Robert Van der Werken, ‘18
Last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, crew-cut white men donning medieval apparel with shield and sigil entered Emancipation Park. These were no harmless role-players but white supremacists who gathered for a Unite the Right rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In their choice of costume, the demonstrators fashioned themselves as the displaced progeny of both southern gentlemen and feudal lords, blue bloods who built their fiefdoms on the backs of slaves and serfs alike. They root their racist views in an idealized medieval past that scholars of the medieval period dismiss as completely imaginary.
Events like this one have made the misappropriation of medieval iconography by the emergent alt-right the subject of heated debate in medievalist circles.
The English Department welcomes one of the central figures in this debate, Dr. Dorothy Kim, as this year’s Visiting Scholar. Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, specializing in medieval literature, Dr. Kim has argued that the current political context places new responsibilities on medieval literature scholars.
“The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/Nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students,” says Dr. Kim. “Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.”
In an open letter addressed to fellow medievalists, entitled “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” Dr. Kim emphasizes the importance of political commitment and action: “What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.”
Dr. Kim’s call for political commitment has drawn fire from within and without academe. Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown, Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago and a fellow medievalist, publicly disagreed with Dr. Kim on how to combat white supremacists: “[They] are making arguments bringing back a particular vision of Europe, they’re bringing back a fantasy that is their own making [that is] instantly punctured if you actually study the history of the Middle Ages.”
Dr. Fulton Brown therefore advocates for a position of political neutrality, indicating that overt intervention merely complicates the matter: “We are creating a fear that is unnecessary,” she claims. Yet it is this neutral stance that Dr. Kim so vehemently protests: “Doing nothing is choosing a side. Denial is choosing a side. Using the racist dog whistle of ‘we must listen to both sides’ is choosing a side.”
The ongoing back-and-forth between Dr. Kim and Dr. Fulton Brown soon expanded into an internet sensation. Dr. Kim criticized the latter for her contributions to Breitbart and articles such as “Three Cheers for White Men,” and Dr. Fulton Brown responded with blog posts titled “Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me.” Dr. Fulton Brown also enlisted the help of notorious right-wing personality and former Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who wrote an article praising Dr. Fulton Brown and belittling Dr. Kim on his website, sparking a slew of inflammatory remarks and threats aimed at Dr. Kim from his supporters.
In response to these attacks, Dr. Kim has received an outpouring of academic support from the medievalist community. Dr. David Perry, a medievalist and Associate Professor of History at Dominican University, writes, “Dr. Kim is a brilliant scholar and one of the foremost leaders in ongoing efforts to confront both the shameful legacy of racism in medieval studies and the current appropriation of medieval symbols and stories by modern-day white supremacists… Dr. Kim has been urging medieval scholars to confront this head on. Our profession is better for it.”
Saint Rose’s very own medieval scholar and Associate Professor of English, Dr. Kathryn Laity, shares a similar sentiment. “I admire Dr. Kim for her stellar scholarship and for her good humour despite constant attacks from both outside and within the academy,” she said. “I am scandalized by the attempts of neo-Nazi groups to vilify Dr. Kim and other scholars who have been instrumental in transforming the field of medieval studies to bring out the wonderful variety of experiences beyond the tired tropes conveyed in a lot of modern popular culture.”
Dr. Kim’s scheduled talk, “Medieval Studies and the Politics of Fascism,” is largely fashioned in response to the protests in Charlottesville: “In August 2017, the alt-right rallied at the University of Virginia,” says Dr. Kim of her talk. “Not only did they murder Heather Heyer, but they did so carrying symbols, dressing up as, and organizing themselves in relation to images…and touchstones imagined as part of the medieval past. This talk will discuss the politics of fascism and the centrality of medieval studies in how the current alt-right frames its cultural and political agenda.” The presentation will take place at the Carondolet Symposium in the Lally School of Education at 6:30 PM on April 25.