Kaiman’s own grandfather, a successful animator and puppeteer named Lou Bunin, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. His three daughters were instructed not to open the door to the FBI agents who occasionally came knocking. Eventually, Bunin’s wife changed her name and, acting as his agent, was able to get him enough work to eke out a living. Bunin actually was a Communist sympathizer, Kaiman acknowledged to me. But though his life was damaged, it was not destroyed. More than 60 years later, on the basis of equivocal and heavily disputed accusations, Kaiman’s life is in tatters.
In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Press), Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt write that moral panics are situations “in which a community becomes obsessed with religious or ideological purity and believes it needs to find and punish enemies within its own ranks in order to hold itself together” (my emphasis). Such search and destroy missions can be ecstatic experiences. Quoting a founder of sociology, Emil Durkheim, they write that groups can provide a “collective effervescence” when individuals come together and achieve a feeling of oneness.
Lukianoff and Haidt use the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a central example. It began in the 1960s, with college students rising up to expel “enemies” of the revolution. Universities were shut down, and “many professors, intellectuals, and campus administrators were imprisoned or murdered.” Lukianoff and Haidt write that one of the “cruel features of the Cultural Revolution were the ‘struggle sessions,’ in which those accused of ideological impurity were surrounded by their accusers, taunted, humiliated…as they confessed to their crimes, offered abject apologies, and vowed to do better.”
The meeting of the FCCC to discuss what to do about Kaiman in the wake of Sonmez’s letter, which took place in the home country of the Cultural Revolution, became a demonstration of the “collective effervescence” of a group purge. As Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik has written, becoming part of a group can provide an “enthralling thrill.” The minutes of the meeting show how a mob forms in real tim