The Leeds Conference

An article on the annual Leeds conference in the Chronicle of Higher Education has been making the rounds, but I liked this commentary from… Commentary:

Apparently, There Is an Academic Medievalist Far Left

Even “Game of Thrones” has not quite rescued medieval studies from its reputation for stodginess. Yet the organizers of this year’s International Medieval Congress must have thought their fellow scholars would think them a teensy bit cool for selecting the theme “otherness.”

There were plenty of panels on gender, gendering, ungendering, and various gendered things. There was one devoted to “Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity: Rethinking the Status Quo.” There was plenty on ethnicity, a bit on race, and, for those who like their politics unsauced, a panel entitled “The Historical Is Political: Understanding the Backlash against the Study of Race, Gender, and Representation in Medievalism.”

I note these titles not to bash the conference, whose program contains many interesting things, or to suggest that medieval studies can cast no light on contemporary problems. I am saying only that the 2,400 scholars from 56 countries who descended on England’s University of Leeds earlier this month may have thought they’d gone some way toward appeasing the academic left.

Nope. Some of their fellow medievalists are accusing them of abetting white supremacy.

This remarkable charge, though related to longstanding discontent about the field of medieval studies, is at the moment tied to a panel entitled “The Medieval Concept of Otherness.” For the sake of focus, invited panelists were all historians of the early Middle Ages. The idea behind the panel was that whatever the medieval understanding of “us” and “them” or “self” and “other” was, it is was quite different from what ours is today. So the Leeds International Medieval Conference had a white supremacy problem because—no, really—this one panel consisted of “white Europeans” who were not steeped in critical race and postcolonial theory. You cannot have a discussion of how people in the early Middle Ages thought of “the other” without panelists of color versed in highly politicized contemporary theories of oppression.

More at the link.

Satanic Panic

From Atlas Obscura (courtesy Andrew Reeves), an interesting article on the supposed Satanic origins of the old Procter and Gamble logo. I remember hearing about this in the 1980s, along with the idea that backwards messages in rock music were instructing teenagers to kill themselves, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons would open you up to demonic possession, and that there is a supercomputer in Brussels (nicknamed “The Beast“) with everyone’s name in it.

When 1980s Satanic Panic Targeted Procter & Gamble

The company spent decades battling false claims that it was in league with the Devil.

IF YOU WERE ALIVE IN 1982, you might remember a very special episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show. On that day, the President of Procter & Gamble went on the program and admitted that the company supported the Church of Satan and that its logo contained Satanic symbols. Oh, it happened in 1985? Actually, others remember the episode airing in 1989.

The truth is, this never occurred. P&G has never had any connection to the Church of Satan. The Church itself describes the claim as “completely false.” But the truth has never stopped a good rumor from catching on.

To better understand the P&G rumor, it’s important to grasp its broader context. During the late 1970s through the late 1990s, a potent fear of Satanic cults, known as Satanic Panic, gripped the United States. Years of news and cultural touchstones like the Manson Family trial and The Exorcist had primed the country for this paranoia. In his seminal 1972 study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, British sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” in reference to events like this, which appear suddenly to threaten societal norms. These events are misrepresented in sensationalistic fashion in the media and eventually reporting on the subject comes to define it for the public.

When the first article on the P&G rumor, “Rumor Giving Company a Devil of a Time,” appeared in The Minneapolis Tribunein March 1980, Satanic panic was hitting its peak. The story detailed an accusation of Satanic imagery hidden in the company’s logo—a man in the moon looking out on 13 stars. But as a spokesperson from P&G, Tressie Rose, explains, this claim was without merit. “[It was] first developed by wharf hands to mark STAR candle crate boxes,” Rose writes in an email. “We then decided to formalize it, created the graphic, 13 stars for the 13 original American colonies. It was officially trademarked in 1882 but the incorporation of a face in the moon happened before that. It was the logo created in 1930 that created the rumor but not until the 1980s, 50 years after its creation.”

To most people, that design would appear insignificant, but most people aren’t Jim Peters. In the 1980s, Peters was the music director at the Zion Christian Life Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of a family of anti-rock crusaders who instigated a record-burning campaign in 1978. His brothers, Dan and Steve, initially gained notoriety for a series of seminars and a pseudo-documentary in the vein of Rock, It’s Your Decision called Truth About Rock.

Jim, who could not be located in research for this article, was just as ambitious and had been delivering seminars of his own. When interviewed by The Tribune for the article, Peters claimed to have found a copy of the P&G logo in a book by British occultist E.A. Wallis Budge called Amulets and Superstitions. A member of P&G’s public relations team responded at the time by stating, “This is the kind of rumor we can’t do anything about… People will believe what they want to.

To its credit, P&G was right and the story disappeared for almost two years until January 1982 when papers in the Midwest began running variations on a wire story from United Press International. The articles had titles like “Soap Baron Battles Devilish Rumors” and again made references to P&G’s logo, but this time without any connection to Jim Peters.

There’s more at the link, including the information that Amway reps were partly responsible for perpetuating the rumor that the P&G logo was somehow Satanic. Wallis Budge, though, was a lot more than an occultist.

Icons

The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:

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The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.

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St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.

Stone Mountain

Yesterday I finally had the chance to visit Stone Mountain, a large granite monadnock formation to the east of Atlanta. In terms of sheer natural beauty it rivals Ayers Rock or Devils Tower; you can take a cable car to the top and explore the ethereal moonscape while admiring the distant Atlanta skyline.

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But this is not the primary significance of Stone Mountain. Carved into the north face is the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture… of the Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, all riding their favorite horses (Black Jack, Traveller, and Little Sorrel, respectively). I’m afraid that for my visit the sun was in exactly the wrong position for photographs, so I am reduced to reproducing Wikipedia’s:

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This sculpture, which measures some 76 by 158 feet, dates from 1916 and, after many fits and starts, was finally completed in 1972. It is faced by a long, gently sloping lawn (where the people are sitting in the picture above); this is lined with memorials to the thirteen states of the Confederacy, and at the top, facing the sculpture, is Memorial Hall, which houses the Discovering Stone Mountain Museum. This museum deals with Stone Mountain and its surrounding community throughout history, including Indian occupation, the arrival of European settlers, the Civil War, granite quarrying in the nineteenth century, races to the top of the mountain in the twentieth century, the bicycling events of the 1996 Olympics, the politics and production of the sculpture itself, and yes, the founding of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan on the top of the mountain on November 25, 1915. Almost needless to say, this was designated as a “dark chapter” in the Mountain’s history; it was nice, though, that they acknowledged it, rather than pretending it didn’t happen.

But it seems that Stone Mountain wants to live down its Confederate associations as well. No, they’re not prepared to blow up the monument, as some have requested. But there’s more to the park than the sculpture, and very little of it is Confederate. You can visit the Great Barn, ride the Scenic Railroad, or enjoy the Yogi Bear 4-D Adventure (this is all provided by Herschend Family Entertainment, which has been contracted by the state of Georgia to run the place). Although it’s clear that the whole thing was once intended to be the “Southland’s Sacred Mount” – somewhat like the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, South Africa – and apparently the Stone Mountain Memorial Association retains the right “to reject any project deemed unfit,” they don’t seem to have any qualms about allowing the Laser Show Spectacular, projected after dark and only on certain nights onto the side of the mountain with the carving, accompanied by music and fireworks, or Snow Mountain, a series of slides and ramps on the lawn facing the sculpture, that will be covered in artificial snow for sledding come wintertime. Even the gift shop is completely devoid of Confederate memorabilia. Instead, there’s lots of American patriotism on display:

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And, on one postcard, even the sculpture itself has been defaced with a US flag, something unthinkable at one point.

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I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I don’t care much for the Lost Cause stuff you sometimes find around here, but if you’re going to have a memorial… man, have some respect!

A website entitled Shades of Gray: The Changing Focus of Stone Mountain Park has more information.

Le Sacre du Printemps

It’s over three years old now, but I missed it at the time: a significant anniversary noticed in The Verge:

100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater

It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.

One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.

Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.

Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.

The tumult began not long after the ballet’s opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.

A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It’s not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.

More at the link and, if you’re interested, in Modris Eksteins’s wonderful book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).

Linkage

• From IHE: History is Hot! Although the author does praise the sort of activism that I disparage in this post, it is heartening to read paragraphs like this:

One obvious way is the rise in visibility. Many young Americans may, for the first time, be hearing from historians and be seeing them on a regular basis in major news media outlets. Historians certainly appear in the press all the time, but the difference now is the stage. During a presidential election, nearly all of America is paying attention to media, and particularly in such a divisive and unusual election as this one. It is an especially good time to be visible.

While being visible, we also can demonstrate the core values of our profession. We can continue to showcase the dispassionate wisdom and clarity of thought that is treasured by those of us in the discipline and sought by those outside it. In a climate of constant shouting and bickering, contemplative thought may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it can offer a refreshing alternative and inspire younger folks that they, too, can be an impactful voice of reason when America needs it most.

• From the Guardian (originally the Chronicle of Higher Education): “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire” – an article on Caroline Elkins’s heroic investigation of the British fight against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya – yes, it involved detention camps and torture, contrary to the official line (although be sure to check out the section on criticism of Elkins’s work).

What if…?

From the Guardian:

Altered Pasts review – counterfactual histories should be fun

Historian Richard J Evans is no fan of ‘What if?’ speculation, unless it is used for humorous purposes

Nicholas Lezard

We love a good counterfactual, don’t we? They are a bit of fun, in which we tweak history’s nose by imagining what might have been. Even Edward Gibbon did it in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he speculated what might have happened had Frankish ruler Charles Martel not defeated the Moors in 732: “Perhaps the interpretations of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”

That is nose-tweaking with a vengeance – and as Professor Evans points out, it was also a dig at Oxford, where Gibbon had spent “what he called the most idle, and the most unprofitable years of his life”. But Evans disapproves of the current trend for counterfactuals, and arrives like a stern teacher to break up the frolics of naughty schoolchildren. And once his argument hits its stride he makes a very good case.

It is interesting to be reminded that so many of the historians who go in for this kind of thing (Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, Norman Stone, Adam Zamoyski and, earlier, JC Squire, a notable literary figure of the interwar period, along with the contributors to his 1931 volume If It Had Happened Otherwise) are rightwingers. The first chapter of Altered Pasts is called “Wishful Thinking”, and you can begin to feel distinctly queasy when you notice how many counterfactual histories describe a reality in which the British empire never declined or, even worse, where Hitler had won the second world war.

It is notable how many counterfactualists tend to be Eurosceptics, or deeply suspicious of anything that might come to be a federal Europe; in his chapter on counterfactuals in fiction, Evans notes that Robert Harris’s Fatherland – which may be regarded as the modern counterfactual novel par excellence – is steeped in a distrust of Europe. I must admit I missed this aspect of the book, but in my defence, I was just after an undemanding holiday read at the time.

Evans has his sights trained most firmly on Ferguson, who edited the 1997 essay collection Virtual Histories, which reinvigorated the genre. Ferguson, Evans explains, not only shows his hand too clearly in his introduction and own contribution (the Royalists winning the English civil war, etc), but contradicts his own anti-determinism. Counterfactualism’s practitioners prefer great people and events to broad trends, but Ferguson is determinist when it suits him – when it comes to the causes of the first world war, for instance. Evans’s undermining of Ferguson is all the more convincing because he gives Ferguson a good deal of credit and respect before shooting him down. You cannot be a responsible historian, he says, while ignoring the “lengthy chain of causation” that history is about and “the strong degree of arbitrariness in such speculations” in the first place.

The trick, then, is to avoid being too serious about it, and not to let your thinking be guided by the bees in your bonnet. (Catholics imagining a world without the Reformation – that’s another popular train of thought.) Evans cites with great approval the “What If …” columns written by Dominic Sandbrook for the New Statesman between 2009 and 2011. These were some of my favourite bits of the magazine, in which his counter-historical musings were the basis of hugely amusing gags, such as when the descendants of Oliver Cromwell, “Praise-God” and “Ed” Cromwell contest the leadership of the Labour party; when Sir George Harrison, in a Beatles-less world, becomes a plutocratic curry magnate; and the speculation that ends: “The beret and the polo neck remain essential components of English national dress, pétanque is still our national sport and, above all, everybody loves a mime artist. What a tragedy for England it would have been if Henry V had died young.” That is the way to go about it: not to treat the genre as a way of fantasising about the removal of your grievances. Counterfactuality is not a respectable historical tool, so don’t treat it like one.

• To order Altered Pasts for £8.19 (RRP £9.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Historians Against Trump

Ron Radosh (on PJ Media) says something I happen to agree with. Major excerpts:

Big Surprise? There Is Now a ‘Historians Against Trump’ Group

As they once did in their protests against the Vietnam War, American academic historians are now trying to use their positions in academia to present “scholarly” reasons why Donald Trump must not be president of the United States. They have formed a group called “Historians Against Trump” (HAT), since obviously “Historians Against War” was not appropriate for this salvo.

Their “Open Letter to the American People,” published on their website, is one of the most arrogant, pretentious piece of claptrap they could possibly have written. Why have they written this letter? This is their reason:

“Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I am not going to vote for him this election, but their argument does not stand up. First, what if there was a large group of conservative historians in the academy who decided to write an open letter about the election, claiming “the lessons of history” as their reason for arguing we should vote Republican? The HAT would no doubt loudly condemn them for using the fact that they are professional historians with Ph.D.s as the reason they should be listened to….

In response to their letter, Professor of Law Stanley Fish has written a column in this Sunday’s New York Times. Mercilessly slashing all of their arguments, he boils them down to noting that in effect, all they are saying is “We’re historians and you’re not,” and hence they are obliged to inform Americans that the lessons of history tell us Trump should not be elected. That they have Ph.D.s is not proof that they can equate “an advanced degree with virtue.” Fish writes:

“By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees….[which] does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.”

As a historian who has been fighting this good fight for too long a time, I fully agree with Fish that historians should not as historians be making “political pronouncements of any kind.” In trying to “invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials,” as Fish puts it, they are forfeiting the very sine qua non of what being a historian means. The long years of study and the skills they acquired, which earned them advanced degrees, do not come with the right to use those degrees to tell Americans how to vote.

Why does this not go absolutely without saying? Of course, people have the right to oppose Trump, as vociferously as they want. Like Radosh and Fish, though, I am chary of historians pretending that their profession gives them special insight into current politics – or rather, I am amazed that these wise, Olympian understandings always seem to be “liberal” in nature when, like all political positions, they are often no more valuable or true than their opposites. And I especially dislike it when these groups manage to get the American Historical Association or other ostensibly nonpartisan, professional organizations to endorse their points of view. We saw this ten years ago at the annual meeting of the AHA in Atlanta. As I wrote at the time:

Even during the Vietnam war the AHA would not pass an anti-war resolution, but now, be it resolved:

“that the American Historical Association urge its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”

Perhaps it passed because it doesn’t actually say that “The AHA condemns this war,” but still… it’s annoying when you discover that you’re still in college, with the student government earnestly passing sophomoric resolutions on your behalf. Wankers.

(See Radosh’s article about Eugene Genovese’s successful opposition to an anti-war resolution in the 1960s.)

Later on in 2007, still steamed, I elaborated:

Here is the resolution, in all its inanity:

“Whereas the American Historical Association’s Professional Standards emphasize the importance of open inquiry to the pursuit of historical knowledge;

“Whereas the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 re-affirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;

“Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:

“excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;

“condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;

“re-classifying previously unclassified government documents;

“suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;

“using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

“Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the practices described above; and

“Whereas, the foregoing practives are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it

“Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”

Of course I have no problem with people who oppose the war, but I would really appreciate it if they would speak for themselves, or form groups for the specific purpose of opposing the war, rather than trying to shanghai the rest of us into taking their position. Yes, the price of liberty is constant vigilance, and I, and as many people as I could have mustered, should have gone to the business meeting and spoken out and voted against this resolution. But it would be really nice if I could take it for granted that I didn’t have to do such a thing. In the world in which I would like to live, people know their place, and would be deeply ashamed of the bloody rudeness of taking a group that is ostensibly a professional association for historians, and trying to turn it into an activist group opposed to the war in Iraq. “Oh, but this issue is too important for such considerations of bourgeois propriety!” they claim. No, it isn’t. Despite the deepest, most self-dramatizing desires of these people, we are not facing the imminent fall of the Constitution and the imposition of martial law in favor of some neo-Nazi regime. Oppose the war by all means, but leave the rest of us out of it! This really is college-sophomore stuff – like “jeans day,” when you are to show your solidarity with homosexual rights by wearing jeans, or so proclaim the few posters here and there about campus, put up the day before the event. So you wear jeans like you do all the time, and no matter how you may feel about gay people, you find that you are cast as supporting them! (Ha ha, caught you!) And no, I don’t find the logic of this resolution very compelling. The attempt to link opposition to the war with the practice of history is about as true as a resolution reading: “Whereas we are distracted because we don’t know where the terrorists are going to strike next, and whereas the violent homophobia and misogyny of Wahhabi Islam are deeply offensive to us, Be It Resolved That the AHA supports President George W. Bush in the Global War on Terror.” Something tells me that a resolution like that is not going to pass any time soon, because we are dealing with American myopia. Some people can’t get visas to come to the United States, and some documents are being reclassified, and some prisoners were abused at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib! How terrible! OK, but why not compare these things to, for example, the sort of things enumerated in this article. Opening paragraph:

“Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.”

Here is a perfect example of government policy specifically curtailing the practice of history. Will the AHA pass a resolution condemning this? (And, while we’re at it, condemning China’s atrocious human rights record as being “incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society”?) Fat chance: what we do is evil, what they do is “their culture.”

What really gets me though, is when my fellow professors can’t keep their damned liberal opinions to themselves, and shout them in socially inappropriate venues, and are then surprised when state legislatures want to cut their funding, or propose affirmative action programs for conservatives. They simply have no idea where such things came from! Help, help, we’re being oppressed! (Forget college sophomores – these are high school sophomores! The Holy Grail of being a teenager – being yourself, and being accepted for being yourself. But if you remember from high school, very few people actually got to do this; the rest of us had to choose between compromising our “selves” to fit in, or adhering to them and being ostracized. But to demand the right to spout your ideology while being cherished and affirmed for it… what wankery!)

Gunning for Guns

At the Cartersville Public Library on Saturday I noticed this book on the recent acquisition shelf:

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I was curious, because the title reminded me of Arming America by Michael Bellesiles (2000), which advanced a similar thesis: that American “gun culture” was the creation of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in the years after the Civil War, that Americans were by no means enamored of guns before that. Once the wartime government contracts dried up, the company had to find new buyers, and in a genius marketing campaign rivaling DeBeers’s “A Diamond Is Forever,” convinced vast swaths of the American public that owning a gun was a patriotic duty.

This makes intuitive sense. Much work has been done on nationalism from the same perspective: many historians claim that it was an “invented tradition,” projected onto the past, that prior to the late nineteenth century people didn’t care much for their putative nations, or were even aware of them. (Although I don’t quite agree with this.) One also thinks about the transformation of the American university at the time, with the rise of fraternities, intercollegiate athletics, and other aspects of “school spirit.”

Where Haag differs from Bellesiles, from what I can gather after reading her introduction, is that she admits that guns were ubiquitous in the early republic, it’s just that they were tools, like shovels or rakes. They were not cult objects. (I thought of this when perusing the magazine rack at our local supermarket later that day: on sale were plenty of magazines devoted to guns of all kinds, but none devoted to garden tools.)

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Gun culture.

Bellesiles, by contrast, claimed that Americans did not own many guns at all prior to the Civil War, and that those they did have didn’t work very well, making Winchester’s marketing seem even more heroic (or fraudulent, if you want to put it that way).

Of course, Bellesiles’s scholarship was quite fraudulent itself, so much so that he got fired from Emory for it. This was a big deal back in 2002. I was keen to see what Haag had to say about Arming America, but neither the book, nor its author, appear in Haag’s bibliography. And there was no acknowledgement of the controversy in the introduction! The “Search Inside This Book” feature on Amazon reveals a single mention in the midst of a long endnote on page 407, which claimed that Bellesiles’s

count of gun ownership, which he concluded was quite low (19 percent), based on colonial probate records, was subsequently challenged and rejected for questionable sources and technique. Setting aside his gun inventory, this book agrees with one of Bellesiles’s conclusions, namely, that the alliance between the government and the gun industrialist in the antebellum years was crucial to the development of a commercial market.

That’s it? That’s all she has to say? Surely a significant portion of the introduction should have been given over to the problems with Arming America, and why The Gunning of America will be better. As it stands, it comes across as “nothing to see here, move along.” Or “If we ignore it, it will go away.” Or, as Dr. Wheeler puts it: “Down the memory hole!  Makes me almost believe in conspiracy theories!”

(All this, of course, is a separate issue from firearms policy today. Bellesiles and Haag are attempting to do the same thing with gun ownership that Hobsbawm and Ranger did with nationalism: if it’s constructed, then it can be dismantled. But even if America’s “gun culture” came about only in the 1860s, it still happened 150 years ago! Is this not enough time for it to have become an intrinsic part of the American psyche? On the other hand, even if Haag and Bellesiles are wrong, and Americans have loved their guns from before the passage of the Second Amendment, surely we reserve the right to change things anyway, since gun technology has itself changed quite a bit since 1787, and there are certain well-known problems with widespread gun ownership?)

And Now I Know How Joan of Arc Felt

Interesting story from the Art Newspaper:

France and Britain prepare for battle over Joan of Arc’s ring

Jewel sold in UK for £300,000 last month has left the country—but did it have an export licence?

A dispute may be about to blow up between France and Britain over a ring that once belonged to the Medieval French heroine, Joan of Arc.

The ring sold for nearly £300,000 at the London/Harwich-based TimeLine Auctions last month, but questions have arisen over the legality of its export. If no licence was granted, the British authorities are likely to ask for it to be returned.

Gaëtan Favreau, a spokesman for the Puy du Fou theme park, which acquired the piece of jewellery, tells The Art Newspaper that “the ring is now in France”. He has “touched” the ring and says it “probably has an export licence”. Favreau says there was no attempt to hide the fact that the ring is now in France (invitations to a ceremony to unveil the ring have been issued) and that he believes the ring was there legally.

However, the official guidance states that for items which may be of national importance (including those closely connected with the UK’s history) the time taken to issue a licence “will normally be 28 working days”. A licence is required for antique items, such as the ring, if they are worth over £39,219 and have been in the country for at least 50 years.

The ring came up for sale at TimeLine Auctions on 26 February, with an estimate of £10,000-£14,000. Competition was fierce, and it sold for £297,600 (with buyer’s premium). The buyer was the Puy du Fou Espérance Foundation, which supports a historical theme park near Nantes, in western France. Puy du Fou attracts around 1.5 million visitors a year.

The silver-gilt ring was made in France in around 1400 and was given to Joan of Arc by her parents as a devotional object for her first communion. Joan of Arc inspired the French side in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. At the age of 19 she was tried by a pro-English bishop and burned at the stake in 1431. The ring had been seized from her in prison and taken across the Channel as war booty.

The ring was acquired by Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who was present at the trial and execution. It then descended through the Cavendish-Bentinck family (the Dukes of Portland) and remained with them for nearly five centuries. In 1914, Lady Ottoline Morrell (née Cavendish-Bentinck) gave it to her lover, the artist Augustus John, who wore the ring for years. He later sold the ring and it then went to Frederick Oates (the keeper of the London Museum and of the King’s Armouries), James Hasson (an art historian and author of a romanticised account of the ring, The Banquet of the Immortals) and Cyril Bunt (a library employee at the Victoria and Albert Museum). Bunt’s son Robert, who lives in Essex, sold the ring at TimeLine Auctions.

This means that the ring has been in the UK for nearly 600 years, way over the 50-year-period for which an export licence is required. TimeLine’s managing director, Brett Hammond, tells us: “We handed over the ring to the buyer’s solicitors in London on 3 March. We also gave them a letter, which they signed for, advising them that the ring would need a UK export licence.” Obtaining the licence is the responsibility of the exporter, not the auction house.

If it turns out that the ring has gone to France without an export licence, the UK authorities are likely to demand its return. To export it would then mean going through the normal procedure. If an export licence was subsequently deferred, a UK buyer would have an opportunity to match the price.

It sounds to me like they got away with it. Of course, the fact that it wasn’t acquired by a proper museum, either in England or in France, is somewhat disconcerting, but Puy du Fou sounds like an interesting home for it. But note that the “acquisition has been welcomed by the Far Right in France. Marine le Pen, leader of the Front National, has thanked Philippe de Villiers, the founder of the theme park, for bringing it back to French soil.” Oh dear – maybe they’d better give it back after all!