Friday 17 June 2016

Written in Water #2: On a Migration of Narrative

You have all these plans about what you're going to write, and then things happen in the world and suddenly very little seems appropriate. If you don't know, British politician Jo Cox was murdered yesterday. She campaigned for the rights of refugees. She was shot by a man who was affiliated with racist hate groups, who yelled the name of one as he perpetrated his crime, and it seems obvious to anyone with the slightest lick of sense that he did it as a terrorist act. Even so, the press, already aware that their support of Britain committing economic suicide in the upcoming referendum might be endangered by a far right activist murdering a champion of inclusion, are characterising the man who did it as a loner with mental health problems. They're managing the narrative. 

The structures of power have always done this.

A history story. Let's talk about the Goths. The Goths first turned up at the edges of the Roman Empire in about 250CE or thereabouts. They came in waves. Migrations. They were migrating because they had nowhere else to go. Far in the East and North, other peoples were moving, some more militant than the Goths, and as time went on more and more of these people had nowhere else to go. The Romans framed these movements as invasions, but these people brought their families with them, carried everything they had. This wasn't an invasion. 

Even the name "Goths" is a sign of a systematic erasure, a mark of prejudice. These tribes had many names, many cultures of their own. In a lot of ways, it's not dissimilar to white Americans calling native Americans "Indians", imposing on them a monoculture they didn't really have, a status as outsiders.

Othering them. 

Even in periods of history where narratives collapse, places and times exist where you might get a detailed account of things, even if only from a single perspective.

Ammianus Marcellinus wrote during the closing years of the fourth century CE, and historians tend to see him as an honest voice. He was a soldier, and he was present during much of the period he wrote about (at least in that part of that work survives) and in some cases an eyewitness. He was the last good Roman historian, and although he was a Roman, with a Roman's assumptions and prejudices, he was unafraid to criticise the powerful of his day. His account of the disaster at Adrianople holds an object lesson. 

In about 376, the Thervingi and Greutungi (Goths to the Romans at large), driven from their homes by the Huns and Alans, migrated en masse across the Danube in a vast refugee train. They asked peacefully for food. Ammianus tells us – and I don't think he has any real reason to lie here – that Lupicinus and Maximus, the Roman administrators of Thrace (the area where Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey now meet) treated the migrants terribly.
I won't go into the other crimes which these men (or others, with their blessing) committed against the innocent immigrants. But there is this one depressing crime for which they could never be acquitted, even if they were their own judges.

When, after crossing, the barbarians suffered from starvation, these appalling leaders began a vile trade: they collected together every dog that their insatiable greed could find, and for each dog they gave, they took a slave, and some of those sold into slavery were the sons of the nobility. 
Ammianus Marcellinus XXXI.4.9-10
They kept the Thervingi in camps, mistreated them horribly, and then, when they were starving to death, gave them dog meat to eat in exchange for them selling their owwn children into slavery. Ammianus was not a progressive man, but he was appalled by this. Unrest arose in the Gothic camp. Lupicinus apparently invited Thervingi chief Fritigern to a dinner in the city of Marcianople (now Devnya, Bulgaria); but he kept a heavy guard on the town and when a group of Thervingi tried to enter the town, begging to be allowed to buy food as "allies and subjects" the Roman soldiers arrested them after a violent confrontation. 

The Thervingi people camped outside saw some of their own beaten down and took violent action. A riot ensued – and bear in mind that while many of the Thervingi were armed, they had their women and children with them – began to attack the city. Fritigern escaped from the governor's custody and returned to his people. And the Thervingi sacked the city, took what they could have been allowed to buy peacefully, and took bloody revenge on Romans who although better armed and better organised weren't starving and weren't angry. The governor ran. 

Things escalated. Eventually, the Emperor himself, Valens, came from Rome to deal with the Thervingi and Greutungi. On 9th August 378, Valens, who was only Emperor in the first place because his elder brother had been Emperor first and he was the only available heir, faced off against a force of Gothic tribes at Adrianople (modern Edirne, Turkey). The Goths were both outnumbered and accompanied by their families. 

And the Roman army was destroyed. Valens was counted among those who died. 

And the tribes meanwhile carried on taking what they should have been given. 30 years later, they'd finally burn Rome itself.

And all the while the Romans asked themselves "Why do they hate us?"

Take a people who need your help and you treat them like animals, and see what reaction you get. The modern word is "radicalisation". But the Romans, even when sympathetic, called them savages and barbarians. They made them into monsters.

Jo Cox was someone who campaigned against the othering of the refugee and the migrant. She believed that treating humans who need aid was the business of human beings. She was martyred for it.

We – the inheritors of imperial power – have always made these mistakes, and we've paid for them before, and we'll pay for them again. Right now, the forces of bigotry and oppression are stronger than they have been for a very long time. And I don't know where that's going to get us, or how we're going to pay for that, and trust me, just as in Marcianople and Adrianople, it's the ordinary people who pay first. And I'm afraid.