Sunday, June 9, 2013
Zero Mostel v. Gail Collins
Everyone knows Zero Mostel . The star of the original filming of "The Producers". The star of the 8-year Broadway run of "Fiddler on the Roof". The unforgettable guest on Sesame Street, sporting long johns, a diaper and a top hat. Yes, everybody knows who Zero Mostel was.
And likewise everyone knows of Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Frank Sinatra.
Gail Collins? Not so much. Not nearly so much.
Gail is an amusing political columnist with the New York Times. Usually she's sensible and often funny. It was she who never let go of the story of Mitt Romney's dog on the roof of his car. We owe her big for preserving that wondrous image.
But on June 8, 2013, she blew it. She joined the media pack braying after Obama because our security services are tracking phone call information exactly like that printed on your phone bill (time of call and phone number only) and email addresses originating overseas. The government is trying to head off potential attacks on us, a half dozen of which actually generated such trails ahead of time IF we had been looking for them. Oh, vile and wicked government. Oh, persecution and denial of our liberties.
Except it isn't. Not in itself and certainly not in the scale of government abuse in times gone by. Today's intrusion is a very minor one and arguably necessary. It's totally unlike what usually goes on in the push/pull between our safety and our freedom, a very lop-sided push/pull that blighted most of the 20th century all the way back to the "anarchist" scare of the earliest 1900s and then the harsh "patriotism" laws imposed by supposedly liberal President Wilson during WWI. And what about the government's imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II with no grounds for suspicion and no due process? Some of my friends were in those prison camps as children.
The dismal record continued through mid-century and beyond. Just ask Zero Mostel, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Frank Sinatra. They could tell you what government paranoic overreach really looks like.
Imagine it! Imagine the unimaginable!
Everyone's beloved Zero Mostel - blacklisted as a "Communist"! Can't work. Shunned. Shamed too because he had to name names before a Congressional Committee or go to jail.
Charlie Chaplin - the Little Tramp, beloved around the world to this day. Thrown out of America by the State Department.
Paul Robeson - possibly the greatest of American male singers. (Hear him sing "Ol' Man River" in the1940s film version of "Showboat".) Bravely outspoken for the labor movement and against the Ku Klux Klan, he was called "nigger" on the floor of the House of Representatives, attacked by a mob at his concert in Westchester County, New York, blacklisted from performing in America, and deprived of his passport by the FBI so he could not earn a living abroad even though immensely popular worldwide.
Pete Seeger. He taught us all to sing the songs of America and cherish the ideals that imbue them. He virtually started the "folk song" movement of the 40s and 50s that morphed directly into the anti-war and civil rights musical heart of the 60s and 70s. Without Peter breaking into radio with the Weavers, there would have been no opening for Woodie in New York in the 1940s. But Peter was blacklisted off radio and TV for 15 years and hounded by the government for decades because of his humane and liberal views. He's outlived all his persecutors and is still with us, thank God. But the odious memory of it all is still a stench and a blight on America.
Frank Sinatra. Undoubtedly America's greatest ballad and pop singer, a jazzman at heart. He stands for all that's cool and sophisticated in the American male image of the 20th century. Everybody loves "Ol' Blue Eyes". Except those who sought to destroy him in the late 1940s and 50s for opposing racism and prejudice and making a short film in 1945 called "The House I Live In." Anti-Semitism still raged in America in those years in spite of what had been found in the Nazi concentration camps at the end of the war. Sinatra tried to change that with the 10-minute film about tolerance. I saw it when I was nine years old and it was, unbelievably, shown in my little brick schoolhouse in rural Illinois in 1945. Considered a bit "corny" today, it did much to make me a crusader for human rights. It addressed the then-unmentionable blight of anti-Semitism and other prejudice. It took courage for Sinatra and his co-workers to do it. And they paid dearly. Sinatra's career plunged for a decade. The creators of the script, music, and lyrics were blacklisted. One went to jail for subsequently defying the House Un-American Activities Committee. The feds denied Sinatra a passport to entertain the US troops in Korea, and the FBI considered prosecuting him, claiming he had committed perjury on some form.
So what's the point here?
If the liberals now abandon Obama because of the moderate activities of NSA, what will take his place in the future? The bad ol' boys will be back. The bully boys of real government oppression. If through the present over-reaction, the liberals disable NSA et al from preventing another major attack, you can kiss your Constitution goodbye. If the attack is a portable nuclear weapon in your city, you can also kiss your a_ _ goodbye. Or how about a vial of poison in your city's drinking water. One way or the other, the repressive reaction will make the 1940s-50s look like a kid's birthday party.
As Gail Collins points out with a sneer, Obama is indeed a constitutional law professor. She thinks he's forgotten the Constitution. No, he hasn't. He knows the above history as well as I do. He knows what can happen when the American people get scared. Another attack and all our rights go to the wall. My pals and I fought for decades to get those rights back during the Communist scare. Another major attack and the Constitution, the love of my life and Obama's, is probably damaged beyond belief.
Ask Pete and Frank and Charlie and Paul what can happen when Americans get scared. Ask Zero Mostel in his long johns and diaper and top hat. Their answer? To quote another famous entertainer, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"
P.S. The quoted performer is, of course, Al Jolson, portrayed by Larry Parks in the 1940s film, "The Jolson Story". Parks was nominated for an Academy Award for the performance but soon thereafter became a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted in Hollywood, and lost his career.
NEXT TIME MAYBE: What to do if the FBI starts listening to you on the phone. (They won't, but it can be fun if they do!)