Sunday, November 06, 2005

"Good Night and Good Luck ..."

Yesterday I saw an excellent movie, featuring all-around stellar performances entitled, Good Night and Good Luck. The subject-matter is the early sixties' confrontation between Edward R. Murrow of CBS News and the then very powerful Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committe (HUAC), Senator Joseph McCarthy, known to friend and foe alike as "tail-gunner Joe."

The movie is shot in vintage black-and-white. It is well-written and directed with great intelligence, surprisingly, by George Clooney. Who knew? Mr. Clooney appears in a supporting role, in a less than dashing or heroic part, avoiding the emphasis on good looks, opting for geeky glasses and an extra twenty pounds as frumpy "Fred Friendly." This is Oscar-worthy stuff, here, folks. Make sure that you see this film and take your kids to see it. This is one of those rare movies that is important art, not just fun. Although it is fun.

Why is it important? Well, a little background material: HUAC was a committe set up by the U.S. Congress in 1938, which really got busy only after World War II, during the Cold War, searching for Communists in government. There were indeed a few. So what? The fifties decade was a period of intense pressure to conform and of paranoia about the Communist menace, matched by equal paranoia on the side of the Communist nations that Americans were about to destroy them with nuclear weapons. The paranoia and heightened tensions were said to make us all safer.

Both sides were nearly proved right in their fears by that monument to human stupidity the Bay of Pigs crisis, when the world was brought to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Fidel Castro said to an interviewer, "We came very close to disaster." The lessons which we should have learned about cooperation and mutual understanding have yet to be fully absorbed. There is no longer any reason to justify the continuing hostility between the United States and Cuba, for example, that causes so many innocent people -- including many children and old people being choked by the "noose" of the embargo -- in both countries to suffer unecessarily. Nevertheless, the embargo is still in place.

Meanwhile, in the United States (up through the early sixties), anyone suspected of harboring Leftist political sympathies, was summoned to appear before Congress and made to answer questions about his or her loyalty and political views. Refusal to answer questions resulted in a finding of contempt and jail terms. In the Soviet Union, at the same time, psychiatrists were made to question people about political opinions in order to determine whether they held the "wrong opinions," which was a basis for establishing "mental illness," so as to confine them to an institution.

Today, certain jurisdictions in the U.S. may have borrowed a page from the former USSR's book, using therapists trained in hypnosis techniques to extract information secretly from persons whose views are deemed "irregular." (See my essay "Psychological Torture in the American legal System." )

This un-American attempt by Senator McCarthy to decide who is "un-American" might be written off today as a joke, but for the number of people who were destroyed by it: destroyed professionally and personally, families destroyed, men and women whose work might have helped others were forced to survive in reduced or menial circumstances, or were made to find work elsewhere, outside of America.

Among the victims were an aging and frail Dashiell Hammett, Dalton Trumbo and other writers who refused to cooperate with the committe or to name names. "I refuse to cut my conscience," Lillian Hellman wrote, "to fit this year's fashions."

Any time the state acts secretly to monitor the opinions of people, or directs family members to spy on one another, or has people inform on the opinions or actions of others in violation of relationships of trust, we have abandoned Constitutional guarantees and are left with subtle, yet persistent forms of American governmental authoritarianism. The rationale to justify this authoritarianism may come from the Right or Left of the political spectrum, but the result is exactly the same.

The movie's deeper point is about what is happening today to detainees held without habeas corpus, denied due process of law, tortured, abused, silenced by American soldiers, allegedly, acting in a war against terrorism. I continue to hope that the U.S. will always prosecute those responsible for torture, wherever it occurs, and will live up to the true meaning of its creed, guaranteeing full human and legal rights to all.

One of the advantages of the Internet is the opportunity that it gives ordinary people to express publicly a sense of outrage at violations of the Constitution that are ignored or trivialized by the mainstream press or, much worse, by courts -- like New Jersey's judiciary.

The key message conveyed in this movie is Republican President Eisenhower's warning to any American government. Do not tamper with fundamental rights, such as the right to habeas corpus relief or the right to privacy in one's home. No one has a monopoly on virtue, as the P.C. factions on the American Left should note, and there are no impermissible opinions in a free society. Most importantly, the writ of habeas corpus and the right to due process of law are too fundamental to American conceptions of liberty ever to be sacrificed in the interest of expediency.

I believe that these HUAC tactics are still used in some of the worst states in the union, together with illicit information-gathering methods directed at citizens who are targeted secretly. The time for cover-ups and "secret files," that are withheld from people in the interests of a mythical "national security" or "political correctness," much less "for their own good," is over.

Today we speak of terrorists or of demonized "white male oppressors," but the idea is roughly the same in each instance: certain people and ideas are proscribed and mere association with such people, or expressions of interest in those ideas, is sufficient to anathematize a person or a person's opinions. To which I answer, bullshit.

What is really un-American is the presumption that any state committe, group of politicians, committee of professionals or tribunal can judge or sanction a set of political opinions, philosophies, values, or life-styles as within the range of "acceptable" views and mores that are permitted to citizens (don't use the word "chic"!), as opposed to ideas or opinions that are not allowed and forbidden to them. Today, the "politically correct thought police" on campuses and in the entertainment world are often guilty of the same sort of "un-American" intolerance that they condemn when they read about the HUAC's activities.

By way of a contrast, compare Arthur Miller's great play The Crucible with Richard Bernstein's book Dictatorship of Virtue.

This movie is optimistic about the power of truth to protect freedom, and vice versa. The mere existence of objective truth is, of course, something which some in the P.C. faction deny. I believe that truth exists and has the power to carry the day in the confrontation with intolerance. By bringing the light of public scrutiny and awareness to the abuses of Senator McCarthy, by highlighting his committee's flagrant disregard of civil rights and Constitutional protections, Mr. Murrow and the press were able to bring about the end of the McCarthy era.

Mr. Murrow and CBS certainly paid a price for this courageous choice, which may no longer be possible in today's political climate. Murrow was fired eventually, so was Fred Friendly.

This brings me to one of the freedoms which we must guard with special care in America: freedom of speech, along with the powerful and independent media that this freedom makes possible. The press in America must not be fettered in its pursuit of the truth and in its right to criticize all powerful politicians and factions, even when we do not like what they may say about us or about those politicians with whom we happen to agree. The criticism of opinions and ideas is more important than the form of that criticism. Rude or even offensive political speech must be protected. I hope to devote an essay to Justice Brennan's opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan.

We understand that the press will make mistakes. We expect that some journalists will display bad taste or that we will not agree with them. Sometimes we may be angered even by those journalists whom we respect and/or admire. Yet we must never, never limit the freedom of the press to articulate concerns and fears, doubts and criticisms of any governmental actions or policies. Like former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, I am close to an absolutist on the First Amendment's guarantees. However, I hope that I would never claim that those who disagree with me are "un-American."

Don't miss this movie.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home