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Lardner's Era Is Gone but Not Forgotten

November 03, 2000|D.H. KERBY | D.H. Kerby is a writer living in Los Angeles

The death of Ring Lardner Jr., the last of the so-called Hollywood 10, brings to a close an era characterized by persecution of political outsiders, an era that gives lie to the popular idea that in the United States we are free to believe whatever we want. My mother, Elizabeth Poe Kerby--a widely published writer who was never a member of the Communist Party--was pilloried before the House Un-American Activities Committee for "being close to a Communist cell" at Time magazine. The FBI also kept a voluminous file on my father.

As foreign policy goals shift, so shifts the ire of those who don't understand that the 1st Amendment protects even those who would create a society in which social justice is given a higher priority than individual freedom. Despite the fact that my mother is a very law-abiding person, the FBI kept a 140-page dossier on her, much of which it still refuses to release on grounds of "national security."

Although the government is probably no longer hunting Communists, new scapegoats for our nation's woes can always be found. The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York caused many Arab Americans to be regarded with suspicion, and their civil liberties now suffer in the name of counter-terrorism. The bombing catapulted a new anti-terrorism law into existence, a measure that contained clearly unconstitutional provisions allowing for the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings and that criminalized the provision of humanitarian aid to groups that the United States opposed.

Earlier, in the 1970s, the Iranian hostage crisis had caused many in the United States to become very wary of Muslims, and hate crimes against Arabs were the result. In the 1980s, the wars in Central America triggered FBI investigations of peace groups, investigations that clearly violated the 1st Amendment. And so on.

Lardner certainly would have understood the plight of these "outsiders" because the hysteria of the McCarthy era opened the eyes of many to exactly how people outside the mainstream come to take the blame for problems that the political majority doesn't want to meet head on.

The Hollywood 10 were courageous individuals who refused to cooperate with a witch hunt when they could have saved themselves from prison merely by pointing the finger at their associates and identifying them as Communist Party members. The protest at last year's Academy Awards of the recognition of the work of Elia Kazan, who did name names, shows that many of us still regard cooperation with blacklisters as shameful.

My father, Phil Kerby, an editorial writer and columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Times in 1976, would have been appalled. A Freedom of Information Act request has turned up 564 pages of surveillance documentation about him; there is an appeal pending to force the FBI to release more documents. My parents defended the civil liberties of members of the American Communist Party and so were tarred with the same brush, despite being Jeffersonian Democrats.

That my parents were watched by the same government agency charged with the responsibility of catching bank robbers, kidnappers and international terrorists is absurd. The history of the McCarthy period provides ample evidence that the FBI should be reformed into a Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation and should keep its nose out of the affairs of domestic political dissenters.

Ring Lardner Jr. and the rest of the Hollywood 10 did not go to prison in vain. What they stood for--the right of the people to believe whatever they want to believe without the risk of investigation and harassment--needs to be emphasized now more than ever.

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