Why do we hide?

Courtesy of the Times Literary Supplement, below is a long and thoughtful review of Black Panther and its significance.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger

The unprecedented spectacle of a blockbuster action film with a black director and (almost) all-black cast


Black Panther opens with an animated montage that dramatizes an alternative and fantastic African history. Millions of years ago a meteor composed of the fictional metal Vibranium crashes into the fictional country of Wakanda, giving its people access to a powerful resource found nowhere else on Earth. With the cultural and technological developments made possible by the Vibranium deposits, Wakanda is able to escape the brutality of the slave trade and European colonial expansion. By the twentieth century, Wakanda is the most sophisticated and technologically advanced country on the planet, but also the most isolated. The montage ends with a young prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) asking his father, “And yet we still hide? Why?”

It is a timely question given our particular cultural moment, as a lot of people seem to be asking themselves the same thing. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are both predicated on the desire to bring long-standing abuse out of the shadows where they have existed “in hiding” for far too long. At the same time, the growth of white supremacist groups emboldened by the Trump presidency seems to suggest that racists in America are increasingly asking themselves why they hide as well. The film does not directly engage any of these current conflicts yet it responds through the very effort to rise above them, and silence them with awe. A month after President Trump suggested that Africa was a collection of “shithole countries”, the film presents a ravishing vision of a glorious future, predicated on the revelation of the often unacknowledged achievements of the African past, as well as the energy and ingenuity of the African present. Black Panther also offers the unprecedented spectacle of a blockbuster action film with a black director and almost all-black cast. The representation of women in the movie is especially powerful, providing multiple iconic images of black women who are simultaneously strong, brilliant and unquestionably beautiful. Instead of giving a clear answer to the question of why we hide the film presents a stunning vision of what has been kept hidden for far too long: strong, regal, intelligent African men and women as warriors, scientists and queens.

It also gives us the figure of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a portrait of black nihilism and rage. Killmonger is the son of a Wakandan prince who was sent to the United States as a spy by the Black Panther’s father, King T’Chaka. He fell in love with an African American woman and, horrified by the oppression endured by Africans throughout the diaspora, was plotting to use Wakandan technology to help them in defiance of the king’s wishes. Following his death at the hands of the king, his son Erik was raised as an orphan in the United States. Much of the energy of the plot is derived from Killmonger’s hatred of T’Challa’s family, which is all the more powerful because it is justified. Deprived of his cultural upbringing in Wakanda, Killmonger is not accepted by the royal family even after his pedigree is established. When told that Killmonger’s father was killed by King T’Chaka, the Wakandan elite agree this was unfortunate, but do not express actual remorse. Killmonger wants to claim his birthright, capture the throne, and avenge oppressed black people all over the world. His aim is to trample on tradition and he proclaims his desire to use Wakandan technology to rule an empire that spans the globe.

Thus, in a curious turn, the plot of the movie is about the threat to Wakanda posed by black people themselves. Wakanda is an idealized African society that enjoys the most advanced technology, traditional pastoralism in harmony with nature, and is ruled by a benign royal family seeking only to protect and preserve this glorious idyll in a hostile world. It is not the CIA or global corporate interests that constitute the most destabilizing factor in this vision of Africa’s future but rather other Africans.

This is not the first time Wakanda has been evoked during a period of representational crisis. The comic first appeared in 1966, the same year the Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland. The Black Panther was the first black superhero Marvel Comics created and the concurrence, in terms of the hero’s name, was by all accounts a strange coincidence. But the comic’s creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, were certainly aware of the cultural and social climate – both the emergence of a political organization founded to protest against urban police brutality and the potential market for a black superhero. In June 1966, Stokely Carmichael appeared on national television using the term “Black Power” in response to the shooting of James Meredith during his March against Fear from Memphis to Jackson. The violence that accompanied the simple act of trying to walk down a public thoroughfare while black was just one of countless dramatic demonstration of the brutalities African Americans faced for even the most basic assertion of their civil rights. In some ways, the entire Civil Rights movement was predicated on a refusal to hide, as exemplified by Emmett Till’s mother’s powerful insistence on revealing the violence inflicted on her son for transgressing the social codes that governed black behaviour in the South. Part of the logic of non-violent protest was that by compelling white Americans to bear witness to the atrocities committed in the name of white supremacy, they would be forced to consider the ways in which they were complicit in it, by not taking a stand against it.

The popularity of the forthright energy that gave rise to the emergence of both the Black Power slogan and the creation of the Black Panther comic was short-lived. Instead of addressing the structural issues underlying these long-standing abuses, racism, in many respects, went into hiding. While mainstream America disassociated itself from the overt brutality of the segregationists, other forms of structural racism emerged. The exponential growth of the prison population as a result of the “war on drugs” was just the most egregious example of how policies that were clearly racist, both in intent and outcome, were implemented and enforced while hiding behind other names. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, African American culture was represented as bifurcated along class lines, with black middle-class assimilation used to suggest that race was not the cause of persistent disenfranchisement of a black majority. If Oprah and Cosby existed and if every white star of a movie had at least one black friend, then how could structural problems be evoked as the cause of oppression? Increasingly Americans were told that the real source of social inequality was not external racism but internal disfunction. We were living in a post-racial era and the greatest threat to black communities was black people themselves.

This background is important because it informs and normalizes both the nihilism of Killmonger’s character and the logic of racial representation that has often been an obstacle to creating more diverse roles for black people in Hollywood. At some point it became reflexive to associate honest discussions about the persistence of racism with attacks on white identity. The anxiety about what this meant for the construction of a black superhero is evident in Christopher Priest’s energetic reboot of the Black Panther comic in the 1990s, a series that deeply informs the movie. Priest originated both the character of Everett Ross and the Wakandan female bodyguards to the King, the Dora Milaje. In interviews Priest has spoken candidly about the exhausting efforts he was forced to make in order to construct a black hero that would appeal to white audiences:

The problem with race and popular media is this – in most every “black” movie or “black street” music CD you’ll see or hear, there is some hostility directed towards whites. Now, were I a white male, I certainly wouldn’t want to spend eight bucks to go see a film where white males are portrayed as stupid and the butt of every joke, or where I am made to feel guilty about things I had nothing to do with, and prejudices I don’t actually have.

To that end the figure of the CIA stand-in Everett Ross, a relatively minor character in the film, played by Martin Freeman, was initially conceived as a guide for the assumed white, male comic book reader who might fear that the mere existence of a black superhero somehow marked him as a target of anti-racist attacks. Ross narrates the comics and gives voice to the assumed anxieties of this imaginary reader. The action of the comic is framed in the past tense as Ross’s reports to his superiors at the State Department. This has the further effect of signalling that whatever threats Ross faces during his time with Black Panther, he got out okay and lived to tell the tale.

It is remarkable that, given such pressures, Priest was still able to create such a compelling and dynamic character. It is equally remarkable that twenty years later, despite all the supposed cultural changes that have taken place since then, these anxieties have continued to inhibit efforts to get funding for a big budget film by and about black people.

As I watched the movie, I could not help but think about how this history might have affected the way the director, Ryan Coogler, deals with issue of representation in Black Panther. There is something ingenious about how the film manages to gesture towards so many issues rarely acknowledged in mainstream action movies – the exploitation of Africa, the painful legacy of colonialism – without seeming like an attack on white people precisely through the use of a black villain. Instead of hiding from the past, the film shifts the terms of how it is represented by focusing on its effects. The legacy of white guilt is decentred and then removed altogether by presenting the conflict as a family matter, an issue between black people themselves.

This, for me is one of most fascinating elements of how the film’s plot is constructed. Instead of attempting to allay anxiety by bending over backwards to demonstrate that the world of Wakanda is a safe place for white audiences to enter, the film establishes itself as a safe zone through familiarity with genre. The strategic repurposing of genre evidenced its enormous potential with Jordan Peele’s brilliant redeployment of horror tropes in his film Get Out to convey the fear and anxiety experienced by many black people in their encounters with white liberalism. Coogler similarly used genre to tell newly resonant stories with his previous film, a boxing drama and part of the Rocky franchise, Creed.

Looked at in this way, the figure of Erik Killmonger could be seen as an expression of two demands placed on the film as a result of the enormous pressure to produce a box office hit. The logic of the genre requires a sufficiently threatening antagonist for the hero to vanquish. The logic of this particular superhero film may have demanded that if the hero is black, the villain must be black as well.

Killmonger embodies many familiar stereotypes of African American males so damaged by self-hatred and rejection that they become their own worst enemy. As such his construction as a villain is problematic. We are told he is not fit to be king because he is an outsider and his time in the United States left him with too much hate. Yet Everett Ross, a representative of the CIA that trained Killmonger, fights with the Wakandans to defeat him. Ross is not a fully convincing character in the film. Deprived of his function as a framing device in the comic, I am not entirely sure why he is featured so prominently unless simply to establish the Black Panther’s personal and positive relationship to the US government he represents. There is, in contrast, something cruel about the way Killmonger is used as a means of embodying the folly of his father’s desires to help people throughout the diaspora fight against oppression. While an initial confrontation in a museum frames his theft of African artefacts as simply a replication of the thievery Europe has perpetuated for centuries, Killmonger is so trapped by his own rage that ultimately he aspires only to chaos.

The question “why do we hide?” has a particular resonance for African Americans, and is one we have been asking ourselves in various ways since DuBois articulated his theory of double consciousness over one hundred years ago. Tropes of masking, hiding in plain sight, the expectation of coded speech and gestures have developed out of a long history during which the public presentation of black identity was strictly regulated and often violently enforced. Black people learned how to negotiate that scrutiny and in doing so have not only survived but were often able to create stunning works of art. These innovative artistic creations, while often ignored by the mainstream, are not products of a lost people but rather products of powerful imaginations that despite all obstacles have insisted on their right to transcend the narrow and stultifying parameters of representation that have for so long inhibited discourse about race, class and gender.

Perhaps in that sense Killmonger could be understood as a manifestation of the nihilistic aspects of one artist’s mind, so burdened by the constant need to explain and justify its own existence that it begins to feel overwhelmed. Wakanda could then be seen as a symbolic space of the imagination, a place in the mind that can only truly be free by walling itself off from the negativity and nihilism that surrounds it. That is not an answer to the question of why but an intermediate gesture, perhaps, in trying to come up with an answer to what remains a persistent problem.

Hiding and masking are survival strategies not just for Wakandans but for many black people trying to navigate the fractious and confused world of images, codes and representation we live in. As seamlessly as the movie seems to rise above the fray of such debates, it took years of strategizing and fighting just to get its dazzling images of blackness represented in Hollywood at all.

Black Panther and the fragmentation of our sense of what it is to be human


There is an awful lot being written about Black Panther  which seems to point to significance far beyond its value as a work of entertainment – or even art. There is undoubtedly something extraordinary about it. There is also, however, something about it which nags – is this, on two fronts, just a bit too much more of the same? On the entertainment front, when one gets used to the wonderful African settings and the casting which the story demands, there is little about it to separate from the rest of Marvell’s universe. It is in its familiar ideological tropes, however, that its predictability mostly undermines the film.

Is Black Panther just one more barrage of cannon fire from the legions of Social Justice Warriors or is it more than that? A writer in America magazine, a solid SJW ally, says this is the movie Hollywood – and America – needs. On the other side of the divide Tom Slater in the contrarian Spiked.com complains that it just represents one more example of culture’s enslavement by politics.  “Superhero films are, let’s not forget, mainly for kids. That some political commentators seem to be discussing Wakanda (the idyllic fictional country at the heart of this Marvel artefact) as if it’s a real nation shows how ethereal, how obsessed with surface issues, how trivial, in fact, so much of supposedly radical politics now is.”

This is not a review of the movie. It is more an expression of uneasiness of what it and other elements of our culture may tell us about the path on which we, as human beings, now find ourselves.

There is no doubt but that we now live in a world where popular culture – and a great deal of the higher stuff as well – is undoubtedly in thrall to political correctness. The annual round of award events for the entertainment industry has ceased to have any real reliability as a guide to artistic merit. Instead they serve as a guide to the periodic shock-waves prompted by the revelation of the faux or real outrages trending on social and mainstream media. Indeed they are spoiled for choice when it comes to things to be outraged by. When award ceremonies are not infected with outrage, they are used to compensate for the shortcomings of past ceremonies. It is all pretty tiresome.

The critical consensus so far seems to be that Black Panther is a significant work of art. What it certainly seems to be is a work of ideology. That is no bad thing in itself. Ideologies should be judged on their merits, their correspondence with truth and justice and nothing else. Probably the worst of all ideologies is the ideology of ‘no ideology’.

Tom Slater asks that culture be liberated from politics. But the underlying problem is not really that political viewpoints emerge in art.  Great art has frequently been preoccupied by social and political issues. Consider the work of Victor Hugo (Les Miserables), Charles Dickens (Hard Times), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), to name but three.

The real problem is deeper and it is a problem which is manifested in contemporary culture across a whole range of issues. It is the problem of our descent into chaos caused by the utter fragmentation of our consciousness of what it is to be human. If there is a problem with the ideology permeating a phenomenon like Black Panther, it is that it is a symptom of this same fragmentation.

The preoccupations which increasingly seem to dominate our culture today – in the broadest sense of that word culture – are race, gender, religion, entitlement and equality. Our engagement with all these issues is ostensibly to seek some semblance of social justice for the oppressed or for those perceived as oppressed. Our efforts however, in many cases, seem to go in the opposite direction and all we achieve is a state of war rather than peace and real justice. The common thread which runs through all of them is a pursuit of identity. Each separate identity which is asserted then seems to have to pit itself against other identities in order to create and vindicate itself. For movements which purport to be inclusive, this is an incredibly divisive process and ultimately cannot but lead to chaos.

The implicit ideology underlying an artefact like Black Panther is that one race, a race which in one part of the world – which we generally call the West – has been viciously oppressed for centuries, is in fact a race superior to all others. It preaches this lightly and with some humour – but it still preaches.

Twentieth century Irish nationalism was a symptom of just such an ideology. One of the many tragedies of Irish history was the opportunity which was lost when an outward looking Celtic consciousness which had been beautifully woven together and fostered by the poets, playwrights and novelists of the literary revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was cruelly corrupted by a narrow nationalist ideology. This nationalism defined Irishness as a crude ‘not other’ identity, that is, “not British”. This, for most of that century, crippled the Irish popular imagination and at its most extreme boundary generated a hatred of that “other”.

The illusion which fed that hatred was that the injustices experienced by the oppressed in the past – and even in the present – were at source racially driven. Race – if it is meaningful at all – is a neutral amoral force. Racism, on the contrary, is a personal sin, personally driven by a flawed morality. The source of all injustice is ultimately in the individual human heart. The solution to all injustice, institutional or otherwise, must be sought in the same place – the human heart. In the Irish context the moral evolution of the heart and soul of W.E. Gladstone, one of the “others”, is an example of how such a journey might be made. The tragedy of his failure is an indictment of the divisiveness of narrow nationalism. Narrow racism is even more heinous. But it is not the sin of a race. It is a personal sin, of which only persons and not a race is culpable.

When a people and its culture loses the sense of its core universal humanity, for whatever reason, often provoked by the injustices inflicted by people in one group on those in another, then the risk is that this process of fragmentation will begin. What has to be done to prevent it? The solution is in the recognition and the reinforcement of the truth and beauty inherent in the very fact of being human. Setting in opposition to each other the differences which distinguish one from the other is a path to destruction. Setting man and woman against each other as representatives of patriarchies or matriarchies is a poisonous process. Setting people of one colour against those of another is not only poisonous but also utterly stupid.

Is Black Panther just another symptom of the cancer of identity politics currently and increasingly afflicting our culture and our global community?

Colonialism, imperialism and racism, with a sprinkling of feminism seem to be the contexts around which the underlying ideology of Black Panther revolves. Colonialism and imperialism are endemic conditions which infect all human societies. As the ages progress the first two of these uninvited guests just change their colour, chameleon-like, and continue to worm their way through our world.

But railing against them is about as futile as railing against the weather. Like the poor, they have always been with us and always will be. Like the weather they can be hot or cold, violent or temperate. Like the weather they can both wreak destruction or help cultivate the earth. Just as we find ways to protect ourselves against the weather, with these forces of human nature we have to find ways of taming and managing them.

But unlike the inanimate forces behind weather, the animate phenomena which mankind generates – good, bad or ugly – are rooted in the soul. Their impact on the societies which humans create and inhabit come back eventually to individual human acts. All human acts, as we know, have the capacity to be good, bad or indifferent. In our lives each one of us can do good or evil. Empires and colonialism provide ample evidence of our capacity for both. Mother Teresa of Calcutta would probably never have found herself in India if the British had not been there before her.

Writing of the phenomenon of empires in history, John Darwin in his book on the British Empire, Unfinished Empire, notes that

Few subjects in history evoke stronger opinions than the making of empire. Indeed, some historians of empire still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it. Others like to convey the impression that writing against empire is an act of great courage: as if its agents lie in wait to exact their revenge or an enraged ‘imperialist’ public will inflict martyrdom on them. These are harmless, if rather amusing, conceits. But they reveal something interesting: that for all the ink spilt on their deeds and misdeeds, empires remain rather mysterious, realms of myth and misconception.

This is partly the result of thinking in monoliths. ‘Empire’ is a grand word. But behind its facade (in every place and time) stood a mass of individuals, a network of lobbies, a mountain of hopes: for careers, fortunes, religious salvation or just physical safety. Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the ‘irresistible’ pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now.

He complains that these misconceptions lead to a history in stereotypes; to a cut—and—dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which define most human behaviour. Darwin points out that

This view denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices. It imagines the contact between rulers and ruled as a closed bilateral encounter, sealed off from the influence of regional, continental or global exchange.

We need to ask ourselves if Black Panther contributes to this stereotype or helps us to escape from it. On the answer to that question may depend how we judge, regardless of its artistic merit, the political validity of its underlying ideology.

What will ultimately get us to the root of this malaise and deal with the cancer that is racism – and all other afflictions emanating from the illusion that any human being is essentially superior to another?

Perhaps it is only the truth of these words which will cut through and shred the lie behind those illusions, and then repair the fragments of our humanity to wholeness:

‘I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me, “You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.”’ The power of the truth of those sacred words has moved men and women throughout history to cut through prejudice, greed, deceit and rapine. We might ask ourselves if all this heightened identity conflict is not the result of the loss of our sense of our core humanity, the true basis of our identity as created beings? We might also reflect on the fact that this fragmenting conflict is a phenomenon generated within western culture and its propagation has not a little of the odour of imperialism and colonialism about it, perhaps the latest manifestation of those perpetually meddling twins.

Neither one nor the other?

An interesting brief review from the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement:

Philip Gorski


A history of civil religion from the Puritans to the present

336pp. Princeton University Press. £27.95 (US $35).

978 0 691 14767 3

In American Covenant, Philip Gorski argues that the United States was founded neither as a Christian nation nor as a secular democracy. Instead, the founders sought to establish what he describes as a prophetic republic: one that drew inspiration both from the Bible and the Western heritage of civil republicanism.

Gorski supports his case with reference to various proponents of this tradition, including John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Timothy Dwight, Abraham Lincolm, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Yet today’s culture wars, increasing wealth disparity, the breakdown of the party system and the rise of populism are said to have torn this “American tapestry” apart. Only a return to the vital centre, he argues, can move beyond the current political impasse. But this can only happen if two rival traditions of political thought are overcome.

The first is religious nationalism, which sees America as a Christian nation divinely chosen to rid the world of God’s enemies. This tradition arose with a certain faction of Puritan thought, as exemplified by Cotton Mather, who viewed Native Americans as the enemies of the one true God. It lives on in Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech, George W. Bush’s “us versus them” rhetoric after 9/11, and comparable language employed by Donald Trump.

Perhaps the way to overcome religious nationalism would be to make America more secular. But Gorski blames the tradition of radical secularism for being just as much a threat to US politics as religious nationalism. It constitutes a “noxious blend of cultural elitism and militant atheism” and a “misguided effort” to censor, in the name of science and reason, the ignorant religious masses. Gorski suggests this tradition emerged during the Reconstruction era with the radical individualism of William Graham Summer and the militant agnosticism of Robert Ingersoll. The secularist mindset dominates America’s institutions of culture.

Gorski believes a return to consensus politics will get the US back on track. But he seems to underplay the specific political and economic conditions that allowed for the temporary successes of vital-centre politics in the heyday of the Cold War: an unprecedented global economic boom, hysteria over the Red Scare, the fear of a nuclear holocaust, and the exclusion of women, racial minorities and gays into the mainstream. Back then, many elites had real incentives to buy into the vital centre, especially given their fear of revolutionary socialism. It is not clear, though, based on Gorski’s analysis, why the most well off would feel the need to do this today.


Sins and sophistries in history of the Crusades



Herbert Butterfield, the great English historian, once wrote that “the study of the past with one eye on the present is the source of all the sins and sophistries in history”.

And yet we also tell each other that without knowledge of our past, in our present we will be doomed to repeat, again and again, the follies and crimes of our ancestors.

How do we resolve this paradox? Both these observations are true. But, as by definition a paradox is an apparent contradiction, not a real contradiction, we can happily subscribe to both. We must not forget our past but we must also make sure that while we become wiser by remembering it, we do not mistake it for the present.

The sad confusion evident in a small and apparently insignificant item of news from a small American university campus recently exemplified both the sophistry which Butterfield warned of and the foolish judgements made by those who do not really know their history.

The students of Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, run a newspaper which – up until now – bore the masthead, The Crusader. From now on they are going to call it The Spire. I wonder do they know that Dublin’s iconic millennium spire in the centre of O’Connell Street, a sort of a steel needle soaring 121 metres over the rooftops, is famous for signifying precisely nothing?  In his leader article announcing the change, the editor has declared that after studying the history of the crusades, he and his colleagues have decided to disassociate themselves from that historical epoch.


OK, who cares? This is just one more entry in the growing catalogue of snowflake gestures of ‘virtue signalling’ which continue to pollute modern academia. But we should care. This is a disease of the mind, the wages of the sophistry and sins which  Herbert Butterfield warned us of and which Christopher Tyerman alluded to his superb and scholarly history of the crusades, God’s War. In that book Tyerman wrote:

A familiar but baneful response to history is to configure the past is comfortingly different from the present day. Previous societies are caricatured as less sophisticated, more primitive, cruder, alien. Such attitudes reveal nothing so much as a collective desire to reassure the modern observer by demeaning the experience of the past. Within the cultural traditions of Europe and western Asia, since the sixteenth century the crusades have regularly attracted precisely such condescension from hostile religious, cultural or ideological partisans. The crusades have been dismissed as a symptom of a credulous, superstitious and backward civilization in order openly or covertly to elevate a supposedly more advanced and enlightened modern society. Yet this hardly helps understanding of past events.

The editor of The Crusader – sorry, The Spire – writes, referring not just to the title of his paper but also to his college’s mascot,

No matter how long ago the Crusades took place, this paper does not wish to be associated with the massacres (i.e. burning synagogues with innocent men, women, and children inside) and conquest that took place therein. Surely, the word ‘crusade’ has come to mean ‘an energetic campaign’ in common parlance, but can a school whose mascot wields a sword and shield really lay claim to this interpretation?

The college authorities, clearly feeling under some pressure from the virtue signallers, have, however, stood their ground on the mascot. Nevertheless, they have also failed the Butterfield test.

While they acknowledge, they say, that the Crusades were “among the darkest periods in Church history”, they choose to associate themselves with the modern definition of the word crusader, one which is “representative of our Catholic, Jesuit identity and our mission and values as an institution and community.”

“We are crusaders for human rights, social justice, and care for the environment; for respect for different perspectives, cultures, traditions, and identities; and for service in the world, especially to the underserved and vulnerable,” they explained in an email to the college community.

Holy Cross’ president, Rev. Philip Boroughs, and board chair John J. Mahoney said that the board had decided that the literal definition of the name Crusaders — “one who is marked by the cross of Christ” — was consistent with the college’s mission.

This really does not get the college out of this pickle of its own creation – because this is exactly how the crusaders of the 11th, 12th and13th centuries also saw themselves. To be a crusader was to be designated crucignatus in the later 12th century.

These people, modern iconoclasts, should study the past seriously and do so in the spirit and with the intellectual discipline of a Butterfield or a Tyerman. We study history to understand our past, not to judge it by our standards. We study to learn, not to praise or condemn – because we have no right to bring our ancestors to a court of justice of whose statutes they have no understanding – no more than a citizen of one country has a right to judge a citizen in another by foreign laws. The past is another country.

We cannot understand the crusades unless we understand the world, the entire worldview, of the men, women and children who made them happen – and women and children were as much a part of the crusades as were men. Tyerman reveals this world to us. His work reveals to us that the glories of the Middle Ages, the faith, the gothic cathedrals, the great 12th century renaissance, the flowering of monasticism, the mendicant orders, the seeds of the 15th century renaissance and the enlightenment, all grew out of the same fertile soil as the crusades. They were ages in which violence was as endemic as other pestilences they had to live with – but live with them they did. With the passing of centuries and an ever-deepening understanding of humanity and what it is to be human, they helped us to deal more effectively with our propensities for violence – and eliminate a good number of the pestilences which afflicted us.

Tyerman points out that while “the moral certainties fostered by crusading left physical or cultural monuments and scars from the Arctic Circle to the Nile, from the synagogues of the Rhineland to the mosques of Andalusia, from the vocabulary of value to the awkward hinterland of historic Christian pride, guilt and responsibility”, nevertheless, one path to the thought-world of Christopher Columbus stretched back to Pope Urban II’s first call to arms for the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem in 1095.

Tyerman, who is Professor of the Crusades in Oxford University, reminds us that violence, approved by society and supported by religion, was a commonplace of civilized communities.

What are now known as the crusades represent one manifestation of this phenomenon, distinctive to western European culture over 500 years from the late eleventh century of the Christian Era. The crusades were wars justified by faith conducted against real or imagined enemies defined by religious and political elite as perceived threats to the Christian faithful.

The religious beliefs crucial to such warfare placed enormous significance on imagined awesome but reassuring supernatural forces of overwhelming power and proximity that were nevertheless expressed in hard concrete physical acts: prayer, penance, giving alms, attending church, pilgrimage, violence. Crusading reflected a social mentality grounded in war as a central force of protection, arbitration, social discipline, political expression and material gain.

We might say to the students of Worcester, Mass., “Get over it!” To look back at a time in the past, to see the good in it, the nobility, the faith and the idealism does not imply that you condone those things that we today know to be evil. Capital punishment in our time is now deemed morally unacceptable. That does not necessarily mean that our ancestors were morally culpable when they either executed or condoned the execution of justly tried and condemned contemporaries.

The students of Holy Cross, Worcester, could greatly benefit from Tyerman’s reflections on his task. His perspective is western European – and as he explains it, there is nothing wrong with that. It accords best with his own research experience. He is a professional. More importantly, he says, it matches the origins, development, continuance and nature of the phenomenon. Although having an impact far beyond western Europe, the crusade as an ideal and human activity began and remained rooted in western European culture.

The stance adopted by Tyerman in no way implies approval of everything associated with crusading. His perspective does not ignore the sources generated by the opponents and victims of crusading. Nor does it privilege the value or importance of the experience of western Europeans over others involved. His constant effort is directed at seeing the subject clearly and dispassionately through the fog of ignorance, obscurity, the passage of time and the complexity of surviving sources. His study is, he says, intended as a history, not a polemic, an account not a judgement, an exploration of an important episode of world history of enormous imaginative as well as intellectual fascination, not a confessional apologia or witness statement in some cosmic law suit.

As for the students of Holy Cross disassociating themselves from this epoch in history, they should think again. They, none of us, can anymore do that than we can disassociate ourselves from the genetic inheritance bequeathed to us by our ancestors. We may regret some of the things they did, and even while admiring their motives, we may regret their manner of pursuing them. But we can never, ever, say that they are not part of what we are. It is in reading history in this spirit that we resolve the paradox with which we began.

Media examination of conscience…sort of


While they still show that the media professionals are insufficiently self aware of their culpability for what has happened to public trust in what they do, there is some sign that the scales may be dropping for their eyes.
The elephant in the room which they fail to address, and which is at the heart of the distrust in relation to their reporting on this presidential administration, is their inate hostility to the man in the White House. Their distaste for the man, his manners and – for many of them – the conservative values they think he stands for, is seen by the public as colouring everything they write about “all his works…and all his pomps”.

Published on Jan 24, 2018

Do we really have to swim in this sludge?

“Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” That was Bob Dylan back in the 1965, with the “sexual revolution” just getting into its stride.  Dylan at that time may have been, at best, ambivalent about what was happening. He wasn’t innocent but I venture to think that he wasn’t a fully paid up subscriber to everything that Mr. Jones was confused by. He was no Mick Jagger.


Has the revolution finally run its course? Certainly the news stories by the day recount casualty after casualty among those who are or were its fully paid up members. The stories come not as single spies but in battalions now.

On Wednesday the fallout of the scandal involving The Presidents Club gala dominated the headlines after an undercover reporter for the Financial Times revealed hostesses had been subject to groping and lewd comments. “Sexists and the City” was Metro’s take, while the Guardian reported that guests have “rushed to distance themselves” from the event.  The Sun called the gala the “sleaze ball” and the Times reported that the prime minister was expected to take action over the “gagging orders” women were allegedly forced to sign before “hosting” the all-male paying guests at the event. Yesterday the story was all over the world. Mercifully, The Presidents Club has announced it is closing.

A British Government minister was reprimanded for attending the gala. He apparently left the fundraiser event early but tweeted that he had “felt uncomfortable” He said he had not seen any of the “horrific” events reported. Why was he uncomfortable if he had not seen anything, we might ask?

But we still have a long way to go to clear up the mess left in the wake of that ground-breaking “liberation” which the ‘sixties brought us. As a sign of the contradictions embedded in our confused culture, on Wednesday the BBC World Service gave full coverage to the FT’s scoop. The day before, it had carried a very “non-judgemental” interview with a spokesperson for those who are now routinely described as “sex workers”.  She explained in detail the difficulties they encounter in fulfilling their role in our society.

While we are not in the business of changing human nature, we do need to get into the business of clearing up Mr. Jones’ confusion about it. The poisonous essence of the sexual revolution was not that it told us what mankind has known forever but that it told us that “anything goes”,  and that if it does, the more the merrier.

A recent article in The Atlantic pointed to one of the prime movers of that revolution which is still in full swing and is creating mayhem with the confusion it has been spreading, generation after generation – at least since hedonism became respectable in the ‘sixties. As yet there is little sign that the so-called  #MeToo backlash has touched this pulsating nerve.

“Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behaviour is everywhere—from songs about ‘blurred lines’ to TV shows where rapists marry their victims”, writes Julie Beck.

She lists a few examples: Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo – short for “emotional hardcore” – bands with their brooding lyrics. “Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth”, she reflects, “followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary”.

Is that all over? Not yet.

I grew up watching movies in which women found it flattering when their pursuers showed up uninvited to hold a boombox under their window, or broke into their bedrooms to watch them sleep, or confessed their feelings via posterboard while their love interest’s husband sat in the next room. So I found it flattering, too. I sang along with The Killers’ “Change Your Mind” (“If the answer is no, can I change your mind?”) and Fall Out Boy’s “7 Minutes in Heaven” (“I keep telling myself I’m not the desperate type, but you’ve got me looking in through blinds”) without a second thought about what the lyrics implied.

She cites, for example, the first season of Game of Thrones, where the relationship between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo—which is portrayed as a great love, one through which Daenerys eventually comes into her own as a ruler—begins with a wedding night on which the teenage girl cries and tries unsuccessfully to keep Drogo from undressing her.  Beck continues:

Even more pervasive than the redeemed rapist is the romantic hero whose efforts at seduction look more like harassment. In the Twilight series, the brooding vampire Edward Cullen not only breaks into his love interest Bella’s house in the first book to watch her sleep, but later on, in the third book, he also disassembles her car engine to keep her from leaving her house. But readers are supposed to see it as a protective gesture: He did it because he loves her, because he wants her to be safe.

In music, too, there’s no shortage of songs that glorify a man’s threatening overtures, from “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (“Say, what’s in this drink?”), to “Every Breath You Take” (“I’ll be watching you”), to “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” (“I hear you saying what you won’t do / But you know we’re probably gon’ do”). And of course, there’s Robin Thicke’s literal anthem for the “Blurred Lines” I’m talking about (“I know you want it … Just let me liberate you”).

For six decades at least, all of that has been, and is still, pervading pop culture – through Hollywood, its off-shoots and the pop music industry. How could we not expect that the human agents driving those industries would not themselves be corrupted by the content they generated? Will the feminist-driven rage against personal assault, disrespect and offensive behaviour get to these root sources of the problem? What strategy, what change of attitude to the nature of sexuality, has to be effected to bring about a change in a culture in which its artefacts do not simply help us to understand our human condition but glorify and advocate behaviours which corrupt us, cause untold pain and which may ultimately destroy us.

Beck’s colleague at The Atlantic, Megan Garber, has described our current era as “a time in which feminism and Puritanism and sex positivity and sex-shaming and progress and its absence have mingled to make everything, to borrow Facebook’s pleasant euphemism, Complicated.”

Beck concludes that our culture is beginning to complicate things, to question the value of romanticizing stories where one person chases another, or wears her down, or drags her along against her will. She adds, “But recognizing the flaws in these ideas doesn’t make them go away. They still float in the spaces between people; they are the sludge through which we have to swim as we try to see each other clearly.”

Well, we do our best to sort out problems with actual sludge when it interferes with our quality of life. Why can’t we have the prudence and fortitude and engage our brains to deal with this metaphorical sludge which is probably doing us much more harm?

…but a good week for art and history


So, was it a hoax? But I do like the conclusion to this observation from Micah Mattix‘s Prufrock:

You may recall that last week French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain. (The work depicts the Battle of Hastings and other events.) Like many young technocrats eager to appear nice, he may have promised too much, too quickly. Curators said that in order to move the 224-foot and extremely fragile embroidery “a host of major technical and conservation issues” would have to be overcome: “Curator Pierre Bouet, who cares for the tapestry at the museum, said he thought ‘it was a hoax’ when he first heard of the plan.” Still, a week that finds heads of state and journalists discussing history and art is a good one.

That goodness continues this week, with Emily A. Winkler providing a history of the embroidery and a brief discussion of its varying interpretations: “It was probably commissioned by Odo of Bayeux – famous as William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux – and made in Canterbury by English seamstresses. The Bayeux Tapestry is not, in fact, a tapestry (a woven textile) but an embroidery made of linen and wool yarn. Some art historians have campaigned to rename it the ‘Canterbury Embroidery’, to acknowledge its probable place of production. Both within and beyond the scholarly world, the Bayeux Tapestry has attracted varying interpretations. Taking sides – or trying to determine the degree of Englishness or Normanness it conveys – has been difficult to resist. The tapestry was long thought to be a piece of Norman propaganda, celebrating a Norman achievement. Wolfgang Grape’s The Bayeux Tapestry (trans. David Britt, 1994) proclaimed the tapestry to be a Monument to a Norman triumph. On the other hand, more recent work has stressed its English production, revealing the subtle English sentiments in the tapestry’s artwork. The historian Stephen D. White has recently cautioned against reading it as an English or Norman story, showing how the animal fables visible in the borders may instead offer a commentary on the dangers of conflict and the futility of pursuing power.”

A sane voice in a zany bubble

Beta plus to the Washington Post for giving us this alternative judgement on the President of the United States one year into his term. I suppose calling it his first depends on whether or not there will be a second. Within the framework of what we normally get from the Post by way of analysis of This administration, this is refreshing. We can only hope that it might be a sign that the media paranoia about Trump is abating and that we will enjoy a little more balance in year two of this presidency.

Molly Ziegler Hemingway (picture) is a sane voice in the zany world of US political journalism where opinions about the President are so predictable that reading them is a pointless exercise. No matter what he does, you know what they are going to say.

Like most people, I don’t particularly like Trump’s rhetorical style, juvenile insults and intemperate disposition — on full display in recent days. At the same time, having followed his career for decades, I am not surprised that he wakes up each morning as Donald Trump. And that boorish attitude has come in handy after decades of media bullying of conservatives. Ironically, the very lack of conservative bona fides that worried me two years ago means he’s less beholden to a conservative establishment that had grown alienated from the people it is supposed to serve and from the principles it ostensibly exists to promote. His surprising conservatism might also be the result of the absolutism and extremism of his critics, whether among the media, traditional Democratic activists or the anti-Trump right. If Trump were ever inclined to indulge his liberal tendencies after winning the election, the stridency and spite of his opponents have provided him with no incentives to do so. My expectations were low — so low that he could have met them by simply not being President Hillary Clinton. But a year into this presidency, he’s exceeded those expectations by quite a bit. I’m thrilled.

Read her article here.

Making history and unmaking humanity

A war for the heart and soul of Ireland is currently waging and the battle for the right to life of the unborn is revealing a divide in its people of the most fundamental kind. The very nature of humanity is at issue.

It is amazing that what Maria Steen points out here needed to be said in a public debate. The Marxism implicit in the determinism of those who tell us we are on “the wrong side of history” is frightening.

We are a free people and we make history. History does not make us. History is the record of our greatness and our folly, of our capacity for good and our dreadful capacity for evil. To surrender ourselves and our freedom to ‘History’ as some blind force is to abandon our humanity. To surrender ourselves and our freedom to ‘History’ without questioning the human choices which made it what it is have left us is to is to abdicate moral responsibility. To define our freedom as simply a matter of making choices without asking ourselves about the good or evil character of what we choose is the way to a hell on earth.


Stop this trivial pursuit

Well said. Brendan O’Neill hits the nail on the head again. We are being badly served by the politics of rage. This is what makes our world a really dangerous place.

It’s a year since Trump was inaugurated and, amazingly, the world hasn’t ended. The West hasn’t been plunged into 1930s-style extremism, the American constitution hasn’t been trampled under goose-steps, and Muslims haven’t been marched off to camps. That’s what we were told would happen. Cast your mind back to early 2017: liberal circles fizzed with warnings of a ‘New Hitler’, even whispers of another Holocaust. This spectacularly irresponsible posturing against Trump had two terrible impacts. First, it trivialised historic events like the rise of Nazism, chasing historical accuracy and reason itself out of political debate. And secondly it made criticising Trump more difficult. The Trump of Guardianistas’ rash nightmares came to dominate public discussion, making the real Trump – the man who is politically problematic but not Hitler – more difficult to see, and analyse, and oppose. This year, can we please park the shrill historical illiteracy and get back to grounded debate?