The specter of McCarthyism has reared its ugly head.
Reuters reports that the Screen Actors Guild has received a slew of hate mail directed at celebrities, including Martin Sheen and Sean Penn, who have publicly voiced their opposition to a war against Iraq. The angry letters are calling for boycotts against the actors’ work, but the union has issued a statement on its Web site telling the entertainment industry it must not blacklist people who speak out.
“Some have recently suggested that well-known individuals who express ‘unacceptable’ views should be punished by losing their right to work,” the union said in a statement posted Monday. “Even a hint of the blacklist must never again be tolerated in this nation.”
The reference was to the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s that was prompted by Senator Joe McCarthy, which barred more than 300 actors and writers suspected of harboring pro-Communist sentiments from working in the industry due to views considered left-wing or unpatriotic during the Cold War era.
“During this shameful period, our own industry prostrated itself before smear campaigns and witch hunters rather than standing on the principles articulated in the nation’s fundamental documents,” the statement added.
Penn filed a lawsuit recently against movie producer Steve Bing, claiming he reneged on an agreement to pay the actor $10 million to star in a movie after Penn said he was against the war. Bing denied the allegation in a countersuit, saying Penn was the one who pulled out of the project, AP reports.
Sheen, star of NBC’s The West Wing and one of the chief spokesmen in the antiwar coalition Win Without War, told AP the top executives at NBC “let it be known they’re very uncomfortable” with his outspoken views.
It raises the question of how stars’ views might clash with those of audiences and advertisers, and potentially hurt the entertainment industry.
“I will not go to the movies. I will not support their television shows, I will not buy their music. My family and I shall boycott supporting anyone in Hollywood until they decide their job is for entertainment value only,” said one writer to the “Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits” online petition.
G.I.Jargon.com, a Web site representing U.S. military, police and firefighters, dubbed the celebrities “Taliban” and called for a boycott of “anti-American entertainers,” Reuters reports.
McCarthyism expert Ellen Schrecker, professor of history at Yeshiva University in New York, told Reuters the level of backlash against antiwar campaigners could mean a return to the era of witch hunts and blacklists.
“I think it is certainly a possibility. What I find heartening about the SAG statement is that it recognizes the importance of remembering that history, and being determined not to repeat it. It’s very important to take a public stand the way the SAG has done,” Schrecker told Reuters.