The Myth of the Tolerant Left
October 31, 2002
A stubborn myth holds that the Left in America has
always stood for tolerance and freedom of speech, while suffering
persecution at the hands of such benighted forces as the House
Un-American Activities Committee, Hollywood blacklists,
and McCarthyite witch-hunts. People who swallow the myth
are therefore surprised when, for example, campus leftists shout down,
harass, and even physically attack conservative speakers. Isnt this
out of character for the Left? Arent we seeing a form of role
Not really. The myth of
the tolerant Left wont survive a reading of Daniel J. Flynns
book Why the Left Hates America (just published by
Consider the House
Un-American Activities Committee, one of American liberalisms
bêtes noires for its investigations of suspected Communists. It was
actually founded at the instigation of a left-wing New York congressman
named Samuel Dickstein, who wanted to investigate the Ku Klux Klan,
fascists, and other miscreants. For its first few years it
was known as the Dickstein Committee, and liberals had no objections to
Later, however, it was
chaired by Congressman Martin Dies of Texas and began turning its
attention to Communist activities in this country. At that point liberals
changed their minds and decided that the Committee was the American
version of the Spanish Inquisition. As for Dickstein himself, Flynn notes
that he later became a paid agent of the Soviet Union.
Then there was the
notorious Smith Act, passed in the early 1940s to outlaw groups seeking
the violent overthrow of the United States. The Communists supported it
and sought the prosecution of their Trotskyist enemies. As Flynn observes,
Communists began to cry foul only when the Smith Act was later
used against them.
Our tears are likewise
solicited for the Hollywood Ten, a group of Hollywood scriptwriters who
were blacklisted for refusing to testify about their
membership in the Communist Party. They claimed that Congresss
inquiry into their party activities was unconstitutional. But as Flynn
notes, the Hollywood Reds had long conducted their own blacklist of
anti-Communists in the film industry, even informing on them to the FBI.
One Hollywood agent, a Communist, had even blackballed one of his own
clients, a writer named Martin Berkeley.
director John Huston offered a further reason for the Hollywood
Tens refusal to testify before Congress: It seems that some
of them had already testified in California, and that their testimony had
been false. They had said that they were not Communists, and now to have
admitted it to the press would have been to lay themselves open to
charges of perjury.
The American Left has
always fought for tolerance, free speech, and civil liberties only for
itself. This fact is most strikingly illustrated by the career of William Z.
Foster. Foster served as head of the Communist Party of the United States
of America at the same time he sat on the national board of the American
Civil Liberties Union. It takes no great sagacity to see that he defended
the Bill of Rights only insofar as this served the purposes of Joseph
Stalin. Eventually, when the Soviet Union formed an alliance with Nazi
Germany to invade Poland, Foster and other Communists were forced to
resign from the board.
The ACLU points out
that it has sometimes defended the rights of Klansmen, and so it has
but only for tactical reasons, not principled ones. It has never
invited the Klans Grand Imperial Wizard to join its national board.
And it has made posthumous apologies for expelling its Communist board
As for Joe McCarthy,
the infamous Wisconsin senator came late to the anti-Communist
struggle, and his aim was limited: to get Soviet agents out of the U.S.
Government. Quite a few of them had found perches there, and in fact
McCarthy underestimated their number. He did make some sloppy charges,
but much of the blame for the panic he created on the Left was due to
liberals themselves. By encouraging an alliance with the Soviet Union,
they had helped the Reds blur the border between liberalism and
This didnt stop
liberals from feeling outraged when they were confused with Communists
and fellow travelers. Needless to say, their indignation was directed not
against the Communists, but against the anti-Communists.
Today the Reds are
gone, but the pinkoes we have always with us.