Monday, March 25, 2002

History, whether fact or myth, is the story according to whoever is telling (or writing) it.

Tonight’s “biography” segment on the A&E channel was on Jezebel, the Phoenician princess whom the writer of her story in the Old Testament labeled a “harlot.” According to A&E, Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, King of Tyre and Sidon, and wife of King Ahab of Israel (869--850). She introduced Phoenician habits (and religion) to the capital, Samaria, thus earning the undying enmity of the prophet Elijah and his successors. After Ahab's death, Jezebel was the power behind the throne of her sons until the usurper Jehu seized power in an army coup. He had Jezebel thrown from a window, and trampled her to death under his chariot.

The perspective of the A&E biography is the story of the woman ... who rose to infamy as the queen of Israel. Being a foreigner, a woman, and one who worshiped foreign gods, Jezebel was a triple threat to the people of influence in Israel. From the moment of her arrival in Israel, her independence, aggressiveness, and desire for power earned her archenemies dedicated to her overthrow. After surviving economic and political turmoil, she finally met her match with Elijah, one of Israel's most revered prophets. Ultimately, she was murdered, leaving behind a legacy that remains today. But was Jezebel truly an evil despot, or simply a misunderstood and unappreciated woman who was ahead of her time? [emphasis mine]

As is its custom, the “Biography” program interviews various teachers, researchers, and writers with some expertise on the life and times of the person whose life is being examined. In the context of the current blogversations in process about religion and spirituality (all from the perspective of male-dominated religious persuasions), it might be worth those involved in these conversations to take a peek at these biographies scheduled for this week on A&E’s “Biography:” Mary Magdalene, Salome, Adam and Eve, and repeated on Easter Sunday, Jezebel.

Because of one-sided history telling, today, any woman who has strength, a voice, who has power and who is at odds with a political or religious establishment is likely to be called a “Jezebel.” Yet, there is enough research to suggest that the original Jezebel was, instead, a strong, courageous, loyal woman who stood up for what she believed in, who remained loyal to her father’s house, her family, and her religion, and, as a result, she was murdered at the hands of General Jehu, who was sent to commit the deed by the famous biblical prophet Elijah.

Jezebel was no angel. She had her armies fight and murder her enemies, just as her enemies in Israel did the other way around. She fought and killed in the name of her Gods, just as the Bible says the Israelites fought against her in the name of their Yahweh. But somehow she winds up as the “Queen of Infamy” while Elijah is hailed as a great prophet and leader.

Guess who wrote down that story.

For a broader perspective on Bible-based stories and other cultural mythologies, check out the scholarly publication edited by Carolyne Larrington, The Feminist Companion to Mythology.
The Lies We Watch
As the Academy Awards play out, I share herewith exerpts from a text of a local public radio interview with Steven A. Leibo Ph.D.,Professor of International History & Politics and Chair, Division of Social & Global Studies at Russell Sage College. His remarks were shared via email by a mutual friend.

I am always searching for ways to make the past more meaningful and to help people better understand the present -- constantly on the lookout for historically based materials that might excite my students about the wonders of our relationship with the past – to find works, from novels to films, to get them involved. And if some of those works perhaps distort the past, get it wrong because their creators are more interested in commercial advantage than educational advance – that is not a problem. Rather, it is something I can fix later, after the students -- inspired by seeing The Name of the Rose on medieval Europe, or the film on Gandhi on South Asia -- are finally listening.

And so it is not surprising that I went off last weekend to see the film We Were Soldiers Once, ironically doing so just as another generation of Americans were apparently dying in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, fighting and dying as they did so often during Vietnam from the doorways of helicopters. And in truth, I had little choice about seeing it. After all, I had spent years studying and teaching about that struggle and leading groups of vets and teachers throughout Vietnam every year, and I know I would be asked constantly what I thought. So with some optimism, I set off, thinking perhaps that after so many years the pain that distorted and politicized so many earlier Vietnam films -- from the Deer Hunter to Platoon -- would have subsided and we might have a more nuanced presentation. And there is plenty of need for such a film – one that would depict in a more balanced fashion that struggle that began with so many good intentions.

That seemed a reasonable enough expectation, after all it was based on that powerful book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young by Harold Moore, the battle’s commanding officers and Joseph Galloway, a reporter who took part, and it is set in early 1965, before the anger and cynicism born of later frustrations had begun.

So I set off, not with any particular mind set, though I had read the book and met people who took part, had myself wandered in the Valley of Death it depicts, waiting to see what the film’s producers had done with our newest effort to tell the story of those young men who went off to war, valiantly hoping to defend the values of America as their fathers had once fought in World War II and Korea.

But what I found, after two hours of extreme bloodshed, was a film still too tied to the controversies of that era, that was afraid to even mention them -- a film that chose to simply let the flow of blood so graphically recreated for us by the makers substitute for real understanding of the sacrifices and patriotic motives of so many who fought in those early ears of Vietnam struggle.

In fact, not once in the entire film is there a discussion of why any of this is going on, not even that good fight against Communism, whose later collapse in the face of its many mistakes ultimately confirmed the importance of our struggle against it. But the film is afraid to even make the statement -- literally to even say the word. And what of the larger issue – that 20th-century-long planet-wide effort to end western colonization, which provided so much of the motivation among the Vietnamese for their struggle first against France, and then later the United States. It has been buried as deeply as anti-communism.

Not even for a moment do the producers try to enlighten us -- even as they so expertly show bodies blown apart and strong men dying stoically Рwith even a few of the reasons behind all this violence. And to make matters worse, fearing to explain the real issues, the producers fall back on the old clich̩ of turning the enemy into animals. The film opens in fact with a group of charmingly western French soldiers being ambushed by Vietnamese fighters, without even giving us a moment of reflect on what the French might be doing there, claiming curiously that the French did not know the terrain -- as if they had not held Vietnam as a colony for a century and were not, even as that very scene played out, trying to regain their colony lost during the Second World War. There was no effort to explain that embarrassing reality.

We are merely shown over and over again the word “massacre” printed neatly as a caption in an old French book on war, making it clear to everyone in the audience -- in case they later somehow managed to fall asleep during the constant images of swarming North Vietnamese soldiers -- that the Vietnamese just don’t seem to like westerners and have an especially rude habit of killing any western soldier with the temerity to show up armed on their territory. And those images are so vivid – those images of swarming Vietnamese – that it makes the occasional effort to portray the Vietnamese as humans look like sops to an after-the-fact political correctness committee.

And so I left the theatre, a theatre filled with young people on dates and a few older Americans sitting quietly alone deep in their own thoughts, wondering when or even if we would have a real film on that era – a film that would actually help us understand what happened in southeast Asia so many years ago …..

So, what are we left with in this age, so unwilling to look honestly and seriously at anything substantial – an age when the idea of a big event is staging a boxing match between Amy Fisher and Tanya Harding, when ABC’s Nightline is threatened with cancellation to make way for David letterman’s stupid pet tricks.