David Barton, Christopher Columbus and the Potential Costs of Myth-Making

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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89 Responses

  1. Avatar James K says:

    It’s the trouble with lying generally – sooner or later you will be found out and the reckoning is often far from pleasant.Report

  2. In fairness to the “Columbus was a monster” crowd…

    …dude got relieved of his governorship and arrested by the Castilians for being too much of a tyrant as governor of Hispaniola. When Isabella and Ferdinand say “Dude, you’re being a tyrant” (remember, they of the forced conversions, Jewish expulsions and Inquisition) you’re probably taking things a little too far.Report

  3. Barton’s critics are also getting air in the Glenn Beck empire. He may not be finished, but it’ll never be the same.

    Anti-religionists will miss him; he was so easy to dog. I’ve been following this circus for years. Now they’ll have to deal with legit scholars like Tom Kidd and Daniel Dreisbach, no easy pickins.

    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/06/the-mythical-wall-of-separation-how-a-misused-metaphor-changed-church-state-law-policy-and-discourse

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/september/willamericakeepthefaith.html?start=1Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Christian Postmodernism, I call it. Whatever America is not, it is not a Christian nation. Somewhere along the line, these Patriotic Christianists have lost their way. They ought to return to reading their Bibles and cease their confabulations of history.

      Christopher Tolkien, writing of what became of his father’s books, interviewed in Le Monde:

      “Tolkien est devenu un monstre, dévoré par sa popularité et absorbé par l’absurdité de l’époque, observe tristement Christopher Tolkien. Le fossé qui s’est creusé entre la beauté, le sérieux de l’œuvre, et ce qu’elle est devenue, tout cela me dépasse. Un tel degré de commercialisation réduit à rien la portée esthétique et philosophique de cette création. Il ne me reste qu’une seule solution : tourner la tête.”

      “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.” -tr. Sedulia Scott

      It might as well have been written of Jesus Christ, a man who never laid claim to any kingdom but the hearts of men. There is a power to stupidity and the perverting of truth we cannot fully comprehend until we see the ends to which those twisted truths have been bent.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Or Chris T is just jellyReport

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

          The “jelly” reference went over my head. I’ve corresponded with Christopher Tolkien while I was working on the Farmer Giles of Ham papers in the Marquette University Special Collections.

          Peter Jackson has made a complete botch of the LOTR and I expect no better from Hobbit. I say this, not because I don’t recognise the difference between making a good movie and writing a good book: there will be differences. There’s a wonderful essay by John Fowles in his collection of essays Wormholes, where he goes into the making of The French Lieutenant’s Woman movie, laying out what goes on, especially the relationship between the author and the director. At some point, the author must allow the movie to become its own entity.

          The business of myth-making is costly. Joseph Campbell once said Myth was the armour truth must wear to survive the long centuries. Todd points out how we’ve been hoodwinked by history. We have been hoodwinked by bad storytellers, not by history itself.

          Myths are not lies. They are the stories of beginnings. To be sure, myths come down to us, encrusted with all sorts of fabulous barnacles, but at their heart, they are stories judged worth repeating by many generations of storytellers. To read Homer in Greek is to see the signposts left by the storytellers, the little mnemonic tricks used by those who earned their living in the accurate repetition of those stories.

          Those who trifle with those myths, bowdlerising them, cutting out bits they don’t like and adding politically correct addenda — look, I’m not a purist. I understand mythic tales might need retelling. I can accept that. What I don’t want, and won’t tolerate, is the Disney-fication of the myths. That’s unacceptable.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to BlaiseP says:

            My main problem with the LOTR movies -which I liked at first, but have grown cold on- was cutting out the scouring of the Shire. The books are -amongst other things- a very loose allegory about the horrors of war. (They also provide a series of archetypes who respond to loss and the horrors of life in different ways.) The Hobbits need to return to a ruined home for the emptional resonance of war to really sink in for the viewer.

            Also, the movies move so quickly through the story and linger so long on the action that you lose the immersiveness of Tolkiens world, the backstories, the history, the language, etc.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    One thing I learned in college was this: Any historian that claims to know motive for historical actors without written confirmation from the source itself is engaging in speculation. Speculation is fun for academics, but also filled with bias.

    The biggest problem I had with my collegaues when I was doing archaeology was when they would try to ascribe motive to artifacts. The worst cases were with slave goods. They crossed the line then from scientists into academics and that was where things went off the rail.Report

  5. Avatar Michelle says:

    Good piece Tod, but your conclusion is entirely too sanguine. Folks like Barton, and Beck, are part of an industry creating an alternate American history, one where the US is an unambiguously Christian nation, where there is no wall separating Church and State, and where capitalism has G-d’s blessing. Not only do these people have large audiences who aren’t concerned with historical accuracy, they also have political power, which they use to promote their views. Barton himself is a former co-chair of the Texas Republican Party. You know, Texas, where a couple of years ago the state board of education voted to institute changes to school textbooks that promote a version of history not dissimilar to Barton’s:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html

    Because of the sheer size of Texas as a textbook market, these curriculum changes will have effect well beyond the state’s borders. For kids who don’t go on to college, or who don’t bother to take an American history class if they do go, this introduction to American history may be all they get. While I have no idea what role Barton played in pushing this curriculum, it’s clear that he and his promoters want to push their corrupted version of history in the political realm.

    Barton, Beck, and a number of other right wing authors of history books aren’t interested in actual history with all of its conflict and nuance. What they’re presenting is myth cloaked as “fact” in order to promote their political agenda and demonizing their liberal opponents. This is part and parcel of their ongoing war on reality, which includes not only large scale denial of things like climate change and evolution, but petty denials of poll results and labor bureau statistics. That these folks have found themselves a home, and gained considerable power, within the modern Republican Party, has hobbled debate and harmed our politics. How can there be any kind of compromise when the parties don’t share the same reality?Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Michelle says:

      What they’re presenting is myth cloaked as “fact” in order to promote their political agenda and demonizing their liberal opponents.

      Those evil people on the other side, always demonizing our side.Report

      • Avatar Michelle in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        The point is that neither side are demons– even the worst of them are human, some better or worse than others. History as myth reduces historical actors to caricatures of themselves.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Good observation, BB-
        Both sides do it!
        One side presents “evolution” and the other presents “creationism”; One side claims the earth revolves around the sun, the other claims the sun revolves around the earth;

        Opinions among scholars vary.
        We should teach the controversy!Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        To my mind, there should be no conflict between Conservative political views (an entirely necessary part of the political spectrum) and the spirit of scientific inquiry.

        The larger question, one which you might answer, is this one: why have so many unscientific and unhistorical idiots been tolerated in the Conservative camp? More than tolerated, positively encouraged.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP says:

          “…why have so many unscientific and unhistorical idiots been tolerated in the Conservative camp? More than tolerated, positively encouraged.”

          If we’re talking modern day conservatism, I would blame muchof it on the antagonistic relationship between academia and the Right. I’m researching right now which came first, the chicken or the egg, but it appears that conservatives were slowly forced out of many scientific fields (especially the social sciences). As a reaction the Right has begun supporting alternative scholarship. Unfortunately this is pretty unhealthy.

          Also, because the Right is more nationalistic, they have been guilty of subverting certain fields (history, archaeology) for their own goals. Of course, the Left also subverts them in their way, but it’s maybe less harmful in the broader sense.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            The conservatives haven’t been in the social sciences for years upon years. But until very, very recently the hard sciences were Republican. Look at Devilstower if you don’t believe me.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            That doesn’t answer the question, as asked. Why does the Conservative camp tolerate these unscientific maniacs?

            We both know the Conservatives weren’t pushed out of academia, they left of their own accord. They went off to staff the wave of Lilywhite Christian Academies and Colleges founded or expanded in the wake of integration in the 1960s. Now that’s what really happened and I was around to see it. I went to just such a college, Wheaton College, a bastion of all sorts of crazy talk at the time. Now it’s calmed down somewhat and evolution isn’t quite the Rock of Offence that once it was.

            If the Left came to dominate the Ivory Tower, it was by default. Now that’s how it really went down.Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP says:

              They are tolerated because a lot of conservatives no longer take science seriously, unfortunately. They feel it’s been politicized, etc. And they simply don’t respect the integrity of the field. I can’t tell you how many of my friends on the Right are okay with teaching ID as equivelant to evolution.

              I disagree with your story of how conservatives left science. Or at least the social sciences. I saw it still happening in the mid-90s.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                The professionals in general have turned very, very heavily democratic.
                A bit too much being spat on, but mostly they hate authoritarian thinking.
                The folks who ragged on Clinton being “wishywashy” drove the scientists out.
                (Clinton’s never been wishywashy in his life!)Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Mike, the Conservatives no longer entertain the shadow of doubt. It was always their strong suit, for doubt lies at the heart of the virtue of Prudence. They’re intellectually flabby.

                For many centuries, Islam was a tremendously progressive thing. Science, art, mathematics, especially astronomy and medicine prospered in their early years. Joseph Schacht says the doors of ijtihad closed around the 10th century CE and Islamic culture began its long decline into intolerance and eventually irrelevance.

                Mike, I saw it happen. I didn’t walk away from it, I was pushed out of it. It’s kind of a sore point with me. Conservatives have conceived a blind hatred for anyone who entertains the shadow of doubt. They have lost the virtue of Prudence and descended into the hell of Certitude.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Those people who claim to be conservatives are merely reactionaries. True conservatives turned democratic a while back — look at your traditional Republican Strongholds, PA/NJ/New England/Illinois.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

          “why have so many unscientific and unhistorical idiots been tolerated in the Conservative camp?”

          Jenny McCarthy ain’t no Republican, bro.Report

    • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Michelle says:

      What really amazes me is that not only do they completely misread history, but that a group of Christians who supposedly take the bible very seriously seem equally incapable of actually reading it.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Michelle says:

      The extreme wing of the conservative block falls for the Big Kahuna fallacy, with the Big Kahuna played by an omniscient, benevolent central God tinkerer.

      The extreme wing of the progressive block also falls for the Big Kahuna fallacy, but they replace the deity with an omniscient, benevolent central government tinkerer.

      Two denominations, same basic faith.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

        I don’t call those folks progressive. And the conservatives ought not to name those folks conservatives that are reactionaries.
        Of course, that’s like asking the conservatives to cut off their own head, in this day and age.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Kim says:

          I never know what to call the far left. They aren’t socialists any more, as that ideology is all played out. They aren’t liberals, because true liberals are libertarian. So I just call them progressives, yet that doesn’t work either because they don’t really believe in the possibility of progress either.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

            Radicals is the term you want. I use reactionary when I discuss Koch and his ilk.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Roger says:

            Economically the mainstream left is corporatist, perhaps that’s the term you should use?Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

            They aren’t liberals, because true liberals are libertarian.

            Who decided that?Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

              Stillwater,

              The language police!

              Seriously….

              The early liberals such as Smith, Locke, Madison and Hume were strong advocates of freedom, property rights, equal opportunity and such. Let’s call them classical liberals. I would consider myself a classical liberal and several other libertarians on this site have said the same. I would classify Hayek, Mises and probably Friedman as classicals too 

               More recently people calling themselves  “liberals” started pursuing equal outcomes, social reengineering, the welfare state, socialized medicine and redistributive taxes.  Liberals have become moderate libertarians and liberals have become …Progressives? Corporatists? Radicals?Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

                The best defense of property rights is NOT machine guns mounted on mansions. It’s an intelligent socialism. Even machine guns can be overwhelmed.

                I sincerely doubt that Locke and Smith and all the rest would have been such “strong advocates” of property rights in the face of our current technology.

                I’m quite certain I know more about the data the world keeps tabs on you with, than you do (and I don’t know much!)Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Kim says:

                Actually, David Hume was a huge fan of machine guns, or “Maxim” guns as he referred to them in his second treatise.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

                … I said CURRENT technology, Roger! 😉 Thermite, TNT, chemical warfare, biological warfare. Suddenly property rights don’t seem nearly as inviolable as they used to.

                With every advance, we take one step closer to “one crazy man can kill us all.” I believe we’re already there, actually.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Kim says:

                How were you thinking property rights relate to crazy men with guns?Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                The more crazy shit someone can store on their property (and, in particular, hide from everyone else till it’s critical), the more credible justification we have for limiting property rights.

                In practice, we limit who’s allowed to get biotech, heavily guard nuclear materiel at all points (which truly infringes on private property), etc. etc.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

                How did Smith, Locke, Madison and Hume feel about social order? About the idea that there should be some moral order, some overal governing ethos that governs our behavior, instead of self-interest?
                Honest question, I haven’t studied them in depth.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:

                Much the same as Hayek and Mises. Social order is fundamental.

                Reading into your question, you seem to think self-interest is the same as liberty. I would disagree. Liberty allows people the freedom to pursue whatever goals they like as long as they do not directly harm others. It is an ordering process for society based upon mutually beneficial interactions. Everyone is free to interact how they want with whom they want in a positive sum fashion. Billions of people interact in billions of ways in cooperation with each other. Hayek’s contributions were to reveal how this can be a learning or discovery process for human prosperity.

                Liberty, duty seems very important to you. I sense you feel we have a moral duty to contribute to mankind. Classical liberals will applaud this choice. Let me add though that my management experience is that when you assign everyone a duty for the same thing, you have in fact assigned nobody a duty at all. If everyone is responsible, nobody is.

                My recommendation is that if you want people to focus on improving the station of mankind, that we begin assigning responsibility. May I suggest each of us assumes primary responsibility — even duty — to ones self? And then ones immediate family. And then extended family, and if able to extend it out to acquaintances and associates and neighbors.

                There is nobody that evolution has prepared us more to help than ourselves and our kin. We share the same goals and values, are intimately aware of context, and we experience the feedback and learning. Furthermore our interests are naturally aligned and we have little temptation to exploit ourselves and those we love. My libertarian recommendation is that you start the duty to humankind with yourself and that you expand the circle from there as possible. In addition, I recommend we expressly prohibit win/lose, zero sum interactions.

                With the focus on freedom and expanding our circle in a positive sum way, we build up networks of cooperative problem solving. This is the recipe of prosperity and human flourishing according to one libertarian.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

                ” Let me add though that my management experience is that when you assign everyone a duty for the same thing, you have in fact assigned nobody a duty at all. If everyone is responsible, nobody is. ”

                Cultural baggage. I doubt someone from Japan would say the same thing.
                This is indeed the philosophy, for instance, of the highest donating religion in the states.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

                Smith was the type of guy to slug the “rent seekers”. He wasn’t much of a conservative, that’s for sure!Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Michelle says:

      The actual changes made in the TX curriculum are far more modest than the hysteria that surrounded them. But few know the specifics.Report

      • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Prophylactic measure are required.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Do you have a link that explicates the changes?Report

        • Actually, Pat, i travel in the critical circles [academics] and they made great hay over the debates–where some admittly stupid ideas were floated by the right—but were shot down. Breathless daily dispatches from some lefty blog called Texas Freedom Network. The left-academic establishment was aghast, thousands upon thousands of words of revulsion and alarm.

          However, I’ve run across virtually nothing on the actual result, the revised curriculum. I meself have been through about Grades 1-7.

          http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=3643

          Frankly, I never bothered to write it up because there’s no audience. The right got their way, and the left remain apoplectic. What I will say is that it’s very interesting reading, because what was struck out is on the docs as well as what was added. The complaint about the leftishness of the original curriculum [which you’ll never hear about] was that it was pretty much anthropology rather than history—the study of peoples and culture more than what the righty advisers call “citizenship.’ I’m not going to defend every chapter and verse, because that’s a fool’s game, but on the whole, I approve.Report

  6. Avatar damon says:

    “When a lie of history is revealed it creates an angry backlash; this backlash will embrace competing lies just as easily as facts and scholarship.” Sometimes. Sometimes everyone turns away and refuses to see it.

    Wait 50-100 years. Let’s see the stuff that’s been declassifed….Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to damon says:

      The back and foth on whether pre-civilization peoples are “savages” is one illustration. They were savages until the aftermath of WW-II, when academia decided that modern civilization was the real evil, and that view become so dominant that few dared even question it. Now the verdict seems to be swinging the other way because no dam can hold back so much raw data forever (such as the rate of violent death).

      The native American genocide idea is another one where the pendulum is returning, since building a mountain of bad scholarship just makes for an avalanche of eventual corrections.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

        When the Portuguese first arrived in Japan, there was considerable debate about whether they were actually human. They couldn’t conceive of any human who didn’t wash his ass or his clothes.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Interestingly, in all the letters going back and forth, the Europeans also concluded that the Asians had no idea how to fight. They said the Japanese samurai were intense and potentially dangerous, like Tripolitan pirates, but weren’t skilled with swords or other weapons. There are many early accounts that corraborate that opinion, with drunken sailors getting chased by samurai till they get tired, stopping and killing them in a quick sword fight, and then continuing back to their ship. Europeans bought lots of Japanese swords, kept the short ones as pretty knives and dumped the katanas in various colonies as agricultural tools. In parts of Africa a “katana” is still used to cut sugar cane.

          The idea that Asians were martial arts masters is also a post WW-II phenomenon. Europeans used to have far more sophisticated systems based on book study, experiments, engineering, and geometry, and with the key hallmark that innovation was extremely important because the enemy always adapts to new techniques, and that what worked on the battlefield or on the streets ten or twenty years ago might not work today.

          So abandoning obsolete methods was just as important as adding new ones, and obsoleting the old methods through study innovation was a critical component to being a master of martial arts. So as we kept making improvements (guns and such), we also dropped anything old that was no longer useful. By the 1800’s very little was left of the old knowledge, to the point where serious academics and historians had no idea how Europeans had even used typical swords in combat (Many, and sometimes most, of the killing blows are done with the back edge, not the front edge, with little or no edge-to-edge contact, etc). Fortunately the medieval and renaissance Europeans wrote martial arts manuals, and wrote a lot of them, so their techniques can be recovered.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

            I live for comments like this one.

            The Japanese had lived in the shadow of China for centuries. Once they’d met up with the Portuguese, the Japanese confined all further contact to a tiny trickle: they’d been through several centuries of civil war and it wasn’t the swordsmanship of the Portuguese which mattered but rather their gunpowder weapons. No dummies they, the great swordsmiths of Japan quickly converted their forges to the replication of those weapons. Nobunaga then Hideyoshi put an end to all that bushido nonsense.

            But that’s not really the point. One man’s savage is another man’s sage. It’s just a matter of perspective. It’s quite easy to sort out the savages from the sages, independently of culture: see how they treat strangers, if they respect the elderly, if they are kindly to women and children, if they exhibit the rudiments of giving and accepting gifts, if they’re interested in learning to read and write the language. That sort of thing.Report

            • Avatar Fnord in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Speaking of gunpowder and disruption, the focus on swordsmanship qua swordsmanship, from adherents to both eastern and western styles, misses the point. The sword was never the defining weapon of war, it was a symbol of wealth and nobility. The weapons that ruled the battlefield were the spear and the bow, in their various incarnations (guns displaced bows; eventually they drove other weapons from the battlefield altogether, but not by the time of European contact with Japan).Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

            Yes, the Japanese were quick to adopt the new firearms, but then didn’t like the way guns destabilized an order maintained by mastery of a particular set of weapons, so they reverted. That somewhat illustrates another interesting and fundamental difference between the way the two cultures approached martial arts (and many other subjects).

            The European martial arts masters specifically said that the process of mastery was to learn all you can from your teacher, learn from other masters, and then learn from all the books written by masters because one mind can’t contain it all. Then to develop new techniques and improvements that can be added to the books written by the masters, then to come up with your own techniques that render your master’s techniques obsolete, and then write your own books. That is how you show you are a true master – by advancing the art and proving that your own master was wrong.

            Traditional Asian cultures had a problem with this because they got stuck in a logical box. If you gain mastery by studying under a great lineage of past masters, absorbing all they know, and then prove that they were wrong or ignorant in some fundamental way, you’ve also proven they couldn’t have been true masters, so all you’ve established is that you can’t know anything because you learned from teachers who didn’t know anything, either, and thus you should be ignored. The masters who you are refuting, knowing your innovation is essentially a challenge to their competence, of course reject you as a failed student.

            That makes Asian martial arts much more resistant to change and innovation, yet also preserved them as an active tradition long enough to survive into the modern world. By the time WW-II rolled around, most Westerners didn’t even remember that they’d had their own sophisticated martial arts (just something about jousting and dragons) and an Asian martial arts craze was born.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

            Though I’ve never checked this conclusion out with Japanese people, I’ve always thought the WW2-era Japanese military fostered their own completely bullshit-istic and completely ersatz version of bushido which had nothing to do with the real thing. The Japanese weren’t stupid. Meiji-jidai Japan adapted to the West faster than any other culture which encountered it.

            I like the Japanese. I think they’re a first-rate culture. I’m not one of those people who praise them too highly, but their aesthetic sensibilities and astonishingly robust cultural identity are highly admirable. Though they’ve got a great sense of tradition, they’re sorta like Americans in many ways, for both better and worse. They adapt when they need to adapt. They don’t look back much. They suffer in many of the ways we do as Americans.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

            I like them too. I’m reminded of a story from a year or so after 9/11 where a Japanese ambassador was on a flight in the Middle East. An Arab asked him how his country had managed to so successfully Westernize (becoming powerful) while keeping their culture intact, and how could Arabs follow Japan’s example? The ambassador replied “We didn’t,” (or something to that effect), and explained that they consciously made huge changes and only kept selected remnants of their earlier culture.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to George Turner says:

        Huh.

        Wonder what coulda happened between 1936-45 that would cause academics to question the superiority of modern civilization.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to George Turner says:

        The back and foth on whether pre-civilization peoples are “savages” is one illustration. They were savages until the aftermath of WW-II, when academia decided that modern civilization was the real evil, and that view become so dominant that few dared even question it. Now the verdict seems to be swinging the other way because no dam can hold back so much raw data forever (such as the rate of violent death).

        Comments like this demonstrate that you aren’t an academic and little else, I think. “Savages” isn’t a technical term. It was adopted by convention given a particular time and place, and the semantics of that term were subsequently disputed and ultimately rejected by the academic community.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

          Also, the tendency of people outside of the Academy to attribute alien and subversive motives to academics is one thing that I’ve never understood. It’s almost – almost! – like they view people who are drawn to academia as being different from themselves in a really important way. Like they’re the kind of people who have ulterior motives…Report

          • Oikophobia, “a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes, [b]ut it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested.”

            “Nobody brought up in post-war England can fail to be aware of the educated derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would have been extinguished years ago, had the English not been prepared to die for their country. The loyalty that people need in their daily lives, and which they affirm in their unconsidered and spontaneous social actions, is now habitually ridiculed or even demonized by the dominant media and the education system. National history is taught as a tale of shame and degradation. The art, literature and music of our nation have been more or less excised from the curriculum, and folkways, local traditions and national ceremonies are routinely rubbished. This repudiation of the national idea is the result of a peculiar frame of mind that has arisen throughout the Western world since the Second World War, and which is particularly prevalent among the intellectual and political elites. No adequate word exists for this attitude, though its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’. Being the opposite of xenophobia we might describe this state of mind as ‘oikophobia’, meaning (to stretch the Greek a little) the repudiation of inheritance and home.

            Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the left are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers. The Cambridge spies offer a telling illustration of what oikophobia has meant for our country. And it is interesting to note that a recent BBC ‘docudrama’ constructed around that episode neither examined the realities of their treason nor addressed the suffering of the millions of their East European victims, but merely endorsed the oikophobia that had caused the spies to act as they did.

            Nor is oikophobia a specifically English, still less specifically British tendency (although Scots seem relatively immune to it). When Sartre and Foucault draw their picture of the ‘bourgeois’ mentality, the mentality of the Other in his Otherness, they are describing the ordinary decent Frenchman, and expressing their contempt for his national culture. A chronic form of oikophobia has spread through the American universities, in the guise of political correctness, and loudly surfaced in the aftermath of September 11, to pour scorn on the culture that allegedly provoked the attacks, and to side by implication with the terrorists.”

            http://keithburgess-jackson.typepad.com/blog/2011/01/roger-scruton-on-oikophobia.htmlReport

            • “Nobody brought up in post-war America can fail to be aware of the derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would have been extinguished years ago, had secular Americans not been prepared to fight hard for their right to criticize. The loyalty that people need in their daily lives, and which they affirm in their unconsidered and spontaneous social actions, is now habitually ridiculed or even demonized by the dominant cable news media and talk radio circuit. National history past 1850 is taught as a tale of shame and degradation. The art, literature and music of our nation have been more or less excised from the curriculum for being “elitist”, and symphonies, literature and aged public instititutions are routinely rubbished. This repudiation of the national idea is the result of a peculiar frame of mind that has arisen throughout the Western world since the 1980s, and which is particularly prevalent among the conservative intellectual and political elites. No adequate word exists for this attitude, though its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’. Being the opposite of xenophobia we might describe this state of mind as ‘oikophobia’, meaning (to stretch the Greek a little) the repudiation of inheritance and home.

              Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the right are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers such as Isreal. The Tea Party rallies offer a telling illustration of what oikophobia has meant for our country. And it is interesting to note that a recent FOX News ‘docudrama’ constructed around that episode neither examined the realities of their treason nor addressed the suffering of the millions of their American neighbors, but merely endorsed the oikophobia that had caused the populists to act as they did.

              Nor is oikophobia a specifically American, still less specifically American tendency (although RINOs seem relatively immune to it). When Beck and Coulter draw their picture of the ‘liberal’ mentality, the mentality of the Other in his Otherness, they are describing the ordinary decent Americans, and expressing their contempt for the dominant national culture. A chronic form of oikophobia has spread through the American churches, in the guise of “being against political correctness,” and loudly surfaced in the aftermath of September 11, to pour scorn on the dominant culture that allegedly invited the attacks saying that it was God’s retribution for homosexuality, and to side by implication with the terrorists.”

              FTFYReport

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              A chronic form of oikophobia has spread through the American universities, in the guise of political correctness, and loudly surfaced in the aftermath of September 11, to pour scorn on the culture that allegedly provoked the attacks, and to side by implication with the terrorists.”

              Yup. There’s the confirmation. If any was really needed. Thanks for that, Tom. You’ve now become a stereotype.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              Oh, Lord. I can hear old Churchill’s stentorian roars across the ages. Hark, the buzzing of the Spitfires rising to shoot down the Bloody Hun. And all those Gurkhas.

              To find a true royalist these days, one must go to America, where it seems some folks want a King before whom to grovel and to lick the royal boot that periodically kicks their asses. Such kicks might be the one good side-effect of such a scheme, that all such craven buttocks should be kicked, and never would be such sadistic kicks so well-deserved. See Hobbes’ Leviathan for why this is so.

              Let those who would impute ill motives to those who might review the conclusions of past historians remember this: history has never once informed us of wise kings who were not surrounded with academics. Ashoka was such a king, perhaps the wisest man to ever rule his fellow men. After a great battle, he was filled with revulsion at the slaughter and swore to improve his world through compassion and wisdom. He reinvents writing in his kingdom. He encourages all religions, establishes the first welfare state, but he instils literacy in his people, women most especially.

              Humankind may never see another Ashoka. But we can hope, can’t we? We might hope for leaders who appeal to our sense of common decency and kindness and not strut about, extolling the virtues of the stupid and the proud, as if great riches made a man better. Oikophobia is a natural and entirely healthy revulsion to the onanistic rantings of the Self-Made Man.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Heh. Scruton points his finger and some people walk right in front of it.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                What a cretin is your Scruton.

                The oikophobe is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism. And it is the rise of the oikophobe that has led to the growing crisis of legitimacy in the nation states of Europe. For we are seeing a massive expansion of the legislative burden on the people of Europe, and a relentless assault on the only loyalties that would enable them voluntarily to bear it.

                These are virtues, not vices. I put Ashoka in there for a reason. It’s like a pig looking at a bicycle with you, Tom.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I like that you stand right up and cop to it, Blaise, rather than deny or deface the argument.

                But I do disagree.

                “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”—Lewis, The Abolition of ManReport

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Ah me. St. Clive. You have chosen unwisely in quoting him for I studied him as a boy and a man. Here’s a bit from the Last Battle:

                They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.Report

              • You walk right in front of Lewis’ finger as well, then. One may quote him unwisely, I suppose, but never in vain. I must go now, but I thank you for the joust.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Patriotism is not the last refuge of the scoundrel. It is the first.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Stillwater says:

          But “savages” was the common term, even in the enlightenment, even in the Royal Society, for a long, long time. More polite terms were often substituted, but even academics didn’t question the basic truth of the situation. Pre-civilization societies were brutal and warlike.

          Then came WW-II and suddenly civilization was brutal and warlike, and pre-civilization people came to be viewed as pristine innocents who lived in harmony with nature and didn’t know war or violence. It got so bad that archeologists had to go to great lengths to avoid implying a warlike past, such as claiming that scores of skeletons with severe bone trauma outside the gate of a stockaded village must reflect some quaint burial ritual. Or explaining that Germanic chieftans were always buried with big axes because wood chopping was an important part of their social status.

          Many academics still largely believe such things, and only a few of them point out how horribly wrong that view is, and that at least 30% of people in primitive societies seem to die from “man-caused” violence that left visible marks on their bones. Observations of primitive warfare bear out these numbers, and whereas WW-II took about 7 years to kill 60 million people, at our current population level primitive warfare would only take 2 or 3 years to do the same, and it would never stop, resulting in about 2 or so billion extra deaths in the 20th century.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to George Turner says:

            Oh, I’m not disputing that it was a word used in academia for quite a while. But the origins of the word are very ethnocentric: a savage was someone who wasn’t “civilized”, where that word was defined in terms of the prevailing cultural norms of the (non-indigenous) speaker. It took a while, but academic’s – like all thinking people – realized that defining a term based on subjective values, norms and experiences wasn’t quite right. It didn’t lead to a broader understanding of culture. So they abandoned the term.

            On the other hand, the so-called “civilized” societies have engaged in slaughter, mass murder, genocide, torture, wars of aggression, etc etc to a probably greater extent than the so-called “savages”. But those actions weren’t viewed as barbaric for one very obvious reason: tautology. If my society is “civilized”, then it’s logically impossible for it to engage in barbaric actions. It’s only those other societies that due such stuff.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

            But that’s the point about the way the pendulum swung. Why would you assert that civilized societies are worse than primitive ones in those regards, when even at society’s worst it didn’t get to half the death rate a primitive society would take as normal?

            Most of the early contact records detail extreme brutality, savagery, and using human body parts as trophies. Missionaries from Peru to Wisconsin walked into whole tribes being exterminated by other tribes or fleeing with food and shelter. Often women and children were raiding targets because murdering them was considered a braver act than killing a warrior, because to kill women and children required sneaking up close to their village. When Lewis and Clark’s party encountered two Indian women outside their village, the women fell to their knees weeping, because in their society women didn’t survive encounters with warriors from another tribe.

            Put more simply, the US is engaged in a war as we speak, and we had been simultaneously engaged in two wars, suffering about 850 combat deaths a year. If our population consisted of pre-civilization tribes, our casualty rate in warfare should be roughly a million to a million and a half a year, matching Britain’s per capita WW-I death rate. Or more simply, WW-I casualty rates are the average in primitive societies, their baseline norm, whereas when confronted with the same rates we thought it was mass slaughter and the world had turned upside-down.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

              Let’s talk to the dead of Dresden and Hiroshima about those statistics.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Well, that’s the thing. Does it matter whether you wipe out a small percentage of large cities, or whether you don’t even have cities, just lots of tiny villages, and wipe out an equal percentage of those?

                And the key thing about Western warfare is that it stops. In the 20th century Japan suffered about 2.3 million or so deaths in warfare, out of (total guess) 150 million Japanese who you’d count toward being in the 20th century. If we compare that to the archeologists 30% estimate of just obvious violent deaths, the Japanese would’ve suffered 50 million violent deaths in the 20th century, about 20 times worse.

                Steven Pinker has a nice presentation about this on Youtube, showing that violent deaths decline on all timescales as the world becomes more civilized. The size of the armies declines (as a percentage of the population), and the relative casualties those armies suffer declines. (Japan only suffered about 20% military casualties during all of WW-II and less than 0.6% civilian casualties).

                The modern US death toll in war is less than the drunk driving deaths in almost any state that starts with the letter ‘M’, coming to around 0.0003% of the total population per year, about 1500 times lower than peaceful, innocent villagers living in harmony with nature.

                Yet the idea that we’re now extremely violent took hold in academia and they won’t let go of it, preferring fairy tales instead.Report

              • Avatar James K in reply to George Turner says:

                That the secret of all the war deaths in the 20th Century. The real villain is modern agriculture. Without that those people wouldn’t have been alive to be killed in the first place.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to George Turner says:

                woof. that idea’s been around since the 1800’s, if not earlier. Romanticism needs to die. But it’s expressed most heavily on the right, where, as Blaise keeps on putting it, people want to elect a King, or some other nonsense.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to George Turner says:

                George,
                You’re leaving aside all the people what died in riots, in strikes, in strikebreaking. All the people who die in the war on drugs, for that matter.Report

            • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to George Turner says:

              Teutonic armies are “tribes” of “savages”; the Romans who slaughtered them were a “nation”, a “Civilization”.

              And the primitive Jews who fought the Romans at Masada were also savages….oh wait…hold on here. Something isn’t quite right.

              “Savage” really is only used to describe “lack of advanced technology”, not any sort of moral development.Report

            • Avatar Michelle in reply to George Turner says:

              One of the constants of human history is our ability to rationalize killing each other. While not all that many Americans were killed in the latest Iraq war, the casualty toll among Iraqis was quite high. Ditto Afghanistan. Killing is generally more removed than it was for primitive peoples–lack of planes, bombs, tanks, drones and the like made destroying one’s enemies a much more personal affair. But the wars go on. Beneath the thin veneer of civilization beats the savage heart.Report

  7. My experience in K-12 was somewhat different. In K-5, Columbus was a hero. It was around middle school that the more complicated picture arose. By high school, we were left to try to reconcile the celebration of our history and the toll it played on others.

    Even in high school, there was some whitewashing (most notably around the Civil War and WWII), but not as much as some people complain about. My general impression impression of American history upon leaving high school is that liberals were pretty much right about everything (even labor terrorists were right, they just went too far). It was the apex of my liberalism. Then I went to college, and that all fell apart.

    I grew up in a red state with what ought to have been (and maybe now are) those knuckle-dragging conservative textbooks. Maybe it was more skewed towards conservative boosterism than I remember and it’s just that at the time I was looking for the things I found. Hard to say.Report

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