December 2, 2009

The white cross and the minarets

Voters in Switzerland passed on Sunday with 57.5% of the vote a referendum banning the construction of minarets on mosques. Of course the referendum could have repercussions throughout the continent. In Italy, for instance, the anti-immigrant Northern League celebrated the surprising result with glee. “The forest of minarets, a dangerous symbol more of the threat of Islamic terrorism than a place of prayer, won’t change the countryside of the ancient fatherland of federalism and of freedom,” exulted Mario Borghezio, an exuberant Northern League member of the European Parliament. “Switzerland forever white and Christian,” he added.

As such extemporaneous comments show, along with some of the posters that were used to promote the ban (see here to get an idea), although the vote no doubt reflects fears of extremism, it also seems to be intended to be a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture. But the issue is more complex and involves a lot more than what all the European Borghezios could ever imagine.

That’s why, soon after reading a superb piece by Vittorio Messori—the first journalist in history to publish a book-length interview with a Pope, the best-selling Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), and the author of Jesus Hypothesis (1976)—in last Monday’s Corriere della Sera, I thought it was better to call upon him to speak here, too. So, once again I emailed Mirino and asked him whether he was willing to undertake the task to translate the article from Italian into English. His answer was “Yes” (thank you so much, my friend!), and below is the result.

[By Vittorio Messori, Corriere della Sera, November 30, 2009]

The white cross against the red background of the flag (square, like that of the Vatican, not rectangular) is seen everywhere in Switzerland. It’s an omnipresent landmark, an unrenounceable sign of identity of the 26 states, subdivided in 23 cantons, where there are four official languages, where the Catholics cohabit with the Protestants of many churches and confessions, and where being non-conform with the majority is traditional.

The cohabitation has not been always idyllic, and even during the “papist” mid XIX century, Calvinists, Zwinglians and Lutherans were up in arms against each other. Serious affairs, even between Christians who pray to the same God and read from the same Bible. Priests against Pastors: a war, but within the family. Thus, the cross of the flag has been able to continue to represent the whole of that which—to integrate the diversity of language- on postage stamps and currency—defines itself in Latin as “Confederatio Helvetica.” And the bell towers of the Catholic churches as those of the Protestants, have always marked the urban scenes as romantic, mountain landscapes.

Also because of this the outcome of the referendum—called not so much against the Islamic places of cult as against the manarah, the “beacon” in Arabian, the minaret that signals the places of Muslim prayer—is a meaningful statement. Borrowed from the Christians, replacing the belfry-stage with the little balcony for the muezzin who five times a day psalms the Koran inviting Muslims to prayer, the minaret is an essential part of the mosque. It’s the sign of the Islamization: when the Turks captured the desired prey, the venerated Saint Sofia of Constantinople, making the revered place immediately “theirs” leaving the interiors almost intact, only removing the abhorred human images from the walls and the domes, but surrounding it with four, very high “beacons.”

It was really against this significance that the Helvetic Confederation seems to have voted, to the disappointment of Christian hierarchies. This sort of compendium, the synthesis of history and European culture, planted in the heart of the Continent, where the two great roots cohabit, Latin and Germanic, said No. No to the explicit cohabitation, already perceptible at a glance, of the cross with the crescent moon, of the bell tower with the minaret. The white mountains, the green valleys, the blue lakes have nothing to do with the deserts and the steppes where, held back at the sound of the sword, the Mohammedists broke through so many times. (And the Helvetic armies played their part). Now they move silently but implacably to gain new conquests, crossing frontiers often illicitly.

Switzerland only confirms the “the siege complex” which is spreading itself increasingly across Europe. Something like the alarm signaling the approach of the Barbarians that marked the last centuries of the Roman Empire. Perhaps there must be something positive in this, despite the disapproval of the bishops: above all, in the rediscovery of our civilization and culture, the refusal of that “inexplicable self-hatred that has characterized the West for so long,” to use the words of Joseph Ratzinger when he was still a Cardinal and reminded the Europeans that in their history, light, in spite of everything, prevails over shadow. But in this alarm there is also something unreasonable: it’s not realistic, in fact, to think that, diluted between us, Islam remains itself. We tirelessly repeat that the observance of the Koran is already corroded, and it will become increasingly so from our vices and our virtues, our venom and our grandeur. A new Lepanto won’t be necessary: our everyday life will be enough, for better or worse, in order to remove the strength from an archaic, legalist faith, incapable of facing the challenges not only of hedonism and of rationalism but also, it goes without saying, of the twenty centuries of Christianity that have permeated Europe.

Climategate - 5 (updated)

I - Derek Lowe offers a working scientist’s view (Via Glenn Reynolds):

I've been on long-running projects, especially some years ago, where people start to lose track of which numbers came from where (and when), where the underlying raw data are stored, and the history of various assumptions and corrections that were made along the way. That much is normal human behavior. But this goes beyond that.
Those of us who work in the drug industry know that we have to keep track of such things, because we're making decisions that could eventually run into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of our own money. And eventually we're going to be reviewed by regulatory agencies that are not staffed with our friends, and who are perfectly capable of telling us that they don't like our numbers and want us to go spend another couple of years (and another fifty or hundred million dollars) generating better ones for them. The regulatory-level lab and manufacturing protocols (GLP and GMP) generate a blizzard of paperwork for just these reasons.
But the stakes for climate research are even higher. The economic decisions involved make drug research programs look like roundoff errors. The data involved have to be very damned good and convincing, given the potential impact on the world economy, through both the possible effects of global warming itself and the effects of trying to ameliorate it. Looking inside the CRU does not make me confident that their data come anywhere close to that standard:
No matter what you think about climate change, if you respect the scientific endeavor, this is very bad news. Respect has to be earned. And it can be lost.

II - New York Times columnist Paul Krugman found “not a single smoking gun” in those e-mail messages. He also said that “there is tremendously more money in being a skeptic than there is in being a supporter.” Well, he must have missed this article in the Telegraph (titled “Al Gore could become world’s first carbon billionaire”):

Last year Mr Gore’s venture capital firm loaned a small California firm $75m to develop energy-saving technology.
The company, Silver Spring Networks, produces hardware and software to make the electricity grid more efficient.
The deal appeared to pay off in a big way last week, when the Energy Department announced $3.4 billion in smart grid grants, the New York Times reports. Of the total, more than $560 million went to utilities with which Silver Spring has contracts.
The move means that venture capital company Kleiner Perkins and its partners, including Mr Gore, could recoup their investment many times over in coming years.

And here are some more counter arguments.


UPDATE: Dec. 2, 2009, 4:45 pm

Yet another interesting piece, from the series “You don’t have to agree with the skeptics to be appalled…” (via Enzo Reale and The Boston Globe).

Eduardo Zorita:

By writing these lines I will just probably achieve that a few of my future studies will, again, not see the light of publication. […] The scientific debate has been in many instances hijacked to advance other agendas. These words do not mean that I think anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. On the contrary, it is a question which we have to be very well aware of. But I am also aware that in this thick atmosphere—and I am not speaking of greenhouse gases now—editors, reviewers and authors of alternative studies, analysis, interpretations, even based on the same data we have at our disposal, have been bullied and subtly blackmailed.” [Italics mine]

How to pronounce Italian wine

This is a recent discovery of mine—via my new Twitter friend Pina (@Vino_Italiano)—and very welcome because I am a lover of wine, especially the best red Italian ones (of course I also love their famous French competitors, I’m not a chauvinist after all, even though it seems that, for instance, more wine is currently exported to the U.S. from Italy than from any other country..), wines to be savored in a calm, reflective manner, and, which is very important, in a moderate way, at least if you are not a billionaire yet, given the current prices!

How to Pronounce Italian Wine identifies key wine types, from Barbera, Nebbiolo, Grignolino, and the champagne-like sparkling Prosecco (the Brunello and Barolo pages are still under construction), and provides extensive reference materials on Italy’s 300 growing zones, and 361 authorized grape varieties.

I recommend it to all those looking for a comprehensive and authoritative guide to the wines of Italy and willing to be initiated into the millenary culture of wine. Very well done, Pina!