June 1, 2005

Redemption

So the news today is filled with the revelation that former FBI No. 2 Mark Felt was Woodward and Bernstein's Deep Throat, the anonymous source for much of their Watergate coverage. I expect that we'll first see the lionization of Felt for being a whistleblower. Regardless of the putative motivation (in one version, revenge at Nixon for having targeted the FBI), Felt helped unravel a conspiracy to suppress an investigation of a political crime. I wonder how soon will come discussion of the rest of Felt's record—his work as J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand man, the person in charge of internal inspections who raised no ethical questions about COINTELPRO, his conviction related to one COINTELPRO operation (against the Weathermen), and the pardon by Reagan. Does his service as Deep Throat mitigate his undermining of American democracy through COINTELPRO? But Felt's record isn't the only story of redemption in popular consciousness this month. There's Anakin Skywalker, after all, ...

Discovering that my children don't remember anything about the original Star Wars (you know, "Episode IV," originally released in 1977), I showed the DVD to them last week and discovered a few uncomfortable things, like Princess Leia's complete failure to mourn the deaths of millions on the planet where she grew up. But let's skip the fairy-tale elements here and get to the myth of the broader Star Wars story-arc (see Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's commentary for the best critique of Lucas's general movie-making): The six films together are far more about Anakin than about either Luke, Obi-Wan, or the political struggle in the SW universe. As many others have noted, Anakin is a tragic figure, falling into the depths of savagery before being redeemed at the last minute, quite literally, in Return of the Jedi.

But is it really the saving of his soul or whatever is akin to that? Anakin's redemption in SW VI: RotJ consists primarily of his heaving Palpatine to his death to save Luke. Given his role in millions of deaths in the prior twenty years or so, seeing Anakin as redeemed would be like the celebration of Lavrenti Beria if he had killed Stalin in the early 50s. (Please, don't tell me in comments that he really did! I'm not a Soviet historian and don't wish to be swamped with various conspiracy theories. The question would still remain.) Without having seen SWIII, I think I can safely say that Anakin/Vader was responsible for much of the harm of the Empire in Lucas's mythical long-ago, far-away galaxy. One good moment doesn't wipe out hundreds of crimes.

In history, though, there is a broader question: is redemption individual or collective? I recall more than twenty years ago a similar storyline about redemption when George Wallace was elected Alabama's governor one last time in 1982, after announcing he had become born-again and apologized to civil rights leaders for his recalcitrant segregationist stance in the 1960s. Yes, it is true that Wallace turned himself around in many ways. But the redemption story ignored in 1982 was that the American political system had been redeemed in significant ways with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Facing newly-enfranchised Black voters, a whole bunch of white segregationists suddenly discovered religion (or at least civil rights). Some of them were heartfelt. Some, like Strom Thurmond, you really couldn't quite believe. Some, like Jesse Helms, betrayed the lip service to civil rights with their actions (the "white hands" ads in Helms' first campaign against Harvey Gantt). But the true story of George Wallace's election in 1982 was the redemption of a region (and a country), not just of one individual.

Whether Mark Felt's whistleblowing as Deep Throat is a similarly broad redemption is much more questionable. But we're taken with stories of individual redemption—thus the appeal of the SW movies and what I expect will be an eventual journalistic judgment that Felt really was redeemed by his maybe-not-so-well-intentioned semi-whistleblowing.

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Posted in Random comments on June 1, 2005 3:35 PM |