Things have been much worse in America in the recent past

Could that be comforting? I don’t think it should be, but that comparison can at least put our current distress in perspective.


I was reminded how bad it can become in America by the movie “Trumbo” on Netflix. Netflix provides a service we’re happy to pay for. We can watch a film without the constant interruptions of cable channels and can stop it to go make popcorn. “Trumbo” is the story of Dalton Trumbo, a writer of books and screenplays, who was also a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s. In a series of infamous hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo and 9 other writers and directors refused to answer questions like, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Citing their First Amendment right to free speech didn’t work. They were charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to name other members of the CPUSA. Trumbo went to jail for a year, and the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted from work in the film industry for a decade. Walt Disney used charges of communism to attack cartoonists who were trying to unionize. Eventually the blacklist extended to hundreds of people who had been named as communist sympathizers by conservative publications.

The wider witch hunt for dangerous social reformers that is identified with Sen. Joseph McCarthy sought to prevent any questioning of the American political status quo. Thousands of people who had voiced political ideas anywhere to the left of center lost their jobs, homes, and social positions. Wikipedia summarizes the injustices of the McCarthy era: “Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts that were later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures, such as informal blacklists, that would come into general disrepute.”

Far-right groups prospered in the 1950s by attacking anything that involved public collective action as “communist”. The Keep America Committee published a flyer denouncing fluoridation, the polio vaccine, and mental health programs as steps toward a “communistic world government”. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the self-appointed loyalty watchdog co-founded by Disney, announced ideological prohibitions of certain “subversive” ideas: “Don't smear the free-enterprise system ... Don't smear industrialists ... Don't smear wealth ... Don't smear the profit motive ... Don't deify the 'common man' ... Don't glorify the collective.” The FBI used the Red scare to target union activists and civil rights leaders, delaying the end of segregation by a decade or more. The House Un-American Activities Committee functioned under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

Government and private propaganda about the communist “menace” convinced half of Americans to support McCarthy in a Gallup poll in 1950. Good, loyal Americans who kept their mouths shut except to praise capitalism had little to worry about.

The Hollywood blacklist was broken by courageous people in 1960, who defied the witch-hunters. Otto Preminger asked Trumbo to write the screenplay for “Exodus” and promised he would credit him openly. Kirk Douglas, in the midst of starring in and producing “Spartacus”, announced that Trumbo had written the script. The American Legion boycotted the film, but President John F. Kennedy went anyway. After that the blacklist crumbled, but the effects of years of hiding and public vilification had long-lasting repercussions for many people.

Things got better in my lifetime when the blacklist and McCarthyism were defeated in the 1950s and 1960s, when the work of white supremacists began to be dismantled in the 1960s, and when the work of male supremacists started crumbling in the 1970s. Our situation now will keep getting worse, unless people like us make it stop.

Perhaps it doesn’t make much sense to compare how bad these different times were, because in each case, they were very bad for different groups of people. The Red-hunting era was bad for people who had committed themselves to reforming American society. More like our current crisis, the HIV/AIDS plague killed over 2 million people a year between 1982 and 2002, a far higher worldwide mortality than the coronavirus at its peak, “wreaking the most havoc among the world's poorest and most underprivileged communities.” In the US, AIDS briefly became the greatest cause of death in men and women 25–44 years old from 1993 to 1995, before anti-retroviral therapy significantly reduced mortality. Most in danger were particular groups of people: men who have sex with men, drug users, and blood recipients.

I am certainly comparing very different social problems: the sudden emergence of a pandemic is not like the long history of racial or gender injustice. But it still seems useful to me to recognize that American life has been much worse in the recent past for large groups of people. In fact, the same social groups keep reappearing as the most affected: the poor and minorities, the main sufferers from COVID-19. I think the high incidence of death among health care workers and nursing home residents is a new feature of this human disaster. Familiar is the much lower disruption to the lives of the well-off.

Each of these human disasters preys on or exacerbates existing social inequalities. Each examines our empathy for others, our willingness to challenge the social conventions that prop up inequality. Each requires government action or government reforms to end the crisis. Each tests American leaders, some of whom fail miserably or succeed gloriously.

Most of us will survive until the next crisis.