“Hostiles”: A Reminder of Stubborn, Enduring Faith

HostilesMy wife and I saw the new Western film “Hostiles” last week.

It essentially could be described as a sort of Westernized version of FuryChristian Bale aptly depicts a character named Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a career U.S. Cavalry officer suffering from what is known today as PTSD.

Blocker is a man of his time, someone who would be known in 21st century parlance as a virulent racist – not only a fighter but also a hater of Indians who has essentially undergone a moral hallowing out after spending an entire adulthood wrestling away the Western frontier from its indigenous inhabitants.

In what amounts to a final indignity shortly before his being pensioned off, Blocker is assigned what he regards as the deeply abhorrent task of escorting an aging, cancer-ridden Cheyenne warrior named Chief Yellow Hawk and his family back to his ancestral lands in Montana.

“He’s a butcher,” Blocker obstinately responds to his commanding officer upon receiving his orders.

“Then the two of you will get along just fine,” his superior responds.

Along the way, Blocker and his party encounter all manner of adversity, including an encounter with a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid, portrayed by actress Rosamund Pike, whose husband and children had been brutally murdered by marauding Comanches.

And, predictably, over the course of time, Blocker is forced to reevaluate his raging hatred for his long-time nemesis, Chief Yellow Hawk.

There’s a lot that could be said about Hostiles, but I’ll confine my comments to the film’s treatment of faith  – a welcome change in an era when Hollywood increasingly treats traditional faith with indifference, if not a discernible measure of contempt. Despite a lifetime of mayhem, suffering and death, Blocker has still managed to carve out a place for faith, albeit a rather confined and idiosyncratic one.

At one point in the film, Rosalie queries Blocker about his religious beliefs.

“Do you believe in the Lord, Joseph?” she asks.

“Yes, I do,” Blocker replies. “But he’s been blind to what’s going on out here for a long time.”

When occasionally asked about my own faith, I almost invariably borrow that famous response of German sociologist Max Weber.  On the subject of religion, I’m unmusical.”

Yes, this could be regarded as a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s perspective.  Yet, as one who spent an entire adolescence and a big chunk of adulthood trying to embrace religion, I’ve reached a point in life at which I’m entirely comfortable with my religious cynicism.  It’s essentially enabled me to clear a cluttered mental deck that encumbered me for a long time.

Still, unlike many, if not most, nontheists, atheists and sundry other apostates, I accept religion for what it is:  mental software that our forebears developed over eons to cope with all the a vicissitudes of life: the death of a child, romantic betrayal, divorce, sickness, dispossession, deceit, etc.

And I understand that unbelief is not for everyone.  Like Captain Blocker, the vast majority of us need mental mechanisms to keep the furies at bay, to create an open space – a sacred space, if you will – to reflect on and to affirm all that is good, decent and sublime in life amid all the inevitable sorrow and suffering.  Indeed, for the vast majority of people, spirituality and faith are as bound up in the human condition as eating, drinking, sleeping and lovemaking.

For these people – the majority of human beings –  spirituality and faith are basic attributes of survival.

The tragic, squalid life of the fictitious Joseph Blocker serves up a very compelling reminder of that fact.

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Matt Drudge and the Patton Effect

Bear with me on this one. It may turn out to be one of the strangest posts I ever made in this forum. I am attempting to draw an analogy as we reflect on the 20th anniversary of the Clinton scandal involving the 23-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky. 

One of most intense debates of World War II is whether the destruction of the Falaise Pocket in France in 1944 provided a brief opportunity for America’s outlier general, George Patton, to drive all the way across Germany to end the war months earlier. 

The destruction of the pocket created a sort of perfect storm: the utter but brief disruption of German forces in the West, coupled with the  presence of an extraordinarily gifted general willing to violate several precepts of prevailing military doctrine to capitalize on that disruption. 

That brings me to Matt Drudge. It seems to me that rapid technological change and disruption in the 1990’s temporarily created huge breaches, not unlike the Falaise Pocket in northern France in World War II, that were quickly filled by a handful of brash innovators, such as Drudge. Yes, things eventually settled to a new status quo, much as they did in WWII. The Germans, for example, regrouped temporarily and fought the Battle of the Bulge.
Even so, for better or worse, the marriage of the Internet and inexpensive desktop computers in the mid-1990’s created a temporary breach that empowered a few innovators to step up and transform the way news was reported.  

Incidentally, another somewhat more conventional and establishment figure who emerged in the midst of all of this technological tumult was Andrew Sullivan, a product of an Oxbridge and the Ivy League education who essentially invented political blogging and changed forever the way political pundits interacted with their audiences.

Plenty of people mourn the decline of the MSM (mainstream media) that followed the advent of digital media. When I was a graduate student in telecommunications in the mid-1980’s, the likes of Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, and Eric Severeid were revered. 

A few years earlier an iconic film about the decline of journalistic standards, the Oscar-winning movie Network, was required viewing for communications students at my undergraduate institution. 

But were those halcyon times – really? The much-extolled Vital Center, which was a more palatable term for managerial liberalism, was nothing but manufactured consensus by an Establishment that had recently dragged America into and out of a bloody and divisive conflict in Vietnam, one from which we have not yet fully recovered.  This and subsequent global economic and geopolitical setbacks sparked a crisis of managerial liberalism that still rages. 

The digital revolution and the expansion of bandwidth that followed opened up the information landscape to a host of dissident voices. Yes, it has created as much division as it has opportunity. But all in all, I think that we have benefited immensely from this expanded terrain and the enhanced opportunity for discussion debate.  Our challenge now is to develop new political institutions and media models to accomodate these changes. 

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The Grievous Sin of ACT and SAT Score Stamping

SAT-testingI am appalled and have been for a long time by how standardized test scores, especially ACT and SAT scores, tend to be stamped on the foreheads of young people for the rest of their lives.   

As the father of two daughters, I saw this time again among them and others who attended our local high-achieving college-town high school.  They and their classmates posted respectable ACT scores.  Even so, they were derided by a few higher-scoring fellow students as simply not passing muster – as not counting among the truly “‘smart” and “gifted” set.

Even more appalling to me is the way a handful of teachers sometimes interpret these scores – often in a manner that conveys to students that they are guilty of some grievous shortfall even before they graduate from high school.

 

Speaking as a classically lazy, distracted, under-achieving high school student, I was meted out that treatment by more than one high school teacher.  Indeed, looking back some forty years ago, I’m still a bit outraged by the way a handful of teachers at my small-town Alabama high school discounted kids who didn’t post stratospheric scores on their ACT tests – or, for that matter, who didn’t earn the highest  GPAs, even though many of these kinds were highly capable and harbored high ambitions to attend college and to make something of themselves.  

 
One instructor who seemed to be especially obsessed with standardized testing – not to mention, with his own intellect – often set aside classroom time to discuss the importance of the ACT, and, in the course of which, to cite his own ACT score, which, while respectable, was by no means prodigious. During one such classroom dialogue, the discussion drifted to one especially high-achieving but unusually eccentric young woman in our school whose academic record was spotless and who had recently posted an exorbitantly high score on the ACT.

In the course of adding to this conversation, I did something entirely foolish.  I prefaced one statement with the casual observation: “I am not saying that she is necessarily superior to the rest of us, but…”  Upon uttering these words, I knew I had committed a grievous faux pas.  And the very intellectually self-assured classroom instructor, who spoke with an an irritating lisp, predictably weighed in to upbraid me: “Oh, sth’ee is sth’uperior to you – sthe is!”

The whole classroom broke onto laughter, and, yes, I was mortified.

 

I have reflected on that thoughtless, mean-spirited quip countless times over the past 40 years. It motivated me like few other incidents. To be honest, I have often measured my progress in life vis-a-vis this high-achieving eccentric young woman whom the instructor deemed “sth’uperior” to me.   And, really, who wouldn’t under similar circumstances?

I went on to earn 3 degrees and to work at a Research I university, writing about science and public policy and sundry other issues.

 

My “sth’uperior” classmate earned a bachelor’s degree from the same undergraduate institution and – well, I’ll just say that she has endured the last 40 years in very straitened circumstances and leave it at that.

I can relate many similar accounts shared by fellow classmates and friends. There is no excuse for this behavior among educators.

As I see it, the time has come for psychometrists and other educational professionals involved test design to develop new models for assessing the aptitude of aspiring college students.

I have known far too many individuals, including quite a few who acquired advanced degrees and went on to become innovators in their fields, who were derided by their guidance counselors and other high school educators as lacking the right stuff.   A few were even told that they would be better off avoiding college entirely and attending trade school.

I relate all of this not to elicit sympathy – actually I regard this instructor’s inexcusably insensitive remarks as a fortuitous turning point in my life. But it does illustrate how standardized testing and the insensitive remarks of educators have stymied and, in far too many cases, derailed and even destroyed, many a promising life.

There has got to be a better way to assess promising students.

 

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A Classical Scholar’s View of World War II

Victor Davis Hanson, author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

A day or two following Christmas is nerd nirvana for me.  I take all of my Barnes and Noble gift cards to the nearest store to stock up on a six month’s supply of books.

I am an avid student of history, particularly accounts of World War II and the Cold War. One of this year’s most fortuitous finds is by classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson titled “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.” I started it yesterday, and I have not been disappointed. In fact it makes excellent companion reading to Churchill’s Second World War memoirs.

One fact that Hanson shares early in the book made an especially deep impression on me: the fact that a few of the Western diplomats who gained first-hand exposure to Hitler and Mussolini came away convinced that they were dealing with a different species of men – individuals far removed in temperament and conviction from the well-bred, well-educated statesmen to whom they were accustomed.

Needless to say, this did not bode well for the prospects for European peace in the 1930’s. These were not men who had gained a refined view of the world through privileged upbringing and elite educations.  They were hardened, cynical, angry men who had cultivated their world views in the fetid trenches of the Great War.

I was especially struck by an observation offered by Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring, essentially Hitler’s second man and heir apparent. He casually observed to journalist William Shirer that while Americans were capable of making good planes, they were entirely incapable of turning them out fast enough to offset German air supremacy.

Goring, incidentally, tested out with the highest I.Q. of any of the Nazi defendants awaiting trial at Nuremberg. At one point he used this daunting intellect to derail the cross-examination of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the Allies’ chief prosecutor.

Yet, Goring, despite his ample intellect, apparently was incapable of heeding one of history’s most recent and indispensably vital lessons: that scarcely a generation earlier, the United States had marshaled its industrial might to send 2 million men and materiel across the Atlantic in remarkably short order to reverse the fortunes of Imperial Germany.

The mountains of rubble piled up in every major city of Germany in 1945 further attested to Goring’s appalling shortsightness regarding American industrial and technological might and its unprecedented adaptive ability.

This is what makes Hanson’s book such compelling reading. The Second War was like no other previous conflict. And this was partly due to the fact that this  war was prosecuted by a new generation of so-called mass men who were neither shaped nor influenced by the ideals and traditions that molded earlier generations of European statesmen. That the war quickly mutated from a regional conflict to a global one serves as a bloody attestation to this fact.

I will offer more thoughts as I get further along with the book.

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Prophets and Sages as Curators

Apostle-Paul

St. Paul, the Apostle

Last night I watched Peter Sellers in Being There (1979), one of my favorite films. The thought occurred to me: that movie anticipated the digital age by roughly a generation.

Even back then, people were overwhelmed by information. Gardener, an illiterate simpleton, was perceived as a sort of curator of complexity who cut through the dense informational fog to offer brilliantly incisive, even transformational truths.

I spent a reasonably big chunk of the latter years of my Cooperative Extension career as a social media coordinator talking to fellow employees about how the digital age was challenging them, as educators, to organize dense amounts of information in less complex and more accessible ways – in other words, to curate, much as a museum curator organizes artifacts in a manner that affords visitors with a good working knowledge of a historical epoch.

And I wonder: Haven’t many of history’s most memorable sages, even religious and spiritual leaders, essentially functioned as curators? Didn’t their success stem from organizing  complex and often irreconcilable chunks of information into accessible, compelling and even comforting  narratives?

That is arguably what the Jewish scribes and prophets did on behalf of their faith and people during the Babylonian captivity.

Jesus arguably undertook a very similar task as a curator: He forged a compelling apocalyptic narrative from the teachings of the Jewish prophets during the particularly trying period of Roman captivity.

Following Christ’s trial and execution, Paul reworked this narrative significantly to conform with the demands and expectations of the Greek world as the Jesus movement’s center of gravity shifted into into this region of the Roman Empire.

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Sympathy for Those with Good Intentions

office-spaceI’ve felt a strong sense of kinship with Winston Churchill since reading William Manchester’s magisterial account of the late British prime minister and statesman.

Churchill is remembered among most historians as the greatest national leader of the 20th century.  Yet, he was a remarkable anomaly:  Despite his vast powers of  discernment and foresight, he remained largely an anachronism, certainly throughout his advanced years, failing to let go of many of the things he cherished most, namely, Britain’s unrivaled superpower status and his diminutive island’s vast global empire.

While I lack Churchill’s genius, I readily relate to his sense of anachronism. With each passing day, I feel like a duck out of the increasingly turbulent waters of American cultural life – and, granted, that’s a good thing.  With each passing day, I regard myself more and more as a cultural anachronism.

I was raised to appreciate certain social boundaries and proprieties.  I always operated under the assumption that these conventions, which evolved and were refined over centuries, went a long way toward keeping the world on an even keel.  And what baffles me is the fact that a growing number younger people not only regard these proprieties as stodgy and retrograde but even as discriminatory, if not downright evil.

Vice President Mike Pence obviously was raised with a similar sense of propriety.  Apparently inspired by the evangelist Billy Graham,  he practices a set of safeguards to avoid any hint of sexual impropriety.  He has made it a standard practice not to dine alone with any woman, even within a professional context, or to attend a party where alcohol is served unless his wife is present.

Remarkably, though, far from lauding Pence for his sense of propriety, some feminists are opposed to it.   Writing in a column that appeared in Vox, attorney Joanna L. Grossman opined that this strategy not only lacked honor but was also likely illegal.

In the view of some feminists, this practice not only implies that women are temptresses but also essentially prohibits half the work force from getting ahead through building a strong working relationship with the boss.

“Wow!” is all I know to say in response to this.

The 21st century work environment seems so complex and fraught with risk now days.  I’m glad that I’m retired and out of it.

Like many anachronistic retired men in their fifties, I’ve spent a lot of time lately reflecting on life’s good fortune.

One of the things for which I feel profoundly thankful is that my parents raised me with the values associated with good, old-fashioned Protestant propriety and rectitude. I am encumbered with many personal faults and failings, but I can honestly say that I have never pressed my advantages – that is to say, physical advantages – with a date or other female acquaintance. I was raised to regard such behavior as deeply repugnant – the worst form of boorish behavior. And as a teenager I knew that my folks would come down on me fast and furiously if I evinced any such behavior.

I always thought that establishing boundaries was a critical facet of good behavior.

In the course of my upbringing, my folks helped me acquire another invaluable skill: an awareness of the complexities of all social contexts. I learned how to be conscious of nonverbal cues. And I really think that this skill was of critical importance in helping me understand what was at stake when I entered the workplace as a freshly minted 23-year-old communications professional on a university campus in the summer of 1985. Fairly early in the game I realized that the racial and sexual complexities of that particular work environment constituted a veritable minefield and that as a white male, I needed to act accordingly.
Frankly, I was surprised at the number of white male colleagues who never understood this.
And in this day and age, such critical discernment is desperately needed.  I know that in the view of millions of women, men carry an ignoble legacy.  And, granted, there is arguably an element of truth to that.  But I can’t help but harbor a measure of sympathy for the decent, well-meaning ones – the ones who regarded gauche behavior in the workplace as execrable as I did – and still do.
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Among the World’s Great, but Unwitting Innovators

Martin-Luther-Elderly

Martin Luther

I’ve mentioned before how fascinating it is to consider how religious mystics, leaders and reformers have unwittingly contributed to innovation – entire platforms, in many cases – that have transformed the world in ways that they scarcely could have imagined.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic theological cosmology contributed directly to genealogy and to the genealogical industry that grew up around the church’s massive database in Salt Lake City and, ultimately, to the use of DNA testing as a kind of genealogical enhancer.

And long before Smith, Martin Luther’s lonely and bleak struggle with faith produced a bountiful harvest, thanks to the value he placed on believers acquiring biblical literacy and,  with it, a command of sacred scripture to gain a clearer understanding of God.

The uptick in literacy that followed transformed the world in the centuries that followed.  Indeed, the strong case could be made that the disproportionate influence that the Northeast wields in American culture and politics stems from the fact that the earliest settlers to the region were “people of the book” – Calvinists who placed great emphasis on debating and exegeting scripture and who, in the course of which, established what was believe to be the most concentrated area of literacy in the world by the late 17th century.

This region’s high rates of literacy, in turn, ultimately spawned three of the most influential research universities in the world – Harvard, Yale and, later, MIT – which have transformed all facets of human knowledge. And, of course, this has also contributed immensely to culture, politics and even spirituality not only in the United States but also throughout the world.

And let’s reconsider for a moment Luther’s sole mission: to strengthen each human being’s relationship with God through his emphasis on grace through faith. Yet, this simple emphasis on faith – and his insistence on the practical value of literacy to augment this faith – transformed the world in ways he could not have imagined while he was translating the Bible into German while in hiding.

And, quite ironically, this emphasis on literacy has led much of the world away from faith rather than toward it – needless to say, a prospect Luther would have found deeply troubling.

But that is the nature of innovation, even the sort of unwitting innovation that characterized Luther’s life and work.

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