Friday, December 9, 2016

Fake News

Last week I broke my sabbatical seclusion to attend a panel that my colleagues in the Department of History had organized on "Understanding the Trump Phenomenon." The panelists covered a range of themes: climate change denialism, white nationalism, the global failure of capitalism, the latent illiberalism of American culture, and world-wide yearnings towards totalitarianism--all the usual -isms. And then they opened the floor to questions. Like a good fencer, I got my hand up first and said something about the need to think of American culture in more regional and long-range terms, particularly the differences in conceptions of liberty that David Hackett Fisher has shown to be in play, but it was already too late. The room was primed to descend into pessimism and despair, although since we're talking academics here--fellow professors and graduate students in History for the most part--it was subtle and came out mainly in the kinds of questions asked.

One question in particular had my colleagues on the panel stumped. "How," one of our graduate students asked, after the conversation had ranged round the many ways in which the progressive liberal experiment in America seemed doomed, "do we know what news sources we can trust anymore?" Her voice rose as she spoke, in that way that I have regularly heard my friends' voices rise over the past few weeks; even men's voices go up as their anxieties kick in and they start pleading with the universe to make the results of the election go away. "How do we know what news sources we can trust anymore?" My colleagues made a stab at it: "Go with sources that you have to pay a subscription for." But mainly they sat and shook their heads, clearly at a loss. They wanted to give the students an answer, but were distressed that they couldn't name news sources that they themselves trusted fully, not even The New York Times. "It is a wild wild world out there," they seemed to be saying. "Even we aren't sure whom we can believe."

Let's play a little game.

Which of the following stories would you believe if you read about them in the newspaper?
1. Some wonderful and astonishing occurrences have happened in our times... I call things of this nature wonderful, not merely on account of their rarity, but because some hidden meaning is attached to them. On splitting a vast rock, with wedges, in a certain quarry, there appeared two dogs, but, without any spiracle [breathing hole] whatever, filling up the cavity of the rock which contained them. They seemed of that species which are called harriers [for hunting hares], but of fierce countenance, disagreeable smell, and without hair. It is said that one of them soon died; but that the other, having a most ravenous appetite, was cherished for many days by Henry, bishop of Winchester. 
2. Not long afterwards a contention arose between the king and the Welsh--a restless and barbarous people--originating either through his making some unusual exactions, in consequence of his power, or on their insolently denying so great a prince his customary tribute, from too great a confidence in the protection afforded by their woody mountains and valleys; or else from their restlessness, and clandestine incursions into the neighboring confines of the English.... These Welsh are the remnants of the Britons, the first inhabitants of this island, now called England, but originally Britain; and it is notorious that they are of the same race and language as are the Britons on the continent: but when the Britons were being exterminated by the invading nations of the Angles, such as were able to escape fled into Wales, where, through the bounty of nature, they were secure against hostile attacks; and there this nation continues to the present day. 
3. About this time Frederick, emperor of Germany and Italy, laid siege to, took, and destroyed the city of Milan; which for a long time had continued in a state of rebellion, from confidence in its strength and resources. The Lombards, a restless and warlike people, thirsting after unbounded liberty, and proud in consequence of the number of their cities, and the greatness of their strength, had many years before revolted in a great measure from the emperor of the Romans. But, while the most opulent cities contended with each other for the superiority, and desired to govern the rest, they only augmented thereby the force of the emperor against themselves. At last, the Milanese surpassing in wealth and power, affected the supremacy of all Lombardy, and had already subdued some cities and destroyed others which resisted, when the people of Pavia, unequal in strength, but disdaining their control, went over to the party of the emperor.
4. There was also in our province of York at a village called Farneham another venerable man named Ketell. He was a rustic indeed; but by virtue of his innocence and purity, he obtained a singular favor from the Lord. Of this man many very remarkable things were reported to me by men of veracity, a few of which I shall relate. When he was quite a youth, as he was one day returning home on horseback from the fields, his horse, as if stumbling, fell to the ground and dismounted him. On getting up he saw, as it were, two little Ethiopians sitting in the road, and laughing together. He understood they were devils, who were not permitted to injure him any further; and he rejoiced that they had hurt him so little. From that day he received this gift from God: ever after he could see demons; and however anxious they might be to remain undiscovered, they could not elude his knowledge.
5. Thus were the Jews besieged in the royal castle.... There was among them a certain elder, a most famous doctor of the law, according to the letter which killeth, who had come from countries beyond the sea to instruct the Jews in England, as it is said. This man was held in honour among them all, and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the prophets. So, when at this conjuncture his advice was asked, he replied, "God, to whom we ought not to say, Why dost Thou this? commands us to die now for His law--and behold our death is at the doors, as ye see; unless, perchance, which be far from us, ye should think that the Holy Law ought to be deserted for this short span of this life, and should choose that which to good and manly minds is worse than any kind of death, that is to say, to live with the greatest disgrace, as apostates, through the mercy of our impious enemies. Since, therefore, we ought to prefer a glorious death to an infamous life, it is plain that we ought to choose the most honorable and easy kind of death: for if we should fall into the hands of the enemy, we should die according to their pleasure, and amidst their mockery. Therefore, let us willingly and devoutly, with our own hands, render up to Him that life which the Creator gave to us, since He now claims it, and let us not wait for the aid of a cruel enemy to give back that which He reclaims. For this, indeed, many of our people are known to have done laudably in divers tribulations, setting before us a precedent for that choice which is most fitting for us to make." When he had said this, many embraced the fatal advice; but to others the discourse seemed  hard.
I am sure you have already guessed that these stories are not reports of current events, at least not in our time. But once upon a time they were. Which of them would you believe if you had been living in twelfth-century England but had the critical faculties that you do now? Probably not number 4: a peasant who claimed to be able to see demons?! Most likely not number 1: dogs, even rabbit-hunting dogs, obviously do not live in rocks. But what about numbers 2, 3, and 5? These all seem like fairly straightforward reporting, do they not? Number 2 gives what seems like a robust historical explanation for the Welsh resistance to the king, hearkening back to the days when the Britons were fleeing from the Angles and depended upon the mountains of Wales to protect them. Likewise, number 3 gives a credible socio-political explanation for the animosity that the cities of Lombardy have against the emperor of Germany and Italy. Number 5, perhaps surprisingly, relates as if from within the arguments that one of the rabbis of the Jews of York made against surrendering to the people of the town who were besieging the Jews in the castle, even going so far as to appreciate why the learned rabbi might have made the argument that he did from a theological perspective. Number 5 in particular would seem to give as fair and balanced an accounting of the terrible events of the day (most of the Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to the mob) as we might hope for in our own news sources from an objective reporter.

As news sources, numbers 1 and 4 clearly seem to come from an author inclined to believe in marvels and demons, while numbers 2 and 3 suggest an author concerned with matters of ethnic identity and political theory, and number 5 suggests an author interested in understanding the psychological and cultural motivations of the people involved in the events of the day. You know there's a trick here, don't you? Exactly: these are all passages from the work of a single author, the Historia rerum Anglicarum ("History of English Affairs") by William, a canon of the Augustinian house of Newburgh, just outside York. William wrote this history towards the end of the twelfth century at the behest of one of his neighbors, Ernald, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx, to cover the events from the Norman conquest of England in 1066 through the reconciliation of Richard I with the archbishop of Rouen in 1197. It was, as William claimed in the preface, a work intended for "mental recreation" only, easy and involving no deep researches into profound matters of mystical exposition, as, for example, another neighboring abbot, Roger of Byland, had required of William in writing a commentary on the Song of Songs.

In his own day William's Historia had but modest success, being copied only a handful of times in manuscript (around five). His work was published several times in the early modern period (Antwerp, 1567; Heidelberg, 1587; Paris, 1610, 1632; Oxford, 1719). It was in the nineteenth century with the birth of modern scholarship that William at long last came into his own. One enthusiastic reader, Edward Augustus Freeman, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and author of a six-volume history of the Norman Conquest, went so far as to hail William as "the father of historical criticism," while Richard Howlett, the editor of William's Historia for the Rolls Series, called him "a man of unusual moral elevation, mental power and eloquence" who recorded "all facts" so far as he knew "with unswerving faithfulness." Yes, they were reading the same stories we just read, and yet, for Freeman and Howlett, William was one of the most trustworthy reporters of his day.

In comparison, there was William's contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whom William insisted was a liar and a fraud. 

More particularly, in William's words:
No one but a person ignorant of ancient history, when he meets that book which [Geoffrey] calls the History of the Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he falsifies in every respect. For he only who has not learnt the truth of history indiscreetly believes the absurdity of fable.
Only a few decades earlier, Geoffrey, you see, had written a history destined to become far more famous than William's. (Academic rivalry is as old as written history.) And not just famous: arguably, Geoffrey more or less single-handedly inspired the whole of Arthurian legend from the romances of Chrétien de Troyes through Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur down to T.H. White's Once and Future King and Mary Stewart's Merlin Series, along with every novel, play, poem, movie, and comic book ever written about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, not to mention all of the paintings, tapestries, and other art. To this day, there is a cottage industry among medievalists dedicated to trying to find the historical Arthur: just this summer, archeologists discovered the ruins of a "probable royal palace" at Tintagel in Cornwall, where Geoffrey said Arthur was conceived. Even the back cover of the 1966 Penguin edition of Lewis Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae leaves open the possibility that at least some of what Geoffrey recorded might be true. And if not true, at the very least gripping:
As an historian Geoffrey is sometimes less than reliable, but as the chronicler of half-legendary figures whose deeds have captured the imagination of millions, he is unrivalled: Lear, Cymbeline and, above all, Arthur were first recorded here and the Historia's influence inspired Malory and Tennyson, Shakespeare and Dryden. Geoffrey's remarkably vivid narrative grips the reader and is as exciting and vital today as it was eight hundred years ago.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur
William of Newburgh must be spinning in his grave. There he was, on the ground, as it were, actively refuting all of Geoffrey's lies, and here, over eight hundred years later, it is Geoffrey's, not William's account that more people have heard of--and want to believe. Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Uther Pendragon, Mordred, Gawain: even today, the names conjure up stories and ignite the desire to learn more about the history of late antique and early medieval Britain. Nobody wants to hear about how Geoffrey made them all up, as William put it, "from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own and endeavored to dignify them with the name of authentic history." They want Arthur to be real. Who cares if the Venerable Bede makes no mention of Arthur in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People")? Who cares if, according to William, Gildas was the more impartial reporter, refusing to spare "even his own countrymen" (Gildas was a Briton) in criticizing them for their defeat by the Angles? Everyone would much rather believe that there is some truth in Geoffrey's version, that he really did have access to "a very ancient book written in the British language" which a certain Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, "a man skilled in the art of public speaking and well-informed about the history of foreign countries," gave to him. (Geoffrey claimed that his own work was simply a translation into Latin, written in a plain style so as not to bore his readers or distract them from the story.)

"No, no, no," William cries in the preface to his Historia. "Geoffrey made it all up! There never was an old book! His history is all a 'fiction, invented either by himself or by others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death.'" Or as we might put it today: "Bede and Gildas established the facts, what Geoffrey has written is fake news!" William goes on to present several critical reasons why Geoffrey's account must be fake:
  • Gildas and Bede establish that Vortigern was the last of the British kings and that he invited the Saxons and Angles to come to the defense of the kingdom after the Roman retreat. They have no record of any other valiant and powerful British kings, only Saxons who defeated the Britons, "now called the Welsh."
  • Following Geoffrey's own chronology, the reign of Arthur ought to coincidence with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury and the conversion of Kent, but while Bede makes no mention of Arthur, Geoffrey depicts him as triumphing over not only the Angles, Picts, and Scots, but also Ireland, the Orkneys, Gothland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Gaul.
  • Geoffrey claims that Arthur then declared war on the Romans, who allied themselves with all of the kings of the world, the kings of Greece, Africa, Spain, Parthia, Media, Iturea, Libya, Egypt, Babylon, Bithynia, Phrygia, Syria, Boetia, and Crete, only to be defeated by Arthur in a single battle, but it took even Alexander the Great twelve long years to defeat "only a few of the potentates of these mighty kingdoms."
  • No ancient historians make any mention of these feats of valor: "Does he dream of another world possessing countless kingdoms, in which the circumstances he has related took place? Certainly, in our own orb no such events have happened. For how would the elder historians, who were ever anxious to omit nothing remarkable, and even recorded trivial circumstances, pass by unnoticed so incomparable a man, and such surpassing deeds?"
  • Bede is much more reliable. 
"But, but, but," Arthur's ardent followers would insist, "surely there was something behind Geoffrey's stories, he can't have made it all up!" Think for a moment about the criteria that William invokes to contest Geoffrey's narrative: comparison with other written accounts (Gildas and Bede); the likely bias of an author in favor of his own countrymen (Gildas); comparative chronologies of events (Augustine's mission to the English); comparisons with other historical accomplishments (Alexander's conquests); the likelihood that other historians would omit to talk about events of such magnitude (no mention of Arthur in other ancient histories); the reputation of other historians (Bede). Such proofs, surely, would seem to lay the question of Arthur's existence and glory to rest: even if he existed (which William insists he didn't), Arthur could not have been the king that Geoffrey claimed him to be. And yet, archeologists digging this past summer in Cornwall seem to have discovered his mother's castle.

So which news source do we trust: William, "the father of historical criticism," or Geoffrey, the liar and fabulist?

As William explained in his preface after demolishing Geoffrey's authority (or so he hoped), it was his purpose, insignificant as he was, to take up the task enjoined upon him by "some venerable characters" to whom he owed obedience, so as to transmit "to lasting memory by written documents" the "great and memorable events" which had occurred since the death of King Henry I, William the Conqueror's fourth son and second to succeed him on the throne of England. In other words, like a good graduate student, William of Newburgh proposed to fill in the gaps in the written history of the English kings from the Conquest down to his own day. Unlike Geoffrey, he did not mean to praise, but only to record, setting down the truth of events so that later generations would remember them. Nothing, he implies, in his account is made up; it is all based on reliable sources and authentic accounts.

I know what you're thinking: "Including his stories about demons and rock-dogs?!" Well. Let's go back to our five examples. Knowing what you know now about William, his criticisms of Geoffrey, and his understanding of the purpose of history, which of these stories would you say we can trust as accurate accounts of something that actually happened in William's own day? In particular, notice what he tells us in each instance about his sources, how he came to be able to relate what he does about the events he describes. It seems reasonable to believe, does it not, that the emperor of Germany and Italy actually waged war against the city of Milan, but how does William know? How does he know that the Milanese "thirsted after unbounded liberty"? How does he know that it was they, as he implies, not Frederick who was at fault in forcing their city to revolt? Notice how many assumptions William brings to this apparently impartial account of the city's revolt: that the Lombards were "restless and warlike," that the Milanese put themselves above all the other cities thus exciting the Pavians to take sides with the emperor, that the cities' desire to govern each other was a form of rebellion. Nowhere in this passage does he cite his sources of information; he simply recounts the events as if they were a given.

What about passage number 2, where he talks about the reasons for the Welsh contention with the king? Again, here William makes a number of assumptions about the character of the Welsh as a people, albeit suggesting various options for their rebelliousness. Again, he cites no sources, but here we know what he has been reading because he told us in his preface: Gildas, whose De excidio et conquestu Britanniae ("On the ruin and conquest of Britain") William took as authoritative precisely because it gave an unfavorable picture of the Welsh. And yet, contrast this lack of sympathy with the Welsh with William's willingness in passage number 5 not only to imagine himself into the debates that the Jews had while besieged in the castle at York, but to put words into the mouth of the learned leader of the people, calling for his people to render up the life that the Creator gave them so that they might die with honor rather than shame. Do we believe William here because he was willing to take the side of those whom many of his contemporaries considered enemies? Does his sympathy not make him more credible as a witness? And yet, all the Jews who were trapped in the castle died: how could William have learned what was said?

Passage number 1 would seem to be even less credible, wouldn't it? After all, here William explicitly says that he is going to be describing marvels ("wonderful and prodigious things"), of which the dogs found in the rock are only one. Among the marvels of the day, there were also two children whom certain villagers in East Anglia discovered in a field who were "completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour" who said they came from the land of St. Martin but had no idea how they ended up in England. There was a "beautiful double stone" which, when split, revealed a toad with a small gold chain around its neck. There was a peasant from a village in Yorkshire who heard singing from a hillside one night; investigating, he found a door in the hill through which he beheld "a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet." One of the attendants offered him a cup, from which he wisely did not drink; he kept the cup, however, and made off with it at great speed. He offered the cup--"a vessel of an unknown material, unusual color, and strange form"--to the king of England, who gave it to the queen's brother, the king of Scotland, who kept it for many years "among the treasures of his kingdom; and, a few years since, as we have learnt from authentic relation, it was given up by William, king of the Scots, to Henry the second, on his desiring to see it."

"These and similar matters," William opined, "would appear beyond belief, were they not proved to have taken place by credible witnesses"--as, for example, Bishop Henry of Winchester, who enjoyed playing with one of the quarry dogs. "But," you will say, "of course William believed all these marvels; this was the Middle Ages, he was a monk, he is supposed to be credulous." Why, then, we might ask, was he so angry at Geoffrey for telling lies? How could William, as an historian, believe stories about dogs found in rocks and cups stolen from fairy hills and not accept that Arthur might truly be sleeping in Avalon or have been the greatest king who ever lived? Couldn't he tell that such stories were equally made up? Or were they? William himself offers something of an apology for relating his catalogue of marvels: he attributes them to evil angels, allowed by God to deceive men, "partly by illusion and magic (as in the case of the nocturnal revel on the hill), partly in reality (as of the dogs, or the toad with the golden chain, or the cup), by which men may be held in blind amazement: and evil angels, when permitted, readily do those things, whereby men may be more dangerously deceived. Indeed, the nature of the those green children, who sprang from the earth, is too abstruse for the weakness of our abilities to fathom." At which he returns, matter-of-factly, to his historical narrative and the doings of the kings and queens.

Occasionally, however, William makes a somewhat stronger claim for the veracity of his account, most particularly in passage number 4, in the story of the peasant who could see demons. It is almost as if he realizes that he needs a stronger warrant for claiming that any mortal could have this ability, which makes it all the more interesting what he does not do, namely, claim that this marvel happened a long time ago in a land far far away. Quite the reverse: "There was also, in our province of York, at a village called Farneham, another venerable man, named Ketell." That is: this happened nearby, in a named village, to a man known by name. "Of this man many remarkable things were reported to me by men of veracity, a few of which I shall relate." That is: I myself heard these things from men I trust. But do we trust William? Why not? We trust him, at least we did at first, when he told us about things that happened hundreds or even thousands miles away, without reference to how he heard about them. We want to trust him when he tells us about things that happened in the city close to where he lived but which he himself could not have witnessed nor anyone still alive. We might even trust him when he tells us about green children springing from the earth--perhaps they were ship-wrecked and had been living on a diet of greens, since their natural skin color returned after they were fed a normal diet. Why do we not trust him when he says that he learned from men that he trusted that Ketell, who spent his life in the service of Adam, a clerk at Farneham, was able to see demons?

We don't trust him because, of course, we do not believe in demons. And yet, it is only Ketell's ability to see demons for which William provides what he implies were eyewitness accounts.

There is an easy answer to the question that the student asked my colleagues.

Q. "How do we know what news sources we can trust anymore?"
A. "None of them."

Not because the news has become somehow less trustworthy in the past fifteen months or even the past fifteen years. But because there has never been such a thing as a source you could trust without question, not even, as medieval monks were quick to point out, the evidence of your own eyes. "Fake news" is not the invention of the internet; it is an invention of language, the ability that human beings have to tell stories about things that have happened in other places, other times. "Fake news" is simply the flip-side of history. As Scott Adams put it many years ago, long before Trump descended his golden escalator to take over the news cycle with his Tweets: "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat the things that appear in history books that never actually happened." I was once in a bookstore browsing the History shelves, when a woman picked up a copy of the Penguin edition of Geoffrey's Historia. She flipped it over and read the back: "Geoffrey of Monmouth's famous Historia Regum Britanniae has held an important place in English literature since it was completed in 1136." She turned to her husband: "This looks like a really good book, it tells the whole history of the kings of Britain 'from the founding of Britain by Brutus to the coming of the Saxons.' Should we get it?"

Eavesdropping as I was, I didn't have the heart to tell her no.


Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London, 1966)
William of Newburgh, The History of William of Newburgh, trans. Joseph Stevenson (London, 1856):
  1. Book I, chap. xxviii
  2. Book II, chap. v
  3. Book II, chap. viii
  4. Book II, chap. xxi
  5. Book V, chap. x

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Establishment Conservative's Guide to Milo's Method for Winning the Culture Wars

It's the season of Advent, so you all know what that means: the Dangerous Faggot is back on tour. While our brothers and sisters on the Left repair to their fainting couches and get their smelling salts ready, those of us who think of ourselves as conservatives, more particularly American conservatives, need to start taking notes. The election may be over (please, God, let it be over!), but the culture wars are still going strong. As the bard once put it, "Faint heart never won fair lady." Lady Liberty needs us now more than ever to come to her defense! It behooves us to be ready. Here's the way Milo does it, for those who have ears to hear:

1. Be fabulous. Humility may have been the preferred topos in days of yore, but in these days of celebrity, all it gets you is a modest blog audience (I love you all!). Beauty may be skin deep and in the eye of the beholder, but it is also a source of real pleasure for those who are watching. Milo gets this, which is why (as he explained to his boss Alex Marlow over the summer on one of his podcasts) the first thing he did when he was making plans to continue his tour of our college campuses this academic year was hire a personal trainer and go on a diet. Plus, giving talks three days a week is a grueling business--just ask your favorite professor! It takes real stamina to carry your students' interest long enough to get through an hour and a half lecture. Frankly, I am in awe at how well Milo carries himself in this context: you get no help from the camera, there are no commercial breaks, no fancy graphics other than your own slides. All you have is your voice and your physical presence. Which had better be fabulous or you will put your audience to sleep.

2. Be humble. Yes, you read that right. I know, I know, Milo spends as much time as he possibly can talking about how fabulous he is, but--trust me on this--it is supposed to be funny. There you are, standing up in front of a student audience, dressed nicely, as fit as age and your other responsibilities as an adult allow, and they are all staring at you. Okay, Milo can't see them staring at him because he doesn't wear his contacts while he is speaking, but they're there, expecting... something... and you know that the worst thing you can be is boring. So you talk about how fabulous you are to make them laugh, put them at their ease, because of course you don't mean it... or maybe you do... how can they tell? What they know is that they are nervous (students are always nervous) and trying to disguise it as cool. It is up to you to give them confidence. On the one hand, they need your authority as a teacher--your fabulousness--but on the other, they need you to invite them into the conversation, make them feel comfortable with speaking out. It is a delicate balance between playing high-status and low-status, taking charge and giving them courage to speak.

3. Punch up. Milo has a reputation in the mainstream media for "hating" women and minorities, but in fact, he has never said anything of the sort. He does not hate women--he loves them! And he loves black men even more, perhaps more than he should, but he does love them. What he hates are the celebrities and other thought-leaders who use their status to hurt women and minorities by lying to them about the real difficulties that they face as women and minorities, particularly young college-aged women who have been convinced that they are in more danger of being raped on their college campuses than women in the Congo where rape is used as a weapon of war, and American blacks who have been lied to for decades by Democrats about why their lives have not improved. When Milo attacks, he attacks specific women, like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, or specific organizations like Black Lives Matter, whose policies and pronouncements he perceives as harmful, often life-threateningly so, as in the case of our current presidential administration's unwillingness to confront the dangers associated with radical Islam. The Left, as usual, takes specifics as generalizations, failing as always to distinguish between the individual and the collective.

4. Protect the weak. This is also known as being chivalrous. To judge from the videos, most of the students who come to Milo's talks are men, many of whom when it comes to the Q&A thank him for his role in covering GamerGate. They see him as a champion for standing up for them--the basement-dwellers with no sex life, as they are usually cast. But if you watch carefully, you will also see that there are women in the audience, often the young men's mothers and sisters, and Milo is always unfailingly polite to them. And then you realize that the rude jokes and constant references to gay sex are a part of the act to help put these young men at their ease, not to attack women or suggest that the young men should attack women, quite the reverse, as Milo likewise makes clear whenever he is speaking with Christina Hoff Sommers and students try to shout her down. And he always defends the students who protest his talks by insisting that it is not they, but their professors who are to blame for the incoherent ideas that they hold.

5. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When I first started watching Milo's talks, I took this as a weakness on his part: he says a lot of the same things over and over again, making sure to bring certain standard talking points into almost every talk. Now, however, I realize it is genius and the only way we are ever going to win the culture wars. People do not think in lengthy arguments--well, most people; I seem to--they think in phrases and lists. "Would you rather your child have feminism or cancer?" and "Fuck your feelings" may not be the most sophisticated formulations of the arguments that Milo would like to make, but they stick and they energize and they help focus people's attention on the problems much more than lengthier pronouncements would. It is also only through repetition that we can hope to change people's minds enough to get them to listen to our arguments in favor of free speech and liberty in the first place, never mind getting them to acknowledge the merits of these ideals.

6. Do your research. This is standard fare for conservatives: we always have to know everything so as to be able to answer our opponents' emotionally-laden accusations with facts. It is harder to prove that you know everything when giving talks--this is what footnotes are for! But having done the reading will make you calmer and able to answer your opponents' questions and accusations with appropriate examples and references. Based on my own blog stats, I am getting a better idea how rarely people actually click through on the references, but at least if the text is highlighted in different colors, people get the idea that there are references to read. Milo's headlines may be trolly, but the references he gives in his articles are based on proper research, as I know from the pieces that I have read, for example, about the non-existence of the wage gap to which he regularly draws attention.

7. Use facts, not feelings, to make your point. This sounds straight-forward, but is actually somewhat complicated. Milo, of course, is using feelings--feelings of pleasure and delight and joy--to capture his audience's attention and help draw them into the arguments he would make. What he means by "facts not feelings" is feelings as arguments of themselves, particularly expressions of offense intended not to open up conversation, but to shut it down. As in: "I find that really offensive!" More particularly, he means the feelings that many have when presented with facts that go against everything they have been taught; even more to the point, taught typically by way of invoking the very feelings that they have when confronted with those facts, namely, anxiety and fear. Is there a campus rape culture? Do Black Lives Matter? Is Islamophobia real? Who knows? Simply mentioning the possibility of rape, racism, or religious intolerance provokes almost instantaneous reactions of revulsion in most well-meaning Americans, leaving them incapable of hearing anything you say about the actual incidence of rape on college campuses, the real effects of the BLM movement on black communities, or the actual differences between religions on which the different cultures of the world are based. The first step that we have to make before changing people's minds about what they have heard is to get them to listen at all, to put aside the fear and anxiety overwhelming them whenever they hear the words "rape" or "racism" or "religious difference." This is the primary function of Milo's talks: simply to say the words in the context of facts that the students might not otherwise hear.

8. Champion Western values. Oddly, to judge from the media coverage that Milo helpfully shares on his Facebook feed, this seems to be the thing that Milo's opponents find most offensive about his talks: he believes in America, its values and ideals. This is the reason that the young men at his talks are so often inspired to chant: "USA! USA! USA!" Milo says dangerous things like: "Free speech matters! Property rights matter! Democracy matters! Freedom of religion matters! America is the best country in the world because we believe things like women and men should be equal and people of all races should be able to succeed!" And then he is accused of hate speech. The only reason that our opponents can make the accusations that they do against America is because they believe in these ideals, too. At least some of them do. At least I hope some of them do. And if they don't, there is no point whatsoever in not championing these values or apologizing that America hasn't lived up to them as perfectly as we would like.

9. Love your audience. Milo always takes questions and, although those of us watching from home don't get to see it, he always takes selfies with all of his fans who want the chance to meet him in person after his talks. This more than anything is what won me over when I started watching his talks back in September: the way in which he responds to his audience as they make jokes and join in. Like the best teachers, he uses their feedback to help craft his speech; although he works from prepared remarks, he almost never delivers them strictly verbatim. But he is truly at his best when taking questions, letting the students shape the conversation with the concerns that they bring. Nor are all of the questions necessarily from fans: sometimes the audience members are quite critical, but if they ask real questions, not just stand up to make tendentious speeches, he answers them honestly and with facts. And he always thanks everyone most graciously for coming and listening to him speak.

10. Have fun. Conservatives are supposed to be Happy Warriors, let's be happy! Oddly, this seems to be the thing that our fellow conservatives have found most offensive about Milo: his jokes, even when they are at his own expense, as, for example, the patently ridiculous rider that he put out at the beginning of this semester's tour listing all of the things that he expected the students (whom he doesn't even charge speaking fees) to provide. (I wonder if he got the 3 Siberian Husky puppies per talk? He must have quite the team by now! Maybe they are pulling the tour bus.) Yes, the fight in which we are engaged is serious, but it is a fight for liberty, joy, creativity, freedom, and fun! If the fight is long and hard, so be it, but we should be joyous as we battle. Milo himself put it beautifully in the conclusion to the remarks that he made on receiving the Annie Taylor Award last month, even more beautifully in the remarks that he had originally prepared:
So let us fight, but let our motto be Risus et bellum, Laughter and war. Because nothing stings our foes, foreign and domestic, more than our hearty laughter at their lies and nonsense. And also because nothing will better remind us what we’re fighting for than the laughter of Chesterton, of Chaucer and of Shakespeare, and of course the God who inspired them all.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Kung Fu Milo

You all know the story. Kai, the Musk-Ox Warrior, has returned from the Spirit Realm intending to steal their chi from the other animal warriors and turn them into jade ornaments that he can wear on his belt. His original motive would seem to be envy that the pandas taught the Tortoise Warrior Oogway the secret of chi, but his overwhelming desire is to dominate and control. So all-consuming has his envy become that his very eyes glow green. His primary weapons are two glowing green blades, and when he captures the other animal warriors, they turn into small green stones, rendered lifeless by Kai's greed to possess their golden chi.

Meanwhile, our hero, the Dragon Warrior Po (a giant panda), has been named Teacher by the Red Panda Master Shifu, but quickly loses heart when his students are injured thanks to his training. Even worse, when Kai shows up in the valley with his army of jade zombies, Po is unable to protect his friends. Po follows his panda father Li Shan (whom he has only just met) back to the panda village where Li promises Po he will learn the secret of chi. But when Po gets to the village, he learns that the only things the pandas know how to do is eat, roll, and sigh; they are not warriors, and none knows the secret of chi. The village, it would seem, is most certainly doomed.

But of course it isn't. Because Po learns more than just how to be a panda in his brief time in the village. Even though he doesn't realize it until the moment he confronts Kai with his army of roly-poly relatives, he already knows the secret of chi and thus how to defeat Kai: not by hoarding chi, but by giving it away. Kai had been able to defeat all the other animal warriors precisely because they tried to protect themselves from him, but Po welcomes his attack. Transformed into the true Dragon Warrior, Po defeats Kai by surrendering to him. "You want my chi so bad?" he cries. "Then take it." Filled with the golden light of the love of all the pandas, Master Tigress, and Po's adoptive father and noodle chef Mr. Ping (a goose), Kai explodes like a supernova and all of the animal warriors whom he has tried to possess are freed. The village is saved, the warriors restored to the land of the living, and Po takes his proper place as Teacher, while Mr. Ping makes noodles for everyone. It's so touching, you just know there's a moral to this story, don't you? Can you guess?

Some of my friends on Facebook have spent the better part of the past week trying to convince me that I am wrong about Milo, that he is not a merry trickster, but a dangerous fraud. Or, as one put it, "an opportunist provocateur and huckster." Others have been less polite. To my insistence that his articles were satire, one friend (himself gay) has responded: "Breitbart is Der Stürmer and you seem to be willing to support the current emulant of Julius Streicher." (I had to look this up.) He continued: "While I expect you will still be giggling when your friends are fired and attacked by the Trumpist state, I expect you know that in the long run there will probably be lists made in the future of academics who supported the alt-right who will have to be removed in an American denazification program. Too Much?" Another friend (also a fellow academic) tells me: "Rachel, your willful blindness knows no bounds. Turning Point USA, which has compiled the Professor Watch List, REGULARLY SPONSORS your vile buddy Milo's lectures." (As everyone following the Dangerous Faggot tour knows, Milo does not charge the student groups like the College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty who invite him to campus, so I am not clear what my friend means here.) This same friend also insists that Milo is a supporter of white supremacist Robert Spencer, on the basis of a single sentence in Milo and Allum Bokhari's now infamous article on the alt-right, in which they list Spencer among "The Intellectuals" responsible for one strand of the movement. A third friend (also gay) tells me, more succinctly: "Sorry, Rachel, your boyfriend MILO is loathsome." (Boyfriend?! Be still my heart!)

A fourth friend, who has made it his mission to turn my own Facebook feed into the Milo Channel by sharing posts he thinks will prove the point, quotes extensively from an article by "author, journalist, social justice bard" Laurie Penny, entitled "I'm with the Banned." (Note pun on "band" and "damned.") To judge from the article, Ms. Penny has a much better chance of being described as Milo's girlfriend than I do. One "hot, weird night in Cleveland" this past summer during the Republican National Convention, he took her riding in his "swank black trollmobile to the gayest neo-fascist rally at the RNC," introduced her to his whole staff, and refused yet again to accept that he and she are Not Friends despite (as she tells it) her best efforts to convince him otherwise: "The more famous he gets off the back of extravagantly abusing women and minorities [she must be thinking of different talks from the ones I've heard, and I'm pretty sure I've watched the full DF tour by now], the more I tell him I hate him and everything he stands for, the more he laughs and asks when we're drinking. I'm a radical queer feminist leftist writer burdened with actual principles [her conviction: he has none]. He thinks that's funny and invites me to his parties." My friend quoted Ms. Penny's conclusion: "It doesn't matter that he doesn't mean it. It doesn't matter that he's secretly quite a sweet, vulnerable person who is gracious to those he considers friends [thus the ride in the trollmobile]. It doesn't matter that somewhere in the rhinestone-rimmed hamster wheel of his mind is a conscience. It doesn't matter because the harm he does is real."

Those who follow Milo on Facebook know that the first thing he does with articles like Ms. Penny's is share them on his Facebook page. I wasn't following him this summer, so I don't know what he did with this one; he couldn't share it on Twitter as he was suspended that very night. As the article is clever and vividly written--the rally to which Milo takes our heroine is a "den of goblins," Donald Trump is a "howling psychopath," Milo's followers are a "yammering army of trolls"--I am more than certain that he enjoyed it, just as Ms. Penny probably expected him to do. She seems to understand his pleasure in the spectacle, even as she is convinced that he is all spectacle, no heart. "That's why I've always refused to debate Milo in public," she explains. "Not because I'm frightened I'll lose, but because I know I'll lose, because I care and he doesn't--and that means he's already won. Help and forgive me, but I actually believe human beings can be better than this." Like Ms. Penny, my Facebook friends are convinced that I cannot see what she clearly does: that Milo is playing with energies he does not understand, risking the very existence of our country for the sake of a few jokes. "America is a nation eaten by its own myth," she prophesies. "The entire idea of America is about believing impossible things. Nobody said those things had to be benign."

She's right about one thing: Americans love myths. Arguably, America more than any country ever in the history of humanity thrives on myths. Just look at Ms. Penny's own prose: goblins and trolls and howling monsters galore! The majority of America's myths are somewhat more mundane: The myth "that all Men are created equal," "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," "that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," and that it is to secure these Rights that "Governments are instituted among Men." The myth that it is "We the People of the United States...who ordain and establish" that Government through the Constitution according to which it is elected and structured so as "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." (I can't even type these resonant clauses without singing them in my head.) The myth that the Rights with which we as Americans are endowed include free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and of the press (the ones Milo says he is particularly concerned about), the right to assemble peaceably and "to petition the Government for redress of grievances"; the right "to keep and bear Arms" (he mentions this one a lot, too); the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures"; the right not to have to bear witness against oneself "nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"; the right to a "speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed"; the right to trial by jury in suits of common law "where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars"; and the right not to be subject to "cruel and unusual punishments."

Powerful as these myths are, they are not, however, the stuff of heroic narrative. No, I take that back: the narrative of the Courtroom is arguably the Great Set-piece of American Cinema, followed closely by the narratives of the Resistance to Tyranny and the Settlement of the Frontier. But the greatest American myth of all is one nowhere explicitly mentioned in any of our founding documents, and yet everywhere present in the stories that we tell about ourselves as a People (panda people included), however much my secular humanist colleagues in American history would argue to the contrary. You all know the story. A young man of obscure birth and questionable parentage comes out of the countryside to the big city. He collects a following of other young men and even some women, who see him as a good person despite his reputation as a libertine. He speaks plainly and gathers large crowds of simple people who look to him for help and credit him with freeing them from ailments that they have suffered under for years. He causes a disruption in the city, shames the members of the establishment for their hypocrisy and greed, and bests even the most learned teachers in argument. He violates the most sacred taboos and is accused of blasphemy and corrupting the youth. He is accused by the leaders of his community of fomenting rebellion and of sympathies with the most dangerous elements of the society. Eventually, he is betrayed by one of his own followers, handed over to the authorities for questioning, tortured, mocked, and subjected to a cruel and unusual punishment without proper trial. And yet, even as he hangs dying on the cross, he forgives his persecutors, taking all of the hate and anger and envy and fear that they can throw at him and giving it back as love.

No, I am not saying that Milo is literally the Messiah, anymore than Po the Dragon Warrior is meant to be Christ (an alter Aslan, as it were), although you have to admit the parallels are riveting. What I am saying is that I believe Milo when he says he is a Christian and that, as a Christian, he strives to model himself on Christ by standing up for the weak and those who are otherwise afraid, given our current intellectual, social, and political climate, to speak the things that they actually believe for fear of losing their friends, their jobs, and their personal safety, if not, as in the case of some of our police officers of late, their lives: The women of all ages who would rather not shout their abortions because they see abortion as murder. The young men who have retreated into video games rather than risk being hounded off campus as rapists by women whom they have more or less awkwardly kissed. The working-class people, black or white, who see a $15/hour minimum wage not as a guaranteed income but as an insult to the skilled work they do. (As one of my black neighbors once forcefully put it: "You think punching the pictures on a fast-food check out screen is worth $15/hour?!") The professional women who willingly accept lower earnings over their lifetime in order to stay home with their children. The women, lesbian or straight, who want to be able arm themselves against potential attackers. The men, heterosexual or gay, who want to be able to arm themselves so as to protect their families and homes. The Christians who worry what it means for their national culture no longer to be grounded in the story of sacrifice and love on which they have modeled their lives.

Like the pandas, none of these people are warriors, at least not in the way the Left likes to style itself. They are Americans who want to live out the myths that have made our country great, including the myth that Po learns, that our real strength is in what makes us uniquely ourselves and in our love for each other as family, pandas, tigers, and geese, out of many, one. They have responded to Milo not because, as Ms. Penny sees them, they are goblins and trolls and howling psychopaths, but because, like Po, he is willing to fight for them, to take all of the insults and ridicule and shame that the scribes of the day would throw against them, to absorb it in laughter and send it back out as love, perhaps even invitations to parties and rides in swank black trollmobiles. In the movie, Po originally plans to take out Kai with a secret finger hold, only to discover that it only works on mortals and Kai, like Satan, is not mortal. So Po sacrifices himself, distracting Kai so that he can jump on his back and then perform the finger hold on himself, tricking Kai just as Christ tricked the Devil through his death on the cross so as to take the battle into the Spirit Realm. Once there, Po-Christ assumes his real form as an angel of light, a.k.a. Dragon Warrior, and overcomes Kai as we have seen by filling him with his chi, thus liberating the animal warriors whose chi-souls Kai has stolen and bringing them back to life. Kai, to put it mildly, was not expecting such a gift, driven as he was by envy and hate. Like the Devil, he could not conceive of Po's sacrificing himself out of love for his family and friends, and so like the Devil, Kai was trapped, overcome by the outpouring of Po's chi.

This, as I see it, is what our media and establishment elites--the scribes and Pharisees of our day--find so infuriating and perplexing about Milo. He really is as Ms. Penny describes him: generous, flighty, given to making jokes in poor taste. But he is also, like Our Lord whom he professes to follow, willing to take on the world for the sake of the meek. If in doing so he infuriates the rule-makers, those who would insist that it is wrong to pluck corn to eat or to reach out in compassion to heal on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14), all the better. Like Kai, they can rage against him in fury, but he will return their envy with good humor and love. As Milo said at the conclusion to his talk at Rutgers University last February, the first in his Dangerous Faggot tour at which a group of young women famously covered themselves in "blood" to protest his "hate speech," this as he sees it is the only real way for the animal warriors of America to win against those who would steal their chi:
Nobody can resist the truth wrapped in a good joke. The best way to win an argument is to tell the truth and to be funny....  When you graduate I think the smart thing to do is to start to, gently and with good humor and intellectual humility, to gently resist things when you hear them in life that are quite obviously not true and said to save somebody's feeling.... I prefer to disarm people with self-deprecating humor, I prefer to laugh at myself before I laugh at others, and I prefer then to just drill down and stick to the basic set of facts that tell me a little more about the world around me. The way to combat progressivism, and the way to make the Left [retreat] is to gently and persistently with politeness and firmness and with good humor remind them that the world they describe doesn't exist.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why I will not wear a safety pin

The short answer is: because I already wear this, but when I posted the photo for my Facebook friends, they did not immediately recognize it as a cross, which just goes to show you how hard it is to interpret most imagery.

But the long answer is the same: because I already wear this. This cross I bought from an artist at the annual Hyde Park Art Fair some ten years ago; I wish I could remember the name of the artist, as it is her design. She called it a "Trinity Cross," which as a medievalist I instantly saw as a representation of the Gnadenstuhl: God the Father seated on a throne (the Stuhl) holding the Son crucified on the cross with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering in-between. It is intended as a representation of the great mercy (Gnade) that God had for his creatures in becoming incarnate and dying for them: all Three Persons of the Trinity participate in the sacrifice. As the artist for my cross has rendered the iconography, the body of Christ is shown as a kind of flame, blending with the fire sent down by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with the Father's arms embracing the flame like a buckle and the whole suspended from the arms of the cross which are themselves bent like Christ's arms, as if to embrace the world.

A small thing, you would think, except if you live and work in academia. Because, of course, academics like myself do not do anything so vulgar as wear crosses, never mind let on that we are Christians. Not that there are many of us Christians in academia, although there are probably more than you would think. But the few of us who are--I know there are some, I see them at church--tend not to advertise. Except me. I was getting in the elevator one day with one of the women who shares my office floor. She teaches in the Divinity School in the Philosophy of Religions and to judge from what I have read of her work is relatively religious herself. But she looked at my cross and said, "It is very brave of you to wear that; I couldn't." Why not?!

Several of my friends have been wearing safety pins these past couple of weeks to show their solidarity with those who oppose the election of Donald Trump. As I understand it, the safety pins are meant to signal that those who might otherwise feel marginalized or threatened by the incoming government will be safe with the people who are wearing them, although safe from what is a little unclear. Are my friends promising to harbor them from the soldiers whom my friends know are going to be coming to the door to take them away? Or do my friends mean they are going to continue to call for legislation to prevent the soldiers' arrival? The pins are clearly meant to send a signal--but to whom? On campuses, the pins will presumably mean that my colleagues will refuse to cooperate with government officials looking into the status of undocumented non-citizens who are part of our student body, but I have seen friends not in academia wearing them, too.

So what do the pins mean? As with all such imagery, I think there are layers. One layer seems to be the desire to hold oneself to a vow, as with the crosses that medieval Christians who had taken a vow to go to the defense of the Holy Land sewed on their clothes as a sign both to themselves and to others that they were under obligation to God. My friends wearing pins consider themselves under a sort of vow to care for those they fear are in danger of persecution, which makes them warriors of a sort, willing to take up arms, whether legal or physical, against (as they see it) the enemies of mercy and justice. Another layer, of which my friends also seem conscious, is the desire to confuse the persecutors by marking themselves as members of potentially persecuted groups, by wearing, as it were, the badge that medieval Jews were required to wear according to certain church canons issued around the time of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. (Canon 68 of that council called not for badges, but distinctions in dress.) If everyone wears safety pins, then no one can be singled out, thus lending the individuals most threatened the protection of the larger group.

Both of these desires--to fight for the persecuted and to shield them--make sense to me, even if I think my friends' fears are overblown. There are other layers, however, that I find somewhat more troubling. When I see the safety pins, I see not crosses like the one I wear or badges like the Jewish star, but a much more political symbol: the tricolor cockade worn by the revolutionaries in France to signal their loyalty to the new Republic. Cockades were popular insignia throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for marking one's allegiance to particular political factions or military commands. According to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look it up), the Jacobites who opposed the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain wore white cockades, while the rioters in London in 1780 wore blue cockades as a symbol of their anger with the government for being willing to relax official discrimination against Catholics. The Continental Army of the American Revolution wore black cockades, while the soldiers of the Confederate Army of the American Civil War wore blue. To be sure, safety pins are not cockades--although they might be good for attaching cockades to one's hat or clothing--but the impulse to mark oneself as the member of a faction is definitely there, particularly given that the safety pins are being worn explicitly to mark disapproval of the outcome of the recent presidential election. Whatever religious undertones the safety pins might have, they are most certainly intended as political statements.

But this is not ultimately why I will not wear one. I am not sure whether my friends intend any more specific political action by their pins, but I do know this: they want to make a social statement about belonging to a particular group. They want to demonstrate to others wearing the pins that they are themselves Safe, that is, Liberal or Progressive or Democrat, not one of those awful Trump-voters who does not care for the fears of those living in our country without proper documentation or of those, other than Christians, whom they fear might be singled out for their religious faith. They want to demonstrate that they are not racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, or in any way Deplorable, which, it seems, they fear they might otherwise be supposed, particularly if they are white. (I have only seen white friends wearing the safety pins thus far; I am willing to be corrected.) It is not enough to be American, to believe in the values of liberty and equal justice before the law on which our country was founded; one needs visibly to mark oneself out as Not-Them or risk...well, what exactly is it that is at risk? The usual term for this kind of self-marking is "virtue signaling," but I think the fear actually goes somewhat deeper. The real fear I think most of my friends feel--being, as they are, human--is the fear of being ostracized, cast out of the group for not being in sympathy with the majority. In a word, they are Sneetches who need to show off their stars.

You remember the Dr. Seuss story? I wanted to do my valedictory speech to my high school class on it, but I changed my mind at the last minute and went with Ayn Rand instead. (No, I don't have the speech any more, but I remember it included the phrase "dregs of humanity" because some of my friends shoe-polished it on our driveway the next day.) At the time, the latter felt much edgier and dangerous, but in retrospect they were really ideas for the same speech. What does it mean to stand up to the group? What does it mean to have opinions about the way our country should be governed that are at odds with those of most of one's friends? In the story, the Sneetches with stars on their bellies think they are better than those without stars, until Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up with his Star-On and Star-Off machines and takes all their money as they frantically try to maintain their social standing by adding and subtracting stars until none of the Sneetches remembers who had stars to start with and who didn't. According to the Wikipedia entry (seriously, it is the best thing for discerning what the Man on the Street believes!), Seuss intended the story as a "satire of discrimination between races and cultures," and it was "specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism." But the reason the story works is because everyone knows what it feels like to want to be one of the Sneetches with stars.

My husband gave me a print of one of the pictures from the book for my 50th birthday. It is perfect: there are two Sneetches standing hand in hand on the side of the lake, the one (larger, more masculine) with a star on his belly, the other (smaller, more feminine) without. They are looking into each others' eyes with something like love, and the Star-bellied Sneetch has his mouth open to speak. I hope very much that he is telling the Plain-bellied Sneetch how beautiful he finds her, with or without a star, but based on my experience over the past year in conversations with my colleagues, family, and friends about the election and our country's politics and culture more generally, I'm less sanguine. Sneetches like wearing stars. They like walking along the beach knowing that they are part of the in-crowd. This is why they like petitions and open letters to which they can all add their signatures, like this one the academics of Kent circulated yesterday to protest Milo Yiannopoulos's invitation to speak at his old grammar school. More than anything else, they want to be seen to be holding the right opinions, seen to be on the side of the virtuous and good. No, I don't think my friends wearing safety pins are so calculating as to think that wearing the pins will give them some social advantage; rather, I think they are afraid what will happen if they don't, if somehow they are caught out with their bellies exposed and no star upon thars.

Which is the real reason I won't wear one: I refuse to bend to the fear of the crowd. It is exactly the reason that I do wear my cross. Not because without it I feel less Christian, but because not to wear it suggests that I am somehow ashamed of being Christian, of standing out among my academic colleagues for my faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. My cross, as it were, is a kind of anti-star: I wear it to stand naked before the world, starless, without protection against those who would categorize me as Deplorable on the basis of my skin color or education or social status. My guess is that this is something of the same reason that Milo wears his two crosses--you can see them around his neck in every speech he gives. Because the whole point of Christianity, the whole point of God's becoming incarnate so as to share in the suffering of his creatures, is that there are no starred or starless Sneetches, only human beings. In the words of St. Paul to the Galatians who were seeking to make such distinctions among themselves: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28 RSV). So if you see my cross and wonder why I am not wearing a safety pin, this is why: I have worn my cross for a decade when nobody else was wearing pins. I have been willing my whole life to stand up against the crowd on behalf of the poor and the meek and the persecuted, those without stars as well as those whom others assume have stars but may or may not, and will continue to do so whether or not those around me do. Ask yourself this: when the soldiers come to take your neighbors away, whom would you rather have on your side?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holy Satire, Breitbart!

Our story thus far...

Last Thursday, our hero Milo did an interview with Cathy Newman on British television's Channel 4 News. In the course of the interview, Ms. Newman challenged Mr. Yiannopoulos on some of the headlines that have appeared over his articles published on, including this one: "The Solution to Online 'Harassment' is Simple: Women Should Log Off." "You said," Ms. Newman read from her notes, barely able to suppress the contempt that she clearly felt at having to give voice to his prose, "'yes, we will certainly let women onto the men’s internet a few times a year, as long as you follow a few basic rules.'" At which our hero tried to suppress a smile, rejoining, "You can't hear the humor in that?"

But Ms. Newman continued to speak over him, clearly finding nothing funny--or ironic--in the claim that, if women find it hard to understand men's "natural tendency to be boisterous, confrontational and delightfully autistic" when they encounter it on the internet, they might be better off leaving the internet to the boys. "No," she insisted, when Milo tried to explain that pieces like these were intended as satire, to get people to think, "I know you want women to log off the internet, but we are here in the Channel 4 news studio; you have to allow me to speak."

Which was rich, given that she barely let him speak or answer her questions, leading as they were, but never mind. The real question is, why couldn't she hear the joke? Milo was sitting there, willing to be interviewed by her, more accurately, allowing himself to be baited by a hostile interviewer, and she was accusing him (and, by association, his employer) of being divisive. And there she was, reading with a straight face lines out of context that in context were meant to acknowledge the very distress that she herself was expressing. Almost as if it were her purpose to prove Milo's central point: "The fact is, women are more easily rattled by nastiness than men.... Women are upset at men being rude to them, and feel 'oppressed,' we are told, whenever they are treated on equal terms as men in the maelstrom that is social media." (As, to be fair, was I, when I attracted my very own troll; I like to think I got over it, although you will have noticed that I have not turned the comments on my blog back on--which is to say, I think Milo is right, at least in my case. I do have a hard time with the rough-and-tumble of the boys.)

But, of course, it is not only women like Ms. Newman who have found Milo's headlines hard to read. For the last week or so, ever since President-elect Trump appointed Milo's former boss Steve Bannon to his incoming White House staff, Milo's headlines about birth control making women "unattractive and crazy" and women in the tech industry sucking at interviews have been making the internet rounds as proof of Bannon's--and, by association, Trump's--sexism, always closely followed by the usual crowd of deplorable -isms. (I'm not sure I need to link for these; I suspect you can find them yourselves fairly easily.) My own friends on Facebook have scolded me roundly for refusing to take the headlines literally, not to mention seriously. One friend shared a whole string of them, more or less demanding that I denounce them as sexist...or else: "Planned Parenthood's Body Count Under Cecile Richards is Up to Half a Holocaust" (an article against abortion, which as a Catholic, Milo is); "How Donald Trump Made It Cool to be Gay Again" (an article giving examples of Trump's support for gay conservatives); and "Teenage Boys with Tits: Here's My Problem with Ghostbusters" (an article explaining why the film was a flop--which it was).

"I just don't understand," my friend who posted the headlines argued, "how you can sit there and say there's no cause for alarm or that these are okay messages to be broadcasting." Well, in a word: because I'm a medievalist--and can hear the echo in her words. "Verba vana aut risui apta non loqui," the Rule of St. Benedict intoned. "[Monks ought] not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.... The tenth degree of humility is that the monk be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, 'The fool lifts up his voice in laughter' (Ecclesiastes 21:23)." Because, of course, as every schoolchild knows, monks, more particularly, medieval monks, were utterly joyless, not to mention the whole of the Middle Ages in which they lived. The great Italian medievalist Umberto Eco wrote a whole book about it, more accurately, a novel, in which (spoiler alert!) the blind librarian of a (fictional) Benedictine monastery was willing to kill so as to assure that the monks never even laughed, never mind spent their days ornamenting the margins of their books with the marvelous creatures for which medieval manuscripts are still sometimes famous but which he himself could not see.

Monkey falconer
Luttrell Psalter
London, British Library, Add. MS 42130, fol. 38r
"Shame!" the Venerable Jorge of Burgos chastises the monks of the scriptorium as they laugh over the lyre-playing asses, owls ploughing with shields, seas catching fire, and wolves turning hermit that they have painted out of delight. "For the desire of your eyes and for your smiles!" Such images, Jorge would have it, are not just ridiculous, but dangerous: "Little by little the man who depicts monsters and portents of nature to reveal the things of God per speculum et in aenigmate, comes to enjoy the very nature of the monstrosities he creates and to delight in them, and as a result he no longer sees except through them." And yet, his dialectical opponent and Sherlockian nemesis Friar William of Baskerville (played, inevitably, by Sir Sean Connery) suggests: "Marginal images often provoke smiles, but to edifying ends.... Monkeys do not laugh; laughter is proper to man, it is a sign of his rationality." (Here William, a Franciscan, is quoting Notker Labeo, an eleventh-century monk of St. Gall.)

The Venerable Jorge will have none of Friar William's argument in favor of laughter. (Note that in Hollywood, the only good monks are Franciscans; Benedictines are always crazy or fat.) More to the point, once Jorge's plot is discovered, he is willing to kill himself for it by eating the pages of the book he has poisoned so as to keep its poisonous teachings lost to the world; it is the Second Book of Aristotle's Poetics, on comedy, which Jorge fears will give its arguments greater authority. "But what frightened you in this discussion of laughter?" William asks Jorge when he finds him deep in the labyrinth of the library preparing to destroy the book. "You cannot eliminate laughter by eliminating the book."

"No," Jorge replies,
to be sure. But laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh. It is the peasant's entertainment, the drunkard's license...a defense for the simple, a mystery desecrated for the plebeians.... Laughter frees the villein from fear of the Devil, because in the feast of fools the Devil also appears poor and foolish, and therefore controllable. But this book could teach that freeing oneself of the fear of the Devil is wisdom.... That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitation, sinners that we are. But from this book many corrupt minds like yours would draw the extreme syllogism, whereby laughter is man's end! Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God. This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fire to the whole world, and laughter would be defined as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for canceling fear.
Worst of all, Jorge insists, is the effect that laughter would have on belief in God, for
if one day--and no longer as plebeian exception, but as ascesis of the learned, devoted to the indestructible testimony of Scripture--the art of mockery were to be made acceptable, and to seem noble and liberal and no longer mechanical; if one day someone could say (and be heard), "I laugh at the Incarnation," then we would have no weapons to combat that blasphemy, because it would summon the dark powers of corporeal matter, those that are affirmed in the fart and the belch, and the fart and the belch would claim the right that is only of the spirit, to breathe where they list.
"You are the Devil," William says in response. "I?" Jorge asks. "Yes," William replies.
They lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came. You are the Devil, and like the Devil you live in darkness. I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl's feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.
Monkey woman riding monkey man
Book of Hours
Regenstein Library Special Collections MS 347
We hear often these days how so-and-so wants to take us back to the Middle Ages, as pundits and academics point ominously to the fact that our media are awash with lies and accusations of lies, superstitions and half-truths, the scourges of misogyny and racism, ignorance and fear of science--almost as if all of the calamities that Jorge predicted have come to pass. The world is about to go up in flames, Lucifer has gained the upper hand, reason has fled, and half of humanity or, at the very least, of our nation's voters have become monsters, more akin to wild beasts ravening for their prey than the human beings whose form they wear. How, under such circumstances, we might ask Friar William, are we to tell the difference between the Devil's lies and God's truth?

Easily: the Devil hates laughter, would like nothing more than a world without laughter, without joy, without satire and jokes and monsters and marginalia, without Dangerous Faggots and their mischievous talks, without headlines that poke fun at the pieties of the present day. Jorge in his blindness would banish laughter from the lives not only of the monks, but ideally of all Christians, out of fear that mockery might lead to blasphemy and blasphemy to loss of faith in God. But Christians worship not a God afraid of jokes, but rather a God who made himself the butt of jokes, entering into the world with all its farts and belching so as to fart and belch along with his creatures. (Seriously, Jesus spent most of his time at drinking parties. You think he never farted or belched?) It is the Devil who cannot hear the humor in the kinds of headlines that Breitbart has published under Milo's by-line, the Devil who finds the prospect of laughter unbearable, precisely because it frees those whom others would oppress from fear.

What is the Devil? Friar William describes him: "The Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt." The Devil is the grimness with which the self-righteous like Jorge profess to protect the world from its messiness and sin, to prevent the plebeians from enjoying their jokes at the expense of the powerful and elite. The Devil is the humorlessness of taking offense at jokes pointing out uncomfortable facts or for using words otherwise banished from polite society. The Devil is believing oneself above criticism because one holds the right opinions, and the Devil is the fear of becoming oneself the butt of jokes. The Devil is every impulse that we have to protect ourselves from ridicule and embarrassment, the horror of being in the wrong. The Devil is refusing to laugh at ourselves for taking offense when none was intended or for feeling awkward when we realize that we have made fools of ourselves.

I don't know whether Ms. Newman was able to hear herself as she read out Milo's headlines last Thursday or to appreciate the humorlessness in her voice as she chastised him for describing her own offense-taking so aptly. Certainly, few of my women friends seem to find Milo's jokes funny, even as they react in exactly the ways he says women often do to the name-calling and ribbing men seem to enjoy. Perhaps tellingly, Eco's great joke--or the great joke on Eco--is that the Middle Ages were the exact opposite of joyless: Jorge is a caricature of a monk, a Hollywood freak of a monk, refusing to laugh at the whimsy and monstrousness of the absurdity of fallen and redeemed man. Perhaps this is the reason that we, as medievalists, have struggled for so many decades to make sense of the marginal nonsense we find in the most holy books of the period--the psalters and books of Hours with which medieval Christians praised God. Our modern god of diversity and identity politics is a singularly joyless god compared with the God of medieval Christianity who delighted in monkeys riding goats and asses playing the lyre. As William tells the young novice Adso as they ride away from the library, now up in flames,
Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.
Truth that denies our ability to laugh is no longer truth, but insanity. In the words of the medieval monks: "Laughter is proper to man; it is a sign of his rationality." Which means that Milo is quite possibly right when he says, as he often does, that he is doing the work of God.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"I will be a wall for them"

What's in a wall? On Sunday, one of the women in our RCIA group mentioned that she is an elementary schoolteacher and last week the children in her class, shaken by the result of the election, were drawing walls.

"They're frightened," she said. "They are worried about what having a wall is going to mean. Their pictures were all about fear of the Wall." Her voice got anxious in the way everyone's voice seems to get these days, as she painted for us a picture of her students drawing pictures about their fear of walls, about their fear of the Wall that the adults have convinced them is going to bring about the end of the world. Nothing good, she seemed to be suggesting, could possibly come of a wall. One of the men made a joke about drawing birds flying over the wall, but even he didn't seem convinced that it was possible to take away the power of the Wall. Walls, my new friends seemed to agree, are bad.

Medieval Europeans, particularly town dwellers, would most likely have heard this as crazy talk. Walls are scary? No, they would insist, walls are about protection; walls are about creating places of refuge against attack. Walls create not just cities, but citizenship, as well as exemptions from taxation and the jurisdiction of local feudal lords. Walls are good. So good, in fact, that in the Song of Songs, the bride compares herself to a wall: "I am a wall," she says, "and my breasts are as a tower since I am become in his presence as one finding peace" (Song of Songs 8:10 Douay-Rheims).

Mary as city
Wellesley College, MS 19, fol. 319
As one early twelfth-century Christian commentator on the Song of Songs read this verse, it is the Mother of God who is speaking here. "I will be a wall for them," the Virgin Mary promises her people, the Jews, at which her Son assures her, likewise in the words of the Song (8:9): "If she [that is, the Synagogue] be a wall, let us build upon it." In the year 1100, most likely the time that the commentator Honorius Augustodunesis was writing, this was no idle promise. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, in A.D. 1100, "such anxieties were terribly, horrifically raw...
Only four years earlier, in the spring of the year 1096, roused by the call of Pope Urban II to go to the defense of the Holy Land, certain knights setting out through the Rhineland stopped along the way, intending, it would seem, at least initially, to exact money for the expedition from the noncombatants in the towns; tragically, their demands soon escalated to insistence that the Jews of the Rhineland accept baptism or die. In some instances, the Jews were afforded more or less effective protection by the bishops and burghers--and walls--of the towns; in others, most notably at Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, they were not, and thousands died."
Not all, it should be noted, died at the hands of the crusaders. As Christian chroniclers recorded to their horror, many Jews killed themselves and their children rather than be defiled by the waters of baptism. I talk in detail about why they killed themselves in my book; it has to do with theology, which matters. In the context of Honorius's Sigillum beatae Mariae or Seal of Blessed Mary, Mary becomes a wall for the Synagogue, standing for the Jews until the end of time when no man should despise [her] (Song of Songs 8:1) for all would by then come to believe that she gave birth as a Virgin--and thus be saved. But until then, Honorius made clear, Mary would protect them--as, indeed, the walls of Speyer protected the Jews of the town in 1096, so that they were not murdered by Count Emicho of Leiningen, the leader of the worst band of crusaders, and his men.

To judge from my friends' and neighbors' responses over the past year to now-President-elect Trump's proposal to build a wall--more properly for much of its length, most likely a fence, much as Senators Obama and Clinton agreed should be built in 2006--along the southern border of our nation, walls are instruments of war, not peace. Walls hurt people rather than protect them. They split up families, make neighbors enemies, incite violence, and deprive people of jobs. They are the first step in sending in murderous robots with penis-rockets to kill everyone who would seek a better life on the other side of the wall--robots which can only be defeated by the Virgin Mary and a sacred chicken. (Mary doesn't mess about when she is protecting her people; she has rockets, too. And chickens.)

Which tends to suggest that the people on the southern side of the proposed wall agree: they have something to flee, if their only hope of a good life is on the U.S. side of the border. What, then, does the Wall actually mean? In the M.A.M.O.N. video, the Wall is depicted as a way of keeping people in Mexico so that the Trump-robot can come kill them, much as the crusaders following Emicho broke through the walls of the towns along the Rhine so as to kill the Jews. But the walls of the towns along the Rhine were built specifically so as to keep people like Emicho out so as to protect the towns and their wealth (the proximate reason for Emicho's going after the Jews--he wanted to steal their money), not by the crusaders so as to keep the people in.

Imagine a wall. Where are you standing? Are you standing in front of the wall, looking up at it? Or are you standing on top of the wall, looking down? How does where you are standing change the way you feel about the wall? My guess is this: standing in front of the wall, you feel threatened, shut out; standing on top of the wall, you feel safe. At least, that is, if you are imagining a city wall. There are other kinds of walls: prison walls, the Berlin Wall, Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Prison walls are designed to keep people in. The Berlin Wall was designed to keep the people of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) out of the Federal Republic of Germany's (West Germany's) half of the city. (The East German government built the wall, not the West.) Pink Floyd's Wall was built in his head by Pink to wall himself off from human interaction, including the education, a.k.a."thought control", that he and his classmates didn't need. (In the video of the song, Pink fantasizes about the students trashing the school that has been turning them into sausage meat.) Can it be a coincidence that Roger Water's touring production of "The Wall" lasted for three years and is coming back? (Here's my take back when I saw it in 2010; I would be harsher now, I suspect.) Israel is building a wall along the West Bank, as are the French and the English around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel at Calais.

Border Wall-enthuisiast, Trump-advocate, and gay German-English Catholic Jew Milo Yiannopoulos likes to say that the election we just experienced was fought not on the level of politics, but rather on the level of culture. That Trump won, he insists, is because people care more about culture than they do about politics because politics--that is, the policies that we argue over through our representatives about how to apportion the necessarily scarce resources of our polity--is always downstream from culture. Which might seem rather silly, until you realize that culture here means more than just food, clothing, home furnishings, music, and language--all of the things that it is fun to adopt coming from another culture--but rather, and more importantly, the ideas we carry about in our heads about what is valuable, worth living for and possibly, if necessary, dying for. Ideas, as Milo likes to list them, like private property, democracy, capitalism, and human rights. The problem is (pace Milo, who likes to tell people who try to shame each other into changing their ideas by talking about how offended they are, "Fuck your feelings!"), people do not live by ideas, they live by feelings, specifically feelings about the ideas by which they justify their feelings. Feelings about things like mercy, justice, and walls, which are almost always embedded in their psyches so deeply they don't even experience them as feelings, simply truth.

Trinity Apocalypse
Trinity College R.16.2, fol. 25v
Walls are powerful things, they tug at everything we believe about civilization. Because, when it comes right down to it, without walls, there is no civilization. No cities, no culture, no politics. Walls do not just surround cities--at least, they used to surround cities, now we just have city limits. Walls make cities cities and their inhabitants citizens, as every ancient and medieval political theorist understood. This is why, when the seer of Revelation described the heavenly city, he focused above all on its great, high wall, with its twelve gates, three on each side. While the city, or so the seer says, was of gold, pure as glass, the wall was of jasper and its foundations of twelve precious stones, while the gates were made of pearls and the streets of pure, transparent gold (Revelation 21:10-21). This holy city was the bride of God, adorned for her husband with beauty and light, that he might dwell in her with his people. As the seer heard a loud voice from the throne in the midst of heaven cry out: "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:3-4 RSV).

One of the things that people in America have a hard time understanding at present is the degree to which almost all of our deepest ideals, whether we are secular humanists, Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or culturally of any other faith tradition, come from this Christian vision of the city of God: lit by the Lamb, its gates always open, inhabited by peoples of all nations, free of pain and death, all fed by the fruit from the Tree of Life standing beside the throne of the Lamb. To suggest to an American that someone does not belong in the city of God is quite possibly the worst sin imaginable, even worse than voting for Donald Trump. It is to deny others their humanity, their possibility of salvation, their very life. No wonder we get so anxious when someone suggests that we might build a wall around our country, even for the sake of protecting our borders against the work of the drug cartels, never mind terrorists. It is inconceivable that we might find it just to think we could close off our country, that City on the Hill, founded to be a light to the nations; it would be as if we wanted to close our country off to God.

And yet, even the Heavenly City beheld by the seer had walls. Does that make the Heavenly City evil? No, as everyone who has ever fought with a neighbor over what belongs on whose side of the fence knows. Walls may be offensive or defensive, but their primary purpose, as the bride of the Song put it so well, is not war, but peace. "I was a wall," she says, "and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who brings peace" (Song of Songs 8:10 RSV). That, after all, is the meaning of her name: Jerusalem, "City of Peace".

h/t Paul Halsall for the M.A.M.O.N. link.