Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Violence Scored over Nonviolence Today

Four members of the were abducted in Baghdad Sunday by a previously unknown group called the . They were shown on television today and were called “spies” by their kidnappers. The peacemakers were an American, (bottom photo, with children); a Briton, (middle right photo); and two Canadians, and (top photo). In addition, female German archaeologist and aid worker, , was and shown on TV. More then 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in since the 2003 invasion, and more than 50 have been executed.

I have great admiration for the CPT workers, who must all be braver than I am. Almost all non-governmental relief workers have left the country or withdrawn into the , but these five people continued to move around openly and without any armed protection. They had all agreed that if they were captured, no violent methods should be used to gain their release. The teams are a program of Brethren, Quaker and Mennonite Churches and other Christians who support nonviolence. In addition to Iraq, teams of CPT workers are now working in Colombia; Hebron and At-Tuwani, Palestine; Kenora, Ontario, and on the Mexico-United States border. CPT has been working in Iraq since October 2002, primarily documenting detainee abuses and connecting the Iraqi citizens to local and international human rights organizations.

Every CPT worker knows she is putting her life at risk to demonstrate the power of nonviolent Christian love in the middle of a war zone. In a “statement of conviction,” the members stated that they “are aware of the many risks both Iraqis and internationals currently face,” but insisted that the risks did not outweigh their purpose. They expressed hope that “in loving both friends and enemies and by intervening nonviolently to aid those who are systematically oppressed, we can contribute in some small way to transforming this volatile situation.”

This method does not always work. Today is one of the saddest of the failures, for it shows how a history of violence has deluded some Iraqis, who cannot believe that any actions can possibly be genuinely altruistic — especially the actions of foreigners.

Spies, indeed! I have had dealings with CPT members and know their purity of soul. James Loney used to attend the Anglican Church to which I belong, the Church of the Holy Trinity, and this past spring, Peace Magazine, which I edit, published an article by Tom Fox. In it he wrote:

“When the US-led invasion tore away the façade of the state of Iraq, a torrent of religious, ethnic, tribal, and cultural tensions that had existed for generations was unleashed. I have not heard one person say that was a wise or revered leader. But I have heard many people say that while they lived under the threat of violence with Saddam, they prefer that life to the bloodshed, chaos, and anarchy that surrounds them now.

“No one seems to offer a solution that does not entail more guns, more restrictions on basic human rights, more soldiers, more barbed wire and concrete barricades, more ‘security’ and less freedom. Sooner or later the insurgency will run out of and weapons. Sooner or later the ringleaders will be captured or killed. But what will remain will be one of the most restrictive, oppressive political states in the world.”

In such a setting, no one can win — least of all captors of Tom, James, Norman, and Harmeet. May peace come to that troubled land and to the lives of the Westerner aid workers and their captors alike.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Altruistic High Rollers

Syriana opened in the this week, but it’s too early to know how well it’s doing in sales. The insiders probably knew last night but the numbers haven’t been published on the Internet yet. Never before have I been interested in box office success, but I’m interested in the financial success of films just because I am so identified with the project. It’s the ideal test of my own idea of how to save the world – through intelligent, socially significant movies and . If the experiment turns out well, I’ll take immense personal satisfaction from it.

But there are obvious obstacles — of which the producers must be far more aware than I. The challenge is to get people to watch these important films. To me, box office results are important only as indicators of how many people are exposing themselves to the message; whether a film is financially successful is, in itself, of no interest. Still, I have to take my hat off to anyone who risks huge amounts of money to promote a story simply because the world needs to hear it. I’ve never had the opportunity to gamble with high stakes, nor do I ever want to do so. Some people like taking risks just for the adrenaline rush, but here we have producers such as and taking risks, not for the thrills, but because the cause is worthy. That motivation impresses me. But, regardless of the high-mindedness of their project, I’ll bet they are watching the numbers avidly this week and getting high on , dopamine, and cortisol.

This is the season when the best films come out. Most winners, appear in late November or December. The summer is more for blockbuster action films and popcorn flicks, which are promoted by huge marketing campaigns. Nowadays, the success or failure of a new film usually can be predicted on the basis of the first weekend’s ticket sales. Unfortunately, the public’s taste for shows with important is limited. Right now, the new Harry Potter film, The Goblet of Fire, is pulling in vast audiences. I shouldn’t knock it without seeing it, but somehow I doubt that it’s going to make the world more conscious of our dangerous dependency on , as will. Anyhow, people have not been going to movies much, so the industry is sagging. I’m glad that there’s at last a film that’s surpassing the $100 million level. I just wish it were a serious film instead of a fantasy.

I’ve pinned a lot of my hopes on astute movie critics, but apparently that’s unrealistic. do not ordinarily determine the fate of a film. Certainly that’s the case when it comes to action films, science fiction, family comedies, and horror shows. People do not care what the newspapers say about such films. They are attracted primarily by the publicity, especially television ads. After the first big weekend, the word-of-mouth factor becomes relevant, according to a survey of 2,000 people last year. Recommendations travel fast and influence about 70 percent of the movie-going population. Professional reviews influence only about 33 percent, and Internet ratings influence even fewer people, Insofar as critics have influence, it is primarily with serious films and small, under-advertised ones that might never be noticed except because of their praise.

published an article about the movie business in the Sunday New York Times of November 13. He pointed out that the ultimate financial success of a film nowadays depends on its sales, which in turn depend on its box office success. He says that DVDs are traditionally released on Tuesdays. About a third of them are sold in Wal-Mart, an outlet that keeps exceptionally thorough records of its inventory. Its computers can identify the location of every copy of every DVD in all their stores. By the time an executive of, say, Warner or Sony reaches his office in Hollywood on Tuesday morning, the East Coast stores have already been open four hours. It is already obvious how the new DVD releases are doing. Some copies of the unsuccessful shows, indeed, may already be packed and ready to be returned, while for the successful movies, there will be orders for an increased number of units. Studios can manufacture up to half a million copies per day, shipping them out to retailers so they can replenish their stock immediately.

The competitiveness of the industry is actually increasing. Whereas formerly a film might be released in Blockbusters six months after its runs in the theaters, now it appears in DVD within two months, and that interval is becoming shorter. It is expected that soon films will appear in both the movie houses and the video stores at the same time.

What I care about, however, is not the fun of making money, but the fun of inspiring people to address social problems. I don’t know how that can happen if, as Leipzig wrote, “Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it.”

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Who Is that Masked Man?

When you enter comments on my blog you probably will be identified only as “ blogger.” Today I received two comments from an old friend, Tim Boychuk, to whom I could not reply because the anonymity guaranteed him privacy, though I can’t imagine why he wanted it. It set me thinking about the circumstances under which people choose anonymity as opposed to . I can only speculate here about the motives that may be at work.

Generally I prefer . Presumably everyone who keeps a blog must have a streak of or we wouldn’t do it. I wish everyone would read my blog. I don’t fear being recognized by strangers. If anything, I crave it. ( was here.) I am ready to stand up and express my opinions, even under somewhat risky circumstances. There are people who inherit a called the , whose sympathetic nervous systems are not very responsive to danger. They actually crave situations and require more danger than the rest of us to get the to which they are addicted. I know a few such people but I am definitely not one of them. They like horror movies, , and even . (Not all of them will acknowledge liking war, but some do. The war correspondent admitted it in his book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.)

Me, I am a coward about physical danger. I can’t even climb on stepladder to fix a curtain rod. But I get proud of myself when I have to stick my neck out and stake my reputation on an opinion that goes against the group . Mind you, this is a relative matter. I am not socially reckless, but I am at least twenty percent bolder than the average 74-year-old Torontonian. I predict that scientists will identify another gene that explains my preferred type of risk-taking.

We live in a society where, in some ways, technology is enabling others to find out more about who we are and what we have done. Google yourself and you’ll see that you have quite a history. Some people hate this fact; my friend Harriet sometimes avoids using credit cards because she dislikes having her defined so people will be able to tailor advertising to her particular pattern of consumption. I myself don’t mind that but, yes, there are a few facts that I wouldn’t want advertised. The desire for is probably the desire to control what information about oneself gets spread around. But it can’t be controlled – at least with anything short of a lawsuit on grounds of .

In general, having a reputation is a good thing. We go through life scattering bread crumbs behind us, like Hansel and Gretel, so we know where we have been. And others can track us down by following our trail. One of the most interesting recommendations for social change that I’ve encountered lately is ’s work on what he calls “the society.” It does offer a solution to the glut of information that we all receive every day. Instead of trying to read everything in your in-box, Masum proposes a way of filtering it by having it read and recommended by people whose judgment can be trusted. Slashdot uses that system by picking astute moderators on the basis of the quality of their previous posts. One’s own reputation establishes one’s right to pass judgment on others. That’s the way life works, really – except that we can sometimes manage our own reputations too much by invoking anonymity.

Anonymity may also characterize a collective life in which the individual personality is supposed not to count for much. For example, must wear uniforms, so that even their own wives may not identify them as they march past in unison. This is intended to suppress personal uniqueness so that they become more obedient. Likewise, in the old days, wore identical habits and could not even reveal their hair, which was identifiable. I once taught in a Catholic women’s college and was often embarrassed because I could not tell the sisters apart – even those with whom I had talked on several occasions.

Criminals always want anonymity. To succeed in their work, they may even wear masks. But sometimes honest people also prefer not to be identified, for understandable reasons. This is especially true in an oppressive regime where one can be punished for unpopular opinions. Thus in the Soviet Union the finest literature was circulated secretly as .”

Honorable people may also prefer anonymity for less understandable reasons. Authors occasionally publish under pen names or as simply “by Anonymous” even when they expect the book to be well received. For example, the Federalist Papers were published in the name of “Publius,” but were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

Some philanthropists also prefer to be listed as “anonymous ,” for reasons that everyone must admire, even when we do not emulate them. Generosity seems more authentic when it is clearly given without expectation of reward or public recognition. The Lone Ranger and Batman kept their identities secret, presumably to retain the necessary freedom to carry on their heroic public service.

So, you fine people who comment on my blog are welcome to retain your privacy, whatever your reasons may be. John and Jane Doe — whoever you may be — thanks for engaging in conversation with me and with my other readers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

When Truth Touches a Sensitive Nerve

I finally saw North Country the other night. The film starts with an announcement that it is based on a true story. That set me thinking about the of – which today seems more complicated than I had previously supposed.

There are three kinds of stories: true, fictive, and a combination of the two. But already I’ve oversimplified the matter, for every “true” story is only partly true. It selectively represents the ’s point of view. Other persons who are depicted would usually give different accounts. Every storyteller is , some more than others. And, no matter how biased, stories may profoundly affect the fate of others. For example, the of a under oath may send another person to prison for a lifetime.

And on the other hand, fiction is always based to some extent on reality. Every storyteller draws upon life in creating a character or a plot. So actually, instead of three kinds of story, there is only one: those that are a combination of truth and fiction. Some, such as North Country, are actually labeled: “based on a .” But the audience will not know which of its elements are true and which are not, so problems arise involving a tension between ethics and good manners.

Gratuitous truth telling is sometimes brave and sometimes vulgar. Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for deciding which are appropriate and which are not. Like the legendary judge who supposedly said, “I can’t define , but I know it when I see it,” I have to trust my own sensibilities regarding the proper amount of frankness for each occasion. There are people on TV (e.g. on Jerry Springer’s show) who tell the whole world sordid facts about their own lives when they need not do so. Surely, such truths, blabbed recklessly, soil the reputations of the speaker and those whom he “outs” against their wishes.

On the other hand, if summoned to a of law, the witness must answer questions fully, even when there will be serious consequences. Even in such instances, however, witnesses occasionally refuse to answer, on the basis of some notion of propriety. (For example, if I had been President , I would have refused to answer questions about my activities, on the grounds that the woman in question had accused me of nothing and hence deserved my discreet silence.)

, on the other hand, includes a dramatic confrontation in court between a woman and the man who and impregnated her. The lawyer who called on everyone present to “stand up and tell the truth” was announcing the of the story. Without doubt, this was a redemptive call to a community of miners who had allowed brutality to continue by simply failing to behave with integrity. On this occasion, truth was the only honorable response. That scene gave me gooseflesh: the exultant thrill of witnessing truth spoken to power.

But there are other occasions when it seems unfair to tell facts that hurt another person or her reputation. For example, after one of the participants is dead or incapacitated, he cannot refute intimate secrets disclosed in print or onscreen. If a writer is to tell the story at all, he may label it as fiction or as “based on a true story,” with various details such as names changed to retain a little privacy.

Is that the best solution? Usually. But there are possible exceptions. For example, some monstrous individuals fully deserve to have their reputations ruined. For example, a new book about does a great service by revealing that he was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 70 million persons. We thank for revealing those terrible truths.

Writers may have to take account of several considerations when deciding whether to label a story as fiction or non-fiction. On the one hand, they may feel that they are unfairly capitalizing on the problems of another, less powerful, person. , for example, increased his fame by writing a non-fiction book revealing intimate aspects of his marriage with , who died of Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, offended relatives by writing a fictionalized account of his mother’s , a disclosure that they considered inherently disrespectful.

On the other hand, facts sometimes need to be known publicly, as a kind of evidence about a wider social problem. For example, I am familiar with an accurate, but fictionalized, account of a deceased . The author decided against labeling it as true to protect the feelings of surviving family members. However, had the novel been identified as true, it would have become objective evidence about the characteristics of sex offenders. The publicity would also have boosted sales of the book: a factor that may have weighed against it in the author’s mind.

In short, one can decide against telling the whole truth from quite different motivations: either from civility and consideration or from . In North Country, if not in every existential situation, it was clear what the true motives were. Redemption came only to those who finally decided to “stand up and tell the truth!”

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why Are Opinions Pre-Sorted?

I’m wondering how ideas get combined into distinct packages of ideology. Nobody knows the answer, so far as I can tell. It just seems to happen automatically — but is there some underlying logic that unifies the components of a ? If so, I can’t identify it.

Oversimplifying a bit, I’ll contrast the packages of and beliefs. First I’ll list a few of the beliefs of political conservatives. My question is: why do our values come pre-packaged in this particular combination or in its counterpart, the liberal worldview?

Here are what I take to be typical conservative opinions:
is an inevitable phenomenon that should, within limits, be accepted. The privileged groups, in general, have earned what they enjoy. If the and less prestigious individuals want to change their situation, they should work harder and contribute in ways that are well-rewarded by society.
should be kept low, even if it means reducing social services to a minimum. If individuals wish to contribute to charities and other worthy causes, they may do so voluntarily, rather than through taxation. Whatever is paid in taxes returns to people in “leaky buckets” and therefore is an inefficient way of paying for shared amenities.
is the most constructive factor in keeping an economy prosperous and in meeting human needs. Market discipline creates incentives that benefit both buyers and sellers. This is also true in other countries, and when business transactions are carried on by transnational . Everybody benefits from expanding trade.
• Government has a built-in tendency to encroach on private life. The best government is the one that governs least and also regulates business activities the least.
• Nevertheless, the maintenance of a strong is one of the most important responsibilities of government, even when it consumes most of the tax revenue.
• Another responsibility of government is to protect the country’s interests abroad by securing access to energy, water, raw materials, and markets. This will naturally require military action from time to time – not simply as a defensive matter but as pre-emptive action.
• Insofar as practicable, should be promoted, both in domestic governance and abroad. The world will be a safer place when all countries are democratic, observing a rule of law, multiple party competitive elections, freedom of the press, and mechanisms for protecting human rights.
• The traditional Western should be prized above alternative forms of intimate life and should be supported politically. The family should be responsible for the care of its dependent members. Taxation policies and laws should be constructed to encourage such families. Equal legal status must not be given to relationships.
• Society requires cooperation between the state and mainstream , which provide teachings that support wholesome values and ethical behavior. Public, collective expressions of devotion toward God should be encouraged.
• God wants us to preserve life, even when its quality cannot be assured. Therefore, there is no legitimate place in society for abortion or euthanasia. Capital punishment and warfare, on the other hand, are acceptable and frequently necessary.
• Citizens have a constitutional right to own guns to protect themselves from evil-doers.
• To maintain an orderly society, strict discipline is necessary, including the spanking of children and lengthy prison sentences for the infractions of adults. Military training is a good way to instill discipline in young men and prepare them to defend their country.
• Government should not be involved in providing services to the public. Institutions such as medicine, hydroelectric power, postal services, and prisons are more efficiently run by private companies.
• It is less important to protect the environment than to open up new resources, such as oil pipelines, to keep the economy flourishing.

You can make up your own versions of the contrasting liberal position on each of these issues; no doubt they are already perfectly familiar. Peace, social equality, secularism, tolerance, and environmentalism are certainly part of that worldview. (See photo.)

My question is: Why are those who endorse, say, the importance of the traditional family, the same people who also believe in democracy, the military, and the market economy? Or why do those who favor a clear separation between church and state also favor gun control, women’s right to obtain , and the preservation of wild life refuges from oil drilling? What logical connections exist among these sets of opinions? Could the whole array of liberal and conservative views be shuffled and dealt out again in completely different combinations? Maybe.

A couple of years ago, researchers at UCLA carried out on the brains of Democrats and Republicans as they watched photos of particular disturbing events, including the burning Twin Towers on 9/11. They found that the amygdalas of Democrats were much more active when looking at these distressing images than those of Republicans. The amygdala is a structure in the brain in which emotions are activated, so the researchers inferred that Democrats responded with more feeling.

Matt Young has reflected about the meaning of this finding on his blog http://www.pandasthumbl.oprg/pt-archieves/000568. He believes that Democrats react with empathy toward a wide range of people, whereas Republicans tend not to feel strongly about matters unrelated to their own interests or the people with whom they are close. He calls the Republican attitudes “.” I can agree only to a limited extent. The right-wing tough-mindedness in matters of foreign policy, military posture, and economic matters does have a certain coherence to it that differs markedly from the left-liberal soft-hearted concern for economic and social equality.

Still, the distinction between tough-minded right-wingers and tender-minded liberals does not explain everything. Why, for example, is religiosity a conservative rather than liberal worldview? And if conservatives are militarists who believe wars and capital punishment are inevitable and morally acceptable, then why do they “choose life” by opposing abortion or assisted suicide, as in the case of ?

To me, the most incongruous belief has to do with democracy. After many years of exposure to political disputes, I should no longer be surprised that it is right-wingers who most strongly value democracy. But I am. The heart of liberalism ought to be a belief in human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and competitive, multi-party elections — yet when one hears such values being promoted, it often turns out to be a conservative who is speaking. Why should democratic concerns come in the same package with support for a market economy, the right to bear arms, opposition to gay marriage, religious devoutness, and all the rest of the conservative doctrine? Historically, this may have something to do with previous liberal affinities for Marxism, which of course opposed parliamentary democracy and religion. It was material interests that mattered to Marx, who considered democracy a sham and religion an . In most respects liberals of today differ markedly from radical Marxist leftists, but they may have retained some Marxist opinions of democracy and religion.

In any case, I think it’s time for liberals to undertake a re-sorting process. As a social democrat, I want to reclaim democracy as a main plank in the liberal platform. Moreover, I do not see why liberalism must reject religion as a constructive force in society. As Rabbi has pointed out, religiosity is not declining in contemporary society, and many voters are repelled by a politics that regards secularism as an essential feature of liberalism. Today what is needed instead is a theology that is liberal — one that promotes compassion, charity, brotherly love, and empathy instead of social Darwinism.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Get Your Peptides at the Movies

I didn’t see North Country this weekend, for a good reason. What I needed was about thirty or forty good . I’d been working at the computer for days, pretty successfully, but feeling hardly any . Now I seemed to be coming down with a . My friend Danni phoned and suggested dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, Danni has a variant of the thrill-seeking gene, . She loves films about distressing, dangerous situation, which fill her strong need for . This is a woman who hiked alone all over Africa, sleeping outdoors on the ground where there are snakes and wild elephants. That’s not for me – especially when I’m low on (IgA), the biochemical that fights off and other infections. We negotiated on the phone for half an hour without agreeing on any film that’s in the theatres now. Eventually we agreed to eat in a restaurant near her place, then rent a video.

There aren’t many tapes in anymore and Danni doesn’t have a DVD player. But fortunately, we found one old 1971 movie that has always been one of my favorites: . (See photo.) It was a hoot. I’m feeling better today. We laughed about thirty times, boosting our significantly. I don’t suppose Danni was as gratified as I, though, because she got no adrenaline or all weekend, and she needs that as much as I need IgA. In fact, because she gets so little of it in Toronto, she’s considering moving back to Africa. A lot of stimulation is required to pump Danni’s cortisol and adrenaline levels up. On the other hand, the slightest arousal will throw me into anxiety. I sometimes walk out of horror or war movies, just to keep from being overwhelmed by the stress. This wasn’t the right weekend for me to see North Country.

Our negotiations reminded me of a fact that I tend to forget: People really do differ. Our tastes will never coincide, if only because of the hereditary physiological variations among us. True, everybody needs certain biochemicals that are produced by particular emotions – and , for example — though we may need them in differing amounts. And at different times, every person needs different emotions. That’s one thing that entertainment is for: to give us the emotions we need. We shouldn’t necessarily compromise in selecting our for the weekend.

We do compromise, of course, just because we don’t consider entertainment important. I used to go along with any friend who particularly wanted to see a film. Nowadays, though, since I’ve become aware of the health effects of the various — the “” — that we produce internally, I’ve become more choosy about my entertainment. I foresee a day when everyone will consciously select their entertainment according to their individual needs for mood management. A smart doctor could already begin prescribing particular kinds of films and television shows, tailored to produce the biochemical changes that each patient requires.

Ordinarily we want to . In fact, people with heart disease should always minimize emotional stress. You should give yourself a good physical workout, stressing your cardiovascular system by walking or playing tennis, for example, but avoiding emotional stress. The cortisol and adrenaline can give you arrhythmia and a lop-sided enlargement of the heart. There have been hundreds of studies of the effect of different kinds of films. Watching the opening battle scene from Saving Private Ryan harms the endothelium that lines the blood vessels and constricts the circulation of blood by about 35 percent. Watching a , on the other hand, improves the blood circulation by almost that same amount above your base line.

The same goes for the immune system. You have various cells in your blood — NK or — that are supposed to destroy foreign cells, tumors, and the like. If you’re depressed, your NK count falls and you get sick more easily. Laughter and positive emotions such as love will restore your cell counts to the normal range.

This is not new. Psychologists have known these facts for many years. The way they conduct their studies is usually by showing films to subjects who are hooked up to electronic and blood testing devices. They pick films that induce particular emotions, but they don’t consider the fact that we are constantly “medicating” ourselves in daily life with doses of emotion from our own TV sets. This is a public health issue, not just a matter of cultural appreciation. By and large, we should avoid stress — and we do so, except when we’ve been bored by routines so much that we need some excitement. Then we may pick a . And those who have the DRD4 gene will pick thrillers much more often than the rest of us, and will prefer stories that would give nightmares to me.

My advice: Either pick your friends carefully — ones that like the same shows as you — or go to films alone and spend your socializing time doing something that you and your friends can enjoy together.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Plato, Showbiz, and Copycats

disapproved of poetry — especially the myths of and , which constituted the of his day, as well as the main devotions and a central means of . In The Republic Plato argued that and recitation should be banned from an ideal city as a way of keeping young people from imitating the bad deeds that dramatists portrayed. Just as people worry about the ethical and emotional impact of and violent television today, Plato worried about the influence of , , and on Athenian .

But do people fictional stories? This debate is still going on, 2,500 years after Plato’s day, and by now there’s more than enough evidence to reach a conclusion. My answer is a qualified yes. But the qualifications are as important as the yes.

Sometimes we all imitate others, including fictive characters. (Businesses spend big bucks on ads, knowing that we’ll copy the model who is shown consuming their product.) Some people imitate more than others. The social effects are not always harmful, contrary to the beliefs of Plato and his teacher . They considered imitation the worst possible way to gain wisdom, which could be taught only through discussion and philosophical debate.

This dispute was a long standing and very serious quarrel. Socrates had even been sentenced to death for impiety against the gods after having questioned the Athenian poets’ ancient myths. But even after that, Plato did not mince words when criticizing imitation or “.”

Today the evidence is clear: people do imitate, and the actions that are performed on the screen or stage may be copied with either harmful or beneficial results. This is especially worrisome when it comes to children. Of the thousands of studies investigating the influence of on children, for example, fewer than twenty have discovered no effect. But of course even adults imitate.

One might suppose, then, that we could write up a set of guidelines for writers that would preclude displaying the kind of acts that would be socially harmful if copied. However, that is easier said than done. Nobody imitates every action that is seen, thank goodness. We are each selective, and different individuals are influenced in differing ways. A great deal depends on the context of the plot. We can say this much, though: people are more likely to imitate characters with whom they — especially characters whom they feel they resemble. Thus we must expect some people — especially viewers who are or psychologically and morally underdeveloped — to imitate attractive characters in stories who are shown perpetrating reprehensible deeds. Other people, naturally, will simply turn against such morally ambiguous characters, though it’s painful to have to give up on someone we originally liked.

In fact, we sometimes derive a beneficial moral education from following with sympathy the activities of morally ambiguous characters. Every play must contain some conflict, and sometimes our moral horizons are broadened by following the moral downfall of “gray” characters. There are no simple formulas for keeping stories socially beneficial rather than harmful. On the other hand, the complexity of the problem does not exonerate writers from any responsibility to influence their audiences for the better.

Oddly, many literary critics and continue to deny that fiction has any moral influence whatever. For example, the writer , who has rightly gained fame for arguing that television dramas are , also maintains that such shows do not harm viewers morally. He need not take that position. After all, getting smart and getting wise are two different matters that obviously do not always happen at the same time. Yet Johnson insists that videogames and violent television have no deleterious effects on the of young people.I think otherwise, just as I believe that morally inspiring characters in shows such as Good Night and Good Luck are beneficial.

Social scientists also tend to doubt that imitation has any effect, and their intellectual history in this direction can actually be spelled out. I would attribute the acceptance of this view primarily to the unquestioned authority of a founding father of sociology, the Frenchman . (See photo.) It was Durkheim who provided the theories that allowed sociologists to distinguish themselves from psychologists. Notably he sought to demonstrate empirically that the rates of must be attributed to factors in the , rather than to psychological processes. The social factors that he explored causally included education, income, religious affiliation, marital status, time of day, and dozens of other structural attributes. He began, however, by trying to rule out some alternative causes — especially the notion of “,” or copycat suicide. Since then, sociologists have worked from the assumption that their professional obligation is to demonstrate structural causes, not psychological ones.

Yet Durkheim was mistaken. True, he did identify structural factors that are associated with suicide rates. But the psychological processes are important too. He ruled out “contagion” prematurely, and thereby established a bias within his new academic discipline.

Twenty years or so ago, the sociologist established the fact that people sometimes do emulate the example of suicidal persons — not only people they know personally, but people whose deaths are publicized in the press or even fictive characters shown in films and television. His colleagues viewed his research with skepticism, yet the findings have stood the test of time. Now in the latest British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers have presented evidence that up to ten percent of suicides may be prompted by copy-cat behavior among people with mental illness.

Adults have the right to watch what they want. There is no simple solution to these problems, but there is the starting point for a solution. It must begin, I think, by making people aware of the moral and emotional impact of the in which we all live. It does not work merely to dismiss these effects as trivial. We start by being mindful of their effects on ourselves and on the people around us — especially (but not only) our children.

Moreover, we can learn lessons from another Athenian philosopher, , who was Plato’s greatest student. Unlike his teacher, Aristotle believed that tragedies could be either beneficial or harmful to audiences. In his book, The Poetics, he sought to spell out the principles that would enable to confer benign emotional effects on their audiences. Today we can question some of his recommendations, but they are still the starting point for any ethical appraisal of a television show or a drama. We need to pick up that issue and explore it anew.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Saving the World: Dave’s Way or Mine?

A Torontonian named writes an entry every day in his blog, “How to Save the World.” Another blogger, , who writes at “” concluded that we three ought to meet and compare our schemes for fixing the world. Today we had lunch and talked about , an important measure, but not one on which I claim any expertise.

Dave and Hassan waded into the of the thing. It wasn’t controversial. The basic idea is to tax things that are socially or environmentally undesirable, but reduce or eliminate taxes on beneficial things such as employment. Impose taxes on and , for example, but don’t tax wages. While most people would agree on this conceptually, not many people know how they would be affected in reality. The countries have already made bold moves in that direction and, more recently, has moved far ahead too.

This is easier in a country with , Dave explained. For example, the picked up enough seats in to be courted by some of the other parties. Naturally, they appointed a Green as minister of environment, and he introduced environmentally beneficial tax shifts. In North America, with our electoral system, no such a thing can happen.

Mostly I sat listening and free associating. The sprang to mind. And then it occurred to me that tax shifting was not a new idea. had promoted a version of it more than a century ago by proposing to , not buildings. George was one of the most famous radicals of his day, but no Marxist. (He predicted, indeed, that any country that applied Marxism in practice would be vulnerable to .)

George was ahead of his time with his policy known as the “.” (See photo.) As we all know, the value of a piece of real estate is determined by three things: its location, its location, and its . George reasoned that the value of a piece of land is established by the community — the people who built other structures around it — and therefore that the community ought to share in the appreciation of value that they create. It makes sense to tax land according to its , not the buildings situated on it. As tax law exists now, my Georgist friend Jean Smith has explained to me, people waste land in the middle of town with vacant lots and outdoor parking, while erecting big homes in the sprawling suburbs and countryside. Taxing land would result in much more efficient, compact city plans, with greater incentive for owners to invest in the improvement of their buildings. At present in Canada, owners may be reluctant to renew their run-down properties because that will increase their property taxes. As the energy shortage worsens, we’re going to wish that we’d taxed land all along, for will become prohibitive and millions of people will have to move back to the cities.

Dave and Hassan did not oppose my land taxation idea, but Dave seemed to have mixed feelings about compact cities. Then I learned what his misgivings were: He lives in the woods beyond suburbia, enjoying his solitude and the deer that frequent his back yard. My Georgist friend Jean also has a country place not far from him. This fact reminded me that not everyone will necessarily agree about which taxes to shift.

But I liked the conversation because it was not idle. Dave wanted us all to do something to get tax shifting legislation adopted. We need a , he announced. I sat up taller, waiting to be told what part I should play.

Regrettably, I was skeptical about his approach. He would proceed by getting some university-based economists together to write up a specific proposal. Then he would go straight to meet with a government minister to convince him of the idea. No particular party has a unique commitment, so he wouldn’t try to make it a political issue. Go around the political parties. Go to the top officials, not the middle level , who cannot really do much and can’t entertain big ideas.

I asked: the minister of environment?

No, the . Environmentalists don’t see the connection between the environment and taxes. They would say it’s none of their business. So do ordinary citizens. You can inform them about facts but you can’t get them interested in taxation policies.

I balked. That’s not how I go about pursuing social change. I believe that politicians can’t take action until they are pushed from below by NGOs. We need for ordinary citizens to call for tax shifting at the level. Maybe even to march in the streets demanding it.

“But they don’t care,” Dave pointed out. “Even if you educate them it won’t make any difference.”

I agree. That’s where we have to start: by making people care. The problem is not their cognitive shortcomings, because they can know but still not act. It has to become an emotional matter.

Dave did not disagree, and when I began elaborating he nodded.

“Story-telling, yes,” he said.

“A drama,” I continued, “perhaps about some interesting guy who works in the ministry of environment and cares passionately about changing the tax system. If the viewers like him, his emotional commitment will become contagious.”

Dave started playing with my fantasy. We could go to Germany, he said, and interview people there who are able to do great things in their businesses nowadays because of the new shifts in their tax system.

On this angle, all three of us agreed, but we also recognized that we’re personally in no position to promote it much. Instead of producing TV shows, we’ll have to take a different approach, probably Dave’s initial route: gathering and pitching ideas to government officials.

But if you are an NGO craving participation in a grass-roots campaign to promote tax shifting, I can introduce you to some great new partners. Just give me a call.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Smart Cars, Stone Heads, Hutterites and Florida

This is no book review. I haven’t read ’s book, On Desire, but I’ve read some reviews of it that set off the following train of thought.

According to one Amazon review, Irvine asks why we want what we want and finally gives some advice: “Examining teachings of , the , the , (the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics) and others, he concludes, ‘the best way to gain... lasting satisfaction... is to change not the world and our position in it but ourselves... We should work at wanting what we already have.’"

Nuts to that. The real point is precisely to change the world. And that may require us to want what we have, as we curtail consumerism. Or it may require us to want something different, which may be either more or less than we have now. Irvine’s simple slogan is useless.

We’ll do better by paying attention to our contemporary Jeremiah, Professor , who says we must undergo vast changes within two decades or it’s game over. He’s not sanguine that we’ll make it, for other societies have stumbled ahead into oblivion rather than learning to want the right things. is the most conspicuous example. What they evidently wanted most was big stone heads. Lots of them — at whatever cost. Surely they knew that by cutting down their trees, they would destroy their civilization, but they refused to change their wants. Instead, they kept pursuing what they didn’t have — yet another and another . They died out. We’ll come to the same downfall unless we make some drastic changes in what we want. Call it “political will.” We have to get everybody to agree to change what we collectively want. Fat chance.

To do so, we begin by figuring out what it is we want – which is hard. I’ll report on three conversations. They occurred this morning, this afternoon, and this evening. In all of them, the crucial question was: Why do people want what they want, and what should they want instead?

First, the morning conversation was about . The morning paper reminded me that Toronto is in crisis because angry young immigrant men are frequently shooting each other. Last week the police offered to everyone who turns in a gun, whether or not it is legally owned. Now some civic organization is offering to buy up the remaining weapons. Will this scheme work? That depends on how much the young men want their guns, as compared to other things that money can buy.

But why did they want guns in the first place? A few of them may have practical purposes: a or to intimidate their enemies or their enemies’ intimidation of themselves. Usually, however, guns are desired as . They bolster one’s wobbly , not one’s economic sufficiency. To talk a gun owner into relinquishing this symbol, one must appeal to alternative interests and desires — but he may have no idea what else he does desire. Knowledge of one’s own true purposes is often obscure – not just to young thugs but to you and me as well.

Second, my afternoon conversation was with a British visitor who described her travels in the United States. She asked why depend on cars instead of trains and buses. My answer was almost embarrassingly simple: they just like . To give a better answer, I’d have to explain the desire for cars, and I can’t even account for that in myself. Despite writing blogs about how we’re going the way of Easter Island, I still drive my big car. Yet my desire is not symbolic but instrumental, in some half-rational sense. I am frankly scared of these light-weight “,” so I’m continuing to pursue my short-sighted desires instead of my own (and the world’s) best material interests. We won’t from people such as me unless we can revise our motivations. Yet I want what I want and that’s not changing.

Third, I did, however, change something tonight: my . I won a prize recently — a free week in Florida — and I was about to make the reservations when I realized that I don’t want to go. My instrumental reasons for going (notably a social science in the sunshine) failed in the end to overcome my reluctance. For a month I kept telling everyone that I was going because I did not recognize my own desires. Now I’ll forgo the free trip and go to California instead, where life is more stimulating. I know this much: I do desire stimulation instead of boredom. Professor Irvine would frown and advise me to want what I have, not what I don’t have.

But is precisely irritation with what one has and a desire for arousal by the unexpected. By discerning, at last, my desire for stimulation, I‘ll spare myself a week of boredom in Florida. I’ve also discovered this about myself: I am unqualified to become a Zen Buddhist, a Hutterite, or a Hellenistic philosopher. That’s okay. I don’t think I desire that anyhow.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Watch Out! TV is Turning Against You, George.

I’m going to make a prediction: ’s presidency will go down in ignominy. You can tell this by watching how is turning against him. We’ve reached a tipping point. Things are being said onscreen today that would not have been said six months ago. This is, in part, because the media follows , and Bush’s appeal has declined sharply, according to the polls – but the also influences public opinion, and what television is saying about the war is going to give Bush his comeuppance. I’m not talking primarily about the newscasters, though you can see changes there too, but about , which is far more powerful than people realize. And right now, TV dramas are looking favorably on the idea of .

I don’t watch much TV, so my sample is hardly scientific, but I did see episodes of two different shows last week. Neither of them went so far as to question the legitimacy of America’s role in . (That will come at a much later stage.) What they did was criticize the way the war has been run. They did so in terms of its effect on the soldiers fighting there. this week ran an episode in which the protagonist, a feisty lawyer in a large Boston firm, takes on the case of a young woman who sues the U. S. Army for lying to her brother in order to him — then holding him beyond his contract expiry, failing to him for the operations that he had to perform, and giving him for the job. He was killed, and she wanted her screams to be heard. In the end, the judge couldn’t hold the accountable but he did express admiration to her for accusing them.

The second show that I watched was , a regular in which the protagonist is an . The person initially believed to have perpetrated the crime, a failed terrorist act, turned out to have a fool-proof alibi: He had been in Mexico in a centre when the crime occurred. He was a who had emotionally and mentally upon returning home and had taken up drugs. Then the real perpetrator is identified by his mention of the 1400 US as the motive for his crime.

(The episode must have been filmed a while back, since the actual number killed has risen to over 2,000 — not counting, of course, the civilians, who will probably never be mentioned in a US television show. Our dead soldiers matter; their don’t. That’s just part of the psychology of war.)

Nevertheless, when television drama begins to show the terrible effects of war on American soldiers, George W. Bush had better watch out! Soldiers do undergo breakdowns after experiencing war. And soldiers do get killed there. When television dramas start mentioning those facts, public opinion will follow. And, democracy being genuinely better than dictatorship, some Americans eventually will be held accountable.

Besides predicting the ignominious failure of the Bush administration, I want to point out how we can help make it happen. How can we show Bush up as a disgrace? First, by exposing the fundamental flaw in his , and, second, by showing what he should have done instead.

I don’t actually think his justification depended on the lie that had weapons of mass destruction. Certainly it also didn’t depend on the neocons’ intention to seize control of and establish American military bases throughout the Middle East. Those may have been Bush’s real motive, but he would never have stated it outright. He always cloaked it in other arguments — in particular by saying that Saddam was a ruthless dictator whom the Iraqi people loathed and would have ousted, had they been able to do so. By going to their assistance, Bush was and democracy to the Middle East, where all Islamic societies are authoritarian.

Now there are enough holes in this argument to drive a Humvee through. For one thing, Bush is hardly the right pitch man for democracy, having stolen a presidential election at the time and, by now, possibly two. Still, his argument has a certain aura of decency and, to a considerable extent, it is true. The Iraqi people were indeed oppressed, as are citizens in most other Middle Eastern countries. It is indeed honorable, in my opinion, to help other societies free themselves from repression. In fact, I would accept his argument — but with two important qualifications.

First, we should help other people free themselves – but the struggle has to be theirs, not ours. Second, their struggle must be nonviolent and the support we give them must also be nonviolent. Those two qualifications would certainly have precluded the invasion that Bush undertook and any others like it. (It would not rule out UN peace enforcement operations under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, but nobody claimed that Iraq qualified for intervention under Chapter Seven terms.)

Anyway, it will be quite a while before there’s a real political debate in the US or even in Canada about the two qualifications that I have proposed — that the overthrow of a dictatorship should be carried out by the affected population themselves, and that it must be nonviolent. The reason there will be no debate is that public opinion believes such conditions to be completely unrealistic. No dictator could be overthrown by the people themselves nonviolently. War is necessary because against tyranny is impossible.

I will borrow an answer from the pacifist economist : “Whatever is, is possible.” In other words, if something has taken place, you can no longer claim that it’s impossible. And populations have indeed got rid of totalitarian rulers and tin-pot dictators through nonviolent means.

But let’s not minimize the challenge. In saying that it’s possible, I don’t say that it is necessarily easy. People sometimes try it and fail. In 1989, all around the world people turned Communist dictators out of office, sometimes without bloodshed. But also in 1989, the Chinese Army killed hundreds of protesters in Tiananmen Square and crushed their movement. Just as wars are won or lost on the basis of wise or unwise strategies, nonviolent movements are also won or lost on the basis of strategies. It takes skill and know-how to plan a nonviolent resistance movement, with or without the support of friends abroad. In fact, the US government itself has supported several nonviolent movements, such as the one in Serbia that overthrew Milosevic and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Some people disapprove of that, but it doesn’t bother me a bit. What does bother me is the American government’s readiness to go to war. For example, the U. S. bombed the heck out of Serbia, trying to get rid of Slobodan ; they failed. Yet a year or so later, they gave $40,000 to assist a group of young Serbs called “Otpor,” who invited Colonel Robert Helvey, a superb instructor in nonviolence, to train them. (See photo.) Within months, they had ousted Milosevic, without shedding a drop of blood. Then they started training democratic opposition movements in other countries, such as , helping them get rid of corrupt rulers. Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan followed suit.

This is not a rare situation; people sometimes have to adopt nonviolent methods because they are more effective than warfare.

And in the most obvious sense, these nonviolent movement won. Yet that’s only the start. Once you get democracy, you have to struggle hard to keep it. God knows, even in good old democratic Canada, we are not unfamiliar with corruption and inefficient government. Today Serbia and Ukraine are free but they still have plenty of problems.

So nonviolence doesn’t guarantee everything. Life remains challenging. But if you ask me, that’s a good thing. Peace sounds boring; it suggests the absence of struggle. Peace is what you rest in when you’re dead. But real peace isn’t easy or boring — partly because conflict continues. As long as there are human beings on this earth, there will be conflict. But war? No, we can stop that.

I think Iraq could have been liberated nonviolently by the Iraqi people themselves. There were, in fact, expatriate Iraqi citizens who were preparing to do so, but never got the chance. They should have been supported by free societies. The Norwegians, for example, are now supporting the Burmese democracy movement, most notably by into Burma that could not be disseminated easily by Burmese inside the country. I hope Canada’s government-funded organization, , will give the same kind of help to people seeking to free themselves from dictators. That is what it was set up to do. And in doing so, we will accomplish our other main goal: to show what Bush should have done instead of going to war in Iraq.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Let Your Values Show, Girl!

reviews movies for the Globe and Mail, and generally does a good job of it. But occasionally I wonder where she’s coming from. Take, for example, her review on November 4 of ’s company. (See his photo.) In an article titled “Lights, Camera, Liberal Angst!” Schneller proclaims herself to be a “card-carrying American Democrat,” yet announces that she reacted to Skoll’s project with skepticism. It took me a while to figure out what she was skeptical about, or even whether she was bragging or confessing when declaring her skepticism.

She does some investigative journalism by interviewing Participant’s president, , even “badgering” him, and in the end it’s unclear whether she thinks she has uncovered something about which one should properly be suspicious. But I guess her opinion is mostly favorable, for she “sincerely wishes him and Participant good afternoon, and good luck.” This suggests that she must consider her skepticism a failing of her own, not warranted by anything Participant is doing.

So what was her problem then? What doubts might a American realistically harbor? The answer, I think, does not reflect poorly on liberals, but rather on professional literary and drama . If you read between the lines you can see her problem: she’s a . That’s not her fault; anyone whose post-graduate studies in the humanities occurred within the past thirty years will be steeped in it. Anyone a little older, however, will probably call those same theoretical assumptions “” instead, and may not have received such heavy doses of it at university.

Postmodern critics try not to let their values show. This comes from their assumption that evaluations are all merely arbitrary, non-rational, subjective expressions of preference. True, one may base one’s judgments on standards that are shared within one’s culture, but all cultures are local; there are no u, hence nothing objectively valid about any values. Ultimately, what you have are just your biases and you’d better admit it and sound as as possible when writing your critical reviews. No cultures, and hence no values, are more advanced than any others.

Postmodernism is in full swing among literary critics and a few social theorists, but not many and no at all. Originally it was intended as a liberating movement, for it undermined the arrogance of dogma. Unfortunately, it undermined other serious intellectual projects as well: religion, politics, and the arts. As used to remind us, a true relativist could not even criticize , for their politics genuinely reflected the German culture of their period. Fromm himself believed that whole cultures might be “sick.“ I agree.

Probably Schneller half agrees with him too, though she is still guarded about expressing her own values — a hesitance that she attributes to liberalism and expects of other liberals too. She declares, with a mixture of pride and angst, that liberals are better than conservatives at inhibiting the expression of their own values. She writes, “To our own credit and detriment, policing one’s own is part of the liberal’s credo. No matter how Leftie we are, we’re still more suspicious.” Suspiciousness means “monitoring our own fairness,” as well as the fairness of other liberals.

Thus she restrains any inclination to favor Participant Productions and “badgers” Strauss with questions about his liberal “biases.” Are the company’s twenty-five employees all liberal? How do they determine if a film fits their mandate? Would they produce a script that advocated something they disagreed with, such as polygamy? Schneller seemingly assumes that if they are really liberal, they will do so, for the sake of “fairness.”

I don’t agree. Liberalism is not cultural relativism, not postmodernism. Liberals have too, and don’t necessarily feel obliged to disguise them, for they can debate ethical, esthetic, , and spiritual issues rationally. Valuing is as cognitive a process as any other aspect of judgment.

Indeed, we particularly need brave critics who openly refer to their own ethical and emotional responses when judging a drama. The supremacy of “” with its formal standards harmed our culture.

Strauss’s answers in her column show him to be well-grounded for living comfortably in his own liberal skin and contributing to a cultural flowering of Hollywood. I cannot always say as much for Schneller. Thus she notices a scene in in which the female protagonist looks headed for with a coworker, yet never follows through with it. Schneller suspects that the sex was deleted so as not to call the character’s subsequent heroics into question. She asks Strauss whether they ever “pull their punches,” as with Theron’s non-sex scene. Apparently the only correct answer to her question would be no.

To be liberal, we are supposed to prefer stories in which the protagonist engages in casual sex. But why? Implicitly, her answer is: because such limits are . Open-minded persons should prefer . A good critic will not apply ethical standards when judging a character or a plot. Schneller doesn’t actually say that, of course. She would not make such a flat-footed argument. If we’re sophisticated we’ll know that without being told.

A week or two ago Schneller wrote a column about some films that show that are real, not simulated. She acknowledged disliking them, but instead of adducing moral grounds, she merely questioned whether an authentic sex act is “necessary” for the of the film.

Such diffident criticism is not, as she suggests, a mark of liberalism. Plenty of liberals also dislike showing graphic sexual penetration on the screen. We do so because we care about the quality of our cultural environment and we aren’t shy about saying so. Participant Productions may be that kind of liberal company — one that is not “policing its biases” but producing stories that are plainly intended to point toward a better world. Nobody should apologize for that. Hooray for honest liberalism! And Johanna, we need critics who will let their values show. Please feel free.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Good Night and Good Luck

George ’s courageous film, , gives a quick snapshot of one brief conflict between American , personified by the TV broadcaster , and McCarthyism, personified by the “Junior from Wisconsin.” As Clooney himself acknowledges, his motive for producing the film is to shed light on the current tension between civil liberties and in the United States. There is a glaring contradiction between such draconian post-9/11 measures as The and the traditional liberties that the constitution afforded to Americans. What the film shows is that this issue is not a new one, but rather revives anxieties that ripped the fabric of American society in the 1950s. Today are jeopardized by the need to restrain . In the fifties, they were jeopardized by the need to restrain .

I admire the film and feel grateful for its contribution to the current debate, not just within the United States, but around the world. At the same time, I believe it is useful to contextualize those debates. Just as there are today ongoing realistic problems that have to be taken seriously (the ongoing prospect of further terrorist acts in the United States, plus the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) there were realistic concerns during the 1950s that made some people consider McCarthy a hero, not a .

First, it should be pointed out that was neither the beginning nor the end of anti-communist hysteria. It was the peak of a populist movement that arose right after World War II. It was actually Harry who introduced the early security measures that began to intimidate citizens of leftist persuasions. By 1948, when the left-leaning ran for the presidency, his constituency was already being tarred with charges of disloyalty.

When I arrived in Berkeley as a first-year student in September 1949, the controversy was just beginning. I joined a committee to oppose it, not because I was pro-Communist, but because I believed in the same civil libertarian principles that Murrow would later defend in his fight against McCarthyism. Many Berkeley faculty members resigned and moved away that year rather than sign the oath. I lived in an inter-racial co-op more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement began, and a few of my housemates had good reason to fear persecution by zealots, as I learned only many years later, for they had indeed been active Communists, and were already chary in 1949 about revealing that fact.

The late 1940s and early 1950s was a time of great anxiety in the United States. Anti-colonialism was spreading around the world after India gained its independence, but few of those nationalistic movements restricted themselves to the nonviolent methods of . Until 1953 Stalin was still alive, still maintaining a totalitarian system that equaled or even exceeded that of , though he could not match the 70 million killed by his Communist contemporary, . Precisely in August 1949 the Soviets exploded their first — far earlier than Americans had expected. It was already wartime (the Korean War began in June 1950 and continued until July 1953) and many expected the Soviet Union to enter the fray, using its tattered army and its new atomic weapons. I remember lying in bed at night, listening to every plane overhead and freezing in terror, waiting for the sounds of bombs. Nor was this totally neurotic; the Soviets had d Western rail and road traffic to West Berlin from June 1948 until May 1949. The resolution to the impasse occurred only when the Soviets did not block airlifts of food and other supplies to Western-held sectors of Berlin.

It is not clear how many leftists in the West were aware of the extent of Stalin’s repressions. Certainly excuses were made — and occasionally still are — by Marxists who believed that equality of material resources should be regarded more highly than democracy or the rule of law. In any case, after came to power, he publicized ’s crimes against humanity, and no one in the west could plead ignorance any longer. The grounds for fear were not trivial.

It was precisely these concerns for security that were cited by everyone who wanted to hunt down and persecute pro-Communists in government and other high positions — including Hollywood. McCarthyism was not a departure from the previous period of anti-Communism, but rather its culmination. Or, in fact, not really even its culmination, for after McCarthy had been disciplined, the fear of subversion continued. Actually, it was never officially abolished. Eventually, after Gorbachev had persuaded Westerners that he was serious about abandoning the system that he headed, Westerners had no longer any reason to fear Communists. Indeed, the last militant Communist movements on earth today are in Nepal and North Korea, and they appear more pathetic than frightening.

What part did Edward R. Murrow play in this? He was brave; he paid a price for his bravery, and he did help change the nature of the debate in the United States. It was not he, but the Senate itself, that curbed McCarthyism. The true value of his contribution was not in demonstrating that Communism was weak or unthreatening, for in those days it was neither. But he contributed greatly by showing the methods that civilized people should use when fighting a political enemy. If we are unfair, we become no better than the forces against which we must struggle. Like Gandhi, who insisted that the means of a struggle is as important as its ends, Murrow reminded Americans that their liberal tradition was worth preserving, and that they must adhere to it even while defending it.

American have largely forgotten that truth. For that reason, Clooney’s movie is wonderfully timely. We all need to see it.