Monday, July 25, 2011

Hey, Mr. Smith, Where Are You?

My husband and I recently sat through a four-day, six-hour class that promised to challenge Hollywood history. The course did not live up to its promise, but we saw some old film clips about D-Day and Omaha beach followed by a series of Japanese planes strafing Pearl Harbor. We also watched an hour's worth of Recount, followed by a Q and A session in which the teacher did not know the answers to questions about Florida election law. The third session was about JFK and the Cuban Missile crisis, and the fourth a series of clips starring various celebrities in the role of statesmen. Thus, we listened to Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) grow hoarse and passionate about the little guy, especially those boy campers. He called out corruption in the guise of corporate influence, and using scripture, he pricked the conscience of Claude Rains in the role of Senator Joseph Harrison Paine. After hours of callous disregard, stoicism, and obfuscation, Paine cries: Expel me! I am the corruption. Yeah, right. Like that could happen.

We also saw President Andrew Shepherd admit to being a proud, card-carrying member of the ACLU, then slap his opponent with a metaphorical glove, challenging him to a duel over upholding the U. S. Constitution. At the close of this speech, one that never fails to make me a bit verklempt, Andy admits to being so busy keeping his job that he forgot to do his job. Oh, how I wish a few in various national elected positions would say those words. Instead the bombast conflates until it looms overhead like a giant mushroom cloud full of storm and fury, signifying nothing.

Where are the 2011 Mr. Smiths and President Shepherds, men of courage and conviction who fight against might for right? Where are the statesmen who stand for what we say we believe in: a greater good? Not political power, not corporate deregulation, not a military-industrial complex, not pledges signed before knowing the issues, and certainly not a soulless government that holds all the money in the palms of the few while the rest of the nation struggles.

We need big ideas. We need commitment. We need informed legislators, not men given partial and even slanted truths by lobbyists and businessmen. These men and women expect teachers to know the content they teach; they expect doctors to be skilled and trained. They demand that soldiers in the chaos of battle rise above their own and their enemies' hearts of darkness to draw the shadowy lines between defense, offense, and brutality. Yet they demand so little of themselves; their puny mewling cries are:

• I don't have time to read the bills.
• I have staff to research the issues.
• I must answer to a pledge exacted by a man not elected to office rather than my constituents. Please don't challenge me about the ethics of answering to a businessman instead of my constituents.
• I cannot be expected to discriminate between ethics, morals, and privilege. Washington is a murky place.
• Elect me or re-elect me because I'll change things, but I never do, especially because being a legislator quickly goes to every head, and we want to stay to play.

We need an Atticus Finch. We need Jefferson Smith. We need Andrew Shepherd. But we need the living, breathing, three-dimensional types, not the ones of fiction. I call on you and me and them to step up. Above all, I call upon all of us to care more about our neighbor than we care about ourselves. When his lot in life is secure, mine will be as well.