issue 220 - June 1991
Guilty by Suspicion
directed by Irwin Winkler
Hollywood has always been very adept at making films about itself, except when it comes to the biggest political upheaval in its history: Senator Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist witchhunt, which led to the blacklisting of many one-time sympathizers working in the film industry. Rampant political ambition, betrayal, courtroom hearings, artists forced to take a stand for their beliefs - here are the ingredients for a powerful Hollywood movie. And yet those films which have actually addressed McCarthyism - like The Front, starring Woody Allen, or the thriller The House on Carroll Street - have ended up passionless and curiously apologetic, despite the involvement of blacklist victims.
Sadly, Guilty by Suspicion is no exception. The screenwriting and directing debut of Irwin Winkler (who produced Rocky, The Right Stuff and GoodFellas), it's the story of David Merrill (Robert De Niro), a fictional Hollywood director whose illustrious career is destroyed when he refuses to appear as a 'co-operative witness' in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
But the film treats Merrill's dilemma in isolation, focusing on the effects it has on his relationships with family and friends. The soap-opera feel of these domestic crises is only enhanced by the casting in key supporting roles of thirtysomething's Patricia Wettig and George Wendt of Cheers.
Unlike the recent British film Fellow Traveller, about a blacklisted writer working in the UK in the 1950s, Guilty by Suspicion makes no attempt to relate Merrill's personal ordeal to wider political issues. In fact the movie is at pains to show that Merrill never was a Communist - he had just attended a few peace rallies in the 1930s. The implication seems to be that, if he really had been a Communist, he wouldn't deserve our sympathy in the same way.
In a film so preoccupied with the process of naming names, it's also disappointing that so few real names are used. The only historical figure is Merrill's boss at 20th Century Fox, Darryl F Zanuck, but it's never explained why the Hollywood studios, as represented by this unexpectedly benign mogul, should have participated in the victimization of so many of their employees.
The Gaia Atlas of Future Worlds
by Norman Myers
With less than 3,000 environmentally friendly shopping days to go until the year 2,000 when the world's population is expected to reach 6.12 billion and 400 million people to become environmental refugees, the more people who take the time to read this book the better.
Norman Myers has succeeded admirably in making the complexities of the holistic approach to the impending human and ecological crisis intelligible to the lay reader. Through its imaginative use of text interspersed with colourful maps, diagrams and photographs, The Gala Atlas of Future Worlds provides its readers with the most user-friendly of crystal balls.
The book explores the magnitude of the changes that are upon us, from the technical to the personal. And its title refers to 'future worlds' in the plural because we face choices - Myers is concerned to impress upon us that we must use the changes going on in the world to our advantage to create a better world.
Exactly how we should do so is less clear but at least the emphasis on the positive possibilities allows this Gala Atlas, the latest in an estimable series, to transcend Green literature's habitual doom and gloom.
Birth Without Doctors
by Jacqueline Vincent-Prlya
The Children who Sleep by the River
by Debbie Taylor
(Allison & Busby)
Two books that treat an unusual theme very differently. Birth Without Doctors is a series of conversations with traditional midwives in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Having recently given birth to her own daughter when she went to live in Malaysia, Jacqueline Vincent-Priya became fascinated by the traditional methods of delivering a baby.
Her encounters and conversations with traditional practitioners of midwifery are entirely and deliberately uncritical. She simply lets them describe their methods: when they cut the cord; what herbal treatments they administer; what they do when there are complications; and so on. This sounds like it would be tedious. In fact it is fascinating, not least because of the difference between their approach and the Western medical model.
Occasionally something truly alarming comes up, to be retailed in the same calm and uncritical style - the Akka of northern Thailand, for example, kill any twins that are born on the grounds that if they live it will bring misfortune to the entire community. But for the most part the picture that emerges is of deliveries sensitively conducted by midwives who have built up their knowledge through experience rather than through books.
The majority of these mid-wives believe their work has a spiritual dimension: most include ritual elements to propitiate spirits; others are directly guided in their work by their ancestor spirits. Former NI co-editor Debbie Taylor's first novel, set in Zimbabwe, opens with just such an ancestor spirit observing the conception of the latest female in the family. This spirit, Eustina, gives all the benefit of her lifetime's experience to her niece, Miriam, who is a traditional midwife.
The novel follows Miriam as she tests her traditional knowledge against the new practices insisted on by the local clinic. In some areas the new ways may be better but for the most part the same message emerges as from Vincent-Priya's book: that the skill and sensitivity of traditional midwives is a greatly undervalued resource and may well be preferable to imposing a Western model of childbirth.
There is much more in the novel too: some fine, lyrical writing; a sharp sketch of life for rural workers on a white farm. But there is a question mark at the back of it all. Debbie Taylor takes you inside her black rural Zimbabweans - you live with them and identify with them; these are real people rather than the passive victims that conventionally pass as Africans.
But should a white woman, however sensitive and knowledgeable, ever write entirely about the lives and thoughts of black African women? Some think this a presumption verging on racism. Others think that it's a bit like DH Lawrence writing about women: you might take issue with his portrait of them but no-one would say he should only write about men as a result.
Great Western Street
by Chapter and the Verse
The dance boom of the last three years has produced any number of one-off successes in the hip-hop and house genres, as ever more anonymous producers, DJs and rap also-rans make smash-and-grab raids on an ever more hedonistic, consumerist market. When particular artists do establish themselves, they often do so almost as brand names, as marketing phenomena. A prime example is Soul II Soul, known as a commercial empire rather than a group proper.
The prevalent climate makes Great Western Street seem all the bolder. Outside hard rap, soul's potential for carrying a political charge lost some credence after a decade of dour worthiness of the Red Wedge/Working Week school. But political hard-headedness and musical sensuality can exist in soul - Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On and Curtis Mayfield's There's No Place Like America Today are the classic cases - and Great Western Street, in its own way, fits honourably beside them. It's that rare thing, a fully rounded LP in the dance idiom, blending smooth pop la Soul II Soul with a stripped-down acid sound, jazzy embellishments and the rage of the toughest rap rhetoric. And where British rappers often opt for either phoney Brooklynese or equally fake gorblimey cockney, Chapter and the Verse - Aniff Cousins and Cohn Thorpe - don't overstate their Manchester origins.
The lyrics here have a hardened realism that skirts the obvious, overworked topics. There are attacks here on apartheid and the Thatcher legacy and deftly-sketched vistas of inner-city deprivation. But Claremont Road (a song with the atmospherics of the toughest urban film noir) is about reality rather than myth, a cold-blooded deconstruction of the enduring image of the ghetto ('It's a neighbourhood but they see it as a township'). Paying tribute to the first generation of 1950s blacks to immigrate to Britain, the song also slips in a scratchy excerpt of an antique bluebeat record, a more culturally loaded sample than usual.
More off-centre, but just as effective, are tributes to veteran hero of the black Left, Paul Robeson, and Lorraine, which deals with one woman's protest against the commercialization of Martin Luther King's birth-place. All-out rap attack can be effective but Great Western Street is an example of a rap-soul-house coalition opting for cool persuasion - to powerful effect.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
...being the book that showed the danger of censorship
Life was not easy for John Stuart Mill. He had a lonely childhood, being educated entirely by his Scottish father to a system later satirized in Dickens' Hard Times. His appointed role as young genius of Utilitarian rationalism faltered when at 20 he had a mental breakdown, feeling his emotional development had been stunted. Then he met an equally clever soul-mate, Harriet Taylor, a feminist whose intellectual fearlessness inspired him - but she was married. The scandal their friendship produced embittered them. They were not free to make themselves 'respectable' until 20 years later, when Harriet's husband died.
They travelled; they determined to set the world to rights with books and essays fighting prejudice and bigotry. But Mill had caught tuberculosis from his father and though the travel improved his health Harriet (who in turn was infected) rapidly declined. So there was a desperate urgency about the one essay they did manage to complete just 'before Harriet died in 1858, and which Mill published the following year in dedication to her: On Liberty.
Not only the urgent and intense style but the message of the book were influenced by its circumstances, for On Liberty's subject is Civil Liberty - one's freedom to choose to dissent from the codes of morality imposed by the Church, the State and the Majority. He includes the right to express that dissent - and to hold and express any opinion one likes.
Though a philosopher, Mill wanted to change the world: On Liberty discusses practical issues and takes care to engage with the counter-arguments. It made him a household name. Persuaded to become a Member of Parliament in 1865, during his brief time there the vote was extended to most urban working men. Mill tried to amend the Reform Bill to correct a slight oversight - the exclusion of 50 per cent of the population (his The Subjection of Women subsequently made him even more notorious).
The Mills were evidently then not opposed to democracy, but they did fear that a new tyranny of the majority could replace the tyranny of the Tsars and Popes and Sultans. Mill recognizes, in an amazingly close echo of the early Marx (who avidly read him), that beliefs were related to 'class interests and feelings'; yet he feared that the power given to a majority and its ideas could enslave rather than liberate. Why? Because it might be wrong or, worse, would not tolerate the wrongness of others; and because its very legitimacy would impose an autarchy more efficient than that of the most despotic ruler.
Mill, echoing John Milton's argument 200 years before, says that even if you are right, not being forced to argue your corner (through your opponents' views being censored) will make your mental muscles flabby. And you might be wrong - as so many upholders of orthodoxy in history have been. Truth needs argument to reveal itself.
This is an issue just as alive now as in Mill's time - the British people, for example, are not thought adult enough to withstand the broadcast thoughts of Gerry Adams (leader of Irish nationalist organization Sinn Fein). And, as the Gulf War reminded us, Truth is not really the first casualty of war - it will have been body-bagged long before the commencement of hostilities.
But then one expects governments to suppress and elide. The dismal news is that censorship has also become extremely fashionable on the Left - even when not in power.
On Liberty is uncompromising: 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others...' We are never, ever, justified in suppressing anyone's freedom of expression unless this principle is involved - and Mill is precise as to how this may happen. Expressing a view may hurt, disgust and outrage (and often does), but that is not enough to merit its suppression, which would do more harm than the offence it causes.
If an opinion actually incites violence, this is different: 'even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act'.
The distinction is crucial. If an identifiable, direct harm is done by expression of something (and we must be vigilant about children - Mill would have approved of 'Parental Guidance' tags), the immunity is lost. Otherwise, to paraphrase Wilde (who certainly suffered for his beliefs) there is no such thing as moral or immoral art, only good or bad art. What is appropriate is criticism, not censorship; discussion, not incineration. To lose sight of this is to start down the road that Goebbels and Stalin travelled.
It may sometimes seem expedient to censor but it is like shipping weapons to a leader whose ruthlessness is forgotten as long as his enemy is temporarily yours too - sooner or later the Scuds may be turned on you.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859).