Tyee Books

Oh to Be Young, Conservative and Victim of Liberal Tyranny

Meet Ben Shapiro, who says he's blacklisted by Hollywood.

By Crawford Kilian 15 Aug 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Shapiro, author of 'Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.'

When I heard Ben Shapiro plugging his book on that ultraliberal CBC radio, I knew I had to read it.

After all, here was a self-described conservative protesting that he had been blacklisted by the liberal Hollywood TV industry. As a child of the original Hollywood blacklist, I was sympathetic and concerned. If it was wrong to blacklist Reds 60 years ago, it's equally wrong to blacklist right-wingers today.

Once into the book, however, I realized that Ben Shapiro raises much more serious questions about America's current political discourse than about who gets to work in Hollywood.

Shapiro is a ridiculously bright kid from Burbank, a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law. He's been a columnist since age 17. By chance he'd been talking to a Hollywood agent (wearing his Harvard Law baseball cap, to show he was a reasonable guy). He ended up pitching an idea for a series (about Harvard Law) and got a positive response.

Then the agent reported back that a producer, having seen Shapiro's website, didn't think he could work with him. One producer, and that, Shapiro says, was that: He was blacklisted.

My parents' generation of blacklistees had a rougher ride. They weren't Ivy League graduates; they'd survived the Depression, fought in the war, and succeeded in Hollywood. The House Un-American Activities Committee arrived in LA to interrogate them, and quite a few of them went to jail for telling HUAC that their politics were their own business.

What's more, Hollywood's top executives met in New York in 1947 and issued the Waldorf Statement, saying they would not only fire such employees, but: "We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods."

Chased out of work by the FBI

That was a bit more than the whim of a single TV producer 60 years later, and it ruined hundreds of careers. A few did survive, writing under phony names or using fronts, selling excellent scripts for a fraction of what they'd earned before. Such freelance writing could be slightly more secure than an ordinary job. The FBI chased my father out of several jobs, but he did fairly well as "Mike Cosgrove," TV writer, working with a former radio writer who'd also been blacklisted. (My grandfather, Victor Kilian, had been in over a hundred movies, but went without work for years before returning to Broadway in the late 1950s.)

Shapiro, if he'd really had his heart set on a Hollywood writing career, might have done the same. Instead he spun this rejection into his third book -- a respectable achievement for a guy born in 1984.

He interviewed a lot of the great figures who created, or performed in, the classic TV shows going back to the early 1950s. They were remarkably open and gracious to him. In general, they confirm his thesis: that Hollywood is a liberal town and conservatives have a tough time finding work there.

But his book has a couple of critical flaws.

First, he never actually defines "liberal" and "conservative," except by implication.

Liberalism = creativity; conservatism = good taste

Liberalism, to Shapiro, appears to be the politics of the young and the urban. Its artistic expression in TV comes from "outcasts," "cultural outsiders" who have "rejected the values of mainstream society as a defense." It "continually attacks the prevailing power structure." Its agenda includes multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, racial preferences, and bigger government. It supports creativity over good taste.

By contrast, Shapiro's conservatism evidently endorses the current social order and is largely rural: "middle America and the South." It recognizes that basic social values, at least in cop shows, must sometimes be affirmed by violent means. It is anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, and pro-military. It objects to "teenage deviance and misbehavior."

He seems to think that the U.S. conservatism of today is identical to that of the 1930s and 40s. In those days, of course, the conservatives were a tiny, affluent Anglo-Saxon minority. They hated smart Jews almost as much as they hated shiftless blacks, lazy Hispanics, and evil "Asiatics." Far from being pro-military, they wanted the U.S. to stay out of Hitler's war in Europe.

The liberals, meanwhile, were trying to put the U.S. back to work, and they then fought and won a ferocious war. After the war, the liberals launched a 30-year economic golden age and a worldwide American empire. The conservatives were an even smaller splinter of American politics than they had been before Pearl Harbor.

Shapiro, talking about the national mood over 30 years before his birth, describes 1950 America as full of "zany joy." But the liberals who ruled that era weren't angels. They instigated Red scares and fears of atomic attack, supported their allies' colonial wars, and tolerated racial and sexual discrimination. They did great things, and evil things.

What's my motivation?

This leads to my second problem with Shapiro's book. For an aspiring scriptwriter, he seems clueless about motivation. Why, in the zany, joyous world of the 1950s, were all these movie and TV people so liberal? It never crosses his mind to wonder about that. The best he can manage is that they were New York Jews from poor, often socialist families. (And why socialist? Again, no suggestion.)

As such, he says, these Jews were outcasts, forming an artistic community of outcasts. Even the TV network executives. (Apparently the Jews in the affluent shtetl of Burbank, California, don't have much time for those rag-trade Jews in New York.)

So the content of TV programming was "consciously designed by liberal creators and executives to convert Americans to their political cause."

I can suggest a better motivation. The generation that fought the war was determined to make America better than the miserable country it had been in the 1930s. Conservatism divided societies into Us and Them. Liberalism, to win the war, had required the inclusion of all groups and the promise of a new equality.

Radical: A black man on TV

Early TV occasionally tried to convey that promise, whether in drama or in comedy. But it was far from a propaganda tsunami: I recall the difficulty my parents had, in a script for The Loretta Young Show, to get them to cast a black man as a mail carrier. (The script, about the booming 1950s porn industry and its threat to teenagers, won them awards from religious groups.)

My parents and other scriptwriters were exploiting two gaps in the postwar world. One was between wartime promises and postwar realities. The other was between the conventions of mass-media genres and the excitement of challenging those conventions. Bridging those gaps in drama and comedy was good business (it attracted audiences) and good showbiz (the audiences loved it).

You simply can't keep recycling Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver while pretending the non-white, non-suburban world doesn't exist. Once viewers absorb a show's conventions, they want something new that extends those conventions.

And they love seeing themselves as they are, whether or not they live in the suburbs and sleep in twin beds. Hence their readiness to challenge the conventions.

From Marxism to nepotism

Ben Shapiro shows that yes, TV is run by people who didn't like George W. Bush, and yes, they are an inbred, nepotistic crowd. This is not breaking news. Yet Shapiro beats this dead horse through endless summaries of dozens of forgotten TV series.

Then, exhausted, he offers no real case for improving TV by hiring conservative scriptwriters. His book boils down to a personal grievance: a bright Jewish boy from Burbank, entitled to wear a Harvard Law baseball cap, got turned down by one producer. I'll save my pity for the Somali refugees in Kenya.

Shapiro's failings raise another, larger issue. He is clearly a prodigy: bright, energetic, and articulate if not coherent. His first book was an attack on his own university education, and that stirs memories of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale, the book that launched him in the 1950s as the great conservative adversary of postwar liberal America.

But to make that comparison is to dismiss Shapiro as a potential successor to Buckley and the conservative world he made. Buckley was a brilliant writer, a scholar, and a wit. He didn't have to wear a Yale beanie to tell people how important he was. Buckley loved his conservative ideas; Shapiro loves himself.

Buckley also took the measure of his opponents, and chose his allies carefully. He had no interest in the barking loonies of the John Birch Society. Shapiro's website lists people Buckley would have despised, like the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, Ann Coulter, and Michelle Malkin.

Born conservative

So Ben Shapiro does not bode well for the future of American political discourse. Like Private Willis in Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe, he assumes "that every boy and every gal/That's born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!" So no need to define or explain why they think the way they do.

While the liberals of Hollywood gave Shapiro more time than he deserved, he missed the chance to make a genuine analysis of the real influence they've exerted in the last sixty years of American mass media.

That influence, clearly, was not as significant as he says it was. After all, the real troublemakers went to jail or lost their jobs in the 1950s. The rest watched their step.

And after 30 years of liberal propaganda on TV, one of Hollywood's own erstwhile liberals, Ronald Reagan, became president of the United States and led his country into 30 years of conservative triumph that put Ben Shapiro, age 27, where he is today.  [Tyee]

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