I read the obituary of Patrick McGoohan this morning. It brought back memories of how extraordinary it was for a misfit teenager to live through the year 1968. It was the year when many of my life's passions took hold: politics, science fiction, philosophy, the films of Stanley Kubrick, general geekiness.
I always remember the day early in that year when I saw my mother's ashen face when she learned that her best friend's only son had been killed in Vietnam. I signed up to volunteer in the McCarthy campaign the next day. Then followed a few months of hope, only to have it crushed by the assassinations; riots throughout America's cities revealing the scope of the poverty and hopelessness that lay beneath the American Dream and shoving it in the faces of us middle class white kids who had been taught about some other America; the scenes of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague; the conventions, George Wallace making racism acceptable, the election of Richard Nixon - the gathering realization that American Democracy was a hoax and that America was not necessarily a force for good in the world.
That summer, CBS ran a bizarre British television series called The Prisoner as a summer replacement. The timing could not have been more appropriate.
If you have never seen The Prisoner, I won't try to tell you what it is about. In fact, most viewers, including me, have a hard time figuring out what it was about. Get it on DVD.
McGoohan created and starred in the show. The great Leo McKern was also in it. It was about individuality and freedom, social control and social responsibility. It addresses revolution. Is rebellion simply an act that asserts individual freedom, or does the rebel have a responsibility to the community?
The Prisoner may seem dated in a psychedelic, late '60s sort of way. Some of the episodes are way over the top. But so much of The Prisoner could not be more timely. The show is almost like a catalogue of the Bush Administration's "greatest hits": extraordinary rendition, torture, uncontrolled surveillance, rigged elections, imprisonment as the solution to all social ills, criminality and deceit in the highest levels of government. At the end of the day, however, there is hope. Freedom and individuality cannot be wiped out, and the human spirit can triumph. The power to resist oppression lies within each of us.
Thinking about hope inevitably makes me think about what will happen next week. The horrors of 1968, or of the past eight years, have not been wiped out, and will not be wiped out when Obama takes the oath. But I can really see the possibility of something better. President Obama can be a success by tearing down prison walls. Guantanamo is a good start, but it is only a start. Maybe in a few years we can stop thinking of America as the country that has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.
Thank you Patrick McGoohan for having opened up the mind of this geek, and I suspect, many, many others. Be seeing you.