The Revenge of History: “The Theater of Violence” – The New York Times

We all say we want peace, but at the same time we unwittingly engage in behaviors that perpetuate violence. As philosopher Simon Critchley notes, “we are all players on history’s bloody stage.” Human nature is in large part to blame. However, biology is not destiny. The purpose of civilization is to tame our wilder side. Yet, we still have not been able to end the violence.

Critchley offers an important insight into this intractable problem: “We live in a world framed by violence, where justice seems to be endlessly divided between claim and counterclaim, right and left, freedom fighter and terrorist, believer and nonbeliever, and so on. Each side appears to believe unswervingly in the rightness of its position and the wrongness, or indeed ‘evil,’ of the opposition. Such belief legitimates violence and unleashes counterviolence in return. We seem to be trapped in deep historical cycles of violence where justice is usually simply understood as vengeance or revenge.”

This is not a new insight, but it one that is difficult to sell. If we were reflective enough, we would see this trap we’ve set for ourselves. This insight also requires a broad and deep knowledge of history.  It is much easier to offer simple solutions that satisfy our egos and our intuitions. The good vs. evil narrative is simple and it lets us off the hook for any wrongdoing. Savvy politicians know this and use it to their benefit.

Is there any hope then? Critchley offers art, and music in particular, as a solution. But I don’t think this is enough. It will take a much broader effort to convince enough people that we are in fact part of the problem. We also need leaders willing to take up the cause and inspire a new generation to see the world and our place in it differently.

Source: The Theater of Violence – The New York Times

“Does Even the New York Times Glamorize Modern Armed Conflict?” | History News Network

Rarely does a book come around that so profoundly confronts us with what should be obvious and as a result challenges us to rethink the status quo. But this is what David Shield’s new book (War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict) has done. He has examined front page photos of war in The New York Times from 1991 to 2013. What he found were romanticized versions of war that were strikingly beautiful. In the photos, he notes,  “[t]here’s no war there. There’s no attempt to document reality. It’s basically the war as screen saver, as wallpaper—a very distant aesthetic experience. Certainly, part of that is not to show the American dead except in a posture of composed relief. It seems the grief is kept out of frame in any true sense of agony or viscera or blood.”

While Shield is correct to call The New York Times out for its responsibility for glamorizing war, I think we all bear some responsibility. We don’t want to see the horror. We don’t want to think about the consequences of war. It is much easier to ignore it and carry on as usual. Shield is doing a great service by shocking all of us out of our comfort zones.

I highly recommend reading Robin Lindley’s interview with Shield: History News Network | Does Even the New York Times Glamorize Modern Armed Conflict?

History News Network | Quicksand: Or How and Why the U.S. Created its Very Own Middle Eastern Quagmire

Another perceptive analysis of our current situation: “Americans are scared and whenever the next terrorist act occurs, temperatures will soar, and as our past bears out, bad things will surely happen as ambitious  politicians, goaded by the mass media, rush to avenge the criminals, guilty or not. Meanwhile, the morally and politically myopic men and women who  entrapped us in a no-win Greater Middle Eastern hornet’s nest will continue advising our leaders how to beat ISIS and finally win our never-ending wars.”

Source: History News Network | Quicksand: Or How and Why the U.S. Created its Very Own Middle Eastern Quagmire

“The Frightening Return of Religious Wars” | History News Network

“This horrible discord, which has lasted for so many centuries, is a very striking lesson that we should pardon each other’s errors; discord is the great ill of mankind; and tolerance is the only remedy for it.” (Voltaire speaking on the long history of intolerance within the Christian world, Philosophical Dictionary)

As someone who has spent years studying religious and ethnic conflict, I have  watched the current ascendance of violence and intolerance with much sadness. Every week I have a new story from around the globe (Syria, Israel, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, even Europe along with many other examples) to share with my students. By now they’re probably tired of the depressing news, but these stories are relevant to the twentieth-century horrors that we are reviewing in class. Will we ever learn?

The idea that toleration was a virtue was a hard-won lesson of the wars of religion that engulfed Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, it is not a lesson that has taken hold completely even in the West. Despite the many factors that have contributed to the rise of violence, it is the spirit of intolerance that is fueling the violence and hatred. This is why Mustafa Akyol has called for  “A Letter Concerning Muslim Toleration” (in honor of John Locke’s famous Letter Concerning Toleration. Unfortunately, it is a value that takes years (as the Western example shows) to cultivate.

Read the entire article here: History News Network | The Frightening Return of Religious Wars

“This Is How Syrian Antiquities Are Being Smuggled And Sold” – BuzzFeed News

Mike Giglio and Munzer al-Awad give us an in-depth view of the antiquities trade in Syria at BuzzFeed. The sell off of the precious cache of ancient antiquities in Syria took off after the war began four years ago. It’s hard to read. The Syrians are losing their lives, their livelihoods, and their heritage.

And it is not just ISIS that is engaged in selling off these historical treasures, many Syrians have been forced by circumstances to participate in the illegal trade. As one of the Syrians admitted, “We feel bad because we are stealing our history and selling it for a cheap price…But we have become homeless and jobless, so we don’t care.” They’re just trying to survive and this lucrative trade is one of the few options open to them. The only thing that will stop this trade is the return of peace and a robust economy that doesn’t put Syrians in the position of selling off their history in order to survive.

Read the entire article here: This Is How Syrian Antiquities Are Being Smuggled And Sold – BuzzFeed News.

Wreckage in Qusayr, a city in Syria’s western Homs province. Joseph Eid / Getty Images

Wreckage in Qusayr, a city in Syria’s western Homs province. Joseph Eid / Getty Images

“Yes, It Could Happen Again…the trigger points for World War III are in place.” – The Atlantic

Optimism is all the rage today, but Roger Cohen reminds us that pessimism can be “a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states.” The problem with optimism is that it often blinds us to the warning signs of looming catastrophes. Too much pessimism has its dangers as well, but today we seem to be wearing rose colored glasses when considering the possibility of another major world war. Not to mention that the fear of terrorism has consumed all our attention when it comes to world affairs. But this is a mistake. It is important, but it is not existential threat that it has been made out to be. There are events in other parts of the world that are more concerning in terms of their destabilizing potential across the globe. The potential for large-scale land wars has not disappeared, despite appearances.

You’re probably tired of me ranting about nationalism, but the threat it poses is real and deserves our attention. I’m glad to see that Cohen has taken it seriously. As he points out, “It is already clear that the nationalist fervor unleashed by Putin after a quarter century of Russia’s perceived post–Cold War decline is far from exhausted. Russians are sure that the dignity of their nation has been trampled by an American and European strategic advance to their border dressed up in talk of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Whether this is true is irrelevant; they believe it. National humiliation, real or not, is a tremendous catalyst for war.” And this type of national fervor and perceived humiliation is not limited to Russia. It can be found across the globe from Japan to Israel and eastern Europe.

I would recommend reading Cohen’s thoughtful consideration of this very important topic. I somewhat disagree with his solution concerning the need for U.S. power projection, but overall his diagnosis of the problem is well-grounded in historical precedent. Read the entire piece here: Yes, It Could Happen Again – The Atlantic.


“This is One Reason the World Is on Fire” | History News Network

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.