June 04, 2003
Do lies become true
My last blog about religion and politics and definitions thereof has me all worked up and I feel another rant coming on….. (Thank you once again, Blogdaddy Jeff, for giving me permission to rant!)
Let me start by posing a question: When history is built upon lies, can the mere act of questioning history become heresy? Glenn Reynolds links to this fascinating story of a thoroughly despicable character -- Stalin apologist Walter Duranty. I have known for years about Duranty and his legacy, and I am flabbergasted to see that apparently, the truth is catching up to him. While millions of Ukrainians died in Stalin's government-orchestrated famine, Duranty lied and covered up for Stalin, winning himself the Pulitzer Prize. Now, 70 years later, they may be taking it away:
"A journalistic wrong may soon be posthumously righted."
Score one for Instapundit! But how do you factor in the millions of dead Ukrainians? Should the New York Times apologize??
One of my hobbies is collecting ancient Roman coins. These days, there are few things in life I enjoy as much as tracking down a good portrait coin. I really don't care so much about the value, or the readability of the inscription, but I want the face to look like whatever emperor or popular figure is on the coin. This hobby made rereading Gibbon's Rise and Fall a real pleasure, the coins bringing it to life as I never thought possible.
One thing which caught my attention was the realization that there is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between cruelty and paganism or between cruelty and persecution of Christians. First, I noticed that the Pagan Roman emperors were no more and no less cruel than the Christian ones. On close examination, there are both bad and good emperors, but the cruelty of the former was by no means always directed against the Christians. Some of the cruelest emperors -- in particular Commodus and Caracalla -- not only failed utterly to persecute Christians, but even liked them! This was a real shock to me, as I blithely bought the standard line (or, maybe, standard assumption) that no Roman tyrant or madman could hold his head up without at minimum, massive lion-feeding spectacles or some such popular entertainment involving Christians.
The dread Caligula is not known to have persecuted a single Christian, although in fairness to the man it is quite possible that he never even heard of them. Emperor Nero is credited with horrific massacres of early Christians, but even this appears questionable, if not doubtful. Gibbon points out that Christians and Jews were indistinguishable from each other to Romans at the time, and while Nero did attempt to scapegoat an early sect for setting the great fire which destroyed Rome, they appear not to have been Christians, but rather Jewish Zealots.
This confusion was created by later Roman writers (chiefly Tacitus, the court historian of Hadrian) who decided that those persecuted by Nero must have been Christians, because by the time of Tacitus Christians were considered troublemakers. Gibbon makes an excellent case for the Zealots as Nero's scapegoats. I think he is right, too. The Christians were simply not established enough in Rome by Nero's time for many people to have even heard of them. The Zealots were fanatics who engaged in direct warfare against the Romans, and who were present and making trouble in Rome, so they would have been a natural group for a desperate Nero to single out for blame. Remember, he did not have time or the personal inclination to worry about starting up propaganda against a new sect; he wanted immediate relief from suspicion himself. Selecting a known, dangerous group would make far more sense than going after peaceful Christians who were small in number, and whose obscure movement was in its earliest infancy.
Even more startling is reading that some of the "best" emperors were some of the most anti-Christian. The ones who liked order and justice -- like Marcus Aurelius -- were adamant about the need to extirpate Christianity, and went to great lengths to carry out persecutions. To their mind, persecution of Christians was the honorable and patriotic thing to do.
We come to tolerance. The worst thing you can do to an intolerant person -- especially one who thinks he is better than you -- is to offer him tolerance. They cannot stand it. I am not sure what the reasons are; perhaps they feel condescended to. But the Romans were between a rock and a hard place in dealing with both the Jews and the Christians. It is interesting that Judaism had always a strong appeal to certain elements in Rome, and no doubt this was well known to Jewish thinkers of the time. Gibbon notes that one of the biggest problems was the closed nature of the Jewish religion, which made it quite difficult to join.
Not the least of the problem was the requirement of circumcision. Ouch! The Romans might have flirted with the general mysticism of Judaism (which especially appealed to Romans from the East or those attracted to Eastern religions -- and to them Judaism and Christianity were Eastern religions), but having to lose a piece of your dick -- such a sacrifice would be too much to bear.
Saint Paul was well aware of this, and I think it accounts for his smoke-and-mirrors treatment of it, which is one of the most brilliant pieces of ancient rhetoric I have seen. That, I am sure, did much to spread Christianity, as a form of Judaism for the unwashed gentile masses.
The ancient Jews were locked in a life-and-death struggle against the Roman enemy, and I think this might shed some light on the identity of the scapegoated troublemakers used by Nero as human torches to illuminate his nocturnal festivals. This was 64 A.D. -- just a few years before the Romans launched a major war against the Judean rebels, and if, as Gibbon claims, the Zealots were present in Rome making trouble, they would certainly have been Scapegoat Number One on Nero's list. This was at a time of great unrest, when war hysteria was being revved up anyway in preparation for a major military campaign. At the time of the Nero persecutions, the great conflagration of Rome had rendered many Romans homeless and in despair, and Nero, already unpopular, had no choice but to open his palace grounds as a campground for homeless citizens. This was precisely where the unfortunate scapegoats were burned alive -- so that all the world could see. I have to agree with Gibbon that burning up Christians would not have made a whole lot of sense under the circumstances, considering Nero's already huge credibility gap.
There is, of course, no way to prove this, and all we have are the writings of Tacitus years later. What we do know is that these people in the sect were called Galileans, and that there were two sects called Galilean: one which followed Jesus of Nazareth and the other (The Zealots) which followed Judas the Gaulonite. According to Gibbon:
The former were the friends, the latter the enemies, of human kind; and the only resemblance between them consisted in the same inflexible constancy which, in the defense of their cause, rendered them insensible of death and tortures. The followers of Judas, who impelled their countrymen into rebellion, were soon buried under the ruins of Jerusalem; whilst those of Jesus, known by the more celebrated name of Christians, diffused themselves over the Roman empire. How natural was it for Tacitus, in the time of Hadrian, to appropriate to the Christians the guilt and suffering which he might, with far greater truth and justice, have attributed to a sect whose odious memory was almost extinguished!
I can see why Gibbon was hated as he was....
But there is yet another wrinkle to this, which Gibbon only touches upon. Nero's name had, from the time of his death onwards, become synonymous with tyranny of the worst, most depraved sort. Almost anything he did was considered a sort of warning and example to future emperors of how not to behave. Nero's victims thus gained a certain honor by virtue of having been killed by him. When Tacitus was writing, it was under the reign of Hadrian, who (continuing the policy of his adoptive father Trajan) was quite tolerant of Christians. Christianity was, by the time of Hadrian, considered quite a problem, but one whose solution was considered to be best achieved by a sort of tolerant forbearance, along with constant pressure on them to mend their ways. It would have served the purposes of Hadrian to have it remembered that previous emperors had done awful things to the Christians, which the latter would do well to keep in mind.... But under Hadrian's enlightened rule, this would have been a sort of historical warning.
I can think of another major reason which would factor into Hadrian's ruling class thinking: the elementary principle of DIVIDE AND CONQUER.
The Romans were well aware of how closely connected were Christianity and Judaism. Yet they were at war with the Jews. It does not take a rocket scientist to grasp that anything which might tend to drive a wedge between them was a thing to be encouraged. This alone would furnish an ideal reason to tone down any persecution of Christians during a major war with the Jews, wouldn't it?
But I'll bet that very few historians have considered it. (Perhaps this might bring us closer to understanding one of the original rationales for early Christian anti-Semitism?)
What also fascinates me is that the Christian Church as we know it was built upon -- literally built upon -- not only this historical tidbit, but the gardens where Nero performed this evil deed is the present day location of the Vatican. St. Peter's basilica is built right on the spot of Nero's notorious nocturnal festivities.
That being the case, I can see absolutely no way to revise history -- no matter what the truth! So why pursue a line of reasoning like this?
Because, I believe the phenomenon of bipartisan cover-ups is an explainable process, if only if we can locate and study hitherto-hidden examples of them. In this case, of course, the early Christians (by then a well-established opposition to Rome's ruling pagans) agreed with Hadrian over a lie which happened to serve the mutual interests of both sides.
When such a thing happens, there is hell to pay trying to set aside the official verdict.
In general, coverups do not work when practiced unilaterally, because the opposition has a vested interest in uncovering the truth. However, when opposite sides agree on an official lie to preserve their mutual view of order, no one has a vested interest in uncovering the lie. Anyone who is interested in such things (for the sake of "truth" or some other such imaginary virtue) will most likely never be able to prevail -- so long, at least, as the officially-agreed lie is important.
Over time, the need for some of these official lies fades, and becomes moot historically. When this happens, someone can come along and manage to get the truth out about someone like Walter Duranty. We are not there yet with everything, unfortunately. Modern politicians, like their ancient counterpart Hadrian, need villains and demons from the past (sometimes even of their own philosophical or political persuasion) to make them look good by comparison. This gives the opposition a target at which to tilt regularly, and is considered healthy for all. There being no consequences to the reputation of a dead man, everyone can agree on his utter villainy, without consequences. His deeds become the standard by which all political evil is measured, and the pundits from his side may evoke his demonic image regularly -- not only to show how good they are by contrast, but also as a way of comparing the deeds of the other side to the man they have all officially agreed to hate.
In order to keep this going, those who might have a vested interest in exposing official lies (or quasi-official lies in cases like the Duranty Pulitzer Prize) must be pitted against each other through deliberate smear campaigns and disinformation strategies, often carried out by the disinformation strategists themselves, in what has long been passed off as "journalism."
Pretty tough do that to bloggers, I'd say….
For one thing, authors of bad journalism are no longer in charge of the process!
posted by Eric on 06.04.03 at 09:08 PM
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