Media

True Believers

Historical reflections on war often lead to the conclusion that the past is prologue, that the same ones are fought again and again, from the Peloponnesus to Afghanistan, from Vietnam to Iraq. Infidel, a historical drama about the Fifth Crusade written by Roger Gregg and produced by the Dublin-based Crazy Dog Audio Theatre, spares us such explicit comparisons, but the play is laced with evocations of Iraq, terrorism, and militarism in general. The result is a clear statement about the enduring, self-perpetuating logic of violence in the name of God, which unites enemies over the course of centuries. But Infidel also shows the timelessness of Christian opposition to war through the internal struggles of its main characters and the shadowy—and historically accurate—presence of St. Francis of Assisi.

But Infidel is first a compelling work that makes skillful use of the audio medium, combining cinema's evocative power with the narrative devices and imaginative demands of a novel. The listener can hear the clashing of swords, but also the thoughts of the protagonist. The chase of a petty thief is audible and clear, but the look of the marketplace he runs through is left to the imagination. Recorded in medieval village surroundings in Ireland as well as in a studio, the sound is realistic and detailed. However, the extensive flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout the play can be confusing, especially in the first act, when the listener has little context in which to place them and is not familiar with all of the relevant characters.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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News Bites

  • Legal Aid. Dionisio Díaz García, a Christian labor lawyer for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, was assassinated in December on his way to court. He was providing legal defense for the labor rights of hundreds of security guards employed by mostly unregulated private security companies.

  • Good News. Provoke Radio, the Baltimore-based Catholic social justice radio talk show hosted by Jesuit priest Stephen Spahn, has been picked up by SIRIUS Satellite Radio's Catholic Channel. It will air twice weekly on Channel 159.

  • Nuclear Sin. One year ago, Scotland's eight Catholic bishops responded to the government's renewing of the Trident nuclear missile system, saying, "The use of weapons of mass destruction would be a crime against God and against humanity." Last November, Catholic bishops from England and Wales joined them, calling on the government to decommission all nuclear weapons.

  • Food, Not Bombs. Catholic Dominican Sisters Carol Gilbert, 59, Jackie Hudson, 72, and Ardeth Platte, 70—who were jailed for their 2002 protest at a nuclear missile silo—paid their $3,082 restitution to the U.S. Air Force in canned goods to support military families on public assistance. The Air Force refused the food.

  • Air Kiss. The Global Good Neighbor Initiative launched five radio public service announcements across the country in November promoting the "golden rule" in U.S. foreign policy. In a recent poll, 79 percent of Americans said that "the U.S. should think in terms of being a good neighbor with other countries because cooperative relationships are ultimately in the best interests of the United States."

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    Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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    He's Back!

    In the past year, while you were avoiding public service by selfishly living from paycheck to paycheck, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has repeatedly appeared on major news shows pledging to move our nation forward with brand new ideas, such as electing him president, though he strongly denies he's running. (Coincidentally, neither am I, since I'm spending my time living paycheck to paycheck.) This is the same guy who, because of numerous ethics violations while in office, used to be called the disgraced former speaker. Apparently, he's been waiting for the right political moment, quietly biding his time, like one of those crocodiles whose alert eyes are visible above murky waters, while the rest of his large reptilian body lies just beneath the surface. I'm not saying he personally has a large reptilian body, at least not like, depending on your angle of view, Dennis Hastert. But I would not rule out the possibility that Gingrich could leap out of a pond and grab you by the leg. He's just so enthusiastic about his new ideas.

    For one, Gingrich feels strongly that the U.S. is no longer a world leader because we've lost our global competitive edge. But then, he's probably never checked out youtube.com, the greatest example of productivity in American history. I'd like to see the Chinese come up with "Cute Puppy Falling Asleep," a video that I have personally watched more than a dozen times, never failing to get a lump in my throat for living in a country where a man can take a short six-hour break in the middle of the work day and watch "Hands Farting the Star Spangled Banner" or "Squirrel Playing Guitar." Clearly, these are labors of love from Americans who know a thing or two about creativity, especially the kind that's always grainy and poorly lit.

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    Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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    New and Noteworthy

    Spiritual Witnesses
    Women Saints: 365 Daily Readings, by Madonna Sophia Compton, with Maria Compton Hernandez and Patricia Campbell, provides reflections on holy women from the Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, and Catholic traditions. Some of the women are familiar—Sarah and Hagar, Dorothy Day, Harriet Tubman—while others you’ll enjoy learning more about. Each day includes a brief description of the saint’s life, a prayer, and excerpts from scripture. Crossroad

    Bush Brouhaha
    Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s Shut Up & Sing tracks the uproar that ensued after Natalie Maines, lead singer of the country music group Dixie Chicks, made an anti-Bush comment during a 2003 concert. Not only did the group’s sales plummet, their CDs were burned and they received death threats. The feature-length documentary combines interviews, concert footage, and tons of great music to pose the question: How free is our free speech? Cabin Creek Films

    American Nightmare
    Lives for Sale, produced by Maryknoll Productions and Lightfoot Films, documents the horrific, and lucrative, business of human trafficking. Thousands of women and girls cross the U.S.-Mexico border into the United States, or pay coyotes to take them, only to end up as sexual and/or domestic slaves. The hour-long film also highlights churches and programs that are helping some of the 20,000 people trafficked to the U.S. each year. Ideal for church and Bible study groups. www.livesforsale.com

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    Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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    News Bites

    -Holy Water. Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Canada, is taking action against water privatization by encouraging members to refuse bottled water, drink from the tap, and urge the Canadian government to resist national and international water privatization efforts.

    -Scary Movie V. Twentieth Century Fox (owned by News Corporation) launched a new division in September to market “faith-based” films. “To be part of FoxFaith,” notes the company’s Web site, “a movie has to have overt Christian content or be derived from the work of a Christian author.”

    -Global Law. Churches around the world applauded the adoption of two new treaties at the inaugural meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council last June. The first “affirms the right of any victim to know the truth about … an enforced disappearance,” and the second advances the rights of indigenous peoples.

    -U.S.-Iran. Christian and Muslim religious leaders from the United States met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September to discuss how religious communities can help build a just and peaceful relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Ahmadinejad said he welcomed the group’s prayers for himself and President Bush.

    -Friendly Skies? British billionaire Richard Branson promised to invest all profit from his Virgin Group airlines and trains over the next 10 years—estimated at $3 billion—to fight global warming and promote alternative energy. “With extreme wealth comes extreme responsibility,” Branson told the BBC in an earlier discussion on philanthropy.

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    Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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    Happy Holidays!

    As this column is written, the seasonal aisle at Kmart has Halloween merchandise, but Christmas promotions are starting to turn up in the mail. And if Christmastime is coming, then the war on the war on Christmas can’t be far behind. In fact, it will be raging by the time you read this.

    It all started last year with the publication of a book (The War on Christmas, by Fox News anchor John Gibson) that was endlessly hyped and cross-promoted by right-wing talk-show hosts and Christian Right fundraisers. From a few examples of nativity scenes pulled from schools and the spread of the omnipresent and offensively bland greeting “Happy Holidays,” conservative culture warriors conjured the specter of a conspiracy to cancel Christmas in favor of a secular, generic “winter holiday.”

    The 24-7 media hammer banged “the war on Christmas” into the mid-American brain. By mid-December it had achieved the status of an urban legend. I heard it several times, from ordinary people, in several different contexts. “You know, you’re not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore. It’s not politically correct. You could be sued.” I confess to having made myself obnoxious last year by insisting, with prosecutorial fervor, that near-strangers identify to me the times they personally had been denied the right to say “Merry Christmas.” Of course, they hadn’t. But the facts don’t matter when this sort of juggernaut gets rolling. The point of such myth-making is to create imaginary facts that are just as useful as real ones. And the “war on Christmas” is now one of them.

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    Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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    Losing the News

    Newspapers are a dying industry. The big boys on Wall Street have already decided it. Newspaper ad revenues have stopped growing. The subscriber base, for most papers, is declining, and, what’s worse, it is aging. Most young people don’t read newspapers, and they never will.

    It’s just a matter of time until we have to find something else to spread on the floor when we’re touching up a paint job. And who cares anyway? We live in a media universe with three 24-hour cable news channels, infinite talk radio, and a bazillion blogs. To many people, the idea of actually reading the work of a trained professional is quaint, boring, and vaguely insulting.

    That’s the conventional wisdom. And it’s all true, except for the part about the “new media” environment offering adequate newspaper equivalents. No one would deny that newspapers are entering the final chapter of their history. The disagreement is about how long that chapter will be, and what comes next.

    Newspaper readership has stopped growing, but newspapers are still very profitable businesses. In March, the Knight Ridder chain of 32 newspapers was sold by its parent company because it wasn’t making enough money. But the chain, which includes The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, The Miami Herald, and the Akron Beacon Journal, is still returning an annual profit of 19 to 20 percent.

    Investors motivated solely by the bottom line want to dump newspapers while they still hold some resale value. Under these circumstances, the new owners will continue the process of retaining the papers’ profitable elements (consumer services and suburban spin-offs, for instance) while stripping those more costly ones that don’t pay a return—such as salaries for professional reporters and expenses for controversial investigative projects.

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    Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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    Public Radio's New Jeans

    All radio—like all politics—is local. At least it is for we who still subsist without Sirius. So when I moved from north Mississippi to north-central Kentucky last fall, I was surprised to encounter National Public Radio stations that play contemporary semi-popular music. My antenna is now usually located somewhere between Louisville and Lexington, and I get a steady stream of Dar Williams and Death Cab for Cutie from both ends of that corridor. I’ve since learned that this sophisticated, folky-rocky music format called Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) is the next big thing for public radio. If it’s not on the air in your area yet, you can glimpse the future on npr.org at the pages for “All Songs Considered” and “World Cafe.”

    Of course, I’ve looked to the left of the dial for most of my music for a couple of decades now. But in the places I’ve lived, that’s usually meant volunteer-run community radio stations such as WWOZ in New Orleans and Memphis’ WEVL. Those cities are the Rome and Constantinople of America’s musical church. So it’s no surprise that they nurture community-based roots-music stations leaning, respectively, toward rhythm and blues and rockabilly. But when I’ve strayed from those holy lands, I’ve always found public radio to be about news and classical music, and maybe some jazz at night.

    Now we have public radio that plays Wilco, Kathleen Edwards, and the new stuff from Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Sure, there’s more sensitive, introspective singer-songwriter material than I can stomach. But I also got to catch up on James McMurtry and hear his seven-minute anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-Wal-Mart anthem, “We Can’t Make It Here,” in heavy rotation. On the whole, an old rockabilly should be happy for once. And I was, at first, and I still am, a little. But I’m also growing vaguely uncomfortable with this new musical regime.

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    Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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    On-Screen Blind Spots

    In less than five years—the time it took to produce a movie on Sept. 11—Hollywood will unveil a major motion picture on Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans. One can already imagine some of the movie’s big sequences: the hero clawing through his attic ceiling to escape the floodwaters, a rape in the bowels of the Superdome, a crowd of (mostly black) gunmen firing at the police from a partially submerged overpass. (The latter two, of course, never happened.)

    But it’s a safe bet you won’t find many scenes that humanize the poor and working people most devastated by the storm and its aftermath. And it’s even more unlikely that the movie will explore the day-to-day social conditions of the disaster’s impoverished victims. Most films and television programs run counter to gospel values in an important regard: their dismissive, scornful treatment of the poor that Jesus repeatedly urged us to reach out to and find worth in.

    Hollywood’s history has included brief periods in which significant numbers of sympathetic poor and working-class portrayals have appeared. The end of the Great Depression saw the film classics The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley; even the pre-twister portion of The Wizard of Oz spotlights the humble Kansas farm of Dorothy’s aunt and uncle. In the early 1970s, several hit TV series focused on characters under or just above the poverty line, notably The Waltons and Norman Lear’s sitcoms All in the Family, Good Times, and Sanford and Son. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that two of these series were based on British shows.)

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    Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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    Agents of Power

    Agents of Power

    As this is written, New York Times reporter Judith Miller is back on the street after doing 85 days of moderately hard time for refusing to testify to the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to columnist Robert Novak. The source Miller was protecting turned out to be Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby. Libby handed the reporter her “get out of jail” card when he personally released her from the pledge of anonymity.

    In recent months, media heavyweights and civil libertarians have flocked to Miller’s defense. Bob Woodward, the Washington Post pioneer of the secret source, publicly offered to do Miller’s time for her. Miller’s attorney, Floyd Abrams—who, back in the day, represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case—sought to portray Miller’s case as a heroic battle for freedom of the press. In this version of events, Miller stands for an independent news media, which, of course, is our last line of defense against governmental abuse of power. Abrams argued that forcing Miller to divulge her sources would cripple the functioning of a free press and thus thwart the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

    There’s a saying among lawyers. “When the law is against you, argue the facts, and when the facts are against you, argue the law.” The facts in the Miller case are these: Miller was not protecting a whistleblower trying to stop an abuse of power. She was protecting someone in the government who abused his power (i.e. access to classified information) to punish the real whistleblower—Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, who’d exposed Bush’s lies about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

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    Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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