Today I have two topics to discuss, though they aren’t particularly closely related.
In Salon yesterday, Christine Montross has an interesting piece on “Jerusalem syndrome,” an unofficial and disputed psychiatric condition whereby a certain number of individuals with “unusual ideas” about the Bible become obsessed with Jerusalem, visit the city, and have a psychotic episode while there. More concerning, seemingly-normal people visiting the city can become susceptible to similar episodes, developing psychosis in identifiable stages: They first declare their intention to explore the city by themselves, walking the streets alone. Next, they become fixated on purity and hygiene. After purifying themselves, they will typically dress in pseudo-Biblical clothing, frequently made of bed sheets, and then proceed to a holy place to deliver a ranting sermon about morality and simplicity. Within five days, the syndrome subsides and the otherwise normal person returns to ordinary life as though nothing had ever happened.
This happens frequently enough (42 times in 13 years) to lead some psychologists to consider it a bona fide disorder, while others suggest that extreme belief, even if hidden in “normal” life, is the root cause of its manifestation when outside the “normal” environment during a visit to the city.
Apparently, though, Jerusalem is not alone. Japanese tourists in Paris experience psychotic breaks due to highly romantic expectations of Paris clashing against the banality of everyday Parisian life. They became agitated, violent, and sometimes suicidal. In Florence, tourists become hysterical, violent, and paranoid while viewing Renaissance art, with one man claiming that the art revealed the empty hoax that was his life and several other tourists losing their sense of time or identity.
In these cases, deeply held beliefs provoked extreme reactions, and I wonder if there isn’t an “alternative history syndrome” to explain why so many who begin exploring alternative history become obsessed with defending low-evidence hypotheses, describe alternative history in religious or belief-oriented language, and become combative and extremely hostile when their deeply-held ideologies face evidence-based challenges. I’m not seriously arguing that alternative history creates psychosis, but it is interesting that cases like Jerusalem syndrome indicate just how deeply affected the brain can become when ideology and emotion collide in precisely the right way.
Most interesting, I think, is that these various syndromes are associated with specific groups. In Paris, it is almost always Japanese tourists because the Japanese have a particularly strong belief about Paris as a center of culture. In Jerusalem, it is almost always Western Christians. In other words, the syndrome has a cultural aspect—Hindus are not generally terribly interested in Jerusalem, for example.
What Happens When an African American Watches America Unearthed?
On a somewhat related note, it is interesting to see what people from outside the target audience for alternative history think about it. I don’t imagine it surprises anyone to know that the audience for America Unearthed is very heavily weighted toward white viewers. H2 does not break down their audience by race, but a review of cable viewing numbers for African American and white audiences shows significant divergence across all television programs, with the two audiences sharing very little in common. For example, no History Channel shows appear on the most recent list of the most popular cable programs for all African American adults (exception: one, Swamp People, appears on the list for African American men 25-54), while four appear on the list for overall viewers, nearly three-quarters of whom are white. The obvious conclusion is that African American audiences do not watch the History Channel in significant numbers, and therefore not its more specialized sibling H2.
This is a lot of set up for a brief bit of humor. What happens when a non-white viewer stumbles across America Unearthed? Recently an African American viewer tuned in to America Unearthed for the first time, and she immediately detected a racial component to the show’s version of American history that has gone largely unnoticed among white viewers:
Watching America Unearthed and the white guy was like ‘the history we learned in school is wrong’ tell me more Tombs and catacombs and pyramids? Ancient languages? No one can read them? Maybe if ya’ll didn’t murder millions of natives we would know a lot more of “American” history And then they wanna act like native attacks are wrong bitch you came onto their land trying to make towns and shit, you can’t do that Stand your Ground remember? ugh im babbling because its like 3 am but whatever
Now, granted, this writer has an interest in social justice issues; however, this viewer immediately recognized the lack of Native American perspectives, the lack of understanding of Native American contributions to American pre-history, and the program’s ethnocentrism.
I am, of course, not suggesting that race defines how we react to history. Rather, each of us approaches claims about history with certain assumptions and values. When we see how those who do not share all of the same assumptions and values view a claim, we gain a new perspective and new insight. Just to show that it isn’t all about race: I’ve heard from many white Australians who are just now getting America Unearthed on their televisions, and the reaction has been almost uniformly the same. Australia doesn’t share America’s negative historical relationship with Native Americans (though Australia has its own complex history with its Aboriginal peoples) and therefore the lack of Native Americans on the show is just as obvious there.
Compare, however, our writer’s reaction to that of Scott Wolter himself, as he related it on the radio with Tim Shaw a few weeks ago, when he proclaimed that he was fighting against
…the post-Manifest Destiny period where, you know, I mean, let’s be honest, you know, we committed genocide against the Natives because they were not Christian, they were pagan, and not worthy of owning this land, so we took it from ’em, and, I mean, you know, it’s virgin land, right? It’s basically free for the taking. And when they were finding evidence—cause you know they did—of previous contact with all kinds of cultures, some of them land claims like the Kensington Rune Stone, what would this do to Manifest Destiny? [Shaw (cross-talk): “Exactly, exactly.”] It would create a problem, wouldn’t it? So what do you do? You just make it go away. I mean, it was the simplest, it was the easiest explanation. And some people would say, well, you’re talking about a major conspiracy. In some ways, I think there is a conspiracy going on until people can explain to me things like the Bat Creek Stone.
In the statements of Scott Wolter, Native Americans appear as collateral damage in a grand conspiracy by some white people to cover up the actions of other white people to hide the truth from still more white people in the name of political power. It’s never stated that way, and I doubt Wolter thinks of it in those terms, but as you can see, when you don’t share the Eurocentric viewpoint, it sure looks that way.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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