Friday, February 24, 2012

Group Paranoia and "Naming Names" -- Random Musings

In a pleading titled "Complainant's Reply to Respondent's Response to Interrogatories and Document Request" that I filed on January 5, 1993 with the D.C. Department of Human Rights in Freedman v. Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld, I attempted to provide facts to support the unlawful job termination complaint I had filed against my former employer.

The pleadings state in part:
Complainant discussed the following incidents of harassment at the meeting on October 24, 1991, called by Mr. Race, at which Complainant was directed, on the initiative of Messrs. Race and Lassman, to relate instances of harassment.

(a.) On the second day of Complainant's assignment with Respondent as an agency-supplied temporary employee, March 4, 1988, Complainant introduced himself to a male employee outside whose office Complainant was working at a secretary's work station. A brief time after Complainant introduced himself, a group of employees gathered in the office adjacent to the work station at which Complainant was working. The employees proceeded to engage in a lively and mildly-sexually suggestive discussion about the size of the male employee's chest and whether it was hairy or not. The discussion lasted about two minutes.

In response to a question by either Mr. Race or Mr. Lassman, Complainant stated that he believed that the male employee in question was either a legal assistant or staff person, but not an attorney. Complainant stated that he did not recall the name of the male employee. Complainant further stated, in response to a question, that he did not know the status of the other employees--whether they were attorneys, legal assistants, or staff persons. Complainant had to explain, in response to repeated questions by Messrs. Race and Lassman, that the incident had occurred on the second day of his assignment with the Respondent and that Complainant did not know the identity of many of Respondent's employees as of March 4, 1988. Messrs. Race and Lassman appeared to want to gather the names of as many harassers as Complainant could possibly name. (emphasis added)
Clearly, Lassman and Race wanted me to "name names," a phrase closely associated with McCarthyism. I find the parallels between McCarthyism and my employment experience at Akin Gump striking.  The underpinnings of both McCarthyism and my employment experience involve group paranoia.  I suspect that it is impossible for a victim of group paranoia to credibly describe the nature of his victimization to outsiders, particularly to persons unfamiliar with the dynamics of mass hysteria.  It will be the victim of group paranoia who will appear disturbed and ridiculous, not the members of the group that is gripped by paranoid dynamics. The complaint, "They claimed I was a witch" will not get any traction in the year 2012.

In the year 2012, if someone were to complain, "They said I was a Communist," the probable response would be "So what?"  In today's world nobody cares if someone declares his adherence to Communist dogma.  For all practical purposes, Communism is a defunct ideology.  Not so in the early 1950s.  In the mid-twentieth century even the appearance of allegiance to Communist beliefs was fraught with an hysterical aura.  The disturbed feelings engendered in the victim of group paranoia were aptly described by playwright Arthur Miller who was himself caught up in the Communist scare of the 1950s.   Miller writes of his emotions from 1948 to 1951 as "the sensation of being trapped inside a perverse work of art, one of those Escher constructs in which it is impossible to make out whether a stairway is going up or down."

In  the late 1930s, a committee (that would later become the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC) was formed to investigate the activities of radical groups, especially communists. J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation diligently spied and collected names and information and fed it to the committee. The committee prosecuted these insurgents on the charge that they were conspiring to overthrow the government.

In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin burst onto the scene with a speech claiming that he had a list of 81 communists working in the State Department. Using this sensationalism, he rode the wave of hysteria and paranoia to celebrity status. With his celebrity came power:

McCarthy’s real triumph, both in 1950 and afterwards, lay in making himself a personal symbol of these issues. Once he had accomplished this, the task of dislodging or even restraining him became most complicated. He held a privileged position in American politics, and he was bold enough, audacious enough, perhaps even desperate enough, to exploit this privilege for five long years.

McCarthy led the HUAC hearings in 1951, focusing on government employees, intellectuals, and especially the entertainment industry. Writers, directors, and actors were called to the hearings to enter their plea of being communist and to name the names of other communists and sympathizers. Those who refused were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and denied any work in the industry. Ten individuals refused to testify at all, citing their fifth-amendment rights. They were subsequently found guilty of contempt and sentenced to jail time.

McCarthy was re-elected to the Senate in 1952. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible premiered on Broadway in 1953, making an obvious comparison between McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials. In 1954, McCarthy, along with the HUAC, set his sights on the United States Army. Determined to find the communist element in the Army, McCarthy convened hearings. These Army-McCarthy hearings were the first nationally televised congressional inquiries. All of America watched as Joseph McCarthy poked and probed, searched and questioned. Eventually, McCarthy came up empty-handed and all of America saw the true nature of McCarthyism. As The Crucible suggested, McCarthy had been on a witch-hunt. In late 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for his behavior during the HUAC hearings.

In 1952, theatre and film director Elia Kazan was called before HUAC and pressured to admit his affiliation with the Communist Party and to name those he knew to be Communists. Kazan submitted to the demands of McCarthy and the committee, much to the dismay of his colleagues. Most of all, this wounded his best friend Arthur Miller. Kazan had directed Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, and they were said to be as close as brothers. Miller and Kazan did not speak for 10 years.

Miller was outraged at what HUAC was doing to his colleagues and amazed that the committee was given such power.

In the “Introduction” to Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, he states:

It was not only the rise of “McCarthyism” that moved me, but something which seemed much more weird and mysterious. It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable, campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only terror, but a new subjective reality a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.

His outrage gave him the impetus to write on a subject he already had pondered. As a literary scholar, he began to identify similarities in the actions of HUAC and the story of the Salem witch trials he had come across in earlier readings and research. The intangible enemies (communism and witchcraft), the mass hysteria and paranoia, the naming of names, the absolution by admission of guilt and pledge of loyalty, and the obvious self-gratification of the accusers were all parallels that seemed compelling and comparable. The product was The Crucible. Though not completely historically accurate, The Crucible told the story of the Salem witch trails and was produced in 1953, when comparisons to HUAC were inevitable. The play forced the audience to look at Salem in 1692 when the same mistakes were being made and the consequences were horrific. In 1957 Miller was called before HUAC to testify about a meeting of Communist writers that he attended. Miller refused to name names. He was found in contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail time. The Crucible remains one of Miller’s most popular plays.

What is my point in all this?  I suspect that my experience of workplace mobbing at Akin Gump was in some way related to the dynamics of group paranoia, dynamics that propelled the Salem witch trials in the 1600s as well as McCarthyism in the early 1950s.  What I saw and experienced at the firm were events and interactions at the perimeter of that group paranoia, and therefore I am unable to credibly describe the core issues and actors' roles in that environment.