“Rush out and beat the heretics up”

Natalie Zemon Davis on crowd violence. And we let loose on Ross Douthat, discussing what he gets wrong about Catholicism.

What we’re teaching this week


We’ve just finished our second week of teaching, and my overwhelming feeling—besides already feeling overwhelmed—is one of admiration for our students, who have adapted to the constraints of remote learning with diligence and grace. Attendance has sometimes been an issue at our university, but since last semester it’s been excellent, and the students are engaging the material with a drive and vigor that I didn’t expect.

Since going remote, I’ve been using the collaborative annotation tool Perusall, which lets students annotate a document together online. I particularly like being able to glimpse how they’re grappling with the texts in real time: asking questions, underlining concepts, looking up historical references or confusing terms. You also get a sense for different styles of approaching the material. Some students take their time and digest the text before uploading their posts and queries; others react instantly. One particularly impassioned student, annotating the quote “international law was en route to banning war and rendering it a criminal offense,” wrote “Soooo what happened to this?”

This semester, Michelle and I are co-teaching a course on global histories of resistance and solidarity. (In an unrelated context, a colleague of ours who didn’t know we’d designed this class said, “I think resistance is a bogus category.” We thought this was hilarious.) This week we assigned Natalie Zemon Davis’s seminal article “Rites of Violence: Religious Violence in Sixteenth-Century France.” In 1972, for a colloquium marking the tricentennial of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Davis compared Catholic and Protestant religious violence, finding that Protestants tended toward iconoclasm and property destruction while Catholics targeted all peoples considered heretics. But she also found that the mechanisms underpinning and triggering both strains of violence were similar: both claimed to be defending the “true religion”; both condemned “pollution” and evinced the desire to “purify” their community; both used violence against any perceived miscarriage of justice, taking matters into their own hands.

The details of religious violence are lurid. Protestants were seen “throwing the sacred host to the dogs, by roasting the crucifix upon a spit, by using holy oil to grease one’s boots, and by leaving human excrement on holy-water basins and other religious objects.” Catholics were seen to “hide in a house to entrap Huguenots who refuse[d] to doff their hats to a Virgin nearby, and then rush out and beat the heretics up.” Most disturbingly, crowds desecrated corpses, cutting out organs “which were then hawked through the city in a ghoulish commerce.” As one student astutely remarked, Davis’s piece reminds us that “when reading history one should not impose our modern morals or sensibilities onto people in the past.”

Fascinated as students were by the dramatic differences between the sixteenth-century world and ours today, all of them were struck by the enduring similarities. Davis’s observation that in a riot it was “hard to tell a militia officer from a murderer and a soldier from a statue-smasher,” they said, reminded them of the Capitol breaches on January 6, in which so many ex-military personnel participated. Fears of defilement made them think of the rhetoric around fears of immigration and intrusion from outside elements.

Other students were drawn to how religious rioters took on the role of magistrate. “Riots,” Davis writes, “also occurred in connection with judicial cases, either to hurry the judgement along, or when verdicts in religious cases were considered too severe or too lenient.” Our class drew parallels to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, thinking about how protests erupt out of a desire for justice or instances where the state fails to enact it.

Reflecting in 2012 on how she came to write her article, Davis said, “Popular protest and violence were also part of my own political world in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” She had stood alongside men burning draft cards in Oakland, participated in political demonstrations at Berkeley. She and her husband had blocked a building at the University of Toronto where American companies that manufactured napalm were recruiting students. In March 1970, she recounts, undergraduate activists occupied the university’s administration building to demand the creation of a daycare. Here, Davis writes:

I followed with a sinking heart: on the one hand, I cared deeply about means to increase and facilitate the presence of women in the university (women were still a small number in the graduate school and a very small presence on the faculty); on the other hand, I found the breach of order, the transgressive act, quite frightening. I also found it fascinating. The august Senate chamber became the scene for carnivalesque reversal; students took turns relaxing triumphantly in the ‘throne chair’.

I could feel our students thinking alongside her. Many expressed the range of emotions elicited by these moments of collective action: fascination, repulsion, sympathy, confusion. They were asking the big questions that we still grapple with today: how does peaceful (if rowdy) protest tip into violence? Is violence ever justified in resistance? What is justifiable crowd violence and what is not? Why do we feel more sympathy for people smashing windows at Black Lives Matter protests than we do for the people who stormed the Capitol? Is that just our own partisan politics?

I’m still searching for answers myself. As our recent interview with Sebastian Veg about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong reminded me, these questions have extraordinarily pressing geopolitical stakes. Do we stop the rise of authoritarian states with origami umbrellas or bamboo catapults? Guerrilla warfare or conversations in tents? And rereading Davis also surfaced the transhistorical linkages between crowd violence past and present. The dynamic and rhetoric of crowd violence she lays out—fear of the outsider, an appeal to popular justice, a call to defend a true belief or ideology—could apply just as easily to Hong Kong as to Black Lives Matter.

Davis ends her piece by pointing to those moments when crowd violence spills over the top. Demonstrations are most in danger of turning into massacres when protesters begin to think of their opponents as “vermin,” as “devils” that must be annihilated. Decades since her article, three and a half centuries after the events it describes, it’s this logic of dehumanization that still needs to be constantly resisted.

Michelle adds:

One exchange near the end of this week’s class amused me: a student who has taken several of Albert’s courses exclaimed, “In all the classes I’ve taken with you, you always assign something by Natalie Zemon Davis!” His response: “What can I say? She’s a goddess. If I could write something one-tenth as good as hers, I would die content.” Our majority-female class beamed.

On Ross Douthat and How He Gets Global Catholicism Wrong

Ross Douthat’s New York Times piece on Biden’s Catholic America has been making the rounds, but we can’t bring ourselves to link to it. There are so many reasons to dislike Douthat; ours is that he keeps spouting the same annoying argument—“liberal Catholicism is a vague spirituality, a generic humanitarianism”—which is an ahistorical insult to liberal Catholics who take their faith seriously, who belong to a long intellectual and theological tradition of Catholicism that engages with the modern world. (For a sense of the scholarly debates on this issue and a “state of the field” on Catholicism in the twentieth century, see this wonderful roundtable on James Chappel’s book Catholic Modern, as well as Chappel’s book itself and Giuliana Chamedes’s A Twentieth-Century Crusade.)

The boundaries between the secular and the sacred are also much blurrier than Douthat assumes. As scholars have shown for years now, concepts that appear secular, including legal doctrines such as human rights, emerged in part out of Catholic theology. If you’re secular and see religious attachment as a vestige that needs to be extinguished, of course, this is a problem. But just because liberal Catholics approve of secular concepts doesn’t mean those concepts point to a watered-down, vague, or generic version of Catholicism. On the contrary, they’re part of a longstanding, evolving, introspective tradition.

Prior to this most recent op-ed, Douthat portrayed Pope Francis as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a closet secularist who was using the powers of the papacy to hijack the Church and enact unpopular reforms. (For a takedown of how his account is factually incorrect, see this satisfying piece by Michael Sean Winters. For a less scathing but still critical account of how Douthat is wrong, see Paul Baumann’s review here.) Now Douthat’s changing his tune, saying, “There are a lot of liberal Catholics like Biden!” Yeah, no joke: Catholic liberals were never the fringe. Or maybe Catholicism just doesn’t map on that easily to the liberal and conservative categories that Douthat imposes.

To be fair, Douthat’s also been critical of conservative Catholics, who became overconfident after several decades of victories. But what’s so galling is the way he constantly invokes a new “center” in the Church, positioning himself as a moderate centrist while conveniently neglecting to mention how radical his own form of Catholicism is.

Douthat’s bête noire is a “doctrine of decentralization”: he fears that giving more power to local church communities will fragment the doctrinal unity that makes Catholicism emblematic and uniquely different from other religions and secular ideologies. It will, he argues, lead to schism within the Church. As it turns out, this critique belongs to a lineage of attacks by conservatives claiming to represent true, unpolluted Catholicism—such as the battle they’ve waged since 1965 to overturn the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In Douthat’s narrative, the Council was what prompted Catholicism to accommodate modern secular values, in turn leading to “collapsing Mass attendance, vanishing vocations, a swift erosion of Catholic identity everywhere you looked.” Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI stemmed the secularizing tide by recentralizing doctrinal authority; Pope Francis, who according to Douthat has realigned the Church with the secular world rather than further setting it apart, threatens to undo all those gains.

Douthat’s primary concern is a perceived crisis in Western Christianity, American Catholicism in particular, yet he tends to map these political and theological cleavages onto Africa and Asia as well. If he gestures to the effect of decolonization on Vatican II, he doesn’t account for the vital role non-European actors played in shaping global Catholicism. (See for example Elizabeth Foster’s work on the Senegalese cardinal Alioune Diop.) Whenever he invokes the Philippines or Latin America or Catholic Africa, it’s only to make the point that true conservative Catholic beliefs are alive and well outside of the “decadent” West. And this feels like nothing so much as an attempt to use people like me (Albert), Catholics of non-Western descent, to score global points.

Douthat fundamentally misunderstands how many such people approach their faith. When I lived in Taipei for a year in 2010, I took Taiwanese lessons from a devout Catholic associated with the Maryknoll sisters. She went to mass every day; we rarely talked politics, but from what I could gather she was anti-abortion and quite traditional in her family values. Still, she spoke repeatedly of how Catholic missionaries in Taiwan had emphasized the preservation and teaching of Taiwanese, her mother tongue. When she was growing up in the 1960s, the KMT regime had banned Taiwanese in all public spaces. The congregation, largely refugees from mainland China, spoke in Mandarin.

But the Maryknoll missionaries, she told me, had sought to learn Taiwanese in order to reach out to families like her. In public, they spoke Mandarin; at home, they prayed with her family in Taiwanese. As late as the 1980s, the KMT regime was demanding that churches preach and pray in Mandarin. But missionaries—inspired by Vatican II—insisted on speaking in Taiwanese, Hakka, and other indigenous languages. As my teacher said, the end of the regime’s martial law in 1987 felt like a homecoming—finally she could worship in public in her native tongue.

And Vatican II didn’t just welcome linguistic diversity: the Church became newly responsive to local beliefs and religions. Catholic mass at my teacher’s church ended with a Taiwanese and Chinese rite honoring dead ancestors, reflecting a time-honored Jesuit stance that Catholicism could accommodate Confucian rituals.

For Douthat, decentralization means a watered-down Catholicism. For my teacher and for many other Catholics outside the West, it means being able to worship in one’s own language and preserve one’s heritage; it means the right to incorporate aspects of indigenous culture into one’s Catholicism. It stands as an illustration, despite what Douthat would like to believe, that global Catholics around the world aren’t bound by the cultural wars of the United States. And thank God for that.

Links for the week

  • We’ve been fascinated by one of the biggest stories of 2021: the battle between Reddit and Wall Street. If you haven’t been following it, here’s a good rundown in the Times, alongside the characteristically lucid Zach Carter. Everything about this story tickles—from the fact that the instigator behind the movement was a user by the name “Roaring Kitty,” who now has a net worth of 40 million dollars and counting (look for the deck of UNO cards in the profile photo!) to the various memes it has generated. Of course, it does seem like this entire mania points to major problems coming down the line—something something late capitalism something something—but for now, AOC sums up how we feel:

  • Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins’s interview with the philosopher Charles Mills just dropped in The Nation. Mills, who is from Jamaica, wrote the seminal work The Racial Contract where, among other things, he took on mainstream liberal political philosophy for marginalizing race.

  • We are not fans of Miami Heat—but we are big fans of Zito Madu’s writing! Here’s his cover story in GQ on Jimmy Butler.

  • We’re ecstatic that dear friend and historian Kira Thurman’s book, Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, is coming out this year! It promises to be a major, field-changing book. For a preview of some of the book’s arguments, read her fascinating piece in The Point, where she writes: “Over the course of my life I have learned that to be black and a classical musician is to be considered a contradiction.”

  • Sam Moyn’s latest book on the age of endless wars, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, will be out in September. For a preview, read this article in Plough Quarterly. We’re looking forward to reading the book!

  • Catherine Chou, a friend & impassioned advocate of Taiwanese sovereignty, sparked some rich (and ongoing) conversations on Twitter after posting our interview with Sebastian Veg. “I experience Chinese aspects of Taiwan as Taiwanese,” she writes. Many 3rd generation of waishengren in Taiwan, she adds, “aren’t all that interested in being the guardians of Chineseness—only the rest of the world hasn’t caught up to this essential point.” Follow the thread and you’ll see all the fireworks.

    We’re in total agreement with Catherine about Taiwanese sovereignty but have reservations about discarding Chinese-ness altogether. Would doing so mean abandoning potential solidarity with those who identify culturally as Chinese or who believe in holding multiple identities? We appreciated Eileen Chow’s reply (below). Still thinking through all of these questions and hoping to respond next week.

  • Our wonderful colleague Russell Williams was on the Times radio, speaking about Lupin on Netflix (it’s the last 30 minutes!).

  • We’re proud of our college students, who have organized a cool conference for next week. It explores restorative justice & noncarceral solutions to gender-based violence; immigration & refugee justice; anti-authoritarian work (including a representative from the World Uyghur Congress); and abolitionist organizing and integration of formerly incarcerated people. Two panelists are former students who are now doing refugee justice work in Arizona (The Florence Project) and Cairo (St. Andrew’s Refugee Services). I’m grateful that my old law school friend, Shuting Chen, who was in the trenches of immigration law for 13 years or so, will speak. Here’s the schedule for the conference next Friday & Saturday, Feb. 5th & 6th.

  • We are looking forward to Wayne Soon’s talk on Tuesday, February 2nd at 4 PM (CET) at AUP’s Center of Critical Democracy. Wayne is a historian of China and the author of the very timely and fantastic book, Global Medicine in China: A Diasporic History. You can register here.

Our Book Club—Tolstoy’s masterpiece Hadji Murat

It’s not too late to tell us you’re interested in our book club. Just email us and we’ll check in with you about your schedule. We plan on doing this the last week of February. And of course, you can also show up without RSVPing; we’ll send the Zoom link next week! (After Tolstoy, we’ll read Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.)