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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For those that believe PBS is a bastion of Leftists, it's hard to
support this when you see this episode of "The American Experience".
While Emma Goldman is a sort of saint for the Left, this show is not a
glowing portrait of her but a more objective look. She was a brilliant
and yet incredibly naive character from history and the show does a
good job of presenting a thorough examination of her life--and as a
retired American history teacher, I really appreciate this.
Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant who came to the United States for freedom. Yet, interestingly, she soon became an outspoken opponent of so much that the nation held dear. I don't think this is because she was an America hater--she probably would have attacked the status quo in ANY country in which she had lived. During an age of repressed feelings and conservative politics, she 'upset the apple cart', so to speak. Her writings and speeches advocating free love, abortion, anarchy and communism did NOT sit well in the States. At times, these radical views created many enemies (such as when she spoke up in favor of the man who assassinated President McKinley). At other times, she almost became mainstream. This documentary does a good job of chronicling her life and philosophy.
It's interesting when you hear the many interviewees discussing Goldman. While some admire her, they freely admit that she was incredibly naive. Her belief that if you get rid of governments, people would all get along and live a sort of Utopian existence flies in the face of human nature--and, interestingly, is suddenly a popular notion with 21st century anarchists. Those interviewed just seemed to believe it would result in chaos and bloodshed. The same naiveté appeared in her endorsement of the Russian Revolution--a revolution that soon turned on itself and killed off its anarchists! But fortunately, Goldman was intellectually honest and admitted that her prior endorsement was a mistake--something many Leftists of the time would not do (such as John Reed--the subject of the adoring biopic "Reds").
Ironically, despite her advocating murder and making herself thoroughly hated by the establishment, Goldman was later expelled from the United States for simply expressing that the US should not enter WWI as well as supporting the Russians in their revolution. In these cases, she was right in that she was simply voicing her First Amendment right to free speech--though several of her actions in previous decades could have LEGALLY resulted in her expulsion or imprisonment (such as incitements to murder and her involvement with a murder attempt by one of her lovers). The Espionage and Sedition Laws which allowed her prosecution were clearly unlawful--and had been ruled that nearly a hundred years earlier during the first Adams administration (something, oddly, that the show did not mention--the FIRST Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798). Plus, WWI WAS morally wrong in hindsight and folks should have questioned American involvement.
While I really liked this episode, there was one thing I hated--the very intense and repetitive piano. I didn't notice it at first but after it kept repeating again and again, I couldn't help but feel annoyed. Also at the 42 minute mark, the show got VERY sexual and revealing. While I am no prude, it did seem out of place and very atypical of the series. Still, it's well worth watching for a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and seriously flawed woman who was, at times, well ahead of her time.
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