“I believe that one is only truly free when learning, and one can only learn when one is free.”
—-Actor Peter Fonda, Henry’s son, Jane’s brother, and Bridget’s father, who died yesterday.
Memorable ethics quotes come from unexpected places sometimes, and this is a striking example. It’s also important, wise and true. I have never heard or read of anyone putting that thought quite that way.
Fonda’s observation focuses nicely on the roots of today’s existential cultural peril. A vast segment of the population has grown to adulthood with insufficient or defective knowledge, making them easy prey for power-seekers, demagogues and charlatans peddling theories and nostrums that a basic comprehension of history would instantly undermine. Instead of being imbued by their teachers and parents with intellectual curiosity, a healthy and intrinsically American suspicion of authority, and a reluctance to follow mobs of any kind, they lack the intellectual defenses to fend off ideological cant, the most dangerous of which holds that society will only be made virtuous by the unthinking acceptance of approved doctrine. That requires locking in dogma early, and creating a public that is inoculated against learning by being cut off from non-conforming information.
It was tragic and ironic for Fonda to say this, as he is a Sixties icon, and according to his friends and family, a true believer in Peace, Pot and Love to the very end. The Sixties began as a romantic and idealistic rebellion against rigid societal conventions and restrictions and the refusal to learn and change, but the observation that we all risk becoming what we once hated most was never more prescient. The Sixties Culture quickly metastasized into an increasingly brutal ideology that exchanged education —learning—for indoctrination and wilful ignorance, and the freedom to learn for organized hostility towards non-conformity. The end result now looming appears to be a gradual restriction of liberty itself.
A second irony is that powerful antidotes for the threatened loss of a mindset supporting learning and freedom lie in some of the best films of Peter’s Hollywood great father, Henry Fonda. Although Henry himself often confessed to having a weak character and only feeling worthwhile when he was portraying individuals far more virtuous than he was, Fonda’s trademark film role was the imperfect man who refused to follow the mob, who set out to teach those around him to be better, wiser, more courageous and ethical, and who still managed to keep learning, no matter how smart, wise or accomplished he was to begin with.
I was shown many of these films in school; the rest I watched with the encouragement and commentary of my father. My recommended list of ten out of Henry Fonda’s diverse repertoire of histories, comedies, dramas, Westerns and spectacles, would be Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), Mister Roberts (1955), which is my personal favorite, 12 Angry Men (1957), Advise & Consent (1962), Spencer’s Mountain (1963), which was the inspiration for “The Waltons,” The Best Man (1964), and Fail-Safe (1964).
It should not be surprising that Fonda was chosen to play Clarence Darrow on Broadway in a one man show. Fonda’s Darrow was a lot more virtuous than the real man, but the real Darrow was as dedicated to freedom of thought and the importance of learning and evolving throughout life as any American historical figure.
I doubt that one in fifty Americans under the age of 30 have seen any of these films, or know who Henry Fonda was. Don’t think that doesn’t matter.