The Other Yorktown

From Gregory Urwin at Journal of the American Revolution (hat tip: Dan Franke), notice of an event that is not what most Americans would like to remember about the Revolutionary War:

On October 19, 1781, Gen. George Washington attained his apex as a soldier. Straddling a spirited charger at the head of a formidable Franco-American army, Washington watched impassively as 6,000 humiliated British, German, and Loyalist soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, emerged from their fortifications to lay down their arms in surrender outside Yorktown, Virginia. The following day, Washington voiced the elation filling his heart in a general order congratulating his subordinates “upon the Glorious events of yesterday.” Ordinarily a stickler for discipline, Washington authorized the release of every American soldier under arrest “In order to Diffuse the general Joy through every breast.

Five days later, October 25, the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief issued quite a different order. Thousands of Virginia slaves—“Negroes or Molattoes” as Washington called them—had fled to the British in hopes of escaping a lifetime of bondage. Washington directed that these runaways be rounded up and entrusted to guards at two fortified positions on either side of the York River. There they would be held until arrangements could be made to return them to their enslavers. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Washington converted his faithful Continentals—the men credited with winning American independence—into an army of slave catchers.

This is not the way that Americans choose to remember Yorktown. When President Ronald Reagan attended the festivities marking the battle’s bicentennial in October 1981, a crowd of 60,000 nodded in approval as he described Washington’s crowning triumph as “a victory for the right of self-determination. It was and is the affirmation that freedom will eventually triumph over tyranny.” For the African Americans who constituted one fifth of the young United States’ population in 1781, however, Yorktown did not mark the culmination of a long and grueling struggle for freedom. Rather, it guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery for eight additional decades.

Read the whole thing. I think that the New York Times‘s 1619 Project goes too far when it claims that the American Revolution was fought to “preserve slavery,” but that certainly was one of its practical effects. That the British offered freedom to slaves for taking their side is a fact that UELAC members glory in;* that Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot (2000) claimed the precise opposite (as well as attributing to the British war crimes committed by the Nazis in occupied France) was rather offensive. 

* Of course, it does not mean that white Loyalists believed in racial equality, as Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalists would attest.

For Columbus Day

In The American Spectator, Armando Simón defends Christopher Columbus, claiming that he was not as bad as his current reputation holds. This does not excuse what Spanish colonialism became, of course, and the idea that “the founder was good, it’s just that the people who came after him messed things up” is a trope (i.e. the founder more than likely shares some of the blame). Still, Simón raises some good points:

There is not one single historical source in existence that substantiates any of the “crimes.” Not one. None!

Consult, not secondary sources written centuries later by individuals with a political agenda, but primary (i.e., contemporary) sources in the original Spanish: Los Cuatro Viajes del Almirante y su Testamento, and, Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, both by Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas, as every schoolchild in the Caribbean and Spain knows, was The Apostle of the Indians, an indefatigable defender of the Indians who fulminated endlessly against the Spanish crimes on the indigenous people. More importantly, he chronicled the atrocities against the Indians, fearlessly naming the criminals. Not once does he mention Columbus as an evildoer. On the contrary, he documented the exact opposite, that Columbus repeatedly defended the Indians against Spanish depredations.

The third primary source is the biography of the explorer written by his son, Fernando. Should the reader cynically discount his son’s biography as whitewashed because his son somehow saw that 500 years later his father’s statues were going to be vandalized in a new country called the United States and he had to salvage his reputation, think instead that, considering the zeitgeist, Fernando could have easily portrayed his father as a great conqueror of satanic, evil savages who practiced cannibalism (after all, look at all the hagiographies written on Napoleon, who turned Europe into a charnel house). Significantly, Fernando also portrayed the natives in a benevolent light — and this was long before the syrupy “noble savage” mythos that we have been force-fed to this day. He was being faithful to facts.

Lastly, there is the Capitulations, the documents between the Spanish monarchy and the Admiral.

If Columbus had, indeed, committed the countless crimes that some people with their ignorance of history have attributed to him, if he was, indeed the monster that he has been portrayed, on a par with Attila the Hun, Josef Stalin, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, I for one would be among those condemning him. But the historical facts are clear: the atrocities that have been heaped on him are nowhere to be found, except in the minds of his detractors. They are just not there.

Much more at the link – read the whole thing

Some Links

• From Edward J. Watts on Yahoo News: “Rome Didn’t Fall When You Think it Did”:

In September of 476 AD, the barbarian commander Odoacer forced the teenaged Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to resign his office. The Constantinopolitan chronicler Marcellinus Comes would write in the 510s that when “Odoacer, king of the Goths, took control of Rome” the “Western Empire of the Roman people… perished.” But no one thought this at the time. The fall of Rome in 476 is a historical turning point that was invented nearly 50 years later as a pretext for a devastating war. The fact that it has since become recognized as the end of an epoch shows how history can be misused to justify otherwise unpalatable actions in the present—and how that misuse can also distort the lessons future generations take from the past.

More at the link

• From Jan Altaner on Goethe Institute: “On the Trail of Barbarossa”:

In April 1874, the Upper Bavarian church historian and politician Johann Nepomuk Sepp, along with a small group of German scholars and adventurers, embarked on an expedition to the Middle East. They were on a ‘mission for Germany’ to which the Imperial Chancellor Bismarck himself had given his blessing. Their destination was Tyre, which in those days was a sleepy town on the Levant coast. However, the expedition’s focus was not on researching the city’s rich Phoenician or Roman history, but on something much greater: the remains of Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa.

The still-young German Empire had only just put particularism behind it, and thus the plan was to strengthen German national consciousness through shared national myths. One of the most popular of these myths was the legend of Barbarossa, who was said to be sleeping beneath the Kyffhäuser hills, but would one day return and elevate Germany to its old glory. Emperor Wilhelm I regarded himself as standing in the tradition of the Emperor of the Staufer dynasty, styling himself as ‘Barbablanca’, or ‘Whitebeard’. Emperor Barbarossa also happened to be an especially suitable national figurehead because his gravesite was located outside the German Empire. In 1190, during the Third Crusade, he drowned while bathing in a river in Lesser Armenia. The heat made it impossible to transport his body over long distances, so he was boiled and buried in nearby Antioch. His bones, on the other hand, were sewn into a sack, to be buried in Jerusalem, the destination of the Third Crusade. However, the crusaders never made it that far. Historical record is unclear with regard to his final resting place, but later reports claimed that his remains had been buried in the Cathedral of Tyre. This story was the impetus for Johann Nepomuk Sepp’s expedition.

More at the link.

• From Susanne Spröer on Deutsche Welle: “Winnetou: Why so many Germans fell in love with the unrealistic ‘Indian'”

It was Christmas Eve, and I was eight or nine years old. I’d just opened the small gifts under the tree when my father said there was a surprise in the basement. Finally! It must be Winnetou’s Silver Gun, at the top of my wish list. But I didn’t understand why I had to go down to the basement to get the toy weapon.

I had been a Winnetou fan ever since I first heard the audio version of the Wild West stories by Karl May. I would sit at the record player and listen to how the character Karl May, aka Old Shatterhand, came to the Wild West. In the story, he’s a German engineer who wanted to build a train line through Apache country. But then he got to know the Apache tribe and became “blood brothers” with Winnetou, fighting at his side for the rights of Native Americans.

When we played cowboys and Indians as children, I always took the part of Winnetou, who preferred to knock his enemies down rather than kill them, in line with the blood brothers’ code of honor.

My best friend and I would cut our hands at the base of our thumbs to become blood brothers. We loved the Winnetou stories, just like the generations before us.

“Christmas 1962 saw the premiere of ‘Treasure of the Silver Lake,'” recalled Michael Petzel, author of the “Karl May Lexicon” and director of the Karl May archive in Göttingen. “That went over so well with young people in a way that’s hard to imagine today. For three years, before The Beatles and James Bond, the films defined the youth scene in Germany. They were very modern for the time. For us viewers, it was a departure into an unknown world.”

The world of Karl Friedrich May (1842-1912), who dreamed up Winnetou’s Wild West, had little to do with reality. The first Winnetou story was published in 1875, although he’d only read about the United States in books.

Partly autobiographical and told in the first person, May as Old Shatterhand (known as Kara Ben Nemsi in the books set in Asia) dreams up an escape from his own dreary life. Accused of fraud and theft, he’d been fired from his job as a teacher and sent to jail.

Thanks to Winnetou, May, the son of a poor weaver (10 of his 13 siblings died shortly after birth) became Germany’s most successful youth author.

More at the link. My undergraduate advisor Walter Simons also wrote a blog post about Karl May’s influence in Germany. 

Dr. Seuss

This post isn’t all that topical anymore, but a recent visit to the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Literature Research Collection has helped to answer a longstanding question that I had.

In March of this year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the rights to the works of Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), a.k.a. beloved children’s author “Dr. Seuss,” announced that they would cease publishing six of his books. After “working with a panel of experts, including educators,” DSE determined that these six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” They are:

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937)
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)
On Beyond Zebra! (1955)
The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)

At the time, DSE did not elucidate exactly how these books’ contents were “hurtful and wrong.” This is the usual quandary – you want people to know that that an offense has been committed, but you don’t want to draw attention to the details, lest you end up amplifying the offense. But I’ve always believed the Faber College motto that “Knowledge is Good,” and that ordinary people deserve to know what’s going on. So, courtesy the Children’s Literature Research Collection, in particular its Kerlan Collection, First Floor Tarpley presents the apparently problematic details of these works.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Summary: On his way home from school, a boy named Marco sees a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. Dissatisfied with such an ordinary sight, Marco keeps inventing and adding details to it, such that by the time he gets home he has “seen” a great parade of exotic people and creatures. 

Problems:

• The couplet “Say—anyone could think of that,/ Jack or Fred or Joe or Nat—/ Say, even Jane could think of that” can be read as sexist: four boys are alike in mediocrity, while the one girl is even worse.

• One of the things that Marco invents is an elephant bearing a “Rajah,” perhaps truckling in Orientalist stereotypes.

• Another thing that Marco invents is “a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” 

“Chinaman,” as a term, is “often pejorative,” and his bright yellow skin tone, conical hat, and Qing-era queue are stereotypical as well.

McElligot’s Pool (1947). Summary: Marco reappears, this time fishing in McElligot’s Pool – a fool’s errand, according to a passerby, since the pool has no fish, but lots of junk that people have thrown into it. But Marco imagines that the pool might be connected to an underground river that eventually leads to the sea, which would allow him to catch all kinds of exotic fish. 

Problem:

• One species of exotic fish is the Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay.

“Eskimo” is now somewhat pejorative (“Inuit” has been prescribed as an alternative for some time). The fur parkas the fish wear might be seen as stereotypical. 

• Another fish, from “the world’s highest river in Tibet,” has a odd-looking Tibetan watching it:

If I Ran the Zoo (1950). Summary: A boy imagines running the zoo. If he did, he would release all the ordinary animals like lions, giraffes, and zebras, and find fantastic ones as substitutes, such as the It-Kutch, the Preep, and the the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill.

Problems:

• To capture a bird called a Bustard, and a beast called a Flustard, the narrator must travel to the desert of Zomba-ma-Tant, “with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.”

These creatures may not be real, but real people do have “slanted” eyes (actually: upper eyelids with epicanthic folds) and one generally does not draw attention to this fact. 

• The “scraggle foot Mulligatawny” may be found in the “Desert of Zind.” The “brave chieftain” who rides him may be parallel to the “Rajah” above.  

• The “tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka” from the “African Island of Yerka” is carried by two natives of rather stereotypical appearance. 

• Our narrator has designs on “A Gusset, a Gherkin, a Gasket, and also a Gootch from the wilds of Nantasket.” 

These creatures would be carried by “eight Persian princes,” characters not unlike the Rajah or the brave chieftain.

Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953). Summary: Peter T. Hooper, tired of the same old scrambled eggs from a hen, goes hunting rare and exotic eggs from various creatures, like the Rufflenecked Salamagoox or the Tizzle-topped Grouse.

Problems:

• Peter T. Hooper explains his project to his little sister, looking like a pickup artist in a bar.

• The book includes an exotic character named Ali, another orientalist caricature:

• Other creatures in the book are “wogs” (“the world’s sweetest frogs,” but also a stereotypical name for an East Asian) and the “kwigger” (a name uncomfortably close to a certain other word). 

On Beyond Zebra! (1955). Summary: A boy has mastered the alphabet, and invents further letters after Z, like Yuzz, Wum, or Snee. These letters are used to begin the names of various exotic creatures. If Z begins zebra, then Yuzz can begin Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz (pictured).

Problems:

• Not only is a letter called “spazz” (in my day, a diminutive of “spastic” and an insult), it is used to spell “Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim.” These Nazzim of Bazzim are seemingly Orientalist caricatures:

• The player of a “kind of hunting horn called the o’Grunth” (to attract a Flunnel, a creature beginning with the letter FLUNN) also looks somewhat Orientalist:

The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). Summary: This book has no plot as such, but instead challenges the reader to answer a series of questions, some simple, some difficult, and some just absurd. 

Problems:

• On one spread, the reader is asked how old one has to be to be Japanese. The Japanese is shown wearing a stereotypically conical hat. 

• The caption got cut off with this one, but the original reads, “Which is Taller? A Tall Pigmy or a Short Giant?”

“Pigmy” (or more commonly “pygmy”) as a byword for a phenotypically short person, is “sometimes considered pejorative.”

(The answers given at the back of the book: “All Japanese are Japanese the minute they are born” and “I know that a short pigmy is never taller than a tall giant. And a tall giant is never shorter than a short pigmy. But about the tall pigmy and the short giant – I give up on that one.”)

 

 

Prices of these books shot up on Ebay, but the e-commerce site quickly announced that it would not be party to the trade and banned 

Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Lorax, or Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

The Cat in the Hat,

Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.

Did Luther really say all these words, as he defended himself at the Diet of Worms, which concluded 500 years ago yesterday?

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.

These are famous words indeed, but there is some question as to whether he actually said the boldfaced part. Some transcripts have them, others do not, and one theory is that they were added afterwards to burnish Luther’s image as a courageous dissenter from the Papal party line. But another way of looking at it is that Luther really did say them, because 

When Luther finished his main response, the room erupted into noisy cheers or jeers, depending on whose side the people were on. Luther quickly was hustled out of the room, with people yelling things such as, “To the fire with him!” I think the room remained quiet enough for the official notetakers to hear his main comments, but at the conclusion it was too noisy for anyone besides those closest to him to hear him say, “Here I stand.” This, too, is the conclusion of other scholars. Others, however, choose to suggest the words were added by friends to his statement. I find it difficult to imagine that on such a momentous occasion these key words would be merely a result of pious afterthought.

Yes, the original blog post is from Concordia Publishing House, and thus not entirely unbiased – but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. The next step: proving that Luther really did nail the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg!

P.S. Apologies for my absence of late. I shall try to resume blogging at a more regular pace. 

The Churchill Myth

From The Guardian:

Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill?

Priyamvada Gopal
 

A baleful silence attends one of the most talked-about figures in British history. You may enthuse endlessly about Winston Churchill “single-handedly” defeating Hitler. But mention his views on race or his colonial policies, and you’ll be instantly drowned in ferocious and orchestrated vitriol.

In a sea of fawningly reverential Churchill biographies, hardly any books seriously examine his documented racism. Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to complicate, let alone tarnish, the national myth of a flawless hero: an idol who “saved our civilisation”, as Boris Johnson claims, or “humanity as a whole”, as David Cameron did. Make an uncomfortable observation about his views on white supremacy and the likes of Piers Morgan will ask: “Why do you live in this country?

Not everyone is content to be told to be quiet because they would be “speaking German” if not for Churchill. Many people want to know more about the historical figures they are required to admire uncritically. The Black Lives Matter protests last June – during which the word “racist” was sprayed in red letters on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, were accompanied by demands for more education on race, empire and the figures whose statues dot our landscapes.

Yet providing a fuller picture is made difficult. Scholars who explore less illustrious sides of Churchill are treated dismissively. Take the example of Churchill College, Cambridge, where I am a teaching fellow. In response to calls for fuller information about its founder, the college set up a series of events on Churchill, Empire and Race. I recently chaired the second of these, a panel discussion on “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill”.

More at the link. I confess that I’m a sucker for the Churchill myth, but even I will admit that he has more than a few skeletons in his closet, and it’s not a bad thing to examine all aspects of a person’s legacy. Christopher Hitchens explored this issue back in 2002 for The Atlantic. (Hitchens does claim the Churchill was right about the one thing that mattered.)

UPDATE: A friend comments:

It’s interesting that Gopal situates her critique of Churchill within the academically uncontroversial bounds of providing a more truthful and nuanced picture of an important historical figure.

We all know that’s not what she is aiming to do and that it is about destroying one narrative and replacing it with another.

That’s why she has encountered so much emotional resistance and it’s disingenuous to pretend that this is nothing more than a liberal exercise in pursuing historical truth.

Pagan Christmas

From UnHerd (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

“A perpetual forge of idols.” So Calvin described the human mind. This conviction, that fallen mortals were forever susceptible to turning their backs on God, to polluting the pure radiance to his commands, to practising in his very sanctuary pagan rituals, was a dread that constantly shadowed Calvin’s more committed followers in England. To Puritans, as they were called, the riotous celebrations that accompanied Christmas appeared a particular abomination.

It made the festival seem, as one of them disapprovingly noted, “some Heathen Feast of Ceres or Bacchus.” This anxiety fused over time with another deeply-held Protestant conviction: that papists, in their cunning and their deviancy, had been altogether too ready to compromise with the legacies of idolatry. Rather than clear away the brambles and nettles of paganism, they had instead tended them, and encouraged them to grow. What, then, was all the revelling, and dicing, and feasting that marked the celebration of the Saviour’s birth, all the “Licencious Liberty,” if not the Saturnalia by another name?

Today, the doubts about Christmas originally articulated by Puritan divines continue to flourish — as does so much Protestant anti-popery — in polemics that target not merely Catholicism but the Christian Church tout court. “Nothing in Christianity is original.” So opined the distinguished symbologist Sir Leigh Teabing. “The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25…” Dan Brown’s take is one well suited to a capitalist age. The Da Vinci Code, by portraying the early Church as an institution that had knowingly and cynically appropriated the feastdays of other gods, was able to cast Christians as predatory monopolists, asset-stripping the cults of their rivals.

Part of the reason for Dan Brown’s astonishing success is clearly that he was telling lots of people what they were ready to hear. That Christmas is a fraud, a festival stolen by the Church from pagans, has become a staple of many an atheist meme. Fuelling this trend is the fact that backing for it is to be found in distinguished works of history as well as in thrillers. “The Church was anxious to draw the attention of its members away from the old pagan feast days, and the December date did this very well, for it coincided with the ‘birthday of the invincible Sun’ of Mithraism, and the end of the Roman Saturnalia (December 24).” So writes John North in his book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos.

Read the whole thing to discover why this is hogwash (although see also an earlier post on this issue). 

UPDATE: More on the topic at HillFaith

The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

Western Civ.

From History News Network (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

“Western Civ” Was Not a Late Invention

The claim that “Western civilization” as a concept and a course of study was invented during World War I is mistaken. That claim has been in heavy circulation among academic historians for nearly four decades, and has often been used as a culture war weapon against those who uphold traditionalist views of the West’s cultural continuity. First offered in 1982 by University of New Brunswick historian Gilbert Allardyce, this model specimen of historical deconstruction was widely cited amidst national controversy in 1987-88 by scholars who favored replacing Stanford’s Western Culture requirement with a multicultural alternative. Allardyce later helped found what he dubbed the “world history movement,” and his take-down of Western Civ is invoked by historians generally, and partisans of world history in particular, to this day.

Allardyce’s deconstruction of Western Civ was further developed by historian Lawrence Levine in his 1996 brief for multiculturalism, The Opening of the American Mind. As Levine put it, “The Western Civ curriculum, portrayed by conservative critics of the university in our time as apolitical and of extremely long duration, was in fact neither. It was a 20th century phenomenon which had its origins in a wartime government initiative, and its heyday lasted scarcely fifty years.”

Yet the Allardyce-Levine thesis is false, and dramatically so. Under only slightly different names, Western Civ has been taught since colonial times, appealing across the political spectrum until the late 1960s. While it takes a bit of digging to rebut Allardyce and Levine, any historian even moderately skeptical of their thesis could have exposed its gaping holes long ago. That nothing of the sort has happened suggests that contemporary historians’ hostility to America’s “dominant narrative” has hamstrung the discipline’s ability to self-correct. I lay out a refutation of the Allardyce-Levine thesis and explore the weaknesses of history’s post-1960s disciplinary orthodoxies in The Lost History of Western Civilization, a book-length report for the National Association of Scholars, a portion of which is summarized here.

More at the link

Backmasking

Another stroll down memory lane courtesy Atlas Obscura (although the article appeared some time ago now):

The Fight to Save America From Satan’s Subliminal Rock Messages

On April 27, 1982, members of the California Assembly’s Consumer Protection and Toxics Committee gathered in Sacramento to hear Robert Plant endorse Satan. This was not a straightforward testimonial. For one thing, the Led Zeppelin frontman wasn’t actually in attendance. Also, his pro-devil paeans could only be heard when you played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

After circulating pamphlets with the “backward masked” declarations spelled out, that’s precisely what Assemblyman Phillip Wyman and panel witness William H. Yarroll II did. The relevant portion of the eight-minute classic was first played forward for committee members and then reversed. Here’s what Wyman claimed could be heard: “I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off. There’s no escaping it. Here’s to my sweet Satan.” Yarroll, who identified himself as a “neuroscientist,” noted that a teenager need only listen to “Stairway to Heaven” three times before these backward messages were “stored as truth.”

It wasn’t just Plant reverse-singing Satan’s praises, either. According to Yarroll, bands ranging from Styx to the Beatles also had secret backmasked messages hidden in their music—messages that, in the words of legislative proposal A.B. 3741, had the power to “manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”

As the bill’s sponsor, Wyman wanted mandatory warning labels on all rock albums containing these morally dubious backward messages. “Suppose young people have heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ two or three hundred times and there has been implanted in their subconscious mind pro satanic messages or incantations?” he told Terry Drinkwater the following day on a CBS Evening News segment. Indeed, this was the truly insidious part of backmasking. Even though you had to play records in reverse to decipher the occultic messages, they could still subliminally imprint themselves upon young teen minds when played in the standard direction.

During the same news segment, Yarroll described how the brain unscrambles a backward masked message: “We have it stored in the unconscious as a truth image,” he said, “and as the creative unconscious side of the brain does, it goes through scanning the unconscious brain to go about and bring those truth images to the surface and make them reality for us.”

After calling the issue “exciting and interesting,” committee chairman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) delayed an official vote until the music industry and band members could weigh in on the matter. That day never came. But the national panic surrounding subliminal satanic messages in rock music was about to reach fever pitch.

In the early ’70s, backmasking—or the practice of recording vocals and instruments backwards and then reinserting them into the forward mix of a song—was something a music savvy (and possibly stoned) Beatles fan might bring up. A decade later, it had become a cause célèbre for conservative religious leaders, school teachers, parents, and even politicians. Whether it was the reversed voice of Freddie Mercury declaring “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” on “Another One Bites the Dust” or Styx imploring Satan to “move through our voices” on “Snowblind,” there seemed to be mounting evidence that rock music was literally becoming a mouthpiece for the devil.

Believers held record-smashing parties, appeared on popular TV talk shows, wrote books, formed watchdog groups, and, perhaps most importantly, called their government representatives to warn them.

By 1982, state and federal legislation was being introduced at a steady clip to combat rock and roll’s hidden satanic agenda. Two weeks after the California Assembly hearing in Sacramento, California congressman Robert Dornan introduced H.R. 6363 to the House. Also known as the “Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act,” the bill aimed to do the same thing as Wyman’s A.B. 3741, only on a national level. 

While it would ultimately be shuffled off to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism to die, other bills—including one in Arkansas a year later—were passed unanimously by both house and senate members (then-Governor Bill Clinton ultimately vetoed that one).

For its own part, the music industry responded with a bemused skepticism. Styx’s James Young called the whole idea of satanic backmasking a hoax perpetrated by religious zealots, and refused to attend any meeting or hearing where the topic was discussed. Then there was Bob Garcia of A&M Records, who declared, “it must be the devil putting these messages on the records because no one here knows how to do it.” A spokesman for Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records, issued just one statement in response to the “Stairway to Heaven” satanic allegations: “Our turntables only rotate in one direction.”

Taken as a whole, these reactions only stoked the righteous (and possibly entrepreneurial) fires of religious leaders like pastor Gary Greenwald, who started holding backmasking seminars all over the country. Soon, books like Backward Masking UnmaskedDancing With Demonsand The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth About Rock, were exposing “the sinister nature of rock and roll music,” while watchdog organizations like Parents Against Subliminal Seduction (P.A.S.S.) tried to block rock concerts at various venues.

The problem, as you may have already guessed, was that the whole thing was a bunch of diabolical tihsllub.

Canada and the United States have different traditions regarding the separation of church and state. The divide between French and English Canada was, historically, religious as well as linguistic, with French Canadians clinging tenaciously to their Catholicism, and most English Canadians fervently Protestant (for instance, at one point one needed to be a member of the Orange Order to get anywhere in Toronto politics). Canada West (the future province of Ontario) did disestablish the Anglican Church in the 1840s, but still recognized religion in a way that is forbidden in the United States. Thus, in the negotiations leading up to Confederation in 1867, Canada West agreed to fund Roman Catholic education, as a concession to Quebec. So to this day Ontario actually runs two parallel school systems, the public school system and the “separate” (RC) school system. I suppose the idea was that the public schools would in fact be “Protestant” schools in contrast to the separate schools, and I recall a certain amount of religious content from my days as a public school student in Port Hope, Ontario, including:

• the Lord’s Prayer (and occasionally Bible readings and hymns) as part of the day’s opening exercises

• Christmas and Easter pageants, with religious content (carols, prayers, nativity scenes, etc.)

• a representative of the Gideons coming in and handing out bibles to us, with the principal giving a short speech beforehand, not about how “you don’t need to believe this if you don’t want to,” but about how it was a special occasion, since we were now old enough to be entrusted with holy scripture

In middle school, we had a half-hour of religious instruction per week from one of the ministers of one of the churches in town. You could be excused from this if your parents felt strongly enough about it, and the ministers weren’t allowed to proselytize as such – instead, their remit was to teach about the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” But the Pentecostal minister that our class got put the fear of God in us in other ways. It was from him that I learned about the supercomputer in Brussels nicknamed The Beast, with everyone’s name in it, that will track all buying and selling, with the aid of invisible tattoos on the right hand or forehead – just like the prophesied Beast of Revelation 13! (This urban legend, I have discovered, actually has a discernible origin in a novel by author Joe Musser.) The year was 1983, so of course he also solemnly warned us about backmasking, that is, backwards messages in the music that we listened to, but which your brain had the ability to pick up and understand beneath conscious notice. These messages instructed you to kill yourself, take drugs, etc., and the scary thing is that the bands weren’t putting these messages on themselves, but “some force” was doing it! That force had to be Satan, because before his fall Satan was a master of music in heaven, and that “inversion” (hanging crosses upside-down, saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards) was a feature of current satanic ritual. Pastor’s message, though, did not have much of an effect on my musical listening habits, if only because a lot of what he played for us didn’t seem to say much at all. Was it really “worship Satan,” or just “zhoop zhip stanna”?

I was pleased to read this section of the article, about the origins of the notion of “subliminal persuasion.” I remember this one too:

A drive-in movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey just happened to provide a perfect junk science laboratory. Over the course of six weeks in 1957, unsuspecting filmgoers were the subjects of a grand marketing experiment. Using a special high-speed projector, researcher and social psychologist James Vicary inserted the words “drink Coke” and “eat popcorn” into movies that summer. Invisible to the human eye, each message lasted for 1/3,000th of a second and was repeated in five-second intervals during films on alternating nights.

By the end of the six weeks, Vicary claimed 45,699 people had been subjected to his subliminal inducements. He also claimed that popcorn and Coke sales went up 57.5 and 18.1 percent, respectively. At a press conference held later that same year, Vicary described the results of this now infamous study to help boost interest in his new “Subliminal Projection Company,” an attempt to commercialize what he called a major breakthrough in subliminal advertising. The public and press went bonkers, and not in a good way.

The first sentence of an influential op-ed responding to the press conference by journalist Norman Cousins read: “Welcome to 1984.” He, like many others, wondered what such a technology could mean not just for advertisers who wanted to sell us stuff, but also for governments seeking to steer public sentiment.

For its own part, the FCC almost immediately threatened to suspend the broadcast license of any company that dared use Vicary’s machine. In the years following the experiment, the CIA started looking into the “operational potential of subliminal perception” (they found it “exceedingly limited”), and authors like Wilson Bryan Key began cranking out books such as Subliminal Seduction, which claimed that sexual images (and the actual word “sex”) were being hidden in hundreds of ads.  

But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tried to replicate Vicary’s claims by subliminally flashing the message “Call now” during a popular Sunday night program, there was no increase in phone calls. The station later told viewers they had inserted a message and asked them to guess what it might have been. Almost half of the roughly 500 viewers claimed to have been made hungry or thirsty during the show, which aired during dinner time.

Vicary’s study was clearly on the public’s mind, which was problematic because it was completely made up. From the beginning, Vicary refused to release key details about his study. Not only was there never any independent evidence to support his claims about the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, years later, Vicary admitted he had done only enough research to file a patent for his machine, and actually had collected barely any data. Even worse, his machine didn’t seem to work half the time once people did try to test it.

Of course, none of that mattered by the late ’70s and early ’80s. Subliminal messaging was being used in self-help tapes, in department store Muzak to ward off shoplifters, and, if you believed Key, to sell the American public lots and lots of booze and cigarettes.

It’s amazing what social science research gets out into the public consciousness and causes concern, although I suppose that “you’re being manipulated and you don’t even know it!” might be especially alarming to people. But I’m not surprised, after all these years, to read that the experiment wasn’t replicable – this is the fate of a lot of psychological research, unfortunately. And as far as “hidden persuasion” goes, why not focus on what actually is out there in plain sight? Advertisers use all sorts of non-subliminal techniques to get you to behave in certain ways. Learning about those, so as to realize what’s going on, is always useful – much more than trying to discern any secret hidden messages. Backmasking seems even less plausible – does the mind really have the ability to turn words around subconsciously, and then to obey what you’ve “heard”? Again, why not focus on the actual lyrics and image that rock bands project? Some 1980s heavy metal bands flirted openly with Satanic imagery, and I didn’t like that, but even at the time it seemed to be mostly an act, calculated to offend the squares.