Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times (1936), included a scene that would be unintentionally prophetic. A red safety flag falls off of a passing truck and Charlie picks it up. Trying to get their attention, he follows after them waving the flag, not realizing that a labor protest has formed in the street behind him. The police attack the crowd and Charlie is arrested as a communist agitator. After he gets out of jail, he tries to get work again in several occupations, but at the end of the movie he still remains a poor tramp.
Several years later, he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is mistaken for an anti-Jewish dictator who looks and sounds a lot like Adolph Hitler. A decade later, however, he would find himself caught in the House Un-American Activities witchhunt. Chaplin was, despite never having been associated with the party, suspected of being a communist for having endorsed progressive candidates, refusing to cross picket lines during a strike, and publicly praising then-ally the Soviet Union during World War II (as the government had encouraged producers and studio executives to do). However, Chaplin had also publicly criticized Hitler before the United States was involved in the war, and in the twisted minds of the McCarthy overlords one would have only done that if they were a pro-Communist sympathizer. Chaplin defied the HUAC by refusing to name names and he suggested he was being bullied because they also erroneously thought that he was Jewish. As payback, the little Tramp was banished to England and could not return again until the 1970’s to receive an honorary Academy Award.
In the 1930’s, it was estimated there were over 800 fascist organizations operating in the United States. While the movements and activities of the official Nazi party were monitored and restricted during the war, others like the Ku Klux Klan were never investigated by the HUAC because they believed the Klan’s activities were part of American heritage. There was never a similar witchhunt of Klan members, even when the group’s terrorist activities were undeniable. After the national KKK dissolved, its former members carried on with their jobs and their lives with impunity; the culprits behind the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing weren’t brought to justice until almost 40 years later. Pro-segregation politicians like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace still won elections after desegregation. A new American Nazi party formed in 1960 and its members could still be acquitted by all-white juries as late as the Greensboro Massacre in 1979.
In the same period, civil rights leaders faced very real lynchings and assassinations, while being slandered by their opponents as “socialists.” Rightwing propaganda to this day still refers to the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a communist front.” Conservative supporters of apartheid in South Africa, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, justified this brutal white supremacy as a lesser evil to an imagined communist threat. This has been a successful strategy, a false accusation of being a communist can potentially ruin somebody’s life, whereas members of actual un-American groups on the right are seldom held accountable. Going back to the Civil War, the insurrectionists of the Confederacy were pardoned during Reconstruction. Former slaveowners were not punished for their numerous crimes against humanity, but instead were permitted to continue abusing their former slaves and their descendants for generations as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South. Whereas the freedmen received no restitution for their lost wages, they were expected to move on as if the labor camps, the beatings and the rapes had never happened. With the lone exception of South Carolina, Southern blacks never came close to electing a majority of black representatives in their state legislatures like D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation depicted, but that gave a paranoid white South an imaginary justification to restrict black voting rights. Even when black communities overcame the odds and achieved respectable success, they were viciously burned down like the 1921 Tulsa race riot; true to form, Oklahoma acquitted the guilty parties and denied the victims any compensation for their miscarriage of justice.
The toll of being a progressive has always been a high cost, some escaped with only the loss of their careers, others lost everything including their lives. It has always been comparatively safer and easier to be a conservative, yet ironically it is conservatives who more frequently exhibit a persecution complex. They still toss around baseless accusations of communism to try to preemptively shut down any discussion of reform, and if they don’t get their way they manufacture cases of hardship and oppression. The Confederate-invented narrative of the Civil War focuses solely on the so-called “tyranny” of the federal government and the loss of so-called “states’ rights”, while ignoring or mitigating the extent and brutality of slavery. Their distress at the loss of privilege outweighs an opponents’ actual loss of individual rights. For instance, they irrationally act as if monogamous gays getting legally married is somehow an inexplicable threat to their freedom, while ignoring the very real harm caused to gay families by being denied recognition before the law. Suddenly, baking a cake or arranging flowers for a gay couple has become a violation of conservatives’ “religious freedom.” Of course, these same bakers and florists never made an issue of gay anniversaries, gay birthdays, gay Valentine’s Day, gay Easter, gay Christmas, or gay Hanukkah, etc.; gay couples had been having commitment ceremonies for decades, but that never became an issue either, not until after conservatives lost their marriage battle. This is obviously nothing but the same political payback and hissy fitting that followed after the Civil War, and they should have already learned from losing the Civil Rights war that a business owner doesn’t get to decide who can buy a product or what they can use it for. If they can’t understand this, then they shouldn’t be in business. It’s time for conservatives to give up their delusions of being persecuted, they have been the oppressors far more often than they have been the oppressed, if ever.
Disgracefully, conservative bigotry persists because every generation weighs themselves against their forebears and seems relatively better by comparison: the segregationists were not as bad as the klansmen, and the klansmen were not as bad as the slaveowners. Like liquid following the path of least resistance, bigotry lazily finds refuge wherever it can still be seen as acceptable. On the positive side, however, today’s liberals become tomorrow’s conservatives. They never had to fight for progress themselves, but they can comfortably adopt positions that the previous generation would have condemned as too liberal. Because of that, most people are not truly liberal simply because they were born into a world where slavery and segregation were illegal. To truly consider ourselves liberal, we have to identify the safe zones where bigotry has presently slithered and stamp it out into a new corner.
This appears to be on the verge of happening in the latest gay rights battle. A decade ago, a Christian could come into serious conflict with many churches just for saying that the government had no authority to ban gays from marriage, even if they didn’t personally approve of same-sex marriage themselves. If the Supreme Court rules against the bans this summer, as they have indicated they will, that same position will then naturally become the prevalent view among anti-gay churches. Liberals will welcome this forward progress even though those conservatives may have literally demonized them like the segregations formerly did to their liberal opponents. To the conservatives who continue to resist and resent any comparison between the civil rights movement and gay rights, I beg you: now that Alabama justice Roy Moore has invited the comparisons to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, please do not consummate the likeness to those racists by resorting to violence. You can either actively support progress, or passively become tomorrow’s conservative, but if you try to remain a conservative of the moment, then you will inevitably be compared to the ones before you. And really, you have nothing to lose, the progressives have already paid the price for progress.