In Businessweek late last year, Jason Zinoman noted the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino as Levine. The play, says Zinoman, “speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok.”
But as he also notes,
Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.
As another great work of fiction that likewise doesn’t fit neatly into a simple binary pattern, in between Death of a Salesman (1949) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), I’d like to also highlight a short novel I recently read, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956). Seize the Day follows the travails of hapless Tommy Wilhelm as he tries to scrape out a living in New York, or at least as he tries to appear to try to do so. There’s some serious engagement with the realities of internalized expectations, competition, envy, hucksterism, and the phenomena of commodity speculation. (more…)
Immediately after watching For Greater Glory, I found myself struggling to appreciate the myriad good intentions, talents and the $40 million that went into making it. Unlike the Cristeros who fought against the Mexican government, however, my efforts ultimately were unsuccessful.
The film opened on a relatively limited 757 screens this past weekend, grossing $1.8 million and earning the No. 10 position of all films currently in theatrical release. Additionally, the film reportedly has been doing boffo at the Mexican box office. Clearly, word of mouth and the temperament of the times are driving folks to see a movie wherein good overcomes evil, and, more specifically, militarily enforced secularism is defeated by religiously faithful armed-to-the-teeth underdogs.
It’s not that the subject matter of For Greater Glory isn’t historically accurate and compelling. Nearly 10 years after the Mexican Revolution, President Plutarco Calles decides to enforce the anti-clerical laws written into the 1917 Mexican Constitution. Calles (portrayed blandly if not refreshingly free of Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling by the otherwise fine actor and recording artist Ruben Blades) forced not only the closure of Catholic schools, but also the expulsion of foreign clergy. His oppression hat-trick was completed by the government confiscation of Church property. When the archbishop of Mexico City expressed his concerns, Calles had his agents bomb the archbishop’s home and the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (more…)
Kuyper posits that now, after the fall into sin, “we can arrive at the knowledge of things only by observation and analysis. But that is not how it was in paradise.” Adam, by contrast, “immediately perceived the nature of each animal, and expressed his insight into the animal’s nature by giving it a name corresponding to its nature.”
It struck me that another “common grace” kind of reminder of this primal state appears in the narrative of Doctor Dolittle. Dolittle, of course, gains insight into the life of animals in a way that is not available to most other people. While he doesn’t have the direct intuition of Adam, his ability to communicate with animals gives him a unique perspective: “After a while, with the parrot’s help, the Doctor got to learn the language of the animals so well that he could talk to them himself and understand everything they said.”
Dolittle’s home even evokes our picture of the Garden of Eden:
The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.
He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the gold-fish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse twenty-five years of age and chickens, and pigeons, and two lambs, and many other animals.
Doolittle has a special calling, it seems, and so he gives up being a “people” doctor and embraces his role as an “animal” doctor. In his relationship with animals Doolittle is a figure of Adam in the garden, and in his role of healing and renewal he evokes the second Adam, Christ.
Word spreads of Dolittle’s abilities, of course, “And so, in a few years’ time, every living thing for miles and miles got to know about John Dolittle, M.D. And the birds who flew to other countries in the winter told the animals in foreign lands of the wonderful doctor of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, who could understand their talk and help them in their troubles. In this way he became famous among the animals all over the world better known even than he had been among the folks of the West Country. And he was happy and liked his life very much.”
The film Lt. Dan Band for the Common Good kicks off with the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” The words are appropriate. In 2003, wanting to do even more for America’s service men and women, Gary Sinise formed the Lt. Dan Jam Band. The band name was easily decided because many soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen did not know Sinise by name and just called him “Lt. Dan.” The moniker is based on his well known portrayal of an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in Vietnam in the Hollywood film Forrest Gump.
Sinise likes to joke that expectations are low because the band leader is an actor, but in truth the band is made up of professional musicians. Director Jonathan Flora followed the band all over the world for two years as it performed for America’s military and charitable organizations that support the military.
The filmmakers focused a lot of the attention on all the band members and their commitment to those sacrificing for the nation. One touching scene comes on a bus when somebody off camera mentions that Sinise is a hero to the military and the moment leaves him visibly emotional. The film also includes interviews from Sinise’s wife and children and they share how much they miss having Sinise at home but are fully supportive and proud of his service.
Sinise, who was awarded a Presidential Citizen Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008, said in the film that after he started hearing casualty reports in the War on Terror, now almost ten years old, he had to do something. A 2008 Washington Times piece traces much of Sinise’s work with the military and the love and affection they have for him. Also quoted in the article is Deb Rickert of Operation Support our Troops. Rickert declared of Sinise:
In an age when the public often lavishes epitaphs of greatness on celebrities merely because they are famous, the military community bestows the simple title of friend on Gary Sinise truly because that is what he is to us.
While Sinise and the band members are visibly central in the film, many of the stories, tributes, and attention are reserved for the men and women in uniform and the first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11. Gripping testimonials are woven throughout the documentary, especially from family members of those who are deployed overseas in a war zone. An example of notable figures who offer words during the film include film actor Robert Duvall and American hero Colonel Bud Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Most importantly, Lt. Dan Ban for the Common Good is simply a powerful reminder of what one can do when gifts and talents are put in service of others. Sinise is a natural because his heart and his authenticity shines. The director does a fine job of pointing out what is already widely known among the military and their families, that Sinise is known as somebody who genuinely cares about their service and circumstances and is not hanging around for a photo-op.
St. Ephraem declared, “Blessed is the soul that is adorned with charity.” For those who wear the military uniform Gary Sinise is affectionately known simply as “Lt. Dan.” But many others have rightly noted that he is the Bob Hope of this generation. Hope was the face of USO tours and he entertained service members for half a century. It is a serious comparison and if America’s military has anything to say about it, a deserving one.
The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.
We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.
Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:
One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”
I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.
It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.
A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”
The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.
This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”
The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).
When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”
Grit is not synonymous with hard work. It involves a certain single-mindedness. An ungritty prison inmate will formulate a new plan of escape every month, but a gritty prison inmate will tunnel his way out one spoonful of concrete at a time.
True grit: "You put your butt in the corner, you'd be surprised what you can achieve."
They continue, contending, “Grit is often undervalued in business, because businesspeople like breakthroughs, which are good ideas that you’ll have next week.” But in the case of innovation and entrepreneurship, “grit” is essential, and juxtaposing perseverance with breakthrough is a false dichotomy.
It recalls to my mind the story of Brad Morgan (as documented in The Call of the Entrepreneur). True grit in the face of adversity means not giving up, even when it seems as if there is no way to survive.
As Brad Morgan put it, “Our county extension agent, first year we was in business, he come here and look me right square in the eye and says, ‘You’re broke. Get out.’ I looked right back at him and I says, ‘What have we got to do to get this right?’”
That’s true grit. Or as Morgan also says, “You put your butt in the corner, you’d be surprised what you can achieve.”
Once you go down the road of filing for tax credits or government subsidy in various forms, and you depend on them to get your project made, you open yourself up to a host of regulatory, bureaucratic, and censorship issues. It shouldn’t be a surprise, for instance, that states might only want to reimburse those films that project an image of their state in a complimentary light.
The Michigan film bureaucracy has become infamous, selective, and capricious; you hear stories of corruption, by both government departments and those seeking the credits.
Acton’s The Birth of Freedom comes to six PBS stations this Independence Day weekend, and AEI’s Enterprise blog has a good post about the Christian foundations of American freedom and The Birth of Freedom: “It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in recalling, learning, or helping others to learn about the deep roots of the freedom we celebrate every Fourth of July. Those roots define, in part, what it means to be an American citizen.”
PBS Airings This Weekend Tampa Bay, WEDU–July 4th, 9:00 p.m. Carbondale, Illinois, WSIU/WUSI–July 4th, 1:00 p.m. San Diego, KPBS–July 5th, 12:00 am (also July 7th, 4:00 am and July 11th 3:00 a.m.) Baton Rouge, Louisiana Public Broadcasting–July 4th, 8:00 a.m. on LPB2 Grand Rapids, Michigan, WGVU–July 5th, 12:30 a.m. Syracuse, New York, WCNY–July 4, 3:00 p.m.
Join us on Wednesday, May 19, for the next Acton on Tap and a fascinating discussion about conservatives and the arts. The discussion will be led by David Michael Phelps, a writer, producer and story consultant. The event takes place from 6-8 p.m. at the Derby Station in East Grand Rapids, Mich. (Map it here.) No advance registration is required. The only cost is your food and drink.
Background: Both Story and Syllogism. (Excerpted from “The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story” by David Michael Phelps in the Spring 2007Religion & Liberty.)
If anyone doubts that those who tell the better stories have the upper hand in the arena of ideas, let him consider the recent popularity of the ONE Campaign. Is it a flash of economic enlightenment that drives the masses to Bono like sinners to the Jordan? No. While his economic patron, Jeffrey Sachs, is by no measure a lightweight, Bono owes the success of his appeals to end poverty less to his economics and more to his formidable ability as an artist to highlight the human in humanitarianism, to appeal to the narrative and emotional sensibilities of young people, to take an idea from a scholar’s head to a citizen’s heart.
Imagine, then, if sound economic (or political or social) thinking were wedded not only with the intention to act, but with Beauty, the inspiration to act. This is what the Story artist can do, if he can be given the right ideas and the trust to manifest them in Art, not propaganda. Storytellers and Artists, whether they have right ideas or not, will create. But as Chesterton said, “poetry without philosophy has only inspiration, or, in vulgar language, only wind.” So it is best that the Beauty he creates also contain Truth.
So what must happen is that those with solid ideas, derived from Syllogistic Logic, must not only educate the Artists, but also allow them to translate Syllogisms into Stories, into unified presentations of the Truth in Beauty. It is this that will achieve long lasting change in the hearts of the finicky MTV generation. Unfortunately, this can be frightening for those committed to protect right ideas, because the “coherence of a narrative … has room for freedom and thus for surprise.” Communicating with Story means one has to allow for a dramatic tension, has to allow the audience the possibility of seeing the viability of the other side of the argument. And for some, this is too risky a venture.
But here we reach a very crucial point, the point where we see that handing ideas to the Artist is not the same as handing them to the Propagandist. For the Propagandist, the message is the focus, the party line is towed without falter, and as a result, the Propagandist seldom produces Art of lasting persuasive power. For the Artist, the vehicle of the message – that is, the Art itself – is the focus, and this is precisely why Artists are so much more convincing in their work than Propagandists: Propagandists so concentrate on the water that they attend less to the holes in the bucket.Artists concentrate on making great buckets, often concerning themselves less with the contents.
Likewise, conservatives may be more apt to produce propaganda when they attempt to create Art because their ideas are often more sound than the liberal (in the modern sense) alternative and they have less need for – and therefore less incentive to learn – Story. Liberals can indulge themselves in shoddy Syllogism, because they make up for the lack with good Storytelling. But this doesn’t excuse conservatives from falling off the other side of the horse.
There a popular saying that suggests “If you are a liberal when you are young, you have no heart. If you aren’t a conservative when you are old, you have no head.” But I see no reason why must we lack one to have the other. We should have, and must communicate with, both. We must add Story to our Syllogism, adding emotional punch to our reason. After all, Socrates taught with syllogisms, and Jesus with parables.
About the Lecturer
David Michael Phelps received his master’s degree from Central Michigan University where he studied narratology and wrote his thesis on narrative screenplay adaptation. He taught literature and writing for five years before working as a producer and writer for Acton Media. He then spent two years as the Director of Development for Compass Film Academy where he oversaw an institutional redesign of the school and mentored screenwriting students.
Currently, David works as a writer and producer under the moniker Mendicant Media where he develops and produces vision, feature, and documentary films. He is currently developing a film on the Soviet Gulag with Trikirion Film Collective and consults on screenplays for 10 West Studios.
In his spare time, David is working on a book on the philosophical underpinnings of art and creativity. He is also the author of the blog, The Artistic Vocation.
David lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.
Memo to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore: Free markets didn’t cause the financial crisis. The biggest culprits were government planners meddling with the market. That’s the message of Acton’s newest video short.
So why on earth is Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story, Sicko) so eager to route even more power and money through Washington? Centralized planning is economic poison. Doubling down isn’t the cure.
(Also, Acton’s resource page on the economic crisis is here.)