Thursday, May 8, 2008

PBS "Carrier": A Mixed Blessing

The PBS documentary “Carrier” was an eye-opener, especially for an old civilian such as me. As a retired high school teacher I was particularly interested in the kids as they told their stories, especially since, as any teacher watching the series would attest, we’ve known these kids, shared their lives and heard these same stories.
We’ve nurtured these kids, wheedled and cajoled them, laughed and cried with them, and when all the motivational tricks failed we’ve probably all thrown up our hands and sent ‘em down to the office. So it was a revelation to see that archetypal wiseass who was the bane of your existence for up to four years trying real life on for size, and for the most part finding it a pretty good fit.
From that perspective, then, the series was a truly rewarding experience. But certain aspects of the show were troubling, particularly segment on religion and faith. I approached the hour with a fair measure of misgiving, having been following, and covering, the heavy-handed attempt to Christianize the military that has reached crisis proportions and shows no signs of letting up.
Frankly, I expected this hour to reveal a bunch of wild-eyed Christian warriors piloting the USS Jesus, nee Nimitz, toward her inevitable rendezvous with her millennial destiny. Instead, we were shown what appeared to be a paradigm of religious tolerance and diversity, with any number of Protestant and Catholic observances taking place. There was even a small coven of practicing Wiccans aboard, a handful of Muslims and at least one token Jew who maintained he’d not been hassled at all.
Part of me wanted desperately to believe what I was seeing, since it seemed to fly in the face of all that I’d heard, read and reported. Perhaps, I thought, there may still be some reasonably enlightened religious folk, especially among the chaplain corps, who actually get it and were playing by the rules because they thought it was the right thing to do.
On the other hand, I told myself, this series was produced by Mel Gibson, whose own track record on religious tolerance is of course dubious at best. What also started bouncing around in my brain pan was the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. So I got in touch with Mikey Weinstein of the MIlitary Religious Freedom Foundation, who has been the point man on this issue for some time now, to get his take on the series, particularly the religion segment.
Weinstein had indeed watched the show, and he too was concerned that art was not exactly imitating life where matters of shipboard faith were concerned. In fact, among the nearly 8,000 service people and their families who have contacted the MRFF with concerns, complaints and anguished cries for help are a dozen or so from the Nimitz. Because of sensitivity and security concerns, and that fact that these are open cases, Weinstein would not elaborate on the nature of the grievances, but he did characterize a couple of the incidents as “vicious.”
Regrettably, this appears to be consistent with the tone and substance of many of the cases that have been widely reported, from the Weinstein family’s own ordeals at the Air Force Academy to the story of Jeremy Hall, the atheist GI whose personal safety has been threatened by fellow soldiers after news of his lawsuit against the Army went public.
So, as much as I would like to believe what I saw in the faith segment, it appears that we may have been shown a Potemkin facade, at least as far as a truly balanced presentation is concerned. And that’s a shame, because a lot of what we did see appeared to portray the American religious experience at its freewheeling best. But just as much of a large ship’s activity takes place below the water line, and therefore remains largely unseen, so too, it seems, can a similar case be made for an unseen current of religious extremism flowing unchecked below the line, under the radar, out of sight, out of mind.
On balance, therefore, “Carrier” was a mixed blessing. It was well crafted, and at its best insightful and moving. It’s just too bad that there couldn’t have been a little more filmic and intellectual honesty devoted to an issue that remains, to our national detriment, the elephant in the room.

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