Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Meaning of Shutter Island

Okay, so the other night Michele and I watched the movie Shutter Island. Maybe you've seen it. If not, you probably saw the promos. The film was released back in February of this year. It was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who routinely turns in great performances, with no exception here.

Afterwards, I went to see some of the online discussion. What I found was a big disappointment. Not that I went looking for very long, but of the reviews I did come across none of them talked about the political dimension of this film. Why not? (spoiler alert!)

For those who haven't (yet) seen this movie, here's one reviewer's quick take on how it begins: Two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, are summoned to a remote and barren island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island’s fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane.

As the story unfolds, viewers encounter a common narrative device: the difference between perception and reality. Things aren't as they seem, which raises the challenge of distinguishing the two.

But here's what I found really strange about most of the interpretations and reviews that I read about this movie. To a one, they all considered Shutter Island a psychological study of the main character. I saw it much more as a political allegory.

Why? Well, for one thing, at least three characters on Shutter Island make references to things like atomic weapons and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not to mention that at an earlier time in his life, the main character had been one of the American soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. Several other related parts of Shutter Island convinced me that this story isn't so much a "psychological thriller" about Teddy Daniels, the main character. Instead, it's more like a parable about the craze-inducing responsibility of being the United States of America, the world's superpower.

For example, why is it significant that the main character was a U.S. soldier in WWII, one who liberated a death camp no less? Sounds like American guilt to me. . . . Sure we got involved in the War. But that was only after Pearl Harbor dragged us in kicking and screaming. By then it was way too late for millions of European Jews. And it wasn't like we hadn't heard news about their plight. We just didn't want to believe it.

The good news, of course, is that we--the good guys with right on our side--successfully ended the war, . . . by dropping atomic bombs on two cities. But we would make up for any sins of omission or commission, we told ourselves. Or at least we could prevent those sorts of ugly things from happening again. How? By becoming vigilant. So vigilant, in fact, that at one point in the 1950s we were more than ready to see a Communist behind every tree. Of course, almost all of these people protested that they weren't Communists. But what would you expect them to say?

At the end of the film, Teddy Daniels, the DiCaprio character with a history he barely knows, has a question: Which would be worse? To live as a monster, or die as a good man? That's the question that won't leave the U.S. alone. Even when America exercises its power with the best of intentions--and our intentions are never so pure as that--it's not uncommon for many thousands of people inside and outside this country to experience our actions as nothing short of monstrous. The movie insinuates that if your American patriotism reacts with thoughts like: "But what about our commitment to international freedom and liberty?" and "What about all of the good that we do?" then you're Teddy Daniels, the man who knows only one part of his story, only one side of his identity.

But what other alternative is there, except for the monster to cease to exist? The ending of the movie insinuates that that is exactly what will happen in the future. The moral order, the law of sowing and reaping will eventually neutralize the United States.

Did anyone else see the film this way? Or should I be committed to the island?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Been Readin'

Cold War Fever

So maybe you've guessed by now. These days I'm focused on the Cold War; especially that episode called the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred in October 1962. My previous two posts are short reviews of some important sources about the crisis. One, Robert F. Kennedy's Thirteen Days, is an early, first-person report that was polished up and published not long after his assassination in 1968. The second, Sheldon Stern's The Week the World Stood Still, is based on the author's transcripts of the tape recordings of meetings held in the Cabinet Room and in the Oval Office during the crisis. In addition to those two books and a few others I'm currently reading, I've recently come across a few articles you might find interesting. . . .

The Calvinists are Coming!

Something I've noticed about Religion majors at Amarillo College: many of them are Calvinists of sorts. A recent issue of the Economist magazine contains an article about how this phenomenon is impacting the Southern Baptist Convention: Southern Baptists: the new Calvins.

The Sunday-Night Slide

I always enjoy taking a look at Christian Century magazine. For many decades now, it's been the voice of mainline Protestantism in America. It's like the Christianity Today magazine for people who are to the left of evangelicals. Anyway, a recent issue contains an article about something I've mentioned here before: Sunday night services a fading tradition.

A Scholar of the Classics Reads Paul

I can still remember the shock. I had just started reading Philo. He was a Jewish leader who lived in Alexandria, Egypt about the time Christianity first began. My Greek wasn't good enough to read Philo in the original. I had to settle for an English translation. But even then, on nearly every page I came across phrases and expressions that reminded me so much of Paul. It was overwhelming evidence of something I'd never really understood before: Paul's rhetoric was hardly unique. In fact, in many ways it was typical. Wanna see? Check out Philo for yourself. Anyway, more recently, a real scholar of the Classics, Sarah Ruden, has published a book on the Apostle called Paul Among the People. I haven't read the book yet, but enjoyed John Wilson's interview with Sarah Ruden, which showed up in a recent issue of Christianity Today. The article is titled The Apostle of the Golden Age.

So, what are you reading these days? Anything especially good? . . .

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Week the World Stood Still

Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

From 1977 to 1999, Sheldon M. Stern served as Historian of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. In 2003, Stern published Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press). The author describes that book as a “full-length” account based primarily on tape recordings of meetings that were held in the Cabinet Room and Oval Office of the White House during the crisis. Two years later, in 2005, Stern published The Week the World Stood Still, the book under review. In his “Acknowledgments,” he explains that this later work is a “revised and condensed version of Averting ‘The Final Failure’,” designed especially for “students and general readers.”

In Chapter One, “The JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes,” Stern describes both the delight and the frustration of listening to the recordings of the meetings. He relates the tedium of using the tapes, often incomplete and sometimes poor in quality, in order to identify who was speaking and what each person said. He also tells some of the story behind the production of the tapes: of JFK’s request for a recording system in the White House, the system itself and how it worked, etc. Finally, he disputes the notion that because only President Kennedy and his brother Robert knew that they were being recorded, the tapes fail to capture honest dialogue, but instead record the Kennedys posturing for posterity. In defense of his assertion, the author notes that a freewheeling conversation among fifteen bright people would be impossible to manipulate. Besides, like Richard M. Nixon a decade later, President Kennedy never imagined that anyone else would ever have access to his tapes. Above all, Stern reminds the reader that at the time of the crisis, as the meetings were being recorded, no one knew for sure how it would all turn out.

In Chapter Two, “The Making of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” the author sets the stage with a short, well-written, and helpful overview of the historical realities leading up to the crisis. Stern describes the Cold War and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and with Cuba. He also tells us, with remarkable insight, about John F. Kennedy. Stern quotes letters written by JFK when he was a junior naval officer serving in the Pacific during World War II. Here, the reader gets to listen in as the unsuspecting future President candidly talks about the unspeakable ugliness of war and the comic ineptness of at least some military leaders. Stern closes the chapter with something that I found especially helpful: a brief, professional biography of each of the “Key Members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council.”

Chapter Three, “The Secret Meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council,” makes up more than three-quarters of the book. Here Stern recounts the significant events and meetings of each day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, beginning with Tuesday, October 16, 1962, and continuing through Monday, October 29. Throughout, the author weaves together description and direct quotation in order to produce a continuous narrative. Without hearing the tapes themselves, the reader gains a strong sense of how the meetings went, the personalities involved, the attitudes of the participants, who spoke most frequently, and the specific decisions that President Kennedy had to make while under incredible pressure.

Stern’s account provides plenty of high drama. A good example comes from JFK’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday morning, October19. A few days into the crisis by this point, the deliberations of the Executive Committee had convinced the president of the terrible hazards and possibly-tragic consequences of a full-scale attack and invasion of Cuba. Kennedy favored something less drastic, a naval blockade of Cuba. But the JCS stoutly opposed him:

General LeMay, giving no indication that he had understood the dangers raised by the president, turned JFK’s Berlin argument on its head: “I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba they’re gonna knock off Berlin.” The Soviets “are gonna push on Berlin and push real hard” if the U.S. fails to take military action against Cuba, since they would feel “they’ve got us on the run.” Kennedy interrupted to ask about Soviet reprisals after a U.S. attack on Cuba. There would be no reprisals, LeMay asserted confidently, as long as you tell Khrushchev again, “If they make a move [in Berlin], we’re gonna fight.” The self-assured general moved in for the verbal kill: “This blockade and political action I see leading into war. . . . This is almost as bad as the appeasement in Munich. . . . I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention, right now” (pp. 67-68).
Passages like that one typify Stern’s account. From beginning to end, the reader is able to perceive the emotional ebb and flow of the meetings, as well as the political, military, and diplomatic questions that the president had to answer. The chapter ends not long after Nikita Khrushchev made his surprise announcement, on Saturday, October 27, that the Soviets would dismantle and remove their offensive weapons from Cuba.

“Epilogue: The November Post-Crisis” describes the tentative character of the agreement that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. had reached. There were still many loose ends to tie up.

In his “Conclusion,” Stern reflects on the ways in which his experience with the tapes radically changed his perspective on the president and the crisis. Like most everyone else during the late 1960s, Stern says that he took it for granted “that John Kennedy had been a tough and relentless Cold Warrior.” However, in spite of his hard public rhetoric and his desire to see Castro eliminated, during the crisis Kennedy "repeatedly acted to prevent, postpone, or at least question the wisdom of” more than a dozen “potentially provocative measures” (216). In doing so, he “often stood virtually alone against warlike counsel from the ExComm, the JCS, and the leaders of Congress during those historic 13 days” (217). It seems clear that the author continues to esteem John F. Kennedy as a hero. Only now, he has different reasons.