National Opinions

We’re living in the new Dark Ages - and it’s time to turn on the light

Let’s make this an important end date, the answer our great-great-grandnephews will have to memorize for a quiz on Martian Thursday:

Q: What was Dec. 31, 2021?

A: The end of the American Dark Ages.

Isn’t that what our nation has been stewing in these past few years — a medieval pottage of religious extremism, anti-science sneering, conspiracy theories and ill-conceived, ragtag, spear-and-pole crusades? Heck, we even have a plague.

“It’s straight out of a 14th-century playbook,” said Jay Rubenstein, a history professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in the high Middle Ages.

The most cinematic evidence of these New Dark Ages was seen across the world nearly a year ago.

“What we were subjected to that day was like something from a medieval battlefield,” said Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, one of the U.S. Capitol Police officers who fought in the most emblematic moment of America’s New Dark Age, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.


“We fought hand-to-hand and inch-by-inch to prevent an invasion of the Capitol by a violent mob intent on subverting our democratic process,” Gonell said in his congressional testimony on the riot.

It was all sticks and spears and hoodlums scaling walls, castle-siege style. And among the red MAGA hats and Confederate flags in that mob were Knights Templar and Crusader crosses.

In Charlottesville four years earlier, torches gave a medieval glow to right-wing marchers in khakis and camo who also carried banners with Norse runes, shields and those crosses.

But historically, Middle Ages racist chic is all wrong.

“It’s taken a place of justification,” said Matt Gabriele, professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech. White supremacists have appropriated the Middle Ages and the Crusades “as a way of showing their particularly vile sentiments have historical justification.” They don’t. It’s not academic, but rather nostalgic, he said.

Beyond fragile white men and their appropriation of Camelot and codpieces, Medieval Remix has been the soundtrack for our times.

Remember all those President Donald Trump pardons of his own posse — Roger Stone, Joe Arpaio, Steve Bannon, Elliott Broidy — that smacked of papal indulgences?

Or the Republican National Committee guy who called vaccines “the mark of the beast” and comparable to a “false god.” Is Anthony Fauci the new Copernicus?

The seismic shift in our economic structure — a world of tech oligarchs with oceans of uber-serfs driving their gig economy — is feudalism redux, according to Joel Kotkin, whose next book is called “The New Feudalism: The Coming Global Return to the Middle Ages.”

“Following a remarkable epoch of greater dispersion of wealth and opportunity, we are inexorably returning towards a more feudal era marked by greater concentration of wealth and property, reduced upward mobility, demographic stagnation, and increased dogmatism,” Kotkin wrote on his website. “The new class structure resembles that of Medieval times.”

And when we serfs are sick of being chained to our cubicles, we’re even sounding like our unwashed, tunic-wearing brethren.

When the commons had it with yet another round of vile Richard II’s taxations and wage cuts in 1381, they protested with their voices, with a massive, unified “ocean’s roar” and “thunder,” said Adin Lears, an assistant English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Poets described the vocal tidal wave by the common folk as shrieking and shouting monster cries, wild braying and whinnying, oxen bellows, goose honks, wolf howls.

Sound familiar?

“Twitter is arguably an example of the common voice-as-noise writ large in contemporary culture,” Lears said.

The way medieval masses used their noise is echoed with Twitter “in ways that are both positive (it can amplify the perspectives of marginalized voices by bringing them together for social and political action) and dangerous (as we saw with the January 6th insurrection),” Lears said.

The Dark Ages were dark because of the lack of information — Democracy Dies in Darkness, remember? That part’s different now.


“We are now in an age when the folks at Silicon Valley turned on the fire hose spigot of information,” said Rubenstein, who organized a conference on conspiracy theories at USC this year. “There’s too much of it, and not enough people are able to tell the good from the bad.”

OK, let’s call it the Murky Ages, then.

The QAnon conspiracy theory was especially striking to Rubenstein.

“As I read, I thought, ‘I’ve heard a lot of these ideas before in the 12th- and 13th-century playbook — Jewish cabals controlling finances, children being sacrificed, vast conspiratorial movements to control power, with the expectation that a messianic figure will appear to make everything OK,’ " he said in a USC publication.

Most academics will hate this take. Plenty scoffed when I asked. Because here’s the thing — the Dark Ages weren’t all bad.

Sure, churches were a little ham-handed, but they also helped build universities, the very crucibles where breakthroughs and discoveries were being made before and into the age of enlightenment.

Gabriele and colleague David Perry just wrote a book about this — “The Bright Ages” — where they discuss the place we’ve assigned the time we call the Dark Ages.

“The Middle Ages become this repository of feelings. It’s a place that we like to put the things we don’t want to deal with in our modern worlds — violence, anti-vax, anti-intellectualism,” he said.

And in some ways, some of our worst thinking now — especially with it comes to the coronavirus and anti-science ideas — is far worse than anything folks did during the Black Plague.

“It’s not like people were saying, ‘Let’s go lick a rat,’ " he said.

What we do have going for us is perspective. And we have the will to put these years of darkness, division, Viking glam and ignorance behind and declare a new date.

Jan. 1, 2022, the New American Enlightenment.


Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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