History Connections

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As I try to be consistent blogging, I am noticing that there are (at least) two types of posts I am motivated to write. One is the more in-depth post that ends up requiring more research. I am not sure if I am doing that well, but I am trying. The other kind of post is on quick connections I make between different places, posts, or readings. Because I want to say something “meaningful” and “in-depth”, and I have work and a family of six, the “Aha!” moments, the connections, stay only as quick notes in my journal. My busy life progresses, and nothing is written.

Well, today is a “quick connect” day.

I started to follow a blog called Faith and History by Robert McKenzie, professor and chair of the Dept of History at Wheaton College. I read this post about (basically) data mining history with the explicit purpose of gathering ammunition for one’s own viewpoint. McKenzie writes:

“The history-as-ammunition approach views the past as an arsenal, a storehouse of weapons to wield in the culture wars. If you stop to think about it, many of the most controversial public issues of the past generation have had an important historical component.”

This approach made me really consider how I look at history, and my purpose for research. Lately, I read and listen to audiobooks on history for curiosity sake. I do know, though, that I have mined history for ammunition. My oldest daughter is learning formal debate this semester, and see how essential it is to build both an AC and NC, researching all the information in order to build an argument for or against whatever the debate topic is. But those notes can be used in the wrong way. I found the writer’s warning profound: “whenever we know in advance what we hope to find in the past, we will almost certainly find what we are looking for.”

I was also struck by this statement about the irresponsibility of historical ignorance.

“As citizens of a free society charged with choosing our governmental representatives, we undoubtedly need to be historically savvy. You could even say that historical ignorance is downright irresponsible when so many vital public issues involve claims about the past.”

The Connection:

I followed a tweet to this video of Ann Coulter on The View. I thought it entertaining, but I don’t want to discuss the politics here. What I noticed during this heated exchange was the following, and connects directly to the post from McKensie:

  1. Coulter is using historical fact to back up her argument. Just listening to her speak (or anyone, really), there is no quick way to “fact check” her, unless you know the history. Did Coulter mine history as ammunition? I am not saying she is did or didn’t, but the discussion/argument should revolve around the validity of her facts, not “how much do you know about being black”.
  2. Goldberg: “I listen to my grandmother…” Wow, warm fuzzy, but not a great historical source there.
  3. Shepard: “You keep standing in the past, you got to come back to the present.” And again: “When you talk about, you stay in the past.” Coulter: “Well, that’s because that was brought up. It’s just a fact.” What struck me was Shepard’s dismissal of the past, that it has no meaning on the present. But in order to have a meaningful discussion, all parties should come to understand the past. McKensie’s charge of irresponsibility of historical ignorance. Shepard doesn’t even want to know the history.

Katniss Would Fight the Spartans

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Spartans. I think of high school and college mascots, or (mostly) of the fighting elite portrayed in the latest movie 300. This modern movie was a very stylized portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off the Persian Army for days (100,000-300,000 soldiers). They are portrayed as the fighting elite, the best trained soldiers in the world at that time. And that they were.

I just started my new audiobook today, The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan. This war was after the second failed Persian invasion of Greece. Athens and Sparta were at their height then, and since my knowledge of this time period is spotty, I decided on this book. From the introduction, I learned that this war was brutal, and similarities have been drawn between this war and World War I. These Spartan men enjoyed the privilege of being free, but there was also a part of Spartan culture that is probably not widely known. Sparta kept state slaves called Helots, and they outnumbered the freemen 7:1. As Kagan describes in his book, Sparta kept a highly trained and disciplined army. But they were reluctant (in general) to deploy their soldiers too far from their cities, namely in fear of a Helot revolt. As one Athenian who knew Sparta well said, the Helots “would rather eat the [Spartans] raw.”

It is ironic that behind the courage and glory of those 300 Spartan warriors lay 2100 Helot slaves. To draw a parallel between another modern book and movie, rooting for these Spartans may be similar to rooting for the Panem Capital in The Hunger Games. The Capital lived similarly, importing everything from the districts while pursuing a life of…well, not military excellence, but surely absolute freedom. The Hunger Games showed District 12 and it’s poverty, and also it’s hero Katniss.

Hmm…Katniss was a Helot…and would fight the Spartans!

Ok, on a whim I googled “Katniss was a helot.” What I found was someone’s Honors Thesis from the University of Rhode Island. In it, the writer explores the classical themes and allusions found in The Hunger Games. It is a very good paper! Here is something about the Spartans and Helots:

“According to the Greek historian Thucydides, Spartaan policy was “at all times…governed by the necessity of taking precautions against” the Helots. The Spartans constantly feared a Helot uprising, and Thucydides reports that the Spartans devised ways of eliminating strong Helot youths they viewed as threats.”


“Paul Cartledge, in his study of Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, claims it would not be an overstatement to characterize the history of Sparta as “fundamentally the history of the class struggle between the Spartans and the Helots.”

Well, those buff men with chiseled abs are not looking so glorious to me now. I don’t think I will look at them the same again, shown in the context of history.

The Zombie Apocalypse—Useful For Understanding History

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I have wondered for a while now why zombies are so appealing. They began as horror movies, then moved to comedy(i.e. Shaun of the Dean, etc) , literature (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies – ok, it is not real literature…), and even live action running races where some people dress up as zombies and try to steal the “life” flags of the runners. Now there is a show on AMC called The Walking Dead that is drama set during a zombie apocalypse. A friend had told me about the show, but I was reluctant because it was just zombies. Dead people wandering around trying to kill and eat you—so what? This past weekend, I don’t know what motivated me, but I popped it on Netflix. Coming from a pay channel, it is as expected solidly rated-R for gratuitous violence and some language, but it struck a chord with me—it applied to what I have been  learning and wondering about history.

Roving Wars Meant Death for the Common People

Last month I finished the book Peter the Great by Robert Massie. I really knew nothing about his monarch and thoroughly enjoyed the book. I was especially interested in Peter’s Great Northern War with Charles XII of Sweden, which was fought between 1700-1721.  While the Swedes had the best trained military and was feared across Europe, Russia’s army was weak and backward. One of Peter’s greatest achievements was his modernization of the military (including the creation of a navy), and he was able to defeat Charles XII at Poltava. Prior to Poltava, a tactic Peter used to slow Charles’s advance on Moscow was to slash and burn ~100 miles of land to deprive the Swedish army of supplies. Charles then had to extort food and provisions from the peasants. One method was to bring out the family’s youngest child and put a noose around their neck, and then demand the family’s food stocks. The choice for the family became death by successive hangings as the soldiers went child to child, or death by slow starvation. The brutality of this particular example has stuck in my mind.

Wars throughout history have usually meant terror, destruction, death and desolation for the common homestead. Another book I put on my list is on the Thirty Years War, which left Germany desolate. Think of France, Germany and Russia during World War II. On and on, back through history, the violence of man on man has yielded widespread misery for the common man.

Watching the drama and violence of The Walking Dead, I unexpectedly realized the parallels. I think  it is difficult for people living in first world countries to understand what it would have been like to live back then during war. War raged through their villages and neighborhoods. Watching and identifying with these characters allows people to feel that extreme terror and vulnerability that people must have felt back then. Also, I think one can draw a solid moral correlation between these soldiers and the undead. The person who can put a noose around an innocent child’s head to hang them may as well have the same moral code of a zombie.

Stone The Rebel

The pilot episode creates some quick background, mystery and action that serve as a great “hook” for the series. [**spoilers ahead**] My wife and I wanted to keep watching. In the next episode, Rick (a sheriff’s deputy) meets a band of survivors in Atlanta. Right away we are shown a character named Merle, a stereotypical amoral racist redneck. He is shooting zombies for fun off the rooftop (wasting their limited ammo and drawing more zombies to the group). When challenged, he calls a black guy a nig***, and then starts beating him. He puts a gun to the man’s head and proclaims himself leader of the group. In a moment, however, the butt end of Rick’s rifle ends his short reign. “Things are different now,” Rick says, “we survive by pulling together, not apart.” Merle is handcuffed to some piping, raging and cursing, and is eventually left behind to die.

Here is the first of many moral dilemmas shown in the show. Was it right to leave Merle to die? He was a total liability to the group, and I found it easy to justify leaving him. The situation fully reminded me of the early Israelites, when God’s law said to take the rebel outside of the camp and stone them to death. It made it very clear to me how dangerous rebels like this are to the group. Encased in our modern culture, it sounds really harsh to do that to someone. But in the context of real immediate danger (i.e. Zombies!!) it is easier to see that the rebellious nature of Merle will get good people killed.

Whose Morals Do You Follow?

Here is the bottom-line: if the zombie apocalypse hits, and you have a bunch of people thrown together, who is in charge and who decides what is right and what is wrong? This is where The Walking Dead does the drama right. From just what I have seen in the first season, this seems to be a central recurring theme and an important one to consider.

We are shown a lazy redneck just bosses his wife around, makes her do all the work and beats her. Some women want to intervene, but one comments that it is their marriage, “let them work it out”. One woman won’t let it go, though, and confronts the man and he starts to slap her. Shane (Rick’s partner, another deputy) intervenes and beats him terribly. I was left thinking that this guy deserved it, but the brutality of it made me wonder how far Shane would go. Even the women looked at him tentatively.

When there are twenty or so survivors, threatened with death at any moment, do we still let an abusive marriage continue? Does the leader get to step in and exercise justice? How much justice? What type of punishment? Continually there was conflict in the group over what to do-yelling, cursing, men holding each other back. Again I thought of the tribes of Israel and how needed the law that God gave them was. With the real threat of danger imminent (i.e. Zombies!!), I could not help thinking how absolutely necessary it would be to have a higher moral law to follow.

Unexpected Perspective

Overall, I liked the show and it was, for me, an unexpected place to plug-in some historical perspective. Oh,and there were Zombies!!