Evil Is Not Medieval
I’m already seeing it in my google alerts: stories about how the Trump administration and its supporters are taking us back to the middle ages. This is dangerous thinking as historians have said, are saying, and will continue to say. I’ll tell you why. When we represent our inexcusable behavior as a vestigial relic of the past, it is a way for us shift responsibility away from ourselves. Relegating evil to the past leads to the complacent thought that we did not create these problems and that these problems will eventually atrophy with the passive passage of time. Situating our own misdeeds in the past allows us to turn behind us, point, and laugh at our benighted forbearers, then walk on, congratulating ourselves smugly on how intelligent, sophisticated and comfortably modern we are today.
But guess what? The term “modern” was first used to describe the advent of the middle ages. “Look! Here we are!” Cassiodorus announced in the 5th century “Our brand new modes of thinking have triumphed over the benighted past! We are modern! Yay for us!” And so people have been announcing how great and modern we are ever since. In the high middle ages, our new architecture and our new universities showed how smart and modern we were. In the early modern era, our printing press and new religions showed how smart and modern we were. In the age we actually named “the modern era” our medical advancements and our shopping malls showed us how modern we were.
But as many historians have pointed out to no avail, modernity is not as great as we think it is. During Cassiodorus’ modernity we saw, like, really a lot of warfare and its attendant atrocities. The high middle ages brought Christian crusades against Muslims, Jews, pagans and other Christians. Our own modern era brought us, hell yes I’m going there, Hitler.
It’s time for a little humility. People tend to think that the story of human history is one of our inevitable march toward the perfect us. We started as mud dwelling half-humans and now here we are all standing upright at the Starbucks counter so civilized! But I can tell you that the actual story of human history is a roiling mess, filled with good and bad. If we can brag today about our awesome technological advancements, prehistoric people could brag about their lack of industry and commerce that cause global climate change. Just because we make advancements in one column doesn’t mean we can pat ourselves on the back and say our work is done.
If we really want bragging rights about how advanced we are we’re going to have to do what no human civilization has yet done: jettison our tendency to rationalize our fear. In 2012, Obama awarded Teofilo F. Ruiz the National Humanities Medal for his work on the repercussions of rationalized fear in human history. Ruiz focuses primarily on the witch-craze which people today point to as a crazy aberration of the ignorant medieval past. That is not what it is. The heyday of the witch craze was from about 1480 to 1670. Fervent belief in witchcraft and its dangers was widely held during a time characterized as modern and ruled by reason, the time of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Belief in witches was propagated and rationalized by heads of state, scientists, mathematicians, professors of law, jurists, philosophers, and, yes, historians, as well as theologians and inquisitors, who were also highly educated. Facing a world of changing politics, economics, and culture, people were afraid. Rather than looking for and reacting to complex causes for complex problems, they channeled that fear into a cathartic persecution of a vulnerable population - primarily, single older women.
Ruiz warned us that today we are no better. Back in 2011 he asked “how much more irrational was the fear of witches than our modern fears of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction (even if non-existent), and other such modern ways of channeling modern anxieties? For most people it is much better to worry about such matters than about real and depressing facts, such as the erosion of civil liberties, the deteriorating environment, economic malaise, and the growing distance between social classes. Blame it on the witches or, as some modern politicians or fundamentalist have done, blame it on Bin Laden and/or homosexuals.”
We need to take heed and stop delighting in who we aren’t to face who we are. It’s true, these days in the US we don’t put anybody on trial by seeing if they float or sink in a vat of holy water - that’s great. But we do continue to employ ineffective and dangerous rituals in the hopes of getting quick solutions to complex problems. As a medieval historian, I can tell you a few things. Just like attacking Jews did not stop the spread of the bubonic plague, harassing people of color, LGBT people, Jews, Muslims, women, and Trump supporters will not improve your life in any way. Just like torture resulted in false confessions to heresy and witchcraft, torture will result in false confessions to terrorism. Just like magical runic inscriptions do not protect against the effects of ingesting poison, nor does posting “go out and vote!” on Facebook undo systemic voter disenfranchisement.
It’s time to stop looking for quick fixes that assuage our fear but leave us in the same or an even worse predicament than we were before. I’m not saying don’t wear a safety pin because that’s not an incantation, it’s a statement. On top of that, I encourage everyone to pledge to do something every day that will contribute to long-term systemic change -- call your representatives, donate, volunteer, protest, and sign every damn petition. Do everything you can because there are no witches, folks, it’s only us.
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