I regret human nature doesn't change. As noted below, in my youth "everybody knew" the Reds were a menace. Now, "everybody knows" about global warming, a knowledge that I fear is impervious to data. In my youth there must have been immigrants and defectors, retired state officials and professors, who knew the truth, who knew the communists were not such a menace. But everybody knew not to listen.
Panhandlers and Panic
As I write this panhandlers are lining the sidewalks of our fair city. Unlike during the 1930s, they are not selling apples. History repeats, yes, but with variations. Every decade has its struggles and its jokes for coping. So far, I have heard no jokes about panhandlers, so I suppose society has no felt need to deal with the issue. By comparison, if you were to pick up a Mad magazine from the 1950s, as I have, you would find that half the jokes involve the cold war, the other half are to do with conformity.
We might harshly judge the people of the 'fifties; we might think they didn't know any better than to conform, but in fact, based on Mad, they did know. It was one of them, after all, who characterized his generation by writing The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (Sloan Wilson) Another man (Arthur Miller) wrote a now classic play about the Salem witch hunts, The Crucible, but no critics back then gave it a favorable review. They felt no freedom to speak a kind word, not when everyone was scared by the on-going communist hunts.
A man I respect from that time was Edward Murrow, the radio and early television journalist. George Cloony respects him too, enough to produce a movie about him called Good Night and Good Luck. Murrow was a better man than I.
He found himself at a place and time where he could not just turn his head pretending he did not see. He stood, fearless, where two torrential rivers joined: fear of communism and fear of not conforming. History tells us that Murrow braced himself to stand almost alone against that raging torrent. Would anyone of today be like him ?
Back then, if you tried to say that communism was not totally Bad, nor capitalism totally Good, you would be branded: "You're a communist!" If you tried to discuss the value of free speech you would be shamed into conforming: "Communism!," thundered the conformists "is of such pressing danger that there is no time to discuss values!" If you calmly tried to ask whether freedom of speech is Right or Wrong the conformists would instantly switch topics on you by righteously lecturing: "The wrong thing is communism! Everyone should know about the horrors of it..."
Today the sun shines. Today we go walking to work past panhandlers while turning our heads. What if, over lunch, I tried to ask my peers whether panhandlers should be re-labeled as beggars? I would surely be branded as anti-homeless. If I tried to calmly say that selling apples is Right but question the value felt for one's human spirit after begging, well—My peers would switch topics. They would panic and act as if there was no time to discuss any values. There would be barely enough time to lecture me with a torrent of words about the horrors of being homeless. Sometimes I wonder if panic is used as sheep's clothing to cover up self-righteousness.
History repeats... and I for one have not the courage of Edward Murrow.
posted spring 2008
footnote: Perhaps panic is used to avoid self-knowlege:
After all, who wants to admit to having been an uninformed conformist?