So far as I know, no people or culture has welcomed informers. Betrayal is a very black act, and it is worse when the people betrayed have put their trust in the informer. Denunciation was an evil encouraged by regimes like the Spanish Inquisition, or the reigns of terror of Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler. Few people deserve denunciation, and a regime that not just encouraged denunciation but enforced it would be Un-American. It is therefore odd that the body that did just that in the U S in the 1950’s lives in infamy as the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
During one of those communal nervous breakdowns that the U S undergoes now and then, people got scared of communists, and a black list was prepared to deny work to suspected communists in the film industry. People would then be compelled by subpoena to attend this form of inquisition conducted by McCarthy at the HUAC and be required to inform on people, including mates. If they refused, they could be jailed for contempt of Congress. They had committed no previous crime. They were not even suspected of committing a crime. They were suspected of holding political views that the majority did not favour. If ever the word Un-American could be used decently, it would be to describe this despoliation of due process.
Yet it went on, and some prospered under it. One upcoming politician made his name as one of the witch-hunting ferrets. Another prominent union official ratted on his members and was a stool pigeon for the FBI. The first was Richard Nixon. The second was Ronald Reagan. Both became two term presidents, and the second is still held in some regard even though he was a rat. American politics are, after all, very different. As I remarked elsewhere about Arthur Miller, who wrote The Crucible:
The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts. When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long. The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’. When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’ Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’ The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.
All this is looked at in the film Trumbo, about a prominent writer on the black list. The film was too much of the black hats v white hats and too hammed up for my taste, and it is too long, but it is an important story.
And the film touches on another weakness of the American legal system that we have been reminded of recently. Their Supreme Court is appallingly political, and death can change the numbers and the legal climate. Trumbo and others were advised that they would succeed in the Supreme Court. But a judge on their side died, so they had to go to jail. That form of lottery is not how the justice system should work. And you wonder why a nation that wears its Christianity on its sleeve wanted to jail people for refusing to commit the crime of Judas.
The film Goya is one of those events that make you wonder why we didn’t think of it before. You take a great painter, and put him up on the big screen, so that we can get up face to face with genius and see the brushwork in action. The results are wonderful. The film follows the documentary style of movies on Mozart and Beethoven, but the show is about the paintings. You get close to the mystery. For example, the painting of the Duke of Wellington is not a portrait of an imperious general – it is a portrait of a man who knows what apprehension, if not fear, is. It is so different to portraits of Napoleon. They were very different. Wellington was not prodigal with the lives of his men. Nor was he bent on wars of expansion.
According to the movie, Goya taught himself how to paint. That is humbling.
I have just reread Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I read a fair chunk of it while undergoing the ritual humiliation of delay in a doctor’s waiting room. One phrase caught my eye. He refers to an ‘embittered atheist’ – ‘the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him.’ I’ve seen a few of those – and you get them now politically with people who loathe what they call ‘liberalism’. The Tory Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the U S are disintegrating because they cover too wide a field. There are rumblings about that here from some Looney Tunes, but we don’t take ideology seriously – and thank God for that.