The Problem with France’s Burkini Ban UPDATED!
August 25, 2016 § 8 Comments
So 16 towns and cities in France, all on the Mediterranean Coast, have banned the so-called burkini, a body-covering garment that allows devout Muslim women to enjoy the beach and summer weather. France, of course, has been positively rocked by Islamist violence in the past 18 months or so. So you had to expect a backlash. But this is just downright stupid.
There is a historical context here (read this whole post before lambasting me, please). French society believes in laïcité, a result of the French Revolution of 1789 and the declericisation of French society and culture in the aftermath. To this end, French culture and the French state are both secularised. Religious symbols are not welcome in public, nor are the French all that comfortable with religious practice in public. Now, this makes perfect sense to me, coming as I do from Quebec, which in the 1960s, during our Revolution tranquille, also underwent a process of declericisation. Quebec adopted the French model of a secular state.
But, in Quebec as in France, not all secularism is equal. Catholic symbols still exist all over France as a product of French history, to say nothing of the grand cathedrals and more humble churches that dot the landscape. But other religious symbols, they’re not quite as welcome, meric.
Nonetheless, it is in the context of this laïcité that the burkini ban arises.
But in practice, it is something else entirely. This is racism. This is ethnocentrism. And this is stupid. Just plain stupid. French Prime Minister Manuel Valis claims that the burkini is a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women.’ The mayor of Cannes claims that the burkini is the uniform of Muslim extremism. It is neither. And the burkini bans are not about ‘liberating’ Muslim women in France. They are not about a lay, secular society. They are designed to target and marginalize Muslim women for their basic existence in France.
In the New York Times this week, Asma T. Uddin notes the problem with these bans when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights and symbols of Islam. Back in 2001, the Court found that a Swiss school teacher wearing a head scarf in the classroom was ‘coercive’ in that it would work to proselytize young Swiss children. I kid you not. And, as Uddin reports, since that 2001 decision, the Court has continually upheld European nations’ attempts to limit the rights of Muslims, especially Muslim women, when it comes to dress.
Then there was the shameful display of the police in Nice this week, which saw four armed policemen harass a middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach. She was wearing a long-sleeved tunic and bathing in the sun. The police, however, issued her a ticket for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’ Again, I kid you not.
Laïcité is supposed to be not just the separation of church and state, but also the equality of all French citizens. Remember the national motto of the French republic: ‘liberté, éqalité, et fraternité.’ These are lofty goals. But the attempts to ban the burkini and attack Muslim women for their attire is not the way one goes about attaining liberté, nor égalité nor fraternité. Rather, it creates tiered culture, it creates one group of French who are apart from the rest. It is discriminatory and childish. And let’s not get on the subject of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to run again, and promises to ensure that Muslim and Jewish students in the lycées eat pork.
I understand France’s concerns and fears. But attacking Islam is not the way to defeat terrorists who claim to be Muslim. It only encourages them. It is time for France to live up to its own mottos and goals. And Western feminists (and pro-feminist men) need to speak up on this topic.
News comes this evening that the Deputy Mayor of Nice, and President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has threatened to sue people who share images of the police attempting to enforce the burkini ban on social media. I kid you not. Christian Estrosi states that the images cause harm to the police (if that is true, that is not right, of course).
It is worth pointing out that it would be very difficult for Estrosi to find legal standing to launch a lawsuit, as French law allows citizens and media outlets to publish images and videos of the police and that, without a judicial order, French police cannot seize a photographer’s camera or phone.
Agnotology and Obama’s Religion
February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments
Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper. Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter). But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.
In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion. He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian. I agree with Jacoby thus far. I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.
Walker, of course, couldn’t resist. He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian. This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one. Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:
[Walker] has plenty of company.
During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.
That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.
Indeed. But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:
Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.
This is NOT honest confusion. Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians. What this is is racism. This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement. I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion. I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs. As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:
public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.
This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original). Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.” Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.
Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance. Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture. Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist. These are both fallacies. Clearly. Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths. These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age. Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact). These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth. Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.” And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim? Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.
Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column. Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant. He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology. But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.
Louisiana and the First Amendment, redux
April 28, 2014 § 7 Comments
Last week, the Louisiana politician who proposed making the Holy Bible the official book of the Pelican State withdrew his proposal before it went to the state House of Representatives for a vote. Originally, Thomas Carmody, a Republican from Shreveport, had intended to make a specific copy of the Bible, housed in the state museum the official book, but his colleagues in the House had other ideas, and amended his legislation to make the Bible itself the official state book, not just a specific copy.
Carmody withdrew his legislation, stating that it had become a distraction.
I wrote about this last week, raising questions of the First Amendment’s injunction against an established religion. In the meantime, following a spirited discussion in the comments, I spent more time digging deeper into the issue of religion and the state in the United States. I’ve always found this topic interesting, given the First Amendment’s injunction against established religion, and the Founding Fathers’ well-known suspicion of religion itself. At the same time, of course, the dollar bill in my pocket states, on its back, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Of course, there is a difference, as the Founding Fathers well knew, between a belief in God and religion. Jefferson himself was a life-long religious skeptic, though he maintained his faith from cradle to the grave.
The New Orleans Time-Picayune quotes a few legal scholars, who seem to be of the opinion that the now-scrapped legislation isn’t worth getting excited about, as it has no real value, it cannot lead to the establishment of religion or the enforcement of religion. Yet, in withdrawing his legislation, Carmody noted that it could’ve caused “some constitutional problems.”
And this is what I find interesting. From my own deeper reading of the issue over the past week, as well as what the legal scholars quoted in the Times-Picayune said, it does appear this was really just a tempest in a teapot. And yet, both Carmody and the New Orleans Democrat Wesley Bishop (holder of a J.D.) appear to be confused about the meaning of the First Amendment in real terms.
Louisiana and the First Amendment
April 17, 2014 § 12 Comments
It seems that the Louisiana House of Representatives is poised to vote on a measure that would designate the Holy Bible as the “official state book” of Louisiana. Technically, this would have as much weight as the designation of the brown pelican as the official state bird of Louisiana. But, in practice, this would pack a major wallop.
But is it legal? The First Amendment of the Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And while this refers specifically to the United States Congress, the Constitution of the United States applies to the states and local governments as well (similarly, the constitutions of the various states can impact upon federal law and practices). In other words, the designation of the Holy Bible as the Official State Book of Louisiana appears to violate the part of the First Amendment that reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” in that it appears to give preferential treatment to Christianity over all other religions.
Louisiana is an overwhelmingly Christian state insofar as religious identification goes. Somewhere around 90% of the state’s population identifies as Christian. The next religious identification is no religion, at 8%, while Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews are all less than 1% of Louisiana’s population. So clearly Louisiana is a Christian state in practice. But, I’m not entirely sure it can identify as such officially.
Before someone gives me hell for saying that opposition to the Bible being designated the official book of Louisiana tramples religious freedoms, it doesn’t. That’s not how “the free exercise” of religion works under the Constitution. The free exercise of religion does not grant the right to trample upon others’ rights, nor does it allow for official religions. The First Amendment simply states that the state itself cannot impede on the free practice of religion. However, the courts maintain the right to mediate what religion actually is and how it might be practiced.
The measure has yet to pass the House of Representatives, let alone the state Senate, though I’m sure Governor Bobby Jindal would sign it into law. IF that were to happen, it will be interesting to see what comes next, whether the ACLU or any other organisation would threaten legal action. And if it were to get as far as the Supreme Court, even with the court’s recent right turn (the Roberts court has been remarkably centrist), I don’t see how it could uphold such a move by the Louisiana state government.
I find this larger discussion of the Constitution interesting given my new research project, which examines the role of history and memory in far right political circles in the United States. Central to this project is an understanding of the Constitution, as well as the intentions of the men who wrote it in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and its subsequent implementation, practice, and interpretation since.
Atheism as Dogmatism
March 9, 2014 § 7 Comments
Frankly, I don’t care about people’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. We should be free to choose to believe or not believe, and we should be free to practice our beliefs however see fit, so long as we do not cause harm to others. I have never been particularly religious, when I was younger, I flirted with Catholicism (the religion I was born into) and various brands of Protestantism, been attracted to Sufi Islam, and explored Buddhism. Then I realised Buddhism isn’t really a religion so much as a guide to what the Buddha calls the good life. I have also tried out atheism, deism, and everything in between. I seem to have settled into some nether world where I’m irreligious, in the sense that I’m indifferent.
But. I also teach history, and I’ve taught far more sections of Western and World History in my career than I care to count. And, as I go over the various calamities that have befallen humans over the past 3,000-4,000 years in various corners of the world, I have come to realise the initial point of religion. It is to help people make sense of the Terror of History. Bad things happen all the time, and, as the Buddha noted, all existence is suffering. Every religion and systems of belief I have come across from the Babylonians to China, Japan, Africa, Europe, and the Americas has attempted to offer comfort against this suffering and terror.
At the core, I think all religions are beautiful in their attempts to make sense of the chaos, to give people hope. And, of course, I recognise that every religion has also been perverted to bring pain and suffering and misery to others.
But that’s to be expected. I read once that the difference between liberals and conservatives (in today’s usage of those two terms) is a basic belief in human nature. Conservatives generally believe in the good of humanity, liberals are not so optimistic. Hence, conservatives tend to believe in less regulation and restrictions on individual liberty, under the assumption that we’ll sort it out. Liberals, on the other hand, believe we need regulations to ensure basic decency, otherwise we’ll destroy ourselves. In this sense, it turns out I am a liberal. I believe human beings are capable of beauty, but also of atrocity. It’s hard to conclude otherwise as a historian, I’m afraid.
A few years back, I was subbing for a colleague who was teaching a course on the History of Science & Technology. The students were clearly divided. On the left of the room were the atheists, on the right were the religious. I kid you not, they were split down the middle like this, like we were standing in the National Assembly in Paris in 1791. Their arguments were exactly what you’d expect from young minds finding their way: aggressive, scoffing, and yet, careful not to go too far in arguing with their friends to the point of insulting them. I posited to the atheists that they were just as dogmatic as their religious classmates, that atheism, in that sense, was no different than religion. The religious students got this argument right away, whereas the atheists were offended and argued that there is no dogma to atheism, therefore it cannot be religion. End of discussion. I tried again, the right side of the room argued the point with the left side of the room. But the atheists would not see it. The fact that they were dogmatic in their disbelief in God was lost on them.
Yesterday, on Twitter, I somehow got into a discussion about religion, atheism, and all the fun stuff that goes along with that. Twitter, of course, is not really the ideal forum for complex ideas, nonetheless, I and my two interlocutors were managing to be intelligent, rational adults, exchanging our views. But then another person who I suppose follows one of the people I was conversing with joined in. The joys of Twitter, in all their worst ways. Her basic line of argument is that all religion is evil and causes bad things to happen. Full stop. Then she started insulting.
I find this approach just as boring as those who wish to evangelicise their religious beliefs. And I see this belief as just as dogmatic, and even fundamentalist, as any religious evangelical. This woman stated point blank that religious people are wrong and that she is right. Clearly, in her view, anyone who disagreed with her is a fool. I find it ironic that some atheists have become as ossified in their beliefs as those they attack for “silly superstitions” (to quote from a tweet I saw last week on the issue). And as much as some religious folk are contemptuous of those who don’t believe, this brand of atheism is as contemptuous as those who do believe, or those who express some interest in avoiding categorical statements about religion. And I can’t help but feel that’s rather depressing.
On Uganda’s Homophobic Laws
February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Earlier this week, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a law that toughens the country’s already rampantly homophobic laws, making some sexual acts subject to life in prison. Being gay was already illegal in Uganda prior to this law being passed. This law had been under discussion since 2009, and originally called for the death penalty for some sexual acts, and was originally tabled when the European Union objected. It was revived last year. President Musveni had flip flopped on whether or not he would sign the law, at one point arguing that gay people were “sick,” but didn’t require imprisonment, but help and treatment. And just to make it absolutely where Musveni stands on the issue, he clarified his thoughts in this CNN article. Musveni says:
They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they? I never knew what they were doing. I’ve been told recently that what they do is terrible. Disgusting. But I was ready to ignore that if there was proof that that’s how he is born, abnormal. But now the proof is not there…”I was regarding it as an inborn problem. Genetic distortion — that was my argument. But now our scientists have knocked this one out.
Charming. Just charming.
Also in the past week, documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’s new film, God Loves Uganda has been making the rounds. It is based largely on the undercover work of a Boston-based Anglican (Episcopalian in the US) priest, Kapya Kaoma. In the film, we learn that missionaries from the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer have been proselytising in Uganda, preaching that God hates LGBT people. Charming.
All of this is deeply unsettling. Yesterday, I tweeted this
I immediately got into a discussion on several fronts about the role of these American missionaries in all of this, on several fronts. I maintain that the IHOP missionaries are disgusting and an afront to humanity, but Uganda is to blame for this. But I’m writing this to expand what one can say in 140 characters on Twitter. One, being gay was already illegal in Uganda when the IHOP missionaries began spreading hate. Two, the IHOP missionaries capitalised on the already extant homophobia in Uganda in their preaching. And three, Uganda is responsible for its laws. The missionaries are a handful of people in a nation of 36 million people.
To argue that the missionaries are entirely to blame is wrong-headed to me for several reasons. First and foremost, it reflects an imperialist mindset to say that American missionaries went to Uganda and taught Ugandans that being gay is a sin and therefore Uganda passed a law that toughened anti-gay measures already in place. To blame the missionaries removes Ugandan culpability here. It also says that Ugandans are not capable of forming their own thoughts. Being gay was already a crime in Uganda before the IHOP missionaries gained a following. And Uganda is hardly alone in the world in an anti-gay stance. I point to, say, for example, Russia (interestingly, Russia’s anti-gay laws are also based on conservative Christian thought). The new law just expanded on earlier ones.
Ultimately, Uganda is responsible for this new law. Musveni is responsible for signing it. No missionary held a gun to his head, or bribed him. It’s his doing. And it’s entirely consistent with his thoughts on being gay to start with. And its consistent with Ugandan thought before the advent of the missionaries.
OMG! Seriously?: On Language and Swearing
October 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
In today’s Boston Globe, I read a column that I thought had been printed by mistake. Or maybe it was a leftover from 1976. Jennifer Graham, a columnist for the venerable (and quite good) Boston daily, is upset that OMG and it’s more offensive variety, “Oh my God!” are lingua franca in our culture today. She’s upset that blasphemy is everyday language. To which I say, where have you been for the past 40 years, lady?
I am from a culture where all the choice swear words are religious-based. French Canadians have a whole range of blasphemous and offensive words for all situations, the worst of which is “Tabarnak!” That literally means “tabernacle.” Other highlights are “câlisse!” and “osti!” (chalice and the holy host, respectively). If you really wanna set grandma’s wig on fire: “osti de tabarnak câlisse” will do the trick. Once more, in English, that’s “holy host of the tabernacle, chalice!” Sounds much better in québécois French, trust me. When I was a kid, these were very bad words (even Anglos in Québec swear in French, it’s much more fun), respectable people did not use them. But, by the time I was an adult, they were everywhere, even in polite company, including in newspapers, on TV, and even my dear great aunt once said “tabarnak!” (I nearly fell over).
It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that the ramping up of swearing is due to the general breakdown of authority in western culture as a whole in the past 40 years. Sometimes even I am stunned by what I hear coming out of the mouths of my students in the hallways and around campus. Some of the names they call each other, even in jest, would flip the wig of my grandmothers, I can tell you that much.
But. Oh my god? Seriously? Graham is upset by this one because she thinks it insults people’s value systems. Oddly, I learned this particular gem within my Catholic family as a kid. For that matter, my memory of this gem of a swear is that I have tended to hear it from the mouths of Catholics, especially devout ones. Sacrilegious? Oh, heck yes. But spend an hour watching Irish TV and you’ll see what I mean.
It seems to me that Jennifer Graham is about a generation or two late in her hand-wringing over the use of oh my god in pop culture.
The Long View vs. The Immediate View in History
September 13, 2013 § 7 Comments
When I was doing my PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, I TA’d for one of my favourite profs there, Norman Ingram. Norman is a French historian and in the Western Civ class I TA’d for him, he had what I still consider to be a brilliant assignment. He had the students read and compare two books written about the Fall of France in June 1940 during the Second World War. The first book was by eminent French historian, and member of the résistance (and Jew, which is how Bloch ended up being tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944, as the Allies were swiftly re-conquering France), Marc Bloch, the founder of the Annales School. The second book was written in 1996 by an historian at the University of Winnipeg, Robert Young.
Strange Defeat was written by Bloch, a captain in the French Army, in the summer of 1940, immediately following the Fall of France. It is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis. Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare. And while Bloch remains an annaliste in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.
Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War was, obviously, written some 50+ years after the fact, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, other historical views, as well as archival sources. It is dispassionate, though eminently readable.
The students were then asked to compare and contrast the two books, the immediate view versus the long view.
I think of Norman’s assignment often, both in my own teaching career, as a public historian, and, quite often, on Twitter. When I worked for a now-defunct web magazine based in London, any time we published anything to do with the Bosnian Genocide, without fail, we would get attacked almost immediately by people arguing that there was no genocide, that the suggestion there was a genocide is just Western imperialism and further proof of a conspiracy against Serbia and the Serbian people. It was almost like clockwork.
So, yesterday, when I posted this piece commenting on a New Yorker profile of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, I expected more of the same. As you can see from the comments, my expectations were met. I also got something a bit different, however. I was indeed assailed on Twitter, by a woman who says she’s from Bosnia, who seemed to be arguing that there was no genocide in Bosnia at all, and that she should know, because she was there. Upon further argument, she was saying something slightly different, that there was a lot of killing going on in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 90s, involving Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians as both aggressors and victims. That was certainly true.
However, it is indisputable that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide. It is indisputable that the VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army, committed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as a whole in the 1992-95 period. This has been established by countless experts in the field, it has been confirmed by the ICTY in The Hague.
As the argument carried on, I began to think back to Norman’s assignment, and to think about the difference between the immediate view of the spectator and the big picture view of the analyst. I’m not convinced that it wasn’t clear that the VRS was engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide. But I am convinced that whatever side of the ethnic divide one was on in Bosnia/Herzogovina in the period from 1992-95, it was something close to hell. And so I am back pondering the difference in what we see based on where we’re standing (there is, of course, also the fact that metric tonnes of ink have been spilled in the past twenty years by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians about the events). I reject the view that there was no genocide, but I do find myself wondering about what someone who was Bosnian Serb would have seen on the ground in that era.
When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, I talked to this guy, Dragan, a refugee from Sarajevo, at the local café. He wouldn’t say what side of the divide he was from, just that he was Yugoslavia. He was deeply traumatised by the war and genocide. Vancouver had an international fireworks competition in those days, and we lived in the West End, where the fireworks were. On those nights, if Dragan was at the café, he’d flinch, noticeably, with every loud noise from the fireworks. I don’t know what he did in Sarajevo before he escaped in 1995, and I didn’t want to ask. I don’t know if he was a perpetrator, a victim, or both. But I often think of how he described the outbreak of war in his cosmopolitan Yugoslav city in 1992. He said that, quite literally, neighbours of twenty or thirty years turned on each other, that families collapsed in spasms of violence if there was inter-ethnic mixing. And, as Dragan noted, that was very common in a city like Sarajevo. The entire world, he said, fell down, everything that had held up his universe collapsed. He knew very bad things happened in his homeland. I kind of suspected he might have played a role in his steadfast refusal to say anything, and the cold, steely glare that passed over his eyes when the subject came up, which was often, given he talked about home a lot.
And so, as I was arguing with my interlocutor on Twitter yesterday, I thought about Dragan and I thought about Norman’s assignment. I thought about the chaos of war and the view on the ground as opposed to the view from the sky, the micro vs. the macro, and I thought how much they could vary. I don’t have any real answers here, other than the obvious, but I did find the discussion and all it brought up for me rather interesting.
The New Yorker and Serbian Aggression: Re-Writing History
September 12, 2013 § 5 Comments
I like reading The New Yorker. It’s generally a pretty good general interest magazine and I appreciate its particular slant and humour. But sometimes I read things that are profoundly stupid. Like in the 2 September issue, in a profile of the Serbian tennis player (and world #1), Novak Djokovic. Djokovic grew up during a difficult time in the former Yugoslavia, as it disintegrated. And he grew up during a difficult time for Serbia, while it was committing genocide. So, when the author of this piece, Lauren Collins, casually mentions that NATO began bombing Belgrade, without any context, I was left gobsmacked. Belgrade was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War, during which the Kosovars fought for their independence from the remaining rump of Yugoslavia, which was really just Bosnia.
Serbian troops, with their wonderful record of genocide in Bosnia/Herzogovina (in conjunction, of course, with Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army) were suspected of committing genocide, or at least engaging in genocidal massacres, against the Kosovars. Hence, NATO, as it had done in 1995 during the Bosnian genocide, stepped in. In the end, it turns out that Serbia wasn’t exactly committing genocide in Kosovo, merely “”a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments” (to quote from the BBC), the Serbian army sought to remove, not eradicate the Kosovars.
Whether NATO was right or wrong to drop bombs on Belgrade, Serbia has a history of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity. There’s a reason former Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison in The Hague whilst on trial for war crimes and former Serbian general Ratko Mladic is presently on trial in The Hague.
Clearly Collins is trying to engender a sympathetic audience for Djokovic, who, as an 11-year old boy had nothing to do with Serbian genocides, and it is largely an entertaining article. Nonetheless, she is guilty of a gross misappropriation of history in describing the bombing of Belgrade in an entirely passive voice: “When he was eleven, NATO began bombing Belgrade…”, she then goes on to explain the young Djokovic’s means of survival. She goes onto write “In the aftermath of the war, as sanctions crippled Serbia’s economy, Djokovic’s family struggled to support Djokovic’s ambition [to be the world No. 1 tennis player].” Again, this is a tragedy for the Djokovics, but there are very real reasons why Serbia was hit with economic sanctions by NATO and its allies, and that’s genocide.
The New Yorker and its editors, as well as Lauren Collins, should know better. It’s that simple.
The Historian’s Job
July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments
Three times in the past three days I’ve been reminded of what it is that we historians do. And let me be clear, by “historian,” I mean academically-trained holders of advanced degrees who study the past. Yeah, call me pretentious or whatever. I don’t care. The first reminder I got was the now notorious interview of Reza Aslan by FoxNews concerning his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the interview, Aslan had to continuously remind the FoxNews host that he was a trained historian, not just some Muslim dude writing about the founder of Christianity. Jesus Christ isn’t usually a topic I find interesting, but after hearing the NPR interview wherein Aslan actually got to discuss the book, I almost want to read it. Almost.
The second reminder of what it is that an historian does came yesterday. Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a conspiracy theorist. I should’ve tuned out when he told me that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom many (including me) consider Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, was a communist. Trudeau, you see, made Canada communist. But, wait, there’s more! The communist path was paved for Trudeau by his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, who was PM from 1963-8. Pearson, this guy claimed, had been named by a Soviet spy before US Congress as having passed on secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War. I have, believe it or not, seen this claim before, I have a vague recollection of having read something of it in connection to the Gouzenko Affair. The author of whatever this piece was addressed the Pearson claim in a footnote and gave his sources. As an historian does. My interlocutor, however, did not consider this enough. He dismissed this academic article as a MSM source (mainstream media) and biased, blah blah blah. I found myself thinking of Aslan repeating ever-so-patiently noting what it is that makes him qualified to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ. I thought, well, let’s see, I’ve read somewhere around 5,000 books and articles over the course of my career. Maybe more, maybe a little less. I am trained to critically assess an argument, its logic and its evidence. As are all the rest of us academic, professional historians. My interlocutor had offered up a Google search as his “proof” that Pearson and Trudeau were dirty commies. But he dismissed my evidence as “nothing.” Ah, wonderful, anti-intellectualiam. Carry on then, good sir, and good luck with your alternate reality.
The third time I was reminded of the historians’ path came today when reading The Times Literary Supplement. I allowed my subscription to lapse last fall. I regret that. I just renewed, and the first new issue came yesterday (note geek excitement here). In it comes a review of Brian Levack’s new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World, by Peter Marshall. I thought several things of this book and its review. The first was it appears to have been a colossal miss in terms of Public History. Levack is bedeviled (pun intended) by the fact that it is well nigh impossible to rationally explain possessions. And yet, people continued to believe they happened. I’m more interested in that cognitive dissonance, I must say. Anyway. Towards the end of the review, Marshall opines that “The folie de grandeur of historians is that we are conditioned to believe we can explain anything.” Huh. Not sure I agree with that. Certainly, the rational, positivist bent of our training is given over to such pursuits. And we tend to take on rational topics, things we can explain. Certainly, anything I’ve tackled in a research project from undergrad to now fits into this category. But there are some things that are harder to explain. Like, for example, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Or a belief (or unbelief) in God. Or, possessions, demons, and exorcisms. Here, the historian is left with this cognitive dissonance, of attempting to conduct a rational discussion (and argument) about something that may not actually be rational. Herein lies my interest in exactly that dissonance. What is it that makes people persist in their beliefs? Even in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary (as in the case of, say, possessions)? The very fact that the subject of discussion is not explainable is exactly what makes it so interesting. So, in a sense, then, Marshall is incorrect, historians cannot explain anything. Nor should we wish to.