Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/17

11

Middlebury and The Heretic

Cross-posted on The Corner.

Looked at one way, the attempt to silence Charles Murray and the violence that followed it was nothing more than another chapter in a long power struggle, but there was something else about it, something more disturbing still.

Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan:

At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required…

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Here’s how they begin: “This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.”

Sullivan’s article comes with a few nods to orthodoxy of its own, but the fundamental point he makes, which can be applied to many other religions beyond Puritan New England, not least to Marxism (itself a millenarian creed) and its offshoots, is very well worth noting.

And here, writing more explicitly from the left (his observations  on the role that class has  to play in what’s going on in the colleges of the elite is something to think about), in The American Scholar, is William Deresiewicz. If I had to guess the article was written before the events  at Middlebury, but:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion…

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.

Deresiewicz understands how this religion uses of the mechanisms of social control:

So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.

There is always another sin.

Speaking of which, there was this in Reason:

A residential advisor at Pitzer College sent a campus-wide email informing students—white women, in particular—that they should stop wearing hoop earrings.

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Mar/17

11

Compassion That’s Not

Writing in America Magazine, Jean Welch Hill, director of the ominously-named Peace and Justice Commission for the [Roman Catholic] diocese of Salt Lake City, argues against peace and justice for the terminally ill:

Imagine telling someone who is unable to walk that their life no longer has value. Or telling a loved one who needs help eating that they have lost all dignity. Or explaining to a friend that you can’t visit them anymore because their illness has made them unattractive.

Few would say any of these to a stranger, let alone a loved one. Yet the message of assisted suicide amounts to telling people who have lost the ability to function as they have in the past that they should just cease to exist. This has been the message we have heard for three years in Utah from proponents of assisted suicide legislation.

The definition of dignity implied in these proposed laws, which have followed the Oregon model, is not about the inherent worth of the person but about their physical state. We should keep in mind the great injustices that occur when we decide that human worth depends on perceived mental capacity or physical attributes.

This, I am afraid, is at best misleading and at worst dishonest.

What assisted suicide is about is allowing terribly ill people to decide for themselves that enough is enough. It is about autonomy, it is about dignity and, often, it is about the ability to bring unbearable suffering to an end.

Of course, there are many who have profound religious and philosophical objections to the idea of assisted suicide (even when it is accompanied with the sort of safeguards seen in Oregon). They are free to follow those principles up to the very end. But to insist, by force of law, that others should do likewise is about coercion, not compassion, a coercion made worse by the condescension in which it is wrapped. These poor dying folk, you see, are simply incapable of deciding what is right for themselves.

After all, they might even be nuts.

Hill:

[M]ost terminally ill patients will overcome these fears with proper mental health care. Britain’s “Care Not Killing” Alliance cites a 2006 study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in which almost all patients who sought assisted suicide changed their minds after competent and effective ongoing psychiatric treatment.

One study.

It’s worth adding that in 2014, the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a statement on assisted dying for the terminally ill that ended as follows (my emphasis added):

As individuals and citizens we also cannot fail to acknowledge that notwithstanding our appropriate cautions and caveats,  there will still be those who continue to believe that their current circumstances are unendurable and unacceptable.  Each of us will have our views on how we should respond to these situations.  We do not think that the College should take a specific position on this.  Finally, the decision on whether to legalise physician assisted suicide is a matter for Parliament and the Courts. The only position the College takes on this matter at present is that we will always act within the law.

As is usual in this debate, Ms. Hill isn’t slow to start talking about the slippery slope, citing some (genuinely) disturbing (at least as presented) data from The Netherlands appearing to show that, in some cases. doctors not patients are taking the decision to end patients’ lives. If that’s true, it’s very wrong, and the way to stop it is well-crafted legislation. But using the slippery slope as an argument against the autonomy of those who have slid very far down a hideous slope of their own is to add insult to appalling injury.

Hill concludes with a call for better care for those at the end of life, noting, not inaccurately, that it is not always available. She wants, she claims, to “fix the existing problems within our health care system and allow all people to truly die with dignity.” The first half of that sentence may be sincere, but it is also boilerplate. The second half is disingenuous. Ms. Hill only wants people to “die with dignity” on her terms, terms that not a few patients will find remarkably arrogant and, yes, horribly cruel.

And they would be right to do so.

Cross-posted on the Corner.

The New York Times (my emphasis added):

A 42-year-old man who burned a Quran and posted a video of it on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in Denmark, a striking decision by prosecutors in a country that is largely secular but has grappled with the role of Islam in public life…

The decision to charge the Quran burner was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg, on the Jutland peninsula, and had to be approved by the country’s attorney general.

The blasphemy law has been invoked only a handful of times since its creation in 1866, most recently in 1971, when two people broadcast a song mocking Christianity and stirred a debate over female sexuality. They were acquitted. No one has been convicted of the crime since 1946, when a man dressed himself up as a priest and mock-baptized a doll at a masquerade ball.

In the current case, the suspect, who was not identified by the authorities but called himself John Salvesen on Facebook, uploaded video footage of a Quran being burned in his backyard. In the 4-minute, 15-second clip, the clicking sounds of a lighter are heard before flames engulf the large leather-bound book.

The video was posted on Dec. 27, 2015, to a Facebook group called “Yes to Freedom — No to Islam.” Above the video, shared 415 times, were the words: “Consider your neighbor, it stinks when it burns.” One commenter wrote: “If I had the Quran I’d also burn it, that’s the only thing it’s good for. Gives a bit of heat.”

The man’s Facebook page was full of messages critical of Islam, refugees and women. In one post, he even wrote, “I hate children.”

Not the most likable of individuals, it seems, but that, in this context, is neither here nor there.  A decade or so ago, shortly after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the Mohammed cartoons, I wrote an article examining the reaction elsewhere in Europe to Denmark’s defense of free speech:

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.”

That was then.

After the Charlie-Hebdo massacre all but one of Denmark’s major newspapers published some of the French magazine’s edgier cartoons. The one that did not was Jyllands-Posten, citing security concerns, a decision, the newspaper explained, showed that “violence works”.

Back to The New York Times (again, my emphasis added):

Jacob Mchangama, director of Justitia, a Danish civil liberties group, called the decision to file charges the latest sign of a declining respect for free speech in Europe. “It’s a sad development but one that mirrors developments elsewhere,” he said.

Mr. Mchangama said he thought the prosecutor was motivated by a desire to fend off the threat of terrorist attacks. “Danish authorities are afraid that the Quran burning could spark a new crisis, and if they say that they’ve actually charged this person, this is a way to appease or at least avoid such a crisis,” he said.

Violence works.

The Times writes brightly that ‘only’ five EU countries have blasphemy laws on the books (not nothing, I reckon, in a union of 28), but fails to note how European authorities in a number of other member-states have sometimes used ‘hate crimes’ legislation as a de facto blasphemy law. Lest we forget: Free speech is not a #EuropeanValue .

Oh yes, according to the Koran-burner’s defence lawyer, in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on a news show by a state broadcaster. There was no prosecution.

And there wouldn’t be now I reckon, which is how it should be. But the fact that there wouldn’t is simultaneously a double standard, patronizing (Muslim sensitivities apparently need special protection) and, yet again, a recognition that violence works.

So, usually, does intimidation by the state. According to the Times, “a trial has been scheduled for June. If convicted, the defendant faces up to four months in prison or a fine.”  But a conviction and any penalty are not really the point. The process itself, with its expense, anxiety and more, is both punishment and a message that the authorities want to send out to any Dane thinking of expressing the wrong sort of thoughts about Islam in the wrong way.

Meanwhile, Trine Bramsen, a member of Parliament and a spokeswoman of the Social Democrats (the leading party of Denmark’s center-left) has, the Times reports, defended the blasphemy law:

“I struggle to see how that we’ll achieve a stronger society, or how we’ll enrich the public debate, if the burning of holy books was permitted”.

So what? Burning the Koran may add nothing (or less than nothing) to the debate, but the idea that controversial expressions of opinion can only be permitted if they are in the interests of a “stronger society” (whatever that is) or “enrich the public debate” (whoever decides that) is entirely at odds with the idea of truly free speech.

And so, needless to say, are blasphemy laws.

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Feb/17

20

Dr. Paltrow Presumes: Iodine

The Independent:

Another week, another piece of questionable advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.

This time, however, the website may have made its most dangerous recommendation yet, as a doctor has called out the latest post saying: “Almost everything in this article is wrong and potentially dangerous.”

In the Goop piece titled ‘Why We Shouldn’t Dismiss Iodine,’ the lifestyle site speaks to “Medical Medium Anthony William” who apparently heals people’s illnesses “using wisdom passed on to him from a divine voice he calls Spirit.”

William claims he “was born with the unique ability to converse with a high-level spirit who provides him with extraordinarily accurate health information that’s often far ahead of its time.”

So yes, Goop appears to be taking medical advice from a ghost.

In the interests of fairness, I went over to Williams’ website, medicalmedium.com. There’s plenty there to see, and there’s plenty to buy, including the book Life-Changing Foods (my emphasis added):

Life-Changing Foods: Save Yourself and the Ones You Love with the Hidden Healing Powers of Fruits & Vegetables delves deep into the healing powers of over 50 foods—fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and wild foods—explaining each food’s properties, the symptoms and conditions it can help relieve or heal, and the emotional and spiritual benefits it brings. I also arm you with the truth about some of the most misunderstood topics in health: fertility; inflammation and autoimmune disorders; the brain-gut connection; foods, fads, and trends that can harm our well-being; how angels play a role in our survival, and much more.

Scroll on down and you’ll find an endorsement from Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University (and Uma’s dad):

“Anthony’s book [Medical Medium] is truly ‘wisdom of the future,’ so already now, miraculously, we have the clear, accurate explanation of the many mysterious illnesses that the ancient Buddhist medical texts predicted would afflict us in this era when over-clever people have tampered with the elements of life in the pursuit of profit.”

So much New Age Groupthink crammed into one blurb: the reverence for “exotic” ancient texts, the fear of “mysterious” illnesses, the grumbling about “the pursuit of profit” and the reference to “over-clever people” and the rejection of reason that that implies.

But back to The Independent:

William explains that he thinks we should all take iodine supplements to boost our immune systems, help with thyroid hormone production and even prevent cancer.

According to Canadian doctor Jen Gunter though, this is all wrong.

In a retort to the Goop article on her website, Dr Gunter spoke with board-certified endocrinologist, Elena A Christofides, to stress the point that William’s advice is not an accepted scientific method, he has no medical training and has not published any data.

She completely shuts down William’s advice:

“Mr. William’s spirit must not know too much about iodine because he swings and misses right off the bat. He says, ‘Iodine is essential for two main reasons: (1) your immune system relies on this mineral to function, and (2) iodine is a natural antiseptic.’

“Later on he says, ‘while iodine does also help with thyroid hormone production, that’s one small aspect of why iodine is important for your health.’

“The body needs iodine because without it you can’t make thyroid hormone and then you will slowly die. It will be a long and drawn out process. All of the symptoms of iodine deficiency are related to resulting thyroid dysfunction and 70-80% of the body’s iodine is stored in the thyroid. This is not a ‘small aspect’ this is THE ASPECT.”

Dr Gunter calls out William’s assertions as “bulls***. I just don’t know any other way to say it.”

She also reveals that Dr. Christofides has seen just one case of iodine deficiency in 19 years. And it’s nowhere near as common as William’s tries to make out:

“While iodine is essential, we actually need very little because it’s a micronutrient […] basically eating out even a couple of times a month gets us enough iodised salt to suffice.”

…According to Dr Christofides, taking excessive iodine with a normal thyroid actually “blunts the thyroid and actually causes hypothyroidism.” She has even seen women take so much iodine that they give themselves the condition. So yes, taking too much iodine actually causes the problem William says it will prevent.

“Almost everything in this article is wrong and potentially dangerous,” says Dr Gunter.

“We need very little iodine, that little bit is important but if you eat a healthy diet and have a little iodised salt here and there you will be just fine.

“If you take iodine supplements when you do not need them you could actually cause hypothyroidism, develop an autoimmune condition, or even get cancer.”

She stresses that iodine is not an internal antiseptic or immune booster as Gunter claims.

Goop includes a disclaimer at the end of its Q&A with Williams:

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

On the other hand, The Independent notes that Gwyneth Paltrow has said that William’s work feels “inherently right and true”.

Feels.

Post-modernism + superstition > science.

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Feb/17

18

Pope Francis and Venezuela: Throwing Another Tyranny a Lifeline

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Critics of Pope Francis who describe him as a ‘socialist’ are fairly wide off the mark.  Perhaps that was inevitable: Describing the ideology of a pope in conventionally political terms is, by definition, going to be a struggle. That said, in trying to understand Francis’ politics, it’s better to look to his Argentine past and, more specifically, Peronism and the way that Peronism (something, it should be said, of a shape-shifting concept) came to be understood.

For a deep dive into this issue, “Pope Francis, Perón, and God’s People: The Political Religion of Jorge Mario Bergoglio” by Claudio I. Remeseira is very well worth reading. Less subtly, Francis betrays clear signs of Peronist style, whether it’s authoritarianism, demagoguery and a certain weakness for conspiracy theory. So far as actual  politics are concerned, his rejection of globalism fits fairly comfortably into Peronist notions of economic autarchy, and his ‘leftism’ as an extension of left-Peronism, the Peronism of the descamisados, a leftism that, combined with a certain anti-Americanism  (Perón again) and that liking for strongman rule, made him so willing to help out the Castro brothers.

And not just that duo: Here’s Andres Oppenheimer, writing in the Miami Herald:

The Vatican’s mediation effort in Venezuela has been — to use a word much in vogue in Washington these days — a disaster. It has legitimized that country’s authoritarian ruler Nicolás Maduro, throwing him a lifeline when millions of protesters were demanding his resignation on the streets in October 2016. And it has helped him get back on his feet by further cracking down on the opposition.

Several interviews with Venezuelan opposition leaders and Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro this week convinced me that the Vatican’s mediation, and the opposition coalition’s failure to officially suspend it, have become the biggest obstacles for a solution to Venezuela’s political and economic crisis.

The Vatican’s mediation alongside that of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) — a group that has done virtually nothing but defend populist demagogues in the hemisphere — failed to result in any action. Maduro didn’t release Leopoldo Lopez and other prominent political prisoners, and as he has increased the overall number of political prisoners from 83 last year to 108 today, according to the Foro Penal research group’s figures…

It’s becoming increasingly clear that, to restore democracy in Venezuela, the United States and Latin American countries should implement the OAS Democratic Charter, which calls for gradual collective diplomatic sanctions against countries that break the rule of law.

But in an interview this week, Almagro told me that his hands are tied for as long as the Vatican-UNASUR mediation remains officially alive.

“While the Vatican remains there, we will definitely not take any action to move forward with the Democratic Charter,” Almagro told me. “If they tell us that that dialogue is over, and there is a formal communication by both the opposition and the Vatican to that effect, we will restart whatever work is needed.”

He added that, as of today, the paralysis in Venezuela is a result “of the Vatican’s presence and of a wait-and-see attitude by the Venezuelan opposition.” The Pope, argues Oppenheimer, should end the Vatican’s mediation efforts “and stop being an obstacle in the restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela”….

Maybe Francis will, but given the support that he has given to the Castro regime, I’m not optimistic.

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Jan/17

14

The Slippery Slope?

Opponents of assisted suicide often warn how legalizing it would represent a slippery slope. That’s not an argument convincing to those who have slid very far down a slope themselves.

And nor should it be.

STV News:

The family of a great grandmother who died from multiple sclerosis has published harrowing photographs of her final hours. Flora Lorimer’s husband and daughter say she wanted to die for two years before she finally passed away last month aged 68.

Tom, 69, and Tracey Taylor’s wish is that the shocking images will highlight Flora’s battle and persuade politicians to make assisted suicide legal in Scotland. Flora was diagnosed with the disease at 21 years old after noticing she had started dragging her leg. Her condition worsened and it got to the stage when it was taking an hour to walk half a mile to the shops from home. Before long the much-loved great grandmother needed a wheelchair.

Ms Taylor, from Glenrothes, Fife, told STV News: : “She cried all the time, in pain, all the time. I would come and visit every day and she would say to me, ‘I don’t want to be here tomorrow. Please take my life, I don’t want to be here tomorrow.’

“She’d had enough and we couldn’t do anything to help her – nothing.”

Asked why they had taken the decision to release the images, Ms Taylor said: “Everybody needs to see why we are fighting for this. People don’t see these pictures. These are the ones that are hidden away and they need to be shown.

“I got agreement from my mum. She wanted everyone to see why we are fighting for this and why she did want to die.

“It’s happening everywhere all over the world and it shouldn’t be. We should have the right to make our own decision….”

Flora’s condition began to dramatically worsen around two years ago when she lost the function in her hands and became too weak to even text friends. She lost the function to do anything for herself and became completely bed bound around a year ago.

It was from then, her grieving daughter and husband say, that Flora began to express her wish to end her battle with the disease.

Ms Taylor went on: “She had no leg use, no arm use, couldn’t wipe her nose, had to ask to have her head scratched and then eventually she couldn’t even talk. She could hardly communicate with us.

“She found it very hard. We could hear her, just, but she found it very hard to talk to us.

“I couldn’t kill my mum. I wanted to but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that. I wanted the doctors to do that. I wanted the doctors to help her do it herself.  She needed to do it herself, not us doing it. Whenever she was ready we would have all got together, let her take her pill, her wee drink of juice, let her go to sleep with all of us round her and drift away. But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that at all. We were all around her but it wasn’t peaceful. She lay in her bed for over a year not moving, not doing anything, just lying there getting bed sores everywhere. She suffered – torture. She was tortured for two years because we couldn’t do anything.”

I respect—even if I disagree with— the arguments of those who object on rational grounds—the slippery slope and all that— to legalizing assisted suicide, but as for those, such as Boston’s egregious “Cardinal Sean” (who fought so hard against the Massachusetts’ ‘Death with Dignity’ initiative) whose objections are rooted in religious faith it’s a somewhat different matter. They are entitled to their beliefs in this matter, and to live (and die) by them, but to insist-as a matter of law-that others should be forced to do the same is arrogant, insolent and, all too often, horribly cruel.

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Dec/16

24

Christmas in Jablonovka

Furlough in Jablonovka by the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) includes a description of Christmas just behind the front lines of the Eastern front during Roth’s time with the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War (the translation is by Michael Hoffman, and comes from The Hotel Years, a fine collection of  some of Roth’s writing):

The sky glitters overhead, the snow glitters under our feet. It’s as though the sky is a reflection of the snow. There’s no point following the village street, which is all trampled. The snow was so seductive that it would have been a sin not to walk there, where it lay crisp and deep, noble, virginal, crystal and singing. So as not to encounter our comrades and to enjoy the night and the stars and the snow, we walked up the lane behind the houses. It was peaceful, no war anywhere. Ten or twelve times a searchlight crossed the sky, but even that seemed to be a kind of strolling, a peaceable pedestrian, paler than its brothers whom I knew better in the luminous sky.

The boys came in with their pumpkin lanterns. They sang. Stable and manger and donkey were nearby, if you could follow the singing. If you could believe them, the Saviour was born in Jablonovka, not far from Josefova Gargas’s hut, and not two thousand years ago, but sixty at the most, and the oldsters still remembered the event. You could practically see the footprints of the Three Kings in the snow. The star was graspable. The Podolian plain was swaddled in faith, God was in Podolia, and Bethlehem was a hop and a skip away, much closer than the front.

Lights went out one after another, and the huts went dark. Only the sky and the snow were still gleaming as the village traipsed up the hill to the church. Its double doors were thrown open, and it was as though the altar was coming out to meet you, to welcome the visitors in its splendour. There were no pews. People stood and knelt. Although the doors were left open, it soon grew warm, it was as though the furs were warming me, and the candles, and the fervour and the Gloria after the Introitus: Dominus dixit ad me: filius meus es tu, ego hodie genui te. Quare fremuerunt gentes; et populi meditate sunt inania? What are the heathens purposing? What folly are the peoples pursuing? — Et pastores erant in regione eadem vigilantes — And there were wakeful shepherds in that place — they were here next to us, next to Rainacher and me. We took the widow Josefova Gargas home between us. The door wasn’t locked, no door in the village was ever locked, even though strange troops, Hungarians and Bosnians were furloughed here. There were wakeful shepherds here.

We sat down at the table, and ate our borsch with wooden spoons. Then we cut up the meat with our bayonets. We drank slivovitz from tea-glasses and canteens. My atheistical friend Rainacher stretched comfortably on the chair, flung wide his arms and sang: Gloria in excelsis deo. He wasn’t blaspheming. At three in the morning, we kissed the widow and the twins, gave them our four parcels, and went off to sleep. You take the bed tonight, Rainacher told me, I’ll go on the floor. It’s my present to you. And that’s how it was. We were roused at six with marching orders.

Furlough in Jablonovka was written by Roth in exile in Paris in 1939. It first appeared in an émigré newspaper in that city, just a few months after his death the same year, a death accelerated by alcohol and despair over the deteriorating situation in Europe.

Dec/16

11

Pope Francis and “Fake News”

It was perhaps not that surprising that Pope Francis would look to involve himself in the controversy over ‘fake news’. The terms in which he did so were, however, unexpected….

The Guardian reports:

Pope Francis has lambasted media organisations that focus on scandals and smears and promote fake news as a means of discrediting people in public life. Spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do”, the pontiff told the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio. It is a sin to defame people, he added.

Using striking terminology, Francis said journalists and the media must avoid falling into “coprophilia” – an abnormal interest in excrement. Those reading or watching such stories risked behaving like coprophagics, people who eat faeces, he added.

The pope excused himself for using terminology that some might find repellent. “I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into – no offence intended – the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” he said. “And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, a lot of damage can be done.”

He also spoke of the danger of using the media to slander political rivals. “The means of communication have their own temptations, they can be tempted by slander, and therefore used to slander people, to smear them, this above all in the world of politics,” he said.

Now let’s scroll back to a passage in a speech that the pontiff gave in Bolivia last year:

“The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor…”

As I observed in the course of a post on the Corner:

 Not for the first time with Pope Francis, we see traces of conspiracism (a demagogic standard, I’m afraid to say) in his use of the phrase ‘anonymous influence’ and the suggestion of dark works by ‘corporations’ and ‘loan agencies’.

Not for the first time….

During the course of his notorious Lampedusa speech on immigration in 2013, Francis conjured up images of dark forces at play.

Writing in Law and Liberty not so long after, Anthony Daniels had this to say:

The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Losotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words…

And then there were Francis’ comments (reported by ABC) in the wake of the murder of an elderly French priest by Islamic terrorists earlier this year:

Pope Francis says the world is at war, but is stressing that it’s not a war of religions.  Francis spoke to reporters on the papal plane en route from Rome to Poland, where he began a five-day visit Wednesday. Asked about the slaying of an 85-year-old priest in a Normandy church on Tuesday, Francis replied: “the real word is war…yes, it’s war. This holy priest died at the very moment he was offering a prayer for all the church.”

He went on: “I only want to clarify, when I speak of war, I am really speaking of war … a war of interests, for money, resources. … I am not speaking of a war of religions, religions don’t want war. The others want war.”

As I noted at the time on this site:

[A]s for the Pope’s claim that “religions don’t want war”, I can only suggest that he spend more time with the history books and, for that matter, some of the less benign passages in various sacred texts.

The final insult both to the truth and thereby to the victim is Francis’ resort (yet again) to conspiracy theory, with his references to some shadowy conflict over “interests, for money, for resources”.

Demagogues typically resort to conspiracism out of delusion or malice, as a device to mislead and, often, to draw the audience’s attention away from what is really going on.

Pope Francis is not in a position to lecture anyone on fake news.

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Nov/16

26

Castro: The Pope and the Dictator

pope-francis-and-fidel-castroTo Pope Francis, Castro’s death was “sad” news, kind words indeed from someone who the former dictator would once have described as “social scum”.

Meanwhile, just two or three weeks ago the pontiff was being quoted favorably on Telesur (a TV network funded by the governments of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and, disappointingly in such company, Uruguay):

Asked [during an interview with the press ] if his pursuit and support for a more egalitarian society meant he envisioned a “Marxist type of society,” the pontiff said in response, “If anything, it is the communists who think like Christians…Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide. Not demagogues, not Barabbas, but the people, the poor, whether they have faith in a transcendent God or not. It is they who must help to achieve equality and freedom.”

Francis is not a communist (his ideology is better seen as a blend of left-Peronism and ‘a Catholicism of the people’, two strains of thought that themselves overlap). Nevertheless, to say that that description represents a very benign interpretation of what communism really is, is to put things very mildly indeed.

Then again, Francis’ line of argument is not so different from what Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the leftist Roman Catholic writer and activist possibly now headed for canonization, deployed in the Catholic Worker in July/August 1962:

We are on the side of the [Cuban] revolution. We believe there must be new concepts of property, which is proper to man, and that the new concept is not so new. There is a Christian communism and a Christian capitalism. We believe in farming communes and cooperatives and will be happy to see how they work out in Cuba. God bless Castro and all those who are seeing Christ in the poor. God bless all those who are seeking the brotherhood of man because in loving their brothers they love God even though they deny Him.

And Pope Francis, of course, is something of a Dorothy Day fan. Praised for her “passion for justice”, Day was one of “four representatives of the American people”, singled out by the Pope during the course of his speech to Congress in 2015.

Meanwhile from Forbes earlier this year:

The Obama administration has continued its effort to expand contact between the U.S. and Cuba by easing restrictions on travel, exports, and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Although Raul Castro’s government has continued economic reforms, it has maintained the Communist Party’s political stranglehold. Indeed, despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but 2300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.” In contrast, there were only 40 cases in 2011…..

Sad times, indeed.

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Oct/16

30

Morrigan’s Hotel

ritualWriting in The Guardian, Alex Mar explains how making a documentary film “about a handful of fringe religious communities around the country” led her deep into the pagan world.

The article is an interesting account of where the search for meaning (whatever that may be) can take the credulous and the restless, and, beyond that, of the eternal appeal of the divine – and the break from the banality of everyday existence that comes with celebrating it.

The ritual was a devotional to the Morrigan, the heavyweight Celtic goddess of war, prophecy and self-transformation. In the center of the circle, surrounded by her ritual crew, stood Morpheus, with all eyes on her.

At the time Morpheus’ day job was working for a federal environmental agency, not, perhaps the most thrilling of line of work. Being possessed by an ancient Celtic goddess on the other hand….

Dressed in black, in a leather corset and a long skirt slit up each side, she wore her hair in elaborate, heavy braids that hung to her waist. She stalked the circle’s edge, flapping the vulture wings she’d strapped to her arms and staring into the crowd. Her slender body doubled over, as if suddenly heavy, and began bobbing up and down as if something was bubbling up inside her.

The sight of a possession, for those who’d never witnessed one, was alien, impressive. After what felt like a long time, she raised her head up and in a growling voice not her own, announced that she was Morrigu! Badb Catha! The roomful of witches circled closer, tightening around her, and a fellow priestess lifted a heavy sword above our heads: she directed us to take a vow. “But only if it’s one you can keep. Don’t take it lightly.”

As Morpheus (or the goddess she was channeling) continued heaving, breathing hard, hundreds of people crowded in, taking turns to raise their hand up and touch the tip of the blade.

I was one of them.

Mar, who also went on to write a book (Witches of America) on this topic, argues that there are now as many as a million “self-identified witches (typically called pagan priests and priestesses)” in the U.S.

In the past, it may have been tempting to dismiss this community as Earth-loving crystal collectors or velvet-wearing goths. In fact, the dozens of esoteric but related traditions share a spiritual core: they are polytheistic, worship nature and hold that female and male forces have equal weight in the universe. Pagans believe that the divine can be found all around us and that we can communicate regularly with the dead and the gods without a go-between. They don’t believe in heaven or hell; many subscribe to some version of reincarnation, or a next world called the Summerland.

In other words, it’s nonsense, but to each his (or her) own…

And then we get to the key point:

Throughout my life, most of my friends have been fashionable atheists of the creative classes, but it was becoming clearer to me that this does not exempt anyone from the very human need for meaning. As someone with a strong “religious impulse” but without a practice to relate to, I’d long been envious of people whose lives are structured around a clear system of belief. It seems like a tremendous relief, to be able to wake up everyday with a shared sense of purpose versus the low-level existential pain of living without something to believe in, a religious tradition to guide and ground you.

Most people, it seems do indeed feel that way: It’s hard-wired within and some of the more evangelistic atheists (for whom, I suspect, atheism is, in all probability, a surrogate religion) would do well to remember it. Religion will always be with us.  What matters is the form that it will take.

But note my reference to ‘most people’. There is another group, a happy few (or perhaps not so few) who find the absence of any overarching ‘meaning’ to be something of a relief, and that, far from being a source of “low-level existential pain”, “living without something to believe in” (at least ‘believe’ in a capital B sense of the word) can be a pleasantly liberating experience.

Transcendence, no thanks.

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