Archive for January 2015
In the Spectator a review by Sean McGlynn of a new book intended to show that there was more to the Middle Ages than mud and blood:
For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried’s closest attention in his study of the ‘cultural evolution’ of the Middle Ages.
Fried also, refreshingly, touches on less well-known cases, as in his treatment of female mystics, such as Christine de St Trond from the early 13th century, who would whirl herself into unconsciousness ‘like a dervish’ in a state of self-induced ecstasy. Her trance-like states carried her ‘quite literally to new heights, as she would clamber into the rafters of churches and climb towers and trees, flirting with death’. Her dedication went way beyond the self-punishing rituals of the flagellants…. Christine ‘tried to replicate the torments of sinners in Hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water, having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on gallows, and lying in open graves’.
If there is a border between mysticism and madness it is lightly guarded.
More about Christine the Astonishing (in German, Christina die Wunderbare seems a better translation) here. Hallucinations are involved. Although she was never canonized or even beatified, Wikipedia notes that “prayers are traditionally said to [Christine] to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness and mental health workers”.
Writing in the Guardian, Nick Cohen on self-censorship:
Unless we find the courage to overcome fear, the self-censorship will spread, and not only in the media.
Colleagues who wanted historians at a London museum to talk about the long history of depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art last week were met with panicking press officers trying to shut them up. Historian Tom Holland, who received death threats after he challenged the creation myths of Islam, said: “I cannot think of any other area of history where debate is so nervous.” He hopes that historians will continue to say that the Koran was a manmade creation, but doubts that journalists will be keen to take their work to the public.
This is not a small capitulation. In the 19th century, the textual criticism of German scholars revealed that the supposed word of God in the Bible was a mess of competing stories. It did as much damage to Christianity and Judaism as Darwinism. Anyone hoping to repeat the exercise by taking apart the Koran and the hadiths today will be restrained by the fear that they will end up as dead as satirists who try to do the same with anti-clerical humour.
Cross-posted on the Corner (yesterday):
Tomorrow Paris will play host to a march designed to show France’s unity in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
The Guardian explains:
Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. La France est Charlie.
Under the banner of Tous Unis! (All United!), France’s Socialist government has called for a show of national unity after three days of bloodshed that were felt as a direct blow to the republican values of liberté, egalité, fraternité.
On Sunday David Cameron and Angela Merkel, as well as the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, president Matteo Renzi of Italy and the Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy – 30 world leaders in all – will take part in one of the most significant public occasions in the history of post-war France….
The Guardian continues:
While almost everyone is Charlie when it comes to defending the fundamental values of the French republic, there is less unity when it comes to dealing with threats to those values.
Everyone is Charlie?
No, everyone is not.
And the French state most definitely is not.
Writing for the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley argues (my emphasis added):
Indeed, if the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo, they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation. These laws have been used to harass the satirical newspaper and threaten its staff for years. Speech has been conditioned on being used “responsibly” in France, suggesting that it is more of a privilege than a right for those who hold controversial views….
The cases have been wide-ranging and bizarre. In 2008, for example, Brigitte Bardot was convicted for writing a letter to then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy about how she thought Muslims and homosexuals were ruining France. In 2011, fashion designer John Galliano was found guilty of making anti-Semitic comments against at least three people in a Paris cafe. In 2012, the government criminalized denial of the Armenian genocide (a law later overturned by the courts, but Holocaust denial remains a crime). In 2013, a French mother was sentenced for “glorifying a crime” after she allowed her son, named Jihad, to go to school wearing a shirt that said “I am a bomb.” Last year, Interior Minister Manuel Valls moved to ban performances by comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, declaring that he was “no longer a comedian” but was rather an “anti-Semite and racist.” It is easy to silence speakers who spew hate or obnoxious words, but censorship rarely ends with those on the margins of our society…
Recently, speech regulation in France has expanded into non-hate speech, with courts routinely intervening in matters of opinion. For example, last year, a French court fined blogger Caroline Doudet and ordered her to change a headline to reduce its prominence on Google — for her negative review of a restaurant.
While France long ago got rid of its blasphemy laws, there is precious little difference for speakers and authors in prosecutions for defamation or hate speech. There may also be little difference perceived by extremists, like those in Paris, who mete out their own justice for speech the government defines as a crime. To them, this is only a matter of degree in responding to what the government has called unlawful provocations.
And as Turley points out, it’s not just France:
The French, of course, have not been alone in rolling back protections on free speech. Britain, Canada and other nations have joined them. We have similar rumblings here in the United States. In 2009, the Obama administration shockingly supported Muslim allies trying to establish a new international blasphemy standard.
And ask yourself this: What would have been the reaction on an American campus, Brandeis say, or Yale, if (before this week) some of its students had retweeted some of those Charlie Hebdo covers or, maybe, horrors, invited the magazine’s now murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, to speak?
Cross-posted on the Corner:
The #JeSuisCharlie message doesn’t appear to be getting through to some.
A Swedish member of parliament reported a far-right leader to the police on Friday for alleged incitement to hatred over a comment related to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
In a Facebook comment to an article on the killings at the French satirical weekly’s office Wednesday, the party secretary of the Sweden Democrats Bjoern Soeder wrote “‘The religion of peace’ shows its face.”
“He has linked practising Muslims to a terrorist act, it’s extremely offensive,” Veronica Palm, from the ruling Social Democratic party told TV4 news.
“This statement is offensive to a group of people and I want to see if it comes under laws against inciting racial hatred,” said Palm.
Because there is a right not to be offended, because Islam is, of course, a race, and because it is absolutely not permitted to question the establishment line about what Islam is or is not.
We will, of course, have to see what Swedish law actually provides, but the broader point is this: until there is a proper roll-back of laws that make prosecution in cases like this an impossibility it cannot be said that Europe is beginning to be serious about free speech, a right that must be protected for all, even for the likes of Mr. Söder.
And what do I mean by that? Well, as the report goes on to note:
Soeder came under fire from Sweden’s Jewish community in December when he told a Swedish daily that Jews could not be considered Swedish unless they abandoned their religious identity.
For more on that controversy, here’s the Times of Israel from last month:
Björn Söder, party secretary of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party and also deputy speaker of parliament, told newspaper Dagens Nyheter there were some groups in Swedish society who were citizens but belonged to other nations — namely Jews and Sami [Lapps].
Asked if a person could not be Jewish and Swedish at the same time, Söder said, “I think most people of Jewish origin that have become Swedes leave their Jewish identity.
“But if they do not do it, it doesn’t need to be a problem. One must distinguish between citizenship and nationhood. They can still be Swedish citizens and live in Sweden. Sami and Jews have lived in Sweden for a long time.
“We have an open Swedishness, an individual can become Swedish regardless of background,” he said. “But it requires that they be assimilated.”
… Last year Söder and his party presented a motion in parliament to ban the non-medical circumcision of males younger than 18.
It’s not difficult to see why many Swedes believe that the SD has not moved as far from its extremist roots (which are not a distant thing; we are talking about the 1990s) as it likes to claim.
It is a tragedy that the SD is the only parliamentary party to challenge the consensus that prevails in the Swedish political establishment (of left and of what passes in Sweden for right), a consensus that not only favors multiculturalism and mass immigration (which is fine, if in my view, seriously mistaken) but also makes dissent a taboo, something which is not only not fine, but very dangerous indeed when it concerns issues that are quite obviously of serious — and legitimate — public concern.
To borrow those words (yet) again from Mark Steyn:
If the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain topics, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.
Under the circumstances, the rapid rise of the SD should not have been that unexpected. In fact, I doubt the party will be too sad about what Ms. Palm has done. Her actions will reinforce its claim to be the only ‘real’ opposition in Sweden. No less seriously they may well provide yet more encouragement to those in the Islamic world and elsewhere who want the West to jettison what remains of that quaint belief that “free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
Ms. Palm, I should add, has tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. Yes really.
At the Financial Times, Europe editor Tony Barber’s initial response to the atrocity in Paris included this:
Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.
This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.
That text was later changed to (amongst other things) remove the words I have highlighted, but the stink of the suggestion (no, more than a suggestion) of self-censorship remains.
Meanwhile the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, “unequivocally condemned” the murders, but in a piece headed “Muslims Are Right To Be Angry”, he also attacked Charlie Hebdo’s sometimes very crude treatment of religious figures:
Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.
For the most part though, the response to the slaughter in Paris has been impressive, moving beyond hashtags, to large demonstrations, to the republication of ‘offensive’ images, the latter vital if the point is to be made—as it must be—that, to quote again those words from Jyllands-Posten (sorry, Mr. Butler) all those years ago, “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
But the real test will be to see if anything changes. Will the creeping reintroduction of blasphemy laws (dressed up in modern clothes, of course, ‘hate speech’, mustn’t give offense, that sort of thing) go into reverse, let alone the self-censorship that is (Butler must approve) such a feature of our times?
Writing in Time, Walter Olson had this to say:
The danger is not that there will be too little outpouring of solidarity, grief, and outrage in coming days. Of course there will be that. Demonstrations are already underway across France. The danger comes afterward, once the story passes and intellectuals and those who discuss and distribute their work decide how and whether to adjust themselves to a more intense climate of fear. At media outlets, among conference planners, at universities, there will be certain lawyers and risk managers and compliance experts and insurance buyers ready to advise the safer course, the course of silence.
And then there are the lawmakers. After years in which blasphemy laws were assumed to be a relic of the past, laws accomplishing much of the same effect are once again on the march in Europe, banning “defamation of religion,” insult to religious beliefs, or overly vigorous criticism of other people’s religions when defined as “hate speech.” This must go no further. One way we can honor Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, and the others who were killed Wednesday is by lifting legal constraints on what their successors tomorrow can draw and write.
If I had to guess, those legal constraints will—after the briefest of pauses to honor those murdered for daring to express themselves—continue to tighten.
To take one example of the way things have been going in Europe, let’s look at what Britain’s Theresa May has planned for her countrymen should the Tories win the next election. Reason’s Brendan O’Neill (writing in November) can be our guide:
May wants to introduce “extremism disruption orders”, which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound. Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).
Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, “The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line.” How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about “this distinction” between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn’t actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.
Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police…..What sort of people might find themselves branded “extremists” and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.
Both secularists and Christians understand where this could lead.
The Daily Telegraph reported:
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the [National Secular Society], said secularists might have to think twice before criticising Christianity or Islam. He said secularists risk being branded Islamophobic and racist because of their high profile campaigns against the advance of Sharia law in the UK….
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, said traditionalist evangelicals who criticise gay marriage or even argue that all religions are not the same could find themselves accused of extremism….
“Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of ‘spreading hatred’ and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed….”
Freedom of expression is no longer a ‘European value’, not even in Britain, a nation where that right was once a source of pride. That’s not going to change. There will be more ‘blasphemy’ laws, not fewer. In fact, I would not be surprised if there is a politician somewhere already preparing the argument that the murders in Paris could have been prevented if only Charlie Hebdo had been kept under a tighter rein.
The revolting terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo today is designed to intimidate for the future as much as to ‘punish’ for the past.
And I suspect that it has, to some degree, been encouraged by opinion in Europe that has gone along with the idea that, when it comes to Islam, certain things must not be written, said or shown.
Here’s part of something I posted on the Corner in 2007. It concerned the earlier decision by the editor of Charlie Hebdo to republish the Danish Mohammed cartoons . He was quoted (in part) by the Wall Street Journal as follows:
I invited my colleagues from the daily and weekly press to republish the Danish cartoons, too. Most of them published some of them; only L’Express did in full. Before publication, I was pressured not to go ahead and summoned to the Hôtel Matignon to see the prime minister’s chief of staff; I refused to go. The next day, summary proceedings were initiated by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France to stop this issue of Charlie Hebdo from hitting newsstands. The government encouraged them, but their suit was dismissed.”
As I noted at the time, “The government encouraged them.”
And in a piece the previous year, I wrote this:
Jacques Chirac was quick to condemn the republication of the Danish cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, an iconoclastic French weekly, as an “overt provocation“, but was able to leave the dirty work to others. The French Council of Muslims, a body set up with official support, is reported to be organizing the prosecution of poor Charlie, quite for what remains unclear, but doubtless the Council’s lawyers will be able to find something useful in France’s laws against “hate speech” or any number of other offenses dreamt up by the enforcers of multiculturalism.
Responsibility (moral and legal) for today’s murders lies unequivocally with the criminals who butchered the innocent, but it’s hard not to think that they went about their killings knowing that intimidation has been shown to work.
I concluded that piece, which mainly concerned the reaction elsewhere in Europe to the stance taken by the Danes, as follows:
Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It’s in Danish only, but one phrase (“Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”) stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
And to the victims today, slaughtered for the ‘crime’ of free expression, RIP.
This is a terrible day.
Manama: Saudi Arabia’s efforts to edge closer to setting a minimum age for marriage have received a blow after the Grand Mufti said there was nothing wrong with girls below 15 getting married.
“There is currently no intention to discuss the issue,” Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh said, quoted by local daily Al Riyadh on Sunday.
In a bold attempt to force changes on the grounds, the justice ministry has been pushing for setting up the minimum age.
Over at the XX Committee, John Schindler takes a look at what he calls “Putin’s Orthodox Jihad.” Trying to make sense of Putin’s ideology, much of which appears to have been adopted on the hoof as Russia’s leader attempted to fill the vacuum left first by Communism and then by the failure of Western-style democracy to “take” in Russia, is not a straightforward process (not least because Putin’s loyalties appear to be more to institutions than to ideas) but Schindler’s intriguing analysis makes an increasing amount of sense:
Putin is a complex character himself, with his worldview being profoundly shaped by his long service as a Soviet secret policeman; he exudes what Russians term Chekism – conspiracy-based thinking that sees plots abounding and is reflexively anti-Western, with heavy doses of machismo and KGB tough-talk . . .
This year ending also saw the mask drop regarding Putin’s ideology beyond his bone-deep Chekism. In his fire-breathing speech to the Duma in March when he announced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin included not just venerable KGB classics like warnings about the Western Fifth Column and “national traitors,” but also paeans to explicit Russian ethnic nationalism buttressed by Orthodox mysticism, with citations of saints from millennia past. This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy. Behind the Chekist sword and shield lurks the Third Rome, forming a potent and, to many Russians, plausible worldview. That this take on the planet and its politics is intensely anti-Western needs to be stated clearly….
Whether this faith is genuine or a well-honed pose, Putin’s potent fusion of KGB values and Orthodoxy has been building for years, though few Westerners have noticed. Early in Putin’s years in the Kremlin, the younger generation of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers embraced a nascent ideology they termed “the system” (sistema), which was a sort of elitist Chekism — toughness free of corruption and based in patriotism — updated for the new 21st century. However, this could have limited appeal to the masses, so its place was gradually taken by a doctrine termed “spiritual security.”
…It suddenly became fashionable for senior FSB officers to have conversion experiences, while “spiritual security” offered Putin’s Russia a way to defend itself against what it has long seen as the encroachment of decadent post-modern Western values. Just how seriously Putin took all this was his statement that Russia’s “spiritual shield” was as important to her security as her nuclear shield.
Nearly all Western experts, being mostly secularists when not atheists, paid no attention to these clear indications of where Putin was taking Russia…
There’s quite a bit to that aside, and there is also something of a parallel with the failure of many in the West to take the rise of militant Islam as seriously as they should have done. People (particularly in Europe) simply could not conceive that a religion could matter so much “in this day and age,” a mistake that arose from the belief held by many secularists/atheists that religious faith was something that would eventually wither safely away, a conviction that owed much to smugness and not a little to denial. There has been an unwillingness to accept the (to them) inconvenient truth that the religious instinct seems to be something with which the vast majority of people are born.
And there is something else. To believe that religion would either wither away or fade into some sort of benevolent irrelevance took a quite remarkable ignorance of history. The modern academy has been delighted to oblige.
There’s a great deal more to Schindler’s piece that’s worth mulling (so read the whole thing), not least the connection that Putin has developed with some (and I would emphasize that “some”) on the European right and the way that virulent opposition to what is only one interpretation of America has provided him with the great enemy that regimes such as his always need.
Check out also Schindler’s focus on a recent speech by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a curious character he describes as a “media gadfly cleric.” Well Chaplin is certainly that, but as Schindler points out, he is also a very senior spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church (FWIW I blogged about Chaplin at this secularist spot a few weeks back):
Chaplin minced no words, proclaiming that Russia’s God-given goal today is halting the global “American project.” As he explained:
“It is no coincidence that we have often, at the price of our own lives … stopped all global projects that disagreed with our conscience, with our vision of history and, I would say, with God’s own truth .. Such was Napoleon’s project, such was Hitler’s project. We will stop the American project too.”
We’ll see, but we should not fool ourselves that sanctions and Russia’s worsening economic plight will be enough to see off the challenge from Moscow any time soon. As Schindler observes:
[Putin’s] regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology, an explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs. Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.
That is not a comforting thought.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in politics
Cross-posted on the Corner:
With the latest crackdown in Cuba showing just how Havana has ‘read’ Obama’s policy shift towards the Castro dictatorship, this new Foreign Affairs article by Victor Gaetan giving some background to the Vatican’s involvement in the deal that was eventually struck makes timely reading.
Here’s an extract (my emphasis added):
In Cuba, in other words, the church is still strong. Havana’s Cardinal Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino has followed a strategy of reconciliation on the island, avoiding confrontation with the state while winning more independence to carry out the Church’s religious mission. Under Ortega’s 35-year leadership, the Catholic Church, to which about 60 percent of all Cubans belong, has emerged as the only national institution that functions independent of the state.
Still, Ortega was never popular with regime opponents because of his determination to avoid confrontation. While Benedict was in Cuba, Ortega refused to arrange a meeting between the Pope and opposition leaders. Instead, devout Catholic opposition leaders such as Oswaldo Paya found Cuban security surrounding his house to prevent him from attending Benedict’s public Mass. Five months later, Paya was killed in a car accident suspected of being engineered by state agents. No investigation has ever been completed. Although Ortega presided over Paya’s funeral, his family says the cardinal did nothing to protect or promote the democracy movement Paya fostered. Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo, the regime opponent’s daughter, wrote an eloquent critique of the U.S.–Cuba deal in The Washington Post. Many other dissidents are similarly disappointed with the news.
But Ortega likely isn’t losing sleep about this criticism. He has a different vision of Cuba’s future: A few days after Francis was elected, the Havana Archdiocese published a document containing 23 proposals produced by a group, Laboratorio Casa Cuba, comprised of “professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican–socialists, and anarchists).” It’s a Christian social–democratic program, with an anti-American cherry on top.
And that seems sort of fine with Pope Francis. Fancy that!