Monday, March 18, 2013

Of Kings and Nerds

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you're aware that within the last month the remains of a medieval king of England named Richard, found under a car park in Leicester, have been positively identified by Serious Scientific Methods.

This has been a very big deal for me, because I’ve been paying attention to the historical record and speculation about Richard III for most of my adult life. To say that I was excited about the most recent developments would be an understatement. I first learned of the planned dig from Richard III Society publications, duly informed other medievephiles of my acquaintance, made sadfaces when it looked like the dig would be cancelled due to financial considerations, and finally spent several days walking around in open mouthed-awe (which is not wise to do during stink-bug season, I’m here to tell you) when his likely remains were found on the very first day of excavations.  It’s not usual to hit pay-dirt on an archaeological dig like that (and so I feel badly for archaeologists who now have to deal with a precedent that sets up Indiana Jones-like sensational expectations of their work), so this find quickly became Big News.

And that’s when the real fun started (she said sarcastically).

The sight of the newly-found skeleton elicited both sympathetic and pithy commentary due to a severe spinal curvature and some wicked battle trauma scars (not to mention missing feet, lost to subsequent building on the site).

The remains were scrupulously examined and identified with the aid of DNA testing, environmental sampling and radiocarbon dating. Richard garnered international attention 528 years after his ignominious death when February 2013 press conferences and Channel4 documentaries Revealed All. Well, all except for answers to burning questions like did Richard REALLY believe that his brother was plight-trothed to Eleanor Talbot? And when are those nephews of his going to come in from playing outside? In addition to confirming the identity of Dem Bones, a well-intentioned but cringe-worthy, cross-eyed, heavily made-up facial reconstruction was also revealed. While certainly the product of Skill and Artistry, it did nothing to illuminate the historical record for me.
I’ve stayed out of the related online fray for the most part. Uhm, okay, I did snicker at the stretching of the boundaries of Internet wit, which now includes R3 memes having to do with parking lot humor and hide-and-seek championships. But any kind of serious discourse almost immediately degenerated into extremities and polarization of opinion, with seemingly no middle ground on any issues and historical over-identification dominating.

Lancastrian vs Yorkist has always been a trope in medieval online discussions, but now we’ve got fangirls so inspired by the comeliness of Richard’s newfound conjectured noble visage that they are able to make absolute declarations about his character. Not everyone is so irrational, but the extremists are loud and loquacious, and they've drowned out the reasonable voices. It's become simultaneously embarrassing, frustrating and fascinating to watch what was once a niche interest become a mainstream preoccupation. Add to that the escalation of hostilities related to the intended formal re-interment of Richard's remains, and the scene is as appetizing as Bosworth Field was on 22 August 1485.

The current Ricardian brouhaha amuses me whenever I think of those who'd have us believe that history isn’t relevant in the modern era. But I went through junior high school once already, so I've zero interest in engaging with the Medieval Middle School Mentality that has prevailed in so many online discussions. I don't pick teams when it comes to history. It's become so petty and ridiculous that I've given up reading commentary about Richard and his times, weary of being overwhelmed by the extremism and partisanship that pervades such discussions. Granted, name-calling, finger-pointing, and partisanship are simply the Way of the Internet when passions are excited, no matter the topic.

I also recognize that the excitement generated by these findings may bring new interest to historical fields, and identify with what one commentator astutely observed in The Guardian, “Perhaps it is the awareness of the need to resist the impulse to identify with your characters that makes professional historians less forgiving than they might otherwise be of such enthusiasm, even while we make use of it in supporting our research and preservation of heritage.”  Given my long-term historical interests, I’m not exactly a non-partial observer of these new chapters in Richard’s story. But at the same time, I'm not going to be joining any "I was into Richard III before he was cool" fan clubs, either, because that's equally juvenile.

I won't begrudge anyone their right to drool over a facial reconstruction, but Imma hand you a spit rag and leave the room so you can have your privacy.

Bowing out of the Internet fray and letting go my long-standing membership in Ricardian organizations doesn't mean my interests are diminished. This still remains big news for History Nerds like me, for whom passion about the past is normative. I simply have no interest in watching people exercising those passions against one another; the War of the Roses doesn't need to be fought all over again. I suppose Ricardian-related drama just proves that every niche interest has its battleground, and every Nerd will have his/her day. In my day the term ‘nerd’ implied a certain level of social maladjustment tending toward introversion, which doesn’t quite apply in these days when ubiquitous social media allows anyone to be popular on the Internet. Unlike when I was a kid (*cue old timey music*) being a Nerd of any sort is far cooler and less isolating these days, regardless of the nature of your niche interest. You can always find someone to relate to, thanks to the Internet. Dead kings or anime characters, take your pick, and it’s all good.

Witness the popularity of TBS television series, King of the Nerds, a show skewering the genre of competitive reality shows whilst being one itself, albeit self-consciously. Eleven contestants competed in fringe-celebrity-judged challenges and eliminatory competitions called Nerd-Offs for the title of King of Nerds, the right to sit upon a Throne of Games, and a big money grand prize.  The show generated a great deal of social media buzz, and as of this writing has been renewed for a second season (a sure sign of success).

Now this show did not attempt to define Nerditry in all its epidemiological and/or epistemological glory, which may have had the effect of alienating some of its intended viewership. After all, nerds do like to parse, classify, and analyze ad infinitum.  The show's a priori assumption was that there are all types of nerdy interests and skill sets, all equally deserving of respect, so get past the parsing. And thus the premise: toss a group of self-identified nerdy types into a fishbowl and watch the ensuing social flailing. Surely that will be entertaining, right? In this Internet age, communal media viewership has passed from the three dominant networks of my youth to a plethora of choices supplemented by drive-by commentary on niche interest Internet discussion boards. Nerds critiquing nerds, what could be more meta? 

What I found most interesting about King of the Nerds were its sociological implications. This has been the only reality show I’ve ever watched, as I don’t have enough patience or masochistic tendencies to sit through the editorial manipulation and manufactured drama that characterizes this genre. I truly only tuned in because a friend of mine was one of the contestants, so I don't have a real basis of comparison to draw upon. Then again, I'm not sure that matters. I am nothing if not (overly) analytical, and critical viewers like me could quickly see that the contestants were chosen because they hit the right marks on a casting checklist of Nerd archetypes and audience-appealing characteristics. 

What made this show appealing to me was that (with a few notable exceptions) the participants were proud of their individuality and not willing to rest solely on their archetypes. Most were kind, intelligent, articulate good sports who had healthy levels of insight and perspective about their niche interests and specialized abilities. They were each in it to win, to be sure, and there were predictable within-group alliances. But overall, this was a group that was able to bond, and most members seemed to genuinely care about one another. Because of the high collective and individual likability quotients and earnestness of most contestants, the show was able to celebrate and showcase intelligence and academic ability as desirable and cool traits (even if some of the competitions made poor use of the expertise of the players).

And as a self-proclaimed Nerd who is married to a Nerd and raising little Nerdlets, I think anything demonstrating that it’s cool to let your freak flag fly is a Good Thing.

It must be noted that this show wouldn’t have had the success it did without the adjunctive commentary vis-a-vis social media outlets. Such commentary allowed for identification, interaction with participants, clarification and expansion. And yeah, some predictable mean-spiritedness among observers who found safety in the Internet's relative anonymity. This particular generation is inherently comfortable with social media, and perhaps that was also a unifying factor among the contestants. In general, social media can help any movement by raising awareness and expanding the relatable sphere by bringing people together with a common interest.

And as it is with Nerdliness, so too with the fascination for dead kings.

Social media experiences can only be as positive as we orchestrate them to be, and it all comes down to individual choices. For five long years, I was the administrator of a large online message forum that was created around a very specific interest. The discussions at best were stimulating and fun, but they could also devolve into examples of the Worst of the Internet. When the latter happened, once I'd attended to damage control and occasionally laid down the ban-hammer, the therapist in me was tempted to do a meta-analysis of how it all went wrong. It was always painfully clear to me which individual comments were clumsily crafted or misinterpreted, and where just a wee bit of clarification and toned-down emotionality would have better served. I'm more sensitized to such issues than most, but I maintain that we could all do better jobs communicating with one another. Constant vigilance so that each of us individually maintains a healthy respect for differences, awareness of tone, and clarity of expression is called for. That's hard but necessary work.

And it's what I don't see happening on the worst of days in the online Ricardian community. 

King of the Nerds was ultimately a reality show, and as such the requisite editorial manipulation of that genre made it seem as ‘realistic’ as a show in which appearances, athleticism, wealth or extreme survival skillz dictate the social order. Because we don’t live in a perfect world, there were judgmental and ostracizing moments even among the Nerds, moments both ‘real’ and staged. That’s to be expected, for we can but rise to the heights and descend to the depths that our common humanity imposes upon us (or our show's producers).

But despite all that (and even despite a controversial peer vote to choose a winner between the final two  contestants), it seemed that the bond of common experience trumped differences on this show. Many of the contestants remained friends even in the face of crushing partisan comments from social media. I think that should be exemplary. Absolutely, there was a self-conscious irony in trying to apply the social reality show template to a bunch of people who have typically gone it alone due to their atypical interests. But the format worked because overcoming that isolationist bent and navigating the social sphere were the ultimate ‘Nerd Challenges’ for many of the contestants, and forging bonds with one another was the ultimate reward. I can't say that it trumped television exposure (fame!) or the ultimate jackpot (money!) for them. But it was clearly Something Important, and I daresay that the most insightful contestants will take that away as the ultimate reward from the experience.     

I believe that there are emotional and intellectual deficits that incline some individuals to gravitate toward division and dichotomies of thinking, and away from compromise and negotiation.  I’ve always been one who has seen critical value in working within a system, versus complete take-down for upheaval’s sake. Today’s media, both social and mainstream, are inclined to highlight conflict and to feed upon an apparently insatiable communal desire to watch one another implode and behave badly. Politics, reality shows, and sporting events all operate on that same voyeuristic, competitive spectrum to one degree or another.

And apparently so, too, does debate about a king dead some 528 years. Team Richard? Right.

In an article about a so-called Facebook War of the Roses, author Amy Licence's take-home message about the drama swirling around Richard III was that " is worthwhile considering what we can learn from history. If the bloody conflicts that ended Richard’s life teach us nothing else, let us conduct ourselves with civility, dignity and a sense of proportion."

Call me naive as I channel my inner Rodney King here, but I think we're made of more promising stuff and we owe it to ourselves to get along better. That’s why I don’t go in for endless debate about issues, watch combative shows, or hang with people who focus on highlighting differences. It's also partly why I don't moderate a big message forum any longer. I don’t need that kind of negativity. I want to understand and celebrate differences and distinctions, not widen the gulf between them by taking sides. After all, we know that what works best in communities is organization and cooperation, which come when individuals de-polarize and learn to recognize, accept and celebrate nuances and ambiguities. 

As is true of most powerful figures, Richard III was a complex character who was capable of both admirable and regrettable actions, of honor and dishonor. He was a man of his times -- which were not our times -- and knowing that, I have no problem considering his culpability for certain political deaths. At the same time, I also believe he possessed a certain integrity of spirit (albeit to the point of rigidity in some instances) that provided the moral underpinning for actions taken, as exemplified by his personal motto of "Loyaulte me lie."  Looking at events of the distant past through the social filters of today and not knowing all the facts makes drawing final and accurate conclusions impossible.

If a group of self-proclaimed Nerds on a reality show can show us that they can respond with compassion to one another, even in the face of high money stakes on national television, then surely a nerdly group bonded by historical interests can overcome their differences and cease the juvenile came-calling and judgmentalism. 

At the end of the day, I am glad that Richard, the last of the Plantagenet line, will have a nobler resting place than under a car park -- whether it’s one marked by slab or a tomb, in Leicester or in York.  Modern curiousity about his life means he’ll never wholly rest at peace, but so be it. Such is the fate of public figures; we think they belong to us. And in a way, they sort of do. Just ask the contestants on King of the Nerds, who've found themselves the subjects of lascivious Internet fan fiction pairings...

One of the contestants on King of the Nerds commented in the finale that “Kings who are born into power normally fail, but it’s the ones that are brought into power by their own people that truly rule.” History doesn't support the first part of his first statement, but the second presents an interesting idea to contemplate in this context. Richard III became king by exploiting technicalities of law (rightfully or wrongfully depending upon your point of view). But he failed to shore up and sustain widespread support for his reign. The reasons are complex, and arguably have as much to do with Richard personally as they do with national exhaustion and individual self-interest in the face of being asked yet again take sides to perpetuate more than a century of civil war.

But regardless, the bottom line is that we work best when we work together, and we've each got a measure of responsibility for making that happen.

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