Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sat, 30 Jun 2007

Inherit the Wind

I have considerable difficulty matching my personal political agenda with the agendas offered by the mainstream parties. Meaningful dialog seems impossible with things so polarized. Neither the "left" nor the "right" seem to see things the way I do. Not that my view is moderate mix of left and right; I mostly have a different agenda that doesn't have a useful projection on the usual liberal/conservative axis.

On the other hand, with respect to the culture wars, I have firmly taken sides. There's no question that I've developed into a indefatigable supporter of progressive ideals.

Although I'm not a traditionalist, I do get the traditionalist view -- after all, I will argue with a good deal of force that the American League plays a game with bat and ball that, in my opinion, should not be called baseball. It's just that I'm incapable of blinding myself with myopic adherence to traditions as some folks can. My eyes, and brain, stay open.

This, I think, is a fundamental misconception that many traditionalists have about progressives. We are accused of not understanding the value of traditions. This is absurd.

Progressives with half a brain certainly understand the value in tradition, and can be counted on to argue for and support the preservation of traditions when the circumstances dictate such preservation makes sense. Progressives don't act in an erratic, tradition-less ways devoid of pattern. In fact, I would argue that progressives often value traditions more than traditionalists because we constantly reevaluate and reaffirm their importance in a wider context. We are not blind to tradition -- we simply aren't blinded by it.

Looking back at my journey through life, the road I took to this progressive camp was fairly direct. Being a grandchild of immigrants who traveled, adapted, learned, and reinvented themselves more than once, my primary influence had to be my family. They drove home the same lesson by thousands of repetitions: don't be a bum. Nobody owes you anything. You are what you make of yourself. Use your head. Get off your ass and seek a better life.

The highly pragmatic and message I heard from my own family was nothing like the "traditional family values" that today's conservatives tell me our culture is supposedly forsaking to our dire peril. Certainly my folks hoped I would be heterosexual, marry a girl of my same race, have 2.5 kids, get married in a church, and drive a Cadillac like they did, but I never felt this imposed on me as a sine qua non. There were other overarching priorities. It was most important that I use my head and not be a bum. There was no script. I had to find my own way by thinking.

A Vatican-II-transitional Catholic education also fostered my progressivism. My earliest memories of the Catholic mass was a dark ceremony in Latin with the priest facing away as he conjured the flesh and blood of Jesus while baroque organ music in a minor key echoed through the stone cathedral. But change happened. By the time I reached high school, masses were being said in brightly lit Swedish modern churches built of lexan, brass, and lightly stained laminated wooden beams. The ceremony was arranged "in the round". A congenial priest mingled with the congregation, preaching through a wireless mike, accompanied by upbeat folk-mass songs played by smiling teens strumming guitar and rattling maracas.

Who could miss the message? Change was possible, even in a 2000 year old tradition. It was silly to blindly cling to the old ways. The real tradition, the message of love, charity, and faith, was far more clearly stated now, it was far more compelling now in the new form. Traditions weren't being forsaken, they were simply being cleaned and polished. Thousands of years of corrosion and decay were being removed. The baby wasn't being thrown out -- just the dirty bathwater.

Of course, despite the fresh air of Vatican II and what seemed to me to be the obvious improvement it brought, there were many people unlike me that seemed to be blinded by their inflexible adherence to the old ways. They didn't like these new changes. Add to the changes in the Catholic church the numerous other cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement. The sexual revolution. The war in Vietnam. All of these inspired open opposition to the government, to authority, to institutions, to traditions.

Traditionalists were horrified by these developments. They longed for that "old time religion" and we had the first salvos in the modern culture wars that rage hot today.

In the midst of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, I first watched the 1960 film Inherit the Wind starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly. I probably saw it for the first time in my grandparent's basement apartment. We visited there on Sundays and watching a movie together on TV as we ate dinner was a traditional part of that visit. I remember particularly that my grandma was a Spencer Tracy fan. Her favorite was Captains Courageous, but any role Tracy played was OK by her.

Tracy's portrayal of Harry Drummond (a fictional stand-in for the real life "Attorney of the Damned" Clarence Darrow) gave me a pure icon of progressivism to which I could cleave my developing principles. At that age (I was probably about 8 years old when I first began to understood the film) Drummond's courtroom arguments, especially as delivered by Tracy, seemed insurmountable. From that day forward, I could see things no other way. Any man must be afforded the same rights as a sponge -- the right to think.

Although as iconic arguments for progressivism, the courtroom scenes of Inherit the Wind remain unchallenged in my mind, there are two critical scenes in the play that provide contrast and counterpoint, with the main characters seemingly reversing their positions, that have become dearer to me over the years. The first of these scenes is Reverend Brown's prayer meeting where, shocked by the radical fundamentalism espoused by Brown, Brady cautions everyone not to let their zeal for the fundamentalist cause destroy what they truly love. "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." The second of these scenes is in the evening on the porch when Brady and Drummond sit together as old friends. It becomes clear that the two men are not as polarized as it may seem. Drummond surely understands and values what Brady is fighting to preserve. Yet Drummond says: "All motion is relative. Perhaps it is you who have moved away by standing still."

Over the years I have developed much more understanding of Fredric March's character of Harrison Brady (a.k.a. William Jennings Bryan). For this reason I now prefer the 1999 remake of Inherit the Wind starring George C Scott (Brady/Bryan) and Jack Lemmon (Drummond/Darrow). This version of the story is more balanced as the counterpoint scenes are given more emphasis. Also, Scott brings far more sophistication and power to the traditionalist position -- Scott doesn't play Brady as a pompous buffoon like March did. And Lemmon plays Drummond with more sympathy for his opponent.

But despite this deepened understanding, and my current preference for the more balanced version, I admit a fondness for the naive simplicity of the 1960 version that smacks of irrational traditionalism. OK, I admit it.

Still, any thought, once thought, cannot be un-thought. Ideas develop in our brains chaotically, like rain from storm clouds. In this way, I believe that man is born a progressive. But with our traditions we can build mental roofs, walls, leaders, gutters, and other mental shelters that guide the rainfall of our thoughts in "safe" directions, protecting us from the worst brainstorms we may have. We can collect ideas in cisterns, reservoirs, filter and purify them, keep them accessible on valved taps, running hot or cold as desired.

All this we can do in the name of safety and security, and I won't argue against it. Who knows what flood damage would occur should our ideas run amok. I like a warm, dry place to sleep just as much as the next guy.

But I also know that if I sit too long in the same place without bathing in fresh ideas, my old thoughts start to stagnate and stink. Worse yet, if I sit around too long I'm little better than a bum. I need to get off my butt and make a better life for myself. If that means renovating the mental plumbing, so be it.