Means of Production: Anti-Communism in Film and Television
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
As Black Lives Matter protests march on, we are again inundated with not only the nonstop news cycle, but a slew of accompanying commentary. The popular line of the right wing is the invocation of "agitators", namely rioters, anarchists, and of course, communists. America's favorite scapegoat is once again shaping the narrative seeking to discredit the most significant social justice movement of the 21st century. We've been living with this trope for years, communism has seemingly always been the unseen enemy. But why is that, exactly? Conservatives did not make it up. As with most conspiracy theories, there is a smidgeon of truth to their foundation. Communism has existed in the United States in some form or another for over a century. There is an actual Communist Party of the United States, although their recent endorsement of Joe Biden should tell you everything you need to know about its seriousness. But this is fitting, as in many ways the politisphere is a fundamentally unserious realm. The American political zeitgeist is largely filtered through the prism of pop culture, and it is through this lens that the public perception of Marxism, and thus American class consciousness, was formed.
After World War 2, the United States was existentially defined by its relentless opposition to the Soviet Union. The US projected its power mostly through anti-communist proxies, violently suppressing leftist movements all over the world. It's like playing Risk with your dad, but he makes your older brother punch you in the face and then puts a Monopoly board on top of your territory. The US repeated this crusade ad nauseum, leading to millions of deaths at the hands of dozens of fascist military dictatorships. All with the intention of preventing any successful left-populist movement from serving as a proof of concept of leftist ideology that threatened US "interests". The practice continues to this day more or less openly, as even elected Democrats are keen to remind us.
In the early years of the Cold War, the US government was able to convince the American people that they were minutes away from total annihilation at any given moment. After all, television was still in its infancy and there was nothing much for folk to do besides terrorize black people and smoke cigarettes in their own kitchen. The McCarthyist hysteria of the 1950s resulted in the victimization of thousands of primarily leftist activists, as well as apolitical persons suspected of such heinous "crimes" such as homosexuality.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with the public endorsement of the Truman administration, publicly claimed to hunt communist infiltrators, but its true objective was to snuff out leftism in all forms from America's elite institutions. The film industry in particular was affected with long-lasting consequences. Thousands of actors, writers, and producers were fired from their jobs, and many were blacklisted from the industry entirely. Notable talents like Lucille Ball, Langston Hughes, Orson Welles, and Arthur Miller faced the committee and suffered for it. Even universally beloved figures like Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin were harassed for their activism as part of J. Edgar Hoover's personal vendetta against those he believed to be insufficiently patriotic. Many of these public figures recovered, and their works are known today. But at the time, the committee served its purpose: it created a culture in which behavior that deviated from the American capitalist model cost you your livelihood. In such an environment, only an open anti-communist could possibly succeed. Thus, the upper echelons of the world of television were occupied by men who poured their anti-communist ideology into their work. Men like Paul Klein, who was in charge of programming at NBC all the while maintaining close ties with the CIA. Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actor's Guild, the country's most influential actors' union, enacted an anti-communist "loyalty oath" that upheld an atmosphere of fear in Hollywood that followed him into his shitty presidency. Even progressive idols like Gloria Steinem willingly collaborated with the CIA in order to advance anti-communist interests.
One need only take a cursory glance at the cursed filmography of the 1980s to see how the entire careers of actors like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris were underwritten by the pervasive attitude that capitalism and Americanism were inherently right and good. Movies became a form of culture war, as anti-communists dropped one red-baiting turd after another. The most notable examples of anti-communist cinema are an indictment of the genre itself, as they are now known as much for their mediocrity as their messaging. The encroachment of "anti-American" ideals was personified in apocalyptic fantasy porn such as Invasion USA, in which Chuck Norris plays a former CIA agent who takes on a band of communists slaughtering peaceful suburban American families. In Red Dawn, an early contender for worst YA action flick ever, Patrick Swayze leads a group of high school students who form a guerilla group to resist a Soviet military invasion. Both of these films not only depict Soviets as bloodthirsty war criminals and Americans of all stripes as virtuous defenders of liberty, but they also portray Latin American nationals as enthusiastic allies of Soviet forces, glossing over the US's interventionist history that incorrectly aligned Latin American leftists with the USSR. The controversial and thankfully limited series Amerika, released in 1987 as a direct "rebuttal" to the anti-nuclear The Day After, envisions a United States under Soviet occupation.
In it, Sam Neill (who could not be reached for comment, presumably because he spends all his time on his Australian vineyard taking selfies with quokkas or some shit) boasts in an atrocious Russian accent that taking over the US was easy because we had already beaten ourselves, a thinly veiled appeal to viewers to resist communist influence in their everyday lives. Meanwhile, Kris Kristofferson is released from a re-education gulag he had been sent to for being too dang American. He is so dismayed by the social and economic decay imposed on the idyllic midwest that he is driven to reignite the resistance against the occupiers. As dreadfully boring as the series was, it was still far more successful in delivering anti-communist invective with a semblance of artistry than other, more entertaining texts which nevertheless pushed a hamfisted narrative of the individualistic American hero vanquishing the scourge of collectivism.
It can be unequivocally stated that the foreign policy establishment and the writer's room collective were in a constant feedback loop in which anti-communist rhetoric was injected into many of the most (and least) successful film and TV projects of the 70s and 80s. Capitalist subtext shaped the cultural indoctrination of two entire generations of Americans, thanks in part to the absence of an academic curriculum that would have allowed for a candid examination of Marxism in nearly every educational institution of repute. Baby Boomers and Generation X were raised to believe in the infallibility of earned wealth, unburdened by calamity or accountability. They rode the wave of hollow prosperity, partying on borrowed time until the unsustainable economic conditions of unfettered capitalism resulted in the 2008 economic crash. Without a hegemonic nation-state boogeyman to blame for its failure, the ruling class turned its sights inward. As they have with every movement for equality in this country's history, they declared invalid those pursuant of social and economic justice. Activists challenging the entrenched capitalist order are cynically smeared as anti-American Marxist seditionists regardless of their actual objectives or affiliations. Through no fault of their own, Americans largely lack the political education to accurately assess class interests and thus fail to identify those who do.
This shameless manufacturing of consent continues to this day. In an episode of Disney's ill-advised Boy Meets World reboot Girl Meets World, ostensibly a kids' show, three students literally dressed like kommissars have their perfect grade arbitrarily slashed by the most libertarian schoolteacher of all time. Watch this clip to witness the most blatant capitalist propaganda ever committed to television since Harrison Ford told Gary Oldman to get off his lawn plane.
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