Only God Can Save Us from Nature’s 2025 Deadline: Listen to Pope Francis on Climate Change

Last batter

I recently came across a powerful but profoundly misleading video about climate change. In the name of progressiveness, compassion and love, it waves a white flag before anthropogenic climate change and invites its viewers to blissfully coast through to their inevitable evolutionary demise.

The film’s resigned surrender contrasts sharply with the more hopeful, clear-eyed vision of Pope Francis and the faith-inspired program he suggests in his all-but-ignored eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The stark difference between the two approaches illustrates the impotence of the secularized left before the world’s most pressing problems. It also shows the potential power of Francis’ faith perspective, which progressives ignore at their own (and the planet’s) peril.

First of all, consider the film in question. The eight-minute piece is called “Edge of Extinction.” It was produced and narrated by Guy McPherson, an evolutionary biologist whose webpage slogan is “Nature bats last. Passionately pursue a life of excellence.”

McPherson’s thesis is that “humanity is behaving exactly in accordance with its evolved genetic imperatives to survive, thrive and multiply today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow.”

In other words, humanity is like other animal species. Its evolutionary short-sightedness has it rushing headlong towards its own inevitable extinction whose ultimate cause is “industrial civilization, the most violent set of living arrangements ever devised.”

According to McPherson, this preordained inevitability means that we should all set aside anger and bitterness about human-caused climate change, replacing such unproductive emotions with “compassion and tolerance” presumably for climate change deniers. This, in turn, will confer peace of mind and a resultant “general happiness” as we glide towards extinction which, Mr. McPherson says will occur in 2025.

None of this is to say that it will be easy, the film continues. We’ll witness the cataclysmic death of 7.5 million people. We’ll run out of food, water, and fuel. The soil will become completely unproductive. The world’s abandoned nuclear facilities will melt down catastrophically. Hospitals will be shuttered; disease will run rampant. There will be no first responders to rescue us. Many will commit suicide. Others will be murdered by the last remnants of the privileged still hanging on to their dwindling resources in their sweltering radiated bunkers.

Is that pessimistic enough for you?

It needn’t be for three reasons: First of all, “humanity” has not actually made the decision in question. Secondly, as signaled by Pope Francis, there are clear alternatives. Third, while climate change deniers might deserve our compassion, they emphatically do not merit tolerance.

To begin with, “humanity” has certainly not decided “to survive, thrive and multiply today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow.” In fact, only a sliver of the human race has done so; the rest are in complete resistance.

The sliver in question is a small part of the planet’s richest 1% most of whom happen to live in the United States whose population comprises only 5% of the world’s inhabitants. To put a finer point on it: the criminals in question have coalesced in the United States and in the Republican Party, identified by Noam Chomsky as the most dangerous organization in the history of the world. Republicans can be removed from office. (Remember that next November!)

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has other ideas as signaled in the nascent reforms of the Paris Climate Accord endorsed by nearly everyone in the world excluding the Republican leadership. Moreover, polls show that 61% of Americans—including 43 percent of Republicans—say climate change is a problem the government needs to tackle.

Secondly, there are simple, common-sense alternatives to the looming catastrophe. They have been outlined most compellingly by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (LS). They include on the one hand, acts on the parts of individuals such as “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights. . .” as well as reducing the use of air conditioning (LS 55, 212).

On the other hand, Francis says that dealing with climate chaos requires action which national governments alone are capable of performing (38, 129). These include weening national populations from dependence on fossil fuels (165) as well as investment in high-speed railways, and renewable energy sources. National governments must also strictly regulate transnational corporate activity (38).

According to Laudato Si’, changing paradigms additionally includes the submission of national governments to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (53, 173, 174, 175). (BTW, the U.S. already submits to international legislative authorities such as, for instance, the World Trade Organization which has the power of overturning United States law.)

So, all of this is doable. And, as Francis insists, the Judeo-Christian tradition about stewardship and care for God’s creation can be invoked to persuade the 83% of Americans who identify themselves as Christian to save the planet.

Ironically, Republicans have effectively invoked the biblical tradition to support their ecocide. Few on the left have followed Pope Francis in the opposite direction. Progressive church leaders need to make climate change the absolute center of their ministries. 2025 is fast approaching.

Finally, like other criminals, Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts in the Congress certainly deserve our compassion. Perhaps, they’ve been corrupted by gilded childhoods, limited experience of the life’s hardships, and by an overriding love of money, profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

But no matter how sorry we might feel for them, we must recognize that they are criminals. This sliver of 1% have taken it upon themselves to condemn all of us, our children and grandchildren to the fate so accurately described in “The Edge of Extinction.”

We cannot allow them to do that. Citizens’ arrests are in order, not to mention non-violent revolution – stimulated by recognition of shared humanity and even faith.

That’s the path Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ suggests.

Black Panther: A Nearly Revolutionary Film

black-22

I remember 10 years ago taking Berea College students for a January “Short Term” to Cuba. Our month-long assignment was to study the African diaspora in that island nation. One day we were privileged to have Cuban poet, essayist and historian, Roberto Fernandez Retamar grace our classroom. Now 87, he was then about my age.

On that occasion, the great man said something that struck me as powerful, and that relates to the blockbuster movie everyone’s talking about, Black Panther. Retamar stated that black people in the Americas are the strongest, most beautiful most intelligent people in the world.

He explained why.

Before slaves were transported from Africa, he said, they were closely inspected for their strength, beauty, and intelligence. Their arms and legs were assessed for their musculature. Like horses for sale, their teeth were scrutinized. Women were evaluated in terms of their beauty and apparent ability to reproduce. Only the best were selected and shipped abroad. Those who didn’t measure up were left behind.

Then on the Middle Passage, only about half – again, the best of the best themselves survived.

When the slaves arrived at the auction block those evolutionary wonders were once again culled – for strength, beauty, skills and intelligence.

The culled are the ancestors of today’s African Americans, who remain, not surprisingly, the strongest, most beautiful and smartest people on the planet.

That’s what Retamar said. And it thrilled me and our mostly African-American students.

The same thrill is today being experienced nearly universally by millions of African-Americans and others across the world as they view the Disney and Marvel Comics film, Black Panther.

It celebrates the beauty, strength, intelligence and resourcefulness of Africans and African-Americans in a magnificent display of their inherent gifts. The film has been called “a defining moment for black America.”

That’s because Black Panther‘s stellar cast is nearly all African or African-American. And to reference another great man, in the movie’s mythical country of Wakanda, all the women are strong, the men are beautiful, and all the children are above average.

Moreover, the film presents themes that are anti-colonial, pro-liberation, wonderfully African and conscious of the oppression that people of color to this day experience everywhere.

The bare bones of the narrative are reminiscent of Greek tragedy: The benevolent king of a fabulously wealthy African country (Wakanda) has died. His virtuous son, T’Challa, is selected to fill the vacancy. But there’s a rival for the throne. It’s his villainous cousin, who challenges and defeats and apparently kills T’Challa in ritual hand-to-hand combat. The cousin proceeds to head a regime that tramples on tradition, disrespects women, and uses his country’s wealth for evil purposes. But T’Challa returns from his coma to restore order, tradition, and prosperity. He shares his nation’s wealth with the rest of the world.

Again, it’s a classic story whose details celebrate blackness, names white supremacist racism for what it is, and calls for revolution against colonialism in past and present forms. All of that is ground-breaking and entirely admirable.

However, the film pulls its punches severely leaving its potentially revolutionary message muddled and garbled. That’s true to such an extent that Black Panther finally comes across anti-revolutionary propaganda for the status quo and CIA. The attentive will see this as they witness a film that:

* Is entitled “Black Panther” but makes only a nod to the actual Black Panther Party of the 1960s.
* In doing so, deceives the uninformed in its audience about the Party’s nature by portraying its only member in the film as a “Killmonger” (the wicked cousin) instead of a community organizer.
* On the one hand, depicts Killmonger’s program as arming the world’s oppressed against the white colonial status quo that tyrannizes people of color throughout the world.
* But on the other describes him as preparing for that mission by service as a CIA mercenary killing hundreds of those people in Iraq, Afghanistan and other poor countries imperialized by the United States.
* Confronts Killmonger with T’Challa, his good-guy adversary, whose idea of changing the world is charity rather than systemic transformation of what Killmonger correctly perceives (in bell hooks words) as the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy.
* Has T’Challa ally himself with the CIA to defeat the revolutionaries Killmonger has assembled.
* Peoples the movie with “strong black women” whose strength is mostly evident in their machismo – i.e. in their ability to scowl and kill as heartlessly as their male counterparts.
* Celebrates the film’s heroine for allegiance to country above her most intimate relationship.
* Presents a white CIA agent as heroic.

Moreover, any chance of understanding the film’s references to colonialism, white supremacy, and the villainous reality of the CIA is further obscured by Black Panther’s spectacular visuals – by 134 minutes of comic book chases, space ship dogfights, explosions, karate displays, knifings, spearings, shootings, fantastic escapes, and magical returns from the dead.

One comes away from the film happy to have seen blacks centralized and celebrated in a Hollywood blockbuster, but having gained very little in terms of understanding the nature of oppression, the robbery that is the essence of colonialism, or the true spirit of the Black Panther Party, of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, or Angela Davis. There is no hint of any Free Breakfast for Children Program, of Black Panther health clinics, or the party’s emphasis on food justice. Instead, one identifies Black Panthers as violent Killmongers with utter disrespect for life, women and tradition.

When Roberto Fernandez Retamar gave us his class, he said something else that relates to Black Panther. Though his skin color is as white as my own, he introduced his remarks with the phrase, “I who am more or less black . . .” With those words he reminded us all that, by every account, life began in Africa. So, all of us are more or less black.

In other words, Black Panther is about us all. It can remind us that White Supremacy is a fiction that oppresses every one of us. So is capitalism’s patriarchal regime with its seemingly inseparable colonialism, neo-colonialism, and endless resource wars.

The struggle for liberation depicted in Black Panther is incumbent on all of us to join.

Too bad that point wasn’t made more clearly.

The Shape of Water Is about the Unexpected Shape of God

Shape

It’s about an amphibian creature dredged from a river in South America. It’s a fairy tale about a princess who falls in love with a monster. It’s science-fiction fantasy about a gigantic scaly Merman who learns to communicate and to love. It’s about a God made flesh who’s killed by the state, but then rises from the dead and gives eternal life to his devotee. It’s about an alien trying to get back home.

Put otherwise, The Shape of Water is science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, myth, and story of humans’ doomed attempts to effect the death of God. It’s entirely redolent of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ET, and the Jesus Myth.

And for that reason, plus its artistic excellence The Shape of Water has struck a chord with viewers subconsciously hungry for meaning. They’ve called it tender, elegant and mesmerizing. It has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

For what it’s worth, I agree. Sally Hawkins‘ performance as Elisa Esposito, the mute janitor-princess who falls in love with the Creature, is nothing short of magnificent. She deserves her Best Actress nomination – and the Oscar.

The film’s central theme is conveyed in its beautiful, mysterious title that invites its audience to imagine the impossible. The shape of water? Of course, it has none at all. Water takes the contours of its container.

And that’s the point imagistically asserted at the very beginning of the picture. There the story’s world is portrayed as filled with the medium of life itself. As the movie unfolds, it’s hard to miss that theological point: the world is full of possibilities for realizing the presence of the divine. The patriarchal establishment can’t see that. Only the social misfits do – a mute janitor, her African-American friend, an aging gay unemployed artist, a Russian enemy of the state.

There are plenty of references that suggest such meaning:

– Biblical themes of the Great Flood and Crossing the Sea, as well as purgative baptismal images of are all evoked by the film’s water-world.
– More than once, we’re told that the film’s androgynous monster is worshipped as a god by primitives in its place of origin.
– It has powers to heal.
– And resurrect from the dead.
– Near the story’s beginning, the fish-human’s demented antagonist, Richard Strickland, discusses specifically his own idea of God. In doing so, he reveals why recognizing the divine in such unexpected form is impossible for him. He’s looking for someone made in Strickland’s own image. God’s actual incarnation is anything but.
– The central character’s apartment is located above a movie theater showing a biblical film, The Story of Ruth who discovers and embraces God in a foreign and unexpected form.
– A supporting character’s name is Delilah, and the story of Samson and Delilah is told twice.
– Meanwhile Giles (the aging unemployed artist) grows back his hair as, like Samson, he owns his ability to help destroy the enemies of the alien god he’s come to love.
– Like the Roman soldier at the foot of Jesus’ cross, Strickland as representative of the patriarchal military, finally recognizes and confesses that the monster is indeed god.

Yes, this film is about our experience of the divine, about God’s shape, and omnipresence. It’s about baptism, cleansing, and salvific intercourse with the divine. It’s about death and resurrection and making it possible for the divine to manifest itself. It’s about the work of misfits (and especially women) that enables the divine to fit into a world created by men – specifically by a military committed to the death of God. It’s about females cleaning up the messes that men create everywhere, from their bathrooms to the battlefield and the world at large.

As Sally Hawkins clutches her Oscar, watch for those feminist and perhaps even theological themes in her acceptance speech.

In the end, however, The Shape of Water is about the total commitment that the discovery of God provokes. For a moment, as the film concludes, Elisa recovers her voice. She gazes at the monstrous but fascinating object of her love and prays the haunting words of the picture’s central air, “You’ll Never Know.” She whispers:

If I can do one thing more
To prove that I love you,
I swear I don’t know how.
You’ll never know
If you don’t know now.

Would that we could all make that prayer our own!

Groundhog Day, The Musical: Better than Church

Ground Hog Musical

Today is Groundhog Day. It reminds me that last summer one Sunday instead of going to church, I took in the musical version of the familiar story. I accompanied my daughter’s and son-in-law’s family to the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street in New York City to see Groundhog Day: The Musical. It’s the inspired and inspiring Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin rendering of the familiar Bill Murray classic of the same name, without “The Musical” addendum.

Virtually everyone, of course, will recall the Groundhog Day story. It’s about Phil Connors (Andy Karl), the big city TV weatherman sent to small town Punxsutawney PA to cover its famous winter festival. To his great frustration, the jaded and self-centered Connors finds himself condemned to living the same day over and over again till he gets it right.

Obviously, then, it’s a story about personal transformation reminiscent of Murray’s Scrooged. But the musical version of Groundhog Day has the advantage of making its point even more sharply than the Murray film, because the play’s memorable songs provide direct insight into the minds of the story’s characters.

So my choice of theater over church proved to be a good one. The play confronted me with the sort of questions that church should raise for me, but rarely does. Among them:

  • What is the nature of time and space?
  • Does when and where I live make any difference?
  • Does my own life make a difference?
  • How do I escape from behavioral patterns that objectify women and seek salvation in sex, alcohol, and the latest fads in natural healing, therapy and religion?
  • What is life for anyway?
  • Does God fit into any of this?

Surprisingly, the play suggests answers that coincide perfectly with universal spiritual traditions found everywhere. As the play’s book writer, Danny Rubin, points out, I’m not alone in saying that. Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle loves the story.

Take those questions about time and place and the pointless nature of life’s repetitious patterns. The play’s songs make them as inescapable as Connors finds Punxsutawney itself. After all, his very job has caused him to focus on the future and absolutely predictable weather events. That job has given him an identity of sorts. But it’s no more meaningful than that of his namesake, Punxsutawney Phil, a large rodent who comes out each February 2nd to declare with great pomp and circumstance what everyone already knows: “There Will Be Sun,” but there will also be six more weeks of winter.

Again, Phil Connors’ job is like that too. So he’s entirely bored. He’s as stuck in past patterns of thought and living as the two drunks Phil eventually identifies with in the song, “Nobody Cares.”

Phil’s foil in Ground Day is Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss). As the associate producer of his TV spot, she has accompanied Connors to Punxy to cover Groundhog Day festivities. And she’s everything Connors is not. She was French major in college focused on 17th century French poetry. She enthusiastic and lives in the present. She loves Punxy, its simple people, and Groundhog Day itself with its funny hats, balloons, and ice sculptures.

The contrast between Phil and Rita is wonderfully expressed in their rousing duet “If I Had My Time Again.” Phil’s part is focused on the superficial, and he’d do it all over again.  Rita would make great changes in her life. Phil has spent his life focused on eating, drinking, sex, violence and money. He’d like to sleep with 90% of the women he meets. He’s stolen $18 million dollars, started 700 fights, and once masturbated seven times in a row. If he could, he’d eat a dozen donuts at a time without knowing why. And he’s spent endless nights contemplating different ways of committing suicide.

Rita, on the other hand, is focused on growth and change. Sure, she’s made mistakes, but she’d like to set them all right. If she could live her young life over, she’d take the road less trodden. She’d fulfill neglected desires, study math, send unsent letters, learn piano, and make more friends. She’d also punch a lot of men.

The reason for the latter is embodied in her relationship with Connors. For two-thirds of the play, he tries to bed Rita using all the ruses familiar to men (and women!). He flatters and even feigns interest in French literature. But Rita resists each time and actually does punch Phil at one point. She’s intent on not being like Nancy, Rita’s own foil.

Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry)  is the Punxy girl we meet at the beginning of Act II. She has come to terms with the world shaped by men – men like Phil Connors. Nancy is pretty and, as she confesses, looks good in tight jeans and low-cut tops. But, like Rita, even she wants to be more than a sex object. She wants to be more than the role men expect from women. But she’s given up trying. She says all of that beautifully in her wistful “Playing Nancy.” Listen for yourself.

As it turns out, Rita outlasts Phil. And here’s where his spiritual conversion comes in.

Realizing that the present moment is all that he has, Phil at first concludes that his actions have no consequences; after all there is no future. He’s free to do anything he wants. So he continues doing what he’s always done, only with greater abandon. More sex, drinking, anger, and violence.

Then, however, comes the inevitable. The meaninglessness of it all becomes so clear that suicide makes more sense than ever. So Phil puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Ironically, however, that’s the key.  As Buddhists would put it; Connors saves himself by dying before he dies. That’s necessary, he realizes, before he can resurrect – as he himself puts it, “Like you know who.”

His resurrection makes Connors discover his own divinity. He realizes that in fact he is God. The awareness makes him so sensitive to his unity with others that he becomes as familiar with the details of their lives as if they were his own – because they are his own. So he knows what they’re thinking and everything they’ve done with their lives. He perceives it all in God’s eternal Now where everything is happening simultaneously – where there is no past or future. Here’s the way Bill Murray expresses the consequent power in the movie.

In this way, like Dickens’ Scrooge, Connors transforms before our eyes. He exchanges his cynicism for cheerfulness, shares his money generously, changes tires for strangers, takes care of the homeless and dying. He falls in love with Rita’s person, not just her body.

As a result, winter’s bleakness ends for this human Punxsutawney Phil. He’s released from the rodent-like behavioral patterns that previously imprisoned him. He’s finally free to exit Punxy. Ironically, though, he chooses not to. He and Rita decide to remain in the small town he previously despised. They end up on a park bench simply watching the sunrise.

The play’s bottom line?

  • Time and space are figments of the imagination.
  • Small town life can be every bit as meaningful as in the big city.
  • So when and where I live is completely relative.
  • My own life can make a difference for others if it is focused on the present rather than the past or future.
  • Putting the needs of others first provides exit from self-centered and destructive behavioral patterns.
  • That’s what life is for.
  • It’s the path to realizing (making real) the divine nature all of us share.

Of course, all of that sounds platitudinous, doesn’t it? A lot of it is what we learned in Sunday School. But Groundhog Day: The Musical makes us realize it’s all true. And it does so far more effectively than most Sunday sermons I’ve heard.

I’m glad I took it in. Church can wait.

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?

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.

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.

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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?