Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Leviathan

January 21, 2015

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Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a powerful film about corruption and decay in contemporary Russia.

Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) lives in a run-down town on Russia’s Arctic coast with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). The property his house stands on is coveted by the town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who connives to have it taken away from him. Kolia gets an old army fried of his, Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a lawyer, to help him fight the mayor.

Zvyagintsev shows frequent shots of abandoned and decaying buildings. Leviathan was filmed in the town of Kirovsk, located near Murmansk. This town has been steadily losing population since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Indeed, one possible interpretation of the film’s title is that the characters are living in the decaying carcass of the Soviet Union. In one scene, some of the characters go target shooting. They use for their targets pictures of Soviet leaders.

It’s perhaps an indication of Maxim’s venality that instead of fixing up one of the abandoned buildings, he desires a property that is occupied. Maxim expresses open contempt for Kolia as well as for the other residents of the town. His closest confident is the local high priest. When at one point, Maxim considers giving in to Kolia, the priest tells him, “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.” This moment sets off the series of events that ultimately destroy Kolia.

In the final scene, we see the rich people of the town listening to the high priest give a sermon. Maxim leans over and whispers to his son, “God is watching you.” This is the intertwining of religion and corruption.

Leviathan is a great film.

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Objectively Worse?

October 26, 2014

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There is an argument that I have seen some of my Facebook friends make recently. The argument is that Islam is “objectively worse” than other religions. (A claim popularized by Richard Dawkins.) When one looks at the behavior of ISIL, or the Saudi government for that matter, this can seem to make sense. However, this argument is a slippery slope in a couple of ways. First, it can be viewed as a backhanded endorsement of other religions. Second, it can be used as an excuse to justify attacking Muslims. This is an important point. There are ongoing persecutions of Muslim minorities in countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Whatever one may think of Islam, there should be no excuse for punishing people for their religious beliefs.

Moreover, this argument is not constructive. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Does anyone really believe that these people are going to change their religious affiliation just because some of us think their religion is crappier than others? I don’t think so. We need to find ways to unite people, rather than emphasize artificial distinctions.

Religion is a Business

July 2, 2014

Pope Francis

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that business owners have a right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees, I think this is an appropriate time to remind people that religion itself is a business, a point I made in a previous post:

    Sun Myung Moon was one of the greatest entrepreneurial geniuses of the twentieth century. Like L. Ron Hubbard, he grasped the essential truth that religion is a business. You promise salvation to people, and they pay you money for it. (Salvation is a special kind of commodity. Although it has no form or substance, it is nonetheless fungible.)

No one should know this better than Pope Francis. Salon recently posted an article by Anna Marsh about the pontiff. In it, Marsh destroys the Pope’s reputation as a populist. She writes:

    While the pope transmits a populist vibe—particularly about the economy— he is an old-school conservative who, despite his great PR, maintains nearly all of the socialpolicies of his predecessors and keeps up a hardline Vatican “cabinet.” He has done virtually nothing to change the policies of the church to match his more compassionate rhetoric. People excuse the pope, claiming that he doesn’t have much power to make changes, but this simply isn’t true. Further, it is ludicrous to suggest that a man who denies comprehensive reproductive health care (including all forms of birth control including condoms and abortion) and comprehensive family planning is a man who cares about the poor of this world.

Marsh tells us that the Pope’s populist rhetoric has a venal motive:

    According to The Economist, “The American church may account for as much as 60 percent of the global institution’s wealth. Little surprise, then, that it is the biggest contributor to head office (ahead of Germany, Italy and France). Everything from renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Pontifical Gregorian University, the church’s version of West Point, is largely paid for with American money.” The National Catholic Reporter points out that American Catholics put more than $150 million a week into the collection plate, totaling $8 billion annually. Even if, as they assert, ninety percent of those donations never leave their parish, that means that about $800 million a year donated by American Catholics is being used to fund the Catholic Church around the world.

    Forbes points out that U.S. Catholics are responsible for almost a third of the charitable contributions that directly fund the Holy See, contributions that were down from $82 million in 2009 to 70 million in 2011. This time period overlaps the decline in Pope Benedict’s favorable numbers among U.S. Catholics and is widely attributed to Benedict’s lack of PR finesse, handling of the church’s sexual abuse scandal, and launching of an investigation into the practices of the American nuns.

The Vatican hired a PR man named Greg Burke to help them with this problem. Burke used to work for Fox News, and he is a member of the reactionary Opus Dei. It is apparently Burke who has largely engineered the new pope’s reputation as a populist. A lot of people have apparently fallen for this, but I wonder how long Francis will be able to continue this charade.

The Satire Glut

December 26, 2013

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A story has been circulating on social media lately that Pope Francis declared that “all religions are true.” The problem here is that the Pope never said that. According to Snopes.com this story comes from a satirical website called Diversity Chronicles. This is not the first time I’ve seen people on social media mistake a satirical article for a real story. There has been a proliferation of satirical websites in recent years, inspired, no doubt, by the success of The Onion. The problem here is not just that most of these sites aren’t that funny, but that they’re leading to false stories and rumors circulating on the Internet. And there’s already a lot of false information on the Internet as it is. Perhaps what we need is a moratorium on new satirical sites.

The Guardian Advocates Saudi Exceptionalism

November 4, 2013

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The Guardian is my favorite newspaper. It often has articles that I find informative and thought-provoking. Every now and then, however, the paper makes an editorial decision that I find inexplicable. On Saturday, November 2, they ran an article by a Saudi Arabian man named Ahmed Abdel-Raheem titled Word to the west: many Saudi women oppose lifting the driving ban. In it he writes:

    If you read any western coverage of the recent protest of Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban, you probably thought, “finally, the kingdom is waking up”. But the problem is, that’s not what many Saudis think, including Saudi women.

Raheem goes on to claim that he conducted an informal survey of female college students in Saudi Arabia. He says:

    To my surprise, 134 (out of 170) respondents said female driving is not a necessity and that it opens the door for sexual harassment and encourages women to not wear the niqab under the pretext that they cannot see the road when driving. Some also fear that it gives husbands a chance to betray and agree with the assertion that it creates sedition in society.

That’s an interesting word there: sedition. Not long ago Saudi Arabia helped crush an uprising in neighboring Bahrain. I’d be curious to learn about the social backgrounds of these women, particularly if any of them come from families connected with the government. Raheem quotes one respondent as saying:

    Honestly, I don’t like women to drive. This will create sedition … I agree that there are already different kinds of sedition we see every day, but the right place for a woman is her house; this will really save her from what is happening in the outside world.

Sedition seems to be a big concern among some people. Raheem then writes:

    This stresses that the continuous attempts from the west to impose its values elsewhere are pointless. Western feminism is not only unlikely to take hold in countries like Saudi Arabia, it is not what many women in the kingdom want. Consider what Amany Abdulfadl, member of the Egyptian Centre for Monitoring Women’s Priorities, said in a 2007 piece in Al-Ahram Weekly: the west’s ”definition of equality cannot work in our Arab world because neither will our women find jungles to cut wood in, nor our men ever have breasts to feed babies.’

You see, the best way to make a point is with a non-sequitur.

    People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi (sic), and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.

The next day – Sunday, November 3 – The Guardian ran an aricle titled Saudi Arabia ‘arrests Kuwaiti woman for driving diabetic father to hospital’. It tells us:

    The English-language Kuwait Times said that the woman had been driving in an area just over the border, with her father in the passenger seat, when she was stopped by police. The woman, who said that her diabetic father could not drive and needed to be taken to hospital for treatment, was being held in custody pending an investigation, the paper said, citing police.

Yet another reason why women shouldn’t be allowed to drive is that they might be tempted to drive their diabetic fathers to the emergency room instead of letting them die. This might work in other countries, but it might not fit in Saudi Arabia. (And, who knows, it could lead to sedition.)

According to his bio, Raheem currently lives in Poland, where the women are allowed to drive, and the men do not have breasts. (I swear, this is true.)

Some Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombings

April 24, 2013

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Although the police are to be commended for having solved this case so quickly, there are still some things about this episode that a leave one feeling uncomfortable. Such as the unnecessary decision to completely shut down the city of Boston. (Common sense dictated that Dzokhar Tsaraev would likely be found in or near Watertown, and, indeed, he was found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard in that very city.) Or police officers in military gear searching people’s homes without warrants. Or the government’s refusal to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.

The Constitution is really the only thing that holds this fractious country together, yet we increasingly treat it as something disposable, like Kleenex. Mayor Bloomberg of New York recently announced:

    The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex word where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.

This is coy. Bloomberg has made it clear that he has nothing but contempt for the Constitution, as when he ordered the police to attack Occupy Wall Street protestors, or in his “stop and frisk” policy that targets minority youths. He no doubt drooled as he added:

    We have to understand that in the world going forward, we’re going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That’s good in some sense, but it’s different from what we are used to.

We already have lots of cameras in our society. Photos and videos taken by private citizens helped the police to pick out the suspects. Hizzoner is specifically referring to surveillance cameras by the police, likely to be positioned to keep the world safe for Wall Street hedge fund managers.

And then there is the question of the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers. There is a substantial amount of evidence that Tamelan was attracted to radical Islam, but Dzhoubar attended a party at UMass-Dartmouth shortly after the bombings, which is not the sort of behavior that one would expect from a Muslim fundamentalist. I suspect that there is a complicated story here, one which we learn about as more evidence comes to light.

Dzhoubar has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction”. It used to be that this term only referred to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It now applies to pressure cooker bombs. No doubt it will soon apply to firecrackers. (But not, of course, to assault rifles!)

Pope Francis

March 14, 2013

The newly elected Pope Francis I waves to the crowds from St Peter's basilica.

The college of cardinals has selected a new pope. He is an Argentinian named Jorge Bergoglio, but he will rule under the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. The Guradian reports:

    Inside the Sistine Chapel after the final vote was cast, the most junior of the cardinals, James Harvey, a former prefect of the papal household, called in the secretary of the college of cardinals, Monsignor Lorenzo Baldisseri, and the master of papal liturgical ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, to witness the new pope’s acceptance of one of the most daunting jobs on Earth.

Daunting? Really? I imagine being a coal miner would be a daunting job, as would being a factory worker at Foxconn. But being Pope? You mostly just have to wear funny clothes and make reactionary statements. Sounds like a sweet gig to me. The Guardian also reports:

    No indication of how or why the new pope was chosen was expected to emerge. On Tuesday, before the start of the conclave, the cardinal-electors took an oath of secrecy, as had those Vatican employees and officials involved in the election.

    Additional precautions included a sweep of the Sistine Chapel to ensure that no listening devices had been planted inside and the use of electronic jamming techniques.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that people who obsess over secrecy are usually up to no good. And when one looks into the background of this man, Bergoglio, one can see that he has good reasons for secrecy. According to another article in the Guardian:

    The main charge against Bergoglio involves the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were taken by Navy officers in May 1976 and held under inhumane conditions for the missionary work they conducted in the country’s slums, a politically risky activity at the time.

    His chief accuser is journalist Horacio Verbitsky, the author of a book on the church called “El Silencio” (“The Silence”), which claims that Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection from the two priests, effectively giving the military a green light for their abduction.

Actually, the election of Bergoglio makes perfect sense to me. With the church besieged by accusations of money laundering and child abuse, who better to have as Pope than a criminal?

Ratzinger – er, I mean Pope Benedict XVI – got a lot of grief for having been a member of the Hitler Youth as a child. In my view, that’s negated by the fact that he refused to serve in the German army during World War II. But what are we to make of a man who aided and abetted a murderous regime? And what should we make of a church that promotes such a man to its highest position?

The Legend of Bhagat Singh

January 13, 2013

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After reading my review of The Baader Meinhof Complex, a friend of mine recommended that I watch the 2002 Indian film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, which also touches upon the question of what tactics should be used in the struggle against injustice. Although Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) is little known in the U.S., he is famous in India for his role in the Indian independence movement. He rejected Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance. He was a founding member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, which sought to organize a mass uprising against the British. When the Indian writer, Lala Lajpat Rai, died after being beaten by the police, Singh and his comrades killed a British police officer in revenge. Later, they threw bombs in the Indian National Assembly, with the intent of getting themselves arrested. Singh hoped that his speeches at the trial would inspire the Indian people to rise up against their colonizers. His trial received considerable attention, and for a time he became as popular as Gandhi. However, this did not stop the British from executing him.

This film shows Gandhi in an unflattering light. It accuses him of dropping his demand that the Viceroy commute Singh’s death sentence so that he could get a political pact with the British granting limited rights to Indians. Given all the adulation given to Gandhi in both India and the West, it’s interesting to see a film that portrays him in a negative manner. In effect, it accuses him of being willing to sacrifice principle in order to get an agreement with the British.

The director, Rajkumar Santoshi, paints the story of Singh’s life in broad strokes. He doesn’t spend much time on character development. Singh (Ajay Devgan) appears fearless and wise almost from the time of his birth. And in true Bollywood fashion, there are musical numbers. Singh sings. He sings (twice) while he is on a hunger strike, and he sings while he is going to his execution. The Legend of Bhagat Singh emphasizes Singh’s advocacy of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. (Singh came from a Sikh family, but he became an atheist at an early age.) Santoshi clearly wanted to remind his fellow Indians of Singh’s politics, which are more relevant than ever with the sectarian violence that has sometimes taken place in that country in recent years. No doubt Santoshi thought that following the conventions of Bollywood would give the film more appeal, although I’m told that it actually did not do well at the box office. In all honesty, I could have done without the singing, but I found this a compelling film nonetheless.

Marmoulak (Lizard)

December 14, 2012

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Marmalouk is a 2004 Iranian film directed by Kamal Tabrizi. The Iranian government banned it after a two-week run. Nevertheless, it is the successful Iranian film ever.

Reza (Parviz Parastui) is a thief who has the nickname, Marmoulak (Lizard), because of his uncanny ability to climb walls. He is caught, and he spends some time in prison, but he manages to escape by disguising himself as a mullah. He goes in search of a man who will help him escape across the border. On the way, he stops in a village where the people mistake him for the new mullah for their mosque. Reza pretends to be their mullah during the day, but at night he goes looking for the man who is supposed to help him cross the border. The villagers notice his night-time excursions, and they mistakenly believe that he is doing charitable works. Reza acquires a reputation as a saint, and people begin flocking to his sermons.

The film is implicitly critical of the Iranian clergy. It seems to suggest that they are out of touch of the people. The clergy apparently decided to prove this popular film’s point by banning it. Yet Marmoulak is not an attack on religion. Quite the contrary, it is actually very respectful towards Islam. It ends on a highly spiritual note. It is also quite funny. The characters are interesting, and it gives us a glimpse into Iranian society. It can be found on Youtube.

Gilad Atzmon, Peter Jenkins, and the “Just War”

November 3, 2012


Gilad Atzmon

Dissident Voice, which posts articles by Israel Shamir and Andre Fomine, continues to lower its bar by posting an article by Gilad Atzmon. Entitled Ex-British Envoy Told the Truth (for a change), the article begins:

    Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former representative on the International Atomic Energy Agency, has told the debating union at Warwick University that a “just war” is not a Jewish notion. Jenkins was obviously telling the truth but the Zionist Jewish Chronicle is not happy.

    The retired Foreign Office diplomat, speaking in a debate on nuclear proliferation in Iran, said: “Israelis don’t practise an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, they practise ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth.” He also added that “the idea that a just war requires the use of force to be proportionate seems to be a Christian notion and not a Jewish notion.”

So, does Jenkins believe that the Crusades, in which many Jews and Muslims were killed, were a “proportionate use of force” in response to the peaceful Muslim occupation of the Holy Land? Or how about the invasion and conquest of Mexico, done in the name of spreading Christianity? Was it a “proportionate use of force” in response to the mere existence of the Mexican people?

Jenkins’s argument is obviously nonsense – so, of course, Atzmon fully approves of it. Responding to criticism of Jenkins, he writes:

    Yet, I am slightly perplexed, why is telling the truth about Jewish culture anti-Semitic? Is not the Old Testament far more violent than any Quentin Tarantino film?

I can think of many things that are far more violent than a Quentin Tarantino film. Here are just a few: the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mabinogion, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. (I’m not kidding about the last. You should read them in the original German, or in a faithful translation.) The authors of the Old Testament certainly weren’t the only people who like to write about violence.

A little later, Atzmon comments:

    I would obviously argue that it is our intellectual duty to call a spade a spade and to criticise Jewish politics and Jewish culture for what they are.

What exactly does Atzmon mean by “Jewish politics”? Noam Chomsky? Norman Finkelstein? Alan Dershowitz? Joseph Lieberman? Binyamin Netanyahu? Amy Goodman? Your guess is as good as mine. Atzmon doesn’t seem aware that the term “Jewish politics” embraces quite a large spectrum of personalities, ranging from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand.

In response to one critic of Jenkins, Atzmon writes:

    Mr Sacerdoti is obviously a Hasbara spin master. He mentions that “this particular view, that Jews do not adhere to the concept of ‘just war’ implies that Jews are by nature bloodthirsty and unjust. I believe any such generalisation about the nature of Jews is racist.” But here is a slight problem, Mr Jenkins didn’t speak about Jews, the people, the ethnicity or the race, he was clearly referring to “Israel”, i.e., The Jewish State and to Jewish culture.

You see, Jenkins wasn’t referring to the Jews; he was actually referring to Jews. (“The Jewish State and Jewish culture” pretty much includes all Jews, does it not?)

Atzmon ends:

    The truth better be said. Mr Jenkins told the truth and actually used a moderate and careful language. I wish the BBC and The Guardian were as courageous as Mr Jenkins. I also do not think Zionist organisations should be the ones who moderate the critical discourse of the Jewish State and Jewish culture.

And, clearly, Atzmon shouldn’t be moderating that discourse either.