“At a time when the tide runs toward a sure conformity, when dissent is often confused with subversion, when a man’s belief may be subject to investigation as well as his actions . . .”
It has the ring of a 2006 mayday call of distress, yet it was written in 1952. Ed Murrow, introducing an assemblage of voices in the volume This I Believe, sounded a claxon.
It is an old story yet ever-contemporary. In 1791, Tom Paine, the most eloquent visionary of the American Revolution, sounded off:
Freedom has been hunted around the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear made man afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth is that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing . . . In such a situation, man becomes what he ought to be. He sees his species not with the inhuman idea of a natural enemy, but as kindred . . .
It is the pursuit of this truth that appears to be the common tenor of all the voices you hear in this new volume.
We need not dwell on the old question: What is truth? What you see with your own eyes may differ from the received official truth. So old Pilate had only one decision to make: find the man guilty or he, the judge, will be sent back to the boondocks. Pilate did what any well-behaved hack would do. Though he had his hands scrubbed and rub-a-dub-dubbed with Ivory soap, 99.44% pure, he could not erase the awful truth of the dirt on his hands. Though Pilate’s wife pleaded for a show of mercy, he made an objective decision.
In our time, James Cameron, the nonpareil of British journalism, dealt with the matter in his own way. “I cannot remember how often I’ve been challenged for disregarding the fundamental tenet of honest journalism, which is objectivity.”
His bearing witness in North Vietnam during that war convinced him, despite all official Washington arguments to the contrary, that North Vietnam was inhabited by human beings. He was condemned for being non-objective and having a point of view. Cameron confesses, “I may not have always been satisfactorily balanced; I always tended to argue that objectivity was of less importance than the truth.”
Errol Morris, film documentarian, who appears in this book, shares the obstinancy of Cameron: “Truth is not relative. . . . It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth.” What really possesses Morris is the pursuit of the truth: “Trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are.”
The chase is what it’s all about. The quarry is, as always, the truth.
On a small patch of Sag Harbor dirt is a simple stone easily passed by. Nelson Algren is buried there and his epitaph is simple: “The journey is all.”
Andrew Sullivan, editor of The New Republic, who appears in this volume, has a similar vision. He and Algren may have differed considerably in their political views, yet here, as to fundamental belief, they were as one. “I believe in the pursuit of happiness. Not its attainment, nor its final definition, but its pursuit.”
I’d be remiss with no mention of Helen Keller, whose vision we saw and whose voice we heard fifty years ago, a deaf, dumb, and blind child. It was her sense of wonder and her pursuit of truth which she saw much more clearly than sighted people, and heard much more clearly than hearing folk. They were voices in need throughout the world she heard so vividly. Above all it was her faith that the human being was better than his/her behavior.
What I believe is a compote of these ingredients. Yes I do have a point of view which I express much too frequently, I suspect. And yet there’s always that uncertainty. In all my adventures among hundreds of Americans I have discovered that the rule of thumb does not work. I’ve been astonished too often by those I’ve visited: ordinary Americans, who at times, are extraordinary in their insights and dreams.
I find the labels “liberal” and “conservative” of little meaning. Our language has become perverted along with the thoughts of many of us.
“Liberal” according to any dictionary is defined as the freedom to speak out, no matter what the official word may be, and the right to defend all others who speak out whether or not they agree with you. “Conservative” is the word I’ve always associated with conserving our environment from pollution, ensuring that our water is potable and our grass green. So I declare myself a radical conservative. Radical, as in getting to the root of things. Pasteur was a radical. Semmelweiss was a radical. “Wash your hands,” he declared to doctors and nurses. He may have wound up in a nuthouse, but he pursued the truth, found it, and saved untold millions of lives. I am a conservative in that I’m out to conserve the blue of the sky, the freshness of the air of which we have less and less, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and whatever semblance of sanity we may have left. As for faith, I’ve always called myself an agnostic. Were Ambrose Bierce alive today, he would no doubt have added to his Devil’s Dictionary: “An agnostic is a cowardly atheist.” Perhaps. But perhaps I do believe there is a God deposited in each of us ever since the Big Bang.
I secretly envy those who believe in the hereafter and with it the idea that they may once again meet dear ones. They cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is such a place. Neither can I disprove it. I cannot find the bookmaker willing to take my bet on it. How will one who guesses right be able to collect his winnings? So speaking on behalf of the bookies of the world, all bets are off.
Maybe the poet Keats was right after all in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He envied the fortunate youth who is forever chasing his love, never quite catching her. The pursuit is all.
And yet there is something which I believe with no uncertainty. There is something we can do while we’re alive and breathing on this planet. It is to become an activist in this pursuit of a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently. (I am paraphrasing Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement.)
Being an activist is self-explanatory: you act; you take part in something outside yourself. You join with others, who may astonish you in thinking precisely as you do on the subjects, say, of war, civil liberties, human rights.
My belief came into being during the most traumatic moment in American history, the Great Depression of the 1930s. I remember seeing pots and pans and bedsteads and mattresses on the sidewalks. A family had just been evicted and there was an individual cry of despair, multiplied by millions. But that community had a number of people on that very block, electricians and plumbers and carpenters, who appeared that very evening, and moved the household goods back into the flat where they had been. They turned on the gas, they fixed the plumbing. It was a community in action accomplishing something.
Albert Einstein once observed that westerners have a feeling the individual loses his freedom if he joins, say, a union or any group. Precisely the opposite is the case. Once you join others, even though at first your mission fails, you become a different person, a much stronger one. You feel that you really count, you discover your strength as an individual because you have along the way discovered others share in what you believe, you are not alone; and thus a community is formed. I am paraphrasing Einstein. I love to do that; nobody dares contradict me.
So, my credo consists of the pursuit and the act. One without the other is self-indulgence. This I believe.
Copyright © 2006 by This I Believe, Inc. All rights reserved. Jay Allison
is one of public radio's most honored producers. He has produced hundreds of nationally broadcast documentaries and features for radio and television. His work has earned him the duPont-Columbia and five Peabody Awards, and he was the 1996 recipient of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Edward R. Murrow Award for outstanding contributions to public radio, the industry's highest honor. He was the curator and producer of This I Believe
on NPR and he produces The Moth Radio Hour
. Before his career in broadcasting, Jay was a theater director in Washington, D.C. He is also the founder of the public radio stations for Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod where he lives.
Dan Gediman is the executive producer of This I Believe. His work has been heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Fresh Air, Marketplace, Jazz Profiles, and This American Life. He has won many of public broadcasting’s most prestigious awards, including the duPont-Columbia Award.