Martin Sheen, the left-wing star of NBC's "West Wing," complained that network execs were angry with him for taking a vocal stance against a possible war with Iraq. And, sure enough, within a couple of days all of Hollywood was up in arms.
"All Americans, whether we are actors, writers, doctors, accountants, farmers or members of our armed services, share fundamental liberties," declared the West Coast branch of the Writer's Guild on March 3. "One of those is the right to speak out … on the issues of the day. Today in America, the most significant issue of concern is whether we will enter into a full-scale war against Iraq."
Now, I agree with that. But there's a reason why you haven't seen America's leading accountants on "Nightline" or "Crossfire" to debate the war; few people care what they have to say. And this is unfair. After all, accountants have to be smart to be successful. Actors, who are booked on many of these news shows, have to pretend to be smart.
This highlights the central problem when discussing Hollywood activism: We shouldn't be discussing it in the first place. But because East Coast news producers fall for the celebrity bait every time, these intellectually insecure performers have an influence vastly disproportionate to anything they've earned.
Which leads us to the latest Hollywood hysteria about what it calls "McCarythism." Various Hollywood unions including the Screen Actors Guild and the Writer's Guild have issued statements this week condemning the specter of "witch hunts" against vocal opponents of a war with Iraq.
"Some have recently suggested that well-known individuals who express `unacceptable' views should be punished by losing their right to work," said SAG's statement. "This shocking development suggests that the lessons of history have, for some, fallen on deaf ears."
The statement goes on to invoke the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the blacklist and the rest. "During this shameful period, our own industry prostrated itself before smear campaigns and witch hunters rather than standing on the principles articulated in the nation's fundamental documents."
Now, there are a lot of stolen bases in Hollywood's version of history. Hollywood's martyr-mythology leaves out the fact that the famed Hollywood Ten, for example, were in fact members of the Communist Party, which advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government in violation of the Smith Act and which took orders directly from Moscow. But it's also true that the McCarthy hearings went too far, and some innocent people were unfairly punished along with some guilty people who were fairly punished.