Saturday, February 11, 2006

"Goodnight and Good Luck"--- a Timely Film

There are rumblings in Congress these days about the Patriot Act and whether it perhaps has gone too far and needs to be scaled back. In this current milieu in which fear-based decision making seems to continue to dominate the American political landscape, there is hardly a more timely movie one could see than "Goodnight and Good Luck".

Filmed in gorgeous and crystal clear black and white and running only an hour and a half, it is a compelling and thought-provoking film-- yes even for insulated and isolated Christians.

The official synopsis of the movie is as follows:

"Directed by George Clooney, this film details the conflict between newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s, one that had Murrow defying corporate sponsorship as he and his news team reported on the tactics of McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy accused Murrow of being a communist and a huge public feud erupted. The McCarthy/Murrow feud is considered a huge leap forward for objective journalism."

For those of us who lived during the 50s, the fear of the atomic bomb, and more particularly of communism and its access to the bomb was rampant. McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin, sent a chill throughout the nation with his repeated, and often undocumented or unverified accusations that this person or that person was 'UnAmerican' or even a 'Communist'. Many lives and careers were ruined, and many were slandered beyond recovery. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were seen as lesser goods that must be compromised for the sake of 'security'.

Americans who know the history of the 50s will realize that a good deal of the rhetoric we have heard from Washington in the past six years bears a startling resemblance to many of the things that McCarthy said or insinuated, only now the Boogie Men are terrorists, Al Quaeda, because of whom we are now called upon to accept certain compromises in regard to wire-taps, and give up a bit of our privacy and freedom in the process.

But if we do that, has not Al Quaeda already won much of the battle? If we give way to compromising our fundamental Constitutional rights, have we not implicitly admitted that we are very afraid of this small band of hateful persons and we are prepared to over-react to make ourselves feel more secure, spending billions in the process? The goal of terror is of course chiefly to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy, and hope they will colossally over-react. I will leave to the judgment of more astute and expert examiners of our history to decide whether we have been doing so.

But clearly "Goodnight and Good Luck" shows us directly what happens when paranoia, and innuendo without fact check, and the like does to a democracy if allowed to run rampant. In any case, David Straithairn as Edward R. Murrow has been nominated and fully deserves the best Oscar for actor of the year. The performance is masterful, and it is set in a lively, fast paced tale which chronicles the period from fall of 1953 to the demise of both McCarthy and Murrow's show in 1958.

It was Santayana who said "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it". It would appear that our amnesia at this point in history is rather clear. But perhaps we are just having a senior moment-- after all the 50s are not that long ago. Perhaps its just a short term memory loss thing. Perhaps this movie can serve as a small wake-up call. I pray it will be so.


Anonymous said...

Do you have any tangible suggestions how we can gather intelligence on those sworn to attack us that might prevent 9/11 from happening again? I don't like giving the governmemt the right to listen in on telephone calls and no doubt someday it will be abused. But what other choices do we have? Those who criticized the Bush administration for trying to protect us and prevent another attack give no alternatives. I guess the issue boils down to the old question of what we value most in life, security or freedom?

Ben Witherington said...

You are both right. His job is difficult. But the answers to your questions are not really that difficult. If we alienate everyone else in the world, no one is going to give us any information. I was reading the remarkable remarks of King Abdullah at the President's prayer breakfast in D.C. yesterday, and he reminded us all that terrorists are in fact the enemies of all our nations, destroying the fabric of them all.

But when you choose to unilaterally, or nearly unilaterally invade someone else's country violating the Geneva conventions without trying diplomacy, and without the U.N. and even without most of one's allies, you are just hitting a hornet's nest with a stick, and placing our own troops in harm's way. And far from stopping terrorism you are actually giving the terrorists our own soldiers as targets in a less protected environment.

We need better relationships with Moslem countries, not worse ones. We need more understanding of Islam, not less. We need to build bridges with those who could be allies, not alienate them by stirring up trouble in their own back yard. Information on terrorists would be easier to come by, if we had more and better friends in the region where they are hiding. Pakistan would like to help more, but we keep blowing up their private citizens on the basis of bad intelligence.

And last but not least, if we would spend some of the billions on eliminating the root causes of terrorism, such as ignorance and poverty, that would help as well.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. People only tell their secrets to those that they trust. Unless we act in a trustworthy manner as a good citizen of the world community, we will continue to find it difficult to get good 'intelligence' on those who seek our demise.

Anonymous said...

I see your point and I would like to believe that what you say is true. All of our potential allies that you suggest could be helpful in the war on terrorism did little or nothing before 9/11 to expose or shut down the terrorist networks. The Muslim Extremists seemed to attack without any fear of reprisal from anyone and I am not aware that any Arab or Muslim country did anything but help these terror networks survive. I think the Clinton Administration tried what you are suggesting to some extent without any results obviously. Are you suggesting that America is the problem and if we only had a little bit more understanding all these people would change their minds and help us? I think that was the same strategy Neville Chamberlain used in his dealing with Adolf Hitler. Also, the worst fanatic is a religious nut who thinks he is doing god's work, how do you negotiate with them?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Craig:

Excellent questions one and all. First of all, of course negoiating with terrorists is like asking fleas politely to leave a dog's back. It would be better if fellow Moslems of more congenial mind to ours would deal with them. And this has happened in the past, and we should help it continue to happen.

You are wrong however that many of the Moslem nations have aided and abetted or ignored terrorist networks. This for sure would not be true in Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt our closest allies in the Moslem world. Indeed, Mubarak in Egypt had violently suppressed them, until ironically 'we' suggested they have truly open democratic elections. We can see where that led in the recent Palestinian elections.

The first lesson to learn about Islamic countries is that unless they are significantly westernized, like Turkey, democracy is not going to work very well, if at all. Our President is oblivious to this fact.

Traditional Moslem society is not only patriarchal and hierarchial, it is based on caliphs or other sorts of monarchs ruling. It would be far better to have a benevolent monarchy like in Jordan than to have a weak democracy that thrives on the misery and poverty of its people, and so elects radicals repeatedly.

I do not for a moment believe democracy is the solution to Middle Eastern Problems, unless by some miracle they abandon ancient near eastern culture--- which is unlikely.

In what way are we the problem? We apparently don't have enough cultural sensitivity to realize this. Or we are such cultural imperialists that we think we can impose democracy and westernization on every one. Well, we can't, and we shouldn't try to 'impose' it on a culture ill-suited to support it, or likely to use it as a means to further radical Moslem agendas (see Hamas' pattern in the Palestinian State).

I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and have friends, Christians and Moslems, in all these countries. They would be glad to police their own terrorists, and they are trying, but if we would give them sufficient aid they could do a better job of rooting out the ultimate sources of these problems--- lack of good jobs, poverty, disease, need for better education and health care, and so on. One of the best things our President has done is listened to Bono about the Aids crisis in Africa, which in itself threatens to destabilize that whole country.

Think of this--- with the money we have now spent on Iraq, we could have made a huge difference in the poverty issue in the two-thirds world, including in the Middle East. We need to deal with the problem at its root, not merely on the surface where it most clearly bugs, bothers, or bewilders us.



Anonymous said...

I think the Bush Ad. is attempting to out terror the terrorists? Would you say they have responded to 9/11 by sending a message that if you attack us you and anyone who supports you will be pounded by US military power. I have not felt that trying to make a country like Iraq a western democracy was practical. Kind of like trying to tame a wild animal.

I guess hoping that other nations in the Middle East will contain and deal with terror networks is theoritcally a good idea, but there seems to be some nations that welcome them. Also, since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq and Afghan, we have not been attacked. Isn't it better to have the terrorist networks fighting the US military than innocent citizens in US cities?

Maybe I listen to Rush Limbaugh to much and have bought into Bush Administration policies. Reagan showed us that the only way to deal with bullies is to show superior strength and resolve.

What provoked the terrorists attacks in the first place? Our support of Israel? Capitalism? US troops in the Middle East? Would you have suggested no military action at all against terrorists? Would spending billions really solve the problem we have in the Middle East? Spending billions has not solved the problems we face in our own country when it comes to crime, poverty, ignorance, violence etc.

How did the Bush Ad. get it so wrong in your opinion?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Craig:

In my own opinion, the Bush administration ignored the warning signs that led to 9/11 but then saw an opportunity thereafter to finish what George Senior helped start in Iraq. W. publicly proclaimed himself the 'war President' and we were off to the races carrying a very large stick.

If Saddam Hussein was the real target, or at least one of the main targets, then a special ops effort against him would have been far cheaper.

As one who worked with VISTA and saw visible progress in the war on poverty under LBJ, progress we have all but totally erased by the policies we have had since Reagan, I must disagree with you that we have tried that and it failed. To the contrary all these important domestic programs have been chronically under-funded for many years now.

A rich country that cannot take care of its own least, last and lost is certainly far from Christian. So I guess I shouldn't really expect us to help others with these sorts of programs. Look at the sad and tardy response to Hurricane Katrina. It shouldn't surprise us--- the Bush administration was constantly cutting staff and programs run by FEMA and others to run this war in Iraq.

And as for violence in our country, we can't even muster up a decent gun control law equal to that in Moslem countries (!!!!) never mind that of other western democracies--- pathetic. We can't even outlaw AK 47s for private use, and we wonder why we are a violent society.

If a country should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens (the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor) out government deserves an F on most of these matter.


Ben W.

Anonymous said...

I guess you and I differ about what the solution to the many problems that face our society are. I honestly don't think that government is the answer and solution to the problems facing our nation. The massive government spending over the last 40+ years have reaped very few dividends in my opinion. The Bush Ad. spends more now than the previous Democratic Administration before it and that is not enough. How much will be enough? It would be nice if guns were really the problem with crime in America, but I think personal responsibility is also a factor.

I experienced 2 hurricanes in South Florida last year and it took several days for the Fed. Govt to come in with any substantial aid and I lived in an all white community. Again, blame Bush doesn't fly here either.

I think we both can agree that government is not the great savior of mankind, whether it be in handling Islamic radicals or social problems in America. I have understood that for a long time and I think that secular people without Christ in their lives can be expected to live accordingly. Government with all it's money and high hopes will not create a "great society" because it is as imperfect as the people who are part of it.

Questing Parson said...

Ben -
What a great posting. Thanks. And the dialog you've had with those who have commented is really enlightening.

I would only add to the conversation, in response to Craig's first comment, that in the 1770s this country had plenty of security as a colony of the British empire but we opted for freedom.

Ben Witherington said...


I am certainly not saying that government alone is responsible for alleviating our woes. Obviously I believe the church should do a great deal. But what is crucial is that when we have systemic or catastrophic problems throughout the country they must be addressed at a more than local or statewide level. Hurricane Katrina is a good example. I only ask that we fund the Federal Government to do their fare share and that we hold them responsible for doing it.

The truth is, it is the church more than the government that has slacked off in its ministry to the poor, the ill, and others. The church used to run all the hospitals etc. in the middle ages and the ministries of compassion used to be much more of a priority even in our country.

I do not in any way support tax breaks for the rich. They do not need to be rewarded more than they already are. I in fact would gladly pay considerably more in taxes if it went to the various ministries of compassion that it ought to go to. I would gladly pay more if Medicare and Social Security would be better funded, and if we had a national health plan that covered all Americans.

I believe in civic virtue, not the virtues of selfishness, which of course by any Christian definition is a vice, not a virtue. This need not require that we have big government, but it does require that we have a bigger heart. I saw a good bumper sticker the other day. It said--- 2008: The End of an Error. Hopefully we will have a much better President and adminstration beginning then.


Ben W.

::aaron g:: said...

"If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became supreme judge of the German people."

Sound familiar? Hitler's justifications sound eerily similar to GW Bush's despotic rationale for not seeking warrants for wiretapping.

This quote from The Christian Century, February 7, 2006. Page 7. (The Century is quoting from William Shirere, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)

Dan McGowan said...

You know, that Superbowl game was pretty pathetic... see, here's the way I would have handled things if I were playing quarterback................

It's amazing how much we all know! LOL...

yuckabuck said...

To aaron G, thanks for tracking down the historical quote. I'm sorry, but it does not sound familiar. The President never claimed "I was supreme judge." The administration did not point to any internal authority in themselves, but to their particular interpretation of the law. (I seem to have read that a few actual literal judges also were briefed on the program.) That interpretation has not been prooved or disprooved as yet, so perhaps it is a little early for the Hitler comparisons?

Note I am no longer a strict Republican apologist. I believe too many Christians have put politics on a pedestal, because that is where their hope is. We used to believe that the gospel could change the heart of a country (see Wesley, Whitefield, Wilberforce, Evan Roberts, etc.), and that the church would take care of the needy. Now, we put all effort in passing this bill or seeing some politician elected, and that is all our hope. My hope is in the coming of the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, which by definition will also mean "the return of the king." (This is not meant as a knock on anyone here, but as a general comment on Christianity in America.)

Ben Witherington said...

"I got my finger on the trigger,
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust
We're a long, long way from home Bobbie
Home's a long long way from us
I feel a dirty wind blowin
Devils and dust."

"I got God on my side,
I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a powerful thing
It turns your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God-filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust."

Bruce Springsteen, 2005

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your views on the role of government and the church. I was beginning to think you were a "liberal" Jerry Falwell. I would suggest that for those who feel they are willing to pay more in taxes that instead you channel your money to a local church or ministry that is meeting the needs of the community.

I used to think that if the "right" person or party got elected then America would take on Christian values and characteristics. I don't think that government is capable of bringing about the rule of God's Kingdom here on earth. The church needs to be the church and as you pointed out Ben, it has failed in so many areas.

Denny Burk said...

Dear Dr. Witherington,

I have really benefitted from your scholarship, and it's a pleasure to come across your blog.

However, I have to say that I disagree with your analysis of the run-up to the Iraq War. You said the following:

"But when you choose to unilaterally, or nearly unilaterally invade someone else's country violating the Geneva conventions without trying diplomacy, and without the U.N. and even without most of one's allies."

The U.S. did in fact try diplomacy for about 12 years before invading Iraq. As you know, everything unravelled diplomatically when the inspectors were kicked out of Iraq in 1998. When they went back in, Iraq was given an ultimatum which they failed to meet. You may think that there needed to be more time for diplomacy, but that's far different from saying that there was no diplomacy.

The U.S. did secure one resolution from the U.N. security council (#1446), one that threatened serious consequences if Iraq did not verify the destruction of all it's WMD's by December 8, 2002. All members of the Security Council voted in favor of this resolution (including Syria). Iraq filed a spurious document and never met this ultimatum.

I have been following the War very closely since before it began, and I can't think of what actions you are referring to that violated the Geneva Conventions. Abu Graib? If Abu Graib, the disgraceful conduct there was not a part of the U.S.'s war-policy, and those involved are being prosecuted for war-crimes.

Denny Burk