Well, hello, there!
I did not plan to write about pop culture for my first entry on Hang Together. After all, the run of posts on Frozen has been making me wish my wife and I had gone to that rather chilly drive-in double-header that she mentioned a while back, and who wants to break in on a good pop-culture review in progress? Besides, I still have that post about today’s “preachy” moment with my students to write, and that other one about teaching students about the role of shame in deliberative democracy, and–but every day brings a new topic, and sooner or later one must simply write.
So, today, it’s about a piece of pop culture that was startlingly insightful, though quite possibly by accident. Submitted for your approval: Season 6, Episode 19 of the ABC series Castle, titled “The Greater Good,” in which Castle and Beckett (joined by Beckett’s police superior Gates and Gates’s sister, a hotshot prosecutor) confront a rogue ADA with the evidence of her misdeeds. The murder victim had been victimized first by the prosecutor, who planted drug evidence on him so her office could coerce him into “wearing a wire” and informing on his boss, a suspected white-collar criminal. When the rogue ADA discovered that her victim had informed his boss about the investigation, taken a huge bribe, and left the country, she murdered him and tried to frame his boss. All very average TV mystery plotting, fairly well executed.
The kicker, though, is the way our murder victim left the telltale message. He was wired, you see. And before he left his recording device at the rogue ADA’s “dead drop” (all very cloak-and-dagger), he recorded one final message.
Our victim says to his persecutors, in my paraphrase, “I came to America because I believed in the American Dream. I worked hard for people I knew might be corrupt because I believed. And when you, the U.S. government, planted evidence on me, to force me to turn on them, what was I supposed to believe in?” So he took the payday and went home (we find later that half of his payoff went to rebuild his hometown).
Do you see what I see in that speech? I see someone who weighed American civic religion and found it wanting.
In the words of many of our educators, he worked hard and believed that he could succeed by hard work. In the words of many of our cultural exports, he believed that America was a land of unlimited opportunity for those willing to work hard. In the words of many a Disney character and many a politician, he believed. He staked it all on an immanent end, and in the end was betrayed. Repeatedly, and fatally.
Joss Whedon fans among you are no doubt picturing a famous pair of plastic dinosaurs. “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” But it’s no laughing matter.
My friends, many of us–many of my students–are vulnerable to the same betrayal. The danger is not necessarily to our lives, or even our livelihoods. Many people will never be more than slightly inconvenienced, in fact; and even more will only be “hurt” by the temporary twinge caused by a poignant moment on TV, or in a message at church.
The real danger to us, as to the victim in “The Greater Good,” is to our souls. The victim was murdered by the rogue ADA, it is true. But the victim’s faith, his closest simulacrum of divinely-infused love, hope, and trust, was destroyed first, by her betrayal; and what he had of good will went with it. Basic trust and the will to do good both fell together because he had never been led to dream enough, to look high enough. He had never been led to reasonably expect and desire and strive to apprehend an eternally durable good that would outweigh the gains or losses of his mortal career. Most importantly, he believed as hard as he could, but he lacked the faith which comes from an eternal God–he had only the faith of Walt Whitman, or Walt Disney, in the greatness and unfettered possibilities of The American Dream. And when the “inevitable betrayal” of such immanentist faith arrived, the only option he could see was a desperate crime–a crime rooted in the mortal sin of despair–and to become the victim of an even more deeply lost soul’s even more desperate crime.
The American Dream is good, my friends, only so long as it is humbled before a truly greater good. And only those whose faith, hope, and love spring from higher cataracts to deeper pools than the leaded aqueducts of civic religion will, in the end, find strength to “keep the faith” when other hopes betray.
By the way, there was some indication of hope for our apparently despairing victim: remember that donation? half the money, sent to rebuild his hometown, severely damaged in an earthquake?
It is not enough. But it was not the act of a wholly desperate man to give to others in his moment of crisis. Perhaps this thief, too, received faith’s promised hope in crucial hour?
Well, he is fictional. We are real. And it is to real, substantial hope we must attend.