Would Newt Gingrich mislead and misrepresent history for political purposes?

201008090111.jpg *Check out the end for the link between this picture and Cordoba, the city

This plush interior will not stand
[Via Crooked Timber]

Newt Gingrich, distinguished professor of history and reigning intellectual heavyweight of the Republican Party, explains how crafty Muslims are trying to exploit the ignorance of liberal American elites:

The proposed “Cordoba House” overlooking the World Trade Center site—where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks—is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites. For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to the Chrysler Cordoba, a car made famous by a foreign kind of Mexican man who touted its un-American “soft Corinthian leather.” […I]n fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of soft Corinthian leather. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.

Well, at first I thought Newt had to be kidding, but then I did some historical research, and guess what? He’s completely right! Check out the Islamomexicanian accent and music that was used to sell “this small Chrysler” to an unsuspecting American market:

You can fool some of the people some of the time, Islamists. But you can’t fool our Newt—not now, not tomorrow, not even in the middle ages.

No to Cordoba House. No to secret Islamist insults. And no, a thousand times no, to soft Corinthian leather.

H/t to JP Stormcrow.

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Here is his real quote:

The proposed “Cordoba House” overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks – is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites. For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. […I]n fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.

Would Newt misrepresent history? Would he take things out of context, discussing facts in a way to actually lower their information content? Deliberately insulting? The ironic thing is he is basing his argument on historic ignorance and misrepresentation in the way that all demagogues do. I actually believe his last line more fittingly belongs to his comments than his opponents.

Would Newt try to mislead you and mischaracterize another in order to score political points in a purely divisive fashion?

Is the Pope Catholic? Or, in fact, did the Catholic Pope learn things in Cordoba that changed Europe? Turns out that some of the Catholics and Jews who inhabited the city of Cordoba had a much greater positive impact on history than Newt ever will.

Of course the above quote about the car misrepresents what Newt said. But the link does a pretty good job demonstrating how Newt’s original quote misrepresents history in a particularly partisan and divisive way. Reality is much more interesting, more complex and actually makes a better argument against Newt, which I am sure he knows, as he is a well-educated man.

The Cordoba most people, aside for a fire-breathing Newt, would bring up represents a city of tolerance between Jews, Catholics and Muslims that resulted in the creation of arguably the greatest city in Europe at the time – for the arts, for science, for medicine, for architecture, for learning, for engineering, for mathematics, for astronomy and probably anything else we would find useful.

Yes, Cordoba had a large mosque at the time. A mosque that the Muslims shared with the Catholics for 50 years until they paid the Catholics for the area and allowed the Catholics to build another church.

But it also housed the largest library in the world. Muslims and Christians worked together to translate works from Rome and Greece, and the Arab world. Some of these works from the ancient world only made it to the West because of the work in Cordoba.

Newt leaves out 99% of the relevant, interesting history in order to make a short term political point of demagoguery. It is what he is good at.

His simplification of the history of the great city that was Cordoba under Islam allows him to create an ahistoric image and plant it on people who he wants us to fear. It permits him him to propagate a stereotype that may bring fear to his listeners but presents such a misleading image that he might as well be talking about a car.

For one thing, he leaves out the part about how the Christian conquerors symbolized their victory over Muslim Cordoba by transforming the mosque back into a church. You know, that was what conquering armies did. Nothing in history suggests that they shared the Church with any Muslims or paid them for the buildings. The returning Catholics were not that tolerant.

Let’s see what the Catholic Encyclopedia does have to say about Cordoba around the time its mosque was being expanded into the third largest in the world:

In 962 Abd-er Rahman III was succeeded by his son Al-Hakim. Owing to the peace which the Christians of Cordova then enjoyed, some knowledge of their condition has been preserved, among other things the name of their bishop, Joannes, also the fact that, at that period, the citizens of Cordova,Arabs, Christians, and Jews, enjoyed so high a degree of literary culture that the city was known as the New Athens. From all quarters came students eager to drink at its founts of knowledge. Among the men afterwards famous who studied at Cordova were the scholarly monk Gerbert, destined to sit on the Chair of Peter as Sylvester II (999-1003), theJewish rabbis Moses and Maimonides, and the famous Spanish-Arabian commentator on Aristotle, Averroes (Bourret, De Scholâ Cordubæ christianâ sub Omiaditarum imperio, Paris, 1853).[my emphasis]

The New Athens. Not the New Damascus. Or the New Alexandria. Not some other city under Muslim rule. But the New Athens. Is that somehow a bad thing for a city to be known as?

And, to most people’s surprise, one of the Popes studied in Cordoba. In fact, Pope Sylvester II could be viewed as one of the few scientists who ever became a pope. He created new tools for calculating, wrote about the sciences and taught others, including one of the Holy Roman Emperors.

His studies in Cordoba revealed to him many of the things that had been lost in Europe. He learned about the Arabic number system when educated men in Europe were only being taught the Roman system.

This helped him reintroduce the abacus to Europe, which had been lost after the fall of Rome. Something he simply had heard about from a Spanish Arab had a huge effect on European business for the next several centuries. His fascination with Arab science produced a description of an astrolabe – unknown in Europe since before the Dark Ages. He was primarily responsible for the reintroduction of the armillary sphere to Europe – an incredibly important tool for examining the heavens. He even innovated, adding sighting tubes on the armillary sphere to allow the Pole Star to be easily sighted.

As a Pope, he was ahead of his time, particularly fighting against the Church’s use of simony, 500 years before Martin Luther mentioned them in his 95 Theses. He sounds like a really great man, almost a Renaissance man, 300 years before the Renaissance.

Of course, Newt would simply say he was French and thus worth ignoring. Grossly simplifying an astounding man and his life would be par for the course.

This is just one man who was educated at Cordoba. What he learned there had a tremendous impact on those of us in the Western World. And he was not the only one who was influenced positively by Cordoba or its legacy.

It was not just Catholics who worked with the Muslims in Cordoba to create a great city.

As mentioned by the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were many Hebrew rabbis that lived in Cordoba whose impact is still felt today. This was a Golden Age for Jews. They were ministers to the rulers and Cordoba became a center for Talmudic study. They were treated much better in Cordoba than elsewhere in Europe. In fact, not too long after Ferdinand and Isabella took the Iberian Peninsula back for Catholics, all Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Catholicism or were banned from living in the country. The resulting Spanish Inquisition is today the very emblem of religious repression and intolerance in Europe.

So, if I were in the mood, I would make the point that the intolerant way Catholics treated those of other religions when Catholics ruled the Iberian Penisula seems similar to the intolerance displayed by Catholics, such as Newt, towards others. But I won’t because the world and Newt are much more complex than that; something I wish an educated man like Newt would at least recognize.

There is a reason we really know about Cordoba, rather than some other city under Muslim rule. That is because it has historically been known as a city where members of all three Abrahamic religions worked together and were, for a time, the citizens of one of the greatest cities of the last 1000 years or so. It is known because of this and it is because of this that the name Cordoba House was chosen.

We should all live in a city where Jews, Christians and Muslims live in peace and create some of the most important work in human history. Perhaps New York will be known 500 years from now as such as city.

But that is not Newt’s purpose – he wants to divide for partisan gain. Midterm elections are coming up, followed by a Presidential one. It certainly appears that a well-educated man as himself wishes to simplify and misrepresent the rich history of one of Europe’s great cities for political gain. This allows him to simplify and misrepresent the purpose of a group whose vilification he hopes will help keep him at the front of the pack.

Simplify something complex. Misrepresent the facts. Scare people. The tools of the demagogue. Perhaps we should just call Newt Senator Bob Rumson. Or perhaps Shelly Runyon.

One great thing about demagogues – there is always a ton of material for people willing to debunk their words. Aa long as debunking is allowed to continue.


*Finally, the interesting conjunction of the car, Newt and Cordoba led me to the picture. Ricardo Montalban was the actor who talked about the Corinthian leather and is pictured with the car. It turns out that there is a city in Spain called Montalban de Cordoba. Yep, it is in the province of Cordoba, about 42 kilometers from that city. Ricardo’s parents were of Castilian ancestry and the Crown of Castile happens to include Cordoba.

Of course, there are lots of Montalbans in Spain but it is interesting that a small town not far from Cordoba has the same name as the actor selling a Cordoba. I wonder if anyone has ever done the genealogy of Ricardo.

Life is much more interesting than Newt would like us to think.

So, even the smooth voice describing the Cordoba car has a link to the city of Cordoba, reminding us of just what an amazing city it once was.

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