beware those ecdysiasts on campus

Time magazine, December 1947*: in its "Education" section there's a squib (a little more than one column) under the title "Unwelcome Guests," and it begins thus:

"In less dogmatic days, most U.S. colleges were places were all sides of many questions were heard. Student groups sponsored after-hours speeches by Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Buchmanites, Zoroastrians and ecdysiasts. But times have changed. Last week, six colleges barred their doors to speakers who were Communists or fellow travelers." And it goes on to say that one of those barred was novelist Howard Fast (shown above), and we have a photo of Fast set into the piece above the phrase "No one-syllable refusals."

I've read an awful lot of news articles like this from the period 1946 or so through around 1962, so I think I know and can place the rhetoric here.

In 1947 anticommunist rhetoric had not yet set in. In 1952 or '53, the article - if it took this approach at all, if it covered the "barring" of such speakers from campuses at all - would have intensified the mock of all the -isms that are out there. Here it's satirical enough: we go from what were in the 1930s three major voices (right, liberal-left and radical left) to a minor passing sect of radical left (Buchmanites) and then immediately to tiny far-flung minority (Zorastrian) with its tone of a little ridiculous to deliberately obscure (isn't America great that there even exist such voices?!). A classic list assuring diversity: starts serious and ends by mocking this multivocal craziness our forefathers guaranteed. So as I say a few years later we might have gotten such a list, but the earlier period - the 1930s - would not have been described as "less dogmatic days." In Time in '47 we could think of these days as "dogmatic" and those ideologically fraught days (the Red Decade) as "less dogmatic." In 1952 those days would dogmatic and these days, a time in which, alas, it's a necessity to keep communists from speaking at colleges, would be less dogmatic. The terms later were: sane, reasonable, mature, pragmatic, strategic, post-ideological, settled, sane. Did I already say sane?

What's even funnier about all this - and makes me think that the anonymous Time squib-writer was having a nice go at the early anticommunists - is that an ecdysiast is a performer who provides erotic entertainment by undressing to music. Much, much, much more common to colleges campuses (at least behind the closed doors of fraternities) than Zoroastrians or even Communists ever were.

At the end of this little forgotten piece, Eleanor Roosevelt, contacted in Geneva for comment (where she was attending a meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, of all apt things for her to be doing just then), is quoted as saying that Americans "are not completely sure of our ability to make democracy work." It's '47 and Truman hasn't quite made his rightward move away from the Roosevelt legacy, and Eleanor is quoted approvingly approving, in effect, human rights extended to American communist speakers at universities - in short, free speech despite the risks of subversion.

[] Fast bio
[] Fast on the Peeksill riots
[] a short story by Fast
[] a 1959 sci fi story by Fast, a fascinating political allegory

* Dec. 22, 1947, p. 50.