Christopher Smith wonders whether the man on the telly would really rather be an Inca
These dark days of the new year are a bit much, aren’t they? There’s not a lot I wouldn’t trade to remake my November pilgrimage to Southern Spain. And to cap it all, I’ve got some kind of bug and have been slumped on the sofa all evening.
And being slumped on the sofa feeling ill can only lead to one thing: the telly. Given that I don’t watch soap operas and I don’t like shows about buying a house or selling its contents, there is not a lot for me outside the cricket season apart from documentaries.
Even so, they never quite do for the modern viewer what Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski or David Attenborough did in their heyday. The modern documentary is a noisy affair, and is almost always presented by someone youngish and handsomeish, always styled ‘Doctor’, so that we understand that they are clever.
‘This lass is not just some bit of totty reading a script’, the so broadcaster is telling us. ‘She’s got a PhD, you know.’ Nobody needed to tell you that Jacob Bronowski or Kenneth Clark were clever, nor did you doubt that they had a hinterland: these were men who were wonderfully well-read. Bronowski was a mathematician broadcasting on ‘what makes man what he is’, and the first episode of The Ascent of Man was called ‘Lower than the Angels’: how many people recognized that as a quotation from Psalms didn’t much matter. Incidentally, in those days, before the tyranny of ‘inclusive language’ set in, the language seemed so much tidier, when ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ were taken as inclusive terms.
Anyway, so it was that, feeling grotty with my bug, I fell to watching a documentary on BBC4 about the Incas of South America. It was presented by a young man called Jago Cooper, blond and pale skinned, an archaeologist on the staff of the British Museum. He towers above the little Peruvians to whom he speaks in fluent Spanish, which we hear him doing often enough to remind us that he is clever, in case at any point we should forget about the doctorate.
He starts, logically enough, in Machu Picchu, with its granite buildings and stone temples. The Inca Empire rose to power incredibly quickly from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, stretching across a swathe of South America from the Pacific to the Amazon. But note: the conquistador accounts are not to be trusted, because their agenda is to justify the Spanish conquest.
The emperor was described in the documentary as ‘a benevolent dictator’, whose benevolence was demonstrated by his habit of killing the disobedient and anyone who dared to look him in the eye. When the emperor died in 1527, four thousand people were sacrificed to go with him, and the Inca were especially fond of sacrificing children, whom they fattened up specially. And that was in 1527!
But there is next to nothing of that in the documentary. And then the music changes, the image is speeded up so that the clouds are scudding ominously in the sky, and the Inca idyll is shattered. How was that? Oh, but you know, don’t you. Just as they ‘reached their zenith’, the Christians arrived, and ‘they had a very different concept of power’. The music gets more turbulent, and suddenly, horror of horrors, we are in a church, and there is a particularly bloody crucifix. Yuk, we are meant to think. Poor Inca.
Maybe it sounds a bit picky, and maybe it is the result of my upset stomach and consequent ill-humour, but this seems to me one of a vast number of tiny examples amounting to a bigger problem. Like a charmless teenager, modern society wants to turn its back on the Christian society which created it. All of the privileges which we now take for granted come to us because we live in a Christian society. And it doesn’t take much effort to look and see what life is like beyond what we once called Christendom. But somehow, the Incas were just as good, if not better than, the conquering Christians. After all, they had ‘a willingness to tolerate and absorb other religions’, unlike, we understand by implication, horrid Christianity.
Again and again those who shape modern society want to turn their backs on Christianity. And in a world where Islam is used as the reason to kill Jews and cartoonists in Paris, it seems Christianity must take the blame. Here is a thought from an atheist journalist called Dan Hodges, who is a left-winger writing for a right-wing newspaper: ‘This is the line that needs to be drawn. Not around free speech, but around our right to have our own set of beliefs, rather than have them imposed as part of a de facto theocracy. This is the deal. Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims. Welcome. You are free to practice your faith amongst us. But never forget this. It is your faith, not mine. And if you can’t accept that, then you can ‘shove off.’
Well thank you so much, O mighty member of the fourth estate. Because some Muslims do things you are too afraid to confront, we Christians must ‘shove off’ – and the actual word was stronger. We Christians who gave you a free society are now only ‘welcome’ in it on sufferance. Mr Hodges goes on to spell out that this new ‘cultural settlement’ would mean ‘formally breaking the anachronistic link between church and state. We may have to re-examine our sentimental attachment to school nativity plays. But that’s a relatively small price to pay for preventing religious bloodshed on our streets.’ Ah yes. The deaths in Paris, bloodshed as the perpetrators shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’, was really the fault of those rotten Christians.
Whoever still thinks that the Church is part of the establishment in anything but name is in for a rude awakening. And the free society we gave our contemporaries is signing its own death warrant.