Thursday, July 05, 2018

Josephine Livingstone at The New Republic on Rod Dreher's bad history

Rod Dreher, the American Conservative editor and blogger, has found himself in yet another race-related controversy. He was lately on vacation in the Azores, the archipelago of autonomous Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic, where he met a man named Miguel Monjardino. Dreher and Monjadino ate limpets on the island of Terceira, “grilled in their shell, in olive oil and chopped garlic.” They wandered around Angra do Heroísmo, the island’s capital, and discussed how it was once “vital to Portuguese trade in the East Indies,” back in the fifteenth century when Portugal claimed half the world. Lost empires were on the brain apparently, and that’s how Dreher ended up making this sweeping, provocative, and dubious claim:

The massive migration of barbarians into the Roman Empire, in the 4th through 6th centuries, changed European civilization permanently. They caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and centuries later, the rise of a new civilization there, based on the descendants of old Roman stock and Christianized Germanic tribes. Will the latter-day descendants of those Europeans be able to hold back the “barbarian invasions” from Africa in the 21st century? Or will they have to do as the Romans did and absorb the strangers, and, over centuries, create a new civilization? These are the stakes.

In a follow-up blog post, Dreher wrote of his disbelief at being called a racist for describing African people (whom he does not differentiate) as “barbarians.” It was “perfectly just,” he said. He is descended from the white barbarians, after all, he pointed out. Why is it such a crime to use the Greeks’ word for people who were not like them? It goes back to his point, a “loss of historical consciousness in the contemporary West.” In his time with Monjardino, they discussed “what it means that so many young people in the West today know nothing of the intellectual and cultural legacy of the West, much less care about it.” What a loss it is, that the young do not remember how the Greeks disdained “more primitive and therefore inferior” civilizations.
Dreher is wrong on the history of Rome, but the facts are not as worrisome as the ideological bias that has driven him to error. As we have seen repeatedly over the last year, elements of the right are mobilizing a historically fictional vision of a “white” past in order to glue their identity together in the contemporary world
There was indeed a large wave of Germanic migration to Roman territories in the late fourth century, which Edward Gibbon called a “deluge” in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But that migration is by no stretch of the imagination the sole reason that Roman power waned. For example, Gibbon also inaugurated the theory that Christianity helped to kill Roman dominance because it made people soft. The third century saw civil war blossom all over the empire, sucking military resources away from other places they were needed (on, say, trade routes). Corruption was rife in the Roman government. Taxation was in a mess. Agriculture, ditto. We could sit all day and list the various interconnected reasons why this particular state fell into disarray, because a state is a large and complex organ. The arrival of a bunch of blonde people from the north did not topple it alone.
So, Dreher’s history is poor. But that begs the further question of why it is poor. Describing the gradual transfer of power from one historical center to others as a “fall”—a fall that Dreher sees happening once more in our time—is a clue. The classical periods of Greek and Roman history are valorized in the West because we like to see ourselves in them, as if in a beautifying mirror that turns us into statues. When conservative pundits refer to “Western civilization” in the longue durée, they do it to lend legitimacy and a sense of heroic eternity to their identity.
As the scholar Donna Zuckerberg wrote at Eidolon, the worst bigots of the conservative fringe love Classics—her subject. She cited a piece by Milo Yiannopoulos (he of the Twitter handle @nero), in which he noted that the left’s attempts “to scrub Western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of Western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues.” This scrubbing is driven by a hatred of powerful white men, the argument goes, and a lack of interest in the great power and heroism that those men have embodied in the past.
But those on the hard right who equate white Western civilization with the Roman empire are in profound error. As Zuckerberg wrote, “Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced.” Race as we know it is a construct of the colonial period. Although chauvinism of course existed in the Classical periods of Greece and Rome (they are wildly different times and places), there was little sense of ethnic exclusivity to Romanness. As Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote, also at Eidolon, “You could be a Roman and be Greek, Syrian, Judean, Gallic, German, Spanish, Numidian, Nubian, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and more.”

It's possible there's a blue as well as a red variation of bad history with the blue version of bad history being that the rise of medieval Christendom was the millennium without a bath that Warren C Hollister and other medieval specialists have commented about; there's a version of history in which the decline of Greek and Roman culture was taken to be the decline of any "real" intellectual activity even if it could be argued at length that the "pinnacle" of Western culture as lionized in the Greeks and Romans was only a pinnacle of human experience for the upper class males who could afford to own slaves and have a lot of work done for them so they had the luxury and leisure with which to be philosophers and rulers.

Now if it happens that Dreher and others who pine for some resurgent Christendom have a bad approach to history that's not necessarily a surprise.  I confess to being a bit jaded about comparable self-selected alternatives to that.  The idea that if we just embraced Roman stoicism that would cure the evils of Christendom seems just as dubious as the proposal that if we just embraced some resurgent Christendom that would salvage Western civilization.  Perhaps Western civilization has played its hand after several centuries and the decline is, so to speak, the market playing itself out, only the market is Western civilization itself.

In that sense the more ridiculous gambit is trying to revive Christendom with an argument toward the idea that it will salvage or save Western civilization.  That's not exactly what Jesus was getting at when He said "my kingdom is not of this world." 

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