Monday, July 18, 2005

Resurrecting 1950's Naivete

National Public Radio has recently resurrected the 1950's Edward R. Murrow radio program “This I Believe.”

The particular program I heard featured Elizabeth Deutsch, who as a 16-year-old had been on the show 50 years ago. Before turning to her "mature" take on life, NPR played her original spot. It crackled with the the naive optimism and stilted righteousness that ruled the airwaves before the traumas and the 1960's and the self-indulgence of the Baby Boomers dragged the culture deeper into materialism. It even sounded like it was in black and white.

Ms. Deutsch's 2005 views were just what you'd expect to hear on NPR:

Many of my early traits remain, including skepticism about religious authority, curiosity about the world and the lofty desire to live a righteous life. The world I see now worries me at least as much as it did in the 1950s.


Being a kind person and striving for social justice remain high priorities for me, but not for religious reasons. The "simple faith in the Deity" expressed in my teenage essay has faded over the years. Still, after the events of 9/11, I returned to the Unitarian Church, the same denomination in which I was active when I was 16. I've come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life's deeper matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions.

I thought it would be useful to bring to your attention Walker Percy's mordant observations of the original program:

On the program hundreds of the highest-minded people, people in the country, thoughtful and intelligent people, people with mature inquiring minds, state their personal credos. The two or three hundred I have heard so far were without exception admirable people. I doubt if any other country or any other time in history has produced such thoughtful and high-minded people, especially the women. And especially the South. I do believe the South has produced more high-minded women, women of universal sentiments, than any other section of the country except possibly New England in the last century. Of my six living aunts, five are women of the loftiest theosophical pan-Brahman sentiments. The sixth is still a Presbyterian.

If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared, it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of generous feelings. And as for themselves: it would be impossible for even a dour person not to like them.

Tonight's subject is a playwright who transmits this very quality of niceness in his plays. He begins:

I believe in people. I believe in tolerance and understanding between people. I believe in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual—

Everyone of “This I Believe” believes in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.

I believe in music. I believe in a child's smile. I believe in love. I also believe in hate.

This is true, I have known a couple of these believers, humanists and lady psychologists who come to my aunt's house. On “This I Believe” they like everyone. But when it comes down to this or that particular person, I have noticed that they usually hate his guts.

I suppose with the implosion of liberalism, the NPR crowd would prefer to forget the last 50 years ever happened.

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Ivy Books, 1961), 94-95 (ch. 11).

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