The Post: What’s Wrong with the Capitalist Model of News Publication

The POst

Last week some dear friends joined Peggy and me to see The Post. That’s the Steven Spielberg film detailing the story behind The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It stars Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the Post’s chief executive, and Tom Hanks as the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee.

Intentionally or otherwise, The Post ended up revealing a huge reason why readers have increasingly given up on large for-profit news organizations. They turn out to be run by ignorant people, who know far less than those they pretend to inform. The would-be informants are blinded by the profit motive. Moreover, their organizations top-down structures prevent them from even hearing those who work for them. Thankfully, however, The Post unwittingly suggests remedies for the dire situation it depicts – some of which are taking form before our very eyes.

The Post begins with a revealing vignette of the Vietnam War. It shows a world invisible to the newspaper’s sophisticated editors. There, U.S. infantry are seen executing one of their commanders’ signature “Search and Destroy” missions. The maneuver consisted in having poor, terrified disproportionately black and brown twenty-somethings make their way through rainforests they knew nothing about in search of Vietnamese farmers exquisitely familiar with the terrain. The idea was to find the farmers awaiting them in ambush and kill them. According to the strategy, if they did that enough times, the Americans would soon eliminate the peasants and win the war.

Brilliant, no?

Obviously not.

In fact, by 1971, when The Post begins, it was clear to nearly everyone outside the Beltway that the whole idea was stupid, crazy, doomed, and immoral. That was especially evident to those at the wrong end of Vietnamese rockets and machine guns, as well as of those with any shred of religious conscience. Buddhist monks called attention to the war’s immorality as they immolated themselves in Saigon as far back as 1963. So did the Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King when in 1967 he “Broke Silence” at New York’s Riverside Church. The Muslim, Malcolm X, knew it, as did the boxer, Mohammed Ali. The Catholic Berrigan Brothers and the Catonsville Nine knew.

Even Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez were in the know. So were the college students demonstrating (with four of them murdered) at Kent State in 1970 – not to mention the throngs of young people brutalized by Mayor Daley’s riot police at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968.

Yet with straight faces, the enlightened and secular mainstream media continued to parrot the lies of the generals and politicians. “Great progress is being made,” the war-makers told the official stenographers. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

All such statements were about Southeast Asia were known to be false by the ones uttering them. They should have been known by Washington Post editors too. An early sequence in the film shows Truman lying about it, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, of course, Richard Nixon.

And why did they lie? Was it for reasons of national security or to prevent countries in the region from falling to communism like so many dominoes?  Again, no. According to Robert McNamara in the film, seventy percent of it was to prevent embarrassment on the part of the “leaders” responsible for the enterprise in the first place.

Or as Nixon himself put it when he described the ultimate impact of the Pentagon Papers revelations:

“To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing…. You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the — the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

So, to prevent such irreparable damage to “national security,” the wholesale killing went on for years – long after those responsible for the disaster had concluded the war was genocidal and completely unwinnable. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and two million Vietnamese were sacrificed to the myth of Presidential Infallibility – to conceal the fact that OUR GOVERNMENT IS RUN ON LIES.

And (other than repeating government falsehoods) what was the press doing while all of this was going on? What were The Washington Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee doing? According to the film, they were hobnobbing with the liars. They were dining with them in expensive DC restaurants, vacationing with them in Hyannis, posing with them for photo-ops, throwing parties for them, guarding their secrets, and attending meetings with Wall Street insiders and white men in dark suits.

Their big news item? Tricia Nixon’s wedding!

But then Daniel Ellsberg risked his life by releasing irrefutable proof of government duplicity. And all the Washington insiders are suddenly shocked and appalled. As if the idea had never previously occurred to them, they realize the people in the streets, the religious prophets, the boxing champion, the rock ‘n roll singers and the student demonstrators and martyrs were all right after all.

The newspaper magnates had to face the facts. Their hand was forced.

But what were their biggest concerns when faced with the prospect of publishing the truth? Was it informing the American people? No. It was:

  • Selling more papers than their competitor
  • The impact of publication on the stock market value of their product
  • Fallout in the form of experiencing the ire of President Nixon
  • Being excluded from his inner circle as a result
  • And thus, losing market share.

Several conclusions suggest themselves from all of this – one particular, others more general. In addition, a basic remedy becomes apparent.

The particular conclusion is that the capitalist model of for-profit news publication is deeply flawed. Its power structure is entirely top-down. As depicted in the film, it empowered a tiny group of rich white mostly males to make decisions of extreme national import. Workers at the newspaper were treated with disdain.

That dismissal of underlings is portrayed at the film’s turning point. One of the paper’s staff far down the food chain obtains a copy The Pentagon Papers long sought by the paper’s editors. It had been delivered furtively to him by an even lesser nobody – a young woman in tie-dye obviously out-of-place in the newsroom. Shaking in his boots, the staffer tries to deliver his acquisition to Bradlee. However, he’s rudely waved off by his arrogant boss who initially refuses to even to acknowledge him. Then when he finally does get the editor’s attention, the staffer remains completely ignored as he tries to explain the information’s origin. That’s of no interest to his superior. Evidently for Mr. Bradlee, the idea was inconceivable and irrelevant that young hippies might be credible news sources.

That in itself represents a bleak commentary on capitalist workplace relationships.

Even more damningly however is the movie’s implied criticism of the system’s ownership structures. In fact, they placed the ultimate decision about whether or not to release The Pentagon Papers entirely in the hands of, Katherine Graham, a CEO presented in the film as singularly unprepared for such responsibility. She occupied her position of authority only because she inherited it from her deceased husband. At least within the confines of the film, she knew nothing of world affairs, much less about the Vietnam conflict or the inner workings of government – or those soldiers in the rainforest. True, she socialized with presidents and Wall Street high-rollers. But basically, she was ignorant. All her advisers (those white men in black suits) shared only one concern – the paper’s profitability.

Yet decisions of extreme national concern were entirely up to Ms. Graham. Only because of residual remnants of motherly conscience was she finally able to resist market pressures and do the right thing.

And so here come the general conclusions suggested by The Post:

  • In terms of informing the public, white male patriarchy is extremely inefficient.
  • Similarly, capitalist structures of inheritance, ownership, and commodification of information inhibit service of the truth.
  • The closer you are to power, the less you are likely to know about the concerns of ordinary people.
  • The richer you are, the less you are likely to know about the way the world really works for people in the street.
  • The higher up in the military you find yourself, the less you probably know about the disastrous outcomes of your pet theories and tactics.

What to do about it all. . .  As I earlier remarked, the solutions are unfolding before our eyes:

  • Stop trusting the mainstream media as reliable sources of information.
  • Realize that news sources can be co-operatives where all workers have meaningful input and respect, because they co-own the newspaper and need tremble before none of their peers.
  • Trust only such non-profit outlets, like Democracy Now and OpEdNews that rely for funding on viewer and reader support. They deserve trust because they depend on street-level sources for all of their information and analysis of official misdeeds and legislation.

In the end, The Post is worth watching. But it’s not for the reasons Hanks, Streep and Spielberg advance in their promotional commentaries. It’s not because Ms. Graham or Mr. Bradlee were heroic and demonstrate that the system somehow works. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The true heroes were far down the food chain. The Post merely unveils the system’s severe dysfunctions. It demonstrates the need to put news gathering and publication under the decentralized aegis of workers and activists who refuse to be governed by the venal corporate interests of the military-industrial complex.

The Truth Behind Mr. Trump’s Crude Metaphor

Shithole

President Trump’s done it again. He’s snatched away the patina of political correctness that normally conceals the brutal realities of a U.S. policy. His recent words about “shithole countries” say more than most imagine, not only about Haiti and Africa, but about history, colonialism, immigrants in general, and (surprisingly) about faith-inspired anti-colonial resistance. In other words, the offensive imagery is profoundly revealing and worth probing for its subconscious meaning and implications for immigration policy.

Begin by considering the operative words themselves. They were pronounced in the context of a White House meeting about immigration policy. There Mr. Trump wondered “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”

Such poetic metaphor suggests two meanings. On the one hand, it might imply that Haiti and Africa are somehow anal sphincters. They are orifices from which excrement exits a body. In other words, Haitians and Africans are nothing but human waste.

Alternatively, the geographical locations themselves would be places of defecation. They are toilets or outhouses. They exist to receive excrement – presumably from the likes of Mr. Trump and the country he represents. Accordingly, the countries he referenced are thereby reduced to wastelands.

Either comparison (sphincters or toilets) distorts the brutal history of colonialism. In every case that process has impoverished previously prosperous populations of countries and whole continents characterized not by poverty, but by a wealth that far outstrips that of the colonizers.

In fact, the colonial world’s wealth (three growing seasons, lavish biodiversity, rich rain forests, herds of exotic fauna, expansive acreage, abundant mineral deposits, and, in many cases, oil) are the very reasons why European and American colonists invaded them in the first place. They forced their ways in to transfer the colonies’ wealth to the “Mother Country” to feed her voracious bestial, but resource-starved industries.

In other words, rather than receptacles for receiving waste, the colonies’ function became the enrichment of the much poorer imperial centers whose conquistadors invaded and plundered them. In that sense, Europe was the shithole. As sphincter, it exuded sickly white marauders who plundered the lavish wealth of thriving black and brown indigenous peoples.

And in every case, after the Second Inter-Capitalist War (aka World War II), when the colonized rebelled to reclaim their own abundance, the colonizers intervened repeatedly to keep the stolen resources flowing to the shitholes up north – to keep in poverty those they had impoverished.

Ironically, Haiti represents a case in point. There attempts at re-appropriating stolen land and other resources have repeatedly been repulsed by foreign invaders.

Haiti’s rebellion began in 1791 shortly after the French Revolution. It was then that Toussaint Louverture led the first successful black slave rebellion – against the country’s French imperialists. Such effrontery to white supremacists has never been forgiven.

The unacceptability of blacks and browns in rebellion explains the U.S. support of the brutal Tonton Macoute under the Duvaliers (“Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc”). Their death squads were responsible for the assassinations, torture, and disappearances of thousands of Haitians from 1957 to 1986. The CIA supported them at every step.

The threat of Haitians struggling for liberation from foreign control also explains U.S. opposition to former priest and liberation theologian, Jean Bertrand Aristide. (And it’s here that the previously-mentioned connection to faith enters in.) In 1993 Aristide was elected with 67% of the vote. Aristide’s popularity and the reason for CIA opposition to his presidency is suggested by the connections the former priest made between his faith and his rejection of the U.S. rape of his homeland under the Duvaliers. In a January 1988 interview, he said “The solution is revolution, first in the spirit of the Gospel; Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor. My role is to preach and organize….”

Even before the 2010 earthquake (which killed 300,000 Haitians!!), Haiti’s infrastructure and social fabric were devastated by reactionary outrages against faith-inspired struggles for national control of the country’s own resources. Haitian society still reels from the policies of American clients concerned only with preserving their own wealth and cooperating fully with the foreign agendas of their D.C. puppeteers.

None of this is acknowledged by the Trump Administration, the mainstream media, our TV talking heads, or even by the leadership of the Catholic Church. Instead, everything has disappeared down the shitholes (Again, please excuse the crudeness of Mr. Trump’s metaphor) residing between the ears of those concerned.

The fact is that all colonized countries particularly in Africa have rich histories like Haiti’s.

This means that the poverty and desperation of immigrants from those places is explainable by a combination of colonialism, counter-revolution, and (very often) religious persecution.

The president’s crudeness has afforded valuable opportunity to recover all of that hidden history. It provides occasion for appropriating the memory so important to denizens of the Global South in general.

Their people are not human waste. Their countries are extraordinarily rich, not poor. Instead, both have been systematically plundered and impoverished. Our lavish lifestyles are the direct result.

Put otherwise, all of us can benefit from Mr. Trump’s vulgarity. It can lead us to flush the toilets our brains have become.

Such cleansing can reveal the real reasons that the United States must accept immigrants not only from Haiti and Africa, but from other Global South countries its policies have devastated repeatedly for so long. The immigration question is one of justice and reparation.

Flush away!

The Lamb of God, Pope Francis & the Smell of Sheep

Francis Sheep

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I SAM 3: 3B-10, 19; PS 40: 4, 7-10; I COR 6: 13C-15A, 17-20; JN 35-42

Over his years in office, Pope Francis has come in for some harsh criticism from the U.S. right wing. But most of the time he had been simply ignored.

It’s not just because of his rejection of free market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and huge income disparities between the rich and poor. It’s not just his openness to gays and divorcees, and his refusal to obsess about abortion and contraception.

Yes, all of these have undermined what conservatives have seen as a close alliance between the Catholic Church and their pet causes and thinking modes — not to mention the Republican Party.

However, the straw breaking the back of reactionaries was probably the pope’s unequivocal warnings about climate change. For those conservatives, the publication of his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si, 2 ½ years ago raised the threatening specter of a global Catholic climate change movement potentially mobilizing the world’s 1.2 billion members.

The question is: why did the reactionaries prevail? Why after almost 3 years have Catholics not fore-fronted such a movement? Why, instead, did a majority of them in the 2016 elections vote for climate-change-denier, Donald Trump?

Could it be that the right wing persuaded Catholics that the pope was overstepping his authority? Or, on their own, did they intuit the drastic lifestyle conversion implied in effectively addressing climate chaos in the ways Pope Francis suggested? As announced in the title of Naomi Klein’s book, did they sense that This Changes Everything? Did they fear that taking on climate change as a moral issue would undermine the American Way of Life based on insane Republican (and Democratic) policies promising unlimited economic growth on a locked and limited planet?

Were they somehow convinced by the rhetoric like that of First Things blogger, Maureen Mullarkey who simply dropped all pretense and turned to full attack mode? According to Mullarkey , Pope Francis was simply “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.”

Do the Catholics ignoring Pope Francis agree with Mullarkey that he pretty much stinks?

Wrestling with such questions in those terms is inspired by today’s gospel reading. It’s all about stink – about sheep and what Pope Francis calls “the smell of the sheep.” (Famously, you recall, the pontiff called on Catholic priests to live closer to the poor, to recognize them as God’s people and their welfare as the guideline for economic and social policy – to “take on,” he said, “the smell of the sheep.”)

Is it possible that conservatives have been put off by Pope Francis and vilify him because he smells too much like sheep — like the poor. He smells too much like Jesus.

Notice that in today’s gospel, John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” To begin with, the phrase reminds us of the Bedouin origin of the biblical “People of God.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great King David were all shepherds. They were primitive people close to the earth. They were tribalists. In that sense, Jesus was a tribalist. According to John’s image, Jesus didn’t just smell like sheep; he was a sheep! He was in spades like his slave and Bedouin ancestors — like the poor people the pope has centralized during the entirety of his papacy.

Pope Francis shares Jesus’ closeness to and concern for tribal people. And he’s practicing what he preaches — both liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and the traditionally Catholic principle of subsidiarity. That means he endorses economic and environmental policy not on the basis of market dictates, but according to human decisions about values like the common good. Humane policy, the pope implies, originates not on Wall Street, but in places like the slums of his native Argentina and the Philippines.

As our century’s most powerful illumined voice of conscience, Francis has used his bully pulpit to wake us up. But we don’t seem to be listening. We’re like Samuel in today’s first reading – fast asleep even before the Ark of the Covenant (a reminder of Israel’s enslaved and Bedouin past). But we fail to recognize the biblical tradition’s significance to our lives – its call to tribal values which unfailingly center on animals, human family, and Mother Earth. We fail to see the implications of Paul’s observation in today’s second reading that all human beings – especially the poor and outcast – are temples of God’s spirit. That’s our tradition! That same Spirit resides, the pope says, in the planet that he (like St. Francis himself) calls our Mother and Sister.

So what kind of conversion do we need? What would a global Catholic climate movement look like?

It would entail:

  • Waking up like the young prophet Samuel. Like him we’ve heard God’s call many times. But at last in Pope Francis, we have a thought-leader speaking in a voice the simplest of us can hear. It’s the voice of conscience. And like Eli it’s giving us the proper way to respond: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

A global Catholic climate movement further entails:

  • Embracing conservation as a moral issue deeply connected with faith
  • Forming a serious study group to internalize Pope Francis’ faith-based approach to climate change
  • Rejecting of superficial criticisms like Mullarkey’s suggesting that the pope is somehow an outlier on the question of climate
  • Repudiating of corporation-based globalization which has us (over)consuming imported necessities that could be home-grown.
  • Joining the fight against fracking and projects like the XL Pipeline
  • Voting accordingly.
  • Urging the institutions we can influence (churches, universities, hospitals . . .) to divest from fossil fuel industries.
  • Adopting a “zero waste” policy in our homes and places of work.
  • Cultivating home gardens.
  • Adopting a vegetarian diet.
  • Educating ourselves about “green burial” and including plans for that in our “living wills.”

The list, of course, goes on. But you get the idea.

Pope Francis is showing us the way out of our collective insanity. It is not too late for Catholics and others of good will to wake up and join his Global Movement to save the planet.

 

Captain Fantastic (Part Two): Our Early Attempts to Live off the Grid

Appalachia

(Not a photo of our family. But it reminds me of the way our house in Buffalo Holler looked originally and of how I remember us looking back then.)

This is the second in a three-part series reflecting on the film “Captain Fantastic.” It recalls the years when Peggy and I tried to live off the grid in an Appalachian Holler. I write it in part to remind my children of the reasons for what they sometimes complain about. I’m also hoping it might elicit similar reflections on the part of other readers of this blog.

__________

To begin with, Peggy’s and my aspirations were idealistic like those of Ben and Leslie in Captain Fantastic. When we were first married, the two of us definitely wanted to live off the grid. We had both read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Frances Moore Lappe’s Food First, and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. We were teaching those books in “Issues and Values,” a wonderful two-semester freshman course on critical thinking at Berea College. Our desire was to walk the walk.

So, in 1980 four years after our marriage, we bought a house shell for $8000 cash in an Appalachian holler. There, everyone was kin. We were “those outsiders” from Berea college.

At times our status as relatively well-off foreigners in a situation of Appalachian rural poverty caused us problems. One morning we awoke to find our car up on blocks and all of its wheels and tires gone. Another day after a heavy snowfall, we discovered that “neighbor boys” had turned our little Subaru on its head. Additionally, our road was unpaved and after heavy rains, the mud prevented us from leaving the holler. (I remember “taking a run” at getting up the hill leading to the main road. Time after time, I’d nearly make it to the top, only to be stalled with spinning wheels just short of the hill’s crest.)

Our phone was the only one in Buffalo Holler, so neighbors would frequently be at our door seeking access.

Despite everything, Peggy and I were determined to acquire the skills necessary to live self-sufficiently. So we learned to roof, plumb, tile, dry wall, dig a well, and to lay and finish wooden flooring. We gathered second-hand barn wood and paneled our walls with it. We gardened and cut logs for our wood-burning stove that was our only source of heat during some of the coldest Kentucky winters either of us can remember. I dug a full basement underneath our house using pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. It provided us an additional family room, bedroom, office and bathroom. Peggy canned our food. At Christmas we would cut down a pine yule tree from the forest that surrounded us.

We also built a solar addition onto our home’s south-facing end. Its seven long double-paned windows were glass refrigerator doors recycled from a local food store undergoing renovation. Below the windows we placed 10 fifty-gallon drums filled with water to store the heat they gathered from daytime exposure to the sun. (We salvaged the drums from a nearby ice cream factory where they had originally contained chocolate. Each barrel still had an inch or so of syrup covering its bottom. Once carefully removed and frozen that chocolate provided us desserts for the next 2 years!) Mylar solar shades covered our windows at night to keep the heat inside. We also covered the addition’s floor with bricks we had transferred from the torn-down Berea College Sears Building. The bricks would provide additional heat storage for the solar space. One Saturday afternoon we even hosted a group from Appalachian Science in the Public Interest to show off our proud “cutting edge” technology.

Peggy’s and my alternative lifestyle also had us taking our children to live off the grid in other ways. We worked in Brazil for six months during my first sabbatical from Berea. There we learned Portuguese and studied with Paulo Freire. Peggy worked with his literacy team in Sao Paulo’s favelas. Meanwhile, I studied liberation theology with theologians I had been reading for years. We took our kids to revolutionary Nicaragua and later to Cuba. Then we lived in Costa Rica for a year, in Zimbabwe for another 12 months, as well as in South Africa, India, and Mexico for similar periods. So all 3 or our kids learned Spanish as well as studying Shona. During our travels we often lived with local families and always in working class neighborhoods, where our children made fast friends and went to school.

Like the couple in Captain Fantastic, Peggy and I had different ideas about educating our kids. In the film, Leslie had secretly helped Bodevan, their family’s eldest, apply to all the best Ivy League schools, where he was accepted enthusiastically.

When Ben Cash finds out about that, he demands, “Why would you want to go to any of those schools? You already know far more than most of the professors you’d have in those places. And they’d just be preparing you for a lifestyle we all know is bullshit.”

Ben’s words reflected my own attitude. Teaching “Issues and Values” at Berea was helping me see the worth of Appalachian culture, its history, art, music, and simple, close-to-nature lifestyle. The school was committed to social justice for African Americans and to students coming from limited economic circumstances like my own family’s back in Chicago. Wasn’t it fortunate, I thought, that my own three children could have all of that for free?

Peggy’s attitude (like Leslie’s in the film) was wisely different on this score. She fully appreciated all those Berea values we were learning and teaching. However, she also thought that our kids needed to get out of town, where, as high school students, they had already taken so many courses at Berea that they qualified to enter college as sophomores. So Peggy spent a lot of her valuable time taking them to schools that interested them outside of Kentucky. In the end, our daughter Maggie ended up at Wellesley in Boston and at UCLA for her law degree. Brendan went to Lafayette in Pennsylvania and then to Harvard’s Kennedy School. Patrick attended Davidson in North Carolina. All three are extremely grateful to Peggy for that. They’re thankful that my wishes didn’t prevail. In retrospect, I am too. Getting away from home and broadened their horizons.

Still, I remember receiving wonderful urgent phone calls from my daughter at Wellesley. She took several economics courses there. And after class, she’d often phone asking for the “real story” about the way capitalism works, especially in relation to the Third World countries that were such a part of her upbringing. During their college years, I had similar interactions with my sons. To this day, I treasure those calls and conversations.

Similar interactions occur in Captain Fantastic that like mine show the lasting and even overriding benefit of the education Ben’s children received at home. In the end, Bodevan follows his father’s advice and doesn’t go to any of those schools he qualified for. Instead, he goes off to Namibia to gain the social skills he didn’t receive within his family group – but in Africa, rather than New England. His 8-year-old sister sends him off with the words, “Stick it to the Man.” Bodevan replies, “Power to the People.”

Those (resistance and commitment to radical democracy) are the attitudes we’ll need to survive in a world threatened by what in 1974 Robert Heilbroner direly described as “the human prospect.” That prospect threatened by climate chaos and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is what shaped my 40 years of teaching at Berea College.

Next week: I share my retirement experience in the light of Captain Fantastic. I wonder about the compromises I’ve made – not unlike Ben Cash’s accommodations to the outside world. Have I gone too far?

Epiphany Sunday: Its Call to Grow Up and Become Citizens of the World

 

World Citizen.jpeg

Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot of:

  • Make America great again!”
  • “God bless America – land of the free and home of the brave!”
  • American Exceptionalism.
  • “U.S.A., U.S.A.!”
  • “America’s the greatest country in the world.”
  • “America’s the world’s indispensable nation.”
  • Collin Kaepernick should stand for the national anthem.

Additionally, our “leaders” have decided to ignore the world’s best and wisest minds by rejecting climate science and its warning about the greatest threat the human race has ever faced.

I mean hyper-patriotism and rejection of wise men (and women) seem to be the order of the day. And it has its religious dimension as well: it’s as if even USian Christians actually believe that God loves them more than Syrians, Mexicans, Iraqis, or Ethiopians. It’s as if God loves Christians more than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews. Witness Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced pick for National Security Advisor. He has described Islam itself and its 1.7 billion followers as a “vicious cancer” that has to be excised. In Flynn’s little mind, the wisdom of that Great Religion is completely ignored.

The message of today’s celebration of Jesus’ Epiphany contradicts all of that – the hyper-patriotism, the othering of foreigners, and any attempt to fit the divine into narrow religious categories. Today’s readings challenge Jesus-followers to grow up – to transcend our blind ethnocentrism, expand our horizons and at last become citizens of the world.

Remember: the word “epiphany” means the appearance or manifestation of God – a revelation of who God really is. Accordingly, today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East recognized in Jesus the long-awaited manifestation of the Universal God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us clearly that God is not what ethnocentric believers expected or even wanted. S/he loves everyone equally, not just Jews, much less Usians.

That’s part of why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew was like the one worshipped by “America-first” Usians. He loved and favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood.

So Herod and Jerusalem were “troubled” when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king. The astrologers claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.

The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three astronomers) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.

Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.

Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?

Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.

No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.

Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” cosmic-consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other’s God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.

Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of ethnocentrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.

Captain Fantastic: Can We Successfully Live off the Grid? (Part One)

Capt. Fantastic

This is the first in a series of 3 posts inspired by Captain Fantastic. Watching the film at the beginning of this new year has caused me to reconsider the direction of my life whose circumstances during retirement have led me to gradually drift away from the simple living ideals that Peggy and I embraced so fervently at the beginning of our life together more than forty years ago. This first posting will introduce the topic and the Captain Fantastic plot. I highly recommend the film. It is extraordinarily thoughtful.

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Over the holidays, one of my adult children persuaded me to watch Captain Fantastic. That’s the critically acclaimed film by Matt Ross about a family committed to the back-to-nature lifestyle Peggy and I aspired to at the beginning of our marriage more than 40 years ago. Captain Fantastic stars Viggo Mortensen, who in 2015 received an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his role as the title-character.

My son Patrick (now 31) recommended the film as something I’d love. He said he saw similarities between what’s depicted in the movie and the somewhat regretful experiences of his own childhood with Peggy and me. “You’ll love the film’s father,” Patrick observed wryly. “He’s a lot like you.”

After seeing Captain Fantastic, I could see Pat’s point. The main character, Ben Cash, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, he was indeed inspiring in his commitment to living off the grid. And he was such a good teacher – so open in answering his kids questions and urging them to think for themselves.

On the other hand, Cash’s shortcomings were all too familiar. Like me, he was driven by his clear (not to say rigid) concepts about the way the world works. He was convinced that capitalism is the root of the world’s problems. Socialism offers better prospects. The U.S. medical system is not to be trusted. Ditto for mainstream education. Organized religion is bogus. And holidays like Christmas are not worth celebrating. I could identify with all of that.

But the film offered much more than a nostalgic walk down memory lane. It was more than an opportunity to reflect on my own approach to life with its quirks and shortcomings. It was even more than a demonstration that another world closer to nature is possible. Instead, Captain Fantastic principally represented a reminder of the continued relevancy of the counter-cultural life and education Peggy and I tried to offer our children, even though they’ve largely rejected its intellectual underpinnings. Most importantly of all, it made me see that my present highly consumptive way of life veers sharply from the ideals I once embraced.

Let me show what I mean by first considering the film’s story. Then I’ll share Peggy’s and my attempts to replicate something like it with our own children. Finally, allow me to draw some rather urgent postmortem conclusions about Captain Fantastic’s continued relevancy and challenge to the lifestyle in which I find myself immersed.

Captain Fantastic is about Ben Cash and his family of 4 girls and 2 boys ranging in age from 8 to 18. For 10 years, the 7 of them, along with Leslie, Ben’s wife, had set up camp in the wilds of Washington State where they lived in a large tepee. Over that time, the children had learned the intricacies of foraging, hunting, and growing their own food. They are all homeschooled in philosophy, political science, half a dozen languages, and in the critical analysis of Noam Chomsky. In fact, instead of Christmas, they celebrated Chomsky’s birthday each December.

Captain Fantastic tunes into the Cash tribe’s saga at a moment of extreme crisis. The family’s mom, Leslie, has just committed suicide. She had earlier experienced a psychological breakdown and had been institutionalized. And Ben is blamed for Leslie’s death by her father and eventually by his own children. At one point, Ben’s youngest son shouts at his father, “You killed mom!”

Turns out that Ben’s wife (who doesn’t appear in the film) was no longer fully on board with Ben’s back-to-nature project. Increasingly, the couple had disagreed about its continuation. Apparently, all the resulting tension led to Leslie’s breakdown and eventual suicide. Eventually, Leslie’s wealthy father files a child-abuse lawsuit against his son-in-law in order to gain custody of his children with the intention of returning them to normal life.

None of this means that Leslie had wanted to return to daddy and his way of life. As a committed Buddhist, her final desire was to be cremated and have her ashes flushed down the toilet. This, her Catholic father could not understand, much less accept. So he arranged a traditional Catholic funeral presided over by a priest who barely knew Leslie’s name.

This proves unacceptable to Ben and his children. So they resolve to “rescue” their wife/mother, cremate her body, and flush the ashes. The rest of the film depicts their accomplishment of this feat. It is also about what leads Ben to tone down (but not much) his radicalism and allow his children to attend a mainstream school to help with their socialization.

I can see how all of that reminded Patrick of his life with Peggy and me. The next posting in this series will briefly review that life to set up a contrast and evaluation of the way I’m now living.

 

Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?