Sunday, March 6, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Eddie Albert (1906-2005)

Have you ever watched the 2001 movie The Majestic?  Canadian actor Jim Carrey plays the part of a Hollywood actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy communist witch-hunts of the 1950's. The actor is unable to find work in Hollywood because of the blacklist.  Despondent, he crashes his car and suffers an injury that causes him to lose his memory.  Leaving the scene of the accident, he wanders into a small town where he is mistaken by the locals for a World War II hero who never returned from the war 9 years earlier, and was listed as "missing in action."

At first, the actor is convinced that he really is that lost war hero, and he looks for clues to help him remember his forgotten life. He tries to fit back into the community, and to save the town's old movie theatre (named "The Majestic").

When he eventually begins to regain his memory, he realizes that he's not really from that town, and he is certainly no "war hero." When he discovers that he's actually a out-of-work movie actor, and learns of the blacklist that destroyed his acting career, he decides to go to Washington to do what the government wants: give false testimony identifying other innocent people as "communists"  ... just like many actors actually did (among them, actor Lee J. Cobb, who later expressed regret for naming 20 people he knew were not communists).

While appearing before the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee in Congress, Carrey's character has a change of heart, and instead of reading his prepared statement and the list of names of those he intended to accuse, he begins to read the US Bill of Rights from a small copy of the US Constitution, to fervent applause from onlookers in the House gallery, while the Committee chairman (played by Hal Holbrook) pounds his gavel and commands him to be silent.

I said to my wife while watching the movie some years ago, "Do you remember Eddie Albert? 'Mr. Douglas' from Green Acres? I think he was on the Hollywood blacklist and was one of the few who were able to find work in Hollywood after that."

My memory was correct about Eddie Albert being "blacklisted" as a Communist during the McCarthy period ... and also about him being one of the few people on the "Hollywood Blacklist" who worked again in Hollywood ... I bet you don't recognize another name on this list, because the careers of nearly all the rest were destroyed.

Eddie Albert was no "communist." In fact, Eddie Albert served his country in the United States Navy during the second world war, and participated in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, on the island of Tarawa in November 1943. He was in the first wave to hit the beaches in that battle that took the lives of over 1,000 American soldiers. Eddie Albert was credited with rescuing up to 70 wounded Marines who had been abandoned under heavy enemy fire. For his bravery he was awarded the Bronze Star with a combat "V" and he later refused to speak about it publicly. That's the way men like Eddie Albert were.  That's the way men like my father-in-law were (he landed on a beach at Normandy on D-Day+3, with a construction battalion, and was immediately sent to the front to work on the Red Ball Express.  He refused to speak of it, except to say, "we did what we had to do.")

Senator Joseph McCarthy, on the other hand, frequently bragged about his service in WWII, and made up a number of stories involving airplane crashes or anti-aircraft fire to account for his "war wound", which turned out to be an injury he received aboard ship during an initiation ceremony for sailors crossing the equator for the first time. What a despicable liar. What a coward. What a traitor to his country.

In her 2003 book, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, columnist Ann Coulter tried to turn Joseph McCarthy into a hero of the rightwing. The woman is absolutely despicable. As are all modern-day equivalents of Joseph P. McCarthy, demagogues who tell us who to fear, and promise to deliver us from those we fear. I use the word "despicable" deliberately, and in its proper sense: these people deserve to be despised by the rest of us for what they are, and despised for what they represent.

Eddie Albert died in May 2005, after a Hollywood career that began in 1936.

Eddie Albert was no "communist." Neither were most of the other people whose careers were destroyed so that men like Joseph McCarthy could further their own. And how about Gene Kelly (Dancing in the Rain)? In 1947, Kelly was part of the Committee for the First Amendment, the Hollywood delegation which flew to Washington to protest at the first official hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His first wife, Betsy Blair, was accused of being a Communist and MGM was planning to yield to pressure from the American Legion to fire her. Yes, the American Legion has that shame on their record. Gene Kelly successfully threatened MGM by saying he'd walk off the set of It's Always Fair Weather unless his wife was allowed to keep her job.

Eddie Albert and Gene Kelly stood straight when others around them crawled. When others decided that destroying innocent people to get at "communists" was justifiable. The ends justify the means? Hardly. Americans don't do that; Americans don't excuse evil done in the name of good.

Joseph McCarthy wasn't censured by Congress in 1954 for attacking communists. He was censured for not attacking communists. He was censured for attacking innocent people. Hundreds of them. And for telling hundreds of lies. In the same manner, and more recently, President Bush was not criticized for attacking terrorists ... he was criticized for not attacking terrorists, instead choosing to divert 160,000+ troops into an unarmed and defenceless country that did nothing to our own, and for lying to the American people to justify that diversion.

Joseph McCarthy was a sociopath. He simply didn't care who he destroyed with lies in order to further his own personal agenda. In a fitting end to a miserable life, Joseph McCarthy drank himself to death the year I was born, only three years after the Senate censure. History has given Joseph P. McCarthy a special place of infamy. I don't need to say a word to deepen the humiliation of his legacy.

But, don't get me wrong ... Joseph McCarthy served an important social purpose. He was a mirror held up to the American people, in which they could see their own cowardice and shame, clearly. And remembering Joseph McCarthy allows us to identify dangerous demagogues like him, and to provide us with a precedent for how to deal with these types of people. Certainly don't lend your support to their political campaigns.

Instead, we should all choose to admire men like Eddie Albert, not fear-mongers and haters.

Eddie Albert (1906-2005)