Civics Class at the Movies

This month’s Progressive carries an interview with Roger Ebert. Unbeknownst to us all until this year, Ebert is a committed liberal and a considerably good analyst of political affairs. In the interview, he discusses Michael Moore’s and Adrien Brody’s politcal remarks at the Oscars earlier this year, and offers some interesting thoughts on the way race and class are protrayed in movies, but what really struck me is a statement that’s somewhat incidental to the rest of the discussion. Asked about his response to the backlash against celebrities who came out against the war on Iraq, Ebert says:

I begin to feel like I was in the last generation of Americans who took a civics class. I begin to feel like most Americans don’t understand the First Amendment, don’t understand the idea of freedom of speech, and don’t understand that it’s the responsibility of the citizen to speak out.

The criticism launched against folks like Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Jeneane Garafalo, Sean Penn, and the like tends to focus on the fact that they are no more experts on foreign affairs than the rest of us, so where do they get off commenting on such matters? The question should be, where do the rest of us get off not commenting on such matters. This whole country is founded on the idea of an informed and engaged citizenry actively participating in its own governance. While the details should rightly be left to the experts, allowing experts to direct the political process is the worst sort of elitism, and runs counter to everything this country is supposed to stand for.

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