A Delightful Farce Called Anonymous

AnonymousWatched a delightful, satirical farce last night, called Anonymous. It’s a spoof about the conspiracy theory that the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere) wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

This conspiracy notion has a pop following, but lacks significant scholarly and any historical support. Like other conspiracy theories, it has gained ground on the Internet from the simple fact that most people are naturally superstitious and suspicious, and would rather not apply critical thinking or do any serious research to prove or disprove outlandish claims.

As theories go, de Vere-as-Shakespeare is up there with the Elvis-is-still-alive, JFK-survived-the-Dallas-shooting or the-American-government-was-behind-the-9/11-attacks. Even a movie that attempted to treat it seriously would have to stretch the facts beyond reasonable belief.

Anonymous is to the de Vere theory what Jim Carey is to acting: an over-the-top, madcap, histrionic and sometimes painfully exaggerated performance. It weaves together a series of improbable events, relationships and characters so intricately that it almost collapses from its own excessiveness. Only the superb acting and sets make it hold together. However, even a casual knowledge of the history of the era, or of Shakespeare’s life, pulls the whole tale into tatters. You can’t even begin to take it seriously. But the silliness is part of the fun.

Anonymous is from director Roland Emmerich, who also directed the rather thin spoof on prehistory, 10,000 BC, which I commented on previously. The script was written by John Orloff, previously known as the author of the brilliant, Oscar-deserving documentary, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” Combined, the two make a potent force in satiric film making.

Historically, however, it’s a mess. Start with the fire in the theatre, early in the movie. It wasn’t the Globe. That theatre burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII, in 1613, when fireworks hit the thatch and roof beams. The movie has a theatre being burned down by Robert Cecil’s men as they hunt the playwright Ben Jonson, hiding under the stage.

The theatre might be the Rose, but there is no indication from modern excavations that it burned down. It was used by theatre companies until at least 1604, and was apparently pulled down in 1606.

The film then jumps back in time five years to show Elizabeth I’s court… but that would make it 1608 if this was the Globe, five years after she died. But the year we go back to is actually 1598. No London theatres burned down in 1603.

The movie suggests Shakespeare was an illiterate, womanizing, greedy drunkard – he could read, but bizarrely could not write. But that would be very unlikely in the Elizabethan era schools which Shakespeare attended. This characterization is based on imagination, not any historical source. Shakespeare’s signature exists on several documents and many scholars believe the fragments of the play about Thomas Moore contain notes in his hand.

The Earl of Oxford is portrayed as a brilliant writer who has to keep his talent secret – well, it’s an open secret, since just about everybody in the court seems to know about his writing, including the Queen. That he was a writer is true – he was a respected albeit rather ordinary poet and playwright in his day, and a patron of the theatre as well.

There is nothing to indicate any social stigma attached to his or any other noble’s writing. Some of his poems survive today, although none of his plays seem to have. And as for being a well-educated man, his degrees from Oxford and Cambridge were honorary degrees, the sort handed out in great numbers to royal attendants by Elizabeth when she visited those institutions.

Elizabeth herself wrote poetry, as did Sir Edward Dyer, Sir John Harrington, Sir Philip Sidney, and others – including Raleigh, Grenville, Robert Sidney, and Essex. So why being a poet and a playwright in a literary and cultured court that fancied such artistic achievements would be taboo is never explained. Plus, there is not a single word in all the documentation from the era, that connects de Vere with even one of the plays he supposedly wrote. Yet Shakespeare is mentioned in documents in association with his writing years before the movie makes him pretend to be author (as early as 1592).

As a young man in the film, de Vere has an affair with the sexually active and promiscuous Elizabeth and fathers what seems to be one of a litter of bastard children with her. But later in the film, we learn de Vere was actually himself one of Elizabeth’s bastard kids, her eldest. Messy. But of course there is no historical evidence that de Vere nor any other courtier bedded Elizabeth, let alone that she had illegitimate children from the union.

When we learn de Vere allegedly fathered a son on his mother, Elizabeth, this is the movie’s “jump the shark” moment. It’s a groaner for sure, and you wonder if the author needed to go so far to ridicule the de Vere theorists.

Christopher Marlowe is found murdered in an alley in the movie. Oops, that event happened five years earlier, in another location and another wound. From Wikipedia:

The death of Christopher Marlowe plays a small but significant role in the storyline. Marlowe is portrayed alive in 1598, while in fact he died in 1593. The slashing of Marlowe’s throat occurs in Southwark with Shakespeare as his suggested murderer, whereas Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer with a knife stab above the left eye, in Deptford. Marlowe is shown mocking Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday in 1598, although it wasn’t written until the following year. Marlowe dies on the same day Essex departs for Ireland. These events actually happened 6 years apart. Another writer shown to be alive after his death is Thomas Nashe, who appears in a scene set after 1601. He is known to have died by that year, though the exact date is uncertain.

It’s just one of those scenes that underscore the film’s satirical nature. The writer makes so many glaring historical errors merely to mock the Oxfordians who probably can’t see they are being teased.

A high point in the film’s action comes when Essex (apparently another of Elizabeth’s bastards) returns from Ireland to try to save his reputation, then tries to lead an armed rebellion in 1601, with only a handful of men. Anonymous doesn’t bother to tell you Essex was placed under house arrest for a full year after returning from Ireland, and his anger was sparked not by some injustice of Robert Cecil, but by the queen not renewing his licence to collect taxes on sweet wine, which hurt his income. Even then, it took months of brooding for him to spur himself to act.

What the film also doesn’t tell you is that Essex took several members of the Privy Council captive and held them as hostages. He then took 300 armed men into London. The citizens did not rally to support his cause, and there was no army shooting unarmed civilians as shown in the film. When Essex found the gates into the city locked, he fled ignominiously, abandoning his followers, and headed home to burn any incriminating documents. He was captured at his house.

Essex also went to trial – he wasn’t beheaded right away, as the film suggests.

In the film, de Vere saves his bastard son with Elizabeth, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who had been captured among Essex’s men and sentenced to death. Actually it was Robert Cecil who had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He was released three years later, by James I, who restored him to honour and a court position.

In Anonymous, Shakespeare’s stage troop are hired by de Vere’s men to perform the play, Richard III, which is used to stir the audience into mob action in support of Essex (the detested Richard III appears as a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play – without any historical proof – and Robert Cecil was also a hunchback). It was actually Southampton who hired the players at the Globe Theatre to revive Richard II, not Richard III.

Elizabeth’s funeral procession is shown walking along the frozen Thames. Not so: it took place on land because the Thames did not freeze that winter.

Elizabeth, both young and old, and the older de Vere are all powerfully played. The two Cecils, are also well portrayed, although the younger Robert in particular comes across as more Machiavellian than history shows him to be.

Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlowe and the other playwrights are less convincing as artists than as con men. As one might expect, only de Vere gets any recognition for talent; the others are all hacks at best, frauds at worst.

The nobles who are trying to save England from the imposition of a foreign ruler (James VI of Scotland) are all blonde; those looking to put James on the throne (the Cecils) are dark-haired.

de Vere is shown watching a performance of Macbeth on stage – but the play was likely never staged in his lifetime (some scholars argue for a first performance date of 1605).

All in all, Anonymous is a historical and dramatic failure, but it’s a wonderful period-piece farce, flitting somewhere between swashbuckling and slapstick. It’s absurd, wildly fanciful and at times downright silly, but the masterful English cast, the stunningly well-created sets and the action-style pacing keep you glued to the TV. Watch it for the sheer fun of seeing the Oxfordians and their wacky theories lampooned so thoroughly.

Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief

I read a story in Science News today about a study that shows, “analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.”

“Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of why people believe in a God to different degrees,” says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “A combination of complex factors influence matters of personal spirituality, and these new findings suggest that the cognitive system related to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief.”

The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an “intuitive” system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more “analytic” system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.

“Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to ‘intuitive’ thinking,” says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily.”

HouseHmm, I mused to myself. Is the reverse therefore equally true? Does lack of religious belief lead to more analytic thinking?
Perhaps instead of trying to de-program cult victims, we can just get them to do sudoku puzzles. In fact, if I were in charge, I’d start putting sudoku puzzles in hymnals and church programs right away…

Okay, more seriously, what does this mean for psychology and genetics? That people with lower capacity or ability for analytic thinking are more likely to be religious, and will pass that tendency down the generations? Will the same hold true when two analytic thinkers mate? That raises the spectre of the old nature-vs-nurture debate.

I would like to see that experiment done with the fringies – the people who believe in pseudoscience like psychics, ghosts, astrology, crystal healing, magnetic therapy, homeopathy and other claptrap. See if the results still hold true.

How many chess puzzles do you have to solve before you suddenly wake up and realize, “Hey, I don’t actually have an aura! It’s all bunk!” And then start wondering why you’ve been paying that charlatan for years to “read” nothing…

How’s this idea: make anyone who has posted any saccharine, “inspirational”, warm-n-fuzzy quote or image on Facebook have to complete a test on algebra before they are allowed to post anything again. That includes any sayings with images of puppies, kittens, bunnies, centaurs, angels, or Gandalf.

Future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures

The study was done at the University of British Columbia with 650 participants. The original UBC press release is here. I’m going to have to get that issue of Science to read the whole story.

Fifty thousand words…

This morning I crossed the 50,000 word mark in my book on Machiavelli’s The Prince for municipal politicians. It’s longer than I had originally intended, but I think it’s a reasonable length for the content. I’m pleased with the current draft and should have my reading and self-editing done by next Monday. Then it’s on to my next book, about e-government.

I have an overhead of perhaps 2,000 words I could reduce it by through my own editing. Primarily that would involve deleting the addendum with the maxims from his Art of War and from Sun Tzu’s book of the same name, trimming the conclusion a tad, and reducing some of the extraneous references in the bibliography. Other textual edits in the biography and intro material might gain me 200-500 words. I can’t see how it could get any lower.

Problem is, it could get longer. As I continue to read and study, I gain more insight about the work that I want to insert into my own text. Damn, but I find it difficult to write fewer rather than more words when I enjoy the subject so much! I had to trim 3-5,000 words from each of my last two books to make them fit into the publisher’s format.

Along the way, I’ve accumulated a large box of books about and by Machiavelli, including no less than ten translations of The Prince, with at least two more still in the mail. Why so many? because many of the translations are rather dodgy, especially the ones now in the public domain.

I’ve enjoyed working through how each translator tackles Machiavelli’s language, however. It’s given me some insight into how he wrote, as well as into the varieties of understanding each translator has. Just looking at how each one presents a word like fortuna or virtu is enlightening.

I’ve read two biographies of Machiavelli, am part way through a third, and received a fourth by mail this week. There’s a new bio due this fall I’ve already pre-ordered from Amazon.

I wanted to rewrite the selections I’ve taken from the public domain sources, which often sound too archaic and stodgy for modern ears. I’ve used more modern translations as my guide when looking for appropriate wording. That meant I needed to compare several versions of the same paragraph simultaneously. A lot of work and I spread books all over the dining room table as I hunted through the translations.

Sometimes when I have a few minutes, I’ll create a post that shows how all these translators handle one paragraph. It’s interesting to compare them. I did something similar with various translations of Chaucer not long ago. I wish I could read Italian, particularly Renaissance Italian to translate it myself.

I’ve also learned a great deal about how various translators and commentators assess and translate Machiavelli’s writing and how they each conclude meaning from his words.

A lot of the books I’ve bought are analyses of his works, not simply translations of original documents. A few are university-level scholarly works. Some are about Machiavelli and modern politics or management. Not all have proven relevant to my work, but most have something to offer.

I also got an audio course from The Great Courses, called Machiavelli in Context. I’ve been listening to it on my MP3 player when I walk the dog, and in the car. Have heard the first 7 and a bit lectures out of 24, each 30-40 minutes long. I have enjoyed several of their courses in the past, and recommend them to anyone who likes learning.

I think I’ve probably killed a few acres of forest printing earlier drafts, but that will end soon, once I finalize the submittable draft. That’s a few days away, but the end is in sight.

Horwath needs to read her Machiavelli

Andrea HorwathAndrea Horwath needs to do some more reading before she decides to negotiate further with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Specifically, she needs to read more Machiavelli. The Prince, in particular.

This week the Globe & Mail reported that Horwath announced that, “…NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (is) now abandoning another major proposal in return for her party’s support of the governing Liberals’ budget, it will be easier for the two sides to strike a deal.”

Her “proposal” – actually a demand in exchange for the NDP’s support of the Liberal budget – was to remove the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax from home heating bills. Her plan would have given tax relief to millions of Ontario homeowners.

Instead, she chose to drop that demand and decided to push for the government to tax the rich more.

Wrong, wrong, wrong strategy. The rich are few. The people are many. Horwath has not read her Machiavelli otherwise she would have chosen differently. She chose to abandon her strength (the people) while attacking those few (the rich) who are not her supporters anyway. Bad choice. Start the countdown to the NDP leadership review…

In Chapter IX of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote what Horwath should be reading:

“…a prince can never protect himself from a hostile people, because there are too many of them. But he can secure himself from the nobles, as they are few in number.”

McGuinty will balk, because the Liberal party (as well as the Conservative party) get much of their financial support from the upper-middle to upper class. The NDP, however, get their financial backing from unions, and working class families, who are the majority of voters. The working class families will be hurt by the HST on fuel bills, but not helped at all by the tax on the rich.

McGuinty doesn’t want to tax the rich, probably because he HAS read Machiavelli, who wrote:

“The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but from hostile nobles he has not only to fear abandonment, but also that they will rise against him. The nobles have more foresight and cunning. They always act in time to save themselves, and to seek favours from him whom they expect to win.”

Working poorEven if the rich are taxed more, they won’t care because it’s a temporary annoyance. The NDP will never get into power, so the rich will back the party that promises to repeal those extra taxes next election – and odds are McGuinty will promise that next campaign if he is forced to concede that demand to Horwarth to save his rule.

McGuinty surely realizes that the worst he can lose is an election. But if he saves his backers, he will still have a chance to rise again with their funding. Horwath doesn’t get it. Pushing for a new tax bracket for the super rich doesn’t matter to the public except as a token gesture. It doesn’t help the average homeowner, the working stiff, the seniors and those people struggling on a small fixed income.

The NDP had the power to gain a significant concession from the minority Liberals and bend the budget to their alleged goals as the party of the working class. Plus a chance to win huge accolades and public affection. Instead, Horwath dropped the ball and has left the Liberals to continue to pummel working class taxpayers.

Damn. Who will stand up for us now the NDP have betrayed the working class? My recommendation for NDP supporters: deduct the amount of the provincial portion of the HST on your home heating bills from any future donation you make to the party. That will send an unmistakeable message to the NDP’s leaders who chose to pursue this strategy.

Psychiatric help would be better than exorcism

The ExorcistThe headline reads, “Exorcist Expertise Sought After Saskatoon ‘Possession'” At least the editors of the CBC News story had the good sense to put the word possession in quotes to indicate it is alleged, not a fact. As did the Toronto Star.

However, both news agencies took the story seriously enough to write it up. And then it got picked up by the Huffington Post. Must have been a slow news day (surely there was something about the F35 or robocalls to fill the space…)

Like ghosts, spirits, pixies, goblins and other imaginary beings, demons are figments of our own minds. If people believe they are real and controlling their actions, then they need medical and psychiatric help.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia describes exorcism:

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.
…exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions… exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

I find it a bit disingenuous to suggest that everyone else’s exorcism is superstitious bunk, but their is legitimate. Outsiders may not see much difference between them. I see this statement as circular reasoning: “…the conclusion of an argument is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises.”

Sure, an exorcism may have a placebo effect. But like “faith healing” the effect is usually temporary and not a cure. A lot of con artists like this one prey on gullible people by pretending to cure them this way, usually bilking them of considerable cash along the way.

Placebo effects work because people have faith in them, which means that the placebo is as much a part of the problem as the solution. In other words, you can’t get help from an exorcism unless you believe in demons, hell, and all the trappings of the religion in the first place. An atheist cannot be possessed by something he or she does not believe in, any more than a conservative can be possessed by socialism.

The placebo effect itself is problematic. Most studies that have examined it are inconclusive because they begin with the assumption that the placebo itself effected a cure, and other potential causes are ignored. These are “false impressions of placebo effects.” More recent studies have also found “little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.” The effect is, at best, inconclusive.

Things like natural regression of a disease, or the “natural history of a disease (that is, the tendency for people to get better or worse during the course of an illness irrespective of any treatment at all)” are overlooked in many studies.

The preconception of a result plays a big part in both placebo and medicine, which is how “faith healers,” palm readers, homeopathists, psychics, crystal “therapists” and other New Age wingnuts manage to con people.

One study of the effect of Prozac concluded that “…the expectation of improvement, not adjustments in brain chemistry, accounted for 75 percent of the drugs’ effectiveness.”

Thus if someone believes he or she is possessed, then he or she will also believe that an exorcism will be a cure because the two are emotionally and psychologically linked in the user in same casual relationship as a painkiller is with pain.

As noted in the Skeptics’ Dictionary article:

A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment, combined with their suggestibility, may have a significant biochemical effect, however. Sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness. But it does not follow from this fact that if the patient has hope will she recover. Nor does it follow from this fact that if a person is not hopeful she will not recover.

There’s an ethical question here, too. Is it ethical for a doctor to deliberately deceive patients by providing a placebo? If a priest has any doubts about the actuality of demons or possession, is it ethical to perform a medieval ritual as a cure for mental disorders?

I was somewhat mollified to read that the whole thing isn’t just a Hollywood-style exercise in spectacle and ritual, but rather the church has a more cautious approach. Apparently a commission has to first determine “…whether there’s some kind of psychological or psychiatric explanation to a situation.” The commission’ however, remains “open to the possibility of demonic possession.”

Anglican priest Colin Clay told the CBC that “…the topic of exorcism touches on questions that go back centuries. The issues revolve around the nature of evil and how to respond to people who claim they have the devil in them.”

Evil as an external force rather than an internal one is, for me anyway, very problematic. It requires some outside agency to establish what is evil, which therefore implies an outside agency also establishes what is good. And that suggests some absolute good and evil, rather than a situational one: good and evil are not based on our own actions or value judgments, or measured by the circumstances but rather by what an outside force has established a priori to the act.

Let me provide an example. Is is evil to kill a child? Most people would say yes, of course. But is that always true? What if that child is in a hospital full of other children and strapped with enough C4 to kill hundreds of people? Is it evil NOT to kill that child before it pushes the trigger and kills many more people? Are both acts inherently evil? Or is one heroic?

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, you need to learn to be good or bad depending on the necessity of the circumstances. Good and evil are not simply the creation of external agencies, they are choices we make according to the situation. This has been explored in many great works of literature – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (when is it right to kill a tyrant?), Les Miserables (is it right to steal to feed starving children?) come to mind.

No one in the article ever seems to ask what the circumstances are that would cause someone to believe in possession so deeply that he acted it out. Let’s face it: if he had not been inculcated with the belief in demons and possession before hand, he would not need an exorcism. The cure is part of the problem.

Clay said some churches will say, “Well that’s the devil, and the devil is at work in the world and we’ve got to deal with it,” while others would say “there’s certainly evil in the world, whether there’s an actual Satan or devil, there’s certainly evil in the world, and it has a terrible effect on people’s lives,’ and so we’ve got to respond to it.”

Yes, by all means respond, if that response is part of a larger program that includes psychiatric and medical help, counselling and observation. If the placebo effect will help the patient, then use it, but not by itself. No “faith healer” has ever cured a broken bone or cancer – it still needs medical treatment and monitoring. By itself, I see exorcism as unethical and deceptive.

Could ‘Advanced’ Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?

RepublicansThat’s the question asked today in an article posted on Science Daily.

To which I might add: Why not? Dinosaurs didn’t die out: they have ruled parts of this planet in the guise of fundamentalist theocracies for decades. They thunder and roar in Iran like rutting Stegosaurs. The Taliban raptor rampaged through Afghanistan until they had to slink back to their caves while NATO knocked them about.

But it’s not just theocracies. Brontosaurs stomp about in Republican and Conservative parties in so-called “advanced” nations. Ceratopsians rule North Korea and Myanmar. Living fossils in China still brutalize the Tibetan mammals.

If a political dinosaur like Rick Santorum can snort and thunder here, why can’t there be planets with a democratic, liberal dinosaurs?

Okay, the article does ponder the possible existence of “monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans” which is not exactly what we have here on Earth: monstrous humans with the intelligence of dinosaurs. Maybe advanced dinosaurs only live on advanced planets.

This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. XVWhilst perusing the Net for some material for my book on Machiavelli, I came across this maxim: “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”

It’s attributed on many, many sites to Machiavelli in his most famous work, The Prince.

Sounds pretty Machiavellian, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t.

Machiavelli never wrote those words.

Sun Tzu wrote that, “All warfare is based on deception.” (Book 1, 18), which is close. Sun Tzu went on to add in the next two lines (19 and 20),

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

In The Art of War, Book 4, Machiavelli wrote, “It may also be well to do with cunning that which happened to Fabius Maximus at home,” which follows with the example of Fabius’ cunning use of cavalry to beguile an enemy encampment.

And in Book 7, he wrote, “Those who are besieged must also guard themselves from the deceit and cunning of the enemy, and, therefore, the besieged should not trust anything which they see the enemy doing continuously, but always believe they are being done by deceit, and can change to injure them.”

Neither quote is close to the one at the top.

Continue reading “This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.”

Machiavelli in popular art: Don MacDonald’s graphic novel

Don MacDonaldA graphic novel about Niccolo Machiavelli… who woulda thought? It’s not like the Florentine was exactly the X Men or Mr. Natural as a comic book hero.

Artist Don MacDonald has put together a graphic biography of Machiavelli on his blog, stretching more than 150 pages (so far) ranging through the entire span of Niccolo’s life.

He even includes footnotes for some of the historical material he has drawn on, with sources listed. It does help to read his notes, and even more to have some familiarity of Machiavelli’s life. But even without it, it’s captivating.

Well, of course I find Machiavelli fascinating because I’m a politician and a student of political theory. besides, I’m almost 40,000 words into my book on Machiavelli for municipal politicians. But even without that interest, the period also intrigues me – it’s the time of Henry VIII and one of the most fascinating periods of English history. I’ve always been fascinated by the Tudors.

You really need to start reading Don’s tale from the beginning to appreciate the depths of his work.

I have only one complaint: it’s difficult to go to a specific page to pick up where you left off. So bookmark your last page, then start again from there. I’m looking forward to getting a printed or PDF copy of his complete work so I can read it offline at my leisure.

PS. There are also some posters of Machiavelli’s quotes on the site. I have a couple of Machiavelli’s quotes I might suggest to him as well…

It’s not an Apache blessing, it’s just a Hollywood script

Not from an Apaches!“May the sun bring you new energy by day,” begins this saccharine saying that has enjoyed a continued life outside Facebook through the fridge magnet and huggable-puppies-and-kittens-on-posters and wedding planner industries.

It gets passed off as an “Apache blessing” or “Apache wedding blessing” on Facebook, usually with some hunk-ish Indian brave pictures beside the words or some faux-Indian animal fetish images.

The rest of the alleged “blessing” reads:

…May the moon softy restore you by night;
May the rain wash away your worries;
May the breeze blow new strength into your being;
May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life.

I get all glassy-eyed-nauseous with such gooey sentiments, and feel like I should throw myself onto some aromatherapy, or reiki healing, or some other New Age folderol. Were Amerindians really that sappy?

The quote is, however, pure Hollywood. According to a column in the New Yorker, May, 2007, it’s lifted straight from a 1950 film, Broken Arrow:

…what I was able to find was that the blessing seems to have entered the popular consciousness through “Broken Arrow,” which was—except for the wedding scene, the critics say—a very accurate depiction of the Apache people. A version of the blessing was also in the book that the movie was based on. The book was historical fiction, but the prayer was an invented part of the fiction.

It’s revealed in an interview with Rebecca Mead, who coined the term “traditionalesque” to refer to those instant “traditions” made from modern ideas and quotes, that are like Internet memes in that they spread rapidly through the culture, mostly through commercial efforts. As she notes, this faux “blessing” is in the book of almost every modern wedding planner, so it gets passed around over and over and over.

These fake quotes seem like something that should have been said by someone wiser, someone of another generation, even another culture, so we just assume they were, and repeat them without ever once stopping to verify the source. Or question our own wisdom. After all, if we like them, if they inspire us, and they turn out to be hoaxes (like so many are!), then it reflects on our own gullibility.

…there are a number of reasons that people might buy into invented traditions…”

It’s not that people are stupid or lazy – sure, some are, but by and large not most people. We are a society accustomed to instant gratification and looking up a source takes work – critical thinking, reasoning, research and investigation – we find that effort odious and onerous. We want immediate answers, immediate solutions, immediate wisdom. Looking something up interrupts that. We like the convenience of getting told thinsg without the inconvenience of having to actually verify them.

We’re also not comfortable confronting others who believe in the reliability of these sayings, so we don’t want to prove them wrong. Easier to agree that the saying is hugely inspirational and brightened our day, rather than tell a friend his or her favourite quote comes from a greeting card, not Gandhi, or Buddha, or an Apache warrior.

The Wikipedia entry for this “blessing” notes that,

It is not associated with any particular religion and indeed does not mention a deity or include a petition, only a wish. It has no known connection to the traditions of the Apache or any other Native American group.
It was written for the 1947 Western novel Blood Brother (novel) by Elliott Arnold. The blessing entered popular consciousness when it made its way into the film adaptation of the novel Broken Arrow, scripted by Albert Maltz. The Economist, citing Rebecca Mead’s book on American weddings, characterized it as “‘traditionalesque’, commerce disguised as tradition”.
The first line of the original poem was “Now for you there is no rain” and the last “Now, forever, forever, there is no loneliness”. Since 1950, there have since been several different versions of the poem. The film text begins “‘Now you will feel no rain” and ends “And may your days be good and long upon the earth.”

So the “Apache wedding blessing” under its many names and guises goes into the same trash heap as the many other Internet memes – bad or mis-attributed quotes – I’ve been debunking these past few years. And good riddance, too!

Do yourselves a favour, gentle readers: verify the source before you share on of these alleged quotes. And not on some unverified, tacky website like Brainy Quotes. Do your research, check Wikiquote and reliable sources first. That way you won’t look like one of the sheep who share.

Lights out for Earth Hour, Saturday

Earth HourEarth Hour returns tonight, Saturday March 31. Collingwood has been a proud supporter of Earth Hour ever since it went worldwide.

If you care about climate change, or care about the environment, turn your lights out for 60 minutes from 8:30-9:30 p.m. local time. Come on, show you care! Turn those lights out. It’s only for 60 minutes.

Remember to unplug TVs, stereos, etc to stop ‘phantom’ power, too! Let’s see if we can set a record for low power use for Earth Hour 2012.

To learn more about Earth Hour, visit: www.earthhour.org/

Why does Canada need an “Office of Religious Freedom”?

Religious Freedom?Why did the Harper Conservatives establish an “Office of Religious Freedom” within the Department of Foreign Affairs? I don’t get it. Was there some pressing issue in Canada where religious rights were repressed, so it needed a multi-million-dollar government agency to oversee compliance with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

That charter clear states, in section two, that all Canadians have four “fundamental freedoms:”

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

Well, since the ORF is within the DFA (excuse my initialisms), it must mean Canadians are going to enforce religious freedoms outside our own borders, right? So we’re going to become the faith police for the world? Do we send in the army when someone’s faith is being oppressed? Or just mail hurt and sad diplomatic notes? Perhaps something like this one will appear in a Taliban mail box soon:

“Dear Mr. Taliban:
We are truly distressed and hurt that you want to enslave women and turn children into suicide bombers in the name of your religion. We also feel we must protest against the destruction of those irreplaceable, millennia-old Buddhist statues you had dynamited and shelled in the name of your religion. And we are really, really upset that one of your followers threw acid into the faces of young school girls because he was angry that women were being educated. Finally, it was very naughty of you to execute those women for shaming their families by being raped. Stoning goes against our Canadian values.

We sincerely hope you won’t do any of this again.

In the name of love and peace,
Canada.”

Yeah, that’ll change them. One look at a warning letter from Canada and these frothing mad religious zealots will just crawl back into the Dark Ages whence they came. Right.

Given the fundamentalist-right leanings of some of the Conservatives, I am leery of this government – any government, in fact – overseeing rights and freedoms of any sort. But having them oversee religious freedoms is to me like letting the fox guard the hen house. I can’t quite believe a Christian evangelist is going to be fighting for the rights of persecuted Muslims or Buddhists in some developing nation. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect they’re more likely to try to convert them…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an advocate for religious freedom. As a non-believer, I still support the right of anyone to believe anything they want, no matter how silly, stupid or humorous – right up until the moment it interferes with another human being’s life or rights. Sure, you want to believe the world is going to end and you’ll get carried away safely in a spaceship, go ahead. That’s your right. But you don’t have any right to demand anyone else drink the Kool-Aid with you.

Your religious freedom extends as far as your own skin, and not a millimeter further. It doesn’t allow you to tell anyone else what to believe, what to read, what to think.

protesting TibetansBut why, I ask again, does the government need an office to enforce religious freedom? Will it have its own police force? Will it, for example, send diplomats to Tibet to protest the ongoing, brutal Chinese oppression of Tibetan religious freedom – or just send the PM to Beijing for some chop suey and photo ops while inking some more trade deals and to hell with the Tibetans?

In mid-March, Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the government how this office was formed, who wanted it, what its mandate was, and what it could cost Canadians (full text of her question and the response is here).

The government’s nebulous response was, basically bafflegab, but it did state the office (or rather, as the reply noted, the Office of Religious Freedom Office) would get $5 million a year for a staff of five, for at least the next four years. One million dollars per person per year. Wish I could tap into that salary… This new expenditure comes at a time the government has announced budget cuts in health, food, safety, heritage and the CBC, among others.

Is this all government balderdash, as several bloggers (like this one) think? Just pandering to the Conservatives’ Christian roots, while scoring extra points in the multicultural communities for looking pro-active (of the six-member panel created to consult with religious groups in closed-door sessions, four were Christian. None were Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist).

Should our government even inject “religion into a secular foreign policy” as the Toronto Star asked. I just can’t help but feel – given the government’s history and makeup – that this is just being used to further another agenda.

Please preserve the CBC: no more cuts!

Huffington PostCanadians who care about media content, journalistic integrity and fair reporting are anxiously watching for tomorrow’s federal budget announcements. Big cuts to the CBC are expected, according to this Huffington Post story:

Cuts to CBC funding expected in the upcoming federal budget could have dramatic implications, touching everything from popular television programming to foreign news bureaus and eliminating hundreds of jobs, observers predict.

The CBC’s own story about the predicted cuts doesn’t mention the CBC, but it does say, “…many public servants in Ottawa are bracing for staffing cuts, which may not arrive through relatively painless attrition or early retirement packages”

The CBC has been the target of numerous Conservative governments since Brian Mulroney, and suffered successive budget cuts under the Conservatives ever since. The once-vaunted Radio Canada International was reduced from an internationally acclaimed, award-winning short-wave service that was the voice of Canada for millions of listeners worldwide, to little more than a repeater service for the CBC, thanks to budget cuts.

Cuts have crippled the CBC for almost three decades, ever since Mulroney (a humourless, mean-spirited prime minister if ever there was one; he rapidly sank to being one of the most unpopular politicians in Canadian history, in part because of his attack on the CBC).

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a media watchdog organization, took up the fight to save the CBC last year. A Globe and Mail story from last fall begins,

The CBC is stuck in a “stranglehold” as Conservative MPs attack the broadcaster and threaten to end or decrease its funding, a broadcast watchdog says.

On the Friends website, the latest story says, “New opinion research shows that 6 in 10 Canadians want the Harper Conservatives to keep their election promise to increase or maintain funding to the CBC.”

Majority opinions have never caused Harper to change his mind or his direction. He’s from the west where the CBC has been demonized as the “Communist Broadcasting Corporation” by the uber-right. One can hardly expect him to have any more sympathy for non-sycophant journalists than Rick Santorum showed for the New York Times recently.

For the right, especially for the American right, media is a tool of the party, not for journalistic truth or objectivity. Worse is that the CBC in the guise of comedic shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Rick Mercer Report have actually dared to tease and make fun of Steven Harper. Well, they have a long history of poking fun at all parties and all politicians, but some – like Harper – seem to take it very personally.

Instead of growing a thicker skin, he cuts their budget. Harper and Mulroney share some unfortunate personality traits in that.

As the Friends website notes, Harper’s cuts are not just cost savings, but rather a strategy to cause the public support for the CBC to dissipate because it won’t be able to provide what Canadians expect from a national broadcaster:

Further cuts would be to the bone and make it impossible for the CBC to effectively fulfill its mandate, leaving our national broadcaster open to increased criticism that it’s wasting taxpayer money, unfairly competing with private broadcasters for advertising dollars and calls for dismantling. There is no more room for efficiency; every dollar has to come out of programming – off the air, off the screen.

Budget cuts have been stripping Canadian content from the CBC for the last 30 years. It’s become more and more American in almost everything it does, while Canadian content and culture suffers from a shrinking venue for exposure of our own material. Harper and his allies seem to prefer American programming – the slavishly sycophant Fox and its ilk – to Canadian programming, but then they also seem to prefer American-style attack politics, so that’s no surprise. No wonder Sun media has a place in their hearts.

CBC is ESSENTIAL to continue to connect Canadians from coast to coast. We need to continue to support and increase funding for the CBC to create more Canadian content.

The HuffPost noted,

In addition to prime-time programming, sources familiar with the file told HuffPost the upcoming cuts may lead to the closing of some foreign bureaus and will necessitate employee layoffs.
Barry Kiefl, head of the independent Ottawa-based firm Canadian Media Research Inc. (CMRI), cautions against “taking it for granted that there’s going to be a 10 per cent cut,” before details of the budget are revealed on Thursday. But he maintains a trim of that magnitude could result in the elimination of 1,000 jobs.

Jobs will not only be lost in the BCB itself, but in Canada’s cultural industry: independent filmmakers, producers, directors, script writers and others will have no place in Canada to work:

In addition to stoking concern among CBC employees, (Mary) Darling says the possibility of significant belt-tightening is contributing to widespread uncertainty among the legions of independent producers, such as herself, who create the network’s English language dramatic programming.
“People are beyond tense. This is our livelihood. This is how we make our living and send our kids to school,” said Darling, who alongside husband Clark Donnelly runs Toronto-based Westwind Pictures, the company behind Little Mosque.
Currently in its final season, the sitcom won’t be affected by looming cuts. But if the rumours are true, Donnelly predicts the network won’t pick up similar programs in the future, putting several programs Westwind is currently developing in peril.
(Mary Darling is executive producer of the network’s hit TV show, Little Mosque of the Prairie.)

The CBC provides us with a stronger national identity. Without it, we would be little more than the 51st state of the USA. Without it, we would have no bulwark against American culture.

It will be a tragic day for Canadian journalism, Canadian culture, Canadian media, Canadian unity and Canadian values if the Harper Conservatives do any more economic damage to the CBC than they have already done over the past three decades. But I suspect they won’t rest until the CBC is gutted and dead.

Scribble, scribble, eh what?

Typing cartoonJust passed the 13,000 word mark on my current book about Machiavelli and municipal politics, this weekend. So far, I have gone through explanations of Chapters 1-10 of The Prince. The Prince has 26 chapters, so I’m about 40% of the way through my analysis, more or less on track for a 35,000-40,000 word book.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes, but so far I think I’ve done a fair job of finding relevant metaphors, issues and events. The next chapter, on ecclesiastical states, might be a bit of a stretch, since their relevance today is minimal, so I suspect I’ll need to conflate a couple of chapters here.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes.

I hope to have the core material written over the next two weeks.I’m working with several translations of The Prince, but the core material I’m quoting comes from the public domain Marriott translation. It’s a bit of a stodgy version and isn’t broken into paragraphs for easy reading. Fortunately for me, I have a print version that is, so it’s a bit easier to find material and to read.

Once the basic overview of The Prince is complete, I’ll bring in selections from The Discourses to bolster my arguments, as well as throwing in some quotes from Sun Tzu, Han Fei Tzu and one of my favourite books on leadership – Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power. Then I’ll try to add a few examples from Canadian municipal politics to it. Toronto these days seems to have a wealth of stories.

I want this to be about the same size as my last two books, so I have to try to focus and not be too long-winded.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently while doing this is Maurizio Viroli’s Niccolo’s Smile, an excellent and highly entertaining biography of Machiavelli. Understanding the events that shaped his life makes it easier to understand Machiavelli’s political theories.

I’ve also been reading books and online essays/articles about Machiavelli’s political theories, ethics, and morals. Some have been a bit densely pedantic (is that an oxymoron?), but others have given me some material to consider.

Well, back to work… 1,000 words a day is my minimum target and the day’s not getting longer.

This is about keeping schools secular, not about atheism.

Diversity?I stumbled across a story this week about a school district in Ontario that had decided to disallow free distribution of the Bible by the Gideons in its schools. My first thought was, “Wow. I didn’t even know the Gideons were still in business.”

Then I wondered why anyone was distributing bibles at a secular school in the first place.

The story actually originated in the Toronto Star. The Gideons have been distributing bibles since 1908, and in Canada since 1911. I’ve only seen the New Testament in any hotel where I’ve stayed, but their website says they distribute both “complete” and New Testament-only bibles. By “complete” I assume that the apocrypha is not included, just the Old and New Testaments.

The decision not to allow bibles to be handed out was made by the Bluewater School Board’s policy committee this week. The committee debated the issue for months (which strikes me as very indecisive) but eventually voted to ban distribution of all religious materials at its 53 schools. The other suggestion was to allow any religious organization to hand out literature. That could open the door to all sorts of fringe religious groups, from creationists to Scientologists. None was the better choice.

Well, not for Kevin Larson, chairman of the board’s policy committee. He said he was disappointed by the decision. “I believe open to all is the way we should be going with the increasing diversity in the world.” Duh. I wonder how he would feel if someone was handing out Korans? The Book of Mormon? Dianetics? The Dhammapada? Bhagavad Gita? What about some Wiccan text? Or something by Anton Lavey?

How would he answer all those complaints from parents whose kid brought home a screed from the Satanic Church? Would he tell them they should relax and enjoy the “diversity”?

An opponent of the decision, Dorothy Adams, commented: “It is an atheist thing and they’re doing harm to the children. What are we trying to do? Destroy our children?”

No, just keeping the separation of church and state. You don’t have to be an atheist to believe that religion does not belong in a secular school.

According to the Gideons’ website, “In 1946, Canadian Gideons began the program of presenting New Testaments to all grade 5 students in Canada whose parents consented. These have become commonly known as the “Little Red Bible” by the thousands of people who received them.” If it’s just the New testament, it’s specifically a Christian text.

The Gideons aren’t apologetic, either. They state clearly they are proselytizing for Christianity:

The main reason for this is because our primary goal is to introduce people to Jesus Christ. If we can ask people to read one thing in the entire Bible, it’s the stories that revolve around the character of Jesus and who He is. We want them to start there and then explore the whole story, including the Old Testament, as they dig deeper into the Bible.

Bluewater’s decision is hardly the first: many other school boards have disallowed distribution of the bibles, as well as all other religious material, in public schools. And so they all should.

Obviously this decision didn’t sit well with the religious right, who packed the committee meetings, waving their Gideon Bibles, and when they went home spent time flooding trustee inboxes with with emails, making phone calls and writing letters.

Adams said Gideon supporters would continue to lobby trustees to avoid the decision being ratified by the full board, in April. She told the paper:

“We believe in the children and bringing up children to have a happy life. If they had the Lord in their life, they wouldn’t be tempted by a lot of the things that are out there.”

So if they had Krishna in their life, children won’t be tempted? Or Mani? Ganesh? Avalokiteshvara? Buddha? Mithra? Prince Xenu? Allah? Or just one of the three Christian gods? Didn’t seem to keep a lot of priests from temptation with altar boys.

I somehow doubt Ms. Adams or any of the opponents give a damn about “diversity” – just about teaching children their own faith. And that’s a good enough reason to stop the group handing out bibles to kids in publicly funded schools.

Is Machiavelli relevant to today’s municipal politicians?

Niccolo MachiavelliAre the political theories of a 16th-century Italian diplomat relevant to today’s municipal politics? Yes, assuming you know and have read his works, not just the bumper-sticker over-simplification that says, “The end justifies the means.”

Actually, Machiavelli never wrote those words. That’s a modern condensation. It’s also an erroneous paraphrase of what he wrote in The Prince, because it overlooks a lot of his comments on the effect of some types of behaviour on the honour and reputation of the ruler. Machiavelli stressed the cause and effect of a ruler’s actions on his power, his honour and his reputation. He had little interest in rulers who abused their power.

Machiavelli did not advocate cruelty or violence towards subjects, and was highly critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience. But, he said, expedient methods could be justifiable if there are clear and measurable benefits from those acts.

Machiavelli today is also known from the adjective “Machiavellian,” which suggests something evil, underhanded, and sneaky in politics. But that, too is a false impression.

Shortly after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England and the Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. The churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption because presented politics outside the church’s control and influence. Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power, and this challenged the churches’ authority. Hence the demonization, and the attribution of duplicity to the term “Machiavellian.”

Many people recognize that he wrote Il Principe, (in English: “The Prince,”) but few municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it. More’s the pity because it has a lot of lessons for today’s politicians.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility, with the mayor at the top and the nobility squabbling of their portion of the power below. The mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s ruler of Florence: a strong state trying to control the client states, some of whom are allies, others are resentful and want their independence. Uppity or subservient… doesn’t that sound like many on today’s municipal councils?

Machiavelli wrote, “…the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another.”

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected. Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office from inertia, rather than by great acts or by taking brave and principled stands. But Machiavelli warned against complacency and stresses the need to win the public’s love and gratitude. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext message in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe – were in constant conflict, often open warfare with one another. Aren’t today’s municipalities also in conflict with one another? Not through armies and war, of course. We’re more subtle than that.

Sure municipalities have regional agreements, share some resources, and cooperate where it is expedient to do so. But every municipality is competing for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, for new industries and businesses, and for reputation. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant the municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

Yes, I think Machiavelli has a lot of relevance for today’s municipal politicians. I have a new book in the making about this, so stay tuned.