Remembering the Victims in Charleston
June 23, 2015 § 7 Comments
Sometime last week, someone in my Facebook world posted a Morrissey video. I haven’t thought about Morrissey in a long time, other than when he says something profoundly stupid and embarrassing in public. And then I think, “Oh yeah, there was a time when Mozzer was my favourite pop star.” And then I feel slightly embarrassed. But. This video was “The Last of the International Playboys,” from Mozza’s 1990 classic, Bona Drag.
In our lifetime,
Those who kill,
The newsworld hands them stardom
have really caught my attention in the past few days.
Last week, something horrible and heinous happened in Charleston, South Carolina. If you live under a rock and don’t know what happened, follow this link. This act of domestic terrorism appalled, sickened, and depressed me. This was just one more example of why #blacklivesmatter. I felt hopeless, powerless, and lost. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or not (I’m not, I just live here). And the tut-tutting from Canadians, Brits, and others about American violence is equally pointless. On the other hand, President Obama is right: this doesn’t happen in other advanced nations.
And now, I am completely inundated with images of the racist jackass who committed this terrorist act in Charleston. I can’t escape it. I can’t escape him (I will not name him, I refuse. Why? Read this about the Montréal Massacre of 1989). My Facebook feed, Twitter, the basic internet: All I see is this terrorist’s stupid, smirking face. I don’t want to. I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to hear from him, I don’t care. Others can care, they can worry why he committed an act of terror in African Methodist Episcopal Church (a Church! A place of sanctuary!) in Charleston.
This terrorist is being given a form of stardom for his heinous acts. What should matter is the victims. They are:
- Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54. She was a manager of the Charleston County Public Library system; her brother is Malcolm Graham, a member of the South Carolina Senate.
- Susie Jackson, 87. A member of the church choir and a veteran of the civil rights movement.
- Ethel Lee Lance, 70. She was the church sexton.
- Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 59. A school administrator and admissions co-ordinate at Southern Wesleyan University.
- Clementa Pinckney, 41. She was the church pastor and a South Carolina State Senator.
- Tywanza Sanders, 26. He was Susie Jackson’s nephew.
- Daniel Simmons, 74. He was a pastor at the Greater Zion African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Awendaw, South Carolina.
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45. Also a pastor, she was a speech therapist and track and field coach at Goose Creek High School.
- Myra Thompston, 59. She was a Bible studies teacher.
That’s nine people. Think of the constellations of their relationships, partners, aunts, uncles, parents, kids, nieces, nephews, co-workers, students, friends, etc. Think of all the people who are grieving. That is more important than the terrorist who killed them.
Dear Boston: Reflecting on the Marathon Memorial at the Boston Public Library
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Back in July, when the insta-memorial for the Boston Bombing of 15 April 2013 was taken down, I wrote this piece at the National Council of Public History’s history@work blog. In it, I expressed my cynicism of what happens to the items of the memorial when they are removed from the site and put in storage, or even brought out again for a more permanent exhibition. I also argued in favour of insta-memorials such as this, seeing some value in our hyper-mediated lives, watching the world through the screens of our iPhones. What resulted, from the piece on history@work, as a notification here on this site, as well as Rainy Tisdale’s blog, was a rather robust discussion, especially between myself and Rainy, a Boston-based independent curator about authenticity and memorials.
To sum up the discussion, we debated whether or not Boston needed an exhibition on the first anniversary of the attack. I argued that the running of the 118th Boston Marathon, as well as the traditional Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, would serve as a chance for Bostonians to reclaim Boylston Street and Copley Square one year later. Rainy, on the other hand, argued that an exhibition was necessary in order to prevent the kind of frenzy that began to emerge surrounding the #BostonStrong rallying cry when the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring (and lost. I hate the Bruins).
In the time since, I have come around more to Rainy’s argument than my own, though I still worry about questions of authenticity and memorial mediation on the part of the curatorial hand (though, of course, that spontaneous memorial, first on Boylston Street and then at Copley Square was also curated, in part). Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to Rainy’s exhibit at the main branch of the Boston Public Library on Copley Square. Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial opens on 7 April, and will run to 11 May. It is a tri-partite exhibit: the first part will encompass the immediate responses to the bombing, the second will be people’s reflections on the bombs, and the final part will be the hopeful part, messages of hope and healing.
I appreciate the exhibit’s title perhaps more than anything at this point, as it makes direct references to the curatorial hand at work here, as the exhibit will deliver messages from the memorial. In July last year, I worried about the loss of meaning of the individual artefacts when they were boxed up and stored in the Boston Archives. A running shoe had a very poignant and powerful meaning when displayed at the memorial, and in a box in the archives, it’s a running shoe. Restored to the public eye, however, attached with a symbolic meaning that no one in Boston, or anyone visiting the exhibit, will miss, the shoe regains its poignancy.
What struck me in my discussion with Rainy last summer was how she intended to approach the exhibit, and her sensitivity to the very issues that concerned me. I am very much looking forward to what she comes up with.
The Value of Death and the Value of Passion
December 14, 2013 § 4 Comments
I am reading what is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Schulman is a survivor of the AIDS Plague in New York City in the 80s and early 90s. She is deeply implicated in queer culture in New York, in the fight for the rights of those inflicted with AIDS during that era and the fight to commemorate and remember those who died. 81,542 people died of AIDS in New York City from 1981 to 2008. 2008 is 12 years after the Plague ended, according to Schulman.
The Gentrification of the Mind is a blistering indictment of gentrification in the East Village of Manhattan, an area of the city I knew as Alphabet City, and the area around St. Mark’s Place. It’s the same terrain of Manhattan that Eleanor Henderson’s fantastic novel, Ten Thousand Saints, takes place in (I wrote about that here). This is one of the things I love about cities: the simultaneous and layered existences of people in neighbourhoods, their lives spatially entwined, but culturally separate.
Schulman’s fury drips off the page of The Gentrification of the Mind, which is largely her own memoir of living through that era, in that neighbourhood where she still lives. In the same flat she lived in in 1982. She makes an interesting juxtaposition of the value of death, arguing that the 81,542 were of no value to our society, that their deaths were marginalised and, ultimately, forgotten. Whereas the 2,752 people who died in New York on 9/11 have experienced the exact opposite in death: their lives have been valued, re-assessed and immortalised. Her point is not to take away from those who died in 9/11, but to interestingly juxtapose those who died due to the neglect of their government and culture and those who died due to external forces.
I just finished reading Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a fictionalised account of the process leading to the creation of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. Waldman reminds us that the lives of those killed on 9/11 were not valued equally, something that should be intrinsic to us all. The lives of the people who worked in the food courts, the restaurants, cafés and those who manned the parking lots, the custodial staff did not mater, in the end, as much as the first responders, the office workers, the people on the planes.
And this is an interesting argument. Schulman’s response is much more visceral than mine, but she was there in the 80s and 90s. I wasn’t. She was also there on 9/11, I wasn’t. But I am an historian, she is not. Death is never equal, just as life isn’t. It has been this way since forever. In The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, the lives of the foot soldiers and the sailors under Odysseus’ command are worth nothing, whereas the lives of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus are valued. The deaths of the first two cause mourning and grief for Odysseus, both at Marathon and on his epic journey home.
All throughout history, people’s lives have been valued differently. What Schulman sees relative to the victims of the AIDS Plague and 9/11 shouldn’t be surprising. It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay. But, fact of the matter, it’s the same as it ever was. And, after researching, writing, and teaching history for much of the past two decades, I can’t even get all that upset about the devaluation of the marginalised in society anymore. I don’t think it’s any more right in 2013 than I did as an angry young man 20 years ago, but I have become so jaded as to not even register surprise or anger anymore.
So in reading Schulman’s book, I am surprised by her anger and her passion, and I am also intrigued by it, and I’m a little sad that being an historian is making me increasingly resigned to bad things happening in the world. It might be time to get my Howard Zinn, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm out, and remember that those men, even after a lifetime of studying, writing, and teaching history, maintained a righteous anger at injustice.
How Terror Works
September 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
Yesterday, there was a stabbing on my bucolic New England college campus. A male student (on leave from the university after an arrest two weeks ago) approached a female student on a campus shuttle bus and stabbed her. When the bus driver intervened, he also got stabbed. The wounds were not life-threatening, the woman was treated at the scene for a laceration to the top of her hand and the bus driver was taken to hospital for his wounds. The suspect then fled across the street and jumped in his car and escaped. This all happened about 150 yards from the campus police station, and the suspect fled past the station. Campus police then pursued him, but gave up the chase for safety reasons.
The university community was apprised of this about an hour later in an email sent out to everyone. I give the university full credit here. When I was in undergrad, there was a serial rapist on campus. The campus police and the university administration did not consider that to be information that the students, staff, and faculty had a right to know. Times have changed.
About half an hour after the email, someone resembling the suspect was spotted on campus. This led to a lockdown, or “shelter in place”, as it’s called, beginning around 12.30pm. For the next two hours, there were police crawling around campus from both the campus and city forces, there were at least two helicopters in the air (whether media or police, I don’t know) and there was a generally tense atmosphere in my building. My colleagues and I speculated on whether or not the suspect might have returned with guns. Who knew?
Around 2pm, classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and evening. About half an hour later, the lockdown was lifted. No one had any idea as to whether or not the suspect had been captured, but we presumed he had been.
But. A few hours later, it became clear that this was not the case, as an arrest warrant had been issued for the suspect, who had obviously fled. This morning, we learned from the news that he was arrested a couple of hundred miles away from here in Upstate New York.
So, in essence, campus experienced a two-hour lockdown and students, staff, and faculty experienced an unnecessary trauma. Looking at the suspect’s mugshot, he’s pretty generic looking and one can see a dozen or two young men who look vaguely like him on any given day around campus. It’s easy, of course, to conclude that the campus police and the administration over-reacted.
But did they? I’m not so sure. What happened yesterday on my campus appears to be the end result of terror and terrorism. Since 9/11, Americans have obviously become much more vigilant. And with mass shootings happening at an alarmingly frequent rate in the past couple of years, this only makes people, military/police/civilians, all the more vigilant (as an aside, I’ve noted the media, especially in Canada, likes to point out that gun deaths are down in the US, which is true, but then this is used to argue that mass shootings are no biggie. That’s false, there are more mass shootings now than ever). And, in pursuing this vigilance, the campus police and the administration yesterday erred on the side of caution, calculating the chance of a real threat to the campus community. The suspect had apparently attacked his victim(s) completely randomly. Thus, the threat was real, if he was indeed back on campus, he could conceivably randomly attack again. Or maybe he had a more destructive weapon?
And this is how terror and terrorism works (yes, I consider mass shooter and those who enable them terrorists). It causes terror, and it causes massive overreactions like we had yesterday because it is better to be safe than sorry. What if the campus police and administration did not react in the manner they did yesterday and the suspect had returned to campus and caused more damage? Imagine the lawsuits and negative reaction.
I’m not saying I like this, but I am interested in how terror works like this. I am presently teaching a course on the History of Terror. And while the course is centred around the very fundamental fact of the terror of history, that we’re all going to die, terror on a smaller scale (like 9/11, the Boston Bombing, these massacres) works the same way and makes us more vigilant, easier to scare, easier to over-react.
It’s all rather depressing, yeah?
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.
Diaspora and Terrorism: The problem with relativism
July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
Janet Reitman‘s Rolling Stone feature on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a fascinating read in many ways, as she explores just what might have radicalised him and turned him into a terrorist. Reitman talked to pretty much everyone in the Boston region who knew him growing up. He comes across as the pretty stereotypical American urban kid. As a Bostonian, the article interested me for obvious reasons. But as an historian, I was struck by questions and notions of diaspora concerning the Tsarnaev family and the youngest son, especially.
Reitman talked to Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches Islamic Studies at UMass-Dartmouth. UMass-Dartmouth, of course, is where Tsarnaev went to school. Interestingly, Tsarnaev, who by all accounts was interested in his history as a Chechen and a Muslim, didn’t take a single one of Williams’ classes. But Williams also comments on the older brother, Tamerlan, who by all accounts was the ring-leader. Williams, says Reitman,
believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.
I find this comment interesting. Being an Irish Canadian, and having spent much of the past decade-and-a-half studying the Irish in North America, I’ve always been struck by the willingness of Irish-Catholics in both Canada and the United States to identify with the IRA. Usually this identification with the IRA came without complications. Supporters never thought about where that money in those tins was going, what it was going to be used for. What happened when the guns and bombs it bought were used, who got hurt, who got killed. If they had stopped to think about this, if they removed the romanticism of the struggle back “home” (even if Ireland hadn’t been home for several generations), I’m sure support for the IRA would’ve dried up pretty quickly. Not many Irish Canadians or Irish Americans actually went back to Northern Ireland and got involved in the fight.
And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev did. He went back to Chechnya and Dagestan. He was, however, told by a cousin in Dagestan that this was not his fight. So he brought the fight home. I shudder at the consequences.
But that is exactly what makes Williams’ comparison invalid after a certain point. All those Irish in Southie who contributed to the IRA’s cause have several degrees of separation from the consequences of their donation. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quite literaly have blood on their hands as a direct result of their actions.
Rolling Stone and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
July 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
Rolling Stone’s new issue is causing a tumult here in Boston. The cover image is one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber. In the picture, he looks like a loveable kid, laid back, like your little brother. Not a terrorist. I suppose this was Rolling Stone‘s purpose. The article, by Janet Reitman, is an excellent attempt to figure out what went so wrong with Tsarnaev, and how a laid-back, captain of the wrestling team, because a murderer and terrorist. In other words, there is massive cognitive dissonance between the image and the article.
I find the image distasteful. I find it alarming. And I find it jarring. I don’t like it. Yesterday, CVS decided not to sell the image in its Boston-area outlets out of respect to the victims. Other local merchants have agreed and are not selling this issue. I re-tweeted the CVS one, thinking that this was the right decision.
Today, I’m not so sure. In part, because I had a long argument with with @lostinhistory (Better known as Jason Warren, purveyor of a very fine blog) on Twitter last night and this morning. This was NOT an argument about the article itself, which I think everyone in and around Boston should read. It was entirely about the image. Jason noted RS’s long history of provocative images with its mudracking journalism.
He cited the (in)famous Charles Manson cover of 15 June 1970.
But his larger point is that the article itself would hopefully spur greater discussion about what it was that made Tsarneav become a terrorist, and if the image helps further that goal, then that’s good. I disagreed. Vehemently. I re-read the article today. As I read, I found that the article remained as insightful as it was yesterday and that perhaps Warren had a point, the image is and may be provocative (and note how I have not reproduced it here), but the article should be required reading. It is chilling at times, especially when Reitman is talking with Tsarnaev’s high school friends in Cambridge; they had no clue. None. And given Tsarnaev’s public image, I’m not surprised. What’s so chilling is he managed to create this private life, very far removed from his public one of a happy stoner, and no one had any clue.
Insta-Memory: Dismantling the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial
July 10, 2013 § 12 Comments
Over at NCPH’s History@Work, I have a piece up today on the dismantling of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial a couple of weeks ago by the City of Boston. In it, I explore the meaning of the memorial and what happens to commemorations and memories once a temporary memorial, like this one, is taken down. Today, incidentally, is the day that the surviving bomber/terrorist makes his first court appearance.
The Terror of History
June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century. It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course. For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class. In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester. I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.
A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago. In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did. According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight. To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos. Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error). Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history. We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion. Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.
Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen. When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this. This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe. But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering. What we control is our response to that.
So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads. Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it. We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop. My car emits pollution into the air. Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe. That’s how order is kept. Uplifting, isn’t it?
So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class. I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire. I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution. Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil. Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies. Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner. So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China. Or the British imperial system in Africa or India. Or the Belgians in the Congo. But this wasn’t an export of Europe. Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century. The list goes on and on.
How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do. We find religion. We despoil ourselves in debauchery. We find joy in religion or debauchery. Or we find it in flight. Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic. It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge. In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic. But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.
Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight. Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history. We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.
The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news. But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news. Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon. If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb. So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms. And humans have always had them. But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.
This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies. The terror of that, the horror, the devastation. All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities. We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism. Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related. This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.
At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something. Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.