Thursday, 2 November 2017

Later Life Learning Week Six: Demagoguery and Courage during the Cold War

  “The junior Senator from Wisconsin, by his reckless charges, has so preyed upon the fears and hatred of uninformed and credulous people that he has started a prairie fire, which neither he nor anyone else may be able to control.”
J. William Fulbright, US senator, 1954

"It's a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with."
—Pete Seeger

 "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it."
Edward R. Murrow 


 "Seen today, "The Manchurian Candidate" feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes. The villains plan to exploit a terrorist act, "rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy." The plot cheerfully divides blame between right and left; it provides a right-wing demagogue named Sen. John Iselin, who is clearly modeled on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and makes him the puppet of his draconian wife, who is in league with foreign communists. The plan: Use anti-communist hysteria as a cover for a communist takeover."
—Roger Ebert
  
the full review

 
Bridge of Spies

 " Bridge of Spies is a tonic in polarized times.
It's based on the true story of James Donovan, a Brooklyn lawyer who took on the case of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in 1957. Director Steven Spielberg has crafted a complex film that makes you question the drive to demonize adversaries and, even more, to break constitutional rules to pursue punishment.
Played with self-deprecating charm by two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, Donovan is a regular guy with a loving family, who happens to be a good insurance lawyer. With the down-home decency of a Frank Capra-esque hero, he succeeds more than he fails because he treats people as human beings and appeals to others to do the same." 
From a review from the Dallas News

See my review of  Bridge of Spies

 For a tribute to Seeger's life and career, you might wish to read Susan Green  in Critics at Large



We will be showing clips from the 2007 documentary Peter Seeger: The Power of Song

Roger Ebert says that the film is a tribute to the legendary singer and composer who thought music could be a force for good, and proved it by writing songs that have actually helped shape our times ("If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn") and popularizing "We Shall Overcome" and Woody Guthrie's unofficial national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."


Edward R. Murrow
In Good Night, and Good Luck, Director, George Clooney, pays homage to one of the icons of American broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow, in this fact-based drama. In 1953, Murrow was one of the best-known newsmen on television as host of both the talk show Person to Person and the pioneering investigate series See It Now. Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, was generating heated controversy in the public and private sectors with his allegations that Communists had risen to positions of power and influence in America. Among them was an Air Force pilot, Milo Radulovich, who had been cashiered out of the service due to McCarthy's charges that he was a Communist agent. However, Radulovich had been dismissed without a formal hearing of the charges, and he protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Murrow decided to do a story on Radulovich's case questioning the legitimacy of his dismissal, which was seen by McCarthy and his supporters as an open challenge to his campaign. McCarthy responded by accusing Murrow of being a Communist, leading to a legendary installment of See It Now in which both Murrow and McCarthy presented their sides of the story, which was seen by many as the first step toward McCarthy's downfall. Meanwhile, Murrow had to deal with CBS head William Paley, who was supportive of Murrow but extremely wary of his controversial positions, while Murrow was also trying to support fellow newsman Don Hollenbeck, battling charges against his own political views, and working alongside Fred Friendly


The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and continued until 21 August when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms.

The Prague Spring reforms were a strong attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel.
The reforms, especially the decentralization of administrative authority, were not received well by the Soviets, who, after failed negotiations, sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. 

A large wave of emigration swept the nation. A spirited non-violent resistance was mounted throughout the country, involving attempted fraternization, painting over and turning street signs (on one occasion an entire invasion force from Poland was routed back out of the country after a day's wandering), defiance of various curfews. While the Soviet military had predicted that it would take four days to subdue the country the resistance held out for eight months, and was only circumvented by diplomatic stratagems. There were sporadic acts of violence and several suicides by self-immolation (such as that of Jan Palach), but there was no military resistance. After the invasion, Czechoslovakia entered a period of normalization: subsequent leaders attempted to restore the political and economic values that had prevailed before Dubček gained control of the Party.  Gustáv Husák, who replaced Dubček and also became president, reversed almost all of Dubček's reforms. Czechoslovakia remained controlled until 1989, when the velvet revolution ended pro-Soviet rule peacefully, undoubtedly drawing upon the successes of the non-violent resistance twenty years earlier. The resistance also became an iconic example of civilian-based defense, which, along with unarmed civilian peacekeeping constitute the two ways that nonviolence can be and occasionally has been applied directly to military or paramilitary threats.

I wrote a piece about the politics of the Danube which included my, and the people I encountered, impressions about Havel and Dubcek 


Vaclav Havel addressing a crowd in Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1989.





Andrei Sakharov











Andrei Sakharov is often called the "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb," but most people know him as one of the twentieth century's most ardent and unrelenting champions of human rights and freedoms. It was for his work as an outspoken dissident to the Soviet regime that the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 1975. The citation called him "the conscience of mankind" saying that he "has fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but has in equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all." The Soviet authorities denied him permission to go to Norway to receive his award. 

Sakharov was recruited to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons program in June 1948 by his professor Igor Tamm. Later he wrote, "no one asked whether or not I wanted to take part in such work. I had no real choice in the matter, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that I brought to the task were my own." In a matter of months, the young physics graduate student came up with a totally new idea for an H-bomb design, one that he would call the "Layer Cake." 
His work on the nuclear program ultimately led Sakharov down the road toward dissent. Following the test of the first Soviet superbomb in 1955, Sakharov became increasingly disturbed by the consequences of his work: "When you see all of this yourself, something in you changes," he wrote. "When you see the burned birds who are withering on the scorched steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted glass, you immediately think of times of war... All of this triggers an irrational yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one's responsibility at this point?" 

In 1957 his concern about the biological hazards of nuclear testing inspired him to write an article about the effects of low-level radiation. In it he concluded that, the detonation of a one-megaton bomb would create 10,000 human casualties. "Halting the tests," he wrote, "will directly save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." Over the next ten years he became more and more concerned with civic issues. And in 1968, while still working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov wrote an essay that would thrust him into the international spotlight.
"Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom", attacked the Soviet political system. In it Sakharov argued for a "democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future." A copy of the article was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the New York Times. By the end of 1969 more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation worldwide.

Following the publication of "Reflections," Sakharov was fired from the weapons program. He became an increasingly vocal advocate of human rights and when he denounced the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviet authorities were quick to respond, banishing him to internal exile in Gorki in January 1980. His long years of isolation finally ended in December 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. 

Sakharov worked tirelessly to promote democracy in the Soviet Union until the very last day of his life. He was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies and appointed a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution. On the day he died, December 14, 1989, he made a plea before the Soviet Congress for political pluralism and a market economy. Later that evening his wife and fellow dissident Elena Bonner found him dead in his study.
 Anyone interested in reading a novel about the dissident culture during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras might wish to read my review of   The Big Green Tent

As one of my top ten books of 2016, I wrote,

“Nina Willner has written a powerful, moving family memoir spanning three generations divided by the Iron Curtain in Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. When her mother, Hanna, escaped to Berlin's Western zone as a young woman in 1948, she left behind her parents, siblings and the taint of suspicion that her family carries for decades. Their separation widens after Hanna marries an American army intelligence officer and moves to the United States. In describing the life of her family in East Germany and their suffering under the Communists – her grandfather was forced out of the teaching profession into impecunious retirement and the isolation of internal exile – Willner delineates a grim picture of an open-air prison. One of the most remarkable features of her memoir is how Willner links her own family with the larger tableau of world events to the extent that Gorbachev becomes the deux ex machina responsible for tearing down the Wall and reuniting both sides of the family. What lingers are the personal stories, especially exemplified by the author’s grandmother, Oma, whose hopeful optimism and generous spirit determines a way to build a Family Wall that offers the family sanctuary from the destructive forces of the outside world, and the author’s aunt, Heidi, who subversively lives her life with quiet dignity and integrity beneath the radar of the omniscient Stasi secret police.”


For 28 years, the Berlin Wall split a city in two and divided a nation with two million tons of concrete, 700,000 tons of steel, attack dogs, tank traps, death strips and tripwires. While its dangers kept most GDR citizens at bay, others were spurred on to overcome it, by digging under it, hiding in car trunks, flying over it in a hot-air balloon, and even surfing around it... Busting the Berlin Wall examines the most daring escapes, and interviews former border guards, politicians, spies and escapees, and how quickly it collapsed.


In The Lives of Others, a true believer who has devoted his life to ferreting out "dangerous" characters is thrown into a quandary when he investigates a man who poses no threat. It's 1984, and Capt. Gerd Wiesler is an agent of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. Weisler carefully and dispassionately investigates people who might be deemed some sort of threat to the state. Shortly after Weisler's former classmate, Lt. Col. Grubitz, invites him to a theatrical piece by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman, Minister Bruno Hempf informs Weisler that he suspects Dreyman of political dissidence, and wonders if this renowned patriot is all that he seems to be. As it turns out, Hempf has something of an ulterior motive for trying to pin something on Dreyman: a deep-seated infatuation with Christa-Maria Sieland, Dreyman's girlfriend. Nevertheless, Grubitz, who is anxious to further his career, appoints Weisler to spy on the gentleman with his help. Weisler plants listening devices in Dreyman's apartment and begins shadowing the writer. As Weisler monitors Dreyman's daily life, however (from a secret surveillance station in the gentleman's attic), he discovers the writer is one of the few East Germans who genuinely believes in his leaders. This changes over time, however, as Dreyman discovers that Christa-Maria is being blackmailed into a sexual relationship with Hempf, and one of Dreyman's friends, stage director Albert Jerska, is driven to suicide after himself being blackballed by the government. Dreyman's loyalty thus shifts away from the East German government, and he anonymously posts an anti-establishment piece in a major newspaper which rouses the fury of government officials. Meanwhile, Weisler becomes deeply emotionally drawn into the lives of Dreyman and Sieland, and becomes something of an anti-establishment figure himself, embracing freedom of thought and expression. One of the most powerful scenes is watching Weisler listening to Dreyman playing a moving piano piece after hearing about his friend’s suicide. The film raises the interesting question as to whether art can change people. 

 Recommended films we will not have time to show clips:

 Winner of the Best Director prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara is a simmering, impeccably crafted Cold War thriller, starring the gifted Nina Hoss as a Berlin doctor banished to a rural East German hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa. As her lover from the West carefully plots her escape, Barbara waits patiently and avoids friendships with her colleagues-except for Andre, the hospital's head physician, who is warmly attentive to her. But even as she finds herself falling for him, Barbara still cannot be sure that Andre is not a spy. As her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, she is eventually forced to make a profound decision about her future. A film of glancing moments and dangerous secrets, Barbara paints a haunting picture of a woman being slowly crushed between the irreconcilable needs of desire and survival. Germany's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.


October 1989 was a bad time to fall into a coma if you lived in East Germany - and this is precisely what happens to Alex's mother, an activist for social progress and the improvement of everyday life in socialist East Germany. Alex has a big problem on his hands when she suddenly awakens eight months later. Her heart is so weak that any shock might kill her. And what could be more shocking than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism in her beloved country? To save his mother, Alex transforms the family apartment into an island of the past, a kind of socialist museum where his mother is lovingly duped into believing that nothing has changed. What begins as a little white lie gets more and more out of hand as Alex's mother, who feels better every day, wants to watch TV and even leaves her bed one day…
In a wonderful, touching and comic manner, Good Bye, Lenin! tells the story of how a loving son tries to move mountains and create miracles to restore his mother to health - and keep her in the belief that Lenin really did win after all!











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