One woman’s conscience

She’s been called “the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century” and “the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American ‘dramatic literature.’” She was also a diehard Stalinist.

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Lillian Hellman

Born in New Orleans in 1905 and raised there and in New York, Lillian Hellman attended Columbia and NYU, then worked briefly at a Manhattan publishing house before marrying a young PR guy and heading out to Hollywood with him. Finding a job as a reader at MGM, she lost no time in organizing her colleagues into a union. When she met the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, a fellow Stalinist, she left her husband for him. It was Hammett who urged her to start writing plays, and who helped her to write them.

During the 1930s and 40s she wrote a series of plays, among them The Little Foxes (1939) and Watch on the Rhine (1941). At the time most of them were Broadway hits – and several of them were made into successful movies – but their mixture of over-the-top family melodrama and heavyhanded political moralizing hasn’t worn well. They were masterpieces, however, alongside The North Star (1943), a crude piece of work that is described on its Wikipedia page as “an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film.” 

Meanwhile Hellman was an active member of the Communist Party. As The Economist has noted, “she joined the party after the worst of Moscow’s purges and show trials.” She later claimed not to have been aware of the trials, in which political rivals of Stalin were falsely convicted of treason (most of them were ultimately executed); but in fact she signed two statements, published in the Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1937 and 1938, that defended the second and third Moscow show trials as having been entirely fair.

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Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film version of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour

Indeed, her defense of Stalin’s reign was absolute and unwavering: she called Stalinist Russia “the ideal democratic state”; visiting Moscow in 1944, according to The Spectator, she “seems wilfully to have ignored evidence that artists and writers were being killed off. Years later she stood by the Russian government’s cover stories and even made up some of her own. She was given rare access to the front lines when the Russian army was camped outside Warsaw, and never described what she saw there.”

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Paul Johnson

As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his 1988 book Intellectuals, “she did everything in her power, quite apart from her plays and scripts, to assist the CP’s penetration of American intellectul life and to forward the aims of Soviet policy.” She was active in CP front groups, attended at least one CP national conventional, helped fund a “pro-CP propaganda film,” berated a New York Times correspondent who refused to toe the Moscow line about Spain, and supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying, “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” (In fact, Hellman almost certainly never went to Finland.) After Stalin died and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave his famous speech condemning Stalin’s brutality, Hellman actually upbraided Khrushchev for his disloyalty.

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Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of Hellman’s play The Little Foxes

Called in 1952 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she published a letter in the New York Times saying she was willing to discuss her own political views and activities but refusing to turn in other Stalinists.I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously wrote. Other high-profile American Communists had taken the Fifth, too, and become anathematized; by spinning her own silence in this way, Hellman managed to turn herself into an international symbol of conscience.

unfinishedwomanShe liked that. And in later years, when the victims of the Hollywood blacklist became heroes, Hellman wrote a series of memoirs – An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976) – from which she emerged as the most toweringly courageous of them all, a stirring moral heroine who, it turned out, had not only written anti-fascist plays but also put her life on the line in the life-or-death struggle against Hitler. Even if you deplored her Stalinism, you had to admire her valor. John Hersey, reviewing Scoundrel Time in the New Republic, called her “a moral force, almost an institution of conscience.”

There was only one little problem: virtually everything of consequence that she wrote in her memoirs was a lie.

More tomorrow.

Defending Dilma: Greenwald and Miranda

In recent weeks we’ve watched the massive Petrobras scandal in Brazil spread wider and wider, taking down politicians and business figures, big and small, until it finally reached the most powerful person in the land: the country’s corrupt president, Dilma Rousseff. She is now facing impeachment.

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Brazilian Congressman Jean Wyllys

On April 20, Shannon Sims of Forbes reported on the novel responses by Rousseff’s stooges to the legislature’s vote to impeach her. Some of them are describing it as a “right-wing coup” – a ridiculous way to characterize a constitutionally legitimate action that is amply justified by Rousseff’s conduct in office. There are other, equally absurd takes on the impeachment: Congressman Jean Wyllys has called it “sexist,” an effort by anti-woman reactionaries to unseat Brazil’s first female head of state.

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Dilma Rousseff

Rousseff herself is one of those who have called the impeachment a coup. She’s responded in a characteristically authoritative way, threatening to have Brazil removed from Mercosur, the South American common market, if she’s removed from office. She’s accused her potential successor, Vice-President Michel Temer, of being a leader of the “coup” – a charge that he denied angrily, rejecting the notion that Brazil is “some minor republic where coups are carried out.”

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David Miranda

Meanwhile one David Miranda contributed an article to the Guardian in which he purported to explain the “real reason Dilma Rousseff’s enemies want her impeached.” Never mind her corruption in office. Rousseff, insisted Miranda, was being targeted by “rich and powerful” conservatives and the major corporations they own, for no other reason than that they oppose her left-wing politics.

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Glenn Greenwald

Who is David Miranda? You may have run across his name while reading about the scandal surrounding Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency who stole sensitive secret papers and passed them on to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who in turn published them in the Guardian. At the height of the controversy, in August 2013, U.K. police detained Greenwald’s husband at Heathrow Airport on his way from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro and seized thumb drives containing tens of thousands of classified British Government documents. They’d been given by Snowden, who’d received asylum in Russia, to Laura Poitras, a partner in Snowden’s scheme, who’d then passed them on to Greenwald’s husband so that he could deliver them to Greenwald, with whom he lives in Rio.

The name of Greenwald’s husband? David Miranda.

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Miranda at the airport in Rio de Janeiro, after his detention at Heathrow

This past January, Britain’s Court of Appeal ruled Miranda’s detention at Heathrow legal. The editors of The Spectator approved, describing Miranda as “a mule for industrial-scale sabotage” and arguing that “the right to a free press [does not] extend to the indiscriminate release of secret documents which put agents’ lives in danger, or alert terrorists to the gaps in our capabilities.” Indeed, as The Spectator pointed out, many of Miranda’s staunchest champions in Britain, who invoked the freedom of the press in his defense, are not consistently fans of press freedom; on the contrary, their real reason for standing with Miranda was patently that his actions were potentially very harmful to the U.S. and Britain and very helpful to those countries’ jihadist enemies.

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An anti-Rousseff protest in Sao Paulo last December

It is no coincidence that Miranda, who in his capacity as Greenwald’s “mule” acted against the interests of the U.S. and Britain, is now standing shoulder to shoulder with the socialist regime of Brazil. His claim? That the massive, ever-growing street rallies against Rousseff’s corrupt regime are something of an artificial phenomenon – almost a mirage. The protests, he maintains, didn’t happen organically: they were incited by the anti-Rousseff media. Moreover, being “disproportionately white and wealthy,” the protesters themselves are “not remotely representative of Brazil’s population.” Miranda, as it happens, had already made much the same argument in an earlier article, published in March and written in collaboration with Greenwald and Andrew Fishman. 

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Anti-government protest in Venezuela: a picture from 2014

Attentive readers of this website may recall that supporters of the corrupt, authoritative governments of the late Hugo Chávez and his anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, in Venezuela, have used much the same arguments (they’re rich, they’re white, they’ve been ginned up by the media) to discredit opponents of chavismo. The Tea Party movement in the U.S. has also been dismissed in similar terms. Somehow protesters aren’t authentic if they don’t fit the right demographic.

In this photo provided by Brazil's Presidency, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, and Brazil's newly elected leader Dilma Rousseff, make a sign of victory, at the Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Nov. 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Brazil's Presidency, Ricardo Stuckert) NO SALES
Dilma and Lula

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the chavistas in Caracas have longstanding ties to Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia. And the ideological continuities are obvious. And just as the chavistas’ incompetent administration, socialist policies, and corrupt conduct have combined to drag Venezuela’s economy into the gutter, so it has become increasingly obvious that the exact same attributes on the part of Brazil’s rulers threaten to bring down its own economy, which not long ago seemed to be on the verge of First World-level prosperity.

In any case, whatever you may think of Greenwald’s other activities, it’s certainly interesting to see him and Miranda – who made their names trying to compromise American and British security, all the while seeking to paint themselves as principled – shamelessly carrying water for the socialist thugs who run Brazil.