The New York Times reveals that the IRS is investigating Friends of Abe, a group for conservatives in the entertainment industry. The review of the group’s activities was prompted by Friends of Abe’s application for 501(c)3 tax exempt status. According to the Times, the IRS has demanded “detailed information about its meetings” and “enhanced access to the website which would have revealed members names.” I am a member of Friends of Abe (though I in no way speak for it). Further, I am by no means a figure of any importance in the group but, in the parlance of the 1950s, I have attended a few meetings. So I was shocked to see the IRS taking a special interest in the group, not only because I am acquainted with the innocuous nature of the group, but also because left-leaning 501(c)3 arts organizations regularly indulge in obvious political activity without so much as a glance from the IRS.
I can’t say much about Friends of Abe. It is indeed a secret group, and there are reasons for that. I am obliged to respect the group’s privacy. While I make no secret about my politics, I have come to understand why many members do. Last year in an article in Narrative.ly Magazine I wrote about my experiences as a conservative in the theater industry and said the following: “There is a feeling among conservative cats that a kind of blacklisting happens to them in entertainment. As an actor, I haven’t experienced that, as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean itʼs not there.” I honestly doubted that there was much risk for an actor in publicly stating his or her conservative views. Just this month a story out of San Francisco shook that belief and explained why so many Friends of Abe wish to remain in the shadows.
Actress Maria Conchita Alonso, best known for her role in “Moscow on the Hudson,” was slated to appear in a Spanish language version of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” — that is, until she made a campaign ad with a Tea Party candidate for governor. Amid threats of protest from pro-immigration groups Ms. Alonso’s ties to the show were severed, and the producer was quoted as saying “We really cannot have her in the show, unfortunately. Of course she has the right to say whatever she wants. But we’re in the middle of the Mission. Doing what she is doing is against what we believe.”
This month an article appeared in Variety outlining the difficulty that conservative-themed documentaries have getting screened at major festivals. AJ Schnack, producer of the documentary “Caucus” (about the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus) said, “It’s no secret that in terms of documentaries, film festivals tend to skew more toward liberal or progressive subjects. I had one tell me they couldn’t stand the sight of the people in [Caucus].”
Amid stories like these I have to conclude that I was wrong: There is potential risk for actors, entertainers and filmmakers who make their conservative politics known. This is deeply disappointing to me, as I have spent a lot of time trying convince closeted conservative friends in the arts that they should be more vocal about it, that their voice matters. Now I know I was also asking them to pay a price for that. And now, according to the Times, that risk is not limited to not getting work, but includes appearing in a government review of their activities.
Friends of Abe was a wonderful discovery for me. It is no exaggeration to say that in the past decade, over dozens of productions, I have never worked with another Republican, at least not to my knowledge. But Friends of Abe changed that. Last year two dozen playwrights, some famous, some not, joined forces to create “Gun Control Theater Action” a collection of 24 pro-gun control plays. They have published a book and had several performances. They are also sponsored by Fractured Atlas which is, you guessed it, a 501(c)3 non profit organization. Largely through Friends of Abe (though not in any association with them) I was able to find five playwrights to write short plays in defense of the Second Amendment for an upcoming ebook. This is exactly the kind of networking that Friends of Abe uniquely allows for. I would like to know if the IRS is reviewing the meetings and member lists of Fractured Atlas in the same way it is Friends of Abe.
In fact, I would like to know if the IRS has investigated Symphony Space, a 501(c)3 theater in New York which produced a show during last year’s election called “Primary Colors” which featured a song called “Anybody but Mitt.” In the 2008 version of the show there was a number called “How do you make fun of Obama,” about how impervious to satire our sartorial President is. I would like to know if the IRS is investigating the tax status of The Public Theater, which during the 2004 Presidential election produced Tim Robbins “Embedded,” a blatant attack on the Bush administration. The Public also took to Twitter during last year’s election to inform its 15,000 followers how proud it was of President Obama for evolving on gay marriage.
The hypocrisy of this special attention being paid to an organization of conservative artists is stunning given the amount of liberal political messaging paid for by liberal 501(c)3 theater companies. According to the Times, this attention is due to the guests who speak to the group who, no surprise, tend to be conservative. I have no idea what Friends of Abe plans to use tax-deductible donations for and if they were to use such funds in an illegal way, by all means that should be punished. But to apply such scrutiny on the application, prior to any misuse of tax status is unfair and deeply troubling. After all, the IRS didn’t make Fractured Atlas jump through any hoops when it gave “Gun Control Theater Action” tax deductible status under its umbrella.
I maintain my belief that it is important for conservative artists to speak up, to be public about their politics. In fact, I think it’s even more important now that we know we are being investigated by the IRS. But the decision to do so is a personal one, and it is not without risk. For the government to look into the activities of people — who in many cases are not even dues-paying members of Friends of Abe — just because they attended a meeting harkens back to the darkest days of government intervention in the arts. If, as has been shown above, outing oneself as a conservative can lead to blacklisting, there is every reason for the government to protect, not imperil, the right of these artists to associate anonymously.
Hopefully the IRS will abandon its unique requests for information from Friends of Abe. Or at least it will start applying the same scrutiny to the myriad of liberal 501(c)3 organizations all over the country. I don’t know how likely that is. For now, all I can do is proudly say, I am now, and have been a member of the Friends of Abe.