Monday, January 30, 2012

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Joe Paterno and Occupy Wall Street

Phi Beta Kappa Address, December 7, 2011

I recently had the opportunity to attend the UGA Department of Theatre and Film Studies’ production of the Arthur Miller play All My Sons. The production was excellent, and after seeing it I made a point of rereading the play. It seems particularly timely. All My Sons was the first major success for Miller, one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century. Produced in 1947 at the Coronet Theatre in NYC, it focuses on a middle-class American family shortly after the end of the Second World War. Three years after the fact, family members still struggle to accept the death of their son and brother Larry, who was lost at sea, his body never recovered. The play unfolds almost as an overwrought melodrama. Early on, you become aware that something is wrong. The mother Kate believes Larry is still alive and that one day he’ll return. Any mention of her son upsets her. The father Joe Keller is a loud and boisterous man who seems to love his wife and his family. He presents himself as a consummate family man, a successful factory owner, and a paragon of civic virtue. Gradually this illusion of a family grappling with tragedy evaporates. The dead son’s widow Ann returns from New York for the first time since Larry’s death. The surviving brother Chris, we learn, has been writing her and now he wants to propose. Joe is upset, supposedly because this marriage would force his wife to accept Larry’s death. But other facts come out: Ann’s father, Joe’s former partner, is in jail, imprisoned for manufacturing and selling faulty cylinder heads for use in military warplanes. 21 deaths were the result. Then we learn that Joe himself was imprisoned, blamed by his partner for the same crime. Later exonerated, Joe says it was all a mistake, but then we learn that he could have prevented the sale of the faulty parts and that he basically set his partner up to take the blame. Finally a letter that Larry sent to Ann on the day of his death reveals that he couldn’t live with newspaper stories about his father’s involvement with the faulty parts, and that he plans to kill himself by crashing his plane into the China Sea. What this means is that Joe caused his son’s death, on top of the deaths of the other airmen. He betrayed one son, lied to the other, betrayed his business partner, and has to get up every morning and stare at himself in the mirror. He did so, he explains to Chris, to save his business.

All My Sons is about how a man builds his vision of the American dream on a fantasy—that he has lived a good life, he’s been honest, he loved his sons and his wife, that he’s much beloved, that the unfortunate things that have happened to him were the result of people who took advantage of him, people he unwisely trusted. This was the image he presented to his son Chris. What he didn’t want Chris to know was that it was more important to him to protect his livelihood, his business, than it was to withdraw the faulty parts and save American lives. The play is about failure of responsibility, about evasion of the truth, about breaking the basic bonds and values of human connection that keep us all going, that prevent us from diving our own planes deep into the China Sea.

And so we come to the sad and awful story of Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University. You all have heard the details of this tragedy. I won’t repeat them. Let me say that though I am not a football fan (other than of the Georgia Bulldogs), I have always regarded Joe Paterno as a man who set a standard for character, excellence in academics, and service to his University. He was a model for other coaches and for players to emulate. His career is marked with many good deeds and accomplishments, with an excellent record in football, but now more than anything else, it is marked with this scandal. Shakespeare, in his play Julius Caesar, wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

We don’t know all the facts of the Penn State scandal, and more of them will undoubtedly come out. What is clear is that in one way or the other Mr. Paterno and other university and athletic officials failed to act in a responsible and moral way. They failed to report one crime, at the least, and failed to prevent other similar crimes from happening. These men might not even have wanted to admit the truth, they might even have hidden it from themselves. Where was the failure? What and who failed? We’ve heard many answers: Coach Paterno did not report the crime soon enough, or Assistant Coach McQueary did not report it soon enough; neither of them followed up; they all allowed Sandusky access to University facilities even while rumors of his activities were flying. Friends were protecting friends. University officials –the president and vice presidents--were complicit because, wanting to protect the university’s reputation, they suppressed what they’d been told. College football was blamed for becoming such a money-making industry that it made decisions on the basis of profit margins, rather than what was good for the players or the school’s academic mission or the welfare of young boys. Our whole society was blamed.

We can find blame for this mess in a whole lot of places. But I’m less interested in sweeping generalizations about higher education or college football or modern American culture than I am in understanding how presumably decent people could fail in such a fundamental way. Here were men who heard rumors, received reports, even directly witnessed events that they ignored because they couldn’t believe them, or they wanted to protect friends, or they wanted to protect their own jobs, or they wanted to protect the football program, or they wanted to protect their university, or they simply didn’t want to put their reputations on the line. They didn’t take responsibility.

Arthur Miller’s play is about men who fail to do what is right, about a man whose desire to protect his name and his business causes the death of his own son and of other American young men fighting in the Second World War. Joe Keller loses his son because he allows profit motives to corrode and destroy basic human values. When his surviving son calls him a murderer, the accusation is not unjust. “You can be better,” Chris chastises his mother at play’s end when she asks him what more than sorry can she and Joe be for how events have turned out. “Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that’s why he died.”

Numerous works in literature pose this question of responsibility. Think first of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Book of Luke in the Bible. In the novels of Charles Dickens, social and moral injustice is a major target. In Herman Melville’s story ”Bartleby the Scrivener” an entire office staff sits by, first joking about and then ignoring a man whose repeated statement “I would prefer not to” signifies his decision to die. In Franz Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist” a man’s decision to starve himself becomes a sideshow attraction in a circus. Spectators don’t care that he is dying—they are just entertained by his advancing emaciation. Think also of the 2008 film Doubt, based on the play by John Patrick Shanley, in which the principal of a church school struggles with her growing suspicion that the priest of her church is molesting a young student. Finally, consider this statement by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus tells his son: “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.”

The Penn State scandal is doubly shocking for those of us who work in higher education because it forces us to pause and wonder whether, in a similar situation, we also would fail to act, whether we would fail do to what was right, or whether we would just ignore it and hope that the machine rolled merrily on.

In a larger sense, the scandal should prompt all of us to ask similar questions: am I failing to be responsible to my fellow man and woman? Are there injustices in our neighborhood or our community or our nation or our world that we should not allow to go unchecked? Should we act on behalf of the fellow human beings with whom we share this globe?

One might not have to agree with their methods, or everything they believe, to acknowledge that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are based in part on the desire of citizens to call attention to what they believe is wrong. These are both, in my opinion, flawed movements, but at least their members are not willing to sit still and do nothing. The members of Occupy Wall Street are expressing their belief that the American banking and investments industry is, like Joe Keller, putting the desire to make money above the welfare of millions of other Americans, above the welfare of this nation. Lives are destroyed, people suffer. One can think of many other injustices and problems in the world that demand our attention: poverty, economic disparities, the national debt, the global economy, climate change, environmental decay, pollution, disease, intolerance, violence, racism, sexism, resource depletion, over population, the list goes on and on, and it seems a darker and more difficult list than it has ever seemed in my lifetime. Unfortunately, this is the list that confronts you in the life ahead.

Our hope of survival in this troubled world may depend on your willingness to take responsibility.

As Phi Beta Kappa graduates of the University of Georgia, I know that many of you have already taken steps to be responsible by volunteering in service programs and charitable organizations and other activities that serve the campus and community. That service can’t end when you leave here. Having done good work here at the University, ready to go out into the world to take on jobs or further study or even a stint of leisure time, none of you is free of the necessity of doing more. Your achievements here suggest that you will lead good and comfortable lives. But those same achievements make clear that you have much to give. My hope for the future lies in the abilities and new ideas and intelligence and enthusiasm and commitment of people like you. Our world needs you. You have an obligation to give, and to exercise courage in the face of injustice. I hope you will. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Last Airbender

I had read the reviews of this film (2010; dir. M. Night Shyamalan)--uniformly negative. I came to it with the lowest expectations. It offered a quasi-mythic comic book tale of magic and fantasy. It offered cartoon-like special effects. I knew I would not have to think much while I watched and dozed. And I wasn't sure how much of it I would watch. I was just curious—another chapter in M. Night Shyamalan's sad decline—what would it be?

So it is perhaps a symptom of senescence when I confess to how much I enjoyed this half-witted film and its febrile mysticism and hyper-dramatic, faux epic, Kung-Fu saga of how a boy frozen in ice for a century emerges back into the world and with the help of young friends defeats the kingdom of fire that is trying to destroy the kingdom of water and ice benders. The thawed-out boy is the Avatar who kept the world in Balance, and with his disappearance the world fell into chaos. This is a world in which special individuals within each nation can bend or control the four basic elements of air, fire, earth, and water. The Avatar can bend all four elements.

I do not know enough about Asian cinema to say with certainty that it had an influence on this film, especially the balletic movements and fighting that make up much of the action. The Last Airbender seems built on a faintly Tibetan form of Buddhism, and the Avatar himself, who is reincarnated from one generation to the next, may have something in common with the Dalai Lama.

At any rate, though I was not of the target audience, I was entertained.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens

In Letters to a Young Contrarian (MJF Books, 2001) Christopher Hitches explains his position as one of the great skeptics of our generation. By this point in his career he was retreating from some of the leftist positions of the first half of his career. Although he has often been described as having become a conservative, especially after the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2001, what is more accurate is that he backed off from the absolutism of Old New Left and Marxist thinking. He remained committed to human rights, to most of the positions he had previously held, but no longer saw himself as a leftist—rather, as a skeptic, a naysayer, a contrarian. Of course, with the events of 2001 (which had not occurred when he wrote this book), he found himself in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he disagreed with the administration conducting them.

In these letters to a fictional “young contrarian,” Hitchens defines a position of intellectual, philosophical, and political independence from any absolutist position, any position that does not stand up to logical thinking. This includes, of course, religion, whose rejection Hitchens explains in several of the letters. Along the way, he takes shots at the Dalai Lama, Princess Diana, Bill Clinton, and others for whom he did not care. At the same time, he expresses admiration for Eugene Debs, Emile Zola, and others.

Hitchens sometimes g"ets caught up in the rhetorical glibness of being Hitchens. But for most of the pages in this book he exemplifies, and insists on, a position of intellectual rigor and moral courage. This paragraph in the last of the letters sets down his basic advice to his correspondent:

“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and for others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.’

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


Hesher (2011; dir. Spencer Susser) is an indie film in which damaged people join together to assuage pain. On the surface, the film is hard and relentlessly grim, even while it is funny. It focuses on a young boy, T. J., trying to deal with the loss of his mother in an automobile accident. His father is so passive and depressed that he can’t help the boy. Their grandmother, with whom they live and who is caring for them, can’t do much to help other than cook their meals. She chooses to let the wildness of her family go on around her, although in fact she hears and absorbs everything that happens. The boy is obsessed with recovering the family car in which his mother died. It’s at a junk dealer’s office and is scheduled for destruction.

The son of the junkyard owner harasses the boy, and after he defaces the car and flees, he runs into Hesher. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of his best roles ever, Hesher is a foul-mouthed, hostile, heavily tattooed young man with a long mane of hair. He tells wild tales of sexual bravado to everyone he meets, including Natalie Portman, who plays a secondary role in the film as a grocery store clerk..

Hesher begins living at the boy’s house—he isn’t invited, he just shows up. Gradually we learn that he is in his own way as wounded as the others, and that he takes solace from this connection with a grieving family. They come to take solace from him.

The film really doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. That is, an underlying sentimentality gradually emerges. Hesher himself really doesn’t ever change. We just learn more about him and understand that beneath his brash and unpleasant exterior is a genuine human being.

Hesher gives an unusual speech at a funeral, and his last gesture of comic defiance is a profanity inscribed on the roof of the boy’s house, but by then we have succumbed to the unconventional charms of his character. The boy and his father begin recovering from their grief, and Hesher goes his way.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius

In De Rerum Natura the first century BC Roman poet Lucretius presents his view of the universe as governed by natural laws. He rules out the influence of gods and of supernatural forces, though he doesn’t argue over their existence. He strongly takes issue with religion, which he sees as destructive. Lucretius argues that all matter of any sort is composed of atoms, extremely small particles. Atoms vary significantly in type, though there is a limited number of types. Various combinations of types of atoms account for the variety of things in the world. Lucretius believes in the immortality of only three things: of atoms, the void (the empty spaces between atoms and between substances made of atoms), and of the universe itself, beyond and outside of which nothing exists. Atoms themselves are infinite in number, just as the universe and the void are infinite in extent. Although his belief in atoms anticipates modern atomic theories, his ideas about how atoms work do not.

Lucretius argues that there is no reason to fear death. First, all things are born and must die. This pattern is the natural way of things. The mind and the body are separate from one another but inextricably linked. They are born together, mature together, grow old and die together. The mind, the spirit, does not outlive the body or exist in any form after the body perishes. Why fear death, then, Lucretius asks, when there is no afterlife in which one can be punished or rewarded for how he has lived his physical life, and when there is no mind or spirit remaining to contemplate the life that has ended? (He does not succeed in convincing me not to fear death). This view of the universe, of atoms, of religion and life after death is Epicurean.

Lucretius believes that the world can be known through reason, not through supernatural or religious explanations. Although many of his explanations for how the world works are wrong—for instance, he believes the moon, sun, and stars are embedded in a firmament surrounding the earth, and that their motions are accounted for by contending winds, and that earthquakes and volcanoes are the result of subterranean disturbances caused by winds—the important revelation of his poem is that through reason we can understand the natural laws that do govern the universe. He does anticipate many modern theories—the science of genetics, for instance.

This translation of De Rerum Natura is more than 7000 lines long and is divided into six parts or “Books.” The least interesting was Book IV, “The Senses,” while the others were compelling to varying extents. The first two books, “Matter and Void” and “The Dance of Atoms,” are a good introduction to Lucretius’ thought and the poem as a whole.

The translator, A. E. Stalling, is an American poet who writes often about classical subjects. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a classics degree and lives in Athens, Greece. Her translation is intentionally modern. It is well done, clear (with some exceptions), and makes uses of such modern terms as “pathogens,” a word that implies more knowledge of disease than the ancient world possessed. This is a flaw in an otherwise effective translation.