Thursday, November 29, 2012


I enjoy history and biography, and one of my favorite film genres is the historical docudrama or biopic, especially if the writer and director stay pretty close to the facts. (But, I agree that all history-writing is interpretation; I don’t mind a bit of creative interpretation.) I’m thinking of movies like “Shadowlands,” "The King's Speech," and (a gem you’ve never heard of because it went straight to DVD) “Einstein and Eddington.”

(Okay, I admit that these films would all feel at home on “Masterpiece Theatre,” but, as a forty-year MT aficionado, that recommends them to me all the more.)

Every once in a while an historical account or relationship begins to take shape in my brain as a film. Alas, I’m no screenwriter, but here are three I offer to anyone who is. I would love to see high-quality, (even “small”) films made of the following:

Edward Thomas, left, and Frost
I. The story of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas.  The American Frost and Brit Thomas met in London in 1913, before either of them had become recognized as a poet. They rambled the English countryside together, and their brief friendship was deep and consequential. Thomas, after much agonizing, enlisted in WWI (though he did not have to) and was soon killed in action. A dramatic hook for the screenplay: The poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which was later to become one of Frost’s most famous, was written in response to Thomas’ uncertainty about enlisting, and may have had an influence on his fateful decision.* 

Bishop Henry Whipple
c. 1862
II. The Bishop and the President. Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, befriended the Dakota in the years leading up to the 1862 war known as “The Sioux Uprising.” During the conflict, more than eight hundred (white) members of the bishop's diocese were killed, and Whipple was among those who treated the wounded. Nevertheless, after the war, Whipple personally lobbied President Abraham Lincoln with the result of reducing the number of Native leaders to be executed from three hundred to thirty-eight (still the largest mass execution in US history).

Screenwriting hooks: 1) Whipple was “friend” to both Lincoln and the Dakota chief Taopi. 2) Lincoln examined the trial transcripts of the three hundred sentenced to hang, and wrote out the reduced list of thirty-eight with his own hand. Lincoln's judicious magnanimity was highly unpopular in Minnesota, and nearly cost him the 1864 election in that state. (He said, "I will not buy votes at the cost of a man's life.") Whipple’s advocacy for the Dakota was equally unpopular. In the archives of Whipple's Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, in Faribault, Minnesota, is a photograph of Dakota tipi's pitched closely around the church -- an illustration of the closeness of this relationship.** 

Bonhoeffer in prison, 1945.
III. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Spoke in the Wheel. Outside of the circle of those who are drawn to Bonhoeffer by his work in Christian ethics and moral theology (highlighted by his martyrdom by the Nazis), his story is only dimly known, usually concentrating on his minor role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. (But not minor enough  to prevent his execution.) What is even less well-known is that Dietrich’s brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law were also executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a leader in the "Confessing Church," that branch of Christianity that remained true to it's faith while the majority of German Lutherans signed on to a pledge that essentially said, "One Church, One Fuhrer, and out with the Jews." Bonhoeffer established and bravely led a seminary of the Confessing Church until it was closed down by the Gestapo. Through his brother-in-law's connections he then accepted a position in the Abwher (military intelligence) where he worked behind the scenes on behalf of condemned Jews and to slow down the machinery of destruction. It was in this capacity that he joined his brother-in-law and others, including high-ranking officers, in the plan to assassinate Hitler. He lived what he said: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” He was arrested for resistance activities and executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, just days before the end of the war. He was thirty-nine years old.

Chapters for a screenplay: 1) Bonhoeffer's urbane, secular family – headed by his father, a distinguished professor at the University of Berlin – were surprised and bemused by Dietrich’s decision for a vocation in the church. 2) During an academic year in New York, Bonhoeffer, who had thought that America had “no theology,” met Frank Fisher, a black theologian and fellow student, who became a friend and introduced him to a completely new world: the cultural riches of Harlem and jazz and the vivacity of the black church. Fisher and other American friends tried to encourage Dietrich to sit out the war on this side of the Atlantic, but as the storm clouds gathered, he felt he had no choice but to go back and play his part against the madness.  3) Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, and he considered his part in an assassination plot to be deeply sinful, yet, as he later wrote from prison"Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's question and call."  Bonhoeffer considered that he was "sacrificing his principles" in the struggle against evil.  4) While imprisoned and awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer became “pastor” to an assortment of fellow-prisoners from a variety of countries and backgrounds (including some of the guards). Without taking too much dramatic license, the film could show this motley assembly all gathered around the sacrament of Holy Communion --offered by Pastor Bonhoeffer.***

In the great sweep of history, these are small stories about big people, deserving of a small film by a good screenwriter.

*The Guardian makes a good case for the connection between The Road Less Traveled and Edward Thomas' decision in this fascinating article.

**This recent episode of This American Life is a thorough, provocative, and moving account of the 1862 "Sioux Uprising."

***The New York Review of Books recently featured this article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "The Spoke in the Wheel" is also the title of a biography by Renata Wind.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.    ~David Hume, 1739
"It was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of  their emotional reactions." ~ Jonathan Haidt, observation regarding the subjects of a university research project in moral psychology. 

Andy Borowitz, in his New Yorker blog, wryly reports that in the last campaign the nation “spent $2.5 billion on nothing” – his point being that after the expensive dust had settled, the political scene looked much the same as before.

We keep hearing that both sides use negative and attack ads “because they work.” But we are also hearing, increasingly, that, on the one hand, they don’t really change many minds and, on the other, there are only a handful of actual “independents” out there toward whom the ads are supposedly targeted. So what gives?

Jonathan Haidt’s very persuasive theory in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics” is that we are all guided fundamentally by our intuitions and “feelings,” and that our powers of reason and logic are used primarily to support what we feel. (Run, don’t walk, to order this book. It will change how you view your own strongly-held beliefs as well as those of your political opponent.)

The central metaphor of much of Haidt’s thesis is that
...the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. 
The elephant and the rider.
In this metaphor, the elephant lurches where it will, and the rider follows dutifully along--trying to make the best of it.

This is why--if objective facts contradict my subjective belief--I will maneuver or discount the facts so that I do not have to abandon my feelings.

This is why I give my candidate the benefit of the doubt, but hold the other guy’s feet to the fire. In both cases I use “reason” to be able to do this.

This is why a legislator in our Minnesota House of Representatives can say, “I just don’t feel that global warming can be true.

This is why there are no consistent biblical literalists. All “literalists” accept what they feel is right, and interpret the rest away. (In all of the Bible-based argument against homosexuals, I’ve never heard anyone propose that they should just be killed. That’s in there, too. Leviticus 20:13)  1

You can give yourself a little test to determine the applicability of this theory: 1) From the time you began to care about political matters, did you “think” yourself into your current place on the conservative-liberal spectrum, or did you come to “discover” your social and political persuasion. 2) Regarding the upcoming election, what would it take to change your vote to the other candidate? Did you approach the debates and speeches with an openness to changing your mind if the opponent made a more intelligent, reasonable argument? 3) [This applies only to self-described Christians:] The New Testament clearly states that your wealth is to be surrendered and divided up to benefit the poor. How much does it bother you that you are not doing this? 2

Haidt does not say that reason is never relevant or consequential, it is just that, most often, when we think we are being guided by reason and rationality, it is something deeper and more primal that is actually calling the shots. 3

It would be easy to conclude from this that the billions spent on attack ads are a waste of money, because nobody’s mind is going to be changed. Yet we are told that they are effective. The other recent truism in campaign politics is that it may be more important for a candidate to motivate his or her own supporters to vote than to try to win over the supporters of the opponent. If we combine these two theses, perhaps what is happening is that the negative ads are feeding the primal beast (to slightly adapt Haidt’s elephant metaphor) – throwing red meat to nourish the antipathy we already feel, not to change our minds but to stoke our “feelings.”

But I hope that it could lead to a more civilized conclusion: If we all realize that (with a few exceptions) our minds are made up and are not going to be changed, the whole campaign ad industry could be re-directed to simply and positively encourage us to see the importance of voting as a way of supporting our candidate. It becomes a contest not of who can change the most minds, but who can get out the most voters.

And to Haidt’s psychological research we can add another intriguing subject of recent study: that our political (and religious) tendencies may be genetically influenced. If we put all this together, we could arrive at a conclusion that the most negative thing you can say about your political-opponent neighbor is, “He can’t help it.”


1 Another conclusion of Haidt's study is that our beliefs can be influenced by someone whom we respect and are close to. I think the reason most biblical literalists don't work for a ban on divorce (even though it is roundly condemned in the Bible) is that it's literally too close to home.

2 This little test is my own crude application of Haidt’s thesis. The case made in his book is much more sophisticated.

3 In the New York Times column, “The Stone,” Haidt has an ongoing debate with some philosphers regarding the use of reason. It is interesting (to me) that in the current campaign my gut, or "feelings" lurched me unquestionably into the Democratic camp; but I had to use my reason to ponder between Bernie and Hillary.