Monday, December 31, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Well. That was much the best movie in which Lady Galadriel pretends to be Bob Dylan that I've seen this week.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.

Now it's all over it's probably safe to say that 'teddygate' wasn't a terribly big deal. Idiotic person behaves idiotically in country known to over-react to idiotic behavior. Idiotic country reacts idiotically. Diplomats grovel and lie a bit. Everything sorted out. Doubtless distasteful to be locked up for a fortnight for having done nothing very serious, but hell, our government wants to lock people up for six weeks when they haven't done anything at all. Unpleasant to be threatened with flogging, but then, our closest allies sometimes pretend to drown people. Ho hum.

I did find the National Debate mildly diverting, though. If Pundit A said "It's not that surprising that Johnny Muslim thinks it's disrespectful to name a child's toy after the Prophet Mohammed. We'd think it a bit off if someone named their fluffy alligator 'Jesus Christ'. Particularly if that someone was a veil-wearing Muslim in a Christian school". Pundit B would immediately reply "Yes, but no-one would demand that they be flogged or killed or even locked up" – as if A's belief that it's pretty bad manners to break local taboos implies that he didn't think the proposed punishment was out of all proportion. In the more erudite sections of the meejah, this enabled the entire discussion to be reduced to "Foreigners horrible! Muslims horrible! Religion horrible!"

It seemed to me that at least five different propositions were being folded together into a single philosophical batter:

1: "It is impossible that anyone should take offense over the name given to a child's toy." vs "It is perfectly understandable that someone should take offense at the name given to a child's toy."

Our beloved Mail and the fascist Express were quite clear which side of this particular fence they came down on, and never moved far away from it. Teddy bears are toys; faintly ridiculous toys; you can't possibly take offense at anything faintly ridiculous. Johnny Foreigner is only pretending to be offended. Muslims are nutters, it's political correctness gone mad, etc etc etc.

But even respectable BBC newscasters seemed to pronounce the word "teddy" in a tone of voice which implied they thought the whole thing was rather silly. What editorial assumption lurked behind the decision to write "Naming a teddy 'Mohammed ' " as opposed to, say, "Naming a toy bear..." or "Naming a child's toy..."?

I can imagine all sorts of circumstances under which a white -- sorry, a normal -- person might be offended by something cute and fluffy. Some of us were unhappy when it turned out that bootleg Incredible Hulks circulating at the time of the movie had enormous green willies under their purple shorts. Many of us regard cute, fluffy Gollywogs to be in rather doubtful taste. Most of us would not hesitate to say that someone was anti-semitic if they gave the name "Moses" or even "Jehovah" to a toy pig. And can you imagine what would happen if someone admitted, even in the context of an historical movie, that someone had, a long time ago, called their cute, fluffy, black dog 'Nigger' "?

2: "Offending religious belief should never be a criminal offense" vs "If a particular jurisdiction chooses to prohibit insulting religious belief, it is quite free to do so."

Having a dog called Nigger would not, in fact, result in a criminal prosecution in the UK. It would merely, in practice debar your from public office and make it impossible for you to ever have a career in the media. If you say that L Ron Hubbard was the Messiah, you will be laughed at in public. If you say that the holocaust never happened you will be invited to speak at the Oxford Union, which amounts to much the same thing. But we largely respect France and Germany's decisions to make Scientology and Holocaust Denial criminal offenses. White – sorry, civilized – countries do, in fact, limit the kinds of opinions which can be freely expressed.

Until last Wednesday blasphemy against the Christian religion was prohibited under English law. The failure of Stephen Green's quixotic private prosecution against the perpetrators of Jerry Springer – The Opera suggests that the law has been changed without recourse to anything as old fashioned as the House of Commons. If the law permits you to say that the Virgin Mary was raped by God, it's hard to know what it could possibly prohibit. A typically CofE compromise: get rid of a problematic law, not by repealing it but by deciding to ignore it. That's how we dealt with Sunday Trading: all the shops said "We don't like this law, so we're going to open on Sundays regardless" and the government said "OK: right you are, then." Funnily enough, this doesn't apply to young people and marijuana.

Jesus is not depicted wearing a nappy. The Prophet's wives are not said to be prostitutes. Rick never said "Play it again, Sam."

You may think that the distinction between the old crime of "blasphemy" and the new one of "stirring up religious hatred" is quite subtle. Under the old law, you were quite free to insult Islam if you felt like it, but under the new one, it's presumably and offense to encourage people to hate Scientology, so it could even be that we're less free to slag off god-botherers than we used to be. When his case comes to court, I look forward to hearing Mr. Dawkins explain to the jury how saying "God is a sadist" differs from saying "Christians are the kinds of people who think that God is a sadist, and, if they pass those beliefs on to their children, they are no better than pedophiles, except at Christmas, when I think it should be encouraged."

The last person to be sent to jail for blasphemy, in 1922, was the unfortunately named John William Gott. He had said that Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem "like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys." The judge thought that you didn't have to be especially religious to be outraged by this remark. Since the Gospel According to St Matthew says: "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass" this suggests that an English court is not the best place to discuss poetic parallelism.

3: "Whipping as a criminal sanction is always wrong" vs "Whipping may be an appropriate criminal sanction in some cases"

Let's not go there. (*)

4: "You ought to obey the laws of a foreign country, however silly." vs "Silly laws are silly laws no matter which country your are in."

This lets a huge can of worms out of the bag.

Until a couple of years ago, we liberals pretty much accepted cultural relativism without question. Something might be quite wrong in this country, but okay in a different one, and vice versa. Since 11/9 we're more inclined to see things in terms of a battle between nice cultures (ours) and nasty ones (everyone else's). We used to be a bit reluctant to tell Johnny Foreigner that lopping off his daughter's private parts and setting fire to his wife was a bit of a faux pas. We're now perfectly prepared to tell him that letting them wear head scarves is likely to undermine the fabric of our civilization.

Much appears to depend on how many clothes Johnny Foreigner is wearing. It was very naughty of the Spanish to stop the South Americans carrying out their interesting local tradition of human sacrifice; and even naughtier of Missionaries to impose Church Organs, Three Piece Suits and Cures for Malaria on the inhabitants of Africa. But once you catch someone wearing shoes and driving a moped then it suddenly becomes your duty to tell him that Arranged Marriage isn't the natural way of doing things.

5: "Mrs. Gibbons broke a law" vs "Mrs. Gibbons did not break any law."

I am not an expert in Sudanese jurisprudence. Nor is Paul Dacre, Peter Hill or or John Humphries.

I know very little about Islam. There is a verse in Leviticus which says "Neither shalt thou make an image of anything which dwelleth in the forest; out of fabric shall ye not make it neither stuffeth it with old socks; and in no wise shalt though give it the name of one of the prophets of the LORD thy God; even if one of it's eyes is in fact higher than the other, for verily, we have heard that one before." I couldn't say if the Koran has anything similar.

A lot of people have said "Since it is OK to name a person after the Prophet, it must be OK to name an animal or an inanimate object after him". I cannot say whether this follows. European Christians rarely name their sons "Jesus", but they frequently name their daughters "Mary". There is probably some reason for this. The Mail excelled itself on this point

Despite teddy row, Mohammed is top name for Peterborough parents

Despite the international row surrounding teacher Gillian Gibbons imprisoned in Sudan for calling a teddy bear by the same name, Mohammed has leaped up from third place to number one in Peterborough's popularity charts.

I particularly like the "despite" part. It calls up pictures of Peterborough Muslims looking at their babies and saying "In the light of that widely publicized prosecution in Sudan, let us not name our first-born in honour of the Prophet: let us name him 'Paddington', instead." (I also like the idea that this might show up in the statistics in under a week. Does history record what Muslims are naming their kids in Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City?)

The paper helpfully adds:

Mohammed was the seventh century prophet who founded the Islamic faith, and is revered by followers.

Oh...that Mohammed

I don't know whether it is only bad manners to intentionally insult the Prophet, or whether there is a concept of unintentional or accidental blasphemy. I wonder how an English board of school governors would react to a teacher who said "When I named the class Gollywog 'Nigger', I was following the democratic mandate of my Year 3 class, and therefore cannot be considered a racist."

But the question of whether or not you think that a person actually broke the law is completely unrelated to whether or not you agree with that law. Thinking that Chris Langham was silly and unlucky isn't the same as thinking that pedophilia should be encouraged.

So far as I can see, these five questions are completely unrelated. You might very well think that it is possible to insult Islam by the naming of a toy; that insulting Islam should be a criminal offense; that Teddy-Woman insulted Islam and should be punished; that some criminals deserve to be whipped; but that in this case a more appropriate punishment would have been a small fine and a public apology. On the other hand, you might think that the sale of plastic bobble-headed figures of Jesus is a gross insult to Christianity; that insulting Christianity is a terrible thing; but that it isn't the kind of terrible thing that should be covered by any law at all. Or that it's quite stupid to have a law against walking on the grass but that if you break the law you should bend over and take your punishment like a man.

As I said, it doesn't matter a great deal. But this technique – this inability to separate different questions – is frequently used to confuse us over much more important issues. If I say "How, exactly, does telling the police that they have £385,000 less to spend on catching burglars next year deal with the wrongful shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes?" it isn't a response to say "Most police officers do an excellent job under very difficult circumstances." You can respect English bobbies and still think that the person who ordered this execution should be given forty lashes. Or, indeed, think that the police are on the whole a bunch of establishment pigs with tits on their heads, but that when faced with a suspected terrorist, it's nevertheless perfectly reasonable behavior to shoot him in the head.

Similarly, it is very possible to think that some foreign leader – let's call him "Saddam" – is an appalling tyrant; but that toppling foreign tyrants isn't really what the British army is there for. Or that we should topple foreign tyrants when we can, but that a massive and expensive military intervention isn't likely to do any good in this instance. Or that Saddam is no worse than dozens of other foreign dictators, but that it is expedient to get rid of him for purely selfish reasons. Or that if he had had a supply of evil death rays, it would have been right to invade him, but since he didn't it wasn't. Or that even if he had had an evil death ray, invading him would still have been morally wrong; or that it would have been morally right, but for practical reasons, a really, really, bad idea.

Simply intoning "I did what was right. I did what was right. I did what I thought was right" is no help at all. 'Right', whether you are invading Iraq or naming a teddy bear, is more complicated then that.

Oh, and apparently, in the patois of some young people, Cookie could be taken to mean Cunt.

(*) Last week, our beloved Daily Mail printed a bizarre, even by its standards, article imagining the exhibits which would appear in a "museum of Britishness". A tableau of a teacher beating a child was one of the suggestions, and, so far as I could tell, no irony was intended. (It was also interesting to note that the National Health Service was thought to be one of the immemorial aspects of Merry Olde England, as opposed to a relatively recent innovation brought in by those pesky socialists. And until the BBC started transmitting Neighbours everyone spoke R.P.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is there any possible reason why "Where his children gather round, bright like stars with glory crowned" might be preferred to "Where like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around"? Is there some objection to the w-word? It's political correctness gone mad, I tell you.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Killing of John Lennon

"Look then to be well edified, as the fool delivers the madman."

So, let's see. The murder of John Lennon, re-enacted on the spot where it occurred. (Allegedly.) John only briefly on screen, represented by an actor but his face in shadow: all we see is his hair-cut and his specs. (Can you say "iconic"?) Captions on the screen, start out giving the date, but end up just saying "Two days remain", "Three hours remain". Interminable voice-overs by Mark Chapman (Jonas Ball). The arrest, prison, a brief trial, the same quote from Catcher in the Rye for the third or fourth time. The killer taken off to jail. A final, redundant caption telling us he's still there. No John Lennon song over the credits. This tiny-budget movie couldn't possibly afford one.

What have we just watched? The story of the death of John Lennon? Everything which normally goes into a a "story" – tension, suspense, motivation, resolution – is excluded in principal. No tension or suspense, because we already know the ending. No motivation because this is an account of an essentially motiveless act. No resolution, because, well, there's no resolution. It's a work in progress: one day, Chapman will get out, go on the talk-show circuit, get shot by someone who takes John's message of peace and love a bit too seriously. A Greek tragedy, the re-enactment of a sacred death? An exploration of the mind of a sociopath? Or just another excuse to pick at an extremely masturbatory scab; to blubber once more over the fact that the man who caused the sixties was killed for absolutely no reason at all.

Not so much The Assassination of John Lennon By The Coward Mark Chapman, more a passion play where the camera never leaves Judas Iscariot. The Beatles are bigger than Jesus, after all.

About two thirds of the way through, we come to the actual murder. We see Johnandyoko in their car; we see them leave it; we hear Chapman call out "Mr. Lennon!". We see slow motion bullets going right through actor-Lennon's body, leaving bloody holes in it. (Chapman's gun dealer tells him that a burglar would just laugh at him if he'd only bought a small gun.) It's an arresting image, of course: but it's far too pleased with itself to be actually shocking. It's a special effect. We know that dumdum bullets make big holes in people: we know that people who've been shot bleed a lot. (Lennon had lost 80% of his blood when he reached hospital.) It doesn't bring us into the event, but distances us from it. Neither Chapman, nor Yoko, nor, one imagines, John, could possibly have perceived events in this way. It's happening purely for the enjoyment of the audience. The Imagine documentary represented the assassination with a single image of a pair of glasses flying through the air. This brought me no closer to imagining the literally unimaginable.

The film is confused about its viewpoint. Most of the time we're inside Chapman's head: which is not, funnily enough, a particularly interesting place to be. We see him shooting the two "homos" he can hear having sex in the next room at the YMCA, and then we see him back on his bed, deciding not to shoot them after all. (I must admit, that had me thinking "Gosh; I never knew he did that", for a second.) We even see him in that field of rye, trying to keep the little kids from falling off the cliff. Quite a meta-textual knot, if you think about it: an actor playing a lunatic imagining that he's a mentally unstable fictitious character imagining that he's a figure in a folk song.

So: if it's all from Chapman's point of view, whose benefit are all those "Ten minutes remain" captions for? Lennon didn't know he had only a limited amount of time to live. Chapman only realized on the night before the murder that tomorrow was the big day, and obviously didn't know exactly when John would step out of the car. Is it simple audience manipulation: a cheap way of creating tension in a movie which announces its ending both in its title and its choice of subject matter? Or is there some reason why the film has to keep saying "Look at me – I'm a film"?

A couple of weeks before the murder, Chapman decides to go home to his wife. (I'd forgotten that Chapman was married. To a Japanese girl, at that.) He triumphantly tells her that he nearly did something terrible, but he's now defeated his demons. Because of the loonies-eye-view of the action, I couldn't quite tell if Chapman really went back to Hawaii, or just thought of doing so. Not that it matters: in a different kind of film, this would be a clever, tension filled, will-he-won't-he false ending: but here it is just one more move in the stations of the cross. And that could be the point: the fact that we know exactly what is going to happen mirrors Chapman's deranged conviction that he's doing something he's predestined for.

Director Andrew Piddington took the courageous decision to depict Chapman only through words that he really spoke. The voice-over describes, and the action reenacts, the moment when Chapman chances on a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in a public library, and feels that the book speaks to him directly: that, in fact, he himself is Holden Caulfield. We also see him discovering, also by chance, a book about John Lennon and deciding that he is one of Caulfield's phonies and therefore it's his job to kill him.

The film tells us that Chapman particularly objected to Lennon's having said "Imagine no possessions", even though he himself had a few bob set aside for a rainy day. "I had to kill him because he was a hypocrite" is at least intelligible; expressions like "I had to kill him because I am Holden Caulfield" and "The phony must die, says the catcher in the rye" are simply without meaning.

But hang on a moment. How do we know that Chapman was set on his homicidal path by happening upon a copy of Sallinger and a celebrity biog of Lennon? Well, because Chapman said so: we are listening to the post-murder Chapman explaining the pre-murder Chapman's state of mind. But Chapman, I think we can agree, is not terribly, terribly sane. Is there any particular reason to think that he remembers these events correctly, and even if he could, that he would describe them honestly? (When we hear the name "John Lennon", "Imagine" is the first song which comes to mind. That wasn't necessarily the case in 1980. Is the "no possessions" angle one that Chapman thought up after the event?)

Once you've spotted this, the movie starts to unravel. For the first half Chapman is a dull, self-absorbed, chauvinistic, homophobic sociopath. ("Cold blooded killer in 'not very nice' shock.") But after the murder, he becomes much more human and is transformed, instantly, into a victim. (Does the film give a fair view of the brutality of the American criminal justice system? It beggars belief that Chapman was deemed mentally competent to enter a guilty plea at his trial. If the law says that this fruitcake murdered Lennon while of sound mind, the law is an ass.) He's also much less clear about his motivation. Only a few hours after he has killed John, he is wishing that things could "go back to how they were before". He tells the police that he doesn't know why he did it; he tells the psychiatrist that there were lots of different reasons – but can't actually specify a single one. These sequences are – presumably – based on contemporaneous accounts and transcripts. We're looking at a recreation of Chapman as police officers and psychiatrists actually saw him; where before, we were looking at a recreation of Chapman as he wanted us to see him or as he imagined himself. Chapman's voice tells us – in the past tense – that while awaiting trial, he re-read Catcher in the Rye and had some kind of supernatural visitation in which he felt that his brain cells were on fire. As a result, he realizes that the point of the murder is to promote the reading of Catcher in the Rye. (Not quite so interesting as discovering that, say, Yahweh is the ball of fire at the earth's core; or that the world ended in AD 70 and everything since then has been an illusion. Perhaps God was having an off-day?) How much of the rest of the narrative is a retrospective rationalization based on this epiphany?

So. Punishing Lennon for being a hypocrite. A peculiar act of self-identification with a fictional character. A publicity stunt for J.D Sallinger. While in his cell, Chapman sees a news report about the attempted shooting of Ronnie Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. He comments (and again, this is presumably something which someone actually heard him say at the time) that if he hadn't been able to get to Lennon, he might have killed Jackie Onassis or Johnny Carson.

And I still think, depressingly, that this is the most believable explanation: a mad attempt to achieve celebrity by the ultimate act gratuit. Before the murder, we follow Chapman into a cinema where he watches Raging Bull and Ordinary People. The films-within-the-film take up the whole cinema-screen; but Chapman's silhouette is superimposed over them. We're watching him, watching them. Straight after the murder, Chapman says that John fell down like something out of a movie; and that now, he feels as if he is watching his own life like that of a character in a film.

"I was a nobody, until I killed the biggest somebody on earth." So what have we done? We've put him in a movie.

I don't expect you
To understand
After you've caused
So much pain.
But then again,
You're not to blame.
You're just a human
A victim of the insane....

Monday, December 10, 2007

So. Is it child abuse to describe little Jimmy as a "cultural Christian", do you think?