An Election for the Dark Ages
... It would be tempting to dismiss Trump’s statements about history as ignorant ramblings, if his rhetoric weren’t so dangerous and didn’t comport so perfectly with the interests of America’s enemies. He complains that “we’re living in medieval times” when discussing the brutality of ISIS, while enjoying the widespread support of white nationalists who often look fondly upon medieval history as an age that forged white supremacy and who sometimes call for a modern “crusade.” Ofcourse, suchaclashof civilizations is precisely what ISIS is eager to provoke. The group has concocted a world of historical fantasy in which there are only jihadists and “crusaders,” a fantasy Trump buys into both in his speech and in policy proposals, like “extreme vetting,” that pit us versus them.
The Middle Ages serve as convenient dumping ground for modern cultural problems, anxieties, and, more disturbingly, for racist ideologies. For ISIS, a “return” to a fictionalized medieval period suits its West-versus-the-rest narrative. But as I’ve noted in Slate previously, the ISIS vision of medieval times is highly fictionalized, fueled by a nostalgia for a time that never existed: As medievalists like Matthew Gabriele are clarifying, Eastern Arab and Western European peoples for centuries traded, cooperated, and otherwise interacted with one another constantly along a spectrum from empathy to toleration to, yes, armed conflict. The image of an eternal death-struggle between East and West is the direct result of ignoring this spectrum and focusing solely on conflict.
Both ISIS and Trump benefit from ignoring or abusing history. They use murky historical interpretations to feed their ideologies, choosing only the moments that benefit them to form a universal narrative. But as much as this campaign has been about the destructive misuse of history, it has also reminded us of the power of honest historical study as a corrective to marginalizing and violent ideologies.
The image of a uniformly white European Middle Ages favored by white nationalists has been challenged with growing frequency in public contexts. Malisha Dewalt, for example, runs the popular blog and Twitter account People of Color in European Art History, whose modest but important thesis is that people of color were constantly present and visible throughout the European Middle Ages. By focusing on common examples such as the so-called Black Madonnas and the Magi, art historians can suggest that such examples were not outliers but mainstream themes. Dewalt has popularized ideas that historians have recently been working to expose: Multiculturalism was commonplace in medieval European cities and towns. Art and other historical records constantly reflect this reality. To ignore the presence and achievements of medieval people of color in Europe is to prop up, however tacitly, larger structures of modern white supremacy. (Consider that the tendency to ignore this multicultural reality informs such popular representations as the unrealistically white “medievalism” of Game of Thrones, as Kathleen Kennedy has recently pointed out.) ...