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Film Review: The Witch

September 24, 2016 Leave a comment

The Witch (2016; Directed by Robert Eggers)

“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” asks William (Ralph Ineson), family patriarch and religious nonconformist in colonial New England, in the opening moments of Robert Eggers’ arresting “New England folktale” The Witch. He stands in judgment with his clan before the governor and church elders, who banish him from their God-fearing colonial plantation for dissenting from the Puritan orthodoxy in his expressed beliefs. There is no small irony in this splitting, seeing as how the Pilgrim colonists of 17th Century New England were themselves painfully severed from the Church of England for their dissenting faith to come to the American continent in the first place to begin anew. Such principled breaks from the community on religious terms were hardly uncommon in New England, either; this was how Rhode Island was founded, for one, and other communities trace their origins back to strict Puritan believers who could not play well in the religious sandbox with others and struck out on their own to build a new Jerusalem in the continent’s unfathomably vast wilderness.

Eggers lingers on foreboding wide shots of the woods that tower on the fringes of the humble homestead that William and his family erect. “We will conquer this wilderness,” William vows. “It will not consume us.” But, of course, we know it will. Although the forest in The Witch is a place of mystery and peril as per both the folktale and the horror film tradition, visually it is not so much magical or nefarious but merely tangible, not looming or threatening so much as existing. Menace leeches from it into William’s family’s lives and they find nothing but misery and evil in their interactions with it. But the pregnant query at the core of The Witch asks whether evil persists in the wider natural world or if all ill emanates predominantly – or even exclusively – from the corruption of man. Furthermore, it considers quite openly whether personal liberty and fulfillment lie down the path of righteousness or with indulgence of the flesh.

As its ending titles claim somewhat righteously, the scenario of The Witch is based on copious primary documentary sources from colonial New England’s 17th Century witch hysteria (not to mention horror genre convention), as is much of the dialogue spoken by its characters. This assertion of fidelity feels faintly ambiguous considering the way the film treats the demonological phantasms of witchcraft as being all too real, but then to Protestants of that era – oppressed by an intense, practically physical fear of sin and damnation – it was all too real. The evil powers of the witch and her demonic master, while potent, exploit and indeed meld with the internal rifts within the family. It becomes difficult to tell where their desires, grief, flaws, resentments and recriminations end and where the witchcraft begins.

The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) is harsh and shrewish, towards her husband but especially towards her eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose care her youngest son Samuel suspiciously disappears. Thomasin resents her mother’s attacks on her, forms a fonder compact with eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and needles her hellion twin siblings Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) with dark suggestions of practicing witchcraft, jests which will come back to haunt her. Caleb, for his part, gazes with adolescent lasciviousness upon his older sister’s body while absorbing but quibbling with his father’s sermons about the stern certainty of sin, but precipitates a family crisis when he becomes lost in the woods and ensnared by a dark force. Meanwhile, the twins spend much of their time playing with the family’s he-goat Black Phillip, and claim that he sometimes speaks to them in dark voices. All family members old enough to recognize William’s weakness and ineptitude as a provider, survivor, and nurturing patriarch (namely Catherine and Thomasin but Caleb as well in an unspoken way) resent him for it, too.

All of these cracks and fissures are exploited by dark forces, but the darkest force of all is basic human doubt and frailty. The Witch is sort of a dark mirror Book of Job (Katherine compares herself to Job’s wife at one point), only the calamities with which William and his family are beset consist not in the stress tests of an ultimately benevolent deity but of the Great Enemy. And this 17th-century Job fails the test quite comprehensively. The film weaves the family’s own all-consuming Puritan paranoia about Satan and witches lurking in every copse, about the immutability of sin and judgement, and about the temptations of the flesh and of the material world with the stock imagery of witchlore: twisted, cackling old hags, huts in the woods, eerie flight by moonlight, and fireside witches’ Sabbaths in communion with Lucifer. It’s both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria.

If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion. No story set in Pilgrim times can claim not to be about modern America as well; such is the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, and The Witch joins that august metaphorical/allegorical tradition. Is Eggers’ film about the contemporary American siege mentality, the heady and dangerous mix of security anxiety, xenophobia, and wounded self-assurance that archconservative demagogues like Donald Trump shamelessly exploit and threatens to unwind the bonds of the republic? Is it about the destructive, church-fed tendencies towards magical thinking and irrational superstition that have hamstrung one of the world’s most robust societies on consistent occasions? We may not be able to say with confidence that it is saying any of these things, but the film operates with enough ambiguity to give those possible meanings plenty of oxygen.

As hinted at (and as can only be properly discussed by indulging in spoilers, so fair warning), there’s a strong feeling that the core meaning of The Witch, at least for Thomasin, considers the costs of freedom versus those of self-restriction. Blamed for all of the family’s troubles by her imperious mother, left undefended by her milquetoast bible-thumping father, and betrayed and accused of witchery by the twins, Thomasin finds herself standing alone amidst the shattered remnants of her family, face-to-face with the Great Satan himself.

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the male human incarnation of “Black Phillip” whispers seductively, and she has endured through too much trauma to resist him, lost all the safe ground that she might cling to in defiance. Though why would she bother to resist? Her father’s precious piety has only served to smash his familial unit and leave him dead in a pile of his uselessly-chopped firewood, crying out in his final guilt-ridden throes, “Corruption, thou art my father!” Her life is only preserved from her mother’s wrath by the sharp edge of a blade. For Thomasin, a literal deal with the Devil is her only path to freedom from the godly misery of her society and culture. Her species of liberation through the embrace of witchcraft, through communion with evil forces but also with the corrupted, amoral natural world, is not a matter of choice but of last resort, of resigned but bleakly delighted inevitability. “I will guide thy hand,” Black Phillip promises Thomasin when she tells him that she cannot write her name in his book to seal their pact. Her agency has been relentlessly reduced until it has been taken from her, all while she is plied with the promise of pleasures that come with final, total surrender.

Thus, Thomasin’s “choice” is no choice at all, her veering in the direction of delicious indulgence a purposeful channeling by forces stronger than her burgeoning womanhood. Buried deep in its symbolic implications, The Witch suggests that her unfree choice of freedom is the one America took and the one Americans are likewise offered. What did early American colonists go into the wilderness to find, after all? A new Kingdom of God, and nationalist myth and historical impetus has long maintained that they carved this kingdom, the “city upon a hill” of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s long-echoing 1630 sermon, out of the unforgiving wilderness by dint of their tireless work ethic and pious, god-fearing determination.

The Witch, as befits a cinematic text from an American era of deep ambivalence, doubt, and perhaps even dread recognition of decline and decadence of that exceptional settlement on New World shores, provocatively suggests that this myth should be understood in reverse. Americans did not conquer the wilderness, the wilderness consumed them even as they consumed it. Its primal, instinctual drives became internalized and transmuted into human desires, into that venerable “pursuit of happiness” that has translated into a liberty of acquisition, of consumption, of indulgence. This “folktale” offers this alternative myth of America’s founding, lurking beneath the trappings of an excellent indie-arthouse period horror movie. It lives deliciously.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Religion

Game of Thrones, The Thirty Years War and Violent Force in the Vacuum of Authority

June 23, 2016 1 comment

It is a consistent axiom of human civilization that authority is both relied upon and mistrusted, that its breakdown is wished for and feared in practically equal measure. Political movements, waves of protest, and cultural voices criticize the status quo, call for its dismantling, and puncture the elite’s ever-inflated balloon even as political party structures, entrenched bureaucracies, and stability-obsessed chambers of commerce emphasize a stay-the-course trajectory.

All of these superficially opposing but subtly reinforcing elements are baldly visible in the current American presidential election, for instance: on the Democratic Party side, Bernie Sanders appeals to more militant progressives who seek to topple the beknighted neoliberal consensus of slippery Wall Street financiers and national security hawks represented by Hillary Clinton, while amongst Republicans Donald Trump’s crude nationalistic nativism and seasoned property grifter’s self-aggrandizement has set the party’s rabidly white nationalist base against its cynical plutocratic leadership structure. Both Sanders and Trump have made serious hay with activist-minded voters on either extreme of the political spectrum by promising an overthrow of an unjust and broken system, but their exertions are unlikely to produce any more immediate result than the election of another neoliberal dynast to the White House.

Neither Trump nor Sanders would seriously deliver the sort of revolution that they intermittently pledge to instigate in their campaign rhetoric, but what might a shattering of the established order of power as we know it in the democratic capitalist West look like, and what sort of order (temporary or permanent) would fill the void? Both recorded history and historically-inflected genre entertainment suggest an alternative authority: organized violence.

HBO’s pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones wraps up its sixth season this weekend, and its vision of a fracturing medievalist power structure on the continents of Westeros and Essos, of traditional norms of legitimacy of authority failing, is characterized by that order’s incipient successor, the application of force. In Westeros, the centralized feudal authority of the crown based on the enforced fealty of cowed vassals (symbolized by the Iron Throne, forged from the captured swords of defeated lords) is weakened by the increasingly openly-questioned legitimacy of the Baratheon line of kings (the past two of which have been incestually-produced pure-blood Lannisters, a powerful noble house but not yet a royal one). This weakness is leveraged to the advantage of a savvy GOT1religious leader and political operator, Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow, backed by a literal army of armed zealots known as the Faith Militant.

But outside of the capital city of King’s Landing, the contentious intrigues between church and state have little positive effect on wider social stability. Prosperous feudal estates (like Horn Hill, Samwell Tarly’s family seat) and fortified bastions (like the Eyrie, the stronghold of the Vale) maintain a measure of calm, but elsewhere might makes right. The Riverlands, unsettled since House Frey’s coup against the ruling House Tully in the infamous Red Wedding, have been recaptured by a Tully army and troubled by the guerrilla activities of the independent fighting band, the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose members sometimes branch out into pillaging and massacres of the defenseless.

In the North, meanwhile, insurgent Stark-led forces (captained by Sophie Turner’s increasingly subtle Sansa Stark and Kit Harrington’s heroic but blindly honourable Jon Snow, whose dim uprightness has already got him killed once) do battle with the Boltons who succeeded the wolf-headed clan as Wardens of the North, whose openly cruel reign of terror across the North is personified by the sociopathic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). The pitched medieval battle between the two sides left a literal pile of bodies in its wake in the most recent episode, a visceral, graphic expression of the recourse to violence and death in an unsettled power vacuum.

All of the Westeros-based players on Game of Thrones are, in their own ways, struggling to establish themselves within a power structure whose long-held assumptions are stumbling. Further east and north, however, lie even greater forces marshalling violence with the intention of apocalyptic overthrow. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought the centuries-old slaveowning order of Slaver’s Bay in Essos to heel with loyal armies and burnt its remnants to ashes with dragonfire, but intends this military conquest and sociopolitical transformation to be a mere prelude to “breaking the wheel” of the successive dynastic rule of noble houses in Westeros. In the frozen far north, the White Walkers and their army of zombiefied wights is incrementally proceeding south towards the inhabited southern reaches of Westeros, bringing a winter of discontent that threatens not merely the political order of a certain historical context but all life itself.

If Game of Thrones is a fictional exploration of how violent force and those who wield it most effectively can displace the political traditions and diplomatic compromises of an atrophied system of authority, then the complex, dispiriting arc of the Thirty Years’ War shows how the interwoven tapestry of those elements can predestine a social and humanitarian disaster. As detailed with concise but complicated power by historian C.V. Wedgwood in her seminal one-volume 1938 book, this legendarily destructive and protracted conflict in 17th-century Central Europethirtyyearswar (which might have claimed up to 8 million casualties) had causes in the then-century-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants and the dynastic rivalry between the Bourbons who ruled France and the Habsburgs who reigned in Spain and the shrinking Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which the war morphed into the state that would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would only fall in World War I). But its horrible results were the tragic consequence of the reduction of existing nodes of authority within Germany and the normalization of plundering men-at-arms extracting their wages and rations (indeed, their very survival) from the largely defenseless civilian populations of the territories they marched through. Hence the Latin phrase associated with the practices of army support during the war, bellum se ipsum alet: “the war will feed itself.”

Continental Europe’s strongest centralized states of France and Spain fought proxy battles in Germany through allies and satellite states; the conflict might have had animating religious dimensions initially, but the Thirty Years’ War increasing became a hot flare-up of a long-running cold war between Bourbon and Habsburg. From the early days of the war in 1618 until its conclusion with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the most powerful players in the saga were those who could raise, support, and command armies: soldiers of fortune like Ernst von Mansfeld and Ottavio Piccolomini, quasi-feudal warlords like Albrecht von Wallenstein and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, even an energetic, warlike monarch like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Their importance as military commanders overrode diplomatic influence or aristocratic privilege, and they became so practically untouchable and necessary to any success in the field that any excess of control by them or plunder and rapine on their armies’ part, while not precisely forgiven, could not be punished or held to account by any secular or ecclesiastical authority not superior to them in arms (and basically none of them were).

The ground-level results of this tyranny of force in the Germany of this time, chronicled with frequent hyperbole sprinkled with grains of truth, were of a severity and horror that echoed the fancifully shocking miseries of Game of Thrones. Theft and pillage, rape and murder, torture, sieges, massacres, starvation, plagues, ruined crops and slaughtered livestock, and occasional battlefield abattoirs (all of these are more were depicted in an infamous series of etchings by Jacques Callot). In short, human suffering. Whether explored as thematic entertainment on television or recorded as narrative history, this is the end result of upheavals that diminish established authority. Revolutions are ever attractive in the ideological abstract but the overthrow of existing power structures that does not empower those most willing to wield ruthless force has not yet been performed. Both Game of Thrones and the Thirty Years’ War provide a dire case study of human nature in the absence of moderating social and political forces to discourage violent pillage and exploitation of weakness.

Not a Mirror But a Window: The Unfamiliar 14th Century

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

It’s a common enough approach to contemporary history writing to focus, at least for framing purposes, on the similarities, echoes, and lessons that the events of the past provide in relation to our current social, cultural, and political reality. There is an emphasis on what history can tell us about how we live now, and about how we may live in the near future. But though the past never leaves us, it is also its own creature. The core contexts, perspectives, base assumptions, and fundamental realities of life in other eras as documented and imparted in historical non-fiction and fiction are not simple mirrors on our own modern world, however distant. History is a window that looks upon a landscape of human civilization that is often unfathomably alien to our own experience, and gazing through that frame has intellectual value beyond application to current conditions.

This effect is discernable in both a seminal novel and a sweeping one-volume history of 14th Century Europe: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Both texts may seem like square peg examples to slot into the round hole of an argument about the bedrock unfamiliarity of history. Eco’s debut novel, his best-known and later adapted for the screen with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, transposes the quintessentially 20th-century literary genre of the detective story to a 14th Century Benedictine monastery in the Italian Alps, drawing liberally on contemporary academic theory and semiotics as well as on sensationalist subject matter. Tuchman’s magisterial history, which utilizes French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy as a central figure at once representative of his time and place and oddly exceptional, draws an implicit titular comparison between the horrors of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Battle of Nicopolis and the mass disasters of the 20th Century.

But both books are, in their own peculiar ways, about the notable peculiarity of the 14th Century, about its fundamental alterity in comparison with our own time. Stacked around Eco’s murder mystery, and indeed intimately related to it, are detailed descriptions of fanciful nameoftherosemedieval art depictions of the Apocalypse, accounts of countercultural quasi-monastic dissent movements, digressions into theological debates about the nature of good and evil and faith and doubt, as well as more esoteric clerical matters. The Name of the Rose is invested at least partly in the demystification of the Middle Ages, but any text with historical accuracy in mind will dispel the ren faire mist of chivalry and noble romance with a strong, stiff breeze. The cloistered monastic world of Eco’s story and characters, not insular exactly but certainly encircled and communal and intensely scholarly, is of a different sort of milieu than the fantasy of swordplay and courtly love anyway.

Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror takes up the banner of demolishing the chivalric myth, however, and does its job thoroughly. The France of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (who lived from 1340 to 1397) was denuded by roving, foraging, pillaging armies and, during the frequent truces between the French and the English, by military companies of the discharged soldiers, who operated as brigands or mercenaries, depending on the profit opportunities offered by each option at any given time. In the absence of a standing national army or effective security or police force, the protection of the land and the populace fell to the nobility. Indeed, war and defence (along with diplomacy) were their only serious useful functions in society, and the basis of their privileges of land ownership, influence with the crown, and exemption from taxation.

But again and again in this period, the nobility of France had proven either unwilling or unable (or both) to fulfill their duty in protecting the people, and the people rose in mass revolt on both sides of the channel (in France, the Jacquerie; in England, the Peasant’s Revolt) at least partly in protest of this broken covenant. The denuding of the countryside by war, brigandage, plague, and excessive taxation did not stop the King and his nobles from engaging in lavish pageantry, aristocratic pursuits like falconry and the tournaments that were the era’s prime sporting spectacles. Neither did the Church, also exempt from taxation and increasingly absorbed in the buying and selling of ecclesiastical services and even salvation itself that would lead directly to the permanent schism of the Protestant Reformation, offer sufficient succour or comfort.

Tuchman recognizes that it is the poor who always suffer most in times of turmoil, and that the failure of society’s institutions holds dire consequences for society’s most vulnerable. These are deep-seated truths applicable to many adistantmirrorperiods in history, our own included, but the weight of their primacy is not an impossible burden to the lives of those people. Tuchman summons kaleidoscopic detail of quotidian life and belief, women’s experiences, fashions, theatrical innovations, military systems, engineering practices, religious dogma and practice, and of course the large-scale political developments that fill the chronicles that are her primary sources. But the peasants and poorer classes did not simply live admirably amidst great suffering. They lashed out at those weaker than they were in terrible pogroms against the Jews in their communities, persecutions often encouraged by the clerical and lay authorities that wished to redirect ire from their own heads but not against the grain of popular sentiment. As Eco’s Sherlock Holmes-esque monastic detective Brother William puts it at one point in The Name of the Rose, “When your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies.”

It’s probably most accurate to state that The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror paint particular but robust portraits of 14th Century life in Europe while also respecting and mainting the distance and alterity of that era of history relative to our own. The monks of Eco’s novel see their scholarly achievements burn away to nothing, kindled by their intellectual pride and rational certainty. The French knights of Tuchman’s popular history see their glory and prestige dashed against the rocks of an ill-conceived conflict with little-understood Muslims from the Middle East. These texts contain lessons for both sides of our contemporary political spectrum, but the worlds they spring from and the forces both great and small that catalyzed them stand on their own, apart from our experience and perhaps our understanding. Great texts can balance these seemingly contradictory implications, and The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror achieve that balance beautifully.

Categories: History, Literature, Religion

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Cappadocia and Ephesus

Outside of the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, over 60 million Turkish citizens make their lives everyday in a land of fertility, antiquity, and variability. Anatolia, the vast land bridge between Eastern Europe’s southern fringe and the Middle East, has been a key crossroads (and stronghold) of civilizations for thousands of years, leaving a heritage deeper than almost any other place on earth. The modern Turkish people are simply the latest in a long line of stewards of this land, and their connection to its past can be visualized in the ancient site of Ephesus in the west and in the photogenic, spiritual fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in Central Turkey.

Ephesus was one of the largest, richest, and grandest cities of all of the Greco-Roman world, a wealthy port with over half a million inhabitants at its peak. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (now scattered ruins in a swamp), and a major centre of the goddess’ IMG_4760religious cult. The import of faith to the city, or perhaps merely its importance and relative remoteness from both Rome and Jerusalem, attracted early Christian figures. St. Paul preached in Ephesus’ great theatre (whose acoustics are still remarkable today) and wrote letters to its citizens urging conversion to Christ, while St. John the Evangelist is said to have fled the Holy Land with the Virgin Mary after the Crucifixion. Legend has it that both of them lived and died in and around Ephesus, and in the Byzantine era great churches were built there in their honour. There are vistas above and outside of the modest modern town of Selçuk in which the ruined Temple of Artemis and St. John Basilica can be viewed in a direct line with the historic and still-used Isa Bey Mosque, a continuity of edifices of faith over centuries of time.

The ruins of Ephesus themselves are not so ruined. Decades of painstaking reconstruction, much of it funded and performed by Austrians, have left Turkey with one of the best extant physical expressions of ancient civilization anywhere in the world. Columns, walls, sarcophagi, avenues, market squares, forums, statues, fountains, latrines, mosaics, terraced residences, even suspected brothels are laid out in exquisite wrecks, a sketched civic plan on an epic scale. Nagging qualms about the historical ethics of such large-scale restoration and reconstruction might rise to the surface at the sight of modern bricks and mortar, but the overall effect is so staggering, so evocative of a vanished way of living, that it is impossible not to be converted to the value of the exercise.

No such reconstructions are needed to emphasize the fascinating singularity of the beauty of Cappadocia. A landscape of arid canyons, wind-carved high buttes, and towering rock pinnacles known as fairy chimneys, Cappadocia attracts tourists today (well-served by its scattered small towns, particularly Göreme, with its Wild West IMG_4966by way of Anatolia feel), but it has drawn visitors for centuries, many of them more humble and fearful for the future than European or East Asian vacationers.

A remote and inviting refuge for early Christians fleeing bursts of Roman imperial persecution, Cappadocia was widely inhabited and carries the distinctive signs of that habitation. The soft volcanic rock of the region, which rain and wind has gouged into the mysterious hoodoos of the fairy chimneys, is also easily dug into by human tools. Its caves maintained a cool temperature year-round, and housed entire underground cities, as well as less subterranean residences, storehouses, artisans’ shops, monasteries, and churches. The latter, painted with often spectacularly colourful Byzantine Christian frescoes dating back as far as the 10th Century, can still be seen today, a series of UNESCO-protected testaments to an isolated but tight-knit troglodytal existence.

The landscape of Cappadocia is almost a metaphor for Turkey in living rock. Initially appearing samey and undistinguished, formed by forces beyond the human, the variety and multitude of Cappadocia’s geological forms reveals itself with longer acquaintance. Individual pinnacles, valleys, and canyon walls have been eroded into objects of particular beauty by the forces of nature, and the fairy chimneys shaped by human hands into a more intentional art of no less aesthetic force. Like the Cappadocian landscape, Turkey has been eroded by the forces of history, and continues to be. But that erosion and purposeful efforts by Anatolia’s successive generations to carve a society and culture distinct and reflective of their milieu and experiences has given modern Turkey a uniquely appealing form to face the world.

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Istanbul

In spite of, if not quite in defiance of, recent ISIS-connected terrorist attacks and the agitations of the Kurdish minority in the country, I have recent completed a vacation of approximately twelve days in Turkey. Tourism and foreign visits to Turkey in general, such a vital sector of its modern economy, have been curtailed by official travel warnings and general apprehension in the West at current conditions there. This is unfortunate, as the Turkish Republic is a rich and fascinating nation with a deep and vital history and many world-renowned (and less famed) sites to explore. It is not without its issues both internal and external, but there is much about it to reward the mildly braver traveller.

Many of Turkey’s chief attractions are concentrated in its bustling, sprawling, ancient metropolis of Istanbul. One of the world’s great cities for nearly two millenia, the urban region now known as Istanbul was one of the great capitals of the medieval world, both under that name under the Ottoman Empire and before it as Constantinople, the capital IMG_4299city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Most of Istanbul’s great sights date from its dual imperial periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; some, like the great bulky landmark Hagia Sophia which was a church, a mosque, and now a museum, were a focus of both regimes. Like Granada’s Alhambra or the Mesquita of Cordoba, the conflicts and divisions of history have left their signs and scars upon the architecture itself in Hagia Sophia: monumental Qu’ran scripture in Arabic calligraphy alongside sparkling golden mosaics of holy Christian figures. Norse visitors (perhaps members of the Varangian Guard of the medieval Byzantines) have even left enigmatic runic graffiti on a balustrade as a humbler witness to history’s passage.

These dichotomies, trichotomies, and multichotomies of history, politics, religion, and ethnicity are likewise writ large onto Istanbul’s very cityscape in dramatic ways. Istanbul occupies both banks of the Bosphorus Strait which connects the Sea of Marmara (and thus the Mediterranean, and thus the Atlantic) to the Black Sea and has often been considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, West and East, Christianity and Islam. The modern Istanbul echoes these divisions within the singular multiplicity of the contemporary global metropolis. The Bosphorus still separates European and Asian Istanbul (though a underground subway tunnel recently open as a tentative causeway), with the lion’s share of the major attractions and modern constructions on the western banks of the strait and a more conservative Muslim population residing on the east side.

The further boundary of the Golden Horn, spanned by the Galata Bridge, makes the division tripartite and evokes a political dimension special to the modern republic. The districts of Galata, Beşitkaş, and Beyoğlu in the general vicinity of Taksim Square vibrate with the artistic and commercial energy of a modern cosmopolitan capital. Iskitlal Avenue is one of the world’s truly exciting pedestrian boulevards, flanked by shops, cafes, bars, cinemas, theatres, consulates, churches, mosques, schools, museums, restaurants, and magnifcent architectural facades, with the ribs of Victorian arcades and winding side-streets snaking off from its central spine. It’s little wonder that the IMG_4328anti-civilization fanatics of ISIS targetted this hive of human activity in their recent deadly bombings, but if the continued hum of bodies and dreams on this avenue barely over a week later was any indication, the zealots have discouraged few from attending on this bazaar of mercantile gathering.

Behind the display of past fascinating history and current capitalist prosperity lie deeper cleavages in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ambitious (and always inherently authoritarian) republican project of modern Turkey. The conservative, fundamentally religious, and increasingly restrictive current regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has eroded the secularist nature of the nation as envisioned by Atatürk and has cracked down on political dissent in recent years, in particular since the popular protests focused on Taksim in 2013. I spoke with one of the Taksim protestors who sees little to be salvaged from a liberal, artistically-geared perspective in Turkey as it is developing under Erdoğan, a mix of encroaching Islamic prudishness, capitalist callowness, and iron-fisted authoritarianism with diminishing tolerance for the kaleidoscopic viewpoints of the modern world.

Istanbul, like the rest of Turkey, is full of contrasts, often stark, often subtle. Those contrasts can be marked clearly on its historic landmarks or almost imperceptibly to the cursory glance of the average visitor on its society, culture, and politics. It can be seen in the funky alternative spirit of the Taksim districts, the mercantile aggressiveness of its vibrant shops and restaurants, and the traditional rhythms of established life for hundreds of years. The latter shifting continuity of civilization is even more evident outside of the largely modern metropolis of Istanbul, and will be a more forefront concern of my second piece on my Turkey visit, encompassing the region around the ancient city of Ephesus and the Cappadocia area.

The Paris Attacks, Anti-Refugee Sentiment and the Precarious Democratic Order

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Last Friday night, November 13th, 2015, in Paris, France’s capital and cultural jewel, an evening of leisure and entertainment was shattered by vicious, politically-motivated violence. 129 people were killed in a coordinated series of terrorist assaults inside and in the vicinity of the Bataclan Theatre in the 11e arrondissement, which hosted an Eagles of Death Metal concert, and in the suburb of Saint-Denis, where the French and German national football teams played a friendly match at the Stade de France. Responsibility for the terror was attributed to and soon claimed by the group variantly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State in Syria, and Daesh, but most popularly known as ISIS, and a series of raids by French police operating under a national state of emergency led to most surviving suspected planners of and accomplices in the crimes, including Belgian mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, being apprehended or killed.

I have written before about the violent extremist ideology of the Islamic State, its origins in American military interventionism in the Middle East, and the blind spot in neoliberal democratic capitalism that it cannily exploits in its niche appeal within dissatisfied conservative currents of Islam. But the Paris attacks, or rather the reaction to them in Western democracies and especially in the United States, has exposed a much more unsettling undercurrent in those societies. Combined with the implacable, fanatical hostility of ISIS and its adherents to the West and to ordinary Muslims in its sphere of influence alike, the twisted popular outburst of deeply undemocratic, uncompassionate illberalism among its supposed most ardent defenders makes it very difficult to find anything resembling a silver living to draw from this murderous terror.

How has the West reacted to the events in France? On a lightly unproductive but essentially benign level, social media has seen a deluge of soft-focus tributes to victims, solidarity memes almost invariably involving the Eiffel Tower or the French peaceforparistricolore, and occasional dubious shared rememberances. On a deeply unproductive and fundamentally malign level, the popular grief and outrage of this latest mass media terrorist act has crystallized into a disturbing but increasingly common strain of nativist xenophobia against Muslims in general and against Syrian refugees in particular.

Europe has been reeling for much of the year from the influx of displaced Syrians fleeing the protracted civil war in their native country as well as the ISIS-controlled territory that has been carved out of the conflict’s chaos. Now, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking asylum or resettlement in the safe harbours of Europe and, more recently, North America, the Paris attacks are being employed dangerously and disingenuously by (mostly right-wing) political leaders as a cudgel to buttress the blocking of Syrian refugees from their specific precincts. This has become a particularly common in America, where a conservative movement of gradually ramping-up extremism has been stampeding headlong towards fascist policies against undesirables, foreign and domestic, for years.

Despite the President’s sole control over larger refugee policy in the U.S., Republican governors from the American South and elsewhere are issuing statements of maximal NIMBYism, Republicans in Congress are introducing bills to halt funding of refugee programs, and some have gone even further. The mayor of Roanoke, Virgnia argued that Syrian refugees should be kept out of his city by reminiscing favourably about WWII Japanese-American internment policies, while leading Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump (whose increasingly realistic shot at the nomination is grounded in a muscular nativism) spoke (only partly hypothetically) about registering American Muslims in a national database and issuing them ID cards (emblazoning their clothing with crescent moon badges was not discussed, but must be the next logical step). As it often has in the wake of radical Islamist terror attacks (although not in the wake of increasingly prevalent domestic terrorism), America, especially in its more conservative circles, has freaked the heck out and aggressively blamed the visible internal other most stereotypically associated with the isolated, desperate jihad of a nasty splinter group of a worldwide faith of over a billion souls.

The particular focus of fear-culture ire on transparently helpless, stateless Syrian refugees as a sort of Trojan horse that will be employed to smuggle ISIS suicide bombers into mid-sized Virginia cities might seem a bit heartless and extreme even for the American Right. It might also seem counterintuitive on a few levels. First, Syrian refugees are fleeing from ISIS, not harbouring them; the two groups have a deep enmity forged in the crucible of conflict and displacement and very little overlap has been proven. Second, the deluded belief that the Paris terrorists were Syrian refugees was swiftly revealed by French investigators to be a purposeful propaganda plot by the perpetrators to sow discriminatory sentiment among European and North American populations, and the Syrian passports found among the effects and remains of the shooters and bombers were found to be fakes.

Third and most vitally, the openness and liberality of the capitalist democratic West is exemplified by its willingness to accept refugees from conflict situations across the globe and not to exclude and discriminate against them on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or religious difference. To discard this openness in the name of an insecure sense of security is to be duped by fear of ISIS-inspired terror into accomplishing their stated goal of extreme polarization of the secular West and the Muslim world for them.

Like many on the Left, I may reserve pointed criticisms for the arrogant consumption, historical entitlement, cultural parochialism, and exploitations of power of Western capitalist democracy. But in its fundamentals and despites its structural biases and weaknesses, it remains a serious improvement on every social and political structure that has preceded it. And its best instincts are embodied in its ability and desire to welcome migrants of all stripes into its big social tent (even if it might harass and marginalized them and rob them blind once they settle in there).

This tendency towards tolerance is most strongly demonstrated in the current moment by wounded France itself in the wake of its largest domestic attack since WWII. Left-wing President Francois Hollande has, yes, expanded police powers and suspended many civil liberties as well as stepped up France’s military operations in the Syrian theatre where an increasingly besieged ISIS still holds sway. But he has simultaneously brushed aside the xenophobic mistrust of Syrian refugees, committing to accepting tens of thousands into his country’s borders over the next few years. It is more in the latter policy and practice that the precarious democratic order of our contemporary world will be preserved against the threat of an ISIS. These fanatic splitters cannot boast enough martial strength threaten the democratic order with conquest, but they can frighten it into making enough mistakes and discarding enough of its high-flown principles to destabilize it. Embracing some of the most morally robust and socially powerful of those principles instead of shaving them away at the merest hint of pain will give that order a big leg up in the war of ideas which, above all, must be won to thwart the fanatical, theocratic fringe of international Islam.

Film Review – Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

November 7, 2015 2 comments

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015; Directed by Alex Gibney)

Mormonism is frequently called the American religion, founded as it was within the geographical and historical bounds of the United States, playing an important role in the country’s epic narrative of westward expansion, and reflecting vital, stereotypically conservative American values of self-reliance, independence, tightly-knit community, and both an embrace and a distrust of modernity and progress. But the LDS Church is also typified by more ambivalent American characteristics too: greed and capitalist consolidation, racial, sexual, and minority discrimination, and the exploitation of the credulity of the masses by a shady and manipulative elite. Some of these characteristics have persisted into our age, but they perhaps define America in the 19th Century, when Mormonism was founded, even more.

As Mormonism was to 19th-century America, Scientology is to 20th-century and early 21st-century America. The defining essentials of the last six decades of American life are encoded in the DNA of the Church of Scientology: self-help mania, outlandish but unwaveringly certain monetized faith, saturating Hollywood glitz, institutional corruption, aggressive litigiousness and public pressure, the continuity of male privilege, capitalist predation, corporations reaping massive profits while evading taxation and legal consequences for their misdeeds, and an insistent drumbeat of creeping authoritarianism. But in Scientology, these American obsessions, anxieties, and foibles (not always inherently sinister in isolation) are heated together to a rolling boiling point. Scientology is symptomatic of American overreach whipped up to a fever pitch, its power and madness exploding into baroque grandiosity. The particulars of its practices, tenets and methods of control and abuse ought be wholly inconceivable, but in the contemporary United States, they are just believable.

Based on Lawrence Wright’s eye-opening book of the same name delving deep into the strange and alarming world of the Church of Scientology, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief chronicles the bizarre origins, fitful rise, and insidious operations of the world’s most successful pyramid-scheme spiritual cult. A two-hour documentary film must necessarily elide some details, and the surest loser in this process is the eccentric, mind-boggling life of Scientology’s deified founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

A hack science-fiction writer, U.S. Navy veteran, self-styled explorer, inventor, and philosopher, and all-around larger-than-life nutbar, Hubbard built the Church of Scientology on the basis of his popular 1952 self-improvement book Dianetics. Dubbed, among other things, “a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology”, Dianetics spun off into touring seminars conducted by Hubbard which carried the whiff of charlatanesque revival-tent preaching and eventually into a desultory sea voyage with a cadre of true believers who later formed the core of the SeaOrg, later the elite operatives of the Church of Scientology.

Hubbard was banned from various nations, denounced as a madman and a criminal and charged with fraud, his self-aggrandizing life story challenged and debunked at various turns. Scientology took on his instability and domineering nature, especially under his successor as the organization’s dictator, the imperially-minded David Miscavige, whose grandest triumph – the Church’s success in obtaining tax-exempt status from a harrassed IRS – was celebrated with a spectacular event straight out of Nero’s Rome or Riefenstahl’s Nuremberg. It also gained some prominent members and promoters among Hollywood’s glitterati, including Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, screen icon of the ’70s and ’90s John Travolta, and most famously megastar Tom Cruise.

Through intensive interviews, some with outside observers but many more with the growing legion of major apostates who have broken with the church in recent years, Gibney plumbs the dark depths of Scientology. It’s true, he raises a sceptical eyebrow or two about the legendary, pulpy “space opera” mythology underlying Scientological belief (galactic overlords, space planes, genocidal volcano nuclear bombings, Thetans, all that jazz) and the quasi-scientific mumbo-jumbo revolving around the important practice of auditing (basically confessional talking therapy, only while holding electrical cans connected to a mysterious “e-meter”). Scientology is plenty weird, but as religions go, it hardly holds a monopoly on bizarre beliefs, doctrines or practices.

But Gibney is much more interested in and adept at ferreting out the abuses and corruption of unbeholden and secretive institutions. The Church of Scientology is an almost cartoonishly nasty hothouse for outrageous misconduct, if the accounts of former members can be believed (and the furious, threatening PR arm of the Church will aggressively contend that they cannot be). Their lionized palace guard, the SeaOrg, are paid so little and subjected to such menial and overwhelming labour that their plight could be characterized without hyperbole as slavery. Lavish luxuries and services are provided for star spokesman Cruise and his bosom buddy Chairman Miscavige, mostly by the indentured SeaOrg servants.

Members both fiercely loyal and potentially disloyal are subjected to squalid living conditions and sustained psychological and even physical abuse by Church authorities for the murkiest of reasons. Doubting Thomases (and especially those who become fugitives from the regime) are threatened with blackmail on the basis of the voluminous information culled from their auditing sessions (which they are told are confidential but are nothing like it, when it comes down to it). Public harrassment tactics and crushing lawsuits await former members who defy the Church, citizens who criticize it publically, and authorities who dare to attempt to crack down on it.

Whatever one might say about the flaws and excesses of Mormonism, it remains an undeniable religion. Joseph Smith was a huckster con artist whose shamelessness was matched only by his personal magnetism, but his heirs laboured hard over a century and a half to legitimize his conniving scam of a religion and integrate a toned-down version of it into the conventional mainstream of American life. Scientology can only barely be bothered to maintain the merest veneer of a religious institution as cover for the acquisitive oppression inflicted upon its members by the Church elite. Scientology was a relatively transparent and intermittently openly cynical mechanism for Hubbard to make money off of suckers, and others have inherited his position as beneficiary of copious member fees and donations without reforming the Church’s operations in the direction of general, socially-acceptable benevolence. Scientology as it emerges in Going Clear is a manifestation of some of the darkest spaces of the American id, and there’s little in this fascinating but troubling film to suggest that it will ever be anything more.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews