Sometime during the year 541, a few rats found their way into Byzantium. Soon more would arrive in the city. Whether they came from ships unloading cargo in Constantinople’s bay, or overland in carts bringing goods from points further east, the rodents carried fleas harboring the Yersina pestis bacterium. Byzantium’s citizens, ruled over by the increasingly erratic Justinian, had heard accounts of the plague as it struck down other nations first. The historian Procopius, who was witness to the ensuing pestilence, writes in his History of the Wars that the resultant disease “seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight… spreading in either direction out to the ends of this world, as if fearing some corner of the earth might escape it.”
Years and decades from now, it’s not improbable that the January 31st scheduling confluence of both Great Britain’s official exit from the European Union and the Senate’s vote to dismiss witness testimony in the Donald Trump impeachment “trial” will mark that date as a significant nadir in trans-Atlantic democracy. A date that will live in infamy, if you will, or perhaps rather “perfidy” as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer admirably put it. The Senate Republicans’ entirely craven, self-serving, undignified, and hypocritical vote to shield their president from any sort of examination is entirely unsurprising, though somehow still shocking.
Fashionable conservatives like NYT's Ross Douthat love to prescribe solutions to 'problems' in academia. Here's what they get wrong
Fourteen years ago--four before I would enter a PhD program in English--the New York Book Review Classics rereleased a slim novel entitled Stoner that was first published in 1965 by an almost entirely forgotten writer named John Williams. Like many books in the (excellent) NYBRC series, it took awhile for readers to come back to Stoner, but by 2012 when I was studying for my comprehensive examinations in Renaissance poetry, this book by a man who died in 1994 became an unlikely international hit, lauded by some critics as one of the most perfect novels ever written. What defines Stoner, as Williams writes, is the “love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print.”
Perdition’s antechamber is the circle known as Limbo, and according to poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth-century, this bucolic place was for the repose of those righteous pagans who lived before the incarnation of Christ. While the Jewish prophets and patriarchs had been liberated by Christ after his crucifixion, the pre-Christian pagans who lived righteously were forever to dwell in this not-quite-heaven. Dante makes a temporal exception however, allowing a few Muslims who were born after Christ’s life. Perhaps the most surprising of these inclusions is a general who defeated the Christian monarch Richard I during the Third Crusade of the twelfth-century.To honor this Islamic military genius was as close to ecumenicism as was possible for Dante. Because of his qualities of virtue, charity, chivalry, and equanimity, the general appeared in Canto IV with just a single line: “And sole apart retired, the Soldan fierce.”
During a 1910 speech on women’s suffrage, an Illinois state factory inspector named Helen Todd popularized a phrase that should be understood as politically axiomatic. Speaking to a crowd about the economic necessity of “life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security,” Todd implored the audience to not forget that any viable movement must also guarantee the “Roses of life, music, education, nature and books.” Todd’s sentiment of “Bread for all, and roses too” would be forever inextricably linked with the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike of 1912 when the sloganadorned banners, was chanted, and was sung.
Neo-Confederate apologists have long claimed, with spurious reasoning, that the American Civil War was simply about “states’ rights,” and in one ironic sense they were arguably right. The war was precipitated by a violation of regional sovereignty – of northern states rights. Case in point: the afternoon of June 2nd 1854, Bostonians gathered along the harbor’s embankments to watch a ship bound southward. Onboard was a man named Anthony Burns, but for the captains of that ship and for those who owned it he was simply cargo to be returned to his “owners” in Virginia. A formerly enslaved man, now a Baptist minister, Burns had escaped from a Virginia plantation to the freedom which Massachusetts offered, only to find that with the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act the seemingly limitless and probing powers of the slave states had followed him to Beacon Hill’s environs, and that whether willingly or unwillingly the new law would implicate all of his white neighbors in the enforcement of that slavocracy’s laws.
Sometime in 1779, in the midst of that era of trans-Atlantic revolutions that marked the Age of Reason, an apocryphal weaver named Ned Ludd supposedly took a hammer to two stocking frames in a textile factory near Leicester, smashing to bits that simple machinery which threatened his livelihood with the promise of expedient and profitable mechanization. Ludd wasn’t real, yet the popularity of the character demonstrated something about the inequities that defined the lives of English workers, and the threat that technology posed to them.
Four centuries ago, somebody starving in the drought afflicted Elbe region in what is today the Czech Republic, anonymously chiseled onto the stone of the receding river bank a warning. Here, along the river where one day American and Soviet troops would meet on their duel approach to Berlin, a graffito made by unknown hand marks 1616 as the oldest year recorded on one particular “Hunger Stone”, and on that surface there is a memento mori which reads “Wenn du mich sicht, dann weine.” This summer, among the hottest recorded, and the Elbe once again receded to the point where observers could read that ominous missive: “If you see me, weep.”
Almost a year before the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter and a bookish, bald, kind-faced minister and professor named Theodor Parker would die while being treated for tuberculosis in temperate Florence, being very far from his birthplace of Lexington, Massachusetts. Rev. Parker was of the New England intellectual vanguard; conversant with the transcendentalism of his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, deeply read in the new German philosophies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the higher biblical criticism of the time, as well as with the radical abolitionist politics of Boston.
Many academic disciplines can be consulted to explain the on-going tragedy of the Trump administration. History can give us a sense of the precedents, the shameful nativist tradition in groups like the Know Nothings and the John Birch Society. One could use the language of sociology to explain how the white working and middle classes enthusiastically supported a candidate manifestly not in their interests. An economist could model how stagnant wages and the increasing financial gulf resulted in an anti-status quo vote with disastrous consequences while ironically bolstering the elite. A foreign policy analyst could examine the ways in which Trump embodies a revanchist anti-liberalism, a nascent internationalist fascism which serves as a worrying harbinger of future reaction. Rhetoricians could analyze how Trump’s oratory, often maligned as a jumble of word salad, was carefully calibrated with social media to market the politician. So many hot-takes and columns have been devoted to a man who is so obviously odious that you’d avoid sitting next to him on the subway; so much of our mental energy has been consumed with this self-evidently damaged soul. As Katy Waldman wittily asked in an insightful column for Slate last month: “What’s left to discuss when you’ve discussed everything, and nothing has changed?” So, from my perspective, one of the most insightful methods of approaching Trump is theology.