Monday, December 25, 2017

Dreams of Christmas

Dreams of Christmas

Ellen in a recent blog ( likened Christmas to a dream, and I believe that gets at the heart of what Christmas is: a dreamscape.

Christmas, as we know, has long become a domestic holiday. We spend it inside our homes. Whether it has snowed or if our area of the country never sees snow, a hush falls over the world as for one day most businesses close and commerce stills. We have, for a moment, the time to stop, reflect, and dream. 

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard connects the dream to the house:
the house shelters day­ dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

Christmas dreams of a better world, at least in the wisps and fragments of reverie. 

The consumerism at the heart of the modern Christmas is distorted, but it is the distortion of a dream--the dream of what the world could be if people acted with the material generosity to each other all the time.

Christmas may accentuate social isolation and family dysfunction, but central to it is a dream of community and family in shalom order and the home as haven. I did appreciate this Christmas card from friend Sherri Morgan:

Yet Christmas speaks as well to something deeper.

I find myself drawn this year to stories that are not Christmas stories but seem like Christmas stories to me because they touch deeply on the Christmas dream. This year I have been revisiting Peter Pan, a story that opens with domestic whimsy and humor  about the intrusion of the dreams of childhood into the intensely  domestic space of the Edwardian London townhouse. Peter Pan is openly the symbol of  imagination, imagination unfettered by rational adult constraints. This seems at the heart of Christmas.

I reread too part of The Sign of the Twisted Candles, a Nancy Drew mystery, but intensely a domestic drama of  interiors and a dream of righting the wrong in a domestic space that has been invaded by evil. Protecting the innocent and vulnerable, the very elderly and the young, is at the heart of this children's mystery and the Christmas dream.

At Christmas, we decorate the prosaic pine tree. We make the ordinary beautiful.

I came across this in the New York Times, and it has helped guide my days recently and bring a touch of joy centrally to them:

Each morning I write the words “I Will Feel Great About Today If I …” on a notepad. This is NOT a “to do” list. It is purely about creating the “reward” you describe: feeling great.
George Eliot puts this a different way: “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.”

It helps me to think of Christmas as a dream and a choice. The dream imagines a world of peace and goodwill, of gift-giving, community, healing, harmony and generosity. This is both a secular and a Christian dream, the dream of all tears being wiped away. If it is not here, we can start to dream it into being. We also have the political choice: we could, if we wanted, make a better world much more of a reality than it is right now. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

For the first time on the web: Margaret Fell's "A Few Lines concerning Josiah Coale," 1671

Thanks to fine sleuthing by John Jeremiah Edminster, we now have the entire text of Margaret Fell's only known poem to put on line, an elegy on her friend, Josiah Coale (circa 1632-68), who died at around age 36. I had previously found 11 lines of this 44-line poem, but the rest seemed to have disappeared. It deserves to be on the web in its entirety, so I have placed it below.

Coale, like many early Quakers, traveled far and wide to spread the word about Friends, visiting both Holland and the American colonies. He was beaten and jailed by the Dutch and the Puritans. He received a warmer welcome from the Susequehanna Indians, with whom he negotiated a land deal.

Isabel Ross's Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism depicts Fell as appreciating Josiah's vibrant personality and strong faith. Fell was 18 years older than him, and saddened by his death. Though not one to write poetry, perhaps it was Coale's own poem, “A Song of the Judgments and Mercies of the Lord," written  in 1662 that inspired her own verse. According to Quaker Artists's History, a facebook page (
He said his poem was “written at the movings of the spirit of the Lord”. The piece concerned the new revelation brought by Christ as reported by John in the New Testament. An excerpt:
“Until Johns Ministry I came to see, which was the great’st of all,  The Prophets which had gone before: from the great’st unto the small,  For then the way was made so straight, the path was made so plain  That, th’ Coming of Gods Son I saw in his great power to raign;  Whose kingdom now is Come with power, the Lamb is sets on’s throne.”
Like Coale's work, Fell's 1671 poem uses rhyming couplets. The poem, not surprisingly, is 
religious, celebrating Coale's faith, discernment, vigilance, and sufferings as he traveled abroad. Interestingly, a variation of Mary's Magnificat--"My should doth magnify the Lord--" is put into Josiah's mouth as "Let God be magnified, that was his [Josiah's] Song." In the final couplet, Fell, now presumably speaking for herself, again uses the word "magnified" in praise of God, connecting both Josiah and herself to an extremely important female figure. Mary, as Fell argues in Women's Speaking Vindicated, indeed preached in her Magnificat, a beautiful retelling of Hannah's speech about being a humble handmaiden of the Lord. This Lord notably takes cares of the poor and lowly, as Mary celebrates:
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. 

 The final couplet of Fell's poem sounds Shakespearean, but it's unclear how familiar Fell was with Shakespeare. Quakers shunned the theater, and Shakespeare had not yet secured the superstar status he would after 1700. She might, however, have read his sonnets.

I particularly like the intimate, personal nature of the opening stanza: dear Josiah, the repetition of "gone" emphasizing the sense of personal loss, and the gentle, domestic image of Josiah resting on God's bosom.

There's also a poignance in the last verse, as Fell, who would have been 54 at the time, remembers that God, and implicitly Josiah lying in his bosom, "never waxeth old."

A few lines concerning Josiah Coale

Is dear Josiah gone? Yes he is gone;
He’s gone from us, in the Eternal one
Where he from all his labor is at rest.
I’th Bosom of the Father, who is forever Blest.

Ah Valiant Champion for God’s Truth, so pure,
Thy Name’s as precious Ointment, thy memory shall dure
In upright Hearts, from them nothing can hide,
Thy worth, thy faithfulness, all shall abide,

To their refreshment, though thy Body’s laid
I’th bowels of the Earth, yet as thou said,
God’s Majesty was with thee, and the Crown
Of Immortal Life is on thee; and that will renown

Thy Name to Generations, yet unborn,
When they shall hear, Josiah  did adorn
The Gospel of our Lord by Doctrines that was found,
Within his Native Land, yet he was found

In foreign Lands, spreading forth the fame
Of his beloved Lord: and that his Name
Might be Advanced, thought no Travel long
Let God be Magnified, that was his Song:

His Travels they were sore, within, and eke without:
His Recompense was large; yes, there’s no doubt.
Now he shines as a Star, of no small magnitude,
Who, by the Power of God, hath convinced a Multitude.

Many are the Children, he hath gathered
To the Knowledge of the Lord, and Christ their Head.
He rightly did divide the Word of God;
Gave Milk to Babes; but Fools are for the Rod;

He sweetly comforted the Meek:
Ah, he was strength unto the Weak;
But terrible he was to the Stout-hearted,
Who verily was smote before he parted.

The Workers of Iniquity by him
Were trampled under foot; the man of sin
Was sorely wounded by his powerful Hand
The hypocrites before him could not stand;

 But by the Power of God he did them flay:
But now, alas, he’s gone, he’s gone away,
And we who loved him, though our Loss is great;
Yet being fixed in God, we are compleat;

There meet with his Spirit, who gathered is
Into the Mansion of Eternal Bliss.
Praised be God, and Magnified be He
Who never waxeth old, nor chang’d can be.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Quakers and accumulation

In her biography, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism, Isabel Ross traces an 1826 Quaker advice on Keeping Clear Accounts back to the frugality of Fell and her daughters: 

“It is the duty of all to arrange their expenditure with due regard to their income; and clear and correct account-keeping is a means of avoiding reckless expenditure on the one hand or unjustifiable accumulation of wealth on the other.” (my italics)

When I wondered, did we as a larger society in the United States and the West lose sight of the idea that too great an accumulation of wealth is unethical? We certainly know these days that it is a severe problem.

Often the idea that we should limit wealth is ridiculed on the basis of it being impossible to determine where the "line" should be drawn. Do we condemn someone who feels they need three cars instead of two? How do we decide what "unjustifiable accumulation" is? 

These questions, in my experience, are raised to shut down conversation. They are rhetorical: implicitly the only answer is we must not engage in the question because we can't answer it. We have no choice but to leave the decision up to the individual, even if that person shows every sign of an uncontrolled money addiction.

But what if we took the 1826 query, which has its roots in early Quakerism, seriously? What if we tried to decided how much is too much: at least as a guideline? At what point can we no longer justify our accumulation? At what point do we start dispensing our material wealth outward? At what point do we internalize the dispersal of our wealth, so that it would seem as twisted and unnatural to hoard it when others were in need as it would to own a slave or watch someone in an arena torn apart by wild animals? What constitutes reckless expenditure?

These are questions to ponder, not to dismiss. What is a reasonable guideline? When we have our bills under control and a year's income in the bank (or two) do we then give away our excess savings? Are there other guidelines to use? If we have large sums of money do we hold on to the principal but give away the interest income? Clearly these guidelines would be meant to be just that and not clubs with which to beat people who don't adhere entirely to our ideas of reasonable expenditure and savings.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Beyond Good and Evil ... the Quaker way

“ Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.” 
Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers

The quote above seems to capture exactly what Quakers, whether universalist or Christian or of whatever stripe are at core about--or what I dream they are about.

Jesus and George Fox preached in fields (and both would have talked about wrongdoing and rightdoing) but I also imagine in both of them acceptance and love, a genuine listening, an encounter--and isn't forgiveness, reconciliation and love of your enemies on some level about meeting in a field?

The quote moved me because it doesn't say their is no wrong or right doing--it acknowledges we all have our own ideas of what these are--but yet there is a place where we can meet each other deeply.

We don't have to talk about right or wrong. We can just meet.

I thought of Ken and Katharine's question about where love is calling us today. Maybe to a field where we'll meet a stranger.

I saw this on my friend Elaine Pigeon's blog ( and immediately felt an emotional response to it, though I knew nothing of Mbue or Behold the Dreamers. 

A quick tour of Amazon yields the following about Mbue's 2016 novel:

A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award • New York Times Notable Book • Longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award • An ALA Notable Book
 The quote also reminded me of quote, written as grafitti on a wall in Havana: "We believe in dreams." I have long hung onto that--and feel the need more than ever to do so in these times.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Katharine Jacobsen's Memorial: Love and Gratitude

I was very grateful to have had the opportunity of attending the memorial service at Stillwater Meeting House in Barnesville this past Saturday for Katharine Jacobsen, who died in January.

Ken wrote a poem two days before Katharine's death that captures my sense of their loving relationship:

Oh my love, as I sit by you, breathing with you
as your body softly lays itself down like a prayer
I'm feeling our ten thousand days--
the gift of our ten thousand days
of traveling together this blue planet among the stars,
this living school for love called earth,
traveling together to find out what love is about.
I'm feeling our ten thousand days--
ten thousand mornings of prayer time in the quiet,
side by side, wherever we've found ourselves,
like here, like now, drinking in the dawn,
listening again, for what Love would have us do this day.
I'm feeling our ten thousands days--
ten thousand evenings of prayer time in the quiet,
side by side, drinking in the darkness
listening again, for what Love has taught us this day,
as we lay ourselves down to sleep.
Oh my love, I'm feeling in my grief
the joy of our ten thousand days,
how this school of love is just beginning,
our school of love is just beginning,
with you needing to leave your body now
and I given to stay in mine,
and we're just beginning to find out
what Love is all about.
Oh my love, I'm feeling in my grief
the joy of our ten thousand days,
on this sweet planet among stars,
thank you, my love, thank you.

"this living school for love called earth"

This poem moved me in its simplicity and sincerity. Roger and I recently celebrated 30 years or 10,000 days together, and if Ken feels as I do, it has all gone by in an eyeblink, and he feels he could step through a door back into 1986 as if no time has passed.

My main acquaintance with Ken and Katharine has been on a Quaker committee, where instead of seeing me as "difficult," they were able to understand and respond to me as a human being trying to be heard. That was healing for me. The committee members, knowing each other so well, inadvertently and with no malice, had turned into a clique over the years, where despite the Quaker equality testimony, some were more equal than others. I flapped my wings to avoid being overlooked, felt roundly condemned as a troublemaker, was patronized, and felt increasingly both frustrated and determined to speak my truth--for if I couldn't do that, why I was in this spiritual community? There was and is no secular reason for me to be here. Fortunately, Ken and Katharine were able to hear me: I felt I was alive to them as a person, not just as a problem that had to be dealt with. They didn't have to do this, but they did. Naturally, once I was heard and responded to with understanding and respect, everything began to settle down. Naturally, I felt and feel a great outflow of love to both of them: being treated as fully human generates love, and as I felt grateful for their response and the time they took with me, I began to see them in return as more fully fleshed and particularized humans. And such is what I understand the healing power of the Holy Spirt to be, how I believe Jesus interacted with the people who crossed his path, and I know that by following that path we can all see each other in our true humanity--and then love grows.

One other memory stays with me. At a Friends Center event, I was paired with Katharine and she told me about her childhood, when she would sail with her father on the lake at their summer home and how wonderful that was for her. Katharine radiated with joy at that memory, and so what stays with me is a mental image I have created of a teenaged Katharine on a sailboat.

I did not paint this but it corresponds to my imagination.

Further, with the state of public discourse as it, it is deeply solacing to know that there are people like Katharine in the world who are so formed--of such a character--that such words as we sometimes hear would never cross their lips.

Losing a loved one is the most painful experience ever, for no matter how assured we might be we will be reunited with them, our heart longs for them and them alone to be with us now. Ken wrote this poem after Katharine died:

In the end, my love,
in your final days with us,
I found you were made of nothing
but gratitude,
all you could say was
thank you, thank you, thank you.

He also added to the program words from the Rule of St. Benedict:

When we rise from sleep
Let us rise with the joy of the true Work
we will be about this day,
and considerately cheer one another on.
Life will always provide matters for concern
Each day, however, brings with it
reasons for joy.
Every day carries the potential
to bring the experience of heaven;
Have the courage to expect good from it.
Be gentle with this life,
and use the light of life
to live fully in your time.
Those words struck me powerfully.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Towards Peace: Hannah Arendt

Given how violence-saturated our culture continues to be and how wedded we are in the U.S. to thinking violence is the only viable form of power, it's refreshing--and  important-- to read Arendt argue that violence is the antithesis of power. She and Audre Lorde think along similar lines: that power arises through community or the deep relationship building that Lorde called erotics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Kelly also advocated the formation of strong, deep (in their cases, spiritual) community as the key to speaking truth to power. It's also notable that all but Lorde formed their convictions about community in response to the shattering ultra violence and worship of violence that characterized the Nazi regime (and is now characterizing many of those in political power in this country). Needless to say, Jesus also saw the value of deep community building (which he identified with love) as more powerful than violence. 

It's important that we not accept, even if half consciously,  the canard that violence is the only form or the best form of power, despite that message being dunned into our heads over and over through the propaganda machine, including the fictional culture (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Westworld, etc). People keep noting the peaceful nature of the women's marches last Saturday: that's obviously important. Any whiff of violence simply gives the other side the justification to respond with extremes of violence. We also have to keep noting that non-violence can bring significant change, despite the persistence of the belief in the popular culture, reinforced by TV fictions, that it never works and is a sign of weakness and ineffectuality. As with violence, sometimes nonviolence wins and sometimes it loses. The fact that war so often is a dead loss never seems to delegitimize it: we can't let the fact that non-violence sometimes doesn't work blind to us to the many times it does work. Of course, this is preaching to the choir. 

  From the New York Times:

 Arendt draws a sharp distinction between power and violence as well as between liberty and necessity.
What does this mean? In her lexicon, power and violence are antithetical. Initially this seems paradoxical — and it is paradoxical if we think of power in a traditional way where what we mean is who has power over whom or who rules and who are the ruled.
Max Weber defined the state as the rule of men over men based on allegedly legitimate violence. If this is the way in which we think about power, then Arendt says that C. Wright Mills was dead right when he declares, “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.”
Against this deeply entrenched understanding of power, Arendt opposes a concept of power that is closely linked to the way in which we think of empowerment. Power comes into being only if and when human beings join together for the purpose of deliberative action. This kind of power disappears when for whatever reason they abandon one another.
This type of power was exemplified in the early civil rights movement in the United States and it was exemplified in those movements in Eastern Europe that helped bring about the fall of certain Communist regimes without resorting to violence. Violence can always destroy power, but it can never create this type of power.

As Quakers, we have the important task of keeping non-violent protest front and center as shake up and turbulence increasingly characterize the political discourse.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Eye of the Tiger

So much of who we are is revealed in casual ways.

During a vacation, I saw a row of cards on display in a person's home.

Most of them showed pictures of tigers. I took them down and read them. Each one praised a person who had just graduated from college for hard work and dedication. Each one urged this person to be the "eye of the tiger."

What does it mean, I wondered, to be the "eye of the tiger?"

The internet offered some answers. According to the "Gratitude Guy,"* the eye of the tiger is the black spot behind each of a tiger's ears. When a tiger is about to move in for the kill, he flattens his ears forward, exposing these two black spots. These "eye spots" can confuse other animals as the tiger is about to attack.

In popular culture, the term means:
someone who is focused, confident, and has the look of being intense, somewhat cold but very fierce with a never say die attitude. ("Gratitude Guy)
It's also the popular  song associated with Rocky movies. Rocky had to develop the "eye of the tiger," the hunger and motivation to win and become a champion.

So when the parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles urged this college grad to have the "eye of the tiger," they meant to be focused on goals. They also meant being fierce and never giving up ("never say die.")

Because it is associated with a predator, the phrase can't help but suggest "going in for the kill." After all, the second "eyes" don't show until the tiger is ready to attack (kill) its prey.

I wondered what kind of ethic this is to urge in a young person. On the other hand, it seems a very "normal" way to think in American culture. We want to "win."

But are we "tigers," solitary, predatory animals? Social science teaches that humans are, above all, communal creatures. We are built to live in groups, and we function best in groups. We are very alert to social cues and try to be liked by other people. Being alone is one of the biggest predictors of early death. We are not mighty tigers. Instead, we are a species that is weak while all alone. We are built to depend on each other.

I imagine that the relatives of the college graduate meant to encourage being hardworking and striving for success. But it is troubling that the phrase has such a "killer" aspect.

After all, tigers will soon be extinct in natural habitats, surviving only in zoos, where they are dependent on others to protect them.

Maybe being an aggressive predator is not the best path to success.

Maybe "kill or be killed" means you die.

 People will tell me the phrase on the graduation cards is meant only in the most positive, encouraging way. It is meant only to build confidence.

All the same, I can't shake the idea that phrases like "eye of the tiger" promote a self-centered, aggressive attitude that is not realistic or helpful to society or the people in it in the long run. I wonder how much this kind of "off-hand" thinking, or unexamined habit of mind leads, with the even the best of intentions, to the coarsening of society. I don't need to mention that it jars against the Quaker ethics of community and caring.

What do you think? How do we push back?


Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Spoiler blog: feminist and peace series

The Man in the High Castle, based loosely on Phillip K Dick's novel of an alternate history in which the Axis wins World War II and occupies the United States, is extraordinary in look and feel, acting, complexity and theme. The plot can be murky in places, as it is complex--there were moments in the series I had no idea what was going on--and drags in places (this is to say it is an imperfect work of art.) But nonetheless, it is extraordinary and worth watching.

New York in Nazi hands.

I call it feminist because the plot hinges on the actions of a woman, Juliana Crain, who lives as an oppressed American in Japanese-controlled San Francisco. She is not a catalyst for a male hero to act and save the day: it is precisely her own actions and her humanity that are all important. How often do we see that? And while she loves and is loved, that isn't the pivot of her life or the plot. In fact, it is some of the men who are more obsessed with her than she is with them, again, an extraordinary, feminist stance that the series enacts quietly.

Juliana Crane. Her actions derive from her courage and compassion. Her moral center is not evil.

Juliana gets dragged into the action, into history so to speak, when her sister, a member of the anti-Japanese/Nazi resistance, is killed. Juliana decides to deliver a film (in place of her sister) to the neutral zone between the Japanese and Nazi territories. "The man in the high castle," as he is called, has a large cache of films showing an alternative history in which the Allies won the war. The Nazis are after these films--to destroy them.

Juliana is motivated throughout the series not by ideology but by personal relationship and basic human compassion and decency. She has a moral compass rare to see in a TV protagonist these days: she actually cares about other people because she is able to put herself in their shoes and empathize with them: she is not about using others as "tools" for achieving her own  agenda (as is valorized (while disingenuously disavowed) in Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, West World, Game of Thrones, etc.) Thus, from the start, the Man series questions and problematizes blind adherence to ideology or groupthink or self above all else.  The series is centrally not about selfish personal ambition but about the larger good. I can't tell you what a (moral/ethical) relief it was to watch this.

Juliana makes mistakes because this is a series not prone to black and white distinctions. A big error is to trust a young man called Joe Blake who she meets in the neutral zone. He is at heart a decent person and he does genuinely fall in love with her. She feels all this and decides to trust him. What she doesn't know is that he is working undercover for the Nazis to get films for them. Because she trusts him, he gets hold of  an all-important film. But to complicate matters, Joe too has his heart in the right place. He is doing this, if I remember correctly, to get out from under the thumb of a prominent Nazi, John Smith and rebels against turning the film over to his Nazi overload. He, in fact, turns the film over to a group of insurgents, but is himself being played: once the film is on their boat, the Nazis blow it up, killing people. Joe looks like the Nazi traitor he is not: his intention was not to betray the resistance. Juliana also never meant for people to die, but they do.

In any case, Juliana doesn't lose her compassion and humanity: they are core to who she is and core to the survival of the human race in this series. She ends up having to flee and ask for asylum from the Nazis in New York: John Smith, to serve his own agenda, takes her under his wing. She doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but the Resistance insists she infiltrate his home and make friends with his wife and wife's friends (all married to prominent Nazis) or they will kill her for having given the film to Joe.

Thomas, a devoted young Nazi, is condemned to death by Nazi ideology.

She does infiltrate and to make a long story short, learns an important secret about John Smith's family: the son has muscular dystrophy. A doctor has come to euthanize the son, Thomas, because Nazi ideology dictates death to somebody carrying a hereditary illness. However, John loves son and like Juliana, put relationship above ideology: he stabs the doctor who has come to euthanize Thomas with the very needle filled with poison meant to kill Thomas. John is not going to sacrifice his beloved son to an ideology: here we have another complicated character, both a loathsome Nazi who is capable of cold-bloodedly killing enemies but also a loving father and a man who in the end works to prevent World War III at considerable risk to himself. (It's also clear that prior to the Nazi victory John and his wife were good Americans, and later Nazis: this seems a very real depiction of how people react to circumstances, as with the many die-hard Nazis who quickly became communists in East Germany after WWII.)

John Smith, American turned Nazi. He is more evil than good, but complicated, not a stick figure.

So as not to go on endlessly: the Nazis have the atom bomb, which the Japanese do not. When Hitler dies, his Nazi successor decides to immediately launch an all-out nuclear war against Japan, on the theory that this will usher in peace for all times (so absurd the series doesn't even have to comment on that as ridiculous). However, a wise, high-ranking Japanese (I am cutting out his story) delivers a film (actually an alternative history film) that shows the explosion of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini Island, in this world an island utterly in Japanese hands. John Smith is able to deliver this film showing (though falsely) that the Japanese have a superior weapon, causing the Nazis to cancel their nuclear strike. Peace prevails through ingenuity and courageous action rather than violence.

In this ever problematizing series, however, violence does play a role in preserving peace: the course of history does depend on Juliana, as mentioned before. She finds out the Resistance has a film that shows Thomas confiding in her that he has a serious illness. The Resistance plans to give this film to the media, which would ensure that the loathed John Smith would be arrested and executed for protecting his son. Juliana protests this, saying a young teenaged boy (who of course would be euthanized) shouldn't be sacrificed. After she successfully defends herself against the Resistance's coldblooded and pre-planned attempt to kill her now that they don't need her anymore (she's no longer a useful tool), she makes the decision (which she hates) to kill the man who has the tape, and then she destroys the tape to protect Thomas. Unbeknownst to her, this act is what allows John Smith (who otherwise would be in prison) to fly to Berlin with the film of the hydrogen bomb that averts war.

I call this a peace series because instead of valorizing ruthless slaughter of the "enemy" and pursuit of one's own self-aggrandizing agenda, the series valorizes compassionate empathy and caring for other human beings, even if that particular human being is on the "enemy" side. This is what saves the world. I contrast this to, for instance, a scene (largely gratuitous except to communicate a toxic ideological message) in Game of Thrones where a group of peace advocate who refuse to fight are slaughtered: the message is fight or die, kill or be killed, peace is for hopelessly naive pussies. However, getting back to Man, the narrative is problematized: Juliana protects a Nazi teenager who sincerely, if naively, believes wholly in Nazi ideology. Yet this is what makes the series interesting: if Juliana had been a Nazi who protects a Jew, we would not stop and think "What???": we would simply approve. Here, we do have to stop and think and realize that we are just as bloodthirsty and stupid as the Nazis if we kill others simply on the basis of ideology, rather than extending compassion to innocent, if misguided, people.

This is a peace series as well because it shows the ugliness of killing: in another but connected storyline, Frank Frick, a problematic character too, a resistance fighter who is too abrasive, self-absorbed and too willing to sacrifice friends to ideology, becomes the central player in a plot to blow up a Japanese military installation that is developing atomic weapons. The plot succeeds, but the series unflinchingly shows us dead, dismembered, people: it shows us the brutality and ugliness of this action. It isn't just a scene of the enemy factory blowing up in a spectacular but distant and heroic (let's all cheer!) explosion of fire and smoke: it is a scene in which innocent humans getting horribly killed.

It is difficult finding oneself at times sympathizing with Nazis and condemning US resistance fighters, but that is what makes the series extraordinary: it actually evokes thought rather than a black and white narrative in which one unreflectively "cheers" on the "good guys" killing the "bad guys," for here, as in life, everything is more complicated.

The series thus far (there will be a season three) has accomplished the followings:

     A woman's actions and compassion are made central to the plot.

     Women do not simply function as sex objects but have life and being apart from men.

     Compassion, empathy and mercy are not denigrated, sneered at and spat upon as "weakness."

     Compassion, in fact, is more powerful than violence. It is a genuine alternative to violence. It can work. It is not inherently weak.

    Narrative is important: the existence of a counter-narrative in the form of the forbidden films gives people hope and changes the course of history. The Nazis understand the importance of narrative: do we?

    The series drives home the point that what matters is what we do, not what our outer shell says we are as a role. Nazis can behave compassionately and Resistance fighters can behave as ruthless barbarians. If we want to defeat barbarism, we can't become barbarians.

A quick read of some of the response to season two (which admittedly, does have some murky, draggy episodes in the middle) tells me that some people are not "getting" the central message of this series. All the more reason to highlight it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Man in the High Castle: Extraordinary, feminist peace series

I had been despairing about popular media's complicity in the rise of an ultra-violent society now headed by misogynist authoritarian who believes in muscular solutions to most problems, when I saw the extraordinary final episode of the series The Man in the High Castle. I don't want to provide spoilers, as I hope people will watch this program, but I am buoyed with hope. Creating peace narratives has been very much on my mind lately, as that is a necessary precondition to creating the more peaceful society we desperately need: "Without imagination, the people perish." But where, I have wondered, are these narratives?

In Man in the High Castle, the Axis has conquered America.

 The Man in the High Castle, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japanese have won World War II and the United States has been divided between them. The Japanese run the Pacific Coast, the Nazis the eastern seaboard into the midwest, and a no-man's land exists in between. The story, which is complex, follows interactions between Americans who are members of a resistance movement fighting both the Nazi and Japanese occupations and their interactions with high ranking individuals in both regimes.

The action pivots on the decisions of Julianna, a compassionate character who exhibits strength and agency.

Without giving anything away, the series both shows the horrors (rather than the so-called glamor) of violence and refuses to draw sharp demarcations between good guys and bad guys, instead presenting complex characters. It teaches us not to judge by outward appearance, even if that outward appearance includes swastikas, iron crosses or emblems of a repressive Japanese regime: people are what they do, not the uniform they wear. No one--or any one nationality-- is purely good or purely evil--and a woman is the pivot of the action.

John Smith is a high ranking Nazi, but also a complex human being.

After sitting through so many highly popular and in most cases very good (high production values, superb acting, strong scripts) series that are predicated on the story arc of the "man with the biggest weapons willing to behave in the most ruthless way wins," it was a relief to watch an intelligent, well produced series that called into question that narrative, and in fact, portrayed that particular story line as Nazism, problematizing it (as it should be) from the start.

In Man, it is relationship, the humanizing of the Other, that averts lethal catastrophe. It illustrates Audre Lorde's theme in "The Uses of the Erotic" (and also the take-aways of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Kelly after their encounters with Nazi Germany) that political change comes from entering into genuine empathic relationship. Rather than the typical story line that depicts compassion as "weak," empathy in Man ends up to be the greatest strength.

I have to say I was dismayed when in West World, a prime example of a series valorizing "the most violent one wins," Delores, a gentle prairie woman in long dresses, has a pivotal moment in which she says (how cliched can we get?) having donned pants, "I'm not a damsel anymore" before blowing someone away to show her "empowerment." Aren't we tired of that yet? Really? Why do we continue to co-opt women as "tough grrls" into a male narrative of violence that never works, excepts to create ever more violence and dehumanization? It was heartening, almost exhilarating, to see here a story arc based on a different narrative (though with much violence along the way).

Audiences are expected to applaud when West World's Delores embraces violence and murder as if this represents "strength" and an "advance." We really need to progress beyond this kind of thinking. That this is the "masculine" solution is made clear by Delores's adoption of male clothes. 

Because Man in the High Castle has such a complicated story line and is predicated on moral complexity rather than black and white, good and evil characters, I fear that people won't "get" what the series is trying to convey. But hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I am writing this hoping that the series follows the novel, as that would make it a fine novel indeed, at least thematically, but I don't know. I also haven't yet read anything about the series, as I haven't wanted to inadvertently stumble across spoilers. I will try to find out more.