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August 31, 2010

Michael Winship: The Awful Price for Teaching Less than We Know

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

The Awful Price for Teaching Less than We Know
By Michael Winship

Watching Glenn Beck's performance Saturday at his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, DC, I thought of the novelist Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, the charlatan evangelist who seduces most of those around him with his hearty backslapping and false piety.

Then I realized it wasn't Gantry of whom I was reminded so much as another Lewis character, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, the politician who poses as a populist, then once elected president turns the United States into a fascist dictatorship, aided by an angry, unknowing electorate and a paramilitary group called the Minute Men.

Read how Sinclair Lewis described Windrip seventy-five years ago in his novel It Can't Happen Here and think Beck: "He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts -- figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.

Entirely incorrect. In its despair and confusion, a large segment of the American populace is prepared to believe anything it's told, in part because we are a country less and less educated, increasingly unable to tell fact from fiction because we are so unschooled in basic essential knowledge about America and the world.

I remembered a conversation my friend and colleague Bill Moyers had with journalist and author Susan Jacoby on Bill Moyers Journal in 2008, just after the publication of her book, The Age of American Unreason.

She cited a 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey: "Only 23 percent of college-educated young people could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Israel, four countries of ultimate importance to American policy on the map -- a map, by the way, that had the countries lettered on it. So in other words, it wasn't a blank map, [which] meant they didn't really know where the Middle East was either... If only 23 percent of people with some college can find those countries on a map that is nothing to be bragging about. And that has to have something to do with why, as a country, we have such shallow political discussions."

It's not much of a leap from there to the Pew Research Center survey earlier this month reporting "nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009."

The jump in the "Obama is a Muslim" numbers is sharpest among Republicans (and a new Newsweek poll finds a majority of Republicans also believe that it's "definitely" or "probably" true that "Barack Obama sympathizes with Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world"). But as New York Times blogger Timothy Egan noted in an entry headlined, " Building a Nation of Know-Nothings," it's "not just that 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, or that 27 percent in the party doubt that the president of the United States is a citizen. But fully half of them believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush."

Back when Moyers spoke with Susan Jacoby about "the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that makes serious deceptions possible and plausible," she cited as an example that, "If we don't know what our Constitution says about the separation of powers then it certainly affects the way we decide all kinds of public issues."

According to a survey conducted last year by The American Revolution Center, a non-partisan, educational group, more than half of American adults "mistakenly believe the Constitution established a government of direct democracy, rather than a democratic republic," a third don't know that the right to trial-by-jury is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and "many more Americans remember that Michael Jackson sang 'Beat It' than know that the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution." (Sixty percent knew that reality TV's Jon and Kate Gosselin had eight kids but more than a third did not know that the American Revolution took place in the 18th century.)

So is it any wonder that many Tea Partiers are equally unknowing of the fact that much of their grass roots movement is bankrolled by fat cats with ulterior motives like billionaire libertarians David Koch and his brother Charles, who, as a former associate told The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, seems to have "confused making money with freedom?" Or that continuing tax cuts for the rich while supporting deficit reduction are inherently incompatible concepts? Or that raging Islamophobia plays right into the hands of radical terrorists who use our bigotry to incite and recruit? Or that Glenn Beck just says whatever craziness pops into his head?

"It's one thing to forget the past, with predictable consequences, as the favorite aphorism goes," Timothy Egan wrote on the Times website. "But what about those who refuse to comprehend the present?"

Years ago, I attended a rally protesting government cuts in funding for education and the arts. One of the speakers suggested that we boomers may be the first generation to teach the next generation less than we know. That often-willful ignorance may turn out to be our final, fatal mistake, the greatest American tragedy of all.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

  • Watch Bill Moyers and Susan Jacoby on The Age of American Unreason,

  • August 26, 2010

    Remembering The Real Labor Day

    While following the ups and downs of the U.S. economy BILL MOYERS JOURNAL kept its focus on America's working people — not just the markets in New York and the corridors of power in Washington.

    In this video player you can find BILL MOYERS JOURNAL's complete coverage of the issues facing America's workers: stories of communities facing hardship, profiles of organizers and in-depth analysis of the effect of politics and policy on families and associated pages that contain a wealth of resources and information about specific topics. And don't miss Bill Moyers' essay on the real meaning of Labor Day and a photo essay on the history of Labor Day.

    August 24, 2010

    Michael Winship: Labor Says Mott's Apples Are Rotten to the Core

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

    Labor Says Mott's Apples Are Rotten to the Core
    By Michael Winship

    Among the many TV ad jingles sadly cluttering my brain since childhood (although useful in trivia contests) is the one that went, "The finest apples from Apple Land/Make Mott's Apple Sauce taste grand!"

    A branchful of the juicy, singing fruit would belt it out at the end of commercials that urged us to use applesauce to accompany meats, slather onto bread, spoon on top of ice cream, spackle drywall, you name it.

    The Mott's commercials were especially meaningful where I grew up because we lived in Apple Land -- western New York State, not far from the town of Williamson, where workers at a Mott's factory have been out on strike since May 23rd.

    The job action was started by 305 working men and women, members of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Whether they win or lose could play a role in determining the future of organized labor -- and the vanishing American middle class.

    Mott's purchases between six and seven million bushels of New York apples every year -- more than half of all the apples produced in the state -- and has gone through a number of acquisitions and consolidations since Samuel R. Mott, a Quaker who made his own apple cider and vinegar, founded the company in 1842.

    Today it's owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), based in Plano, Texas. Ever since the takeover, union members claim, the family spirit at the factory that once included an effective worker-management safety committee, Christmas parties, Easter hams and company picnics has been destroyed. Corporate greed, they say, has marched in with a vengeance.

    I first met Bruce Beal, Local 220's recording secretary and a member of its executive board at an AFL-CIO meeting in Albany, NY, last week. (Full disclosure: I'm president of the Writers Guild of America, East, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) We caught up again on the phone, just as he and fellow strikers were seeing off a delegation of members headed out to an informational picket at a Dr. Pepper Snapple facility in Illinois.

    Beal said he and the other union workers were shocked when DPS -- despite a profit of $555 million on sales of $5.5 billion last year -- demanded massive contract concessions; among them, slashing wages by $1.50 an hour, the elimination of pensions for new employees, a 20 percent reduction in their 401K's and a change in their health plan Beal says would force members to pay out of pocket an additional $6000-8000 a year.

    In an official statement playing on the region's economic hardship, the company declared that, "DPS workers in Williamson enjoy significantly higher wages than the typical manufacturing employee in Western New York... As a public company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all of its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities."

    Bruce Beal dismissed the DPS argument as "a line of bull... They don't give a rip about their employees, just lining their pockets is all they're concerned with." He points to Larry Young, the company's CEO, whose salary has risen 113 percent over the last three years to $6.5 million, and says that workers were told that they were nothing more than a "commodity, like soybeans... When we talked about how the company's demands would cause our members to lose their homes or have their cars repossessed, they looked right at us and said, 'You are living beyond your means.'"

    Beal says the union has heard that other profitable businesses are discussing the strike and saying that if DPS wins, they, too, will demand massive concessions. But as Local 220's president Mike LeBerth told The New York Times, "Corporate America is making tons of money -- this company is a good example of that. So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?"

    Trucks will now be pulling up to the Mott's factory gate with this year's crop. Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said its members will have to cross the picket line: "When apples are ripe, they have to be harvested, and growers will be delivering this year's apple crop to the Mott's plant as usual... It is not done as a sign of support or a gesture of disrespect to either side."

    According to Bruce Beal, "Our fight is with the company and not with the farmers. They have to make a living, too." He urged anyone interested to go the strikers website, www.mottsworkers.org, for more information or to contribute to their Hardship Fund. Others have suggested a boycott of all of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group's products, which also include 7 Up, Hawaiian Punch and Canada Dry.

    Meanwhile, DPS refuses to come back to the bargaining table and on Monday, August 30, the workers will mark Day 100 of their strike. Maybe they can get the singing apples from those vintage TV commercials to change their tune and learn some good old-fashioned labor songs. Like the one that asks, "Which Side Are You On?"

    Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

    August 18, 2010

    Michael Winship: You've Got to Be Carefully Taught

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

    You've Got to Be Carefully Taught
    By Michael Winship

    As citizens of the nation continue through the summer, distracting themselves from difficult truths by howling at the moon and one another, I spent this past weekend in Manhattan seeing revivals of two classic period pieces of American theater. Magnificent productions of Our Town and South Pacific are about to close after long successful runs.

    Escapist and quaint? Not at all. These shows are as imaginative, poignant and pertinent today as they were the very first time their curtains came up, each a reminder of aspects of our national character; some grand and others we still struggle to put behind us.

    Our Town is Thornton Wilder's famous 1938 meditation on life and death, told via the comings and goings of everyday people in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, a fictitious country town at the turn of the twentieth century. Its message: that we are too often, too busy with our day-to-day existence to pay heed to the wonder of it all. And when we are dead, we are dead. But not quite.

    "We all know that something is eternal," the play's omniscient Stage Manager tells us. "And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

    The human beings of Grover's Corners are proudly American, parochial but commonsensical, loyal, educated and devout. They read the paper and go to choir practice. Their children study Cicero and the Louisiana Purchase.

    The only ethnic influence is indicated by a couple of references to the twins delivered by Doc Gibbs over in "Polish Town" -- "Across the tracks... You know, foreign people that come here to work in the mill, couple of Canuck families, and the Catholic Church." So much for immigration reform.

    But some of these townsfolk yearn for broader horizons. "It seems to me," Doc Gibbs' wife says, "that once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to." A concept still lost on homegrown xenophobes who would seal off our borders and minds, eschew diplomacy with those not Judeo-Christian and hunker down, ever vigilant and paranoid, in Fortress USA.

    (Bravo, by the way, to Josh Marshall of the website Talking Points Memo, who, reporting on the Ground Zero contretemps, wrote this week, "We're in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What effects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What's important is compiling some record of what's afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.")

    Soon enough, many of the children of Grover's Corners and other American villages and farms did see for themselves, experiencing Europe for the first tine from the gruesome battlefields and trenches of World War I (but including the intellectual and sensual pleasures of Paris). And three decades after that "war to end all wars," the Second World War found millions of Americans shipping out to all points of the globe, battling enemies on a monumental scope and scale unlike anything in history.

    That's the setting of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. When it was first produced, in 1949, the war was still so fresh in the recent past that many of the cast wore their own, barely retired military uniforms. (You can see the production this week on public television's Live from Lincoln Center series. Check your local listings.)

    Because we are at war again, "the play summons a sort of memory of being under threat," its director Bartlett Sher notes, but perhaps more important, it so vividly depicts American culture -- US Navy and Marines -- colliding with the mores of another, vastly different society. In South Pacific, it's dark-skinned Polynesia as well as a French expatriate who escaped to the islands after killing a man back home.

    Two love stories confront racial prejudice head on. Lieutenant Joe Cable, Philadelphia lawyer to be, is in love with the Tonkinese girl Liat but cannot overcome the elitist bigotry with which he has been inculcated. "You've got to be carefully taught," he sings:

    You've got to be taught before it's too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate...

    The song was so controversial it was almost cut from South Pacific before opening night, and later, according to The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, "There were cities in the deep South that would not book the tour of South Pacific because of that number."

    In parallel, nurse Nellie Forbush, the self-described Southern hick from Little Rock, falls for the French planter, Emile de Becque, but recoils not from learning his murderous past but when she meets the mixed race children he had with his late Polynesian wife. In the James Michener book of short stories from which the musical's plotline was adapted, Nellie's reaction is harsh and coarse; she uses the basest racial epithet to describe the wife and children. "Her entire Arkansas upbringing made it impossible for her to deny the teachings of her youth," Michener writes. "... If she married him, they would be her stepdaughters. She suffered a revulsion which her lover could never understand."

    At the musical's end Nellie surmounts her prejudice, but so little has changed since South Pacific premiered more than half a century ago. Look at radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's on-air tirade last week, using that same epithet nearly a dozen times and dismissing an African American caller's frustration that her white husband's friends and family made racist remarks in her presence: "If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, don't marry out of your race."

    Alas. As the Stage Manager says in Our Town, "Wherever you come near the human race there's layers and layers of nonsense."

    Michael Winship is senior writer for Public Affairs Television in New York City.

    August 13, 2010

    Michael Winship: The Wall and the Mosque: Divide and Unite

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

    The Wall and the Mosque: Divide and Unite

    By Michael Winship

    The current fight over the building of an Islamic study center near Ground Zero here in Manhattan is reminiscent of another battle nearly thirty years ago. Then, too, ignorance, rage and prejudice threatened to destroy the creation of something intended to help mend a grievous wound and foster understanding and reconciliation.

    In May 1981, a jury of architects and sculptors announced the results of a nationwide competition to design a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Congress had authorized the setting aside of three acres of National Park Service land near the Lincoln Memorial. More than 1400 design submissions came in, so many they took up more than 35,000 square feet in a hangar at Andrews Air Force Base outside the capital. Each entry was numbered so that the identities of those submitting remained anonymous.

    The winner, by unanimous vote of the jury, was Number 1026 -- a massive, horizontal V made from polished black granite: two walls, each 246 feet, nine inches across, inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed during the Vietnam War. In the words of Jan Scruggs, the ex-infantryman who came up with the idea of building a monument, "As you looked at the other designs, they were miniature Lincoln Memorials. There was the helicopter on the pole, there was the army helmet with dog tags inside. They seemed so banal and average and typical compared to this."

    But many screamed in protest, including two who had been supporters of the idea of a Vietnam memorial and prominent fundraisers for its construction: billionaire H. Ross Perot and now Democratic senator from Virginia Jim Webb, who wrote to Scruggs, "I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone."

    Some veterans described it as a "black gash of shame" and said it was an insult, both to those who had given their lives and those who had fought and survived. Others were further outraged by the identity of the memorial's designer, a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate, Chinese-American Maya Ying Lin. Irrationally ignoring even the simple truth that the judges had no idea of her identity beforehand, the notion that a young Asian woman should be chosen to design a monument to a conflict in which the other side was Asian was attacked as a slap in the face by the bigoted and ill-informed.

    As Washingtonian magazine reported, in words echoing the current Ground Zero battle, "The fight was bitter, fueled by emotions that had as much to do with the war as they did with the memorial itself. There were death threats, racial slurs and broken friendships. Memories of that time still spark pain and anger."

    Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt, the same man who wanted to ban the Beach Boys from Washington's National Mall because he thought they attracted "the wrong element," tried to block the building permit. But eventually a compromise was made. Over Maya Lin's vehement, aesthetic objections, a statue of three servicemen and an American flag were added to the site.

    Today, of course, the protests have faded to meaninglessness and Maya Lin's Vietnam wall is recognized for what it is and always was, a simple yet dramatic and eloquent expression of both service and the horrible finality of war. Now a venerated part of Washington's landscape of monuments and tributes, more than three million come to the wall every year, triple the combined number of sightseers who go to the White House and the Washington Monument. Many stop to make a pencil rubbing of one of the names engraved in the granite; some leave flowers and other mementoes, or stop to stare into the polished black surface that reflects back the visitor's own face.

    "It has become something of a shrine," Jan Scruggs told US News and World Report in 2007. "It has helped people separate the warrior from the war and it has helped a nation to heal." So powerful is its impact, replicas of the wall tour the country, reminding towns and villages that sent so many of their young to southeast Asia of the sacrifices made and the lives cut short by combat, then and now.

    Millions will not visit the planned Islamic study center near Ground Zero (although surely they will flock to New York's someday-soon-to-be-completed 9/11 memorial). But with patience, tolerance and common sense, perhaps in the years to come, when the angry shouts have ended, it, too, will become a place where visitors -- Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of all other faiths -- can peacefully reflect not only upon a great national tragedy but on the centuries of good and evil perpetrated throughout this planet's history in the name of God, ideology and country.

    Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

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