Spielberg’s film The Post is about events that are now history. Yet they remain so relevant.
We may agree that American democracy has reached a critical point. The problems that have gnawed at the bones of the faith and reason of Jeffersonian principles now threaten to devour all the good intentions. There is a desperation born of poverty, lack of opportunity and the consequent isolation. The violence and fear in the minds even of small communities serve to remind the republic that all is not as it should be.
American democracy began in a century where reason and intellect were gaining ascendancy over inheritance and entitlement as the founding principles of the good society. American democracy did not emerge slowly by a series of constitutional reforms. American democracy was liberty torn away from the tyranny of rule by an imperial power. It began as a revolutionary act, a leap into the future rather than a gradual development. The divergence of experience, and of values, began in 1776. Jefferson defied the law. His were acts of high treason, punishable by death. Had the redcoats found him, as they surely hoped in the War of 1812, he would have been tried and hanged. Neither he nor Franklin nor Washington would have been heroes to history. The exquisite prose of the Declaration of Independence would be trodden in the dust of a failed revolution.
But, as we can observe, the revolution succeeded. The USA, however, may not be the enlightened citizen democracy of Jefferson’s dream. There is so much blood and oppression in the history of the republic. To see in the dollar a colophon of liberty is to cheapen ideals into a game of roulette. Self-belief can collapse into self-delusion. The good society surely depends on a concern for the lives of others. The well-being of one requires the well-being of all.
This conundrum is, surely, behind the populism that has seized the will of the post-industrial poor. There might have been socialism but for the inherent fear of intellect and imagination. What we see instead is the impulse, born of desperation, that the pursuit of personal advantage is the solution. Work hard and succeed. And to hell with noble words about commonwealth. Save that for the Kennedys. They can afford to be liberal. We sure as heck can’t.
I have felt in my observations of America frequent times of doubt that anything can be saved of the dream when so often the USA has acted in ways that give the moral advantage to its critics and adversaries. It is one thing to mean well. It is another to act for the eventual good of all humanity. I do not call the memory of so many B-52s they darkened the sky a guarantor of benevolence. As a society the time has long passed when citizens need bear arms for fear of the redcoats.
Of course it was always the case that property took precedence over commonwealth.
The governance was of the individual citizen rather than the collective culture of society and history. The prime dominion of liberty has been an unexpected source of many ensuing problems of the American moral order. The pursuit of happiness has proved so often to be a curse in a world where optimism requires valid substance to fulfil its promise.
Yet it remains true that at those moments when you feel the republic may founder something happens to renew the hope that not all the blood was not shed in vain. There may be found within the fabric of a necessarily complex culture some things that signify adherence to the benign intentions of the republic’s revolutionary origins.
That said, it has to be accepted that Eighteenth Century rationalism may seem naÃ¯ve in the light of history. Jefferson did not write the last word in the development of human affairs. But he did secure the cornerstone from which a society might yet be constructed according to the continuing revolution in human aspirations. Just don’t hold your breath.
In the meantime there are occasions when American democracy rises to meet its expectations. The world is urgently in need of such an occasion now. That, surely, is the implication of a recent, remarkable film, The Post. Well-crafted technically and very well-acted, The Post is among the finest of Spielberg’s uneven career. Too often technique has not been matched by a credible aesthetic. In what is now perhaps his late style a maturity of purpose and an expressive depth has all but banished the sentimentality and the need to please the popcorn minds. The Post is serious. It has a narrative style and content appropriate to its subject matter, the time The Washington Post emerged into world’s awareness as a beacon of truth in dark times.
The events described have passed into history. The deception of successive administrations from Eisenhower onward is truly shocking. Waging an unwinnable war is unjustifiable, especially when that war is against an imagined enemy. The real enemy was, of course, within the chicanery that was bringing the American polity to its knees.
The central villain of the piece is Richard Nixon, a recurring presence for many years, first as red-baiting senator, then as Vice-President and, after an interval, as President. We have long known how he lied repeatedly well before Watergate. We have long known also how he nearly got away with it. But for the determination of a few brave souls and the support of The Washington Post we might never have known the greater part of the systemic chicanery that sustained corrupt men in office for the sake of power.
To tell the truth Katharine Graham and her team at the Post had to risk breaking the law. There were secret documents of the utmost confidentially that gave unequivocal testimony to the abuse of power at the highest levels of government.
The Post’s case rested on the authority of moral law over the claims of a questionable legalism that was concealing unconstitutional behaviour. A free press appealed to an independent judiciary.
The founding principles of the republic were upheld. Government was there to serve the people.
Once again, the contrast with British experience and the underlying values is marked. Britain’s polity is defined by its established traditions of deference and hierarchy tempered by an occasional reference to popular consent. American democracy works by upholding the sovereignty of the citizen. Its flaws are evident and well-chronicled, but in times of crisis a democratic mindset argues against tyranny.
In Britain the media have an unfortunate tendency to seek institutional status.
The American ideal of a free press is a means of serving the people. It is a freedom that can be exercised according to principles that place moral constraints on the freedom to comment. Dishonesty is not freedom. Take a look at British newsstands. Emotive and manipulative slogans in large letters are not examples of a free press. They are signs of intolerance and potential tyranny. Billionaires with printing presses could not do as they pleased in a responsible society. To speak of a free society in this context is to mock the idea of liberty.
The great American newspapers are remarkably dignified in presentation and are substantial in content. There is nothing silly in them, although there is a lightness of touch. These papers are informative and enlightening. They are written in an assured and elegant manner. Their intention is to open minds. If necessary they determine to open locked doors. These papers are not extensions of the entertainment industry, but a complement to the higher reaches of a democratic culture. If all of America were like this then it is tempting to declare we would have nothing to fear and much to admire. BUT’
The USA’s dark times are not over. So many unresolved problems might prove the undoing of its increasingly fragile democracy. The idea of commonwealth has yet to take centre stage in the American mind. Selfish materialism threatens to engulf those areas of enlightenment that hold the centre in moments of crisis.
The world needs to ask what could have happened had Nixon not been found out. We need to ask also what will happen for sure if ignorance and intolerance become not the aberration but the norm of the American polity.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall