Posts Tagged ‘Myth’

Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I must admit, I find African-American History Month a bit problematic. Wait, let me restate that.  I find the reception, understanding and construction of African American History Month problematic. I’ll tell you why I feel this way in a bit, but first let me clarify some things.

You need to understand where I am coming from. I am not one of those people (usually white, which I am), who ponderously wonders, “If we have a Black History Month, why don’t we have a White History Month?” If you have ever said this, please stop now. You sound ridiculous, and you have just displayed either your bias, or your ignorance.  I’m also not one who feels African-American history, or Mexican-American history, or Women’s history somehow balkanizes the American people into different, competing groups.  Newsflash! The social, cultural and ethnic history turn of the 1960’s has not been to blame for the racial, ethnic and gender tensions in America during the past 300 years! To believe otherwise is to be either completely ignorant of American History, or to be arguing in bad faith.

No, I feel African-American history month doesn’t go far enough.

The intention of African-American history month is noble, and absolutely necessary. It exists for a very powerful reason. For much of our nation’s history,

A depiction of the 'happy slave' that was common in 19th and early 20th century history texts.

A depiction of the ‘happy slave’ that was common in 19th and early 20th century history texts.

the study of the past has not been colorblind.   It is an unfortunate truth that American historians have played a crucial role in creating, and furthering the notion of white racial dominance.  For years American history texts simply ignored, or worse, purposely distorted the African-American experience for political and racist purposes.  Though this is much less common now, it still exists. In addition, there has been, and there still are many politicians and cultural critics who wish to simply gloss over, romanticize or completely white-wash the deeply troubling ideologies of race and racism that have scarred our nation. Hence, for these people, African-American history itself is dangerous. They want positive American heroics, no matter what. If the truth of African-American history messes with this constructed heroic story, than that truth must be muzzled!

African-American history month is intended to rectify the injustice of past historiographical omissions, and shine the harsh light of facts on those who would forget our nation’s rocky, messy, often disturbingly unheroic past.  I am completely on board with both goals. However, I do have concerns. First,as mentioned above, I think it is unjust. One month is simply not enough to understand how important African American history is to the story of America. It may be a bit cliched to state that African-American history is American history, but it is no less true. This truth needs to be pushed beyond the four weeks of February. I am afraid it often is not.

Second, I worry about African-American history being simplified by how most ‘celebrate’ and receive the month.  I think it is very easy to perceive African-American history month as a 28 day celebration of quick biographical sketches that paint chosen, recognizable men and 2-3-2014-fox-newswomen as a-historical heroes. Of course, it is nice when TV stations provide snippet memories of Rosa Parks, MLK, and George Washington Carver during commercial breaks and station identifications, but, by repeatedly doing this year after year they often provide the public only the very surface story of the African-American experience.  New heroes get added to the American pantheon, but when March roles around, we all realize we are none-the-wiser to the deeper story of WHY these people should be considered heroic.  Americans need to remember the social structures, legal codes and political ideologies such heroes fought against; they need to remember these people literally put their lives on the line to speak out against hypocritical American injustice. They need to remember, period.

African-American history, along with the history of race in America, is crucial to understanding the American story. It must be about more than a litany of individual biographies, and it must take up more than 28 days. And so, over the next few weeks, I will write a set of blogs providing a glimpse of a wider ranging African-American history. These blogs will show how millions of forgotten African-American men and women were central in the creation of American freedom, American capital and American culture. I hope you will think about these stories in March, April, May and beyond.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I have always been intrigued by the First World War.

On second thought, perhaps ‘intrigued’ is not quite the right word. It doesn’t seem strong or descriptive enough.

Captivated? Yes…..

Mesmerized? That seems more like it.

But, why?

Maybe it is because the First World War seems strangely distant and foreign. You may be saying, ‘well sure, we are now a century removed from the war, so it should seem distant.’ But, wars further afield in historical memory seem more familiar, more understandable than WWI. Why is this so? Why does World War One seem so mysteriously exotic?

For me personally, I believe the distant aura of the war must be related to the conflict’s paradoxical uncanniness and absurdity. Though the most modern of industrial slaughters, the war was and is surrounded and shrouded in myths, legends and the supernatural. Myths of the strange and magical were created in the first days of the war, and they endured long after the Armistice was signed. These tales were created by the soldiers who fought, the people on the homefront, the government propagandists and the memory makers in the years following the catastrophe. Everyone seemed to have a hand it producing this aura of unreality.

Painting of the Myth of Langemarck

Painting of the Myth of Langemarck

Some myths were straightforward nationalistic yarns. For example, in the early months of 1914, as battle causalities consistently climbed to unexpected heights, people throughout Europe desperately tried to find a meaning behind the sacrifice of sons, fathers, friends and neighbors. Many people felt the sacrifice needed to be for something larger than individual interests. If such mass death would have any meaning, it would need to be for the protection, or perhaps, perfection of the nation. The Germans in particular told tales that pushed this nationlistic agenda. So, in late 1914, no story held so much power for citizens of the Reich than the idealistic university students marching into the face of industrial battle at Langemarck. Legend had it that twenty-thousand well-educated young Germans not only bravely attacked the enemy at Langemarck, they did so singing rousing nationalistic tunes. This legend of Langemarck became proof for Germans that Teutonic spirit would always, if only eventually, defeat Anglo-French material might. Machine guns could destroy the body, but the German soul would eventually prevail.

However, the Germans were by no means the only ones to look to spirituality to understand this war. The Kaiser’s soldiers may have had song on their side, but the

The Angel of Mons

The Angel of Mons

English were sure they had both history, and heaven, on theirs’. In the early months of 1914, the British public began to whisper to each other that their soldiers were protected from German machine guns not by national spirit, but by national spirits. The Brits relayed fanciful tales that their soldiers on the front were being assisted by the long dead bowman of The Battle of Agincourt. The ghostly bowman came to be known as the Angels of Mons. Obviously, their supposed existence were meant to prove that England could not help by be victorious in this struggle. After all, God was on the English side.

These were national legends that sold better at the homefront than on the frontlines. Individual soldiers often viewed such tales as disgusting propaganda; lies to make the comfy shirkers on the homefront fell better about supporting the war. However, that does not mean the hardened men of the trenches disbelieved in the otherworldly or

Robert Graves

Robert Graves

unexplainable. Over and over, soldiers recorded tales of their run-ins with the supernatural at the front. According to Canadian historian Tim Cook, soldiers’ diaries commonly relay stories of ghostly, uncanny and explainable events. One of the most famous such events was retold by the brother of Wilfred Owen, the great English poet who died
Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

at the front a week before the war ended. Owen’s sibling claimed Wilfred’s spirit appeared to him on a ship at sea the night Wilfred was killed in France. True or not, such stories continued, and often became more powerful, long after the war had ended. In his famous war memoir, Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves told numerous tales of ghosts and phantoms haunting the trenches and homefront.
It seems likely that as the front became more psychologically destructive, such stories became more common.

Now, living one hundred years on, stories of the spooky and supernatural inevitably mark The First World War. It is part of a collective memory of the war. And yet, such legends and myths seem almost unique to the industrial killing of WWI. No other war, in my opinion, has such a feeling of the uncanny or the mythic. In fact, as we drift away from 1914, the wars that scar the world seem less and less mysterious. To look for angels and spirits during World War 2 is laughably strange. To create myths and legends surrounding Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq or the Balkans seems disgustingly absurd.

World War One really did make us say ‘Goodbye to all that.’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple weeks, my wife and I have been devouring the first season of Game of Thrones.  Yes, yes, we are behind the times.  I know the fourth season is currently on HBO.  Please forgive our pop culture delay, and don’t give any spoilers in your possible comments to this post. Thanks much.

Now, most everyone has heard of Game of Thrones by now, and realize that the series is a melange of fantasy/action/drama/political thriller.  The series is set in an imaginary land and time that is inhabited by 1434624mysterious creatures such as dragons and ‘white-walkers’.  But, the show does not revolve around magical beasts. There are no main character elves or dwarves, like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Hutts and droids like in Lucas’ Star Wars.  In Thrones, all the characters are human, and the emotions, the drives, the beliefs are all too recognizable. For a fantasy series, Thrones is strangely, and brutally familiar.  However, this familiarity stems from more than just the characters; the setting, though a make-believe land, feels like earth. The imaginary time period seems like a ‘real’ era of human history.

Game of Thrones takes place in a bizzaro European Middle Ages.

Everything in the show has the feeling of the medieval world; the clothing characters wear; the weapons that they use.  The castles, and/or hovels, characters inhabit.  The social hierarchy that exists, with lords, ladies, priests, warriors and peasants (this is even the terminology.) The political factions that are constantly scheming for power.  All of this, and much more, makes Game of Thrones seem to be a strange fantastical attempt to relive a ‘true’ past. The series is a sort of Renaissance Fair writ large; and writ bloody; and writ sexualized.

Winterfell

A typically medieval scene from Thrones

Game of  Thrones‘  medievalism is not unique. References to the world of the Middle Ages are a common aspect of twentieth century fantasy tales.  The most famous example is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though mentioned previously that Rings was more fantastical than Game of Thrones, what with hobbits, wizards, orcs, etc, the overriding aura of the two stories are more similar than different.  Like in Thrones, knights, steeds, magic and castles are all a part of Tolkien’s fantasy land of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s fantasies are not alone. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George Lucas’ Star Wars, though less obvious than Thrones or Rings, has the Medieval touch as well. Seemingly set in modern Britain, the Potter tales transport readers to the more magical, hidden ancient world of wizards, trolls, castles and ghosts just out of sight of the muggles.  Taking place in a galaxy far, far away on the other hand, the plot of Star Wars revolves around a brave knight (Luke Skywalker) utilizing magic and rare sword skills (only Jedis use the lightsaber) struggling against the forces of pure evil.  To defeat this evil, Skywalker must fulfill seemingly impossible quests. It is an Arthurian legend with a space cruiser. 

Why do these modern fantasy tales so readily depend upon medieval tropes ?  If this question never occurred to you, it is probably because you have always been inundated with these cultural themes.  After a lifetime of fantasy medievalism, we now simply accept the utilization of the historical era’s ideas, language, clothing and notions as a natural part of fantasy tales. It seems so natural in fact, that to plunk down such a tale in a different historical era seems odd, if not absurd.   Imagine if Game of Thrones depended upon Ancient Greece for its influence. Picture in your mind’s eye the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons wearing togas. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

The reason this seems absurd has much to do with our understanding (or stereotypes) of the Middle Ages. Whenever covering the period my history courses, I tell my students to think about what terms and ideas they associate with the Middle Ages. They respond as you might suspect.  My students imagine kings, queens, castles, knights, serfs, etc.  But, they don’t stop there. Some students invariably enter the realm of fantasy.  They will tell me that they think of witches, dragons, magic, and wizards when they conjure up an image of the long gone world.  My students understand these things did not exist during the Medieval period, but the ivanhoeideas come to their mind regardless. They just can’t help it.

My students are dredging up more than just the fantasies of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  Their associations of fantasy and the Middle Ages are much older than those two twentieth century writers. The early nineteenth century, and the Romantic movement is truly to blame. The romantics’ obsession with the Middle Ages as a time of wonder, magic and heroism must be the starting point to grasping why medievalism entwines so readily with our contemporary fantasies.  Responding to the cult of rationality associated with the Enlightenment, the Romantics created a Middle Ages that was mythical, irrational and magical. These modern Europeans created a legendary memory of the Medieval period that lives on even today. Game of Thrones is just the latest rendition.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Perhaps you have heard the name Cliven Bundy lately? Three weeks ago, the Nevada rancher made news because of a stand-off he was having against Federal Bureau of Land Management agents. The BLM had tried for 20 years to stop Bundy from grazing his cattle on federal land. Bundy repeatedly refused, and when the BLM attempted to enforce the law, Bundy took up arms in defiance and was quickly joined by hundreds of proto-militia

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy

members. Or, perhaps two weeks ago you heard about Bundy when Fox News host Sean Hannity repeatedly, and loudly portrayed the Nevada native as an American hero fighting government oppression.  No? Well, if not, then I bet you heard his name last week.  On Wednesday, Bundy gave a press conference that, strangely, led the rancher to pontificate on ‘the Negro’.  Bundy proclaimed:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”…. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, Bundy supporters in Washington and New York fled for the hills.  Senators Rand Paul (R -Kentucky), Dean Heller (R -Nevada) and Hannity went from 29234calling Bundy a patriot two weeks ago, to condemning the rancher’s ‘appalling statements’.  Within a few hours, Bundy transformed from the poster child for rugged small-government American individualism, to a disturbing representation of America’s continuing race issues.

Bundy’s words have led to an avalanche of media analysis.  Much of it is directed towards who Bundy speaks for.  Does he represent a larger portion of America that agrees with his racial ideas, but has too much tact, or duplicity to state them quite so loudly? Such questions are important, no doubt.  But, most such stories are often reticent about Bundy’s actual ideas, and their provenance; their history.

Look at Bundy’s most offensive statement (arguably): African-Americans may be “better off as slaves” than living free in 21st century America.  I assume to many, this portion of Bundy’s little speech is absolutely dumbfounding. The man must be off his rocker.  After all, who in the world would believe that anyone would be ‘better off’ in a state of chattel slavery?

Well, during the last 150 years of American history, a lot of people believed such bunk.  Said bunk was so accepted that it was taught as history to American schoolchildren. Bundy’s words are a reincarnation of a past ideology, and a deplorable myth of the ‘happy slave’ that poisoned post-Civil War race relations.

In the decades after the Civil War (and into the mid-twentieth century), notions about ‘happy slaves’ in the Old South held a great deal of sway.  During these years, American culture popularized the happy slave

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

 historical narrative through films, textbooks and even children’s cartoons.  Though invented during the days of slavery, this notion of the goodness of slaveowners, and the happiness of slaves was part of a larger romanticization of the antebellum South that swept the nation during the decades of postwar national reconciliation. This narrative painted the ol’ plantation system of slave and slaveowner as one built upon social contentment and order.  Destroyed by the Civil War, the epoch of Southern slavery was memorialized as a golden age of social harmony.

Historian David Blight has illustrated that popular books  in the immediate after years of the war played a large role in revivifying this idea.  These books published in the 1880s-90s portrayed an:

….idyllic world of the plantation system, where everybody knew their place, and where blacks were essentially loyal retainers and happy darkies.

In fact you could argue that the reconciliation of the Civil War, and even the reconciliation of much of the bitterness of Reconstruction, in the popular imagination, happened as thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands of American readers, most of them Northerners, [heard] the voice of loyal happy slaves in their ear, narrating these stories about this idyllic, romantic old South that had now been crushed by this unfortunate if necessary war. Oh, and maybe it’s even good — the stories would say — that slavery was ended. It was good for the nation that slavery was ended. But look what else we lost. We lost this ordered civilization, this hierarchical society, this sense of a nation where everybody knew who they were and where they should be. And after all, what were they living in, by the 1880s and 90s, but an urbanizing country, a modernizing country, a complicated place, now full of all kinds of new immigrants…. new ideologies…., and an expanding economy full of technology that people didn’t grasp and couldn’t understand. And when the world gets confusing, and it changes rapidly, they did what most of us do. They harken back to another time. They find another world to live in.

Let me remind you that Blight wrote these words a decade ago; he was analyzing responses to modernity in post-Civil War America.  The idea of the ‘happy slave’ was useful for those who feared the real world in the 1880’s. 130 years on, Bundy obviously took this old wine, and put it into a new bottle, finding some perverted sense in this ‘happy slave’ narrative.

Is Cliven Bundy the only one who holds to such notions?  Hopefully he is….but, I doubt it.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

This past weekend, I felt like I was having lunch with a character straight out of myth.

My dad’s VFW post held its annual summer picnic. It was a nice afternoon of food, fun, and chatting for the veterans and their families. At my table were a handful of Vietnam veterans, my dad included, whom I see every week.

Then there was Jim: a World War II veteran.

Jim is in his 90s, and he can’t be more than 5’2” and 100lbs. Yet, he is deceptively fit and spry. He gets around on his own, he is mentally sharp, he can see and hear better than all of the Vietnam vets, and he ate more than I did. I lost count of how many plates of food and ears of corn he went through.

Jim was there by himself, and he didn’t say much during the meal. After eating, he took off his “World War II Veteran” hat, placed it on the table as if saving his spot, and wandered off. While he was gone, my dad asked if Jim had ever told me his story. ww2 hat

Generally, it seems all veterans have lots of stories about their days in service. But, it seems like many also have their one big go-to story – that one story that, if they only have a chance to tell you one war story, this is the one. Over my years of going to the post with my dad for events and volunteer work, I’ve heard a good number of these stories, mostly from the Vietnam vets.

But, I’d never heard Jim’s story.

My dad explained that Jim and his platoon were marching along a hedgerow in France that cut off line of sight to the other side. At some point, the hedgerow either ended or there was sudden visibility through the hedges, and to their surprise, a platoon of German soldiers (who were equally surprised) were marching along the other side. A firefight ensued. Jim was shot, but he “won” and obviously survived.

As my dad told the story, I was picturing the events like this:

The hedgerow was perfectly manicured and the day was just slightly gloomy. My perspective hung twenty feet over the ground, looking down on two rows of soldiers. The Americans were all dressed in clean, shiny, perfectly pressed green army outfits. All of the men were ruggedly handsome with square jaws and five o’ clock shadows. Jim was now 6’2” and 190lbs, his biceps exposed and flexed to hold on to an oversized gun. The Germans were also well put together, but wearing gray uniforms with bold, red swastikas stitched on. All of them were unattractive. When the shooting started, it was bloodless even when people were hit. Jim was struck, but while falling backward in slow motion, he fired back. He found his mark, and then collapsed into the grass and the camera receded into the sky, looking down as soldiers ran to his aid.

When Jim sat back down at our table, I glanced over at him and had this weird sensation like he wasn’t even real. “A World War II veteran? It can’t be!” It was like if I had seen the kids at the picnic getting pony rides on a unicorn.

I was caught off guard by this feeling, because I was already aware that there are a few World War II vets at the post, including Jim who I’ve run into several times. And, obviously, I know World War II happened and that real people were involved.

Yet, for some reason, it suddenly felt like I was seated at the table with a character out of myth. In the days since, I’ve wondered why. I have two potential reasons:

Reason 1

Undoubtedly, many college students today don’t know much about the Vietnam war. I found this out my first year of teaching in 2007 when I asked a class which countries fought in the war, and after several moments of awkward silence, one student finally said, “America???”

I can’t blame the students, though. This year’s class of incoming Freshmen was born 20 years after the end of the war, and many current students have parents who weren’t even born when the Vietnam War started.

I was born just over 7 years after the fall of Saigon, but my dad was in Vietnam nearly a decade before that. Vietnam always felt real to me, for obvious reasons. I grew up with a Vietnam vet telling me war stories all the time. I saw his pictures – the ones the army let him keep – and nothing about it looked glamorous. Rare were the pictures of soldiers wearing clean, shiny, perfectly pressed outfits. No one was a Sylvester Stalone sculpted Rambo; everyone looked skinny, tired. They all looked like kids. They were kids.

secret-wartime-tunnels-entrance-doverWorld War II, on the other hand, I’ve had limited “real” exposure to. To my knowledge, none of my immediate family fought in the war. My grandfathers were both too young to fight in WWI and then too old for WWII. My dad was only three-years-old when WWII ended and my mom was not yet born. I’ve seen museum exhibits, and I’ve been inside the Secret Wartime Tunnels in Dover, England that served as a military headquarters for Winston Churchill and the British. I’ve had history classes, I’ve read textbooks, I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve worked with history buffs like Michael Stelzer Jocks.

Yet, still, World War II seems so distant and feels as “real” to me as even more distant conflicts like the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.

Reason 2

World War II is such an amazing story: Good Guys v. Bad Guys, American Heroes vs. history’s ultimate supervillain Adolf Hitler.

Oh, wait. There’s more to the war than that?

I know there is when I stop and reflect logically. The horror of the war is overwhelming: the tens of millions of fatalities, the genocide, the atomic bomb. It is hard for me to even process the scale of the war. Thinking of it as real is beyond sickening. Maybe that’s why some American versions of the events are slightly-glamorous tales of Good triumphing over Evil.

My most frequent exposure to the war has come through art. I’ve read Night by Elie Wiesel and Maus by Art Spiegelman. I’ve seen my share of WWII movies. Some art does try to reflect back on the reality of the war, but still, it is art rather than experience. Night

captain-america-poster-newWWII also crops up in not-so-real fictional films like Inglorious Basterds and Captain America. It’s hard to see WWII as a real event in a film involving a shield-toting superhero fighting a skinless, red supervillain.

I’ve seen WWII through a fictionalized lens so many times that when I heard a real WWII story, my mind immediately saw it through that lens.

So, there is Jim, sitting at the table. He is more than 60 years older than me and participated in a war of mythic proportions 40 years before my birth. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, he is one of approximately 1.7 million alive today.

I am old enough to remember the Gulf War. I was in college when 9/11 happened. I watched those conflicts unfold. Like us all, I see people daily who have served in contemporary conflicts. They are real; those conflicts are real. But World War II, it’s harder to imagine it happened when our living links to that event are rapidly dwindling. And it was strange and interesting to see one of the characters in that story sitting at my table, eating lunch with the rest of us.