famous footnote in, I think, the Carolina Products case, there the judges said in that case, for the United States Supreme Court, “The First Amendment has a preferred position in our constitutional constellation”, which I take to mean that the marketplace of ideas should prevail without any government regulation whatsoever. But I believe in government regulation over the economy, where you’re not dealing with ideas; you’re dealing with property. And then I believe in the antitrust laws as a way to preserve competition, as it happens.
HEFFNER: Certainly in the area of property, ideas have their place.
HEFFNER: Certainly in the area of ideas, there are economic consequences to those ideas.
NAVASKY: Sure. Sure.
HEFFNER: So, are you really willing, in 1980-81, in this century, in this decade, to continue to make such a clear delineation?
NAVASKY: Well, again, I mean, the first place where that kind of issue came up in the 1950s was very different, on very different terrain. It was: should Communists be allowed to teach, should Marxists be allowed to teach in our universities? And I believe, of course, Marxists should be allowed to teach in our universities. Should they be allowed to espouse Marxism in the classroom? I believe, sure, they should be allowed to. But they should also not mislead their kids as to what they’re saying. They shouldn’t pretend they’re talking one thing and saying…If they do, they’re not good teachers, and they ought to be fired for professional reasons, not for reasons of political affiliation. The fact that there are places where competing values overlap and that there are gray areas doesn’t mean that there also aren’t black and white ones. I think, again, in the thing that I looked at in “Naming Names”, the thing that interested me about it was, and the reason I chose Hollywood rather than the defense industry or the espionage cases or other things, it seems to me this was a black-and-white issue. This was clear. There was no case of people cooperating with that committee. And yet, decent, intelligent, smart, talented people went and did something that was so fundamentally indecent that then one has to ask why. And then one looks at that and one finds there is a whole support system, that our whole culture conspired to have some of them think they were doing something that was decent. Some didn’t think so.
HEFFNER: All right. Now, you make a basic premise, and logically build everything on top of that. And that is, there was no reasonable basis…
NAVASKY: That’s right.
HEFFNER: …for concern on the part of any House committee or any Senate committee with what was going on in Hollywood. Is that fair? That nothing could have gone on in Hollywood that would endanger our national security or anything else?
NAVASKY: There was no reasonable basis to believe that the sorts of hearings they were conducting could find out whether anything was going on. And I believe there are real questions as to whether such an inquiry would be proper anyway, for the reasons that we just discussed. I believe so-called propaganda is something to be fought in the marketplace of ideas, and that the danger of government inquiries into book publishing, the press, when they are aimed at ideas rather than questions of, you know, whether there should be monopoly ownership of a paper, that the dangers are apparent. And we see in that period what happens when you get into that area. That’s all.
HEFFNER: It’s funny for an intellectual such as yourself to say that, because I’m sure you believe in the overwhelming power of ideas.
NAVASKY: Sure I do.
HEFFNER: Perhaps even greater power than the power of the marketplace. And yet it is in the area of ideas that you say, “Let’s not tamper, let’s not interfere”. You correctly quote the Constitution, the First Amendment, etcetera.
NAVASKY: No, but all I say is that, those also, you can’t, we can have a theoretical discussion. Those were fundamentally unserious inquiries. They were asking people to name names that they already had. So it was a ritual. It was not an intellectual inquiry. We can have the hypothetical discussion that we’re having, and…
HEFFNER: Well, okay. I understand that. And we have a signal – I don’t believe it – we have a minute left. But I’d like to go back again to the question, do you still really believe, as you seemed to say last time, that after all there wasn’t very much that could be done in Hollywood that would be of great importance in terms of the war for the minds of men?
NAVASKY: Yeah. I believe if you wanted to find the people with the power to influence the minds of men, you had to go to the owners of the studios themselves, not the people who were writing the scripts which then were cleared through 85 levels before they got to the screen in this vast collaborative process that was the Hollywood film-making process at the time. Independent film-makers can get their ideas through. I think people in that system, it was learned that the people they were calling were the wrong people. You can use that medium very effectively, but not those people.
HEFFNER: You know, I really want to go on with that question, because that’s one on which I think I would beg to differ with you. But time is up. Thanks very much for joining me today, Victor Navasky.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.