This week, on “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg took to task those who asked the Hollywood Reporter to name those who attend a Donald Trump fundraiser in Beverly Hills. The two tweets in question, for which the respective actors Matthew McCormack and Debra Messing came under fire, are listed below:
— Eric McCormack (@EricMcCormack) August 30, 2019
Please print a list of all attendees please. The public has a right to know. https://t.co/YV4UoxrPHI
— Debra Messing✍🏻 (@DebraMessing) August 31, 2019
Messing has since apologized, or attempted to do so. However, that hasn’t shielded her from a flurry of deserved criticism. In an unsurprisingly snide tweet, Trump singled out Messing for seeking to shame his supporters, serving up an ad hominem attack on Messing that failed to get to the crux of the issue. That crux, as Goldberg noted, was really about the notion of blacklisting individuals for their political affiliations.
Unlike Trump’s attack, Whoopi Goldberg’s public criticism of those calling for lists offered a much-needed critique on the entire idea of publishing blacklists, which she noted to be both antithetical to democracy and perhaps even fatal.
Listen, the last time people did this, people ended up killing themselves. This is not a good idea, OK? Your idea of who you don’t want to work with is your personal business. Do not encourage people to print out lists because the next list that comes out, your name will be on and then people will be coming after you…
We had something called a blacklist and a lot of really good people were accused of stuff. Nobody cared whether it was true or not. They were accused. And they lost their right to work. You don’t have the right! In this country, people can vote for who they want to. That is one of the great rights of this country. You don’t have to like it, but we don’t go after people because we don’t like who they voted for. We don’t go after them that way.
We can talk about issues and stuff, but we don’t print out lists. And I’m sure you guys misspoke when you said that because it sounded like a good idea. Think about it. Read about it. Remember what the blacklist actually meant to people and don’t encourage anyone—anyone to do it.
In an era where both sides have encouraged the politicization of every aspect of our culture, from Hollywood movies to chicken sandwiches, Goldberg’s call for politics to return to the private sphere provides a much needed dose of sanity. And the noticeable cheers amongst the “View” audience after Goldberg spoke indicates that she may not be alone in her sentiments—just maybe, it’s not a hollow cry that rings too late.
Blacklisting was used during the McCarthy era as a way of “purging” Hollywood during the Red Scare. Given Hollywood was seen as the epicenter of cultural content production, the government rabidly sought to clean house. Blacklisting offered a convenient method for doing so by simply denying work to those in the entertainment industry who were suspected of being Communists or suspected of sympathizing with them.
As Goldberg notes, blacklisting wasn’t solely about locating the communists. As long as a head was presented, that was sometimes sufficient for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the organization in charge of the blacklisting efforts.
Lists don’t require an explanation, and in fact, their very structure prefers that you do not provide one. Unless there are multiple lists, a single list generally doesn’t offer nuance either. Its mere creation results in a clear binary – you’re either on the list or you’re not. It doesn’t matter if you’re a decorated veteran, a grandmother, or both of the above. You’re on the list, and now, you’re branded.
Whoever determines the threshold for entry on the list maintains all the power. By the end of the time of McCarthyism and other historical instances of witch hunts, the bar could be exceedingly low and often consisted of whispered heresy. As a result, lots of innocent people’s reputations were irrevocably damaged and frequently without cause. But if you complained about any of this, you were supposedly defending communists, or rapists, or whatever the list is supposed to represent.
Goldberg is right. We don’t need a return to lists. In an age where nuance is frequently squashed for the sake of fitting our biting takes into 280 characters, the last thing society needs is another push into the abyss of binaries. We need a return to nuance, not an elevation of public shaming.
The irony of both Messing and McCormack’s tweets is that they think they’re doing society a favor by “rooting out” who they deem to be undesirables. The funny thing is, McCarthy and his squad thought they were, too.