Thursday, May 15, 2008

Heritage Bigotry

A three centuries old pulpit in the Catholic Church of Our Lady in Dendermonde has been getting a lot of blog-play over the last week, principally among the devout believers in the great war of civilisations theory of modern geopolitics.

The pulpit was sculpted in wood around 1685 by Mattheus van Beveren, a Flemish artist too obscure to warrant his own Wikipedia page, to celebrate the victory of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna on September 12, 1683. This victory was such a big deal for seventeenth century Catholicism that, in November 1683, Pope Innocent XI decreed that the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary should henceforth be celebrated either on the Sunday after the Nativity of Mary or September 12, the date of the Battle.

There are two photos of the pulpit on the internet, repeatedly copied from this post at The Brussels Journal which was published in April, 2006. The pulpit is supported by a sculpture of two angels trampling on a bearded man holding a book as if to protect it. According to Matthias Storm, author of the post:

The person subdued by the angels and having a Koran in his hands is generally thought to be Mohammed. The sculpture represents the triumph of Christianity over Islam.

The sculpture is as technically accomplished as van Beveren's statuette, Cupid on a Lion, currently in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unlike Alfred Hrdlicka, whose 1984 tribute to Pier Paolo Pasolini (a depiction of the Last Supper as a homosexual orgy), attracted conservative ire when it was included in a recent retrospective of
his works in Vienna, van Beveren didn't 'bite the hand that saved him'. Commissioned to celebrate a triumph of Christianity over Islam, he celebrated a triumph of Christianity over Islam.

According to some, we need a lot more van Beverens, and a lot fewer Alfred Hrdlickas, in our troubled modern age. If we can't have more van Beverens, we can have the next best thing. Like The Brussels Journal ('the voice of conservatism in Europe') we can acknowledge our proud heritage of anti-Islamic art, by posting the really good stuff on the internet, bringing it into the global purview. Eventually we might get noticed by the denizens of that other civilisation who will be obliging enough to remind us of the superiority of our own civilisation by taking aggressive offence at the published pictures. This week, a mere two years after the original publication of the pulpit photos that finally happened:

Belgian police is protecting a 17th century pulpit in the Flemish town of Dendermonde. The pulpit in the Catholic church of Our Lady dates from 1685, two years after the battle of Vienna when the Christian armies of the Polish King John III Sobieski defeated the Turks poised to overrun Europe. The sculpted wooden pulpit, made by Mattheus van Beveren, depicts a man subdued by angels and represents the triumph of Christianity over Islam. The man is generally thought to be Mohammed. He is holding a book which is generally assumed to be the Koran.

Two years ago, on April 16, 2006, during the height of the Danish cartoon affair, this website published a photo of the pulpit to show that there is a long tradition of depicting Mohammed in European iconography. Last Friday the Turkish newspaper Yeniçag reprinted our picture on its front page with the caption “Stop this hideous insult.” Yeniçag demands that Belgium remove the pulpit. The paper writes that “We have had the crusades and now they are still trying to humiliate us. This is as bad as the Danish cartoons and Geert Wilders’s Fitna movie in the Netherlands. Even Pope Benedict does nothing to stop these humiliations.” (bold added)

The rationale for publishing the photos of the pulpit (in bold) wasn't stated in Matthias Storm's original post, nor was there any discussion of the Danish cartoon affair.

The result of Yenicag's complaint has been the revival of that "long tradition of depicting Mohammed in European iconography" with the pulpit photo turning up on various conservative web-sites, usually with an amusing caption - amusing, that is, to any non-muslim who doesn't quickly tire of of reading the same shiatsu joke repeatedly rephrased.

The proper response for a citizen of any of the countries comprising 'Western Civilisation' is obvious: we must denounce the staff and publishers of Yenicaq and the religion which inspired their demands, creating the need for police protection of the church housing the pulpit. The lads at The Brussels Journal must be lauded as heroic defenders of western values. The publication of the photos on the net must be defended as a legitimate exercise of the democratic right of free speech (which it is) rather than decried as a rather silly and obvious provocation (which it also is). The thought that Van Beveren's sculpture is merely a crude piece of 17th century political and religious propaganda which would be much improved by an infestation of art-loving woodworms is not to be entertained. Like the statues of Ecclesia and Sinagoga on the walls of Paris's Notre Dame it's a part of our Western heritage, to be cherished and defended.

As for the people at Yenicag and their co-religionists, they very obviously need to bring their thinking up to date, and recognise that while demeaning caricatures used to be part of some Christian iconography, us Westerners had that Enlightenment thing and now we're completely over that stuff - give or take the occasional relapse.

One Frightened Native Animal

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Beguiled by Cruelty

How long will it be before 'Western Civilisation' once again accepts torture as a regrettable, but sometimes necessary, practice? Not long enough, when a discussion of torture leads even opponents of torture to start speculating about how it might be made acceptable.

According to commenter NPOV at Club Troppo:

I might accept that some type of torture could be (barely) ethically justifiable, whereby: a) the process was “humane” as possible - e.g. gradually increasing the dosage of a intravenously supplied drug that caused pain, with careful medical supervision to assure no risk of permanent damage or death, and no risk that the torturer stepped out of bounds b) there was a requirement of thoroughly determined “possession of knowledge” beforehand (in the same way we now determine guilt “beyond reasonable doubt” before jailing criminals) c) the method was determined to be a highly effective method of extracting life-saving information, when all other avenues had been exhausted I still wouldn’t vote in favour of such a proposal, but I wouldn’t strenously object to it either, as long the checks and balances were shown to be working.

It may be that NPOV's intention here is sardonic - that the conditions under which NPOV is prepared to turn a blind eye are impossible to achieve. But that intention is by no means clear.

The first condition - or something like it - is attainable. The essential fatty acid arachidonic acid is a biochemical precursor of the prostaglandins which contribute to pain and inflammation. A subcutaneous injection of arachidonic acid would have an inflammatory effect on tissues, causing the sort of pain that is usually relieved with aspirin. A local injection of bradykinin would work even better. Historical experience shows that medical supervision for torture sessions would be forthcoming, one way or another.

The only question remaining is whether there is a risk of the torturer stepping out of bounds - but the door has already been opened too far. It would take very little force of argument from an advocate of the use of torture to open it all the way.

To argue against the use of torture in this way is wrong-headed. Once it has been allowed that torture - under proper supervision - is acceptable, the requirements of proper process will be satisfied, quite quickly, in the same way that they have been satisfied in the past; by defining punctilious protocols for establishing and recording interrogations under torture to provide the appearance of due process.

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger's witchhunters' manual Malleus Maleficarum (MM) (1486) provides a good example of this under the heading 'Of the Third Kind of Sentence, to be Pronounced on one who is Defamed, and who is to be put to the Question':

THE Third method of bringing a process on behalf of the faith to a conclusive termination is when the person accused of heresy, after a careful consideration of the merits of the process in consultation with learned lawyers, is found to be inconsistent in his statements, or is found that there are sufficient grounds to warrant his exposure to the question and torture: so that if, after he has been thus questioned, he confesses nothing, he may be considered innocent. And this is when the prisoner has not been taken in heresy, nor has he been convicted by his own confession, or by the evidence of the facts, or by the legitimate production of witnesses, and there are no indications that he is under such a suspicion as to warrant his being made to abjure the heresy; but nevertheless he is inconsistent in his answers when interrogated. Or there may be other sufficient reasons for exposing him to torture. And in such a case the following procedure is to be observed.

The import of this passage is simple - once you have made up your mind to torture someone, for whatever you think good reason ('there may be other sufficient reasons for exposing him to torture') here is the proper procedure for recording the verdict - here's how you cover your bureaucratic arse.

The requirement that torture be found effective (NPOV's third requirement) is no impediment to the adoption of torture, Those who want to torture, or want torture used, will quite simply assume that it is effective, as did Kramer and Spenger. Accepting torture as a legitimate way to obtain information gives validity to testimony obtained under torture. This leads to a particularly vicious circle, where the 'truth' obtained through torture is used to justify the continued practice of torture:

[Here is] an instance which came within our own experience. For in the diocese of Constance, twenty-eight German miles from the town of Ratisbon ... a violent hailstorm destroyed all the fruit, crops and vineyards in a belt one mile wide, so that the vines hardly bore fruit for three years. This was brought to the notice of the Inquisition, since the people clamoured for an inquiry to be held ... it was ... that it was a case of witchcraft for us to consider; and among a large number of suspects, we particularly examined two women, one named Agnes, a bath-woman, and the other Anna von Mindelheim.

These two were taken and shut up separately in different prisons, neither of them knowing in the least what had happened to the other.

On the following day the bath-woman was very gently questioned ... and although she was undoubtedly well provided with that evil gift of silence which is the constant bane of judges, and at the first trial affirmed that she was innocent of any crime against man or woman; yet, in the Divine mercy that so great a crime should not pass unpunished, suddenly, when she had been freed from her chains, although it was in the torture chamber, she fully laid bare all the crimes which she had committed ... although there had been no witness to prove that she had abjured the Faith or performed coitus with an Incubus devil ... saying that for more than eighteen years she had given her body to an Incubus devil, with a complete abnegation of the Faith.

After this she was asked whether she knew anything about the hailstorm which we have mentioned, and answered that she did [and gave a detailed account of how she had caused the hailstorm]

... when on the next day the other witch had at first been exposed to the very gentlest questions, being suspended hardly clear of the ground by her thumbs, after she had been set quite free, she disclosed the whole matter without the slightest discrepancy from what the other had told ... Accordingly, on the third day they were burned.(MM, emphasis added)

How is it possible for two witnesses who have been separated to agree so much on the details of their crime? There are two common elements - the threat or use of torture and the inquisitors. The first alleged witch most likely told her interrogators what they wanted to hear. The second, after being 'exposed to the very gentlest questions, being suspended hardly clear of the ground by her thumbs' merely had to corroborate those details as they were put to her by her interrogators. This is how torturers obtain the evidence to support their claim that torture works.

In 2005, an Iraqi blogger who was arrested and tried for the crime of logging onto the blog Raed in the Middle posted an account of his experience in prison which includes the stories of other prisoners interrogated under torture:

Maysam And Nathom [were] two brothers, in their twenties, very poor, amazingly good looking, if there was an Arabic version of Hollywood, they would sure be Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

When I was in jail I cried twice, one of them was when Nathom came to the toilets from an interrogation session, and I was in the toilets at that time, and he started crying hard, he said that they beat him so much to the point that he had to say that his brother killed 300 people and stole many cars.

He came to the toilets while they started to torture his brother to make him confess of these crimes, I went back to the cell and cried for minutes, it was so unfair, so unfair.

That night we made jokes about it, and that since we all are supposed to be “terrorism experts” we knew that a sword can kill up to 50 people, so he must have used so many swords, or maybe he used chainsaw? How else would anyone kill 300 people with his own hands?

Yes, we made jokes about that, in prison, and when it’s such a silly situation, you learn to joke about it.
So the interrogator said: “so he killed 300 people?”
“yes sir” Nathom answered, and the interrogator writes the confession. “and he stole an Opel Car?”
“yes sir”
“a yellow one?”
“yes sir”
And then the interrogator put down the pen and said “you son of a b****, it has been more that two years since the war and I never saw one yellow Opel car”

(And it’s true, for some reason all Opels in Iraq are grey, some are black or blue but it’s rare, but no yellow ones!) All of that interrogation happened while Nathom is hanging upside down, and being hit at the same time. (emphasis added)

The pragmatists who would have us forget our 'squeamishness' about torture - our justified ethical repugnance at the idea of beating, electrocuting or waterboarding another human being until she is prepared to endorse any lies we want to tell about her and her friends and family - ignore this reality that has not changed from the fifteenth century to the present day.

Accommodating their arguments - even with ironic intent - is not the way to answer them. Beyond the ethical repugnancy of torture, there is a very sound political reason for citizens of a liberal democratic state to insist that the use of torture has no place. To allow torture is to open the way to a very different kind of state - the torture state.