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A Family History Lesson

March 9th, 2009 | Comments Off | Posted in Entertainment, Personal, Politics

Last week, I signed my family up for Geni, which is a great site that allows you to create a family tree for free (here’s mine), and then use that family tree as a small social networking site; like a mini Facebook, just for your family. Building out my family tree inspired me to finally get around to digitizing the tape recording I have of my (paternal) grandmother Rosie’s testimony before the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. For those of you that care about such details, the cassette tape recording I have was copied from another cassette tape, which itself was recorded from a vinyl pressing which had been handed down since 1952. Needless to say, it wasn’t in great shape. I converted the tape to digital using my M-Audio box, and then ran it through a few noise reduction filters, and the resulting WAV and MP3 sound much better than my copy of the tape ever did, which is great.

A little bit of background here for the few of you who may not have heard me ramble on about this at length: in 1952, my grandmother was a forty-seven-year-old immigration and civil rights attorney practicing in Los Angeles. She was indeed an active member of the Communist party, and did extensive work with the LA chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and worked cases for the Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. She was a communist until the day she died, which was soon after I was born.  The tape is a bit of a family heirloom and a pretty amazing piece of living history, so it’s great to finally have it saved as an MP3 and be able to share it here.

A page from the HUAC report entitled "Communist Legal Subversion: The Role of the Communist Lawyer"

However, even after the cleanup work I did, there were still a few parts of the tape that were unintelligible, so I went looking for a transcript of the audio. It took me a few hours of digging, but I eventually found the full archive of HUAC papers on As it turns out, the printed copies of all the HUAC hearings, reports, and findings are all available at the Boston Public Library, but they’ve been scanned and posted online thanks to the Internet Archive.  Further investigation turned up a number of reports referencing Rosie’s name (see the image right for a page from one report entitled “Communist Legal Subversion: The Role of the Communist Lawyer“), transcripts of her serving as counsel for other people brought before the committee, the transcript of her second testimony in 1963 (of which my father and I were unaware) regarding her trips to Cuba, and most rewardingly, the full content of HUAC’s 1952 investigations into “Communist activities among professional groups in the Los Angeles area”, which contains the transcript of our recording. This was particularly exciting, mainly because I have heard the tape many times since I was a child, and now I can finally understand certain parts of the audio (especially the parts at the end during which everyone is talking over each other and arguing about book burnings).  Regardless, here’s one of my Grandmother’s better diatribes, and then the link to the audio.

Mrs. Rosenberg. There will come a time in this country when there
is no climate of fear and coercion and hysteria, and people will of their
own free will declare with pride and with honor as the Puritans said
they would be glad to — to declare their faith, but not under compulsion,
and not because there will be a subpoena over my head or a blacklist,
and not if the result will be loyalty oaths. This is precisely what has hap-
pened in civilizations that you’ve asked that question — the Puritans
were proud of their faith, the Jews were proud, too, and yet when
they were faced with Torquemada and with Hitler, what would you have
expected, sir, that they should rise up and say they are Jews? If that
cost of that would be their heads? Today the cost of declaring one’s
faith — which I say you have no right to ask me about — is a blacklist and
a subpoena and a loyalty oath and book burnings. This has been the
result of the force and violence of this committee.

Testimony of Rose Rosenberg before HUAC, October 1, 1952

One particularly fascinating part of the tape which I was never able to make out before is an aside from Rep. Donald Jackson of California, who is obviously frustrated and throws in a jab that seems to be apropos of nothing, but is quite telling:

Mrs. Rosenberg. In Oklahoma books were burned, and do you know
what the American Library Association said?

Mr. Jackson. Is this in answer to the question asked by counsel?
If there weren’t so many witches who left their brooms and tall hats
around, we would not have so much work to do.

Pretty amazing (and shameless) stuff.

Additionally, while I was searching for information on the HUAC hearings, I came across the website for a book written by Eric Etheridge called Breach of Peace, which contains photos and information about the 328 freedom riders who converged on Jackson, Mississippi in 1961, and there was a “Rose Schorr Rosenberg” listed there. A quick call to my father confirmed that Grandma did, in fact, go on a freedom ride in 1961, and when I contacted Mr. Etheridge, he sent me a link to the Mississipi Department of Archives & History, which has digitized all the records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.

Rose S. Rosenberg - arrested July 15, 1961 in Jackson, MS for Breach of Peace

There, I found numerous photos and files referencing Rosie, including her mug shot taken on July 15, 1961 (shown right; also appears in the aforementioned Breach of Peace), the police report of her arrest, and a number of documents and fascinating articles, including ones showing that the DA in Jackson was working with the the folks over at HUAC in attempting to use her communist ties to discredit the riders. There was even one article written by Bob Novak which paints the entire civil rights movement as having sold its soul to the far left (sound familiar?), and another AP article which mentions my grandmother and her traveling companion Jean Pestana by name, the title of which was “Jackson Cops Link 2 Riders to Red Groups“.

I’m pretty excited by how much I found, and always suprised by how much information is available on the internet. I’ve asked my brother to dig out Rosie’s memoirs so that I can scan and digitize them for preservation, and maybe learn a bit more about what happened to her in Mississipi (she was issued a $200 fine and 4 months in jail, but I’m unaware at this point how much time she actually served).  I’m also working on an audio project that will contain discussion of the tape by my family members with portions of the tape cut in. I think it will make for a compelling story.

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Mandatory Reading

April 4th, 2008 | Comments | Posted in Personal, Politics

This article regarding an Illinois state senator caught my attention today.  Apparently she became irate during the testimony of an outspoken atheist and began browbeating him:

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy — it’s tragic — when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school. I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know? I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous–

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court—

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

Listen to the clip of the exchange here:

Rather than discuss the logical fallacies involved in her arguments (and there are tons: her ad hominem abusive arguments regarding Sherman’s chosen realm of activism, her ridiculous argumentum ad populum about belief in god, and her wholly unsupported implication that Illinois was somehow built on Christianity, just to name a few), I’d like to address the most frustrating aspect of this tirade, which is her claim that being exposed to atheism is somehow destructive to children.

Look, I understand what’s really going on here; if this woman genuinely believes that children unexposed to the teachings of Christianity are going to burn in hell, no one can really blame her for feeling that the perspective of an atheist is something corrosive that should kept away from impressionable minds at all costs.  But unfortunately, that’s a fully circular argument; it points to belief in god, but it only holds if you believe in god in the first place.  And more importantly, it’s missing the crux of the issue at hand, which has to do with teaching our children how to think.  The irony of her position is that the only children so easily susceptible to indoctrination are ones who were never taught how to think, how to analyze, how to discuss and debate; the ones who were never exposed to any new ideas in the first place.  And that’s why I’ve yet to ever hear a single valid unbiased argument against teaching children about critical thinking.

I hate to post the same stuff over and over again, but it appears my goal of getting this document into the hands every human being on the planet has not yet been achieved, so allow me excerpt once again from Walter Lippmann’s essay The Indispensable Opposition. Friends, please, read it right now if you never have before. It’s short, I swear.  But I digress; here are some relevant portions:

We miss the whole point when we imagine that we tolerate the freedom of our political opponents as we tolerate a howling baby next door, as we put up with the blasts from our neighbor’s radio because we are too peaceable to heave a brick through the window. If this were all there is to freedom of opinion, that we are too goodnatured or too timid to do anything about our opponents and our critics except to let them talk, it would be difficult to say whether we are tolerant because we are magnanimous or because we are lazy, because we have strong principles or because we lack serious convictions, whether we have the hospitality of an inquiring mind or the indifference of an empty mind. And so, if we truly wish to understand why freedom is necessary in a civilized society, we must begin by realizing that, because freedom of discussion improves our own opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity.

This is the creative principle of freedom of speech, not that it is a system for the tolerating of error, but that it is a system for finding the truth. It may not produce the truth, or the whole truth all the time, or often, or in some cases ever. But if the truth can be found, there is no other system which will normally and habitually find so much truth. Until we have thoroughly understood this principle, we shall not know why we must value our liberty, or how we can protect and develop it.

And here we get to the heart of the matter, which is that society genuinely needs different viewpoints because exposing people to different viewpoints is what helps learn how to learn, and what help us discover truth.  Atheists, as the opposition, (or Christians, were they the minority) are not something to just be tolerated.  They serve an important function: to either weaken or strengthen your own beliefs by putting them to the test.  And if a belief doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, is it really worth having?

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