A few weeks ago, Ben and I finally got around to watching the movie “Doubt,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. The film was engrossing and compelling in demonstrating what happens when rumors and unproven allegations are used to destroy individuals’ reputations and lives.
In it, Hoffman’s character, a priest named Father Flynn, tells his congregation that rumors are “like feathers on the wind…” that once they are released, they go everywhere, and it is impossible to take them back. The film also delves into what happens when secrets are kept — when someone knows something and is admonished to hold on to a secret — as well as what happens when things suspected are shared without substantiation.
There’s a lot in the story of “Doubt,” much of it deeply disturbing to me because it has so many connections to the news today — and to parts of the life I’ve lived. My thoughts, first, went to the lives of public and private figures that have been undermined and perhaps more, by rumor and innuendo. It is, of course, the height of the Silly Season, except that this year, the political campaigns I’m watching aren’t so much silly as vicious. Candidates are being dragged out for public whippings, or maligning and verbally beating up each other…relentless name-calling, innuendo-tossing, mud-slinging. Frankly I wouldn’t want to vote for any of these people. While they will suggest that they have no direct connection to the messes being created, they all have political operatives who are ginning up the charges and counter-charges, digging through the personal dirt, trying to find something that they can nail the ‘other’ in the campaign with. It makes me gag.
We’re not immune to it either, of course. Earlier in my career, I found myself in the office of the President of my organization where he asked me if I (as a staff member who was officially charged with being neutral in institutional politics) had engaged in conversations suggesting the way an upcoming election might turn. No, I replied, I had not. Which was true. But I had, a week prior, been in the company of a colleague who had tried to put words in my mouth while on a business trip, tried to pry information from me, tried to suggest that my friendship with an officer of the institution placed me in a privileged situation. No, I had not engaged in inappropriate activities. But my ‘friend’ had placed words in my mouth, made suggestions to others, spread rumors, and lodged questions in the mind of our President. I was livid, and confronted the person who had ‘shared’ the misinformation — but you can’t undo such damage. The innuendos, once out, are like feathers on the wind.
As a people we are prone to tearing each other down to build ourselves up. We stand on the shoulders of others, not to learn from them (either good or ill) but to knock them to the ground, toss trash on them, and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people who are trying to bring out the ‘truth.’ Former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez discovered this the hard way recently, after he publicly trashed not only talk show host Jon Stewart, but his bosses at CNN and Jews around the world. His demise followed that of Dr. Laura Schlessinger…and heaven knows, I wish that Glenn Beck, with his mockery of people whose home burned to the ground because they didn’t pay a fire service surcharge, would follow.
If this is how the arc of the moral universe goes, I fear for our society, for we are neither good, nor just, nor wise, nor fair to ourselves or, in this season, the electorate.