Judging from the enthusiastic response on social media, Sony’s decision to release the movie “The Interview” on Christmas day seems to be a victory for the American way of life, but there is a tragic irony in the very truth of that view. For the “way of life” thus vindicated is addicted to a view of freedom as the right to say and do anything one wants, indifferent to the substance of what is actually being said in freedom’s name.
Personally, I am repulsed by the prospect of a distributor releasing on Christmas Day a public film depicting the assassination of a living person as something “funny.” Apart from the fact that such a film is provocative toward a North Korean leadership and culture that already appears fear-saturated and perhaps dangerous, made by producers and evidently actors who think that it is some kind of progressive political act to engage in this kind of provocation, the theme of the film should be seen as offensive and even shocking to anyone with an open heart and a respect for human life. What is funny about depicting the murder of a named individual who is currently alive? And how is it reflective of any spiritual meaning of Christmas to release such a film on a day celebrating the birth of Christ, or to non-Christians, celebrating at the very least family gatherings based upon loving human connection?
The entire public discussion of “The Interview” has focused not a whit on the actual moral substance of the film and exclusively on the importance of an ideal of free expression, no matter how offensive the expression is. This amoral view of the substance of freedom is reflected not just in relation to “artistic” freedom and the First Amendment, but also in relation to the freedom of a “free market” that sees workers mainly as factors of production-for- profit rather than beautiful human beings deserving of respect and dignity and that exploits the natural world without regard to beauty of creation and the sacredness of all life through which creation, whatever its wondrous origin, is made manifest . Freedom conceived in this way also embraces, in the name of democracy, a political process that vindicates the ability of billionaires to manipulate the consciousness of a society of isolated and socially separated television-watchers in order to influence their voting patterns.
We all long for mutual recognition, to see one another with full presence as I and Thou. This longing is in the heart of every living being in Russia, in the Crimea, and in the Ukraine. But we are also conditioned within long histories of relationships suffused with fear of the other. And one form of these conditioned identities is identification with ethnicity, sometimes also expressed through identification with nation-states. In the introduction to my book Another Way of Seeing and in several essays in my earlier book The Bank Teller, I refer to these “national” identities as “imaginary” in the sense that people develop a hyper-identification with national identity in proportion to the absence of an ability to experience the there-ness of the person right next to them, in proportion to their fear of the actual other.
Police create a barricade against anti-governmental protesters in Kiev, Ukraine. Credit: Creative Commons/Sasha Maksymenko.
At the same time, these very ethnic and national identifications are carriers of what connection there is–the forms of sensual and connotative (through language) bonding that manifest the really existing forms of recognition and realization of our social being. Thus the rituals of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia are simultaneously bonding expressions of spiritual community, and also patriarchal, authoritarian manifestations of fear and alienation of each from the other.
It is this double-character of ethnic and national identifications that are being played out in a symbolically complex way in the Ukraine.
However, the particular manifestations of this complex intersubjective history in the present areas of Western Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russia–and the “cathexis” with the other and fear of the other that are being enacted by each person within each group and subgroup, are supposed to be “contained” by the act of democratic voting…that is, on specific formalized occasions (election days) a vote is cast that declares for the next period of time how the totality of these intersubjective flows in conflict are to be consensually and democratically held in place or balanced.
[Editor's Note: November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and virtually all major TV channels, magazines, and other media outlets are planning specials, documentaries, articles with historical analyses and personal retellings of where people were at the time of assassination. Also, Oliver Stone's 1991 Oscar-nominated film JFK challenging the conventional theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and suggesting that there may have been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy will be shown this month in over 250 theaters nationwide. To put the Kennedy assassination in a historical perspective that is both spiritual and political, we here reprint Peter Gabel's brilliant article on the subject, "The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality)," originally published in Tikkun in March/April 1992 in response to the original release of Stone's film. Gabel's piece is an example of the kind of historical analysis we are trying to develop in Tikkun - locating the critical event of JFK's assassination in the context of the repression of our collective spiritual longings for a loving world that characterized the 1950s, and what he calls the "opening up of desire" represented by JFK. In defending Stone's film against its critics, Gabel also shows how the conflict between hope and fear, between the desire for an erotic, loving, and caring world and the forces seeking to deny and contain that desire, is central to understanding the meaning of historical events. His analysis also implicitly helps explain why this month there is such an outpouring of memory, pain, longing, and loss in recollecting the assassination fifty years later.]
(JFK, an Oliver Stone film/ CC-BY-NC-SA by www.impawards.com)
Oliver Stone’s JFK is a great movie, but not because it “proves” that John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Stone himself has acknowledged that the movie is a myth — a countermyth to the myth produced by the Warren Commission — but a myth that contains what Stone calls a spiritual truth. To understand that spiritual truth, we must look deeply into the psychological and social meaning of the assassination — its meaning for American society at the time that it occurred, and for understanding contemporary American politics and culture.
The spiritual problem that the movie speaks to is an underlying truth about life in American society — the truth that we all live in a social world characterized by feelings of alienation, isolation, and a chronic inability to connect with one another in a life-giving and powerful way. In our political and economic institutions, this alienation is lived out as a feeling of being “underneath” and at an infinite distance from an alien external world that seems to determine our lives from the outside. True democracy would require that we be actively engaged in ongoing processes of social interaction that strengthen our bonds of connectedness to one another, while at the same time allowing us to realize our need for a sense of social meaning and ethical purpose through the active remaking of the no-longer “external” world around us. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the isolation and distance from reality that envelops us is a cause of immense psychological and emotional pain, a social starvation that is in fact analogous to physical hunger and other forms of physical suffering.
Started some 15 years ago after the first conference on The Politics of Meaning in Washington DC, The Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics (PISLAP) is a nationwide group of lawyers, law professors, and law students who seek to shift the focus of American law and legal institutions away from the individualism, self-interest, and materialism that undergirds all of American law and toward seeing law as a central cultural arena for fostering empathy, compassion, and mutual understanding.
We have taken to heart Martin Luther King Jr.’s definition of Justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love” and are seeking to build a new movement in law that makes restoring community through understanding and social healing our highest value. Sometimes out-and-out adversarial battles are necessary, but the principal shift that needs to take place in legal culture is toward the new bottom line articulated by the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) — that institutions be valued according to how much love and generosity they generate rather than only focusing on a material war of all against all in a socially separated, self-interested world. That’s why PISLAP is glad to be the “legal arm” of the NSP, serving as its task force in this important professional and cultural arena.
Below is the welcoming letter and agenda for our upcoming gathering in New York, an agenda-building gathering for the coming year among the organization’s leadership group. I’ll post follow-ups in Tikkun Daily, including the final plan we decide upon as we move forward toward fundamentally transforming law and legal culture. You out there in other professions: Why not do the same?
It’s now been two weeks since the midterm elections, and I’m noticing that many folks I know are depressed — not consciously about the elections, which have receded somewhat from view, but about various things in their lives. One is exhausted from all the pressures in her life, raising children, caring for parents, working too hard or too aimlessly; another is undecided about what to do next in life, not sure how to chart a meaningful path. Everyone has his or her personal story.
But behind all the personal stories and giving unity to the feeling of despair are the elections — not because of the specific legislative consequences of the Republican victory but because of what it means for the state of whether “we can” or “we can’t,” or of whether “we” exist at all.
Elections evoke a great deal of passion even though their direct practical consequences for our lives are often minimal, even nonexistent. A huge struggle takes place culminating on election day, but what is the struggle really about? My own practical life — the details of my everyday physical existence — is almost completely unaffected by the outcome. I have the same work, the same family, the same friends, no matter what the outcome. So why all the brouhaha? Something huge appears to be at stake? But what?
The answer is that elections are crystallizations of the emotional field. Like the “declare” in high-low poker, the election is a moment when we tell each other whether we will or will not extend ourselves to each other, whether we believe in our connection and dare hope to realize it in community enough to declare it, or whether we do not and dare not.
Artist Christopher Reiger sent Tikkun an email expressing his differences with my piece “A Call for Sacred Biologists,” which his painting “submerged in his erotic mystification” accompanied in the March/April 2010 issue of Tikkun. I responded and a conversation developed. Our intern Sarah Ackley has edited our emails down to this post.
If I could sum it up in a phrase, I would say that Christopher is committed to the idea that science and religion are both valid ways of knowing but they are separate ways, whereas I believe we have to move towards a unified approach to knowledge (the nature of which I’ll take up in a forthcoming issue of the magazine). I was happy to have such a reasonable conversation about a topic that arouses such passion. We’ve laid out his emails as the indented quotes and mine as the text in between. Christopher Reiger has given us two recent drawings to accompany the exchange.
In “A Call for Sacred Biologists” Gabel explores the gulf between a strictly rational, scientific world view and that of, for lack of a better description, holistic panentheism. Gabel’s subject is near and dear to me, but his language unfortunately suggests that he has a deep-seated mistrust of, as he puts it, “the so-called ‘scientific method’” (emphasis mine).
"A beating of kettles and cutlery, to scare the beast" by Christopher Reiger.
Last week I introduced Tikkun Daily readers to the new blog at the Project for Integrating Law, Politics and Spirituality, with a post by Nanette Schorr about Sunny Schwartz’s restorative justice work in a San Francisco County jail. The third member of our team at that blog is Doug Ammar, and I love this first post by him. With this story he gives us an idea of what it means for him to practice law with a full intention of connecting at a human level with his clients, including those who spend many years in prison. Here it is in full:
By Doug Ammar
“How can you do that? How can you visit a guy serving a life sentence?”
“What do you mean?” I reply.
“Well, you were his lawyer, right? The client was convicted while he was your client, right?”
“That’s right. Either I or someone else in our office was his lawyer. But, yes we visit our folks in prison,” I answer.
“And you all just keep showing up – years after the case is over? That has to be tough? What do you talk about? Doesn’t he hate you? Doesn’t he want to kill you?”
I would like to introduce you to a new blog by a group of us who are partly associated with the Tikkun community: the Project for Integrating Law, Politics and Spirituality. Nanette Schorr, Doug Ammar and I will be sharing duties of blogging, and will be posting items by others. Nanette introduced the blog on August 24 with this post:
I’ve been asked to be the first writer to kick off the new spiritlawpolitics blog. I’m really happy to be contributing on a website dedicated to our new legal culture; a culture characterized by social justice, individual and social healing and community participation. The spiritlawpolitics initiative was founded back in 1996, as part of a larger “politics of meaning” movement whose aim was to create a “new bottom line” in American society which reflected these values. The Project’s focus is still on the importance of supporting such initiatives as they emerge in the society. Exciting changes are happening in the law, but they can only fully take root if they are grounded in changes in consciousness and social practice which embody these values on a larger social level.
One of the initiatives we’ve long admired and supported is the movement broadly called “restorative justice.”