Nixon and the Dinosaurs: A Folkloric View of Time

Nixon and the Dinosaurs

A substantial number of years ago, a friend of mine explained to me his view of history.

“Everything that happened before me happened at the same time. Nixon. The Dinosaurs. All of it.”

He was joking. Mostly. But it’s something that has stuck with me for thirty years now, because as a view of how we experience the past it’s not all that far off. History is something that happened when we weren’t there. We experience it secondhand. And, much a like a secondhand store, there’s a bunch of it lying around, jumbled together. In the thrift store of history, the Nixon for President lapel pin could very easily be beside the plastic tyrannosaurus rex.

But there is something of  a proper order to history. Things happened that influenced other things. People, societies, governments, ideas, religions, all were born, lived, and died. And all of this happened in a chronological order. It really is one damned thing after another. Sorting through it all, putting it all in order, understanding which damned thing goes after which other damned thing, requires some degree of knowledge. And knowledge takes time, and often money, to acquire.

We understand history as we understand everything we experience. Through narrative. And often, the narratives brought to history are personal ones, where history is seen not so much as a thing in itself, but as evidence for the narrative. It is compressed or expanded as needed, and understanding of its components are shaped to fit the needs of the narrative. This is what I’ve come to call the Nixon and the Dinosaurs Problem.

Josephus - Wordsworth Classic Edition

Let me give you a little example.

The photograph here is the Wordsworth Classic edition of Flavius Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities. The cover art is a painting by Natalia Goncharova. Josephus lived in the first century CE. Goncharova’s painting is from 1912.

If you’re not familiar with Wordsworth, they are now probably the leading distributor of low-cost paperback editions of classic literature and other things of interest in the public domain. Their editions are cheap, printed on low-quality paper, and, yes, probably not a tremendous amount of thought is put into their cover designs. I imagine that their covers are a frequently featured on bad Photoshopping compilation Tumblrs and the images often seem to have been thrown together by someone on the basis of having read the blurb in a hurry.

If you’re not familiar with Flavius Josepuhus, understand that he does not hold a position of tremendous respect in Jewish tradition. Commander of the Jewish army in Galilee until 67 CE, when he surrendered to Vespasian and defected to the Roman side. What this means is he is considered a traitor in the war which would led to the destruction of the second temple and the dissolution of a Jewish state for nearly two thousand years. So, not popular with the Jews then.

Who he is popular with is evangelical Christians. And thats who this cover is selling to.

Josephus is thought to be the only contemporary source outside of the New Testament to mention Jesus. Now, there are a lot of good textual reasons to be suspicious of this, but for our purposes here just understand that this is a widely held evangelical belief, particularly among a segment of evangelicals that really loves Jews. Or at least the idea of Jews.

Some of the strongest intellectual threads in the modern evangelical movement derive from scholarly work in the 1960s and 70s that attempted to understand the emergence of Christianity in its historical context. A lot of this work was fueled by the excitement over the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a decade or so earlier, and also by the intellectual and cultural mood of the times. This was the era of authenticity, of going back to the land, of tracking down that lone musician in a cabin in the backwoods of Appalachia to learn the proper banjo picking technique. To experience something fully, it was considered necessary to get as close to the source as possible.  In this light, Judaism was perceived as the source of Christianity. Knowing Jesus meant knowing what life was like in first century Judea. As mainstream Protestant Christianity began to lose its hold over the culture, this idea really caught on in the more countercultural evangelical movement. Know Jews, know Jesus.

The problem was, of course, was that they didn’t know from Jews.

Approaching history as fuel for narrative lends itself to placing ideas, movements, and entire peoples in an ahistorical relationship to that narrative. That is, those elements are perceived as always having existed in a fixed form, and only in relationship to the narrative, without a history of their own. And this fixed form tends to take the shape of how that element was perceived at the time it was first brought in to the narrative.

Say you’re a native in small town in rural Kentucky. You don’t meet a lot of Jews. In fact, probably all you know about Jews is that you’ve been told Jesus was a Jew and you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof. That’s how you get a 20th Century painting of life in Tsarist Russia representing life for a 1st Century General in Roman Judea.

Take it a little further, and that’s how you get stuff like this happening:

For the non-Jewish members of the audience, be aware that everything you saw there was just wrong. Buttock-clenchingly wrong. The pronunciation, the gestures, the dancing, the blowing shofar on Purim, the not knowing when Purim is, all of that is just not how it’s done. And, more to the point, they’re not even doing the right things wrong. None of those rituals that they’re mimicking would have even have existed in the First Century CE. There’s two thousand years of history between then and now. The structures and forms of Jewish practice have changed over time. Dancing, badly, to a song which is a 20th Century lyric set to a an 19th Century tune gets you, at best, only 100 years closer to Jesus.

It’s Nixon and the Dinosaurs. When you assemble history to serve a narrative, you tend to get things in the wrong order. Elements of the narrative become ahistorical, even when those elements are living cultures.

Messianic Christianity is one of the most egregious examples of this. But there’s a similar dynamic at play in the modern neopagan movement, particularly in its relationship to the British Isles, where any folk custom is popularly assumed to be Pre-Christian. There, the proliferation of popular fairy belief and Romanticizing Ancient Britain began in the 19th Century, when ideas of nationalism and folk were sweeping across Europe, but Britain had 1500 years of politically non-popular Catholic history to contend with. When the English got insanely jealous of Wagner’s power to bore audiences on a scale never before imagined, the Old Religion was suddenly no longer understood as being the festival-intensive medieval form of Christianity that was around before the Puritans ruined all the fun, but was back-dated by a few millennia until it was casually assumed that Stonehenge was just a bunch of maypoles. The history was reimagined to serve a cultural narrative. Pagan Britain was Nixon and the Dinosaursed. Only before Nixon. But after the Dinosaurs.

That’s why I’m calling this a folkloric view of history. Those of you who have been here since the beginning will possibly recall that we’re using a slightly non-traditional definition of folklore here. That we’re thinking of folklore as narratives of cultural identity, the stories we tell about ourselves. And, as we keep pointing out, in a multiethnic, multicultural country, there are going probably going to be conflicting narratives.

The Nixon and the Dinosaurs problem is that history is highly reliant on a consensus narrative, and there has to be some communal ability to adapt that consensus when the narrative shifts. When one party seizes the narrative and rewrites it in its own interest, history ceases to become about history, but instead becomes about identity. And identity, in America, is always under the impression of power relationships.

In October of 2018, two days after the shooting at the Tree of Life Shooting in Pittsburgh, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at memorial service in Michigan with a Messianic “Rabbi.” It was a tough time. I had just moved to Detroit a few weeks earlier. Instead of unpacking and looking for a job, I found myself in the position of having to explain to a number of people that some Jews believe in Jesus isn’t a thing. That no, dude’s not a rabbi. That Messianics aren’t Jews. That the reason that they aren’t Jews is that Jews get to say who is a Jew and who isn’t. That please, do I really have to be explaining this to you right now? because I and my community are in tremendous pain.

In a moment of what should have been explicitly Jewish grief, control of that narrative was taken from us. And the thing is, I should have seen it coming.

Go back and take another look at that video, cue it up to the nine minute mark. That’s the bit we need to look at again.

“The Jewish People that are in Bowling Green, obviously, are not going to be Orthodox.”

Not Orthodox. They’re not the real Jews. We’re the real Jews.

A folkloric view of history is one that views history as subservient to narratives of identity. A view that prizes a constructed ideal of authenticity over historical reality. And in a society where the ability to control the narrative and control over what is determined to be authentic is determined by access to power, these narratives and who controls them have real consequences.

I spent five years in rural Kentucky. I was one of those not real Jews that mamzer is talking about. Even though of the two of us, he’s the one who, if he’s reading this, just googled mamzer. But these messianic narratives are spreading rapidly. I saw that living in Kentucky. We saw more and more Easter Seders happening every year we lived there. Bored 19th Century Anglicans reimagined the past to fit a folk narrative and accidentally kicked off a new religion. Now a section of the evangelical movement is reimagining itself as Jews. You see where I’m going here.

Having the power to define who and who is not a Jew taken out of Jewish hands is not a new trick. And if more and more Christians convince themselves that matzoh is actually edible, we’re looking at the possibility of some Jews believe in Jesus becoming real Jews believe in Jesus.

Religion is an area that’s given a complete free pass from critical self-examination in America, even when its a religion saying that Nixon and the Dinosaurs happened at the same time. And the waining power of institutional religion in America has allowed the folk elements of the religion to gain ascendancy. And folk belief always hinges on who and who is not allowed to be folk. If narratives of identity are driving the most politically powerful religious movement in this country, that’s going to be bad news for those of us who want to go on thinking that Nixon and the Dinosaurs didn’t happen at the same time.

And I know it doesn’t show up well in the photograph, but trust me, that plastic dinosaur looks frighteningly like Nixon.

2 responses to “Nixon and the Dinosaurs: A Folkloric View of Time”

    • Thanks. And since there’s no point in pretending I don’t know everyone who reads this blog personally, you should check out the What’s It Like to Think You’re a Bat? post. Philosophy of Mind, bitches!