Carly Fiorina’s Neomedievalism

This op-ed was in the New York Times a few days ago — it’s by my old adviser Bruce Holsinger, a professor of literature and music at UVA. It critiques the simplistic use of the Middle Ages by one of the contenders for the Republican nomination, Carly Florin. To her credit, she probably does know when the Middle Ages were, unlike Ben Carson, who has shown himself to know precious little besides neurosurgery.

Charlottesville, Va. — On Sunday night Carly Fiorina went back to college — sort of.

Answering questions at a New Hampshire town hall, Mrs. Fiorina was asked how Americans could be confident that she would be serious in taking on the Islamic State. Her reply was rather surprising. At last, she asserted, her undergraduate degree in medieval studies “has come in handy.”

How could medieval studies prepare a president for the global struggle against Islamist fundamentalism? Well, Mrs. Fiorina explained, “What ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.”

And did she mean literally. “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using,” she elaborated, “the crucifixions, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.” She added, “ISIS wants to take its territory back to the Middle Ages.”

Sounds familiar. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American political discourse was flooded with this kind of language. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “medieval vision of the future.” The writer Christopher Hitchens warned of the Taliban’s program of “medieval stultification.” Osama bin Laden himself mastered this medievalist idiom, invoking the Crusades time and again in his polemics against the West.

Mrs. Fiorina’s resort to this sort of garden-variety medievalism represents a failure of historical imagination on at least three levels.

The first is a failure to recognize the modernity of the Islamic State and other transnational terrorist organizations. Like Al Qaeda before it, the Islamic State has been adept at exploiting contemporary mass culture and social media as tools of propaganda and recruitment for its murderous campaign. And the Islamic State’s destruction of the Roman-era ruins at Palmyra plays on a particularly modern investment in the preservation of antiquities, as did the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

Mrs. Fiorina’s second failure of historical imagination is embodied by her embrace of the same neomedievalist logic that helped shape the early years of the war on terror: If our enemies are nonstate actors, too primitive to be recognized as members of modern nations, we are perfectly justified in denying them the rights guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions. Mrs. Fiorina has already made clear her comfort with the abrogation of the torture convention. (Waterboarding, she has said, helped “keep our nation safe.”)

Third, and most damning in Mrs. Fiorina’s case, is a failure to respect history itself, a willful refusal to learn from the era she claims as an area of expertise. Rather than invoking the medieval world for its brutality, she might have looked to that epoch for, say, the birth of the university. Or she might have looked to the multiethnic civilization of medieval Spain, hailed by the medievalist María Rosa Menocal for forming a “culture of tolerance” among Muslims, Jews and Christians.

And while judicial torture was routine during the Roman Empire, the practice was largely abandoned in the early Middle Ages. Only with the revival of Roman law centuries later did torture again become an accepted part of legal inquiry.

As for crucifixion? Read the Gospels, Mrs. Fiorina. It was the Romans, not the Heathobards, who crucified Jesus Christ. The medievals did a lot of beheading, sure. So did the French Revolution.

What makes Mrs. Fiorina’s political medievalism particularly sad (even a little tragic) is its betrayal of her own, more considered reflections on the impact of her training on her intellectual formation. She is one of the few conservatives who have spoken incisively about the importance of the humanities without resorting to bromides about the timeless values of the Western tradition.

This came across most clearly in Mrs. Fiorina’s address to the Stanford University class of 2001. The most valuable course she took at Stanford, she told the graduates, wasn’t economics or politics, but a seminar called “Christian, Islamic and Jewish Political Philosophies of the Middle Ages.”

Each week, she explained, students had to distill what they’d read into a mere two pages: “The rigor of the distillation process, the exercise of refinement, that’s where the real learning happened. It was an incredible, heady skill to master. Through the years, I’ve used it again and again — the mental exercise of synthesis and distillation and getting to the very heart of things.”

Rarely has the value of humanistic education been defended so eloquently. Whatever your politics, I tell my students, take heart. When your annoying Uncle Fred asks why you’re majoring in philosophy instead of commerce, tell him you know of a Fortune 500 C.E.O. who majored in medieval studies — not only majored in it, but also credits it with shaping her into the successful public figure she became.

How dispiriting to watch a person of Mrs. Fiorina’s talents reduce her rich historical education to a series of flattening clichés. Instead of encouraging us to learn from the medieval past in all its complexities, she’s promoting a distorted vision of history with little to teach us about the difficult truths of the present.

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