Dec 12, 2010

Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, is forever timely but especially just now. Whenever you see it the film works as a cultural astrolabe, measuring the distance between the broad moral convictions we held in common 70 years ago, even if we didn’t act on them, and the narrow moral understandings and fine-print ethics that divide us now.

Still, a few things haven’t changed. Bernie Sanders’ (D.Vt) filibuster last week may have lacked Jimmy Stewart’s heart-wrenching theatrics, but there was the same feeling of tilting at windmills, and the Kafkaesque sensation that fairness itself was on trial, and found wanting.

What's changed is the moral fantasy itself — then it was that a senator might suddenly come clean and admit publicly that he or she had been wrong, the way Mr. Paine burst on to the Senate floor to say he’d failed his country and himself, and it was high time to denounce ‘the machine’ and vindicate Mr. Smith.

Now the fantasy is commonground and bipartisanship. And if you did some terrible thing, you cheated on your wife or courted house pages, then you concede. As little ground as you can, but you concede and make an elliptical statement of apology, equalizing the matter, making it clear that "yes, America, I did something wrong but this is the result of the times we live in and my opponents are no better."

Remember that Mr. Smith is neither Republican or Democrat or Independent. He is simply our better side, our good, old-fashioned free self forever in the thrall of a big idea, and the thrill of riding into town on a motorcycle, in the middle of a parade. That was the original ending of the film: Mr. Smith returning to town on a motorcycle with his legislative aid and fiancé, and then while riding down Main Street in a motorcade to celebrate his victory over the dastardly machine, he spots Mr. Paine, stops the procession to draw him out and takes him along to see his mother. Redemption, completed.

Seventy years ago that ending seemed dispensable for the audiences solicited to help cut the film, which was incredibly long. But that was Capra’s intent: to finish with a true reconciliation.

Capra’s fantasy also offers an interesting commentary on ‘the machine'. In Capra’s time, the machine was a bunch of cog heads from the unions, the accessor’s office, the police, the local newspaper chain, the state senate, and maybe a few US senators, all in the chain gang of a greedy developer-magnate intent on building a dam.

These days the magnate is the journalist-barron, surrounded by people formerly known as journalists, and who really just want a job. Yet as rich and powerful as Murdock is, with his bright yellow eye on China’s vast markets, he’s just a middle man. The real power is further in the shadows, the likes of the Koch Brothers and a handful of other wealthy people who play the working class for fools using the likes of Mark Levin et al. The preeminent sentimentalist and political fabulist who insists he is open to opposing view points until the caller says something stupid or argumentative and the Levin has no choice but to open the electronic trap door.

Seventy years ago there were also hate radio characters, the likes of Father Coughlin. They did their schticks, often at outdoor rallies, but the audience was limited and in the Depression that kind of talk had little traction. Unlike periods of inflation, recession and economic depression tends to bring people together.

You could argue that's true even now when you look at polls that show the president remains popular and that what people hunger for is not Republican policies but effective policies.

But what's really different now, from Fr. Coughlin's era, is the unrelenting flow of propaganda and the unrelenting indifference and ignorance of an electorate that seems unwilling to seek other points of view.

Which is why, as insufficient and unjust and undemocratic as it seems, it’s time to reconsider the Fairness Doctrine. I never thought I would get to this point. And I say that not sanctimoniously, but as someone who feels defeated at the prospect.

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