Past and Present

At the intersection between the historical past and the political and cultural issues of the present day.

Current EventsPolitics

Losing Home

17227429_303

Today, on The Public Medievalist, I’m going to get personal.

First, the news. Today, in the UK, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced plans to crack down on overseas students and work visas, ostensibly as a way to limit immigration. This has been a long time coming; Theresa May—now Prime Minister—openly attacked foreign students during her tenure as Home Secretary. Now, in a post-Brexit vote world, where the UK is violently lurching towards racist isolationism, foreign students are once again within the government’s sights.

A bit about me. In 2003, I spent a semester abroad in London and got my first taste of living truly outside my cultural comfort zone. It was wonderful. It felt like home. So, in 2005, I went back. I didn’t really look anywhere but the UK for grad schools. I spent one of the best years of my life at the University of York, and another four at the University of Leeds. After that I spent two and a half years impoverished and underemployed there. I was unable to get a job in British academia due to a combination of the 2008 economic meltdown, the Tory scrambling of the ways that UK universities were funded, and no doubt because I had to declare my visa status with every application. But even during that time when everything was falling apart, it was home.

Me on the right, 2011. What $100,000 and four years of blood, sweat, and tears buys you.
Me on the right, 2011. What $100,000 and four years of blood, sweat, and tears buys you.

But there were cracks showing. Cabbies who’d spent the past fifteen minutes railing against immigrants pivoted immediately when declaring myself to be one. I was “one of the good ones.” Of course I was; I was educated. I was white. I had money – or at least enough to scrape by.

I had, in fact, sacrificed quite a bit to be there. I took loan after loan – the British Pound was strong back then – and wrote checks totaling about $100,000 to two British Universities. I worked the scant jobs I was permitted to; office assistant here, temporary lecturer there. I contributed. I gave public lectures and interviews for the BBC. I made friends and became a part of the community. I baked, goddammit.

And when I had to leave because my time had run out, I came back to the US with my tail between my legs. Between bouts of incredible homesickness, I wondered what had happened – how I had failed. And over the years since, I have watched the UK lurch, shambling, towards lashing out at immigrants. I kept – I keep – wondering why some of the most intelligent, well-educated people in the world can be so utterly small. Why the same nation who had welcomed me with open arms into their small, idiosyncratic homes—and lives—could also be the one that would look at others like me and sneer. I could see my boss at my admin job—the same one who baked me lemon drizzle cake on my birthday—reading right-wing websites on her breaks.

My story is common. There are 167,000 new overseas students per year in the UK. We constitute a massive part of the UK economy, and its international prestige. We contribute immeasurably to British society in ways less quantifiable or mercenary than that. We become a part of Britain, and Britain becomes a part of us.

But in light of today’s announcement by the Home Secretary, which touts a commission they will be setting up to slash the number of foreign students, it has become clear to me that I never was “one of the good ones.” Sure, my skin color, my (loan) money, my good English may have set me above the rest—according to the Home Office at least. But really, I was just another foreigner threatening to take a British job. That became immediately apparent every time I applied for a job for which I was uniquely qualified and didn’t even get a “no thank you”, let alone an interview. Or when I heard that even the University from which I graduated had two piles of applications—one British, one foreign. I began the process with two strikes against me.

Contrast this with study, after study, after study that shows that immigrants—even less-skilled ones—have a net-positive effect on the economy. We don’t take jobs, we help make them. And contrast this with the qualitative evidence that shows how immigrants make a country a more vibrant, more exciting, more interesting place to live. And contrast that with just basic human decency which whispers—in a very small voice—that people are happier when they can choose their home.

The academic community is supposed to welcome everyone who wants to better themselves. The research community is made immeasurably poorer when we throw up barriers. And  keeping foreign students who want to learn out is tantamount to hoarding riches. The British government may see itself as Smaug, a powerful dragon jealously guarding a sea of untold riches from a hoard of thieves. But this policy makes it more like Gollum, burying itself in a cave to protect its precious—pathetic, sniveling, alone.

I have no answers for this. I do not know how those in the UK can fix this, since today’s announcement is the beginning of the horror rather than the end. But I would urge every Briton I know to fight this government’s policies in any way that they can. Because I can’t anymore. It’s not my home.

read more
Fantasy vs. RealityPast and PresentWhat is History For?

This Conspiracy will Put Medievalists Out of a Job! (No, it won’t…)

time

Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.

But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.

One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:

“What if it’s all a lie?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.

He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.

This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.

It’s a fascinating load of crap.

read more
Current EventsThe War for the Humanities

Selling the Humanities is Not Selling Out

10841964926_196a418811_o

Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up from an article I wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “The Humanities Must Unite or Die.

I recently met a young woman struggling over the decision of whether to go to college. She was enrolled in an excellent program for bright high-schoolers from low-income families, which was intended to give them a leg-up into STEM majors (and then, STEM careers). Any university would be lucky to have her—she is smart, motivated and articulate. She would be a first-generation college attendee. But she was torn.

The prospect of a five-figure loan to finance her education—while her parents struggle to make ends meet—felt risky, even irresponsible. She wondered whether, instead, to take a job right out of high school, particularly since she was unsure whether she even liked the STEM subjects promoted by the program.

STEM has been promoted by programs like this one—not to mention by government programs and presidential initiatives—as the sure path to a lucrative career, despite numerous studies indicating that it is little better than the arts and humanities at providing jobs after graduation. As a result, as college attendance rates have dropped for low-income students, those low-income students who remain have chosen to major in STEM fields far more than the arts and humanities.

The Washington Post recently reported a disturbing trend: between 2008 and 2013, “college enrollment among the poorest high school graduates—defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes—dropped 10 percentage points… the largest sustained drop in four decades.” This is particularly alarming because, “more than half of the nation’s K–12 public school students are considered to be from low-income families.” Ten percent of this population represents a very large number of people, including, possibly, the bright, conflicted young woman I met.

read more
Film and TVRace, Class and Religion

Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds: Bloody Experiments in Impossible History

quentin-tarantino-slice1

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is not a typical historical film. It is certainly an historical film—at least by a simplistic definition of what an “historical film” entails: it is set in the pre-Civil-War wild west and deep south, and it has all the detailed and well-researched visual details—set pieces and costumes—which have become a central defining trope of the contemporary historical drama. That said, at a more basic level it does not have the same relationship with history that most other films given the title “historical” do. Instead, Django,[1] like Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds (2009), re-renders history to match the topoi and narrative arcs typified by a particular film genre. It even goes so far as to explicitly and self-consciously create historically-absurd scenarios in furtherance of its cinematic goals. Tarantino deploys those things for which historical films are most often criticized—unintentional anachronism, historical implausibilities and absurdities—intentionally, developing a sophisticated interplay between the expectations of “historical accuracy” and cinematic fantasy. This is a controversial approach that at once bolsters and threatens to derail his intentions: with one hand, to render a compelling vision of the institution of slavery, and with the other, to smash that institution to pieces.

read more
Education and AcademiaPolitics

Shame on you, Niall Ferguson

o-NIALL-FERGUSON-facebook

A Famous Harvard Historian’s Remarks on Paris Misuse History to Push a Racist, Islamophobic Agenda

Around the world, people continue to struggle to make what sense can be made of the attacks in Paris. An historian’s job in such crises is to offer context and balance, to show how the past helps us understand these events and resist knee-jerk overreactions. In a debate stuffed with ideologues, historians must be among the adults in the room.

Instead, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson elected to throw gasoline on the fires of Islamophobia. In an article published in the Times of London, and syndicated internationally in the Boston Globe, and the Australian, he grossly misuses the past to promote hateful ideology.

In it, Ferguson presents an apocalyptic prophesy where Europe stands as a new Roman Empire in decay. Europe, as Rome before it, “has allowed its defenses to crumble,” has “grown decadent,” and “has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” He is abundantly clear who those “outsiders” are: “they have come from all over the imperial periphery — from North Africa, from the Levant, from South Asia … in their millions.”

Looking at the Paris attacks, he intones: “this is exactly how civilizations fall.”

read more
Museums and HeritagePast and Present

Sculpting Medieval Landscapes for Viking Tourism

7437851212_12e82f4df0_k

by Megan Arnott 

We use so many criteria to help us define the spaces around us: What is the environment like? What are the people like? What can you do there– and what are you supposed to? That said, one of the interesting ways we define a space is by who–or what–was there before us. Cultural heritage can help us label our maps, or help us comprehend landscapes in “new” ways. And as a result of the heritage of a place, we often reshape the landscape in terms of what the environment looks like, and how we understand its function in our lives.  It can even change how we think of the people who live there now– or how they see themselves.

Maybe we should start with this map.

read more
FeminismPolitics

Was Medieval Marriage “Traditional?”

scalia-vs-more-battle-of-the-hats

by Jessica Legacy 

Last week, the Internet turned the colours of the rainbow as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favour of same-sex marriage. The vote came down to five justices for and four against—a marginal ruling over a complicated custom.

The opposing justices formed their dissents around two central arguments: first, on the grounds that marriage should be determined by democratic majority rather than the Supreme Court, and second on the grounds of religious belief. Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 10.02.30 PMAs is so often the case with contested issues that “threaten” “traditions,” (ed.: both of those deserve really big scare quotes) the past was, ironically, both dragged through the mud and then held up as a murky example to refute change. For example, Justice Samuel Alito waved the medieval flag when he argued that “for millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate.” In light of the fact that Alito seems to be calling the past to testify as an expert witness in the trial of same sex marriage, let’s look at what we know about medieval marriage.

read more
FeminismFilm and TV

Modern Rape Culture and BBC’s Banished

Banished 1

by Phoebe C. Linton

Editor’s note: This is a second part of our continuing conversation on sexual assault in the media and in historical realities. As a result, this article includes frank discussions of the depictions of sexual violence.

One of the criticisms of our last article on the topic was that it amounted to “a man writing about men writing about women.” Thanks to Phoebe for offering up her perspective on the topic.

read more
Current EventsPolitics

Qatar, Kefala and a “Medieval” World Cup

1341399-28821820-1600-900

By Laurent J. Cases

In a recent post on the FIFA corruption scandal and the attribution of the World Cup to Qatar, Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel exposed the wrongs of Qatar’s labor practices, known as the kefala system. While his exposition is meant to highlight the fact that the United States should have attributed the 2022 World Cup, a fact that I do not dispute, he nonetheless rightly appalled that a migrant worker:

can live in labor camps that western media […] have exposed as wretched. The work is long and stressful. It takes place under extreme heat and with few safety precautions. The results are often fatal – illness, heart problems, sheer exhaustion killing some of these men. There are falls and accidents because labor laws are almost non-existent.

He concludes, and this is the problem, “The entire thing is reprehensible. It’s almost unfathomable […]. It’s something out of the Middle Ages.”

read more
1 2 3 4
Page 3 of 4