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Is it possible that there’s anything new to be said about the Cold War ’50s? About the notorious policies that limited scientific research in the name of “traditional” values? About the famous education wars that permitted the banning of books and ideas that were offensive to conservative censors? About the well-documented congressional committees that used high-profile hearings — often producing no evidence of wrongdoing to distract the nation and to derail American liberalism? Probably not. On the other hand, there’s still plenty to be said about the present — a present that offers a chief executive who couches stem cell research in terms of “heartland morals.” And school boards that wage war on Harry Potter. And Republican lawmakers who continue to call for investigations of Al Gore. So, are we headed for a new American Inquisition? Again, probably not. But the long-term damage inflicted by post-War reactionaries was less the diminution of civil liberties than the homogenization of the nation’s minds, the effect of one-note media and one-message politics. This week’s session of “A Century in the City,” Golden Gate University’s film-law series, addresses exactly that point. By going back to the future, series presenters and guests intend to review the McCarthy years in a new way, not by rehashing the well-known horror stories, but by remembering how patriotic bromides and public character assassinations — unchallenged by a public more interested in consumer goods than in critical thinking — permitted reactionary rule. In the program’s first half, two remarkable witnesses recall firsthand the collision between “values” and the free flow of ideas: Veteran litigator and GGU Professor Emeritus Allan Brotsky represented dozens of laborers and lecturers before the “un-American activities” committees that metastacized after V-J Day. At home in San Francisco, Patrick Hallinan — son of the city’s best-known civil libertarians, Vincent and Vivian Hallinan — watched as politicians, whose public pronouncements extolled “the American family,” went to war against his own. Later, this evening’s film entry “I Married a Communist” (1949) offers another perspective on how ballyhooed efforts to protect American values came close to destroying what was ultimately most valuable about America. Produced by Howard Hughes, whose extremist politics never dampened his passion for the push-up bra, “Married” offers some of the unintentional hilarity of Hollywood’s best Red-baiting (e.g., “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” “The Red Menace,” etc.) But the film’s images — the harassment of labor leaders, the domestic surveillance, the background checks, the dogged resurrection of long-ago political convictions — were entirely accurate: Hughes’ film simply attributed to Communist functionaries the well-known methods of the FBI. “What system of government do we have?” the hero of “Shack Out on 101″ (1955) asks, helping his girl cram for her civil service exam. “The best system!” she replies, in a lesson that’s as relevant to post-millennial America as it was to the post-war era. How did an appreciation for the nation’s strengths and a recognition of common cultural underpinnings become a prohibition on new perspectives? Tonight’s enterprise should offer an answer. “I Married a Communist” screens Thursday, August 16, as part of the program, “Un-Americanism in the Fifties: Law and the Triumph of Reactionary Politics.” For more information, visit www.ggu.edu/schools/law/filmfest.

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