Deuteronomy and Revisionist History

During the early part of this coming week, we’ll complete our reading of the Torah with Deuteronomy.  At first, it might seem odd that the book of Deuteronomy repeats many of the laws already mentioned in other places during the Torah. This particularly creates a problem when certain laws, which allegedly come from God, differ slightly in wording.  As biblical scholars have asserted, Deuteronomy is something like a “pious forgery,” an act of historical revisionism par excellance. That is, the re-telling of the narrative and laws holds a specific political and social function for the people reading this text.

Whenever I think about Deuteronomy and the concept of historical revisionism in the Old Testament, I am reminded of (semi) recent films that are interested in the past.  One year ago, the infamous ex-congressional representative Charlie Wilson died of a heart attack. You may be familiar with Wilson’s role in US history, and you might have even seen the endlessly-fascinating film, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) about his covert strategy to fight the USSR, at the time perceived to be the greatest “threat” to American Democracy.
If you’ve seen Charlie Wilson’s War you’ll realize that it’s like many films about historical events: it re-tells a story in such a way that the re-telling is in fact a commentary on events contemporary to the time in which it was produced (2007), not the events it depicts (the Cold War in the mid 1980s).

Charlie Wilson’s War depicts Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) as a promiscuous and carousing politician who visits Afghanistan, at the urging of one of his lady friends and political contacts, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Wilson and his staff experience for themselves the destruction and suffering that has befallen that country, largely because of its feeble efforts to ward off the great Red giant. Wilson immediately returns to Washington, uses his political clout and connections to finance more sophisticated weaponry for the Afghanis, and ultimately orchestrates an attack against the Soviets.

The problem with this film is that its trajectory resembles a feel-good sports movie, all the while eliding the political and ideological fallacies of the Cold War itself. Afghanistan is the ultimate underdog, the Rocky Balboa nation, that fights an ill-fated war against the Soviets with nobility and raw determination. And, with the help of God, forces of “good,” and the United States , they are able to dismantle the great Red machine and (as the film claims) effectively end the Cold War.

When Charlie Wilson’s War attempts to address the obvious problem here–the fact that the United States exploited the Afghanis and helped them to fight in a politically advantageous way (i.e. with secret US backing)–it cannot do so without being extremely tortured. According to a review in The Guardian, this film is “another deeply muddled, fence-sitting, obtuse Hollywood picture about American politics, excruciatingly unsure whether to crack wise satirically, or go into a glassy-eyed patriotic celebration.” The rags-to-riches motif is so heavy handed, it’s hard to tell if Charlie Wilson’s War intends to be a critique of Cold War ideology, a scathing dismissal of our current war-mongering political landscape, a comedic parody of the haphazard quality of late Cold War foreign policy (thus a veiled commentary on the foreign policy of our own administration), or simply a misled revision of the US’s recent historical past.

We see this ambivalence most clearly in the film’s coda, a quotation from Charlie Wilson that reflects on the covert assistance given to Afghanistan: “we fucked up the endgame.” Herein lies the major problem with this film. Ultimately, we cannot decide whether we are to understand the United States’ decision to follow through in Afghanistan, presumably taking the time to “install” a democratic society, provide education, give humanitarian aide, etc., as an ethical failure or as a political one. The film would seem to suggest that the “blowback” which now occupies our own military attention is part and parcel of prior US ineptitude.

As you prepare for discussion about Deuteronomy, you might want to think of a cultural artifact (a film, a novel, a television show, etc.) that engages in historical revisionism. How does this artifact demonstrate ways that “history” can serve the concerns of “ideology”?
How does a film like Charlie Wilson’s War (or one like it) accomplish the same type of revisionist work we see in Deuteronomy (use specific examples)?  Why is the facade of history such a powerful way to advance ideology?

In order to think about the connections between Charlie Wilson’s War and Deuteronomy, or Deuteronomistic history in general, you might need to familiarize yourself with the film/book. Go ahead and rent the film! Or, listen to this recent interview series on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Here are some more things to think about.  How does Deuteronomy as a whole complicate our notions of the purpose and function of the Torah?  What are the theological and moral convictions of the author of Deuteronomy?  As we understand them, what are the historical circumstances that surround the “discovery” of Deuteronomy?  How does understanding these historical circumstances help us to make sense of Deuteronomy and its place in the Old Testament?

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About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
This entry was posted in Class Discussion, Conversation Paper Topics, Miscellaneous Discussion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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