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Of Pogroms & Political Theology

A historian of the Middle Ages sees a parallel between hatred of Covington Catholic boys, and medieval anti-Semitism
Of Pogroms & Political Theology

An academic historian who specializes in the Middle Ages (particularly in Jewish studies) writes to me about the Covington Catholic incident:

The dynamics involved here remind me of some aspects of medieval anti-Jewish violence, which is something I know quite a bit about: “You are a member of a group that has nothing but contempt for everything our community believes in, you mock our creed, you desecrate things that make our lives meaningful. Your ancestors committed horrible crimes against our community and you, simply by virtue of being who you are, show that you are unwilling to dissociate themselves from their hatred. Your obstinacy is a proof that you are incapable of transformation. Hence, even your appearance, your facial expressions, expose your guilt. You might not have committed the horrible crimes we accuse you of, maybe there is even evidence you did not — but that is not the point. Your guilt make sense, oh such perfect sense. You must be guilty, because that is the nature of the universe we live in.”

I hate it when people are being anachronistic. Of course there are differences between the two phenomena. We don’t see medieval mechanisms of group separation and systematic persecution (and I don’t think we will). But that does not make the parallels in dynamic less scary, less threatening.

I think people (more clever people than I am) should give some thought to the structural parallels between the theological/teleological relationship of Judaism and Christianity on the one hand and of Christianity and post-modern liberalism on the other (maybe they have and I am just ignorant). The latter is born out of the former, supersedes it, casts away the old yoke, liberates the believer — but the supersessionist dynamic also creates a specific form of intolerance. Seeing the parallel between the two also helps to understand the liberal motivations much better.

Taking the analogy even further in time: are we going to see further splits, a confessionalization of post-modern liberalism?

That’s a great insight. In his great short book How Societies Remember, the social anthropologist Paul Connerton discusses how new social regimes make it their business to wipe out what came before it. This is a matter of effective social psychology. It’s why the Christians destroyed pagan shrines. It’s why the conquering Muslims did the same to non-Muslim sites. It’s why the first Protestants desecrated Catholic churches, and why the French revolutionaries (and all subsequent anticlericals) did the same. Whatever their stated rationale, when a new social order has been announced, its instantiation (we believe) requires tangible signs of defeat of the old. Writes Connerton, “To pass judgement on the practices of the old regime is the constitutive act of the new order.”

His analysis, by the way, is Marxist. I say that not by way of criticism, but rather to give you an idea of where he’s coming from. Connerton describes modernity and its economic expression, capitalism, as a “vast worldwide clearing operation” of cultural memory.

Connerton does not, as I recall, address Christian anti-Semitism, but taking his insights and applying them to the statement from the historian, one can see why the persistence of the Jewish people was such an intolerable thorn in the side of Christians, who came up with a rationale for persecuting them. The anonymous historian above talks about how the Jews’ rejection of Jesus was taken by medieval Christian persecutors as a defilement of what they (the Christians) found holy. Therefore, violent acts against the Jews — who were a living denial that Jesus Christ was the Son of God — were considered expressions of self-defense, and of restoring the right social order.

Seen in that light, you begin to understand why the MAGA hats atop the heads of white Christian boys who had been in town for a pro-life rally became a condensed symbol of defilement of all that secular liberals hold sacred. Why didn’t the liberals in media and on social media rage against the Black Israelite cult, which was caught on film being openly and viciously racist and anti-gay? Because progressivism today is a supersessionist movement that is a reaction to Christianity and what they construe as “whiteness.” As hateful as they are, the Black Israelites do not inspire the same contempt within the mind of the progressive, not only because as blacks, they are favored victims in the progressive pantheon, but also because secular progressivism considers itself an antagonist to Christianity. This is true:


Put another way, in the dynamics of the crude supersessionist mindset, to be a Christian requires hating Jews — not non-Christians, but Jews. To be a secular liberal is to hate Christians — not non-liberals, but Christians. Because in both cases, the “new religion” came out of the “old religion,” and the son must kill the father to rule.

Was there anyone who had less power in medieval Christendom than Jews? The less power they had, the more they had to be hated (in this logic). Similarly, as the power and presence of traditional Christians fades, expect the attacks on us to increase in frequency and viciousness. There must be as little social presence and cultural memory of us left as possible. If there is no shared memory of us, and our religion, then we cannot be part of the social order. This, by the way, is why drafters of the 2004 European Union constitution wanted the document to indicate that Europe went from Rome to the Enlightenment, with barely a mention of Christianity.

What we are dealing with here, in sight of the Lincoln Memorial, is what Connerton calls political theology. The political theology of the ancien régime was expressed symbolically by the archbishop placing the crown on the head of the king, showing the connection between the sacred and the ruler. This is why the revolutionaries decapitated Louis XVI: one ritual had to be negated by a counter-ritual.

It makes sense that Nathan Phillips, the Indian provocateur, went after the MAGA hat confrontation with his fellow protesters to the Catholic basilica in Washington, and tried to invade the sacred space during mass. It would have been an act of sacrilege, and therefore one of political theology. Under secular liberalism — a social order that includes many Catholic leaders (see Darel Paul’s excellent piece today on “Our Therapeutic Bishops”) — people like Nathan Phillips are the bearers of the new “sacred” order.

Expect more of this. Culture war is, at bottom, religious war, because sociologically speaking, culture derives from cult, a system of religious veneration and devotion. This is why the facts emerging from the clash at the Lincoln Memorial — facts that negated the initial progressive reading of the event — did not change the minds of progressive devotees. This is not a matter of facts and reason. They wanted a martyr — a witness to the evil of their enemies — and they manufactured one. They’re still doing it.

Finally, here’s a clip of Phillips’s appearance on the Today show. Here is a man who explicitly lied about what happened, and about his own past. Yet here, this grifter presents himself as a gentle holy man. “To all those who were mean to me, I forgive ’em,” he says. The man is a natural political theologian.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-9-qmN0Hmw&w=525&h=300]

UPDATE: Excellent Andrew Sullivan analysis of the event. Excerpts:

To put it bluntly: They were 16-year-olds subjected to verbal racist assault by grown men; and then the kids were accused of being bigots. It just beggars belief that the same liberals who fret about “micro-aggressions” for 20-somethings were able to see 16-year-olds absorbing the worst racist garbage from religious bigots … and then express the desire to punch the kids in the face.

How did this grotesque inversion of the truth become the central narrative for what seemed to be the entire class of elite journalists on Twitter? That’s the somewhat terrifying question.

Ruth Graham on Slate saw a 16-year-old she’d seen on a tape for a couple of minutes and immediately knew that he was indistinguishable from the “white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s” or other white “high school boys flashing Nazi salutes.” Even after the full context was clear, Graham refused to apologize to the kid, or retract her condemnation: The context didn’t “change the larger story” which, she explained, was bigotry toward Native Americans. She cited Trump’s use of the name “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren as evidence. But using a bullhorn to call Native Americans “savages” and “drunkards at the casino” to their faces a few minutes earlier on the same tape was not worth a mention?

Graham was just one media voice among countless others, and I don’t mean to single her out. The reason I do is because her argument about the fuller context is now the norm in elite media, and it’s the underlying reason for the instant judgment. “Racism” now only means “prejudice plus power,” so what the adult Black Israelites yelled was nowhere near as bad as what a white teenager didn’t say. No empirical evidence could ever deny that underlying truth, as a piece at Deadspin insisted, after admitting that, well yes, there were “four black men who seem to belong to the Black Israelites … yelling insults.” No mention of the content of those insults, of course.

Across most of the national media, led by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the narrative had been set. “I’m willing to bet that fifty years from now, a defining image of this political era will be that smug white MAGA teen disrespecting a Native elder and veteran. It just captures so much,” Jessica Valenti tweeted. “And let’s please not forget that this group of teens … were there for the March for Life: There is an inextricable link between control over women’s bodies, white supremacy & young white male entitlement.” This is the orthodoxy of elite media, and it is increasingly the job of journalists to fit the facts to the narrative and to avoid any facts that undermine it.

There’s a reason why, in the crucial battle for the legitimacy of a free press, Trump is still on the offensive. Our mainstream press has been poisoned by tribalism. My own trust in it is eroding. I’m far from the only one.


“The red MAGA hat is the new white hood,” tweeted Alyssa Milano. In his debut Times column, Jamelle Bouie describes a border wall thus: “You can almost think of the wall as a modern-day Confederate monument, akin to those erected during a similar but far more virulent period of racist aggression in the first decades of the 20th century.” Charles Blow insists that “We have to stop thinking of the symbology of Trump’s presidency — the MAGA hats, the wall, etc — as merely physical objects. They have long since lost their original meaning and purpose. They are now emblems. They are now the new iconography of white supremacy … In much the same way that the confederate flag became a white supremacy signalling device, the MAGA hat now serves the same purpose. It is tangentially connected to Trump, but is transcends him also. It’s a way of cloaking racial hostility in the presentable form of politics.” A campaign slogan for a candidate who won the votes of 46 percent of the country in 2016 is to be seen as indistinguishable from the Confederate flag. This is not the language of politics. It is a language of civil war.

Read the whole thing.



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