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March, Osage County – What Ukraine Reveals About our Dysfunctional Family of Liberal Democracies

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Viewing the film August: Osage County with academy award nominees Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep during the same week that Russia’s Vladimir Putin occupied Crimea and thumbed his nose at President Obama, it became impossible not to regard the movie itself as some sort of deep parable of the political age in which we live.

In the film, based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-prize winning Broadway play about a dysfunctional, Oklahoma family, the lead character Violet – the aged, slowly dying matriarch played by Streep – incarnates the hard-bitten cynicism, and even nastiness, of the Depression and World War II generation, which manifests frequently as outright contempt for the softer values and lifestyles of her post-Sixties female progeny.

In a series of highly discomforting family scenes around the dinner table, Violet (played by Streep) unleashes verbal weapons of mass destruction upon the younger set, violently shattering both their emotional and moral armor, while casually and without a hint of irony characterizing these outbursts as “truth-telling.”

Violet is a despicable as well as pathetic woman, yet there is also an uncomfortable, covert message that sensitive viewers easily pick up as they squirm through the drama – namely, that her own well-educated children, those standard-issue, socially progressive, and rather smug young adults of the post-Reagan era who have fled the quiet insanity of small-town life on the Great Plains, do not see the world either realistically or honestly.

Violet also has an uncanny talent for divining people’s secrets, even the most shocking revelation toward the end that one of the daughter’s lovers is actually her brother.  She comes across as a wizened seer in the dark fog of human pretension, who really doesn’t bother to say what she knows or senses until it becomes an occasion for well-timed, rhetorical Blitzkrieg during her constant sparring with “my three girls,” as she sentimentally calls them.

She would hold back the truth, or even make nice, to keep the fragility of her family intact, if she was in any way at all capable of being diplomatic.  “Thank God we can’t predict the future; we’d never get out of bed,” is one of Violet’s most memorable lines.

 

As I watched August: Osage County, I could not help but reflect on both the puzzle, as well as the muddle, of international politics the past two weeks after the Russian movements in the Crimean peninsula.

Whether Putin was doing in response to the earlier street revolution in Kiev what, according to Hilary Clinton, Hitler did with the Sudetenland in the 1930s, whether Russia (as Princeton professor emeritus Stephen Cohen vehemently argues), is simply responding finally to two decades of American overreach into Eastern Europe, or whether the latest Ukrainian uprising is fascist plot worthy of squelching, as much of the traditional left has been arguing, the world has reached an historic milestone.

Putin’s  not-at-all-veiled contempt for the increasingly vacuous platitudes about the need to maintain the norms of global civil society, which continue to be uttered by the Obama administration, often calling attention to what he terms our “hypocrisies,” may be quite understandable, as Kori Schacke writes in Foreign Policy.

“The United States has sided,” Schacke writes, “with people who just overthrew a democratically elected government — the protests in Kiev overturned a democratic process, just as the protests in Cairo ousted President Mohamed Morsi. So the administration looks to be on pretty thin ice when it touts the unassailability of democratic processes. It not only makes the United States look hypocritical.”

We are now witnessing on the world stage the confrontational and personally destructive family dinner in August: Osage County when Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara, played by Roberts, tries to lecture her mother, rather unctuously, on her uncivil behavior, only to demonstrate in a violent assault on the old lady how thin-skinned she is and how empty her words can turn out to be.

Putin as Violet, Barbara as Obama?

Eerily the scenes of the vast and empty grain-swept plains of Northern Oklahoma, which the film’s cinematography constantly turns to in order to temporarily refresh our imaginations after the lengthy scenes of rage and self-revulsion staged in the dark, shuttered up rooms of the family farmhouse, resemble the Ukraine.

 

What makes August: Osage County interesting is that there are really two co-equal climaxes of the drama – when Barbara loses it and physically throws herself at her mother as well as the very last scene when all the children have abandoned Violet to her megalomania and madness, even though she can barely comprehend they have deserted her.

Either scenario, unfortunately, is likely when it comes to these larger events of March, 2014.

Many people find August: Osage County depressing and overly introspective, if not offensive to what we expect to be our capacity for compassion and integrity, even if “the truth hurts sometimes”.

But the general message of the movie, comparable to what has been said in recent days about Ukraine from a politically diverse spectrum of social critics and foreign policy alarmists, is that the hurtful truth sometimes is absolutely necessary in order to make us finally realize that illusion will hurt us even worse in the long run.

 

The “August” of August: Osage County is timeless.  But it is one hundred years ago this year that the so-called “guns of August” blasted and decimated the serene confidence of a new generation that had become, paradoxically, both self-indulgently sanguine and strangely cynical about its own capacity to manage the world and about its vision of the future.

It was then that the first dream of an emerging, global civilization bonded together by an international concert of “liberal” political assumptions and manners of political decorum collapsed with a few, seemingly inconsequential shots fired on the streets of Sarajevo.

The crisis in the Ukraine, and the confused response to date of Western leaders, underscores the larger, slowly roiling crisis of liberal democracies which, like the younger women of the Weston family in the film, cannot – and perhaps never will – fathom how the in-your-face and pure contrarian actions of a nation too long taken for granted are compelling us to ask searchingly amid all our diplomatic swagger and protests of collective rectitude: what’s wrong with this picture? What have we ourselves contributed to its making?

As Reinhold Niebuhr, the great political theologian of crisis once wrote:  “The final wisdom of life requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”

In this dawning age of one global crisis after the other, when all the conventional wisdom goes out the window, it is time to embrace the incongruity in all its bittersweet plenitude, as Lett would have us do.

After all, international politics is about the “family” of nations, as it has been termed.  Political theology should be about the real meaning of “family values”, especially the dysfunctional family of various and sundry democratic peoples.

 

 

 

 

 

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Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and a regular blogger for Political Theology as well as the author, or co-author of at least twenty books. His forthcoming books Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press), Critical Theology: A Primer (IVP Academic), and Postmodern Theology: The Next Generation (Cascade Books) address in different ways the deeper critical dysfunctions of contemporary religion and society. He is also Senior Editor of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and co-founder of the Global Art & Ideas Nexus. A full bio and current activities can be found on his website at http://www.carlraschke.com.