Saturday, November 25, 2006

Richard Dreyfuss and Civics

I caught an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO the other day as I occassionally do, and one of the guests on the panel was Richard Dreyfuss. I had met Mr. Dreyfuss briefly while he was on Broadway with a show called SLY FOX at the Barrymore Theatre. He seemed like a very nice man and we were basically introduced, said hello and shook hands... that was it. Had I known what was inside him which you are about to read, I might've steered a conversation toward this topic instead of the idle chit chat... but how the hell are you supposed to know what's in a person's brain upon first meeting them?

Anyway, the show (Bill Maher's) as always deals with politics. This conversation was steered towards TV news not being news so much as entertainment nowadays, because they are expected to be part of the profit margin, whereas that wasn't the case years ago.

DREYFUSS: used to be a given that the news industry, the news network departments, were not part of the profit center... And now it is a given that they are. And Dan Rather, who is a great journalist and comes from a great tradition, was at the center of an enormous change, an invisible change, which made the news divisions expected to be profit centers. That should never have happened.

Then the case of the democratization of media arose because yet another cop beating was caught on tape ala Rodney King. (I guess blogs can be part of this too although they mostly center on opinion.) And the "common man" media can have an impact to a point. But when do we get used to this? At some point we all get desensitized. Tom Morrello, another panelist said this:

MORELLO: I don’t think that there’s – that police brutality is more now than it has been in the past, but it is – what is disturbing to me is that people are not, you know, with pitchforks and torches in the streets when you see something like that. And that is a huge problem in our country that needs to be dealt with.

To which Dreyfuss responded with something that gave me the motivation to start this blog:

DREYFUSS: That’s the constancy that you can learn. You can actually learn the constancy of curiosity and the constancy of outrage. You can learn that it is okay to keep asking the questions and to be dissenters. And if you don’t, if you’re not taught it, then you don’t know it. But we owe ourselves and the United States that we will pass off to our children, to relearn the tools of reason, logic, clarity, dissent, civility and debate.
And those things are the – the nonpartisan basis of democracy. And without them, you can kiss this thing goodbye. And it is up to us – it is up to us – it wasn’t because of a conspiracy that this left. It was thoughtlessness. And what you have to do is get it back. And what happens now in this partisan-addicted country of ours, is the Democrats are afraid that if they send their kids to civics classes, they might not come back Democrats, and Republicans are afraid their kids won’t come back Republicans. But – but civics, the expertise needed to understand western enlightenment and civil liberties, is not something you’re born with. You have to learn it.
And if you – and we teach our kids what we want them to know and we don’t teach them what we don’t want them to know. And that’s not a conspiracy. That’s human nature. And you have to – we have to – remember, that unless we teach the ideas that make America a miracle in government, a miracle that everyone knows is a miracle, unless we teach what that means, then it will go away in your kids’ lifetime. And we will be a fable. We will be a tale told about this place that used to stand up for blah-blah-blah.
You have to teach it. You have to find the time and creativity to teach it in school. And if you don’t, then you will lose it to fundamentalists of any stripe. You will lose it to stupidity. You will lose it to the darkness. And what this country represents is a tiny twinkle of light in a history of oppression and darkness and cruelty.
And if it lasts for more than our lifetime or our kids’ lifetime, it is only due to the fact that we put some effort into teaching what it is, the ideas of America, the idea of opportunity, mobility, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly.
And if you don’t teach it, it’ll go away. And in the middle of the night, when the towers fall, we will not say, “What am I responsible for?” We will say, “Tell us what to do.” And, remember, democracy, in any form, is only 200 or 300 years old. Kingship is 10,000—

MAHER: [overlapping] No, it’s not. It goes back to Athens.

DREYFUSS: No, I mean, in practice, in the way we live with each other. In the practice—

MAHER: Well, they practiced it in ancient Greece.

DREYFUSS: And then it went away for 2,000 years. And what we’ve had is monarchy and theocracy and all kind of – you know, “God tells the king and the king tells us.” And the idea of being personally responsible for your government is a twinkle. It’s only as old as, you know, since Victoria’s death. And we have to support it, or we will, else, instinctively react, as we have for 10,000 years: “Tell us what to do.” And we’ll chuck these liberties the moment the next terrorist horror happens.

Thank you Richard Dreyfuss.

n. The branch of political science that deals with civic affairs
and the rights and duties of citizens.