Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street Analysis

The extent to which information control is essential to any criminal justice system operating within a relatively non-totalitarian and authoritarian society is all-too-easily revealed through one very specific era in American history that reaches both back and forward in time to serve as a model for the true extent to which non-codified techniques of suppressing behavior that it is not even illegal can twist the conventions of morality to utterly reverse the standards of conformity. In fact, so effortlessly is the effectiveness of informal social control mechanisms within a very large and extremely complex society demonstrated by the very existence of the film Pickup on South Street that after viewing the film, it actually becomes problematic to the argument that information social control is more effective within smaller and simple societies.

That specific era in American history stretches from the late 1940s to the early 1960s and is variously referred to as “The Second Red Scare,” “the Communist Witch Hunt,” “the McCarthy Era” and “the Hollywood Blacklist.” Among the examples of informal social control techniques utilized during this period of American history as a means of exerting the power of the dominant ideology to the point of changing existing public opinion as a means of codifying broad examples of behavior deemed deviant from the norm at best and dangerously criminal at worst were ridicule, gossip, ostracism and, especially, anti-communist films. Mainly because the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the cowardly owners of movie studios had created enough space for relatively unknown figures like Sam Fuller to direct anti-communist movies like Pickup on South Street. That film is an example of the Red Scare type of propaganda film able to thrive within vacuum created by the blacklisting of filmmakers who could just as easily have made Pickup on South Street an anti-capitalist film. Which, in fact, it almost is, thanks to the fact that Fuller was far more talented than the typical creative mind behind Red Score movies.

Various methods of stigmatizing anyone working in Hollywood during the Second Red Scare who had even the most tangential of connection to the American Communist Party could face retribution in the form of losing work, seeing their careers ended and, in some cases even jail. So powerful were the effects of information social control for the forces of law enforcement that merely being associated with someone who was associated with someone who was associated with members of the Communist Party was enough to warrant suspicion that could eventually lead to severe negative consequences.

Even the effects of ostracism of writers, actors and directors whose career were temporarily or permanently ended does not reveal the full extent of the power that these types of information social control techniques can exert within the criminal justice system. It is well worth recalling the underlying fundamental principle of the American criminal system is that everyone is considered to be innocent until they have been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of their peers within a court of law. The formal social control techniques available to law enforcement should be deemed more than worthy of ensuring this remains true in the letter as well as the spirit. The content of Pickup of South Street as well as the connotative subtext provided by the political atmosphere in which the film was made proves that this is not necessarily the case.

What is most notable about the period of the Second Red Scare and, especially the Hollywood Blacklist, is not just that many of those who lost their jobs or careers as a result of the ridicule, gossip, ostracism and other means of stigmatizing as a result of the social control enacted by the plethora of anti-communist films made in the absence of the capacity for dissenting voices were never actually found guilty or, indeed, even put on trial for violating any law. No, what is most notable is that no time was it ever illegal to actually be a member of the American communist party, much less to associate with them. Essentially, the forces of information social control (such as, it must ultimately be admitted, Samuel Fuller, the director of Pickup on South Street) paved the way for those who had never committed or even been accused of committing a crime to become victims of the very criminal justice system they were accused of conspiring against or collaborating to overthrow.

The lessons of the Red Scare trace back to the actual witch hunts of the 1600s, but also remind us of the power that informal social control has today when it is not illegal to be a Muslim or look vaguely of Middle Eastern descent, yet be placed in a defensive position within the criminal justice system if you happen to be either of those and dare to speak words that may be deemed treasonous. The power of information social control is such that it reaches into the recesses of American society where law enforcement is not actually capable of exerting is codified techniques of formal social control.

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