The Unschooled Prophet Shouts Down the Learned Rabbi (a one-minute Sunday reflection)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Truth to Power

He strides into the synagogue
Stinking whores, beggars and bandits creeping behind.

The presiding rabbi knows why he’s there.
He’s come to disrupt his Holy Mass.
“I know who you are: The Holy One of God”
The robed demon screams in terror.

“You hypocrite!”
The prophet shouts back.
“You know nothing of holiness,
Be gone!”

The devil slinks out, tail between legs
To await another day
Leaving the intruder to teach the enthralled masses.

They all wonder:
“Where did he learn to speak like that?
This workman with calloused hands and patched robes
Unschooled like us.

Truth to power
Maybe we can do the same.”

Yes, maybe we can do the same!

Captain Fantastic Cleans House Before His Final Journey (Part 3)

Death Cleaning

This is the 3rd part in my series of reflections on “Captain Fantastic.” The first addressed the film’s theme. The second recalled how Peggy and I attempted to live, like the film’s hero, “off the grid.” This final posting offers my reflections on what’s happened to us over the last 20 years as family considerations have made us compromise.

I’ll be moving on soon.
They say to CT.
But, really, I know
It’s far beyond.
So (as other Swedes put it) I’m ‘death cleaning.’
 
That means getting rid of
All that stuff which
(Pace, Captain Fantastic, please!)
I’ve managed to accumulate over 77 years
To save my kids the trouble.
 
What a burden it is!
Books I once labored over and annotated so carefully
And loved and left and forgot
Like my forsaken lovers.
Reduced to inert, mute strangers now
With nothing to say.
Computers and cell phones
And chargers and wires
I don’t even know what they’re for.
Not to mention the clothes and shoes
I haven’t worn for years.
It all cost me (or somebody) thousands.
But now I can’t give it away.
(No one else knows what those wires are for either!)
 
Then there’s this old house
In Berea, Kentucky
Just seven minutes away
From the place I worked those 40 years.
Where I’m now a stranger
And must show my card to babies
Born when I was sixty
Who guard the shiny gadgets
in the college gym
And ask ‘Mike Who?’
 
We bought this place 20 years ago.
Painted it twice
Finished the basement
Rented it to students
Bought a lake house in Michigan
And a pontoon Party Boat,
Acquired 2 Volvos (used)
This Apple Watch on my wrist
And more green paper
Than I know what to do with
Along with countless other trinkets.
 
And now I’m about to leave it all
With little to show.
In the end (and I’m close now)
It all means nothing.
Did it ever?
Surely, you agree.
 
Once in my early days
I gave no value to such things.
Then, I took literally
The Master’s words (And still do!)
“What does it profit a man
If he gains the whole world,
And loses his soul.”
 
So, at the age of 14,
I gave it all up
(With joy and such earnestness!)
Left home and family
And for about 20 years
Lived (as a communist, I guess)
Owning very little of what they call ‘mine.’
Wore the same clothes as everyone else.
Ate the same food
Making no choices anywhere
And wanting nothing more
Even gave up women and sex
And the prospect of family.
What freedom then!
And I didn’t even know it.
 
Meanwhile, I accumulated nothing there
But learned to pray
To think deeply
About things that matter
Ultimately.
To realize that possessions
Are merely dreams
That in the end (like now)
Mean nothing at all.
 
I hope to take most of that with me
When I move on
And wake up from this dream.
Don’t you?

Bernie’s the Man: His Town Hall Meeting on Single Payer Healthcare

Bernie-Sanders-Town-Hall

Tonight, Bernie Sanders held our nation’s first-ever D.C. town meeting on single payer health care. But he didn’t do it on national television or on cable. Instead, the meeting had to be held online. It was sponsored jointly by the news outlets, The Young Turks (TYT), Now This, and Attention.

Such sponsorship was necessary because the mainstream media (MSM) largely sponsored by Big Pharma, have no interest in an issue so vital to the American people. Network and cable are more focused on Russia-Gate and President Trump’s incoherent tweets. Predictably then, the MSM will continue to repeat Big Pharma’s tone-deaf talking points about single payer health care (see below).

All of this means that Bernie Sanders is yet again ahead of his competitors on the communications curve just as he was in 2016 on the campaign-funding curve. Then he established himself as the most popular politician in America despite spurning contributions from large corporate donors. Similarly, although holding his healthcare meeting online, the ever-creative Mr. Sanders maximized tonight’s audience. According to TYT’s Cenk Uygur, in order for Bernie to capture an audience of size comparable to the one he reached tonight, he would have to appear on CNN more than a hundred times.

In any case, the meeting was a model of efficient organization, relevance, and clarity. It featured three panels of three persons each, and had them discussing our nation’s healthcare crisis, the cost of single payer programs, and the success of such programs in Canada, Norway, and France. The message was quite simple:

  • 36,000 Americans needlessly die each year, because they have no healthcare. (Imagine the response if that many were killed by terrorists each year.)
  • Healthcare is a right, not a privilege.
  • But even if that right isn’t recognized as such, our present system is undeniably over-priced, wasteful, inefficient, and insane.
  • It actually has uninformed bureaucrats dictating instructions to highly-trained healthcare providers
  • Who waste untold hours arguing with insurance companies and filling out forms.
  • Inexplicably, it excludes dental and optometrist expenses as though they were luxuries.
  • Moreover, our system rewards callous employers who refuse to provide healthcare for their workers by giving them an edge over competitors with conscience who do.
  • The system even has taxpayers subsidizing the wealthiest family in America, the Waltons, by providing Medicaid to their underpaid workers.
  • Single payer systems everywhere in the industrial world provide better care at half our cost.
  • Everywhere they are so wildly popular that it would be politically suicidal for any politician to suggest their replacement with the U.S. system.
  • Single payer is popular because it requires no premiums, co-pays, deductibles or out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Compared to such savings, any tax increase to fund the system here would be miniscule.
  • A single payer system even exists in our own country; it is called Medicare.
  • After Social Security, Medicare is the most popular government program in the nation’s history.
  • Yet, our elected representatives refuse even to acknowledge single payer’s success anywhere,
  • Because they are paid off by insurance and pharmaceutical companies to do so.
  • Medicare can be easily universalized by simply lowering the age for eligibility from 65 to the day of a child’s birth.
  • Despite the disinformation of opponents, doing so would not cost more. It would cost far less! Remember, we already pay twice as much for inferior healthcare as those countries with single payer.

In a TYT follow-up to Bernie’s program, one right wing viewer ignored its entire content. Instead, he tweeted those typical Big Pharma talking points I mentioned above. The tweeter summarized the town hall meeting in three points: (1) everything is free; (2) the rich will pay for it, (3) I don’t know how much it costs.

As the TYT commentator observed: “There’s at least one thing Single Payer can’t do. It can’t cure stupid.”

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?