One of Hollywood's finest actors, Kirk Douglas, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. There much to celebrate--in his rich career Douglas garnered three Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What is less known, but demands remembering now more than ever, is the role he played in fighting the McCarthyist blacklist of Hollywood writers, most dramatically when he insisted that one of them, Dalton Trumbo, be given full screen credit for writing the screenplay for one of Douglas' most famous films, Spartacus.
When the film Trumbo was released last year, Douglas took that opportunity to warn us that blacklists can always appear again, and that it is incumbent upon members of a democracy to fight them:
"As actors it is easy for us to play the hero. We get to fight the bad guys and stand up for justice. In real life, the choices are not always so clear. The Hollywood Blacklist, recreated powerfully on screen in Trumbo, was a time I remember well. The choices were hard. The consequences were painful and very real. During the blacklist, I had friends who went into exile when no one would hire them; actors who committed suicide in despair. My young co-star in Detective Story (1951), Lee Grant, was unable to work for twelve years after she refused to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I was threatened that using a Blacklisted writer for Spartacus -- my friend Dalton Trumbo -- would mark me as a "Commie-lover" and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle. I am so proud of my fellow actors who use their public influence to speak out against injustice. At 98 years old, I have learned one lesson from history: It very often repeats itself. I hope that Trumbo, a fine film, will remind all of us that the Blacklist was a terrible time in our country, but that we must learn from it so that it will never happen again."
Back then the American Legion, outraged that Douglas had given a Communist sympathizer screen credit, set up a picket line to block entrance to the film's screening. On February 4, 1961, President John F. Kennedy crossed the picket line to attend the screening of Spartacus.
This presidential act of solidarity helped end the blacklist. Today we face, as Kirk Douglas warned we might, another challenge, but with an entirely different sort of person coming into the Presidency.
Trumbo and others were put into prison for refusing to testify against others. In so doing they were resisting what they felt were unconstitutional demands--these men and women refused to inform on their friends, to spread the mass hysteria aimed against those who held different beliefs.
One of the most memorable scenes in Spartacus comes at the end, when the Roman soldiers are closing in on the hero, who is the leader of a slave rebellion. Captured by the Romans, a group of slaves are asked to identify Spartacus, and in exchange for giving him up they are promised leniency. But instead of betraying him, they each declare, "I am Spartacus!" Trumbo the screenwriter was clearly gesturing toward the real-life situation of not only blacklisted Hollywood writers, but also of all others facing McCarthyite persecution. In crediting Trumbo with the screenplay, Douglas was in effect making the same kind of statement of solidarity in his own actions, which President Kennedy then followed in kind.
Today we are faced with a blacklist against professors who are suspected of harboring "liberal" beliefs and the registry of Muslims proposed by the President-Elect, who has also warned the press that it should be careful about how it presents the news of his presidency. And just now, in one of the most egregious acts yet, the National Park Service, prompted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, has filed a "massive omnibus blocking permit" for many of Washington, DC's most famous political locations for days and weeks before and after the inauguration on 20 January. So much for the Million Woman March on Washington and any other sort of demonstration. This is a clear abridgment of the First Amendment, which includes "the right of the people to peaceably assemble." It is the only time in our nation's history such a broad and flagrant denial of a right to protest has been issued. Who knows what other kinds of acts of surveillance and censorship might appear in the future?
While organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union are planning to challenge the registry in court it is crucial to see how everyday people are stepping up, taking a page from Spartacus in their mode of resistance. One effort is the "Register Us" campaign, whose website declares: "Donald Trump wants to require all Muslims to register in a government database. We must stand together to protect our neighbors and our most fundamental rights. Let's all pledge to register as Muslim today."
Similarly, many professors across the country are insisting that they be included in the ProfessorWatch website. One group at the University of Notre Dame addresses their petition to ProfessorWatch thus,
"We make this request because we note that you currently list on your site several of our colleagues, such as Professor Gary Gutting, whose work is distinguished by its commitment to reasoned, fact-based civil discourse examining questions of tolerance, equality, and justice. We further note that nearly all faculty colleagues at other institutions listed on your site, the philosophers, historians, theologians, ethicists, feminists, rhetoricians, and others, have similarly devoted their professional lives to the unyielding pursuit of truth, to the critical examination of assumptions that underlie social and political policy, and to honoring this country's commitments to the premise that all people are created equal and deserving of respect.
This is the sort of company we wish to keep."
And now a second petition is being circulated by the largest national organization of academics, the American Association of University Professors, where faculty are adding their names in support of the Notre Dame professors.
And finally, it has just been announced that the US Department of Energy has resisted the President-Elect's request to hand over names of individuals who work on climate change: "We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department," said spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder.
Just as holding communist views was not illegal during the McCarthyite era, today it is of course not illegal to hold "liberal" views, nor is it illegal to be a Muslim, nor is it illegal to work on a scientific project that Donald Trump feels is invalid. But at a time when the President-Elect has chosen to informally but effectively conduct policy via Twitter, when facts are buried in falsehoods, when the distinction between what is legal and what is not legal is blurred, actions urged upon us by the government and others can easily ask us to transgress our own laws and rights. It is, therefore, all the more important to resist any and all efforts to turn us into instruments for witch hunts of minorities of various natures and those who hold unpopular positions. Last year Kirk Douglas had no idea how quickly his concern about history repeating itself could happen. We need to emulate not only the character he played in one of his greatest roles, but also the role he played in real life in fighting against prejudice and persecution, and fighting for all our rights and freedoms.