Monday, August 3, 2015

What to Make of Poldark

Like Poldark star, Aidan Turner, I had never read the Poldark books nor seen the original 1970s TV series. (Of course, he is a lot younger and so wasn't even around then - among other obvious differences!) So I approached the 8-episode BBC/PBS series that just ended last night with no real preconceptions and few specific expectations - apart from a mild but long-established and genuine fondness for dramatizations of stories set in the 18th or 19th centuries. Suffice it to say that such expectations as I entertained about the series were certainly more than sufficiently surpassed. I now even find myself wishing for a chance to get to see and experience the Cornish coast in all its gloriously bleak isolation!

OK, but - beyond all the costume drama glitter, the breathtaking scenery, the excellent acting, and the range of interesting characters - what is one to make of Poldark the story and even of Ross Poldark himself?

The basic plot line follows the story of Ross Poldark, a member of the Cornish gentry (although only of the cadet branch of the family), who returns to Cornwall (and the family's mining business) after spending three years in the British army on the losing side of the American War of Independence. He returns to find his father dead, his estate in shambles, his family's mine closed, and his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth ("born to be admired"), engaged to his cousin Francis, the heir (in the senior branch of the family) to the Poldark name. He resolves to stay in Cornwall, rehabilitate his property, and reopen his mine, meanwhile taking on a somewhat wild, very lower-class girl, Demelza, as a kitchen maid and falling in love and ultimately marrying her (despite the obvious social problems such an unequal marriage would pose in 18th-century society), but without quite abandoning his love and desire for Elizabeth. Entangled in all this is the story of another cousin, Francis' virtuous-in-every-way sister Verity, a true friend to Ross (and eventually Demelza), who stoically suffers with the pain of being a still unmarried woman at the old age of 23 (until she too meets someone unsuitable and - with Demelza's poorly thought-through assistance - finally elopes with him). And dominating everything is the larger context of the socio-economic conflict between the declining old landed elite (represented by the Poldarks) and the rising capitalist moneyed interests (represented by the by the greedy banker George Warleggan.) 

It's a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs for the Poldarks - definitely upward for Demelza, largely downward for the Poldark clan as a whole, and a confounding mixture for Ross himself. Attractively portrayed by Aidan Turner, Ross is genuinely devoted to the community, to improving the lot of all especially his tenants and miners (those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale), but just as genuinely headstrong, reckless, and self-willed - the inevitable "tragic flaw" dictated by dramatic convention. When he reproves Demelza for acting according to her lower-class ideas (helping Verity and her suitor get back together, apparently ignorant of the consequences this will have for the relationship between the two branches of the family and for Ross's business ventures), Ross tells her, “We Poldarks are hasty, sharp-tempered, strong in our likes and dislikes.” But that statement would certainly have been even more accurate if he had said "I" instead of "we." After all, one can barely count up the times Ross has flouted convention (and law) to act on his own impulses - the very thing he is repeatedly warning others not to do! So even his surprise arrest at the end was in a sense repeatedly hinted at in the many warnings he had received about his various unlawful actions.

That fits the classic "tragic flaw" model because it actually gets in the way not only of his own and his family's welfare but of his usefulness for those he is so determined to help. And, while it is hard to judge how sincere (if at all) his rival George's occasional efforts to reach out to him are meant to be taken, still one wonders whether things might have turned out better if Ross had at least tried to get along a little bit with his rivals. But Ross always goes his own way - his inner isolation signified by the repeated images of him riding alone along the coast.

Ross's recklessness costs him dearly, but his underlying care and concern for those around him do make him some friends. The sad scene when he buries his infant daughter is rendered even more powerfully poignant by the presence of so many who have obviously come to the churchyard to show their real respect and friendship for him.

Ross's heroic independence from convention almost suggests a certain post-modern sensibility which would have been completely out of place in 18th-century Britain. He can recognize how dysfunctional Demelza's lower-class commitment to "love" (in Verity's case) could be, but cannot apply a similar analysis to himself (except to some extent after the fact when the damage has already been done).

Family life and domestic arrangements have changed so much in the past 200+ years that it might seem difficult to extract lessons from the various Poldark family dramas. On the other hand, while social, economic, and political institutions have likewise evolved since then, the series' basic haves vs. have nots dilemmas remain surprisingly relevant, along with the lesson Ross has found it so hard to learn - that hard work and virtuous behavior do not necessarily pay off in a society where the deck is definitely stacked in favor of few at the expense of the many.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Bread of Life

Last Sunday (if we can remember back that far), we heard the familiar account of Jesus’ feeding 5000+ people with a mere 5 loaves of bread and a few fish. The story ended with the people remembering how God had provided for them in the past – and then drawing precisely the wrong lesson, leading Jesus to withdraw to the mountain alone. The Old Testament is full of such stories of God providing for his people – and the people missing the point, grumbling as we hear them doing again in today’s 1st reading [Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15].
When today’s gospel [John 6:24-35] picks up the story in the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000, the people’s persistence has paid off to the extent that they have reconnected with Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, although they remain clueless as to how he got there. The stage is set for Jesus to challenge his hearers in yet another reenactment of the age-old Exodus drama of God providing for his people and being greeted with grumbling in response.
To begin with Jesus challenges the crowd to consider why they are there, what they are looking for, why they are looking for him. His question could just as well be addressed to us today – or any day. Why are we here? What are we looking for? Obviously, we are meant to appreciate and identify with the experience of the crowd in the gospel story and to recognize how very much like us, Jesus’ audience was that day in Capernaum (as were their ancestors before them in the desert, grumbling against Moses and Aaron). Only then might we also appreciate how Jesus was offering himself as the bread of life, the new manna in the desert, as a remedy, an alternative to what we would be on their own – much as the original manna in the desert had been a remedy for the people’s hunger, an alternative to the inadequate food they could find on their own. Unlike the original manna, however, which was (in the end) more like a temporary snack, Jesus, the bread of life, is really more like a full meal – intended to remain with us, in order to change us into something new, to transform us, to get us out of ourselves, and so give life to the world.
This was something the Capernaum crowd would have a tough time accepting – as we shall soon see over and over again in the Gospel readings over the next few weeks. The fact is that we all naturally tend to live - as Saint Paul says [Ephesians 4:17, 20-24] - in the futility of our minds, clinging, more or less comfortably, more or less uncomfortably, to what Paul calls the old self and its deceitful desires.

Jesus, the bread of life, however, gives life to the world, precisely by signifying an alternative vision of life – a gift from God who is so deeply connected with us as to become food for us forever.

In Jesus’ sharing of his life with us, we are introduced to a whole new way of thinking, acting, and being, which destroys detachment and creates connection. If only we would actually get out of ourselves enough to experience it as it is meant to be experienced! Then, we would understand the sense of Saint Augustine’s famous saying, “Become what you receive.”

If, in other words, we would actually (as Saint Paul says) put away the old self of our former way of life and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth!

At Capernaum, the crowd was offered such a future. We will hear, over the next several weeks, how people responded, some one way, others another. But meanwhile that future is already here, where we already experience the transformative power which Jesus, the bread of life, is bringing to us and, through us, to our world.

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 2, 2015.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Terrorists of the 1970s

CNN's original series The Seventies (a sequel to CNN's successful earlier series The Sixties) offers a series of thematic episodes that try to recapture, through old film and TV footage, the experience of that problematic decade. For those of us who lived through the 70s, it rekindles memories of that tumultuous time, which was in so many ways as formative for what followed as was the 60s, but more easily overlooked than that ostensibly more glamorous decade. Like its predecessor The Sixties, The Seventies is found in CNN's Thursday night lineup.

Eschewing simple chronology in favor of a more thematic approach, The Seventies started light with an episode ("Television Gets Real") on the decisive changes in TV programing during the decade. The second episode ("The United States versus Nixon") tackled Watergate. The third ("Peace with Honor") dealt with Vietnam. The fourth ("Crimes and Cults) concerned some of the decades notorious killings (from the "Manson Family" to the Jim Jones cult and its famous Kool-Aid). The fifth ("The State of the Union is not Good") recounted the political crises of the unsuccessful Ford and Carter administrations. Finally, this week's episode 6 ("The Golden Age of Terrorism") dealt with the various acts of political terrorism perpetrated by, among others, the Weather Underground and the SLA in the US, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the IRA (the murder of Lord Mountbatten, the bombing in Birmingham), and, of course, the PLO and its offshoots' multiple terrorist attacks in Israel and in the air (beginning with the hijackings of several U.S-bound jets in September 1970 and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972).

The first time I flew on a plane in July 1970, there was virtually no airport security at all. There were no metal detectors. Friends and family could accompany passengers right up to the gate (and meet them there on their return). It was all much more casual, but soon to change thanks to hijackings and the even worse terrorist attacks, which almost seemed to herald the start of the new decade - as another, more massive terrorist attack would, 31 years later, mark the new millennium. 

IRA terrorism, of course, continued a long on-again, off-again conflict in Northern Ireland, revived in the 1960s but dating back to the Irish rebellion and subsequent civil war during and after World War I. Likewise, PLO terrorism had its own independent history, having its roots in Arab obstructionism and opposition to Israel from its founding (and actually also before). But the other terrorist groups - the Weather Underground and the SLA in the US, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany - all definitely had their roots in the turmoil of the 60s. As the protest movements of the 60s died down or evolved into more conventional movements, a small militant remnant remained ready to do whatever they thought it took to express their anger and make revolution happen. Paradoxically, it was one of the most peripheral American terror groups, the SLA, that may have gotten the most media attention after the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Personally, I can remember watching the famous "SLA Shootout" after my Master's General Examination at Princeton in May 1974! But it was in Europe - especially Italy and Germany - where the homegrown terror groups seemed to have the most pronounced effect on the national political culture. Who can forget the  Red Brigades' murder of Aldo Moro and its effect on the dying Pope Paul VI, who broke precedent to celebrate his old friend's funeral at the Lateran Basilica? The first time I visited Italy in the late 1980s, the impact of the so-called "Years of Lead" of the 1970s was still in evidence. 

Terrorism in the 1970s was always about getting attention. As one commentator on the program put it: "The 1970s saw the development of the terrorist  repertoire." But it also saw the beginning of a coherent response - the way led, not surprisingly, by the Israelis, who had the most experience, having been on the receiving end of Arab terrorism for their country's entire history (and before). The Germans did not let the Israelis attempt to free the hostages in Munich, and the German effort to do so failed tragically. But the Israelis' successful raid to free Israeli hostages at Entebbe in Uganda in July 1976 showed it could be done and became sort of the gold standard of hostage rescues.

What struck me rather forcefully as the TV brought back those frightening images of 1970s terrorism was how distant it all seemed - even then. Everyone understood that the Middle East and Northern Ireland were dangerous places, but generally speaking we in the United States did not feel overwhelmed by the fear of terrorism, in spite of the occasional terrorist acts that occurred. Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of social breakdown (especially in cities like New York - e.g.. see my previous post on the 1977 Blackout). Perhaps, random bombings, etc., just blended in somehow with already heightened anxiety about urban crime. Perhaps, it is just harder to focus on seemingly random domestic terrorism in contrast to foreign attack. 

Whatever the explanation, it would take an altogether new type of attack on an unprecedented scale in 2001 to shake us from our complacency. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Medicare & Medicaid Turn 50

It was a happy moment, 50 years ago yesterday, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law (photo). That he chose to do so at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, in the presence of former President Harry S Truman, was both a tribute to Truman's earlier leadership in the cause of providing Americans with access to health care - and also a testimony to how long it had taken and what a struggle it had been!

Obviously, access to health insurance should have been available long before 1965 - and it should have been universal. Even then, however, something about American political culture made it difficult to accomplish what other advanced industrial countries accomplished with such greater ease. Everyone knows, of course, how the post-war Labour Party Government introduced universal health care in the United Kingdom.  But Britain was by no means the first to cross that Rubicon. The developed world's oldest national health insurance system is found in Germany - dating back to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's 1883 Health Insurance Bill.

Undoubtedly FDR would have included health insurance in Social Security if he had thought it could pass. Truman tried in 1949. Instead, it took another generation at the climax of the period of post-war economic prosperity to pass a downsized version of national health care - Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor.  In the end it took the quixotic 1964 candidacy of Barry Goldwater to guarantee a Democratic landslide and with it a Congress so lopsidedly liberal enough to make LBJ's Great Society (of which Medicare and Medicaid were critical components) a long-awaited reality.

It is alleged that LBJ envisioned a gradual decrease in the Medicare age, eventually evolving into universal access to health care regardless of age. Something like that could have happened in 1973, when President Nixon was willing to consider extending Medicare for all. But that didn't happen either. The first was a casualty of Vietnam; the second of Watergate. 

So it wasn't until President Obama that this country finally got something close to what we should have had all those decades ago, although in a much more complicated - and compromised - form than if we had just extended Medicare to all.

Medicare remains one of the crown jewels of American social policy. Medicaid, because it serves the poor (who don't vote that much) rather than senior citizens (who vote a lot) has always been the demeaned stepchild of American health-care policy. Even now, after Obamacare made a widespread extension of Medicaid easy for states to implement, many states have refused to participate. What is one to make of such a dysfunctional political ideology, one of the primary pillars of which is denying people access to adequate healthcare? 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Americans work an awful lot (at least those of us lucky enough to be employed). Just the other day, I saw something on the BBC comparing how much less vacation time American workers are entitled to, compared with their European counterparts - and how, even then, many Americans don't even take the full vacation time they are allotted. And, of course, we have modern technology - especially the ubiquitous cell phone - to keep people working even when ostensibly vacationing. We are increasingly a nation of actual and would-be workaholics.

An interesting thing to think about on this feast of Saint Martha!

In John’s Gospel, Saint Martha engaged Jesus in one of the Gospel’s most famous dialogues, first reprimanding him for showing up late for her brother's funeral, then eliciting from him the powerful proclamation, I am the resurrection and the life. In response, Martha made her great profession of faith: Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

For centuries the standard Gospel reading at most Catholic funerals, that account (John 11:19-27) has solidified Martha's status not only as one of Jesus' intimate friends, but as a disciple and an evangelizer.  Yet, for most people perhaps, the Martha story which has had the deepest impact upon her reputation is the account of one of Jesus' other visits to her home, at which she provided hospitality for him and his disciples, but also remonstrated with him about her sister Mary's not helping her out with the household chores (Luke 10:38-42). If anything, the very obvious ordinariness of the situation and the ease with which we can all identify with one sister or other in Luke's story has guaranteed its perennial popularity.

Ours is a society in which we define ourselves for the most part by our work. Of course, as our current debates over increasing income inequality illustrate, our society honors and rewards wealth much more than it rewards work, and there is obviously no connection between working hard and being rich. But, after wealth, we do seem to place the greatest value on our work. For the vast majority of us, it is work which provides whatever degree of respect our society allows to the non-wealthy. And, inasmuch as work has always been necessary for most people, I think Martha's complaint about her sister must have resonated with most people as just commonsense. Of course, even if there is more to life than work, still the work has to get done!

Thus I'm sure that Jesus and his disciples wanted their dinner! So I think they valued Martha's efforts to be hospitable. (Certainly, the Church has seen Saint Martha a model of service, a sentiment evident in today's Collect. And it is no accident that the Vatican hotel - where the Pope presently lives - is named for her, Domus Santae Marthae - or that she is the patron saint of housewives, cooks, and waitresses.) I think that Jesus was not criticizing Martha so much as offering her some helpful advice about her priorities: Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.

Again, Jesus' point to Martha - and through Martha to us - wasn't exactly that there is nothing to be anxious and worried about, but that the solution to our anxieties and worries is not in intensified focus on ourselves (what we do when we get anxious and worried, but rather a redirected focus on him - just as later on, at Lazarus' tomb, Jesus would refocus Martha's attention away from her frustrations about the schedule and onto him as the resurrection and the life.

Homily for the Memorial of Saint Martha, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 29, 2015.