AMERICA LOSES A GREAT PUBLIC THINKER
Arthur Miller, in his autobiography, "Timebends," quoted the great physicist Hans Bethe as saying, "Well, I come down in the morning and I take up a pencil and I try to think."
It's a notion that appears to have gone the way of the rotary phone. Americans not only seem to be doing less serious thinking lately, they seem to have less and less tolerance for those who spend their time wrestling with important and complex matters.
If you can't say it in 30 seconds, you have to move on. God made man, and the godless evolutionists are on the run. Donald Trump ("You're fired!") and Paris Hilton ("That's hot!") are cultural icons. Ignorance is in. The United states is at war, and its appetite for torture may be undermining the very essence of the American character, but the public at large seems much more interested in what Martha Stewart will do when she gets out of prison and what Michael Jackson will do if he has to go in.
Miller's death last week meant more than the loss of an outstanding playwright. It was the loss of a great public thinker who believed strongly, as Archibald MacLeish had written, that the essence of America - its greatness - was in its promises. Miller knew what ignorance and fear and the madness of crowds, especially when exploited by sinister leadership, could do to those promises. His greatest concerns, as Charles Isherwood wrote Saturday in The New York Times, "were with the moral corruption brought on by bending one's ideals to society's dictates, buying into the values of a group when they conflict with the voice of personal conscience."
The individual, in Miller's view, had an abiding moral responsibility for his or her own behavior, and for the behavior of society as a whole. He said that while writing "The Crucible," "the longer I worked the more certain I felt that as improbable as it might seem, there were moments when an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling."
For the United States, which launched a misguided pre-emptive war in Iraq, is shipping prisoners off to foreign countries to be tortured and has pressed the rewind button on matters of social progress, this may be one of those moments.
Reading Miller again, and looking back on his life, it's interesting to see some of the differences he has spotlighted in two sharply defined eras: the Depression-wracked 1930s and the prosperous postwar 1950s. "It was not that people were more altruistic," he wrote in "Timebends," "but that a point arrived - perhaps around 1936 - when for the first time unpolitical people began thinking of common action as a way out of their impossible conditions. Out of dire necessity came the surge of mass trade unionism and the federal government's first systematic relief programs, the resurgent farm cooperative movement, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other public projects that put people to work and brought electricity to vast new areas, repaired and built new bridges and aqueducts, carried out vast reforestation projects, funded student loans and research into the country's folk history - its songs and tales collected and published for the first time - and this burst of imaginative action created the sense of a government that for all its blunders and waste was on the side of the people."
By the early '50s the agony of the Depression was gone. McCarthyism was in flower, and the dean of Miller's alma mater, the University of Michigan, was complaining that his students' highest goal was to fit in with corporate America rather than to separate truth from falsehood.
The dean, Erich Walter, said, "They become experts at grade-getting, but there's less hanging round the lamppost now, no more chewing the fat," or, as Miller put it, "speculating about the wrongs of the world and ideal solutions, something no employer was interested in, and might even suspect."
Miller understood early that keeping the population entertained was becoming the paramount imperative of the United States. We're now all but buried in entertainment, and the republic is running amok. Miller is gone, and if we're not wise enough to pay attention, his uncomfortable truths will die with him. (He felt, among other things, that most men and women knew "little or nothing" about the forces manipulating their lives.)
Arthur Miller? Broadway dimmed its lights Friday night. His country may decide that that's enough of a tribute and that it's time to move on.