Monday, February 9, 2015

On Obama's Crusades "Controversy"

I ended my latest blog post by commenting on the alarming convergences between stories that promote a modern, militant Christianity and the crusades romances I study. Watching American Sniper only affirmed in my mind the fact that fantasies of Christian (in this case American Christian) superiority have gone nowhere, and that we need to forge bridges between the past and present instead of building walls between the two in an attempt to praise ourselves for being “evolved” in some way. I think the popularity of crusades narratives in late 14th and 15th century England has a lot to offer to a conversation about contemporary narratives of Christian triumphalism. As a result, I have been following the “controversy” surrounding Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech rather closely. The fact that it even IS a controversy is embarrassing to say the least, and as Ta-Nehisi Coates observes so well, says a lot about the “limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism” or, I’d add, militant Christianity, “in our politics.”

David Perry has already posted an excellent list of responses to the controversy, so I won’t repeat that effort here. As many have observed, all Obama did in those comments is remind us that we are not, in fact, at war with Islam itself and that the extremists like those of ISIS do not speak for the majority of Muslims. He calls, as Perry points out, for humility — for Americans to take a longer view and for us to approach our present with a rueful awareness of our cultures’ and religions’ pasts. Sadly, too many failed to understand and internalize that aspect of Obama’s speech and, instead, have produced an array of knee-jerk responses that only – in the end – reveal that the kind of humility called for in the POTUS' speech is sorely lacking in our culture at the moment. Obama points to the fact (I repeat, FACT) that all religions can be and have been used to justify violence, that none are immune from that potential fate. That's apparently something many in this country do not want to hear, because to hear it -- as others have already articulated/suggested – would be to acknowledge the fact that Christianity and/or America is not always in the right.

I expect these kinds of knee-jerk reactions from extremely conservative pundits. I expect them, in other words, to do exactly what American Sniper does so well: to elide inconvenient historical details in order to paint a portrait of easy Christian/American superiority. I like to think, however, that scholars would know all too well the dangers and risks that come with oversimplifying the past, especially when writing an op-ed piece accusing someone else of doing just that. And so, I was more than a little dismayed to detect similar tactics in Thomas Madden’s recent piece in the National Review. Many have pointed out that Madden’s post -- especially in its refusal to say anything about the pogroms against the Jews related to crusading efforts -- paints a deeply flawed portrait of the crusades as strictly defensive wars. His op-ed promulgates, in other words, exactly the view of the Islam that the conservative Right wants: a view that endorses the notion that we are in a religious war and that Islam is/was always, already an aggressive enemy of Christianity.

For the record, there are many things about Madden’s work that I have admired and appreciated over the years and that I continue to admire. His first edition of The Concise History of the Crusades was the textbook for Phillip Daileader’s brilliant course on the subject — a class I eagerly took as a senior at William and Mary. I devoured that book and the lectures, and it is no exaggeration to say that my current work on crusades literature is inspired by all that I read and learned during that semester. The final essay that I wrote for the class, in fact, was the one I submitted with my graduate school applications. I have always admired Madden’s effortless and approachable writing style, too – which I have often used as an example of effective writing for my students over the years. And, on a more personal note, I’ve enjoyed more than one conversation with him over the years about the need to write works accessible to folks outside of academia as well as within it, something that has directly impacted the kind of writing style I chose to cultivate over the years.

This last point, perhaps, is why I found his editorial so disconcerting. Because it actually seems to argue against that very ideal. He seems to be saying/suggesting that only medieval historians (and, I worry, only historians who agree with his thesis that the crusades were “defensive”) have a right to discuss the crusades, and that seems to completely defeat the purpose of writing to those outside of the ivory tower in the first place. I could understand his frustrations with Obama's reference to the crusades if it was in any way inaccurate. I could understand said frustrations if Obama had in any way ventured into what Perry calls the "simplistic rhetoric of atrocity as applied to the crusades." The thing is though, Obama didn't really do that at all. As many have observed already, while his comments might have been generalizing, they were hardly untrue. Again, all he spoke of is the (very real) tendency for religious belief to give way to violence and how we owe it to ourselves to be aware of that historic tendency and strive to be better. In other words, instead of Christians automatically labeling themselves as "more evolved" (as I've heard at least a few conservative pundits express over the past few days) Obama asks them in this speech to pay careful attention to history and endeavor to avoid repeating it. Hardly a radical idea at all. 

I do think there are fruitful debates to be had about the historical crusades and the motivations behind them, and I more than agree with the importance of recognizing the crusades as an incredibly complex and shifting concept and practice. I also agree that the crusades are all too often misunderstood in popular culture. But what I cannot understand or accept, in the end, is the argument that the President has no right to talk about the crusades in the first place. Madden closes his piece by saying that the President can/should just focus on the here and now — as if we live in some kind of vacuum where the past, and our varied interpretations of that past, have no bearing on the present. In the end, I'll gladly accept the POTUS cautioning against crusades -- however generally -- than (accidentally?) calling for them. Because in the end, as Perry put it so well in his recent post, the history of religious violence -- in all of its permutations -- warns again and again of the dangers of binary worldviews, especially when they lead one to believe that one's "violent acts are necessary" and good. 

On that note, I think I’ll close by quoting Eileen Joy, who cautions against this distancing of the medieval from the modern far more eloquently than I ever could. Certainly food for thought and an inspiration to keep forging meaningful bridges with care:  
The alterity of history, and of different times, events, persons, texts and other artifacts in history, will always obtain and thereby, will always remain as a proper object of medieval historiography [as well as a caution against the exhaustion of any historical method — by which I mean, we never exhaust history’s alterity by any one method, but rather, work to make its alterity more complex by a variety of methods and approaches, which is a good thing, in my mind]. At the same time, to say that only those events most proximate in chronological time have the most to say to us about our present situation [whatever that present situation might be], strikes me as an altogether too impoverished view of what history can do and say in the present, and also of where it is we think we are in time — on some island called modernity, floating in open space, completely untethered from “the medieval”?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated by the authors in order to keep the spam at bay.