Have we entered the era of chill-listing?

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Awaiting publication of his latest book at age 84, Bernard “Bernie” Gordon knows something about living in frightening times. He lived through an era of repression and even worse, thinks it is back. And he isn’t talking about al Qaeda or the Iraqi Republican Guard.
Mr. Gordon was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, which began in the 1950s. For him, it lasted into the 1990s, when his proper credits were finally restored with assistance from the Writers Guild of America on movies he wrote like Battle Of The Bulge, The Thin Red Line (1964 version), Escape from San Quentin, The Day of the Triffids, 55 Days at Peking and Hellcats Of The Navy, along with others that show up these days on cable TV and in syndication.
Today he hates Saddam Hussein and loves America. He is concerned about the safety of our troops and wants to see them return home safely. But Mr. Gordon is frightened by how much the current atmosphere feels like the bad old days of the 1950s. “I’m very depressed,” he said from his home in Hollywood. “I feel as if things are almost worse today than they were then, even though no one has yet been jailed for their political affiliation. What bothers me is that any kind of dissent is seen as unpatriotic.”
He has told his own story in the 1999 book Living in Interesting Times; A Memoir of How I Learned to Love the Blacklist, and follows up shortly with The File, based on his own extensive FBI file. “The FBI followed me for 26 years like I was a criminal,” Mr. Gordon recalled. “But they never found anything like that. I was only a dissenter. They did not want dissenters.”
He joined the Writers Guild in 1948 and was just getting established as a screenwriter on films such as The Lawless Breed and Crime Wave when he was blacklisted in 1952. He later recalled it as a very painful period, when he was made to live in terror. It was also very costly in everything from legal fees to the loss of employment. He doesn’t deny he was a member of a Communist group, but recalls it as being little more than a social organization that was never a threat to anyone’s security. After being blacklisted, he took menial jobs before friends drew him back to write screenplays, both in America and Europe, under such names as John T. Williams, Philip Yordan (a fellow writer who let him use his name) and, most frequently, Raymond T. Marcus.
“My concern today,” said Mr. Gordon, “is that normal civil liberties as well as constitutional protections are being suspended or lost under the guise of fighting the war on terrorism.”
There isn’t blacklisting in as blatant a manner today. Instead there is “chill-listing,” which can translate into lost bookings, jobs that don’t materialize and even hate-mongering. Since the country girl group the Dixie Chicks spoke out, they have been threatened and boycotted and their property has been vandalized. Their records were dropped from play lists at stations owned by Cumulus, Cox, Clear Channel and others. Several high-profile TV stars have been told, according to sources, to curb their anti-war statements or face the reality that it could hurt their careers.
A top Hollywood talent agency reports that it receives half a dozen or more e-mails and faxes a day threatening boycotts against various performers for speaking out. “I and anyone I can influence will not be spending our money to be entertained by your un-American clients,” goes one letter, “who speak there [sic] treasons thoughts against our president and this great country that makes you and them so wealthy.”
In Oregon, any protester who blocks the street could get a 25-year jail term, if a new bill in the state legislature is passed. The chances of passage are iffy, but the atmosphere under which it was submitted is real. “It’s very much like when the Japanese were rounded up during World War II without proper authorization. Only now it is Arab Americans held without due process,” Mr. Gordon said. “If you oppose this war you are an enemy of the country and you are subject to persecution. It’s the same damn thing all over again.”
There is no free speech, unless all voices can be heard, including the voices of protesters, whom Mr. Gordon acknowledges have gotten some coverage. “When you have suppression of dissent,” he added, “you have no opportunity to change the course of events through a peaceful process. That’s what got us into Vietnam.”
Or as Benjamin Franklin put it 243 years ago: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”