Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Making it Clear

I've long been a fan of John Sweeney's reporting, including a piece I re-watched recently on the Nazi re-enactment group the Second Battle Group, who I've encountered myself and found just as dubious as he did. But I think he achieved a kind of apotheosis with his Panorama documentary on Scientology. Since then he's become one of the "Church's" staunchest critics, and written an interesting and - given the cult's tactic of 'Fair Game' - quite brave book on it, 'Church of Fear'. It's well worth a read.

In particular, I found some of what he had to say in the book triggered memories of my own, which have had a major impact on making me into the person I am today. In particular the 'arguing in relays' technique that they used on him was also used by some fundamentalist Christians of my acquaintance who gradually converted most of the Sixth Form at my school, and left myself and two friends rather defensively founding our own mock-diabolic anti-Christian society as a kind of pressure valve. Although I walked away from religion at age 11, I think a lot of my antipathy for it comes from those years, at age 16-17, when I was forced at every break and lunchtime to defend what I believed in (or rather didn't believe in) over and over again, in a manner that was draining both physically and emotionally. A lot of my friends succumbed.

But I've also seen the impact that Scientology can have on peoples' lives.A friend of my father, a successful industrialist, ended up spending vast sums on Scientology's bogus courses. It provoked a rift in his family which led to marital trouble, financial difficulties for his company and basically nearly ruined what from the outside had had been a pretty idyllic life.
And I've also had my own minor personal run-in. At University, a friend of mine and myself dropped into the local Scientology centre for a laugh on a bored Saturday afternoon and took their 'Free Personality Test'. I answered mine as a kind of role-play, as an imagined character who was probably a borderline psychopath. The volunteer giving me my results looked genuinely shocked at the results of the test, but of course parroted the Party line that "only we can can help you". I laughed it off and thought no more about it, but for the next few weeks both myself and my friend were followed, around town, even occasionally on campus... it was genuinely quite weird and more than a little unsettling. Eventually they seemed to lose interest and give up, but this was only a tiny taster of what they put Sweeney through, and watching his documentary brought a lot of that flooding back. I could totally empathise with him losing it at the rather weird Scientology android who had been given the task of breaking him down.
So when I found that my father had been given a copy of 'Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health', I probably vented a bit at him. He is a clever man with an inquiring mind, but he left school at 16 and occasionally doesn't have the background in science or history to sniff what is bogus and what isn't, and so is prone to falling for a lot of the 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail', 1421 - China discovers America, and all of that nonsense. Thankfully Dianetics proved to be too heavy going for him.

So I've got form, I guess is what I'm saying. But after reading Sweeney's own account of his breakdown/blow-up at the Scientologists during their 'psychiatric holocaust' exhibition, I was prompted to watch That Clip again on YouTube. I'd watched it before, but this time I took a look at who had posted it, and noted that they had done so complete with links to Scientology-run websites, and when I was inclined to post something sarcastic about that underneath - as you do - I suddenly discovered that the poster of the clip also moderated all comments on it. Yep, it's a Scientology propaganda piece. Well, what a surprise. Again, it's only the tip of a whole iceberg of media manipulation and lawsuits that the cult uses to try and police its image in public.
Ironically, if it hadn't been for that, I probably wouldn't have posted this blog entry. But I don't like feeling censored, and Scientology are all for censorship. They seem to have plenty to hide. So here's to John Sweeney. I hope his book is a success. And I hope you all read it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

So the science is in, and it looks like the bones found under a Leicester car park really were that of the late King Richard III. To the great credit of the dedicated sleuthing of his modern cheerleaders, the Richard III Society, he was exactly where they said he would be. To their great disappointment, he turned out to genuinely have a severe spinal deformity, if not exactly a hunchback, and to be rather slender, even feminine, in appearance, just as the contemporary historians (many of them Tudor propagandists) said he was. Still, it's nice to have the Middle Ages on the front page for a change.

As the Richard III Society were intimately involved in the discovery, the question of his posthumous reputation came up again, and I find this the more interesting part, since it involves history rather than archaeology. The Society seem occasionally slightly alarming in their devotion to a canny usurper and probable child murderer, and it's interesting to think about why people are so intrigued by perceived historical grievances in this way. I once shared a house with a woman who would literally rage at the historic indignities heaped on 19th century Native Americans, or Britain's actions during the Irish potato famine, but who was largely indifferent to the fate of present day Somalis or Ethiopians.

There is no doubt that Richard III was ill-served by history. Tudors (themselves usurpers) deliberately bolstered their own claim by blackening his name with that commonplace of history, victor's justice, and their accounts went unquestioned by Regency and Victoran historians who liked to pigeonhole historical figures into what '1066 And All That' parodied as Good Things and Bad Kings. Richard III was a Bad King, and that was that. Most damaging for his reputation has been that the main fictional portrayal of him in public circulation is as the Machiavel in Shakespeare's play. The Richard III Society feel this is unfair, and they have a point. But it's not a great one. Richard undoubtedly was a loyal brother while Edward was alive, but when he died he seized his chance with both hands and wasn't too fussy about what happened to those who got in the way, fabricating evidence of his brother's bigamy, ambushing and murdering his sister-in-law's family, arresting and 'disappearing' his nephews, and generally going about removing opponents with a terrible steely-eyed ruthlessness. Yes, he was surely a clever man, a competent general, a capable administrator and inspired genuine loyalty in his followers. Yes, in the 21st century we no longer regard physical disability as an exterior manifestation of a sick soul, as they did at the time. But he was no angel, and in their quest to chip away at some of the accretion of bad history, the Richard III Society have been guilty of some of their own, much of it wishful thinking. Why can't he be regarded simply as a complex individual, with positive and negative facets, like most people, historical and contemporary?

He always puts me in mind of a figure I'm more familiar with, that of King John, another flawed and complex individual, clever - sometimes too clever by half - a gifted administrator with an eye for detail, a competent, even occasionally brilliant military commander who never lost a battle at which he led, undoubtedly charismatic, calculating, but untrusting, occasionally to the point of paranoia, a careless despoiler of his nobles' wives and daughters as a kind of droit du seigneur (albeit no different from Richard I or Henry II in that regard, it must be said, or many Princes of Wales since), and with a cruel and occasionally arbitrary streak that even his admirers found hard to forgive. As with Richard III, history has judged John more harshly than his brother Richard I (who was a very similar personality), because of his expedient disposal of his nephew and rival Arthur, and because the Church (who wrote the histories) were scandalised by his defiance of the Pope. Like Richard III, John has become a Shakespearean pantomime villian, in a play that has done just as much to traduce his own reputation - it is little performed now, but in the 19th century it was one of Shakespeare's most popular. There he is portayed as weak, vaccilating and petulant, a puppet of his domineering and ambitious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is a view of him which lived on via various portrayals of Robin Hood, especially the Disney cartoon version (where is mother is replaced by a talking snake, with obvious Biblical overtones), which has done for his modern reputation very much what Shakespeare did for him among the Victorians. There is a grain of truth in it, but not much more than that.

And it always makes me wonder why Richard III has a society devoted to rescuing his reputation, but John doesn't. The country owes more to the man who reformed English justice and administration and who (albeit grudgingly, and with his fingers metaphorically crossed behind his back) signed Magna Carta, than the man who plunged the country back into a civil war it was only just recovering from. Such are the vaguaries of history, and the reason it is endlessly fascinating.

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Turks - A Great Bunch of Lads

The world of manufactured controversy managed another great moment last month when a Turkish Muslim group in Austria decided to lash out at the Lego Corporation for 'promoting race hate' by selling a Lego model of Jabba the Hutt's palace from the third 'Star Wars' film, Return of the Jedi (you know, the one with Leia in the slave girl outfit. Yeah, you know...). Their contention was that the model:

Looked like a crude version of the mosque of Hagia Sophia, one of the jewels of Istanbul and a symbol of Islamic civilisation for many centuries:

Now, I'm far from the first person to point this out, but one major hole in this theory is that the distinctive shape of Hagia Sophia (i.e. the central part, minus the minarets) actually began life as a Christian basilica, its construction initiated by the Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, back when Istanbul was Constantinople (cue the song) and its huge dome modelled on the equally impressive Pantheon in Rome:

So it's actually a Christian building based on a pagan design, converted to a mosque in 1453 by the Turks, deconsecrated by the Ataturk government in 1931 and then converted into a museum in 1935. And a damned fine one, too.

But more than that, surely (as the Lego Corporation were keen to point out) the toy is based not on any specific *real* building, but rather a fantastical one from a series of films:

 All well and good, and the controversy has petered out pretty quickly after the initial grab at some headlines (although it may have sparked the petition to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque that has since surfaced), and we can all fit it neatly into the "tch, Muslims are just *so* sensitive!" pigeonhole - see also Danish cartoons - and forget about it.

Except. Lurking at the back there, I can't help but feel that there is a point of sorts. Tattooine is a desert world, and for its architecture and atmosphere Lucas did borrow from a lot of countries that are now Muslim. Most famously, the first film was made in southern Tunisia, and borrowed a lot from local existing sites, including of course Tataouine, the real world town that gave the planet its name. The design for Jabba's palace was done by US conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and does clearly borrow a lot of its look from a kind of generic 'Tales of the 1001 Nights' fantasy Arabia, and no doubt really does lean a little on the look of Hagia Sophia for its exterior, amongst other things. Furthermore, the whole hareem girl set-up inside is meant to remind us of a long tradition of fictional portraits of Arab slave dealers, and in general there is a kind of Orientalist stereotype that is being peddled. And he does have form in this area - it's just part of a rather dodgy evocation of other cultures that George Lucas has done a lot in his 'Star Wars' films, from the comedy Japanese accents of the Trade Federation to the comedy Jamaican patois of Jar-Jar Binks, and the pretty hideous anti-Semitic stereotype of Watto the merchant (also on Tattooine of course), all of which he can get away with by saying it's just "make believe". And of course it is, as far as it goes, but at the same time it is also drawing on less friendly portrayals of these cultures in the past. Star Wars leans much more on these kind of short-cuts and stereotypes than any other SF series I can think of.

So while they were clearly just trying to make some mischief and grab some headlines, and I don't have much sympathy with them, I do think that the Turkish Cultural Community of Austria have a semi-legitimate grievance there, but it's surely with George Lucas, not Lego. I don't think it's racism per se, but it's a rather more subtle evocation of negative stereotypes that comes quite close.