Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Detroit as a National Bellweather

Today, President Obama gave a speech in which he called economic inequality and the resulting lack of social mobility "the defining challenge of our time."  This comes right on the heels of Amazon announcing that they were seriously looking at using drones within the next few years to deliver packages to customers' doorsteps (what will happen to UPS and FedEx drivers?), and the news that the city of Detroit has been given the go-ahead to proceed with a bankruptcy filing which is very likely to put existing public pension commitments at risk.

We've been hearing for quite some time about Detroit's long slow slide from decline to outright implosion.  I just finished reading former NYT correspondent Charlie LeDuff's book about his home town, Detroit: An American Autopsy.   LeDuff is well aware that as far as Detroit is concerned, there is a fascination on the part of the rest of the country which he recognizes and dismisses as "ruin porn," but behind his stories of personal tragedy, ruined and abandoned neighborhoods, corrupt politicians, arson, drugs, young lives cut short by senseless murder, underfunded and understaffed police departments, and firemen with holes in their boots and water-pumping trucks that don't work, he teases out a broader cautionary tale.  In looking at other cities like LA, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Harrisburg, he sees Detroit as a canary in the coal mine.  As Detroit goes, so he warns, so the rest of the nation might go.

I fear there may be more than just a grain of truth in what he says.  For all of the political noise we hear about deficits, the national debt, and whether or not a universal health insurance mandate is constitutional, the real problem this country faces is a lack of meaningful and renumerative work.  Globalization has a lot to do with that, and so does robotics and automation, like the Amazon example I mentioned above.  A great deal of it also has to do, however, with the fact that we have willingly embraced a winner-take-all brand of turbo-capitalism that has made it acceptable for this country's executive class to wage war on the middle class and on the poor.

One particular passage in the book I found poignant was a recollection Charlie LeDuff had when he visited his brother Bill, who works in a screw factory on the outskirts of Detroit.  Correction -  it would be more accurate to say that they buff and shine up screws that are actually made in China.   As Charlie's brother tells the story of how his own fortunes have dramatically declined from his days as a subprime lender to his desperate days on the floor of the screw factory, Charlie recounts an observation made by a co-worker of Bill's, an illiterate man named Mike Straw, whom Charlie and Bill uncharitably call a "retard."  Now, that's just wrong.  "Retard" is a term that should never be used about anyone, but even Charlie had to acknowledge Mike's wisdom is summing up the plight of the country so succinctly. 
My brother pointed to the guy working at the next table over. “Go talk to him,” he said. “That guy’s actually paying off his debt. He’s an honest guy, I’ll give him that. But he’s sort of retarded. He’s too dumb to know he should just walk away from the debt.”

The man working next to my brother is named Mike. A functional illiterate, he earns $8 an hour but takes home about $75 a week. Up to his neck in house payments on a house that was no longer worth what he owed, Mike decided to pay the bank instead of walking away. Why? I asked him. A lot of people are walking out on debts. “A lot of people do, but I don’t,” he said. “If everybody walked away on what they owe, where would we be?”

He was potbellied, sported a poor Moe Howard “Three Stooges” haircut and was missing his lower plate of teeth. But he wasn’t complaining about the slow pace of a national dental plan. He was worried about his job.

“What happened?” I asked him as he fiddled with the same bolt I had seen him fiddling with for fifteen minutes.

“Happened where?”

“Here, in America. What happened to the economy? What happened to this screw shop?”

“Well,” he said with gummy exasperation, “a guy used to make plastic cars, see. Then they found a guy someplace else who can make forty plastic cars. But the guy that used to make the cars still likes the car. He wants to buy one for his son for Christmas. So he buys one with a credit card. But he don’t have no money to pay for that credit card. After a while, the man with the credit card wants to get paid, but the guy that used to make the plastic car don’t have no money to pay it.” He stopped abruptly and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what happened, I guess.”

The illiterate understood it. And he told it as well as the New York Times ever did.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Blue is the Most Schizophrenic Color

I was trying to decide if "hypocritical" would have been a better word to use, but I really don't think so.  I'm not sure I can pinpoint the reason why, but "schizophrenic" just seems to fit better in this circumstance.  I don't think it's a matter of hypocrisy, at least not consciously so.

Some prefatory remarks...

I am not a prude when it comes to sexual matters, and I'm certainly no santo innocente.  Ask anyone who knows me...  I've always been a fan of French films as well.   I like their vibe, their pace, and the fact that they rely on thoughtful scripts, story-lines, and carefully drawn-out characters rather than special effects and gimmicks.  In addition, there was this observation I made several years ago in a post I wrote about the film Au Revoir les Infants.
With respect to French films, my wife Anne might wryly add that I'm not likely to be offended by gratuitous skin either. OK. I might be tempted to just laugh, nod, and shrug that off, but you know what? There is something that is simultaneously healthier yet less prurient in the way that the French handle the topic of sex in their films, especially in comparison with the way it's handled in the Anglo world. The tongues spoken by Mediterranean peoples aren't called "romance languages" for nothing. I don't know if "sophisticated" is the right word to use when describing the French treatment of it, but I do know that "puerile" and "sophomoric" are entirely proper words to describe how sex is handled in English-speaking media, particularly in British film and television.
Shifting gears for a moment, I'll also say by way of introduction that as far as the sexual abuse crisis in the Church is concerned, I don't find it very helpful when people attempt to defend the Church by pointing out that in terms of numbers, the incidence rate of pedophilia committed by Catholic priests is similar to or actually better than that which can be found among certain secular professions that deal with children. This is neither a valid defense nor an excuse. Whether it's true or not, it's irrelevant. We make some pretty significant truth claims for ourselves, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard. At least we ought to. Others outside of our own circle certainly do.

Which brings me to the highly acclaimed French film Blue is the Warmest Color.   I have not seen it,  but I'll point out that it has won a number of awards in 2013, including the prestigious Palm d 'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Marnier Fellowship Award at the New York Film Festival, the Best International Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards, Best Film at the 26th European Film Awards, and Best International Film at the 29th Independent Spirit Awards.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche's film runs about three hours, and is a coming of age film that is typical of the French, but somewhat novel and edgy in that the sexual awakening in question has a lesbian theme.  So far, pretty standard fare for what you might find at Cannes...  What is particularly noted and commented upon is the explicit nature of the sex scenes, including a graphic 10-minute sequence in which the actresses apparently wore prosthetics over their genitals.  Speaking later about the grueling sessions required to shoot that lengthy sequence, actress Léa Sedoux said, “Of course it was kind of humiliating sometimes, I was feeling like a prostitute. Of course, he (Kechiche) uses that sometimes. He was using three cameras, and when you have to fake your orgasm for six hours...  I can't say that it was nothing. But for me it is more difficult to show my feelings than my body.”

Hints of abusive and controlling behavior on the part of the director is one thing, but the main point is this...Actress Léa Seydoux was 27 years old when the film was shot, and that's about how old her character was supposed to be.  Actess Adèle Exarchopoulos was 19 when the film was shot.... but her character in the film was supposed to be only 15 years old.

As I said, I'm not a prude.  I don't have a problem with adults watching films with strongly sexual themes or with a love story that revolves around a lesbian relationship.  I do, however, believe in the protection of children, and I'd urge those who claim to feel the same way to be consistent about it. 

Why is it that the press in both Europe and the USA, which has justifiably beat the Catholic Church about the head and shoulders for its scandal involving pedophilia, giving artistic acclaim to a film that is basically celebrating pedophilia, or at best ephebophilia (which also happens to be what most of those priestly abuse cases involved)? 

Again, I don't think "hypocritical" is quite the right word, although others may disagree with me on that.  To me, it appears to be a sort of schizophrenia in our post-modern culture, especially when it comes to the arts.  Why is it that the Roman Polanskis, Woody Allens, and Abdellatif Kechiches of thw world are given a pass on this sort of thing, when no one else in the world would, secular or religious?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

JFK's Last Speech

President Kennedy's Speech in Forth Worth, Texas, on the Morning of November 22, 1963

At the time of his death, was JFK still a Cold War hawk, or was he a peacemaker in the making?

Once again, as we approach November 22nd, we head into what is sometimes called "Assassination Season," when we analyze in excruciatingly minute detail the Zapruder film for the umpteenth time while re-parsing various conspiracy theories and waxing nostalgic about the Kennedy presidency and what might have been, but this year it is especially poignant, as it will mark the 50th anniversary of that day's tragic events.   It seems like only yesterday to me that we passed the 25th anniversary in 1988.  I remember thinking at the time, while watching old Walter Cronkite videos, how far away those days in 1963 felt, and that feeling is compounded today.   Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the Kennedy assassination, and I can't help but to feel amazed at time at how much the country has changed in the intervening years.

Speaking of  those intervening years, it is interesting to see the evolution in how that presidency has been perceived and evaluated.  In the first few years, it was all about Camelot and the most saccharine hagiography you could imagine.  You would think Kennedy was one of the three or four greatest presidents in our nation's history. In the years that followed, the pendulum swung completely the other way, and all you heard about was this reckless young man who was intellectually challenged, if not disinterested, and that JFK was not only an overrated president, but a dangerous one at that.  You would think Kennedy did nothing but have sex parties in the White House pool all day with interns and press secretaries, in between trysts with Marilyn Monroe.  While there was undoubtedly some of that going on, I think there has been a corrective shift in recent years to a more balanced and realistic view.  John F. Kennedy was actually a pretty good president, and a more serious thinker than he has been given credit for.  I think there was a tendency from the 1970s through the 1990s to judge him through his younger brother Ted.  Ted, the so-called "Wizard of Uhs," was rather inarticulate without a prepared text, and in addition to his being a lush, it is well-known that in his years in the Senate, he had very accomplished staff doing a good deal of his work for him.  John was not that way.  In his monthly press conferences (which he was the first to hold), he showed himself to be engaged, quick on his feet, and well versed on the issues.  Very much in command.  Glib. Poised and at ease. For example, I think he handled himself very well in this press conference, where he fielded questions about rumors of independent CIA activities in South Viet Nam.

It's interesting that he defended the CIA in that press conference, when rumor has it that in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco he had fired Allen Dulles and said that he wanted to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces." 

Which is the truth?  This is a paradox of sorts, which brings me to the main point of the post... 

The other day I was listening to some recent America Magazine podcasts, and came across an interview with James Douglass, the author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.

Now, this Jim Douglass is a man after my own heart.  As a teacher and peace activist in the Catholic Worker movement, friend and follower of the late Thomas Merton, he has written such other works as The Non-Violent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace.  He was in Rome in 1963, when he heard about Kennedy's murder. He was at the Second Vatican Council, working as a theological adviser on matters related to nuclear war and conscientious objection.  These days, Douglass has apparently taken advantage of a lot of newly declassified information about the assassination, and according to some people, has done an outstanding job in connecting enough dots to resurrect Oliver Stone's thesis that the CIA and the military industrial complex planned and executed a conspiracy to eliminate Kennedy based upon the fact that he had abandoned plans to liberate Cuba by force, had appeased the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was going to withdraw from Viet Nam, and planned to pursue a path towards nuclear disarmament.  Douglass maintains that over the course of his presidency, Kennedy had learned to mistrust the military, the intelligence agencies, and other members of the National Security apparatus.  He was chastened by the missile crisis and the standoff over Berlin, and was horrified by his generals' plans and advocacy for launching a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.   Douglass cites in particular Kennedy's "Peace Speech" at American University in June of 1963, where he spoke about a comprehensive nuclear test band treaty, and made some conciliatory remarks about the Russians.  He said that day, among other things...
First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.... For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.
I've only started reading Douglass' book, but I have seen and heard some people claim that he makes a very compelling case with the evidence he says is very readily available, if we would only open our eyes to take a hard honest look at it.  What he claims is the "Unspeakable," the very evil that lurks within our own government, first arose during the Cold War, and has only become even more powerful in our current "War on Terror."

It does give one pause...  Do I think he's right?  Well, I've always been of the opinion that there was a conspiracy of some kind.  In my view, it was probably some kind of blowback operation related to Cuban exiles, rogue CIA elements, and Mafia figures.  When someone like Oswald lived in the Soviet Union, had ties with US intelligence agencies, and was murdered with ease by a low level mob figure, it does lead one to doubt that Oswald was just an alienated lone gunman with grudge.

In any case, is Douglass right?  The problem with Douglass' theory is this...  There is another speech he doesn't mention in his book.  It was the last speech President Kennedy ever delivered.  He spoke before the Chamber of Commerce in Forth Worth, Texas, on the morning he was killed, and it was one of the most hawkish, militaristic speeches I've ever heard anyone deliver, anywhere, at any time.

Kennedy's speech begins at 31:26 in the video at the top of this post.  It was a testimony to the work of the defense industry in Fort Worth, as Kennedy spoke appreciatively and enthusiastically about the capabilities of the Iroquois helicopter, the B-58 Bomber, and the TXF tactical fighter.  It shows no hint at all of backing down from what Kennedy had indicated emphatically in his Inaugural Address; that the USA would "bear any burden" in the defense of liberty, and was willing to engage in limited wars in order to do so.  Excerpts...
Three years ago last September I came here, with the Vice President, and spoke at Burke Burnett Park, and I called, in that speech, for a national security policy and a national security system which was second to none--a position which said not first, but, if, when and how, but first. That city responded to that call as it has through its history. And we have been putting that pledge into practice ever since.
And I want to say a word about that pledge here in Fort Worth, which understands national defense and its importance to the security of the United States. During the days of the Indian War, this city was a fort. During the days of World War I, even before the United States got into the war, Royal Canadian Air Force pilots were training here. During the days of World War II, the great Liberator bombers, in which my brother flew with his co-pilot from this city, were produced here...The B-58, which is the finest weapons system in the world today, which has demonstrated most recently in flying from Tokyo to London, with an average speed of nearly 1,000 miles per hour, is a Fort Worth product.
The Iroquois helicopter from Fort Worth is a mainstay in our fight against the guerrillas in South Viet-Nam. The transportation of crews between our missile sites is done in planes produced here in Fort Worth. So wherever the confrontation may occur, and in the last 3 years it has occurred on at least three occasions, in Laos, Berlin, and Cuba, and it will again--wherever it occurs, the products of Fort Worth and the men of Fort Worth provide us with a sense of security.
And in the not too distant future a new Fort Worth product--and I am glad that there was a table separating Mr. Hicks and myself--a new Fort Worth product, the TFX Tactical Fighter Experimental--nobody knows what those words mean, but that is what they mean, Tactical Fighter Experimental--will serve the forces of freedom and will be the number one airplane in the world today....There has been a good deal of discussion of the long and hard fought competition to win the TFX contract, but very little discussion about what this plane will do. It will be the first operational aircraft ever produced that can literally spread its wings through the air. It will thus give us a single plane capable of carrying out missions of speed as well as distance, able to fly very far in one form or very fast in another. It can take off from rugged, short airstrips, enormously increasing the Air Force's ability to participate in limited wars.
In the past 3 years we have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20 percent; increased the program of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by over 60 percent; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased our strategic airlift capability by 75 percent; and increased our special counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South Viet-Nam by 600 percent. I hope those who want a stronger America and place it on some signs will also place those figures next to it.
This is not an easy effort. This requires sacrifice by the people of the United States. But this is a very dangerous and uncertain world. As I said earlier, on three occasions in the last 3 years the United States has had a direct confrontation. No one can say when it will come again. No one expects that our life will be easy, certainly not in this decade, and perhaps not in this century. But we should realize what a burden and responsibility the people of the United States have borne for so many years. Here, a country which lived in isolation, divided and protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific, uninterested in the struggles of the world around it, here in the short space of 18 years after the Second World War, we put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defense of alliances with countries all around the globe. Without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight. Without the United States, the SEATO alliance would collapse overnight. Without the United States the CENTO alliance would collapse overnight. Without the United States there would be no NATO. And gradually Europe would drift into neutralism and indifference. Without the efforts of the United States in the Alliance for Progress, the Communist advance onto the mainland of South America would long ago have taken place.
So this country, which desires only to be free, which desires to be secure, which desired to live at peace for 18 years under three different administrations, has borne more than its share of the burden, has stood watch for more than its number of years. I don't think we are fatigued or tired. We would like to live as we once lived. But history will not permit it. The Communist balance of power is still strong. The balance of power is still on the side of freedom. We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom, and I think we will continue to do as we have done in our past, our duty, and the people of Texas will be in the lead.
As much as I would like to believe what Jim Douglass has said about Kennedy's "teshuvah," or "repentance" (change of heart) on issues of war and peace, it was very little in evidence on the last day of his life.

Is it possible that Kennedy may have merely been playing to the crowd?  Perhaps.  Kennedy did in fact know that he was running a risk in visiting the super-heated cauldron that was Texas in November of 1963, but he had some fence-mending he needed to take care of inside of the Democratic Party, specifically, to heal the rift between Senator Ralph Yarborough one one side, and Governor John Connally and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson on the other.    It's possible that Kennedy was giving a pork-barrell speech to an appreciative defense industry town, but on the other hand, those words about a willingness and readiness to fight limited wars are still in there.

Author and commentator Jeff Greenfield has recently written an encomium to Kennedy titled If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History.   What if Kennedy have lived?  What would have happened in Viet Nam, with the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, etc...  It's hard to know and we will never know.  While I do think Kennedy was a good president who was learning in the job, there was that Kennedy clan penchant for secrecy which I think would have undone them in the long run somehow.

So, while I plan on reading Douglass' book in full, I'm not sure I agree with him on where Kennedy was headed in terms of geopolitics.  I am very much in agreement with Lawrence O'Donnell, however, who puts Kennedy's finest domestic policy moment here....

Friday, October 04, 2013

America's Common Sense Cardinal

Friday was the Feast of St. Francis, and while Pope Francis spent the day in Assisi celebrating and commemorating it, he was simultaneously lamenting the latest immigration disaster at Lampedusa, saying,“Today is a day of tears. Such things go against the spirit of the world.”

In the spirit of St Francis, it's good every now and then to offer a word of praise for our own Capuchin Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley.  He's one of the Pope's so-called G-8 cardinals, who happen to be in Rome for meetings and consultations this week, and in my humble opinion, not only was O'Malley a wise choice for this group on the part of Francis, but the best choice out of the eight.  

In the wake of Francis' now-famous interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, a few American bishops have written columns offering commentary and perspective on it.  Some people might say that certain ones, including another particular Capuchin bishop, were offering spin.  Michael Sean Winters reported on at least one bishop who seemed to "get" what Francis was saying in the interview, and some who did not, in his NCR blog posts Cardinal Burke Still At It and Wuerl & Chaput on the Interview.

I can say with some confidence that Cardinal O'Malley is one of those bishops who "gets" Francis, and has done so right from the beginning.  Back in August he made the keynote address at the 131st Convention of the Knights of Columbus.  I find it interesting that while Bishop Tobin in our neighboring state of Rhode Island was reprimanding Pope Francis for not talking about abortion enough, Cardinal O'Malley already understood where the new pope was deciding to place new emphasis. He could see that Francis was looking at a broader context for issues respecting the dignity of human life. He knew this well in advance of the Civiltà Cattolica interview.  Interesting as well, that Lampedusa was mentioned in the keynote address, as it was by Francis today as a result of a fresh tragedy.  In his August 6th speech, O'Malley said...
Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion. I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world. Recently I read about an American relief worker in Africa, who reported on being at a camp for a food distribution line, it was very chaotic, even scary. He could see that they were running out of food and that these starving people were desperate. At the end of the line, the last person was a little nine year old girl. All that was left was one banana. They handed it to her. She peeled the banana and gave half each to her younger brother and sister. Then she licked the banana peel. The relief worker said at that moment he began to believe in God.
We must be better people; we must love all people, even those who advocate abortion. It is only if we love them that we will be able to help them discover the sacredness of the life of an unborn child. Only love and mercy will open hearts that have been hardened by the individualism of our age.
In the United States we are an immigrant Church. It is very significant that the Holy Father’s very first trip as Pope was to Lampedusa, to underscore his concern for the plight of immigrants. As the Archbishop pointed out so eloquently in his homily, this is an issue that it is great importance to us as American Catholics.
When the Holy Father went to the island of Lampedusa he threw a wreath of flowers into the sea where thousands of refugees have perished in the modern day coffin ships the bring refugees from North Africa. The Holy Father talked about the globalization of indifference – indifference to the suffering of others, to the fate of the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the mentally ill and the immigrants.
We must overcome this indifference in our own lives and help people to see that the Church’s teaching is about loving and caring for everyone. In his talk to the Brazilian bishops last week, Pope Francis said: “We need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of entering the world of wounded persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.” The Holy Father alludes to Cardinal Kasper’s work on mercy when he says that mercy without truth would be consolation without honesty and is empty chatter.
On the other hand, however, the truth without mercy would be cold, offputting and ready to wound. The truth isn’t a wet rag that you throw in someone’s face, but a warm cape that you wrap around a person, to protect and strengthen them.
Project Rachel has been just that kind of a combination of mercy and truth that the Church’s pro–life efforts need to be about.
Our efforts to heal the wounds of society will depend on our capacity to love and to be faithful to our mission. The Holy Father is showing us very clearly that our struggle is not just a political battle or a legal problem, but that we must evangelize and humanize the culture, then the world will be safe for the unborn, the elderly and the unproductive. The Gospel of Life is a Gospel of ercy. If we are going to get a hearing in today’s world, it will be because people recognize that authenticity of our lives and our dedication to building a civilization of love. We are called to live our lives as a service to others and commit our lives to give witness to the presence of God’s love and mercy in our midst.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

No Redemption for Walt?

Breaking Bad and Morality in a Post-Religious Age 



At the last moment he found a bit of peace, perhaps, but not redemption.

I've had Badfinger's Baby Blue playing in my head for the last couple of days now. It was one of the best uses of of a classic rock song to close out a TV series or a movie that I've seen in quite a while, as Breaking Bad's main character Walter White looked wistfully for one last time over the object of his “special love” and the pinnacle of his life's work, his meth lab, just before dying. Music was used quite masterfully in the series overall, from what I could tell, such as the scene when Walt was pushing his last barrel of money through the desert as if it contained the weight of his accumulated sins, to the strains of Take My True Love. I've always felt that a dissonant juxposition of music with what is happening on screen can be devastatingly effective, ever since I first saw Martin Scorcese use Donovan's Atlantis as the soundtrack for the Billy Batts incident in Goodfellas.

The first time I heard about Breaking Bad was on a highway in northern Indiana in the Spring of 2011. I was in a rental car, driving my oldest daughter from Chicago to South Bend. She was a senior in high school at the time, and we were on our way to visit St. Mary's College for an accepted students day. Just a few miles out of South Bend, she was telling me about this new TV show that she’d recently become hooked on. Alternately horrified, fascinated, and intrigued by the fact that my daughter was telling me about watching a show that gave a sympathetic treatment to a meth-amphetamine cook, I must have stepped more heavily on the gas than I realized. I was clocked by the Indiana State Police at 85 mph and was given a speeding ticket.

Not that my wild ride was anything like the existential mid-life crisis that Walter White, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, had in Breaking Bad. Even after I first heard about it, I had no real interest in watching a show about the meth trade, whether it was sympathetic to the characters or otherwise. It wasn't until this year that I heard enough buzz about the excellent writing and acting associated with the program, to finally give it a look-see. I didn't start watching it, in fact, until after Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank finally discovered that Walt was in fact the mysterious Heisenberg, the meth-making genius that he'd been hunting for. Therefore, I missed the vast amount of high drama in the show. Nevertheless, just watching those last few episodes was enough to get me completely hooked, and to leave an emotional impact on me when it ended.

My wife was as dubious as I was when I first heard about it, and she remained so. Myself, I wouldn’t tolerate for one moment the hell on earth that is meth addiction, or the hideous crime of it’s production and distribution. For me, however, the series was about much more than that, chiefly, how easy it is for human beings to make minor moral compromises that can snowball into major ones, leaving lasting damage in their wake. It brings to mind St Paul saying, ’I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” A show with such an edgy premise and theme was only as successful as it was because it was characterized by expert writing, but more importantly, because of its superb casting. They couldn't have done the casting more perfectly.

From the beginning of the show to its end, there has been a lot of consternation about the moral ambiguities presented within it, and what it says about us as a society, as we become more and more disengaged from traditional Judeo-Christian values. Ross Douthat, for one, fretted about those who identified with, and were rooting for the main protagonist, no matter what kind of atrocities he committed, in a group he refers to as  “Team Walt.” While realizing that they are not reading the writer’s intentions for the show quite properly, he’s concerned about the Darwinian ethics they’ve embraced.
The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for a supervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own… embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”
To be clear, I don’t think the show itself is actually on Walt’s side. I think Team Walt badly misreads the story’s moral arc and vision.
But the pervasiveness of that misreading tells us something significant...
I’ve surely considered the same thing myself, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the whole story.

Granted, I came in late, so I didn’t see all of the terrible things that Walter White did. Maybe I’d feel a lot differently about his character if I did. The question remains, however, as to why so many people had sympathy for Walter White… Why were so many rooting for things to turn out all right for him and his family in the end? Why were so many hoping for his redemption?

I think a lot of it simply came down to the skill of Bryan Cranston, the actor who played him. I haven’t seen an actor in quite some time who has been able to deliver sheer pathos the way that he did. Every pained, angst-ridden expression spoke more than a thousand words, and the raging conflicts within him just exploded out of every glance and gesture. I think there is an instinctive reaction on a large part of the audience; a reaction that just wants to assuage that kind of pain.

While I don’t necessarily know what goes through the mind of younger viewers, I wonder if the prolonged economic situation we are living through strikes a chord with the middle-aged who are living under a cloud, living those “lives of quiet desperation,” feeling their health decline, feeling at mid-life that they’ve lived little more than a beige, mediocre life. Walter White steps out of this and his life spins out of control, but he barely looks back. Maybe there are many who wonder if such a thing could live within themselves.
Many were waiting for redemption in the final episode, but apparently Cranston and the writer, Vince Gilligan, decided that it was not to be. In his final visit with his wife, there was this exchange…
Skyler: "If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family..."
Walt: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive."
Speaking of Vince Gilligan, what is his take on what kind of a moral message, if any, are we to take out of the show? David Segal of the NYT reports on it in The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad’, and it confirms much of what I observed myself. Most of the characters in the show made some kind of serious moral compromise at some point, and they all paid for it in spades.
Gilligan and his writers have posed some large questions about good and evil, questions with implications for every kind of malefactor you can imagine, from Ponzi schemers to terrorists. Questions like: Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?
Gilligan has the nerve to provide his own hopeful answer. “Breaking Bad” takes place in a universe where nobody gets away with anything and karma is the great uncredited player in the cast…
Cranston has found many nuanced ways to enact Walt’s many miseries, the most wrenching of which was the loss of his wife’s love. There is a long history in art of foisting suffering on characters who sin, but it seems to have fallen out of favor. As awful as Tony Soprano was, it’s left purposefully unclear at the end of “The Sopranos” whether he paid the ultimate price. Or consider the “simple chaos” take on the universe as represented in movies by Woody Allen, a director whom Gilligan admires. “And Woody Allen may be right,” Gilligan says. “I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”
“If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences,” Gilligan said during lunch one day in his trailer. “If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end.”
“I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something,” he said between chews. “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen,” he went on. “My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Regarding Pope Francis... Will Everyone Please Chill?

The Catholic Circular Firing Squad goes on, like an endless loop of Reservoir Dogs

I suppose it was only a matter of time before our segmented, siloed, sorted, and completely polarized American political culture infected us as a Church. How could it not? It has been percolating since Holy Thursday, but look at the recent fallout over "The Interview." We treat popes now the same way we do presidents and other politicans.

So much for us being united as the Mystical Body of Christ. Maybe the late Fr. Raymond Brown was right when he said in his book The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, "Within Roman Catholicism, if we have another decade of the dominance of the People of God imagery, the Body of Christ mo­tif will need to re-emerge."

Poor Pope Francis... One has to feel badly for him, because of all the pastoral damage that had already been done before him. He has a mighty hill to climb.

Despite mostly favorable MSM coverage so far, take for a moment the challenges he faces with people on the Left...

Even when he says all the right things, many liberals, at least here in the USA, are still going to dislike and discount him. For example, simply take a look at the comments about him on posts referencing him on liberal sites like the Huffington Post. Even if he talks primarily about inequality and concern for the poor, he gets comments like "How about if the Vatican sells off all of their riches first," as if they are sitting on mountains of cash instead of museum pieces and a chronically chaotic and mismanaged bank.

Those are the kinder comments. As we all know, the pedophilia scandal is the "gift" to anti-Catholics that keeps on giving, and it is the well dipped back into over and over again for combox screeds. That may take centuries to erase, if ever.

Among the specifically Catholic Left, I suppose some are disappointed in the way he speaks of "spinsters" and "female machismo" in a fashion that convinces them that he has an anthropologically retrograde, Latin American way of thinking about women, and they would actually like to see some concrete changes in doctrine, which is very unlikely. If not that, they'd at least like him to back off of the LCWR. I think that may still happen, but unless doctrine actually changes on women's ordination and same-sex relationships, I don't think these folks are ever going to be truly happy, no matter what kind of tone he sets. As I said, that's highly unlikely.

The real matter for concern, however, is the absolute conniption that's being thrown on the Right.

Laypeople on the Left have a long history of criticizing popes openly, but except for the sedevacantists on the fringe, this was unthinkable for conservatives prior to now.
While recognizing that their "enemies" aren't exactly crawling back in repentance like the prodigal son, these Catholics would do well to remember the father's words to the older son.
My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours ~ Luke 15:31
Why all the anger and sense of betrayal? To an extent, I suppose I can understand the frustration. My wife and I have six kids and have always been vocal and active in regard to our Pro-Life views.  It hasn't always been easy, in a pornified cultural sink, where people can be hostile, condescending, or simply uncomprehending in regard to our beliefs, but we can also see what hasn't been working. Like Pope Francis, we can see that there are battlefield casualties that need healing.

Francis didn’t say we were wrong to have opposed abortion, or to have wasted our time talking about it. He didn’t say we shouldn’t continue to oppose it or continue to talk about it. He just told us to put it in the proper context and not to obsess over it. At the end of the day, the Faith is about Jesus Christ and his salvific mission, and we always have to be careful about cultivating and nursing our own pet idolatries instead. What I mean by that is, for all the good work we do in the Pro-Life sphere, for some of us, opposition to abortion has not become just a marker of the Faith and primary moral concern, but the be-all and end-all of the Faith. In a sense, for some of us, it has become the Faith itself. This isn’t meant as a condemnation on my part of the doctrinally conservative, so please don’t read it that way. The progressives can equally make an idol out of social justice, or the poor, or any other issue. All of us need to be cognizant of our own obsessions and tendencies, because idolatry is pernicious in the way it creeps up on us.

So, while I recognize to a degree that this is a sort of trial for those who feel like they've suffered through sacrifices and the slings and arrows of the culture wars, only to be stabbed in the back, I think there is something else larger going on here. After all, in regard to the moral issues and "tone," Rod Dreher has done a good job of pointing out that Benedict has at times said very much the same thing as Francis.

I think a lot of it comes down to this... Not only more liberal, but ordinary, lax, half-catechized, cultural Catholics love Francis in a way that they never extended to Benedict, and are showing signs of responding more favorably to the Faith again.

Before Joseph Ratzinger became the pope, he was well-known as a lightning rod, but he had a sizable and devoted following. He had a "fan club." John Paul II, by contrast, nor any other pope before him, for that matter, ever had this. After Joseph Ratzinger became the pope, Ignatius Press published just about everything he ever wrote. You couldn't go into your local Barnes & Nobles and look at the Catholic section of books without seeing a veritable wall of his writings. This was a pivotal moment. For his devoted followers, this was when things were finally going to be set to rights. Every thought of the pope was published and analyzed,and it was incumbent upon every serious Catholic to get to know the mind of this "teaching pope." The papacy had become more important than ever before.  In their enthusiasm, I think they may have missed how much the sartorial splendor and constant scolding coming from Rome was grating to other people, but they may not have cared even if they did.

The resignation was a shock, right when the pendulum swing to the right looked like it was picking up it's full head of steam and building towards a critical mass.

Pope Francis came in. Then the comparisons began, along with the unadorned affection of the great unwashed for Francis.

This is what they seem to hate most of all. They had gotten used to being coddled and pampered and catered to during the pontificates of JPII and Benedict, especially the latter, who believed in having no enemies to the right. They were the darling children, the creative minority, the faithful remnant, and they were looking forward to the day when everyone else would be kicked out, or, even more charitably, to die off, useless, aging hippies that they were.

The Right could not be comfortable loving Francis if they loved him too. Either they loved him for the wrong reasons, or something must be terribly wrong. The folks at the Vatican who still read all these blogs that they used to be so hopeful about must be very alarmed at these reactions right now.

Even though Francis is clearly his own man, Father Zuhlsdorf, for instance, who's become a sort of Baghdad Bob these days, insists that we can and must "Read Francis through Benedict." For the SSPX-sympathizing types at places like Rorate Caeli, they are not fooled. 

I mentioned the former Catholic Rod Dreher earlier, and he summarizes the reaction on the Right in a post called Conservative Catholics Confront Francis’s Message. Some interesting stuff in there. He quotes favorably and powerfully from Larry Chapp at Ethika Politika, but I think he missed the key quote from Chapp's column, which was this...
Along these lines, I have to say that I have been harboring the guilty hope that this liberal honeymoon with Francis will soon be over and things will get back to normal as soon as they see he is “not one of them.” That will make me feel “vindicated” again and “right.” But why should any of us hope that they stop liking the Pope? Why should we not hope instead that this first acceptance of theirs of his message will bear fruit as their own hearts open to truths that they too will see they should be more willing to accept? So what if they like him for what we think are “the wrong reasons”? How are the Right-wing bloggers so certain that they don’t dislike him for all the wrong reasons? Why should we not hope that a new conversation can be started where, even if we still disagree, our common love for Christ and his Church will forge a new amity? Why should I hope they return to alienated distrust? This Pope is calling all of us out of our selfish and pinched pettiness. And God knows we all need to heed that call. I know I do. I am starting to think this Pope might actually be, indeed, a truly wise and holy man.

Amen. Go ahead. Love Pope Francis. We love him too. Why can't we both?  Enough of Catholic infighting.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

More on Syria and Other Matters...

Some interesting things on the web I noticed over the weekend...

1) A beautiful prayer from a Syrian Jesuit who is now studying at Creighton University.

A Prayer for Syria 

2) A Syrian-American woman gives an earful to John McCain at a town meeting.

As for Obama, shame on the Democrats for not speaking up more strongly on this.  It if was George W. Bush doing this, they'd be all over him.   Shame as well on Catholic politicians of both parties who are supporting this proposed attack.

3) A certain Father Zuhlsdorf commented yesterday on How the Catholic Left will support Pres. Obama’s attack on Syria, and a couple of days earlier on The Jesuit General’s selective indignation.  With regard to the "Catholic Left" at the National Catholic Reporter, which he calls "The Fishwrap" (which might have been funny the first 100 times he did so), he quotes Matt Bowman from CatholicVote saying:
On the NCReporter’s main page, it has forgotten how to plainly condemn bombing. It lists some articles in favor of the bishops’ view, yet at the same time it hosts what can only be called a “diversity” of views on the topic.
Hmm. Here's what NCR's page looks like this morning.

Seems like a pretty unambiguous focus to me....  Granted, it seems as if the main thrust of Mat Bowman's attack, and by extension, Zuhlsdorf's, is the supposed reticence of Michael Sean Winters to get with the program over at NCR, but as Fr. Zuhlsdorf laments the selective indignation on the part of NCR and the Jesuits, supposedly for taking this Syrian matter more seriously than topics like abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, where have his posts been, unambiguously condemning bombing in Syria or elsewhere? 

4) Finally, I noticed Sandro Magister had pointed out that the current head of the CDF, Gerhard Muller,  co-wrote a book with Gustavo Gutierrez about liberation theology. but of course, Magister says that Francis is dead-set against LT, saying Bergoglio Isn't Falling For It.

It isn't quite that simple... Despite the fact that Magister takes into account in his article the public rift between Leonardo Boff and his brother Clovodis, who plainly stated that even with his change of heart his "intention [was] not to disqualify liberation theology," he seems to miss the nuances and breadth of views within LT itself.  Magister seems to cling to the perception that in order to do LT, you need to have a beard and a beret like Che Guevara, quote Marx, and carry a Kalashnikov.

Despite what Magister says, even Father Zuhlsdorf cites the article and is accepting the fact that he will have to come to terms now with some form of liberation theology during this pontificate.