lunadelcorvo: (Oceania)
In the last week or so, I've come across two largely unrelated news items that have gotten me thinking. I suspect they are not unique, nor are the they sort of headline that typically gets everyone talking. But I can't help but think these are terrifically important, both in their own right, and as a mark of something fundamentally wrong.

The stories are as follows:
160 year-old Documents Intentionally Destroyed in Franklin County, N.C.
The basic story (full story at the link) is that an entire roomful of historic documents (whole shelves of record books along with boxes of wills, deeds, photos, letters, etc.) was discovered in a previously sealed room under the Franklin Co., NC courthouse. Researcher, overjoyed as such a find had just begun the slow process of sorting and cataloging them, when they were told to cease doing so. After some weeks of red tape, an as-yet-unamed local government agency swooped in, took the lot to the basement, and systematically and intentionally burned them in the incinerator.

The other story, halfway across the world:
Lebanon Library Torched, 78,000 Books Burned By Islamists
In this story, a historic library in Tripoli was burned by arsonists after a pamphlet considered offensive to Islam was found tucked into one of the books. The library contained thousands of rare historic texts and manuscripts, from both Islamic and Christian history.

So what do these have in common, aside from the obvious destruction of historic materials? I think that the connective thread here is simply that: that there exists the idea that destroying the past is a good thing. That the destruction of history in the furtherance of one's current ideology is acceptable. And I think this is the worst, deepest, most fundamental kind of violence.

George Orwell, in his masterwork of political tyranny and destroyed history, Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote the following:
"If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'"

Who controls the past, controls the future. An odd truth, but a powerful one. One of the deepest horrors of Orwell's dystopia is that the past has no meaning, there is no past but that authored by the Party. Ellie Wiesel, writing so often of the holocaust, demands that the past be protected from violence. Because in doing violence to the past, all violence is allowed.

And so, these news stories represent the very worst kind of violence; violence to truth, violence to the past. The author of the first story conjectures (with reasonable foundation), that the records were destroyed to hide the shady doings they might reveal done by the forefathers of someone currently in political power. Islam has a long record of destroying the past, from the Buddhas of Bamiyan to the proposal to destroy the Sphinx. In the second story, we don't even need an ostensibly offense pamphlet to see the destruction of a library, a historic library at that, as a purely brutish sweep against knowledge, agaisnt the past, any past, and record that things might ever have been other than as they are now.

The Christian right attempts violence to the past regularly, with its ongoing attempts to rewrite the past of our own nation, making of its Enlightenment progressive deists a crew of Christian fundamentalists; Thomas Jefferson recast as he Sam Brownback of his day (there's a terrifying thought!). And this is, ultimately, the mark of the unsustainable worldview. When your doctrine requires that there be no past, only a harsh glare of a bright. unchanging, ever-present NOW, you have, in essence, become The Party of Orwell's Oceania.

And once there is no past, no truth, no objective reality, then all violence is possible. This hated enemy has always been hated, has always been the source of all our ills, and must be eradicated. And once gone, they never were. Without the past, without memory, there can be no genocide, no holocaust. There are no 'atrocities,' because there is no 'never again.' When the past has no meaning, and is rewritten at will, there is no wrong, for what was done, was not done.
lunadelcorvo: (Default)

I am a big fan of PBS in general. So when a documentary series covering the history of the Inquisition and some of the major heretical movements in medieval Europe showed up on my Netflix recommendations list, I was cautiously optimistic. (I say cautiously because so far, in my experience, history documentaries tend to be dismal in terms of you know, actual history, having instead an alarming and overwhelming tendency to favor sensationalism over fact every time.) But being PBS, I thought the chances of some actual history leaking in were good. Ah, hope springs eternal! Sadly, I was disappointed.

Read the review below the fold )
lunadelcorvo: (Ingrid)
I Wish I'd Spent Valentine's Day Eating A Prix Fixe Dinner, But I Was Too Busy Getting Beheaded

By St. Valentine

Is it Valentine's Day already? My word! How the time does fly. I might have missed the day entirely had I not caught a glimpse of all the young couples walking hand in hand this evening, filling the tables of every fancy French restaurant in town. And what better way to celebrate this fine holiday than sharing a scrumptious, fixed price, three-course menu with your beloved? Lord knows that's what I'd be doing tonight if my head hadn't been severed from my body in the third century!

I'm sorry. I hope all this talk about my gruesome martyrdom doesn't put you off your moules du jour. )
lunadelcorvo: (Medieval Facepalm)
Surprise - I didn't like it at all.

First of all, having only seen the film, and not read the book, my comments may not relate directly to what the original work represents. From what I do know of the book, though, it goes into far more exhaustive detail, and builds a far more elaborate case for a continuity of anti-Semitism from Constantine to the present day. That broad arc is not quite as visible in the film, which might, ironically, be a saving grace, albeit a minor one, of the film over the book.

A broad connective arc is definitely implied, though. It's hard at times to sketch a clear historical arc from the film version, because it jumped back and forth from biography (with a heavy doses of quasi-confessional angst, or so it appeared to me) to history. Again, I don't know if that was the case in the book as well; if so I question the value of its organizational structure! But the events that do appear are related by implication if only by virtue of the fact that they appear in a sequence, each one punctuated by Carroll's ongoing "revelations along his journey." (I use the phrase for lack of a better one; I don't really connect to him on this level, any more than I do to the documentary AS a documentary, but maybe I'm just unsympathetic, cold and critical...ha!)

I don't have TOO much difficulty with his treatment of contemporary issues, although he focuses almost entirely on contemporary anti-Semitism in conservative and evangelical Christianity, which I think rather misses the salient point. Granted, it is there - the public statement by the head of the Southern Baptist Seminary (yes, the one located in our fair city) that "God doesn't listen to the prayers of Jews" is ample proof of this. However, if we are going to worry ourselves over the threats inherent in the rise of contemporary ultra-conservative Christianity, we have much broader concerns to address, thank you very much. Let's start with theocracy and the Constitution, for example, and go from there.

For example, Carroll starts by discussing the problem of proselytizing in the military - this is a serious issue, with broad ranging implications reaching well beyond the Jewish population, and I was (at first) happy to see some light shed on it. However, he quickly focused only on the pressure on Jews, which, from everything else I have read about this (and similar issues) is one of the smaller aspects of it; this same aggressive proselytization exists across the armed forces, and anyone not in accord with evangelicalism is pressured equally. To discuss it as though it is exclusively a Jewish/Christian issue both misrepresents it, and shifts focus from the true problems.

He begins his history with Constantine, and says not too much interesting, except to note that the cross was not really used much as a Christian symbol until Constantine himself made it one. I have always thought that this rather makes the account of his victory and conversion a bit less remarkable, not to mention rather suspect (as though it wasn't already).

When I first started railing at the screen, however (Yes, I am someone who yells at the TV; now you know), was his first foray into the 'tragic history.' (Strongly evocative to me at least of what Baron termed "the lachrymose" view of Jewish history.) That begins with the Crusades in the Rhineland, of course. I don't know how the events are portrayed in the book, but in the film - well, to say the presentation is 'heavily shaded' towards his message is perhaps too polite. He doesn't say outright that the church supported the massacres, but he certainly does nothing to note that they didn't, either. (And based on his treatment of other events, it is clearly implied.) He says that the Bishop of Mainz refused entrance to his palace to any Jews except those who would convert. I have not read every account, to be sure, but that's not how I recall reading it. Nor does he ever mention any attempt on the part of the Bishop to stop the Crusaders, something I definitely recall reading in several sources, even in the Jewish accounts.

He never gives numbers, but his telling of how "the entire Jewish population of the Rhineland was wiped out" certainly suggests number far greater than I recall reading about as well. Nor do I recall any suggestion that the entire region found itself suddenly utterly devoid of a single Jew... He visits a Jewish cemetery, also in Mainz, and first shows a stone telling the story of a young woman converted by force. He doesn't mention a date, but it is implied it's from the same time. He then shows an elderly Jewish man, a guide to the cemetery, weeping over a gravestone that is obviously MUCH more recent, (looked to be maybe 18th C, but what do I know about gravestones in the Rhineland?) but again, the implication is that this is a victim of the Crusaders. Indeed, the suggestion is that the entire cemetery is filled with such victims.

He does the same sort of thing on his brief mention of Spain and the Inquisition - tosses out a few broad statements about expulsion, torture and extermination, voiced over what appeared to be 18th-century woodcuts of diabolical torture, and moves on, leaving the viewer to draw only the worst conclusions. It's that kind of misleading, slanted, and to me, entirely gratuitous misrepresentations that riddled the film, and drove me nuts. I don't know that he intentionally misrepresents, or how much of it is editing, and how much of it is him just not checking his sources. (For example, his source for the information on the events in Mainz is, if I recall correctly, a local abbot.) Then again, it's difficult to imagine this not being intentional, as he never seems to err against his argument; convenient that.

It irritated me enough that when he got to talking about things I don't know much about personally, I didn't trust a word he said. He implied, for example, that the confinement of the Jews to the Ghettos in Rome was at the explicit order of the Pope. I don't know anything at all about Rome in the 1500s, but I doubt the accuracy of this (or at least, strongly suspect that, even if this is true in one sense, there is vastly more to the events) simply because I saw how the events of 1096 were portrayed. And so on.

In dealing with the Nazi phenomenon, again, he doesn't say outright that the Church was involved, or that the ideology was Christian, but he might as well have. He never discusses the difference between religiously and racially motivated persecutions, (a crucial difference!) again, save by implication. However, the implication is very much that the support of the Vatican for the Third Reich is religiously motivated. i.e. The Vatican knew just what Hitler was about, and was only too happy to sit back and let him do the dirty work. He even discusses at great length the warning sent to the Pope by Edith Stein about what Hitler was up to, and how she never received an answer, but herself perished in Buchenwald. OK, that is true, but it's the WAY it's presented that makes it so pregnant with accusation.

It's never said explicitly, but it is clearly there. (It's infuriating really, to watch!) He gives a brief nod to the influence of "neo-pagan" ideology to the formation of the Nazi programs as a way to share or shift blame from Christianity (also inaccurate as far as I know; my impression has been that Hitler's quasi-mythical inspiration had more to do with Wagner and the 19th-century romantics & occultists than anything genuinely 'pagan,' much less 'neo-pagan.'). But he never explains what he means, leaving the viewer to either cast blame on contemporary Wicca/neo-pagan groups, or to simply dismiss it, and remain focused on Christianity/Catholicism, neither of which do a thing to further any understanding of the issue at hand.

Nothing is ever mentioned about the other myriad elements which formed the foundation for the Nazi phenomenon: social Darwinism, Malthus, the early forms of Aryan thought, Müller, no mention of the impacts of technology, or the social and political history of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazi party, or the rise of totalitarian regimes in other places in the 30s; not a bit of it. No context here, folks, it's a context-free zone.

Naturally, I do think that there is plenty to be discussed on many fronts here. In no sense am I trying to soften the harsh realities of anti-Semitism, or pogroms against Jews, whether in antiquity, the middle ages, the early 20th century, or now. Nor am I issuing blanket pardon for those individuals and groups that have used religion as the excuse for this or any form of persecution. But to my mind, there is plenty to talk about without distorting meaning and misrepresenting events. So too, is there plenty to discuss in terms of the Vatican and its willingness to meet Hitler as a political ally, and its reticence to speak out against the Reich. (Then again, the same could be said, perhaps even more vehemently, about many other governments and other entities, not the least of which being major American companies; something else Carroll utterly fails to mention. And why would he? It might detract from his message.)

But if we are to have this conversation, let's have it correctly, with responsible scholarship and unbiased history. To do otherwise is to construct our own Guantanamo - if we are to hold history, or the church to trial, let it be a fair trial. However, the sort of blame Carroll sketches seems to be, like so much else, too deeply shaded to read as balanced or credible. This sort of editing and shading is, I know, bread and butter for 'message-driven' film as a genre. But in this case, I think it really detracts from those points he may have that may be valid, or at least, worth discussion. It takes what could have been a documentary with real value, and real impact, and puts it on par with something like Zeitgeist, or one of the 9-11 conspiracy films.

(This review is adapted slightly from a discussion of the film/book that I had with a professor)



Things I need to remember:
• Asking for help is not, as it turns out, fatal.
• Laughing is easier than pulling your hair out, and doesn't have the unfortunate side effect of making you look like a plague victim.
• Even the biggest tasks can be defeated if taken a bit at a time.
• I can write a paper the night before it's due, but the results are not all they could be.
• Be thorough, but focused.
• Trust yourself.
• Honesty, always.

Historians are the Cassandras of the Humanities



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