History informs us that scapegoating vulnerable minorities is a risky proposition that can easily spin out of control. A book about the Black Plague by John Kelly, “The Great Mortality,” reveals some disturbing parallels between anti-Semitism in Middle Ages Europe and the current Russian crackdown on LGBT people. While the plight and circumstances experienced by diverse groups in radically different eras of human history makes comparisons tricky, there are undoubtedly commonalities worth exploring.
According to Kelly, there was a dramatic rise in violent anti-Semitism sometime after the year 1000. These brutal attacks did not occur by chance, but were the result of a mutating strain of militant Christianity that swept the continent: “The Civitas Dei — or God State — grew out of a wave of intense pietism that swept through Europe in the Central Middle Ages. The new state’s controlling metaphor was the body: just as various limbs fit together into an organic whole, so, too, does – or should Christian society. Inspired by this corporatist vision, the angry sword of orthodoxy struck out at minorities, such as Albigensian heretics of Southern France and the Jews. Many aspects of modern anti-Semitism date from the period of Civitas Dei.”
It appears that contemporary Russia is going through its own Civitas Dei. The Moscow Times wrote a stinging editorial this week that warned of the consequences of the creeping God State in Russia: “Even more dangerous is the direct interference of the church in politics. The hierarchy of the Orthodox church openly declared a crusade against multiculturalism, tolerance and other Western values. It’s no secret that the recent law limiting the rights of homosexuals was passed after strong lobbying by the church.”
In the original Civitas Dei period, Jews were dehumanized, as the masses took their cues from church leaders and kings. According to “The Great Mortality:” “As anti-Semitism intensified, petty degradations became a daily occurrence for many Jews. In Turin, Jews caught on the street during first snowfall were pelted with snowballs unless they paid a ransom of 25 ducats.”
Similarly, as respected Russian officials sanction homophobia, they are emboldening thugs to carry out hate crimes. Instead of hurling snowballs, Russian extremists show their contempt for LGBT people by throwing rotten eggs. We have also seen Russian gay teens targeted online by neo-Nazis — where they are lured into violent and degrading situations.
To effectively demonize any minority, an alternative narrative, or conspiracy theory, is frequently created to portray them as evil menaces to society. For medieval Jews, rumors were circulated that they were “Christ-killers” that sought the blood of Christian children.
In a similar fashion, Russia’s new propaganda law is a conspiracy theory and dangerous blood libel against LGBT people that threatens to metastasize. The underlying lie — some would call propaganda – is that homosexuality is somehow contagious, so children must be shielded, lest they be contaminated by evil. The insinuation is that gayness is learned through brainwashing, caught like a disease, or acquired though sexual misconduct.
However, mountains of research show that homosexuality is a biological phenomenon in nature that can’t be caught and can’t be taught. According to the American Psychological Association: “There is no scientific support for fears about children of lesbian or gay parents being sexually abused by their parents or their parents’ gay, lesbian, or bisexual friends or acquaintances….Overall, the research indicates that the children of lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from the children of heterosexual parents in their development, adjustment, or overall well-being.”
What we are witnessing in Russia is a modern pogrom. The state is imposing social death on its LGBT population and its new law is designed to make openly gay people disappear through force and intimidation. If one is out of the closet in this sick society, they will have a limited future, to put it mildly.
History teaches us that targeting and bashing minorities is a dangerous game that could lead down a road with unintended consequences. The record is clear, particularly in this part of the world, that once scapegoats are designated for retribution, things rarely turn out well for the victims.
Of course, with the world watching and organizing a determined campaign against Russia’s barbarism, things might not turn out so well for Vladimir Putin’s Russia either. In real life, just like the movies, the evil dictator and the uncivilized state usually get what they deserve in the end, and I suspect this time will be no exception.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”