Friday, August 18, 2017
Once again, the past weeks' newsfeeds have been filled with horrific images: images of angry people, defiant people, injured people, sobbing people. We've heard cries of outrage from clergy, politicians, activists, military leaders. Many of us have waited in vain for moral and compassionate leadership from the White House. We've heard, and perhaps engaged in, a lot of shouting (or posting in CAPITAL LETTERS). Most of us are hurt by what we've seen in our country, and around the world -- the bigotry, the belligerence, the bellicosity, the blame.
What we've also seen in the aftermath of Charlottesville are glimmers of some folks' "true colors." Many who've "toed a line" have been shaken out of their complacency (complicity?) and have stood up to hate. Many who've simply been quiet have found a voice. And, unfortunately, some who've claimed some sort of moral (?) high ground have been shown to be what they were all along: closeted Nazis, closeted anti-semites, closeted racists. Certainly it is time for them to be chastised, shunned, and, in some cases, removed from public office. These people are not the leaders of this country, despite titles.
In the course of all of the momentous events of this past week, I found myself having to do a very pedestrian chore: iron shirts. (Yes, it's true, I iron my own shirts!) I don't mind the task; it gives me an excuse to watch TV. Often the "show of choice" is some sporting event; equally often the choice is a favorite DVD. The latter was the case this week, and I turned on the mini-series "Gettysburg".* At the time, it had little, consciously, to do with the events of the week, but, in retrospect--especially in light of the statues of Confederate leaders being pulled down or otherwise removed--it seemed oddly appropriate.
For those who've not seen the film, it is, as the title would suggest, about the Civil War battle waged at Gettysburg, PA. It is NOT about all of the engagements, but focuses on several, linked to significant figures in the battle. One of those figures, of course, is Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who, in the last few days has been the subject of MUCH debate in our current conversation about the ongoing legacy of the Civil War. I do not want to enter into that debate, but, rather to point to a scene in the film that, of course, may or may not have actually happened -- film-maker's license is always possible!**
In the scene, General Lee is approached by one of his aides-de-camp on the morning of July 2, 1863. The major asks Lee if he would like breakfast, describing all the food that is available, "courtesy of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania". Lee declines, and asks how the local folks are dealing with the Confederate army's (temporary) occupation of their lands. The major tells Lee that there are some complaints about the army's taking of livestock and other provisions. Lee upbraids the army (through the major), charging that the army MUST behave itself. The major bristles a bit to reply that it would be easier "If the Yankees had behaved better in [a previous battle]". Lee reiterates his point, implying that, even in a battle, forces ought not adopt the bad behavior of the opposing force. He put the major, personally, in charge of making sure such things not happen.
Again, I have no idea whether such an exchange ever occurred. But what struck me was the suggestion--whether Lee's or the film-maker's--that honor ought not be surrendered, regardless of circumstances. Circumstances today compel us; images and rhetoric have the capacity to incite us to action . . . and that's a good thing. We absolutely need to act! We absolutely need to address and correct the ills that have plagued this country for so long. We absolutely need to call out those who would divide us, to show them up for what they truly are. But we cannot let our "killer angel" instincts overcome the "better angels" of our nature. There's too much at stake.
* Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara.
** I could not immediately find the movie's scene in the novel.
Friday, August 4, 2017
It is one of the most iconic moments in (semi-)recent sci-fi/adventure cinema! The antagonist finally sees the "payoff" at the end of his villainy. Donovan, Indiana Jones' long-time nemesis, has seemingly beat Jones to retrieve the Holy Grail -- reputedly the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. In the climactic scene of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", there are many cups from which to choose, and the lone knight left guarding the "treasure trove" warns Donovan to "Choose wisely". Donovan looks over the selection and picks a golden chalice, bedecked with jewels, reasoning that such a cup would have been worthy of Christ. Believing a legend that anyone who drinks from the Grail will live forever, Donovan dips the chalice in the water and drinks from it, and . . . . [Spoiler alert, it doesn't turn out well for Donovan!] The knight responds to Donovan's action, somewhat drolly: "He chose . . . poorly."
Donovan was doubly tempted as he made his choice. He was tempted by the idea of immortality (ignoring millennia of evidence to the contrary). He was also tempted by an idea that the most alluring choice would be the correct choice (alluring both because of the possibility of immortality, as well as its flashy opulence and that opulence's "connection" with power). His choice, as the knight observed, wasn't very good; his reasoning poor. Those of us who've seen the film (whether once, or innumerable times) know that Jones uses a different kind of logic and makes the correct choice. And, unlike Donovan, he doesn't test the promise of immortality ostensibly found in the chalice. He does, however, test its healing powers . . . [No spoiler alert here -- go see the movie!]
I think of this film every time the topic of "choice" rears its head. I recall a sermon in which I used this scene relating to the Hebrew Bible account of Joshua's call to the Israelites to make a decision between serving the gods of the Egypt they had just fled, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joshua declared to those folks that, regardless of what they might choose, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24.14-15). I also recalled the scene again this week when I heard a great podcast with Humble the Poet on the "paradox of choice". The show was based on a book by Barry Schwartz with the same title. Recognizing that there are some reservations about Schwartz's premise, I could easily relate to his point that "too many choices can lead to paralysis". That is, we WANT to have many choices (just look at our supermarket aisles!), but we can spend a lot of time and mental energy making a choice . . . that may, ultimately, not be the best for us. (Donovan, you wanna chime in here?)
I'm also in the position of thinking about "choice" as I have a daughter heading off to college this fall. She has to field the question: "What will be your major?" (a question of choice). She does have an answer, but it's often qualified a bit (i.e., "Well, I might also be interested in . . .") . And, of course, I ask that question of students coming to DU. Aside from my own "asking-of-the-question" (and I try to do it in as non-directive a way as possible), I'm always pleased when the answer comes back, "I haven't chosen one yet." That answer could imply a "paralysis of choice". I would hope, however, that it would better indicate a struggle between choosing the "flashy" (or high-status, or lucrative, or parent-pleasing) or the "fulfilling" (or service-oriented, or personal-passion-related).
And then, of course, every time the topic of "choice" rears its head, and I recall Joshua and Indiana Jones, I'm thrown into my own challenge to evaluate what lies behind my choices. Do I "choose wisely"?