Film Casablanca Still Speaks to Us Today

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 23, 2018.)

Seventy-five years ago today, the film Casablanca, one of the most popular movies of all time, was released nationally after premiering in New York City on Thanksgiving Day, 1942, as World War II raged. It went on to win Oscars for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. Writing in the Belfast Times in 2016 after the last surviving cast member died, Paul Whitington said: “Maybe there are better films than Casablanca, but there are probably none better loved.”

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film was shot at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, except for the final scene, shot at Van Nuys Airport. It was based on a three-act play, unproduced at the time, Everbody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had come to power, and by 1938 Europe was in turmoil as Germany was growing stronger and more threatening. That same year against the advice of friends, Murray Burnett and his wife visited Vienna, Austria, a country which had just been absorbed by Germany. There Burnett, a Jew, witnessed first-hand the increasingly violent anti-Semitism and learned of the escape route the Jews were taking: from Austria to Marseilles in southern France, to Morocco in North Africa, to Lisbon, Portugal, and finally—with luck—to the United States.

Burnett, an aspiring playwright, conceived of the idea for the play when they traveled to southern France and visited a smoky nightclub near Nice in which they saw emigrants, speaking many different languages, all listening to a black pianist from Chicago.

Once acquired by Warner Brothers after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Harry and Jack Warner realized its potential as a patriotic war drama. Harry especially was not afraid to use film to strengthen patriotism and to combat Nazism. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in 1938, he said he saw it as his duty “to educate, to stimulate, and to demonstrate the fundamentals of free government, free speech, religious tolerance, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly ….”

In Congressional testimony in 1941, Harry insisted that fascism was indeed a global threat—a preview of the spinning globe at the start of the movie. After the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942, Warner Bros. accelerated the release of the movie, capitalizing on the name of the city of Casablanca, Morocco, appearing in the news. It premiered on November 26, 1942, at the Hollywood Theater in New York City, selling 31,000 tickets in the first week and grossing $255,000 ($3.5 million in today’s money) during the 10-week New York run.

The two main characters in the film were played by Humphrey Bogart, one of the few Americans in the cast, and Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman. Bogart, 42, had already played in nearly 50 Hollywood films, playing mostly gangsters or thugs. While he had also played rugged, razor-backed characters, playing the role of Rick Blaine allowed him to play a romantic, understated, cynical hero. With his trench coat and brimmed hat, he achieved international stardom.

Ingrid Bergman, 27, had arrived in America just three years earlier and had appeared in merely a handful of Hollywood movies. She played Ilsa Lund, Rick’s former lover who had jilted him in Paris years earlier. Arthur “Dooley” Wilson, another rare American in the cast, played “Sam,” the pianist at Rick’s Café Americain and Rick’s staunch friend.

In a movie with so many great scenes and with so many great—if sometimes corny—lines, it is challenging to select the best scenes. My three favorite include: the scene in the Café in which the two competing groups, the Nazi officers versus all others, sing their nationalistic songs; the scene in the Café in which Ilsa Lund asks Sam to play the old love song, “As Time Goes By;” and, of course, the final scene in which Rick shows his true colors. With the Nazis pursuing, Rick turns to Ilsa and says: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Though produced in the middle of a world war three generations ago, Casablanca continues to speak to us today with its themes of love, multi-faceted heroism, resistance against tyranny, persecution of minorities, the flight of the persecuted and their yearning for freedom.

For further reading: Noah Isenberg, We’ll Always Have Casablanca.

Note: Watch for news of the upcoming screening of Casablanca, hosted by yours truly, at the Jane Pickens Theater and Event Center. Until then, “here’s looking at you, kid.”

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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Plato, Trump and the Wall

(This essay was originally published as “We’re losing track of what is real and fake in Trump’s America” by on January 15, 2018.)

President Trump and the Democrats are negotiating over the fate of the dreamers and of the border wall with Mexico, the latter of which is clearly an imperative for the president. However, his calling Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, a “fake book” demonstrates that the more important wall for the American citizen is not the border wall, but rather “Plato’s wall,” what constitutes truth and what constitutes fabrication in the American mind.

Twenty-four hundred years ago the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his most famous political study, The Republic, wrestled with the questions of what is the best state and how to produce the best statesmen. A slim chapter deals with his “Allegory of the Cave,” a fanciful story in which Plato deals with knowing reality, among other things. Plato portrays several “prisoners” who have been chained from birth to a wall deep in a cave in such fashion that they can look in one direction only, toward a cave wall.

On this wall shadows are cast from objects passing behind them. The objects casting the shadows are held just over a berm behind which real humans walk with the objects elevated over their heads so that only these objects and not their bodies cast the images. Still farther behind is an eternal fire emitting the light which casts the images on the wall in front of the prisoners. Because of their chains the prisoners cannot turn their heads to see each other or to distinguish the real objects from the images on the wall. Consequently, the only “truth that such men would conceive would be the shadows of those manufactured articles.”

Grasping reality and truth has been an eternal challenge which has occupied philosophers since Plato. With her speech at the Golden Globe Awards on January 8, Oprah Winfrey underlined the importance of truth today in this special women’s moment of American history. “I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

In recent decades knowing what is real and truthful has become ever more challenging. In the last forty years we have seen the tremendous expansion of media sources through which we may obtain information. Regarding TV, the three major broadcast channels no longer command the attention of the citizen they once did. The result is that we Americans no longer share a common narrative and analysis of news events, broadcast by media organizations which seek to uphold high journalistic standards. This has led to a multiplication of realities—of what is real and what is not.

The internet has enormously expanded Plato’s wall. Anyone—motivated simply by profit—can easily establish a website which purports to provide “news.” For example, in November 2016, the New York Times reported on such sites established by Beqa Latsabidze, a 22-year old college student in the country of Georgia. In establishing the sites, he indicated that his only motive was to make money from Google ads.

In the lead-up to the November presidential election, his sites initially focused on Hillary Clinton. However, the website drew little attention. He then switched his focus to Trump and his readership soared. He found success in stories praising Trump that mixed real information with fake, material which lauded Trump and criticized Clinton. Some were totally false, such as the one which reported in the summer 2016, that “the Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President ….”

Latzabidze stated he was amazed that anyone would mistake some of his fake posts for real news. They are simply “infotainment.” He argued that he was simply providing people what they wanted, in this case, stories praising Trump to Trump supporters.

A second example of a starkly untrue news story which echoed throughout the pro-Trump media outlets was the tweet which Jack Posobiec sent on May 17, 2017, regarding fired FBI director James Comey. It said: Comey said under oath that Trump did not ask him to halt any investigation, dated May 8, 2017. The New York Times reported that this was simply untrue. Nonetheless, the tweet was picked up quickly by pro-Trump channels and used. It made its way to the prime time Fox News channel and also the broadcasts of conservative Rush Limbaugh.

And now we have President Trump branding not only selected words by reputable sources as fake news but an entire book as “fake.” Plato might suggest that Trump would in effect transport us to his own cave where he alone controls the images on the cave wall. It would appear that the single criterion he would use to decide which images to show us is: Are the images favorable, or perhaps using his word “loyal,” to him or not?

Today then, the American citizen is confronted by genuinely fabricated news not only from individuals for personal economic gain and by foreign governments for their own interests and for the subversion of our democracy, but also by its own duly-elected government complicating matters. The veracity of Wolff’s book aside, when President Trump calls a book “fake,” that should be a clear signal for the American citizen to sit up in Plato’s cave and look very discerningly at the images on the wall.

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, RI.


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Anne Hutchinson, Part II: Founding Mother of Religious Tolerance

(Note: This is Part II of a three part essay on Anne Hutchinson. It was originally published as “Hutchinson followed her ideals on diversity” in the Newport Daily News on December 28, 2017.)

Three hundred eighty years ago, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony convicted Anne Hutchinson of heresy and banished her from the colony. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, she can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.

It was a cold November 7, 1637, when she was called before the General Court of Massachusetts, a group of 40 black-clad men at the meeting house in Cambridge, led by Governor John Winthrop. Hutchinson was 46 years old, pregnant, of average height, the mother of 12, and the grandmother of one. She was forced to stand while the men sat on benches.

She remained strong and steadfast during the two-day ordeal, fortified by her sure knowledge of divine succor. Before her husband, their eleven children, and she had departed England in 1634, she had had a vision of the adversity to come. She would find herself in the role of Daniel of the Old Testament. Daniel, a Jew, was serving in the administration of the Babylonian empire of King Darius. The other high administrators were jealous of his favored relationship with the king, and so they reported that Daniel had broken the law by praying to his Jewish god, Yahweh, rather than to him and the Babylonian gods. The king was forced to have Daniel thrown into a lions’ den; however, Daniel remained unharmed. King Darius was so stunned that he ordered Daniel released and also converted to Judaism.

“It was revealed to me,” Anne recalled, “that [some] should plot against me, and I should meet with affliction. But the Lord bid me not fear.” God said to her: “I am the same God that delivered Daniel out of the lions’ den. I will also deliver thee.”
The General Court combined the powers which our Constitution, 150 years later, divided into three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. As Eve LaPlante points out, “This court’s vast power over the populace limited people’s freedom to a degree that is unimaginable today. People were banned … from wearing any fur, lace, or colorful cloth, and all citizens, whether or not they were church members, were required to attend Sunday services.”

Throughout the two-day trial, the governor and other magistrates questioned her on her authority to conduct religious meetings, called “conventicles,” which had grown in size from a few women to 80 or so women and men. The magistrates and she both rooted their arguments in holy scripture, the ultimate source of knowledge and truth in that day. Religion infused each day of their lives, not just Sundays, and was the prism through which they interpreted reality.
The magistrates questioned her further about her reported criticism of the colony’s ministers, her denial of the importance of performing good works as a sign of salvation, and her claims of divinely-inspired prophecy, a gift which Puritans reserved solely for ministers.

Hutchinson skillfully parried these accusations with quotes from scripture. She argued that testimony given by some magistrates was based on private conversations. Women had no public role in Puritan society. She argued then that she could not be charged and condemned for private opinions and actions.

On the second day of trial, Hutchinson—emboldened by her performance on the first day and convinced of her divine support—could not resist speaking in a manner that would lead to her conviction: she began to preach to the court. In doing so in this public proceeding, she played into the hands of her enemies. Literary scholar Lad Tobin described her speech as a “final act of defiance.”

After being asked to explain how she knew she had received divine revelation, she answered: “By the voice of his own spirit to my soul.” She claimed: “… the Lord showed me what he would do for me and the rest of his servants!” … “And therefore I desire you ,…, to consider and look what you do. You have power over my body, but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul.” She claimed direct connection with God, and this was heresy. She then prophesied the doom of the colony. “I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state!”

With such forceful and heretical statements from Hutchinson, Winthrop had what he needed to convict her. Pointing at her, he exclaimed, “This has been the ground of all these tumults and troubles. This is the thing that has been the root of all the mischief.”

In the end, Hutchinson was charged with heresy for her claims of divine revelation and with sedition for her criticisms of the colony’s ministers. Winthrop concluded: “Mistress Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society ….”

(Look for Part III in March. For further reading: Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel.)
Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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Anne Hutchinson: Founding Mother of Religious Tolerance

Three hundred eighty years ago, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony convicted Anne Hutchinson of heresy and banished her from the colony. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, RI, she can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.

Born Anne Marbury on July 17, 1591, in Alford, England, Anne Hutchinson was raised with no formal schooling, as was common for the times. However, she was well-educated by her father Francis Marbury, a clergyman, schoolmaster, and Puritan reformer. Her father instilled in her an ability to think critically, an uncommon confidence in her own goodness, a strong religious faith, and a desire to demonstrate that faith to others.

In 1634, Anne, her husband William, and their 11 children crossed the Atlantic to the new colony. A female colonist wrote of the wilderness they found: “the air is sharp, the rocks many, the trees innumerable, the grass little, the winter cold, the summer hot, the gnats in summer biting, the wolves at midnight howling.”

Only four years earlier, a group of Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony under a royal charter. The Puritans had been harassed and even imprisoned in England for their religious beliefs, specifically the desire to “purify” the Church of England by removing all practices and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. In the New World, they were free to create a “true” society and state. Theirs would be a “city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop, the first governor, stated in a speech, a near theocracy in which religious and political leadership was closely intertwined.

It is difficult for us today in the increasingly secular Western world to grasp how religion pervaded life for these Puritans in the 1630s. Europe was in the midst of the Thirty Years War, the last of Europe’s religious wars, which saw most of Europe riven by political-religious violence. In daily life the average colonist was constantly concerned with her/his soul and salvation. The devil’s temptations and the potential for sin were ubiquitous.
Winthrop, as the leader and governor of this burgeoning colony, saw himself as the Moses of a new Exodus, establishing a New Jerusalem and initiating essentially a Second Protestant Reformation. To be sure, he would be ever vigilant for anything or anyone who might threaten this vision.

It is also difficult today, with the many advances in women’s civil and political rights over the past century, to comprehend how unusual Anne Hutchinson stood in her day. She was well known among the colonists for her services as a competent nurse and midwife. Primed by her father for spiritual instruction, with a gifted mind and strong will, she began a year after her arrival to hold weekly meetings with women in which she discussed the weekly sermons given by the colony’s ministers. Beyond the sermons she also incorporated discussions of scripture and theology. This occurred at a time when women could not vote, teach outside the home, or hold public office.

Initially a handful of women came to the meetings, then scores. Eventually she crossed a red line: she invited men into her circle. Her commentary on the ministers’ sermons became longer and more critical, and she began discussing scripture and theology more generally. She emphasized especially that a soul’s salvation depended on a “covenant of grace” rather than a “covenant of works.” Salvation was a gift and not an objective goal one could win with right actions.

Anne Hutchinson proved to be too great a threat to Winthrop and the other political and religious leaders of the colony. Some viewed her as a witch; others saw her as possessed by the devil. Winthrop called her an “instrument of Satan,” an “American Jezebel,” and suspected her of aiming to establish a “community of women” to nurture “abominable wickedness.”

It was a cold November day when she was called before the General Court of Massachusetts, a group of 40 black-clad men at the meeting house in Cambridge, led by Winthrop. Hutchinson was 46 years old, pregnant, of average height, the mother of 12, and grandmother of one. With a white coif covering her head and a white linen smock and neckerchief, the rest of her clothing was black. She was forced to stand while the men sat on benches.

“Anne Hutchinson is present,” announced a male voice. Winthrop began: “Mistress Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churched here.” “You are known to be a woman that hath had a great share in the promoting and divulging of those opinions that are the cause of this trouble ….”

Ending his opening remarks, he stated: “If you be in an erroneous way we may reduce you.” … “If you be obstinate in your course then the court may take such course that you may trouble us no further.”

Hutchinson, probably the first female defendant in the New World, stood steadfast after he finished and replied: “I am called here to answer before you, but I hear no things laid to my charge.”

(Look for Part II, next month. For further reading: Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel.)

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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Building American Civicism

(A version of this essay was published as “What It Means to Be a Good Citizen in the Age of Colin Kaepernick” by, on 11-17-17.)

GQ’s recent selection of Colin Kaepernick as a “man of the year,” specifically “citizen of the year,” and recent Veteran’s Day ceremonies have served to re-invigorate the debate over the requirements of a good American citizen. But the debate is misguided. Rather than debating whether Kaepernick is a good or rotten citizen and whether NFL owners should fire similarly protesting players, we should be debating how to fortify not only American patriotism but also American civicism.

Kaepernick and I have a number of similarities. We both share diverse ancestries. He was born to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father. Only recently through DNA analysis, I have discovered I am not only Italian and German, but also African and British. Despite being separated by two generations, Kaepernick’s life in high school and beyond has had similarities to mine. In high school we both played the same three sports and in football were both quarterbacks. We both played intercollegiate football, although he had a bit more success. I played only freshman year. When I arrived at the U.S. Military Academy, there were 27 other freshmen who also wanted to quarterback Army in vanquishing Navy on national TV.

Thereafter our paths diverged; however, we both became staunch patriots. I chose a 21-year career in the Army; he chose a different, less conventional, patriotic path. In August 2016, he challenged a conventional ritual of patriotism by sitting during the national anthem at pre-season games, eventually switching to kneeling.

We can now see his actions came at considerable personal expense. He argued: “There is police brutality — people of color have been targeted by police.” He criticized the inadequate training police receive. He asserted he was not “going to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Historians normally date the birth of the modern concept of citizenship from the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic France (1789-1815); however, it has roots in the ancient world. In the Western tradition, the roots of citizenship and the good citizen reach back to ancient Athens and Republican Rome. The word “citizen” stems from the Latin word “civis.” Citizens had both rights from and duties to the political body — the city-state. When the state — facing an emergency — summoned the citizen to military duty, the citizen had to respond, putting his allegiance to the state above allegiance to family, clan, tribe or political faction.

Aristotle maintained that a human being could reach his full potential only through the city-state. To Pericles, living life aloof from the affairs of state was stupidity. The Greeks called such a person an “idiotes.”

In addition to words for citizen (civis) and citizenship (civitas), the Romans also had the word civilitas, which meant civility/politeness, but could also refer, as Mary Beard states in “SPQR,” to the connectedness between Roman citizens: “we are all citizens together.” When I, as an individual citizen, thinking of the idea of my country, show devotion and loyalty to it by reciting the pledge of allegiance or standing for the national anthem, I am showing patriotism. When I do this relating more to my fellow citizens, I show not only patriotism but also civicism, a word only rarely seen.

We would be greatly aided in fortifying both patriotism and civicism with a different president. President Trump has yet to show proficiency in uniting us in our common civic project. Were it possible with a wave of the wand, we should all increase our opportunities to get to know each other: eat, listen to music, and dance together. As the Germans do, we should consider state subsidization of admission for the common person to the theater and to sporting events, so that people from all levels of American society could sit near each other and enjoy these events. These could have salutary results. We might not only get to know one another, but also fall in love and have children. Over generations, this would go a long way in fighting prejudice. It is very difficult, I can say from experience, to hate one’s grandchild.

The greatest step to fortify civicism would be to institute a program of national service, with the requirement for at least one year of some type of service to the country. In addition to the option of military service, there could be many options outside the military.
The needs of our society are great: the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the addicted, and the ravaged by domestic abuse, PTSD or natural disaster. If accomplished between the ages of 18-25, these young cohorts would not only fill important needs, but also gain another year of experience to know themselves and decide on their futures, and to experience places and people in different corners of America.

We would have fewer college students repeat the words that one of mine recently said as he shrugged: “Yes, I went to college because it was what you do after high school.” The program could help us build walkways to each other and break down walls of prejudice.
Finally, it could fight our society’s deification of individualism and also the multiple tribalisms, which have grown over the past four decades from the internet, the iphone, and the excesses of American culture.

In his inaugural speech, President John F. Kennedy inspired my generation to: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A program of national service would institutionalize this service to country, and it would fortify our civicism, something we shall need to confront the many challenges of the 21st century, including a rising China and a Russia bent on our self-destruction.

Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, in Newport, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZilian.

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A “Chinese Century” of Leadership in Clean Energy?

(This essay was originally published as “We are paving the way for Chinese dominance in clean energy,” by The Hill [online] on November 12, 2017.)

For early baby-boomers, the federal government’s release on November 3 of the comprehensive science report on climate contained few surprises. It simply confirmed what we have been experiencing for six decades. The central question is whether the U.S. will surrender to Chinese leadership in this key strategic area of clean energy systems while we plod along relying heavily on carbon-based, dirty fuels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversaw the report, with input from 12 other federal agencies. Some highlights: Over the past 115 years the average global temperature has increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Global temperature has set highs for the last three years, and six of the last 17 years are the warmest on record. “The frequency and intensity of extreme high temperature events are virtually certain to increase in the future as global temperature increases.” Humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise. Finally, we are experiencing the warmest period in the history of civilization.

Being attentive to the natural world since the mid-1950s, I am confident in making some observations about climate change, at least for the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England regions. First, the robins once departed in October and did not return until late February. Today I am not sure they ever really depart. Second, by mid-October, my garden was once dead. This year I am still weeding, and my gazanias, dahlias, geraniums, and petunias are still blooming. Third, I feel quite badly for the ladybugs who do not know whether to fly or to go into their winter suspension. Overall, it is simply uncanny how much winter has shortened. Back in the 1950s, I reached for my jacket by the end of September; by this time in November, I certainly needed an overcoat.

We can thank Washington politics for the release of the report evidently without any significant sanitizing by the Trump administration appointees who doubt the role of carbon dioxide and of humans in climate change. President Trump has described climate change as a “canard.” In August, President Trump rescinded an earlier executive order that urged federal agencies to consider climate change and sea-level rise when rebuilding infrastructure. His EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has said that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to warming. Energy Secretary Rick Perry maintains that the science is still out on whether humans cause climate change. It appears that the Trump administration was fixed on tax reform and did not wish to expend political capital in fighting over the report.

Regrettably, it is doubtful that the report will have any impact on the policies of this anti-climate administration. Unfazed, Raj Shah, a White House spokesman said in a business-as-usual statement: “The climate has changed and is always changing.” With such a Lazy Grasshopper attitude, this suggests that the U.S. will cede the technological high ground to China which will then dominate clean energy technology with its attendant political dividends.

China is already dominant in many low-carbon energy technologies. It produces two-thirds of the world’s solar panels and nearly half of the wind turbines. On a lake created by the collapse of abandoned coal mines in Luilong, China has built the world’s largest floating solar project. China is now leading the construction of the Quaid-e-Azam solar park in Pakistan, one of the world’s largest. China is also rapidly expanding its fleet of nuclear reactors and leads the world by far in hydroelectric power.

The country’s “Made in China 2025” program calls for heavy spending on clean-energy research and development, as a way to bolster the economy. State-owned banks are pouring tens of billions of dollars each year into technologies like solar and wind.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan is essentially a $1 trillion global campaign to generate economic and diplomatic ties through infrastructure building. It envisions the bankrolling of clean-energy projects across Asia, including the Mideast, East Africa, and Eastern Europe.

There is a famous line from Giuseppe Lampedusa’s 19th century, Italian novel, The Leopard, that goes: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If we wish to remain a superpower, we must become one in clean energy technologies, the Big Thing of the 21st century. With over 85% of the global market, China already dominates the rare earth minerals industry, of strategic importance to the US. On our current course, we should not be surprised when China also becomes the economic-technological hegemon in clean energy technologies.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches global environmental politics at Salve Regina University, RI.

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Martin Luther: Courageous Challenger of the Church

(Originally published by the Newport Daily News on October 31, 2017.)

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation with his 95 Theses, challenging the pope’s authority and denouncing the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Facilitated by the printing press, the Reformation spread throughout Christendom, creating a definitive schism which persists today, something which would have shocked Luther. He was hoping to reform the Catholic Church from within, not begin a political-social-religious revolution.

Luther was not the first individual to challenge the pope and Catholic Church doctrine during this time period. In the late 14th century, Oxford scholar John Wycliffe criticized the material wealth of the church and sought greater emphasis on scripture, drawing the church’s condemnation. In the 15th century, Jan Hus in the city of Prague of the Czech Republic also emphasized scripture over church hierarchy. He was arrested, charged with heresy, and burned at the stake in 1415.

Martin Luther began his religious vocation as a young man of 21. Caught in a terrible thunderstorm, he prayed to St. Anne that if he was saved, he would become a monk. Having lived through the storm, he fulfilled his vow by joining the monastic order of Augustinian Hermits in the German city of Erfurt. He pursued his quest for salvation relentlessly but found that no matter how devout and pious he acted, he still felt sinful.
Then came the revelation. Reading Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, Luther seized on another path to salvation besides good works and Catholic ritual: simply having faith in God’s promises, specifically belief in Jesus Christ as savior—justification by faith alone. Because he had achieved this epiphany through studying the Bible, he believed that scripture and not the pope or any of the Church leadership was the true path to religious understanding. Justification by faith and the Bible as sole authority would become the two fundamental pillars of the Protestant Reformation.

The spark that ignited Luther and the Reformation in 1517 was the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, supposedly allowing one’s soul to transit purgatory more quickly. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk, was the pope’s representative in Germany. Pope Leo X needed funds to continue the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel’s slogan was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1543

Luther was sickened and angered at this commercialization of salvation. He prepared his “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences,” known as the Ninety-Five Theses. According to tradition, he nailed these to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, October 31, 1517. They denounced indulgences as a means of salvation.

The Church ordered Luther to retract his statements, but he refused, repeatedly making statements denying the papal foundations of the church and claiming faith in Christ as the foundation.

In January 1521, a papal decree declared him a heretic and excommunicated him. Several months later in April, he appeared before the Imperial Diet (assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire, led by the Emperor Charles V. Luther stood brave and steadfast against the charges and made his famous reply:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot recant and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot to otherwise. God help me. Amen.

The printing press, invented in the mid-15th century, greatly facilitated the propagation of Luther’s ideas. His Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German. Now many common Germans, sharing his resentments toward an apparently corrupt Catholic Church, joined the movement. Over the next 130 years, Western Europe was riven by religious, political, and social turmoil, conflict, and war, ending in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War, the last of Europe’s religious wars.
On January 16 each year, Americans honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., so named by his father, a Baptist minister in Atlanta, who became interested in Luther during a trip to Europe.

It was on a research trip to Germany in 1991, shortly after German Unification, that I was able to spend several hours in Wittenberg in the former East Germany. I was thrilled to visit All Saints’ Church and Luther’s home. Naturally, I followed my sightseeing by eating a good bratwurst, German roll, und ein Bier.

This year the Germans have been celebrating the anniversary with over 1,000 events in 100 different locations. Minnesota may be the center of celebration in America. Lutheran Pastor Nancy Monke of Underwood, Minn., said: “The whole idea of individual freedom, that you can protest the church or any authority, really took off from him.”

Fred Zilian (; Twitter:@FredZilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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