Weekend Film Recommendation: Wolf Hall

Happy New Year, RBC!

The 2016 film recommendation season kicks off with the BBC’s wonderful televised adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, in a six part series named after the first of the books.

The story deals with some rather well-rehearsed material for English audiences. (The old saying is that the British school curriculum for years languished in an excessive emphasis on the Tudors and World War II). It spans the years from the mid-1520s to the mid-1540s. Henry VIII, who had successfully petitioned the Pope for a special dispensation to marry Katherine of Aragon (who had formerly been betrothed to Henry’s late brother before his own accession to the throne) then petitioned the Pope again, this time unsuccessfully, for yet another dispensation – this time to divorce Katherine and instead marry Anne Boleyn. The political tussle that ensued included Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries, his installation as the head of the Church of England, and some jolly japes along the way over whether Catholicism or Protestantism ought to win out in the long run.

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Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Wolf Hall”


The Pope is wrong to blame the crimes of ISIS on selfishness.

From Pope Francis’ Christmas Day homily – emphasis added:

Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst.

The paragraph does not mention ISIS (or whatever the label of the month is), but much of the homily is concerned with violence in the Middle East and in Africa. In context, Francis is blaming terrorism and other forms of political violence and coercion on selfishness.

Sorry, no. Coming from a Jesuit, this is astonishingly sloppy. It’s on a par with attacking the 9/11 terrorists as cowardly, a mistake which Tim Noah and Paul Krugman correctly called out: a suicide bomber is necessarily very brave.

The medieval typology of deadly sins allows a better classification of al-Baghdadi’s as pride and anger. Anger may depend partly on pride – excessive self-esteem – but its expressions are often reckless and self-destructive.

The Seven Deadly Sins only get us so far and do not account for the core of jihadi or other religious fanaticism: the paranoid world-view, unlimited and unrealistic revolutionary agenda, and jettisoning of normal moral restraints.

Modern social science may not have a full explanation, but it has developed at least two pieces of it. One is the mechanism of confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek out evidence fitting a preconception and disregard evidence that does not. In the strong form, in arrogant and credulous personalities, this can create a positive feedback loop and lead us from a common prejudice (such as social and economic antisemitism), with some distorted basis in fact, to a radical dogma (the Jewish conspiracy for world domination) entirely detached from reality. Another insight applies to the followers: social pressures of group conformity and the psychological process of habituation can easily transform quite ordinary people into monsters. See Milgram’s fake torture experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of an SS battalion recruited from unremarkable reservists, not enthusiastic former brownshirts.

These two factors do not explain everything. In particular, the European recruits to ISIS chose the movement over other Islamic, even radical Islamic, authority figures.  Still, I think the case is clear that we cannot account for the movement’s rise by any appeal to simple selfishness. The Devil has many other tunes.


Selfishness, in the form of common greed, accounts perfectly for the irresponsible marketing of prescription opioids, as much as the political variant explains Herod’s alleged Massacre of the Innocents. I’m not defending it like Ayn Rand.

Merry Christmas

hollyI really like Christmas, a wonderful secular (and spiritual) celebration originating in pagan solstice rituals and a minor Christian holiday (so minor that the Puritans proscribed it), elaborated to its present status mostly in the 19th century.

What I like about it, in no particular order, is

  • taking off a week or so from regular work for a shared special time
  • public celebrations and performances
  • all the music, from BWV 248 to Mariah Carey and even Richie Valens
  • peace on earth and good will to mankind
  • being out and about with your neighbors, shopping or just being there
  • giving kids (or grownups) presents that make their eyes light up
  • singing together in groups
  • overspending on charity, because it’s part of the whole idea, and because of the happy accident that most people’s fiscal year (for deductions) ends at almost the same time.
  • all the food from all the traditions; stollen, panettone, bûche de Noël, egg nog…bring it on!
  • Christmas trees, a unique home-made folk-art convention with wonderful variations
  • gathering families qua families to cook indulgent food and pig out together, and have friends over to enjoy each other
  • seasons, and the miracle that the days will get longer again

I even like the goofy paradoxes and associations it’s acquired, like celebrating an event that took place under palms and olive trees with all sorts of conifer/snowy landscape imagery, and the wonderful fact that the most popular American Christmas song was written by a Jewish refugee from pogroms orchestrated by soi-disant Christians who had the completely wrong idea about their faith (Isadore/Irving Beilin/Baline/Berlin).  I like it that the star in the east was actually in the west for the Oriental kings who followed it.  I love the animals in creches.

I don’t like the commercialization, or the ghastly house-decorating one-up-manship that breaks out on the occasional suburban street, or the curdled pietism among some of my fellow Jews that denies them participation in a year-end festival that is for everyone. No, you’re not a bad Jew if you take your kids to Nutcracker! and there’s nothing sectarian in A Christmas Carol, or even Santa Claus and his reindeer.  I forgive all of that, and I wish everyone more Christmas spirit.

I have no problem that practicing Christians today make a big deal out of its particular theological significance for them; Christmas is big, it embraces multitudes.  But I wish the more narrow-minded among them were more sharing and less narrow-minded, and insisted less that if it isn’t strictly Christian it’s damaged for them and disrespected; Jesus is a prophet in Islam, for Pete’s sake! Christmas is a non-rival good and has big network externalities: the more people that get into it, the more of it there is for you. Again, I forgive all of that, and I wish everyone more Christmas spirit.

Merry Christmas, everyone; Christian Christmas, seasonal Christmas, community Christmas, whatever: it has something for everyone. Enjoy it.


Au nom de quoi?

Daesh in its historical context of apocalyptic religious cults.

in-the-name-of-what_cropA fair question. But it’s not hard to answer. ISIS or ISIL or Daesh – Obama has settled on the last, and we might as well follow him – is quite clear about its goal: to establish by force of arms, starting now, a universal Sunni Islamic caliphate. This will be ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph according to an extreme Salafist version of shariah which even Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia think is over the top. What is more, unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the imperialist agenda is connected to apocalyptic prophecy. According to Graeme Wood, whose Atlantic article is basic reading on the movement:

Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
…Now that it has taken Dabiq [in northern Syria], the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

An Australian convert expanded on the scenario to Wood:

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

The fact that this is nuts – and mainstream Sunni and Shia leaders all concur in the assessment – does not make it unclear, any more than Mein Kampf was. Nor is it without precedent, in several religions. Continue reading “Au nom de quoi?”

Sad that this needs to be said. Even sadder that so few Republicans are saying it.

President George W. Bush is rightly remembered as a failed president because of Iraq, Katrina, and more.

I’ve always thought he was a pretty decent man who deserved credit for several things. Foremost was his personal triumph of PEPFAR, which saved millions of lives around the world. There was also his support for mental health parity and his support for religious tolerance after 9/11.

We’ll never know what would have happened had 9/11 not erupted on his watch. I suspect that he would have had a different, more worthy presidency. (h/t Fusion–more here.)

God, sex and violence: Bernini special!

Bernini’s shocking sculpture challenges Catholic doctrine on sex.

I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.

Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’  descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:

And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.

Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.

This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.

So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?
Adults only image below the fold Continue reading “God, sex and violence: Bernini special!”

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno deserves a proper apology from the Pope.

Giordano Bruno 2
The Campo dei Fiori piazza in Rome holds a tony street-market: funghi porcini, ecological olive oil, and not a Chinese T-shirt or fake Vuitton bag in sight. In the middle of the bustle stands a sombre statue of a hooded monk, put up by anticlericals in 1889. It commemorates Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was burnt alive there on 17 February 1600 for multiple counts of heresy. These included a belief that the stars were suns floating in infinite space, surrounded by their own planets and life. Following the technical recommendations of the 14th-century Catalan inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich, Bruno was fittingly gagged to prevent unseemly outbursts.

The execution was a far worse crime than the trial of Galileo. That ended in a forced and formal abjuration, and fairly open house arrest for the rest of his life. His books were banned, but they had done their work. It’s become a nice symbol: Scientific Truth versus clerical obscurantism. The Truth wins in the end, so it’s a more or less happy ending.

That tidy narrative does not fit Giordano Bruno, a brilliant crank. He wrote about two books a year, moving around Europe, from Geneva to Oxford to Wittenberg to Venice, until his welcome ran out in one city after another. A few of the ideas he fired off turned out right, like the floating stars. But he had no evidence for this speculation, and like all his mediaeval predecessors relied on a priori intuitions. (Corrections from experts welcome as always.) Galileo’s attack on Aristotelian physics and cosmology was modern, specific and based on experiments like the falling weights at Pisa, and his observations of sunspots and Jupiter’s moons though his new telescope. The first evidence against the sphere like a planetarium with the fixed stars stuck to the inside was the discovery of a variable star (Mira Ceti) in 1596, when Bruno had been in the cells of the Inquisition for three years. Sunspots followed in 1611, a little after Jupiter’s moons. By Newton’s time, stars as floating suns had become a common view among cosmologists. It wasn’t until 1838 that any star (61 Cygni ) had its distance measured by parallax, finally disproving the planetarium theory, abandoned long before by scientists. The first exoplanet orbiting Gamma Cephei A was discovered in 1988;  and no life has been detected yet on any.

Giordano wrote fast on everything else as well. His heretical views included metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, magic and divination, as well as unorthodox positions on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. We’ve met people like him on the Internet: characters who have never met a flashy contrarian idea they didn’t immediately fall for. They are not the dangerous radicals authority need worry about, men like Galileo with a big idea they use as a lever to crack open orthodoxy on some previously hidden fault line.

Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech, because he happened to be demonstrably right on a matter of scientific fact. We should not try to defend Giordano Bruno on the grounds that he was right by chance on one thing, but simply that he was entitled to express opinions that were his own and not those of approved authorities. It it’s for real, freedom of conscience and speech holds for crackpots, blasphemers, racists, xenophobes, revolutionaries, and heretics.

The Inquisition’s investigation and trial of Giordano Bruno involved no less than eight cardinals: Bellarmine, Madruzzi, Borghese (later Pope Paul V), Pinelli, Arrigoni, Sfondrati, Manuel, and Santorio. We can imagine the earnest discussions among these cultivated and worldly princes of the Counter-Reformation Church, a far cry from the provincial fanaticism of a Tomás de Torquemada.

 – He doesn’t seem to have any followers, so you could say that the threat is minimal.

– We don’t know how many impressionable young men have read his books, so the rot may have spread further than we know.

– Our mistake with Luther was not coming down hard on him while we still had the chance.

– Can’t we send him to a quiet monastery in the Alps?

– We need to send a strong message.

With the Torquemadas and Hitlers of this world, you can make a case if you really try for diminished responsibility. Hitler’s biographers disagree on the question whether he can be held morally responsible for his actions. Did he know that what he was doing was wrong? The alternative proposition, that these men were as insane as rabid dogs, should lead to very similar action, so the problem has limited practical interest. You clearly cannot make this argument for Bellarmine and the others. Their atrocity was quite deliberate.

The Vatican defended the execution of Bruno till recently. Wikipedia:

In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno’s trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno’s death to be a “sad episode” but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno’s prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”

This mealy-mouthed half-apology will not do. If Pope Francis wishes to make amends for the many cruelties his Church (like mine, on a much lesser scale: Erastianism has its benefits) has inflicted in the name of orthodox faith, he knows how to do it properly. The Vatican has a busful of cardinals. On 17 February next, he can send eight of them to the Campo de Fiori to celebrate a penitential Mass in the rain for all prisoners and martyrs of conscience, in apology to that hooded and brooding statue.

No big deal

“Tuez-les tous! Dieu reconnaîtra les siens.” Arnaud Amaury to his troops before the sack of Béziers, who were unclear on how to tell the difference between the Cathar heretics who needed extermination and good Christians.  Often rendered as “kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out!”

It is widely believed in Islam that anyone who dies on the Hajj goes directly to heaven; if so the 700 souls killed in the stampede in Mecca were actually spared years enduring our imperfect world and are now grateful for the short cut.

“…it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. … I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.” Antonin Scalia, 2002. [It is not clear whether the distinguished believing Christian justice was dissing the death of non-Christians, or of Christians, or all of these.]

A Man was hanged by the neck until he was dead.

“Whence do you come?” Saint Peter asked when the Man presented himself at the gate of Heaven.

“From California,” replied the applicant.

“Enter, my son, enter; you bring joyous tidings.”

When the Man had vanished inside, Saint Peter took his memorandum-tablet and made the following entry:

“February 16, 1893.  California occupied by the Christians.” Ambrose Bierce