Right to Life

An essay I recently submitted for a scholarship:

Life. Wonderful, unpredictable, priceless. Yet what if a life has become little more than the difficult passing of air in and out of lungs, with no hope for recovery, for a future, or for playing with grandchildren in the yard? What then? Call it what you will, but I believe that a human being has every right to decide that his or her life is no longer worth living, and then to make every attempt to end it. Yet simply because each and every one of us has the right to make himself blissfully dead, does not mean that those who continue living are compelled to assist their efforts, or even to stand idly by. Where is it written that we must respect the wishes of those who believe their time has come? The problem with the right to die movement, then, is not with the wishes of the patient but with the presumed complicity of caregivers and loved ones.

In Jonathan Moreno’s Arguing Euthanasia, the well-reasoned arguments of several reputable American doctors and experts provide the reader with arguments for, but mostly against, the right of an individual to take his own life. The majority finds recent doctor-assisted suicides abhorrent, but the debate is rendered most elegantly by University of Chicago’s Dr. Leon Kass, who is concerned about the growing societal push for a right to die. What originally stemmed from our inalienable right to happiness in the landmark Oregon decision of November 1994, which first legalized assisted suicide, has become something more pervasive, even insidious. “From my right to die will follow your duty to assist me in dying,” the received wisdom goes, and Kass is rightly appalled.

Indeed, the progression is antithetical to humanity as we know it, which is based on the survival instinct, not only for ourselves but also for others. Speaking as both a doctor a human being, Kass acknowledges “the public duty to protect life against those who would threaten it... [and] a duty to prolong life whenever possible, regardless of the conditions of that life or the wishes of its bearer.” Every human being with a conscience can understand and appreciate such duties.

I believe that this life is all we are granted, that with my last breath I will experience my last moment of consciousness. Then nothing, darkness, the end. Thus, even if my mother, wife, or child begged me to pull the plug on their flickering humanity, I would hesitate to oblige. Many may disagree with my decision, but considering the vast chasm between here and there, between life and death, there must be room for hope. Speaking from experience, convicted murderer Doris Ann Foster said, “death row is a state of mind.” If Foster is right, perhaps the minds of those who have condemned themselves to the gallows can still be swayed. Indeed, a gesture of hope from the living might be the spark that re-ignites the flame of life in the heart, and mind, of the dying.


U.S. and China

Speaking in Kyoto, Japan, on the first stop of his November swing through Asia, President George W. Bush was hopeful about democracy in the world’s emerging superpower. “As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed.” Don’t be so sure, Mr. President.

The news from the People’s Republic is that the ruling Communist Party has of late been stifling its citizenry with vigorous repression. In March, the party asserted its authority over rural elections after locals’ attempts to replace the director of a village committee led to a police raid in which farmers were blasted with water hoses. Dissidents are being hounded like never before: Ding Zilin, a retired university professor who has fought for a government apology as one of the Tiananmen Mothers, said, “I can’t even go and get groceries without them following me and harassing me. Neither Deng Xiaoping nor Jiang Zemin treated me as badly;” closer monitoring of online news and commentary postings has led to the imprisonment of over 60 Chinese nationals and recently prodded Reporters Without Borders to dub China “The World Champion” of Internet censorship. And when Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing in November, Hu had resolved none of the twenty-five human rights cases on a list Bush had given him two months prior.

Bush’s tiptoeing around the white elephant of greater democratic reform at the Beijing summit—while Hu quarantined dissidents and gave lip service to concerns over intellectual property rights and currency revaluation—was indicative of the changing tenor of Sino-American relations. Combine China’s economic juggernaut with its recent crackdown on free speech and democratic freedoms, and the U.S. has reason for concern. Yet the problems don’t end there. Consider this rebuff from the opening lines of China’s first white paper on democracy, released in October:

“Democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilization of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world. Democracy of a country is generated internally, not imposed by external forces.”

And then stir in the findings of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs, who in the September/October Foreign Affairs smartly detail how “economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes.” Finally, add Hu’s integrationist stance—he recently said that China’s rise “will only do good to peace, stability, and prosperity in the world”—and it is clear that the Bush administration faces a new policy paradigm in regards to the Big Red One.

The U.S. is partially to blame for China’s rapid maturity, with its long-explicit support of China’s integration into global markets and the World Trade Organization and an annual Chinese trade deficit approaching $200 billion. As continuing difficulties in Iraq and sinking domestic confidence whittle the pedestal of American diplomacy to a stump, the U.S. should rein in hope for a democratic China. In the short term, Bush would be wise to keep his freedom rhetoric buttoned up, curb his neo-conservative tendencies, and attend to putting his own democratic house in order.


Good Night, Gallant Knight

Speaking at an awards ceremony in 1958, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow commented on the state of television by imagining historians one hundred years hence poring over primetime programming from his day: “They will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live…and only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. This process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants.”

The cultural critic Neil Postman not only echoed and furthered Murrow’s concerns in his landmark 1985 jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, but also commented on them precisely if indirectly. “The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public’s indifference,” Postman wrote. “There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.” All of which is the disheartening subtext of George Clooney’s sharp second feature, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

On the surface we have a sleek and inspiring tale of one brave reporter and his news show standing up to the political tidal wave that was Joseph McCarthy’s communist purge. Clooney’s father toiled as an itinerant Midwestern anchorman for decades, and there is little doubt that the director has great affection for his subject. Shot lovingly in black and white, the film evokes a more innocent era—the smooth jazz and bittersweet gospel, the dark suits and wide ties, the ubiquitous cigarettes—the better to foster an aura of Soviet paranoia, abetted by the ghoulish visage of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, human shorthand for overwrought witch hunts.

We first see him in 1953 newsreel footage, red-faced and punching his hands through the air in front of him as a curl of inky hair waves from his pasty forehead. The specter of Communism is on the march, McCarthy warns, or something to that affect, and one notes how the intervening years have lent the junior senator from Wisconsin both a quixotic hopelessness and, perversely, a power he never wielded in life. He is a repellent figure, an opportunist and jowly bulldog, yet also a man who defined a time and an aura of paranoia that struck at the very roots of our civilization. A Trojan horse of sorts, McCarthy rolled into the anxious post-WWII political moment as a likable, straight-shooting country boy and war hero, then mined political gold with a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, in which he famously claimed to have in his possession a list of some 57 known communists working in the U.S. State Department. The American public pricked up its ears, McCarthy remade himself as the grand accusator, and politicians and the media soon embraced the fear he engendered.

Then Murrow stepped into the breach. Heroic in his own right as a result of brave reporting from the firebombing of London, Murrow, with an appealing face and dulcet tones, was by 1953 a bonified TV star. With cigarette in hand and hair pomaded just so, Murrow made the country feel intelligent and cultured with “See It Now” and kowtowed to more basic instincts discussing trivialities with celebrities on the more popular “Person to Person.” He and producer pal Fred Friendly attacked McCarthyism in a late 1953 “See It Now” story about Airman Milo Radulovich, a reserve weatherman dishonorably discharged after the Air Force painted his immigrant father as a Communist. In the film, two U.S. Armed Forces officials visited Friendly just before the Radulovich episode aired. “These are dangerous waters you are attempting to navigate,” Colonel Jenkins warned the producer.

Indeed, the story, which initiated a backlash against McCarthy, angled the “See It Now” boat towards not only the shark-infested waters of the U.S. political machine but the craggy shoals of serious television as well. After a March 1954 episode solely dedicated to deconstructing the bearish and dubious actions and words of McCarthy—a half-hour chunk of television journalism many consider the finest ever—Murrow and Friendly were called into the office of CBS’ president William Paley. Because of poor ratings and frightened sponsors, Paley moved “See It Now” to the netherworld of Sunday afternoon, where it could offend as it liked because no one would notice. The fluff of “Person to Person” had always won better ratings, and now it took pride of place. In 1955, “See It Now,” a landmark news show and four-time Emmy winner, lost its regular weekly spot.

Appearing on “See It Now” to defend himself in April 1954, McCarthy slung dubious accusations and lurid insults at Murrow: “he is a symbol, a leader of the jackal pack, a communist supporter since 1934,” ad infinitum. The appearance did him little good. By the end of the film McCarthy is indicted and his reign of terror ended—at one point we see attorney Joseph Welch posing the immortal questions to McCarthy regarding his decency and shame, at long last—and Murrow and Friendly are rightly lauded.

Yet the obvious lesson is that television brooks no dissent, not of its own M.O., at least; what goes on the tube must be Aldous Huxley’s soma, mindless and soothing, or face banishment. To see the indignity of Murrow distractedly quizzing Liberace about the singer’s marital plans is to witness the destructive power of television, effortlessly muzzling the reporting drive of such a determined and headstrong man. Murrow appeared bowed if unbroken at the Radio-Television News Directors Assocation ceremony, which bookends Clooney’s film, when he damned the entire television industry, himself included. “We shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced.”

One of the first conservatives to speak out against McCarthy in the 1950’s was the historian and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Vierick, who spoke recently of man’s responsibility in the world. “I can think of nothing more gallant, even though again and again we fail, than attempting to get at the facts; attempting to tell things as they really are.” Clooney’s film presents Murrow as a truth seeker and an impressively gallant figure. He uses television to unmask and defeat McCarthy, a great American fraud; he is journalist as knight. But television brings him low in the end, and when finally the story prods us to look around for gallantry today, we are left wanting.