The stripper was a Stalinist

Ludwig von Mises

An article that was recently posted at the website mises.org, named for and dedicated to the intellectual legacy of Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian School economist (1881-1973) pointed out that people in showbiz – actors, producers, screenwriters, playwrights – who make a great living and whom you might therefore expect to have some appreciation for capitalism turn out, all too often, to have bought into the lies of socialism – or worse: “Hollywood and Broadway, the world-famous centers of the entertainment industry, are hotbeds of communism. Authors and performers are to be found among the most bigoted supporters of Sovietism.

Sovietism? When was this written? And who wrote it? In fact, although the author’s observations are perfectly valid today, this article was written by Mises himself – it’s an excerpt from his 1956 book The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, published at the height of the Hollywood blacklist.

Joe McCarthy

Today it’s the received opinion that the interrogation of famous movie people by House and Senate committees was a disgrace; the name of Joe McCarthy, the Democrat from Wisconsin who chaired the Senate committee, has become a byword for fascist tyranny. Yes, it was decidedly unfair that a few Tinseltown innocents who thought they were standing up for the First Amendment got dragged onto the blacklist and had their careers damaged. But the fact is that there were Communists in Hollywood; every last one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters who were cited for contempt of Congress, was in fact a card-carrying Communist.

Mr and Mrs Dalton Trumbo

They are now viewed as heroes – witness (among many other cinematic tributes to them) the movie Trumbo, about which we wrote some time back. But as members of the Communist Party, which took its orders directly from the Kremlin, they were agents of a totalitarian enemy and tools of a mass-murdering dictator, Stalin, who was very consciously using them to influence American opinion about the USSR and thereby undermine American freedom.

Why were – and are – so many showbiz people Communists? Mises’s theory was that those who toil in the entertainment industry are “always agitated by anxiety,” fearing the fickleness of the audience and worrying that they will soon be dislodged from their thrones by vigorous young competitors; hence they turn to Communism, which, they think, “will bring their deliverance” because it “makes all people happy.” Mises added that “ a future historian…should not neglect to mention the role which the world’s most famous strip-tease artist played in the American radical movement.”

Gypsy Rose Lee

The world’s most famous strip-tease artist? In 1956, Mises could only have meant one person: Gypsy Rose Lee. Was she a Communist too? That was a new one on us: like most people nowadays, our knowledge of Lee is pretty much limited to the biographical information communicated in Gypsy, the first-rate Broadway musical that follows her from girlhood – when she was overshadowed by her sister, June, a child star in vaudeville, and largely ignored by their mother, Rose, the quintessential stage mother from hell – to the threshold of burlesque stardom. There was no hint of Communist ties in Gypsy.

Elaine Stritch performing “Zip”

But sure enough, it turns out that Gypsy Rose Lee was indeed a Red. In interview with Publishers Weekly, Karen Abbott, whose biography of the stripper came out in 2011, said that “Gypsy soon learned that every stripper needed a gimmick and decided to incorporate her exceptional intelligence into her act, to become the ‘intellectual stripper.’ To that end. she read the latest books, magazines, and newspapers voraciously.” Well, we happen to know that because of the lyrics of the Rodgers and Hart song “Zip” (from the 1940 musical Pal Joey), which parodies Rose’s intellectual pretensions. Anyway, Abbott continues: “She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain’s Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities.”

Josef Stalin

Curiously, a previous biographer of Lee, Noralee Frankel, seems to deny that Lee was a Communist; a review of Frankel’s book, which came out in 2009, refers to Lee as having “convinced the McCarthyites that her having supported Spanish loyalists against Franco in the 1930s and entertained at the New York Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions did not make her a communist.” There is no mention in the review, or presumably in the book, of her being a regular attendee of Communist meetings, which, of course, does seem to make her a Communist. Which shouldn’t have surprised us, aware as we are of how many showbiz folk in the 1950s were puppets of Stalin, but somehow it never occurred to us that the highbrow ecdysiast, whom Larry Hart’s lyric depicts as a reader of Saroyan and Schopenhauer, was also a fan of Stalin.

Hating on Western culture: Hamid Dabashi

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Hamid Dabashi

This week we’ve been discussing Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University who has long been notorious for his vigorous defense of Islamic regimes and his pronounced anti-Israel bias.

In 2006, Dabashi took on the 2003 bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In an article for the National Post, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford wrote that Nafisi’s book “depicts literature as a liberating and healing force.” Originally a supporter of the Iranian revolution that overthrew the shah and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini in power, Nafisi turned against the new government when it turned out to be an oppressive theocracy that required her to wear the veil and forced her out of her professorship at the University of Tehran, where she taught English literature.

nafisi
Azar Nafisi

After she lost her job, Nafisi continued to teach privately at her home in Tehran. While bombs fell outside and the Ayatollah’s thugs carried out a brutal reign of terror, beating and torturing women who failed to knuckle under to the new rules, Nafisi secretly gathered around her a group of young women whom she introduced to such books as Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary and Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice. In these books, as Fulford puts it, “they found a breath of freedom and a world where individualism was celebrated rather than damned.” The books “helped free their imaginations.”

Millions of readers around the world were moved by Nafisi’s book. “This book,” wrote the reviewer for Publishers Weekly, “transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three…Lolita becomes a brilliant metaphor for life in the Islamic republic. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is… the confiscation of one individual’s life by another, Nafisi writes.” In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “resonant and deeply affecting” and “an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction – on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.” Novelist Cynthia Ozick called it “glorious.” Salon called it “poignant” and “searing.”

readinglolitaintehranBut Dabashi did not find Nafisi’s book admirable. On the contrary: for him, it wasn’t an affirmation of women’s rights or individual liberty or the power of literature; it was a disgusting betrayal by Nafisi of her own people and a tribute to their former colonial masters. In an article for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Dabashi compared Reading Lolita in Tehran to “the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India” and pronounced Nafisi an agent of colonialism. “Rarely,” he wrote, “has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home – all in one act.”

He even added: “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi” – Lynndie England being a U.S. soldier stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad who had become notorious for her abuse of inmates. As evidence of the repulsive nature of Nafisi’s book, Dabashi noted that it had won Bernard Lewis’s approval. Now, Lewis is perhaps the most distinguished living scholar of Islam in the world – but for Dabashi, he is “the most diabolical anti-Muslim neo-con alive.” (In fact, Lewis’s massive oeuvre attests to a great sympathy for Muslims as a people; to call him a “neo-con,” meanwhile, is anachronistic in the extreme, Lewis having formed his views on Islam decades before the “neo-con” movement even existed.)

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Robert Fulford

Fulford made an important point about Dabashi’s smear of Nafisi. “Like a Stalinist, he tries to convert culture into politics, the first step toward totalitarianism. Like the late Edward Said, he brands every thought he dislikes as an example of imperialism.” Fulford further observed that while “Nafisi believes that great novels heighten our sensitivity to the complexities of life and prevent us from ‘the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas,’” those novels had apparently never had such an impact on Dabashi.

More tomorrow.