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I know, it’s only rock and roll
But I like it…
Lo, these many years ago — decades, actually, which is disconcerting — my then-girlfriend became Very Upset because her science major roommates scorned her major in English literature. They considered their majors — and therefore themselves — Practical , Useful, and Important. An English major was, in their estimation, frivolous and decorative, and by implication, she was, too. She was at a loss as to how to respond to their sallies.
“Just tell ’em, ‘I know it’s only rock and roll — but I like it,’” said I.
Seems the young lady in question was looking for something a little more validating than “it’s only rock and roll.” I was going for Keith Richards-style insouciance and I guess I landed at “flippant and patronizing.” Story of my life. Ah, well. It could never have worked between us, darling…
As a liberal arts major myself — History, to be precise — I was familiar enough with the condescension of science types and business guys. I just never gave a shit about it. I pursued History because I like it, like it, yes I do…
Obtaining the signed-and-sealed parchment in History was a brief moment, and not the most significant one, in a lifelong pursuit. And as it turns out, the study has proved to be useful indeed. Many of the practical tools of the trade transfer into the field in which I make my living — but that’s the least of it. History has given me a framework within which to grapple with the human condition writ large, which is actually quite helpful when you’re living through tumultuous and downright bat-shit crazy times.
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
— attributed to Mark Twain
Alongside the newspaper gig and creating The Frontier Partisan Podcast, I’ve been indulging both my Anglophilia and my eternal fascination with the way societies break down and fall into revolution and civil war. The cataclysmic tumult of 17th Century England, Scotland and Ireland resonates powerfully with our current environment of plague, corrosive political and ideological division, social unrest and conspiracy. There is a distinct throughline from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to the English Civil Wars of 1642–1651. Those events would echo down a century and more to heavily influence North America’s plunge into our own First Civil War, aka The American Revolution. And here we are in 2020, not so very different from men who perceived their society as profoundly diseased — and in need of the sharp remedy of violent action.
Each case is particular, of course, and seeking on-the-nose evidence of “history repeating itself” will lead us astray. But, man, does it ever rhyme.
Had it succeeded, the Gunpowder Plot would have been one of the most audacious and destructive terrorist acts in the history of Western Civilization. It might well have altered the course of European history.
Chafing under the oppression of an aggressively Protestant English state, a small cadre of Catholic fanatics plotted to blow up the House of Parliament in Westminster, London, during the opening of the session on November 5, 1605. They were aiming for a decapitation strike to take out King James I, his lords ministers and the members of Parliament — including some Catholic members. Collateral damage. They would, after all, go to Heaven.
Such an act would be the equivalent of crashing a jet into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress for the State of the Union address.
Guy Fawkes, a Catholic soldier-of-fortune and explosives expert, was discovered just as he was set to touch off 36 barrels of gunpowder placed in a cellar directly under the House of Parliament. Under torture in the Tower of London, he revealed the plot and his co-conspirators, including the plot’s mastermind, a Catholic nobleman of ancient and distinguished lineage named Robert Catesby. Catesby and several fellow conspirators would go down most Western, in a scorching firefight with loyal militia at a safehouse at an English country estate.
An ocean of ink has been spilled on the Gunpowder Plot; this documentary offers an accurate, succinct and entertaining depiction of the events.
When my Angolphile daughter returns from college for her Christmas break, we plan to fire up the BBC/HBO miniseries Gunpowder. The series was heavily criticized for its graphic brutality and gore — which is rather amusing, for it would be virtually impossible to exaggerate the cruelty and brutality of the era. Seems that one should not try to sanitize that…
The resonance — the rhyme, if you will — that we can pick up from these 400-year-old events comes down to the passions of men. The Catholic minority in England labored under genuine repression throughout the reign of Elizabeth I. While they weren’t being slaughtered wholesale, practicing priests were subject under the penal laws to arrest and a gruesome execution. Ordinary Catholics were second-class citizens, fined for refusing to toe the Anglican line and always in danger, especially if their religious activities turned political. Catesby and his fellow plotters took genuine grievances — and the belief that King James I had betrayed the promise of toleration — and used them to justify what would have been a terrorist atrocity. For them, their Protestant oppressors were a disease upon the nation, and, in Catesby’s words:
“The nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy.”
After years of war with Spain, the Protestant majority was in a constant state of paranoia about Popish plots to overthrow the Protestant faith and monarchy of England. The more hardline Protestants made a point of keeping the pot of the Catholic menace well-stirred. In reality, the vast majority of Catholics were not in the least inclined to rise in revolt — as Catesby discovered to his great and fatal dismay — but the very real existence of the Gunpowder Plot justified and fueled Protestant paranoia.
The fear that England could fall to Catholic intrigue would sharply amplify conflict between King and Parliament and ultimately plunge England into a catastrophic civil war in 1642. The whiff of Popery, real or not, would ultimately cost James’ son Charles I his head, and late in the century another King James would be run out of the country to prevent the ascension of a Catholic heir. The monarchy would be handed to an ardent Dutch Protestant, William III of Orange.
From the first, there were Gunpowder Plot truthers — those who believe that England’s Protestant spymaster Robert Cecil either set up a false flag operation using Catesby and his cohorts as dupes, or at minimum allowed the plot to develop in order to inflame anti-Catholic sentiment and harden King James against the minority.
It is not difficult to tease out parallels and lessons to be learned from this dramatic episode.
When ideological differences carry heavy freight of personal, cultural and natural identity, divides become unbridgeable chasms. When fellow countrymen can be regarded as a “disease,” zealots can justify the sharpest of “remedies” to rid themselves of said disease. When radicals commit extreme acts, even their most moderate co-ideologists are tarred with the same brush. Any Catholic must, ipso facto, be an extremist.
And, always, political opportunists will take advantage of strife and division to advance and enrich themselves.
It is very difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of a 17th Century Englishman, Scotsman or Irishman, for whom doctrinal differences that seem to modern eyes either purely theological or simply trivial were matters of life and death. But substitute any range of modern ideologies, any range of small hills upon which we are willing to draw swords and die, and the nature of our passions and their consequences comes into sharp focus.
As a lover of history, as a historical storyteller, I’m biased toward a belief that such knowledge can benefit us, can help us steer a better path. Yet, one of the lessons of history is that no one takes the lessons of history, for, as Dueña Alfonsa tells John Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:
“It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God — who knows all that can be known — seems powerless to change.”
Maybe so. Maybe it really is only rock & roll. But I like it.
I broke open a abridgement of Samuel Pepys diary a few days ago since he lived through the Black Plague. I haven’t gotten to that part yet, but I figured it would make timely reading. I don’t know when I will get to it since I am reading a total of four books right now. (Including John Boessneker’s book on the Wells Fargo shotgun riders.)
I am sort of cynical about people with English degrees. I undoubtedly shouldn’t be since I don’t actually have a college degree. That said I always thought highly of History degrees.
Jim Cornelius says
Pepys is amazing.
David Wrolson says
Hey, I did my liberal arts thing at age 36 in what I call “College Version 2.” I had done a business degree the first time 15 years earlier, but after going through the financial fire in my 20’s and early 30’s in the hog business, I decided to cater to my strengths and chose to get a Geography degree and see where it lead me.
Fortunately, having a previous degree, I only had to take major classes. I got a BA in Geography and GIS and started down the path to a Master’s.
That ended when I got the opportunity to do part-time real estate appraisals of large acreage conservation properties. This was a dream job as I was able to fit it around my farming. This also ended prior to my becoming fully licensed-but what a ride.
Thinking of the academic side of my geography courses‑I will be forever thankful for my knowledge in bio-geography and geomorphology. Those courses have added extensively to my enjoyment of life.
The year after I was done at school, a historical geographer was added to the faculty and I regret that I did not catch any course work in historical geography.
I advise any body interested in a laymen’s take on biogeography to check out David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo” this is probably the best book on conservation I have ever read.
So, I had to tell people at age 36 that I was majoring in Geography‑a few eye rolls there as you might imagine-but it was what I should have done 15 years earlier.
Obviously, I am a history guy-but I have to put geography above history ( a little bit)
Great, David. I was a Geography major in my 30’s UC Berkeley, and I’m damned glad that I did.
Cort Horner says
I see I have a new series to dig in to on HBO now…and I like it.
J.F. Bell says
Behind us, the dark ages. Ahead, only progress. Where we stand right now…the apogee of human achievement to date.
Or something like that.
Sharper, better-credentialed people than mine keep repeating it, so there must be some truth. Maybe one of those abstract truths that give rednecks and hillfolk the fits and prompt dead stares equal parts confusion and silent derision.
All of it wrapped around this strange core belief that humanity was once worse and we can somehow get past it on the broader scale.
As ever there are saints, bastards, and bomb-throwers in our midst. Counting out those feature contingent on man’s taming of fire and gunpowder for darker, more practical means than celebration, was it ever different?
Hell…if we ever got past it, we’d quit being human.
Jim Cornelius says
“The War to End All Wars.”
“Peace in our time.”
“The End of History.”
Allan Godsiff says
Very interesting. We “celebrated” Guy Fawkes day in New Zealand ( read excuse for fireworks and bonfires ) without ever really knowing what it was about except that some bloke tried to blow up parliament a long time ago. A lot more to it than I can now see.
Jim Cornelius says
Did not know Guy Fawkes Day was a thing in NZ.
Rather timely piece. I just happened to listen to the Bruce Fummey YouTube on the second major 5th of November; when William of Orange deposed James the II/VII on November 5, 1688. Cheering the saving of the “rightful king” while ignoring the overthrow of his grandson 83 years later. Using songs of one event to hide the other. Apparently many have short memories. At least according to Bruce. My Scottish / English history is a bit rusty. Link (if allowed) is here. https://youtu.be/g_fclrQEuww
Jim Cornelius says
Thank you for this. I will fire it up this morning.
A side note — picking the “right” side of the Glorious Revolution “made” John Churchill, who cemented his family’s stature with his triumph at Blenheim a couple of decades down the road. Thus 20th century Britain got Winston Churchill. These events have long echoes.
Let me know what you think of his videos. I have recently started poking around at the history of Scotland and my own heritage. His videos are easy to listen to, but I have not dug in the the data behind them.
Jim Cornelius says
Will do. The history is incredibly vivid and complex — and bloody.
My second series of the Frontier Partisans Podcast will focus on the Highlanders as a frontier culture.
So you are not doing the Mexican Revolution next?
Jim Cornelius says
I really don’t think I can add anything to the magnificent job the Revolutions podcast did. Highly recommended. I will probably tell some stories from within the Revolution.
“History has given me a framework within which to grapple with the human condition writ large, which is actually quite helpful when you’re living through tumultuous and downright bat-shit crazy times.”
I almost did history, but ended up doing a philosophy major because I figured it would better prep me for seminary. (And as one of my classmates was fond of saying, if all else fails I can always get a job at the philosophy store.) But I packed in as much history as I could in both undergrad and seminary and that perspective has been quite helpful in my line of work. I find that a good of the anxiety and frustration people deal with is fueled by their addiction to the news cycle that depicts every event and election to be The. Worst. Thing. Ever. Sitting down with them and offering a field of view wider than the enxt election cycle sometimes proves helpful. (But not as helpful as getting them to turn off CNN/Fox/NPR/whatever.)
Those of us who are the believing types take umbridge with the way so much of the political violence of the past 500 years is pinned on religious controversy, and while it has indeed played a major role, a closer examination shows that religion is often used as a front for the age old motivators of power, money and pride. Religious zealotry often masks the inner demons of the radical. I suspect our current situation that pits the adherents of opposing ideologies on both the right and the left serves as a facade for the same old song and dance. (To quote another poet.)
Jim Cornelius says
I believe this to be 100 percent correct. A zealot will always find a vessel for his zealotry. To use a crass analogy, religion is no more responsible for the mad acts of zealots than a gun is responsible for the mad acts of a killer. They may enable bad acts, but they don’t create them and attacking the instrument fails to address the root of the matter.
I tend think that the idea that religion causes war as nonsense. Human nature causes war. This fits the Christian concept of Fallen Man better than the idea that we are progressing toward some sort of Utopia. I think that’s true whether or not you take the opening chapters of Genesis literally or allergically.
lane batot says
“Religious Zealotry often masks the inner demons of the radical”.….I have just two words for THAT. Manifest and Destiny.….
John M Roberts says
Because of the movie “V for Vendetta” anarchists over the world, together with protestors against perceived tyranny of all breeds have adopted the Guy Fawkes mask. It’s ironic, because Fawkes merely wished to replace a Protestant tyranny with an equally obnoxious Catholic tyranny.
As far as degrees, I switched from Anthropology to English when I got back from Vietnam. The pursuers of “practical” degrees considered it to be a dead end, but I’ve made my living weilding the language for close to 50 years.
Jim Cornelius says
And wielding it mighty well, too.
lane batot says
HA! I majored in Anthropology, and NO ONE I have ever encountered has considered that a “practical” degree! I mainly ended up with that as a choice, because it was the only subject at the reservation I was sent to that didn’t bore me into hibernation! I had to take LOTS of other subjects I was not interested in, too, in order to finally jump Reservation permanently one day, which took me awhile, since I flunked and had to repeat most of them! Hence the TRUTH of my claim that I have “twict tha kahlidge eddikashun of most folks”! I DID learn the slopes and forests of the mountains surrounding my college INTIMATELY, and I became a valedictorian on guerrilla warfare in my conflicts with the crooked campus bluecoats and administration officials(“an eye for an eye”…), but those were all considered extra curriculum activities, for which I got no official “credit”.….
Quixotic Mainer says
By a stroke of luck, or simply due to common love of the outdoors, a great majority of my social group are biologists. Therefore, I can recall many similar ribbings about the dubious pecuniary usefulness of my history degree. However, my writing and research continues, even though I make my coin as a gendarme, and I don’t regret it a bit.
I was teasing a friend with 30 Years War era comparisons to 2020 a while ago, I can definitely see “the rhyme”. The mustaches are not half as elaborate this time around though.
Jim Cornelius says
Which is disappointing.
These two (*** below) spoke to me this morning Sir and some spot-on responses! Also — “historical geography” sounds amazing.
Recovery of my disposition towards a portion of the human race is a work in progress one year out of responding to 911 calls, so I’m keeping it short. It seems the same things that condemn us (free-will and human nature), are the only chance of survival we have. I think the arrangement was, our creator stays hand-off on some of this. We were definitely set up to succeed initially.
A percentage of our “leaders” have been dining with the fund raising elite, having their hair done secretly as their kids attend private schools, while protected by armed security, before returning to walled off homes for years. I don’t however, recall this level of arrogance and zero concern to answer for, or even try and conceal it.
Standard is low, critical thinking of the masses seems is short supply, portions of society are turning on our protectors and crapping in everyone’s collective nest. Hopefully more bad actors are exposed, held accountable and good people and maverick leaders become more involved. I am grateful to be this far north and inland.
It was time to go and I’m done for good, but If I’m honest, I will always miss elements of the chaos (rock n’ roll). We are such an amazing, ridiculous species.
Great read and yah, it’s still the best thing going in my opinion which is why folks still risk their lives to get here. Might go back to the lake and watch the Eagles grab salmon from the lake today. That made more sense to me.
***As a lover of history, as a historical storyteller, I’m biased toward a belief that such knowledge can benefit us, can help us steer a better path. Yet, one of the lessons of history is that no one takes the lessons of history, for, as Dueña Alfonsa tells John Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:
“It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God — who knows all that can be known — seems powerless to change.”***
Jim Cornelius says
Thank you TJ.