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No Apologies : 'The Greatest Danger to What We Wistfully Call Civilization Is to Be Uninformed, or Misinformed, and the Next Greatest Danger Lies in Not Giving a Damn About It'

May 04, 1986|NORMAN CORWIN | W riter, director and producer Norman Corwin is currently a visiting professor at USC, which holds graduation ceremonies Friday. The following is adapted from a birthday dinner speech before USC students and faculty, May 1, 1985.

I recently attained the age of 75. Since one must feel septuagenarian in order to justify all seven syllables of that clanking word, and since I feel nothing of the kind, I treat the number as a sort of unreliable rumor and go about my business as though I were 45--only more efficiently, being better disciplined at coping with distractions.

Of course, a person's age should be neither concealed nor flaunted. But there are times when the matter is taken out of one's hands, and that happened to me recently when some good friends at USC's School of Journalism decided to stage a public dinner for which the invitations read: "Corwin at 75."

It was the latest in a train of felicities that started when I was born into the English language and the American Constitution simultaneously. Talk about luck: I was lucky to come along at an hour when a great network--on its way to becoming the greatest--gave its artists, at least this one, the most extraordinary freedom. I was lucky to be invited to create whatever occurred to me, and never once was I asked to submit even an outline of what I intended to do. Nobody demanded to see a first draft; nobody said: "You've got to clear this with Jones or Smith or Stanton or Paley." Indeed, the first that CBS heard of my programs was when they were on the air. Had I come into broadcasting only a few years later, that freedom would have been impossible on any network. So, as I say, I was a lucky man. And if what came out had any merit, then you must chalk up big points for artistic freedom.

Not that I've been without knocks and pains, of course. We all have those in measure; they come with the franchise. But to be afforded the trust of responsible wardens of media; to be given a chance publicly to contribute a few strokes of pride in the best of our past and present; to cry up the cause of human rights and the dignity of decency; to be able to do that kind of thing with the help of superb actors and actresses and musicians and technicians; to be allowed to address multitudes of countrymen and women as directly as I address you--what more could I ask if I had my life to live over again, or went to 175 with faculties and plumbing all in good working order?

It would be a comfort to believe that wisdom is a natural concomitant of age, but we all know that there are as many old fools as there are young ones. If there is anything in my ken or judgment or philosophy that commends itself to anyone's consideration, it was arrived at not late but early. What I have to say represents not the reflections of an aging curmudgeon but rather the perspective of one who decided some time ago that if the world is inhospitable; if terror is an established form of diplomacy; if dogmatism is going to polarize a society whose founding intent was to keep church and state from cross-breeding; if it is guaranteed that the next big war will be terminal--then the greatest danger to what we wistfully call civilization is to be uninformed, or misinformed, and the next greatest danger lies in not giving a damn about it.

This is where media and university come in. They must now go beyond even their proudest traditions to carry burdens never fully borne by them before: the challenge, indeed the ob ligation, not only to inform and to educate, but to do so with increased dedication, with truth and its consorts and consequences at all times in sight. Of course, truth is no party's patent or property and is never simple to arrive at. But the very least we can do is earnestly to seek it--and to keep on seeking it.

Nothing in my 75 years has stirred me more than evidences of past and present good will expressed between peoples--even, occasionally, God help us, between governments: Japan's present to Washington of the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin; Golda Meir, standing beside Anwar Sadat before the Knesset and handing him a present for his grandchild; athletes from a hundred nations, arms locked, singing together under an American moon on the opening night of the Olympics .

Decency. Consideration. Tenderness. Are they far-out? Declasse? Sentimental? Corny? I submit that if we are touched, almost against our will, by a TV commercial in which a kid offers a cold drink to a bruised and weary football player after a lost game; if a soft answer can still turn away wrath as effectively as when it was first endorsed in the Bible, then we have not become hopelessly cynical. And there is a chance that, one day, mankind, a relative newcomer to the animal kingdom, will stop snarling and snapping and wish to all its members a nice day and a nice year and a few nice millenniums.

I have no apologies to make for having striven with others to convince whoever listens that to believe peace impossible is the surest way to make it so. I take back none of the hopes I have voiced over the years: hope that we as a nation continue to give shelter to the arts and muses and not turn them out to scrounge on the street; that we hold as sacred as the flag and our anthem the right of dissent; that we dispute the arrogations of those who make an insolence of their authority; that we incite against the slackness of mediocrity, and above all, that we approach liberty, and the love of liberty, as welcome and deep addictions.

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