Monday, July 4, 2016

Gratitude and the Fellowship of the Sword

You may remember that I quit this sport.

Well, on Friday this past week, in Dallas at the USFA Summer National Championships, I finished 5th in Veteran Women's 50-59 Foil, which with my other two results from this competition year (6th-place Finalist at the December 2015 NAC in Baltimore, and Silver Medalist at the April 2016 NAC in Richmond), enabled me to qualify as a member of the USA Foil Team for the 2016 Veteran World Championships this October in Germany.

I'll wait for you to get up from off the floor. Laughter is always good medicine.

I should probably write some more about how I came back from quitting and what it has been like since I did. But for now, I need to say, "Thank you."

Success is not something that happens without friends. I had no idea when I started fencing thirteen years ago more or less to the day that this journey would be as challenging as it has been. I would not be the fencer I am now without years and years of others' love and support.

Thank you to my coaches, Bakhyt Abdikulov and Peter Habala, for sharing with me their love of our sport, for training me, encouraging me, sticking with me even when I wasn't the easier fencer to coach.

Thank you to my club mates, especially Ed Kaihatsu, Marie Angkuw, Neal White, and Victor Pisman, my fellow veteran fencers and stalwart training partners, for all the bouts, hugs, encouragement, and friendship.

Thank you to my tournament room mates, Lynn Botelho, Sara Nash, and Rebecca Schneider, who have been there for me in both joy and frustration, bought me drinks to celebrate the victories and let me cry, and cry, and cry when there was nothing else I could do.

Thank you to all my fellow Veteran fencers, who have taught me more than I can say about sticking with our sport even when it felt most difficult, who have modeled good sportsmanship and determination for each other under pressures only those who have met each other on the strip can know, who have been there at the competitions year after year so that we could all hone our skills together. Ladies, you rock!

Above all, of course, thank you to my family, my husband JP Brown, who has coached me through more tearful conversations over the phone than either of us can recall; my son Rush Brown, who began the journey as a fencer with me when he was only seven and was with me at the tournaments through my childhood as a Fencing Bear; my mother, who always watches out for me when I travel and makes sure I know she is there rooting for me; my brother and fellow athlete, who has shared with me his love of competition and mindfulness in sport. I would thank my father, too, and hope he is proud of his daughter for not giving up, just as he never gave up on me.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All Cultures Are Not One

Over at Stanford, things are heating up: a group of students are calling for a discussion about whether their college's curriculum should include a "Western Civilization" humanities requirement, and the fur has well and truly started to fly. As the editor of the Standford Review reports, in the past two weeks since the Review published its petition,
People writing articles in defense of the Western canon have been marginalized and silenced within groups whose policy priorities have nothing to do with curricular requirements. Signers of the petition have reported being personally called out in dining halls and student group meetings, and have been systematically contacted to justify their signatures, They have also been publicly branded as supporters of “racism”, “elitism”, “classism” and “hatred”. Finally, two members of the Stanford activist community have publicly announced that they have downloaded the list of signatories, and intend to use it against voters in case they “want to run for office”. 
The supporters of the petition for a conversation (not even yet a specific proposal, just a discussion about having such a requirement in the curriculum) point to all the obvious facts: that, in the language of the petition, "the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world" have had a "unique role" in "shaping our political, economic, and social institutions." That studying the sources of our culture in the Western tradition is not the same as saying that that tradition has had no limitations or flaws or that it is the only source of our institutions and ideals. That the ideals and institutions of Western civilization have had effects far beyond the regions that identify now as "Western." To little avail. According to their fellow students, to require study of the Western tradition is by definition to exclude other traditions, induce homogeneity, and "harmful to our campus well-being." And we wonder why we have so much trouble defending the study of the humanities in our schools.

I know what you think I am going to say at this point, but you're (probably) wrong. Yes, I believe that the West is the source of some of the most important institutions and ideals that the world has ever known, including some of the ones that the promoters of the Stanford Review petition have highlighted, much to the distress of their peers: free speech, rationalism, and individual liberty which in the authors' words "fueled the intellectual destruction of colonialism in Western and other societies." And, yes, it is maddening the way in which the critics of the proposal seem not to realize that the very criticisms they are bringing are often themselves products of the hated "Western" tradition, e.g. feminism, Marxism, anti-racism, all of which my students and I have talked about this quarter in our discussions of European civilization. But, pace some of my more conservative friends, I would argue that it is not these kinds of criticisms that are the root of the problem, at least not as such. (Self-criticism is one of the great strengths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as everyone who has ever recited the Miserere mei knows.) Rather, as I see it, the root of the problem in our defense of the humanities is yet another of our tradition's highest ideals: the willingness to see not just all human beings, but all cultures, more particularly (because this is really the root of the matter) all religions as essentially the same.

Even the Vatican promotes this ideal. As the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate proclaimed by his Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965, puts it:
From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
Which, surely, is all to the good in these fractious and perilous times when simply citing the criticisms that earlier Christians have made about, for example, Islam can become occasion for attacks on churches and death threats.

Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero would beg to disagree. As he argues in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (2010), fashionable as it has been since the 1960s to affirm "that all religions are beautiful and all are true," such refusal to engage the real differences between the religions tends directly to the detriment of actual understanding as well as of any real hope of peace. In his words:
[The idea, "as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, 'The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials'"] is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one. This wishful thinking is motivated in part by an understandable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise [not quite the way most Christian missionaries put it, but it is true they want all people to be saved through Christ--FB]. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves--practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths [again, something of a caricature; Las Casas did not see the Aztecs or Incas as inferior, and Gregory the Great famously described the pagan Anglo-Saxon youths he saw for sale as slaves as "angels" ("Non Angli, sed angeli")--FB]. The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink--call it Godthink--has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide.... One purpose of the "all religions are one" mantra is to stop [the fighting and killing to which adherents of different religions are moved by their differences]. And it is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that--faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.
Prothero goes on to reflect on how this well-intentioned desire for religious unity has left Americans in particular so uncomfortable with expressions of difference as to make them "allergic to 'argument'": like most Americans, his own students "see arguing as ill-mannered, and even among friends they avoid it at any cost." Rather than acknowledge the differences between religions or the cultures they have fostered, Americans would rather "pretend that these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, more moral." We tell world history as if religion did not matter, and we pretend that the great conflicts afflicting our modern world have primarily economic or political roots, whatever the religious motivations those involved in these conflicts invoke. Likewise with the arguments that erupt from within religious traditions. Those who would insist that all religions are basically the same prefer to pretend that "the differences between, say, Christianity and Islam are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don't warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them."

The result, as Prothero has shown here and elsewhere, is a profound ignorance on the part even of believing Americans about the complexities of their own traditions, never mind those of other parts of the world. Religion, in particular Christianity, is the great Unmentionable in our schools, leaving students at sea when confronted with the question how it was that the West became so open to other cultures in the first place or concerned itself with the effects of its expansion in the way that it did. More to the point, it leaves them at sea in understanding why any culture should value anything other than material development or power precisely because it is through religion that human beings express what they value most--and human beings of different cultures and religions value different things, not all of which are mutually compatible with the values of other cultures and religions. For example, the ideal of Christianity as expressed by the Apostle Paul, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), which arguably is the ultimate, if typically unacknowledged source, of the trinity of modern social justice concerns (race, class, and gender). Accordingly, when certain of the Stanford students oppose the Stanford Review's proposal on the grounds that their stories and voices are not included in the account of "Western civilization" that they have been taught ("dead, white, European, and male"), whether they realize it or not, they are speaking in terms of the ideal of Pentecost, that the gospel should be preached to all in their native language, so that all peoples, regardless of race, class, sex, culture, or politics might be included in the Church (Acts 2:1-21).

But to make such arguments requires us to make certain choices--and choices is the last thing that most humanities professors feel inclined to make. Not for themselves--we all have our specialties which we have chosen, often at great cost to the things we believe other people base their decisions on (prospects of material development, power). But oddly and devastatingly, for our students. Because, we say, we don't want to impose our beliefs on anyone. Because it is not for us to say what they should value (although, of course, we do, simply by refusing to say). Because we don't want to offend. Because there are truths in all traditions, although we cannot give our students any criteria for distinguishing truth from lies or even half-truths. To be sure, not all of us are so reticent: some, particularly those who feel called upon to serve as social or political activists, are quite open about their desire to teach their students particular ways of viewing the world. But the majority of us believes with Pope Paul VI that we live in a world where the paths to truth are multiple and regards all cultures and religious traditions as equal in their access to the basic truths, the "fundamentals or essentials," as Swami Sivananda would put it. (Full disclosure: I have chanted prayers to Swami Sivananda as guru and sat satsang with his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda about a year or two before he died.)

Noble, even Christian, as this perspective is, however, it has its costs, not the least of which being we leave ourselves no ground as teachers of the humanities on which to defend the actual content of our lessons. Perhaps the greatest cost is not, however, intellectual, but emotional, as the accusations flying now at Stanford illustrate. In refusing to make the argument for the values and ideals on which our universities were founded beyond just the "skills" that we purport to teach, we have abandoned our students to a world in which the only truths are personal and the only motivators political or economic. This is not to say that we should become evangelists ourselves; we are teachers, not preachers. It is to say, nevertheless, that we need to reexamine our own core beliefs, including our insistence that if the truth is out there, we have no idea how to find it other than through our unexamined faith that the only differences in cultures or religions are "non-essential," if not even real.*

To be continued...

*Unless, of course, they come from the West. Then they are diabolical.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Study the Humanities

I can tell you in three words: because culture matters. More particularly: because the ideas, images, and stories with which we fill our imaginations shape our souls as well as our actions in the world.

I know, I know. This is not the argument that we are supposed to make. We are supposed to talk about "tools" and "critical thinking" and the skills that we can gain in writing and making arguments. But this is like praising a hammer without having any understanding of what you might use it for. You could use it to kill just as easily as you could use it to make something. For the last fifty or so years, we have been using the tools which we develop by studying the liberal arts as much to destroy our culture as to craft it. We need to recover the craft, but to do so, we have to have materials to work with, not just skills or tools that we might apply willy-nilly to anything.

Herrad of Landsberg, Hortus deliciarum (1185):
The Seven Liberal Arts
Reading, writing, counting, measuring, analyzing, arguing: all of these are extremely valuable skills, skills which every free person ought to be able to wield. This is why we call them the "liberal" arts--grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music in the list of medieval seven--because these are the skills, as the ancients had it, appropriate to free men (and, we moderns would insist, women), but they are skills, not answers. Knowing English grammar is important if you want to be able to express yourself so that others can understand you clearly. Knowing the structures of arguments and how to make your case is important if you want to be able to persuade others to listen to you. Knowing how to construct clear lines of reasoning and test for fallacies is indispensable if you are to make arguments at all, never mind ones that change the way in which your readers or listeners see the world. Likewise, the skills that we gain by studying the way numbers work and the kinds of understanding we can gain about our world through counting and measuring things: we cannot make sense of our world without them.

And yet, having the tools with which to think and learn is not enough. I know you don't want to hear this, but content matters. It matters not just how we learn, but what we learn. The Sciences half of our Arts & Sciences faculties know this. They don't talk about learning biology or chemistry or physics as something you do in order to gain particular critical skills. They talk about how you need to know things like anatomy, cell structure, and DNA sequencing, the properties of energy and matter, and the ways in which physical objects interact. They assume that you have certain skills in order to study these subjects, but they don't teach skills as such. They teach stuff. And they don't apologize for it. The mathematicians do--apologize, that is, at least sometimes, when they can be distracted from meditating on the beauty of numbers and proofs for long enough (because numbers and proofs are beautiful), but this is because they, too, are often under attack for teaching particular content, witness the current argument against requiring Algebra II. Why are subjects like history, philosophy, art history, music, languages, literatures, and, yes, mathematics insofar as they want students to learn algebra II, constantly under attack from our politicians and legislatures? Because nobody is buying the argument that we make about skills.

As why should they? If what we really want to teach is skills, then we should teach them. Dorothy Sayers would be over the moon. Let's teach grammar so that students know the difference between there, they're, and their, how to punctuate a compound sentence, and avoid dangling modifiers. Let's teach rhetoric so that students know how to construct a persuasive narrative backed up with appropriate support. Let's teach logic so that they can spot when someone is making an ad hominem attack and recognize the difference between a valid and an invalid syllogism. Then we could justifiably claim to be teaching students, as Sayers puts it, "the lost tools of learning" which they need in order to do all the things we claim they will learn by studying the humanities but often don't: how to evaluate an argument, how to distinguish between different kinds of evidence, how to think about ways in which to improve communication with one's colleagues or customers, how to write and speak in an appropriate style, how to rouse an audience to a particular course of action, how to be effective in business, politics, medicine, or law. None of these are skills that require any particular content, and none requires study of the humanities as opposed to the liberal arts.

So let's ditch the humanities. Who needs to know about Augustine's Confessions or "The Wife of Bath's Tale"? What difference does it make if anyone has read Hamlet or Don Quixote or Paradise Lost? Who cares whether one thinks the Sistine Chapel worth looking at or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony worth listening to? What is gained by knowing about the reign of this or that English king, the life of nuns in medieval convents, or the thought behind the founding of the United States of America? Why should anybody who is not the same age, gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, level of physical or mental ability, religion, ethnicity, social class, ancestry, nationality, or political tradition care two whits about the art, music, literature, history, philosophy, or theology of any other time or place than the one in which they live now? More to the point, why care about art, music, literature, history, philosophy, or theology at all? They can't put food on the table or save lives. They are useless in solving problems of transportation or construction. Nobody (at least, nobody I can think of) ever came up with a novel industrial practice by reading Shakespeare or went to the moon based on what he had read in Chaucer. It's just as the proponents of STEM insist (although actually that should probably be STEm, as they don't really want the kind of mathematics my son does, all abstract proofs about topology and set theory): studying the humanities is a waste of time that could be better spent actually learning something useful. You can learn all the history that you need watching Game of Thrones or the History Channel, and who needs philosophy anyway?

Right. You don't buy that argument any more than I do. And yet, we make it all the time. Every time someone, say an administrator or fellow faculty member or member of our state legislature, asks us to justify our existence as humanities faculties, the abstractions come out and we start defending skills instead of the subjects we teach. Our staff in EuroCiv started making it just this week when the director of our teaching program came to talk with us about how to prepare our graduate students for questions in job interviews about their teaching. "I don't care whether my students learn European history as such," everyone started saying. "I just want them to learn to think historically." Which is fine, as far as it goes. Thinking historically is a good skill to have, just like being able to construct a grammatically correct sentence or sway an audience with an appropriate metaphor. But you don't need to study the history of European civilization or, indeed, the history of any civilization at all in order to learn to think historically. All you need to do is learn to read a text or any other artifact as a product of human making. You can "do" history off the back of a cereal box; you hardly need to learn about the canons of the Council of Lateran IV or what Martin Luther thought about liberty.

"But," you will say, "there is nothing in the history of European civilization or American civilization or Islamic civilization or Latin American civilization or East Asian civilization or South Asian civilization or Russian civilization or African civilization (just to name some of our many options for satisfying the College Core requirement in "Civilization Studies") that students actually need to know. Surely it is better to let them choose whichever interests them most as a subject; we don't want to force them all to learn any particular thing when the skills are all the same." By which point, however, I suspect--or at least hope--that you are starting to feel a little embarrassed. Really? There is nothing in your subject that you think actually matters that people learn? You are really content to say that you don't teach content, only skills? I hear it all the time: "I don't teach dates. It doesn't really matter if students know all the details. I know they don't need to know about this-incredibly-specialized-thing-I-have-spent-my-life-studying because what matters is that they learn to think historically."

Excuse me, I think I just gave myself a concussion, my eyes rolled back in my head so fast, but why? Why doesn't it matter that they know about Magna Carta or the development of Parliament or the arguments that the Federalists made in defending the adoption of the Constitution? Why doesn't it matter that they know why the Fathers of the early Church cared so much about definitions of doctrine or why the Puritan colonists of New England read the Scriptures in English or who was first responsible for the argument that "private vice" yields "public benefit"? Why doesn't it matter that they know where the first arguments for the abolition of slavery arose or who fought on which side in the French Revolution or where the Industrial Revolution began? Why doesn't it matter that they know where the image of Satan as a tortured genius comes from or why all church music sounds the same? Why doesn't it matter if they tell themselves this or that story about what caused the Crusades or what King Leopold thought he was doing in the Congo Free State? Why doesn't it matter whether they know about why Cortes was able to capture the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan or what caused the fall of the Roman Empire? Why doesn't it matter if they don't know why conservatives insist on the traditions of the common law while progressives want to reform the country through the intervention of the State? Why doesn't it matter if they have no idea why so many of our movies are about resistance to authority and/or the workings of the law? Why doesn't it matter if they don't know why Americans have a problem with stoning women for adultery or think women should be educated just like men? Why doesn't it matter if they have no sense whatsoever of the history of their own country and culture, never mind the history of the countries and cultures in other parts of the world?

Basically, we're cowards. Not, although this is part of the problem, because those who would insist that our culture--the culture of thinking historically and critically about the choices that human beings have made which we used to call "moral philosophy" when we didn't call it "history"--is so hopelessly corrupt that the only thing to do is bury it along with every other invention of the oh-so-hated bourgeoisie (although it really wasn't always the bourgeoisie's doing, they were busy building businesses and cities and making the world a more comfortable place to live, damn them) have so successfully bullied us that we daren't speak the word "white" without spitting and throwing salt over our shoulder first. After all, quite a few of us spend our lives studying countries and cultures other than those inhabited by the people of paler complexions whose ancestors were responsible for so many of the innovations which we now detest, like the use of fossil fuels to drive engines to make things and move them around. No, it's because we don't want to make the choice which of these cultures we will make our own, even as the institutions in which we study and teach them make the choice for us. Which is to say, we are Westerners all, but we don't want to admit it, because that would be recognizing the one thing that we have taught ourselves never to say: culture matters.

To be continued...

Defending Western Civilization: An Interview with Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown

My new friend and colleague Andrew Holt has leaped into the fray and asked me some challenging questions about the kerfuffle that ensued over my "Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men" post. He also gives a much more coherent account that I ever did of what my actual argument was (gleaned like a true historian from the comments that I made on the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship Facebook thread), as well as putting my concerns in a larger scholarly context. Truly, no cloud without a silver lining!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Defending the Middle Ages: We've Been Doing It Wrong

We medievalists all know the drill. Somebody in public life says something disparaging about the Middle Ages and we all leap in to insist that either a) Europe in the Middle Ages was actually much more advanced/enlightened/sophisticated than the off-hand comment about people believing the world was flat suggests, or b) yes, absolutely, they're right, medieval Christians were murderous thugs, barbarians of the first order who knew nothing of tolerance or diversity and probably ate babies for breakfast whenever they could get them. Neither answer ever changes the public conversation one iota because everybody knows that whatever Charles Homer Haskins might try to insist about the real Renaissance happening in the twelfth century, there is no getting round the Albigensian Crusade and the massacres of the Jews in the Rhineland (the former called by the pope, the latter resisted by all the bishops and other leaders of the Church). The more those of us who study the intellectual, institutional, and spiritual achievements of the period succeed in pointing to the great depth and complexity of the Christian tradition (including its criticisms of the very kinds of violence so often cited as paradigmatic of the Dark Ages), the more our colleagues who study the massacres and inquisitions reinforce the prevailing sense of the period as benighted and savage, and we are right back where we started, blaming Europe (and its colonial offspring) for all the woes in the world.

Our Enlightened and liberal predecessors would say we've been doing it wrong. Maybe not Voltaire (I don't really have much time for Voltaire, particularly his anti-Catholicism, although here I am judging him largely on his reputation, less on having read much of his actual work). But certainly Adam Ferguson and the other philosophers of Scotland who, unlike the Enlightened French, looked back over the eighteenth century not as a period of great aristocratic luxury, but rather as the period in which Scotland had first emerged from savagery. (Here I am leaning fairly heavily on the account in Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World [2001], which first got me started on this line of thinking.) For the Scots, there was nothing to be taken for granted in the development of civilized society. Whereas the French could trace their tradition of court and urban life back to the time when Francia was Gaul, the Scots had never been brought under Roman rule and had no tradition of town-dwelling to speak of. Nor, in the early eighteenth century, when Scotland voted itself to Union with England, had they gained any great wealth from the adventures in colonization in which Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, and England had been engaged since Columbus's momentous voyage. Rather, "[in] 1700 Scotland was Europe's poorest independent country (Ireland...was governed by England, and Portugal still owned Brazil)." And yet, within a hundred years, this small "underpopulated" and "culturally backward" nation of "fewer than two million people as late as 1800" would become the "driving wheel of modern progress" (Herman, p. viii). The contrast between the two Enlightenments could not be more striking. While the French spent the last decade or so of the eighteenth century attempting to wipe out every vestige of their medieval, "feudal" past, the Scots were busy building "the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age," all the while marveling that yesterday their ancestors had been savages (their word) living in hovels (Herman, p. 11).

Walter Scott, as always, put it perhaps most vividly. In the prefatory letter to his anonymously published Ivanhoe (1819), his epistolary character Laurence Templeton of Toppingwold, Cumberland, responds to his fellow Englishman the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust (living in the Castle Gate, York) about how much harder it is for English authors and readers to imagine the lives of their medieval ancestors than it is for the Scots (Scott was, of course, Scottish; he is playing an elaborate joke here):
It was not above sixty or seventy years [Templeton's letter is dated November 17, 1817], you [Dr. Dryasdust] observed, that the whole north of Scotland was under a state of government nearly as simple and patriarchal as those of our good allies the Mohawks and Iroquois. Admitting that the author [they are talking about certain stories that another anonymous author has published, "like a second M'Pherson," about Scottish antiquities; the joke is that this anonymous author was Scott himself] cannot himself be supposed to have witnessed these times, he must have lived, you observed, among persons who had acted and suffered in them; and even within these thirty years, such an infinite change has taken place in the manners of Scotland, that men look back upon their fathers' habits of society, as we do on those of the reign of Queen Anne [when the Union was made]. Having thus the materials of every kind lying strewed around him, there was little, you observed, to embarrass the author, but the facility of choice....  Many men alive, you remarked, well remembered persons who had not only seen the celebrated Roy M'Gregor, but had feasted, and even fought with him. All those minute circumstances belonging to private life and domestic character, all that gives verisimilitude to a narrative and individuality to the persons introduced, is still known and remembered in Scotland...  The Scottish magician, you said, was like Lucan's witch, at liberty to walk over the recent field of battle, and to select for the subject of resuscitation by his sorceries, a body whose limbs had recently quivered with existence, and whose throat had but just uttered the last note of agony.
According to Dr. Dryasdust, the English author, by contrast, had things much harder, having access not to the memories of those whose manners and customs he was attempting to resuscitate, but only to
musty records and chronicles, the authors of which seem perversely to have conspired to suppress in their narratives all interesting details, in order to find room for flowers of monkish eloquence [so much for the Christian contemplative tradition], or trite reflections upon morals [and likewise for the many efforts on the part of the clergy to communicate Christian teaching to the laity].
Accordingly, it was near impossible (Dr. Dryasdust suggested) for the English author even to imagine what his ancestors had been like, never mind describe their customs and morals with anything approaching verisimilitude. As Dr. Dryasdust contended:
If you describe to [the English reader] a set of wild manners, and a state of primitive society existing in the Highlands of Scotland, he was much disposed to acquiesce in the truth of what was asserted. And reason good. If he was of the ordinary class of readers, he had either never seen those remote districts at all, or he had wandered through those desolate regions in the course of a summer-tour, eating bad dinners, sleeping on truckle beds, stalking from desolation to desolation, and fully prepared to believe the strangest things that could be told him of a people wild and extravagant enough to be attached to scenery so extraordinary. But the same worthy person, when placed in his own snug parlour, and surrounded by all the comforts of an Englishman's fire-side, is not half so much disposed to believe that his own ancestors led a very different life from himself; that the shattered tower, which now forms a vista from his window, once held a baron who would have hung him up at his own door without any form of trial; that the hinds, by whom his little pet-farm is managed, would have, a few centuries ago, been his slaves; and that the complete influence of feudal tyranny once extended over the neighboring village, where the attorney is now a man of more importance than the lord of the manor.
This was the challenge, according to Scott, for the author wanting to say something about what England had been like in the Middle Ages, that in England "civilization has been so long complete" that it was almost inconceivable that the English had ever been as barbarous as their northern neighbors and now fellow-countrymen the Scots. Scott's answer--that thanks to the continuities in "manners and sentiments which are common to us and to our ancestors, which have been handed down unaltered from them to us, or which, arising out of the principles of our common nature, must have existed alike in either state of society," it should be possible for the English author to represent something of "the opinions, habits of thinking, and actions" of his medieval ancestors--is fascinating in itself for what it can tell us about the growth of national sentiment among both the Scots and the English by the early nineteenth century, most particularly Scott's emphatic insistence that "our ancestors were not more distinct from us, surely, than Jews are from Christians" (a major theme of the novel). For medievalists wanting to champion our continuing study of the Middle Ages, however, it is the veritable grail.

Were the Middle Ages a period of backwardness, savagery, and oppression? Scott would say, "Yes!" (Just wait till the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert gets his hooks into the virtuous Jewess Rebecca of York.) But--and this is important--only in comparison with what England and Scotland had subsequently become. The whole point of Dr. Dryasdust's complaint is that it was much harder for the English author or reader even to comprehend how different life's circumstances had been for his or her medieval forebears, whereas all the Scot (like Scott himself) had to do was walk out his door. If the Middle Ages seem barbarous to us--HURRAY! Clearly, our circumstances now are as different as those of the Englishman sitting snug in his parlor were from those of his ancestors eking a living out under the rapacious eyes of their feudal lords. Thanks to Haskins, we medievalists have spent so much time trying to apologize for the good that came out of the Middle Ages that we have obscured the reason that philosophers, historians, and novelists in the nineteenth century were so fascinated by them: precisely because they were trying to figure out how their ancestors, whom echoing Scott they all acknowledged to have been barbarians, had somehow stopped being quite so barbarous, perhaps having become even something close to civilized, although even then they weren't necessarily convinced that it would last. As J.S. Mill (his father James was a Scot) observed somewhat gloomily in On Liberty, thinking on how the great nations of Asia had (to English eyes in the mid-nineteenth century) lost their former vitality and originality: "What are they now? The subjects or dependents of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent palaces and gorgeous temples, but over whom custom exercised only a divided rule with liberty and progress. A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop: when does it stop?"

Far from being confident that their own countrymen had escaped forever from their former barbarism, Scots like Scott and Mill were all too aware how thin the veil was between savagery and civilization, however snug their parlors and however dry-as-dust the sources at their disposal for imagining their ancestors' passions and motivations. "Our ancestors," Laurence Templeton assured the Rev. Dr., "were not more distinct from us, surely, than Jews are from Christians; they had 'eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions'; were 'fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer' as ourselves. The tenor, therefore, of their affections and feelings, must have borne the same general proportion to our own."

Why study the Middle Ages? Because the Middle Ages, for all their savagery as well as their sophistication, are us.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Between the Baskets, Mary and Me

One of my new friends, Paul, who is himself a convert to Catholicism, has been asking me whether I have ever been drawn to convert, given my devotion to the Virgin Mary. Presbyterians, after all, are not particularly famous for their devotion to the Virgin Mary, and even the Episcopalians with whom I now worship have proven amazingly resistant to my pleas that we pay more attention in our liturgy to the Mother of God. Wouldn't I be happier in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox church where Mary is given her appropriate due?

You would think, and I often have wondered why Mary chose me, someone who has never even come close to being a Catholic, as her particular servant. Wondered, that is, until this past summer when I realized that I actually was, in spirit, a Presbyterian, and suddenly her great wisdom in choosing me became clear. (I am not trying to be boastful here, she did choose me and will not let me go, even when I have tried to define my academic work in other ways so as not to seem "narrow.") What, after all, is the one thing that Presbyterians are famous for, other than being stuffy? Okay, having elders in charge of their congregations, which gives us the Scots model of representative democracy (or vice versa, not quite sure about this here). But, no, not that. Okay, they are big on the sovereignty of God (I am reading the Wikipedia entry now). Which is definitely a feature of my thinking. But let's get to item number three in the Wikipedia description: their focus on the authority of the Scriptures. Ah.

If there is one thing that I have struggled with throughout the years that I have been working on the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary it is the expectation that what I was looking at ought or should or must have something to do with "popular" devotion, more particularly, the devotion of women. And the one thing that everybody knows about popular devotion in the Middle Ages is that it was illiterate. (Everybody is wrong, but that isn't quite my point here. See that book that I keep promising is going to be forthcoming.) Which means it must have had very little to do with Scripture. You get this all the time in our scholarship. How is it, my colleagues ask, that so much attention could be paid to the Virgin Mary when there is so little about her in Scripture? Well, because they are wrong here, too. It all depends on how you read.

Which has been the whole burden of all of the scholarship that I have ever written on devotion to the Virgin Mary, although until recently I kept trying to disguise it as something else because even I couldn't see that what Mary really wanted me to write about was right in front of me all the time: how she was figured in the Song of Songs (the subject of my dissertation), how the descriptions of her in the Song of Songs were at the heart of the development of ideas about her compassion for her Son (the overarching theme of my first book), how all of the psalms in her Office were really about her relationship to God, how to understand the power that she has had in Christianity we need to learn how to read the Scriptures as medieval Christians read them--as filled to the brim with references to her (the argument of my present book, which I plan to spend this next year revising, but of which you can get a preview here).

Ironically, of course, that Mary even needs me to make this argument is thanks above all to Protestants like the Presbyterians, who in their insistence on sola scriptura managed to erase a whole tradition of reading with one fell swoop of the pen: "Medieval Catholics were making it up." Do you see how very clever Our Lady is? If I were a Catholic insisting that we should revisit this interpretive tradition, I could simply be accused of not being sufficiently aware of how modern exegetes have rejected this devotional tradition or, conversely, of having confessional motives for trying to reintroduce it, as did Henri de Lubac with the four senses of Scripture. But here I am, a Protestant, and a Presbyterian at that, suggesting that maybe, just maybe the medieval exegetes knew what they were up to.

Of course, one could tell the story another way: I was drawn to the commentaries on the Song of Songs as the subject of my dissertation precisely because, as a Presbyterian born and bred, I was already attracted to the problem of how to read Scripture. And there is truth in that. Much of my formation as a scholar, not just a Christian, I credit to the courses that I took in New Testament as an undergraduate with Professor Werner Kelber at Rice, who taught us how to read the Gospels not just as collections of stories, but as works with particular narrative structures written to particular audiences with particular arguments in mind. This is the way in which I suggested we should read the commentaries, too, which (as I argue in my first book) is how the twelfth-century Marian commentators were reading the Song of Songs: as a kind of drama or narrative of Mary's relationship with her Son.

Would I have come to this way of reading the Scriptures about Mary if I had not been raised a Presbyterian, convinced that all the secrets of divinity lay hidden in the Book? Would I have taken the thirteenth-century Augustinian canon Richard of St. Laurent seriously when he insisted that Mary is the Book in which it is possible to read all the mysteries of God, if I did not already believe it were possible to find the whole of God's plan for creation therein? Would I have paid proper attention to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Servasanctus of Faenza when he said that Mary is the book of life containing all the creatures of Creation, who herself promises, speaking as Wisdom: "They that explain me shall have life everlasting" (Ecclesiasticus 24:31), if I were not already seeking Wisdom in the Word? Would I have noticed the twelfth-century Cistercian Amadeus of Lausanne insisting that Mary is the key to the mystery, the one standing between the two golden baskets filled with the flowers of the Old Testament and the fruits of the New (he is commenting on Song of Songs 2:5: "Support me with blossoms. Stay me with apples, for I am sick with love"), if I had not been attending to the way in which he commented on the Song of Songs? As Amadeus tells it, one basket stands on the left of Mary and one on the right, while Mary is seen standing in the middle, mediating between the promise and the fulfillment, and "like the tree planted in the midst of paradise, she raises her head to the height of heaven and, conceiving by the heavenly dew, brings forth the fruit of salvation, the fruit of glory, the fruit of life, and he who eats of it will live forever."*

Standing in the middle between the two baskets. That, I realized this past summer, is what I have been doing my whole life. Growing up in Greater Appalachia where, let's be frank, it was not easy being the (one of the) smartest one(s) in the class.** Going to graduate school in England as an American, then in New York City as definitely not an Eastcoaster. Spending my career in a discipline which, again, let's be frank, is not exactly a bastion of traditionalist thinking, although things are better for us ::cough::conservatives::cough:: in history than for colleagues in social psychology or anthropology. (My new friend Paul is an historian, too.) Competing as a woman in what is still a rather masculine sport (you should see some of my women friends flinch when I show them my foils). Being an academic watching reality shows about tattooing unironically, without however wanting to show off my ink. 

No wonder Mary chose me! Just like her, I am caught between worlds, called by her to be the one who mediates between the old and the new, between the medieval reading of the Scriptures and modern scholarly suspicion. Between devotion and understanding. Between affect and intellect. Between academia and faith. I might have had my doubts over the years, but she clearly knew what she was doing. She needed me standing between the baskets just as God needed her: to be the one standing in the shadows so that the light might shine. I suppose if she could do it no matter how hard it sometimes got, so can I.

*Amadeus of Lausanne, Eight Homilies in Praise of Blessed Mary, trans. Grace Perigo (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1979), p. 2.
**My sixth grade self wept over all of the entries in her yearbook: "To the Brain." I wanted to be pretty, sweet, somebody's best friend. Nope. I was the Brain.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Even Adam Smith Didn't Think It Was Possible to Work All the Time

The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low; in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns, than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three. This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to over-work themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece; as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary. Almost every class of artificers is subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work. Ramuzzini, an eminent Italian physician, has written a particular book concerning such diseases. We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us. Yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation and the desire of greater gain, frequently prompted them to over-work themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour. Excessive application during four days of the week, is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, bring on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate, than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.
--Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), book 1, chapter 8 
That said, I hope to be able to keep blogging somewhat more consistently now that I have been "outed" as a dyed-in-the-wool believer in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. I had been finding it difficult over the past couple of years to know what voice to assume with my new understanding of the significance of this tradition. I think I have found it, but will be anxious to learn whether it persuades. For the time being, I will be keeping comments closed on the blog, but I will be accepting letters to the editor, as it were, at my email address (see above).

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Check Your (Rhetorical) Weapons

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. 
Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent. 
But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. 
Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. 
But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. 
The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. 
But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct. 
With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. 
Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. 
The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. 
To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feel much interest in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. 
In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. 
For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion. 
It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either, while opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own: and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour. 
This is the real morality of public discussion; and if often violated, I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it, and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it.
--J.S. Mill, On Liberty (1859) 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

That Old Time Religion

I have not, until very recently, tended to identify as Presbyterian. Christian, yes, but not Presbyterian. Sure, I was baptized in the Presbyterian church--in fact, this one--and some of the strongest really good memories that I have from growing up are of the youth group at Springfield Presbyterian Church in Louisville (ah, slow dancing with him at the Valentine's Day dance...he never knew...). But being Presbyterian rather than simply Christian? I could take it or leave it--and leave it, I pretty much did.

When I was in graduate school in New York City, I attended services at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, rather than Emmanuel Presbyterian Church around the corner (I didn't even know it was there, I had to look it up just now. Maybe it wasn't there--they have some things on their site about a tenth anniversary?). I was a medievalist after all, and I had been studying for several years in England. Episcopal, Anglican, it was all the same to me--and much, much more interesting that those stuffy Presbyterian services that I had grown up with.

Have you ever been to a Presbyterian worship service? Or inside a Presbyterian church? No crucifixes, no actual communion, no sense of mystery at all--or so I thought. (Plus, I hadn't seen some of the Gothic revival Presbyterian churches, like Fourth Presbyterian here in Chicago; ours in Louisville and Amarillo were fairly plain.) I wanted smells! I wanted bells! I wanted some sense of something at communion other than little pieces of stale bread and a shot glass-worth of grape juice. (Again, my mother's church in Amarillo now has much, much better bread. Maybe it was just during the 1970s that we had to have the bread cubes.)

My thirteen-year-old self was particularly disappointed when I was at long last allowed to take communion (only offered once a month, and something only for the grown-ups), and--let's be honest here--nothing happened. Really? That was it? A little cube of Wonder Bread? No heavens opening? No angels? Even worse, and very much the real reason I ended up in medieval studies, no theological explanation for why we were eating little cubes of bread in the first place? Because we are remembering Jesus? But I can do that watching Franco Zeffirelli's mini-series on TV! (I still love that scene with Robert Powell.)

Medieval Christianity was much more appealing to me, although it is interesting that I have never seriously considered converting to Catholicism. The Anglicans all say that the Church of England is the actual True Church anyway, and besides the echoes of the Sarum rite are still strong, even in the more recent versions of the Book of Common Prayer. At least, they seemed so to me. (I haven't actually done the proper comparison, although I think Alan Jacobs talks about it in his book.) (Ah, yes, he mentions that the Scots used the Sarum rite--which pretty well fits my latent Presbyterianism. Hmmm....)

Anyway, when Anglicans or Episcopalians pronounce the Preface for the Sanctus, the heavens open and there are angels, whole choirs of them: "Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying..." Again, I have no idea how the Preface in the Presbyterian service reads, maybe there are angels in it, too (this post is really making me want to do some more research!). But in the Anglican services, angels seemed to be a big deal.

Likewise, the possibility that the bread and wine were really, you know, the body and blood, not just a remembrance thereof. Not that I have ever managed actually to, you know, believe that it is somehow Christ's body and blood that I am receiving--somehow all those miracle stories my colleagues and I have been quoting for decades simply won't take--but I like the effort at trying, and it feels much more solemn and celebratory to go up to the altar (ours is in the middle of the nave, and we receive communion in the round) and be handed the bread by a priest saying, "The body of Christ."

No, I haven't been much interested in being Presbyterian for a very long time. Until, that is, I read David Hackett Fischer's description in Albion's Seed (pp. 703-8) of what Presbyterian services were like back in the day.

According to Fischer (and if you're wondering why I have embraced his work with the enthusiasm of a convert, this is partly why), "backcountry Christianity" (a.k.a. Scots Irish Presbyterianism) was marked at once by "its intense hostility to organized churches and established clergy on the one hand [see, I get my contrariness and utter inability to go along with the crowd honestly!], and its abiding interest in religion on the other [pretty much my life-long obsession].... On both sides of the British border [of Scotland and England] there had been a strong antipathy to state churches, religious taxes and established clergy [ahem]. Throughout the backcountry and borderlands, Anglican priests were held in special contempt for their lack of personal piety, and for their habit of subservience to landed elites [::cough cough::].... There was, however, no hostility to learned and pious ministers of acceptable opinions. Presbyterian settlers sent home to Scotland and Northern Ireland for their own college-trained clergy who came out to serve them.... These Presbyterian ministers were proud of their learning [::grin::].... These ministers were valued for their skill at preaching, which combined appeals to reason with strong emotions. In the backcountry, before the end of the eighteenth century, a familiar form of evangelical religion was the camp meeting.... Many historians have mistakenly believed that the camp meeting was invented on the American frontier. In fact it was transplanted to America from the border counties of Britain... Presbyterian emigrants such as the Witherspoons introduced field meetings to the American backcountry as early as 1734, probably earlier.... Here were the major ingredients of backcountry religion: the camp meeting, the Christian fellowship, the love feast, the evangelical preacher, the theology of Protestant fundamentalism and born-again revivalism.... Altogether, this form of reformed religion--intensely emotional, evangelical and personal [but highly learned]--was a central part of backcountry culture.... This form of Christianity was not invented on the frontier. It was an adaptation of religious customs which had long existed on the borderlands of North Britain."

Well, that didn't sound boring at all! In fact, it sounded down-right exciting--and spookily familiar. As I commented to my Facebook friends: "I think this pretty much explains my teaching style: I got it from my Presbyterian ancestors." Or, if not from my ancestors directly (although the Fultons were most definitely Presbyterian), somehow from the spirit of the churches in which I had grown up. Who knew? All this time, I had thought I was chasing something other than my roots, going back to the Middle Ages trying to find the spirit that I lacked. And all the while, it was inside of me already, bestowed upon me at my baptism.

I guess I am Presbyterian after all.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Founding Freedoms Four-Square

Those who tend to look at our current political culture from my side of the fence (safely segregated in academia in little pens, somewhat more free-range out there in think-tank land) often talk about the need to return to the ideals of our Founding Fathers as a way out of our nation's contemporary woes. "If only," they remark wistfully, "we could recover the commitment to liberty that our Founding Fathers shared. Then, we could make this country great again."

David Hackett Fischer must be tearing his hair out. Because, you see, as Fischer has shown over and over again, there never was a time at which all Americans shared the same conception of liberty, not even in the colonial period when they were all "English." Okay, even then they weren't all "English," some of them thought of themselves as "not-English" or "Scots." But that is precisely Hackett's point: the four major British folkways brought with them not only different ideas about how to pronounce English or how to build a house or what colors to wear or how to treat old people. They also brought radically different ideas of order and freedom and the proper exercise of power, and it was the tension between these four freedom ways that made our country strong, whereas each individually left unchecked had a tendency to go to self-destructive extremes.

Let's try a little test. Which of these statements do you find most congenial as an answer to our current political debates?
  1. Government should just get out of trying to control everything.
  2. People should be willing to give up a little more in order to help the community.
  3. People need to respect the order of things as they have developed over the history of the country.
  4. People should live and let live, no need for everyone to sing from the same hymnal.
Answer, and I will tell you where your family is from and/or where you grew up.*

1. Government should just get out of trying to control everything. This is the freedom way of the backcounty, the Borderlanders who came to North America fleeing the devastation of their homelands by the incessant wars between the English and the Scots and following the clearances of the Highlands by the Scottish lords after the Union. These Scots Irish Presbyterians brought with them a strong sense of "natural freedom." As the German traveler Johann Schoepf observed in the late eighteenth century: "[The backcountry folk] shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint. They hate the name of a justice, and yet they are not transgressors. Their object is merely wild. Altogether, natural what pleases them" (p. 777). In Fischer's words: "The backcountry idea of natural liberty was created by a complex interaction between the American environment and a European folk culture. It derived in large part from the British border country, where anarchic violence had long been a condition of life. The natural liberty of the borderers was an idea at once more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America" (p. 777). Patrick Henry was a descendent of British borderers and consistently championed the principles associated with this idea of freedom: "minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority in all cases which infringed liberty" (p. 778). In 1788, he led the opposition to the new national constitution, on the grounds that "strong government of any sort was hostile to liberty" (p. 780).

2. People should be willing to give up a little more in order to help the community. This is the freedom way of the East Anglian Puritans who came to New England to establish their perfect society. For the Puritans, "'liberty' often described something which belonged not to an individual but to an entire community," and they wrote of "the liberty of New England" or "the liberty of Boston" or "the liberty of the Town." "This idea of collective liberty, or 'publick liberty' as it was sometimes called, was thought to be consistent with close restraints upon individuals" (pp. 199-200). New Englanders willingly accepted these restraints as long as they were "consistent with written laws which they called the 'fundamentals of the commonwealth'" (pp. 200-201). New Englanders also spoke of individual liberties in the plural, in the sense of "specific exemptions from conditions prior constraint," of the liberty of the soul as "freedom to serve God" and "to order one's own acts in a godly way--but not in any other," and of freedom from "the tyranny of circumstance," for example, the "freedom from fear" or "freedom from poverty"(pp. 201-205). New Englanders accepted the restraints of their ordered freedom for the sake of the freedoms from circumstance which they looked to the community to provide. 

3. People need to respect the order of things as they have developed over the history of the country. This is the freedom way of the gentry Anglicans who came to Tidewater Virginia to recreate the landed aristocracy they had left behind at home. The ruling class in Virginia saw itself as belonging at the top of a natural hierarchy, and freedom "mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others." The opposite of this hegemonic freedom was "'slavery,' a degradation into which true-born Britons descended when they lost their power to rule." This dominion extended not only over other human beings but also over oneself and one's passions. As the English traveler Andrew Burnaby observed: "The public and political character of the Virginians corresponds with their private one: they are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controlled by any superior power" (p. 411). As Fischer remarks: "It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen--a property which set this 'happy breed' apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world. Even within their own society, hegemonic liberty was a hierarchical ideal. One's status in Virginia was defined by the liberties that one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties, and slaves none at all. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: 'I am an aristocrat,' he declared, 'I love liberty; I hate equality'" (p. 412).

4. People should live and let live, no need for everyone to sing from the same hymnal. This is the freedom way of the Quakers from the Midlands of England who came to the Delaware Valley fleeing the persecutions of the Puritans and Anglicans. Unlike the Puritans and Anglicans, Quakers were also welcoming of other ethnic groups; many of the Delaware colonists came from Ireland, Wales, Holland, and the Rhineland. By the late seventeenth century, within a two-mile stretch of Germantown north of Philadelphia there were churches built by Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Quakers, Dunkards, and Calvinists. The bell that now hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia was originally a Quaker bell. For the Quakers, the most important liberty was "liberty of conscience": "This was not the conventional Protestant idea of liberty to do only that which is right. The Quakers believed that liberty of conscience extended even to ideas that they believed to be wrong. Their idea of 'soul freedom' protected every Christian conscience'" (p. 597). As with religious confessions, the Quakers insisted that "taxes could be imposed only by the consent of the governed" and "that no taxes should be levied upon the people except those which they were willing to impose on themselves" (p. 600). They extended this right, along with the "rights of an Englishman" identified by the colony's founder William Penn, to all members of their community: "first, a 'right and title to your own lives, liberties and estates; second, representative government; third, trial by jury'" (p. 599). Quakers were particularly important in calling for the abolition of slavery as a way of extending this reciprocal freedom to all human beings.

When I asked my students which of the four answers they preferred, the vast majority chose either #2 or #4, although one or two were almost willing to concede #1. Nobody went for #3. I have a few Facebook friends that might still plump for #1 (Go, Rednecks!), but to judge from my news feed, I am guessing that almost everyone else believes either #2 or #4 is the answer, and that to go with either #1 or #3 would be an unmitigated disaster. The problem, as Fischer has shown, is not only that are #2 and #4 at odds with each other (remember what the Puritans did to the Quakers), but that either by itself would be (and was) impossible to sustain. If the Puritans gave us the Salem witch trials, the Quakers left to their own defenses would have been massacred en masse. And if the drawbacks of the Scots Irish and Tidewater Virginian freedom ways are all too obvious to the present-day descendants of the Quakers (roughly, those who tend to think of themselves as "liberal") and Puritans ("progressives"), their virtues are important not to forget. This is the lesson that Fischer would have us learn: the American tradition of liberty is not singular, but four-square, and it is this diversity that has made us who we are as a model to the world.

In Fischer's words (pp. 897-99):
The persistence of regional cultures in America is more than merely a matter of antiquarian interest. Regional diversity has created a dynamic tension within a single republican system. It has also fostered at least four different ideas of liberty within a common cultural frame. 

These four libertarian traditions were not forms of classical republicanism or European liberalism--even as those alien ideologies were often borrowed as rationales. American ideas of freedom developed from indigenous folkways which were deeply rooted in the inherited culture of the English-speaking world.

Considered in ethical terms, each of these four freedom ways began as a great and noble impulse, but all at first were limited in their expression and defective in their operation. The Puritan idea of ordered freedom was no sooner brought to Massachusetts than it became an instrument of savage persecution [see the Salem witch trials, among other things--FB]. The cavalier conception of hegemonic freedom, when carried to Virginia, permitted and even required the growth of race slavery for its support [basically: slaves were imported to take the place of English serfs in the system--FB]. The Quaker version of reciprocal freedom was a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world [both Puritans and Anglicans persecuted Quakers in England and the colonies, but the Quakers refused to fight back; they only survived in the colonies because the other three groups fought the British elites' attempt to take over all four cultures in the 1760s and 70s--FB]. The backcountry belief in natural freedom sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy [as every stereotype about Appalachia shows--FB].

But each of these four libertarian [as in "about liberty"--FB] traditions proved capable of continuing growth. New England's Puritan faith in ordered freedom grew far beyond its original limits to become, in Perry Miller's words, "a constellation of ideas basic to any comprehension of the American mind." Virginia's cavalier conceit of hegemonic freedom transcended its association with inequalities of rank and race and gender to become an ethical idea that is relevant to all. Pennsylvania's Quaker inspiration of reciprocal freedom developed from a fragile sectarian vision into a libertarian creed remarkable for toughness of mind and tenacity of purpose. Border and backcountry notions of natural freedom evolved from a folk tradition into an elaborate ideology [which we invoke every time we claim people "naturally" want to be free--FB].

Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time [writing hopefully in 1989--FB], this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation's most enduring legacy to the world.  
*All quotations from David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).