The “Crying Templar” Meme: Where does it come from?

A couple days ago somebody retweeted this post, which I thought was vaguely interesting and not unexpected. You see this weird medieval stuff from time to time, and it doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense:

(Read the convo thread only if you want a dose of questionable opinions on the crusades; I covered this last February at length)

Then today I saw Dave Perry’s daily column about the post, and it seems that it’s hard to dig up where it came from. Which strikes me as odd. If it’s such a big “alt-right” deal, as Ahmed suggests, it should be getting around, right? But, no such luck apparently.

So, I did a bit of digging. The image seems to have no provenance, except for a post I found on the Google+ page “The Catholic Faith,” from April 2014–so it’s not new. That in turns tracks to an article from the website of the same name. There are two track-backs from white surpremacist sites, both of which have this curious sentence: “This is a meme that probably originated from /pol/.”  I have no idea what that is (dark net?? I plead ignorance here), but it would unlock the mystery as to the origin of the meme itself. [update: my tech-savvy brother informs me that /pol/ is 4chan…so, the murky web…]

The text, on the other hand, proved somewhat easier to track. It seems to come from a now-defunct Tumblr account called “trade network”, also posted in 2014 (as recorded in the attributions in this post). It was re-posted a number of times, mostly on Tumblr, with some blogging as well, in these accounts, among others, usually accompanied with GIF footage of Kingdom of Heaven and titled “for all white people”: here, here, here, here, here, and here (this last takes the post to task). There’s also this fascinating reddit thread here.

So, the image, quote, and description itself aren’t new, and, while clearly responding to the refugee crisis in Europe, don’t really stand out from the crowd of other such “medieval” posts and movements produced around that time (Sons of Odin, anyone?). Matching it with a badly-drawn picture of a crying Templar is interesting, but not much more than that. It certainly doesn’t represent some kind of “new troubling development” in our summer of discontent 2016, and is of minor interest. Unless it starts popping up everywhere, THEN that will be worth a second look.


The MIT Computer Pedagogy Study at West Point: Setting and Significance

It occurred to me that, while part 1 of my analysis of the MIT-West Point study was somewhat widely read, part 2, which delved into the study’s significance, was not. To that end, here are both parts in one post, so that you can read them together. Or you can click here, and save yourself the trouble: Part 1 set out to correct some serious misapprehensions about West Point pedagogy, Part 2 looked at the actual structure and results of the test.

Continue reading “The MIT Computer Pedagogy Study at West Point: Setting and Significance”

National Gallery of Art Revisited: Some Favorites

Facebook tells me that I posted pictures of my visit to the National Gallery of Art today six years ago. 2009 was a difficult year, but that visit to DC for July 4th was a bright spot.

Anyway, reviewing some of the photos reminds me of just what a treasure the NGA is. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Pieter Pannemaker IThe Crucifixion c.1520.Pannemaker The Crucifixion
  2. Anon., often attr to Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun , Marie-Antoinette Marie Antoinette
  3. The famous Napoleon in his Study by DavidNapoleon by David , National Portrait Gallery
  4. Hubert Robert (French), The Ponte Salario c. 1775. I find this kind of landscape painting endlessly fascinating. Robert, The Old Bridge
  5. St. George and the Dragon, English 1370-1420St George and the Dragon
  6. Van DyckMarchesa Balbi, c. 1623. ExtraordinaryMarchesa Balbi
  7. Good old Hieronymus BoschDeath and the Miser, c.1485/1490. Note that he seems to have been a knight. Perhaps a multi-layered commentary not simply on the deadly sin of greed, but also un-knightly behavior?Bosch, Death and the Miser
  8. Saint-Gaudins, memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, 1900Memorial to Shaw and the 54th
  9. CropseyThe Spirit of War, 1851. I want to know more about this painting.The Spirit of WAr
  10. Winslow HomerBreezing Up, 1873-1876, one of my all-time favorite paintings.Breezing Up

Turkey Aftermath: Notes and Articles

In the days after the attempted coup, or putsch, or whatever you want to call…whatever that was…there’s naturally been a torrent of information, misinformation, rumor, supposition, and analysis on what’s been happening in Turkey (including my two cents’). Some really good (e.g. Burak Kadercan, a very astute friend), some not so good (Tom Rogan, for example, is a bit naive). And then there’s Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute via The Atlantic, asking whether it’s reasonable to expect the Middle East to ever sprout secular democracies (he has a good point).

I’m also starting to rethink the proposition that Ergodan planned this all along, for reasons some of the links below should make clear. This includes the behavior the putsch military personnel themselves–don’t watch the video of the tank running over people (it’s not the only video out there, fyi), but the behavior of the soldiers themselves makes no sense given their avowed mission. Anecdotally, I’ve heard through the grapevine that it’s widely believed/known in Turkey that Erdogan engineered things,  and that, as a friend put it, they’re upset that Western media isn’t reporting on it. On the other hand, Işıkara, Kayserilioğlu, and Zirngast present some compelling reasons to the contrary, which make more sense to me–the putschists knew Erdogan was about to clean house, so had to launch the coup prematurely.

Here’s a list of items that I have paid special attention to:

My top picks:

Eyewitness and on-the-ground reports:

Analysis that suggests Erdogan planned it all:

Traditional analysis that accepts the coup attempt at face value:

Financial analysis, because let’s not forget the important question of trade and international finance:



Kindness, Or, What is a Radical Act?

A somewhat different kind of column today, riffing off some thoughts inspired by an article in Times Higher Education. 

I read a great column today by Rachel Moss about the necessity of kindness as a human, a societal quality, in Britain post-Brexit, and the necessity of kindness in higher education. It reflects my own conclusions on life: we must be kind, at the very least. To be so requires cultivating, deliberately in my experience, certain qualities of character, mentality, emotion, and being that aren’t always apparent. Too often we commit the sin of Parzival, when he failed to inquire of his host the Fisher King what ailed him–he was so wrapped up in himself, that he had no thought for anyone else. Conversely, kindness can also sometimes consist in refraining from speaking or acting in certain ways.

What stood out as a bit of an odd note to me in the essay was how kindness was described as a “radical act” and that “our activism begins with an outstretched hand.” Why radical? Why does kindness have to be “activism”? (Out of curiosity, I googled “what is a radical act,” and the results were quite diverse.)

I’ve always seen kindness–caritas, charity–as a spiritual quality, a state of being, which transcends the particularizing labels “radical” or “activism,” because it does not answer to man or any particular cause, but only to that supreme spiritual power, energy, call it what you will, in which I still believe.  If caritas is radical or activism, it is so only in the context of the spiritual contest of good versus evil, which, at least according to my Catholic background, one does not particularize to an individual, because that is playing God with people’s hearts and minds. It is also, again to my mind, an intensely private thing–let not the left hand know what the right hand does, and so forth. To call kindness radical sui generis is to make it an explicitly public act, when, as I’ve told people, that’s between me and the good Lord. Why should one particularly care whether others disapprove of your action? (I’m aware of the counter-argument that Christianity itself was founded on such radical caritas, but there’s more to it than that.)

Of course, this is all well and good for “normal” times–what could be defined as when the public sphere, people’s personal beliefs, and political culture are in alignment. Whether or not individuals harbor hateful, harmful resentment against their neighbors, as long as the public sphere is policed in a humanistic manner and a nation’s political culture confines campaigns to issues and not ad hominems, kindness is not likely to be remarkable.

But when this alignment slips or worse spirals out of control, to be kind does become radical. I was just reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship yesterday, and Nazi Germany would be one extreme example where to show kindness could and in many cases did end up being a death sentence.

When I arrived in the UK the Saturday after the Brexit vote, everyone was rather shocked (or disgusted, or so disgusted they were over it). It took a few days for all the stories of racist and xenophobic incidents to accumulate, and the noteworthy thing was that the “leave” leadership didn’t speak out against them or condemn them. Like, at all (someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I was pretty well connected to the news during that entire time). It was a disturbing feeling to walk down the multi-cultural and multi-racial streets of London and think that there were likely people walking next to each other, one of whom really didn’t want the other there.

In that sense, Rachel Moss is right: with public order out of alignment, being kind to someone who doesn’t look white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant can be a radical act.

Or not, because the authorities have made clear that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated (and also the make-up of the “leave” voters has been caricatured, in my opinion, but that’s another topic). By practicing caritas toward others, you are in fact standing with, not against, civic leaders such as Mayor Sadiq Khan. Even Theresa May isn’t espousing xenophobic behavior, quite the opposite at the moment. So, against what norms does an act have to stand for it to be radical–societal, governmental, political, national? Or only against a nucleus of individuals in a given instance?

I’m of the opinion that not everything in life is activism, although it’s fashionable these days to say that everything is activism and one’s daily life choices cannot be separated from the public sphere. That’s a reductio ad absurdum: if everything is activism, then nothing is. I wouldn’t put kindness in that category, sui generis.

And I wonder what is lost when we transfer the validation of caritas to the public sphere. Kindness needs no justification beyond the transcendent religious or philosophical conviction that it is right, that it is universal, and that it is a matter of conscience. If that is to be a radical activist, then I fear for the state of the world.

Turkey, the Military, Coups, and Democracy: Notes and Some Reading

[Scroll to reading list below, if you don’t want to read the preamble]

So, at the moment it looks like the coup against Erdogan has failed, or is in the process of failing, and my money is NOT on Erdogan mending his ways or adjusting his policy, regardless of who was behind the coup or how widespread the resistance to his (often tyrannical) rule is or may become. [I also don’t think Erdogan planned this himself, but theorists will theorize]

There have been several reactions from people tonight, both public figures and others less public, that have set me thinking. Turkey has been an interest of mine for a while, though I’m hardly  “FAO” (Foreign Area Office) material on the subject; for analysis and insights, see Twitter accounts like Burak Kadercan, Alev Scott, and CNNTurk. Kadercan’s article from September 2015 “Turkish Winter is Coming,” is well worth your time.

Some insightful Tweets:

  • Erdogan loves him some social media when it can help him retain power:

  • Something tells me Erdogan won’t change his tune, in fact we’ll probably see a whole new level of bloody reprisals and oppression:

  • Great thread quickly and efficiently outlining the Turkish military’s relationship to the democracy:

This is where I’d like to bring in a few resources for further reading, because I’ve seen a lot of reactions to the coup that mistake Turkish democracy for some kind of carbon copy of Western democracy. For example, President Obama issued a statement this evening about how the democratically elected government must be supported, coups are unacceptable, etc. This was soon followed by a similar if not quite so forward statement from Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Iyad El-Baghdadi, whom I respect enormously, has made many statements about how coups are not to be supported under any circumstances (an understandable position, given what has happened in Egypt and elsewhere), that this is an unprecedented situation for Turkey and beyond, and so on. He was more on point with this remark:

Here’s the thing:


Well, except maybe bombing Parliament? That’s a new one, I think. And that this was a rather pathetic coup, carried out in parts by young, shaking conscripts

The Turkish Parliament, morning of July 16, 2016
The Turkish Parliament, morning of July 16, 2016

Some folks may not like that short article on Vox, which explains that this is rather typical, but that’s too bad; historically speaking, the article is right. Now, again, the military faction is bombing Parliament, supposedly, so that puts a different spin on the immediate moment, but you can’t just wish away the fact that a) Turkish politics has been SNAFU for some time, and b) the Turkish military has had a role in Turkish democracy that would feel very out of place in the U.S.

So, a short reading list of articles I’ve found useful, for some perspective:

Cizre 2015, Leadership Gone Awry: RTE and Two Turkish Elections. [Valuable analysis of the two elections of 2015, which Cizre, after tonight ironically, refers to as Turkey’s annus horribilis.]

Öniṣ 2010, Crises and Transformations in Turkish Political Economy. [fairly short and pitched at a college level]

Kuru 2012, The Rise and Fall of Military Tutelage in Turkey: Fears of Islamism, Kurdism, and Communism. [Puts military motivations in somewhat deeper context]

Sarigil 2012, The Turkish Military: Principal or Agent? [Highly recommended–zeroes in on changes since 2000]

Harris 2011, Military Coups and Turkish Democracy, 1960-1980.

Varol 2012, The Democratic Coup d’État. [A bit out of date, as events have shown]

Vanderclute 1984: Democracy by Coup: The Turkish Government Under Military Control (1980-1983). [Old Leavenworth study, of interest but less reliable than more recent work.]

Aydin-Düzgit and Gürsoy 2008, International Influences on the Turkish Transition to Democracy in 1983. [What happened after the 1980 coup, essentially.]

Gunn 2015, The 1960 Coup in Turkey: A U.S. Intelligence Failure or a Successful Intervention? [Longer, shows the larger geopolitical history hasn’t always been so straightforward either]

Just remember, folks, at the end of the day, we all want Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s seal of approval:

At least with him, you know why he’s making a historically asinine statement: it makes sense for the present, and who knows, could help shape the new reality.

But in the mean time, whatever the demerits of this current (failed) coup attempt, please don’t fall into the mistaken platitudes of people who are talking about Turkey as if it’s a carbon copy of British or American democracy. It’s not, and never has been. Maybe things are about to change (Erdogan just said he can now clean house), but the military can and has overthrown the democratically elected government in Turkey, with wildly different results over the years. But it has done so largely within the (contentious) Kemalist framework in which governments can be the enemies of their people, and can be removed.

Whether you like that or not makes no difference to me. But stop pretending that this was somehow the end of the world or some kind of victory for democracy. Whoever is the victor, peace, justice, and rule of law will lose.

Revisiting Greenblatt’s The Swerve: The Morality of Scholarship

“Can a book with bad politics be a good book?” An April 26th column in The New York Times asked this question in all sincerity. Most of my progressive friends gave a scornful “no,” and my conservative friends probably would have done the same, had I had a chance to gauge their reactions to it. Since I’m neither a good progressive nor a good conservative, I disagree. An author’s politics can limit a book’s utility but don’t necessarily destroy its usefulness. That is an entirely contextual, and in many cases a personal, decision on the part of the reader.

This stance stems both from a reluctance to judge lest I be judged, but also from the empirical observation that books with troublesome politics can be useful. Robert McNamara’s books on Vietnam have very troubling politics, and yet they are useful. Noam Chomsky’s and Alan Dershowitz’s politics are both troubling, and yet I read their works with interest. In my own field of medieval history, examples abound: Percy Schramm’s politics were questionable (as in, he liked the idea of National Socialism and went on to be a Major in the Wehrmacht), but scholars have been unable to disregard his written corpus, though much of it is now outdated (Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages is largely schlock, but parts of the Schramm/Kantorowicz chapter were OK). Latterly, progressive historians have taken shots at Joseph Strayer for consulting for the C.I.A. in the 1950s and 1960s (the references have escaped me); yet Strayer’s work remains indispensable for those interested in statecraft and a constant source of mental stimulation for me personally (full disclosure: I’m an “intellectual grandson” of Strayer, so to speak). Even the recent controversy over Allen Frantzen’s “femfog” writings (a controversy which mysteriously died out on social media right before the annual Medieval Academy meeting and has only recently been reignited with the progression of a festschrift volume) left most issues unresolved: how many people found no fault with Frantzen’s work until they knew he was posting anti-feminist drivel (even though apparently his general misogyny and other faults were well known)? Jo Livingstone’s recent post captures well the what-do-I-do-now dilemma.

More directly concerned with my own areas of expertise, think about the political, religious, and philosophical background of crusades scholars: Carl Erdmann; Jonathan Riley-Smith; Jean Flori… And yet we still read their works, as well we should. Should I stop reading David Perry’s writings on crusading because I feel his progressive politics lead him to craft an interpretation that is wide of the mark, just as Thomas Madden’s conservative politics lead him to gloss sources in a positive way, again not sustained by the sources themselves? Of course not.

But what about a book that is simply bad–by way of its being factually untrue, philosophically warped, shoddily researched, and dishonestly presented? Can it be a good book then? And if not, what is my duty as a historian and teacher?

Back in 2012, I chimed in with my two cents’ worth on the general medievalist panning of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. At the time, I opined that “its damage will be minimal,” largely because, well, what’s one more book in the “Dark Ages” catalog? Put another way, I’ll wager far more people saw episode 1 of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos than have read The Swerve. And I would suggest that Tyson’s attempt to do history is far more pernicious than Greeblatt’s.

At the end of May, Laura Saetveit Miles wrote a thought-provoking column on The Swerve in the wake of its winning another major literary prize. In it, she drew attention, with great passion and skill, to the ethical dimensions of a book such as Greenblatt’s which is so flawed in its portrayal of the Middle Ages as to be false, focusing particularly on monks, books, and Greenblatt’s conflation of himself with Poggio, the protagonist. The book invents modernity in ways that resemble good fiction rather than history:

This invention of modernity relies on a narrative of the good guy defeating the bad guy and thus a glorious transformation. This is dangerous not only because it is inaccurate but more importantly because it subscribes to a progressivist model of history that insists on the onward march of society, a model that allows moderns like us to excuse our crimes and injustices because “at least we’re better than those medievals.”

She concludes:

There is no agon; there is history without transition.

What I teach, what I hope they [students] learn, is that there is always nuance to history. History is paradoxical. It’s the cruxes that make history spark and come alive. And what I hope they take away is that we have an ethical responsibility to respect belief and not to belittle it (especially if we don’t share it), and that we have an ethical obligation to listen to what the evidence tells us, and not write what we want to believe, or what other people will buy.

As I said in a conversation with my friend Kate, Miles’ column persuaded me that The Swerve was more than a mild annoyance.

But embedded within Miles’ writing is a reflexive positivism of its own, Sartrean in its simplicity–the belief that you  are sticking to the evidence, but they are not. So… What do you do when he actually believes his own book? In his response to Monfasani, all Greenblatt said was “I plead guilty to the Burckhardtianism of which John Monfasani accuses me. That is, I am of the devil’s party that believes that something significant happened in the Renaissance. And I plead guilty as well to the conviction, regarded by my genial and learned reviewer as ‘eccentric’, that atomism – whose principal vehicle was Lucretius’ De rerum natura – was crucially important in the intellectual trajectory that led to Jefferson, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.”

At that point, what do you do? Do we treat Greenblatt as an enemy and target his work as often as possible? If this work is so unethical, and after reading Miles I think it is quite compromised, what am I supposed to do, aside from teaching my students as I’ve been teaching them? Is more required?

I do not think more is required, unless you’re going to argue that Greenblatt’s work is on an ethical level with Frantzen’s writings and, from what I have heard, behavior. There does come a moment when, after certain kinds of behavior, the reservation of “But he does good work” no longer suffices. Personal behavior can cancel out the quality of one’s work. Whether one’s politics or philosophy should also do so is another point entirely.

I think, in the last analysis, that applying a totalizing ethical discourse to scholarship is dangerous and should be done sparingly, and only after considerable reflection. If a scholar politicizes his or her own work, saying in effect “I disrespect my peers” or “THIS is the only correct way” or “All who disagree with me are less than equals” and so on,  I think they take whatever professional consequences come to them (I am thinking of Frantzen and, perversely, a couple of his leading critics).

But I am far less sure about transforming into a righteous crusade the case of a scholar who publishes a deeply flawed book. What exactly am I expected to do in that situation? Wage war against said scholar at every opportunity? Cast their books into a bonfire? If a scholar writes a bad book, and it is panned, yet it continues to receive prizes, perhaps you should interrogate the larger structures of power and the way knowledge is transmitted–image and reality–to understand why and continue to press your case.

To do more than that is to weaponize the scholarly sphere in a way that I find even more ethically compromised than a book like Greenblatt’s; it becomes a zero-sum game rather than a marketplace of ideas, and encourages intellectual totalitarianism, whether of the left or right. My favorite historian, Veronica Wedgwood, wrote of the personal necessity of maintaining a “moral center” in one’s writing. It gave one the point of view essential for effective historical analysis. She had less to say concerning using that moral center to wage intellectual warfare on those of a different opinion, however wrong it might be.

Of course, if you are righteous, perhaps you see no other option. Personally, I’ve always thought a little humility and doubt in one’s own moral clarity goes a long way: nolite iudicare ut non iudicemini.

But I could be wrong…