Friday, February 13, 2015

Prayer Breakfast

President Obama took the opportunity at the national prayer breakfast to remind Christians that they also have violence in their history. 

My first response was to link to some discussion of history that I had written before. I put in some additional historical information in a comment over at Grim's Hall.  I am not the only one who went straight to the arguing over history part. Many of Obama's critics and supporters also went straight to the historical arguments, with all its Huguenots, Roundheads, Albigensians, Seljuqs, and Abbasids.

My inclination would ordinarily be to join them, trying to use a balanced understanding of history to inform current attitudes.  I expect I would learn something from both allies and opponents in the exchange, and hope that my original view was indeed closest to the facts.  That would be logical and wise.

That has nothing to do with what is happening here.  It took Governor Jindal's comment to shake me loose.  
It was nice of the President to give us a history lesson at the Prayer breakfast. Today, however, the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, is the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives. We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today
I was amused, but part of me thought that was also beside the point. I keep thinking getting to the truth of 1098 will be the foundation to getting to a correct answer now.  I expect that to be the long view, the Longfellow view: 

Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all.
This is madness on my part.  Barack Obama does not hold his views because he misunderstands Medieval history.  He misunderstands Medieval history because of the modern  views he holds. That is absolutely true of the majority of his critics as well.  They have only superficial understanding of Medieval history, but use the chance fragments which flow their way in service of their modern attitude, discarding those that don't fit. It may be a glass houses problem for Obama to squawk about self-righteousness, but it is true nonetheless.  There are not only some reflexive jingoists out there, there are lots of 'em, and they won't shut up.  If Jay Walking and all the man-on-the-street, ambush-the-rubes videos have taught us anything, it is that no one out there knows much history, civics, science, or religion at all. (Favorite soapbox: this is not new.  It has always been this way.  It was not better in Ye Goode Olde Days.)
Where was I?
Yes, yes, all this by way of introduction.*
Getting the history wrong is not what Obama's critics are angry about (except maybe a few of us). Nor are Obama's supporters deeply concerned that the hoi polloi haven't taken enough World History 301: 476-1491 AD. They don't want them to have any new information about that thousand years, unless it has been vetted and approved as leading to the correct attitudes now.
For 90% of Americans, my guys, your guys, red fish, blue fish, actual historical information has no relevance except as a place counter in discussions about whose view will prevail today.  Do not quote to me statistics that conservatives are twice as likely to get the facts right, because I already know that only means they are right 21% of the time as opposed to liberals 11%, and at that level, who cares?
This discussion is about attitudes, and history is only brought in as a counter on the chessboard of 2015. Obama thinks the people who disagree with him just don't have the right attitudes, and that is their main problem. This has been characteristic of him throughout his career. Plenty of conservatives take the same attitude - Sarah Palin comes to mind - but they don't tend to get elected as much.  Reagan took a condescending "Yes they are liberals, but they are our liberals" attitude, but there was some affection there. Bill Clinton was nowhere near as bad as Obama, Carter was perhaps even worse.
It goes rather naturally with the territory.  When one is focused on the nation's enemies, the opposition at home is frustrating, but not hateful.  Liberals tend to downgrade the enemies abroad, focusing on their competitors for power here.  The reasons for this are varied - not all on the left would explain that the same way, but it remains so.
Yet that is secondary.  The focus on the attitude of the opposition, in and of itself, leads dangerously to the belief that one knows what their motives are.  One comes to believe in the ability to read minds - of black kids in Ferguson or white cops; of ISIS volunteers or Chris Kyle. We may guess, but we do not know.  Conservatives are still debating why it is that Obama believes the things he does, and we are nearly at the end of the period where it matters one whit. Liberals guess badly - with great assurance but badly - why the great unwashed, who are, incidentally, slightly better educated than they, believe what they do. Their guesses are more than a little evil.  I have read guesses by conservatives that are deeply evil about liberal motives
This flows from focus on attitude rather than behavior.  I give that to you for free as marital, parenting, and management advice as well.

*That's really my favorite line these last forty years, isn't it?


ymarsakar said...

Don't be surprised when the camps come out and nobody believes it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

From Avi's wife: This interaction made me impressed with Governor Jindal. I will definitely take a closer look at him for the NH primary!

dmoelling said...

I work a lot in Africa and the Middle East (real work not NGO stuff), I once was at a party where the usual "we have our extremists too", nonsense came up. I brought up that if you want to help africa, donate to some Christian missionaries. I once visited the Nigerian oil patch which was a high risk area for kidnapping and murder of foreigners. After an uneasy evening at the premire hotel with everyone in the restaurant having rifle toting bodyguards, I awoke in the morning to be reassured of humanity by a group of Church ladies in their Sunday best at breakfast.

Maybe it was because it was familiar, but I doubt the burka clad wives of Boko Haram would be so comforting. It's not the fact that warfare in 1170 in crusaderdom was rough, but what is the situation today.

Texan99 said...

What I liked about Jindal's response was that it cut to the only point that's relevant to me for national defense purposes: Who is a threat to us today? I can be induced to look behind that question to "Is there someone who's a threat to us only because we're doing something awful to stir up trouble, so that they're really only defending themselves from immediate harm by us?"--but I'm not going to get there by turning the discussion to the 11th century.

It's not about whether we're better people than they are. It's about whether we have to defend ourselves against them. The armed burglar who breaks into my house at 2 a.m. may be a fine person in all sorts of ways. So what? If his excellent qualities aren't going to restrain him from robbing and killing me, I'm not that interested in sitting down with him and performing a fearless moral comparative inventory.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

T99 - that is a great analogy.

Grim said...

I think you raise an excellent point about historiography. People frequently misunderstand history because they need to misunderstand it.

This is most obvious to me in discussions of the American Civil War, but you really see it in Medieval history too. There's a contemporary agenda that depends on telling those stories in a particular way. Only very few people are interested in the truth of what happened: mostly, people are interested in a story that reinforces their view of the world and their personal place in it. President Obama is not alone, nor even rare, in this.