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Posts Tagged ‘Lillian Hellman’

Years ago, I remember reading Lillian Hellman’s book, Scoundrel Time.  In 1952, Hellman, a peppery character known for being a brilliant playwright and novelist, refused to become an informer for the House Un-American Activities Committee, thereby taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy as well as many other artists and politicians who caved to McCarthy’s demands to rat out their friends and colleagues.  I had become interested in this colorful story because it occurred when I was far too young to remember the political scene…a time that led to “duck and cover” air raid drills in school and images of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table for emphasis.

Something else had happened during that time, too.  We were living in Akron, Ohio, where my father was the Director of the Summit County Children’s Home, working with children who were orphaned or abandoned, removed from their homes because of mistreatment or because their parents were otherwise unable to care for them.  My father had written an op-ed piece which the Akron Beacon Journal (the local paper) published, in which he applauded the day care programs that had begun to operate in the Soviet Union.  He suggested that our country might learn something from what was going on in the USSR.  Late one night, the phone rang and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line told my father that unless he retracted what he said, his wife and daughter were dead.  Click.  Dad was supposed to retract, cave, and get the message that the Russians were bad in all ways.

Designed to strike fear into the heart of the person on the other end of such a call, that story’s worth recounting today because so much of what I see going on in our country, in the political environment, harkens back to the early 1950’s…particularly now, at the end of the Silly Season which ends on November 2nd. A message is sent out and passed on and on, and pretty soon, we’re all repeating it like robots.  That’s how things catch on, and it’s how phrases and behaviors get rooted in our culture.

A positive example of such viral communication can be seen in the progression of the “It Gets Better” slogan through large parts of our culture.  As far as I can tell, writer Dan Savage was the first one to use it, in response to the suicide of Tyler Clemente and a number of other gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning teens or young adults.  The Youth Pride Chorus, Ellen DeGeneres, and many, many others picked it up, and it continues to grow.  Thank heaven for this.

But a not-so-positive connection can be seen throughout the political landscape, as tea partiers make comments about Obamacare and plant scary messages about how taxes will be raised and what else will happen if “they” are re-elected.  Life as we know it, they would have us believe, will disappear.  This environment does bad things to people, and politicians are at the center of the behavior pattern.  Not all of them:  I’ve seen a number, including Massachusetts’ own Barney Frank, locked in a tight re-election fight, who have stood their ground.  But Sen. Harry Reid is trying to hold on in Nevada (and the odds are very iffy, if recent polls are to be believed), Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Barbara Boxer in California…and the politicians tend to start changing their songs when they’re afraid they’ll lose a race.

It is Scoundrel Time.  John McCain may offer us one of the most distressing examples of this behavior in which someone will say or do anything to get re-elected. McCain, who was once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform along with Sen. Ted Kennedy (a position that won him no love among the conservative electorate) moved in a different direction this year. Focusing on border security, McCain embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence” — three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article. Four years ago, McCain told students he supported repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. But in May, the former war hero and Navy prisoner of war promised to filibuster any bill including that change that landed on the Senate floor.

When the going gets tough, too many politicians run, as one Worcester, MA, politician proclaimed some years ago, “like rats” to avoid the damage.  When the heat is on, as it surely is in the final days of the mid-year election cycle, way too many have suddenly reversed their original positions, having found a ‘change of heart’ somewhere in their souls (inspired, no doubt, by their reading of the latest political poll).

To go back to my story from the early 1950s:  after he received that threatening phone call my Dad sat up, thought for a while, and then called the police.  But he also decided that the person on the other end of the phone hadn’t understood the point Dad was trying to make – that we in America could learn from another country’s model of child care, not so that we could all become Communists.  He called the editor of the Beacon Journal and asked if he could rewrite the op-ed to run again in the paper, not changing the focus of the piece, but changing the words, to make the points clearer.  The editor gave him a go-ahead, and the piece was republished.  The police watched our house, I am told, and went through it with bomb-sniffing dogs.  And obviously I am still here.

Those were bad times, back then…times when anyone who uttered the word “Communist” was subject to suspicion and innuendo.  McCarthy was denounced, of course, when someone finally stood up to him, stood up to his bullying and his allegations and his career-destroying tactics.  Later the playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, overtly about the Salem Witch Trials, but really about McCarthyism, to point out what happens when one person influences a whole population to turn on their neighbors.

It was a long time ago when all that happened.  But from where I perch, it seems like it’s back again:  the name-calling, the suggestions that people are going to destroy our way of life. The scoundrels are out, running for office, saying what they will to influence our vote and build fear in our hearts.  I know that those words ‘hope,’ ‘courage,’ ‘commitment,’ have been over-used.  Yet surely those are the elements we need to survive this generation’s scoundrel time.

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