Selma and Sacrifice: Dignity and Vigilance

Watching Selma is a visceral emotional experience. True to life, it didn’t need to resort to the hyperbolic or maudlin, the sentimental or heavy handed—which makes it, to my thinking, considerably more profound and authentic than the self-important trainwreck God’s Not Dead. The story of Selma is itself compelling enough, a drama about issues like equality, dignity, respect, humanity, inhumanity. It requires no extra props, no tortured plot, no artificial melodrama, nor fictional caricatures to promote an agenda. It need not feign meanness or superficiality; history here is sadly replete with actual instances of such real people who, unwittingly, played their inverted roles to help justice prevail.

The movie chronicles the story of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) going to Selma, Alabama to protest the de facto lack of voting rights among the black citizens there. They had the legal right to vote by this time, but in practice they were denied it by the enforcement of all sorts of arbitrary and prohibitive local requirements—like the need to quote the Preamble of the Constitution by heart or answer a series of highly specific legal or political questions at which most contestants on Jeopardy would stumble.

Spearheaded by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who once said that anyone who doesn’t understand the religious underpinnings of the movement doesn’t understand the movement—this arm of the civil rights front was, unlike those in the tradition of Malcolm X, committed to nonviolence. The restraint, wisdom, and courage of this approach is on full display in this remarkable film, which by turns stirs both shameful despair and soaring hope. We can read about such events and be deeply moved, but seeing various facets of the tale graphically depicted on the big screen—a church with four innocent girls blown to pieces, a young man shot defending his elderly grandfather against police brutality, women punched and kicked and beaten, men bludgeoned with a hideous array of blunt objects—carries with it an undeniable new level of poignancy.

The success of the movement would arise from the crucible of anguish and pain and sacrifice—as images of gross injustice, wicked violence against innocents, and beautiful and inspiring courage gradually did their work to capture moral imagination and change and turn the heart of a nation whose conscience had been seared and for which accommodation to evil had become normative—too often draped with the imprimatur of sanctimony. It is remarkably moving to see the tenacity displayed, the hope that survived such adversity, the faith manifested in the darkest of hours and in the face of such systemic and unspeakable violence, only bolstered by a silent White House—or worse, an administration that, to knock the movement from the radar and render silent its most prophetic and erudite voice, used tactics of intimidation, fear-mongering, and character assassination to undermine King’s credibility and resolve.

By certain recurring foibles, King was in fact susceptible to moral criticisms, and the movie doesn’t shy away from this uncomfortable fact; this unflinching honesty is one of the film’s many virtues. As is known, King had several adulterous affairs with other women, and the movie includes this regrettable feature of this great man with feet of clay. David Horner discusses this aspect of King, using “GMT” for “Great Moral Teacher,” writing that

Dr. Martin Luther King is almost universally considered a GMT, despite evidence of his sexual infidelities. … Why is it that we consider Dr. King a moral authority, despite his moral imperfections? Part of the answer, surely, has to do with the importance of what he said. The truths he expressed concerning human dignity were much “bigger” than he was, so to speak, and his infidelities do not cast doubt upon them. … But, of course, anyone—including Adolph Hitler—could have said those things, could have articulated those same propositions. What is it that made Dr. King a GMT, and not merely a conduit or reporter of significant moral truths? A necessary, core condition, I submit, is a special case of what I am defending here, and that is integrity, which expresses the coherence or intrinsic relation between content and character. We consider Dr. King a GMT, despite his lack of complete moral integrity, partly because he never claimed to possess the latter, and partly because there was coherence between what he did claim and how he lived. He uttered profound truths about liberty and racial equality, and he lived consistently and with integrity with respect to them, to the point of being jailed, beaten, and ultimately killed. I dare say, however, that had his central message been the importance of sexual fidelity (or had it turned out that he was actually a secret informer for the Ku Klux Klan), he would not in fact today be considered a GMT—no matter how exalted had been his teaching in other respects.

I remember a civil rights course in college as one of the best classes I ever took. In that class we read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” After watching Selma, I reread the letter, and I would encourage you to do the same if you can find the time. It’s really quite remarkable. So many lines stand out from this letter to ministers who were lamenting the involvement of the SCLC in Birmingham, but I’ll share just a few:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

In that letter King outlined a few of the reasons nonviolence was his favored approach, the sort of nonviolence we see in Selma. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Explaining that justice too long delayed is justice denied, King goes on to make clear that the time for action had arrived:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. … Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Much could be discussed from Selma. This is nothing like a thorough review of this terrific film which offers a painful snapshot of actual history about brave men and women putting their lives, reputations, and bodies at risk to battle grave injustice and be given a voice. The film features people animated by and collectively embodying a rejection of Bentham’s perverse notion of human rights as nonsense on stilts. Their example was a living, breathing refutation of the idea that our only rights are those that government deigns to confer.

More primordial underlying moral truths are the real bedrock on which our legal and political rights reside, and it’s those unchanging moral verities alone that can ensure a trajectory of justice, however incremental and protracted, labyrinthine and excruciating, the political process required may prove. Under totalitarian rule that categorically denies God-given and intrinsic human rights and equality and dignity, callous to claims of justice, victory in this world is by no means an ineluctable, inevitable historical contingency, which reminds us all the more that a sanguine dismissal of the ultimate foundations of morality is a foolhardy, historically myopic, and objectionably short-sighted pitfall we need assiduously to avoid.

Jean Bethke-Elshtain once wrote, “It is interesting—and troubling—that we are in an age of human rights par excellence, and yet there are forces at work in our world that undermine the ontological claims of human dignity that must ground a robust regime of human rights.” So the one take-home I want to emphasize is that the battle to accord human dignity and value, worth and equality, their proper pride of place is one bathed in blood and sacrifice, and that vigilance is necessary to ensure that this labor was not in vain.

As Selma shows.


Photo: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

Interstellar and Partiality

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar tells a sweeping story, speculating on potential widespread destruction and human potential in the face of such prospects. Despite its scope, it also zeroes in on individual concerns, using the protagonist and his family as the vehicle for considering important ethical questions. One such question centers on the tension between particular and more general moral judgments.

In an early critical scene, Cooper, the main character played by Matthew McConaughey, must decide whether or not to embark on an incredibly ambitious space mission. This mission requires leaving his children behind and risking never seeing them again. But his success in this endeavor could allow for survival of the entire human race, which has few options. A scientist involved in the mission encourages his participation, appealing to Cooper’s obligations to mankind: “You can't just think about your family,” Doyle says. “You have to think bigger than that.” Cooper’s response suggests that he recognizes his responsibility involves both the particular and the universal simultaneously: “I'm thinking about my family and millions of other families.”

One could not blame Cooper had he participated in the mission solely out of a desire to ensure his own family’s survival. But as the above quote suggests, he is also motivated by broader concerns. It seems rather unlikely, in light of Cooper’s character, that he would have refrained from the world-saving mission if he did not have his own family to save. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is something unmistakably particular and concrete about his driving motivation.

And this particularity is emphasized through the touchingly depicted relationship Cooper has with his daughter Murphy. Despite his visceral aversion to leaving her behind, and his arduous effort to part on good terms, he feels compelled and likely obligated to leave. This tension—between duties to his daughter and his duties to the rest of humanity—raises an interesting question: is Cooper morally obligated to complete this mission, a mission for which he is the best qualified? Even if the mission is a success and he returns, it’s likely that his children will be considerably older. Does he have a duty to leave them behind? In light of all that’s at stake, perhaps he does, but if this is so, it shows something interesting. Parental obligations have their limits. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct.

In the ethics of Immanuel Kant, a person is to follow the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on those principle we can will to become universal laws. And the principles, or maxims, on which we are to act are to be expressible in universal terms, singular references (like to family) having been expunged. Kant, however, departed on this score from a number of other important ethical thinkers, like Aristotle, who thought that moral judgments are always made in the context of family or polis. Kant’s insistence that such particular terms be replaced with universal ones is an interesting claim, but one that leaves many dubious.

Various feminist thinkers, for example, have emphasized that morality is to be understood in more particular terms than Kant would allow. On their view, moral determinations are to be made in the arena of our relationships, as we take into account all the various concrete details and particular specifics of the richly contextualized circumstances in which we find ourselves. We shouldn’t be guided by universal and abstract moral principles bereft of reference to those we know, those with whom we have cultivated lasting relationships.

They have a point, of course, which makes understandable the protagonist in Interstellar being motivated most of all by a desire to save his own family. But he’s also confronted with a truly universal challenge: the planet is slowly dying, and time for rescue is short. The survival of humanity depends on a successful mission. And this crisis, it seems to us, renders unworkable a desire to care only about his own family. Although most of us won’t find ourselves in so dire a situation, we live in a much smaller world than we used to. We’re aware of human needs that go beyond those of our immediate family, close friends, and nearby neighbors. Because of technological advances, we know about innumerable global needs. If there’s a tsunami in Japan, we can watch it in real time. If there are refugees in the Middle East, we can read tweets about them instantaneously. This makes it less permissible to be indifferent to the needs of strangers. Of course, we care most about our close family members and friends, but this doesn’t license indifference to others beyond those confines. In fact, we can become so fixated on privileging and prioritizing our loved ones that that very partiality can become perverse.

Recently, we read an article about how so many college-aged kids of today’s generation are experiencing a hard time growing up and assuming responsibility. One of the reasons for the phenomenon, it was suggested, is overly protective parenting. Parents are supposed to make their children feel loved and special, no doubt, but parents also have to teach their children that disappointments are inevitable; that, though undeniably valuable, they are not more objectively valuable than others; that achievement requires work; and that failure requires ownership of responsibility. In his examination of Kantian ethics, The Moral Gap, John Hare explains the psychological challenges children face upon realizing they are not the guide of their parents’ moral compass: “It can be a startling lesson for a child who has been the apple of his mother’s eye to discover that his mother is not willing to put pressure on his teacher to get him into a tem, or even to make a scene in the shop to get him the last remaining construction set of the kind he wants for Christmas.” Yet as most parents know, protecting fragile psyches from such hard truths to avoid their kids from experiencing pain is to confer them permission to remain children, if not infantile.

Neglecting the responsibility to impart these truths, however sober, to their children is a recipe for disaster and perpetual adolescence. Rather than an expression of love, it’s to privilege the particular to the neglect of broader truths applicable to everyone. One is implicated in an objectionable form of extreme partiality when her judgments fail to be qualified and regulated by universal truths. C. S. Lewis depicts this insight in a brilliant scene from The Great Divorce, where a mother has so fixated on her son that her “love” becomes idolatrous, blinding her to the fullness of reality in which he exists. Sadly, her extreme particularism costs her paradise and is tantamount to choosing darkness over light.

So the feminists have their points to make, but it’s a mistake to swing the pendulum toward partiality to the exclusion of what remains true for the whole of humankind. Close personal relationships are particularly vulnerable to corruption, or even abuse, when they’re not guided by sound moral principles that apply universally. Every evil in this world is the distortion of something primordially good—wives whose selfless service gets cruelly taken for granted, a healthy sense of self that transforms into pride. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct. Particular obligations obtain, but don’t vitiate more general ones.


Photo: "Hubble Helps Find Smallest Known Galaxy Containing a Supermassive Black Hole" by NASA Goodard Space Flight Center. CC License. 

Review of A Beautiful Mind

Marybeth and I sat down last night after visiting with my mom in rehab and watched A Beautiful Mind again. I’d seen it once before, having read the book on which the movie was based by Sylvia Nasar, a challenging but rewarding read. Marybeth had seen the movie three times already. We both wanted to watch it again, and we were glad we did. What a truly remarkable movie. We knew it was, but MB and I were both struck anew by just how remarkable it was this time around. Not only the acting—Jennifer Connelly is great and Russell Crowe simply outstanding—but the direction, the music, the choreography, the writing; every part of the movie is top notch. Definitely worth watching more than once.

I won’t get into it much here, but the movie provides ample fodder for a range of fascinating and fundamental philosophical questions: What is real? What is knowledge? But my thoughts here will dwell less on philosophy than the humanness of the film. The Nash character—a real-life mathematician who suffered from severe mental illness yet who still managed ground-breaking achievements in game theory and differential geometry, enough to earn a Nobel Prize—begins as a socially awkward misanthrope. His brusqueness and bluntness tend to be off-putting to those around him, who he acknowledges don’t care for him much. As his mental illness grows, he retreats increasingly into his own delusional world, interacting with a range of characters we eventually discover only he can see. His breakdown brings to a halt his work and puts a horrible strain on his marriage.

Deliverance comes not by getting healed of the disease but by a prodigious effort of cognitive discipline, a “diet of the mind” that refrains from indulging certain appetites. It’s a long road back, with plenty of bumps to overcome, humiliations to endure, indignities to suffer, and a particularly intractable thorn in his flesh all the while. Helping sustain his resolve is the unconditional commitment and love of his wife, whose suffering may have been nearly as intense as his; but her faithfulness and fidelity provide a model of what a marital commitment through the worst of times might look like. The Connelly-played wife admits at one point to a friend her frustration, her guilt at considering leaving, her rage at John and even God; but despite it all, she sticks with him and sees him through, even at the risk of her own safety.

The abstruse and analytic Nash’s proposal to her, before his schizophrenia had become obvious, is couched in the most dispassionate and empirical of terms—a request for measurable confirmation of her long-term commitment and the like. She jokingly responds about her need to recalibrate her girlish, romantic expectations, but accepts his proposal and loves him despite what were already his obvious idiosyncrasies and lack of social graces. It is this image of the man she married, warts and all, that sustains her commitment when his condition changes into something barely recognizable, a vision she said that transformed both him and her. That particular speech is just one of a plethora of powerful moments in the film featuring writing that is, well, beautiful.

Early on, too, Nash thinks of relationships with those of the opposite sex mainly in terms of an exchange of bodily fluids. All the Platonic pleasantries and niceties are but a necessary prerequisite to the real thing. Usually his forthrightness on this score is effective at eliciting smacks from women, but in the case of the woman who married him, she could see something else about him; and her love for him is as authentic as it proves transformative.

As a young man Nash is competitive, with a desire to stand out, be remembered, and make a difference. His attitude toward women is impersonal and dehumanizing; his mentality about teaching is that it is nothing but a waste of his time. People are distractions or means to ends or competitors to overcome. Despite his prodigious mathematical abilities, clearly his humanity needs tweaking, and Ron Howard’s direction and the powerful screenplay succeed in showing how the tragedies and pain to ensue, more than can hardly be imagined, ultimately prove effectual in making the great mathematician into a great person.

After battling his demons and disciplining his mind, Nash not only learns to cope. He begins to teach again, this time with a genuine affection for his students and a newfound sense of the importance of the vocation. (As a student he hadn’t even attended classes himself, a sign among other things of his insularity and isolation.) After earning the accolades he’d always yearned for by being granted the Nobel Prize for his work on equilibrium (not what most mathematicians insist was his considerably more impressive work on manifolds), he has stopped thinking in terms of one-upmanship or winning. He is moved to appreciate unexpected honors rather than demanding them as what he deserves. He grows to appreciate his colleagues as friends and collaborators rather than competitors. Rather than viewing women merely as sexual objects, he acquires a much deeper and more authentic understanding of relationships. In his acceptance speech of the Nobel, he celebrates the undying love of his wife as more important than numbers and reasons and the reason he’s there.

Even his understanding of mathematics seems to take on a more human touch near the end of the story. He’s overheard telling students that, contrary to what others may tell them, mathematics is art. Early in the film, his girlfriend (later his wife) admitted to being an artist herself. Her influence on him is profound, even in this. Throughout the process of his painful healing, numerous times he can be seen holding in his hand the handkerchief that she had given him on that early date, and again he extricates it from his pocket after his final speech and gives her a wave with it. The movie is a success story against all odds, a gripping narrative of mental illness, the story of a prodigy and tortured genius, but ultimately it’s a love story, and testimony of love’s power to overcome and to endure.