Friday, February 23, 2018

Three Billboards (The Movie)

With just a week to go before the Academy Awards (and a Regal Gift card to use up), this seemed like a good time to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is one of the nominees for the Oscars' Best Picture, having already won four Golden Globe Awards. It is unquestionably a well-made film, by In Bruges Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh, with superb acting - especially on the part of its three principal characters, Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the vengeful grieving mother of a raped and murdered daughter, Woody Harrelson, the town's popular police chief, and Sam Rockwell, his stupid, bigoted, violent, immature "mama's boy" deputy. The film also features young actor Lucas Hedges, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his 2016 performance in Manchester by the Sea. With such a lineup, the movie is certainly well worth seeing. 

That said, it is certainly one of the saddest portrayals of our present human condition currently on offer. Mildred, the grieving mother, is a bitter, vengeful woman, angry (so it seems) at virtually everyone and everything. Of course, she has a good reason to be angry (more than one good reason, actually); but the most public object of her anger, the terminally ill and very popular Police Chief, seems in fact to be doing his best to solve the crime, a crime which is no closer to being solved at the movie's end - after almost two hours of mayhem and misery - than it was at the beginning. What to do when what the situation one is so angry about has no prospect of being resolved to one's satisfaction? Mildred's answer seems to be to stay as angry as possible and to lash out at as many people (and institutions) as possible - and to do so in as irrational and destructive a way as possible.

The other characters aren't much better. All of them - Mildred included - have their redeeming qualities and are admirably capable of kindness to one another, in spite of all the harm they have suffered at each other's hands. But they are all caught up in the miasma that is life in that place at that time. What a parable about the quality of life in contemporary rural America!

Of course, the terrible tragedy that happened to Mildred's daughter, Angela - and by extension to the entire family and the larger community - has made everything worse. But things were obviously pretty awful in Ebbing even before. The one flashback scene - set shortly before Angela's death - says it all. In that scene, the family's dysfunction is front and center,  and the family members' mutual hostility is evident in the way they relate to each other - and above all in the pathetically vulgar way they talk to each other. (Hardly anyone in the film seems in the slightest bit capable of vocalizing a literate English sentence using words which would meet the minimal decency standards of Network TV.)

There are, presumably, other people in town. Apparently, there is a church. And obviously there is a school (which Mildred's son attends). If those institutions moderate the surrounding culture of misery, there is no evidence of it. The closest thing to a social center for the community is a bar, which tells us a lot right there about the kind of rural, small-town dystopia in which the characters are clearly trapped. If the individual and family lives lived by any of those other people in town are significantly better, we see no sign of it. Even the Police Chief's family life (seemingly so much more stable and satisfying than either Mildred's family life or the deputy's) turns out to have underlying problems.

Then again, of course, problems - even tragedies - are a part of life, and no individual or family can completely escape them. Rather it is how we cope with them that largely defines us. How well society equips its citizens to cope with their personal, familial, and social struggles significantly determines how well we survive, what kind of society we are, and what kind of people we become as a consequence. Three Billboards  illustrates how, at least in rural, small-town Ebbing, society has monumentally and abysmally failed its citizens. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Washington's Birthday

Despite the ubiquity of "Presidents Day," Washington's Birthday remains the official name for this week's federal holiday - albeit transferred for consumerist reasons from its proper day (today) to this past Monday. Back when I was in school, Washington's Birthday was the second of two patriotic holidays in February - school holidays roughly midway between Christmas vacation and Easter vacation. Washington's Birthday also served as a convenient illustration for teaching about the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars. The Protestant British initially refused to adopt the Gregorian calendar but finally did so 70 years later in 1752. That meant that when George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, it was still only February 11, 1731, in Virginia where he was born in what was then British North America.

Recently, The NY Times surveyed some 170 representative political scientists from the American Political Science Association who, unsurprisingly, rated Abraham Lincoln as our best president, George Washington as second, with FDR in 3rd place - rankings unchanged from the last time this survey was conducted in 2014, Our current incumbent came in last  at number 45.  Given how easily and frequently historical memory and judgments change, perhaps it would be fairer not to include incumbents at least until they are out of office - and perhaps maybe even a little longer. Be that as it may, there is nothing surprising of seriously controversial about Washington's high ranking in our presidential pantheon. 

Washington's administration had some significant substantive accomplishments. But surely his greatest accomplishment was to shape and define the office of the presidency. Article Two of the Constitution created a vessel that needed to be filled, and it was Washington who did the filling. He gave the office its dignity, effectively that of an elective monarch, who, however circumscribed his formal powers, effectively reigns as the embodiment of the nation. That is why a bad president is so problematic - not just because of the bad policies he may pursue but also because he represents us, and when he is bad we in turn become that much worse.

Above and beyond all that, for us parochial school kids back in the Eisenhower-Camelot era, Washington's Birthday also had a uniquely sectarian significance, since it coincided with the Church's feast of Saint Peter's Chair. It was pure coincidence, of course, but we were happy to ascribe significance to honoring "the Father of our Country" on the same day that we celebrated the papal primacy. Honoring thus our Holy Father and the "Father of our Country" on the same day seemed somehow a suitable expression of Catholic immigrants' long struggle to reconcile our dual loyalties in a way that made them complementary rather than competing - both in our own consciousness and to challenge established Protestant America's suspicion and disdain. And it worked.

But interconnected and cross-cutting concerns only highlight how important the person of the president - his public character - really is, the serious symbolic level on which he functions for American citizens, ever since Washington himself first defined the office for us and for his successors.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Munich (The Novel)

September 2018 will mark the 80th anniversary of the (in)famous Munich conference from which Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brought back "peace in our time" - or, more precisely, another year's grace in which to build up Britain's military readiness to wage the war which would soon be inevitable. The story of Munich is a good example of how important it is to read correctly a situation capable of many correct interpretations. On its face, the conflict at issue concerned whether to unite with Germany those German-speaking populations who had been unwillingly trapped in the newly created state of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Versailles, something hardly worth starting another world war over. But it also represented one more step in Hitler's long-term plan to conquer Eastern Europe, something certainly more worth going to war about. From history's vantage point the latter reality colors our interpretation and evaluation of Chamberlain as an "appeaser." But obviously at the time the former interpretation was just as plausible. And, in any case, even if he were convinced that the latter interpretation was the the more relevant one, Chamberlain was hardly in any position to start a war with Germany. He needed time for Hitler to show his hand more clearly and for Britain and France to get ready to resist him.

That was the background both for the real Munich conference of 1938 and for Robert Harris' latest novel. Harris is the author of several well-received historical novels - ranging from the history of ancient Rome to the modern papacy. Harris faithfully portrays the events leading up to and during the Munich conference and does an excellent job of depicting the personalities of the principal characters - in particular, Chamberlain. Harris portrays a Chamberlain who understood Britain's unpreparedness and his people's obsessive preoccupation with avoiding another way (true also of the German people - to Hitler's chagrin - as Harris so aptly shows). Chamberlain is depicted as understanding (better than some of those around him) the need not only to buy time to prepare for war but also to use Hitler's own words to trap him - so that, when eventually he committed further aggression, his mendacity and hypocrisy would be revealed to all, highlighting the moral case for war (a case which could not convincingly be made as long as the issue was just the Sudetenland).

A novel needs fictional characters. So Harris tells his tale through the experience of two historically plausible but fictional participants. They are two relatively young men, one British and one German, who had been friends years before as students at Oxford and who now serve on the staffs of the real-life participants. Hugh Legat is in the British delegation ostensibly because he speaks fluent German. Paul von Hartmann, who speaks fluent English, is actually also part of a secret group that hopes to overthrow Hitler. The plot revolves around von Hartmann's effort to derail an agreement by revealing to his English friend information that proves Hitler has long-term aggressive plans. The fictional story is told with just the right amount of suspense and danger to highlight the complexities of the actual historical account,

Being a novel nowadays apparently requires some sex, but the romantic side-plots really add little to the story. Legat's unhappy marriage may serve as somehow symbolic of the general moral and cultural rot among the upper classes - the establishment elites that had led Britain into its weak position. But even that may be a bit of a stretch. Otherwise, Harris has created an excellent account that can contribute significantly to teaching about Munich and understanding its real historical significance beyond the polemics and slogans that have been attached to it.for so many of the past 80 years.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Caput Quadragesimae

This Sunday once served as the ancient beginning of Lent - before the belated addition of Ash Wednesday and the subsequent weekdays. Of course, our contemporary Lent now includes those four earlier days, starting with what has long been one of the most popular days of the year when churches everywhere are filled with people eager to get dirt on their faces and be told they are going to die. But anyone who perchance missed out on Ash Wednesday for whatever reason is free to think of him or herself as just following a more ancient Roman calendar – or, indeed, the Ambrosian calendar of Milan, where even today Lent still begins on this Sunday.

For those inclined to count, the Lenten countdown of 40 days actually begins today. (Hence the traditional title Quadragesima Sunday). The late 20th-century liturgical reformation eliminated some distinctive Lenten practices (folded chasubles, Vespers in the morning, etc.) and standardized what was left so as to begin them all together on Ash Wednesday, rather than just some on Ash Wednesday and the rest today. On the other hand, the same liturgical reformation highlighted this Sunday in a new way with the restored Rite of Election, whereby catechumens and others preparing for the sacraments of initiation at Easter are formally presented to (and symbolically chosen by) the Bishop. The wonderful story is told of how a certain Archbishop, preparing to celebrate his first Rite of Election on this Sunday back in the 1980s, felt inspired when he realized that the reason his great cathedral was filled was that all those people wanted to become Catholic!

For the rest of us every year on this Sunday the Church invites us to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the silence and solitude of the desert. This Sunday’s ancient importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert! 

Way back when, as the familiar story [Genesis 2] reminds us, Adam had lived peacefully in harmony with nature, his food provided for him (according to Jewish legend) by angels. So Jesus’ sojourn, among wild beasts while angels ministered to him, Is a reminder that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of all the obstacles we have since put in God’s way.

That, of course, was the point of God’s covenant with Noah [Genesis 9"8-15]. Despite the virtual universality of sin in the world, God in his mercy patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved [1 Peter 3:18-22].  God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his righteous anger and setting his bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth, to guarantee the continuance of human life on this planet.

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sin, descending himself into the prison of death to free those who had gone before. Jesus’ descent among the dead, described in the 1st letter of Peter, anticipates the complete fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Just as God, who is rich in mercy, does not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life [Preface R1] in his kingdom, so too the Church gives us this special Lenten season every year to take time to renew ourselves - not in a self-centered, self-focused sort of way, but by focusing once again on the big picture, and where we hope to be in that bigger picture. 
How to do that?
In a sermon probably preached on this 1st Sunday of Lent in 5th-century North Africa, Saint Augustine challenged his hearers to "fast from quarrels and discord" and to "pardon the offender what has been committed, and give to the person in need." [Sermon 205]

Friday, February 16, 2018


In what turned out to be his last public lecture (at NYU, October 19, 2009), the late Tony Judt said: Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. ... the rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

The twentieth century - as Judt well understood - was a century of unparalleled horror. It was, however, also a century (especially the latter half of it) of great progress. Between 1945 and 1965, for example (as David Goldfield has shown in The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good), America certainly became a better and more just society. And, just as it was Europeans who experienced the horrors much more directly than most Americans, it was Europeans who made greater social progress overall. The perversely American preference for privileging private profit over the public good has long limited our society's moral and cultural advancement and accounts for our moral and cultural backwardness compared with much of Europe. Still there were real accomplishments in advancing the common good in the United States in the 20th-century, which makes the regression that began with the disastrous election of 1980 that much more lamentable. 

In that same lecture, Judt quoted Tolstoy that there are "no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him." That certainly increasingly describes the sad state of American society today.

There is hardly a better example of this than our continued passive acquiescence in yet another tragic mass shooting - as if such events were some sort of natural disaster that just happens randomly to afflict us, leaving us with no better response than hypocritical "thoughts and prayers.".

Undoubtedly multiple factors could have contributed to the Ash Wednesday attack on students at a school in Florida. One factor, however, had the effect of making the event so fatal - the killer's access to a gun. It is a distinguishing mark of civilized society that society itself - through the agency of the State - exercises a monopoly on the use of deadly force, bearing the "sword," as Saint Paul put it, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:14). 

The individual private possession of deadly firearms for private disconnected from the public mission of law-enforcement is incompatible with what it means to be a seriously civilized society. But, once again, we have become accustomed to - and thus accepting of - the privileging of what is private over and against the common good.

Had there not been another mass murder on Ash Wednesday, this week's pre-eminent example of our "heedless rush to dismantle" some of the 20th century's more notable achievements would have been the failure - yet again - of Congress to come up with a solution to our conflicted response to immigration. 

Admittedly, immigration is a less clear-cut, more morally complex question than the problem of private persons' access to guns for private purposes. A "land of immigrants" we may be, but American history highlights the challenges - as well as the many benefits - that can accompany large-scale immigration and rapid ethnic-demographic change. The United States took a breather from massive immigration in the 1920s. and, while the motivations underlying that pause were wicked, for the most part, the pause may have served America well, allowing time for assimilation and putting the lid on a contentious and divisive issue in time for the stresses of Depression and World War. Then, in a time of renewed prosperity, post-war America's more ethnically diverse but culturally more united society successfully reopened Lady Liberty's "Golden Door" to new populations of immigrants, who have since enriched our society well beyond the expectations of the post-war era.

Inevitably, another stress-point seems to have been reached, beneficially increasing American society's ethnic and cultural diversity but with the problematic downside of dangerously explosive cultural disunity. As Judt himself noted in that same final lecture (and others have made the same point since then): it is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely.

The challenge on immigration policy is to negotiate the kind of compromise which will reduce some of that stress without dismantling more open immigration's great late-20th-century achievement. Whether there may be any realistic hope to negotiate such a compromise remains to be seen. That we have grown accustomed to and everyone seems to have accepted the structural dysfunctionality of our legislative process and the polarized politics that have produced it suggests little basis for any such hope - on immigration any more than on the issue of guns.