Navasky, Victor S. NAMING NAMES. New York: The Viking Press, 1980

A Note on Vocabulary

(Back to Navasky contents page.)

The communists and some left liberals called them "informers" and "stoolies" and "belly-crawlers." The investigating committees and American Legionnaires called them "patriots" and "courageous." Sometimes they called themselves "friendly" or simply "cooperative" witnesses.

Certainly many of those who named names resisted the informer label. Consider the exchange between the Committee and the writer-director Robert Rossen (BODY AND SOUL [1947], ALL THE KINGS MEN [1949], etc.), who in 1951 refused to name names but appeared again in 1953 ready to go through the name-naming ritual. "I don't think," he told the congressmen, "after two years of thinking, that any one individual can even indulge himself in the luxury of individual morality or pit it against what I feel today very strongly is the security and safety of this nation." Congressman Clyde Doyle of California tried to paraphrase Rossen's position: "In other words, you put yourself, then, in a position as a result of your patriotism or patriotic attitude toward your nation, which you came to subsequent to January 25, 1951, where you were willing to be labeled a stool pigeon and an informer, but you felt that was perhaps the privilege rather than a disgrace?"

MR. ROSSEN: I don't feel that I'm being a stool pigeon or an informer. I refuse--I just won't accept that characterization.

CONGRESSMAN KIT CLARDY: Well, Mr. Doyle means--

MR. ROSSEN: No; no. I am not . . . disagreeing with Mr. Doyle, but I think that is a rather romantic--that is like children playing at cops and robbers. They are just kidding themselves, and I don't care what the characterizations in terms of--people can take whatever positions they want. I know what I feel like within myself. Characterization or no characterization, I don't feel that way.'

Thus did the terminological terrain constitute a real, if obscure, battlefield of the cold war. Typically, J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ever-vigilant against enemy inroads on the semantic front, leaped into the fray. Writing in Elks Magazine in 1956, he denounced those who "indulge in sabotage by semantics":

They stigmatize patriotic Americans with the obnoxious term "informer," when such citizens fulfill their obligations of citizenship by reporting known facts of the evil conspiracy to properly constituted authorities. It would require very little time for these critics to pick up a dictionary. Webster's unabridged volume specifically states that an "informant" is one who gives information of whatever sort; an "informer" is one who informs against another by way of accusation or complaint. Informer is often, informant never, a term of opprobrium.
Although it may not do as a technical definition, for present purposes--and in accordance with what I understand to be popular usage--I define an informer as someone who betrays a comrade, i.e., a fellow member of a movement, a colleague, or a friend, to the authorities. Given this definition, and taking the objections of guilt-by-connotation into account, I think it is useful, when context permits, to call those who named names by their rightful name--informer. For the idea of "playing the informer" was part of what made the decision whether to name or not to name names so painful. The agony of a Larry Parks or even the delayed decision of a Robert Rossen was an acknowledgment that, however they behaved, in their hearts and minds they preferred not to play the role of the informer. Even the director Elia Kazan, who took out an ad in 1952 urging others called before HUAC to name names, conceded the presumption against playing the informer when he told a television interviewer in 1972 that although he doesn't feel called upon to apologize for what he did, his decision was not without ambivalence, since "there is something disgusting about naming things, naming names.


Document URL:
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:06 EDT