Phil Donahue, and How the World Has and Hasn’t Changed


Listening to an interview with Phil Donahue about the beginning of his career underlines how different the world is now.

He began his interview show in 1967, the year I graduated from high school. And it was ONLY interviews, which was something new. I wouldn’t have a TV for 2 or 3 more years, so I was unaware of him till then.

Before having his own show he’d been a journalist, and told a story of a disaster in which 28 miners were trapped. A minister led the other miners in prayer and song, and Donahue inadvertently didn’t get the episode on tape, so he asked the minister to do it again. The minister was uncomfortable with the idea, and didn’t.

What a contrast, Donahue commented, with some ministers, then and now, who would be desperate for that kind of publicity.

When Donahue’s own show began, his first guest was Madalyn Murray O’Hare, famous for being an atheist.. Another early guest was a gay man. Those were shocking people then. Atheism isn’t particularly controversial anymore, and gay people are accepted on a scale unimaginable then.

Maybe people were more fiercely loyal to their religions then, perhaps because those religions were THEIRS, more than for other reasons. Religion was the context of community, probably more than now, and belief was frequently blind. I’m not so sure how much the nature of religious belief has changed. There are probably more skeptics now, but there are still plenty of people who don’t reflect on what they’re asked to believe too much.

Homosexuality was almost universally condemned. Donahue’s interview was 2 or 3 years before Stonewall, which was when things began to change in that area. Gays did exactly what conservatives had done and still do: organized to assert their rights and state their point of view. Both groups have been quite successful, but they tend not to like each other much.

Donahue says he was brought up  a conventional Catholic, but found things in college, and then in his career, that started him thinking. It was a particularly interesting time to be a journalist, with the Civil Rights movement, and the movements that grew out of it, and then the negative reaction to much of it.

I was around then, and vaguely aware, but too self-absorbed to have much perspective. I was certainly for Civil Rights for everyone, and against the Vietnam war, but only abstractly. None of it touched me very deeply.

Of course Donahue lost his edge, as other talkshows left the old variety pattern, and became forums for serious discussion. The world also became less easy to shock, and shock became the reason for lots of shows,  instead of the byproduct. More people wanted to be famous, and fewer cared what they were famous FOR. Now people have to be shocking just to get noticed, it seems.

I was fortunate to grow up in a real community, a sect of Quakers more open-minded than American culture generally at the time. They were called conservatives in the context of Quakerism, but political conservatives, then or now, wouldn’t call them that. They had their imperfections, but weren’t as blatantly hypocritical as many groups, religious or otherwise.

One of my high school teachers used to talk about the “growing edge” of life. Quakers had once been  there, and still haven’t entirely relinquished that position. Donahue found himself on that edge, probably unintentionally, through his career, engaging with people and issues he probably would have remained unaware of otherwise.

I think it would be fair to say that liberals have generally wanted society to be more inclusive. Conservatives have generally wanted society to stay the same, and to continue to exclude. My meditation teacher said he realized, when he saw motorcycle gangs, that society wasn’t inclusive enough. It didn’t have room for people who wanted to behave that way.

One might compare this to Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow, or Freud’s of the unconscious. More happens in those areas than in what we call consciousness, and both men wanted to bring those hidden processes to light. As individuals and societies we are potentially much more and much better than we usually show. We are also potentially much worse.

What we’re aware of is at least partly a matter of choice and values. If we choose to be predators, to profit at any cost, it will be difficult to see other aspects of life. The profit motive is strong, and what we choose as profitable determines much of what we see. And limited perception is often more comfortable than vision broad and deep that demands action, and often uncomfortable action.

Donahue spoke of, many years later, hearing from someone who thought the gay man he’d interviewed at the beginning of his career, had been the inquirers uncle. Th inquirer wanted to get a tape of that show.

Donahue told him that he didn’t think any tape survived, but that the an he’d interviewed had had more moral courage than anyone he’d met. Few people at the time would have seen that man as courageous. The very idea went against everything they believed.

And that’s where a lot of things have changed. As a society we’re more aware of people who aren’t like us. Acceptance doesn’t come easily for quite a number of people, but more people are more accepting than used to be the case.

My generation may have been the first in a long time in which a large number wanted to make a new world. There had certainly been people before them who had believed in equality, and worked for it, but they were generally a minority, and only a few became powerful.

One book, The Greatest Generation, told about the American generation who grew up in the Great Depression, and won World War II. Another, The Greater Generation, said that my generation was better because it fought inequality here at home, which the previous generation had mostly not done.

That wasn’t entirely true, of course. After World War II the armed services were desegregated, which was quite a step forward, and the Civil Rights movement began to take off in the 1950s, with the Brown vs the Board of Education suit, and the Montgomery bus boycott which started with Rosa Parks, and brought Martin Luther King to public attention. But in the 1960s things REALLY began to change.

Part of it was because people my age felt more secure than people who had grown up in the Depression. Some of it was because the people who protested were being mistreated themselves, but it’s notable that a lot of protesters were protesting OTHER people being mistreated, as when white protesters went to Mississippi to protest injustice there. Many Mississippians resented that, of course, and there was a huge backlash, which continues to this day, but a lot of things changed because of what white students, among many others, did in the 1960s, and continued to do later in life. Not all of them, of course. Some moved away from that kind of thing when it became unfashionable, but a good many continued to work for causes they thought important.

Unfortunately, a lot of things DIDN’T change. We’ve fought unjust and unpopular wars since then, as a society we continue to pollute and misuse the earth unsustainably, and inequality both never entirely went away, and has made quite a comeback. There are quite a few different factors in all this, but I suspect a large part of it is that there are many things we don’t want to know.

It may be overgeneralizing to say that most of us don’t want to know what our responsibility is. We’re in this world, and I think few of us know why. Life is a very mysterious matter, and while religions tell us what we ought to do, they don’t really tell us WHY.

Why should we treat each other justly? Why should we love each other? And how do we do those things? One answer is that things go better when we treat each other decently. But go better to what end?

For some, the reason for life is to profit, and make their families wealthy and secure. I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself, depending on how it’s done. But the question then is, how do we make the whole society profit? What IS the most profitable thing to do?

George Gurdjieff, mentioned previously in these posts, quoted his father as saying that obviously a man should live in such a way as to have a happy old age. How would that be done? A later commentator said that each of us has a debt to pay for life, and that the sooner we pay that debt, the happier our old age can be. What debt do we have?

That gets into the question that Gurdjieff asked himself, to which he found an unexpected answer: What is the reason for organic life in general, and human life in particular? His answer was, to transform energies, and that these energies go to support other forms of life. This support works to combat entropy, which would otherwise cause all systems to run out of energy. Humans are able to do what we can do in part because both plant and animal life support us, not only biologically, but energetically. And that’s the reason why the way we have arranged our technological society is such a bad idea. Not only are we using up resources which are finite, but we’re destroying ecosystems that support us in more ways than we know.

Our society supports our being self-centered, while the lesson of nature is that things work best in harmony. The natural predator isn’t evil. And maybe there’s a place for the predator within humanity too, but the predator has in many cases taken over. Our way of life is unbalanced, and that affects each of us.

One place it shows is in our attitude towards money. Gurdjieff told a younger man about a rich woman who came to him and said she felt that her money alienated her from others. He said she could give her money to him, he would have a good use for it, and she could learn to live without money, which would be helpful for her. But this she couldn’t do, just as the young rich man couldn’t give up his money and follow Jesus.

Both rich and poor, Gurdjieff said, only understand money. The wealthy understand life with money, and despise anyone who doesn’t have it, while the poor understand life without money, and hate those who DO have it. Neither, said Gurdjieff, could learn much from him. Wealthy people gave him money, but then expected his teaching as a reward. With that kind of attitude they couldn’t learn much.

Poor people, on the other hand, wanted him to teach them to make money. That wasn’t what he was teaching, and he said it would only give them a new set of problems.

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves commented that the gods we do worship are actually Apollo (science), Hermes (theft), and Pluto (money). These are gods with tremendous power over human beings, but none of them get to the heart of life, and why we are here. The God that does has spoken in every age, but few are able to hear, at least in part because few want to. If we did hear, we might have to forsake our comforts. Few want to do that.

The surface of the world has changed a lot since Phil Donahue began his career. But the age-old problems remain the same. Humans have tremendous powers, without the wisdom to use them properly. With power comes responsibility, and consequences for the failure of responsibility. Fear stalks us visibly, and we have reason to be afraid.


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