Nightlife :: Special Events

The Great Pink Scare

by Jay Laird
Thursday Jun 15, 2006
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The "porn" in question is less controversial than today’s fashion catalogs!
The "porn" in question is less controversial than today’s fashion catalogs!  (Source:ITVS)

Imagine a world in which the government may monitor your personal communications, and the public media are used to spread paranoia and misinformation. If your response is "We live in that world," then you’re already on to the thesis of The Great Pink Scare?. If your response is "goshgolly, I can’t imagine that!" then this documentary is required viewing.

In late Summer of 1960, three Smith College professors were arrested and thrown into the national media spotlight with headlines like Police Break Up Major Homosexual Smut Ring! n reality, they were three gay acquaintances living before Stonewall who, working at a women’s college in a conservative era, probably didn’t have a lot of, erm, outlets. There were probably kids at my junior high school who comprised a bigger "smut ring" than these three.

But of course, the pursuit of pornography was, like Communism, a red herring. It was the easiest way to conduct, as the film’s website puts it, "a McCarthy-like witch-hunt against homosexuals" without actually having to get into the messiness of what defines homosexuality as a crime. Even though the fight against homophobia was still in its infancy, there was already some recognition among academics that there wasn’t anything "wrong" with being gay, even if it was considered socially unacceptable. The criminalization of pornography was an easy way around the debate.

Berry Werth, author of The Scarlet Professor, says, "It happened at almost the last moment that it could have." Although this was 9 years before Stonewall, and 13 years before the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it was only 3 years before more restrictions were placed on illegal search and seizure. Noted author Jane Yolen, a 1959 Smith college graduate says, "If it had happened 10 years later, everybody would have shrugged."

Under the surface of this story, the deeper struggle is, "Which is more important: preserving the rights of the individual, or the morality of the moment?" The introduction and conclusion of The Great Pink Scare touch on this theme, but the question is mostly left as an exercise for the viewer. A bit more historical perspective, both from the period leading up to this crisis, and from the post-9/11 world, might help to illuminate the problem.

In the post-9/11 world, the tensions between privacy and safety are again the center of national debate. At the same time, the neverending "moral majority" crusade continues to fight its uphill battle against acceptance of values that are becoming more and more "common sense". Sure, we can now buy porn at Barnes and Noble, and we can get married in Massachusetts, but the current administration probably isn’t too happy about it. How much would it really take to conflate these privacy, safety, and morality issues?

If you’ve listened to any Presidential speeches about "activist judges", you know it wouldn’t take much. However, we seem to still live in an age of optimism in which the majority of Americans believe that we’ve moved past the "bad old days". Sure, there are the folks who wax faux-nostalgic about the idyllic 1950s or the carefree 1960s, but those who desire a "simpler time" are giving way to those who value the freedoms of the Internet over the freedoms of the Constitution (although to some extent, one feeds the other).

The Great Pink Scare is a good reminder of the slippery slope that moral crusades can take. As part of PBS’ "Independent Lens" series, it neatly fits into the one-hour time slot. With a bit of expansion to provide context to the greater national issues at stake, it could be an excellent piece worthy of wider release. It’s subtle and insightful, and takes on some of the same issues that Michael Moore has touched upon in his work, but without the cult-of-personality that surrounds his exposť-style pieces. Overall, The Great Pink Scare is documentary filmmaking worth watching.

When he’s not writing reviews, Jay Laird writes games, comics, and the occasional Z-grade suspense film like "The Strangler’s Wife". He is the founder of Metaversal Studios, a Boston-based entertainment company.


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