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Hard Choices, Right Choices

Watch how the audience reacted to Kazan at the Oscars.

Since the beginning of Monicagate, we've heard terms like "betrayer" and "backstabber" applied again and again to Linda Tripp. Recently, however, Tripp was temporarily replaced as unofficial national snitch by director Elia Kazan, who on March 21 was presented a life-achievement Academy Award.

In 1952, Kazan, whose best-known pictures are "On the Waterfront" and "East of Eden," gave the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) the names of eight Communist Party members. He thereby became, and remains to this day, a pariah to many Hollywood leftists, who strongly objected to his Oscar and urged audience members not to applaud when he accepted it.

As it turned out, Kazan was more than politely received. Among the stars joining in a standing ovation for him were Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Helen Hunt, Kathy Bates, and Kurt Russell. A handful, including Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, sat silently, but there was no audible jeering or booing. The only obnoxiousness took place earlier, when the asinine, often unfunny Chris Rock made an asinine, unfunny joke likening Kazan to...a rat.

Would that the media had also been virtually free of anti-Kazan moral and intellectual stupidity in the weeks leading up to the ceremony.

Most vicious, predictably, were denizens of Tinseltown's community of hidebound Old Left screenwriters. Abraham Polonsky, who's clearly despicable, senile, or both, said he would watch the Oscar telecast "hoping someone shoots [Kazan]. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening."

Bernard Gordon wondered, "No matter how many times you shout 'Stalinist, Stalinist,' you have to get back to the basic question...What right did the country have to create a police-state atmosphere?" (Given that Gordon and his comrades were partial to Stalin's very real police state, it's a rather bizarre question for him.) And Walter Bernstein remarked, "Being a snitch...Where I came from [that] was the lowest form of life."

But to Victor Navasky, not all snitching is created equal. Navasky, the publisher of the Nation and the author of "Naming Names," a history of the blacklist period, wrote in Newsweek that "there's nothing wrong with naming names per se. Kazan's detractors...would not be upset if he had exposed Nazis or Ku Klux Klanners or mafiosi. But those were anti-Semites, racists, and lawbreakers, whereas the actors, writers and directors who joined the Communist Party (a legal party, by the way) in the '30s started out as social idealists who believed that the party was the best place to fight fascism abroad and racism at home."

While Navasky argued for the moral superiority of Communism, a USA Today editorial posited the moral equivalence of Communism and - well, read it yourself: "Maybe Kazan shouldn't have answered the questions about his colleagues. But the Constitution wreckers who ran [HUAC] had no business asking in the first place. Who had more disrespect for the First Amendment, the Kremlin or Congress? Close call."

As for actors, Rod Steiger did his best, praising Kazan's artistic gifts while comparing him to a Nazi ("I couldn't support Albert Speer no matter how good of an architect he was") but Steiger was edged out for worst analysis, thespian division, by Richard Dreyfuss. "Since 1989," Dreyfuss commented, "it's been easy to say that everyone should have known before the fall of communism that it was...wrong. That's to a great extent true. But...it can't make up for individual sins." Thus for Dreyfuss Communism was "wrong," but exposing Communists was "reprehensible."

We are, with good reason, predisposed to dislike informers. Yet to believe informing is almost always wrong is to believe there are times when it must be done. Linda Tripp acted not to ruin Monica Lewinsky but to protect herself against a presidential administration of wretched ethics. David Kaczynski gave up his brother, Ted, not because he didn't love him but because Ted was a murderous fanatic, and that stark fact trumped family loyalty.

Elia Kazan was motivated by fear, and profound understanding, of a cause that threatened America's freedom, a cause he himself had served many years before his momentous HUAC appearance. "Anybody who informs," he told an interviewer in the early '70s, "is doing something disturbing...It doesn't sit well on anyone's conscience...But what I did was the better of two mean alternatives. The only other option was to remain silent and pretend I didn't know better when people said there [was] no Communist conspiracy. Nonsense. There was a conspiracy."

"Nonsense" is far too kind a description of many of the attacks on a man whom too much of Hollywood still can't acknowledge was right all along.