Monday, July 23, 2012

Damnatio memoriae

Penn State University has bowed to public outrage over the role of former sports hero Joe Paterno, who stealthily permitted his assistant, Jerry Sandusky, to subject young boys to homosexual rape rather than risk the public image of his football program:

A statue honouring Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno has been torn down as the university bows to massive public outcry.
Penn State ordered the removal of the statue of Hall of Fame coach early on Sunday morning.
Workers lifted the statue off its base and used a forklift to move it into Beaver Stadium early Sunday as the 100 to 150 students watching chanted, 'We are Penn State.'

Well, better you than me.

This is an interesting example of damnatio memoriae - the obliteration of a famous person from history. The Romans did this, but not often - it was reserved for those who'd committed outrageous crimes against the community. It was done to 3 Emperors who'd been especially bad. This would have been a very big deal for pagans - they didn't have the same idea of an afterlife that we Christians do. For them, immortality was living on in the memory of those who came after. They knew how hard this is - most people survive in memory for a generation or two and then are forgotten. To be remembered for one's good deeds hundreds of years after one's death, and not just by your family - that was fama, as good as it gets for humans.

So to be deliberately forgotten, erased from memory, was more than death. It was tantamount to Hell, reduced to nothingness.

Of course the Communists of the USSR did something similar, but typically, it's twisted and perverted. Their project of reinventing humanity extended to recreating our minds and memories. They figured that if they could successfully "erase" an inconvenient person, they could create a world where it was impossible for anyone to even think about them. It's the same philosophy behind politically correct language codes: systematically choke off the words for an undesirable thing, and then the mind will not be able to think it anymore. Nonexistence through brainwashing.

The old Roman way was healthier, as it was a response to a general need to expel a tainted member of society, as a way of healing and strengthening the offended community. This healthier reaction still occasionally persists.

We had a case of it just over a year ago here in Canada. Colonel Russell Williams, a high-ranking military commander, was found guilty of several perverted sex crimes, including two murders. After he was tried and sent to prison, a odd article appeared in the news:
In an act freighted with symbolism, the Canadian Forces has burned convicted serial killer Russell Williams’ military kit — all his ceremonial and fighting uniforms, as well as shirts, headdress, boots, gloves, rucksacks, and other items of military apparel.

The kit was committed to the flames of a roaring furnace at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, which Mr. Williams once commanded, in the early hours of Thursday morning. The bonfire was witnessed by the four military officials who, one day earlier, spent 90 minutes reclaiming the uniforms from the former air force colonel’s cottage in Tweed, Ont.

Canadian Forces spokesperson Cmdr. Hubert Genest said in an interview that the idea to burn the uniforms had emerged “from the bottom up and been endorsed by the chain of command.”

“We did what we felt was necessary,” said Cmdr. Genest. “It feels right.”

It's interesting this was not a normal procedure. The military is not an organization noted for its spontaneity. Usually there are rules for things, and those rules are scrupulously followed. But in this case, a groundswell of feeling from within led to this novel ceremony, and even the people who did it had to admit that they couldn't really explain it.
Military historians called the burning of his kit unprecedented. “I’ve never heard anything like that,” said Jack Granatstein, director general of the Canadian War Museum. “I guess it’s embarrassment as much as erase the shame and stigma” of Mr. Williams’ association with the Forces. “It’s an exorcism. We are exorcising the memory of Russell Williams.”

“I have absolutely no idea where that idea might have come from,” said Terry Copp, director of the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies. “It’s unprecedented. I know deserters were executed during the First World War, but they’d have been given proper burial.”

It's damnatio memoriae - a person so unfit to be among us that even his name is an intolerable pollution. Let him be forgotten.

Since I started writing this this morning, the NCAA handed down its punishment for the PSU football program. The damnatio memoriae continues:
College sports' governing body today fined Pennsylvania State University $60 million and vacated more than a decade of its football team's wins for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

It's that line about obliterating the record of history that I find interesting. In effect, the treasure that Paterno and the other PSU officials corrupted themselves for, the shining name and record of the Penn State football team, has been erased. All those wins and records - now they never happened.

People who ask "But what good will it do?" won't be satisfied by the answer. It doesn't undo the abuse to the boys or repay money gained through fraud. It's operating on a more primitive level - it has to be done, because not doing it is intolerable. It's an exorcism, and such things just don't measure out in dollars and cents.


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