Marc Saurette’s lecture on the misinterpretation of history and it’s use within populist movements formed the foundation of our group’s discussion on the wider role of populism in the creation of the nation state. As Professor Saurette demonstrated, purposeful misinterpretations of medieval history has formed the basis of populist rhetoric which has been used by both modern and historic hate groups in order to stigmatize ethnic and religious minorities. What is often ignored however is that this same populist rhetoric of an ethnically homogeneous population and an “us verses them” mentality has also been an essential element in the creation of the European nation state. Take for example the creation of modern Germany which exists in an area historically populated by a multitude of both German and Non-German ethnic groups which was never a single homogeneous national entity. In the pursuit of a nation state the nationalist founders of modern Germany advocated the ahistorical view of a unified and homogeneous German people which were threatened by their Non-German neighbors, namely the Slavic peoples. This rhetoric is remarkably similar to the rhetoric used by the Nazi movement in Germany to justify their genocidal expansion eastward in pursuit of “living space” for the German people. While the negative impact of this misuse of history cannot be ignored, our group also discussed the role of populist rhetoric and the myth of an ethnically homogeneous population in maintaining stability within a state. As members of our group noted, much of the violence and instability that has plagued both Africa and Asia following the decolonization of the mid 20th century has been rooted in ethnic and religious conflict. This is in no small part due to the creation of artificial states by European colonial empires for the purpose of dividing territory among themselves, which fail to correlate to existing ethnic and geographic boundaries. This is further compounded by the fact that colonial powers often encouraged ethnic division and conflict within their colonies in order to destabilize opposition to their rule. This was tragically demonstrated in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide in which ethnic tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu populations resulted in the massacre of nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The strife that led to the genocide had its roots in the colonial system established by the Belgian rulers of Rwanda which placed the Tutsi minority in a position of authority over the Hutu majority in order to prevent the creation of a common Rwandan identity which could lead to opposition to their colonial rule. This policy of exacerbating pre-existing ethnic division contrasts sharply to the domestic policy pursued by colonial European powers such as France which aggressively sought to break apart local ethnic identities in favor of a homogeneous French national identity in the pursuit of domestic stability. This has led our group to conclude that the stabilizing effect of populist rhetoric as well as it’s ability to induce collective action, is in large part responsible for the reoccurring and drastic rise in both the popularity and scope of populist movements during times of crisis throughout modern history.
During the class discussion we turned to the question of why the medieval era is held as the epitome of the white nationalist sentiment. We proposed the answer that the medieval era appealed to notions of purity for some white supremacists. A perceived pseudo-history, where Europe is ethnically homogeneous, appeals to the white nationalist sentiment. Globalism has been portrayed as the enemy of white racial purity, as the harbinger of immigration and diversity, and the medieval age to them, represents a time before it.
It was interesting to explore the notion that race and the idea of having race did not really exist prior to colonization. In the medieval era, religion served to be the great divider – people did not identify strictly with race, but they did have a conception of being Christian. The idea of Christian vs. Jewish and Muslim has very close ties to the racial rivalry dynamics today. In some sense we have seen social division evolve from being predominantly religious based, to now include racial divisions. The white nationalist fantasy of a homogeneous medieval age is unfounded when one considers the immense territory of the Christian world.
We asked why the white nationalists chose to epitomize Medieval Europe and not for example the classical age and Rome. One theory could be the immense diversity within the Roman world – its inclusion of Persia, Libya, and Egypt, for example. These facts fly in the face of the white supremacist sentiment.
Friday Jan 19th, the Medieval times were discussed with the guest Professor and how it’s represented in Pop-culture today, such as movies, TV Shows, Books and what not, but a major “plot” has been ignored when medieval times are represented, and that is: racism.
Yesterday during the group discussions, a few points have been mentioned about how medieval times are considered (sometimes) to be a great or heroic time for the Europeans, and mostly because it is believed that there were no immigrants, and at the time conquering other parts of the world and the beginning of colonialism were considered to be glorious and important to spread their culture and religion.
Another discussion was held about how Medieval Europeans, who were mostly Christians, were racist towards the Jews and how they were represented in the culture. Jewish men were depicted to be very feminine to a point that many believed that Jewish men menstruated. Racism was so severe that it portrayed the Jews as if they were not even humans, people actually believed they had tails, horns, and big noses.
Then it went from Jews to the indigenous in the “New World”, after that were black people and the slave trade in Europe and North America, then back to Jews during WWII in Nazi Germany, even in Canada where boats full of Jewish refugees were rejected and sent back to Europe. Nowadays it’s islamophobia.
This is important because it shows that with every generation a new “enemy” is created, just because they don’t sound, or look like the dominant race or religion. This (obviously) creates a divide between people, and leads to deaths of millions of innocent citizens that have lead normal lives.
The topics taken up by our group in class was rather ho-hum–not in the sense of it being boring but in the sense that it was all rather routine (Donald Trump, right wing populism, etc)–but something that had particularly caught my attention in the readings was something that had not (in my opinion) really been given enough of a focus, which is unfortunate because there would have been much to discuss. When I had read the Kaufman article, something that had struck me is that whenever race-based, right wing nationalist outbursts occur, there is usually some kind of sexual component involved, the first example being observable in the Ku Klux Klan. Since these are people who take their inspiration from romanticized Arthurian-type knights and orders (Sir Shining Armor rescuing Princess Helpless) it shouldn’t really considered surprising but when the topic of sex keeps resurfacing, one can’t help but wonder. The article later describes the terrorist Dylann Storm Roof (yes, Storm is his real middle name) as telling his future victims that they were (paraphrasing) raping “our” women. As I was reading this, it brought me back to one of my British history classes where we were discussing the Notting Hill Race Riots of the 1950s. To make a long story short, the riots were started in a neighborhood where an influx of immigrants (which is to say non-white, non-British people) had become entirely noticeable to the “native” population. Really, the riots began when a black man was having a public argument with his white wife. A group of people defending the woman evolved into a mob and from there exploded into further chaos. The reasons for the riot given by those who were rioting bounced between complaints about having to compete with immigrants for employment to believing that they shouldn’t have to tolerate non-white men having sex with their white women. For more, see the links at the bottom of this post. I personally find this sexual component found in right wing/extreme right wing populist movements fascinating, even when they become childish and asinine, one example being the alt-right’s bizarre obsession with cuckolding. One does have to wonder about what sort of pornography these people look at. I think it would be worth reading into, this binding together of apparent fear of sexual inadequacy and right wing ideology and fanaticism, in more depth in the future.
Yesterday in class our group discussed the idea of the European Nation State, its emergence, and its effect on Populism. During our discussion we focused on how the nation state in Europe has been carefully crafted over a series of centuries. This is not the case in the rest of the world, especially in Canada, as borders were defined by colonialist ventures, rather than decided on ethnic and cultural lines. This means that in many countries around the world, there are many minorities that do not feel connected to their nation the way the French identify with France. During the development of the nation state in Europe, many atrocities were committed in order to achieve the ideal country in the eyes of the state. Cultural and religious groups were exiled so as to maintain the ‘purity’ of the nation. These acts were atrocities, but a modern audience glosses them over as events in the past that are no longer relevant in a contemporary setting.
We related this to the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar. Myanmar is attempting to expel a religious and cultural group from their country. This act has received near universal criticism from the world, especially from the West as they believe this is a violation of human rights. We discussed how, regardless of the clear violations of human rights the Burmese government was perpetrating, it was ironic for countries such as the United States and Canada to critique Myanmar for their actions despite our own treatment of Native Americans. The last residential school was closed not even 20 years ago in Canada and yet we dismiss this fact and regard ourselves as champions of human rights on the world stage despite the obvious hypocrisy of our words.
We related this back to populism through the idea of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”. Despite the fact that we live in the most prosperous and peaceful time, Americans seem to believe that there is this golden age of American history that has since passed. The best definitive time period we could point to was the 1950’s, a high point of of American hegemony as they emerged relatively unscarred from the Second World War. Despite the fact that the 50’s may have been good for America, this relates back to our idea of the historical skeletons in Western countries closets. The 1950’s was a great time to be a white, heterosexual male, but not a minority woman. When Donald Trump appeals to the public with his slogan “Make America Great Again” what he really means is “Make White America Greater Again”.
This week we looked at the idea of Nationalism and how different groups will use medieval examples as symbols for their cause. Dr. Marc Saurette lent us his wisdom on medieval examples of chivalry, and how the context of the middle ages has made them a heroic symbol. One of our readings for this week paid particular attention to the extremist group the Ku Klux Klan, or the KKK. The KKK is known for seeing themselves as heroes and have adopted the idea of being ‘New Crusaders’, like those from the medieval past.
The first responders this week dedicated a lot of attention to the KKK reading, most likely because it was both the shortest, most comprehensible, and the most relevant reading assigned for the week. With the rise of Donald Trump, white nationalism groups such as this have made a profound return to the public eye. This made us begin to think about our own national identity, as the majority of our class is or most likely identifies as white. In Canada, however, we have a very large multicultural population to consider, many of whom are throughly Canadian. This has lead us to wonder what Canadian nationalism is and if we have one like other countries do. This transformed into our questioning of what nationalism is and how it develops in countries, and what the difference is between a constructed nationalism and a natural nationalism. Our questions kept leading to more questions and our group realized that like our questions, nationalism too has many branches which splinter. There is no one answer to the question of nationalism, but we would love to open this discussion to the class and hear your opinion.
Marc Saurette’s lecture helped to draw critical links between the Middle Ages and contemporary ideas. One example in was Francis Bernard Dicksee’s 1885 painting, Chivalry. Chivalry, which itself was not painted in the Middle Ages, invokes a sense of nostalgia about the period. Chivalry is seen, both rightly and wrongly, as a medieval value. Therefore, in later periods, such as the 19th century, many people invoke chivalry as a medieval value. Dicksee’s painting does this in more than just title. His painting paints a very clear picture of a chivalrous medieval knight coming to the rescue to protect the virtue and purity of the white damsel in distress. This painting, while today historical itself, is hundreds of years from removed from the Middle Ages. However, it, like many other works, reinforces this cultural idea of a chivalrous medieval period that valued and protected white female purity.
In her article, The Birth of a National Disgrace: Medievalism and the KKK, Amy Kaufman speaks to the resurrection of this value. She writes that the Klan harnessed and reinforced an anxious white male chivalry that demanded the protected of frail, virtuous white women. This was a value that had been reinforced and painted as medieval for centuries.
The Klan used this fetishization of Medieval values to advance their racist agenda. As seen over centuries in Europe, nation states based on ethnicity tend to ultimately result in failure (Geary). Therefore if they would like to truly invoke and learn from history, these failures, should logically trump their nostalgia for the Middle Ages.
My name is Meghan and I am a third year student double-majoring in Journalism and History. My particular interests in history are religious history, women in the monarchy in early Tudor England, and really, really old history. That being said, I have studied everything from the history of animals to classics. After my undergrad I plan to pursue my masters, hopefully in Ancient Religions.
Populism has never been my area of study before, however I feel that an understanding of the concept and a knowledge of authoritarian governments and how they rise and function is a valuable tool for any historian.
After the last class’ discussions there were some really great points to take away. The concept most interesting for me was the idea of how things are remembered. It appears more clearly from the lecture and discussion that history has a very large part in supporting ideas whether or not they be good or correct. Using history as some sort of propaganda will, as was seen, lead to some kind of distortion whether it be generalizations or misinterpreted facts. One example that Dr. Evans brought up was how some German people think about a “German Culture” when, in fact, there were times in German history were this culture was very different and diverse -not how they see it as being today. There are many other examples of this that can come up as well including the concept of “Making America Great Again.” There is more to the discussion than just whether one even thinks America is already great but if it ever was (“again”) or what made it great to begin with? Are the “great” factors of the “old” America exaggerated in the memory of American people?
Another topic that was discussed in our group is the use of words such as “fascism.” Often what is labeled “fascism” is not actually something that can be classified as that but rather populism. Labeling things or putting them “in a box” are not ways of fulling understanding what is happening. If everyone goes around calling people fascist, what do the real fascists become? Again a good critical analysis of history can help with this problem because people can then see the different types of fascist regimes that existed like the classic examples of Germany and Italy and then apply that knowledge.
In today’s session we talked about our perception of the Middle Ages and its place in history. We recognised, through the help of guest speaker Marc Saurette, that the Middle Ages is either romanticised in literature and art, or it is referred to as a Dark Age, during which nothing good managed to occurr. Marc drew up a number of interesting comparative propaganda posters from different totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, each of which used the crusades or medieval times as a beacon of inspiration. This is something that I had not come across previously, so I found it particularly interesting.
In our group discussion, we started by discussing the clear continuity that exists between the Middle Ages and the modern era. This is rarely drawn upon but clearly evident. There existed equal problems of inequality and religious persecution that occur today, which is often overlooked when historians reflect on this period as a whole. However, white supremacy did not mean harmony; there were numerous other problems that destabilised society, unbalancing this idealised perception of the period. From here, we discussed the role of nostalgia in creating this skewed interpretation of the Middle Ages. We concluded that countries try to selectively forget history that portrays them in a negative light in order to see themselves as superior to other troubled countries.
At this point we turned to look at the impact of nationhood and tradition on our society. People forget that tradition and Nation-hood was created only in the 19th century, at a time when most countries consisted a numerous different cultures and even languages. Today, those rejecting immigrants argue that they are disrupting there traditions and culture. However, it is a modern idea to believe that traditions stay the same and one nation should speak the same language. This was not the case in medieval times nor in the early modern period. This highlights how people idealise the past to legitimise the past, often incorrectly.
Lastly, what I found most interesting was our discussion on Federico Finchelstein’s idea, that Populism and Fascism should not be defined or confined to any parameters in the modern age. Parties or people often use both words as a weapon to denounce the opposition, rather to portray any substantiative meaning. One should be more hesitant when using such divisive words, as through such blasphemy we lose the meaning and relevance of phrases that have had a place in history.