Hollywood’s “resident Communist”

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Ed Asner (top middle), with other stars of The Mary Tyler Moore Show

If you’re an American of a certain age, you certainly know who Ed Asner is, and you’re probably very fond of him. And you should be: he’s a terribly likeable guy and a terrific actor. For seven years back in the 1970s, he played the gruff-but-lovable boss Lou Grant on the hit CBS comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There followed several more years in his own spinoff series, Lou Grant. He’s since starred in innumerable TV movies and made guest appearances on a number of sitcoms. Now pushing ninety (he turns 87 tomorrow), Asner continues to keep busy as an actor.

During all these years, however, he’s also found time to involve himself in politics. From 1981 to 1985, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. In addition, he’s been active in a great many left-wing groups, campaigns, and causes, the list of which is at least as long as his list of acting credits on IMdB.com. So important a player has he been in far-left activism that his name figures in a 2000-word history of the American left at the website of the Democratic Socialists of America – a group he’s belonged to for years.

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On his own series, Lou Grant

Just a few items from that list. In the 1980s he joined groups that provided aid and comfort to Communist guerrilas in Central America. In 1984 he sponsored the annual banquet of the Labor Research Association, a Communist Party front organization that compiled statistics for use by unions and activists. In 2002 he signed a statement formulated by a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party that accused George W. Bush of repression and imperialism.

danielFrom time to time, Asner has managed to combine acting with activism. While playing Karl Marx in a 2010 Los Angeles stage production, he explained to a reporter that he’d been cast in the part because “I’m always thought of in Hollywood and surrounding environs as the resident communist.” (Imagine what it takes to be the “resident communist” in Hollywood!)

Years earlier, in 1983, Asner appeared in Sidney Lumet’s film Daniel, based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel about a young man whose parents – based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – were executed many years earlier for being Soviet atom spies. The movie, which was scripted by Doctorow, was widely, and properly, panned as a piece of clumsy propaganda: while celebrating the purported nobility and idealism of the radical 1930s activist milieu that shaped the Rosenbergs’ values, it delicately skirting the evil reality of Stalinism and the issue of treason.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Asner’s belief in the film and its Soviet-friendly message, however, was demonstrated three years ago by his sponsorship of a screening of it that was co-presented by the Communist Party and held at a Party-operated venue in Los Angeles. At the screening, which was dedicated to the memory of the Rosenbergs, Asner gave a speech in which he accused the Rosenbergs’ prosecutors of anti-Semitism, drew a moral equivalency between the Rosenbergs’ trial and Stalin’s show trials, and criticized the “antipathy in this country for people of differing opinions.” As we’ll see tomorrow, however, Asner has shown great understanding for the brutal treatment of “people of different opinions” in another country – namely, Cuba.

Yet again, the Rosenbergs

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Just over a year ago we revisited the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953. Back then, their case attracted worldwide attention, both because of the seriousness of the charge – they had played a key role in delivering the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, an action that entirely altered the balance of power on planet Earth – and because they were a married couple with two children. More than a few Americans were eager to see them pay the ultimate price for what was, unquestionably, treason; others opposed their execution, either because of a defensible opposition to the death penalty, or to the idea of making orphans of two small boys, or, less justifiably, because they actually viewed the Rosenbergs’ crimes as insignificant, or believed them (despite all the evidence to the contrary) to be innocent, or even, in a great many cases, because they regarded Julius and Ethel as heroes precisely because they were secret agents for Stalin.

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Tony Kushner

The notion that the Rosenbergs were heroes – or, at least, that Ethel, the junior partner in the spy operation, could somehow be regarded as a heroine – was a major animating tenet of the American far left for many decades after the couple’s execution, and endures to this day. (In Angels in America, Tony Kushner turns Ethel into a veritable saint.) The notion has even survived the opening of archives that have provided absolute proof of the Rosenbergs’ activities on behalf of the Kremlin. In 2011, faced with this mounting evidence, one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert Meeropol, broke down and acknowledged his father’s guilt, while reasserting his mother’s innocence; but at the same time he expressed pride in both of them, saying that they had “acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals.” Needless to say, those ideals, as Rosenberg expert Ronald Radosh pointed out at the time, included “forced collectivization of the land, the murder of hundreds of thousands, [and] the establishment of the Gulag.”

9/28/15 Robert Meeropol (pictured, pink shirt) and his brohter, Michael Meeropol, (pictured, blue shirt) received a proclamation from City Council member Daniel Dromm today. The proclamation recognized the contributions to the labor movement of Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of Robert and Michael. She was convicted of espionage along with her husband Julius in 1953 and was sentenced to death. Today would have marked her 100th birthday. Pictured, left to right: City Council member Mark Levine, City Council member Daniel Dromm, Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol and Gail Brewer. On the steps of City Hall, NY, NY . Please credit Gregory P. Mango.
The Meeropol brothers holding copies of the New York City Council proclamation lauding their mother

In October of last year, in yet another example of the continuing far-left compulsion to idealize one or both of the Rosenbergs, the New York City Council issued a proclamation honoring Ethel on what would have been her hundredth birthday, praising her “bravery,” and identifying her as a victim of “anti-Communist hysteria.” As we observed at the time, such actions are the work of people who “still speak of anti-Communism almost as if there was no such thing as Communism itself. In their rhetoric, the terror of life under Stalin dissolves; the Gulag disappears; the Iron Curtain evaporates. And all that is left is Americans’ apparently baseless ‘hysteria.’”

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E. L. Doctorow

Unsurprisingly, the same people on the far left who have persisted in viewing the Rosenbergs as heroes have also depicted the Rosenbergs’ sons as victims. And, yes, they were victims – of their parents’ fanatical devotion to an evil ideology. But the aim on the far left has always been to paint them as victims of a vengeful, heartless America, of “anti-Communist hysteria,” of anti-Semitism, and of other systematic societal ills purportedly afflicting the West. The most notable instance of this effort has been E. L. Doctorow‘s 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel, whose memory-haunted title character is based on the Meeropol boys; the novel’s manifest objective is to blame the young protagonist’s woes not on the boy’s Communist parents but on their capitalist executioners.

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The Meeropol brothers

The spin continues. On October 16, 60 Minutes broadcast a segment featuring both Rosenberg sons. The title, “Finding Refuge,” suited the segment’s angle: it was less an objective report on the facts of the Rosenberg case than yet another effort to whip up public sympathy for Michael and Robert Meeropol. The boys (who are now elderly men) admitted that after decades of insisting on their parents’ innocence, they finally came to accept that their father, at least, was a full-fledged spy. But this doesn’t bother them: as one of the sons said, he finds it “more palatable” to see his parents not as victims but as politically committed people who acted on their beliefs.

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Anderson Cooper

Now, pause for a moment and reflect on that statement. If the son of a couple of long-dead Nazis had spoken in this admiring way about their “commitment,” you can bet that Anderson Cooper would have responded on-camera by sharply challenging the idea that there could be anything “palatable” whatsoever about Nazism. But Cooper let that one pass by without a challenge, reminding us that while (of course) admiring Hitler is universally recognized as utterly appalling, in the corridors of Western media power it’s still considered acceptable to admire people for their unwavering dedication to Stalin.

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Ronald Radosh

During his interview with the Meeropol brothers, Cooper reminded them of what the judge in their parents’ case had said: “The Rosenbergs loved their cause more than their children.” Cooper characterized this as “a very cruel thing to say.” No; it was a plain and simple fact. As Radosh, who was also interviewed on the program, underscored, the U.S. government did not want to have to electrocute the Rosenbergs: it was trying to use the threat of execution to pressure them to provide information about their spy network. But they wouldn’t talk. Their loyalty to their comrades – to their fellow acolytes of Stalinist totalitarianism, and, of course, to Stalin himself – was greater than their loyalty to their children. That, not the judge’s statement, was the cruel element in this story. Plainly – and, perhaps, understandably – the Meeropol brothers are still unable to accept the terrible reality that their parents loved Stalin more than them. They still insist on seeing themselves as the victims of their parents’ executioners; in fact they are the victims of nothing other than the breathtaking power of useful stoogery.

Heroes, martyrs, saints: reinventing the Rosenbergs

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Although it’s been over sixty years since the Stalinist atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason at Sing Sing, a federal prison in New York, they continue to be a cause célèbre for many persons who weren’t even born until long after their deaths. The history of the widespread and perverse loyalty to the Rosenbergs’ memory is very much worth pondering, because it reveals a great deal about the psychopathology of the very many useful stooges for whom the betrayal of a free society in the name of mass-murdering totalitarianism is not only defensible but heroic.

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Ron Radosh

Over the years, some of their champions have argued that the Rosenbergs were totally innocent; others, that he was guilty as charged but she was innocent; still others, that they were both guilty, but it wasn’t a big deal, either because the state secrets they passed to the Kremlin weren’t all that important or because their actions were understandable, and thus forgivable, or even downright praiseworthy – the U.S., in the view of these apologists, being an oppressive nation unworthy of the Rosenbergs’ loyalty and the USSR under Stalin a shining symbol of socialist hope. As Ron Radosh, author of The Rosenberg File (1983), put it in 2011, the case was for a long time “a linchpin of the American Left’s argument that the United States government was not only evil during the Cold War years, but was ready to kill regular American citizens because they were against the Truman administration’s anti-Soviet policies.”

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Tony Kushner

Indeed, for many on the left, the Rosenbergs are nothing less than heroes. The makers of a video entitled “Martyrs for Peace” said the following about them: “Both tried to make the world a better place for everyone. Both were courageous.” The socialist playwright Tony Kushner made the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg a character in Angels in America, his much-lauded, award-winning piece of dramatic agitprop. Kushner didn’t just treat Ethel sympathetically; he turned her into a saint, serving up what one sympathetic writer has described as “a powerful portrayal of [her] strength and humanity.”

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Ethel Sings: a promotional photo

It goes on. As recently as last year, New York theatergoers could buy tickets to a play called Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg, in which author Joan Beber represented Ethel as a tragic heroine forced to choose between loyalty to her children (i.e., testify and live) and loyalty to her husband (stay silent and die). In the theater program, the play’s director described the Rosenbergs as “liberals, Jews, labor activists, and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.” (For such people, it’s always anti-Communism, not Communism itself, that’s “virulent.”)

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Robert Meeropol

Among the most dedicated apologists for the Rosenbergs have been their sons, Michael and Robert. For a long time they fiercely insisted on the innocence of their parents – who, in a letter written to the boys (then aged six and ten) just before the executions, begged them: “Always remember that we were innocent.” After the Rosenbergs’ death, Michael and Robert were adopted by a couple named Meeropol and took their surname; when the boys grew up and became political commentators and professors (Michael is a retired economics prof at Western New England College; Robert has taught anthropology at the same institution), they both made a busy side career out of defending their parents, relentlessly smearing the Rosenbergs’ critics, accusing those critics of proffering false information, and charging the FBI with fabricating evidence.

1990 PHOTO OF MICHAEL MEEROPOL, SON OF JULIUS AND ETHEL ROSENBERG AT THE ROSENBERG FUND FOR CHILDREN IN SPRINGFIELD.
Michael Meeropol

Together, the Meeropols wrote a 1975 book about their parents called We Are Your Sons; in the novel The Book of Daniel (1971), E. L. Doctorow presented a sympathetic account of a fictional couple based on the Rosenbergs, whose life is viewed retrospectively through the eyes of their son. (It’s surely no coincidence that in 2011, Michael, who now teaches at the City University of New York, recommended Kushner for an honorary CUNY degree.) Once, in an article, Radosh addressed one of the sons directly: “For your own sake, I hope you are mentally prepared for the inevitable day when the KGB’s own archives reveal that your parents were guilty. Get ready, because it’s going to be soon.”

Well, that day finally came. The relevant KGB records were declassified, and secret Soviet messages that had been intercepted and decrypted by U.S. intelligence were also made public. And they proved what Radosh knew they would. Many major news media, some of which had repeatedly and ardently reasserted the Rosenbergs’ innocence over the decades, did their best to ignore these revelations. The New York Times didn’t cover the story. The Nation, which over the decades had vilified and demonized witnesses who were now shown to have been telling the truth all along, deep-sixed the disclosures – and of course didn’t apologize to any of the people it had smeared.

But not everybody ignored the newly released documents. We’ll get around to that next time.

The shameless stoogery of E.L. Doctorow

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E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow died on July 21. He was the author of several novels, including the bestseller Ragtime. He was also an radical leftist who for decades provided financial support to the far-left weekly The Nation and contributed innumerable articles to it.

The important thing to know about Doctorow’s fiction is that he wasn’t the kind of novelist – which is to say, the greatest kind – who is motivated, above all, by a burning desire to capture the truths of the human heart and of human relationships. The kind of novelist, that is, for whom political convictions are secondary – are, as it were, windows into a character’s soul. No: for Doctorow the whole thing worked the other way around. He created characters to make political points. For him, the novel was not a mirror held up to the world but a vehicle for propaganda.

To put it bluntly, Doctorow was a useful stooge for Communism. In some novels this was more explicit than in others. It’s a measure of his own skill as a writer that this fact eluded so many critics and readers.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

What Doctorow did in one novel after another was to take historical figures and twist the truths of their lives in such a way as to suit his ideology. In none of his novels was his ideological agenda more obvious than in The Book of Daniel (1971). The book was a shameless effort to win sympathy for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two members of the American Communist Party who were longtime Soviet spies in the U.S. and who helped pass the secrets of the atomic bomb on to the Kremlin, thus changing the world in a way that few if any other people have ever done. Thanks in large part to them, the U.S. lost the nuclear monopoly it had enjoyed for a few short years after World War II.

Note well: America could have used that postwar monopoly to bomb the Soviet Union into the Stone Age. It didn’t. But after the Rosenbergs, everything changed. The USSR became a superpower – presumably on a par with the U.S. – solely by virtue of its possession of a weapon whose secret had been handed to them by a gang of spies including this couple from New York.

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Josef Stalin

The Rosenbergs were slavish acolytes of Stalin – mindless devotees of a murderous totalitarian regime. If they’d had their way, American freedom would’ve been crushed and replaced by show trials, mass executions, the Gulag. Yet for a generation of American on the extreme left, the Rosenbergs were heroes. Doctorow was one of those Americans. In The Book of Daniel, he plainly wanted Middle America to see them as heroes, too.

But how to do that? How to turn two real-life traitors into heroes? Doctorow happened upon a brilliant solution. The real-life Rosenbergs had two sons who were both small boys when their parents were executed for treason in 1953. Doctorow’s idea was to blend those two real-life children into one fictitious son and to make him the hero of the novel, and to present his parents in flashback – not objectively, as traitors, but through the eyes of the boy, to whom they were, of course, just his beloved Mommy and Daddy.

bookofdanielIt was a stroke of genius. Who could be a more sympathetic protagonist, after all, than an innocent boy who had lost both his parents, on the same day, in an execution that made all the papers? How better to humanize his parents than to show them as loving parents, not as Stalin-loving traitors? But Doctorow does even more than that. Not only doesn’t he depict the Rosenbergs as traitors; he represents them as victims – as objects of persecution. Persecution, that is, by the U.S. government, which Doctorow invites us to view as supremely evil and oppressive for having taken the lives of this man and woman who were devoted to each other and their family. Meanwhile the fact that the Rosenbergs (who in the novel are called the Isaacsons) were servants of one of the world’s great mass-murdering dictators is dropped down the memory hole.

Anyway, that’s E.L. Doctorow’s legacy. The radical left has always been about prioritizing ideology over facts. What Doctorow did was turn the ideological twisting of reality into a literary art.