There is no scarier word in Hollywood than "blacklist" (well, except "unprofitable"). It's a word that has gotten a lot of use lately, as actors such as Martin Sheen and Sean Penn say they've been penalized for their antiwar stance.
Now the Screen Actors Guild has invoked the "b" word, issuing a statement that "an organized attack from the right" was trying to destroy the careers of antiwar celebrities and that "even a hint of a blacklist must never again be tolerated in this nation."
The Guild is absolutely correct - the political witch hunt that went on in the 1950s is something that should never be repeated. But I wasn't aware that anyone had revived the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. Nor is it clear that celebrities have suffered anything besides name-calling from those who do not espouse their views.
Take Sheen, a longtime activist, who makes a reported $425,000 an episode on "The West Wing." That means he makes more in four minutes than the average American makes all year. And while "Wing" viewership is down, viewers aren't necessarily tuning out because of his politics. Ratings were down 30 percent last fall, before UN Resolution 1441 was even passed. On Oct. 23, New York Times critic Caryn James declared that the Emmy-winning series had "jumped the shark" - slang for entering its declining years.
Pretty much the only entertainer who can clearly point to a cause-effect relationship between her political views and fans' reactions is Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks. Last week she told a London crowd, "We're ashamed President Bush is from Texas." A number of country fans reacted unfavorably, calling for radio boycotts and driving a tractor over Chicks' CDs. Executing a Texas two-step, Maines apparently found it more prudent to be ashamed of her comment, issuing an apology on the band's website.
A boycott is not the same as a blacklist. No one is hauling celebrities in front of committees and threatening them with prison. Nor are they being told they can never work again if they don't "name names."
Entertainers are free to use their fame to promote their political views, and those people who don't find them entertaining anymore are free to change the channel.
It's called the free market.