On The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code is “preposterously entertaining” because you really must suspend reality, and take a leap into imaginative conspiracy theories, as according to American legal scholar Cass Sunstein, author of Conspiracy Theories and other Dangerous Ideas, in an interview with US News states:

From the CIA being accused of arranging for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to claims the U.S. government is concealing evidence of alien life, “crazy thoughts are often held by people who are not crazy at all,” writes Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein in “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas.” In the book, Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, collects and updates several previously published essays on the public’s fascination with conspiracy theories as well as hot-button topics like climate change, same-sex marriage and animal rights. He recently spoke with U.S. News about what makes people inclined to believe far-fetched theories and ways that Congress might find compromise on contentious issues. Excerpts:

How do people come to believe conspiracy theories?

Under conditions of fear or anger, as for example following a bad event, people want to find a cause, and they also want to resolve their own uncertainty. So if you’ve seen an assassination or a terrible economic downturn or a missing plane, there may be an inclination to posit an agent who’s behind it. Another thing is, if you have social networks where people are communicating with each other, especially with like-minded others, then you can see conspiracy theories going viral. Some of us have a disposition to believe in conspiracy theories. That’s just a tendency some people have. Finding a conspiracy behind something sometimes has some of the attraction of solving a puzzle.

What kinds of theories are troubling?

One that’s dangerous is the idea that vaccines and vaccinations cause autism. And the reason that’s dangerous is it’s leading a lot of parents not to vaccinate their children. So it’s actually putting them at health risk. In the United States, at least, that conspiracy theory is genuinely worrisome.

According to Sunstein’s Bloomberg View article, “Pssst! Everything’s a Conspiracy“:

Conspiracy theories surround us. Witness the reactions on the Internet to the tragic and mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Perhaps North Korea hijacked the plane. Perhaps the Chinese are responsible. Maybe aliens did it.

Or, as an influential legislator in Iran contended to the New York Times, perhaps the U.S. “kidnapped” the lost plane in an effort to “sabotage the relationship between Iran and China and South East Asia.”

Pick your topic: Ukraine, the National Security Agency, assassinations of national leaders, recent economic crises, the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays — it’s child’s play to assemble a host of apparent clues, and to connect a bunch of dots, to support a relevant conspiracy theory. In recent years, for example, many Americans have become convinced that the U.S. (or Israel) was responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, that the U.S. government concocted HIV/AIDS, and that federal agencies have conspired to hide the association between vaccines and autism.

Why do people accept such theories?

The first explanation points to people’s predispositions. Some of us count as “conspiracists” in the sense that we have a strong inclination to accept such theories. Not surprisingly, conspiracists tend to have a sense of personal powerlessness; they are also more likely to conspire themselves.

Here’s an excellent predictor of whether people will accept a particular conspiracy theory: Do they accept other conspiracy theories? If you tend to think that the Apollo moon landings were faked, you are more likely to believe that the U.S. was behind the 9/11 attacks. (With a little introspection, many of us know, almost immediately, whether we are inclined to accept conspiracy theories.)

Remarkably, people who accept one conspiracy theory tend to accept another conspiracy theory that is logically inconsistent with it. People who believe that Princess Diana faked her own death are more likely to think that she was murdered. People who believe that Osama bin Laden was already dead when U.S. forces invaded his compound are more likely to believe that he is still alive.

The second set of explanations points to the close relationship between conspiracy theories and social networks, especially close-knit or isolated ones. Few of us have personal or direct knowledge about the causes of some terrible event — a missing plane, a terrorist attack, an assassination, an outbreak of disease. If one person within a network insists that a conspiracy was at work, others within that network might well believe it.

Once the belief begins to spread, a lot of people within the network might accept it as well, on the theory that a spreading belief cannot possibly be wrong. And once that happens, “confirmation bias” tends to kick in, so that people give special weight to information that supports their view. They also treat contradictory information as irrelevant or perhaps even as proof of conspiracy. (Why would people — “they” — deny it if it weren’t true?)

A third explanation emphasizes how human beings are inclined to react to terrible events. Such events produce outrage, suspicion and fear. Sometimes the perpetrator is self-evident, as in the case of many terrorist attacks, but if there is no clear perpetrator — as with a missing plane, a child’s disability or the outbreak of a disease — people might go hunting for the malicious agent behind it all.

To be sure, some conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House, did, in fact, bug the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs to unknowing subjects in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” In 1947, space aliens did, in fact, land in Roswell, New Mexico, and the government covered it all up. (Well, maybe not.)

Even when false, most conspiracy theories are harmless. Consider the theory, popular among younger members of our society, that a secret group of elves, working in a remote location under the leadership of a mysterious “Santa Claus,” make and distribute presents on Christmas Eve. And in a free society, conspiracy theories must be allowed even if they are both false and harmful. But sometimes conspiracy theories create real dangers.

If people think that scientists have conspired to cover up the harms of vaccines, they will be less likely to vaccinate their children. That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, beliefs in false conspiracy theories are also peculiarly resistant to correction. Recent research suggests that in the context of the alleged autism-vaccination link, current public health communications are unhelpful, even when they enlist facts to set the record straight.

Efforts to establish the truth might even be self-defeating, because they can increase suspicion and thus strengthen the very beliefs that they were meant to correct.

Such efforts are far more likely to succeed if they begin by affirming, rather than attacking, the basic values and commitments of those who are inclined to accept the theory.

Conspiracists like to say that the truth is out there. They’re right. The challenge is to persuade them to find their way toward it.

Additionally, as according to WBUR‘s Here & Now article, “Cass Sunstein On Conspiracy Theories“:

Conspiracy theories, says Sunstein, can lead to violence, but they can also be harmless, such as the popular belief of children that a secret group of elves make presents that the mysterious “Santa Claus” distributes on Christmas Eve.

Next, according to Pints of History‘s blog post, “The Da Vinci Code Conspiracy: Three Fatal Flaws“:

This double conspiracy theory has a lot of small problems, as well as three so gigantic that there’s no way around.

  1. A Secret Known to Dozens or More in Every Generation for 2,000 Years Can’t Remain Secret: The Da Vinci Code tells us that the Church’s leadership and the Priory of Sion have known the Mary Magdalene secret since the time of the apostles, but they’ve kept it from the rest of the world. No way. Every time someone new learns a secret — every time you add someone to the conspiracy — you increase the chance of exposure. Time increases the risk too because more years means more chances to spill the beans. We don’t know how many members the Priory has or how many Church leaders know the secret, but it’s got to be dozens at a time for each organization — maybe hundreds. Even if you take a conservative number and guess 50 people know the secret in every generation, that would mean 3,500 people have learned it during the past 2,000 years. That’s just too many. Most governments and corporations can’t protect a secret known by ten people for more than five years. Every time someone has a falling out with the organization’s leaders — or gets drunk or sick, or falls in love with a non-member — you’ve got a chance of exposure. If you’re looking at 3,500 secret-keepers over 2,000 years, the chance of exposure is 100%.
  2. The Priory’s Motivation Isn’t Possible; No One “Preserves” A Secret: Some conspirators try to bury secrets, so no one will find out. Others try to find and expose the evidence — to tell the world. The Priory of Sion, however, wants to “preserve” the Mary Magdalene secret, keeping the knowledge alive for thousands of years, but also keeping it from the world. An occasional mental patient might pursue contradictory goals in that way, but not large numbers of people.
  3. There Would be no Reason for Jesus’ Daughter to Hide: The secret’s lynchpin is the idea that Jesus’ daughter hid from the Church, and so did all her descendants — because the Church would have killed them to wipe out the secret. But during the apostles’ time, the Church lacked the might, will, and motivation to kill anyone. It wasn’t the power center we now know; it was a small crew of humble and mostly poor people, with no long arm that could send assassins across the Mediterranean to wipe out its enemies. Plus, the early Church had no unified dogma, so alternate beliefs about Christ’s life could co-exist. The Mary/wife story would’ve been just one of many inconsistent stories surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. (It wasn’t until almost 200 C.E. that the Church began insisting that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the only four gospels, and many Christians remained dedicated to alternate gospels for centuries after.) So Jesus’ daughter and the first several generations of her descendants would’ve had no reason to hide and no one to hide from. The Da Vinci Code’s secret bloodline would never have been secret in the first place.

The Da Vinci Code is a fun read, largely because the mystery springs from such a juicy, history-laden conspiracy theory. But please don’t take it seriously.

The last four words, being the most important: Don’t take it seriously. The Da Vinci Code, like Santa Claus, is a work of fiction. For a more political context, the first third party in the United States, the Anti-Masonic Party, was based on the mysterious disappearance of Willam Morgan, a Freemason, who was planning to publish a book which revealed the secrets of the order, as according to Course Notes:

The Anti-Masonic party was founded in 1827-28, chiefly as a result of the mysterious disappearance of Willam Morgan of Batavia, New York, a Freemason, who was planning to publish a book which revealed the secrets of the order. Morgan, an iternant worker, was arrested in 1826 and charged with stealing and indebtedness, apparently as pretext for seizing him. He was convicted and jailed, reportedly kidnapped shortly afterward. This incident touched off an Anti-masonic movement.

Although secret societies in general were frowned upon by early 19th century Americans, the Freemasons long continued exempt from criticism, perhaps because George Washington and other statesmen and soldiers of the Revolutionary period had been Masons. Indeed, in the first quarter of the 19th century membership is a Masonic lodge was almost a necessity for political preferment. In 1826, general approval of Masonry suffered a sudden, dramatic reversal as the Morgan incidend came to an end.

It was popularly believed, although never proved, that fellow Masons had murdered Morgan. Masonry in New York received a nearly mortal blow, membership dwindling in the decade 1826-1836 from 20,000 to 3,000.

Opponents of Freemasonry, including sections of the press, churches, and antislavery elements, joined together in the condemnation of the order. Thurlow Weed, publisher of the Rochester Telegraph and the Anti-Masonic Inquirer, led the press attack on Free-masonry and endorsed anti-Masonic candidates for New York State offices in the election of 1827. When fifteen of these candidates were elected to the state Assembly, an anti-Masonic party formed in 1828 and held its first convention.

The Anti-Masonic Party, formed in New York in 1828, reflected the widespread hostility toward Masons holding public office. Thurlow Weed in 1828 established in Rochester, N.Y., his Anti-Masonic Enquirer and two years later obtained financial backing for his Albany Evening Journal, which became the chief party organ. There was a rapid proliferation of anti-Masonic papers, especially in the Eastern states. By 1832 there were 46 in New York and 55 in Pennsylvania.

The Anti-Masonic Party was the first party to hold a nominating convention and the first to announce a platform. On Sept. 26, 1831, convening in Baltimore, it nominated William Wirt of Maryland for the presidency and Amos Ellmaker of Pennsylvania for the vice presidency. The political effect of the entrance, for the first time, of a third party into a United States presidential election was to draw support from Henry Clay and to help President Andrew Jackson (who was a Mason) win reelection by a wide margin. Vermont gave the party seven electoral votes and elected an Anti-Masonic governor, William A. Palmer. The party also gained members in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Ohio.

After the elections of 1836, however, the Anti-Masonic party declined. Together with the National Republican Party, it eventually was absorbed into the new Whig Party. It did win a considerable amount of seats in the 23rd congress and survived until 1834 when several prominent leaders founded the Whig Party or switched to the Democratic Party.

The convenience of the plot makes it also very much quite uninteresting, because once you see it the first time, with the reveal that Agent Sophie Neveu “knows she’s important…and she’s right.” Langdon did not need to go anywhere to find the descendant of Jesus, because they had been working together from the beginning. No mystery to solve. Boring. According to Roger Ebert:

They say The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than any book since the Bible. Good thing it has a different ending. Dan Brown’s novel is utterly preposterous; Ron Howard’s movie is preposterously entertaining. Both contain accusations against the Catholic Church and its order of Opus Dei that would be scandalous if anyone of sound mind could possibly entertain them. I know there are people who believe Brown’s fantasies about the Holy Grail, the descendants of Jesus, the Knights Templar, Opus Dei and the true story of Mary Magdalene. This has the advantage of distracting them from the theory that the Pentagon was not hit by an airplane.

Let us begin, then, by agreeing that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. And that since everyone has read the novel, I need only give away one secret — that the movie follows the book religiously. While the book is a potboiler written with little grace and style, it does supply an intriguing plot. Luckily, Ron Howard is a better filmmaker than Dan Brown is a novelist; he follows Brown’s formula (exotic location, startling revelation, desperate chase scene, repeat as needed) and elevates it into a superior entertainment, with Tom Hanks as a theo-intellectual Indiana Jones.

Hanks stars as Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist in Paris for a lecture when Inspector Fache (Jean Reno) informs him of the murder of museum curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle). This poor man has been shot and will die late at night inside the Louvre; his wounds, although mortal, fortunately leave him time enough to conceal a safe deposit key, strip himself, cover his body with symbols written in his own blood, arrange his body in a pose and within a design by Da Vinci, and write out, also in blood, an encrypted message, a scrambled numerical sequence and a footnote to Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), the pretty French policewoman whom he raised after the death of her parents. Most people are content with a dying word or two; Jacques leaves us with a film treatment.

Having read the novel, we know what happens then. Sophie warns Robert he is in danger from Fache, and they elude capture in the Louvre and set off on a quest that leads them to the vault of a private bank, to the French villa of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), to the Temple Church in London, to an isolated Templar church in the British countryside, to a hidden crypt and then back to the Louvre again. The police, both French and British, are one step behind them all of this time, but Sophie and Robert are facile, inventive and daring. Also, perhaps, they have God on their side.

This series of chases, discoveries and escapes is intercut with another story, involving an albino named Silas (Paul Bettany), who works under the command of the Teacher, a mysterious figure at the center of a conspiracy to conceal the location of the Holy Grail, what it really is, and what that implies. The conspiracy involves members of Opus Dei, a society of Catholics who in real life (I learn from a recent issue of the Spectator) are rather conventionally devout and prayerful. Although the movie describes their practices as “maso-chastity,” not all of them are chaste and hardly any practice self-flagellation. In the months ahead, I would advise Opus Dei to carefully scrutinize membership applications.

Opus Dei works within but not with the church, which also harbors a secret cell of cardinals who are in on the conspiracy (the pope and most other Catholics apparently don’t have backstage passes).

These men keep a secret that, if known, could destroy the church. That’s why they keep it. If I were their adviser, I would point out that by preserving the secret, they preserve the threat to the church, and the wisest strategy would have been to destroy the secret, say, 1,000 years ago.

But one of the fascinations of the Catholic Church is that it is the oldest continuously surviving organization in the world, and that’s why movies like “The Da Vinci Code” are more fascinating than thrillers about religions founded, for example, by a science-fiction author in the 1950s. All of the places in “The Da Vinci Code” really exist, though the last time I visited the Temple Church I was disappointed to find it closed for “repairs.” A likely story.

Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Jean Reno do a good job of not overplaying their roles, and Sir Ian McKellen overplays his in just the right way, making Sir Leigh into a fanatic whose study just happens to contain all the materials for an audio-visual presentation that briefs his visitors on the secrets of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and other matters. Apparently he keeps in close touch with other initiates. On the one hand, we have a conspiracy that lasts 2,000 years and threatens the very foundations of Christianity, and on the other hand a network of rich dilettantes who resemble a theological branch of the Baker Street Irregulars.

Yes, the plot is absurd, but then most movie plots are absurd. That’s what we pay to see. What Ron Howard brings to the material is tone and style, and an aura of mystery that is undeniable. He begins right at the top; Columbia Pictures logo falls into shadow as Hans Zimmer’s music sounds simultaneously liturgical and ominous. The murder scene in the Louvre is creepy in a ritualistic way, and it’s clever the way Langdon is able to look at letters, numbers and symbols and mentally rearrange them to yield their secrets. He’s like the Flora Cross character in “Bee Season,” who used kabbalistic magic to visualize spelling words floating before her in the air.

The movie works; it’s involving, intriguing and constantly seems on the edge of startling revelations. After it’s over and we’re back on the street, we wonder why this crucial secret needed to be protected by the equivalent of a brain-twister puzzle crossed with a scavenger hunt. The trail that Robert and Sophie follow is so difficult and convoluted that it seems impossible that anyone, including them, could ever follow it. The secret needs to be protected up to a point; beyond that it is absolutely lost, and the whole point of protecting it is beside the point. Here’s another question: Considering where the trail begins, isn’t it sort of curious where it leads? Still, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end.” Maybe he was on to something.

 

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