Robert Goldberg explains why we need to take conspiracy theories seriously and challenge their problematic claims. “In a conspiratorial frame of mind, we open ourselves to the rants of liars and demagogues. Perhaps, it is now time, in this season, to end denial and quit dismissing conspiracy theories as merely harmless or foolish or the work of the uninformed. Confrontation and refutation offer more valuable strategies for defeating the real enemy within.” I agree!
I don’t think “the world is on fire,” but Lawrence Davidson’s essay does hold some relevance to the violence that we see in some parts of the world. He argues that “there are millions of people, Muslims, Jews and Christians and others who not only still idealize a religiously imagined past, but want, in one way or another, to import that past into the present – and not only their present but everyone else’s as well.” This desire for some kind of mythical, ideal past is not new. These kind of golden age myths can be found throughout history, indicating a human affinity for them. They are particularly appealing in times of trouble, and Davidson is right to call them “downright dangerous.”
The problem is that while appealing, these mythical pasts never existed. They were created by scrubbing the particular period of interest of all its blemishes while embellishing the good. All attempts to recreate a mythical past have ended in human tragedy. Just as Procrustes was made to fit his bed by chopping off his legs, humanity is made to fit in an unattainable utopian box by destroying all that does not fit the ideal.
While Davidson focuses solely on the religious versions that are particularly prevalent at the moment, but this kind of golden age thinking can be found in other types of ideologies such as nationalism. We must all resist the siren song of these kinds of golden age narratives no matter how enticing they are.
History News Network | This is One Reason the World Is on Fire.
In Richard Striner’s final post on the history of Libertarianism, he examines the influence of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Then he briefly examines the rise of the current movement in the U.S. from Barry Goldwater to the present. In conclusion, he questions the viability of the rigid libertarian worldview that is based on an extreme form of individualism: “We prize our own liberty, true, and we will obviously struggle to defend it —— fiercely if we must —— when it is threatened. But to elevate government above all other possible threats to our liberty is hard to do when push comes to shove. When a natural disaster devastates the region in which we are living and reduces our homes to a shambles —— what then? If vicious thugs invade our homes, what instincts take over as we rush to respond to the invasion? Do we immediately think of warning all the agents of government to watch their step and avoid messing with us? Or do we call 911 and hope the agents of government arrive just as quickly as they can?”
Comparisons between Rome and the West (or the United States) are ubiquitous. Most are based on simplistic, superficial analogies used to warn of the demise of the West. These comparisons are almost always undertaken to serve ideological ends. A quick review of the youtube videos on this topic confirm this assertion. This type of speculation isn’t very surprising coming from non-experts bent on confirming their ideological predilections, but such superficial comparisons are not expected from experts. Historians cringe at the simplistic comparisons frequently found in popular culture. Unfortunately, the historian Richard Alston is not one of those historians (at least not in this article
). Based on a simplistic reading of imperial Rome, Alston concludes, “In our modern attempts at state building, we must remember that for most people, the issue is not so much whether you like the rulers, but whether the regime will feed you and protect you. In the modern West, we assume loyalty to the state and thus fail to consider how states can secure the loyalty of their people. Rome’s revolutionaries reduced politics to its simplest form. They killed their enemies and rewarded their supporters; they fed the people and paid the soldiers. It is a recipe for success that we would do well to relearn.” What a sad, cynical, and ultimately incorrect assessment of the human condition. If things are really bad this kind of regime may be, and usually is, a welcome change, but I don’t think this kind of regime is one that human beings will ultimately settle for. I know I won’t!
History News Network | The Lesson of the Fall of the Roman Republic We Ignore at Our Peril.
In part II of his series on libertarianism, Richard Striner reviews the role of Social Darwinism. Before delving into the history Striner reminds his audience that “Darwin himself —— a fervent humanitarian and opponent of slavery —— got a bum rap in this association, since he neither coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ nor advocated a social system based upon ruthless competition. Both the term ‘survival of the fittest’ and the doctrine of dog-eat-dog competition were promulgated by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer.” It is unfortunate that Darwin’s name became associated with this movement, because it has led to so much confusion about Darwin and his theory of natural selection. The movement should be called “Social Lamarckianism” since it was Lamarck’s theory that was the basis for Spencer’s theory that became known as Social Darwinism. But Darwin’s name was much more useful than the long forgotten Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). [For a great book on the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the subsequent rise of Neo-Lamarckianism see Peter J. Bowler’s The Eclipse of Darwinism.]
After reviewing this history my students still get this wrong on their exams. The belief that Darwin came up with both Social Darwinism and the term “survival of the fittest” persists no matter how many time I remind my students that it was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), after all Darwin’s name is in the title!
Read part II of Stringer’s series here:
History News Network | When Libertarianism Became an Excuse for Plutocrats.
Herbert Spencer, proponent of Social Darwinism who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”
In the first of a three-part series, the historian Richard Striner traces the roots of libertarian ideology. He writes, “The cultural, intellectual, and political history of libertarianism spans at least two centuries. And several of the twists in the emergence of this ideology are surprising —— even strange.”
Based on Striner’s summary of the origins libertarianism, he’s right that some sources are “surprising,” but I don’t know about “strange.” Read the first part in this series here: History News Network | This Is Where Libertarianism Gets Its Ideas from.
Roy E. Finkenbine gives a brief, but worthwhile, overview of the white supremacists’ efforts to “take our country back” (i.e. restore white supremacy). He writes, “The Civil War decided the questions of slavery and Confederate independence, but it didn’t quash hopes for a continuation of white nationalism.”
Read his summary of this history here:
History News Network | The Long Campaign by White Supremacists to “Take Our Country Back”.
Naomi Oreskes, historian of science, discusses her experience testifying before the Committee on Natural Resources last month. She explains, “In preparing my testimony, however, I realized that something far larger was at stake: the issue of politically driven science itself. It’s often claimed that environmental science done in federal agencies is “politically driven” and therefore suspect. It was, I realized, time to challenge the presumption that such science is bad science. While widely held, the idea is demonstrably false. Moreover, the suggestion that “government science” is intrinsically problematic for Republicans who eschew big government ignores the simple fact that most of the major contributions of the twentieth century, at least in the physical sciences, came from just such government science.”
Besides defending “government science,” Oreskes reviews the history of the current climate denialism, as well as the political and economic forces that are driving it. Read her important exposé here:
History News Network | The Hoax of Climate Denial.
In today’s The New York Times Roger Cohen wrote a thoughtful piece on memory and forgetting (“The Presence of the Past”). Given the role that the manipulation of historical memory has played in past and present violence this article brings up a topic that deserves more attention, especially as nationalism is on the rise. Despite the importance of this topic, it is rarely publicly discussed. Part of the problem is the complexity of the subject, not to mention that it calls into question the cherished identities of many. But if we’re going to stave off the violence that is the product of certain kinds of historical memory we must discuss it.
History is a double-edged sword, as Cohen points out: “History illuminates. It can also blind.” History is illuminating when it is confronted honestly and in all its complexity. It is blinding when it is used to serve ideological or political ends. This is where historical memory comes in. “History” is often abused in the service of ideology or political power.
Many of the propaganda films produced by the Nazis have never been shown in the U.S. or Europe over fears that they may incite hatred, particularly against Jews. But a new documentary (Forbidden Fruit: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film), which opens today in N.Y., takes excerpts from the forty films that had been considered too offensive to show publicly and compiles them into one film. The director, Felix Moeller, is unsure about the consequences of the film. He wonders, “Are they nothing but historical documents at this point or still effective ideological messages?”
I think this documentary will be of interest to many, but rather than hatred, I hope this documentary prompts us to reflect on our own susceptibility as human beings to hate other who are different from us. It’s easy to criticize the Germans for being duped by Nazi propaganda, but must remember that we have the same vulnerabilities and that we could just as easily be duped. The same human dynamics that played out in Nazi Germany continue to fuel hatred and violence all across the globe. If we are to learn anything from this period of history, we should be skeptical of claims that inspire us to hate others. We should be wary of negative stereotypes and dubious claims that vilify others. If some one or some group asks us to hate, we should say “no”!
Read Bruce Chadwick’s review of the film here:
History News Network | New Documentary on Nazi Propaganda Films to Debut.