Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bread and circuses: commentary roundup edition

I'm getting to be a bigger and bigger Bob Herbert fan with every column I read. Yesterday's offering in the NY Times is an especially important one, I think.

I've posted before about bread and circuses. The point I was trying to make is that our security is in God. I believe that with every cell in my body (at least, on the days that my head is screwed on more-or-less straight). However, that does not absolve us of our responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors--from our part in tikkun olam, in repairing the world.

Now we're in another crisis; no surprise, as there will always be another crisis on the horizon. My issue is not so much the financial crisis at hand as the "amusing ourselves to death" mindset that underlays so much of American culture right now. We fear substance; we love sparkle. We dislike actual debate (as evidenced by the rather porous substance of the electoral "debates"), but we sure do love a good shootin' match! (Have you ever noticed that the word "argument" has ten different shades of meaning, but it seems to mean "contention" almost exclusively in common parlance? The other nine imply both multivalence and logic.)

This lower nature of the public is routinely and cynically exploited by many who seek power. It's a distraction, and it WORKS. But some media voices are getting to deeper issues, if we learn to listen and to make plain our desire for substantive analysis and truth-telling:
And that's it, really, the heart of the problem. We, ALL OF US, need to stop screwing around with Diverting Shiny Things and gaping at whatever manufactured conflict presents itself, and get down to the issues at hand. And I truly mean at hand: for most of us, that will happen in small ways. For a few of us, it will happen in arenas of large-scale influence, but maybe it'd be good to remember that it's not the size of our sphere of influence that matters--it's what we do with it. It's our willingness to tear ourselves away from "reality" (!) television and get busy fixing whatever problem is in front of us. In Cotton Patch: Parables of Liberation, Clarence Jordan writes:

We've all been given ideas, perhaps not in equal proportion to others.
Maybe we haven't done any postgraduate work, but we've got hold of some explosive ideas.
But we say, "I might lose out tradin' on these. I might lose my neck or my job or my house."

And we're right. This is risk capital Jesus has given to us.
But that doesn't excuse us from activity...the time of harvest is here.
If we don't get off our back ends and start doin' somethin' with these ideas,
God Almighty is gonna take these talents that he's turned over to the church
and give them to a people that will bring forth the fruits.
You gonna wrap them up in some theological junk
or are you gonna get out in the streets and do business with these ideas?

I get that people may be feeling overwhelmed. Some days, that's me, too. But it'd be really great if we could at least keep our eye on the ball.

I'm a big West Wing fan; it was an intelligent show that asked real questions about serious issues. It made me think. Its forerunner was a movie called The American President. At the climax of the show, President Shepherd (running for re-election against an opponent who sounded suspiciously like the John McCain of the last few weeks) made a speech that contained this:
For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested
that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character,
and although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me,
I've been here three years and three days,
and I can tell you without hesitation:
Being President of this country is entirely about character.

This is a country made up of people with hard jobs that they're terrified of losing.
The roots of freedom are of little or no interest to them at the moment.
We are a nation afraid to go out at night.
We're a society that has assigned low priority to education
and has looked the other way while our public schools have been decimated.
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious (people) to solve them.
And whatever your particular problem is, friend, I promise you,
Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it.
He is interested in two things and two things only:
Making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.
You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters
who remember with longing an easier time,
and you talk to them about family and American values and personal character.
Then you have an old photo of the President's girlfriend.
You scream about patriotism and you tell them she's to blame for their lot in life,
you go on television and you call her a whore...

We've got serious problems, and we need serious (people,)
and if you want to talk about character...and American values, fine.
Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up.
This is a time for serious (people), Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.
My name's Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President.
Shepherd, who had been distracted, remembered (within the structured conceit of a movie script) two things: who he was and what his responsibilities were. And then he got busy. He told the truth. He got back to work on the bill that was before him. He jumped back into both his presidency and his personal agency with that speech.

Would that we, as citizens, could do the same.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thanks for these reminders. I especially liked the three bulleted links near the middle.

And I loved that movie you cited.

Songbird said...

I've never seen that movie all the way through, you make me want to watch it.

FranIAm said...

Oh Choral Girl- GREAT post, thank you. I had seen some, but not all of the links.

And I love how you wrap it up in the context of West Wing and American President.

Thank you.

mompriest said...

Loved West Wing...sigh....and great quote too....I'll have to check out the other links when I'm not so tired...