March 2, 2007

The loyal opposition -- a meditation for Lent

Reading McCullough’s long biography of Harry Truman, I remember Sally Field on “Inside the Actor’s Studio? saying that, when she has to play an emotionally demanding role, she begins to hurt herself, early on, in ways that would seem perverse to anyone who isn’t an actor. That reminds me of a dancer’s motto: “Pain is your friend.?

On McCullough’s account, Truman comes across as a decent, sane person who tried hard and accomplished a lot. But his job comes across as one in which pain is the occupant’s friend, and one wishes Truman had had ways of hurting himself more, about the second atom bomb, about the development of the hydrogen bomb. He knew something about this necessity; he kept in his desk drawer a brutal letter from the parents of a soldier killed in Korea. But the system he worked in worked against the work he needed to do. The opposition was programmatically opposed to him, the people who wrote to him were often absurdly narrow-minded and self-obsessed, and the press critics kept crossing the line from policy criticism to personal belittlement – just the sort of behavior that activates psychological defenses. There was no place for a consistently, routinely loyal opposition. I don’t mean by this: advisors who would speak their minds. I mean: someone of unquestioned loyalty with the job of waking up the President.

An example: McCullough reports a Truman statement on the first atom bomb, in which Truman is expressing the view that this could be imagined as a weapon against military targets, deployed in a way that limited civilian casualties. At other times, he knows that isn’t so, and says so. But this statement is a retreat into comfort.. Someone assigned to keep the President real would never let that statement pass. Perhaps temporary self-deception is permissible in some lines of work, but the President is obliged to hurt himself into full consciousness. Even the best, most decent, most fair-minded Presidents are so obliged. That’s the reason it is ok to capitalize “President.? Maybe even Ordinary People have that obligation.

It is a mistake to equate inflicting pain with harm or with disloyalty. Actors know that. Political figures need to know that. Students need to know that. Critics need to know that. The necessity and matter-of-factness of pain, Sally Field’s “I’ve got this role; I’m going to have to start hurting myself,? has to be built into our institutions and into our customary expectations, into our routines.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:31 AM