BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company.

NEAL GABLER: We're now, you know, in a campaign season where what we're really watching is not so much political debate, though it's called that, as we are watching a movie in which candidates are contending to be our protagonist-in-chief.


CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Reading a poem can be an act of resistance, because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that's coming at us.

BILL MOYERS: And rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think it could happen. That could be us. What would I do.

Welcome. We haven’t even turned the page on the controversy over contraceptives, health care and religious freedom, when another thorny one comes into play involving personal conscience and public health. A flurry of stories over the past few days caught my eye, just after I had watched a movie that inspires more than passing interest in their subject.

NURSE IN CONTAGION: Does she have a history of seizures?



BILL MOYERS: Steven Soderbergh’s recent film Contagion is the most plausible experience of a global pandemic plague you’re likely to see until the real thing strikes. Stark, beautiful in its own terrifying way, and all too believable, the story tracks the swift progress of a deadly airborne virus…from Hong Kong to Minneapolis...Tokyo to London…from a handful of peanuts to a credit card to the cough of strangers on a subway. Rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think, “It could happen. That could be us. What would I do?”

Perhaps because the movie had invaded my head, for several days I kept coming across stories in the news about contagious disease. And the conflict between religious beliefs and immunization. Nothing new here about the basics: All fifty states require some specific vaccinations for kids. Yet all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons – say, for a child with cancer. Almost all of them grant religious exemptions. And 20 states allow exemptions for personal, moral, or other beliefs.

Some parents still fear a link between vaccinations and autism, a possibility science has largely debunked. Some parents just want to be in charge of what’s put into their children’s bodies.

And some parents just don’t trust science, period. So, you can see there are many loopholes. But now seven states are considering legislation to make it even easier for mothers and fathers to spare their children from vaccinations, especially on religious grounds.

In Oregon, according to a story by Jennifer Anderson in The Portland Tribune, the number of kindergartners with religious exemptions is up from 3.7 percent to 5.6 percent in just four years, and continuing to rise. This has public health officials clicking their calculators and keeping their eye on what’s called “herd immunity.” A certain number of any population group needs to have been vaccinated to maintain the ability of the whole population – “the herd” – to resist the spread of a disease. Ms. Anderson offers the example of what in my day was called “the German measles” – rubella. All it takes are five unvaccinated kids in a class of 25 for the herd immunity to break down, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread to younger siblings and to other medically vulnerable people who can’t be vaccinated. If you were traveling to Europe between 2009 and 2011, you may remember warnings about the huge outbreak of measles there – brought on by a “failure to vaccinate susceptible populations.”

Here in the U.S., several recent outbreaks of measles, have been traced to pockets of unvaccinated children in states that allow personal belief exemptions. The Reuters news service reports 13 confirmed cases of measles in central Indiana. Two of them were people who showed up for the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Patriot and Giants fans back east have been alerted. So far, no news is good news.

But this is serious business, made more so by complacency. My generation remembers when measles killed. Killed at as many as 500 people a year before we started vaccinating against them in 1963. My wife and I both lost grandparents in the great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed as many as forty million globally. Our generation was also stalked by small pox, polio, and whooping cough before there were vaccinations. In a country where few remember those diseases, it’s easy to think, “What’s to worry?” But as the movie so forcefully and hauntingly reminds us, the earth is now flat. Seven billion people live on it, and our human herd moves on a conveyer belt of constant mobility, so that a virus can travel as swiftly as a voice from one cell phone to another. When and if a contagion strikes, we can’t count on divine intervention to spare us. That’s when you want a darn good scientist in a research lab. We’ll need all the help we can get from knowledge and her offspring.

For all its many qualities, including some fine acting, “Contagion” was frozen out of the Oscars—not a single nomination. In fact, none of my favorites were nominated. Nonetheless, let’s go to the movies for some insights on our politics today, because when it comes to storytelling, Hollywood and Washington are co-dependents. Political conspiracies, skullduggery, and infighting have long provided solid plotlines for moviemakers. In turn, politicians try to embrace the values that movies depict as the noblest virtues of the American character: selfless courage, patriotism, sincerity and compassion. Both know that movie entertainment informs our image of what leaders should be but at the very same time capably and handily distracts us from certain grim truths.

So we’ve chosen this moment to talk with Neal Gabler, the historian of culture and film who expertly interprets how movies reflect our society and politics. Here in New York, Neal Gabler is an indispensable Saturday night guide to the movies on our flagship public station WNET/Thirteen.

NEAL GABLER on Reel 13: Welcome to Reel 13. I’m Neal Gabler.

BILL MOYERS: His books include biographies of Walt Disney and the powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, this one An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and my favorite, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He’s back in town after a semester as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Welcome home, Neal.

NEAL GABLER: Thank you very much.

BILL MOYERS: When you say life's a movie what are you saying?

NEAL GABLER: What I'm saying is that life itself has become an entertainment medium, that we are all actors in, and audience for, an ongoing show, that we have so steeped ourselves in the theatrical arts by watching them and ultimately by assimilating them that we have turned our own lives, and life outside of us, into a movie which we can watch and which we can perform in simultaneously.

I'll give you one example, you know, if you were to ask a farmer in the 19th century, or even in the 20th century for that matter, 'Why are you wearing overalls?' He would have looked at you in complete befuddlement. 'What do you mean why am I wearing overalls?'

But now we have people who walk down the street wearing cowboy hats from Ralph Lauren or wearing safari outfits from Ralph Lauren. You can, your clothing becomes a costume and you become a role player in some sort of fantasy.

And of course we see this in politics, you know, in spades where politics is a movie. And we're now, you know, in a campaign season where what we're really watching is not so much political debate, though it's called that, as we are watching a movie in which candidates are contending to be our protagonist-in-chief, as I would put it.

BILL MOYERS: Protagonist-in-chief--



NEAL GABLER: Meaning that they, themselves, see the country as a kind of movie and they want to be the hero of the movie because they understand that's what the American people really are looking for. They want a Clint Eastwood, they want a John Wayne. They want an Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the head of state.

BILL MOYERS: But we wanted heroes in the White House before there were movies. George Washington, hero; Andrew Jackson, hero; Ulysses S. Grant, hero. That was some-- that seems to be something inherent in human nature, not in the movies, per se.

NEAL GABLER: I mean, there’s a distinction between real heroes and celebrities who are people on whom we impute a kind of heroism who haven't really earned it. John Wayne is a perfect example. John Wayne never whenever to war, and yet almost everybody in America regards in as heroic because he played a hero.

So the lust for heroism I don't think is anything new. That's a product of human nature possibly, and it's certainly a tradition in America. But the difference is the nature of heroism, what we define as heroism and the way in which heroism gets framed. We have expectations now of our political leaders.

And the expectations are that our political leaders are going to operate the same way that movie heroes operate, not the traditional war heroes or whatever operate, but that movie heroes operate, and that they'll essentially slash their way through problems and vanquish them at the end of the presidency, which in this case is the end of the national movie.

BILL MOYERS: It used to be that the first reel contained a villain and the last reel contained a hero. But in politics it's just the opposite. Very often the hero, who gets elected is a villain by the time he takes office, right?

NEAL GABLER: Well, you know, the election is the greatest movie of all. And when the lights come up on election day and we leave the theater and we say as we did in 2008, as many people said, 'Boy, this is, what a great day for America that we could actually elect an African American to the presidency and that the slogans of hope and change that you can believe in, all these things are really operative.' But there's a sequel. And the sequel is governance. Now, as much as the movie of the election may be powerful and entertaining and even in some cases uplifting, governance is a whole different thing.

BILL MOYERS: So in the end are movies contributing to the paralysis and the frustrations of democracy? Because as you say, the movie is glamorous, governing is not.

NEAL GABLER: Absolutely. In fact I think the-- I would even go farther than that. I mean, governance is a very bad movie, it's a really lousy movie. Elections are a better movie because look at, elections fit into a clean framework of there's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser. It's essentially a sporting event.

But then, that contest ends and after that we have a whole different set of problems and situations, but there aren't clear winners and losers. There isn't the clear framework. There's not the clear sense of hero and villain as there was during the election as we impute those things onto our candidates. So governance is as I say, is a lousy movie. And we don't know how to deal with that.

BILL MOYERS: One of my favorite moments in one of the best political movies ever made, The Candidate, Robert Redford--

NEAL GABLER: Ah, wonderful movie.

BILL MOYERS: Remember he runs this race for the-- and he's elected.

NEAL GABLER: He’s selected, tapped as the Democratic candidate in California partly because he's the son of a former governor, but also because he looks like Robert Redford.


NEAL GABLER: You know, he's handsome and he's articulate and he gives the impression of sincerity, all the things that one needs to be elected. But there's no substance to the campaign whatsoever. And indeed, as the campaign goes on it becomes more and more about aesthetics.

About how one looks, how one appears, where one shows up. I mean, there's one scene in the movie where he walks down the beach just so he can be photographed for a television commercial and people come up to him and he looks like, boy, he's so relaxed, he's in his element. And then we get to the end of the movie. Now, he's elected and he goes to his political advisor-

MARVIN LUCAS in The Candidate: Okay, we have about 60 seconds of privacy before they find out we’re here now, so what’s on your mind, Senator?

BILL MCKAY in The Candidate: I don’t know.

MARVIN LUCAS in The Candidate: Okay, we got to get out there. See I told you they’d be here.

BILL MCKAY in The Candidate: Marvin, what do we do now?

MARVIN LUCAS in The Candidate: Wait a minute, wait a minute, what?

NEAL GABLER: Election's easy. Governance is hard.

BILL MOYERS: The hero of the campaign becomes a pretty weak figure at the moment of governance, right?

NEAL GABLER: If the campaign is about aesthetics. And that's what has happened in American politics.

BILL MOYERS: Earlier this week on CNN there was a headline that said, "Will the debate reveal a new Romney?" I mean, a new Romney is the-

NEAL GABLER: A new Romney? Well, here we have another debate and what's Romney's role going to be in this debate? How does he project himself? This is all about the narrative that the candidates are presenting to the public. And it's all about how well they can seduce the public. Now, the public's wise to this. It's not like the public is sitting back and they're stupid. The public gets this. They understand that this is-

BILL MOYERS: So why do we go along? Why do we go along with it?

NEAL GABLER: Well, I think--

BILL MOYERS: Because we-- after the election we are so frustrated, democracy's not working, nothing gets solved. And yet we were party to the movie, we were in the audience applauding when the new Romney emerged.

NEAL GABLER: You know, there's, I think, a kind of American schizophrenia about our politics. On the one hand we love to sit back and see these people be compelled to seduce us because elections are basically about seduction. And we understand, there's no fooling us that that's what the process is. So we sit there and we say, 'How well are they going to seduce us?'

But that also gives way to an incredible cynicism about the process. Americans are deeply cynical about politics generally. And one of the reasons we're cynical is because we get it. We get how it works. On the other hand we would have theoretically at our disposal the ability to change American politics, to say, you want to know something? I don't want to buy the new Romney, or the old Romney, or the new Gingrich, or the old Gingrich, or the new Santorum, or the old Santorum.

I want to know who a candidate really is. I want him to speak honestly and forcefully to me. And I also want to understand policy-wise what choices is he going to make? What interests are we going to-- is he going to serve? You know, these are questions that are almost never addressed in a political campaign and yet they're the fundamental questions of a political campaign.

BILL MOYERS: But let's go to The Candidate because there is another scene that I remember so well when Robert Redford, the candidate, tries to get his opponent and the media to take the issues seriously.

NEAL GABLER: This is the moment during the debate, if I'm not mistaken--


NEAL GABLER: Where he's debating his Republican rival, a three-term Republican senator. And he's saying, 'Look it, we've got to address the issues here. We're not addressing the issues.'

DEBATE MODERATOR in The Candidate: Mr. McKay, you now have one minute to sum up. Mr. McKay?

BILL McKAY in The Candidate: In the begin-- I don’t, I think it’s important to note what subjects we haven’t discussed. We completely ignored the fact that this is society divided by fear, hatred, and violence. And until we talk about just what this society really is than I don’t know how we’re going to change it. For example, we haven’t discussed the rot that destroys our cities. We have all the resources we need to check it and we don’t use them. And we haven’t discussed why not. We haven’t discussed race in this country, we haven’t discussed poverty, in short, we haven’t discussed any of the sicknesses that may yet send this country up in flames. And we’d better do it. We’d better get it out in the open and confront it. Before it’s too late.

NEAL GABLER: And his handlers absolutely feel that he's done the absolutely wrong thing in trying to compel the press to address issues in an aesthetic campaign.

But the difference today would be that there would be a headline that the candidate says, Redford says, 'America is rotten,' or, 'America is sick.' And everyone would jump on it and then he would be compelled to come before the camera and say, 'I didn't say that America was rotten and I didn't way that America was sick.'

Now, interestingly, we've seen Newt Gingrich do a variation on this, and I think it's fascinating, it's kind of post-modernist. Because Gingrich is going around saying, that, you know, we don't talk enough about policy. We really ought to talk about policy. We're talking about personal things, but we really ought to talk about policy. But in talking about talking about policy, he never talks about policy. He's simply talking about talking about policy. Now, this is a wonderful trick. It makes him sound as if he really wants to address policy without ever having to do so.

BILL MOYERS: So would Mitt Romney get the role of playing Mitt Romney if there were a movie about which Mitt Romney is going to win?

NEAL GABLER: Well, it depends on which Mitt Romney you want in the movie. I mean, I think what Mitt Romney has done is he's created the narrative that he is the strong businessman. And he looks the part, and that's one of the reasons why he can play this role.

On the other hand, that narrative has not played well with the Republican constituency. Because they don't care whether he's a strong businessman. What they want to know is, does he have the courage of his convictions which is essentially the courage of their convictions, their conservative convictions.

So Romney's problem in this campaign is his narrative is the wrong narrative. He's playing the wrong role. They want to see if he has courage. They don't want to see that he has the financial acumen to run the economy, they don't care. And this is a very difficult thing to do. He's miscast. What makes a great actor? What makes a great actor is the authenticity. You believe in that performance. That's great acting.

And, what we do is we get a candidate, Gingrich, you know, coming along and saying, 'Well, I'm authentic because I'm going to-- I say what I want to say. I don't pull my punches.' And then he gets taken down. Now Santorum is cast in the same way. Why is Santorum being boosted? Because he's sincere.

BILL MOYERS: You say in here that we escape from life by escaping into a neat narrative formula. Isn't that true of politics, as well? Movies give us a neat story, a neat drama with a beginning, a middle and an end and we like that even though politics isn't really like that?

NEAL GABLER: Politics is antithetical really to the values of movies even though the values of movies as I said earlier permeate politics, and that's a problem. You know, Americans love democracy, but they hate politics. And politics is one of the things that gives us democracy.

BILL MOYERS: I would have thought just the opposite. They love politics, witness the audiences for the debates, witness the enthusiasm of the crowd. But it's the working of democracy they don't like.

NEAL GABLER: Well they love the theatricality of politics. But when I say politics I don't mean the horse race aspect of it. I mean the bargaining, the negotiations, the policy, all of those things which are the essence of real politics and political decision making, Americans hate that and they are cynical about that. They feel it doesn't work.

And that is not a healthy situation for democracy. What we have to do is embrace the fact that democracy's a mess. Movies are not, movies are clean. Democracy is a mess. That's what makes it democracy.

It's about finding out how interests get resolved, that's what democracy's about. Movies aren't about that. Movies are about vanquishing a villain, that's what movies are about. And what happens in American politics is that notice how, and we see this in the Republican debate, that idea of vanquishing the villain, in this case Barack Obama, has become the political meme.

It's not about policy. It's not about interests. It's about, there's this bad guy in the White House and we've got to defeat him. That's Batman. That's not really the way the political system would operate. And it contributes to polarization.

BILL MOYERS: Have you seen Ides of March with--

NEAL GABLER: Yes, I have, yes.

BILL MOYERS: George Clooney? There's a moment in there where he talks differently about religion from the way many candidates including Santorum are doing. Let me play that for us.

GOVERNOR MORRIS in The Ides of March: I am not a Christian, or an atheist. I'm not Jewish or Muslim. What I believe, my religion, is written on a piece of paper called the Constitution. Meaning, that I will defend, until my dying breath, your right to worship, in whatever God you believe in. As long as it doesn't hurt others. I believe we should be judged as a country by how we take care of the people who cannot take care of themselves. That's my religion. If you think I’m not religious enough, don't vote for me. If you think I’m not experienced enough, or tall enough, then don't vote for me. Because I can’t change that to get elected.

NEAL GABLER: Of course, if anybody had ever said what Clooney says here, and again this is where we get this kind of schizophrenia, we love candidates who are forthright on the movies. We love candidates in the movies who say what they want to say and just rip the cover off the ball and, you know.

But in real life if a candidate ever said that he would have doomed his chances to be elected in a second because the headline would be-- and every one of his opponents would say, 'Doesn't believe in God. Clooney doesn't believe in God.' And then for a week the narrative that week would be him having to come back and def—'I never said I don't believe in God.' And you know, this is the kind of idiocy that absolutely overtakes the American political narrative. But this is the only-- the only thing we get is idiocy. We get one-

BILL MOYERS: We're a nation of idiots?

NEAL GABLER: I won't say we're a nation of idiots although I will say this-- I would never say that of course. Because if I said that-

BILL MOYERS: In a movie you would.

NEAL GABLER: That would-- in a movie I would, in a movie, absolutely. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: We'll do a movie.

NEAL GABLER: But I would say that we allow this kind of thing to happen, we let it happen. And we let the media promulgate this sort of thing and we don't put our feet down and say, 'You know, enough, enough.'

And I think we have to shame the public and the media, shame them, into saying, 'Look, as a citizen this is your responsibility. It's not your responsibility to watch, you know, woodpeckers in a debate, you know, knock one another's heads. That's entertaining and it's fun and all of that, but now you have a duty. You have a responsibility.'

We've got an Occupy Wall Street movement. We now need an Occupy Media movement in which, you know, ordinary people say, 'I want a real debate on issues.' And find the resources to do that.

BILL MOYERS: But in a society so thoroughly saturated with entertainment, aren't we losing our capacity for the sustained or more serious ideas?

NEAL GABLER: We are losing our idealism. We are losing our ability to process these things. We outsource our opinions. I mean, when you look at Fox News and MSNBC for example, and they're not the only culprits, what do they really represent? I mean, people always say, 'Well, they're, they market to a niche.' But what they really represent is outsourcing our own opinions.

Yeah, we don't have to think. We can outsource it to Fox. We kind of agree with them generally, we kind of generally agree with MSNBC, so now we've outsourced it. They'll do it for us.

So in some ways in this media saturated, entertainment saturated culture what we have to do, it's imperative for us to do this, is disenchant ourselves, get ourselves out of the movie, leave the theater for a moment and say, what is the real impact?

When we get into the cold light of the sidewalk after the movie is over, what is the impact of all this? What is it going to mean for my life? What is it going to mean for America? And if we don't start asking those questions we can't move this forward at all. All we're going to get is punditry and analysis of who's winning and who's losing and a movie. We'll get nothing but the movie. But the problem is movies don't answer the pressing questions of America. Policy answers the pressing questions of America and we have to demand to know what these guys are going to do and what choices they're going to make.

BILL MOYERS: Neal Gabler, we'll continue this conversation as the year goes on. Thank you for joining me.

NEAL GABLER: Thank you so much, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: You may have seen the evangelist Franklin Graham on MSNBC a few days ago saying he’s not sure if President Obama is a Christian or a Muslim. Or maybe you saw Republican Rick Santorum calling Obama’s agenda some phony theology, not a theology based on the "Bible." Here we go again.

When religion is used as a bludgeon. When political campaigns duke it out over religious beliefs, descending to strident partisan shouts of holier than thou, it’s hard to remember that true faith and reason still can be part of what it means to be human. Often, it is the words and ideas of our poets that remind us. One of them, William Carlos Williams wrote:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

Today, a kindred spirit finds in poetry a way to face death with a graceful equanimity built on faith. A native of West Texas, Christian Wiman has published three critically acclaimed volumes of poetry including this most recent, Every Riven Thing. And a collection of personal and critical essays," Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet." He’s the editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English speaking world. This year, Poetry magazine marks its 100th anniversary.

Of late, Wiman’s poetry has been informed by several transformative experiences, including the diagnosis of a rare and incurable blood cancer, six years ago on his 39th birthday.

Christian Wiman, welcome.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: One critic, who praises your new book of poetry, Every Riven Thing, says we are a God-hungry nation. "Politicians," he says, "know it. And it just might be time for poets to know it." But don't poets know it? I mean, some of our most powerful inner emotions rise from poetry?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Oh, yeah, and I think, I think poets do know it. I think poetry has always done that. I think it’s a grave mistake for poets to give up on belief altogether, to give up on faith altogether. I don't know many who do.

BILL MOYERS: Why have you been writing so much about religion?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: It's interesting. You know, I went for a long time without being able to write, and I’d devoted my life to poetry and I felt that was my call. And it went away for a long time, for a number of years, I was sort of in the desert and in despair. And I had three things that happened to me in quick succession. And one was that I fell in love with the woman who's now my wife and that sort of caused the world that – it had seemed to go dead for me -- it caused it all to come alive. And shortly after that I started writing again. And about the same time that that happened, I got a terrible diagnosis of an incurable cancer, which I've been living for a number of years, but has been at times really rough. My wife and I when we fell in love, we found ourselves saying prayers occasionally. And both of us were from religious backgrounds, but had fallen away, me much further than she. Once the diagnosis hit we needed some more formal way of living that faith. And of feeling it. And we found ourselves going to a church around the corner. It just happened to be at the end of our block.

BILL MOYERS: In Chicago?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: In Chicago, small church, nondescript, and they happened to have this wonderful preacher. And he and I became friends. We would just talk. You know, he's much more orthodox than I am. He’s a person of much clearer faith than I am. I feel like I'm very confused and in my faith. But we just talked. And we argued and I would say those discussion lightened things for me so utterly. And made me feel close to God in a way that nothing else has.

BILL MOYERS: After your diagnosis, you went back to West Texas where you'd grown up, right? Is West Texas still the country of your heart?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Absolutely. It's the place that I return to in my imagination. And I find that nothing will take fire, except that landscape. Well, in places, it's just completely flat, so that you see all the way to the horizon. It's like the sky becomes this huge eye that's over you, just 'cause it takes on a curve from horizon to horizon. In other places, it's ranch land, and so it's cattle country. And so there are scrubs, scrub cedar and mesquite trees. And so it's incredibly rugged. The wind blows. We used to have these tremendous sand storms, where everything would just go dark.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the people you grew up within West Texas are in these poems in a very powerful way. You have described life for them "was a battering ram the Lord used to shatter men's hearts."

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: My mother's father killed my mother's mother, in front of her, when she was 14 years old, in front of her two brothers, as well. And then killed himself, when they all ran out of the room. And so I grew up with that as well, images of this extreme violence. I think an act like that has certainly, you know, ramified through the years, in her own life. And it continues to echo in other lives for a long time, when something like that happens in a family, it just, it has a long tail.

But interestingly, my closest relationship I hadn't thought of this 'til right now, but my closest relationship was with my grandmother. She represented a kind of consciousness to me that is not found in, has not gotten from books. It's not intellectual. She was simply in her world so utterly and knew her world so utterly, every flower, every kind of grass that was out there in the yard, every kind of insect, every bird, I mean, utterly, she knew it. And she seemed to me to have a kind of existence that was in some ways exemplary.

In fact, let me read a new poem. This was written, this was the last poem I wrote. And I wrote it in the hospital, before the chemo, I wrote it in one day. And then the chemo the next day obliterated me. And so I had this one window when this poem was given to me. And I wrote this. And this returns to Texas an image from my childhood. It doesn't have a title. It's untitled.
"Love’s last

"is earth
and grief is all

and the long fall

back to earliest

that exist

but in one’s brain.

"From the hard-
packed pile

"of old-mown

"from boredom,
from pain,

"a boy’s
random slash

a dark ardor

"of angry bees
that link

"the trees and block
his way home.

"I like to hold him
holding me,

mastering fear,

"so young,
standing unstung

"under what survives
of sky.

"I learned too late
how to live.

"Child, teach me
how to die."

BILL MOYERS: Who are you addressing there?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: The child that I was. The child that I was. I think, well that first line says it all. "Love's last / urgency / is earth." I think there's a notion that when you're sick, when you're in danger of dying, that you want to get beyond. You know, you would think you want experience that takes you beyond the earth. You want some sense of an afterlife or, you know, something some sense of a beyond.

But my experience has been just the opposite that when you feel threatened, what, in fact, you want is the earth. You want, you want concreteness. And that's what, that's what rescues you. And I think we talk too much about how poetry can get to the edge of the sayable, can take us back and take us beyond what can be said. I love poetry, because it gives me the concrete. It gives me concrete experience and it helps me to understand my experience.

BILL MOYERS: So you fell in love, the diagnosis, and what was the third thing?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I started writing again. I started writing again.

BILL MOYERS: After the diagnosis, after falling in love?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Yes. And I started writing poems again. But somewhere along in there, it became clear to me, I think you know, you don't come to faith. It can't just be a sort of, it's not just an accoutrement to your life. It's not an appendage to your life. If you open yourself up to faith there's every possibility that it will change your life radically.

And one of the changes that it asked of me was that I change what I was writing. And so I wrote a whole prose book, which is coming out in a year. That book is wrestling with what it means to be a believer at this time, in this culture.

BILL MOYERS: There was a marvelous essay in The New York Times by Eric Weiner, whose most recent book is Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.

He says Americans are undecided about God. He says, "We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone … who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious … [T]his new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive ... [It would] celebrate doubt, encourage experimentation, and allow one to utter the word God without embarrassment." (Sic) And I must say, I thought he was describing you.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I do think he's really onto something in suggesting that we need a new language for belief. That people find the old language inadequate. And that in some way we need to find new language that articulates this urge that's in us. It's in all of us, too. And I think poets are actually at the forefront of this. That they are finding it. That they are finding ways of articulating what we all feel.

BILL MOYERS: The critic, Clive James, an Australian living in London now. He was on one of my earlier broadcasts. And we talked about the subject you and I are discussing, God. Let me play for you something he said.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of God would you have reinvent Western civilization?

CLIVE JAMES: Well, I wouldn't. Because God didn't invent it in the first place. And this doesn't make me an atheist. I don't want to be defined as an atheist anymore as I want to be defined as someone who drinks water.

To me, to me the fact there is no heavenly power that intervenes has been obvious since I was a kid. If there had been it would have brought my father home. If there had been a heavenly power that could intervene that power would have saved the children from the death camps. One and a half million children were being exterminated for no reason at all when I was their age. I never got over it. I still haven't got over it.

Of course, there's no heavenly force that intervenes. But on the other hand, there is a religious sense. I think that all the arts and everything to do with them are heavenly order. I experience them as a heavenly order.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Clive is projecting a human God. And so he's angry at the God for allowing these things to happen. But that is a projection. That is a humanized notion of what God is. And I think we have to get beyond that. I do think that Clive is, I mean, I'm sympathetic to what he says. I think he is objecting to the notion, the traditional notions of God, which I think we have to do. And he does recognize the sacred nature of art or the sacred nature of people's experience.

BILL MOYERS: Why does that appeal to you?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: One of the ways in which I feel close to God is writing poetry, even when it has nothing to do with God. There is something in the nature of artistic creation, I think Clive was putting his finger on it. Wherein you become, well, it's an ancient notion. You become a vessel for the Gods, they thought. And I think something speaks through us. I mean, you know, contemporary psychologists might say it's you know, you’re just neurological. It's you know, that's--

BILL MOYERS: The God spot that--


BILL MOYERS: God spot, which neurologists are calling this experience of the filter between our brain and the world just sort of disappearing. And you're at quote "one with the universe.”

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Well, I think that's why creation is at once this tremendous elation and also a grief afterwards.


CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Yeah, I think you are filled and then you're not. And a poet is someone who has to exist between those moments. And between those moments, you don't feel like a poet, you know? You don't, it's been two months since I've written a poem and I don't feel at all like a poet. It goes away, you know? You're just a person going about your life like anyone else. And the gift seems not yours. It seems on loan. Whereas with prose, you can do that any time. You can crank that out.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to journalism. Yeah, well, you describe moments in life when and I'm quoting you directly here, "It is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if we ourselves, as if we ourselves were being perceived." What were some of those moments for you?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Certainly falling in love. I, it was as if the world just looked back at me. And it was a mysterious, mystical experience for some time. And there have been other instances. There have been instances of grief, of great grief. Around my diagnosis, because they happened so soon after we fell in love. We had not even been married a year, when I was diagnosed. And there were moments around then when that the suffering made possible that, when it seemed like the world was looking back at me. It was just lit, just radiant.

Simone Weil says that you can't have a supernatural experience of suffering until you've had a supernatural experience of joy. And I don't know if that's true, but it was true to my own experience. And during that time, when I fell in love with my wife, in that time afterward, it was as if reality was just over brimming its boundaries. And I needed to thank somebody. There was so much excess energy, so much excess, so much joy. I needed to I needed to praise it. And so I needed to pray.

BILL MOYERS: Do the words omnipotent, eternal, omniscient say anything to you about God?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: No, I don't think we can even know what those words mean. They're just, all we can think of is, if you think of power, you can only think of human power. And so something that's all powerful, it just means they have all the power that we can imagine. It's meaningless. Those are meaningless words.

This is called Lord of Having.
"Lord of having
hell at hand
Lord of losing
what I have
this heaven now

"may I move
in time
like a cloud
in sky
my torn form
the wind's
one sign

"may my suffering be
as of water
in some reach
of rock
it would take
to ascend
and see

"and may my hands
my eyes
the very nub
of my tongue
be scrubbed
out of this hour
if I should utter
the dirty word

BILL MOYERS: The dirty word?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Yeah, I don't want to think about eternity. It's like the eternal and omniscient. It's one of those words that has no meaning. My imagination just goes dead when I think of the word eternity. And I think we have to think of now. We have to live in time and deal with time. And so I don't want to, I don't think of, I don't think of my life as, I don't think of eternity.

BILL MOYERS: When you stopped writing, and this was before you fell in love, when you stopped writing, was it in any way connected to a crisis of faith?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I think in retrospect, it certainly was a crisis of faith. I think I mean, a crisis of faith is the only crisis there is. We're always having it. Everyone's always having it. We mistake it for other things. 'It's a crisis of my job. It's a crisis of my marriage. It's a crisis of this.'

I think it's always a crisis of how are we relating to our ultimate concern? If life is messing up, it's messing up, because we are somehow out of whack with our ultimate concerns. There may be things that we've got to take care of, there often are. But that’s, you can't fix your life, if the ground of your being is messed up. If the ground of your being is unsure, then your life will always be unsure.

BILL MOYERS: It sounds to me as if this is what you mean, when you write, "Two or three times every expression of faith is provisional."

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I think so, because I may speak constantly about faith, but I'll fall away the minute I walk out of here. You know, I think we are condemned to express things provisionally, to live in contingency. And I think that's just, that's just the way it is. That's why I'm so moved by Christ, the notion of Christ, the incarnation, because that is an intrusion of God into reality, into the contingent nature of our lives.

BILL MOYERS: "All reality," you wrote, "is the expression of God." Including sorrow. That is very powerful in your experience, is it not?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: It is, I do believe that there is something in Christianity that makes suffering sacred. It does give a meaning to suffering, even when we can't understand it. I don't claim to have been good about this. I've spent a lot of time in the hospital in the last year, and there have been times when I've been in complete despair. And have felt faith fall away.

Well, again, Simone Weil comes to mind. She says that you know, the greatness of Christianity is not that it gives you a remedy for suffering, and I must say I've never felt a remedy, a religious remedy from suffering or for suffering. It's not that it gives you a remedy for it, but it gives a use for it. It puts suffering in a place. It gives a pattern. The complete consort dancing together as Elliot put it, it makes suffering part of the meaning of your life. And not this meaningless thing that destroys us. We go through life and suddenly we're destroyed by suffering. You know, all life becomes is just a way to avoid suffering. And I think Christianity gives meaning to it.

BILL MOYERS: Perhaps this is what poet, why poetry and religious sentiment are so powerful together. That poetry is the intensity of our experience here.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: And we live for these moments of intensity, you know? When we think of our memories, it's moments of intensity. Whether they were sorrowful or happy, moments of great loneliness or moments of great communion. We live for these moments in our life. And I do think poetry that is a way of, it's a way of recognizing the moments, first of all, in your life. But also a way of preserving them.

BILL MOYERS: So this intensity visited you when you fell in love. You felt it again, when you had a diagnosis. Tell me about that. What was the disease?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: It's called Waldenström's macroglobulinemia. And there have been complications after that. So I have something, additional things now. But it's a very rare cancer. It is in the bone marrow, primarily. But also it's everywhere in your body. And it is completely unpredictable. Some people die quickly, some people live 30 years with it. And it doesn't even change. It doesn't even do anything in their bodies.

BILL MOYERS: But you were told, if I understand it, that you could die very soon.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: It looked like it at the beginning. And I've had two-- I've had a bone marrow transplant. So I have been on the verge of dying a couple of times. So it's been very difficult. I think less so being close to death than being in great pain. I think being in great pain, and I'm talking really serious pain, islands you from everybody. It takes you away from everybody.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote this essay in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin for the Winter/Spring of 2012. And you describe this pain and this experience. Would you read that?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Sure. "Six years have passed since I wrote the first words of these notes. I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die; joints lock in my face and arms and legs so that I could not eat, could not walk; cancer pack[ed] my marrow to the point that it began to expand excruciatingly inside my bones. I … filled my body with mouse antibodies, small molecules, chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been islanded even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury."

BILL MOYERS: What sustained you through all that?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Oh, I think my family sustained me through it. And I think that faith does sustain me. You know, my sense of faith is often not counter to the man in that article that you were talking about earlier, or counter to Alfred North Whitehead, actually, whom he quotes. He's saying that religion is what we do in our solitariness. I do not think that's true. I think we have those solitary experiences of the divine, but that's not religion.

Religion is everything after those moments of solitude. One thing that sustained me is not those solitary moments, which I found conducive to despair. What sustained me was the company of other people who believe. And I was able to talk to them and to take comfort from them. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother's heart than in our own. Now you don't have to be a Christian for that, to understand what that means. You've got to have other people. And you need other people to sustain yourself and to sustain your faith.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote this poem that is particularly -- I think seems particularly pertinent right there in "Every Riven Thing."

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I wrote this poem, after the diagnosis, after we had gone back to church.
"God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself;
under the tree, a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see.

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made."

I suspect that's one that Clive James hates.

BILL MOYERS: He says this is a favorable time for poetry, when everything is against it. What do you think he means that it's, everything is against it, therefore it's a favorable time?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Well, I think what he must mean is that everything seems to be aligned against the kind of inner life that poetry requires, against the kind of consciousness that poetry requires. And the world seems to be going faster and faster, and our attention seems to be more and more fragmented on these various, in various ways. And threatening the inner life. And what I would say is that poetry is a bulwark against these things. That I think people will realize, in the midst of all this, that they need some way of putting up resistance to it. And reading a poem can be an act of resistance, because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that's coming at us.

BILL MOYERS: So what's the prognosis for you?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Well, I just had a bone marrow transplant, so I just have to wait and see. There's no, there's no way to know. You just wait and see now.

BILL MOYERS: But you write, "I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening shadow of death."

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I feel death around me all the time. And I, my wife doesn't like this poem I read, "Love's last / urgency / is earth," because I say, "teach me / how to die." At the time, it seemed like I was going to die. I felt it very present, but I don't think, I think of learning how to die is a long process. And I don't think of this as somehow a swan song. So you know, I expect to be around.

BILL MOYERS: To which many of us would say, amen.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Oh, thanks, Bill, thanks.

BILL MOYERS: Thanks for being with us.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

BILL MOYERS: That’s all for this week. We're starting a pledge period on public television, so for the next two or three weeks we'll be preempted on some stations. But you can always watch us online at You'll also find there more clips from Hollywood movies that depict the odd ways of American politicians.

There’s also more poetry from Christian Wiman, and links to help separate fact from fiction in the vaccination debate.

That’s all at See you there and see you here next time.

Watch By Segment

  • Poet Christian Wiman on Love, Faith, and Cancer

    Film historian Neal Gabler discusses how films color our political expectations. Also, poet Christian Wiman on faith, love, and despair; and a Bill Moyers Essay on the price we all may pay when parents opt out of immunization.

    Poet Christian Wiman on Love, Faith, and Cancer
  • Neil Gabler on How Pop Culture Influences Political Expectations

    Film historian Neal Gabler discusses how films color our political expectations. Also, poet Christian Wiman on faith, love, and despair; and a Bill Moyers Essay on the price we all may pay when parents opt out of immunization.

    Neil Gabler on How Pop Culture Influences Political Expectations
  • Bill Moyers Essay: Are Immunization Exemptions Fair to All?

    Film historian Neal Gabler discusses how films color our political expectations. Also, poet Christian Wiman on faith, love, and despair; and a Bill Moyers Essay on the price we all may pay when parents opt out of immunization.

    Melinda Anderman of Duxbury holds her four and a half-year-old daughter, Margaret, as she gets an H1N1 vaccination during a flu clinic in Montpelier, Vt. November 2009. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
    Bill Moyers Essay: Are Immunization Exemptions Fair to All?

Where Movies End and Politics Begins

February 24, 2012

This weekend’s Moyers & Company starts with a compelling Bill Moyers Essay: Is it fair for parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children on the basis of religion or philosophy? Bill weighs the value of personal liberty versus the greater public health.

Next, film historian and culture critic Neal Gabler joins Bill to discuss how representations of heroism in movies shape our expectations of a U.S. president, and how our real-world candidates are packaged into superficial, two-dimensional personas designed to appeal to both the electorate and the media. As a result, says Gabler, we never get to the true pressing questions and issues of America.

Finally, Bill has a moving conversation with acclaimed poet and Poetry Magazine editor Christian Wiman about how finding true love and being diagnosed with a rare and incurable blood cancer reignited his religious passion as well as his creative expression.

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  • Leolady

    I think there is a growing distrust of big Pharma and many of these comments reflect this. From a scientific perspective, the way the pharmceutical companies do their clinical trials is often suspect. For example, the difference between a drug and placebo are often tiny, negative trials are rarely reported, and drugs for the same conditions marketed by different pharamceutical houses are never entered in head to head comparison. Then, too, the pharma houses spend more on marketing than they do on research. All of this adds up to lots of justified distrust on the part of the public.

  • Crystal Silva

    Right on Leolady!!  I agree the pharmceutical companies are no different in the role they play in medicine than the banks were in the finacial arena.  It’s all about greed and infamy.  There is a cover up with the vacines.  I read the info about the monkeys that were uses for creating the vacines, etc.  Then all of a sudden that information got all hushed up….like it never existed.  This is scary stuff.

  • Joan Moore

    American Science has been seriously, if not irrivocably undermined by superstition, politics and greed.  On the world stage, USAmerican research in the areas of health and pharmacudicals cannot be trusted  because profit is the primary motive of every action.  The cure for cancer would be covered up if there was more money to be made in treating the desease than eliminating it.  
    The USA is not a moral nation in any sense of the word not withstanding it excessive religiosity.   The citizens clearly don’t like or trust each other very much at all.  Our health care system is the worst in the industrialized world and we know it, but don’t care because paying for someone else’s care is somehow a moral hazard in the USA.  Not once during the whole health care debate did our lawmakers discuss the morality of caring for the sick and injured for the profit motive alone.  It never entered the discussion.  There was much greater concern that USAmericans should take responsibilty for themselves and not rely on the society for such things.   Medical Doctors and nurses were arrested in the halls of congress because they appeared at a hearing demanding that Single payer health care be subject to discussion.  It was shameful to see those brave men and women pulled away by guards for doing the right thing.  Shameful too, to see the government hijacked by corporate cronism and people getting rich on the backs of the sick and elderly who need care.

  • Terrellcastron

    Great interview with Chris Wiman – very touching. I pray he continues writing poetry.

  • Patte

    I would like very much for Bill to ask Chris two questions: “To whom do you pray?” and “Who/what is responsible for evil?”

  • joely

    I wouldn’t trust someone who can’t pronounce “heroism” to define the term.

  • Carl Howard

    I’m afraid I was quite disappointed with the Gabler segment.   Far from instructive, I found it instead, a rather smug, wonkish, intellectual exercise.  There are far more insightful discussions to be found on the current media circus phenomenon which American politics has become, on any given episode of “Up With Chris Hayes” (interspersed with any number of obscene propaganda commercials for the dirty energy lobby.
    This segment was, instead, like going to a dinner theater to watch a recreation of “My Dinner With Andre.”

  • Anonymous

    I think the Gabler segment was enormously interesting.  Probably because I, a Canadian, follow American elections because they’re so entertaining.  After all, Americans are nothing if not entertaining and interesting.  Compared to Canada’s short and rather boring (and relatively inexpensive) elections, where all that matters is how you’re going to vote — not who, but how — American has these mud-wrestling matches, where you get to cheer for whomever you think is doing the best at performing his political position.  

    And although I think a lot about how I would vote if  I were an American, and I’m almost always happy that I don’t have to worry about it.  Even in 2008, when the whole world was swooning over Obama, I couldn’t help thinking about how he promised Americans that he would seriously review NAFTA with a view to ending the US involvement in it, while at the same time “telegraphing” Stephen Harper not to worry — that this was only “election rhetoric.”  And I was also not so pro-Obama when, the day after he won the primaries, he scuttled right over to the AIPAC conference to assure the Zionists that “Jerusalem would never be divided” — totally in contradiction to his election promise to pursue a just and fair end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Like the vast majority of Canadians, I am fond of the American nation but fearful of the American state.  Therefore, entertaining as US elections are, I am deeply saddened that the circus performance which constitutes American elections is not going to help Americans choose the positive way forward.  American politics is deeply corrupt, and there is nobody running for office who will have to power to clean up that corruption.  I find that melancholy.

    Thanks you, Bill Moyers, for another excellent and thought-provoking episode.  You are a true American patriot.

  • Kpbuck

    There are few places left where we can still find objective stories about important issues.  You have done it again!

  • PAT

    Finally someone has asked the question (even though it was asked with a small laugh)…Are we a nation of idiots?  My opinion is yes we are, and I have come to that decision because our nation’s political escapades have led me to the path of cynicism.

  • Neale miller

    YOU HIT THIS ONE OUT OF THE PARK! I struggle to stay involved while swinging between cynacism and skeptacism  it all seems to be a huge game with no logical rules.

  • Anonymous

    Another example of someone who tries to “play a hero” is Obama.  He wants to “do heroic things” with other people’s money.

  • Anonymous

    The CDC should address the vaccine ignorance by simply doing one of its job.  It should issue travel “concerns” for states in which insufficient vaccination leaves people at risk.  If I’m a resident of a state that has responsible vaccination levels, I have the RIGHT to know what states do not have responsible vaccination levels so I can protect my children by not taking my family there.

  • Anonymous

    It’s the tobacco industry wars on steroids.

  • Fegagne

    Dear Bill Moyers:  Neal Gabler out-thinks himself.  He double-talks a lot too.   I do not believe that most Americans are losing their ideals.  Americans weill put their feet down with their votes.  I am delighted with the current political circus because the republican leadership has actually asked for this.    Our President is definitely not a ‘bad guy’.  It is basically the republican leadership, the speaker of the House and Mr. McConnell, who have set up the tone of tes whole thing.  I dont believe that the republican candidates can speak on any issues because clearly they don’t have any.  Our President speaks on the isssues, and I hang on his every word, as do many other Americans, I believe.  Hooray for Democracy, where the crazies can fall by the wayside. 

    Faith Gagne

  • Jerry

    There are so many shadows fill each day and then along comes Bill Moyers and Guests who bring the adventure of life to a new level of meaning.  Thank, you Mr. Moyers, for being acitve again in conversations with such special people as Ned Galder and Christian Wiman.  Robert Fulghum talked about how myth trumps reality.  I am inclined to believe that, but also believe that the substance of your conversations offers a kind of reality that can be treasured.

  • George Wright

    Mr. Gabler’s perspective was insightful and relevant, 
    but it is not very profound.  The root causes for the “Crisis of Democracy” the United States faces are much deeper for political and structural reasons.  The fundamental political reason is owing to the reality that the Founding Fathers brilliantly created a political system that has the allusion of democracy but owing to “check and balances”  prohibits the majority to effectively address serious issues unless dominant economic interests are willing to also address those issues; and when they do the outcome is reform without altering the balance of power.  Certainly, the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal saw dramatic changes but the outcome always was that the dominant interest were still on top and capitalism was better off.  And, in the mid-to-late 1960’s when New Deal-Great Society policies and Keynesian mechanism began to severely undermine corporate profit rates, the dominant interests, aligned with the newly emergent New Right, began a near 40 year assault on the working classes (and I include the so-called middle class in that formation.)Therefore, today, to address the vast array of issues and crises effectively and fairly—poverty, the regressive tax structure, environmental degradation, permanent war,—would go diametrically opposite what Wall Street, the arms industries, the insurance companies, etc. want.  That agenda is to completely suck the resources (money, jobs, etc.) from the public sector, working classes, the poor, disabled, without any regard to the implications. (An agenda that is known world-wide as “Neo-Liberalism.) Therefore, gridlock, distraction, despair, and Hollywoodism (to coin a phrase) is more than desirable, it is the order of the day.There is a literature which  has addressed the conumdrum of politics, and combined thoroughly helps our society understand why we are in this mess. That literature starts with: Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913); Richard Hofstadter, “The Founding Fathers,” in American Political Tradition (1948); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956);G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America: Power, Politics, and Social Change (1967); and, David Harvey, Neo-Liberalism: A Brief History (2005).

  • Shmady1

     Your comment is a perfect example of the a fore mentioned cynicism. Forgetting Bin Laden, Iraq, etc. just so you can play your bit part in the “B” movie of elections. Kinda sad.

  • larry blair

    Moyers, simply the most genuine and thought provoking
    journalist alive today !!!!

  • Ronald Shenberger

    Outstanding interviews

  • Jccasper

    If I were  given an hour to spend with any one person here on earth I would choose to spend that hour with  Bill Moyers. Over the years I have watched his programs on PBS and read his books, and I know that he has been a powerful force in my own creative, mental and spiritual evolution. I would like to say thank you!

    John C Casper

  • Dudley Varner

    For me this was a very special program today.  Thank you, Bill.

  • Faith

    Great segment with Christian Wiman.
    Honestly never heard of him but from what was read of his work – very
    talented and intensely profound.

    I understand him considering “eternity”
    a bad word because it takes away from his immense recent experiences
    (love, cancer diagnosis, and re-connection with his art) but my
    opinion is that we always exist in eternity.

    Because we’re trapped in the human
    experience, and as Mr. Wiman said we’re simply unable to comprehend
    differently, any thought of leaving this existence is scarey. I
    believe, to understand God, it is best to explain it through science.
    Let the head shaking and squeamishness begin…give me a second
    before you move on. We are part of everything: The energy and atoms
    that binds us into infinite forms, from human to other universal
    bodies, give us different POVs, or consciousnesses, or experiences.
    Some experiences may not be as rewarding as human, but some may be
    more beautiful than we could every comprehend. We are fluid –

    “When we die, we create a billion
    lives. When they die, trillions more, until we become God in all its

  • Hans Goldberg

    A thoughtful segment on faith. Words are only signposts, if they are truthful, they will resonate, just as some music, as some paintings, even photographs, will do. All facets of life have the potential of experiencing God. She or He is within to us,  when we experience truth in it’s many forms without any opinion or any judgement whatsoever.

  • tz

    Your show has become a sad disappointment.  

  • Bgiegerich

    Hearing other points of view is what real education is about

  • Romeo LaRiviere

    Both shows were beautiful!

  • Horali

    Dear Mr. Moyers.  I simply love and enjoy your programs.  It is hard for me to describe my feelings on how great your thoughts, your sincerity and your brilliant mind works.  I listened intensely to Mr. Wiman and his resurgence of faith. However, i have a very difficult time coming back to faith, and i had a strong faith.  I have come to realize that i do not believe in believing. 
    sincerely   Horali

  • Lisa

    I generally admire your show but feel your take on the vaccination issue was ridiculously one-sided. You said, in paraphrase, Science has largely debunked a relationship  between vaccines and autism. End of story for you apparently. Please recall science also debunked a relationship between women dying of childbed fever and hand washing. And “science” now is not what it used to be. Committees that approve our absurd vaccination schedule of 35 vaccines before age 6 are composed of members with compromising ties to pharmaceutical companies for whom vaccines are a huge source of income. To dismiss any link with a cursory phrase like that is irresponsible and inaccurate. I think your reporting in this area is very deficient. Remember that reporting preceding the Iraq war was inaccurate when reporters just walked up to government officials and wrote what the experts had to say. You are doing the same thing: the experts here are  immersed in a medical environment that is heavily imbalanced by influence from the phameutical industry. That’s a fact, not an opinion. Check it out. By the way, did you see 60 minutes’ report on antidepressants? In one instance 12 studies were done on one antidepressant medication, 10 that didn’t show it  to be effective were thrown out, two that showed a modest effect were used to approve the drug. Thank God for science! Bill Moyers, you need to go deeper or don’t touch this issue.  

  • Wealthsaver

    Perhaps people who refuse vaccination for highly contagious diseases should be forbidden to travel out of their states.

  • Dave H.

    I liked this episode (as always) and hearing the words of 
    Christian Wiman.  But I admit I felt frustrated when he expressed the desire to find a religion that “celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation…”  There is such a religion already: Unitarian Universalism!

  • Pdigesu

    I like 1st time writers, new perspectives not derived from mainstream sources, it may be the only true portal to real change in this country, I liked  “Reflection” by J. Guzziferno.  Time for common people involvement.   

  • D. Berry

    Alone, I stood trembling with tears as Christian Wiman reacted to your previous guest.  Art, literature, poetry, music and other creative expressions are being squeezed from our educational process in favor of the test.  As a teacher striving to share these truths about humanity to young people, I will be using this segment in class this week to demonstrate the power of the word.  I love his remark about the poetry providing the concrete images for the loftier ideas we think about and believe should be a part of poetry.  Too often lesser poets use the vague terms rather than ground their words and images to what we humans can relate to.  I want him to know that I’d love to know where I could get one of the “loans” he spoke of, as I believe in the power of words and wish I were able to share those moments of overwhelming emotion in poetic form as he does so eloquently!  Thank you for the interview.  Darlene Berry – English 8 – Marshfield Middle School.

  • Rex

    While I agree with that item that favors us, UUs, we have yet to learn how to sing”the Blues.” That’s what we need to do in order to acknowledge the pain that we can’t do anything about. I tried to teach some UUs that some years back and received mixed messages. Too many of us think religion ought to make us happy rather than glad.

  • Anonymous

    We need some actors with real character. Thoughtful reflection. Maybe I can stop yelling at the T.V. and remember its just a movie. I loved the poet Christian Wiman. Now he woke me up. We need a new language about religion.

  • Nysk

    Many thanks for the clarity and logical inspiration suggested here, n o t h h I n g like this tv presentation. Thank you for shoring my thinking.

  • Coop2005

    Dear Mr. Moyer, I have been a fan for many years. I
    especially enjoyed your interviews with Joseph Campbell.  They were very helpful in my life.

    During your interview with Christian Wiman it was mentioned
    that new language is needed for belief and this is something I have been
    working on for some time.  I want to
    create an image for everybody so that everyone will have a place at the table,
    intellectuals, Buddhists, evangelicals, and artists. This may seem impossible,
    but with a little shift in perspective things begin to fall into place.

    Please let me know if you find any of this useful.  Our society is underperforming in a serious way
    and perhaps one or two of these ideas will help.

    First, we can agree that there is the whole thing, call it the
    mysterious multidimensional universe, our immanent and transcendent reality, or
    what you will.  This whole thing is at
    least the physical universe and is possibly much, much more. Our differences
    arise from the way we perceive it. To my intellectual friends the whole thing
    is the Godless physical universe.  Many
    who follow Middle Eastern based religions see God as part of the whole, while for
    most people worshiping the religions from India, God is the whole thing.  The question is how to get past these differences,
    or how to answer the tale of the blind men and the elephant in a way that is
    actually useful.

    A religious solution is to say that the whole thing, or God,
    actively appears to us in different ways depending on who we are and our
    purpose. The artist finds his muse and is inspired, the intellectual is left
    alone to think, and care givers find children to love unconditionally.  All of them feel alive and feel at home when
    this happens. There is a sense of being in touch with the eternal.

    Certainly people do not fall into strict categories, but I
    believe people do have a dominant theme in their lives. Scientists seek truths
    that apply everywhere and forever, artists try to create lasting beauty,
    competitors seek honor by doing memorable deeds in a noble way, and Buddhists
    try to experience the eternal directly.  These
    differing goals define our paths and our values, but unfortunately these values
    are not relevant to those on other paths and this causes conflict.

    Most care givers, for example, are not interested in
    intellectual jibber jabber.  My wife had
    a sticker on the frig that said, “Ever stop to think and forget to start
    again?” I know who that was meant for.  Good mothers are the most important people on
    the planet and yet they are put down for not sharing intellectual values, or
    are bullied because they are not competitive. 
    This lack of respect and understanding is nearly universal in our
    complex modern world and we need to grow beyond this problem if we are to reach
    our potential.  I believe we will get there.  The challenge is to minimize the unnecessary
    suffering along the way.

    The first step toward a solution is to examine our
    differences in a compassionate way.  This
    will lead to better understanding and more respect. Some brief examples will
    hopefully point to how this might be done. I will be forced to resort to
    kindhearted stereotypes to present these differences and hopefully I can be
    forgiven for this.  Let’s start with
    competitors and end with intellectuals.

    Competitors love a good fight and doubt your masculinity
    when you don’t jump in. This competitive nature and the will to win built our
    civilization and should be nurtured not eliminated. For the sophisticated
    competitor, meaning comes from adherence to an eternal code of honor, or God’s
    will. Doing this gives one a sense of nobility whether they win or lose, kill
    or are killed. The more a person of power adheres to the code the better off we
    all are. This eternal code is to the will as the Grand Unified Theory is to the
    intellect. Once this is grasped the importance of the Bible to certain
    Christian groups can be better understood. 
    The Old Testament contains a code of behavior and in this modern chaos
    no other alternatives are taught. These people are going to make the Bible
    eternal with all their wills. I liken the Old Testament to Newton’s Principia;
    both were extremely important and groundbreaking documents that we have
    outgrown. We need to revisit the code and strip it of its ethnic particulars.
    This way its eternal nature will not be lost in details. The code should then
    be taught in school, just as mathematics is taught.  I will bet that if we ask a group of our
    senior officers, like Colin Powell, to document the eternal code, they could do
    it in a weekend.  It would also be
    interesting to have our senior female officers do the same for women to see if
    there are differences. Our competitive siblings need this in order to build the
    best world of tomorrow.

    Our care givers, both male and female, find the eternal in
    unconditional love.  God appears not as a
    code, but as a child. I have wondered why women attend Christian churches where
    they are considered second class and I think it is because they actually own
    the message. The New Testament and the teachings of Jesus contain a path to God
    for care givers. We find phrases such as judge not, and love with all your
    heart, and soul, and mind. These have special meaning for the care giver, but
    are not universal.  A warrior who turns
    the other cheek won’t last very long, and an intellectual whom I greatly
    admire, Alan Watts, called these phrases Zen Koans.  To the care giver they convey reality and are
    the rules for the greatest relationships.

    Care givers are busy doing God’s work, but they do not get
    the respect they deserve. It is too easy to pass over them and bully them.  I have wondered why mother’s day isn’t the
    biggest holiday of the year.  Mothers are
    doing the hardest job.  If we could help
    them organize that would be a step in the right direction.

    Population wise those are the big two. Any new religion must
    speak to competitors and care givers. Construction workers belong at the table.

    To complete the survey I will need to discuss three less
    common but essential examples; the artistically creative individual, the
    student of consciousness, and the intellectual. People on these paths
    consciously identify with them, so this task is easy.

    God appears to the artist as inspiration, as muse, Venus, or
    Adonis.  Quite often the artist feels
    like a vehicle for creativity rather than the creator.  He or she is the vessel of creativity just as
    the mother is the vessel of new life. It is the act of creation that feels
    eternal and gives life meaning. Because inspiration is the highest priority
    artists will flaunt convention to find it. The code is a hindrance, but we must
    remember that the goal is great art not power over others. We must accept a
    broken heart if we love an artist.  Like
    care givers artists are easily victimized. 
    To protect them the public needs to become more critical and demand
    higher quality. This will channel resources away from pop and video burlesque
    and into works of greater beauty.

    The student of consciousness is typically a Buddhist.  The Buddha defined this path 2,500 years ago
    and it has become very sophisticated. The goal is happiness, not salvation or
    understanding. Interestingly happiness was also Aristotle’s greatest good. The
    student identifies with consciousness, meditates, and becomes more sane.  It is hard to imagine a trained Buddhist with
    road rage. In time the student’s awareness expands and hopefully they wake up
    to experience great states of enlightenment. They can experience God as self or
    undifferentiated consciousness. People on this path require that their beliefs
    pass the test of reason, but the student quiets the mind to go beyond the

    The general public can benefit from this path even if they
    do not follow it. It provides a voice of calm and reason. I have a feeling that
    we would have fewer mental hospitals if this path were better understood in the
    west. If we recognize their great accomplishments and apply them to our society
    we will be much more centered, competent, and sane.

    Finally we come to the intellectual. The goal for the
    intellectual is to understand as much of this mysterious reality as possible. It
    is the search for the eternal truth. As a team they expand and strengthen our
    body of knowledge. The student learns to think and observe in precise ways. The
    truth is reasonable, self-consistent, and repeatable, and any new theory must
    pass all three tests. Everything is tested. This makes the information in our
    body of knowledge trustworthy and this is a tremendous accomplishment.  The good intellectual is honest, is wary of
    self-deception, and avoids unjustified extrapolation, or overreaching.
    Overreaching is a major issue for intellectuals and this hurts their
    credibility. Intellectuals should keep in mind Feynman’s quote, “I believe that
    a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.” 

    The eternal can be found in many parts of this path. It is
    in the mystery, mathematics, the laws of nature, and is experienced in flashes
    of insight.  For most intellects God
    either doesn’t exist or is seen as a transcendent mystery.  Acts of God ruin perfectly good experiments.

    Intellectuals have given us a deep understanding of the
    world around us, which is an essential component of modern society.  They have shown us the power of reason and
    they have the right to demand that we be reasonable when it comes to important
    questions. What is needed is more understanding on all sides of the religious
    argument. This should help us get beyond the current impasse.

    So how do we get these people to the table? We have to
    accept that the whole thing speaks to us in different ways and that we
    experience the eternal differently.  Our
    purposes differ, but all these paths are absolutely necessary.  Each one is an essential component of
    society. We are like a choir. The individual’s performance makes the song
    better or worse.  Each should be true to
    their path and travel as far as possible. We need to respect each other’s
    contribution and work toward our mutual interest. A good start would be to say:


    Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s

    Render unto Jesus that which is Jesus’

    Render unto Venus that which is Venus’

    Render unto Buddha that which is Buddha’s

    And Render unto Einstein that which is Einstein’s

    If we can agree to do this we are half way there.


    I hope you found this useful,


    Ron Cooper

  • Bob Wisniewski

    I am a poet, right along with you. This may as well be God speaking. There is nothing but God, in action, everywhere present.
    We can choose suffering as an aid to consciousness, to become conscious, to remain conscious, and to choose, consciously, the end of suffering and the establishment in our lives of the Great Love.
    Congratulations, Christian.
    Your brother and Friend,
    Bob Wisniewski

  • Ed

    Is it really religious beliefs, or are people who just can’t afford the vaccinations just making that claim to avoid the expense?

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Claimed to watch it but didn’t say why or which part made it disappoint. Makes improving mighty difficult when you don’t know what to consider changing. Anyway bz heard another view, learned something, and didn’t like it. Is that educational?

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Yep, better company than Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky or Tavis Smiley.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Correct. Profound. Instructive (for M&C).

  • GradyLeeHoward

    It’s OUR money, not the President’s.
    The only criterion is, does he do our bidding?

  • GradyLeeHoward

    We have not become misguided and ill-informed without enormous expenditure of our tax money to make it so. Witness the new war film “Act of Valor” created from the Pentagon budget to brainwash young men. I thought domestic military propaganda was illegal, but maybe not in a ‘security state.”

  • Bob Karman

    Realistically, they should be quarantined to their homes….

  • Bob Karman

    How about inviting them all to dinner, Larry King style?

  • Jaycieann

    It was disheartening to hear Neal Gabler equate MSNBC with Fox “news”,  Equal they are not!  Fox is “All Lies All the Time” while MSNBC, which I have been watching for the past couple of years does not distort the facts or tell lies!  I hope you will have some of the anchors, especially Rachel Maddow and Chris Hays, on your program sometime.  I have learned so much from them both, and Rachel hs done some of the best investigative reporting on air today, such as her features on the Koch Brothers (the first time I ever heard of them), the C Street “Church” in Washington D.C. and how the efforts of the
    Republicans to eliminate unions is not for the stated reasons as you might think: it is to keep them from giving money to Democrats! Your show is the best, most informative on the air today and I am so grateful that you are back on the air!

  • Taichi-wuchi

    It is important to know
    What people are thinking.
    It is also important to know
    What they are not thinking.
    It is important to hear
    What people say.
    It is important to know
    What people do.
    Doing what is necessary
    Being what is needed.
    Doing what is meaningful
    Being what is right.
    Doing what is worthwhile
    While knowing what is worth. 
    Doing what is good for all
    Being a human being.

    David Eddy of Earthland

  • David Ferguson

    Dear Bill,

    Your endlessly compelling program has once again provoked me to take time out from the fight against fracking to respond.  I found Neal Gabler’s thesis, that the American public now views our political contests as a movie, provisionally insightful.  I say provisionally for these reasons:

    1. The American electorate, at least in the last decade or so, has hardly been monolithic.  Elections have been narrowly decided.  This might be seen as supporting Neal’s thesis, that the political narrative casts a good guy against a bad guy.  But, it seems to me, there were issues being contested, though perhaps not as clearly framed as they might have been.

    2.  Does Neal really feel that, once in office, Obama hasn’t governed well in a toxic environment not of his making, doing his best to address those problems of extraordinary proportions that he inherited, despite the fact that some of us felt he didn’t quite live up the brilliance of his campaign “performance” ?  That he didn’t run on issues?  After all is said and done he fulfilled a number of his most ambitious campaign pledges.

    3.  I confess.  I have a hard time when people cite Fox News and MSMBC as comparable poler opposites.  Rachel Maddow can be almost as demanding of the viewer’s undivided attention as Moyers & Company.  MSNBC’s journalists support their points of view with verified facts and, for the most part, well thought-out commentary.  Lumping MSMBC with Fox (which even the best of talking heads are prone to do) as outsourcing the power to think is one judgement call I will not out-source to Neal Gabler.

    4.  Missing from Neal’s thesis is an element, the evils of which have been much discussed on your program – money.  There was no mention of the billion dollar gorilla at the table. Apart from the lobbyists and other points of leverage, money to mount dishonest campaign advertising warps the process with little or no accountability (much as we may hate to acknowledge that such propaganda should effect vast sections of the electorate) discouraging substantive discussion of policy.

    5.  Finally, it has always been easier to wind a civilization down than to wind it up.  It’s simply the direction that the gravity of accumulating power takes.  Democracy’s ostensible justification for mindless commercialism is that it’s what the people want.  The shallower aspects of entertainment get emphasized to the exclusion of more thoughtful renditions of reality. King Lear would have had a decidedly depressing effect on the sale of shoes or cars or beer.  Let alone the effect on the emotional continuity of such a play that commercial interruptions would produce. Never mind that there’s a price to be paid.  Multitudes are left to see themselves, if at all, through a screen reducing human aspirations to the content of a mass produced greeting card – whatever the market will bear.  Freedom of speech is relegated to litigation over four letter words.  There is no way to litigate the right to content.  Thank the powers that be (at least so far) for Moyers & Company and PBS.

  • chrys12

    Dear Bill, You’ve become actor and promoter for the gov and Big pharma show; you’ve taken the bait the movie makers intended – to create more fear and a global message: avoid vaccines at your own peril, and in addition you will be a social pariah and a danger to others because you risk the safety of the entire population.
    Sir, question everything and look beyond what’s considered the norm.There’s a widespread belief that herd immunity is a fact while actually it is a THEORY only – and maintaining it as ‘TRUTH’ is pivotal to ongoing corporate promotion of uniform and unlimited vaccination policies. Looking at the bigger picture, what’s going on here is actually herd mentality reinforced by big pharma-owned AMA and elitist-owned MSM (mainstream media).
    “Surely, as this very public debate winds on it becomes clear that the vaccine-cures-all meme is an evident and obvious dominant social theme.
    We’re used to discovering this sort of thing by now. Whenever we push
    hard at our belief system we discover another area where it seems
    promotions overwhelm science.
    The power elite
    that evidently and obviously runs the world uses a number of fear-based
    promotions to frighten middle classes into giving up wealth and power
    to supra-national organizations. Vaccines are a great methodology for
    reinforcing the idea of authoritarian health care.” – Daily Bell 3/8/12


  • Anonymous

    It is March 18th, 2012 and I’m heading to Europe for two weeks. Before I go let me caution those gentle souls who read here about the film “Hunger Games.” I believe the screenplay and juvenile novel author Suzanne Collins is being groomed by fascist idealogues as the next Ayn Rand. “Scholastic Press” (the publisher) is a purveyor of mass-produced tripe to schoolchildren. The film will be released next week and is part of a trilogy glorifying authoritarian and nihilist themes in a post apocalyptic North America. It is touted as imparting  values but I can’t help conclude that it models extreme individualist competition even to death. But then again I considered Harry Potter an apology for Elitism because of his immense wealth in precious metals and his special powers used to compete but not necessarily for the common good. I consider the gladiatorial theme a step below the puerile romantic porn of sexual intrigue with mythical creatures that is “Twilight.” Depicting institutionalized sadism will tend to recruit every nascent dominator into the service of authoritarian institutions. Media is food for the imagination and the subconscious and in the mid-range future our culture will reap what it sows. No population can remain normal under a manipulatory sensory onslaught such as we are witnessing. “Hunger Games” is an insidious gateway into generalized perversion.

  • BryantH29

    I’m practicing listening to opposing opinions, but this was tough.  First I wanna say the disease that is killing Christian Wiman is awful.  But that does not change my view of his interview.  He was just pompous and aarogant.  From how he projects his views of religion, such as god being a part of every action, to when he immediately defined Clive James’ statements and beliefs.  At no point did he say this “in my opinion”.  He just stated everything as fact.  I agreed with neither what he said nor with how he said it.  With all this being said, I still stay good luck with your fight against cancer.

  • God, Be Silent

    So God has no time to reach into our world and save the dying, suffering children from the gas chambers, but he has time to whisper lines of poetry into Christian Wiman’s ears? That’s sick. I would burn all the poetry in the world to save one child.