This is International Women’s Day. And what was once my favorite news program, Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” (DN) was full of relevant coverage. One of the featured pieces was entitled “Stand up for Afghan Women”: U.N. Calls Afghanistan World’s Most Repressive Country for Women, Girls.” The piece lamented the sad situation plaguing Afghanistan’s female population.
By now the story has become familiar: women required to wear hijabs, girls excluded from schools, and both forbidden to drive cars, work outside the home, or to travel without male accompaniment.
And all of this decried by the United States government which is, we’re told, the champion of women’s rights not only in Afghanistan but throughout the Muslim world.
The problem however with that picture is that the last part is false. That is, far from being the champion of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the United States is the one ultimately responsible for their oppression in that sad country and elsewhere.
In effect, the U.S. is the creator of the Taliban which in 1992 overthrew the Russian-sponsored socialist government that beginning in 1973 freed Afghan women from the repressive restrictions just referenced.
More specifically, supported by the Soviet Union, the so-called “Saur Revolution” improved immeasurably the lives of Afghan women. It introduced progressive policies including land reform and mass literacy projects that benefitted both genders. Child marriage was abolished. Female dress codes were eliminated, freeing women to wear western clothing if desired.
Under socialism, formerly closed employment opportunities for women were opened in both the public and private sectors. Women were allowed to enter schools at all levels. They became university professors, government officials, doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, parliamentarians and more. In record time, women comprised 50% of the government’s bureaucracy, 70% of the country’s teachers, and 40% of its doctors. Sixty percent of the faculty at Kabul University (KU) were females. For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, women comprised most of the KU student body.
All of that was reversed by United States now familiar divide-and-conquer regime change strategies – this time in Afghanistan. Alarmed by socialism’s advance, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saw that Saur progressive reforms though popular in urban centers were not well-received in rural tribal areas. So, he decided to support the landlords, warlords, and religious mullahs there to work regime change in Kabul.
The assistance included the Carter administration’s arming and training Islamic fundamentalists (the Mujahidin) beginning in 1979.
That movement eventually drove from power Afghanistan’s progressive socialists (along with their Russian supporters) with their women-friendly policies. Eventually too, the Mujahidin morphed into the Taliban.
20 years of U.S. occupation and bombing of Afghanistan
With the expressed intent of preventing the Taliban from returning to power
But leading directly to the deaths of more than 250,000 Afghans
With the same number of deaths caused indirectly
Including (between 2015 and 2019 alone) more than 26,000 Afghan children
Along with the creation of over 2.2 million refugees.
We also know about:
Last year’s chaotic U.S. departure from the country
The immediate return of the Taliban to power
And the subsequent application of U.S. sanctions
That are currently causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that affects women and their children much more than the Taliban officials.
Everybody knows, of course, that all of this is intentional. The real target of U.S. sanctions is not the Taliban government. No, it’s all part of our government’s familiar regime change strategy aimed at making the lives of ordinary people (including women and children) so miserable that they will arise and overthrow their government.
We shouldn’t be fooled by any of it. Instead, (especially on this International Women’s Day), we should face up to the fact that the United States government doesn’t give a damn about women’s rights either abroad or at home.
At home, its Christian Taliban wing led by its SCOTUS Catholics, Donald Trumps, Ron DeSantises, and Marjorie Taylor Greenes would entirely control women’s bodies and their reproductive rights from the exclusion of sex education to the outlawing of contraception and abortion. Remember that for more than 50 years, “America” has found itself unable to officially recognize that under the Constitution, women have the same rights as men.
In summary, while portraying Muslim-majority countries as inherently misogynistic, U.S. government propaganda and even news sources like “Democracy Now” ignore the fact that the United States was responsible for overthrowing Afghanistan’s progressive governments attempting to improve the lives of its women.
In other words, history shows that our government is as misogynistic as the forces it sponsors.
Recently, on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman interviewed a Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder, about the Ukraine War. He was commenting on his New Yorkerarticle “The War in Ukraine is a Colonial War.”
That was his argument: As if we had to guess Putin’s end game in Ukraine, the good professor opined that it probably is to annex Ukraine and afterwards who knows what other country. Putin’s an imperialist, Snyder charged. Like Hitler, he’s after land and soil.
The colonizer must therefore be stopped, Dr. Snyder concluded, and be brought by force of arms to acknowledge Russia’s total defeat. Turning just war theory on its head, Snyder’s point came across as: war is the first resort; negotiation comes only after your enemy has been militarily defeated and is forced to accept the winner’s terms without reservation.
That kind of support for what has prevailed in America as “the official story,” especially coming from a fellow academic who should know better, struck a fraying nerve within me. I mean, to my understanding, it’s not the function of academics (nor for that matter, of news media such as “Democracy Now”) to lend support to the approved narrative. It is rather to test the received account against documented reality.
So, I decided to find out once and for all (1) who Vladimir Putin is, (2) the detailed background of the Ukraine conflict, and (3) what the Russian president’s intention might be in his “special military operation.”
No need, I found, to speculate on any of that. It’s all quite well recorded – for instance (1) in Oliver Stone’s four interviews (each an hour long) with the Russian president, (2) in the film “Ukraine on Fire” (counterpointed by “Winter on Fire”), and (3) in Putin’s two long pre-war speeches (one delivered last February 21st, the other just after on February 24th).
Reviewing that material quite carefully has convinced me that as a national leader, Putin stands head and shoulders above any others I can think of. His reasons for initiating his “special operation” are defensible historically, legally, and according to U.S. precedent.
Putin as Statesman
Before mounting the “Putin Bad” bandwagon, be sure to view Oliver Stone’s “The Putin Interviews” on Showtime. They’re the product of 12 conversations between Stone and Mr. Putin over two and a half years between July 2015 and February 2017.
I found the interviews revealing a man who is difficult to dislike. He is charming and humorous. He drives his own car, is a judo enthusiast, plays hockey, and rides horses. He describes himself as a “cautious optimist” who believes, he says, “there is always hope until the day they put you in the ground.”
Born into a working-class family in 1952, his father was wounded in what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War,” when the United States and the USSR were allies against Nazi Germany.
From an early age, young Vladimir studied judo, whose practice, he says, summarizes his theory of life: be flexible and disciplined; think ahead. (For political leaders, he adds, that means planning 25 to 50 years into the future).
Movies and books made Putin, who studied law in the university, an admirer of the KGB as a patriotic organization. He joined up and was assigned to East Germany. Life there, he remembers, was not dismal, but “frozen in the 1950s.”
Then came Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency (March 1990 – Dec. 25, 1991). Gorbachev’s “reforms” made everything fall apart. (Putin does not particularly admire him.) Social programs were destroyed. Millions lost their previously guaranteed rights and fell into poverty. Oligarchs criminally seized property belonging to the Russian people and became instant billionaires. Overnight, 25 million people lost their nationality and became displaced.
Though opposed to communism, Lenin, and Stalin, Putin recalls that succession of events “one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century.” The country moved towards civil war.
Gorbachev was succeeded by Boris Yeltsin (in office 1991-1999). Before the latter’s resignation, he unexpectedly chose the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin as acting prime minister. Later that year (2000), Putin was elected president with 53% of the vote. He recalls his major accomplishments as bringing the oligarchs more under control and cutting the poverty rate by two-thirds.
As a result, Putin was re-elected in 2004 with 70% of the votes cast. Russia’s constitution forbade his running again in 2008, so he served as prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012). Putin ran again for president in 20012 and won with 63% of the vote.
As for charges that on his watch, Russia’s system is “authoritarian,” Putin calls for historical perspective. He points out that Russia was a monarchy for 1000 years. Then came what he refers to as “the so-called revolution of 1917” followed by dictatorship under Stalin and his successors until the 1990s. In view of such history, it is unreasonable, Putin observes, to expect Russia’s attempts at democracy to rise to the levels of the United States, Germany, or France in such a short time.
Though a survivor of five assassination attempts and criticized mercilessly by the West’s politicians and press, Putin refuses to respond in kind. For instance, Arizona senator John McCain called him “a killer, butcher, thug, and KGB colonel.” Putin replies, “We could make similar comparisons, but due to the level of our political culture, we abstain from extreme statements.” Instead, Putin consistently refers to the U.S. government at “our friends,” and “our partners,”
“Actually,” he adds, “I admire Senator McCain, because of his patriotism.”
Of course, Oliver Stone’s “Putin Interviews” came long before the present crisis in Ukraine. So, for perspective here, let me turn to President Putin’s speech of February 21, 2022, where he laid out the history of the conflict, as well as to his speech of February 24th, the day his “special military operation” began.
Both addresses were substantial, each lasting more than an hour. Commentary shows that few in the West have read the speeches. (The earlier-referenced film “Ukraine on Fire,” also contains information mirroring what the Russian president said.)
Here’s the way Vladimir Putin tells the story:
The conflict in Ukraine takes place between people who share a history, culture, and spiritual space. They are comrades, colleagues, friends, relatives, and family members.
Ukraine was always part of Russia. Its modern form as a state was created by the Bolsheviks.
Both the Russian Empire and the USSR always found it difficult to control their colonies and federated states.
Beginning in 1922, Stalin did so by complete repression.
In the 1980s, the nationalist ambitions of local elites resurfaced, supported by some factions of the Communist Party.
By 1989, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) conceded sovereignty to its federated states (including Ukraine).
Russia was then pillaged by its own oligarchs, while it continued to economically support states like Ukraine.
Ukraine suffered similar pillage at the hands of its oligarchs who began allying themselves with western powers.
Those same Ukrainian officials allowed Russophobe Neo-Nazi nationalists to arise who supported terrorists in Chechnya and laid new claims to Russian territories.
They terrorized Russian-speaking Ukrainians including politicians, activists, and journalists, even burning alive peaceful protestors in Odessa.
All these events, eventually led to the Maidan Coup (2014) supported by the United States with $1million per day.
With corrupt leaders in charge, Ukraine is now run from western capitals as a neo-colony.
As such, the west threatens to introduce nuclear weapons into Ukraine while flooding it with conventional arms and conducting constant military exercises aimed at Russia.
Ukraine’s application for NATO membership represents a further direct threat to Russia’s national security.
Russia has appealed for dialog, peace talks, and negotiations, but its appeals have been ignored by the United States which refuses to countenance the existence of any independent country, especially one as large as Russia.
Accords between Russia and Ukraine that have been signed (an apparent reference to the Minsk agreements) have been transgressed by Kyiv.
This leaves Moscow with no other choice but to take measures to protect its own interests.
It will begin by coming to the rescue of the Donbass region which has been under constant attack by Kyiv since 2014 (with more than 14,000 lives lost).
Russia therefore recognizes the sovereignty of Donetsk and Lugansk as “People’s Republics.”
Reviewing the bullet points just noted along with additional justifications advanced three days later in a similar speech, show that at least according to U.S. logic, Vladimir Putin’s action in Ukraine is completely justified.
Together with additional information garnered from the film “Ukraine on Fire,” Putin’s own words show that he clearly recognizes that Ukraine was given sovereignty by the USSR in 1989. He has no intention (pace, Professor Snyder) of refusing to recognize the country’s existence or of colonizing or occupying it militarily.
As affirmed in his speech of February 24th, the Russian president states his focused intention as protecting his country from a clear, present, and illegal threat represented by NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s borders despite:
Ukraine’s constitutional prohibition against the establishment of foreign military bases on the country’s soil
The accords of the Organization for Security Interests in Europe (OSCE)
As well as the de-escalating provisions of two Minsk Accords.
Since appeals for negotiation and dialog have been ignored, Putin’s only option, he claims, is military self-defense and rescue of the citizens of Donbass who have appealed to Russia for help in a war which has already taken many thousands of lives.
With all this in mind, Putin declares his intention in Ukraine as restricted to the following goals:
Protecting Donetsk and Luhansk from what he sees as genocide perpetrated there by the Ukrainian Nazi Azov regiment largely responsible for Kyiv’s aggression in Donbass since 2014
Bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres
Denazifying and destroying the Ukrainian army in the process.
Again, those goals are clearly limited. The Russian president completely denies an intention or ability to occupy Ukraine which is a sovereign state.
Moreover, all of this is in accord with U.S. doctrine and policy. For instance, just last week when the Solomon Islands (7000 miles distant from the U.S.) announced an intention of signing a security agreement with China, the U.S. threatened military response, on grounds that such agreement threatened its national interests.
According to the word’s definition, an “apologist” is “a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial.” It refers to one who defends another from what s/he considers an unjust attack. In the name of even handedness, respect for documentary evidence, and historical fact, that’s the role I’ve attempted to assume here.
Considering such factors , I personally have concluded that Alexander Putin has been defamed. He is no Hitler. He is not insane. He is acting according to the “rules based order” long established and acted upon by U.S. presidents in a whole series of wars that have contravened international law and led to the needless deaths of millions of innocent people.
That is to say that Putin no worse than any U.S. president you care to name. As Chomsky points out (see video above), all of them have committed war crimes far worse than Putin’s – mostly without attempting the detailed justifications found in the Russian president’s extended statements. America’s posture towards the Solomon Islands makes the point.
That’s why I’ve turned into a Putin apologist who hopes for Russia’s success in resisting U.S. aggression at its border that (according to Professor Snyder’s logic) will force Biden and NATO to the negotiation table. But don’t hold your breath. There are still Ukrainian proxies available for cannon fodder.
Yesterday, on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman reported good news for the poor countries of the Global South. In the news headline portion of her show , she said, “Cuba has pledged to donate 200 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to low-income countries in the Global South. The move was announced at talks hosted by the Progressive International and was heralded as a possible ‘historic turning point’ in the pandemic.”
You’d think that the announcement would be welcomed and celebrated everywhere and be given at least as much press coverage as the one-day protests in Cuba reported so breathlessly last November 15th. However, no such general celebration occurred. Even on “Democracy Now,” the story went undeveloped beyond the just-quoted headline. Meanwhile, in contrast to its hysteria over Cuban protests last fall, the U.S. government itself has been totally silent about this potentially game changing development.
Nevertheless, according to international health experts, Cuba’s achievement could make vaccinations much more available for example to 1.3 billion Africans whose continent has seen only 7% of its population receive even a single vaccination dose. (And this in contrast to 70% vaccination rates in richer countries.)
According to reports even on CNBC’s online source, the five Cuban vaccines in question:
Are a uniquely Cuban development among the former colonies
Have been administered in three doses to a higher percentage (86%) of Cuba’s 11 million people than in most of the world’s richest countries
Are not dependent on expensive mRNA technology using instead a “subunit protein” variety – like the Novavax vaccine
Are cheap to produce
Require no special refrigeration
Enjoy 90% effectiveness against all strains of COVID 19
Will have no patent restrictions on their recipes shared with low-income countries
Will be made available to them virtually at cost
Are a tribute to Cuba’s legendarily efficient health care system
Currently, Cuba’s prestigious biotech industry is awaiting approval for its vaccine developments from the World Health Organization. That approval is expected early this year. According to Helen Yaffee of the University of Glasgow, “. . . many countries and populations in the global south see the Cuban vaccine as their best hope for getting vaccinated by 2025.”
As for cost and distribution issues, John Kirk, professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia added, “The objective of Cuba is not to make a fast buck, unlike the multinational drug corporations, but rather to keep the planet healthy.”
But in news cycles dominated by pharmaceutical corporations that refuse to waive intellectual property rights to their largely publicly funded products, such contrasting humanitarian consciousness goes mostly underpublicized and by such silence, denied.
Denial like that prevails despite the appeals for sharing vaccine recipes by the World Health Organization itself supported by civil society groups, trade unions, former world leaders, international medical charities, Nobel laureates and human rights organizations.
Part of the reparations due Cuba for 60 years of economic embargo and for silence about its achievements is to at last recognize its socialism as a force for global humanitarianism much more beneficial to the world than international capitalism.
Welcome to Episode 11 of “A Course in Miracles for Social Justice Activists.” I’m your host, Mike Rivage-Seul. And today we’ll examine together Part I, Lesson 3 of The Course’s Workbook for Students.
In the first part of the Workbook, we’ve been deconstructing our illusory understandings of the world. We’ve been imagining ourselves as residents in Plato’s Cave completely deceived by our culture, its educational system, by its advertising, its politicians, priests, and publicists. It’s all illusion.
In line with that insight, today’s lesson reads: “I do not understand anything I see in this room, [on this street, from this window, in this place].”
For purposes of this podcast and its concern with social justice, the lesson’s central idea might better be phrased, “As a captive in my culture’s version of Plato’s Cave, I do not understand anything I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place.]”
Or: as a beneficiary of a system that is white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist, and patriarchal, I understand nothing at all about the world.
The truth of this last phrasing was especially illustrated this morning on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” and its coverage of the 26th meeting of COP (Congress of Parties) on climate change. The meeting began today in Glasgow, Scotland.
Global South guests on this morning’s “Democracy Now” described it in scathing terms invisible to most of us who are even taking the trouble to notice that COP 26 is taking place. “Democracy Now’s” guests spoke of:
White Supremacy: They described the Glasgow gathering as “the whitest and the most privileged climate summit ever, with thousands from the Global South unable to attend because of lack of access to COVID vaccines and visa issues.”
Dysfunctional Capitalism: They added that the exclusion of participants from the Global South was intentional to silence their voices highly critical of specifically capitalist schemes such as carbon trading and “Net Zero Carbon Emissions” that will permit the world’s biggest “free market” polluters (mainly the United States) to continue business as usual. As a result the Paris Climate Accord goal of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, will not only be missed, but global temperatures will reach the catastrophic level of 3 degrees above those pre-industrial measures.
Neo-Colonial Imperialism: The capitalist world’s business as usual includes ongoing subsidization of the fossil fuel industry and unabated plans for expanded oil drilling and pipelines across lands belonging to indigenous peoples. Unchanged business plans means that Africa’s 1.5 billion people who are responsible for about 3% of global warming will continue bear a vastly disproportionate share of climate change’s ravages. Those consequences will predictably turn the continent’s largely agrarian populations into impoverished climate refugees. The refugees will in turn be xenophobically excluded from seeking asylum in countries like our own.
Patriarchal Rule: Even though 60-80% of the non-industrialized world’s farmers are women, the ones making the decisions that will adversely affect their livelihoods are men like Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and the predominantly male CEOs of fossil fuel corporations.
In the light of all of this, Lesson 3 might well read, “I do not understand anything at all.” I don’t even know how white supremacy works because (as a white person) it works for me. I do not how capitalism works, because (as an American) it benefits me. For the same reason, I do not know how imperialism or patriarchy work.
In Plato’s Cave, I know nothing about climate change.
But guess who does know about climate change and how the world works for whites, capitalists, imperialists, and men. It’s those would-be delegates excluded from the Glasgow conference. It’s those spokespersons from the Global South who know the ins and outs of the real effects of carbon trading and “Net Zero” policies. It’s those poor women farmers made to bear the brunt of climate chaos.
It’s the poor who according to Christian faith (and Jesus’ voice in A Course in Miracles) constitute the site of God’s revelation of what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it. Indirectly, A Course in Miracles is asking us to listen to them – to the voices of the excluded who resonate with the voice of Jesus. The historical Jesus was one of them.
Think about those people from the Global South today as you repeat (almost as a mantram) the central expression of Lesson 3. As you focus randomly on whatever your eyes light upon, say “I do not understand anything I see in this room, [on this street, from this window, in this place].”
As you watch television, or read the paper say, “As a beneficiary of a system that is white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist, and patriarchal, I understand nothing at all about the world.”
To access previous postings in this series on A Course in Miracles, please go to my podcast site.
Recently Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” explored “The Case for People’s Vaccines.”
While those interviewed by Ms. Goodman called for early and affordable access to inoculations in the Global South, no mention was made of perhaps the most promising source of such therapies. The neglected source was not only promising, but implicitly revealed the swindle represented by Big Pharma’s anticipated exorbitant prices for Covid-19 vaccines.
It may surprise readers to know that the source in question is Cuba.
In fact, Cuba is the first nation in Latin America to receive authorization from the World Health Organization (WHO) to perform officially sanctioned tests of the four vaccines it now has under development. Those trials have already completed their clinical stages. Promising results so far have Cubans looking forward to completing the (cost free) inoculation of its entire population of 12 million by the end of March 2021.
The vaccines under trial are named Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Abdala (CIGB66) and Mambisa (CIGB669). None of them is dependent for its preservation on super-cold temperatures.
Mambisa is worthy of special note, since as a nasal spray, it requires no needles, but responds locally to the specifically respiratory nature of Covid-19.
Failure to report such developments even on “Democracy Now” illustrates the complicity of our mainstream media in shunning any news from socialist nations like Cuba that might possibly illustrate the superior ability of their economies to deliver high quality, no-cost healthcare to citizens even during a worldwide pandemic. Moreover, absent the profit motive, Cuba will predictably deliver its vaccines to its neighbors at vastly cheaper prices than its capitalist counterparts.
Cuba’s Vaccine History
This prediction is based on the fact that Cuba has long been a supplier of vaccines and doctors not only to the Global South, but to countries such as Italy during the height of Covid-19’s first wave. Additionally, with its unequaled ratio of doctors to citizens, the island nation’s response to the pandemic has effectively limited documented coronavirus infections despite supply problems caused by the continued U.S. embargo of the island.
All four developments (the superabundance of doctors, the relative control of Covid-19, Cuba’s research capacities, and the export of medical care to other countries) result from the foresight and vision of Fidel Castro, the revered father of his country. In the early 1980s he sparked initiation of a vigorous homegrown biotech sector – largely to cope with the U.S. embargo’s persistent attempts to deprive the island of medical supplies.
The result was the emergence of 20 research centers and 32 companies employing 20,000 people under the umbrella of the state-run BioCubaFarma Corporation. Recently, spokespersons connected with the corporation tweeted, “The #CubanVaccineCOVID19 is dedicated to the sower of dreams: Fidel. Our tribute to the one who believed in the strength and future of #CubanScience.”
BioCubaFarma produces 8 of the 12 vaccines Cuba uses to immunize its own population against diseases such as measles and polio. Cuba has also exported hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to more than 40 countries (e.g. to deal with meningitis and hepatitis B).
All of this represents just one more illustration of socialism’s comparative efficiency in the face of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a poor blockaded country like Cuba can respond to an unprecedented crisis such as the coronavirus without holding sick people hostage to the confiscatory demands of privatized natural monopolies like Big Pharma. The latter’s claims to mammoth profits based upon (largely government-funded) costly research are simply ideological cover for overweening corporate greed that none of us should stand for.
People’s vaccines can be produced at warp speed and at low cost – despite news blackouts even on “Democracy Now.”
Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 6:12-16; Ps. 63: 2-3; I Thes. 4:13-18; Mt. 25:1-13.
Last Thursday, Juan Gonzalez of “Democracy Now” provided the best post-election analysis of voting trends that I’ve heard. It sharply departed from the conventional wisdom that, he said, routinely wonders about the “under performance” of black and brown voters in the just-completed general election.
Instead, Gonzalez pointed out that African American, Latinx, Chicanx, and even Native American voters stepped up in an unprecedented way with more of them voting than ever – and most of them, of course, casting their ballots for the Biden-Harris ticket.
True, he said, there was a 2% increase in the number of them voting for Donald Trump. But he pointed out, it’s not percentages that win elections, but actual votes cast. Gonzalez asked, “Would you rather have 70% of 12 million votes, or would you rather have 68% of 20 million votes?”
The real surprise, Gonzalez noted, was in the increase of white suburbanites – and especially white suburban women – who voted for Donald Trump. If anything, that was the real “under-performance” calling for further analysis.
Why is it that Republicans are increasingly becoming America’s “White Party” with white women exhibiting decreasing difference in their voting preferences from white men who actually shifted a bit away from Trump? And why do so many Christians continue to support someone like DJT?
Gonzalez answer? There is a surprisingly significant number of Americans – white, black, Latinx, gay, straight, atheist and Christian – who are quite comfortable with Donald Trump’s imperialist message of “America First” global dominance. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they (at least subconsciously) don’t want the sun to set on the declining U.S. empire. So, they respond positively to imperialism’s conventional wisdom of maintaining “full spectrum dominance” over the rest of the world. It’s an American thing divorced from any “identity politics.”
I bring all of that up because today’s readings call attention to the difference between the conventional wisdom that Gonzalez decried and the radical wisdom of Jesus the Christ who had no time for empire or for making Rome or even Israel great again.
To show what I mean, here are my “translations” of the day’s selections related to Jesus’ profound wisdom – with a surprise twist in today’s Gospel parable of “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.”
There, the anonymous and conservatively Jewish evangelist called “Matthew” turns the unconventionally wise Jesus into a teacher of the world’s conventional wisdom of taking care of #1. In effect, he transforms Jesus from what we might call a “progressive” (or what I would call an anti-imperialist “radical”) into something like a contemporary Republican. No wonder today’s Christians feel comfortable supporting Donald Trump!
Please read to original texts here to see if I’m exaggerating. The first three readings reflect Jesus’ approach to wisdom. The last one seems to contradict it.
Wisdom 6: 12-16
Goddess-like Wisdom is easily encountered by those who seek her out. In fact, she lovingly looks for us even before we start our search for her. She is nearer to us than our jugular veins. Honoring her is actually the height of informed intelligence. You might say that human beings are naturally wise.
Psalms 63: 3-8
Whether we know it or not, wisdom is our shared quest. It’s more valuable than life itself. Without wisdom our lives are parched, meaningless and deprived. Wisdom’s nourishment brings us gladness and everlasting joy.
I Thessalonians 4: 13-18
But what about those who die before achieving the full enlightenment offered by wisdom’s goddess? Have their lives been wasted? “No,” says St. Paul. Mysteriously, even they will be enlightened by the same cosmologically irresistible powers that were manifested in the person, life and teachings of the master of wisdom, Jesus the Christ. This is no idle fantasy, though the hopeless claim it is.
Matthew 25: 1-13
Even the evangelist called Matthew found Jesus’ unconventional wisdom about sharing to be a bit much. So, in his version of Jesus’ parable about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids,” he turned Jesus into a teacher of a conventional wisdom that the world could more easily endorse. “Take care of yourself first,” he has Jesus teach in his story. “Your selfishness will be rewarded,” Jesus seems to say. ‘Foolish people – especially thoughtless women – will be shut out of God’s kingdom, just as they deserve.”
Let me say a bit more about the parable that tries to domesticate Jesus. It’s about those who embody the characteristics of wisdom described in the first reading – the wise virgins. It is also about those who lack such qualities – the foolish bridesmaids. The wise ones brought enough oil to keep their lamps alight while they waited to escort an unexpectedly delayed bridegroom to his ritual rendezvous with his intended. The foolish ones made no such provision.
Obviously, this is a women-oriented story. And that’s quite fitting for exploring the topic of wisdom traditionally identified as feminine – almost as a goddess. The story is full of wisdom symbols: not only wise and foolish virgins, but wedding feasts and bridegrooms, sleeping and waking, lamps, oil and light, closed and locked doors. All of these are archetypes. Their richness suggests an enlightened storyteller; it suggests someone like Jesus.
And yet there are also elements in today’s gospel that suggest a voice that does not belong to the prophet from Nazareth. For one thing, this is perhaps the only instance in the gospels where women are presented in a negative light. Here I’m thinking of the foolish bridesmaids. Throughout the Gospels, women appear consistently in a positive light. It seems Jesus took care not to reinforce the prejudice against them that so endemic to his deeply patriarchal culture – and to our own.
For another, this parable doesn’t contain any of the reversals or “unconventional wisdom” that we’ve come to associate with Jesus’ teachings and method of story-telling. Parables, you’ll recall, are stories which present a problem meant to engage their audiences. They do so by addressing a real-life concern (often expressed in a question presented by one of Jesus’ opponents). Typically, Jesus’ answer turns the tables on the questioner surprising him with some version of Jesus’ great dictum: “The first will be last and the last first.” Think of the “Good Samaritan” or the “Prodigal Son.” We don’t find any of those kind of surprises in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
On the contrary, instead of unconventional wisdom and surprising reversals, we find that this story concludes with a highly conventional moral. It’s embodied in the strange refusal of the wise virgins to share their oil with the foolish ones. Again, the lesson seems to be “Be prepared and take care of #1. Let the improvident take care of themselves and reap the consequences of their ‘foolishness’.”
Of course, that runs counter to a theme that earliest Gospel traditions firmly centralize, namely that of sharing even in the face of scarcity. As you recall, that motif appeared in the feeding of the 5000 in Mk. 6:30-44 and in the feeding of the 4000 in 8:1-10. Both instances embodied a “miracle enough” made possible because Jesus inspired people to overcome selfishness and share the little they had. The surprise was that in sharing scarce resources (five loaves and two fishes) there was more than enough for all.
The bottom line here is that Matthew seems to have domesticated Jesus – as I said, making him very Republican-like.
Last week in OpEdNews, RJ Piers wrote an extremely insightful article called “Letting Go of Christianity During the Trump Era.” There the author recalled years of commitment to a Christian faith that required faithful observance of conventional morality centered around avoidance of drinking, drugs and premarital sex.
In the light of his abstinence, the author found it more than disappointing to see Christians rallying around a character like Donald Trump with his three marriages, assaults on unsuspecting women, and separations of children and babies from their mothers and fathers. For Piers (as for so many of us), Christian faith was all about conventional morality. And to see Christians deserting that morality to endorse someone like Trump was enough to suggest his own abandonment of Christian faith itself.
Personally, I found the argument intriguing.
However, even a casual reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was not about such conventional expectations. His focus wasn’t drinking, drugs, or premarital sex. On the contrary, he transgressed community moral standards at every turn. He repeatedly broke the sacred Sabbath law, forgave a woman caught in flagrante with an anonymous man, was accused of being a drunkard and friend of prostitutes, intermingled with despised foreigners, heretics, and n’er do wells. He finished his own life completely disgraced on death row, a victim of torture and of a form of capital punishment specifically reserved for enemies of Roman imperialism.
Remembering all of that is important not only for helping us see how churches have followed Matthew’s lead in domesticating Jesus. It also helps us see Jesus for who he was despite that process of normalization that began less than two generations after his assassination.
Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids is a case in point. Ironically, its domestication of the radical Jesus juxtaposed with the rest of today’s readings calls us to return to the master’s unconventional wisdom. That wisdom rejects obsession with conventional morality.
Again ironically, Matthew’s attempts at taming Jesus remind us of the master’s more important focus. As shown by his crucifixion, it must have been on politically radical rebellion against the kind of imperialism that Juan Gonzalez correctly suggests has seduced so many of our fellow citizens despite their claims to be followers of Jesus the Christ.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 12: 1-4A; Psalms 33: 4-5, 18-22; 2nd Timothy 1: 8b-10; Matthew 17: 1-9
The sudden revival of Joe Biden’s candidacy on Super Tuesday represents a victory for cautious centrists in the Democratic Party. They’re afraid of Bernie Sanders and his self-proclaimed revolution on behalf of the working class, low income earners, and the environment threatened by the devastations of climate change. They fear Sanders strategy of “Going for Broke.”
That strategy came in for criticism a few days ago from Paul Krugman in his New York Timesop-ed called precisely that: “Bernie Sanders Is Going for Broke: Is maximalism the best political strategy?”
In the light of today’s liturgical readings for this Second Sunday of Lent, the phrase “going for broke” has special meaning. The day’s Gospel selection recounts the familiar story of Jesus’ “Transfiguration,” where on a high mountain, the Master’s appearance is transformed (enlightened) before three of his apostles as he dialogs there with Moses and Elijah. Today, I’d like to give that dramatic parable a unique spin and explain it in historical context — as liberation theologians might. I’ll retell the story in terms of Jesus establishing a go for broke strategy for himself and his followers on their paths of faith.
Before I get to that, however, consider Krugman’s rejection of that approach.
Krugman’ Rejection of Maximalism
The jumping off point for his criticism of “maximalism” was a Sanders ad centralizing Barack Obama’s praise for the Vermont senator over the years. Krugman argued that such association is disingenuous since (in Krugman’s words) Sanders’ approach is a “go for broke maximalism” as opposed to Obamism which the columnist described as accepting “incremental, half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none politics.”
Echoing traditionalist appeals for gradualism in the face of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffragist movements (not to mention Republican talking points), Krugman alleged, that Sanders’ maximalism is unrealistic. After all, it includes “complete elimination of private health insurance and a vast expansion of government programs that would require major tax increases on the middle class as well as the wealthy.” And Sanders would do all of this, the columnist argued, on the theory that it would win over white working-class constituents and bring a surge of new voters.
Krugman concluded “unfortunately, no evidence supports this political theory.”
Apart from the fact that Sanders’ strategy actually does find historical precedent in Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s (as Krugman himself argued on “Democracy Now” a week earlier), the columnist’s words ignore the fact that only a “go for broke” strategy can save the planet at this moment of climate emergency.
Simply put, the planet cannot endure another four years of Bidenesque gradualism (much less of Trumpian denial). Instead, the required strategy is what Sanders and progressive Democrats have proposed as the Green New Deal, which Biden, Krugman, and establishment incrementalists studiously ignore.
Jesus’ Embrace of Maximalism
This Sunday’s Gospel reading announces Jesus’ strategy of maximalism in the face of his people’s unprecedented crisis in the early years of the first century. (Actually, however, Jesus’ crisis is dwarfed by the one the entire human race faces today.)
Be that as it may, consider Jesus’ maximalism. Today’s reading finds the young carpenter from Nazareth on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows something extremely risky is about to happen. Yet he’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and the collaboration of its leaders with the Roman Empire.
The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of Jesus’ people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish ally of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation despite inevitable risks of failure.
Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” (The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!”) It was all very political.
Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “the Insurrection” (Mk. 15:6-8).
Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers and their Jewish collaborators. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (Scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)
Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all loudly denounce the moneychangers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables.
As a proponent of non-violence, Jesus and his band are thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned demonstration. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus,” Israel’s founding act of rebellion.
And yet, this peasant from Galilee (even like Paul Krugman and establishment Democrats) is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time?
So before setting out for Jerusalem, Jesus takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act of his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.
However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.
According to the Jews’ credal summary in Deuteronomy 26, their whole national story centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ Exodus!!
It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Nevertheless . . .
Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences.
Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Jesus’ faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.
Is there a message for us here as Bernie Sanders (the most honest politician our country has produced in generations) calls us towards a maximalist response to a world-wide crisis so much worse than the one that faced Jesus’ people under Roman domination?
I think there is.
Today’s readings tell us that God’s People are not to be led by frightened little men who place security and their own careers above compassion for the poor, the oppressed, and Mother Nature Herself. Faith is not primarily about cooperating with denialists, settling for half-a-loaf or about gradualism advocated by the rich and their comfortable allies. The crisis facing the human race is unprecedented. It calls for maximalism far beyond what Krugman criticizes in Sanders. At the very least, it calls for a Green New Deal, which Krugman could not even bring himself to mention.
No: faith is not at all about gradualism. It’s about risk on behalf of God’s creation and the poor, who will suffer most from the ravages of climate change.
Yes, Mr. Krugman, there are people like you and Mrs. Biden who say they are concerned, but who cancel out such claims by fearful, self-defeating caution and cowardly willingness to sacrifice even the lives of their children and grandchildren for a near-term, more-of-the-same future. There, Mr. Biden has promised his corporate supporters, “Nothing fundamental will change.”
Such people cannot claim to be followers of the prophetic Jesus of Nazareth. In our present crisis, those of us who do are called to adopt nothing short of the maximalism Paul Krugman fears.
Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2;
10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13.
Last Tuesday’s edition of “Democracy Now” had Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewing Daniel Immerwahr, and associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. Dr. Immerwahr has just published a book called How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. For me, it was an eye-opening conversation, because it described the actual extent of U.S. empire that remains hidden even, as Dr. Immerwahr noted, from PhD historians.
Yet more importantly,
for today’s reflections on this first Sunday of Lent, the interview revealed
how the hidden U.S. empire actually involves our country in devil worship as
defined by this Sunday’s Gospel episode.
Actually, that’s been
the case for Christians in general ever since the 4th century of our
era, when their predecessors threw in their lot with Constantine’s Roman army. Since
then, they’ve (we’ve!) been worshipping Satan while calling him “God.” Today’s Gospel
calls attention to that contradiction. It implies that Christians should no more
support their country’s foreign policy (or what pretends to be the Christian
Church) than if it were run by Hitler or the devil himself.
Let me explain.
Begin with Dr.
Immerwahr’s description of the hidden U.S. Empire. He traces its inauguration
to the period immediately after our country’s founding. It was then that
settlers incorporated territories seized (in clear violation of treaties) from
Native Americans. Then in 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas
first and then [after the Mexican-American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada,
New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
By the end of the 19th century, the U.S.
had added Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, and Wake Island.
If we add to this the implications and actual invocation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) in order to control the politics of Latin America, we can see forms of U.S. colonialism extending throughout the western hemisphere.
Coups in Africa [e.g. Congo (1961), Ghana (1965), Angola (1970s), Chad (1982)] established U.S. hegemony there. Similar interventions in the Middle East (e.g. Iran in 1953) along with the establishment of Israel and Saudi Arabia as a U.S. proxies controlling political-economy throughout the region established United States control there.
Factor in the 800 U.S. military bases peppered across the world and one’s understanding of our empire’s extent expands exponentially. (Russia, by contrast has 9 such bases; the rest of the world has virtually 0). To understand the sheer numbers involved, think of our continued military presence in South Korea (35,000 troops) Japan (40,000), and Germany (32,000). Besides this, of course, there are the active troops who daily kill civilians and destroy property in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. In total we’re told that there are about 165,000 troops deployed in 150 countries throughout the world – though, in the light of what I’ve just recounted, even that number seems vastly understated.
In any case, all of that describes
an extensive, highly oppressive, and extremely violent American Empire.
And we’re proud of it. Theodore
Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson thought of colonialism as marvelous. However, by
the first decade of the 20th century, politicians became
increasingly uncomfortable with “the ‘C’ word,” and exchanged references to
colonies for the gentler euphemism, “territories.”
But whatever name we give it, the reality of U.S. empire stands in sharp contrast to today’s Gospel reading and its description of Jesus basic proclamation with its negative judgment on empire and colonialism.
As a prophet and actual victim of empire, Jesus made his fundamental proclamation not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.
According to Jesus, everything would be reversed in God’s Kingdom. The world’s guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).
That basic message becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation described in today’s Gospel episode. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,
shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because an evil spirit has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
However, Jesus responds,
“It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 (today’s first reading) to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.
Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? Seriously, these were the questions!
However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!
Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th
century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus
experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical,
the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift
from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the
necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the
world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling
No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world
belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,”
not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift. Or in the words of Jesus, the
earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and
Yet, as Dr. Immerwahr attests, those very people living in the West’s
former colonies in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are
the very ones ceaselessly victimized by the empire historians have so well-hidden
from our consciousness.
As described in Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, colonialism and neo-colonialism are diabolic abominations in the eyes of Jesus’ God. They represent nothing less than a system or robbery currently bent on confiscating the rich resources of the Global South. Authentic followers of Christ can never support such depredations.
On this First Sunday of Lent, we should pray sincerely and work tirelessly for the defeat of such abominable practices.
Last week some dear friends joined Peggy and me to see The Post. That’s the Steven Spielberg film detailing the story behind The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It stars Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the Post’s chief executive, and Tom Hanks as the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee.
Intentionally or otherwise, The Post ended up revealing a huge reason why readers have increasingly given up on large for-profit news organizations. They turn out to be run by ignorant people, who know far less than those they pretend to inform. The would-be informants are blinded by the profit motive. Moreover, their organizations top-down structures prevent them from even hearing those who work for them. Thankfully, however, The Post unwittingly suggests remedies for the dire situation it depicts – some of which are taking form before our very eyes.
The Post begins with a revealing vignette of the Vietnam War. It shows a world invisible to the newspaper’s sophisticated editors. There, U.S. infantry are seen executing one of their commanders’ signature “Search and Destroy” missions. The maneuver consisted in having poor, terrified disproportionately black and brown twenty-somethings make their way through rainforests they knew nothing about in search of Vietnamese farmers exquisitely familiar with the terrain. The idea was to find the farmers awaiting them in ambush and kill them. According to the strategy, if they did that enough times, the Americans would soon eliminate the peasants and win the war.
In fact, by 1971, when The Post begins, it was clear to nearly everyone outside the Beltway that the whole idea was stupid, crazy, doomed, and immoral. That was especially evident to those at the wrong end of Vietnamese rockets and machine guns, as well as of those with any shred of religious conscience. Buddhist monks called attention to the war’s immorality as they immolated themselves in Saigon as far back as 1963. So did the Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King when in 1967 he “Broke Silence” at New York’s Riverside Church. The Muslim, Malcolm X, knew it, as did the boxer, Mohammed Ali. The Catholic Berrigan Brothers and the Catonsville Nine knew.
Even Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez were in the know. So were the college students demonstrating (with four of them murdered) at Kent State in 1970 – not to mention the throngs of young people brutalized by Mayor Daley’s riot police at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968.
Yet with straight faces, the enlightened and secular mainstream media continued to parrot the lies of the generals and politicians. “Great progress is being made,” the war-makers told the official stenographers. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
All such statements were about Southeast Asia were known to be false by the ones uttering them. They should have been known by Washington Post editors too. An early sequence in the film shows Truman lying about it, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, of course, Richard Nixon.
And why did they lie? Was it for reasons of national security or to prevent countries in the region from falling to communism like so many dominoes? Again, no. According to Robert McNamara in the film, seventy percent of it was to prevent embarrassment on the part of the “leaders” responsible for the enterprise in the first place.
Or as Nixon himself put it when he described the ultimate impact of the Pentagon Papers revelations:
“To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing…. You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the — the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”
So, to prevent such irreparable damage to “national security,” the wholesale killing went on for years – long after those responsible for the disaster had concluded the war was genocidal and completely unwinnable. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and two million Vietnamese were sacrificed to the myth of Presidential Infallibility – to conceal the fact that OUR GOVERNMENT IS RUN ON LIES.
And (other than repeating government falsehoods) what was the press doing while all of this was going on? What were The Washington Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee doing? According to the film, they were hobnobbing with the liars. They were dining with them in expensive DC restaurants, vacationing with them in Hyannis, posing with them for photo-ops, throwing parties for them, guarding their secrets, and attending meetings with Wall Street insiders and white men in dark suits.
Their big news item? Tricia Nixon’s wedding!
But then Daniel Ellsberg risked his life by releasing irrefutable proof of government duplicity. And all the Washington insiders are suddenly shocked and appalled. As if the idea had never previously occurred to them, they realize the people in the streets, the religious prophets, the boxing champion, the rock ‘n roll singers and the student demonstrators and martyrs were all right after all.
The newspaper magnates had to face the facts. Their hand was forced.
But what were their biggest concerns when faced with the prospect of publishing the truth? Was it informing the American people? No. It was:
Selling more papers than their competitor
The impact of publication on the stock market value of their product
Fallout in the form of experiencing the ire of President Nixon
Being excluded from his inner circle as a result
And thus, losing market share.
Several conclusions suggest themselves from all of this – one particular, others more general. In addition, a basic remedy becomes apparent.
The particular conclusion is that the capitalist model of for-profit news publication is deeply flawed. Its power structure is entirely top-down. As depicted in the film, it empowered a tiny group of rich white mostly males to make decisions of extreme national import. Workers at the newspaper were treated with disdain.
That dismissal of underlings is portrayed at the film’s turning point. One of the paper’s staff far down the food chain obtains a copy The Pentagon Papers long sought by the paper’s editors. It had been delivered furtively to him by an even lesser nobody – a young woman in tie-dye obviously out-of-place in the newsroom. Shaking in his boots, the staffer tries to deliver his acquisition to Bradlee. However, he’s rudely waved off by his arrogant boss who initially refuses to even to acknowledge him. Then when he finally does get the editor’s attention, the staffer remains completely ignored as he tries to explain the information’s origin. That’s of no interest to his superior. Evidently for Mr. Bradlee, the idea was inconceivable and irrelevant that young hippies might be credible news sources.
That in itself represents a bleak commentary on capitalist workplace relationships.
Even more damningly however is the movie’s implied criticism of the system’s ownership structures. In fact, they placed the ultimate decision about whether or not to release The Pentagon Papers entirely in the hands of, Katherine Graham, a CEO presented in the film as singularly unprepared for such responsibility. She occupied her position of authority only because she inherited it from her deceased husband. At least within the confines of the film, she knew nothing of world affairs, much less about the Vietnam conflict or the inner workings of government – or those soldiers in the rainforest. True, she socialized with presidents and Wall Street high-rollers. But basically, she was ignorant. All her advisers (those white men in black suits) shared only one concern – the paper’s profitability.
Yet decisions of extreme national concern were entirely up to Ms. Graham. Only because of residual remnants of motherly conscience was she finally able to resist market pressures and do the right thing.
And so here come the general conclusions suggested by The Post:
In terms of informing the public, white male patriarchy is extremely inefficient.
Similarly, capitalist structures of inheritance, ownership, and commodification of information inhibit service of the truth.
The closer you are to power, the less you are likely to know about the concerns of ordinary people.
The richer you are, the less you are likely to know about the way the world really works for people in the street.
The higher up in the military you find yourself, the less you probably know about the disastrous outcomes of your pet theories and tactics.
What to do about it all. . . As I earlier remarked, the solutions are unfolding before our eyes:
Stop trusting the mainstream media as reliable sources of information.
Realize that news sources can be co-operatives where all workers have meaningful input and respect, because they co-own the newspaper and need tremble before none of their peers.
Trust only such non-profit outlets, like Democracy Now and OpEdNews that rely for funding on viewer and reader support. They deserve trust because they depend on street-level sources for all of their information and analysis of official misdeeds and legislation.
In the end, The Post is worth watching. But it’s not for the reasons Hanks, Streep and Spielberg advance in their promotional commentaries. It’s not because Ms. Graham or Mr. Bradlee were heroic and demonstrate that the system somehow works. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The true heroes were far down the food chain. The Post merely unveils the system’s severe dysfunctions. It demonstrates the need to put news gathering and publication under the decentralized aegis of workers and activists who refuse to be governed by the venal corporate interests of the military-industrial complex.
Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3:14-4:2; LK 18: 1-8;
Amy Goodman is in trouble. She’s the television journalist my wife and I had dinner with last summer. She’s the host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” – a daily news hour on the Pacifica Radio and Television network.
In the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues, Ms. Goodman’s program has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” (by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.) In addition to sources such as OpEdNews, Information Clearing House, and Alternet, “Democracy Now” is an invaluable fountain of information about issues that touch all of our lives. Amy’s program is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds.
Anyway, Amy is in trouble. Or should I say that judges in the North Dakota legal system are in trouble. I mean the court’s black robes there are about to tangle with a woman who is stronger and more committed than all of them put together.
The issue at hand is a charge of criminal trespassing against Ms. Goodman. It stems from her coverage of Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline – a nearly 2000 mile, multi-billion dollar construction stretching through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. The pipeline cuts across Sioux Tribe sacred sites and burial grounds at their Standing Rock Reservation. Defense of those holy grounds has brought together thousands of Native Americans from across the country and Latin America, as well as indigenous peoples from around the world.
On Labor Day weekend this year, while Amy was covering that resistance, security forces of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the pipeline’s builders, set dogs on the Standing Rock “Protectors” (they refuse the name ” protestors”). She filmed a dog whose mouth was dripping with Protectors’ blood.
Amy’s honest reporting (protected by our Constitution’s First Amendment) proved offensive to ETP, their security forces, and to the local police. Hence the charges.
Please keep all of that in mind as we attempt to understand today’s liturgy of the word. In the context of an unjust legal system, our readings raise the question of what it means to “pray always.” Jesus says it means persistently demanding justice. Amy embodies that meaning.
Actually, the readings compare what might be termed men’s intermittent way of praying with women’s unrelenting persistence. For instance, in today’s readings, men shockingly pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies.
In contrast, the woman in today’s gospel is in it for the long haul. She indefatigably confronts the power structure of her day as her way of “praying always.” That is, like Amy Goodman, she persistently works to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice. According to Jesus, that’s what prayer means.
Take that first reading from Exodus. . . Did it make you raise your eyebrows? It should have. It’s about God facilitating mass slaughter. It tells the story of Moses praying during a battle against the King of Amalek. It’s a classic etiology evidently meant to explain a chair-like rock formation near a site remembered as an early Hebrew battleground.
“What means this formation?” would have been the question inspiring this explanatory folk tale. “Well,” came the answer, “Long ago when our enemy Amelek attacked our people, Moses told Joshua to raise an elite corps of fighters. During the course of the ensuing battle, Moses watched from this very place where we are standing accompanied by his brother Aaron and another assistant called Hur.
Moses raised his hands in prayer during the day-long battle. And as long as he did so, Joshua’s troops got the better of Amalek’s. But Moses would get tired from time to time; so he’d lower his hands. When he did so, Amalek’s troops got the better of Joshua’s.
“To solve the problem, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down on this stone you see before us. They held up his arms during the entire battle. That strategy saved the day. Joshua won his battle “mowing down Amelek and his people.”
So here we have a God who responds to ad hoc prayers and reverses history so that one group of his children might “mow down” another group of people he supposedly loves. That’s a pretty primitive concept of prayer (and of God), don’t you agree?
In today’s gospel, Jesus has another approach to prayer. For him, prayer is not an ad hoc affair – about changing God’s mind. Rather, “praying always” represents the adoption of an attitude — a way of life — that consistently seeks justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns like those that drive Amy Goodman.
To illustrate that point for his own time, Jesus tells a comic parable about a persistent woman. (Remember, he’s speaking to people who have no power in a legal system, which, like ours favors the wealthy and powerful.)
“Imagine a judge,” Jesus said. “He’s like most of the judges we know. He doesn’t give a damn about the God of the poor, and he doesn’t care what people like us think of him.” (Already Jesus’ audience is smiling seeing a funny story coming.)
“But then along comes this widow-woman. Like all of us, she’s poor, and as usual, the judge pays no attention to her.” (Jesus’ audience recognizes the syndrome; they nod to each other.)
“But this woman’s a nagger,” Jesus says. (Now his audience is snickering and chuckling.)
“She just won’t let go. And she’s strong and aggressive besides. She comes back day after day insisting that she get justice against her adversary. And as the days go by, she gets more and more insistent – and threatening. So much so that the judge starts getting worried about his own safety.
(Laughter from the crowd . . .)
“’While it is true,’ the judge says to himself, ‘that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”
In other words, this macho judge is afraid of this poor widow; he’s afraid she’ll come and beat him up!
Can you imagine Jesus saying that without smiling broadly – and without the crowd roaring in laughter?
Anyway, here’s Jesus point: “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer of the poor like that, how do you suppose the All-Parent will respond when we ask for justice? The All-Parent will respond swiftly, Jesus says, because that’s who God is – the one who (as Martin Luther King put it) has established an arc of history that bends towards justice.
Prayer, then, is about reminding ourselves of that fact, trusting and having faith that in the long run justice and truth will prevail. Taking that position and acting upon it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, takes great faith that’s harder and harder to find.
So Jesus ends his parable with the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?”
What I’m suggesting here is that today we’re more likely to find that kind of faith, that kind of prayer, that kind of persistence in women rather than men. The example of Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” inspires us to renounce ideas of a God who calls us to “mow our enemies down.” It inspires us to view prayer not as a now-and-then petition, but as a lifestyle based on a struggle for justice.
In any case, Amy Goodman seems even more determined than the widow in Jesus’ parable. In prosecuting her, the pro-ETP justice system has bitten off more than it can chew.
Thank God for persistent women! We men have so much to learn from them. A good start towards doing so would be to watch “Democracy Now” every day. It’s on line. Check it out.