Thursday, April 28, 2016

Middle-Earth and the Middle Ages

April 26, 2016

middle earth and the middle ages

Arguably the most important literary influence on The Lord of the Rings, the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, helps us understand the way in which Tolkien both conceals and reveals the deepest meaning in his own work.
Probably dating from the early eighth century, making it contemporaneous with the lives of Saints Boniface and Bede, Beowulf is a wonderful and wonder-filled narrative animated by the rich Christian spirit of the culture from which it sprang, brimming over with allegorical potency and evangelical zeal. It also conveys a deep awareness of classical antiquity, drawing deep inspirational draughts from Virgil’s Aeneid, highlighting the Saxon poet’s awareness of his place within an unbroken cultural continuum.
Tolkien translated Beowulf in its entirety, though his translation would not finally be published until 2014, and he wrote a scholarly essay on the epic, “The Monsters and the Critics,” which is considered by many to be the most masterful critique of the poem ever written. Clearly, Tolkien knew Beowulf well, perhaps better than anyone else of his generation, and there is no denying its seminal and definitive influence on his own work. Most obviously are the inescapable parallels between the dragon episode in Beowulf and the similar episode in The Hobbit. It is, however, in a more subtle way that the Anglo-Saxon epic can be seen to have left its inspirational fingerprints on The Lord of the Rings.
beowulfBeowulf is divided into three sections in which the eponymous hero fights three different monsters. In the first two episodes, as Beowulf confronts and ultimately defeats Grendel and then Grendel’s mother, the work is primarily a narrative in which the theological dimension is subsumed parabolically, especially in the recurring motif that human will and strength is insufficient, in the absence of divine assistance, to defeat the power of evil. This is presumably an orthodox riposte to the heresy of Pelagianism,[1] which plagued Saxon England and which is a major preoccupation of Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, probably written at around the same time as Beowulf.[2] The Lord of the Rings adopts a very similar approach in the way that it subsumes the presence of grace within the fabric of the story, unobtrusively and yet inescapably, something which is beyond the scope of our present discussion. It is, however, the allegorical technique that the Beowulf poet employs in the final section of the epic which most illumines the technique that Tolkien will himself employ in his own epic, emulating the anonymous poet who had taught him more than anyone else about the art of storytelling.
The dragon section of Beowulf commences with the theft of “a gem-studded goblet”[3] from the dragon’s hoard, an act which gained the thief nothing but which provoked the destructive wrath of the dragon. Beowulf takes eleven comrades with him as he goes to meet the dragon in combat, plus the thief, “the one who had started all this strife” and who “was now added as a thirteenth to their number.” Unlike the eleven who had accompanied their lord willingly, the thief was “press-ganged and compelled” to go with them, acting as their unwilling guide to the dragon’s den. Clearly the poet of Beowulf is employing numerical signification to draw parallels between Beowulf’s fight to the death with the dragon (an iconic signification of the Devil) and Christ’s own fight to the death with the power of evil in His Passion. Equally clearly, Beowulf is not a formal or crude allegory because no character in the epic is merely a personified abstraction. Beowulf is not literally Christ, though he could be called a figure of Christ, one who is meant to remind us of Christ; the dragon is not literally Satan, though he or it is clearly intended to remind us of the Devil himself. Similarly, the thief is not Judas (nor Adam) but is intended to remind us of the disciple whose act of treachery brought about his lord’s death, and the other eleven are, of course, reminiscent of the other eleven apostles. The numerical coincidence exhibits the poet’s intention of drawing parallels between his own story and its biblical parallel without ever succumbing to the level of formal or crude allegory. Beowulf is always Beowulf, even though he is meant to remind us of Christ.
Continuing the allusive parallels, this time with Christ’s agony in the Garden, we are told that, on the eve of battle, Beowulf is “sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.” Later, as battle is about to commence, Beowulf’s appointed followers, “that hand-picked troop,” “broke ranks and ran for their lives,” all except Wiglaf, who emerges as the signifier of St. John, the only one of Christ’s apostles who remained at his side during the Crucifixion. Wiglaf reprimands his comrades for their cowardice in deserting their lord, reminding them that Beowulf had “picked us out from the army deliberately, honored us and judged us fit for this action.”
death of beowulfPrior to his death, Beowulf instructs Wiglaf to order his men to build a burial mound in remembrance of him. After his death, ten shamefaced warriors emerge from the woods, indicating that the thief was not among them. At the epic’s conclusion, there are, once again, twelve warriors riding ceremoniously around the burial mound, which had been duly constructed in accordance with Beowulf’s command, indicating that the traitor had been replaced by a new member, reminiscent of the appointment of St. Matthias to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle.
Although nobody would suggest that Beowulf is an allegory in the formal or crude sense, it is clear that the poet intends his audience to see suggestive parallels between Beowulf’s sacrifice of himself in the battle against evil and that of the archetypal sacrifice of God Himself on Calvary. For the Christian, the Beowulf poet was indubitably Christian, all acts of genuine love involve the laying down of our lives for another. Furthermore, all those who genuinely love in this way are ipso facto figures of Christ, from whom all genuine love flows and towards whom all genuine love points. In true life as in true literature, all those who live and love like Christ are Christ-like and, as such, can be said to be figures of Christ. Christ is the archetype of which all virtuous men, in fact and in fiction, are types. The Beowulf poet shows this through the use of numerical clues. Tolkien does something very similar in his own work, emulating the work of his Anglo-Saxon mentor.
Tolkien signifies the deepest meaning of The Lord of the Rings in the clue he supplies with regard to the specific date of the destruction of the Ring. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, the most significant and important date on the Christian calendar. This is the feast of the Annunciation, the date on which the Word is made flesh, when God becomes man. It is also the historic date of the Crucifixion, a fact which is all too often forgotten by modern Christians because of the fact that Good Friday is celebrated as a moveable feast which falls on a different date each year. This is what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about the significance of March 25:
All Christian antiquity…recognized the 25th of March as the actual day of Our Lord’s death. The opinion that the Incarnation also took place on that date is found in the pseudo-Cyprianic work De Pascha Computus, c. 240. It argues that the coming of Our Lord and His death must have coincided with the creation and fall of Adam. And since the world was created in spring, the Saviour was also conceived and died shortly after the equinox of spring. Similar fanciful calculations are found in the early and later Middle Ages…. Consequently the ancient martyrologies assign to the 25th of March the creation of Adam and the crucifixion of Our Lord; also, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac.
Let’s recall at this juncture that Tolkien is both a Catholic and a very scholarly mediaevalist. He would have known of the symbolic significance of this date and his ascribing of this particular date as that on which the Ring is destroyed has palpable and indeed seismic consequences with regard to the deepest moral and theological meaning of The Lord of the Rings.
J.R.R. Tolkien

.A great mediaeval work of literature that employs the same allegorical use of significant dates that Tolkien employs to convey deep moral and theological meaning is Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” In this parable about the Fall of Man and his subsequent redemption by Christ on the Cross (masquerading as a fable about a rooster), we are told that the story takes place thirty-two days after the beginning of March, “the month in which the world began…when God first made man”.[4] Apart from Chaucer’s reference to the theological significance of March, he signals that Chauntecleer’s “Fall” (Adam’s) and the Fox’s (Satan’s) happens on April 1, i.e. April Fool’s Day!
In following his mediaeval mentors in their employment and deployment of allegorical clues to deepen the theological dimension of their stories, Tolkien was infusing the genius of Christendom and its literary giants into his own timeless epic. In doing so, he was thereby situating his own work firmly within that tradition. He was also deploying those same clues to signify that The Lord of the Rings was working its magic most profoundly on the level of theology. Since Original Sin and the One Ring are both destroyed on the same theologically-charged date, they become inextricably interwoven so that the Ring is synonymous with Sin itself. With his Ring, Tolkien weds his own work morally and theologically to the deepest truths of Christianity, forging it in the flames of his lifelong faith.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. A version of this essay originally appeared in Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Fall 2014) and is republished here with gracious permission.

[1] The Pelagians believed that men could forge their own eternal destiny, earning themselves a place in heaven by obeying the teachings of Christ through a triumph of the human will over temptation. Such a belief denied the need for grace and therefore denied the need for the Church and her sacraments.
[2] There is much disagreement about the exact dating of Beowulf, its composition being shrouded in mystery. The present author agrees with those, including Tolkien, who believe it was written sometime between the mid-seventh and mid-eighth century.
[3] All quotes from Beowulf are from Seamus Heaney’s translation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002)
[4] For the sake of clarity, Chaucer’s original English has been modified. The purist, I hope, will forgive me.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book review: ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden’ casts new light on the US operation against the al-Qaeda leaderview

Journalist Seymour Hersh aims to get closer to the truth about the al-Qaeda leader's death than anyone else has yet

For half a century, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has been the scourge of the Western foreign policy establishment, writing prize-winning exposes of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Last year, his article in the London Review of Books about the killing of Osama bin Laden – in which Hersh wrote that the White House’s story "might have been written by Lewis Carroll" – provoked furious denials from officials at the same time as many readers hailed it as an essential piece of truth-telling about one of the murkiest events in recent history. Now that piece, collected with other LRB essays, appears in book form.

Based on information from former officials in the US and Pakistan, Hersh claims the Pakistani military and government knew Bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad since 2006. When the Americans discovered this, Pakistan co-operated because it feared aid programmes would be cut off otherwise, he says.
On 2 May 2011, Pakistan cleared airspace for helicopters carrying US Navy Seals to fly to Bin Laden’s compound. There they carried out his killing – “a homicide,” in the words of one former Seal. Afterwards, US President Barack Obama broke an agreement to keep the news secret for one week and, with no regard for the tensions it would create in Pakistan, announced Bin Laden’s death to the American public.
Hersh’s account is more plausible than the official version and more thought-provoking than the movie Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatised the hunt for Bin Laden. But the most powerful chapters in this book concern Syria, perhaps because they bust myths that are immediately relevant to current events. Hersh describes the folly of Obama’s chemical weapons “red line”, his failure to close the “rat line” along which jihadists enter Syria, and his counterproductive insistence that “Bashar al-Assad must go”, which, mixed with American support for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, paved the way for the rise of Isis and affiliated group the al-Nusra Front.
This short book is a fascinating blast of counter-history, an alternative to the hagiography served up in the BBC’s recent documentary Inside Obama’s White House. Hersh praises Obama’s “principled stand on behalf of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran”, but generally believes his foreign policy is as flawed as that of George W Bush. “The cherry picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war,” Hersh writes, claiming Obama "ignored intelligence that could undermine the narrative” and that charges against Assad of using chemical weapons against his people were false.   
It’s difficult to judge a book which profoundly contradicts the government’s version of events. Nobody wants to be a credulous paranoiac, but Hersh exposes the holes in the White House’s account of Bin Laden’s death, while his arguments about Syria are persuasive. His sources – “the retired official” and “a former Seal commander” – sound like characters from The X-Files, but his clear prose untangles the complexities behind which powerful figures hide. Perhaps, swept up by the potency of Hersh’s reporting, I read this book without the level of scepticism that informs it. But my bet is that he’s got closer to the truth about Bin Laden’s death than anyone else has yet. 
‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden’ by Seymour M. Hersh, Verso, price £12.99

A Grave Matter: Richard Weikart on Humanity's Life or Death Struggle

Michael Flannery April 4, 2016 2:49 AM

Richard Weikart's new book is out today and it needs to be read by everyone because it involves everyone. It is The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, a fascinating examination of the unprecedented decline of the Judeo-Christian moral and ethical values at the foundation of Western Civilization.
In previous books, From Darwin to Hitler (2006) and Hitler's Ethic (2009), our colleague Dr. Weikart, a historian at California State University at Stanislaus, has investigated the travesties of the modern age. Here Weikart's focus is much broader. He seeks to assess the consequences of failed secular "isms" from the late Renaissance to the often not-so-enlightened Enlightenment and its many direct and indirect excretions -- materialism, positivism, Darwinism, Marxism, Stalinism, behaviorism, existentialism, objectivism, postmodernism, and more.
DeathofHumanity3D.jpgWeikart's diagnosis is stark: civilization is ceasing to be civilized as it attempts to replace the value and intrinsic worth of each and every human being -- traditionally conceived as imago Dei -- with assorted "humanistic" alternatives that treat people as machines, automata, objects, and utilitarian means to ends of varying values with rights bestowed "on a sliding scale rather than being inalienable" (53). The prognosis is not good: "If we continue in scientific hubris to regard humanity as an engineering project, then the future will be bleak." The prescription: "Treat humans as the personal moral agents that they are, as individuals needing love, joy, and peace. It makes a profound difference whether we see each other as mere cosmic accidents spewed forth by an impersonal cosmos, or as immortal souls created in the image of a loving God. The future of humanity is at stake" (279).
But how and why, given their manifest inadequacies and tragic consequences, have these secular philosophies become so widely influential? The answer is complex and forms a large part of the book. The sources are historical and Weikart is well-suited to expose them. The philosophies and characters are many. Some of the more prominently discussed include the rationalistic dualism of René Descartes (1596-1650), the materialism of Julien Offrey de la Mettrie (1709-1751), the mechanistic determinism of Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), the skepticism of David Hume (1711-1776), the scientistic positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the polygenic racism and prejudice of Karl Vogt (1817-1895), and the materialistic reductionism of Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899). More recently "contributors" to this menagerie of the misguided include Bertrand Russell, Francis Crick, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Weinberg, Peter Singer, James Rachels, Richard Dawkins, and, for Weikart, the current "epitome" of human devaluation, University of Texas evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka.
Chapter 1, "Man the Machine," opens with a discussion of materialism and its insidious twin, positivism. Here man is reduced to something even less than a machine, since unlike purposeful contrivances, humans under the materialist worldview are little more than accidents. They are simply the result of chance and necessity.
Although Weikart points out the many sources at work in diminishing the centrality humanity in our social and moral relations, one that recurs is Darwinism. This is for good reason. Darwin himself expressed the two foundational sources of the attack on anthropocentrism, an assault that unfortunately "is becoming mainstream in our 'culture of death'" (4). First is the notion that regard for our special mental attributes is little more than self-centered arrogance. The second, related to the first, is that human beings are really not unique and are, in fact, just another kind of animal.
As to the first proposition, it was years before the Origin of Species, as early as spring 1838, that Darwin wrote privately "Why is thought being a secretion of the brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves" (Darwin's Notebooks, 291). Weikart gives another from the Notebooks, quoting Darwin, "thought, however unintelligible it may be, seems as much function of organ, as bile of liver" (55). Darwin expressed the second proposition more publicly when he suggested that the difference between man and animal was one of degree, not kind (Descent of Man [1871]). Darwin's materialistic view of the mind, the denial of the soul, and the conflation of human and animal attributes are covered in Chapter 2, "Created from Animals." The absurdity of these ideas is captured in PETA spokesperson Ida Newkirk's statement, "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals" (50).
In the remaining chapters, with the precision and care of a pathologist, Weikart analyzes the source of humanity's malignancies. Chapter 3, "My Genes Made Me Do It," covers biological determinism and the so-called "nature/nurture" debate. As Weikart observes, this whole issue is based "on the false premise that humans have no free will. Those wanting to explain reality solely by science are forced to embrace some form of determinism, because only if human behavior is determined entirely by natural causes can science provide valid explanations for all human behavior" (92). In Chapter 4, "My Upbringing Made Me Do It," he discusses environmental determinism. Here Weikart reviews the chilling 1924 murder case of Leopold and Loeb with its profound societal implications. The pair's defense attorney, Clarence Darrow of Scopes trial fame, argued that the young men were simply victims of heredity and environment. In consigning moral and ethical responsibility to the dictates of biological and sociological "science," Darrow drove another nail into humanity's coffin.
Chapter 5 covers the excesses and carnage of hedonism. Here the reader sees more of La Mettrie and Helvétius. Others include the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Charles Fourier (1772-1837), to name a few. It is hard to argue against Weikart's indictment: "the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and sexual profligacy are becoming mainstream in American culture" (156). In Chapter 6, "Superman's Contempt for Humanity," he covers the existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) along with Michel Foucault's (1926-1984) postmodernism.
Special attention needs to be given to Weikart's Chapter 8, "The Future of Humanity." Here he covers an often-neglected figure: Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Pages 266-271 include careful, thoughtful, and hard-hitting assessments of her works: Anthem (1937), Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957), and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). Rand devalued human existence by making self-interest and unbridled individualism virtues, while treating love, compassion, and altruism with contempt. William F. Buckley (1925-2008), for whom she had disdain, claimed that Atlas Shrugged -- in Buckley's words "a thousand pages of ideological fabulism" -- was "the biggest selling novel in the history of the world" (see here). Weikart is to be commended for putting Rand in his sites and exposing her impositions upon human goodness and decency.
I conclude by urging the reading public to get a copy of this book. Weikart's report is not quite an autopsy, for there may be recovery yet. But we must stop giving these darlings of the "smart set" elite a pass and start holding them to some accountability. This book shows the way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Today's Tune: Bruce Springsteen - Purple Rain (Live)

To Sabotage the Future, Lie About the Past

Northwestern University Scholar Dario Fernandez-Morera tilts at the windmill of the Andalusian Myth – and the myth topples.

April 26, 2016

I am in awe of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. Author Dario Fernandez-Morera, a Northwestern University Professor and Harvard PhD, argues that elite scholars are peddling a myth – that Islamic Spain, c. 711 AD -1492 AD, was a paradise. Fernandez-Morera's job is to expose historical realities. The main text is 240 pages. There are 95 pages of notes, a bibliography and an index. It was published in February, 2016 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
This book is an intellectual boxing match. The author shreds not just one opponent, but a series of intellectual bigots, prostitutes and manipulators of the common man. Fernandez-Morera's biceps gleam as his lightning footwork and peerless preparedness dazzle. Our hero risks much, from hate mail to non-person status.
The reader is plunged into vast landscapes, international intrigue, arcane customs, and timeless heroism. One envisions veiled women and bejeweled slave girls, the smoking ruins of churches, enslaved, whipped Christians forced to carry their cathedral bells to be melted down to embellish mosques, heartbreaking suffering and eventual victory.
Fernandez-Morera allows the propagandists enough rope to hang themselves. All he has to do is quote them. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, The University of Chicago, Boston University, Sarah Lawrence, Rutgers, Indiana University, Cambridge, Oxford, The University of London, NYU, Norton, Penguin, Routledge, Houghton Mifflin, the Pulitzer Committee, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Carly Fiorina, children's textbooks, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, PBS, The New York Review of Books, First Things all are in the dock, tripped up in their own false testimony. The inclusion of First Things might surprise; it is a Catholic publication. In it Christian C. Sahner praises Muslims who "exhibited a surprising degree of religious flexibility" because they waited a few decades before razing the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Damascus, rather than destroying it immediately upon arrival. Really.
What is the propagandists' motive?
Follow the pitchforks and torches. In 2008, Sylvain Gouguenheim, a French medievalist, published Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel, arguing that the West is not in debt to Islam for awareness of Ancient Greek texts; most of those texts were preserved, translated, passed on and used by Christians. For that rather modest claim, Gouguenheim was subjected to an "academic exorcism."
And follow the agenda. The Middle Ages matter to propagandists for one reason only: today's projects. Al-Andalus proves that "Islam can effectively navigate a pluralistic world." Al-Andalus proves that there are no "essential differences" between Islam and the West. Al-Andalus proves that Israel can be replaced with a "Palestinian model in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live again under [Islam's] protection." And of course the Ground Zero Mosque was dubbed "Cordoba House" after a caliphate in Muslim Spain.
What tactics do the propagandists use in their publications?
They smear Christians. In one Oxford University Press book, Christians are "a fanatical fringe" resistant to "benefitting" from the great good fortune of living in Muslim Spain. How do the propagandists deal with the forty-eight Christian Martyrs of Cordoba? They mock them, pathologize them, and blame them for their own deaths. These dead were "troublemakers," "self-immolators," guilty of "extremism" for preferring death as Christians to life as Muslims. They were masochists who really wanted to be tortured and killed.
Pelagius was a young Christian boy desired by Abd-al-Rahman III. Pelagius, aka Pelayo, resisted. Islam's scholarly apologists don't condemn the caliph's desire to rape a child. They waste no time respecting the boy's pain – a pain that is representational of countless other kuffar boys raped, castrated, and killed, all in line with the rules of jihad. Rather they condemn Christians for "demonizing Muslims" and having hang-ups about man-boy sodomy. In this academic deflection, one hears echoes of the blame-the-victim response to the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year's, 2016, or the 2015 order to US soldiers to ignore "boy play" in Afghanistan – a "boy play" that in one instance involved a child sex slave chained to a bed. "We can hear them screaming," one Marine reported. Respect their culture, he was told.
Another scholarly method of obeying Saudi paymasters and distorting the past: leave out significant details. One book, published by an Ivy League University Press, "makes no mention of stoning, female circumcision, crucifixion, beheadings, or sexual slavery."
Muslims called Christians "pigs." The peddlers of the Andalusian Paradise myth omit mention of that telling tidbit. They mention "delightful Andalusian love poetry" without mentioning that it was written about non-Muslim sexual slave girls, not about love between free, adult, Muslim men and women. They leave out the market price of slaves; these numbers speak volumes. A male black slave commanded a much lower sum than a white girl – obviously a man can do more labor than a girl. If these slaves were bought primarily for labor the prices would be reversed. Muslim rulers stockpiled thousands of such slaves in their harems. "Kiz," a Turkish word used for a sexual slave girl, came to mean "Christian woman." "Sakaliba," in Arabic, is from the word for "Slav," commonly the ethnicity of enslaved persons. "All the Slav eunuchs that one finds on the face of the earth come from Spain," a Muslim wrote. Blacks were held in similar contempt. A Muslim in Toledo wrote, "They lack self-control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by fickleness, foolishness, and ignorance."
Islam's apologists leave out the ethnic cleansing of Christians, including, in one event, the mass deportation of twenty thousand families to Africa. They omit mention of how hierarchical and stratified Muslim Spain was, with Arab Muslim males at the top and their various victims occupying lower ranks. Non-Arabs who converted to Islam were not equal, nor were their children. Three hundred such Muslims with Christian ancestors were crucified. Five thousand were beheaded. After one such expression of "tolerance," an Andalusian poet celebrated the "massacre" of "sons of slaves. They had as relatives only slaves and sons of slaves." Remember – the dead were Muslim. But their ancestors were Christian non-Arabs – thus the epithet, "Sons of slaves."
Another method of airbrushing the past: simply ignore inconvenient material. Ignore material published by a military historian. Ignore material in any language but English. Especially ignore material written in Spanish. And ignore contemporaneous Christian accounts.
There's another support for the Andalusian Paradise myth that Fernandez-Morera does not dwell on. Audiences tend to apply to medieval Spain the context of the twenty-first century West. European Christians in 711 were not former imperialists whose languages, English and Spanish, dominated entire continents. Jews were not powerless, nor were Muslims. Europe in this era was still a place where Christians were murdered for being Christian, by Pagans as well as Muslims. In 614, during a Persian invasion, Jews massacred Christians in Jerusalem. Jews were among the most prominent slave traders. At times, Jews allied with Muslims against Christians in Spain. Propagators of the myth dub Muslim institutions dedicated to memorization and study of the Koran "universities." They weren't universities. They are more properly labeled "madrassas."
One might ask, if all the best universities in the world insist that the Andalusian Paradise is truth, not myth, isn't Fernandez-Morera the conspiracy theorist? In the same class as the guy who insists that the government is hiding alien bodies at Area 51?
Fernandez-Morera, with the command of an Olympian fencer, deploys the best weapons of scholarship. He rescues the scholarship that Political Correctness has reduced to the status of a streetwalker. He pulls her up, cleans her up, and reminds her of her better days. He uses research and objective facts to make his case. Nothing could be more transgressive in academia today. His facts carry the thunderous voices of long-silenced cathedral bells.
Reading this book, I felt as if I were running after a speeding freight train. It's an exhilarating experience. Fernandez-Morera's exhaustive notes reference material in at least eight languages. Fernandez-Morera cites ancient and modern works, scholars he agrees with and those he excoriates. He strikes sparks between ancient texts and up-to-the-minute news accounts – including the 2016 American presidential race. He uses primary texts, for example Muslim legal documents. He quotes scurrilous satire and epic sagas. Given his breadth of knowledge, all that's missing from the bibliography are citations to the personal emails he exchanged with Cervantes, Maimonides, Teresa of Avila and El Cid.
In the midst of his educating his reader about contemporary blatant lies and richly rewarded liars, past massacres and crucifixions, Fernandez-Morera remains, as true scholars do, utterly calm. Never does he resort to hate-mongering, or hyperbole. He acknowledges Catholics' discrimination against Arians and Jews. He does not indulge in a lazy, sloppy, relativism: "Everybody did it." He systematically and frankly compares Muslims, Christians, and Jews, including mainstreams and minorities in each group. There is nothing in Medieval Christian Europe to compare to Al-Andalus' slavery, harems, treatment of women, or huge number of beheadings, he insists. While Jews and Christians also discriminated against each other and against their own minorities, only in Islam does he find the thorough, universal, scripturally protected, implacable structure of dhimmitude.
Fernandez-Morera divides the Andalusian myth into seven claims. Quoted material below is found in influential scholarly texts.
  • The movement of Muslims into Spain was a "migratory wave." Jihad "is not a motivating factor." Jihad is an "inner struggle" "to resist temptation and overcome evil."
  • Christian Europe was "an arena of unceasing warfare in which superstition passed for religion and the flame of knowledge sputtered weakly." The Christian inhabitants of Europe were rednecks. "The men of the woods never strayed far from there." They lived in "gloom and depression," "dramatic decline," "decadence," and "decomposition." Charlemagne could not write his own name.  
  • The Muslim Conquest brought "flowering" Islam to Spain. Al-Andalus "was a beacon of enlightenment to the rest of Europe … among its finest achievements was its tolerance … in keeping with the principles of the Koran." The Koran is a "monument of tolerance." "Moorish leaders helped to build Christian houses of worship." Unburdened by priests, Muslims were "animated by equality … and respectful of all religious faiths." Their Islam was typified by a "pan-confessional humanism." Were it not for its "abortion" by the Spanish Inquisition, today's Islam would reflect Al-Andalus' fully "reformed" version. In short, Muslims were "full of wit and fire, always in love, writing verse, fond of music, arranging festivals, dances, and tournaments every day."
  • The Umayyad Dynasty was "enlightened" and "tolerant."
  • Muslim Spain was a feminist utopia. "Ninety-nine percent" of European Christians were illiterate but Muslim women "were doctors and lawyers and professors." Today it is Western polices that create "the harsh conditions in which distant others live," including Muslim women. "We [the West] are all implicated."
  • "Jews lived happily and productively in Spain."
  • Muslim Spain was a fairyland for Christians. "Neither churches nor monasteries were directly threatened." Muslim Spain was "a place of refuge." Christians "were treated well" and "allowed to worship freely." Muslim Spain "nourished" Christians.
Fernandez-Morera corrects these claims.
The Muslim Conquest of Spain was a ruthless, religiously-sanctioned Blitzkrieg that was recorded, in the words of one jihadi war criminal, as his bringing "Judgment Day" to his victims. Invaders, not peaceful immigrants, burned all the churches in their path and pilfered the wreckage to build their mosques that were, as Muslim chroniclers attest, inferior in construction and design to the Christian monuments they replaced. Jihadis expressed their lust for sexual slaves as war booty and their "love of death." One "burned in his desire to hurt" Christians. Libraries were burned, as in Zoroastrian Persia and Christian Alexandria. Jihadis butchered Christian corpses and boiled the meat in cauldrons. Crosses were so abhorrent that looting Muslims had to shatter them before distributing their gold as booty.
No, indigenous Christians in Spain were not extras in the cast of Deliverance. Their culture was more advanced than that of the invaders; the invaders said as much in their histories, boasting of the eye-popping wealth and meticulous crafts they looted, and the great beauty and refinement of the women they carried off to be raped. Ibn Khaldun commented on the ignorance of Arabs and the low level of their culture, and how they needed Christians and Jews to handle their affairs.
In 981, Al-Mansur demolished Leon. He left one tower standing as testimony to the high quality of the city he was able to destroy. This anecdote tells the reader much about the resumes of jihadis, from Al-Andalus to the World Trade Center, the Bamiyan Buddhas, and Palmyra.  
Fernandez-Morera writes that the popular idea that Islam preserved classical knowledge and passed that knowledge on to Christian Europe "is baseless." He reports that Arabs were astounded by the knowledge of the ninth-century Saint Cyril. Cyril replied that the Muslim Arabs were like someone who carried around a container of ocean water and thought he was pretty special. Eventually he met a Greek who lived on the coast and who told him that to brag of such a container would be crazy; his homeland possessed an endless abundance of sea water.
In his chapter on the daily reality of life in Al-Andalus, Fernandez-Morera pays much attention to Muslim law. Any questioning of Islam or Mohammed could result in being tortured to death. Simple pleasures like wine, garlic, pork, silk and music were condemned. Muslim judges ordered that musical instruments in private possession be confiscated and destroyed. There was music – in spite of condemnation. Musicians were often non-Muslim slaves.
Christians and Jews were polluting and extra care was taken to avoid contact, even with utensils once used by a Christian or Jew. Christians must not even walk past Muslim graves; in doing so, they pollute the dead. Muslims must not accept Christmas invitations or greetings. Once a Jew took water from a well, Muslims refused to use that well.
Physical and cultural alienation of one group from another surpassed co-existence; this is reflected in language. Only six percent of Spanish words have Arabic roots; by comparison, thirty percent of the words in English, a Germanic language, have French roots, as a result of the Norman Conquest of 1066.
I often had to take a breather while reading the chapter on the tolerant Umayyads. "The celebrated Umayyads elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain," Fernandez-Morera writes. They even crucified the dead, disinterring corpses of alleged Christians in order to desecrate them. They crucified fellow Muslims – at one point, seventy-two Muslim scholars of religious law.
Crucifixions were stage-designed to be "spectacular" and cause onlookers to "faint with horror." Some victims were sliced to death slowly: first hands, then feet, then heads. One victim was crucified on the Cordoba palace door. The corpses of black children hung from a well's ropes as a counterweight.
Innovation is condemned in Islam and innovators were found out and eliminated. A Muslim historian praised this surveillance: spies "penetrate the most intimate secrets of the people, so that [Abd al-Rahman III] could know every action, every thought of good and bad people … the explicit and hidden vices of the … population … God showered gifts upon him … because of his … subjugation of men … to interrogate the accused and carry out an Inquisition against them … terrifying them and punishing them severely." That same Abd al-Rahman III, the "servant of the most merciful," declared that Muslims deviating from strict adherence "deserve extermination."
Al-Andalus was no paradise for women. Consider just this one law. A man who buys a non-Muslim sex slave must mutilate her genitals. Does that fact not tell you volumes about Muslim Spain? Muslim Spain ran on slaves; one of its main exports was slaves. Countless thousands were castrated.
Islamic law tells the rest of the story: the veiling, the stoning, the paralyzing, silencing, and erasing command that a woman requires a male relative to go out in public or to speak for her. "A Muslim wife" a legal manual instructs, is permitted "to have fun with other women with whom there are not men – but only during the day and only once a week." Many of the celebrated women of Muslim Spain were slaves. They were allowed skills and education it would be unseemly for a Muslim woman to exercise. Female "doctors" were probably the ones to perform FGM. Averroes put it succinctly, "Women are used only for procreation."
Life for Jews was also not a bed of roses. Islamic law and custom held Jews in contempt. Jews had to know their place. When they rose too high, they and their coreligionists were killed. Muslim Spain managed to extirpate Christian populations in the area under its control. "When Christians entered Granada in 1492, there were no Christian dhimmis in the city."
Those Christians and Jews who were allowed to live were not allowed to live out of any concept of "tolerance." Umar was Mohammed's father-in-law, companion, and successor. His title is "Farooq," he who separates right from wrong. Umar explicitly stated that Muslims must keep Christians and Jews alive in order to parasitize them. "The Muslims of our day will eat from these people as long as they live … our sons will eat their sons forever." How? Through jizya, the tax on Christians and Jews.
Future editions of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise would be enhanced by the following changes. Fernandez-Morera does not mention Edna Bonacich's pioneering work on middelman minorities. He should.  
Full-color illustrations would also enhance the book. What did the Basilica of San Vicente look like before it was destroyed by Muslims? Illuminated manuscripts, maps, construction styles: all could be depicted in images as well as words. A glossary of the many non-English terms, and a timeline, with dates, milestones, and personages, would also be helpful.
Fernandez-Morera's ninety-five pages of footnotes, in eye-straining tiny print, contain much that really should be in the main text of the book itself. Yes, the book is a streamlined, accessible read, and including the footnote material might make the main text longer and its route a bit more circuitous, but there is much in the footnotes that even a casual reader should not miss.
 Tags: IslamruleSpain

Monday, April 25, 2016

Film Reviews: 'Eye in the Sky'

Thriller ‘Eye in the Sky’ leaves no room for breathing

March 16, 2016

Alan Rickman in 'Eye in the Sky'
“Eye in the Sky” is both a white-knuckle suspense film and a freshman ethics seminar — and there will be a quiz. Actually, the movie itself is the quiz. Its strength and limitation is that it’s a gimmick that works.
The film’s also a drone-warfare drama, but not an agonized character piece, like 2014’s “Good Kill,” in which Ethan Hawke in Nevada pushed buttons that obliterated people in Afghanistan. Instead, director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi,” “Rendition”), working from a jigsaw-puzzle script by Guy Hibbert, puts the audience in a dramatic vise where everyone — including the characters and ourselves — has to decide whether saving theoretical lives justifies causing the death of an actual innocent.
Helen Mirren at her most enjoyably cold-blooded plays Colonel Katherine Powell, sitting in an underground bunker somewhere in England while leading an anti-terrorist team in Nairobi from her catbird seat. Two young jihadists, one a US citizen, have arrived to meet with a local al-Shabaab cell, and the sitdown may include a radicalized Englishwoman (Lex King) who has been Powell’s quarry for years.
On the ground in Nairobi is a team of Kenyan agents led by the resourceful Jama (Barkhad Abdi, the pirate leader of “Captain Phillips”), who has at his disposal a tiny, not-at-all-creepy beetle-shaped spycam that can fly into houses and that actually exists. Powell’s “eyes in the sky” above the terrorist’s house is a US drone piloted from Nevada by Lieutenants Watts (Aaron Paul, of “Breaking Bad”) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox), the latter a nervous newbie. A military specialist (Kim Engelbrecht) in Hawaii is on hand to ID the suspects through facial telemetry.
Oh, and there’s a London conference room full of high-ranking military personnel and government ministers who are supposedly overseeing the entire operation but who are soon dragged into a moral quagmire that renders them, more or less, six angry men and women. The problem is this: The beetle-cam reveals preparations for an imminent terrorist attack along the lines of the Nairobi shopping mall bombing in September 2013. And in the bustling street just outside the house’s walls a little girl (Aisha Takow) has set up a table to sell bread.
Would you push a button to send a Hellfire missile through the terrorists’ roof and kill the girl? What are the repercussions in terms of politics, international law, simple humanity? As Powell’s bunker crew frantically calculates Collateral Damage Estimates — a statistic that, like all statistics, can be bent to mean whatever you wish — the higher-ups in the conference room argue, stall, dither, and, in classic bureaucratic tradition, “refer up” the chain of command to cover their, uh, decisions.
“Eye in the Sky” cuts continually to the shifting situation in Nairobi, with Jama risking his life to get the girl to safety, and it flashes as well to the US drone team with Watts’s finger literally on the trigger of an untenable situation. Hood drops in on the British foreign minister (Iain Glen, of “Game of Thrones”), suffering from food poisoning in Hong Kong, as well as a few US political higher-ups who basically say, what’s the problem, drop the hammer. But the heart of the matter is in that conference room, where the leading military mind is played by Alan Rickman.
The movie is a final chance to remind ourselves how blessed we were to have had Rickman with us as long as we did; the late actor has one more voice role in the can (in Tim Burton’s upcoming “Alice Through the Looking Glass”), but his role as Lieutenant General Frank Benson was his last on-screen performance before his death in February. Rickman alone seems to understand that the movie’s war-room arguments are this close to “Dr. Strangelove”-level farce, except more bleakly, awfully comic because they’re potentially real. The general is a military man of the world, glaring balefully at the craven ministers played by Jeremy Northam, Richard McCabe, and Monica Dolan, not because they’re concerned about the young girl’s life but because they’re incapable of making a decision.
Well, could you? Hibbert’s screenplay threatens to talk every nuance to death, including the sensible fact that dropping bombs on innocent people tends to create more terrorists. But “Eye in the Sky” moves fast enough to keep us rapt and rattled, and it plays fair by most of its characters, including the girl’s parents (Faissa Hassan and Armaan Haggio), a baker and a bicycle repairman who see quietly to her education beneath the radar of the al-Shabaab militiamen. The girl, Aila, is a girl, which is to say the script humanizes her enough so that we care very much about what happens to her.
It’s clockwork entertainment, in the end — a precisely calibrated schematic in which every aspect of the ethical quandary balances every other aspect, and the only variable is your own moral compass. “Eye in the Sky” resolves itself logically and, I think, honorably, but it’s so invested in its own interlocking cogs that the larger picture — of our brave new world of surveillance, drone strikes, and decentralized warfare — seems almost taken for granted. As suspense, it’s excellent. The audience doesn’t breathe for nearly two hours. But neither does the movie.

Directed by Gavin Hood. Written by Guy Hibbert. Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aisha Takow, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Boston Common; West Newton on March 25. 102 minutes. R (violent images and language).
Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.


By Peter Hitchens for The Mail on Sunday

Best film of the year so far is Eye In The Sky in which Helen Mirren, in beautifully tailored camouflage, plays a British Army colonel trying to decide whether to launch a deadly drone strike on a terrorist safe house in Africa.

The late and much lamented Alan Rickman, in his last on-screen role, plays a red-tabbed general who has to deal with the politicians and their dithering.

The target house is crammed with front-rank terrorist commanders. But just outside it sits an innocent little girl, selling loaves of bread.

What do you do?

I won’t tell you what they do, but I am surprised we’re not much more worried about this form of warfare. Victims of ordinary bombing from the air are famously angered and frustrated by being subjected to an attack to which there is no defence. But this is much more alarming.

A woman at a desk in Nevada, by squeezing a trigger, can (without any risk to herself) obliterate or dismember another human being thousands of miles away, tearing them to shreds or dissolving them in a lake of fire.

An older generation than mine would have mumbled in mild tones ‘That’s not cricket!’ But today’s ruthless anti-terror macho man will reply: ‘We’re dealing with terrorists. The rules have changed. You can’t use chivalry when fighting with such people.’

Bystanders will see these attacks for themselves, or may be scorched or wounded by them. 
It is more than possible, for it happened to a wedding party in Yemen in December 2013, that entirely innocent people will be vaporised by mistake. 

Will their relatives be more or less likely to turn against us, once they have witnessed such events?

Precisely because it is so risk-free to us, it is outrageous and infuriating to those who see it on their own streets, who will feel as if we are treating them as insects to be casually swatted.

No doubt it will allow us to kill, by remote control, all kinds of people we don’t like. But is this moral? Would we send someone to walk up to them in the street and shoot them without warning or any kind of judicial process?

And would we accept it if a foreign power launched such attacks on our soil? I find it especially interesting that governments (such as ours) which sniffily refuse to execute convicted murderers, and so defend us from armed violence, are content to support this form of warfare.

How can arbitrary killing from the sky be right, and execution after a fair trial be wrong?

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'Eye in the Sky' is a 'Fail Safe' for the Drone Generation


Helen Mirren brings gimlet-eyed, tungsten-spined intensity to her role as a ruthlessly calculating British army colonel in “Eye in the Sky,” Gavin Hood’s taut, ­well-constructed thriller.
Unfolding almost in real time, this soberingly effective ­nail-biter follows the tactical, legal and ethical implications of a drone operation in East Africa that unexpectedly escalates from a surveillance job to a missile strike. And in Hood’s capable hands, what could easily be a talky, theatrical chamber piece turns into a dynamic work of cinema. The characters and the tense, increasingly dire dialogue drive the action of “Eye in the Sky,” with Mirren’s Col. Powell overseeing operations from a base in Surrey while she communicates with Kenyan ground forces in Nairobi, U.S. drone pilots in Nevada, a facial-recognition specialist in Hawaii, and a chain of military and political higher-ups in a paneled London situation room.
On the heels of last year’s similarly themed drama “Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke, “Eye in the Sky” exemplifies a new kind of war picture, defined by the remote targeting by unmanned drones and the eerily silent images of people in faraway lands being obliterated at the push of a button. The gamelike framing and composition lend themselves strangely well to the cinematic form. Rarely has the technology of war been so suited to a visual medium.
To his credit, Hood — who directed the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” (2005) and the political drama “Rendition” (2007) — keeps a restrained hand when it comes to the optics, which here are used less for whiz-bang effect than to keep the audience firmly grounded in the movie’s myriad locations. He and first-time screenwriter Guy Hibbert are far more interested in the human elements in what becomes an emotionally gripping — if manipulative and schematic — life-and-death drama. (Viewers old enough to remember the Cold War tick-tock “Fail Safe” will sense a temperamental resemblance.)
While Powell pushes for a timely attack, a group of British cabinet secretaries and politicians second-guess her, worrying that any civilian casualties incurred would prove a political and publicity nightmare. Her intermediary in the argument is a quiet, subtly contemptuous general played by the late Alan Rickman, in a performance that proves how utterly singular he was. Whether he’s buying a toy doll, presumably for the birthday of a granddaughter, or making mordant observations about what he sees as pointless, bureaucratic dithering, his pitch is never less than perfect and sneakily on point.
“Eye in the Sky” is worth seeing if only to behold the actor in his glory one more time. (Rickman will reprise his role voicing the Blue Caterpillar later this year in “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”) But Hood has been just as judicious in casting the rest of the roles: Mirren combines both wile and steel in a masterful portrayal of Ahab-like obsession, while Barkhad Abdi — the Somali actor who played a marauding pirate in “Captain Phillips” — delivers a watchful performance as a surveillance expert in Kenya who expertly deploys a cleverly disguised menagerie of tiny, remote-control cameras.
There’s no question that Hood stacks the deck in “Eye in the Sky,” an anguishing piece of audience pandering that Rickman’s character acknowledges in one of his flawlessly timed asides. But even with that license, the filmmaker engages the audience in a worthy debate, in which the U.S. drone pilot — played by “Breaking Bad” alum Aaron Paul in an impressively reflective turn — serves as the most plaintive moral voice. In its own unsubtle way, “Eye in the Sky” makes a propagandistic case for drone warfare, if only in depicting the decision-making process as so thoughtful, agonizing and comprehensive.
Notwithstanding that inherent bias — and a tendency to caricature U.S. administration officials as far less thoughtful and painstaking — “Eye in the Sky” provides a valuable dramatization of what we’re asking of the public servants who carry out the missions we passively or actively endorse. This is the rare military drama that conveys both the graphic physical effects of war and its lingering psychic cost.
R. At area theaters. Contains some violent images and obscenity. 102 minutes.