27 October 2005

A birthday movie

As a birthday gift for my younger son, I took him to see the film Good Night, and Good Luck. (To my great pride, the choice of film was his idea.) There are many places where you can find reviews of this film that would match my own positive assessment; but another entire dimension of the film relates to the way it frames my life.

The film begins in 1953. I loved Good Night's black-and-whiteness, just like the Hotpoint "portable" television of my childhood. I do remember when the working world (at least the one I glimpsed) was dominated by men in white shirts, although my mother, a professor at Roosevelt University, was also part of the working world. It was her memories of the Senator McCarthy era that made my mother so nervous about my studying Russian later, in my high school years.

Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, the heroes of this docudrama, prevailed in their confrontation with McCarthy. The parallel with today is not some fantasy about prevailing over present political dragons, despite the glib charge in World's review. (Bruce Edward Walker: "If Murrow can bring down the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the 1950s hubbub over communism, Clooney seems to imply, certainly someone from today’s Fourth Estate can bring down neoconservatives bent on expending American blood for Iraqi oil." Clooney and the film make no such implication.) Instead, the most vivid and explicit connection concerns the state of television as instrument of mass hypnosis, then and (as one can easily realize for oneself) now.

The film makes this point by opening and closing with a speech Murrow gave in 1958. It's not a denunciation of government; it is a denunciation of the abject greed-based abdication by the television industry of its potential for equipping and informing the public.

In Murrow's time, Paley and other television executives were reluctant to address controversial political subjects, at least outside the Sunday gasbag ghetto. That is not today's problem. There are in fact now almost no inhibitions at all. The things Bill Maher said about Harriet Miers (of late memory*) and her personal life on his HBO program went way beyond vulgar. But the media are mostly as reluctant as ever to present a calm conversation about national themes, including diverse and underrepresented viewpoints, in any time slot traditionally claimed by "entertainment."

The name Fred Friendly comes up several times in David Dark's excellent book, The Gospel according to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea. Dark examines American capacities for reflection and self-correction as reflected in our literature. His motive, at least in part, is to remind us of those capacities as we are increasingly sucked into dangerous polarizations based at least in part on our uglier national mythologies, and on the temptation to let our polarizing pundits do our thinking for us.

Some examples of Dark's efforts:
[pages 27-8] [Fred Friendly] believed that the storytellers of media should resist making up people's minds or shaping their desires (a conflict of interest, needless to say, if high ratings are the only possible bottom line) and strive instead to tell it like it is in such a way that the viewer is drawn into the agony of having to make a decision. According to Friendly, the journalist's job is "to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can only escape it by thinking."

pages 36-37] To be a learner of the larger freedom of a whole life ethic will require an unlearning of our habitual defensiveness and self-justification at all costs and an adoption of the easier yoke and lighter burden of confession. The coming kingdom does not respond well to the power of pride, it isn't subject to our privatizing impulse, and it is on the side of life and liberty in more ways than we can ask for or imagine. Confessing our inability to live faithfully to it might not always play well to onlookers near or far, but without this particular habit of speech, there is no life, liberty, or gospel.

[pages 38-9] When we let the terms "liberal" and "conservative" or "politics" and "religion" characterize an argument or a proposition before we've given ourselves the chance to consider them, we allow the unthinking shorthand well-suited for electronic media to infect our imaginations. To observe that it's a good thing that Jimmy Carter builds houses for poor people isn't an argument against any "conservative" position, and to be pleased to hear the news of the capture of Saddam Hussein isn't an argument in support of Republicans (or bad news for people who usually vote for Democrats). But it's becoming increasingly difficult for many Americans to consider history, information, or even everyday gossip apart from who appears momentarily to benefit the most from the disclosure. The self-deluding skill of judging all information in our own favor ("unbiased" if it's to our advantage, "biased" if it isn't) is a standard procedure for both sides of the split screen on our news networks, but it's also begun to contaminate our office space, our living rooms, and our houses of worship.

To apply Friendly's methodology a little differently, we might ask ourselves what we're tring to avoid thinking about when we reflexively say or think, "That's just your interpretation"; "This is only your opinion"; or "Timothy McVeigh/Osama Bin Laden/Saddam Hussein is absolute evil. What is it that we find reassuring in the assertion that terrorists think only about evil, "flat evil," and nothing else at any time? Who are we trying to convince? Simply thinking twice and looking hard for what our categories and knee-jerk responses conceal can become an especially effective form of exorcism. A twenty-four-hour fast from using the words "liberal," "conservative," "political," and "religious" might open whole new worlds.

To maintain that the first question for a Christian seeking political office should be whether or not the work can be pursued while simultaneously seeking first God's kingdom and righteousness is not a matter of "playing politics." And to assert, as a point of clarity, that equating America to "the light that shines in the darkness" is bad theology is not to twist matters to suit the Left or the Right. We have to remember that not all our observations fit neatly into a partisan slot. As we've noted, this is an incredibly difficult work in contemporary America, but our legacy of liberty is lost when we lose the ability to think past mischaracterizing categories and the will to ask questions to which we don't already know the answers. The tribal storytellers have to be engaged and challenged as they render us the service of trying to invent our reality for us. Being vigilant is not a matter of spending hours combing the Internet for jokes and stories that make our adversaries look stupid and our preferred parties righteous. Looking harder at their language and our own is the only way to sustain the interests of discipleship and democracy.
At the risk of stretching fair-use limits, I want to end with a couple of paragraphs from the introduction to Dark's book, where he's very clear about the stakes involved:
[page xii] Like many Americans, I find myself frightened by my own anger level and the fear that there isn't anything much anyone can do about it; that I'll keep being mad at so many people (some of whom I'll never actually meet) so much of the time. I worry that future generations might be even less capable of listening kindly to people with whom they disagree or of paying attention to a story of photographic image that invites them to view their world differently. I don't want them to inherit a militant ignorance that confuses anger for strength of character or the momentary silencing of somebody else with victory.

[page xiii] There is a call to embody a more comprehensive patriotism. Like discipleship, the practice of democracy is a widening of our capacities for moral awareness and an expansion of our sphere of respect. If we have a steadily narrowing vision of people whom we're willing to accord respect or if the company we keep is slowly diminishing to include only the folks who've learned to pretend to agree with us, we can be assured that we're in danger of developing around ourselves a kind of death cult, a frightened, trigger-happy defensiveness that is neither godly nor, in the best sense, American.
*sigh* I began this entry as a lighthearted recounting of going to see a movie with my son, and the nostalgia it provoked. Why do my attempts to introduce a personal tone into my weblog entries always degenerate into politics?!

* per Trent Lott—"In a month, who will remember the name Harriet Miers?"

Alarm bells: The Christian presidency of George W. Bush continues to move heaven and earth to get congressional permission to use torture. Please click here.


Paul L said...

Did you know that Murrow had Quaker family roots? See http://www.otr.com/murrow.html.

Johan Maurer said...

I had heard that he had Quaker (abolitionist) roots, but I'm glad to have it confirmed. When I put "Edward R. Murrow," Quaker, and "North Carolina" into a search engine, I got a pile of interesting links. I'll tell my son. Thanks!


Anonymous said...


Thank you for your discussion of David Dark's book. So many people have written so many books on this subject, from so many different angles. Yet so many can't hear.

Nancy A

Johan Maurer said...

Ni, Nancy! Thanks for your comment.

I tried posting a note about my favorite Ottawa bookstore on your blog, but the links weren't aligned, so I had to give up. I could fudge my way into your biography, but I couldn't make it post.

Anyway, if you see this, write to me about Canterbury House! They have so much more than truncated coloring books. (Or at least they did when I worked there.)

Johan (johanpdx@gmail.com)