Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons portrayed Thomas More as a liberal dissenter from state ideology, a man committed to individual conscience and the rule of law. (In the 1960s, liberals identified with such people.) Glenda Jackson’s 1971 portrayal made Elizabeth an icon for the rising feminist movement.
I was able to catch an episode of Wolf Hall on Sunday, and it seems to me the new series likewise reflects our current cultural moment. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about these things, but to me it is impossible to miss the allusions to current debates about rational government and religious belief. The message, for religious liberty, is not a congenial one.
Wolf Hall—which, incidentally, has great production values and wonderful performances, especially by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII—inverts the conventional portrayal of the Henrician Reformation. Most past film and television versions, even those sympathetic to Henry, show More as a kind of hero, a noble, if misguided, martyr for freedom of conscience. In Mantel’s version, by contrast, it’s Cromwell, the supporter of state orthodoxy and More’s tormentor, who is the hero. And More, the man who resisted the state from religious conviction, is the unalloyed villain.
George Weigel substantially agrees in Wolf Hall and Upmarket Anticatholicism:
Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s novel about early Tudor England, began airing on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” Easter Sunday night. It’s brilliant television. It’s also a serious distortion of history. And it proves, yet again, that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in elite circles in the Anglosphere.
The distortions and bias are not surprising, considering the source. Hillary Mantel is a very talented, very bitter ex-Catholic who’s said that the Church today is “not an institution for respectable people” ….
So why did Hillary Mantel win Britain’s most prestigious award for fiction, the Man Booker Prize, not once, but twice, for Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies? Because the books are terrific novels. Because well-crafted novels that make a hash of history for the sake of defaming the Catholic Church and one of its English icons are, in today’s literary culture, quite all right, thank you very much.
And because Britain’s literary high culture is still in thrall to the Whig view of British history, and seems oblivious to the deep transformation that’s taken place in English Reformation studies since Eamon Duffy’s extraordinary book, The Stripping of the Altars, was first published in 1992.
It’s quite an accomplishment to make compelling literature out of a serious distortion of history or of human nature. Dan Brown has merely produced potboilers. The Handmaiden’s Tale and the Cider House Rules were received warmly, I suspect, less for their literary virtues than for their very existence as counterpoints, however token, to the observation that literature consistently and tellingly treated abortion as a horror.
Yes, I have a confirmation bias for contrarian readings of history, but I’m thinking more along the lines of Eamon Duffy than of Hillary Mantel.
One reason why is that many millions of people still hold contrary views. Another is that their arguments are not frivolous — and certainly not as frivolous as rationales that were once used to justify racial inequality. Arguments in favor of traditional marriage — rooted in claims about the natural sexual complementarity of men and women — are also far more deeply rooted in human civilization the world over, and Western civilization specifically, than arguments against miscegenation.
Every great thinker who has ever written about marriage, you never see a discussion of race… Whether it’s Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero, whether it’s the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, whether it’s Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Muhammad, Gandhi — none of them talk about skin color; each and every one of them talk about sexual complementarity. [The Washington Post]
Versions of these traditionalist arguments were accepted by nearly every human being who’s ever lived until a couple of decades ago — and (supposedly) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton until just a few years ago. Like them, I’ve come to reject those arguments. But saying they now seem wrong is one thing. Relegating them to the category of the foulest prejudice is something else entirely. It’s reckless to break so quickly with the past and jump so easily to moral condemnation.
A friend on Facebook asked about this Linker piece:
“Do those who favor gay marriage really want to win by stamping out dissent and driving into the wilderness every person who holds a contrary position?”
A lot of my experiences tell me that for many people, the answer is yes. And that’s sad. (Before you start throwing tomatoes, at least read enough of this to find out that its author supports gay marriage.)
Her first response, from a lesbian friend of hers (who I don’t know):
I am so tired of hearing conservatives claim that the only possible reason liberals could take such a hard line on an “issue” (though I don’t like to think of my existence as an issue) is because they are intolerant tantrum-throwers … Putting myself in the shoes of an alumni who read this [flattering profile of Ryan Anderson, not the Linker piece], I would have felt my marriage was demeaned … I would have felt wounded if I were a reader and I personally would not care in the slightest how nice or reasonable this opponent of marriage equality is. Dress it up in nice language all you want, it still feels like an attack on my life. Is the author of this piece gay? I don’t think he is, but I don’t know for sure. If not, maybe he should try asking some LGBT people what they thought? I mean, obviously they were not happy, but does he care about why? Or does he just want to default to the same old “uptight liberals causing a stink about everything” rhetoric that serves no one.
(Emphasis added. Most of the elisions are defenses of the decision to take down from the Baltimore Friends School website a link to the profile of Ryan Anderson, an alum of the school.)
Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like an intolerant tantrum-thrower? I don’t mean to demean the experiences that may have made her so, but she seems to illustrate, rather than to refute, Linker’s point.
Mediocre lawyers can create a fiction called gay marriage, but their idealism can’t compel gay lovers to find it useful. But talented lawyers will be very efficient at challenging the complicated, incoherent, culturally relative survival from our most primitive social organization we call kinship. The whole set of fundamental, irrational assumptions that make marriage such a burden and such a civilizing force can easily be undone.
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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)