January 31, 2005
I have just been watching, for the second time, the DVD "Citizen Stan" (link to Variety review: www.variety.com/review/VE1117925288?categoryid=31 ).
The bio film is a tribute to Stanley Sheinbaum by leftwing journalist Robert Scheer. Everyone should know about Stanley, and how he helped stop the war in Vietnam. Like a charming Zelig character, he has somehow been present and made a difference at so many major historical moments of the last century.
But watching the Vietnam section of the film again, I was struck by its enormous relevance to our situation today.
Just like during the Vietnam era, we are citizens of a government that declares its mad, hubristic mission to spread "liberty" and "democracy" around the globe, fighting a shadowy global enemy. Torture, bombing, atrocities committed in our name make us feel ill as Americans. The feeling of powerlessness among dissenting citizens can be overwhelming.
How encouraging, then, to know someone like Stanley.
Here was a mild-mannered economics professor at Michigan, involved in a development project in Vietnam. It took him years to discover that the project--and he--was really a cover for CIA activity in that country. Later, after he resigned, Stanley found out from Robert Scheer (then of Ramparts, now of the L.A. Times) that what he was fronting for included torture.
Revolted and radicalized, and feeling personally responsible, Stanley became a leading voice against the Vietnam War. He raised money for Daniel Ellsberg's defense, and helped expose the nefarious doings of the Nixon Administration.
Ellsberg, the Defense Department analyst who released the Pentagon Papers, recounts in the movie how he thought he'd go to prison for the rest of his life. Stanley sums up succinctly how he saw in the secret history of the Vietnam War Ellsberg released the very information that had been withheld from him--about his own complicity in an immoral war.
Government pressure, spying, efforts to silence the press, ultimately failed in the Ellsberg case. And the rest is history.
Today it seems like the liberals, the campus radicals, the anti-war marchers won. But how close it was to being the other way around! If Stanley hadn't raised $50,000 from his Hollywood friends (he married Hollywood scion Betty Warner and the two live in L.A.) to keep the Ellsberg trial going, the defense would have had to fold and, Ellsberg says, the war would have gone on.
Neither Stanley nor Ellsberg started out as a radical. Both had establishment backgrounds. Both were smart, decent guys doing their jobs, until they were forever changed by a challenge to their conscience.
The whole atmosphere of that time is so similar to our current moment.
The intelligence community sources who have been talking to Seymour Hersh--the reporter who exposed My Lai (then), Abu Ghraib (now)--are modern-day Ellsbergs and Sheinbaums.
The lesson of Stanley's life, as Scheer puts it, is that one regular person can become an unlikely hero, and can change the course of history. It gives one hope.
After his victory in the Ellsberg trial and the end of the war and Nixon's fall, Stanley went on to a lifetime of achievement in the service of humane politics, including a central role in the struggle for Middle East peace.
The wonderful thing about Stanley, whom I met in Washington when he was shuttling back and forth to the Middle East for the Clinton Administration, is how much he likes people. He has an amazing gift for friendship. That's what allows him to raise so much money for causes like Ellsberg's defense, from Hollywood stars, and to be a friend of Palestinian radicals. It's why he could connect all segments of society and get so many people on board--student activists, Supreme Court justices, kid journalists, and famous policy wonks.
We on the left are so fractious. It is both a symptom and a cause of our disempowerment. Stanley is a good model for us. Neither limousine liberals nor naive student activists are the enemy. Neither sharp political plotters nor hopeless idealists are the problem. It takes the whole spectrum of people, on board together, to make the kind of change Stanley managed to make. A basic liking of people, an ability to bring everyone on board, is a fundamentally necessary talent.
We desperately need to think that way now, to reach out to all the other citizens who share, regardless of politics or pedigree, a basic human revulsion at what our country is coming to stand for, and a desire that it, and we, should stop the torture, secret police actions, bombing of civilians and terrible waste of young American servicepeople's lives, and stand instead for our best ideals.