Reviews > Culture

Memory loss

Culture | America may not remember history, but her enemies do

Issue: "Politics Post 9/11," Nov. 17, 2001

Gillian Welch, Americana singer and co-producer of the O, Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, has a sense of history. In her new album, Time (The Revelator), the assassination of President Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, the Great Depression, the rise of Elvis Presley, and music styles long forgotten are all mightily present in the songs she writes and performs.

"To me, in my mind, history is never dead," Ms. Welch told Luke Torn of The Wall Street Journal, "and John Henry is no different than Elvis, and is no more removed. And I do think that I was having to explain this to so many people, you know, like Dustbowl language, and other things that cropped up in my earlier records. It's not dead to me."

Most people in the world see history as Ms. Welch does, as a potent reality that underlies everyday life. Americans, though, have tended to assume, like Henry Ford, that "history is bunk," that since we are modern and have progressed so far, we don't need to be aware of our history. But to have a culture-especially to defend a culture-requires a consciousness of history.

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Certainly our adversaries have such a consciousness. Osama bin Laden and his followers are still obsessing over the crusades. The last crusade was over 700 years ago. When Americans hear the word crusade, we are probably more likely to think of Billy Graham than Richard the Lion-Hearted. But this obliviousness to medieval history does not prevent Islamic extremists from considering Americans to be crusaders.

Westerners might remember that we have had a number of conflicts with Muslims, which often turned out to be turning points of Western civilization.

In the century after Muhammad's death, Islam conquered much of the Middle East and swept through northern Africa. Then Muslims crossed the straits of Gibraltar and by 715 conquered Spain. Then they crossed the Pyrenees into France with the view of conquering all of Europe for Islam. They might have succeeded-stomping on Christianity and making the future of Europe very different from what it became-were it not for the army of Charles "The Hammer" Martel, King of the Franks, who, on Oct. 11, 732, defeated the Moors' cavalry at Poitiers.

This victory, as explained by Victor Davis Hanson in his recent bestseller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, not only turned back Islam; it made possible the reign of Martel's grandson, Charlemagne, who Christianized the last remaining barbarians and brought Europe out of the Dark Ages.

Later, during the Reformation, the Ottoman Turks, having conquered the Middle East, invaded Europe from another direction, conquering eastern Europe, central Europe, and the Balkans, laying the ground for the resentments that still bring war to Serbia and (the Muslim) Bosnia. The Turks advanced on Western Europe, moving into Germany and Austria.

The Turkish threat was so severe that Emperor Charles V, for all his Catholicism and his antagonism to the Reformation, did not dare attack the German nobles who protected Luther. He needed them to fight the Turks. Arguably, the Turkish invasion may have allowed the Reformation to succeed. The Turks advanced as far as Vienna, where they were turned back twice, in 1529 and 1683.

The crusades fell in between Poitiers and the Reformation. Periodically during the Middle Ages, the church would proclaim a crusade to put "the Holy Land" in Christian hands. Bolstered by indulgences and the conviction that if they died in the cause they would go straight to heaven, thousands of knights and peasants plundered their way to Jerusalem, sacking cities of Orthodox Christians as well.

The Reformers condemned the crusades as an example of the medieval trust in indulgences and works-righteousness, as if someone could be saved by fighting a war instead of trusting Christ. Today's crusaders, ironically, are the Muslim extremists, who believe the very same thing, that killing Americans and dying in a jihad against the West will mean instant paradise.

To combat this mindset, Americans need to cultivate a sense of our own history. Not so much the crusades or the other conflicts with Islam, but the history of our own institutions and values, the ideals of freedom, equality, and constitutional government that can be found nowhere in Muslim countries. Those ideals can hardly take root without a worldview to make them possible. The historical memory also needs to take into account the part played by Christianity in American culture.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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