Ben Mankiewicz’s heroes

Let’s try a thought experiment. Although the claim that Trump colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign has no basis, it seems likely that Russia tried to interfere in the election via posts on social media. Suppose Congress undertook to investigate this matter. Suppose that, in conducting its investigation, a committee called as witnesses people who participated in social media and who had past ties with Russia.

Finally, suppose that some of those called as witnesses refused to appear or appeared but refused to answer questions.

Would liberals and the mainstream media regard these people as heroes? I don’t think so.

Yet, as Scott pointed out today, Ben Mankiewicz views as heroes those who refused to cooperate in the late 1940s with investigations into Soviet influence in the motion picture industry. He and Eddie Muller, his colleague at Turner Movie Classics, never miss an opportunity to lionize anyone involved with a film they’re introducing who refused to cooperate in such an investigation.

It’s true that the two investigations I’m considering — the actual one into Soviet communist influence in the film industry and a hypothetical one into Russian influenced engagement on social media — are different in some respects. However, the important differences mostly work against viewing the Hollywood resisters of the late 1940s as heroes.

Putin’s Russia is an adversary of America and, in my view, an enemy. However, it’s not nearly the enemy that Stalin’s Soviet Union was.

Putin is engaged in a soft invasion that threatens Ukraine. Stalin had all of Eastern Europe under his thumb. Eastern European figures who opposed his puppet regimes were imprisoned and often killed. Eastern European nations that tried to assert their freedom faced the prospect of an old-fashion invasion, like the one Hungary would experience in 1956.

Stalin was preparing to train nuclear weapons on the U.S. He was putting together Warsaw Pact forces capable of attacking the NATO allies we were obligated by treaty to defend.

Putin poses nothing like the threat to America that Stalin did. Nor is he remotely as evil as Stalin was.

Now let’s compare Hollywood’s ability to influence American thinking in the early 1950s with the ability of Twitter users and bots to influence American thinking during the 2016 election.

In the late 1940s, movies were the dominant force in our culture. There was no internet. There wasn’t even any television to speak of. Movies and the radio were Americans’ window on the world, and as a visual medium, movies were the king.

By 2016, America was saturated with outlets. Social media was important, but not dominant the way movies once were. Thousands of humans and/or bots could tweet forever and not move the public as much as one writer or director of a Hollywood film could do in the late 1940s.

Considering the threat posed by the Soviet Union and the enormous influence of movies, it was legitimate for Congress to interview Hollywood figures thought to have belonged to the communist party. After all, the American CP was Stalin’s instrument.

Any Hollywood figure who had repudiated communism and, in Mankiewicz’s words was “just slogging away on movies and talking about how the world could be better,” could so testify. So could those they might have named as fellow former party members. Unfortunately, those who chose this path of cooperation over resistance seem consistently to come in for criticism by Eddie Muller 70 years after the fact.

At this late date, I don’t think anyone should be called out for the stance he or she took back then, whatever that stance was. In any case, those who refused to cooperate with Congress should not be considered heroes.

Refusing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into the influence of a hostile foreign government over American public opinion isn’t heroic, however much credit we might give for the personal courage it took to resist. It wouldn’t be heroic for those who blasted out provocative tweets during the 2016 election to refuse to testify about their connections (or those of their friends and associates) with Putin’s Russia, and it wasn’t heroic when far more important figures refused to testify about connections with a far more evil and threatening foreign foe.

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