Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Lavender Scare and American Science in an Age of Anxiety

It was largely a coincidence that I read Jessica Wang’s 1999 American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War

and David K. Johnson’s 2004 The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

at about the same time recently. As it turned out, they complemented each other quite well. Both deal with Cold War witch hunts (metaphorical - not literal), their effects on the people targeted, and individual and organized opposition to persecution.

What makes the two books work so well together – and makes them so useful for the student of activism – is that, because of differences emerging in their methods of resistance in these years, the two targeted groups described in the books had very different trajectories. The scientific community left behind outspoken and organized public struggles in favor of working to advocate for individuals through private or official channels and forming alliances within the government, and as a result lost its effectiveness both in terms of individual advocacy and in terms of fighting for a different public role for science. As Wang describes:
The political culture of Cold War liberalism celebrated the potential of the bureaucratic state, privileging procedural reform over principle, and process over fundamental questions of value. In the late 1940s, many scientists began to confine their actions within the rhetorical and political boundaries of Cold War liberalism. Increasingly, scientists turned away from a progressive left rhetorical style that emphasized fundamental civil libertarian principles. Instead, they relied on more limited procedural reforms, most notably the protection of due process rights, to counter the threat to political freedom posed by the loyalty-security system (p. 8).

Scientists' public resistance to anticommunism was tempered by both fear of increased repression and the politically safer route of quietly building alliances within the Atomic Energy Commission and other receptive government agencies in order to mitigate the adverse effects of the loyalty-security system. Scientists achieved some short-term successes in limiting the impact of security investigations on scientists, but ultimately the safer strategy was self-defeating. By earning concessions through unobtrusive, backroom negotiations with government officials and deliberately avoiding public scrutiny, scientists failed to develop public political means of countering the growing ideological demands of the Cold War era. Their alliance with federal agencies bought time, but eventually time ran out. In 1949, scientists and the AEC lost a key political battle with Congress over the AEC fellowship program. Thereafter, the scope of anticommunist attacks on scientists expanded steadily for the next several years (pp. 7-8).
In contrast, gay activists increasingly left behind quieter individual support in favor of open challenges, developing organized direct-action strategies which brought great successes and formed the basis for the later mass movement:
Though [the Stonewall riots are] commonly seen as the beginning of the gay rights movement, by the time those gay, lesbian, and transsexual bar patrons fought a routine police raid, the movement had already won its first major legal victory and had established much of the rhetoric and tactics it would deploy over the next thirty years (Johnson, p. 211).
They’re only two cases, and of course they’re not perfectly comparable,* but the contrasting histories add two data points to our knowledge about social movement methods and their results.

Both books provided historical information that was new to me. I had little knowledge, for example, of the history of immediate-postwar scientific movements or the variety of visions of democratic science originating in the political ferment of the 1930s:
Following a path with few antecedents for American science, ordinary scientists turned to the political realm, where they explored a new synthesis of science, mass-based politics, and the legislative process in order to shape the contours of postwar nuclear policy and the institutional structure of science. As they did so, scientists began to recast their own political identity, pursue fundamental changes in the science-government partnership, and rethink the basic nature of the relationship between science and society (pp. 1-2).**
Similarly, I knew little of the lively wartime gay culture in Washington, DC, which forms a stark contrast to the climate of fear in the persecutory postwar era. And I hadn’t previously recognized the importance of this early activism to later gay rights struggles. I was pleased to learn recently that the book is the basis for a new film

although I haven’t been able to find information about its release.

Johnson in the book on the Lavender Scare does refer to the intersecting persecution of scientists (it’s noteworthy that Frank Kameny was a scientist), but Wang in her history of scientists and anticommunism doesn’t talk about the Lavender Scare (even at some moments expressing confusion as to why certain scientists were singled out, when Johnson shows that it was because of their sexuality). I don’t think this was intentional on her part, but it’s unfortunate that this aspect is neglected in her work as in others on the era. In any case, as I said, the two books pair up nicely, and I’d recommend both.

*An argument that open, organized public protest in this era was more accessible to or likely to succeed for gay people than scientists (many of whom had already engaged in it) would be an interesting one, but I think difficult to sustain.

**Both the pre- and postwar histories shed critical light on silly nostalgic portrayals of the 1950s as a high point for American science and its public role.

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