But then I got to thinking, and said to myself, "What the heck . . . let's revisit Lillian Hellman."
And so, here goes.
You may recall that Hellman's 1934 play deals with Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, two women who together run a successful New England school for girls. One of their students, Mary Tilford, an angry, mean, mischievous, diabolic teen runs away from the school. In order to avoid being sent back, she tells her grandmother that Karen and Martha are lesbian lovers. As a result of this lie -- and the community's willingness to believe it -- the women lose their school and reputations; Martha winds up committing suicide.
To my way of thinking, what has always made The Children's Hour so incredibly acerbating, so gut wrenching -- and so great -- is that it is oh so very real. Since just about forever -- to coin a weird phrase --we have had "Mary Tilfords" living among us -- angry, mean, mischievous diabolical sorts who are more than happy to spread untruths for their own warped reasons. Likewise, since just about the dawn of time, far too many have been happy to listen to -- and repeat -- "Mary Tilford's" untruths, whether they believe them or not. And, like the fictional Mary Tilford, these folks seem at best to be unaware -- at worst unconcerned -- that lies, rumors and innuendos can have extraordinarily tragic results.
It would seem that of late there has been a virtual population explosion within the Tilford "clan." For not a day goes by without some new lie, rumor, innuendo or mis-characterization hitting the airwaves or clogging one's inbox. Precisely what has Mary been up to? She has been repeatedly telling anyone who will listen that:
- The president is an "African-born alien who by law must be removed from office."
- That the president and his wife are "angry black racists."
- That he is a "virulent anti-Semite bent on the destruction of Israel."
- That the Democratic health care proposal would enable the government to "tell us where we may live, what we may eat, and what medical procedures we may have."
- That the Democratic health care plan "is very specific that private insurance would be ended."
- That the Democratic health care plan contains "mandatory counseling sessions for the purpose of telling seniors 'how to do what's in society's best interest . . . and cut your life short."
- That the president "fooled the vice president into thinking he likes white people."
- That Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has recently said "he agrees with Malcolm X that 'the white man is the devil.'"
What is it that these "Marys-With-Mikes" expect or want to happen? Merely that their ratings remain sky high and their salaries stratospheric? That next time around all these horrible liberals get voted out of office and replaced with people who think like they think, see what they see, and love what they love? How would they feel or respond if one or more of their listeners/viewers were actually to take matters into their own hands? After all, just how long can a group be told that a person, a platform or a program is purely evil and bent on destroying all they hold as dear without someone deciding that definitive action is required? Remember, in The Children's Hour, it was likely not Mary Tilford's intention that Karen and Martha's school be destroyed or that Martha should commit suicide . . . but it did happen. What did she think her rumor would lead to? Likewise, what do all the "Marys-With-Mikes" think their untruths will lead to? Shouldn't they bear some responsibility for what they put out over the airwaves?
Now, I am neither so naive nor innocent as to wonder why people can't play fair, "just make nice" and stop spreading malicious lies about each other. Politics is after all a full-contact sport, and definitely not for those who are either weak-hearted or thin-skinned. (Note to Sarah Palin: repeat this last sentence out loud at least 100 times.) I fully realize that while the relationship between public and private interest should be symbiotic or mutualistic -- in which both parties benefit -- it is far too often parasitic -- in which one party benefits while the other is harmed. What does fill me with fascination and frustration is how relatively easy it is to convince folks to oppose that which is ultimately in their own best self interest.
I suspect that the overwhelming majority of you who read The K.F. Stone Weekly have not -- and will not -- buy in to the mendacious drivel our present day "Marys-With-Mikes" broadcast. Good for you. But what of all those who, like the community complicit in destroying Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, find nothing wrong in believing and repeating that which is either demonstrably untrue or patently absurd? What can be done about them? (Note: This is not to say that Karen and Martha being engaged in a lesbian relationship was 'patently absurd.')
In some cases, and with some people, facts can overcome fiction. That is why it is good to have such debunking resources as the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.ORG and Snopes. Of course for many others, fiction is just one whale of a lot more fun (and much easier to grasp) than fact; witness those who continue to pass along the "fact" that the Democratic health care plan includes "forced euthanasia" despite an easily accessible copy of the bill in question -- see The Truth About End of Life Care. (Please be warned: legislative language ain't literary!)
I for one would love to see a revival of The Children's Hour. Its theme and message is as poignant today as it was 75 years ago -- or during the early 1950s when its revival was construed as an attack on the House Un-American Activities Committee. A revival today just might serve to remind people that those who consciously play fast and loose with the truth -- for whatever reason -- are possibly setting in motion events that are well beyond their power and potentially tragic.
©2009 Kurt F. Stone