Portrait Of A Lady

“Cognitive dissonance” is a mellifluous phrase I’ve heard bandied about in the media during these first days of the Trump administration. 

The new president’s supporters are in the grips of this psychological malady, the Daily Kos tells us. In an interview broadcast by MSNBC “Bill Nye” the “science guy” postulated the president also suffered from “cognitive dissonance,” and as he had a “worldview that disagrees with what you observe.”

Writing in 1962 in Scientific American about this new psychological theory, (cognitive dissonance, not Donald Trump), Leon Festinger offered this explanation:

This theory centers around the idea that if a person knows various things that are not psychologically consistent with one another, he will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent. Two items of information that psychologically do not fit together are said to be in a dissonant relation to each other. The items of information may be about behavior, feelings, opinions, things in the environment and so on. The word "cognitive" simply emphasizes that the theory deals with relations among items of information. 

Such ideas are not new. Scripture tells us: A double minded man is unstable in all his ways. James 1:8. Once upon a time, a double minded man was one with a character flaw. Now he has a pathological condition. 

If the president and his supporters are not sick, they must be evil, the pundits tell us -- witness the contretemps over “alternative facts” and Kellyanne Conway.  Moral opprobrium like burning coals has been heaped onto the head of the presidential counselor in disputes over alternative narratives of reality.

Stepping back into the GetReligion harness has resulted in a bout or two of cognitive dissonance for me -- the neural pathways used in my work as a country priest are not those of a journalism critic. Nor did I keep all my bookmarks on the web. Looking for interesting items has led me to some odd corners -- and the odd corners have unearthed odd stories.

I learned just the other day of a gallery opening in Minsk. The Belarusian Telegraphic Agency reports:

The National Art Museum of Belarus has received a new addition to its collection of Radziwill family portraits and belongings, BelTA has learned. Maciej Radziwill donated a Radziwill family tree to the museum as he unveiled the exhibition “The Radziwills: The Fate of the Country and the Family” at the National Art Museum of Belarus on 26 February. The exhibition showcases 99 items from Maciej Radziwill's personal collection and portraits from the holdings of the National Art Museum of Belarus which were kept in Nesvizh Castle until 1939.

Good for Prince Radziwill! He is showing a commendable civic pride. But I wonder what happened in 1939 that led to a change of curators for his family’s collection? The article is silent on that point. Was there a burglary? A fire sale of assets? Maybe that fellow Stalin joined forces with Adolph Hitler and invaded Poland, carting off the contents of the Radziwill family home to populate the Minsk people’s palace of culture. 

Prince Radziwill appears not to have pressed his claim for the return of his family’s treasures however-- and this may be a wise decision as their ancestral home now lies within the territory of Belarus -- one of the nastier places east of the Elbe. 

Other art treasures confiscated during that era have been returned to their rightful owners, though. PBS Newshour summarized this trend in a piece entitled “Why finding Nazi-looted art is ‘a question of justice’.”

During World War II, Hitler’s army systematically looted great art collections of Europe from national museums and private families. This government-sponsored theft is considered the biggest robbery in history.

After the war, the U.S. and its allies tasked a special unit of 350 army personnel from 14 nations to find and return looted art to its rightful owners. These so-called “Monuments Men,” who were popularized in a 2014 Hollywood movie, recovered millions of items and returned treasures like a 15th-century Ghent altarpiece to Belgium and “Lady with an Ermine,” a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, to Poland.

But the Monuments Men returned art to countries, not individuals, which sometimes put the heirs of Holocaust victims at odds with their home governments.

PBS frames this story in terms of natural justice, of private citizens and organizations seeking justice from the state and the powerful. From a press perspective I have no quarrel with them over not offering the Nazi point of view -- which was that the art confiscated from Jews was acquired through illicit means. In the Nazi worldview this was not art stolen from Jews, but art restored to the Aryan people after it had been purchased with funds generated by Jewish capitalists. Balance is not always necessary when writing about Nazis.

Yet, not all victims of the terrors of the 20th century have received justice, nor received the sympathy of the mainstream media. Stories appearing recently in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor on St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg cover the same fact pattern -- art stolen by despots returned to its rightful owners. Yet the editorial voice changes -- while justice was done in returning art and property stolen by the Nazis, justice should be done by keeping art and property stolen by the Bolsheviks in the hands of the state. 

The New York Times article “Fight Over Control of a Cathedral Shows St. Petersburg’s Contrarian Side” and the Christian Science Monitor’s “Museum or church? St. Isaac's becomes bone of contention in Russia” report the St. Petersburg city council has decided to return ownership of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the city’s great cultural treasures, to the control of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The articles report on the history of the cathedral, noting it passed out of the control of the church following the 1917 revolution and became a museum. In 1990 the state allowed one of the chapels to be used for worship. However, the foot traffic of tourists visiting the cathedral dwarfs the number of worshipers by a hundredfold. And, tourists purchase tickets to enter the building, which goes to support a workforce of several hundred curators, administrators, custodians and guides.

The focus of the articles, however, is on the protests by some local residents over returning the cathedral to the church.

The Christian Science Monitor offers arguments from both camps. It quotes Patriarch Cyril as saying: 

"The handover of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg comes in a year that marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution, so it may become a symbol of national reconciliation … In the past, the destruction of churches and mass killings of believers carved out a horrible chapter in the book of our history and indicated a division in the nation. But now, the peaceful atmosphere surrounding the churches returned to the believers should become a symbol of accord and mutual forgiveness."

And a politician who supported the transfer:

But Vitaly Milonov, a conservative member of the State Duma, says that setup is demeaning to the church. "St. Isaac's is a museum with the possibility to hold occasional services," he says. "That cannot suit Christians, who are compelled to witness one of Russia's main cathedrals reduced to a trade center, a big souvenir shop, where priests are part of the show."

There voices are balanced against opponents:

The director of St. Isaac's Museum, Nikolai Burov, says he thought the issue had been satisfactorily resolved back in 1990, when a deal allowed for regular services to be held in a side-chapel of the cavernous cathedral. There are now about two such services daily, usually attended by fewer than 30 people, which don't interfere with the much larger flow of paying tourists. On major holidays, much larger services take place. "We have good relations with the local parish. Entry for worshipers and pilgrims is, of course, free. And the museum takes care of all the expenses," he says. "Until now, this arrangement has worked very well."

The author’s editorial voice emerges at this point, in the guise of “critics say:”

Critics include political activists who say the abrupt decision, made without any public consultation, must be opposed as a basic matter of civil rights. They complain that the church, which increasingly uses its influence to promote socially conservative causes such as anti-LGBT legislation or to rail against the modern status of women, is conspiring with political authorities to take over publicly loved symbols like St. Isaac's without obtaining any kind of democratic consent. Local tour operators fear church management will deter visitors by enforcing dress codes: women should cover their heads, men should take off their hats, and no shorts or short skirts should be worn by anyone. They are also concerned that photography will be curbed and secular content may be removed from the lectures given by guides. Some 400 museum workers worry about losing their jobs. … But an even bigger issue is the church's insistence that entry fees will be abolished, since a house of worship must be open to all. For many years, the 250-ruble ($4.30) admission paid by tourists has funded not only the cathedral's upkeep, but also the restoration of several other local churches. Now, while management and daily costs will pass to the church, formal ownership of the vast building and the ongoing restoration expenses will remain a public burden. And there is concern about the church's ability to maintain St. Isaac's magnificent interior as effectively as state museum workers have.

The article offers a bit more back and forth and closes with the hope that a compromise can be reached that will satisfy both sides. It is a thorough, workmanlike job of reporting -- but it leaves me unsatisfied -- and with a bit of cognitive dissonance.

All of the arguments put forward by opponents of returning the cathedral to the church have been advanced by those opposed to returning confiscated art. Why should art that now graces museums and collections around the world be returned to private ownership, or “ransomed” by paying the heirs a settlement in lieu of returning the stolen art? These have almost always been settled by appeals to natural justice.

Yet, not in this case. Perhaps it is due to the Russian Orthodox’s bad press -- its ties to the Putin regime and the financial scandals of the past decades. But I have not yet seen the story that debates the moral worthiness of the victims of the Nazis to receive justice. Such an argument is preposterous, and would be challenged by any competent reporter -- yet when dealing with Russia the proponents of squatter’s rights over stolen art are not questioned about amorality of their claims. 

Would the story have been improved by having an Orthodox voice speak to the pain of having its greatest cathedrals -- Hagia Sophia and St. Isaac's -- functioning as museums? Do the Orthodox view their ecclesiastical edifices in the same way as American Protestants or Catholics do? How much of the opposition comes from 75 years of anti-religious state teachings as against aesthetic or economic concerns?

I do not say this is a failed article. It is good enough to leave me disappointed that it did not touch upon the moral and faith ghosts that haunt this story.