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The White Scare

McCarthyism, woke-ism, and America’s war on humor and perversity

Blake Smith
October 05, 2020
Original photo: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Original photo: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Original photo: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Original photo: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Objections to “cancel culture” and “wokeness” often underline apparent similarities between the ideas and tactics of 20th-century communism and today’s anti-racism. Both movements seem to deny the possibility of neutrality. From either perspective, all of us appear to be caught up in a long-running historical conflict, and our slightest acts, even of speech and thought, strengthen one side against the other. In the midst of a mortal struggle that divides the world, it hardly seems possible to insist on one’s right to the enjoyments of private life, in which pleasures do not have to justify themselves in terms of their contribution to anyone’s cause.

For sure, America is not the former Soviet Union. No one has been sent to a labor camp in Alaska for writing for Quillette. Nor is there anything like a communist party leading America’s cultural change. There is no central leadership directing protests, giving coherence to diffuse demands, or aiming at a seizure of state power.

Capital is perhaps even less threatened than the state. Large corporations have easily accommodated themselves to the new moral order, making performative anti-racism part of their public relations campaigns. Where 20th-century communism aimed at overturning supposedly oppressive economic and political systems, contemporary anti-racism almost seems designed to preserve them by directing our energies into debates over the hidden messages of cultural products or prejudices lurking in individual psyches. Judging by its effects, one might even suggest that this enrollment of Americans in a drama of exposing, denouncing, and resisting the invisible menace of white supremacy is objectively conservative.

Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection, New York

Comparisons to the Soviet Union also mischaracterize the so-called woke left by suggesting that it is the heir to communism, thus allowing Americans who are disoriented and frightened by cultural upheaval to imagine that they are confronting something foreign, something that does not belong here. Rather than looking for precedents in distant countries, we might turn to one of the most salient moments in our own collective memory: the anti-communist Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s, with the woke left in the very American role of the persecutors, rather than the persecuted.

We might therefore call our contemporary moment “woke McCarthyism” or the “White Scare”—a moment defined by a paranoid search for, and hysterical denunciation of, traces of white supremacy in a society where actual white supremacists are no more powerful than actual communists were in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America. In its alliance of political, corporate, and cultural power, directed toward revealing the secret sympathies of relatively powerless individuals who were then publicly denounced, humiliated and made unemployable in a theater of persecution that could be alternately terrifying and absurd, the Red Scare is a more obvious model for White Scare than the communism it opposed.

There is an enormous scholarly literature on American anti-communism and the Hollywood blacklist, much of it offering sober lessons about the importance of civil liberties, due process and other safeguards of our liberal traditions. In his 2009 book, The Un-Americans: Jews, the Blacklist and Stoolpigeon Culture, literary scholar Joseph Litvak does something else. He argues, brilliantly and provocatively, that communism was a “red herring”: Hollywood’s anti-communist project, in his analysis, appears as a “screen” for “a much less avowable” cultural agenda of eradicating an “un-American” style from mass culture.

What was that “un-American” style that Hollywood’s McCarthyites targeted? Building on Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988), Litvak suggests that this effort to purge the film industry of a particular comic ethos was in fact an attack on Jews, “who have long been thought to have a particular gift for both the comic and the cosmopolitan, and who have almost as long been resented for ‘controlling’ American mass culture.” Litvak defines their style as a “refusal of ... American seriousness,” of the earnest, pious, straightforward attitude taken as the moral foundation of patriotism and political commitment.

Many of the Hollywood actors, writers, and other workers who were blacklisted were in fact Jewish, and their Jewishness was part of what made them suspect. In Washington, members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) revealed actors’ “real names” and Jewish origins with unmistakable intonations. Six members of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted for refusing to testify to HUAC were Jews—and as Litvak notes, at least one of the gentile minority, Ring Lardner Jr., was accused of “writing like a Jew” by studio head Samuel Goldwyn, who like nearly all of the other studio executives, was Jewish himself.

The White Scare is a moment defined by a paranoid search for, and hysterical denunciation of, traces of white supremacy in a society where actual white supremacists are no more powerful than actual communists were in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America.

Litvak argues that Goldwyn and his colleagues were trying “to stay ahead of the game: to prove themselves more American than the Americans,” and less Jewish even than non-Jews like Lardner. While HUAC held hearings in Washington, Goldwyn and other studio executives hired private investigators to spy on their employees. Those with dubious associations could either cooperate by informing on their friends—“naming names”—or find themselves permanently out of work. Informing, however, was a performance in itself. In order to clear their names, it was not enough for cooperative witnesses to name others. They had to adhere to a “theatrical orthodoxy” and “testimonial etiquette,” weepily insisting that they had been misled and meekly begging forgiveness. As they denounced others, they had to abase themselves.

Many of those who resisted imperatives to sycophancy were part of what Litvak calls “the righteous left.” These resisters denounced HUAC and the Hollywood executives behind the blacklist by appealing to their rights as citizens with a moral seriousness “that bespoke an underlying respect for the norms of self-presentation in the postwar American public sphere.”

One of the most famous moments of such serious resistance was Lionel Stander’s 1953 testimony before HUAC. Stander tried to shame the committee by suggesting its members were “ex-fascists” and “anti-Semites,” implicitly linking HUAC’s investigations to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492: “unfortunately in feudal Spain my ancestors didn’t have the protection of the United States Constitution.” Stander’s accusation has become part of Hollywood lore, but Litvak suggests that it is less radical than it might seem, still playing “by the rules of a national style of seriousness that the committee itself enforces, far more aggressively and vigilantly than any particular ideology, anti-communist or otherwise.” HUAC’s members, in Litvak’s interpretation, were not much disturbed by such charges that paid a kind of tribute to the constitutional and patriotic principles they considered themselves to be defending.

The “real insult” to HUAC came when Stander used “mock-seriousness” to deny its authority. Stander archly asked of his own performance, “is this an insult to the Committee?” and ironically declared himself “deeply shocked” by the chairman’s insistence that he “act like a witness in a reasonable, dignified manner.”

The real threat to HUAC, in other words, was Stander’s comic style—and it was just this kind of smart-alecky sarcasm, associated with ‘un-American’ Jewishness, that the blacklist was intended to purge from American mass culture. “Here,” Litvak half-jokingly notes, “lies the authentically pernicious Marxism—with Stander in the Groucho role.”

Scholars may disagree with Litvak’s reading of Stander’s testimony, and with his larger argument that anti-communism in Hollywood was primarily about eliminating a certain comic strain understood as Jewish and foreign. But this interpretation of anti-communism as an alibi for an anti-semitic and anti-comic purge provides a basis for a new perspective on American culture and politics that may also help illuminate our present moment.

Seriousness, Litvak suggests, is a hegemonic style in American life. To be a good member of the American nation, a team player, a respectable person, is to show one’s commitment to dominant values, enthusiastically demonstrating support by speaking out against deviants who “refuse the seriousness of being American ... shirk the interminable labor of patriotic performance.” While we may sometimes imagine such aggressive displays of wholesomeness as belonging to a bygone America, left behind in Puritan New England or the WASPish 1950s, Litvak argues, this regime is entirely at home in contemporary centers of power, from the corporate world to academia.

“Notwithstanding the appearance (or the advertisement) of an almost total reversal of values” on all sorts of sexual, religious, and cultural matters since the 1950s, Litvak claims, the performance of seriousness remains the American path to success. We might think of the obligatory earnestness with which students at elite universities and in prestigious internships are made to speak of their passion for the slogans of today’s transnational capitalism: innovation, mobility, diversity, and tolerance. This is the serious “cosmopolitanism of knowingness, the cosmopolitanism of the insider, the cosmopolitanism of the consummate professional.”

Globally oriented elites who see themselves in such terms may imagine that they are the antithesis of HUAC committee members and their sycophantic informants—but Litvak suggests that as an “ethico-political imperative to oppose nationalism” this anti-nationalist cosmopolitanism has become a new form of “collaboration” with power. Values and politics change, but the style of seriousness persists.

Wokeness appears as an ironic Americanization effort, a program, like those of the nativist 1920s, in which employers are tasked with transforming their workers into proper, assimilated citizens, possessing the great American virtue of seriousness.

If Litvak is right, we might say that for all its talk of diversity, the woke project is one of cultural conformity, rooted in an old American tradition of seriousness-policing. There is, in fact, nothing more provincially and chauvinistically American than anti-racists’ insistence that they can set the rules for what people can say, eat, wear, etc. Rather than a multicultural society in which people from a wide range of backgrounds manage to get along with tolerance, patience and humor, accepting that one will share only a minimum of values with one’s coworkers, neighbors and citizens, the “successor ideology” imposes a monoculture in which members of an increasingly diverse country are compelled to keep within a shrinking range of acceptable behaviors and beliefs.

Wokeness thus appears as an ironic Americanization effort, a program, like those of the nativist 1920s, in which employers are tasked with transforming their workers into proper, assimilated citizens, possessing the great American virtue of seriousness. “Even in its most benign forms,” Litvak warns, this kind of serious citizenship “entails a perpetual readiness to bear witness in the name of the law, to give evidence about oneself and others ... every citizen necessarily has within him- or herself at least a little bit of the collaborator and at least a little bit of the informer.”

Humor, however, compromises one’s reliability as a good citizen, and thus as a collaborator and informant. It appears inseparable from the idea that one is not quite in step with the collective, that one is keeping something in reserve or adding something gratuitous. And of course, humor means enjoyment, or as Litvak puts it “happiness itself”—a happiness that does not depend on validation from the guardians of the moral order. With humor, one can be a “happy pervert,” a moral deviant who insists on laughing at his own jokes.

The comic cultivation of one’s garden, is in Litvak’s eyes “the life everyone would want if he or she were permitted to imagine it.” Because it is a danger to the American form of performative seriousness, the happiness of humor must “be made to look repulsive.” It is, for example, associated with marginal or reviled groups (such as Jews in mid-20th-century America), or treated as evidence of depravity.

Following Litvak’s dismissal of anti-communism as a mere alibi for a cultural project of anti-comedic seriousness, we could suggest that anti-racism serves the same function. From this perspective, it is unsurprising that the successor ideology appears not to threaten economic and political elites, and indeed seems to distract our national attention away from elites’ catastrophic failures when confronted with large questions, from war and peace to economics, trade and disease.

Nor is it surprising that the energy of anti-racism seems to have shifted so quickly from specific, material demands about rectifying abuses in law enforcement to sweeping, vague missions of moral reform within an ever-growing range of institutions, from museums and universities to corporations and media. The real target of these dramas of recrimination is not the alleged enemy—the handful of contemporary white supremacists—but a cultural style of comic unseriousness that asserts its right to private enjoyment separate from dominant political and ethical norms.

It may seem obvious that certain kinds of humor fall afoul of political correctness. But Litvak’s analysis suggests that what is at stake is not particular topics of humor, but the possibility of any kind of humor at all. As an autonomous center of pleasure with no need to justify itself, Litvak suggests, humor is subversive because it is not political, because it reminds us that political struggle and moral performance are neither all there is, nor very much fun.

Politics and morality do, of course, offer certain pleasures that humor cannot: the ressentiment of self-righteous victimhood, the narcissism of paranoid fantasies of persecution, the sadomasochistic thrills of sycophancy and denunciation. Litvak offers a rich and troubling psychoanalytic account of the blacklist as a “quasi-sexual transgression of betrayal” by which informants could make intimate, seedy details of private life public. These pleasures offer the advantage that one can enjoy them while being a good citizen, gaining “moral authority” even as one commits the ultimate “transgression” of exposing secrets. Humor, in contrast, seems for Litvak to lead us inevitably away from goodness and citizenship into the happy perversity of private life.

Given the dire medical and economic crises confronting us, to assert that we must protect our rights to humor, perversity and private anti-social behaviors may seem like an unfunny joke. America faces serious problems and Americans will have to face them seriously. Litvak admits that he has “no suggestions for a new political order” and that “resistance requires funds of seriousness.” There will be enormous demands on those funds in the coming months and years. But while seriousness is necessary for the challenges ahead, it is also a threat to the happiness that our collective ethical and political projects promise but always diminish, defer, and endanger.

Observing that the American style of seriousness includes both left- and right-wing political movements, Litvak offers a crucial warning. Those of us opposed to the successor ideology ought to be wary of striking moralizing poses, demanding that private lives conform to public ethical and political norms, or otherwise turning “resistance” into its own form of “collaboration.”

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.