Sunday, June 19, 2016

We Hold These Truths

Regardless of Trump's actual chances to be elected President of the United States, his candidacy offers an opportunity to revisit and restate certain values implicit in the American form of government--or more accurately, forces such an effort.  In particular, it's an opportunity to reclaim from the rabid right a living connection to the Founders and the founding documents of the US.  That connection was eloquently and meaningfully expressed for example, at the end of 1941.

On December 15, 1941, all the radio networks in the US carried an original drama called "We Hold These Truths," to mark the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. The program had been commissioned by the Office of Education and scheduled some time before, but its air date turned out to be just 8 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and a week after the US officially entered World War II.

All four radio networks carried it simultaneously--the first time that had happened-- probably in part because President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the end of it. It was heard by an estimated 63 million Americans:the largest radio audience on record, almost half the US population at the time.

This one-hour program, included above, is as alive and compelling today as it was in 1941.  Not only because of its excellent production values, but because it speaks to us today, especially in the fog of Trump.

 The on-air talent included Jimmy Stewart (already in uniform), Walter Huston, Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson and other stars of the day.  New music was written for the program, played by an orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

But the most important participant was Norman Corwin, its producer and writer.  His name is not much remembered, though he influenced many younger writers and journalists, and was a major influence on these times. Working for CBS radio, he wrote and produced at least 60 programs during the war years, most of them dealing one way or another with the moral issues of the war.  He was called the poet laureate of radio drama for his powers of expression, in a medium that lived on words.

Corwin later recalled the freedom he had working for CBS.  Once a topic was agreed upon, he never had to describe the approach he would take or submit a script in advance.  One assumes this was the case with "We Hold These Truths."

Corwin's work was so esteemed and so popular that several series of his programs bore his name.  His scripts were reprinted in magazines, and his radio plays were adapted into stage plays across America.

In his wartime dramas Corwin returned, over and over, to two primary issues that were on a lot of minds during World War II.  The first had to do with the reasons that soldiers (American and Allies) were fighting and dying..  The second was related--the conviction that this war could not end up being a repeat of World War I in leading to an even worse war in a generation, that it had to end by establishing a lasting peace through universal rights and global cooperation.

In this broadcast, Corwin was connecting the ideas behind the Bill of Rights with the primary aims for Americans fighting World War II.

Despite the fact that a few Founders had speaking parts, "We Hold These Truths" was not a mealy-mouthed historical pageant for radio.  When some of the 13 states refused to ratify the Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added, Congress assembled to produce those ten amendments.  Corwin did not express the reasons for these amendments through the voices of statesmen, let alone lawyers.  He didn't present arguments, explanations, abstractions.  Some of those reasons were expressed in common sense terms by ordinary people, as they did their jobs.  But some weren't expressed in words at all.

They were expressed in cries of pain, moans and screams.  They were expressed on behalf of people garroted, guillotined, lynched, hanged, burned, shot and slaughtered for suspicions and allegiances based on religious belief, political activities, ethnicity and race. In perhaps his boldest move, Corwin included Jesus Christ among these victims, crucified "because rulers didn't allow free speech, executed over an issue of the rights of man."

The most impassioned speech of the program--not at all in the magisterial tones for which he would later be known--was delivered by the young Orson Welles, describing the final result: the Bill of Rights.  In part (uncertainly transcribed from the broadcast) :

"The Congress of the 13 states, instructed by the people of the 13 states, threw up a bulwark, wrote the hope and made a sign for their posterity against the bigots, the fanatics, bullies, lynchers, race haters, the cruel men, the spiteful men, the sneaking men, the pessimists, the men who give up fights that have just begun.  The Congress wrote a ten part epic of amendments."   

This obviously contains contemporary 1941 issues that the Founders wouldn't have expressed in this way. Corwin often railed against the "America First" Nazi sympathizers who saw the Nazis as the wave of the future and opposed the US entering the war (just as he would defend the 'premature anti-Fascists' targeted by Ray Cohn and the 1950s blacklisters), and some of the language is directed at them.  But a lot of it pertains to contemporary 2016 issues, too.

It is well to remember that for all the other reasons and motives unpacked by historians of our age, a guiding impulse in the Bill of Rights was to protect all by protecting everyone against tyranny, and that the "everyone" these rights apply to has broadened to include, by now, just about everyone-- in law if not in practice--225 years after the Bill of Rights.

That broadening process was well underway in 1941, and so it was broadly believed--from FDR to soldiers that Corwin met in the US and abroad--that the US was fighting to defeat tyranny, and the rule of bigotry, race-hating, fanaticism, state bullying and cruelty.  In the modern world, these were represented as the ideology and machinery of Fascism.

In 1941 the US was a country made up largely of immigrants and especially the children and grandchildren of immigrants. There were wide differences between the richest and poorest, urban and rural, and according to regions.  Though the cultures and ethnicities prevalent then didn't include many well represented in 2016, the country was still "multi-cultural," if only because European countries and cultures were more distinct in 1941, with many religious denominations etc. within them.  So universal rights resonated. Equality was crucial.  At the end of this broadcast, FDR used the word "liberty" over and over.

The titanic effort--beyond what most Americans today can even imagine-- to defeat Hitler and Mussolini in World War II was to defeat what they did and would do, to prevent them from imposing racism, state censorship and dictatorship on a conquered America but also to rid the rest of at least western civilization from these threats and this rule.  This was understood as patriotism in 1941, as coming directly from the Founders and the Bill of Rights.

(Of course, it was not understood that way by everyone.  In an essay that accompanies the script of a later program, Corwin references a Republican "smear campaign with nonaccidental anti-Semitic overtones" conducted against a union leader who supported FDR, during World War II.)

So when Trump is likened to Hitler and Mussolini, this is why.  These truths may not be so self-evident these days, but there does seem to be a residual instinct that overrides some political polarization and partisanship when these rights are overtly threatened, by "a racist bully."

Opposition to such Trumpeting is often expressed in political  terms (it offends certain segments of the electorate), or because it's said too bluntly in a socially unacceptable vocabulary and tone.  But the threat behind these words is the same as presented by Fascist governments with their armies in 1941, and the same as policies inflicted on people through the ages by kings and warlords, churches and governments, which motivated the Bill of Rights.  The threat is to human liberty for each and therefore all, and to the commonwealth and the nation as established in the Constitution and its ten epic amendments.

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