With November's Proposition 8, Californians voted to amend the Golden State's constitution by adding a new section to the first of its 35 articles: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
Gays and lesbians who had been legally marrying after a state Supreme Court decision in May, and California liberals generally, have not taken the referendum's success lightly. Rallies drew thousands of protestors in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. State Attorney General Jerry Brown argued that the amendment itself was unconstitutional. Composer Marc Shaiman lent the backlash some needed fabulousness by making a popular, though laugh-free, Prop. 8 musical comedy.
And then there was the blacklist. Contributions to the Yes on 8 campaign are reported in easily searchable public records. Sites such as AntiGayBlacklist.com soon began naming contributors and demanding they be held accountable. In Southern California, home to thousands of entertainment professionals, it was inevitable that the industry would comb its own ranks for closet homophobes.
Most of the outed supporters were not especially vulnerable to a backlash from movie stars and theater troupers. A district-by-district breakdown of the vote in Los Angeles (where Prop. 8 won a majority) shows the initiative failed wherever successful entertainment people were concentrated and passed everywhere else. This pattern held for contributions. Impoverished Compton, for example, generated more money for Prop. 8 than rich Beverly Hills.
But a few targets around the entertainment industry were turned up. Scott Eckern, director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento, left his job after being shunned by Shaiman and other prominent theater artists. Richard Raddon, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, resigned under pressure, and there have been attempts to boycott the Cinemark theater chain over CEO Alan Stock's $9,999 donation. Steve Lopez, the gifted Los Angeles Times columnist who compensates for his indifferent reasoning skills with a heart as big as West Hollywood, wrote movingly of the decline in business at Beverly Boulevard's famed El Coyote restaurant, whose manager had given a sawbuck to Yes on 8.
Hollywood has built a secular religion around the McCarthy-era anti-communist blacklist that kept some writers, directors, and actors out of the movie industry for a decade or so. In that version of history, the blacklistees are uniformly virtuous, communist and socialist propaganda pictures such as Mission to Moscow and Tender Comrade never happened, and the victims' loss of film-industry income is an atrocity so profound that—well, let's just say there have been a lot more Hollywood movies about the blacklist than about Pol Pot's killing fields.
So once the narrative turned to what the conservative columnist Rod Dreher delicately termed "the lavender blacklist," Hollywood did what Hollywood does best: It chickened out. "I can't quite stomach the notion that you fire somebody because of what they believe," producer Christine Vachon told the L.A. Times. "It doesn't feel right to me." Marriage Equality USA spokeswoman Molly McKay told CBS, "I understand the anger, but I think we need to channel it." Even Shaiman said he was "deeply troubled" and warned that blacklisting "will not help our cause because we will be branded exactly as what we were trying to fight."
"Why does [the ouster of Scott Eckern] continue to vex?" asked the Brooklyn-based theater blogger Isaac Butler. "I think the…unsaid subtext of a lot of the commentary for and against the boycott is that, frankly, we're all taken aback that it worked."
This squeamishness about the consequences of one's own actions may seem disingenuous, but it is an honest expression of how people in the entertainment business think. During last year's strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the writers continually reacted to their tactical successes in ways that made them seem even more feeble, self-doubting, and apologetic than writers usually seem. Amid layoffs, stalled productions, and related casualties, the WGA, which you might have expected to bask in such demonstrations of its power, instead tried to focus press attention on all the side deals it was cutting to allow some writers to return to work.
There's certainly a principle at work—a belief that people shouldn't be punished for expressing themselves politically—in the reluctance to blacklist Prop. 8 supporters. Yet there's an equal measure of skittishness about holding power and influence. Having absorbed the Hollywood lesson that nothing matters, Prop. 8 opponents were surprised when they pulled a trigger and the weapon actually fired.
This raised one trivial question: Are the blacklisters as intolerant as Prop. 8's supporters? (Short answer: no.) It also raised a more interesting, if less asked, question: Has Hollywood blown the anti-red blacklist slightly out of proportion?
In their fun but error-ridden reference book Blacklisted, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner concede that "the blacklist was never really 'The End.' For the lucky ones, it was only a dreadful interregnum." It was also a nominally voluntary boycott. The only use of force was by an overweening Congress that gave the movie industry a reason to avoid left-leaning talent. Opponents of campaign finance regulations could argue that requiring disclosure of contributions achieves the same effect today. But declining to give a person work is not the same as persecuting him.
That doesn't make blacklisting any less grotesque. The real horror of punishing speech may be the way it stigmatizes unpunished speech. (The actor Sterling Hayden later wrote about the "contempt" he felt for himself after his friendly HUAC testimony granted him "status as a sanitized cultural hero.") Anti-communism was gravely damaged by the '50s witch hunts, and the cause of gay marriage (which has been gaining acceptance in California since the much wider victory of another marriage-restrictive proposition in 2000) may suffer collateral damage from the Prop. 8 blacklist.
But those are strategic, not moral, concerns. A person agitating to use the power of the state to interfere with the domestic happiness of others (or, for that matter, an artist propagandizing on behalf of international worker solidarity) had better be willing to pay the price in lost work opportunities—and to face the people his opinions alienate. Blacklisters and blacklistees alike should be out and proud.
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh is a Los Angeles-based writer.