By Robert A. Vella
Before the Age of Enlightenment which brought modern science and democracy to the world, civilization was a dismal existence. The rich and powerful hid behind castle walls while controlling the land and people through the coercion of henchmen who did their bidding (see: Feudalism). In Europe, the collapse of the Roman Empire led to a thousand-year long span known as the Medieval Period the first half of which was so gloomy it is still referred to as the “Dark Ages“.
Life was brutal and short for most people back then, and such misery wasn’t confined to Europe. Except for a few enclaves of isolated groups which had the resources and desire to do better, the world was neither a healthy nor happy environment for its human denizens. Now, the successes of modern civilization are inadvertently and neglectfully threatening a return to darker times. Catastrophic climate change appears to be an inescapable reality at this point, and there is a movement afoot which welcomes the demise of enlightenment while sardonically denying the factual basis for global warming. More on that later, but first here’s today’s climate news:
WASHINGTON — Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.
The 1,500-page report, compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization. A summary of its findings, which was approved by representatives from the United States and 131 other countries, was released Monday in Paris. The full report is set to be published this year.
Its conclusions are stark. In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”
At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in.
It doesn’t take a genius or a scientist to understand that as the number and diversity of organisms decreases, Earth’s ability to sustain humans also decreases. Currently, there are 7.6 billion people on this planet and it is on pace to reach 9+ billion by 2050 and 11+ billion by 2100. These two opposing trajectories are incongruent with each other. Something has got to give. Best estimates place the maximum sustainable human population far below any of these figures.
If we are unwilling or otherwise incapable of mitigating climate change, as is evidenced by our lack of action, then what should we do?
Enter the Medievalist.
I suspect few readers have heard of the term “medievalist,” but it is a growing movement which is infiltrating the hallowed halls of academia. Educators have become alarmed at the rise of activist ideologues within their ranks who are championing a return to Medieval times when the hereditary privilege of wealth ruled supreme and when racial and religious sectarianism dominated an oppressed society. Their plan is to move forward by going backward. That means no democracy, no rule of law, no egalitarianism, no objective science, no individual freedom, and no compassion whatsoever for those who resist. Here’s the story:
Since the 2016 presidential election, scholars have hotly debated the best way to counter the “weaponization” of the Middle Ages by a rising tide of far-right extremists, whether it’s white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Va., displaying medieval symbols or the white terrorist who murdered 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, using weapons inscribed with references to the Crusades.
And hanging over it all is an even more fraught question: Does medieval studies have a white supremacy problem of its own?
The term “medieval” came into use in the 19th century, to refer to Europe from roughly 500 to 1500, between the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of modernity. But while the field may seem divorced from the contemporary world, its own origins were hardly apolitical.
In Europe, academic study of the Middle Ages developed in tandem with a romantic nationalism that rooted the nation-state in an idealized past populated by Anglo-Saxons and other supposedly distinct “races.”
In the United States, universities, cultural institutions and wealthy elites drew on Gothic architecture, heraldry and other medieval trappings to ground American identity in a noble (and implicitly white) European history. So did Southern slaveholders and the Ku Klux Klan.
If withdrawal from the world was ever possible, it has become harder lately. During the 2016 election, memes like Donald Trump in armor on a horse and the Crusader slogan “Deus vult” (God wills it) began proliferating on social media. White nationalists stepped up recruiting on college campuses, sometimes co-opting the language of identity politics with calls for students to explore their “white heritage.”
Then came Charlottesville, where the sight of marchers carrying shields evoking the Knights Templar or holding banners with Anglo-Saxon runes came as a shock to many scholars.
Beirich also attributes a significant role to organizing by the John Birch Society (JBS) in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The conspiracy-minded anticommunist group was, for many, “a gateway drug into other forms of extremism”, she noted.
By the 1960s, Orange county had become a popular recruiting ground for the JBS, whose founder, Robert Welch, infamously identified former president Dwight Eisenhower as an agent of Communist Russia, and was eventually excluded from mainstream conservative circles. Some of the most prominent far-right organizers in the 80s and 90s, including Tom Metzger, the founder of the White Aryan Resistance, had been JBS members or had contact with the group, Beirich noted.
From the 1960s onwards, “Orange countians swelled the ranks of the John Birch Society, opened numerous rightwing bookstores and worked within their churches, schools and communities to roll back liberal gains that, in their eyes, threatened the nation”, according to Lisa McGirr’s classic account of the birth of the New Right in southern California, Suburban Warriors.
Today, the region is home to prolific and influential white nationalist “intellectuals” such as Kevin McDonald, the editor of the Occidental Observer. During his career as a professor at CSU Long Beach, McDonald published a trilogy of antisemitic books that allege Jewish dominance of finance and the media as a group evolutionary strategy.
For decades, McDonald was dismissed by many as an isolated crank. But with the rise of the “alt right”, he has appeared on podcasts and conference stages alongside the movement’s younger influencers. His blend of racial pseudoscience and far-right activism was not enough to deter the Donald Trump Jr from retweeting him in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
The Trump era has coincided with violent attacks and political campaigning from a new crop of far-right groups in the area. In 2018 a member of Atomwaffen Division, a militant neo-Nazi group, murdered his 19-year-old Jewish classmate, Blaze Bernstein, in Orange county. According to ProPublica, the killer, Samuel Woodward, may have joined Atomwaffen Division as early as 2016, and was a key organizer of its California cell.
Several California-based groups were present for the now infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.