Category: History

What Do We Do with Witches?

I am reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, which will be an act of attrition occurring over a very long period of time as I attempt to digest it in tiny pieces between schoolwork—a veritable Sarlaccian undertaking. He has been attacked and defended for this book, and for his thesis that we are in a historical period of low violence in large part attributable to the Leviathan—the emergence of strong centralized states—but also to a change in the prevailing attitudes concerning the value of the lives of others. I've socked away some critiques from both camps and look forward to reading them when I'm finally finished, but for the moment, having read a number of articles summarizing his findings, I'm inclined to buy the general narrative; most societies seem to have undergone a civilizing process that has vastly decreased the rate of violence. Your risk of being executed or murdered today is a miniscule fraction of what it was at almost any prior point in history (think on grander scales than decades).

Anyway, I have no desire to debate the merits of and injustices perpetrated by the Leviathan, for there are both. My purpose today is much more modest than all that.

"Burn her anyway!"

"Burn her anyway!"

Pinker's book thus far has laid out the groundwork for his thesis and gone into some descriptions of medieval and Reformation atrocities, along with a brief review of what we can infer about violence in prestate hunter/gatherer tribes. When he gets to the Reformation, though, the descriptions become outright grisly. Pinker pulls no punches illustrating, or letting historical accounts illustrate, the elaborate ways in which humans liked to torture other humans. I will spare you the images here, suffice it to say that the fates of hundreds of thousands of people—drawn and quartered, put on the rack, burned alive, subjected to all manners of unthinkable anguish—were fueled by what can only be called widespread, systemic sadism. That's an editorial comment from me, obviously, but these spectacles were not rare events; they were what stood in for entertainment in an era that didn't have Johnny Carson, to say nothing of the animal torture that was a central feature of many of the period's popular games.

To be sure, the Church had much to do with a great deal of this carnage. (Don't worry. Pinker follows up descriptions of heresy trials and the Inquisitions with accounts of secular torture that became institutionalized as states attempted to deter crime... or just get rid of people.) But he quotes three people in this section, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and a French scholar named Sebastien Castellio, whose words are notable either for their staggering hatred of people harboring different religious compunctions, in the first two cases, or for a modern-sounding skepticism of religious absolutes, in Castellio's case. I have cited the sources Pinker lists in his own bibliography.

Martin Luther on what's to be done with the Jews (1543):

First, . . . set fire to their synagogues or schools and . . . bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.... Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.... Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.... Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.... Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.... Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3[:19]). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. Let us emulate the common sense of other nations . . . [and] eject them forever from the country.

John Calvin on the false prophets among us (1555):

Some say that because the crime consists only of words there is no cause for such severe punishment. But we muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouths and say what they please? . . . God makes it plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life.

Sebastien Castellio on John Calvin on the false prophets among us (1554):

Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about manifest truth? . . . In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself. Calvin would have to invade France and all other nations, wipe out cities, put all the inhabitants to the sword, sparing neither sex nor age, not even babies and the beasts.

Pinker notes that Calvin's convictions led him to advocate for the burning of Michael Servetus, a man with some reservations about the trinity, for heresy. Calvin got his wish in 1553. Castellio and many other Protestant thinkers criticized him emphatically.

Christ v. Christ

St. Mary Magdalene, Exford*

While writing twelve pages and almost 5000 words in an attempt to study for an exam (I say this not to complain but to highlight my gross inefficiency) on the Old and Middle English periods, I came across a passage in our textbook (A History of the English Language, Fifth Ed., by Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable) that I remember chuckling at darkly the first time I read it a few weeks ago.  The passage refers to the replacement of the native English clergy with continental French implants in the years following the Norman Conquest:

Ecclesiastics, it would seem, sometimes entered upon their office accompanied by an armed band of supporters. Turold, who became abbot of Peterborough in 1070, is described as coming at the head of 160 armed Frenchmen to take possession of his monastery; and Thurston, appointed abbot of Glastonbury in 1082, imposed certain innovations in the service upon the monks of the abbey by calling for his Norman archers, who entered the chapter house fully armed and killed three of the monks, besides wounding eighteen.

It's true that Christianity has been responsible for much higher learning throughout history, certainly in pre-scientific times, but, for many reasons, the vision of bishops seizing control of monasteries with large gaggles of armed men in tow seems appropriate.  What's more, these were acts of religious cannibalism:  the zealous bishops described in this here tale were marching on fellow Christians, organizations within their own establishment.  Thurston, the dog, even killed a few monks for good measure.

So, yes.  Just a bit of atheist/anti-theist candy for the road—for those of us atheists, anyway, who aren't particular fans murder.  I don't want to speak for everybody, after all.


Image: St Mary Magdalene. Exford (Janine Forbes) / CC BY-SA 2.0


The Echo of Hiroshima

From the top of the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945*

I'm taking a class on New Journalism, and our reading assignment this week was John Hersey's famous article, published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, simply titled "Hiroshima". (You can access the full article here.) Hersey's piece is a truly harrowing tale told from the perspective of a handful of citizens who lived through the bombing — their actions in the direct aftermath, and their struggles a year after. Hersey's prose is matter-of-fact: he does not proselytize; he does not interpret; he simply tells the story and stays out of the way.

One passage in particular struck me: Mr. Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor who has been ferrying the wounded and dying across a river for hours in a small punt, using a bamboo pole in place of an oar, sees a group of people huddled on a sandbar, about to be drowned by the rising tide:

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got out into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. With the tide risen, his bamboo pole was now too short and he had to paddle most of the way across with it. On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, "These are human beings." It took him three trips to get them all across the river. When he had finished, he decided he had to have a rest, and he went back to the park.

The appeal to humanity in this passage strikes me as especially haunting, the fact that one must remind himself that these mangled bodies he carries are, in fact, people, and that he must not recoil, that he must treat them with due dignity. If there is a larger message about the dehumanizing effect of war, you can mull that one over yourself; that's not what makes this passage so interesting or appalling to me. For me, the scene stands alone as a stark and visceral moment in which the pure fact of humanity must be affirmed, against all revulsion and shock, and while we may consider broader issues, we should never forget the bare existence of our personal breaking points. Mr. Tanimoto girds himself against his own in this case. Would that we could all be so certain we would react as admirably.

* Picture is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. I took the caption from the Wikimedia summary as well.

Update 8/6/2015: For the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, The New Yorker has made John Hersey's classic reflection on the bombing's aftermath free to access — a grim and powerful piece of writing finally available for everyone to read. This post has been updated accordingly, and the link therein now takes you to the full article.


General George S. Patton's Speech to the Third Army

The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his. Gen. George S. Patton

General George S. Patton

I was stumbling around the internet when I happened across the full text of Gen. George Patton's famous speech to the Third Army. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but up until about fifteen minutes ago, my only knowledge of this oratory marvel came from anecdotes and the film Patton starring George C. Scott.

In truth, it was nothing I didn't expect. Patton crammed enough violent imagery and profanity into that address as humanly possible and spoke with the hyperbolic sense of patriotism one expects from a general in the United States Army. Don't misconstrue my words, please. There isn't anything wrong with patriotism, and indeed, it is to be commended when applied rationally, but patriotic sentiment was monopolized long ago by a contingent of people who seem unable to grasp loving one's country without full-blown militaristic zeal. To this demographic, patriotism is synonymous with imperialism and typified by the very hubris that has become a de facto substitute for foreign policy. The practice was, by no means, instituted by George W. Bush as many would have us believe (though he did proliferate it with glee), and despite Barack Obama's ascension to power, one can only hope that he will keep his sensibilities logical and refrain from applying the mask of entitlement under which many Americans appear to operate. In general, presidents tend to receive a great deal of undue glory from their respective constituencies, and the last one who really deserved any such accolades was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We'll see if Obama's pragmatism manages to overcome knee-jerk reactions. His disingenuous handling of marijuana-related questions at last month's internet town hall meeting not only risked alienating a large swath of his supporters but exemplified the power of stagnation over progress in American political culture and reinforced the notion that even he — our supposed beacon of change — is not immune to caving in to the pressures of the Game. The only thing to be said in his defense is that (at least in that clip) he never says he is closed to the notion of decriminalizing marijuana, simply that it would not be a strategy that would benefit our struggling economy. I don't personally agree with his views, but I will say that those watching this broadcast deserved more than a dismissive remark delivered through a smirk.

But I was talking about Patton, wasn't I? I seem to remember something about that, but who can remember anything for more than a few seconds in the Age of Twitter?

For those of you who didn't click the first link to read Patton's speech in it's entirety, here are a few of my favorite tidbits from it:

Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

Each man must not think only of himself, but also of his buddy fighting beside him. We don't want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats. If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards.

We're not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we're going to rip out their living Goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We're going to murder those lousy Hun cock suckers by the bushel-fucking-basket.

And then comes the striking and admittedly brilliant crescendo:

You may be thankful that twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you WON'T have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, 'Well, your Granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.' No, Sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, 'Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a- Goddamned-Bitch named Georgie Patton!'

These words were given to the Third Army in secret somewhere in England on June 5, 1944, and I should think they would have to be delivered in a much similar way today to avoid a publicity crisis. No comparable display of machismo and American arrogance could publicly survive the media blitz that would be sure to follow, and rightly so. In 1944, this type of rhetoric might have been acceptable, and not to say that foreign affairs and policy matters weren't nuanced back then, but politics in the 21st century will require a great deal more grace.

Granted, Gen. Patton was speaking to a group of soldiers and not to a room full of reporters or politicians, but perhaps it is for this reason that his speech is even more worrying. This type of patriotism is the norm among conservatives these days, and as hard as it is to swallow the blaring and dangerous political rhetoric coming from the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck, most of us would probably cringe to hear what they say behind closed doors (assuming they believe their own horseshit).

This is not, of course, to place the blame solely on conservatives for relying on flagbleeding euphamisms. It is only fair to blame much of the liberal movement's willingness to pander to the lowest common denominator — the ilk that see the American Flag not so much as a symbol of freedom, liberty, or virtue but as an approval stamp, a ringing endorsement of whatever policies those who invoke it support. Such willingness to rally behind a symbol rather than an ideal or a set of ideals, no matter with which members of the punditry you align, is what makes true discourse in the political sphere so rare, and it all filters back to the inherent machismo we associate with being American. We're the biggest, strongest, most powerful nation on the planet. We will be, anyway, until China pushes through to the other end of their industrial revolution and the United States comes down with a bad case of what can only be described as international penis envy.

Most of us are not rooted in or befallen by the pathological Superiority Complex that Patton exhibits in his speech. Brilliant general though he was, Patton was also wonky enough to believe he was a reincarnated Carthaginian who had once fought against the Roman Army. So we should take his comments with a grain of salt. His speech is not the ravings of a mad man. It's much worse than that. Patton's speech is a word-for-word translation into military terms of what many Americans likely believe today. They might not express it in the blood-and-guts tradition like our good general, but the reptilian world view that stresses the oversimplified dynamics of Good vs. Evil and Us vs. Them is both prevalent and well-defined. Like Patton, there are those out there whose idea of a Great American is the apish infantry grunt, spiteful of the enemy and willing to charge into a cloud of bullets without asking why, instead thinking only that it is what a brave man would do. Just peruse the comment board under Patton's speech at Free Republic.

Gen. George Patton is who qualifies as a Great American, and perhaps he was in the most brutish sense. He was, no doubt, a brilliant military man and an adept tactician. The United States would not have enjoyed some of the victories it did during World War II if it weren't for Patton, and yes, maybe I'll even concede that he was the man for that time and place. He was the kind of man he glorified in such fervid prose to the men of the Third Army that night in England.

And the ideal here is that we should be working toward a situation in which the glorification of blind patriotism is overruled by the sensible desire for mutuality and peace between countries and not push for a system that maintains American superiority. The challenges we will face in the very near future demand that we not draw alliances based on such arbitrary things as geographic boundaries. We must attempt to see eye-to-eye with the rest of the world — holding our ground, of course, when necessary — and compromise with instead of impose upon them our own set of core values. We need to protect ourselves. Naturally, this is true, and only a woefully naive person would say otherwise, but the best thing we can do is ditch our Old World mentalities. The real ideal here is that we move forward into a world that will never need another Gen. George Patton.