September 22nd, 2009

Do The Right Thing

A note from the editors: Ed Beat is a blog that’s growing and we’re excited to introduce our newest contributor, David Wald, Managing Producer at Learning Matters. His focus on Ed Beat will be about exploring what learning is and how we do it, often using contemporary culture as a starting point.

In his first post, he examines two films that investigate what happens when “doing the right thing” gets complicated.

It’s 3AM. You’re tired and almost home. But you’re stuck at that red light that lasts forever. No one is around and, remarkably, there’s no video camera at this intersection. Just as you start to creep forward a voice in your head stops you dead, smugly saying: “you can get away with it, but you know it’s wrong!” Where does that voice come from? Philosophers have been debating the question for thousands of years. My guess is it’s learned by example, from parents, siblings, teachers, clergy, and other role models. But what about when the stakes are bigger and the decision more complicated? Two new movies about whistle blowers may shed some light.

Steven Soderbergh’s dark comedy “The Informant!” is based on the true story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a VP at a gigantic agri-business company. He claims to be blowing the whistle on his company’s participation in an international price fixing scheme because he’s a good guy who “wears the white hat.” But during the course of the film his motivations become much more complex. In the end Whitacre seems less a guy in a white hat than a victim of fear, greed and mental illness.

A much more honorable example is provided by “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” a documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. The film tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic transition from committed cold soldier — he is a former marine and Pentagon insider — to government mole, culminating in his leaking of the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. The 7000-page document revealed that the government had been lying to the American people for years about Vietnam. By blowing the whistle on the Pentagon’s activities, Ellsberg risked life in prison, but he was sure he was doing the right thing: his patriotic duty.

Why did Ellsberg do it, at the risk of losing friends, family and freedom? The documentary offers compelling possibilities: his experience in Vietnam, a left-leaning wife, the commitment of other young men choosing prison over military service. Midway through the film, sitting at a piano, Ellsberg himself provides the most intriguing suggestion. He describes a family road trip taken when he was 15. While driving, his father falls asleep. The car drifts off the road and hits an embankment. His mother and sister are killed. Ellsberg’s nose is broken and he remains in a coma for a day and a half.

The accident, he says, taught him to trust no one. Even his father could fall asleep at the wheel.

The Informant [Warner Brothers]
The Most Dangerous Man in America [Judith Ehrlich and Rich Goldsmith]

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