The Alt-Right is Hijacking the Middle Ages: Medievalists Aren’t Going to Let Them.

I was as disturbed as anyone tracking the reports of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. Disturbed by the shouted slogans, the violence, the anger, the typically disturbing imagery of swastikas, confederate flags, and automatic weapons displayed alongside American flags. All that was sickening enough.

But then I noticed something else about the images; something equally–if not more–horrifying. It began as an uncanny sensation; the way it feels to stand in a creepy, abandoned house and still recognize, on some level, the traces of very familiar daily life that remain.

It took a little while for the reality to hit me: I was seeing images and concepts pulled from the area of study to which I’ve dedicated my professional life: the history and culture of the Middle Ages in Europe. The uncanny sensation came from the fact that, for me, encountering symbolism from the Middle Ages is what I do for a living every day, so I was literally reading those symbols in my knee-jerk fashtion as though they were appearing in the contexts in which they normally appear for me, familiar symbols with familiar meanings and connotations, encountered in the course of historical and literary study. The images had become so “normal” to me that the unusual context didn’t register at first, leaving me with a strange “something is off here” sensation that I could not, initially, put my finger on.

Then it hit me: I was reading those medieval images in my usual way, such that they were barely on my radar at first. It had to dawn on me that these were neo-Nazi thugs using these images and symbols in the service of their abhorrent ideology. The awareness of what they were doing grew on me through the course of the weekend, as I continued to study the images, and listened to what many of my fellow medievalist scholars were saying: This is what I study. None of these images and concepts have anything to do with the realities of medieval European history and culture. They are hijacking the Middle Ages.

Then came the next thought:

No.

Oh. No. You. Don’t.

I don’t know how effective I’d be as a counter-protester on the streets of Charlottesville. I’m not a politician. Honestly, I’m pretty much an introvert. But this? This is something I can deal with. If this is a hijacking, it’s one for which I–along with my fellow medievalists–am well equipped to help mount a rescue.

Before I show you a few examples of what I’ve been noticing, as a medievalist, in the Charlottesville images, let me make one point of supreme importance:

The basic idea behind the neo-Nazi appropriation of the European Middle Ages appears to be the appeal to the idea of a “pure white race.” That is, the (entirely false) notion that Europeans in the Middle Ages were white people, that the Middle Ages in Europe represent a kind of “purer” time in which other perceived racial groups had yet to corrupt that purity.

Here’s the key point: There was no such thing as “White People” in the Middle Ages.

The concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness, ” in the ways in which we understand those terms in our present time, place, and culture, simply were not present in the Middle Ages. (This is not to say that the cultural processes by which later forms of racism developed were not underway in the Middle Ages, or that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have other, perfectly effective ways of creating difference and killing one another for it; but it is to say that those terms did not have the associations they do now.)  To talk about “white” culture in Medieval Europe is no less anachronistic than it would be to talk about “fourteenth-century Flemish smartphones,” or “the space stations of Carolingian France.” This alone renders the alt-right idea of a purely “white” medieval Europe absurd from the get-go. Were that not enough, we know from many varieties of evidence (literary, documentary, archaeological) that one traveling through Europe in the Middle Ages would have experienced a wide variety of skin tones, and a wide variety of ancestries from all over the known (at the time) world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.

So, white supremacist misappropriations of images and ideas of medieval Europe are precisely that: misappropriations. They have nothing whatever to do with the historical and cultural realities.

Take a look at the following images from the Charlottesville demonstrations. I’ll try to unpack some of the salient features of each:

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Edu Bayer, New York Times

This particular image has been reproduced and discussed quite a bit. Note the shield, the form of which is reminiscent of Germanic (Norse, Saxon) design. You might have seen Vikings carrying shields like these. The symbol on the shield is called a “Black Eagle.” Traditionally, it’s the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, these white supremacists are thinking of the symbol as something connected with the idea of a “white” pan-European power. However, as several commentators, including Joseph Livingstone at the New Republic have pointed out, and as just about any scholar of the Middle Ages will tell you, this appropriation is more than a little ironic: the symbol was originally that of St. Maurice, an early Christian, and also a soldier in the 3rd Roman Legion, who was martyred for refusing the Emperor’s command to harass a community of Christians. The kicker is that Maurice was Egyptian, and looked like this:

StMaurice

Notice the left-hand shield in this image:

12dyson-master768

Edu Bayer, New York Times

The shape is based on that of the Roman Scutum, the design favored by the Empire’s legions. These groups, apparently, also have a thing about the Roman Empire, seeing it, too, as somehow nostalgic of a purer whiteness. Again, this is odd, since the Empire covered a very great deal of territory, and even most natives of Rome would hardly have been fair-complected. While Caucasian-looking skin was not unheard of in Rome, it was at lease sufficiently unusual that a shipment of fair-skinned slaves from Northern England caught the attention of the 6th century Pope Gregory I. The medieval historian Bede relates that Gregory, upon hearing that the slaves were called Angles (Angli in Latin), remarked that they were “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” Not Angles, but Angels. Clearly fair faces were not the norm in most of the Empire.

The symbol on the shield is even more interesting. It’s a character from a runic alphabet known as the Elder Futharc, a writing system used in Scandinavia in the 2nd-8th centuries or so, and which became the basis for a number of later runic scripts. It’s called an odal or othala rune. Phonetically, it sounds like the English letter “O.” Symbolically, it means something like “heritage” or “inheritance.” A version of the symbol was adopted by a unit of the Nazi SS in World War II, and has been appropriated by the present-day American National Socialist movement, mainly as a sort of less-recognizable (to outsiders) replacement for the swastika, in a sort of euphemistic re-branding. Of course, no ancient Norse person would have had any awareness of him/herself as “white,” and the ideas of heritage and inheritance had much more to do with the idea of the transmission of privileges and property within a family than anything having to do with “heritage” in its (thoroughly modern) nationalistic sense.

This last image is one that’s particularly upsetting to me as a specialist in Scottish history and culture:

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Reuters

The sigil on the two (again, Roman-influenced) left-hand shields is known as the “Black Saltire,” and is the sigil of the Southern Nationalist movement, including, most notably, the League of the South, a group that advocates a second Southern “secession” and the establishment of a new state dominated by what they call an “Anglo-Celtic elite.”

The saltire image is telling. The saltire is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew (one of the original Disciples of Jesus, and the brother of St. Peter). Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of Scotland, and a white-on-blue saltire is still the national Flag of Scotland. Already there’s some irony here, as both Peter and Andrew, as natives of Bethsaida, in Galilee–and professional fishermen who spent most of their time on the open water–would have had swarthy Middle Eastern (and sun-darkened) complexions.

The shield on the right may be significant as well. While some media outlets have noted that other organizations that use the image of a lion, such as the Detroit Lions, have already denounced the use of the image, both present-day Scots, and anyone with a passion for Scottish history, should be even more horrified. The symbol of the “Rampant Lion” is another important Scottish symbol, none other than the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland. In Britain, the use of the image of the Rampant Lion is so

Royal_Banner_of_Scotland.svg

The Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland (Wikimedia image).

important that its use is highly regulated, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the body governing the use of heraldry in Scotland, where such a use of the image would be considered illegal (in addition to being simply offensive). It’s been the traditional symbol of Scots royalty since the early 13th century, and, as such representative of a host of ideas, none of which is that of “whiteness.” Its misuse in this context is nothing less than nauseating.

 

It gets worse.

The Scots, as I’ve discovered, are of special importance to American white supremacists. The basic idea stems from a group known as the “Christian Identity” movement, which itself is a derivative of the idea of “British Israelism.” To make a long, tortured story short, the CI movement believes that medieval Celts are, in fact, one of the lost tribes of Israel. According to these groups, present-day Jews and Israelis are essentially impostors, and “Scots-Irish” descendants, in America, of medieval Celts, are really God’s Chosen People, the heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, and the descendants of those they see as the last “pure white” race.

Of course, this has nothing whatever to do with what we know from the documentary and archaeological records of where the Scots came from. And we most certainly know that even medieval Scots were a very ethnically mixed group, with influences ranging from Celtic and Norse, to Norman, to African (thanks to occupying Roman legions). In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, not even those living in Scotland could agree on who was really a “Scot,” and, especially in the late Middle Ages, the definition often hinged on political allegiances more than anything. The fourteenth-century poet John Barbour, in his poem The Bruce (about the life of King Robert I, 1274-1329), seems to think of Scottishness as exclusively a matter of allegiance to King Robert: Barbour even describes native-born Scots loyal to the English Edward I as “Englis,” and only when they, and even their English-born counterparts, swear allegiance to Robert does Barbour label them”Scottis men,” no matter where they came from.

As both a scholar of medieval Scottish history, literature, and culture–and as an American of Scottish ancestry–I ashamed to see these images and ideas abused in this way, appropriated to stand for things they never, ever meant.

For me (and for just about any medievalist), the Middle Ages don’t appear monolithic in any way, least of all monolithically “white” (as we, in the here and now, understand the term). Medieval Europe was a highly diverse time and place, much more connected to other parts of the world than, I think, most people are aware. One of the reasons for my own interest in the British Isles is that the population thereof in the Middle Ages was one of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered, a complex and vibrant mingling of languages, ethnicities, cultures, conflicts, and ideas. It is out of that diversity, because of that diversity, that the works of literature I love and study emerged.

I’m not sure precisely what combating the evil appropriation of the Middle Ages of the so-called “alt-right” is going to wind up looking like. There have already been some promising statements, such as this one, from groups of scholars of the Middle Ages. But certainly, one strand of our response has to be to find ways to make sure these appropriations fall on the least-fertile ground possible, on the ears of a public sufficiently well-educated about the realities of the Middle Ages to spot the deception. That’s a challenge I’m ready take up.

 

Plain-Text Writing Lesson Six: Citation Wizardry

Note: if you’re new to this series or to plain-text writing in general, please refer to Lesson One of this series to get started.

libraryAs I mentioned in the previous lesson, one of the biggest pains for me in academic writing is dealing with what happens to footnotes and citations in Word documents over the course of my writing process. Every piece I write goes through many stages of life: it starts as random jottings, becomes a general “idea draft,” then becomes a conference paper or a blog post, then an article or chapter, then a presentation, etc. Each of these versions goes through several revisions and I don’t know how much editing and refining. This means that citations get dropped, added and moved around; whole sections of one version get cut and pasted into another, sections get moved around, etc. And, of course, as I adapt a certain course of research to various publications and audiences, the style and formatting of the citations changes: one venue wants Chicago style footnotes, one wants endnotes, one wants MLA, ad nauseam.

One of the main issues that drew me to a plain-text workflow was what kept happening to my footnotes in word processors (Word and LibreOffice, for the most part), as my writing went through all these convolutions: it seemed that every time I moved things around or changed formatting, something would get messed up. When I converted from footnotes to endnotes or back again, the process never seemed to work as advertised, and I’d spend hours cleaning up formatting and manually fixing citations, even when using a citation manager like EndNote or Zotero (and sometimes because of the ways in which auto-inserted citations can get screwy when edited manually). If I needed to change style from MLA or Chicago or back, I’d wind up needing to go through an entire document and redo all the notes from scratch. All of this is not to mention the “cascade” effect, which I suspect you’ve experienced, of changing something in one note only to somehow throw off the formatting of the rest of them, or having note formatting fail to behave as expected, or even having notes change position or show up in the wrong place. There’s nothing more frustrating than pushing a deadline for an article only to find one’s self wrangling unruly citations.

There’s a better way.

Enter Pandoc once again, with some special extensions.

As with other elements of markdown writing, the idea here is that you insert citations as plain text right in line with the rest of your plain-text document. This means, for one thing, that citations always stay where they’re supposed to, even when you’re moving blocks of text around. The actual formatting of citations into different documentation and note styles (in-text citations, footnotes, endnotes, MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.) is something that only happens after your document is finished and ready to be prepared for publication. Just as you can transform any markdown document, via pandoc, into any digital format (Word, PDF, html, etc.), you can convert the plain-text, inline citations in any markdown document into any desired documentation style, without changing the original text. If you output to Word format at one point and then, say, make major edits and move sections around in your original plain-text document, you simply convert the plain-text document again and everything stays where it should and looks like it should with very little, if any, fuss.

Making this work might seem a little bit complicated at first, but I’ll try to detangle the process for you here. It’s really quite quick and efficient once you get the concept.

One thing I’ll assume in this post is that you’re already familiar with or using a citation manager such as Endnote, Zotero, or Refworks (I prefer Zotero). If you’re not, you’re really missing out on a handy tool, so I’d certainly recommend doing a little research and installing a citation manager that works for you. Zotero is clean, effective, versatile, as well as free and open-source, which is why it’s my manager of choice. In what follows, I’ll demonstrate the process with instructions for Zotero where needed, but everything I do with Zotero should be easily adaptable to the citation manager of your choice.

Step One: Enhance the Magic Wand:

To make citations work with pandoc, you need one additional tool, an extension to pandoc called pandoc-citeproc.

In any Debian-based version of linux, you can install this simply be opening a terminal and typing:

sudo apt-get install pandoc-citeproc

If you already installed pandoc in Windows, you should already have the pandoc-citeproc package, since it’s included in the Windows MSI installer, which you can find here.

Step Two: Gather the Elements:

In order to fully process citations in markdown, you need three elements:

  1. A bibliography file in bibtex format that will live in the same directory as your main markdown document. This is the file from which pandoc will draw the actual bibliographic data.
  2. Your markdown document itself, with correctly formatted citation placeholders (concerning which more below).
  3. A .csl file containing the formatting information for whatever documentation style you need or prefer.

Let’s set up these elements one by one:

A Bibliography File in Bibtex Format

This is quite easy to do. Assuming you’ve been keeping your bibliographic data in your citation manager, all citation managers have the ability to export a collection of citations into Bibtex format. In the case of Zotero, the procedure is:

  1. Open your Zotero app
  2. Right-click on the collection you want to export and select “Export Collection”
  3. In the ensuing dialog box, select “Bibtex” as your format, and click OK
  4. Specify a location for your bibliography file–this should be the same folder in which your draft document resides.
  5. Name the file whatever you like, and make sure it has a “.bib” extension.

This file will simply live alongside your text file in the same folder, so the citation information it needs is always handy. If, in the source of revising, you wind up adding sources to the original collection in your citation manager, simply delete the old .bib file and re-export the updated collection.

Format Your Citations As You Write and Revise

Dropping in-line citations into your document as you go could not be easier. Start by opening up your exported Bibtex file. As with the other components of this process, it’s also essentially a plain-text file, with no hidden formatting. You’ll see that each of your bibliography items is recorded as a record with several fields, like this:

 @book{gransden_historical_1974,
    location = {Ithaca, N.Y.},
    title = {Historical writing in England},
    isbn = {0-8014-0770-2 978-0-8014-0770-3 0-8014-1264-1 978-0-8014-1264-6},
    number = {Book, Whole},
    publisher = {Cornell University Press},
    author = {Gransden, Antonia},
    date = {1974},
    keywords = {chronicle, laercost}
}

You see that the record starts with an indication of the type of source (book, article, etc.). The next piece of information in each record is the most important for our purposes, the one that reads grandsen_historical_1974. This is called the citekey for this record–the unique ID that allows pandoc to differentiate it from every other record in the file. Dropping a citation into your document is very straightforward:

  1. Open a square bracket: [
  2. Type an @ symbol followed by the desired citekey
  3. Add any needed text or page numbers before and after the citekey.
  4. Close the bracket.

So, a normal citation would look like this:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[@grandsen_historical_1974]

That’s it. That citekey will follow that sentence wherever it goes.

If you want to add other information, such as discursive text, page numbers, etc., just add that text where you need it. Separate the page numbers from the citekey with a comma:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[If you need some discursive text, just add it inside the brackets before the citekey. See @grandsen_historical_1974, pp. 147-52]

If you need to include more than one citation, separate the citekeys with semicolons:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[Some discursive text. See @grandsen_historical_1974, pp. 7-9; also @anzaldua_borderlands:_2007, pp. 153-8]

Easy, yes? Once again, these citation placeholders will follow your text no matter what you do with it, just like any other kind of markdown formatting.

Grab The .csl File For Your Documentation Style

This might seem a little tricky at first, but it isn’t. The .csl file is simply a file that contains all the instructions for how final citations should be formatted according to a particular style (Chicago, APA, etc.). You can get a pre-made .csl file for most documentation styles from the Zotero Style Repository here. Simply find the style you want, click the link, and download the file into the same directory as your main text file and your bibtex file.

And Now, the Magic: Creating Fully-Cited Documents With One Swish:

Okay, now that we’ve got all the materials together, it’s time to tell Pandoc to do its thing. Let’s start with a sample markdown document with some citation placeholders included:

MD_Citations

 

Now we just need to tell Pandoc to put all the pieces together. At this point we should have three files in our document directory: Our text file, the .csl file for our chosen documentation style (I normally need the Chicago Full-Note and Bibliography style, so I’ve downloaded that one for this example), and the bibtex file containing our references, like so:

MyDocument.md
MyBibtexFile.bib
chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl

Here comes Pandoc. Fire up a terminal and type:

pandoc MyDocument.md -s -S --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib --filter pandoc-citeproc --csl chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl -o MyFormattedDocument.odt

Let’s break down what each part of the command is doing:

  • pandoc simply invokes the pandoc app.
  • MyDocument.md tells pandoc which markdown document to process
  • -s -S These two tags tell pandoc to create a standalone document file, and to use smart quotes, respectively
  • --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib Points pandoc to your bibliography file.
  • --filter pandoc-citeproc tells pandoc to use the pansdoc-citeproc tool to process your citation placeholders
  • --csl chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl tells pandoc to format your citations according to the information in the chicago fullnote bibliography csl file, and points it to that file.
  • -o MyFormattedDocument.odt tells pandoc to output to an .odt (LibreOffice, OpenOffice) file named “MyFormattedDocument.odt” If you want a different file type, just change the extension (.docx for Word, .pdf for Portable Document Format, etc.)

And here’s the reveal, your fully formatted document:

Screenshot_Chicago

But let’s say (alas!) one publisher turns down that manuscript. You want to submit it elsewhere, but the new journal to which you’re submitting requires MLA rather than Chicago style. No problem–and no need to do anything with my original text document. I simply download the MLA 8th edition .csl file from the Zotero Style Repository, and change the pandoc command to use that stye:

pandoc MyDocument.md -s -S --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib --filter pandoc-citeproc --csl modern-language-association-8th-edition.csl -o MyFormattedDocument_MLA.odt

And my output looks like:

Screenshot_MLA

There it is! While this tutorial takes a little longer to explain the process than some of the others, I hope it’s apparent how easy and muss-free this can be if you set it up as your workflow from the beginning. As always, I’m glad to field questions about the process. Happy writing!

The Solarized Writer’s Desktop

elegant_solarizedIn two more weeks, I end my post-heart-surgery medical leave and go back to doing what I love the most: being with students, teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare, and studying the literature and culture of medieval Britain.

It’s going to be a bit of a transition after three months of focusing on healing, so I’ve been spending my weekend doing a little preliminary “gearing up”, sort of preparing myself psychologically to head back to work, now that my body can actually handle it again.

Since part of my job involves doing some pretty heavy-duty research and writing, part of that prep has involved thinking about ways to work on those projects, especially the writing, with a high degree of focus. The computer is of course both a blessing and a curse in this regard: it’s a necessary tool, to be sure, but it can also be mightily distracting, not only in the sense of offering online diversions (social media, etc.) but visual clutter as well. Our operating systems and browsers seem to be increasingly geared to be platforms for selling us things, which means notifications and message-boxes of various kinds can really proliferate (Windows 10, for example, drives me insane in this regard). With multiple windows and toolbars, computer screens can become a cacophony of clashing colors and notification sounds, none of which are particularly conducive to concentration.

So, being a bit of a nerdy sort, and also someone who cares about recycling older gadgets to reduce e-waste, I decided to resurrect an old desktop computer to use as a dedicated writing machine. The idea was to make the interface as distraction-free as possible, visually elegant, and conducive to long work sessions while minimizing eyestrain.

There are of course many “distraction free” writing apps out there that try to fill this kind of niche (such as WriteMonkey and Writeroom), but I’ve never found them quite right for me: as an academic, I rarely write only what springs spontaneously to mind: I’m constantly looking at previous drafts of what I’ve written, paging through electronic notes, PDF files of articles, etc. I generally also need some consistent information, such as the time (so I’m not missing my next class!), my to-do list, and basic weather information. I also wanted to capacity to play and control music right on the desktop, since that usually helps me tune out other ambient noise. Dedicated distraction-free writing tools accomplish their task my simply filling the entire screen and blocking out everything else; I wanted a solution that would not work by blocking things out, but rather by displaying only what I want. So, my idea was to set up a system that would be as spare and distraction-free as possible without cutting me off from all the information and resources I generally need to manage while I write.

The result is what you see in the screenshot above. I’ll explain the techy bits of this below for anyone interested in duplicating or improving upon my efforts, but here’s what you’re looking at:

  • To create a very customizable system that runs smoothly on an older computer, I used the Linux operating system, specifically the Xubuntu Linux flavor. Xubuntu is designed to be easy-to-use with a minimum of system resources while still being a fully-featured desktop environment. A similar arrangement should be possible with Windows and MacOS, using a somewhat different set of applications and tools.
  • To make the whole thing very eye-friendly, I based all the colors on the solarized color scheme developed by Ethan Schoonover. According to Schoonover:

Solarized is a sixteen color palette (eight monotones, eight accent colors) designed for use with terminal and gui applications. It has several unique properties. I designed this colorscheme with both precise CIELAB lightness relationships and a refined set of hues based on fixed color wheel relationships. It has been tested extensively in real world use on color calibrated displays (as well as uncalibrated/intentionally miscalibrated displays) and in a variety of lighting conditions.

I’ve found this scheme to be truly conducive to long periods of staring at a screen. My idea was to integrate all aspects of the desktop within this scheme, so that both the desktop and its various elements (wallpaper, window borders, application backgrounds, music player, system information display), as well as all the applications I need, share this same set of soothing colors.

  • I set up the system to use two monitors: one directly in front of the keyboard that’s entirely dedicated to the text I’m currently writing (this is the left-hand side of the screenshot above, which combines the images from both monitors). Just to my right, the second monitor is for displaying system and other information (weather, time, music), and also for displaying and managing ancillary documents like notes, images, and PDF’s. This keeps the focus on the main text while also keeping all those other materials ready to hand.
  • As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I love to write using plain-text tools, for a host of reasons that I explain here. My editor of choice for composing is an oldie-but-goody well-known to programmers but less so to writers, known as Vim. Vim is an old-school editor designed to run in a good old-fashioned terminal. There’s a definite learning-curve involved in using Vim, but it’s been worth it for me, as Vim has become about the fastest and most distraction-free tool for bare composition I’ve ever found. Since Vim runs in a terminal window, I simply have the left hand monitor set up to display that single terminal window, made almost transparent, against the solarized background. This keeps the editor in the visual center of the monitor at all times, keeps my hands on the keyboard where they belong, and encourages a focus on what I’m writing.
  • The most prominent element on the righthand monitor consists of a system monitor tool called conky, set up to display the time, weather information, and basic system information.
  • To the left of the system information display, there’s a music player called ncmpcpp. This is another tool designed to run in an old-fashioned terminal. The beauty of this is that I can position a transparent terminal on the screen, and the music player becomes a background element of the desktop, always available but never in the way. Console applications also take up much less in the way of system resources than GUI apps, which helps to keep this older machine running smoothly.
  • The final element is my todo list, which I manage via the elegant application by Gina Trapani called todo.txt. It’s basically a fancy way of keeping your todo list in a plain text file while still being able to manage it nicely, add and delete items, set contexts, etc. This is another console application, so it runs in another small, transparent terminal window right underneath the system information display.
  • Note management is a little more complex than simple composition, since it involves keeping track of many different small files at once (I keep my reading and thinking notes in small, plain-text files, organized into directories), so I use a more robust text editor for note management so I can easily switch between notes and have several note documents open at once. I accomplish this with the excellent Sublime Text. Note that Sublime Text (the other window in the right-hand part of the screenshot above) displays both my note documents in tabbed or tiled format, with a left-hand panel that shows the directory tree of my note directory, making everything readily accessible.

Those are the basics! Feel free to let me know what you think or suggest improvements. I’m also glad to work with the less-techy to set up similar arrangements of their own.

Addendum: An astute user pointed out that a tool to change the color-temperature of your display according to the time of day or night would also help with eye-strain. I heartily agree. I use the excellent f.lux (which has Windows and Linux versions) for this purpose. Other linux users prefer the (also-excellent) tool redshift.

A few more details and resources:

Solarized Wallpaper:

Ncmpcpp documentation:

https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/ncmpcpp

Solarized Numix theme for XFCE:

https://github.com/gsnewmark/numix-solarized-dark-gtk-theme

Conky Harmattan theme:

https://github.com/zagortenay333/Harmattan

 

On the (Self-) Coddling of Christian Universities

deathofsocratesA few weeks ago Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, released an open letter addressed to his university’s student body. In the letter, Piper appeared to take on the issue of “victimization” culture, railing against a student who apparently objected to the content of a sermon at one of OKU’s chapel services. A number of bloggers have already responded to Piper’s letter in various ways, chief among them my friend and colleague Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman and historian John Fea, not to mention numerous commenters to the Pietist Schoolman post. While Piper’s letter won accolades from conservative commentators like Rod Dreher, who hailed Piper as “A Man Among Boys”, Gehrz, Fea, and a number of their respondents had more thoughtful responses. You can read the text of Piper’s letter here.

Rather than respond directly to the letter, however, I’d like to set it in the context of several other recent events involving Christian (especially evangelical) colleges. Briefly:

  • This past August, both Oklahoma Wesleyan and Union University withdrew their memberships in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities over the actions of two other then-member universities (Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College), who changed their hiring policies, after the Obergefell ruling, to legally married same-sex couples. The reason OKW and UU gave for withdrawing from the CCCU was not any sort of decision about the matter by the CCCU, but rather that the CCCU hadn’t moved to condemn EMU and Goshen quickly enough. This means, of course, both universities acted before even knowing what kind of response the CCCU (which had decided, not unreasonably, to discuss the matter first) might make.
  • In early December, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraged his university’s students to carry concealed firearms, specifically in order to counteract a perceived threat from Muslim terrorists. The most chilling sentence in Falwell’s address was this: “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us…” Several commentators have already worried about the connotations of the phrase “those Muslims,” but the real problem, for me, is the before: Falwell isn’t talking, here, about responding to a threat that has already materialized; he’s talking about a pre-emptive strike: Let’s go out and get Them before They get Us.
  • Finally and more recently, Wheaton college recently suspended (or, to use their term “placed on administrative leave”) Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins, apparently, had committed to wearing a hijab during advent as a way of showing solidarity between Christians and Muslims. While Wheaton had no problem with the hijab, the college suspended Hawkins for part of her explanation, in a Facebook post, for why she was doing so, in which she stated that Christians and Muslims “…worship the same God.” Again, what was troubling to me was not that there was debate about that statement (it’s actually a very interesting question), but the speed of Hawkins’ suspension: according to the Christianity Today article covering the event, Hawkins’ posted that Facebook message on December 10–the Thursday, according to Wheaton’s academic calendar, of the last week of regular classes before finals week. It seems likely that Wheaton officials would not have become aware of the posting, or at least have been able to discuss what to do about it, until the next day (Friday); the 12th and 13th, of course, were a weekend, and Wheaton’s suspension of Hawkins, according to its own press release came on Tuesday the 15th, which means that there was only a single business day (the intervening Monday) between Wheaton officials’ becoming aware of the post and placing Hawkins on administrative leave. This means that Hawkins was assuredly placed on leave before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place. It also means that all the substantive conversation about the issue, for Hawkins, has taken place under that administrative leave–under, in other words, at least the implied threat of termination (were that not at stake, there would have been no reason for administrative action at all). Nothing like forcing the suspect to make her case À l’ombre de la guillotine.

It’s the repeated before that’s troubling. Union University withdrew from the CCCU before it knew what the CCCU was going to do about EMU’s and Goshen’s changes in policy. The problem wasn’t, at that point, that the CCCU hadn’t responded as they’d wanted, but that the response they were looking for wasn’t the CCCU’s immediate, knee-jerk response. Falwell exhorted his students, chillingly, to go out and “end those Muslims” before they walked in, calling not for a response to an act of violence in progress, but for a pre-emptive strike against those he feared might possibly commit one. Wheaton took administrative punitive action against Hawkins before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place, forcing any subsequent conversation to take place not between colleagues and fellow inquirers, but between the institutional power of the employer and the termination-threatened employee.

Bear in mind that these are universities–the places that we supposedly set aside precisely in order to creates spaces to inquire into and communicate about difficult issues, to ask questions and seek answers about complex and important matters. But the common element of all three of these incidents is that the institutions acted almost immediately not to ask questions or communicate about hard issues, but precisely to prevent substantive and unfettered communication and inquiry. While Wheaton’s FAQ about the issue asserts that Hawkins’ administrative leave is “…a time for conversation and assessment,” there’s surely a significant rhetorical difference between a conversation between academic colleagues that takes place without constraint and one that takes place under an official administrative action by the institution, and there’s no reason that Wheaton’s administration could not have chosen to have some of those conversations prior to taking sweeping institutional action, especially an action imposed at the beginning of finals week. In the absence of additional information, everything about the Wheaton decision smacks of placing action before thought.

It’s that sense of–quite literally–acting before thinking that makes all these incidents disturbingly strange for institutions of higher learning. It’s as though it’s not enough only to be orthodox; one must also be immediately and autonomically orthodox, with no room for asking questions or communication before an equally-autonomic institutional response must kick in.

To put it a simpler way, these seem like responses born in fear more than thought (fear of what I’m not sure). There appears to be a disturbing insistence on invoking institutional power right away to insulate the institution from ideas or persons its most powerful members think might be unorthodox or dangerous, without stopping beforehand even to ask whether or not that might be the case. In none of these cases was authentic inquiry allowed to precede institutional action. Doesn’t this begin to sound like the story of the student who insisted on not being made uncomfortable by the content of a sermon, not being forced into a situation where he/she must struggle with challenging ideas rather than maintaining his or her own “orthodoxy?”

Who, then, is really insisting on being coddled?

[Note: Lest anyone think I’m merely being grumpy about all this, I’m going to take some time in my next post to talk about what I think might be some better alternatives for thinking about and dealing with such issues in more positive and (to use the the term in vogue in some evangelical circles) irenic ways.]

What is at the Heart of the Gospel? Hint: It Has Nothing to do with Marriage

Wise_Blood_(novel)_1st_edition_coverThe Gospel stands out against morality. The purpose of the Church should be to call the bluff on any attempts of finding morality in the Gospel.

Gerald T. Sheppard

One of my all-time favorite novels is Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Its protagonist, Hazel Motes, is a deeply wounded character who, after the traumas of being raised by a legalistic (and abusive) evangelist and surviving combat in World War Two, returns home with the intention of founding a new antireligion, what he calls the “Church of God Without Christ.” He describes his new “church” as one in which “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Without getting into a full summary or analysis of the novel, what fascinates me about Hazel Motes is that, the harder he tries to repudiate Christ, repudiate the Gospel, the more he seems marked and pursued by it. It starts with the way his “evangelism” for his new anti-religion resembles the very brand of evangelism he so loathes, to the point that others mistake his message for its opposite. It continues with the ways in which grace pursues him in the persons of several (primarily female) characters who, despite the manner in which he pushes them away, continue to care for him. Throughout the novel, he seems “marked” indelibly by the very Christ he says he eschews (the blind preacher-cum-huckster, Asa Hawks, tells him this outright), and Motes seems continually haunted, in the way O’Connor once referred to the south as “Christ-haunted,” through to the very end of his life, to the point that he experiences a salvation–at least of sorts–there. O’Connor describes him in the preface to Wise Blood as a “Christian maugre lui–in spite of himself.

At the end of the day, I suspect that’s what all believers are (I know I am): Christians in spite of ourselves. It is one of the most traditional and conservative beliefs of Christianity that all human beings, no matter how good or moral they may seem, are tainted by the fall. It is even entirely orthodox to believe that no one, under his or her own steam, is even capable of willing his or her own salvation. Human beings, in this view, are too vulnerable to their own wills, their self-interest, their own constructs, to be able to achieve or merit salvation on their own. Even St. Augustine admits that he was unable, on his own, to assent to God’s calling to him, such that that act had to be God’s:

I kept saying to myself, “See, let it be done now; let it be done now.” And as I said this I all but came to a firm decision. I all but did it — yet I did not quite. Still I did not fall back to my old condition, but stood aside for a moment and drew breath. And I tried again, and lacked only a very little of reaching the resolve — and then somewhat less, and then all but touched and grasped it. Yet I still did not quite reach or touch or grasp the goal, because I hesitated to die to death and to live to life. And the worse way, to which I was habituated, was stronger in me than the better, which I had not tried. And up to the very moment in which I was to become another man, the nearer the moment approached, the greater horror did it strike in me. But it did not strike me back, nor turn me aside, but held me in suspense.1

But this, of course, is the whole point, the very center and heart Christian belief, this crazy, irrational, wonderful thing we call the Gospel. O’Connor’s character personifies this quality in frightening and beautiful ways, doing overtly what we all do internally: fighting the grace to which he had already assented. Trying, and failing, to beat the action of grace aside in favor of their own egos. The important thing is that, in both cases, what makes both Augustine and Hazel Motes Christians–in spite of themselves–is entirely God’s action, not their own. Their own constructs, systems of belief, of morality, of religious doctrine–all the things they themselves will into existence and cling to like stubborn mollusks–are ultimately futile. Only the action of grace brings them the rest of the way. And that–the act of God that enables fallen humans to take that last step into a reconciled relationship with the divine–is what we call Gospel.

I mention all this because the ideas of what lies at the “heart” of the Gospel, and what constitutes the source of unity among Christian believers, have been sticking points in a lively (and sometimes acrimonious) debate that’s surfaced in Christian university circles over the last couple of months. Long story short, two members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University) recently changed their hiring policies to include persons in same-sex marriages. On the heels of these announcements, the provost of another CCCU school, Union University, announced that Union was leaving the CCCU, primarily because the CCCU failed to immediately expel Goshen and EMU from the organization over that change. In his letter, Union’s provost, Samuel Oliver, argued that [his concept of traditional] “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel.”2

I have to admit that one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to blog on this matter is the degree to which that statement befuddled and angered me. I had to allow myself the time to quit huffing and puffing and throwing things to be able to write about the matter in a way that didn’t violate my own standards of what respectful debate between believers should look like.

I’ll admit for the record that I think that Oliver is dead wrong. I grew up within the Lutheran tradition (and am still active in the Lutheran church), and the idea of the Gospel holds a very special–revered–place in that tradition. We go on about it. A lot. John Pederson, a Lutheran theologian, Pastor Emeritus of Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver, and a long-time friend and spiritual mentor (not to mention one of my favorite people ever, and the person who introduced me to fine single-malt scotches), kindly gave me permission to reproduce a brief definition of the Gospel he shared with me in an email:

My most succinct statement would be something like: The gospel is God’s announcement of good news into all creation.

  1. The gospel is proclamation, announcement, performative utterance (J. L. Austin offers the example of “I take you to be my wife. . . .”), speech-act (Ernst Fuchs), and as such has more in common with the creation story (“And God said, and it was so.”) than Torah or any other ethical configuration. The gospel has more in common with the jury’s announcement/proclamation, “the jury finds you not guilty. . . .” than any moral aspirations I might hope for. The gospel is not exposition, exhortation, aspiration, achievement, and certainly not any stipulated moral code.
  2. The gospel is God’s action and not mine. I do not constitute the gospel by my performance of it or anything else. The gospel is God’s performance, just as much as is creation, covenant, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Best not indulge human narcissism by suggesting any part of this on my own.
  3. The gospel is good news. It is uncalculated, unexpected, undeserved, surprising. It goes against the evidence, one might say. Evidence for the gospel is in God’s speech, God’s promise and not in any moral influence that may be effected in me. The gospel is not conditional in any way, but rather proclamation, performative, and, as Lutherans might say, forensic.

It is this (to my thinking very traditional and orthodox, and in no way limited to Lutheranism) way of thinking about the Gospel that made Oliver’s statement seem so alien and upsetting to me. To put a particular definition of marriage at the heart of the Gospel is to make a dangerous innovation on traditional Christian thought. To put a human construct in a place that only Christ has the right to occupy. The Gospel has never been a moral code, and has never been about anything human beings do. To replace that traditional idea of the Gospel with a moral code based on one particular (and arguable) interpretation of only a few passages of Scripture is, to my thinking, an offense against the Gospel, not a preservation of its witness. The Gospel is the opposite of any such code, a gift of unmerited grace. The whole point is that we can’t live up to even our own moral standards, much less God’s, such that grace is our only hope. The grace that chases us down–as it does Hazel Motes, and as it did Augustine–and calls for our response, however flawed, human, and inept our responses will be.

Our responses to grace are where things like moral codes and doctrinal ideas–such as ideas about what properly constitutes marriage–come into the picture. They are part of how Christians try to think and act in relation to the gift of grace, but are not themselves components of grace. And, of course, as fallen human beings, none of us can ever get that response exactly right. The fact that our responses are often divergent is a reflection of this imperfection: none of us have the right to claim moral high ground over any other, because none of us can claim the perfect response to grace. As much as I might disagree with Oliver, I have no basis on which to consider him anything other than a brother in Christ, because it is Christ’s action, not ours, that creates that relationships. All we can really do is recognize our mutual imperfection and try to continue, from our confusion and disagreement, to hammer out better responses to grace, and to one another. And we can only do that if we maintain relationship with one another. We’re simply not allowed to walk away. This is why I think the act of severing relationships with other, equally imperfect respondents to grace over the differences in our responses is also unwise–something I’ll try to argue more fully in the next installment.


  1. This is in Book Eight, Chapter 11 of the Confessions
  2. See my colleague Chris Gehrz’ overview of the initial situation over at the Pietist Schoolman Blog

In Praise of the “And” in an “Or” Culture

I was struck recently by A New York Times column by Frank Bruni, anChaucer's Pilgrim Color individual of a kind of rhetoric that’s become a species unto itself in recent years: laments about the state of the “humanities” in contemporary universities.

I found myself agreeing with many of Bruni’s broadest points but questioning most of the particulars he used to make them. Like Bruni, I agree that university education broadly, and particularly in the humanities, is not simply about gaining what might be termed “job skills.” Rather, it’s about training that most important of human muscles–the mind–to be a sharper, nimbler, more creative, more adaptable instrument. It might, too, even be about helping students to create what Aristotle might call “flourishing” lives. Part of college can and should be about “getting a job.” Only part. The rest is about something bigger: building a life that honors and enhances every aspect of students’ existence: mind, body, and spirit. A humanist might call this training in becoming a whole person; a Buddhist might call it training in becoming one with the universe; a Christian or Jewish person, training in the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self.

What perplexed me about Bruni’s column, however, was the repetition of what I suspect has become a too-easy refrain in such laments about the humanities: the idea that the “problem” is the professors themselves, who have allowed their noble profession be become infected by the nefarious influences of an Ugly Thing called “Theory” or “Cultural Studies.” An often-used corollary to this is a concurrent accusation that humanities faculty have “dumbed down” their subjects in order to pander to popular cultural fads, playing to their students as “customers” rather than learners. It’s always seemed a little strange to me that these accusations are paired as though they’re not contradictory–professors in the humanites apparently manage to be too smart and too dumb, to complex and too simple, too theoretical and not theoretical enough, all at the same time.

Bruni recounts the lament of a former professor of his, an expert in Renaissance Poetry (who I’m sure is a wonderful person and accomplished scholar from whom I could learn much; I’m critiquing an idea here, not this individual), that “Chaucer has become Chaucer and …Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

That is one loaded “and.”

It’s used, in that sentence, seemingly, to encompass everything that’s gone wrong with teaching in the humanities. It’s those pesky “ands.” Why can’t we just teach “Shakespeare” and not “Shakespeare and..” Why not just pure Chaucer rather than “Chaucer and…”? Is the “and” what’s keeping us, as the same professor notes, from affirming college as an experience that “develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles…”?

I’d like to offer an alternative view, namely, that the “and” might be the most important thing for those of us who want to teach in the humanities toward the ends that Bruni himself values. The “and” muscle is likely the weakest one in our culture, and as such the most important muscle teaching in the humanities must train.

I might start by pointing out that Shakespeare himself was a particular fan of that correlative: Shakespeare loved “and” so much that many of his most famous lines use it with great intention and effect, as when Hamlet speaks of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or when he tells Horatio that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is this figure of speech that also allows Iago, in Othello, to talk about the danger of expressing the “native act and figure” of his heart, or Prospero, in The Tempest to ask about his daughter’s memory of the “dark backward and abysm” of time. The techy rhetorical term for this particular use of “and” is hendiadys.

The effect of a hendiadys is to slow us down, derail our preconceptions about an idea, and lead us to consider more possibilities in richer and more complex relationships. Take Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” line: the phrase is in some ways so commonly known that we nearly gloss over it, but, as Simon Palfrey notes, a moment’s thought disrupts any knee-jerk impression: why slings and arrows? After all, one doesn’t shoot arrows with slings, and “bows and arrows,” which actually makes a lot more immediate sense, still fits the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse. So the figure gives us some pause: why slings and not bows? That pause leads us to reflect on both words. Slings make a circular movement, whipping around and around until practically invisible, and, when released, hurl a stone that can fell a Goliath. “Slings” functions grammatically as a noun here, but can also be a verb: “to sling.” On this end of Shakespeare’s “and,” fortune is something that whips us around, throws us willy-nilly into the unexpected with irresistible, destructive centrifugal force. The plural is also significant: there are lots of those things whipping us around. “Arrows,” on the other side of the “and,” are something else: arrows are about linearity; they point, fly in precisely directed rays. They pierce with precision. The discontinuity of the two terms on either side of the “and,” then, is what causes us to pause long enough to take Hamlet’s full meaning of the nature of “outrageous fortune:” it’s all the connotations of both of those terms, plus the disruption that happens in our own minds when we try to reconcile them. Hamlet’s fortune is never something we can turn into the easy equivalents we’d like the “and” to represent. That single hendiadys, too, is only one part of a famous speech that only becomes more full of substance and possibility the more one slows down to consider its words.

I might call Chaucer another big fan of the “and,” in the sense that he tends to add rather than subtract concepts. In the Canterbury Tales, we’re confronted by a whole series of implied “ands” in the portraits of the many characters, who, “by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe,” are about to set out on a pilgrimage toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. There’s always another one: a knight, and a squire, and a yeoman, and (a Miller and a Prioress and a Wyf of Bath and a Summoner and a Parson and…) always one more. When they begin their storytelling, one can never only consider that story in isolation, because their stories speak to one another, operating, at the level of structure, in a similar fashion to the way in which hendiadys operate at the level of words in Shakespeare: The Knight tells the first story, and almost everyone seems satisfied, until the Miller jumps in and insists on telling his story, which is in many ways a response to and critique of the knight’s. The next teller is the Reeve, who, incensed by the Miller’s insulting tale, tells a story about a corrupt Miller who gets his comeuppence (in a way that makes us question whether the outcomes of any of the tales has really been just). All three stories discuss similar themes: power, what constitutes “legitimate” authority, sex, what orders the universe. And each story adds a new dimension that both tears down and adds to the perspectives that have come before. The Knight’s Tale never stands as such. When it ends, we consider the Miller’s tale, which is both entirely the Miller’s and a response to the Knight’s, critiquing it and adding to it. The Reeve adds his own elements and responds to both Knight and Miller, such that the whole sequence can only happen as a sequence of ands. Each story must be taken in relation to the others (both the other stories, and the other pilgrims). It’s never the Knight or the Miller, the Miller or the Reeve. As if to emphasize this point, the next take–the Cook’s–is one that Chaucer famously left unfinished. The conversation the Knight starts has literally never ended: it only trailed off into another imaginary “and” that continues to resonate. And, one might say, that’s part of the point: Chaucer points out that the “and” is everything: as different as they are, the pilgrims keep adding, supplementing, but never completely succeed in creating real differentiation or division. They poke fun at each other, squabble, snark, and even come to fisticuffs–but they never part company, and the whole crew continues toward Canterbury together. The whole sequence of the tales is a rejection of “either/or” logic and an affirmation of and.

The last time I taught an undergraduate Chaucer course, my students started a discussion about how experiencing something like the Canterbury Tales might be helpful in their daily lives. There were a number of interesting takes on this, but the overarching idea the students generated (and not at my prompting, but, I think, at Chaucer’s) was the importance, in dealing with difference, to “hear the other’s story.” They discussed how helpful that kind of orientation toward difference might help in forums as mundane as difficult political confrontations on Facebook: what if, they posited, one’s response to an objectionable perspective from a Facebook acquaintance was not to immediately counter-assert, but to ask for a storytelling game, to ask “how did you come to believe that?,” and then to offer one’s own narrative of the same. Wouldn’t that allow for better, more productive, more affirmative communication? What if we all did what we could to turn our own Facebook feeds into Chaucerian storytelling games rather than tawdry political smear campaigns? What could we create? And, if we succeeded, what, in turn, might that help us understand about the Canterbury Tales in its own milieu? What if we brought Chaucer’s and to our own culture (which loves the or a lot more, wanting to separate us into Democrats or Republicans, us or them).

I might also point out that there has never been a time in which the study of Shakespeare and Chaucer has not been the study of Shakespeare and or Chaucer and. The only real difference, in what we might call “traditional” studies of both writers, is that the “ands” were simply unstated. The study of Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and formalism, or Shakespeare and traditional aesthetics, historicism, or textual studies, or Shakespeare and humanism. The same terms go for Chaucer. So it’s possible, at least, that the proliferation of “ands” in current course titles is simply the overt acknowledgement of the “and-ing” that’s always been happening in Chaucer and Shakespeare studies, as well as an affirmation, very much in the spirit of both Chaucer and Shakespeare’s own works, that there are always more “ands.”

The enterprise of the humanities–at least, the part of it that we want to encourage students’ senses of connection to the world and to themselves–is about those “ands.” So we help students train the “and” muscle by showing them the potential ands out there: Shakespeare and film, Chaucer and Psychoanalysis, Shakespeare and Pop Culture, Chaucer and How to I Handle My Crazy conservative/liberal/atheist/religious/tory/libertarian Friend on Facebook without Driving Us Both Brazy? The Winter’s Tale and Why Do I Keep Sabotaging My Own Relationships? The Reeve’s Tale and Rape Culture on Campus. Othello and How to Teach in a Diverse High School. Shakespeare and I Know What I Want to Do, but How am I Supposed to Live?