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Opinion

Op-Ed: I opposed a Writers Guild’s order to fire my agents. I was branded a ‘fifth columnist’

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28, 2019 Building at 7000 West 3rd Street in the Fairfax area of Los Angel
The Writers Guild of America West office in Los Angeles on March 28.
(Los Angeles Times)

I am a proud member of the Writers Guild of America, but lately I feel about my union like I feel about the Lakers: I like the players, and hope our best days are ahead of us, but I’m beginning to have serious doubts about management.

And so, when the guild voted recently to establish a new code of conduct for talent agencies, I voted no. Not that we don’t need one. We do. Writers, financially speaking, are fed table scraps from the meals we create, and we are often the last ones to eat. Packaging of film and television projects by agencies, which agents insists helps writers, the union insists hurts; thanks to Hollywood’s intentionally murky financial system, we’ll probably never know either way. Something’s clearly wrong. But the ballot was worded vaguely — oddly so, I thought — and I worried it would grant sweeping powers to union bosses who already operate without checks and balances.

Indeed, immediately after the resolution passed, guild leaders ordered all writers to fire their agents, immediately and without question. The firing was MANDATORY, as they all-capped it in their emails, and writers who failed to do so would face disciplinary measures.

I was dismayed. My union was suddenly behaving like the Teamsters of old, when even the Teamsters of new have realized that you catch more flies with honey than you do by calling your negotiating partners “criminal cartels.” And so, as a form of semi-protest, I sent my agents the required termination letter, but expressed within it my disdain for the leadership’s behavior, my concern that writers had been misled and my desire for free choice and respect, from both talent agencies and the guild alike.

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Being called a fifth columnist troubled me, until I thought a bit more about it and realized that pretty much all my heroes were fifth columnists.

The only loyalty, though, these days is blind loyalty — to party, nation, God, guns and guild — and so once the text of my letter appeared online, I found myself being called by some irate union members (when they weren’t calling me something worse) a “disgraceful member of the fifth column.” This particular sling of mud is used a lot these days; it’s a favorite of President Trump’s irate supporters, who often call journalists they disagree with members of the fifth column — when they aren’t calling them something worse.

The term originated in the Spanish Civil War, when Nationalist Gen. Emilio Mola claimed his four columns of troops approaching Madrid would be aided by a fifth column of supporters, inside the city, who would work to undermine the government from within.

During World War II, the U.S. government cited fears of a fifth column in deciding to detain thousands of German Americans and send more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. After 9/11, Muslim Americans were demonized as a potential fifth column for Al Qaeda. Today, more often than not, the term is used to sow fear, vilify enemies and generally get anyone who disagrees with you to shut the hell up.

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“You are either with us, or against us,” to quote one American president.

“An ENEMY of the people!” another recently all-capped it.

(If anyone needs to face disciplinary measures, it’s people who use all-caps.)

In Russia, of course, where crushing dissent is a national pastime, even five columns is not enough. Just ask fascist nut job Aleksandr Dugin, who peeks through the window blinds in Moscow and worries about a sixth column. Sixth columnists, says Al, are cowardly fifth columnists who pretend to be something else. Sneaky bastards, those fifth columnists. I mean sixth.

Being called a fifth columnist troubled me, until I thought a bit more about it and realized that pretty much all my heroes were fifth columnists.

Loud fifth columnists.

Proud fifth columnists.

Bill Hicks? Fifth columnist. Joseph Heller? Fifth columnist. Vonnegut, Pryor, Carlin, Kafka, Voltaire, Swift? Fifth columnists, one and all. In fact, if you’re ever looking for the names of some of our nation’s most dangerous fifth columnists, you don’t need Sean Hannity to tell you who they are — there’s a handy list of them right at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. The most famous fifth columnist, of course, lived roughly 2,000 years ago, in ancient Rome. Guy was a real rabble-rouser, couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and so the Romans put him to death the way they did everyone they accused of sedition: They crucified him.

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And so today I am proud to be called a fifth columnist. Ours is an old and venerable tradition. A necessary tradition. Because questioning the president doesn’t mean you hate America. And questioning union leaders doesn’t make you anti-union. And questioning the Lakers’ front office doesn’t mean you hate LeBron (although, for real, King — focus).

Marching in lockstep, being manipulated by words like “loyalty” and “family” and “country,” I’ll let others take pride in that particular disease.

Me, I’ll stay here in the fifth column with Jesus, Lenny Bruce, Mark Twain and other cowardly, disgraceful people I hope, someday, I can live up to.

Shalom Auslander is a novelist and a television creator and showrunner.


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