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Until John Walker Lindh emerged from a prison basement in Mazar-i-Sharif, Gen-X America had no treason narrative to call its own. Now, thanks to the “American Taliban,” slackers can learn what their parents took away from the controversy surrounding Hanoi Jane — or what their grandparents absorbed from the trials of Alger Hiss or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Xers’ principal lesson may be that no public inquiry into national loyalty is as much an investigation of conduct as an articulation of mainstream ideology. That’s not to say that crimes emerging from betraying one’s country — a laundry list of interchangeable evils that includes treason, espionage, perjury, collaboration and assisting in terrorism — aren’t genuinely wicked. Nor were the acts that produced historic charges of treason hypothetical: Even leftist hardliners concede that the Rosenbergs actually channeled information to the Soviets. But mass culture seldom seizes on stories of perfidy because of objective harm. Instead, we turn our tales of deceit into political parables that identify the attitudes that suggest — or stimulate — an inadequate love of country. “We’re alert! We have to be!” Dan Jefferson (Dean Jagger) boasts of his American Legion post in Leo McCarey’s film “My Son John.” The point is that treason stories — whether McCarey’s Cold War fiction or CNN exposes of the case against John Walker — aren’t aimed at traitors; they’re intended to affect the attitudes of the rest of us. Produced as Joe McCarthy reached the zenith of his power over a Red-addled America, “My Son John” has remained largely unseen throughout the last half-century, dismissed as another of 1952′s risible propaganda pieces like “Invasion U.S.A.” or “Big Jim McClain.” But “My Son John” has never been a laughing matter. McCarey, who wrote, produced and directed the film, was one of Hollywood’s great directors. And John’s principal player was Broadway legend Helen Hayes. Hollywood may not have buried “My Son John” because the film overstated America’s political reaction to domestic terror, but because it didn’t. Like most of what’s been written about John Walker, “My Son John” isn’t about treason or its consequences. Rather, McCarey’s film, like today’s Walker commentary, focuses on how the American family produces — and then is unable to recognize — the homegrown traitor. When Lucille Jefferson (Hayes) arranges a special dinner to honor two of her sons, both headed for combat in Korea, their brother John (Robert Walker) misses the get-together. John, an intellectual with a government job, arrives from Washington a week later. Inevitably, John’s dad sees the missed meal — and John’s longstanding disdain for conservative politics — as evidence of a larger disloyalty. As Lucille tries frantically to reconcile father and son, McCarey’s allegory takes on national scope: More generous and forward-looking than her husband, Lucille is an American progressive, fighting to justify her support of the widely disparaged left. “St. Paul was a liberal,” Lucille timidly reminds her husband. McCarey understood melodrama, and he uses the genre’s inherent Freudianisms to underscore the deadly threat John poses for his father’s world. Competing for his mother’s loyalty, John consistently challenges his father’s dominion — ridiculing the older man’s patriotic rigor, discrediting dad’s simplistic perspectives, and finally displacing the paternal voice altogether by rewriting Mr. Jefferson’s long-planned speech to the Legionnaires. Eventually, John seduces his mother to his cause, and she evicts her husband from the family home. “We talk the same language. We think the same way,” John tells his mother, sealing their bond. “But I warn you, this is liberal thinking. To dad, we’re leftists, communists, subversives!” Yet McCarey — one of Hollywood’s most ardent anti-Communists — can’t stop himself from transforming an otherwise profound depiction of American political life into Oedipus Red. When an FBI agent suggests that John’s evasions are a cover-up for treason, Lucille investigates on her own. Her discoveries shake her faith — not only in John, who eventually admits to having collaborated with Communist couriers — but, more importantly, in her own political insight. Convinced of John’s treachery, Lucille accepts his perfidy as the product of her own liberalism: John’s antipathy toward capitalism must be the outgrowth of her humanism; John’s contempt for tradition, the result of her strength of will; his moral relativism, the fruit of her own devotion to inquiry. In the end, Lucille brings disgrace on the American family by having doubted her husband’s fundamental, conservative judgments: “You’re the brightest, the dearest. You’ve got more wisdom than all of us,” she whispers, broken and repentant. “Clear and honest and clean.” For 50 years, “My Son John” ‘s facial message — that platitudes are wisdom, that suspicion is caretaking, that insularity is purity, that inquiry is subversion, that jingoism is loyalty — has stunned the Americans who’ve seen it. But these days, those contentions have been given new currency. Eager to spin the story of John Walker, a dozen American commentators — denouncing, in Andrew Sullivan’s phrase, the liberalism that was a precondition to Walker’s alleged crimes — have revived “My Son John.” Their villain — expressed in disdain for “nuance,” loathing for “deconstruction,” and unmitigated antipathy for the dreaded “relativism” — is critical thought. McCarey, too, suggests that thought is the ultimate foe. Of all the cruelties his film inflicts, none is greater than the inexorable suppression of Lucille’s intellectual vitality. Patronized by her less intelligent sons and husband, Lucille submits helplessly when her whimsy is dismissed as instability, her legitimate stress attributed to depression, and, remarkably, her political consternation treated as menopause. Only when the traitor John arrives can Lucille surrender to her pleasure in exchanging ideas, her commitment to dissenting views, and her forgotten wish to create change. When Lucille breaks down at the film’s climax, it’s clear that she has simply thought too much. Critics have always assumed that bad filmmaking explained McCarey’s sudden, last-reel endorsement of the very values he has spent the first half of the film discrediting. And certainly, the film’s history offers an easy explanation for its thematic inconsistency: Film star Robert Walker died unexpectedly during the last weeks of shooting, forcing McCarey to borrow images of the actor from other films and to craft an emergency exit — John’s posthumous confession — from a tape recording produced during rehearsals. But “My Son John” was destined to break apart long before its star’s death. The film’s fatal weakness is ideological, not aesthetic. McCarey was determined to craft a commentary that told the truth about a young man’s alienation from an environment rich in American tradition. And he did. In the horrific microcosm of America, he showed the oppression that passed as order, the nationalism that stood in for love of country, and the intellectual blankness that made it all work. But in the end, McCarey, the arch-conservative, could not denounce the values that underlay his dystopia. It’s unlikely that most of us will ever see “My Son John.” But its legend still offers us something useful in assessing the stories written about John Walker. John says that America is unquestionable, but it shows the hell of a political environment without inquiry. “Let’s hope they forget what he did and pray they remember what he said,” Lucille says of the audience that has heard her son’s posthumous warning against thought. Those who would learn from “My Son John” should do just the opposite. Terry Diggs teaches courses on law and film at Hastings and Golden Gate University law schools. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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