50 Years

Last night I went to see Good Night, and Good Luck. It's the story of Edward R. Murrow's largely successful crusade against that charlatan Joseph McCarthy and his exploitation of the Red Scare. I highly recommend it.

It's another one of those stories that remind us of what the press might be in this country, were it not so wedded to corporate interests.

The day before, I had only just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, in many ways the most plausible of its dystopic counterparts (We, 1984, Brave New World, etc.). For those of you who have not read it, it's a story of a professional fireman (one who starts fires for the burning of books, which have been outlawed) who wakes up to a world in which entertainment has enfeebled the minds of the masses while knowledge is limited to the fragments of a former literati who wander the countryside with a precious hoard of memorized texts.

Written in 1953, it clearly reflects the events documented in Clooney's film, which began that very year.

The two make for an interesting contrast. One a projection of troubling tendencies half a century forward, the other a recasting of those troubled times to call attention to our own.

Having lived less than half of the span between then and now, my capacity to reflect on the changing times is rather limited. Nonetheless, as a student of history I feel a need to consider: Have we heeded Murrow's advice? Have we avoided the dystopia of which Bradbury warned us?

On the surface, of course we have. Academic culture is alive and well, open dissent remains a possibility, and the Internet allows unprecedented levels of access to information.

Nevertheless, our public is not civically engaged, cares more about the crimes of Michael Jackson than about those of George W. Bush, is systematically un- and misinformed.

Most Americans remain unaware of what it requires to maintain our comfortable way of life, of what nefarious deeds are committed in their name, of our disrepute among citizens of the world. We assume ourselves to be the chosen of God, spreaders of freedom and democracy to the world, bringers of hope. The informed progressive knows otherwise.

The rhetoric of national security has changed little. Instead of "communist" we now have "terrorist," a label so nebulous that it depends on no existing nation-state or political organization, applying simply to those who "hate our freedom"--but never to those who actively destroy it.

Franklin's reminder, that those who would sacrifice liberty for the sake of security deserve neither, goes unheeded; Old Ben is better known for gracing the C-note with his visage.

We in the progressive community maintain that not everything in this world should exist for the profit and power of the privileged few. This is why the state is such a necessary institution in a world of Machiavellian multinationals and why the press is even more essential to ensure that government does not become coopted.

But instead of keeping money out of government, the press itself has been purchased. Assuming that people wish not to be bothered by unpleasant truths--the news is always bad news, why not focus on the positive?--the media feed them a diet of tripe. But people will establish a taste for whatever is crammed down their throats: Truth is now too bitter to be stomached.

We--we who are lucky to be informed--now know that our "president" has so little disregard for the law that he will not even see to getting a rubber stamp on his tyrannical intrusions into the lives of ordinary American citizens. The press aids and abets these crimes; that "liberal rag" the New York Times sits on the story for a year only because the president asks thems too, out of a "vital national security interest."

But we should not be completely disheartened. The fact that this information is available at all, that the NYT did eventually release it, that there is public outrage about it, is a promise of better things to come. A promise, but not a guarantee.

This is why I blog. This is why I teach. This is why I believe education to be the single most important task of humanity. This is why I commit myself to the political vision of the left, to the party of hope, hope for a better tomorrow. Not a utopia, perhaps, but certainly not a dystopia either.

And this is why I encourage you to take it upon yourselves always to seek the truth and to speak it.

As a thoroughly modern, i.e., postmodern, individual, I am well aware of the problematic nature of this term. There is no neutral perspective, no privileged access, no infallible pronouncement. Truth is always tentative, selective, and relative. As Nietzsche reminds us, it is just one species of lie.

I see this recognition as an advantage of a certain part of the left. We never appeal to supernatural, superhuman standards. We know that we might be mistaken and that experience will show us what works and what doesn't. We do not spread a dogma, but rather a commitment to the power of an individual to develop her own mind, determine her own values, and decide the truth for herself.

But this openness, this tolerance, this inclusivity is itself a kind of ideal. Like all sound ideals, it is best on its own terms, but not on those of its competitors. In the end, we take it on faith.

This, however, does not mean that all faiths are created equal. In certain respects, according to certain standards, some statements are truer than others. In typical discourse, it is just plain wrong to claim that Poland invaded Germany in 1939.

Thus, when I say that we must spread "the truth" I acknowledge that we take a risk because we can never be fully sure of ourselves and our commitments. We are never certain that the ignorant are really ignorant; we can never claim definitively to know others better than they know themselves. But because we are committed to open inquiry and intelligent practice, we have the flexibility to adapt ourselves and recognize new truths when they emerge.

Nobody wants to suffer needlessly. It is our job to show suffering where it exists and to undermine claims of necessity when they are unwarranted. If our actions increase this suffering, so long as we remain honest with ourselves we can learn from our mistakes and move on.

In the end, I see this as the lesson of Good Night, and Good Luck and Fahrenheit 451. It is a lesson about education and the courage to move boldly forward. History may be a slaughterbench that can never be wiped clean, but we may yet slow the pace of this slaughter or at least prevent it from hastening.

This is no small task. But that is the very reason why each and every individual educator is so vital to the struggle.

Fifty years may not have been enough for America to realize it has abandoned its ideals and let fear win out over hope. But let us give it our all, and see where we are in fifty more...

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