NEWS REPORT Is America headed towards civil war as many fear, or at least a division into two countries: one red, one blue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Invocations of civil war abound right now, but how should we engage with them? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also on the show, experts have rubrics for identifying the potential for civil wars abroad, but what would they work when applied here at home?
BARBARA WALTER I'm sitting in a conference room in Washington, D.C., and we're talking about Ukraine. We're talking about Iraq, and I'm watching as the U.S.'s democracy is declining.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, historians explain why dismissing 21st century violence as medieval, clouds our understanding of the past and our present.
MATTHEW GABRIELE It's kind of like, you know, when a politician says, that's not who we are. Well, it is who we are because we just did that thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Since January 6th, a lofty mountain of evidence and testimony and analysis has arisen on what took place at our nation's capital. But in his address last week, President Joe Biden evoked one of the most visceral images of the day.
BIDEN Close your eyes. Go back to that day. What do you see? Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol. Confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America, to rip us apart. Even during the Civil War, that never, ever happened. But it happened here in 2021. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As comparisons and warnings of a civil war to come accumulate, historians, researchers, pundits and politicians passionately argue the proposition. You can find it in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times alone ran five pieces on the subject this week. Of course, it's all over cable news...
NEWS REPORT Is America headed toward Civil War as many fear, or at least a division into two countries one red, one blue. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From the far right, the references are grimly enthusiastic about the prospect of conflagration. Here's Representative Madison Cawthorn last August, talking to constituents in North Carolina.
CAWTHORN I guess, you know, if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, it's going to lead to one place and it's bloodshed [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For us in the news biz, this first is a battle over rhetoric. In the current context, is civil war a metaphor, a proposed diagnosis for what ails our country? Or is it meant to be taken literally? In a recent New Yorker essay, editor David Remnick suggests both. I should mention he's also, of course, host of The New Yorker Radio Hour and my WNYC colleague. Welcome to the show, David.
DAVID REMNICK It is so great to be here with you, Brooke. A little weird, but so great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last week, on your show and in the magazine, you took on the potential for an American Civil War with historian Barbara Walter with a book about Civil War and how to stop it. And we'll be hearing from her later this hour, too, because we're doing civil war this week. It's in the ether, but we're doing it with some ambivalence. Did you feel any?
DAVID REMNICK Of course, some ambivalence because the phrase civil war is terrifying. We conjure visions of probably the worst moment in American history, or at least on American soil in the 1860s, pitched battles and 25,000 people dying in an afternoon. But that's not the kind of civil war anybody should be thinking about. The phrase is meant to evoke a sense of sporadic, unpredictable, but highly destabilizing moments of violence that we've already seen examples of. In the modern sense in Oklahoma City, at the US Capitol, plots to kidnap the governor of Michigan. So I think that there are many kinds of journalism, and one kind of journalism is the journalism of warning. Making sure that we as citizens are alert to a possibility that if we ignore, it's far worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But have you ever jumped on board a bandwagon of horror only to find out it was overhyped? I mean, with so much misery and fear in the world, sometimes I fear that pulling that lever is just too easy. I feel the need to do a lot of self-interrogation before proceeding.
DAVID REMNICK Well, I'd remind you of the late 80s. A scientist named James Hansen came before Congress, and he said, We are witnessing the perilous condition that we now call climate change or climate emergency. Bill McKibben then wrote a book called The End of Nature, which was mocked by the editor of Harper's Magazine as infantile and creating undue anxiety. And if we had listened more carefully in the late 80s, when it was easier to fix this problem, we would not be here in 2022 completely consumed with very legitimate anxiety about the very state of our world. When I'm too sanguine or calm as a journalist, that can lead to a kind of complacency. I mean, look at the country's experience in 2003. The journalism as a whole, I'm not saying all of it, but as a whole was not aggressive enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the run up to the war?
DAVID REMNICK Absolutely. I plead guilty to that. To this day, it's a torture not to have been able to punch an adequate hole through the Bush administration's case for war, and the consequences were horrific.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the Atlantic, journalist Fintan O'Toole said that there is a high price to pay for civil war talk. He recalls growing up in Dublin and hearing his father warn that Civil War was coming, he wrote, quote 'Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own. The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They're coming for us.' That year, 1972, was one of the most murderous in Northern Ireland, precisely because this doomsday mentality was shared by ordinary, rational people like my father,
DAVID REMNICK Fintan O'Toole is brilliant. I think so, so much. I try to hire him to The New Yorker many years ago, but I think he's wrong. The reason that things were so awful in 1972 in Ireland was because people were blowing up bars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What caused that? I think he's arguing that this made communication between the sides more difficult.
DAVID REMNICK I didn't think that Fintan made that case very well. I think in journalism a literature of warning is of great value. James Baldwin writes The Fire Next Time in the 60s, warning that if conditions don't improve, conflagration will come. A useful warning that we ignore at our peril – I think so. And believe me, I also understand why it's such a drag. I mean, here we are more than 20 months of living in a pandemic-o-whirl. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country dead, millions in the world. A climate catastrophe is on the back burner. Our politics are a mess, so I totally understand why deepening the bad mood of the country is difficult. But what's the choice? To put our heads in the sand?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't think it's just put your head in the sand or sound the klaxons. I guess it's how you do it. I think one thing that the Trump years bequeathed journalism, because there had to be triage on all the outrages that were occurring, was to report, according to our principles. Something that the passionless cadre of journalistic priests of maybe just one generation behind us would have thought was inappropriate.
DAVID REMNICK How do you mean?
BROOKE GLADSTONE We can use our principles to figure out what is the most important and not treat everything the same? This is something Jay Rosen and others have said. Admit that you believe in democracy, that you believe in free elections and a free press. Report and choose your stories, according to a set of principles and values. I think we have to now.
DAVID REMNICK I agree with that. I agree with Jay Rosen on that. The question is how you go about reaching people who may not agree with you about certain policy preferences that you have in all the rest. There's also different kinds of journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As somebody who stares down a lot of journalism, most of the speculative stuff is a lot of hogwash.
DAVID REMNICK And a lot of columns are repeating the same thing over and over again. There, there gets to be different kinds of reactions to that, either. It becomes an amen corner, where some people stop listening and think that because it's been repeated so often, it can't possibly be true or interesting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what's the use of just that? Again, I'm not arguing against covering this topic. That's what we're just about to do. I just don't want to take the easy route, I guess, it's what I'm worried about.
DAVID REMNICK I don't know the easy route here. To me, the easy route is, and I take it every morning, is to watch sports center. Otherwise, I'll go and insane,
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's not easy, that's just rest. So let's say there's nothing to be lost by sounding the alarm of Civil War. What do we gain?
DAVID REMNICK When we talk about the kind of civil war that Barbara Walter is referring to? What she's talking about is a complex of things that is not day to day necessarily or consistent, but takes in acts of violence or insurrection that are organized with militias that have the support of people like Steve Bannon, like a former national security adviser and wait for it... A former president of the United States, who is quite likely going to run for president again and who shows nothing but love and support for the most violent and or deluded political actors in the country. Now is that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson? No. But is it potentially disastrous for the future of this country and democracy? You're damn right, it is. If the metaphor that's what it is, of civil war makes us pay attention, I think it's legitimate because the facts bear it out. To make us pay attention and become better citizens, somehow. That, to me, is not only a legitimate activity, it's a necessary one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not to succumb to a lack of imagination.
DAVID REMNICK Or not to succumb to the very human desire to look away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE David, thank you very much.
DAVID REMNICK It is my pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. You can listen to his discussion of this topic on his New Yorker Radio Hour podcast episode: How Civil Wars Start. Coming up, would a civil war here, look the same as it does abroad? This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Barbara Walter is a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She specializes in, among other things, rebel insurgency, and in fact, she studied every civil war since the end of World War Two in such places as Zimbabwe, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Syria in the West Bank. Engaging in research and interviews firsthand. In 2018, she found herself on a CIA taskforce charged with developing a model to help the U.S. government predict which countries were at highest risk for civil war. They gathered data on many factors, including poverty, income inequality, religion and ethnic and racial composition. But two factors were far more predictive than all the rest.
BARBARA WALTER The first was what we call anocracy, and that's just a fancy term for a country that's neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. Some people call it partial democracy. Fareed Zakaria has called it illiberal democracy, but those are the countries that tended to be most likely to experience civil war. Turns out that if you're a full liberal democracy, you don't tend to experience civil war. If you're a full autocracy, you're also at lower risk of civil war. It's those countries in the middle that experience violence. The second factor, and this turns out to be even more important is whether in these weakening partial democracies, citizens begin to organize themselves politically, not around ideology, but around identity. So they start forming ethnic or religious political parties, or racially based parties with the goal of gaining power so that they can essentially exclude everyone else. So you could imagine I'm sitting in a conference room in Washington, D.C., and we're talking about Ukraine or we're talking about Iraq, and I'm watching as the US's democracy is declining and we know that it has declined in the last 5 years. It was first downgraded in 2016 because of elections that were deemed not entirely fair. It was downgraded again in 2019 as a result of the refusal by the executive branch to answer subpoenas
BROOKE GLADSTONE Downgraded by whom?
BARBARA WALTER the Center for Systemic Peace, a nonprofit organization that every year gives countries a measure of the quality of their democracy. By the end of the Trump administration, the United States was downgraded to an anocracy for the first time since 1800. And so the United States is no longer considered the world's longest consistent democracy. That honor now goes to Switzerland.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
BARBARA WALTER And again, the task force uses this one dataset produced by the center of systemic peace. But there are at least 4 other major data sets. One is by Freedom House, one is by a Swedish organization that produces a data set called The Varieties of Democracy. One is put out by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Every single one of these data sets, despite the fact that they measure democracy slightly differently. They have all downgraded the United States over the last 5 years. And so I'm watching this happening, and then, of course, when I'm thinking about ethnic factions, are we beginning to organize our political parties along racial lines? And the answer is yes. As late as 2008, white Americans were equally likely to vote for a Democrat as they were to vote for a Republican. That shifted after Obama came to power to the point where the Republican Party today is 90 percent white.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But the fact is is the Republican Party has shrunk. It may have a higher percentage of white people, but it's much smaller overall.
BARBARA WALTER They understand that they are losing. They understand that in a system where one person has one vote, in a truly fully democratic system, they cannot win.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let me ask you about what is to be done in your view.
BARBARA WALTER People ask me all the time like, 'what's one of the simplest and easiest things we can do?' And my answer is regulate social media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh yeah?
BARBARA WALTER And I don't mean regulate content. We should regulate the ability of these companies to design recommendation engines that push disinformation far more than they push real information. We know that this is having the effect of pushing more and more extreme material in front of people, helping to radicalize them. We know that the best place to find and join a militia is online. I went to Facebook and I typed in militias in California and I had dozens from which to choose to join. It happened in a matter of seconds. We regulate food television. We should be regulating this really powerful tool as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm persuaded that there's violence afoot. I'm persuaded that people are organizing. And yet the idea that there would be a long running struggle to put somebody in the seat of power in Washington just at the point of a gun? I mean, we have a military. What would this actually look like?
BARBARA WALTER Challenging the federal government for control of D.C., that's not going to happen, but power is decentralized down to the local level. I could see a situation where, for example, powerful militias emerge in a state like Michigan. Michigan is highly divided racially and in terms of the urban/rural split. Rural Michigan is almost entirely white and urban Michigan is nonwhite. And so you could imagine a situation where those militias begin to coordinate, consolidate and they start pursuing a strategy of intimidation, targeting a minority group or targeting opposition politicians. Targeting judges that are not voting in your favor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But then don't the feds come in?
BARBARA WALTER This is where a concept called leaderless resistance comes in. If you read the Turner Diaries, that is the strategy that they are pursuing. They said, Listen, we'll have no chance against the federal government if we have a hierarchical structure, but if we have a very horizontal structure. Think about it almost as terrorist cells dispersed all over the country that are hard to find, that can move quite quickly. It's very hard to weed them out. That's the strategy that they would pursue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's in The Turner Diaries, the kind of Bible for these groups.
BARBARA WALTER By the way, The Turner Diaries talks about an attack on the Capitol, so you could read about it there as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you worried about inciting panic?
BARBARA WALTER I'm not. If you look at videos of January 6th. People were wearing black T-shirts and black sweatshirts saying Civil War January 6th, 2021. They're organizing, whether we talk about it or not. And of course, if we begin to talk about it, we can begin to do something about it. And in fact, we just heard that the US government is forming a new department of domestic terrorism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's the average U.S. citizen supposed to do with this information, besides lobbying for better controls on social media? What action do you hope to elicit?
BARBARA WALTER Well, you know, I said earlier that full liberal democracies don't experience civil war, strengthen our democracy, demand that our government make reforms, eliminate truly undemocratic features of our government. That no other liberal democracy has, such as the filibuster, such as the Electoral College, such as partisan, control over running elections and counting votes. If the government refuses to make any changes, popular nonviolent protests are really, really effective. There is a professor at the Kennedy School, Erica Chenoweth, who's probably the world's leading expert on nonviolent protests, and she very, very clearly reveals how effective individual citizens going out in the street and insisting that their governments make changes - how often that is successful. Don't underestimate the power of protest.
And then the second thing is: voting matters. The 2020 elections had the highest turnout in something like 120 years. It was enormous. And yet 80 million eligible voters still did not vote. That's an enormous amount of citizen power. So I would say be ready to get out in the street and to make your ire known. And second, go to the polls and vote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your book is called How Civil War Start and How to Stop Them. Let's say the worst happens. We'll see it happening on the local level, we'll see it happening through intimidation.
BARBARA WALTER Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We'll see it happening through the suppression of the vote, which is being directed by Congress, a peculiar locus for civil war, perhaps. What do we do then?
BARBARA WALTER Well, that's a very scary situation. What do you do if suddenly you hear gunfire? What do you do if you try to go to the grocery store and suddenly there's a roadblock manned by people with arms, but you don't know who these people represent?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But don't we have a law enforcement and National Guard and military? I mean, I know the military isn't supposed to be deployed on our soil, but it has happened.
BARBARA WALTER So I'll have two responses to that. The first is that we have multiple jurisdictions here in the United States. My guess is if you were to ask people on the street, OK, who do you think has jurisdiction in El Cajon in San Diego? Most people wouldn't know,
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we don't have to know.
BARBARA WALTER But you do have to know because if you go to the roadblock and they say, you know, the sheriff sent us. That roadblock could very well be run by the sheriff, but the sheriff could be a renegade. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago, three retired generals wrote an op ed in The Washington Post and they sounded the alarm that they could imagine that we are now at a point where our military has become partisan. And they could imagine a situation where if you had a ghost president, somebody who refused to accept the results of the election and you then had a real president that they could imagine the military splitting with some of them supporting the ghost president, some of them supporting the real president. And that's a problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think of the current debate? Are the media addressing the various issues, the controversies, the skepticism, which I think is natural among large parts of the population? Do you think they're being too skeptical?
BARBARA WALTER Pre January 6th, I would have said there are enormous blind spots. I would tell people I was writing this book and they would look at me with pity because they thought I was completely off my rocker. And here we are a year later and it's resonating with people. They feel it. They sense it. Joe Biden is finally aggressively talking about the need for democratic reform. All sorts of people are. So I actually think January 6th, 2021, was a gift to the American people, because it brought what we have been seeing lurking in the shadows out into the open. It made it impossible for our politicians and American citizens to ignore and deny what's been happening on the far right. The rapid growth of extremism in this country, and it's given us time to sound the alarm so we can begin to institute the reforms that are going to save us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Barbara, thank you very much.
BARBARA WALTER It's my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Barbara F. Walter is a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her new book is How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them.
I think it might be time to reprise the sound of anxiety, otherwise known as the Shepard tone, named for Robert Shepherd. It's an optical illusion for your ears. By layering different notes together, it sounds like the picture's ever ascending, but actually it's staying exactly the same, like an auditory barber's pole. I thought about that as the Civil War talk began to peak. The warnings seem to be increasingly piercingly insistent, but is it just an illusion, merely a riff on January 6th, a journalistic trend. Takes on incipient civil war are many and varied, ranging from the belief that it could happen any day to those who call it war about, well, not much. That's how Politico founding editor John Harris put it. The transcendent issue of this time, he wrote, is the belief that one half of the country suspects the other half is contemptuous of them and responds with contempt in return. Seinfeld was not really, as was often said, a show about nothing. It demonstrated instead that with the right characters and frame of mind, you can make a show about anything that might happen in daily life. Donald Trump has shown that you can use the same approach to create a national crack up. The violent rabble that crashed the Capitol a year ago showed that crack ups are fertile ground for crackpots.
Charlie Warzal writes the Galaxy Brain newsletter for and otherwise contributes to the Atlantic, and he thinks that many in the press and political establishment are so focused on the supply side of our information morass, the grifters and the opportunists who produce online garbage and the platforms that distribute it, that they fail to consider the misery that might be creating a demand for it.
CHARLIE WARZEL I think that misery is a really powerful force in American life right now. When you look at the fact that American life expectancy has taken a negative turn in recent years, if you look at the fact that between 2005 and 2019, an average of 70,000 Americans died annually from death of despair, that's I believe, much higher during the pandemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're talking about by overdose or suicide.
CHARLIE WARZEL And we're talking about widening racial wealth gap. There's a number of economic and social factors, I think that are causing people to feel trapped, to feel alienated, to feel miserable, to feel extreme distrust of institutions and experts of all kinds. These are very real forces. They create this feeling of loneliness, of alienation, of misery. And what we do know from the social science of misery is that misery doesn't just love company. It loves miserable company. And our platforms supply a steady stream of incendiary content and misinformation and hateful language. They're also powerful forces for people to organize, find that miserable company, and then also inflict that misery back on other people and sort of get that feeling of autonomy that comes from that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you say there's a large constituency of people that believes this civil war talk on the right and on the left. It's a kind of a game. What are you hearing and where?
CHARLIE WARZEL Well, all grounded in the notion that I spent basically since 2016 looking at the online elements of the far right in some capacity, from the shock jocks to sort of the, you know, the foot soldiers. I've seen them up close. I've spoken with them. So I come at this knowing that there are very real people behind our political rift and discontent. I think a lot of it comes from the glut of content around the anniversary of January 6th, and I've seen this sort of reflexive pundit response to say, OK, yes, it was bad, but let's put this in context here. We're not looking at 1860s, everyone dresses up in blue and gray and meets at dawn on the battlefield and draws rifles; this isn't the civil war. And the conflict isn't even all that legible, what is it that we're fighting for? Are we just driven mad over Donald Trump?
BROOKE GLADSTONE And this was something you saw recently in an article by Politico founder John Harris, but not just there.
CHARLIE WARZEL Right. This week, a New York Times opinion columnist, my former colleague, Ross Douthat, wrote a piece talking about Let's not invent a civil war, where there is none. Are we on the brink of civil war or is this really alarmism and siding on the notion that it is pretty much an alarmist attitude to cry civil war. I think that there's a real feeling around this pundit reflex that this is the rational position, and that those who are invoking that phrase 'civil war' are part of a doomer mindset, where it's sort of in vogue for people to suggest that the sky is falling, whether that's with climate change or an economic crisis, or obviously now our politics and the quote unquote fate of democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you worry that this kind of pooh-poohing, I guess, Jay Rosen, that's the second time I've quoted in this hour, would call this the savvy style of inside the Beltway journalism. That this attitude could quote foreshadow an institutional backlash that portrays those worried about insurgent violence as hysterical neurotics.
CHARLIE WARZEL I think that we're at the beginnings of this, and again, this may all be a reaction to reflections on the one year anniversary of January 6th. But I do think that there is this pundit reflex to tell everyone to remain calm. You know that savvy style. I think it's a very detached understanding from the reality of everyday American life. I don't think that people outside the pundit industrial complex feel very calm about the state of American politics - if they are paying attention at all. There's quite a lot to be alarmed about, and I think that alarmism in general isn't the negative thing that the pundits say it is. In fact, I believe it's a bulwark against a sort of doomer mindset. You're taking some agency for yourself, and I think it can lead to activity to activism. It leads to stagnation. If you just sort of assume that things are going to sort themselves out, it's going to be fine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote something in your piece that I loved because I love when journalists show how human we are. You said you yourself assumed the savvy pose back in 2019 in a New York Times column when you used flippant language about the idea of this country heading towards an 1860s style civil war, even though you were concerned about insurgency at the time. You said that it was because you were worried about sounding alarmist.
CHARLIE WARZEL I struggled with this mightily over the last couple of years. I feel like a ping pong between feeling alarmist and not feeling alarmed enough. And that's that's been very difficult in my work. When you encounter people who really do believe that the American experiment has kind of run its course, and it's time to break that up by any means necessary or that feel the tenants of democracy don't really matter as long as your side is winning. When you meet those people up front and you see them and it just goes beyond our immediate electoral politics to the threat of climate change, we are living in a sort of existential moment, I believe, that it is quite harrowing. But at the same time, journalists are supposed to put everything into context and coolly and calmly explain the moment. That becomes very difficult. So I've struggled quite a bit with this, and frankly, I'm I'm a little tired of it because we spend so much time trying to find the exact right way to frame the proportionality of the crisis that we waste all this energy that can be spent addressing the crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I thought it was interesting how you did a kind of switcheroo and said that the savvy depictors of the moment as overblown, were actually the real doomers.
CHARLIE WARZEL Privileging extreme calm in the face of, you know, an existential threat. I believe that that's the most nihilistic thing that you can do. Your privileging the status quo over everything else and feeling alarmed means that you're taking it seriously. I don't think it means you're being hysterical. And I think if you're taking it seriously, you're trying to find the root causes and you're trying to understand what can help ease some of the alienation in American life, some of the economic precarity that's causing people to run into the arms of people who are selling an anti-democratic message. That reflexive pundit backlash, it's not interested in grappling with that problem. It's more interested in sounding calm and rational
BROOKE GLADSTONE and savvy!
CHARLIE WARZEL And savvy. The piece that kicked this off in Politico suggested that we were in a Seinfeldian Civil War about nothing, 'who can even say what it is that we're fighting over?.' And I think that that's bogus. There are so many reasons why Americans are alienated and frustrated, feel disempowered and angry, and I think that dismissing all of that with a kind of 30,000 foot view of people are mad because Donald Trump. I think that's the doomer path, because it suggests you don't want to engage seriously with the world around you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
CHARLIE WARZEL Thank you as always for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charlie Warzel writes Galaxy Brain, a newsletter about technology, media and politics. He's also a contributing writer to The Atlantic. Coming up, the consequences of thoroughly misunderstanding the past when assessing the present, and I'm talking about the way distant past. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We focus a lot on history on the program and what it can teach us. This hour you've heard how careful attention to prior conflicts could protect America from possible catastrophe. But history badly told can also mislead us. Case in point today, when we encounter the medieval world, it's mostly a dark time, unenlightened by reason, but also literally gloomy – all bare stone and gray skies. We know it is a brutal time dominated by white men with mighty steeds and flashing swords, or drenched in blood by marauding vikings, as rendered on the History Channel – with a Netflix spinoff coming soon.
VIKING I’ve been tortured, good as carpenter. And guess what? So have I [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The dark ages have long been a prime setting for fantasy, as on Game of Thrones.
MORMONT A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in their new book, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, historians Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry trace the harm of the Myth of the Dark Ages and illuminate the medieval stories that have mostly escaped our modern gaze. Welcome to On the Media, Matt and David.
DAVID F PERRY Nice to be here.
MATTHEW GABRIELE Thanks so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your book, you write about the tendency to kick a current problem back into the past by identifying things like terrorism, the death penalty, even pandemic mismanagement as medieval. It's a way of bolstering our 21st century sense of superiority.
DAVID F PERRY This is David, and I'll jump in. There's little examples and there's big examples. There was a funny story calling the process of getting a driver's license in Russia medieval. I mean, it's literally to operate a car. They mean it's really complicated bureaucracy, which is really not the medieval bureaucratic state. And then there's a lot of things when we get kind of violence or barbarism that become categorized as medieval, and it suggests that this 1000-year period, let's say in Europe, was more violent or more barbaric than something else. So it was like when President Trump would call ISIS medieval or when people talk about war as medieval or anything else, you know, before, let's say, 400 C.E. in Europe, there was lots of war and violence and torture, and afterwards there was lots of violence and torture. And in some ways, the power of the mechanized world has only enhanced the ability for people to do harm to each other. Imposing distance between us and these things you don't like by calling them medieval. It seems to me it's harder for us to understand what's really going on and address the problems now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So by calling something medieval and adopting that kind of fatalism, you're like the 40-year-old kid who's still blaming his parents.
MATTHEW GABRIELE Yeah, this is Matt. It's kind of like, you know, when a politician says, that's not who we are. Well, it is who we are because we just did that thing. You're trying to give a very simplistic explanation and say, you know, this is an aberration, so we don't actually have to pay attention to why it's happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm curious, though, some of us think of it as a brutal and a dark, horrible time. But the people who sported symbols of the Crusades at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 think of it as a glorious time.
MATTHEW GABRIELE This image of medieval Europe that exists in the popular imagination is kind of like a cafeteria, right? As you could kind of pick and choose what you like from it, and then you bring it into the modern age and you apply it however you like. So it exists as both dark and gloomy and as a glorious past that needs to be resurrected. Game of Thrones is kind of a great example. We know it as medieval because there's knights on horseback. There's castles. We know it's medieval also because of its barbarism, because it was filled with sexual violence, with people being cruel to one another. And that can be depending upon your modern politics. How you think about the world today. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. For these white supremacists who bring these narratives into the present. It's something to be valorize, right, because they associate themselves not with the people who are being persecuted, but the persecutors, and they want to place themselves in that space once more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote It's not a coincidence that the members of the Ku Klux Klan called themselves knights. Whenever you find white supremacists, you'll find medievalism and you'll almost always find murder.
DAVID F PERRY Part of the job of the historian, I think, is to think about what story is being told and why is that story being told this way? Who does it serve? Who does it harm? And so in the 19th century, we have people who are inventing the modern discipline of history in Europe, looking out at the imperial conquest and coming up with a historical narrative to explain almost like a. So story how they got here and why it was good, they brought in relatively modern concepts, their own ideas of nationalism and scientific racism, a way of explaining the world to build racial hierarchies with whiteness at the top.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talk about the term, 'the West' and this so-called clash of civilizations. You wrote that events leading to the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 had been seen as a particular flashpoint in a clash of civilizations and unending war between Islam and the West – which really means Christianity. I mean, this clash of civilization notion you can see that in newspapers every day.
MATTHEW GABRIELE If anything haunts us in the modern world, it is this ghost of a Clash of Civilizations narrative. It's actually a very modern concept to kind of explain in the 80s and 90s the breakdown between what they saw as kind of west and east, which kind of meant the Islamic world. They look back for origin points, and one of the things that they used to point to was the Crusades. They use that justification, in their words, kind of the violent expansion of Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula in the conquest of the Mediterranean world from the Romans and the 7th century, and go on from there. All these historical moments, while we're not trying to deny, of course, that there was horrific violence that occurred between groups of Christians and Muslims throughout the European middle ages. There's a specific reason what we call the first crusade happened in 1095, not in 1050 or the 800s or the 1200s. And that had to do with a particular political and cultural and religious context of Europe and the papacy and its relationship to various kings and stuff like that. Those historical moments need to be understood in their context, right. Doing that breaks this idea that there's an unbroken chain of only violence that's existed between the Christian and Islamic world that stretches again from the very birth of Islam until today. Because in those 'in-between' spaces, you see a lot of different relationships and a lot of real possible worlds that emerge from them. And what I mean by that is that even on the First Crusade, which was launched in 10'95 when Pope Urban the second calls for a holy war to take Jerusalem from the Muslims, and it very improbably actually happens in 1099. The Christians take the city and massacre many of the inhabitants there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seems so irrational, even as you painted in the book.
MATTHEW GABRIELE Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This war that was distant to the people who were preparing to fight it, what they imagined as the place they sought to conquer was a place that didn't really exist.
MATTHEW GABRIELE Sure, many of the people who had participated in this crusade probably had never met a Muslim in their entire lives before then, but they knew it was an existential enemy because it had been created in their mind as such, and that was enough for them to march out to kill people they had never met and probably never heard of before. I mean, this is not foreign to the modern world. The idea that, you know, people could do things for abstract notions like nationalism. If you think about it kind of at the macro level, it shows that you know, that idea can be incredibly powerful. But if you break it down a little bit, it also shows how permeable it is. If that makes sense because even along the way, as the Crusaders are marching east, you know, to kill people in a war, they're making alliances with other Muslim groups.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You guys wrote that by painting the Middle Ages as hopelessly terrible, bloody and so on, that we adopt a fatalism. We miss the moments in medieval times when things could have gone in a different direction, when things could have been better. How so? And what's the impact of missing that?
DAVID F PERRY What we don't want to do is adopt a fatalism that a terrible event had to happen, or that when something non terrible happens, that it was random or irrelevant. But to engage it with all the complexity and nuance that we think is in fact true to how things play out, and that can be hard across a thousand years. But there are these moments where contingency pops up. When I like to talk about early in the book is a moment in which a Roman general from Constantinople, we can call him a Byzantine general, is offered the title of Emperor in Italy, and this is 30 or 40 years after the Western Roman Empire has technically fallen, according to the narrative, the dark ages has begun. And he was offered this title and he could have taken it, and then we'd have an entirely different story to tell. He didn't take it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We'd still have a Roman Empire technically.
DAVID F PERRY I mean, we certainly would have had another maybe century. I don't know, maybe two of having a pretty clearly defined Roman Empire in Italy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's talk about the bright ages. It begins with a striking scene plucked from the year 430 on the east coast of Italy. Artists are pressing shards of glass infused with the blue of lapis lazuli into a ceiling. Turning it into the richest of blue skies. Why do we associate medieval times with a dull stone wall rather than with a luminous mosaic?
DAVID F PERRY Matt usually says, but I'm going to steal it from him. They lived in color. They did not live in a black and white world, and in some cases, the colors on the stones have faded. And in other cases, we just somehow don't look at colors that are left. We've worked very hard to not write a Pollyanna version of the European Middle Ages. Blood is bright, red fire can illuminate, but it also could burn books, and we've tried to work within that dichotomy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We don't generally associate medieval times with democracy. Is that because there wasn't any?
DAVID F PERRY There was lots of democracy, and we're still surrounded by medieval democracy, today. Medieval people like to form associations with each other of different sorts. You know, fraternal organizations. You would think like the Elks Club, but also trade organizations. You can think unions, church communities, they would get together. They would write often really complicated bylaws, and they would vote on stuff. There are medieval governments that were Democratic. Italian cities voted for mayors, they voted for aldermen. So the formal trappings of governmental democracy absolutely existed. But it's much deeper than that. Medieval people love to vote. And every university that has a faculty Senate is fundamentally reenacting a medieval process. And if you start looking within your social clubs or within your unions or any places like that where there's bylaws and voting, I would encourage people to see that as fundamentally medieval in the best possible way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, I mean, it wasn't a universal franchise.
DAVID F PERRY But when is it? When, when and where in human history is it really a universal franchise?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah.
DAVID F PERRY There's always a definition of who gets to be a citizen and who doesn't. What ages, what genders. I like living in a society that is a much more expansive notion of the franchise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For the time being...
DAVID F PERRY For the time being right, I hope we can defend that. But you know, medieval Venice, which is the city that I study, there are a lot of men in that city who voted for their government, and certainly it was at least as representative as something like ancient Athens. We don't just get to write medieval Venice out of the Middle Ages because it doesn't conveniently fit the model of kings and queens and men with sticks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm curious, though, if we really did as a culture, understand the period as you do. What do we stand to gain?
MATTHEW GABRIELE That's the million dollar question, right? That's kind of the ‘so what’ question. The importance of thinking about history, as David said earlier as one of contingency, really demonstrates that although structures play a role, there's a limited number of things we can do sometimes in our society. We still do have choice. You know, political budget is a certain number of dollars. We can put it on X or we can put it on Y, you know, we've made a choice. That's not a foreordained conclusion. So if we're talking about this idea of the clash of civilizations, if we focus on the reason that people chose violence in certain cases but chose understanding or respect in other cases, those can be models for how we relate to interreligious tradition, relationships for the future. We're not constrained by the actions of the past when people are telling you that the past is very simple, that you can draw a straight line from X until Y in the modern day, they're selling something and we have to ask, what are they selling and why are they selling it? And what if we look at it from a different perspective? Does that upend the entire story that they're trying to tell in the entire product that they're trying to peddle?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry are the authors of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. Thank you very much.
MATTHEW GABRIELE Our pleasure.
DAVID F PERRY Really just a joy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's the show this week. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer. This week was Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.