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"The Imitation Game": Ignorance and fear leads to awkward facts being written out, and Hollywood is particularly cavalier (StudioCanal/Weinstein Company)

The National Prayer Breakfast is a peculiarly American institution. Some 3,500 guests gather in Washington from all over the world to learn how to save their souls before breakfast—and to do some networking too. This year they heard the NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip tell them: “If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour . . . you are going to hell.” Also present was the Dalai Lama, who listened politely to the news of his impending damnation. You never know who will turn up at the National Prayer Breakfast. But nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

That was what they got, though, when President Obama stood up to speak. Warning them not to “get on our high horse”, he added: “Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He was speaking immediately after Islamic State had burned alive a Jordanian pilot and weeks after the Paris massacre. Mr Obama later dismissed the threat posed by those who “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris”. He did not identify the perpetrators, let alone the victims.

The President must know that there was nothing random about the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. Why does he  feel able to ignore the Islamist threat, which is urgent and global, while visiting the centuries-old sins of crusaders and inquisitors on the present generation? The Crusades effectively ended with the fall of Acre in 1291; the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition died in 1826. Charles Krauthammer, who besides being Washington’s sharpest pundit is also a psychiatrist, was “stunned that the President could say something so, at once banal and offensive, adolescent stuff”. Yet Mr Obama is the leader of the free world, a Harvard academic, an educated man. This is what passes for intellectual sophistication in our day.

Last month our greatest living playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard, gave a talk at the National Theatre, where his first new play for nine years, The Hard Problem, recently opened. He explained that he had felt obliged to rewrite some scenes during previews, in one case three times, because audiences were simply not getting his jokes. “It’s to do with reference and allusion,” he explained. “I was completely wrong and I really resent it.” In 1974, he could assume that everybody would know King Lear well enough to laugh at a line in Travesties when the main character is told: “You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton.” By the time the play was revived in 1993, “maybe half” knew who Goneril was. A quarter of a century later, the most basic familiarity with Shakespeare can no longer be assumed—even though, thanks to technology, his works are accessible to everyone. It is as if we had just inherited all the riches of civilisation at the very moment when we feel the onset of cultural amnesia.

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