October 8, 2010

Blessed Above the Rest

Blessed Above the Rest

I was about to watch “The Way We Were” as my bi-monthly film treat but decided to switch last minute for a more serious documentary, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” since a fellow artist at the recent annual Artist’s Booking Conference in Columbia recommended it. Always one to have a very odd detail stick in my mind, I recalled the amusing clip from the film of a dog jumping up and down repeatedly from a kitchen floor to snatch glances at the food on top of a table. The family eating this food seemed to ignore the importunate little beast. The little dog inspired me to start my next series of miniature paintings, “Eleven Days of a Dog,” numbers four and five pictured here.

Although the jumping dog in Michael Moore’s film was very funny, the point he was making was of course an unhappy one. The meal on top of the table represented a wealthy life belonging to fewer and fewer Americans and the little dog our determined hope that we too may someday be able to partake of this wealth. There was a pervasive message in “Capitalism: A Love Story” that corporate elites, along with media hype and political maneuvering have indeed manipulated that quintessentially American optimism to their advantage.

Some parts of the film, like the comparison of American society to the Roman Empire in its decadent final era, were a little cliched - even though sometimes it is indeed difficult not to feel that way. Also, Michael Moore’s repetition of his theatrical attempts to confront the powers that be in their corporate headquarters as he did in his previous films wore a little thin and probably should have been dispensed with. The only victims here were unfortunately the security guards trying to do their jobs. Nevertheless, the message of the film was brave and hard hitting.

One interesting segment of “Capitalism: A Love Story” was Michael Moore’s bringing to the forefront a question of the relationship of capitalism to Christianity. According to Mr. Moore and the priests he interviews, Capitalism is not in accordance with Christian principles and is in fact inherently evil. He then seems to propose that in the post World War II decades, and in particular with the advent of the Reagan era, corporate powers and the right wing appropriated Christianity to serve a capitalist agenda. I am not certain that I agree with that time line. Capitalism has had a stronger tie with Protestant Christianity than Catholicism and that tie can probably be traced back much further than the last few decades. It may even have a relationship to doctrines dating back to the sixteenth century. I am speaking here of such things as the doctrine of predestination in the teachings of John Calvin. According to the strict adherents of Calvinism, only a certain portion of the population were selected by God for salvation. The rest were simply damned to Hell and no amount of faith, good works or fine intentions could change that. There was apparently not much room for upward mobility in that faith.

The idea of a select few being graced by God and the damnation of the rest dovetails at least conceptually with the idea of plutonomy. Plutonomy, the rule of a small elite group of wealthy people over the rest of a society, was the description of the preferred state of America that was leaked in a 2005 Citigroup memo to its wealthiest clients. The film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” drops this memo on viewers like an atom bomb with a big red circle on the phrases in the memo alluding to fears of repercussions if the hoi ploi revolt and exercise their one person one vote rights.

It is this over arching belief in being blessed above the rest that seems to be a factor at work in what “Capitalism: A Love Story” illustrates as a mind set of the very wealthy powers that be. Whether this is manifest in a secular or religious way there may be more than a conceptual alliance with the early doctrine of pre-destination and the way this old alliance with capitalism played out in America over the last few centuries. I am condensing a long, complicated history, and drawing upon reading I actually did a long time ago so it would be best to read Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and other early American theologians for better direct references to this old alliance I’m referring to. But basically it works like this: Given a determination that only a portion of the people are selected for divine grace and entry into Heaven, it became socially expedient to know in this life who God’s preferred were. It could be socially awkward to say the least if you were to wake up one day and find out that a friend or associate of twenty years was among those destined for eternal damnation. But how could one know who was in the Heaven club and who was not? Some early American theologians solved that riddle by maintaining that grace in the afterlife was manifested by material prosperity in this life. In other words, to quote the famous blues singer Billie Holliday, “Them’s that got will get. Them’s that not will lose. So the Bible says and it still is news.”

Many modern protestant sects have disavowed the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination and some have even claimed it to be a blasphemy (Although some recent Southern Baptists have apparently tried to reinstate Calvinism). Yet sometimes ideas so powerful can linger on - becoming hard wired somewhere deep in the social consciousness. We can see it in various modern permutations like in the so-called prosperity gospel that caused people to spend beyond their means. We might even see it in everyday innocent remarks on the occasion of mishaps like, “What did I do to deserve this?” Volumes could be written on this subject but because I only intended a short review I will just say that the idea of Cohabiting Capitalism and Christianity (how’s that for alliteration?) may have a longer and more complex history than that proposed in “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

But perhaps Michael Moore knew some of this and could not delve into it on account of the topic of Capitalism itself being so broad. And there were plenty of other occasions in the film for enlightening material - like the low wages paid to airline pilots and the practice of companies betting against the death of their employees by taking out secret life insurance policies on them called “Dead Peasant” insurance. My favorite part of the film, however, was a clip of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt a year before his death, calling for a second Bill of Rights for the American People, guaranteeing, among other things, a home, an education and healthcare. We’re still waiting to be blessed with that.

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