Five by Bill Moyers

by E. Deanne Malpass  

 

In a lengthy career in Public Service, Bill Moyers has become one of the most distinguished and forceful figures in America. Indeed, he has been called " the conscience of America," and a "prophet of our time." On September 24, 1999, he will present the Third Annual Georgiana and Max Lale Lecture, sponsored by the East Texas Historical Association.

Mr. Moyers served as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy Administration and as Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. A former editor of Newsday, Moyers founded Public Affairs Television in 1986, is executive editor of "Bill Moyers' Journal" and a senior news analyst with "CBS Evening News." During the past decade and a half, Moyers has produced approximately 300 hours of television programming, much of it focusing upon public affairs, international crises, concepts of leadership, and artistic and cultural heritages. Five of his books based upon his television productions became best sellers.

Although Moyers was born in Oklahoma on June 6, 1934, he was raised in Texas and calls Marshall, Texas, his hometown. At the age of 16, he began his journalism career as a cub reporter on the Marshall News Messenger.

In Marshall, Moyers became friends with Georgiana and Max Lale. Georgina Aspley Lale was born in Denton, Texas. She attended Texas Woman's University and the University of Oklahoma. In 1938, she married Max S. Lale of Shawnee, Oklahoma. Mr. Lale served in the European Theatre during World War II, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel before returning to civilian life and newspaper publication. His postwar career took him to Marshall and then to Greenville, Texas, where he published the Herald-Banner.

After their marriage, Mrs. Lale became active in family and community affairs. Both maintained a strong interest in history. Mrs. Lale worked with various projects including the Harrison County Conservation Society in efforts to preserve the Allen House while Mr. Lale served as President of the Texas State Historical Association and President of the East Texas Historical Association.

Following Mrs. Lale's death, Max Lale established the lecture series with historians, T. R. Fehrenbach and James I Robertson, Jr. presenting the first two lectures in 1997 and 1998, respectively. In a poignant tribute to the values and grace of leadership to be found in small town America, Bill Moyers commented upon the life and death of his friend on national television.

 

FIVE BY MOYERS

 

Clio's Eye chose the following programs for recommendation because of their historical content, their topicality, and their subject importance.

 

THE ARAB WORLD A five part series in which Moyers examines Arab history, religion, and culture, through interviews with leading experts who discuss the region and its people as well as fundamental misinterpretations that hinder understanding in western society.

The initial program, The Arabs, Who They are, Who They Are Not, presents a strong discussion of the harmful and prejudicial view that labels all Arabs as narrow minded fanatics. Professor Edward Said of Columbia University, James Abourezk, former United States Senator, and Jack Shaheen, author of The TV Arab discuss the texture and beauty of Arab history, the contributions of Arab culture, and the contemporary attitudes of the American media toward Arabs, which Shaheen sees as deeply dehumanizing.

The second part of the series, entitled, The Historic Memory, serves beautifully as a quick review of Arab history and its major contributions. Tracing its early evolution religiously and politically from the eighth century to its medieval brilliance in science, medicine and mathematics, to the nineteenth and twentieth century era of colonial control and independence, this section of the series could be used widely for in class lecture and discussion. Of strong value is the discussion on the Koran as a political and constitutional document as well as a religious work. The discussion explains much about the dynamics of current Arab government which remains confusing, if not a mystery to westerners.

The Image of God, part three, explores the origins and beliefs of the world's largest religion, but also puts into perspective the schisms and sectarian disputes that are daunting to many westerns who seek a homogenous whole in the Arab faith. The discussion of a Holy War, or a Jihad, and the ways in which political, religious and military leadership mingle in the Arab world is useful.

The Bonds of Pride emphasizes the cultural integrity and diversity of the Arabs, including their attitudes towards language, literature, humor, and education. The role of women in Islamic society is discussed, but certainly could have been expanded more meaningfully. The series conclusion, Arabs and the West, centers around a discussion between Moyers and economist, writer, Charles Issawi. Issawi is good at explaining the conservative values of Arab society, its fears of too rapid modernization, and its concerns about overly secular views of life in western society. While the conclusions will leave much uncertainty, even dissatisfaction, over where and whither East and West can meet in resolving societal views so different, the series as a whole is thoughtful, informative, and worthwhile.

 

BEYOND HATE In two programs, The Heart of Hate and Learning to Hate, Moyers looks at the origins, burdens, and dangers of hatred as a personal and a collective belief.

In an eclectic mix, Moyers juggles the opinions and teachings of international leaders, gang members, spouse abusers, white supremacists, and human rights activists. The shorter program, (39 minutes), Learning to Hate deals effectively with how children learn to hate as well as the influence of cultures and historic rivalries contribute to early prejudices. Recognized leaders such as Jimmy Carter, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, and Irish peace activist, Mairead Corrigan McGuire, among others, reflect upon their experiences with hatred and discrimination and their efforts to overcome the immediate and lasting influence such encounters impose. The problems of early indoctrination in hatred, the role of stereotyping, and the consequences of persecution, are explored through specific instances involving Arab-Israelis, gays, Holocaust victims, and catholic-protestants conflicts.

In The Heart of Hate, (52 minutes), Moyers focuses upon a series of conversations and dialogues with individuals and groups who have confronted hatred either by observing it, inflicting it, or surviving it. Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, discusses her personal growth beyond hatred while, nevertheless, continuing through three arduous trials, a search for legal justice. A wife abuser explores the crisis of identity, ego, and lack of self respect that engenders domestic violence. Tom Metzger, a white supremacist, recounts with pride his policy of hatred and his running struggle with the legal system. One of the most interesting and moving interviews is the discussion with a young Israeli soldier who willingly disguised himself as a Palestinian in order to understand the genesis and depth of his own hatreds. The attempt at self analyses and the role of personal responsibility in handling hate and growing beyond it is instructional.

 

THE WISDOM OF FAITH Bill Moyers, a Baptist minister, and Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions examine through a series of discussions Smith's personal experiences as a scholar and as an individual with the great religions of the world. Smith first published The World's Religions in 1959 and, translated into over a dozen languages, it has remained an exceedingly popular work. The series opens with an exploration of Hinduism and Buddhism. Their origins in a land as culturally rich and diverse as India, proved an inspiration to Smith who spent eight hours a day in silent meditation for two and a half months with a Zen master in order to understand and utilize the intensity of the faith from a western perspective. Studying multiphonic chanting in Tibet, "…the holiest sound I have ever heard," Smith recognized that like Gregorian chant in the early medieval church, song can be itself a form of meditation.

Born in China, the son of Christian missionaries, Smith brings a uniquely competent understanding to Confucianism and Taoism, as being imported from India. Growing up near Shanghai, Smith learnt to appreciate and to practice Yoga. More importantly, and contrary to the perceptions of many westerners, Smith recognized early that eastern religions place an emphasis on "direct experience" as well as upon methodology.

In examining Christian and Jewish religions in part three of the series, Smith later in his life found again a personal connection that paved the way to understanding. His daughter's marriage into the Jewish faith provided avenues of historical and theological for the Judaic "living conversation" with God that continues "generation after generation." When his daughter died, Smith found the traditional Jewish mourning rituals to be comforting. In Christianity, Smith found early that the spirit "…real and dense and palpable and evident" of the religion created a vibrancy that generated growth. In Islam, Smith as a scholar became deeply attracted to the Moslem concepts of justice and compassion. In particular, he found in the Sufis and their mystical dances a counterpart to oriental chanting. In the conclusion, Smith from an older and mellower affection for the many faiths that have shaped his own, compares intelligently and tenderly the shared characteristics of the great faiths of the world and how knowledge of their historical and intellectual values can shape the man or woman of any and all faiths.

 

FACING THE TRUTH and ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU These two programs, closely connected by subject focus on the experience of, and the end of, Apartheid in South Africa. Both of them explore the difficulties and the necessities of resolution, reconciliation, and forgiveness. In Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Moyers discusses with the Nobel laureate and the Chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission the nation's past and its future under the racial, economic and cultural shadows of the government's policies of Apartheid.

In particular, the Anglican prelate, viewed with reverence in the black communities of South Africa as virtually a spiritual blend of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, shares his views on justice and his work as Chairman of the Truth and Resolution Committee. For three years, Archbishop Tutu traveled through South Africa gathering the information on atrocities committed during the Apartheid era.

Interestingly enough, his main purpose, however, was not for recrimination or even for punishment by the tribunal, as with most post World War II war crime courts. Rather, it was aimed at hearing and presenting the evidence, reconciling black and white communities with their past in a spirit of national forgiveness, and bringing closure to a terrible and still haunting time. Tutu's hope that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could become an international role model for other nations and other problems of racism and hatred is a noble one. Moreover, although the Archbishop is one of the first to recognize that the experiment has not been perfectly carried out and that it has certainly not brought and end to South African problems. He contends correctly that the effort was necessary and that the model can be utilized in the future by others.

Picking up on the work of the commission, Facing the Truth, in a two hour survey, traces the evolution of apartheid and then looks closely at the period from 1960-1994 when terrorism was rife in South Africa. When the system of oppression fell in 1994, the nation faced the future with a sharply divided population and a legacy of distrust and hatred. South Africa opted to examine its past through a solid collection of evidence from thousands of victims, as well as from the defenses of government agents and the overview of journalists, authors and polemicists.

Amazingly and resiliently, South Africa, under the chairmanship of Desmond Tutu, also opted to use the tremendous accumulation of documentation not simply for human rights trials, punishment or revenge. Instead the nation emphasized the word reconciliation in the commission's brief. It made a deliberate decision not only to try to start a healing process within the country, but also, to create a prototype for others. The problems in South Africa are old to humanity; the approach to change is refreshing, generous, and as both films indicate, innovative in the best sense of ethical decency.

 

FLORENCE: THE POWER OF THE PAST This 90 minute program is indeed a special with Bill Moyers. Far removed from the glibness of tourist hype and from travel poster pabulum, Moyers in a series of discussions with Umberto Eco, Franco Zefferelli, and a host of passionate Medieval and Renaissance scholars and art historians against the splendors of the city, creates an articulate, lively, and at times, amusing program.

Intriguingly the host does capture the "heart beat of a modern city" with "a message from the past." By focusing on Florence as a crossroads of ideas, Moyers and his guests, using a background of incredible architecture and art of 250 years (1300-1500 A.D.), builds a convincing image of a city with a "quarrelsome, contentious" society, unafraid of its own humanity.

Evolving out of the Middle Ages, Florence became an economic dynamo in which merchants could piously inscribe their account ledgers, "In the name of God and good profits." It became a city in which powerful princes could rule through legal loopholes in the constitution, but placed public works and art in the hands of democratic competions and popular judgments. It became a society where a brick and stone worker's son (Donatello) could be buried a few feet from the powerful de Medicis.

More so than perhaps any other city in Christian history, Florence became a melting pot of talent, energy, vision and the glorification of human ability, not least the ability of intellect to shape beauty. In examining the humanization of divinity in Renaissance art, the discussion of Michangelo's Pieta with the aged artist's self portrait as Nicodemus ends with the telling comment that in Florence, man came to pity God. In Florence, modern man first realized fully his "freedom to dream and achieve" as well as to "make and face one's fate."

 

"FOOLING WITH WORDS WITH BILL MOYER," a program on contemporary poetry will premiered Sunday, September 26, 1999, on PBS. Check local listings for time and channel. A nine-part program, "SOUNDS OF POETRY" will appear in the 1999-2000 television season.