Monday, March 29, 2010

Religion Off The Rails

Received a gift from Sir Harry the other day, a copy of the recent Man Booker novel, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. A short note accompanied the present: 'I think you will enjoy this. There is much in Cromwell that is you, and not a little bit of More. Now send me your analysis of the Moscow subway debacle. And soon.'

First things first. The novel, which I enjoyed, deals with the relationships between and among Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, the Boleyn girls (Mary and Anne) and Sir Thomas More. It is well written, and over the years I have found that the Man Booker Award is worth paying attention to. You can, for instance, actually read the prize winners. This is in contrast to the Nobel Prize for Literature, which all too often awards writers who appear to specialize in obscurantism, and hail from places like Dagestan or Patagonia.

Since Sir Harry had linked me to Cromwell and More, I paid particular attention to the characters. I came to the opinion that Ms Mantel painted Cromwell as having morals that I doubt that he historically held, and that her portrait of More was too harsh. I will give her that he was an overly devout Christian, but his beliefs were common to the time. He was, however, not a sadist.

This brings me to Sir Harry's request, and what I sent him was along the lines of the following.

I confined my remarks to the 'People of the Book'; that is, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and what can occur when the deranged manage to get a degree of power within these structures. (I avoided Hinduism and Buddhism, where there are like tendencies -- Hindus favouring sending ten-year-old girls to the marriage bed, Buddhists, in direct contradiction of Tantric Law, immolating themselves in public squares). The three aforementioned will suffice to make my point.

Extremism is dangerous in any form, but particularly venomous when parading around in the guise of a religion. Thus the two women who took it upon themselves to blow themselves to pieces in the Moscow subway system, taking all too numerous innocents with them, had no doubt been brainwashed by Machiavellian mullahs into seeing this as a direct way to Paradise. (Although it is interesting to note that said Mullahs were prepared to offer extra prayers to Allah in order that that the women be seen as holy martyrs. They were, after all, women.)

Now while Islam is particularly susceptible to this type of tragic nonsense, it is not alone. The fundamentalists in the Israeli Knesset want to continue to build settlements until there is nothing of Palestine that remains, and that paragon of Christian womanhood, Sarah Palin, talks little the kindness and mercy of the Founder, but on her Facebook would rather post rifle cross-hairs on the pictures of Democrats she wants to see defeated in the next election, along with the exhortation:"RELOAD!" And then there is the Pope...well, that matter is receiving the attention it deserves. It is to weep, and maybe old Nietzsche was right when he stated, "Two thousand years, and no new God."

Not much comfort for Sir Harry here, other than a suggestion I proffered that a certain percentage of financial resources that are currently going into heavy armaments (useless against suicide attacks) go to supporting the moderates in all three religions, with an emphasis on -- to the extent possible -- saturating the media with condemnations of any attack on innocent civilians, such condemnations to include banishing the perpetrators as apostates. This probably won't work, but can't do any harm, either.

Yet the problem is a thorny one, not subject to easy solution. As it's put in Wolf Hall, "Show me in the Bible, 'Purgatory'. Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says 'Pope'".


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Let's Go To The Movies!

My daughter Victoria flounced into town, all excited about her acting career getting a bit of a boost. Usually she had been featured either writhing in agony -- Vicki was always a good writher -- or lying dead in some alley, covered in blood. Apparently she has been given a few lines of dialogue before being shot to pieces.

"Mum" she exclaimed, "this is HUGE."

"And just why would that be?"

"The pay scale rises. Big time."

When I peeled the onion on this, I found out that a non-speaking part in a movie was one thing; a speaking part was quite another, and much more remunerative. Aha, I thought. No wonder there are so many actors and actresses involved in kidnapping that are gagged. I might have known -- the almighty dollar wins again.

"Mind you," admitted Victoria, "it's only a few lines. But it's a start. I get to say, 'Stop it. please stop it! Then I scream.'"

"Not exactly Hamlet."

"Well," continued Victoria, "it beats what universities pay for history lectures. I worked on that Peloponnesian War paper for three months. All I got was $500 bucks. This latest film gig will get me $4000.00. Do the math."

This was inarguable, although I did think it was a waste of a fine mind. Well, I thought, she's not alone in that. Look at Ann Coulter.

"Now Mum," Victoria stated firmly, "I've got passes. We're going to the movies. I want to see Avatar."

"I don't think --"

"Oh, you'll like it. And it's in 3D. It' ll be awesome!"

No it won't, I thought, but from time to time I have thought it wise to humour the whims of my progeny. So off we went, accompanied by my minder and butler, Irving, who thought the whole thing insane. Theatres are public places, and, being necessarily dark, perfect for nastiness. Al Qaeda, he had said, will never forget that I offed Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora. On the other hand, I have no wish to live like a hermit, so chances must now and then be taken.

In fact, nothing out of the ordinary occurred, other than my thinking that the time -- some three hours -- might have been more profitably spent. I tried to be enthusiastic for Victoria's sake.

"Well, Mum, what did you think?"

"It was...interesting."

"Weren't the visuals great in 3d?"

"They were...interesting."

"Right," stated Victoria, reaching a conclusion. "Now tell me what you really thought."

I put my courage to the sticking place and said, "The film really was a Western, and not a very good one at that. The Good Guys versus The Bad Guys, the White-Hatted Hero solving all. The plot has been much better done in Red River, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, or even Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Although I will admit the scenery was magnificent."

"Humph," muttered Victoria. Then she brightened. "But the 3D. Wasn't that impressive?"

"Actually, it was annoying. Those silly glasses irk. And when you take them off, the picture goes all blurry. Not good at all."

"Is there anything, O Wise One," asked Victoria, "that might have saved the film?"

I considered a bit, then spoke. "Actually, a different Director, and a different Hero. And they could be one and the same."

"Really," said Victoria. "I can't think of anyone who --"

"Try Clint Eastwood."

Enough said.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Life Is Choices

Consuela, my gardener, was now great with child. Ahmed, my driver, handyman and Consuela's husband, was also showing signs of expectation -- he had actually dented the Bentley when backing out of the garage, something he had never done before. Both were obviously losing focus (Consuela had lost track of where she had planted the tulip bulbs , and only found them after the squirrels had) and something had to be done.

I called them both into drawing room, determined to find out what was amiss. Something was at work that went beyond hormonal change.

"Now then you two," I said, "is everything OK?"

"Everything is fine," said Ahmed.

"Yes," put in Consuela, "the doctor is pleased with the progress. The ultrasound --"

"Good, good," I replied. No need, I thought, to go into every pre-natal detail. "Then what is it?"

"What is what?" asked Ahmed.

"Something is really bothering you two," I stated, "and your work is beginning to suffer. Now just what is going on?"

"Well," admitted Consuela, "we are having, er, discussions on how to handle the child's religious life."

Readers may recall that Ahmed is an observant Muslim, while Consuela is a devout Catholic. I am nothing if not an equal opportunity employer. And I now began to suss out just what was at issue.

"So", I said, "it is a matter of what religion the child will be exposed to."

Their silence confirmed agreement with this.

I leaned forward. "Might I offer some advice?"

They looked at each other, then nodded.

"Don't do anything. There are times in life where doing nothing is a wise course to follow. Like staying away from the junk bond market. Or not forwarding chain mail. Or, in this case, leaving the kid alone to make up his or her own mind."

"But Father Clipart said --"

"My Imam made the point --"

I cut them both short.

"Look. You are not as far apart as you might think. After all, you are, if I can use the present vernacular, two microchips soldered together on the motherboard of life. And it seems to be working well. That will have more effect on the child than any theology will."

The two of them remained silent, absorbing this, and I realized that the motherboard allusion was perhaps not the best illustration I could have used.

I continued. "Look. Both of the texts you adhere to, the Bible and the Qu'Ran, have beautiful, truthful passages in them. They also contain a great deal of rubbish. Emphasize the truthful ones, ignore the others."

"What," ventured Ahmed, "is wrong with the Qu'Ran?"

"Wrong may not be the term," I said. "Relevant is a better word. For instance, the Qu'ran is silent on cars."

"What?" exclaimed Ahmed.

"In Saudi Arabia, as I am sure you know, Ahmed, the Qu'Ran is cited as a authority that bans women from driving cars. This is pushing things a bit, don't you think?"

"But there is no Qu'Ranic reference," said Ahmed, "to women driving anything. Therefore --"

"Not entirely true. Women in the Ninth century often drove carts. Goodness, from time to time they are pictured dragging them. I always wondered where the guys were, but that's neither here nor there."

"The Bible," put in Consuela, "only speaks truth."

"Doubtful," I countered. "In an earlier time, perhaps. I do recall that the Bible urges that a witch should not be suffered to live. Today, I know some Wiccans that would have issues with that statement. So I would let the child simply be. Show him or her the best of your respective religions, and allow the child to determine his or her course in due time. There is a principle that I think spans both the Qu'Ran and the Bible that you might consider. Mens sano in corpore sano.

The both looked at me blankly. Modern education has a lot to answer for.

I sighed. "It's from the Roman writer, Juvenal. Literally, 'a healthy mind in a sound body.' Not the worst principle to remember when raising a child. Now back to work, you two. And for goodness sake, focus.

One can but hope.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Putting It To Putin

So there I was, re-reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and musing about sending 100 copies to the United States Senate (where it was desperately needed) when Irving entered and said, "It's him. On the secure line."

"Sir Harry? But he's in Kabul right now."

"No. The other 'him'. Vladimir Putin."

"Oh, that 'him'. Good. Nice to keep my Russian up to date. I'll take it in the conservatory."

I sauntered downstairs, and soon was on the line.

"Vladimir. A pleasant surprise. How goes life in the Kremlin?"

"Where have you been?" he replied. "Medvedev wanted to discuss something with you, and you apparently had disappeared."

"I was...away. And let us hope that what Medvedev wanted to discuss was his earlier emphasis on law, transparency and rewarding merit. That apparently has disappeared as well. Really. No wonder Russia screwed up so badly in the Olympics. The old emphasis on who you know rather that what you know."

"I don't want to talk about that," he said curtly. "And I suppose you had nothing to do with that weird avalanche in North Waziristan that wiped out a certain jihadist training camp? Someone spotted you, or a clone, nearby. I'd be interested in just how and whatever team you were with managed that."

"I"ll just bet you would," I said sweetly. "But remember, Vladimir, each snowflake in an avalanche screams 'Not guilty!'" Now what are you actually calling about?"

"I hear your sugar beet enterprise in Ukraine is going well."

"Ah. Been talking to Yuliya, have we? I heard that you were comforting La Tymoshenko after she got turfed out of office. Personally, I blame it on her keeping that silly peasant braid she swans around in."

Putin hesitated, then said "She is...interesting. But that's neither here nor there. I would be interested in discussions leading to a similar enterprise in Russia."

This caught me a bit by surprise. "Really," I said. "Under the same arrangement? Twenty per cent to Russia, the rest to Strunsky Enterprises, who control policy, staffing, wages and benefits? Not exactly the way you run things there."

"I and Medvedev are prepared to give it a try. As a sort of... working model."

Goodness, things must be worse than I thought in Mother Russia. "Very well. I will bring the proposal up in front of the Board."

"You are the Board," he snapped.

"And I need something in return."

"And just what might that be?" His voice had returned to its normal smoothness. Negotiation he understood.

"Sanction the hell out of Iran. Religious idiots and nuclear bombs don't mix. "

"We're working on that."

"Work harder."

"Then there's the Chinese --"

"I have a little thing I am exploring with Premier Hu on that," I admitted. "Fruit not yet ripe for the picking. But I must commend your initiative on the sugar beet matter. Either that, or you are totally smitten by the fair Yuliya."

"So we can proceed?"

"As your position on Iran goes, so go the sugar beets. A happy mix, just as that with socialism with capitalism. In the West, socialism is what makes capitalism bearable."

"And in the East?" Putin asked.

"Capitalism is what makes socialism bearable."

"Neat, that. Bye, dorogaya."

Sweetheart indeed. Well, we will see.