All posts by Joel Schlosberg

Love Me, I’m a Hollywood Liberal

RGBStock.com Film FrameDuring the 87th Academy Awards ceremony on February 22, films about Martin Luther King, Jr. and whistleblower Edward Snowden, Selma and Citizenfour, received statuettes for, respectively, Best Original Song and Best Documentary Feature.  But the shutting-out of Selma from other Oscars due to industry backlash against its less than fully idealized portrayal of former US president Lyndon B. Johnson, and host Neil Patrick Harris’s quip that “Edward Snowden couldn’t be here for some treason,” made clear the limits of Hollywood liberal tolerance for dissent.

To update Phil Ochs’s classic indictment: “I cried when they shot Martin Luther King Jr.  But Edward Snowden got what was coming. So love me, I’m a liberal.”

Harris might have been tongue-in-cheek, but imagine if he’d made the same remark about a surviving but jailed 86-year-old King. And if he didn’t intend it as political, that merely shows what sort of political assumptions Hollywood takes for granted.  For instance, that the very existence of the National Security Agency is not infinitely more a betrayal of American ideals than Snowden’s exposure of its secrets.  In fact, the NSA helped implement the federal government’s surveillance of King as portrayed in Selma.

Another dissident subject of an Oscar-winning film (Karl Hess: Toward Liberty, Best Documentary Short Subject) observed in his autobiography Mostly on the Edge that “the support of big business flowed naturally to Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to wheel and deal with corporations that felt they had the right to be treated as virtually a fourth branch of government.”  As exemplified by Hollywood’s ties to mostly-Democratic administrations, e.g. Jack Valenti’s move from LBJ’s personal aide to head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

In his acceptance speech at the 53rd Oscars, Karl Hess: Toward Liberty co-director Roland Halle contended that “[Hess’s] ideas on how [to] take control of one’s life I think can map our route toward liberty, and liberty is all this country’s about.”  With his statement “that the really American revolution would be to destroy power,” Hess’s notion of what “this country’s about” clearly differed from identifying it with the covert functioning of the NSA.  Its documentation of Hess’s journey, from his expulsion from the top ranks of the Republican Party to his pioneering of solar power and other decentralized ecological technologies — all without ever being a liberal, Hollywood or otherwise — offers prescient lessons for bringing liberty to a post-NSA America.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

Abolitionism Was, and Still Is, No Failure

RGBStock.com Rainbow WorldHistorian Jon Grinspan argues (“Was Abolitionism a Failure?” New York Times, February 1) against modern-day activists, from the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint to MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who view abolitionism as a successful movement worth emulating. Grinspan credits slavery’s end not to abolitionists’ unbending ideals but to “the flexibility of … moderates.” Slavery died because its advocates were even less willing to compromise.

But all new ideas are the work of extremists. There’s no need to preemptively tone them down; that will happen with their implementation anyway. The Libertarian Party’s call for “the cessation of state oppression and harassment of homosexual men and women, that they, at last, be accorded their full rights as individuals” was extremist in 1976.

The unmatched sea change in views on gay rights since then was in spite of the realpolitik of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Voltairine de Cleyre summed up pre-Civil War attempts to impede slavery by political compromise as “one long record of ‘how-not-to-do-it.'” For both issues, the reshaping would, in Yale lawyer Charles Reich’s phrase, “originate with the individual and with culture, and … change the political structure only as its final act.”

Grinspan points out the slaveholders’ many strategic mistakes. But an abolitionist victory by default would have been Pyrrhic in the long run. Instead, they led a permanent shift in the range of acceptable public views.  Only thus could they put an institution granted respectability for millennia into the dustbin of history. To Grinspan, the sheer range of causes likened to abolitionism — DeMint’s Tea Party; Hayes’ climate change — is proof that such invoking is devoid of content. But the impact of abolitionism is visible: All those causes frame themselves as liberation movements. Slavery was unabashedly authoritarian.

The Liberty Party was the most uncompromising abolitionist political party. Grinspan notes its vote-getting was anemic. Yet it became the core around which dissidents from the mainstream Whig and Democratic parties formed the more successful Free Soil Party (whose slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” shows the natural interlock of liberations).

Grinspan downplays the main abolitionist publication, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, because its circulation was less than 3,000. That happens to be the number of copies of the first edition of Karl Marx’s Capital sold in Russia. Garrison’s unyielding advocacy for full abolition forestalled Free Soil’s dissipation. The party in turn formed the basis for the Republican Party of Lincoln.

As Murray Rothbard explained, abolitionism is not just of “antiquarian interest.” Since “there are a great many analogues to slavery today … similar alternatives will have to be faced once more.” And similar tactics remain the most effective way to face them.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).