New Orleans In these politically cold, hard, and unsettled times, I took advantage of my new love affair with my library card to try and gain some perspective, maybe even insights, into the McCarthy Era that ravished the American politics, liberals, and the left in the 1950’s by ordering up “Good Night and Good Luck” a story of Edward R. Murrow, the celebrated media commentator, directed by huge movie star hunk, George Clooney in 2005. I had missed the movie at the theaters, and was surprised at how well done it was, regardless of how many parts fact or fiction, since it is still a movie after all, not a documentary.
There were a lot of recognizable faces besides Clooney including Robert Downey, who always adds something to the mix. Murrow was played by David Strathairn, who was ahead of me at Williams as I was passing through, and Patricia Clarkson from New Orleans the daughter of one of our Councilwomen.
In the early days of television when news still mattered and commanded an audience, those were different times and Murrow had come to the screen with his name and legacy already writ large from his wartime radio broadcasts. The movie dates the turnaround, perhaps more symbolically than factually, with a down-the-line Air Force civilian employee in Michigan being pushed out of his job because of a sealed envelope filled with unknown evidence and charges, but provoking enough fear of red Commie taint. Murrow, as this story goes, picked the piece up out of the back pages of a paper and highlighted the story provoking Senator McCarthy’s attack at him personally. Now the attacks are shotgun blasts at the high and mighty as well as virtually anyone committed to working for change.
McCarthy in footage from the time accuses Murrow of having been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical, syndicalist union, broken by the Espionage Act in WWI. Other vintage footage includes McCarthy’s repeated assertions that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was included on numerous official lists of “subversive” organizations serving as fronts for the Communist Party. None of which was true and all of which were denied. A low level African-American civilian employee is wildly accused of having infiltrated the “code” room despite her denials of ever having been there or done anything but transmit messages as directed without any knowledge of their contents.
Sobering and depressing stuff that made for a great movie, but a miserable look at life in our country. This week I read a right wing blog that listed me as the “founder of ACORN” and then added gratuitously, “America’s largest terrorist organization.” Clearly just a blogger, not a US Senator, so proof, presumably not needed, assertion uncontested, another dangerous voice in the thundering herd, hopefully unheard and ignored. Watching McCarthy smear with the IWW brush, I thought of the poor guy who was an Obama nominee for the federal court and throughout the summer had to defend the fact that 30+ years before he had been a door-to-door fundraising canvasser for a couple of months for ACORN, and now decades later teetered for months on the edge of the knife. It goes on and on in the right wing witch hunts of bloggers, Beck, and others woven of whole cloth.
A poll in the New York Times, says only about a 30% surveyed believed that wild talk and hate speech contributed to the recent killings in Tucson, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand the cumulative results of all of these allegations, accusations, ad infinitum, ad nauseum is guaranteed to chill action for change, participation of citizens, and our very democracy, while leaving many afraid of associations and support in fearful isolation.
None of which stops people like me from doing the work, but all of which categorically makes it harder to the do work and to work at the largest scale possible and necessary.
Watching the movie, it was hard not to be reminded that there are now dozens and dozens of McCarthy-wannabes, but very, very few Edward R. Murrow’s. George Clooney could make another, more contemporary movie in America now. The problem is that he probably can’t find enough effective heroes today, and with the new wave of Congressional investigations promised and coming, few lessons seem to have been learned from the McCarthy moments more than 50 years ago.