The Barbarians at the Gates

"Get off my lawn, dammit!"

“Get off my lawn, dammit!”

Last Tuesday, in a California courtroom, a judge sentenced 23-year-old Casey Nocket to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service after Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging government property. Over the span of about a month in 2014, Ms Nocket had used indelible markers to paint large cartoonish figures on prominent rock surfaces in various national parks in California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon; she had then posted photos of her doodles to Instagram.

News accounts of Ms Nocket’s exploits invariably use terms like “vandalism” and “vandalized”. This was a characterization to which the defendant objected during the court proceedings, and I would have to agree with her: real Vandals don’t deserve such a comparison.

.  .  .

In 455 AD, the Vandal King Genseric led his armies against the city of Rome in retaliation for the abrogation of a treaty between his kingdom and the Western Roman Empire (consisting of little more than the city of Rome by that time; the Empire was pretty much on its last legs). The Roman Emperor Valentinian III had been assassinated by a usurper, Petronius Maximus; the latter, hated in Rome and desperate to validate his claim to the throne, had married his son to Valentinian’s daughter Eudocia, who had already been promised by formal treaty to Genseric’s son.

Genseric, whose kingdom included former Roman territories in North Africa, plus Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands, saw little reason to put up with Roman treachery. He assembled his army and marched to war.

The Vandals reached the former capital of the western world virtually unopposed. Petronius Maximus had attempted to bolt as the enemy approached, but was captured and executed by a mob of outraged Roman citizens. Bowing to the inevitable, Pope Leo I asked Genseric not to raze the city or slaughter its inhabitants, and the Vandal king agreed; in exchange, on this day, June 16, 455 AD, Leo ordered the city thrown open to the invaders.

Historians, like everyone else, tend to put their own spin on events. Procopius, a diplomat in the Byzantine court, wrote a great deal about the events of his era, and although we are indebted to him for his information, he seems to have hated just about everybody. For Procopius — the Bill O’Reilly of his day — if the facts didn’t quite do the job, he was more than willing to rely on gossip and innuendo to put meat on the bones of a juicy story.

Victor Vitensis, meanwhile, also had a dog in the race: he was an orthodox Catholic Bishop, deeply invested in the prevailing theology of the time. The Vandals, while also Christian, had been converted generations before to what had later come to be considered a grievous heresy, that of Arianism (see below)*. As is so often the case, a total heathen was more acceptable to the religious mainstream than a heretic, and the Bishop’s writings on the topic also should be taken with a grain of salt.

*The orthodox Catholic church of that time preached that all three members of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — had always existed, as equal parts of an indivisible whole, while the followers of Arius believed that although God had always existed, He had created the Son at some specific point in time — implying that the Son had not always existed and was therefore less that the Father (see the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 28).

Accounts differ as to what happened once the invaders achieved their objectives. According to Prosper of Aquitaine, who died later that same year, the Vandals exercised considerable restraint: the sack continued for fourteen days (instead of the traditional three), but was limited to treasure — art, architecture and citizenry were spared. On the other hand, the Byzantine historian and civil servant Procopius insists that one church was burned down, while Bishop Victor Vitensis wrote at great lengths about the ravages suffered by the Romans at the hands of the invaders. (See the sidebar for more about these gentlemen.)

In any event, the Vandals settled in and ruled much of the old Western Roman Empire, including Rome itself, for almost another century. Their tenure was peaceful, given the tensions of the day, with Genseric’s heirs maintaining uneasy but stable relations with both their neighbors to the north and west and with the Eastern Roman Emperor at Byzantium.

The only significant fly in the ointment was (surprise!) religion. Later Vandal kings (Genseric died twenty years after the conquest of Rome) were more heavily influenced by their faith, and conflict between the mainstream Trinitarian Catholics and their Arian rulers frequently descended into episodes of sectarian violence. In 523 AD the fervor of the Vandals had mellowed and relations with the Catholic Church had improved considerably, but after a series of military setbacks the easygoing King Hilderic and his informal co-ruler Hoamer were deposed by the rabidly anti-orthodox Gelimer, and the persecution of orthodox Catholics became a centerpiece of state policy.

In the east, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, aided by Belisarius, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, had finally consolidated control of his own territories, and decided that Gelimer’s excesses provided a pretext to abandon the peace that had prevailed since the fall of Rome. The Vandals could not match Belisarius’ genius and lost one confrontation after another, with Gelimer’s final surrender in 534 AD bringing about the end of the Vandal kingdom.

.  .  .

Throughout the decades of Vandal rule, Rome and its heritage were not erased or defaced by the occupiers: on the contrary, Genseric and his successors wanted to rule a kingdom modeled on the one they had overthrown, and so they worked to preserve much of what they had inherited. It was only during the centuries that followed the collapse of the Vandal kingdom that the leaders of the orthodox world — anxious to erase the stain of heresy — rewrote the story of the Vandals to construct a narrative of barbarians destroying everything in their path, like wild animals, incapable of appreciating the art, the culture, and the history around them.

We have but to look around us at our government buildings, our political institutions, our monuments, our religion, even our language, to see how inaccurate that picture is. Far from destroying the Roman culture, the Vandals helped to preserve it during one of its most vulnerable periods.

.  .  .

Casey Nocket — who likes to sign her work “creepytings” — was not trying to preserve or augment the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Nor did her work display any particular social import or artistic skill in and of itself. Rather, her actions seem to have been more like those of a child who smashes a vase or a lamp in order to grab the attention of the adults in the household.

“Creepytings” is fortunate to live in a time and place that views vandals (in the modern sense) with relative tolerance, and accepts the occasional abuse of our shared heritage and resources as the cost of our freedom of expression.

The real Vandals, with their deep sense of the importance of the glories that surrounded them, might have been less accommodating.


Journal: Monday, June 13

mouthIn the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting last weekend we’ve seen an outpouring of support and solidarity for the victims. Strangely, I find this almost as depressing as the event itself.

Where was all this sympathy, this solidarity, when our poltitics, our media, and our social discourse were being hijacked by the Pat Robertsons, the Donald Trumps, the Tom Cottons, the Bill O’Reillys? We have created a society where attacks like this are not just tolerated but encouraged, every single day, and millions of people sit in front of blaring televisions and nod and thump the arm of the La-Z-Boy and mutter “Damn straight! You tell it!”.

Or worse, they sit in mute disgust and do absolutely nothing.

Rhetoric that is racist or homophobic, xenophobic or anti-intellectual or sexist, has become more and more the norm of late. Millions of Americans rail against the strictures of “political correctness” that discourage them from publicly expressing just the kind of hatred that prompted the most recent incident. Donald Trump is praised for “saying what he thinks”, even when what he thinks is brutalizing and dehumanizing to many of us; negative reaction to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges (legalizing same-sex marriage) was virulent — calls for violent action against gays were widespread in conservative media; Arkansas’ Tom Cotton is viewed as a potential 2020 Republican presidential candidate not in spite of his hateful comments about millions of people with whom he reluctantly shares the planet, but because of them.

I was born and raised in the ultra-conservative rural South. We saw enemies everywhere: the Catholics (“idolators”), the Jews (“Jesus-killers”), MLK (“rabble-rouser”), peace activists (“yellow-bellied traitors”), and so on. In all that fear and mistrust, however, a phrase that we heard over and over was “You just don’t say things like that!” Our beliefs, our prejudices, wrong or right, were sacred, but even more sacred was the obligation to be polite. We were taught to hate, yes, but we were also taught that civility mattered. Today we’ve kept the hate, but lost the instinct for simple courtesy, and an essential restraint has been removed from our behavior toward our fellow man.

Politicians and pundits have rushed to express their shock and dismay at this latest outrage — even those who had advocated, directly or indirectly, just the type of aggression that Omar Mateen carried out in that Orlando nightclub — but we all know that tomorrow, or the next day, they will have moved smoothly back into their old tracks, railing against the vile homosexuals (or Jews, or blacks, or Muslims, or working poor, or disabled, or Mexicans — there is never a shortage of people to hate) and encouraging, sometimes overtly, sometimes through innuendo and implication (“transsexuals in the bathrooms at Target! Grab your guns!”) the next Pulse massacre, or Matthew Shepard murder, or 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, or Kristallnacht.

Free speech is enshrined in our system of laws, protected by the document on which our entire social structure is based. Unfortunately, there are aspects to this right that the Founding Fathers took for granted, such as civility, politeness, respect — simple, basic, common courtesy. As we’ve seen, they were wrong to assume that their descendants would carry those traits forward. Instead, we’ve come to value sheer noise over thoughtful discourse. We’ve replaced Jefferson and Madison with Rambo and Dirty Harry, Abraham Lincoln with Ted Cruz.

There may well have been people I knew in that club Saturday night. The next incident could engulf friends, relatives; I, myself, might one day become a victim. I’m sure we could think of any number of reasons why I, or people like me, should be hated or feared. We can talk about it, and maybe I can do something to ease your apprehensions, or you can go get your gun. I can’t decide for you.

Your move, America.


Journal: Friday, May 6

I don’t necessarily agree one hundred percent with this author’s conclusions, but the argument is cogent and timely today as it was more than a century ago. From the Notebooks of Mark Twain:

“A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot — except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart. The spirit of Christianity proclaims the brotherhood of the race and the meaning of that strong word has not been left to guesswork, but made tremendously definite — the Christian must forgive his brother man all crimes he can imagine and commit, and all insults he can conceive and utter — forgive these injuries how many times? — seventy times seven — another way of saying there shall be no limit to this forgiveness. That is the spirit and the law of Christianity. Well — Patriotism has its laws. And it also is a perfectly definite one, there are not vaguenesses about it. It commands that the brother over the border shall be sharply watched and brought to book every time he does us a hurt or offends us with an insult. Word it as softly as you please, the spirit of patriotism is the spirit of the dog and wolf. The moment there is a misunderstanding about a boundary line or a hamper of fish or some other squalid matter, see patriotism rise, and hear him split the universe with his war-whoop. The spirit of patriotism being in its nature jealous and selfish, is just in man’s line, it comes natural to him — he can live up to all its requirements to the letter; but the spirit of Christianity is not in its entirety possible to him.

“The prayers concealed in what I have been saying is, not that patriotism should cease and not that the talk about universal brotherhood should cease, but that the incongruous firm be dissolved and each limb of it be required to transact business by itself, for the future.”

— Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”)

Sweet Poison

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later...

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later…

During the first twenty years of my life, a time I mostly spent romping around the woods and fields of Sand Mountain (that’s in northeastern Alabama, for you heathens), I saw exactly two venomous snakes. One was a cottonmouth swimming in a catfish pond, who took one look at me and swam the other way; the second was a copperhead sunning himself on a rock next to that same pond. I was able to sneak up close enough to spy on the copperhead for about two seconds before he, also, detected my presence and bolted.

There are, in fact, four venomous snakes native to my home state: the water moccasin, the copperhead, the coral snake, and an assortment of rattlesnakes. (The latter two varieties managed to elude me for the entire two decades, despite my habit of placing myself very much in their way. To this day I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or a coral snake outside of an open glass tank in a church … but that’s a story for another day.) The majority of the snakes in the region are harmless to humans, or even highly beneficial, efficient predators on mice, rats, moles, and other farmyard pests.

Despite the paucity of truly dangerous reptiles in the state, my grandmother — whose attitudes about wildlife owed more to the early chapters of the Book of Genesis than to the Peterson Field Guides — viewed every legless reptile as an enemy not just to be killed on sight, but to be hacked to pieces and the pieces tossed out into the dirt road in front of the house on the flat of a shovel.

This campaign was only nominally successful: Grandmother managed to bar the serpent from the house, barn and outbuildings, but made little or no progress outside those walls. As a result, the snakes were all somewhere else, and the safest place for a field mouse or a rat was, naturally, indoors, with us.

Anyone who has spent time on a farm knows that the damage a mouse can do to a bin of grain, flour, or animal feed is completely disproportionate to the creature’s size. Happy little Mickey or Minnie, like Caligula at the feast, will eat until he or she can barely walk, then poop and pee and start again. While there is a limit to just how much a mouse can eat in twenty-four hours, the rodents can apparently produce enough urine and feces in a few days to reduce seventy-five pounds of feed to so much foul-smelling compost.

Traps, of course, only winnow out the most foolish of the invaders, leaving the smartest in total command of the field. Poison is likewise useless, since putting it in the feed bin would defeat the purpose entirely, and even if the vermin can be induced to consume the poison elsewhere, they will almost always crawl off somewhere unsuitable to die and putrefy afterwards — such as the feed bins.

The solution to this dilemma would seem obvious: let nature do what nature does and allow the rodents’ natural predator to fulfil its function. For my grandmother this was not an option. The snakes had to be killed, always, on sight, with no hesitation, and damn the consequences. This was her way, and no amount of logic or empirical evidence was going to make her do things any differently.

 *  *  *

In Alabama, among the poorest states, doctors in 2012 wrote 143 prescriptions for opioids such as Oxycontin for every 100 residents — the highest rate in the nation. Heroin use is also increasing while life expectancy is declining for white, working-class men in Alabama and other so-called “Red States”, those dominated by conservative politics. At the same time, this same voting bloc overwhelmingly supports conservatives, and actively and voiciferously opposes any programs or initiatives that might serve to improve their situation.

Such dedication to working against our own self-interest is hardly rare. We see it again and again among gay Republicans; immigrants and children of immigrants who rail against the evils of immigration; African-Americans who support racist politicians and political movements; the working poor who fight tooth and nail to deny themselves healthcare or affordable housing or a living wage. The list goes on and on.

My grandmother was not a fool. She was, however, a product of her time and her environment, and for reasons that I’ve never fully understood, in all of her ninety-odd years of life she was never able to transcend those limitations.

Likewise, all over this country we see ordinary men and women surrender their birthright to demogogues and oligarchs who openly declare that they intend to use that power to degrade and diminish them and their children, and their children’s children, for as long as that power endures.

In Alabama, in Mississippi, in Arkansas, in Texas, in Louisiana … starved for jobs, for education, for opportunity, for perspective, otherwise reasonable citizens embrace again and again the political forces that have systematically brought them to such dire conditions — and the worse things get the more enthusiastically they support their oppressors, and the more brutally they lash out at anyone who might propose to improve their lot.

What’s to be done? Better minds than mine have been grappling with this question, and as of this writing, no answers seem to be forthcoming. The man relying on welfare for his family’s survival will avidly support a politician dedicated to depriving him of that last desperate resource; that Sand Mountain farm woman’s passion to destroy snakes was greater than her need to feed her family and her livestock.

 *  *  *

My grandmother believed. She did not assess the facts, consider the consequences, or weigh the alternatives. Her questions came with the answers already attached, readymade, replete and eternal, and no matter how much harm those answers might do to her and to those she loved, she would consider no others. Had it been my grandmother that the serpent encountered there in the Garden of Eden, not only would the apple have remained untasted, but that snake would have been lucky not to end up reduced to bite-sized pieces and tossed out into the road on the flat of a manure spade. My grandmother would have remained there in that garden, safe and secure and forever limited, trapped in a wonderful prison.

When a loud, booming voice tells you that what you can see with your own eyes is a lie, and that only by allowing someone bigger and stronger than you to grind you into the dirt can you ever achieve greatness, there are those who resist, who rear up and defy the giant floating orange face. Others tell themselves “Yes! The Big Voice is so much greater than me, it must have all the right answers!” and seal their minds and hearts and wait for the greatness to descend upon them.

What the serpent offered Eve was not money, or fame, or power over her enemies; he tempted her with something even more awesome and more terrible: he offered her knowledge, and that knowledge cost her the garden and gave her the world.

It’s a difficult choice, but we all have to make it sooner or later.


Journal: Wednesday, August 19

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad

Frustrated ISIS militants holding the city of Palmyra yesterday beheaded 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.

When Islamic State fighters first began to move in on the city — a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates back to Roman times — Asaad, the director of antiquities for Palmyra, moved everything portable into hiding. Once the city had fallen into ISIS hands, the militants began looting the site, hoping to sell priceless artifacts to wealthy collectors in the US, Europe and Asia to help fund their activities in the region. They captured al-Asaad and tortured him for a month, before finally beheading him yesterday and leaving his mutilated body hanging from a post.

Khaled al-Asaad never revealed the hiding place of the treasures that he was holding in trust for future generations.

As an artist fascinated by history, places like Palmyra resonate for me on many levels; I can’t help but see its survival into my lifetime as a bridge reaching across two thousand years, connecting me with the Romans who built the city and created many of its treasures. People like me depend on people like al-Asaad to protect that bridge.

I’m not one of those people who believes that all victims are automatically heroes, but I think Khaled al-Asaad deserves to be called a hero.

Journal: Wednesday, July 29

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh.

Then there were the photographs …

This was that guy. We all knew him in school, or at work, or around the neighborhood, and hated, envied and feared him. The Humvee that takes up three parking spaces. The rottweiler that maims your cat. The BMOC who bullies your kids. Well-fed, self-satisfied, and smug, a kind of Donald Trump of cosmetic dentistry, his shiny white smile, his testosterone playacting, his triumphant poses with the creatures he had killed, all found a nerve, then bared down on it like a dull drill during a root canal.

And we all twitched.

The reactions were, to say the least, intemperate. By the time rumors and memes had graduated to reliable news coverage, the vitriol was already knee-deep and rising. Justifiable indignation escalated to a savage, unthinking fury. We looked into those little round glasses and that “whattya gonna do about it, chump?” grin and we became judge, jury and executioner.

Fortunately, in this case the target really had committed the crime for which we were tying him to the stake: his defense so far has consisted of protesting that when he paid tens of thousands of dollars to an unscrupulous guide to help him slaughter a member of a threatened species by luring the beast from a national park, jacklighting him, wounding him, chasing him for forty hours, and then shooting, skinning and beheading him, he didn’t realize that the animal in question was one that people actually gave a shit about. The jury has not been moved to tears by his protestations.

On the other hand, I worry that what we’re doing to the odious dentist from Minnesota may not be much more defensible. He did a thing that, by any reasonable standards of human behavior, is disgusting. Should he suffer for it? Damn straight he should. Is it up to me to try him, convict him, and light the fire under his feet? No, it isn’t.

This man (and I use the term loosely) will almost certainly end up in court somewhere, whether in the US on bribery charges or in Zimbabwe for “taking” a protected animal illegally; the public scrutiny will, I hope, ensure that he doesn’t have the opportunity to quietly pay a piddling fine and slide right back into his old habits, none the worse for wear. Meanwhile, his dental practice is probably not going to bounce back any time soon, and he won’t be spending much time on Facebook, and life for his family his going to be rough for years to come. When he finally turns up, he’s going to have to face those challenges, legal and otherwise.

Cecil the lion is still dead, and hunts like the one that brought him down will still go on, all over the world, but the dentist from Minnesota is probably not showing off quite as much of those perfect teeth of as he was. In the end, however, it makes things even worse that this man, in displaying the arrogant dark side of human behavior, brought out more of the same in the rest of us. Now we are all going to have to decide what to do about that.