Liberty in Retreat

The threats to and erosion of our basic liberties and American due process and justice as a result of the Patriot Act are a pressing concern not to be ignored. Two works I recently read and watched underscore that point with interesting and provocative historical perspective.

Book: Loyalties by Carl Bernstein — This 1989 memoir by the famed and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who with his partner Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency recounts here his childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., in the era of the “red scare” and McCarthy hearings, the son of parents who were victims of the terrible injustice of the government “loyalty oaths.” As a reporter, he unearths information about his father and mother from government files that shows how left-leaning unionists were tarred by a witch hunt by the time’s right wing. As a son, he struggles with his parents as he tries to explore a past that they would prefer not recall for all the troubles it brought to the lives of these two activists and idealists. As an American, he revisits a time and place where the seeming innocence of youth and the era uncomfortably rubs up against darker realities, and Bernstein also relates the experience of growing up as a Jew in 1950s America and its capital. He skillfully weaves it all together into an engaging tale as well as a cautionary to be heeded.

DVD dramatic movie: Punishment Park — Sometimes even a flawed work of art has its merits. And this 1971 “it can happen here” fable is flawed indeed and even a bit taxing to watch. Yet at the same time it illuminates the domestic conflicts of the late 1960s as well as how the McCarran Internal Security Act of the 1950s, still on the books when the film was made but later largely overturned by the Supreme Court, could well have been used as an instrument to repress internal dissent. Quickly shot in a cinema verité style as if it were a documentary and employing largely amateur actors, it posits a round-up of radicals who are subjected to tribunals that are similar, if far more heated, to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and McCarthy hearings. Its weakest point is the Punishment Park premise at its centers — that detained radical youths are allowed to win their freedom if they can make a 60-mile cross-desert trek to an American flag while being pursued by law enforcement teams — a nonsensical construct, even if it sets up some interesting Lord of the Flies-style action. It’s not a good movie, and in some ways rather bad, while at the same time a bold cinematic experiment as well as polemic. Condemned by some critics at the time it was made for both its style and content and inability to find a distributor, it isn’t as horrible as its most ardent detractors made it out to be, and still fascinating in its failure as well as its agitprop qualities. Best advised to watch the introduction by director Peter Watkins after the film rather than before, as I did, because his sometimes near-paranoid claims undercut whatever effectiveness there is to the film as well as the controversy reactions when first shown. But for all its many flaws, there’s still some very compelling and provocative qualities to this period piece of imagination.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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