December 23, 2008


(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypothetical situations such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But such extreme hypothetical situations are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one's friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books and to obey, or at least cooperate with, the authorities charged with enforcing them.

But it is not that simple.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper's magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym "Robert Rich") even won an Academy Award in 1957 for the film The Brave One.

In his letter, Trumbo makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: "Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That's the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard."

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That's the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings - economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, - what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide range of jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on that journey.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: "Would you like a man who told on his friend?" – there would not be one among them who would answer, "Yes."

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won't fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo's letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

POST SCRIPT: The shoe hurled around the world

I have not written anything about the incident where an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at Bush. There was more than enough chatter about it elsewhere. The best commentary that I encountered was by Bob Garfield on the weekly radio program On the Media.


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