Saturday, 18 December 2010
Thursday, 18 November 2010
A Short History of Celebrity, by Fred Inglis (Princeton University Press, 2010)
In many respects the 20th century saw an extension, not a revolution, in the way public figures were regarded. The likes of Jackson Pollock and Tracey Emin continued where Reynolds left off. After Byron has come a multitude of stars from James Dean to Pete Doherty, whose embrace of the Dionysian has enthralled and appalled.
Monday, 15 November 2010
Thursday, 11 November 2010
By Dr Jacob Presser
Souvenir Press, £15
In the popular imagination, when one thinks of the fate of Dutch Jewry in the Second World War, the lives of Anne Frank, Edith Stein and Charlotte Saloman spring to mind. More recently, Paul Verhoeven's 2006 film Zwartboek (Black Book) has raised consciousness as to the miserable fate of Jews in Holland during that conflict.
Although Zwartboek received many awards and accolades internationally, reaction to it in The Netherlands was decidedly mixed. This owed to the fact that the movie was a tale of ambivalence, in which not all Germans were portrayed as evil, many Dutchmen were showed as being complicit with the Nazis, and in which some Jews were depicted as collaborating against their own people to save themselves. By eschewing a Manichaean narrative, Verhoven's film proved difficult to digest among compatriots who wanted to believe that their grandparents had behaved better.
Ashes in the Wind, first published in 1965 and released in a new edition, had a similar effect on the reading public. Its central theme is that war can make good people do bad things, and how ideology can make good people behave with appalling inhumanity - and not just the perpetrators of an ideology, but sometimes its victims, too.
In a world where the boundaries between good and evil are perennially questioned and doubted, the Holocaust is often invoked as an ethical reference point, to affirm that morality is not perspectival and provisional. This is one reason why discussing the Holocaust has become problematic. But long before postmodern historians and far-right anti-semites came to be accused of belittling the Holocaust, Dr Presser - a Dutch Jew who survived the ordeal - reminded us that we cannot comprehend this catastrophe with childlike simplicity.
The Jew/German Nazi dichotomy collapses here on many fronts. It was not only Nazified Germans who were responsible for effecting the Holocaust, such as the concentration camp Kommandant who gave his son fifty Jews for target practice as a birthday present, but ordinary Germans who sank to levels of barbarity. In the Amsterdam house raids of July 1942 "German female employees hung out of the windows taking snaps for their albums and, judging by their screams of laughter, were having a highly enjoyable time; several German police officers joined in the merriment, which increased to hilarity when a young Jewish women, suddenly wrenched away from her pram and child, had a fit of hysteria".
Elsewhere, there are tales of German remorse (or at least displays of it): the Commander of German Security Police and Head of Zentralstelle consulting a rabbi, cursing "the fate that had put him in this predicament", or of a German soldier "who got drunk every night to forget his part in gassing Jewish children in trains. He could not put it out of his mind and kept thinking of his own five children."
Additionally, the Germans did not regard "the Jews" as a coherent ethno-religious group. They showed little interest in monitoring and rounding up the "Portuguese Jews" (presumably, Sephardi), which adds weight to the argument that Nazi anti-semitism was racially, rather than religiously, inspired. Indeed, the Christian churches mostly conducted themselves courageously. The Catholic hierarchy constantly spoke out against the incremental measures taken against Dutch Jews. The Lutheran Church was somewhat less forthcoming. But the real heroes of the appalling episode were the Calvinist Dutch, who, the Nazis complained, sided with Dutch Jews at every opportunity for " 'so-called' reasons of conscience". (Many Gentile Dutch men and woman were as brave as to display solidarity by wearing yellow stars; still, Holland had the highest collaboration rate of all the German-occupied European countries). Perhaps this denomination's resistance can be partly explained culturally, in that Calvinists, who traditionally shunned idolatry and ritual, may have been immune to Nazism's seductive use of icons and lavish ceremony.
There was cleavage within the Jewish community, too. In the transit camps antagonism arose between Dutch Jews and German Jews, the latter accused by the former of "behaving like a caste, an oligarchy... and [who] far too often showed a 'German' predilection for bossing people about". There were even Jews who remained members of the Nationall-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland, a Dutch political party that may have not have began as anti-semitic, but by 1940 certainly had become so.
In this essential work, Dr Presser directed his most concentrated opprobrium towards the Jewish Council of Holland itself. German Nazis were objectively the villains here, of course; but he intimates that the Jewish Council's betrayal of its own people was ethically even less defensible.
Ashes To The Wind reminds us that while, today, we are prone to invoke the Holocaust as a morality tale, it was an event blemished sometimes by ambiguity and amorality.
Saturday, 6 November 2010
Wednesday, 3 November 2010
This was a PR disaster for atheism
Full text of an article that appeared in The Catholic Herald
Well, I think we can safely say that the Pope's visit to Britain was something of a triumph. The vast numbers who came to greet the Holy Father dwarfed the coterie of angry atheists who came "to protest" him. And as much as I regret to admit it, the whole affair has proved to be something of a public relations disaster for atheism.
Some reasons for this are obvious. There was the shrill invective of the likes of Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling, who both continue to ignore the first rule of proselytising, in that you are not going to win friends or influence people if you call them horrid names all the time. There was also the idiotic innuendo about the Pope being a Nazi; calling someone a "Nazi" is invariably a substitute for seeking to refute their arguments. And it's juvenile. "You're just like Hitler!" is the kind of cry made by teenagers when told to tidy their bedrooms.
Moreover, there was the omnipresence of celebrities giving their two pence worth. You always know there is something suspect about a cause when it is endorsed by actors and pop stars.
The garrulous Stephen Fry was the best-known culprit, referring to the Vatican thus: "It is a rump accident of history that this place has an autonomous, or autocratic, absolute monarchy of one organisation". This line, that the Vatican is not a real country, and consequently that the Pope didn't merit a state visit, was bandied around routinely. But it ignores the fact that no states are essentially natural, and that the creation of the Vatican City in 1929 only gave back to the Holy See what had been taken away from it in 1870, when the Papal States were incorporated into a united Italy.
Then there was the singer Sinead O'Connor calling for the entire Catholic hierarchy to resign over child sex abuse. The comedian Stewart Lee, the fantasy writer Terry Pratchett and restaurant critic Jonathan Meades also voiced their opposition to the visit on the grounds of the Pope's views abortion, condoms, human rights... you know the rest.
People often bemoan our "celebrity culture" as manifest in tabloid newspapers and magazines such as "Hello!" and "OK!". We are told that it is vacuous, and resembles a kind of ersatz religion. I don't think in itself this is a bad thing. People need their circuses as well as their bread. And it is not necessarily a new thing. People gossiped as much about Nelson's affair with Lady Hamilton and George IV's disastrous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick as much as they discussed their roles as statesmen. In his day Joshua Reynolds was as much a celebrity as he was a painter.
What is novel and objectionable, roughly since Jane Fonda's opinions on the Vietnam War were given publicity, is the notion that we should take seriously the opinions of performers. After all, actors are, literally, professional liars: they earn their living by pretending to be someone they are not. Comedians and fiction writers are by definition fantasists. These people shouldn't be allowed to vote, let alone be indulged by the media so generously.
I had hoped the marvellous 2004 film "Team America: World Police" had put an end to all this nonsense. The movie lampooned the self-importance of actors and their political opinions, featuring marionettes representing the likes of George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, all parroting left-liberal, anti-American dogma. It featured a grotesque representation of the film maker Michael Moore, whose rampant egomania was not too far removed from the real thing. In it we had Penn's character declare: "Last year I went to Iraq. Before Team America showed up, it was a happy place. They had flowery meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate, where the children danced and laughed and played with gumdrop smiles".
It was not a particularly partisan film. It also satirised America's aggressive and reckless foreign policy (all the best satire targets both the Left and the Right, from Jonathan Swift to Monty Python.) "Team America"'s essential message was that the US was wrong to invade Iraq, yet it was equally wrong for us to listen to the opinion of Hollywood stars. It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who assumes that people who appears on television are automatically conferred special wisdom as a consequence. We should pay no more attention to Stephen Fry's views on Catholicism than Mel Gibson's pseudo-Catholic reflections.
Ultimately, the Pope's visit was a triumph because it demonstrates that people full of resentment, self-pity and spite are unappealing, where as Benedict, who exuded humility and grace, put a smile on millions of faces. You don't have to be religious to recognise this basic lesson in human nature: be nice and people will like you.
The Republic of Ireland's transformation from a predominately Roman Catholic country into a broadly agnostic and multi-religious one has been well-documented in recent years. This, however, has not been to the liking of the many practising Catholics, who suspect this transition has been exaggerated, and who also feel secularists have been overbearing in their crusade to purge Ireland of the vestiges of its religious past and present. A microcosm of this debate can be witnessed in the quarrel about the existence of The Angelus on radio and television.
Predominately a Catholic devotion, The Angelus is broadcast at noon and 6pm daily on Raidio Teilifis Eireann's (RTE) flagship television and radio stations. Consisting of a bell chiming languorously, and for decades accompanied by Catholic imagery, The Angelus celebrates 60 years on RTE this month. And the debate about its place on a publicly-owned broadcaster is almost as old as the broadcast itself.
Its existence continues to irk secularists who perceive it as an anathema and anachronism, especially as RTE is state-funded; it vexes Ireland's campaigning atheists much for the same reasons BBC Radio 4's Thought For The Day antagonises Britain's. Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland, believes that The Angelus is little more than a free advert for the Church. "If RTE was to broadcast a minute of atheist propaganda at prime time every day, most people would intuitively realise that this would be inappropriate," Nugent asserted last week. "In a religious state, the state broadcasting system would be promoting religion. In an atheist state, the state broadcasting system would be promoting atheism. In a secular state, it would do neither".
Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble once quipped that Southern Ireland was the only country in Europe in which the six o'clock news began at one minute past the hour. Yet the vitriol levelled at The Angelus has become more acute recently as Ireland has become less religiously observant - and certainly as attacks on the Church itself have become commonplace. Revelations of child abuse by the clergy have persisted here since the early-1990s and the country continues to have chronic episodes of anti-clericalism.
RTE has sought to ameliorate objections to The Angelus by making it more "inclusive". Its television version was rebranded last September so that traditional images of old master paintings and of the Virgin Mary were replaced by "visual reflections" - featuring among others, a working fisherman, a grieving mother and Zambian office workers - designed, according to RTE religious programmes editor Roger Childs, to take time out from "the weariness, the fever and the fret" of contemporary life. "With this new series of The Angelus we are seeking to reflect modern Ireland while still retaining the integrity of the original broadcast some 49 years ago."
This has riled secularists further. "Recent attempts to soften its impact, by illustrating it with nonreligious images and rebranding it as a pause for reflection, simply make it worse," writes Nugent. "This suggests that people of all religions and none can unite under a Roman Catholic call to prayer." The Catholic community seems to have accepted the reinvention - which has seemingly reinterpreted a religious call to prayer as an ersatz television advert for bubble bath lotion - grudgingly.
If, however, the new incarnation of The Angelus seeks to reflect modern Ireland, so does the discourse employed by its detractors. I caught a debate on a Dublin radio station last week in which the claim was made that it is "offensive" to agnostics, atheists and those of other faiths. The accusation that it is "offensive" is a common one, and indicates that many who would otherwise call themselves children of the Enlightenment are just as guilty of turning the political into the personal, of appealing to emotion not reason, of employing the language of victimhood. "I find that offensive" is code for "you can't say that", a censorious plea unbefitting for those who often cite Voltaire with such reverence. Seeking to abolish something because it hurts your feelings, or because you find it aesthetically displeasing, is a profoundly irrational argument.
What is more, as with comparable debates over race, religion, culture and ethnicity in Britain, those deemed to feel "offence" in these matters often feel nothing of the sort. The Clonskeagh Mosque in Dublin, the Church of Ireland broadcast committee and the outgoing Chief Rabbi have voiced their support for The Angelus's continuation on RTE. Ali Selim, based at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, Dublin, told the BBC: "We see it as something that belongs to people of another faith," remarked Selim, who arrived in Ireland from Egypt in 1999. "If it is exclusive for Catholics, then what's wrong with that? Muslims have their prayer call and it is exclusive for them."
"The secularists pretend that Protestants, Muslims, Jews find The Angelus offensive. When you actually ask them they say 'not me'," David Quinn, former editor of the Irish Catholic and now head of the Iona Institute, told me. The campaign to seek its abolition, he says, is "equivalent to having a guest in your house and taking down every picture unless you offend them."
As it transpired, protests against The Angelus this year have been pianissimo, and I predict that it will be on the Irish airwaves for many years to come. It will be for the same reason that many pillar boxes here still bear the monograms of British monarchs, or that you can still find The Royal Irish Academy and Royal Dublin Society in a republic that hasn't had a monarch since 1948. The Republic of Ireland might be a post-Catholic, and post-colonial, country, but this doesn't mean everyone wants to eradicate its culture and history in a pique of literal-mindedness.
The Angelus is comparable to the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibiting Catholics from the English throne: logically indefensible, but in the wider scheme of things, a trifling and harmless anachronism. Militant secularists could well use a dose of common sense sometimes, and certainly stop getting things out of proportion.