Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Great Pink Scare" on PBS Independent Lens: docummentary about a college witch-hunt in 1960

On June 22, at 12:30 AM in Washington, WETA aired “The Great Pink Scare” (dir. Dan Miller) in its “Independent Lens” series.

In early September 1960 three Smith College (Northampton MA) professors were arrested in a “sting” set up by Massachusetts state police with the United States Postal Service for receiving “obscene” material in the mail. These items consisted mostly of muscle and male magazines and some 8 mm movies. The first man arrested was Newton Arvin, who did the “naming names” of other homosexuals in a manner than reminds one of military witchhunts today under “don’t ask don’t tell.” The men were tried quickly; two received suspended sentences. Arvin would die of cancer in 1963, and the others would have their convictions overturned in 1963. The faculty of Smith wanted them retained, but the administration refused to renew their contracts.

The mechanics of the first arrest are striking. Newton was at the laundry when he was told that men were in his apartment. When he arrived, police searched his closets for "contraband" much the way police search hard drives today, even for "deleted" files.

The newspapers in 1960 made a sensation of the “scandal”. A fundamentalist preacher fed the flames with “deliver us from evil” speeches. Yet, there were gay bars in nearby Springfield, MA. It is ironic that in 1960 Massachusetts was one of the nations most homophobic states, even though now it is the first state to legalize gay marriage. Yet, from the viewpoint of the police, this was as much about “smut” and mails as it was about homosexuality.

Barry Werth, author of “The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal,” speaks in the film. Werth discusses the invasion of the professors’ privacy, and the idea that the police could enter their homes with no provocation. The film draws a hidden analogy to the Patriot Act today.

The film also mentions "Boston marriages" among lesbians of past repressive eras (a topic also covered in the 1998 indie film "Out of the Past" from Jeffrey Dupre.

It may be interesting to note that Smith College is an all women's school, and that in 1960 it's mission was to produce "educated wives and mothers." One of my best high school friends started at nearby Amherst in 1961. I remember a winter hiking trip in 1965 (Mt. Greylock in the Berkshires) that included a visit to both Amherst and Northampton.

My own experience with McCarthyism would start in the fall of 1961 with my expulsion from the College of William and Mary for telling the Dean of Men that I was a “latent homosexual” after a bizarre investigation over the Thanksgiving weekend. That is covered on the Nov. 28 2006 entry on my main blog. Certainly, this film sheds some light on why this happened to me. The overriding moral climate seemed designed to protect (from distraction) the passions that were supposed to live within conventional heterosexual courtship and marriage. The moral climate also suggested that conventional marriage, family formation and procreation or at least some grounding in family responsibility was expected of every adult, although, if so, police raids, purges, firings and expulsions (like mine) are a horrific way to sent that kind of a message.

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