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History as a Moral Story for Future Generations

By Anne Rodriguez, with comment by Brian Carroll


[1] Morals come in many forms and are used to shape people's behavior. Often, they are stories told to children to urge them to do the right thing, such as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," which urges children to always tell the truth, for lying can get you in trouble you don't want to be in. Morals can be real, or they can be fictional, long or short, suggest positive reinforcement for good actions or punishment for bad actions. Fictional morals are also called fables, an elaborate and often traditional children's story that teaches a lesson at the end. Sometimes the consistency or logic of the story is compromised for the moral lesson; the end justifies the means. The psychology behind morals is the nurture argument that declares that a child's upbringing can profoundly mold his personality, beliefs, and behavior. I am not taking sides within the nature versus nurture debate, but I believe that nurture (parents, siblings, extended family, schooling, friends, etc.) does impact a child's life and can help the child become the best version of himself/herself.

[2] I want to argue that George Clooney, the director of the film, intended Good Night, and Good Luck to be a moral for Americans, and I think it worked. This moral is obviously not meant for children but for adults who need a push to find the right direction. Clooney is using a historical figure as a role model for current Americans to aspire to. The film is using history as a sermon. He wants his audience to walk away from the film feeling slightly guilty of their previous wrongdoings (either bad actions or even inaction) and emboldened to stand up for themselves and fight for what is right.

Does History Repeat Itself?

[3] In order to understand and accept Good Night, and Good Luck as a moral film, the issue of whether or not history can repeat itself has to be discussed. The philosopher George Santayana brilliantly warned, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Though I don't believe that history itself (specific events) repeat themselves, humans often fall into similar situations over and over again, if they don't learn from their mistakes. Patterns of behavior accumulate and people feel as though they can't break their patterns. Sometimes the patterns start to take over their lives. Therefore, I want to add to Santayana's advice: we have to recognize our mistakes in the past, but we also have to learn from them and move to change our behavior. Clooney felt that George W. Bush exploited the paranoia caused from the September 11, 2001, attack to take advantage of American citizens in much the same way that Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited the paranoia caused by the Cold War to take advantage of American citizens. I want to examine a few of the ways McCarthy allegedly disregarded civil liberties and a few of the ways Bush allegedly disregarded civil liberties. Then I will compare them to see if the past was repeating itself, if Clooney's prognosis of America was correct. If Clooney was right, then his portrayal of the heroism of Edward R. Murrow is used as a moral story to urge Americans to be as courageous as Murrow. I then will assess whether or not I think the film as a moral was successful or not in changing American citizens' behavior.

The McCarthy Era: Anti-Communist Witch Hunts

[4] During the 1940s and 1950s, Senator McCarthy set out to protect our country from the threat of communism. Moreover, he was actually trying to protect the liberties that our democratic country values and the tradition of America as a liberal republic. At that point in the Cold War, the atomic race was underway, and many thought atomic war was imminent. McCarthy feared the infiltration of Soviet and communist spies in all spheres of American life, including the government branches and especially the State Department, who were trying to overthrow the democracy and take over the country. Actually, McCarthy did not just fear Soviet spies like many other Americans did; he suspected many government officials and other citizens of communist sympathizing. During a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator McCarthy claimed he had a list of many State Department Officials who were known communists, which then amounted to treason. The Senate investigated his claims, and during the Tydings Committee hearings he specified some of the alleged communists. Many of his allegations were proved false; the men he just slandered were not, in fact, communists.

[5] After his speech, McCarthy was widely known and often supported. People were so paranoid about communism that they cheered McCarthy for his offer of protection against spies. Others condemned him for the ease with which he accused and because he made the situation a fight between the two parties, claiming that many Democrats were communist sympathizers for not agreeing with his policies. Many feared him, however, because he had gained the popularity and power to investigate and accuse government officials and civilians alike of communist sympathy and treason. He became known for his disregard for constitutional persecution laws and civil liberties. He didn't care for formal matters when trying to protect his government. He accused when he saw fit. Those who opposed him often did so because of his drastic methods.

[6] In 1953, in order to expel all definite spies and to protect against other possible spies, McCarthy was elected chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and created the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The Subcommittee on Investigations along with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) searched through the government and other American arenas for communists and communist sympathizers, and sometimes those accused were harassed on television. Most of those allegations lacked evidence and support, while those false allegations ruined many people's lives. For example, McCarthy and his committee investigated the Voice of America (VOA) publicly, but none of the charges were supported. One of the issues of McCarthy's questionable methods was his disregard for a citizen's constitutional rights to fair trial, to face his/her accuser, and to be innocent until proven guilty. During his investigations, McCarthy would throw out evidence gathered by certain people against the accused, but the accused would never be able to question their accusers or the evidence. Furthermore, his questions were often leading, and he acted as if he had already made up his mind about the innocence of the accused. Another issue brought about from his investigations was the secretive way he gathered information. Before an investigative hearing, McCarthy and his followers would have already secretly investigated an alleged communist (for they had to have charged him with communist sympathy). McCarthy had access to citizens' background information, personal interests, etc. The right to privacy was significantly stepped over by McCarthy in his investigations.

[7] Eventually, McCarthy's accusations caught up with him as he investigated the United States Army for subversive activity. The Army reacted and tried McCarthy in an infamous hearing in which Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the Army, publicly condemned McCarthy for his "lack of decency." Around this time, Edward R. Murrow also publicly criticized McCarthy for his investigative methods that overstepped constitutional rights. After the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Senator McCarthy was censured in the Senate and lost most of his power. The public had once supported his anti-communism but now were disgusted with his lack of respect for American citizens.

George W. Bush: Anti-Terrorist Inspections

[8] The September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center devastated America. We were at a loss to explain why the event happened and to know exactly how we should move on from it. George W. Bush was in his first year as President, and things had been going relatively smoothly until the attack. After the initial surprise and the sadness and grief began to subside, Americans panicked that there was a conspiracy to ruin America and that there would be many more terrorist attacks. Paranoia spread throughout the country. Bush had to react strongly to the attacks to show leadership for his country. Instead of being honest with the American people, Bush lied and went behind his citizens' backs in various circumstances. Furthermore, he exploited the fear by tightening the liberties of Americans and gaining more power for himself. I think that the historical aftermath of the 9/11 attacks will be the War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which, of course, are very important issues and have their own negative implications on Bush's presidency. Sometimes forgotten, especially now as 9/11 grows farther in the past, are the ways Bush disrespected civilian rights and his reimplementation of the Patriot Act.

[9] First of all, after 9/11, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent were feared for being terrorists by many citizens. Bush exploited and multiplied this fear when in the Patriot Act he called for the indefinite detaining of those "suspected terrorists" in places such as Guantanamo Bay. Some of those detainees were American citizens (or people legally living in America with green cards and such, people who wanted American citizenship) that had the right to remain free from detention without due process of law. Furthermore, it was revealed that torture was often used as a way to uncover any terrorist plots. Another way Muslims and Middle Eastern people were terrorized (yes, I use that word on purpose) was Bush's authorization for a search and seizure based on racial profiling. Innocent American citizens were stopped at, say, airports because of the way they looked. They were accused and humiliated for the possibility that they were terrorists, just because of the way they looked.

[10] Bush also exploited the situation by asserting that, because we were in a state of war, he had the authority to restrain civil liberties for the sake of safety. Some presidents have done this before, to various degrees, but the secrecy and the extent to which Bush exerted his power surpass the other presidents. During the few years after 9/11, Bush had secretly monitored the calls and internet usage of American citizens suspected of connections to terrorist groups, breaking the Fourth Amendment and the right to privacy. When confronted (after, of course, the secret information was leaked), Bush never apologized for his actions because he argued that as chief executive he had the right to overstep the law to protect citizens. He justified his actions by appealing to the fear of terrorism. Many were appalled by his actions, but many others still supported him in a blind-faith fashion to protect America at all costs. Supporters and critic alike feared the possibility that they would be wiretapped, even though they were not terrorists and did not associate with terrorists; they had a deep, imbedded anger and fear of a right being wrongfully taken away. Furthermore, after the Patriot Act was reinstated, there were articles of the Patriot Act that allowed for the legal surveillance of American citizens, in the name of protection. The Patriot Act effectively limited many individual rights while widening the area Bush could freely work in.

The Past Rears its Ugly Head: Are McCarthy and Bush Similar?

[11] Obviously, the two events are different: different people, different situations, even different power struggles, etc. Yet the similarities are uncanny. The behavior pattern is the same; both events played out in the same manner. A drastic and tragic event happened. Fear and paranoia spread throughout the US. A leader arose pledging to protect America at all costs. The leader exploited the fear to justify his actions and gain more political power. Some American citizens were persecuted (extremely or wrongfully). Some Americans were secretly investigated and suspected of subversion. American civil liberties were greatly overstepped and severely limited in the name of safety. The past repeated itself. Clooney's analysis of the Bush administration and America's position was correct. (see comment by Brian Carroll)

Good Night, and Good Luck with the Moral Lesson

[12] Though I have argued elsewhere that Edward R. Murrow was not the only critic of McCarthy, nor did he solely bring down McCarthy as the film suggests, nevertheless Murrow's broadcast "See It Now: A Report on Senator McCarthy" was courageous, brilliant, and inspiring. He was fed up with McCarthy's tactics and disregard for individual rights, and he was aggravated by the lack of nerve in American citizens to stand up for themselves. In his broadcast, Murrow not only criticized McCarthy but reminded his audience of America's great regard for liberty and argued for the discussion of McCarthy's policies: "This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve."

[13] Clooney as the director and both Clooney and Grant Heslov as the screenwriters studied Murrow's broadcast and chose which sections would be relatable to today's political culture. They chose the words that would become a moral for the citizens today. Many of the passages immediately evoke thoughts and opinions about the aftermath of 9/11, such as the ways Senator McCarthy lied to the public and the mentioning of "defend freedom abroad." Clooney used Murrow's words and bravery to inspire his audience. He wanted his audience to admire Murrow's journalistic bravery and to question why our broadcast journalists now do not do such reports. He wanted his audience to walk away from the theater realizing that they have not demanded the rights they deserve when they were taken away. He wanted his audience to voice their opinions, whatever they may be about Bush and his policies. Lastly, he wanted his audience to figure a way to break the cycle of the political exploitation of leaders, to learn from the problems and find a new path to progress.

[14] I believe that Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck was successful in its moral lesson. Though the movie does not necessarily have a direct connection, after the movie was released, more people (government officials, journalists, and civilians) voiced their criticisms of Bush and fought for the protection of their individual rights. Bush's approval rating drastically dropped in his last few years as President. The focus switched from the fear of terrorism to the support of people. Americans argued against the torture committed by our soldiers, against the Iraq War, and against the wrongful persecution of American citizens. I do not want to argue that Good Night, and Good Luck influenced Bush's downfall, but the film's audience listened to its moral lesson. They learned from the movie and changed their behavior accordingly. Moreover, Clooney created a successful adult moral story in his film Good Night, and Good Luck.


Brian Carroll 8/11/10

While I am in no way a supporter of President Bush or the practices that his administration engaged in during their eight-year term, I must slightly disagree with Anne's claim that the former president was a mirror image of Senator McCarthy. Wire-tapping and Internet monitoring surely infringe upon the privacy of citizens; however, I would argue that it is an unfortunate consequence of the period in which we live. The web, for example, has become a valuable tool in recent years; however, with so much information floating around, it has become equally as dangerous. For this reason, I do not consider it completely unreasonable for the government to become suspicious of or interested in persons who research bomb-making or known terrorist groups. Whereas McCarthy attacked individuals based on hearsay, with no real proof that they had any affiliation with the Communist Party, the Bush administration, to my knowledge, at least had some evidence when targeting people. Though this may seem naive to some, in our modern time where data and information can be transmitted from party to party instantaneously, I do not disagree with the extra precaution taken by the Bush administration in hopes of protecting the American public.