“Whitesplaining”

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Whitesplaining of History Is Over

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home. In recent decades, women and people of color have been critical to producing new knowledge breaking down those long-dominant narratives. Sociological research confirms that greater diversity improves scholarship.

Yet the struggle to diversify the academy remains an uphill battle; institutional biases are deeply ingrained, and change evokes nostalgia for times past. Both of these obstacles were fully in evidence at a recent Applied History conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although history is a discipline with a growing number of nonwhite faculty members, and a healthy percentage of female scholars — indeed, women constitute more than a third of the faculty in Stanford’s own history department, across the bike lane from the Hoover Institution — the Hoover conference was made up of 30 white men (and one woman, who chaired a panel).

Etc.

This sort of critique is becoming all the more common in my profession (the article above was approvingly linked by two friends on Facebook), and I hate it. I hate the jargon (“whitesplaining”) and glibness (“exclusive playground”) – but most of all I hate the Jacobinism of it, how anything produced by “white males” in the olden days is necessarily tainted, while anything “diverse” is necessarily better (the link goes to a book entitled The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy which, as anyone who has spent time in the world of work can attest, is no more true than its opposite*). Before we learned to care about the identity of the author in order to prompt us how we should respond to his ideas, it was possible for an idea to be considered largely on its merits, and I sure wish we could return to that dispensation. To suggest that all those bad old white males produced scholarship to justify Western imperialism, etc., is contradicted by the author’s own examples of Edward Thompson and E.P. Thompson, white males both who said things that she apparently agrees with (one can think of any number of others, like Charles Beard or Marc Bloch). But more importantly, how dare Priya Satia dismiss the work of (almost) everyone who came before her because they weren’t diverse enough for her tastes? Presumably they were men of integrity, who investigated the past to the best of their ability and who opened up new vistas in human understanding. Just because their race and gender are distasteful to her is no reason to preemptively dismiss their entire body of work.

But if present trends continue, this essentially adolescent pose will be with us for some time to come.

* As I wrote once: “You definitely need something in common – intelligence and a sense of modesty come to mind. Furthermore, it all depends on the purpose of your organization. Sometimes when everyone’s on the same page, sharing the same background assumptions, then you can achieve your goals much more efficiently. The notion that different people with different opinions really have something special to offer could have value, but what is the nature of those opinions? So often “diversity” just boils down to “skin color,” “configuration of genitals,” or “direction of erotic desire,” with any “opinions” that derive from these things being completely irrelevant to the vast majority of problems to be solved or tasks to be completed in the wonderful world of work; worse, there is a very real possibility that the people concerned can be indifferently competent but have massive chips on their shoulders about how allegedly oppressed they are, and will interpret every difficulty as proceeding from some amorphous but entrenched prejudice arrayed against them. This is not conducive to getting anything done.”

UPDATE: Turns out the Hoover Institution conference was organized by the great Niall Ferguson, who responds:

“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post.

Got it.

I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organized a small conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.

Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male,” The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers, as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics — male as well as female — took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest.”

So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work, as it was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense.”

The most literal sense?

Now let’s be clear. I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, or any other difference. That the human past was characterized by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behavior that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists?

Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-Semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but on urinal walls.

What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this “Through the Looking Glass” world, diversity means ideological homogeneity. “The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of the humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.

The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied.

This is America in 2018.

More Indians on Seals

According to Campus Reform, by showing a white explorer being guided by a Native American, the seal of Marquette University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, constitutes a microaggression. According to one professor, Fr. Jacques Marquette, who is depicted on the seal and after whom the school is named, “took advantage of an economic disparity to have a Native American as his guide.”

Wikipedia.

Native people on seals is somewhat of a theme here at First Floor Tarpley, but so is good design. Personally I don’t see much wrong with Marquette’s seal from a symbolic perspective. He hired a Native guide, and the seal acknowledges this! Surely this is better than erasing Natives from the picture entirely, something that has certainly happened before.

But from the perspective of design, this is a train wreck. Why can’t people criticize it on account of that?

All Hail the Humanities

Dartmouth religion professor Kevin Reinhart says something I happen to agree with:

The Dartmouth Review: As a professor of religion, a department in the humanities, what do you think is the role of a liberal arts education in today’s pre-professional society?

Kevin Reinhart: Well the short answer to that is simple: people who do pre-professional work, someone who comes to Dartmouth and just does economics all the way through, I think are being trained to be middle-management. It is a luxury to be one of the people who, to use the business cliche, can see around corners. People who can draw on a wide variety of, not just American but also world cultural features —  history, languages, so on and so forth — have that kind of ability. They are the ones who are going to be leaders. The ones who do solely pre-professional work may be well compensated, but they will not be leaders. To that end, I would point to the fact that two of Dartmouth’s most successful graduates in finance, one the head of the Fed and one the Secretary of the Treasury, both studied subjects other than finance. One was a history major and one was an Asian Studies major. It is a shame that students feel discouraged from taking advantage of a liberal arts education when, in fact, that is both what will benefit them and what Dartmouth is best at.

Joseph Asch adds: “I agree in spades. Over the years, whether in dealing with managers or lawyers or even architects and other professionals, folks with a liberal arts background understand larger issues which people with only technical training just can’t comprehend.”

Greek Letter Societies

It is a quaint American custom that university societies are often known by a combination of two or three Greek letters. Reinhardt has announced that “Greek Life” is coming to campus: the fraternity Kappa Sigma and the sorority Zeta Tau Alpha are now recruiting members. Of course, not only social societies take Greek letter names, but honor societies as well, and a number of these have existed at Reinhardt for some time. For no real reason, here is some commentary on the uses of Greek by these organizations:

If you must use Greek letters, then you should really follow the example of Beta Beta Beta, the biology honor society, or Pi Gamma Mu, the honor society for the social sciences. Their names stand for Greek mottos that describe what they do. “Blepein basion biou” means “to seek the basis of life,” as biologists do, and “Politikes gnoseos mathetai” indicates “the study of the social sciences,” something that political scientists do. This is how you’re supposed to do it! Phi Beta Kappa, the organization that inaugurated this silly custom (but of which no chapter could exist at Reinhardt right now), stands for “Philosophia biou kubernetes,” that is, “Philosophy, the helmsman of life.”

Slightly downmarket is a motto composed of three discrete words all in the nominative, as though it is difficult for people to compose a grammatical sentence. The history honor society Phi Alpha Theta stands for “Philia anthropos theos,” meaning “Love, humanity, God.” I suppose these are good words but they could apply to any society, not just one dedicated to history. Alpha Chi, our version of Phi Beta Kappa, stands for “aletheia character,” that is “truth, character.”

But that is better than the next category of name, which consists of the initials, in Greek, of a motto in English. Kappa Delta Pi is simply the first letters of “Knowledge, Duty, and Power,” suggesting that its founders knew no Greek beyond the Greek alphabet. In a similar vein, Phi Beta Lambda is simply the Greek equivalent of F.B.L., for “Future Business Leaders.”

The music fraternity Pi Kappa Lambda commemorates its first member, Peter Christian Lutkin, by rendering his initials in Greek (in which case they should have been Pi Chi Lambda, as “Christian” derives from “Christos”).

But worst of all was the Dartmouth custom of simply walking up to a slot machine, pulling the lever, and picking whatever comes up on the three reels.

Do “Zeta Tau Alpha” and “Kappa Sigma” mean anything? I assume they do – ZTA was founded in 1898, and ΚΣ in 1869, back when people knew Greek. The mottos of social societies (along with their grips, rituals, and the meaning of their insignia) are generally secret, and expulsion awaits any member who reveals them to outsiders, but a little googling reveals that the sorority’s motto is “seek the noblest,” which could mean that ZTA stands for “zeteite ta arista,” and that the fraternity:

evolved from an ancient order, known in some accounts as “Kirjath Sepher”, said to have been founded between 1395 and 1400 at the University of Bologna. The story says that the corrupt governor of the city, one-time pirate and later papal usurperBaldassare Cossa, took advantage of the students at Bologna, one of Europe’s preeminent universities which attracted students from all over the continent, by sending his men to assault and rob them; this motivated one of the university’s scholars Manuel Chrysoloras to found a secret society of students beginning with five of his most devoted disciples, for mutual protection against Baldassare Cossa. (Wikipedia)

I must say that I strongly approve of a fraternity’s theme being medieval (even if it’s highly doubtful that there’s any institutional continuity between a society founded in fourteenth century Bologna and one that became public in nineteenth century America – just as the Freemasons are not actually descended from the Knights Templar). But its name is not Greek – Kirjath Sepher was a settlement in Canaan allotted to the tribe of Judah, whose name might mean “City of the Book.” (And for extra style points, Kappa Sigma could become the first American social fraternity to be known by a pair of Hebrew letters, Qof Samekh, or קס.)

Dartmothiana

Veselin Nanov examines “The Evolution of Dartmouth’s Visual Identity” in The Dartmouth. I’m pleased that my article remains influential.

UPDATE: Scott Meacham’s Dartmo also remembers my proposal for a coat of arms for Dartmouth.

UPDATE: From the Valley News, a depiction of Dartmouth’s new primary logo, and prescribed typography (with the old combination below):

Some have noticed that the new “tree-in-D” logo bears a remarkable similarity to Stanford’s athletic logo, a pine tree growing in front of a cardinal-colored athletic-font capital “S.” I think that’s what I don’t like about it – it looks like something that might appear on a sports jersey or football helmet, and any university that uses athletic symbols as its primary symbols has seriously misplaced priorities.

Here is a collection of all the seals of the Ivy League:

And here is a collection of its coats of arms:

As you can see, five Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Cornell) have seals featuring coats of arms, and it is no big matter to extract those arms, colorize them, and employ them on their own. Columbia and Penn (the two on the lower left) have allegorical seals, and so had to contrive proper coats of arms, which they did very well: Columbia’s crowns refer to its original name of “King’s College,” and Penn features references to the arms of Ben Franklin and William Penn. Dartmouth (lower right) is an anomaly: its seal shows an allegorical scene of Indians being drawn from the woods towards a college building by the light of God – but this is rendered on a shield, with supporters. So when Dartmouth got around to designing a coat of arms in 1944, it just used a simplified version of that shield. As a consequence, Dartmouth’s arms are not really heraldic: they too depict a scene, which has only ever been shown in outline. Furthermore, the subject matter is somewhat unpalatable to our current sensibilities.

Thus my proposal for a heraldic coat of arms for Dartmouth, which would look nice and would make the College the symbolic equal of its peers. Here is Scott’s rendition of it:

Of course, I was about seventy years too late propose such a thing. The meta-message of a coat of arms – essentially, “I am in a formal European tradition extending back to the thirteenth century” – is not really popular these days either.

UPDATE: More from Dartblog, and Brand New.

Identity Politics

From my friend Lachlan Mead, a report from the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank based in Melbourne, Australia, entitled The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. A choice excerpt, with which I happen to agree:

The teaching of history in Australian universities has become a bastion of the cultural theory of Identity Politics, whereby people are divided by their class, race, gender and their individuality is denied. Students studying history in Australia are at risk of finishing their degrees with a distorted view of the world in which the past is viewed as a contest between the oppressors and the oppressed.

As Brendan O’Neill commented, ‘ Western Campuses in particular have become hotbeds of identity politics, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘identitarian left’ which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas…’

There is a direct correlation between the recent rise of the ‘snowflake’ generation, a neologism used to describe young adults of the twenty-first century as being less resistant and more inclined to taking offence and being offended. These ‘coddled students’, encouraged by both university administrators and academics are eager to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of academic enquiry through mechanisms such as ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ on campus. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, calls this phenomenon ‘the purification of the universities.’

But there’s hope! Click on the link to read about the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilization Program.

“College Misery”

I discovered this evening a blog entitled College Misery, which ran from 2010 to 2016. I was unaware of it at the time. I am not endorsing everything on it, but I did admire a story told by one of the bloggers, Henchminion, in a post from 2011:

Back in 2005 I did an evil, evil thing. Discovering the proliferation of websites where student plagiarists could copy essays, I wrote a Trojan horse paper about the Magna Carta and seeded it on a few plagiarism sites. The essay is basically wrong from beginning to end. Amongst other silliness, it claims that King John’s titles included Duke of Hazzard, and observes that “peasants were reduced to eating burage and socage.” It also invents a fictitious war against Flanders Fland (a region on the coast of Luxembourg) and cites such scholarly tomes as Bollock and Maidenhead’s classic Interminable History of the English Law.

Every once in awhile, I google a few phrases from the paper to see how it’s gettting along in the wild. Over the years, the two seed essays I planted have spawned a dozen or so Google hits at various disreputable sites. Sometimes they even want you to pay to see the whole text. However, for years I had no idea if any student had actually handed the thing in.

Until tonight.

Oh my, oh my. The wording has been changed somewhat and some of the jokes were excised, but that’s my essay there. Ranulf de Glanville has been changed from the Sheriff of Nottingham to “a mercenary of John,” which totally wrecks the reference to Alan Rickman in the bibliography. (The student is probably too young to have seen that movie.) But since he’s not Canadian, the bit about the notwithstanding clause sailed right past him.

He quotes the words “Discipulus tuus hunc tractatum non scripsit” in caps lock, but the professor for the course was an Americanist, so maybe he didn’t get it? Did the paper pass? The student seems to have managed to graduate. Apparently he even minored in Latin!

The Latin reads “Your student did not write this essay.” Burgage and socage are forms of land tenure. Pollock and Maitland wrote The History of English Law (it comprises only two volumes; it is not “interminable”). I especially appreciated her reference, in the full body of the text, to the “climactic battle in the forest of Runnymede, near the village of Bloor West.” Runnymede (“swampy meadow”) was indeed where the barons forced Magna Carta on King John; it is also the name of a Toronto neighborhood and subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line, thus the reference to Bloor West, which took me back. Her reference to the idea that Magna Carta “can only be rewritten if the changes are agreed to by the House of Commons, the monarch, and seven out of the ten shires representing fifty percent plus one of the population” is in fact an amendment formula proposed for the Canadian Constitution in 1987 (the Meech Lake Accord).

I don’t think that seeding this essay was an “evil, evil thing.” I think that it is laudatory. If you purchase an essay and submit it as your own work, you deserve everything you get. Just as circulating counterfeit currency destabilizes a country’s economy, so also do Trojan Horse essays undermine the economy of paper mills, which can only be a good thing. In fact, I think I might try composing one of these some time.

The Symbolic Middle Ages

According to Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Vassar:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students… What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

OK, I’ll choose a side, and that side is a firm stand against this sort of twaddle. I really hate moral bullying – “If it’s important to me, then it needs to be important to you! You’re not allowed not to care – if you deny the problem, you’re part of the problem!”

But maybe the only “problem” is your own warped perception of reality?

Apparently the “alt-right,” whatever that is, takes inspiration from the Middle Ages (and from the Classics too). They like the idea of Crusaders cracking Muslim skulls, and they also like to contemplate a Europe before the advent of mass non-European and non-Christian immigration. But how many people are we actually talking about here? And how big of a problem is this, really? People can idealize any era of history that they want, for whatever reason they want. We always feel sad when other people don’t share our enthusiasm for our subject – well, here are people who love the Middle Ages! How about harnessing that enthusiasm and nudging it towards the academic consensus – on the off chance that one of these types should actually appear in our classrooms? It’s really no different from how one treats students who idealize ancient Egypt, Native Americans, the Caliphate, matriarchal prehistory, or pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code variety. You accept the students where they are, and gently explain that their vision of the past might not be entirely accurate – and you make sure to explain that whatever happened in the past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy today.

I really don’t believe that “the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.” I think that most ordinary Americans are fully capable of distinguishing between professors of medieval studies and young men dressing up as Knights Templar. It would not occur to them to think that we are endorsing the Charlottesville rally, any more than we are endorsing Knight Transportation or King Arthur Flour (or, for that matter, that the classics department is endorsing the Atlanta Gladiators or the American Legion). To suggest that they can’t is condescending and rude, and more than a little self-dramatizing. In fact, I would say that Prof. Kim’s post is an example of Joseph Epstein‘s observation that much in current academic life is “either boring or crazy,” and for whom publishing an article about it was like “opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, ‘Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.'” Most people roll their eyes at the sheer craziness of much academic dispute, and shed no tears when politicians cut our funding.

So let me turn Prof. Kim’s invitation on its head: what have you done, medievalist, to combat this craziness? What have you done to prove to Middle America that your discipline and profession deserve to be taken seriously?

An Investment in You!

There are numerous theories about why the rate of increase in university tuition fees has outstripped the rate of inflation for the past thirty or so years:

• State legislators have cut back universities’ budgets, and the universities have to make it up by charging more in fees. This is a favorite of liberal friends of mine.

• Easy credit and government grants encouraged universities to grab as much of it as they can. Why leave money on the table?

• Higher education “expanded” (both in terms of numbers of students and of campuses) – and at the first drop in the number of warm bodies they needed to make up the shortfall.

• “Baumol’s cost disease,” i.e. “costs in industries without much productivity growth tend to rise, because they have to compete for labor with more productive industries.”

• From Dartblog: Many universities have succumbed to bureaucratization, that is, they are being run, not for their ostensible purpose, but for the sake of their staffers:

As any competent manager will tell you, the very nature of a bureaucracy is to grow, unless restrained by vigilant leaders. Bureaucrats always want to manage more people (the better to justify salary increases), and dismissing non-productive employees is against the ethos of these sprawling offices. In fact, each time a mistake is made in hiring, extra hiring takes place beyond it to compensate for the low productivity of the mistaken hire. And so it goes.

In industry, the pressure of competition obliges companies to run as leanly as possible; at the College, a surging endowment and the ability to raise tuition at rates far above inflation have ensured that there is no need to exercise any budget discipline at all — except after the market crash in 2008. Of course, private sector companies are not immune to such temptations: America’s car companies were so rich in the 1960s and 1970s that the size of their head offices and administrative functions soared. The same thing occurred at market-dominating IBM in the same period. Only after punishing competition hurt these behemoths did they put their houses in order.

• My personal favorite, as much as I hate it: the market has in fact spoken. Universities don’t compete on price, they compete on prestige. So if you run a university, you’re practically compelled to charge and arm and a leg (which itself signals prestige), and then furnish in return the lazy river, the rock-climbing wall, the beautiful campus with extensive plantings and sculpture, luxury dorms, gourmet food, and constant propaganda burnishing the university’s image in order to assure the customers that their purchase has been a wise one.

• Related to this: technology, regulation and fear of lawsuits. In 1970, no university needed an office of ten people whose sole job was to keep the Internet going. No university needed an institutional researcher (making more than any faculty member) to keep it in compliance with the accrediting agency. No university needed a psychologist and an army of hand-holding student life busybodies and academic advisors, because people seemed a little more mentally resourceful and robust (and less willing to sue the place if things didn’t work out). All of these people cost money.

• Related to the last two points: the expansion of the administration. Time was when faculty were expected to serve as dean for a couple of years. Now the university hires full-time deans. This suits the faculty just fine, because who wants to serve as dean? So not only are there more employees, they all have to be paid enough to entice people to take on the work. (You’d have to pay me a lot of scratch to become provost!) So now there is a class of full-time administrators for whom demand might outstrip supply, the complete inverse of tenure-track faculty positions.

But whatever the cause, I really hate it (especially as it does not seem to have had much effect on my salary!). I am certainly not looking forward to paying university fees for my own kids in the next few years. And the more that it costs, the more that university necessarily becomes a purely functional career preparation service (viz. the QEP that we have recently selected, which is all about making students “job-ready”). How can a university charge so much without explicitly promising that gainful employment shall surely follow? And how can an instructor possibly fail anyone who has “paid for this,” no matter how indifferent their performance? It saddens me that the idea that a university education should encourage critical thinking, informed citizenship, elegant composition, familiarity with great art and literature, and the development of a meaningful life philosophy, sounds more and more quaint with each passing year.

Medievalism and the Alt-Right

From a Facebook friend:

Apparently, I’m the only academic historian who isn’t terrified of the “alt-right.” Every medieval studies thing seems to be consumed with a wave of fear… fear that somewhere in a basement somewhere, a white supremacist Trump-loving gun-toter is blogging about how great the early Middle Ages were.

And, as a result, witch-hunts and general tomfoolery have broken out among the “woke” medievalists. “Why does the Alt-Right love our period so much?” they cry. Why is there so much hatred out there?

I’ll ignore the second question for now (I don’t want to argue ad hominem), and not to be flip, but I think the question is being asked wrongly. It isn’t why do “they” love the Middle Ages, but why do “we” notice it and worry?

Many, many, many parts of the past are attractive to various agenda-driven nuts, not just the Middle Ages and not just the “alt-right.” Take a look at the historiography of the Israel/Palestine conflict and what that does; both sides have many “activists” working to erase the other group’s past (and to a vicious level). Look at various Celtic Studies, Irish or Scottish history, nineteenth century American history, almost any historical narrative of much of the past in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Aegean, South Asia, Korea, and on and on. Far right (often actual fascists) make sure that sources like Wikipedia are useless for topics like the early history of India, anything to do with Kurds or Armenians, and so on.

On the medieval world, yes some members of the alt-right fetishize certain aspects of the period, e.g. the Crusades or the Vikings or the myth of the Norman yoke, all of which are regular features of west European self-conceptions and all of which are hardly new inventions. Need we point out that there’s a straight line back to Walter Scott & Co. that connects Crusaders and Klansmen?

Or should we point out that those same now labelled “alt-right” fantasies have had pretty solid backing? Why is Louis IX the saintly king of France? What, after all, did the French military first do upon entry into Damascus? Crusades fantasies play into twentieth and twenty-first century European dealings with Muslims.

And in Muslim views of Europeans. Arab nationalists hold up the counter-crusade, and many of the more violent Islamist groups are heavily medievalist-driven to an extent almost no one else is. (There’s a self-proclaimed Almoravid army in North Africa, ISIS models itself – down to reinstating slavery! – on a close reading of seventh century texts, Salafis dress as though it were 632, and so on.)

One could go on; how many discussions of politics and conflicts are full of World War II mythohistory? How many US discussions are about a mythic eighteenth century?

Looking to the past for better models is, inherently, a conservative move. “The past was better” is basically conservatism in brief. So, of course conservatives are interested in history. And, with the breakdown of authoritative knowledge via the Internet (and some fashionable intellectual trends), those who are loudest get noticed – and they don’t need to be correct.

Where I teach, I know that I will run into people who are part of what has been termed the “ankh right” and there will be hoteps in my classroom in a few weeks when we cover ancient Egypt. I will aim to get them into thinking about ancient Egypt on its own terms and not through modern nationalist fantasies but the way to do that is not by saying “oh they are terrible and liars.” (Unfortunately, for me, because I actually engage in non-aggressive pedagogy with said hoteps, I was labelled in a job interview as too black for a well-known US school by a classicist!)

The past is the past. Looking to it for comforting myths (of any sort, left , right, north, south, white, black, whatever) is never going to do anything but create fiction. Getting upset about one group’s unwholesome influence makes me wonder: How is it possible you just noticed this?

Addendum

Quite a bit of this is about “they were selling a symbol of Odinism at Leeds and that is sometimes used by far-right groups or individuals” (or Celtic crosses or terms like Anglo-Saxon and so on and so forth) “so any use of those is by definition tainted” and similar lines on other things.

The logic (and the panic) could have been scripted by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (and so on) if one were to substitute “shahadeh banner” for Thor’s hammer or anything else. Now, there are real world (as opposed to online only) far right Islamist activists; they actually control actual territory and they actually kill actual human beings, and they base their actions on their interpretations of early medieval texts (many of their leaders actually have advanced degrees in early medieval studies) but we have a word for people who would ban all symbols and activities and studies that those folks are involved in.

In other words, I bet a lot of the people in the panic over evil Odinists would probably be up in arms over an attempt to ban sales of items that have symbols used by ISIS – and rightly so – even if one is threat is much more real.