Sunday, July 18, 2010

AtF: Stupidity Matters

I’ve been running chapter 5 of After the Flood around in my head for the last week.  Well, not really.  I’ve given it about as much thought as it deserves, which is about ten minutes whilst trying to figure out two things:

1.  Should I just skip it over completely after only giving it about a page worth of deconstruction, and
2.  Why do I hate this chapter so much?

I mean, it’s not like I don’t have reason to hate it.  It’s a terrible chapter in the middle of a terrible book meant to defend a terrible supposition.  But there’s something about this chapter that’s even less worthwhile than the others but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

At first I thought it was because it was just a reiteration of things that have already been discussed.  Then I realized that it’s a reiteration of things I have already discussed.  It’s not really Bill Cooper’s fault that I worked ahead.

Then I thought that it was because the chapter is unnecessary.  It just basically reads like a Bible genealogy.  Such and such king did this, then was replaced by this guy, who did that.  But if you’re planning on arguing that this one genealogy is the truth when no one else agrees, you kind of have to do shit like that.

The problem with it, really, is that it’s neither interesting nor informative.

History always has to combine interesting and informative in some way, shape, or form.  Interesting, of course, is always good.  People like interesting.  They buy interesting, tell other people to buy it, get it on the New York Times Bestseller list.  I make it a point to give a run-down of any interesting history books I run across on this blog.  But if something is simply interesting without actually being informative, then it fails as history.  There is absolutely no reason to read a book that is exceptionally well-written that tells you things you already know and presents arguments you already agree with.  At that point your time is better spent with a good novel.[1]

So we get to this horrid, hateful chapter in After the Flood.

It basically comes across like Cooper did a cut and paste from Nennius, or possibly Tysilio itself, since I’m pretty sure that they’re basically the same.  Then, having done that, he cut it all down to the most boring possible parts of Nennius/Tysilio.

See, here’s the fascinating thing about pre-modern history:[2] it’s filled with crazy stories about super-human heroes, monsters, and grand environmental changes.  There’s a simple reason for this:

People actually believed all kinds of crazy crap.  They believed, in short, in dragons.  Now, no one actually saw a dragon.  However, something happened and a legend was associated with a particular person or place.  That legend was subsequently embellished and all of the sudden there were dragons and giants and water-logged women tossing scimitars at any king who happened to be passing by.  It’s just what happens.  And, of course, sometimes the people involved actively encourage such beliefs because it makes them that much cooler and more legit.[3]

Also, if you happen to have recently usurped a throne, “I’m the son of a god,” is a much better explanation than, “I’m an opportunistic scumbag,” for getting people to go along with it.  I’m just sayin’…

Either way, there isn’t any fantastical crap in this chapter, except for one brief mention of a “monster.”  But there should be fantastical crap because I saw it in Tysilio.  So either Nennius cut it out after stealing Tysilio’s work or Cooper did.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, “And this story pops up, but it’s probably not believable because, y’know, there aren’t any dragons.”  But to copy the entire genealogy in order to support your point that it records the succession of kings that proves that Nennius was right then not mention that, oh, hey, it mentions a bunch of dragons and shit, is intellectually dishonest.

Which makes it exactly the sort of thing Bill Cooper would do.

Again, history should be either interesting or informative.  Now, when we talk about “informative,” it’s often limited to data points.  I read something and I learn that Person A was actually related to Person B, which I did not know before, or Battle C was fought on Date D, which resulted in the death of Person E.  This is information in its most basic form.

But good history can provide a level of information that’s far, far more interesting.  By discussing why dragons would pop up or all those kings seem to be children of gods, the historian can provide information about why people in a particular place and time thought the way they did.  And in learning why people in the past thought the way they did, we can learn why they built the societies they did.  And in learning about that, we learn about why we live the way we do, for we are inheritors of the past.

This, I just realized, finally gets around to why Bill Cooper is neither interesting nor informative.  There’s nothing to be learned from any of this.  It’s just an angry rant against modern scholarship and a defense of a static universe.

In Bill Cooper’s world there shouldn’t be progress.  So the society that was created by god some five thousand years ago is all we need and any progress we’ve made is inherently evil.

He doesn’t want us to learn anything.  He just wants us to know that he is right and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong.  And, beyond that, he just wants everyone to stop thinking.

This, too, works as an overall critique of conservative religion.  I managed to think myself right out of Evangelical Christianity, partially because I learned too much about history to take the Bible literally or even particularly seriously.  And once I realized that I couldn’t trust the Bible and there wasn’t anything particularly special about it or the Israelites when compared to other societies and their holy books from the same time, the desire to keep going to church pretty much disappeared.

The only way to get people to stay in such religious systems is to make sure they never learn anything.  So rather than, say, encouraging people to learn the social and political pressures that went in to the creation of the European Union, the conservative religious pedants would rather encourage people to be freaked out because the European Union is actually the many-headed beast from the sea from Revelation and the world will shortly be ending.  It’s fuck stupid to anyone who can actually dedicate thought to the topic, but that doesn’t matter if you refuse to let that happen.

It’s also strangely helpful that there are so damn many interpretations of scripture and so many different denominations and sects.  If everyone is wasting their time arguing about whether Baptists or Catholics are the real, true Christians, then no one is wondering if Christianity itself is a worthwhile pursuit.  If the Evangelicals are trying to run the Presbyterians out of the fold for being too damn liberal, the Evangelicals are going to close ranks and fight, rather than wander off to go learn things about their world.

And that’s why demolishing Bill Cooper’s stupidity matters.  It’s not about the idea itself, it’s about the system that allows such stupidity.


[1]Not to disparage the novel.  I’ve actually been getting a little antsy about how long it’s taking me to finish John Julius Norwich’s fantastic Byzantium trilogy because I’ve got Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in the hopper.  The simple point is that I’m not expecting to learn anything about history from Gaiman’s book.  So if the choice were between, say, American Gods and a book that was just a synthesis of everything I already knew about Byzantium, I’d have skipped to the fiction long ago.

[2]Um, this isn’t a blanket statement.  But, basically, if we’re talking about history outside of the Greco-Roman tradition there’s a damn good chance there will be some crazy shit involved.  In Medieval Europe, as the learning of the Romans and Greeks disappeared, superstition and crazy monster stories worked their way back in.

There’s actually a fairly simple lesson to be drawn from this: the learned Greeks and Romans largely relied on logic and empirical evidence and recorded their observations about the universe accordingly.  Ideas that came out as, “This happened because of the will of the gods,” still showed up in the Greek and Roman histories and things weren’t done without attempting to divine various portents, but you simply don’t see Herodotus, Thucydides, or even the Xenophons and Julius Caesars talking about mythological creatures as characters in their stories unless they’re talking about how a place is connected to a myth.

Once you get out of that empirical tradition, however, all kinds of crazy crap pops up.  And when you talk about a society that has lost a lot of its learning and replaced it with a single-minded pursuit of a single source of knowledge that is, itself, suspect, then, well, there’s a lesson to be learned.

We can always have a second Dark Age.  It takes a lot less for us to lose our history than we’d like to think.  And when we lose our history, we lose our minds.

[3]We know, for instance, that Alexander claimed to be the son of Zeus and his mother passed on all sorts of rumors about portents at his birth.  If we take this back to a legendary ruler like a Perseus who was also supposedly a demi-god it’s not all that hard to imagine that there might have actually been a proto-Perseus who encouraged people to think he was a child of a god.

Of course we also have places like Egypt, where the Pharaohs were gods on Earth.  The Chinese Emperors had the same deal going.  And the end of the Pacific War during World War II was complicated by the fact that the Japanese Emperor was still regarded as being divine.

1 comment:

BeamStalk said...

It’s not about the idea itself, it’s about the system that allows such stupidity.

And that is all of it. Well said.