Saturday, February 24, 2007
The association of broader campaigns with single figures or movements is very common in the popular historical imagination. For example, the campaign for women's suffrage is almost entirely associated with the Pankhursts. In fact, their militant organisation split from the larger and older non-militant NUWSS, yet the name of Millicent Fawcett does not trip as easily of the tongue when mentioning 'votes for women'. Also, those who have read Thomas Keneally's excellent "Schindler's Ark" will have seen that Schindler was not the lone hero as portrayed in Spielberg's film, but part of a network of rescuers in Nazi occupied Poland.
Perhaps we need the hero figure to remember and commemorate, and I certainly do not begrudge Hull its celebrations of Wilberforce this year. Nor is this always the 'safe' choice, as Willmott implies, otherwise the non-militant suffragists would be the ones with the monuments. What we should not do is to confuse this commemorative effort with academic history. History is always complex and is rarely reducible to single individuals, however decisive their interventions, or to ideological or historicist frameworks of explanations. This complexity explains its endless fascination. Let us enjoy seeing something as significant as the ending of the horror of the Slave Trade brought into the limelight and hope it draws people further into a deeper appreciation of history.
Friday, February 23, 2007
The bottle of Jacob's Creek was just the right accompaniment to the delightful sight of an Australian defeat, good wine but you lost boys.
Well done Saints, one day it will be Swinton (oops, too much wine methinks).
Monday, February 19, 2007
People who attend schools are too often approached as merely fodder to meet our society's needs. Education begins in acknowledging what a libel on their natures this is. Teaching should be an attempt to meet the needs of the taught, not of the teachers. Illich's distinction between 'hope' and 'expectation' is relevant here. We should never, through a desire to equip them with the means for having expectations, forget that what they have a right to is hope. A career is a poor substitute for a life.
Just when the crushing demoralisation of life-destroying educational instrumentalism is about to finish you off, something like this gleams through the gloom and renews hope with its ardent idealism. There is only one problem; with a career you get a salary.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
There are some occasions when I fully agree with him. For instance, He rightly protests at the 'should have' approach to history, where political protagonists play around with the past for their own purposes;
"Today it is possible to see the civil war, Spain's contribution to the tragic history of that most brutal of centuries, the 20th, in its historical context. It was not, as the neoliberal François Furet argued it should have been, a war against both the ultra-right and the Comintern - a view shared, from a Trotskyist sectarian angle, by Ken Loach's powerful film Land and Freedom (1995). The only choice was between two sides, and liberal-democratic opinion overwhelmingly chose anti-fascism".
This sense of the necessity of a choice between fascism and anti-fascism was the force that propelled so many people into the arms of the Communist Party and I cannot quarrel with Hobsbawm's personal recollections of the urgency of the times. However, in doing so they were embracing a terrifying regime that was slaughtering its own at home and had carried out a genocide of the peasantry, it required faith rather than judgement and a revulsion with the liberal democracies in which they lived to make that commitment. For the rest of Hobsbawm's essay anti-fascism seems to becomes synonymous with Communism and the liberal democratic element drifts slowly out of sight.
The failure of the liberal democracies to aid the Republic and the absurdities of the Non-intervention Pact (how it resonates with the arms embargo to Bosnia) helped with Communist recruitment. It is too easy to talk of 1930's Communists in terms of moral failure without acknowledging the culpability of the regimes that palpably botched the challenge of fascist aggression. However, the most powerful, and moral, opposition to fascism did not come from Stalinism but from liberal democracy. Anti-fascism was not the monolith it may have appeared at the time of the Popular Front.
Hobsbawn throws out crumbs like,
"Moral revulsion against Stalinism and the behaviour of its agents in Spain is justified. It is right to criticise the communist conviction that the only revolution that counted was one that brought the party a monopoly of power."
But then he neatly brushes them aside as being "not central to the problem of the civil war". The necessity to win the war was the overwhelming concern, and the dilemmas that Hobsbawm pose were real enough. The two main ones were the need for military efficiency and for solidarity between all forces opposing Fascism, leading to a necessary conflict over the nature of the Spanish revolution. This he describes as related to the schisms in the left. In essence, it was the conflict between Marx and Bakunin. In any such quarrel, my prejudices would always lead me to tend to support Bakunin; Hobsbawm comes from the opposite side.
"Marx would have had to confront Bakunin even if all on the republican side had been angels. But it must be said that, among those who fought for the republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin - even though some survivors may recall the spontaneous but inefficient euphoria of the anarchist phase of liberation with tenderness as well as exasperation".
But this is not quite true. The dilemma posed by the revolution wasn't a product of the arguments of the First International written in blood on the Spanish landscape. This was not a conflict between Marx and Bakunin, but between Stalin and Bakunin. It was between totalitarian centralism and autonomous collectivism or, as Hobsbawm puts it, "between libertarian enthusiasm and disciplined organisation". Arguably, the reality of Stalinist tyranny may well have forced Marx into alliance with his bitter rival. All the while, sitting on the sidelines, was the very liberal democracy the war was nominally being fought to defend.
The perceived need for unity to ensure victory also leads Hobsbawm into support for the suppression of the truth. He damns Orwell with faint praise -"Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure". Despite acknowledging that he told the truth in Homage to Catalonia, the book's initially poor sales were enough to allow him to argue for its lack of significance to the times.
My respect for those volunteers who went to fight in Spain makes outright condemnation difficult. If faced with the same dilemmas I have enough self-knowledge to realise that I would chicken out and make big speeches from a safe distance. Their commitment shamed their governments, though their courage was scarcely rewarded by the period between 28th August 1939 and 22nd June 1941 when Communists, far from being a bastion of anti-fascism, became the Nazi's allies. Those of us fortunate enough to have lived in Western democracies cannot guarantee that we would make the right choice faced with the profound threat posed by fascism. Hobsbawm is right to celebrate them, but his real purpose is the defence of intellectuals against those like Orwell who saw them as fatally compromised by a dalliance with Stalin.
Ultimately, this results in an exercise in wishful thinking used as a technique for the defence of intellectuals against polemicists, from George Orwell to Nick Cohen. Hobsbawm sees the writers and artists of the war as the creators of an historical record that excoriated fascism in Spain. He writes,
"But it is largely due to the intellectuals, the artists and writers who mobilised so overwhelmingly in favour of the republic, that in this instance history has not been written by the victors".
Any empirical historian would point out that the nature of fascism and the growing isolation of a repressive Spain in the context of the growing prosperity of post-war Europe would have ensured it a pretty bad press. And, of course, Franco may have won in Spain but fascism was defeated comprehensively elsewhere and the regime collapsed with his death. The victors did write the history, it was just that it was banned in Spain until after 1975.
Hobsbawm's optimistic conclusion is that "in creating the world's memory of the Spanish civil war, the pen, the brush and the camera wielded on behalf of the defeated have proved mightier than the sword and the power of those who won". However, what proved the mightiest of all was the ultimate victor of the wars of the 20th Century, the very capitalist liberal democracy that so many intellectuals despised and wished to see overthrown. It was the triumph of Enlightenment values that ensured that the Fascists got the press they deserved, not the literary works of Stalinist fellow travellers.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Ministers have been congratulating themselves on their Higher Education student funding policy as they breathe a sigh of relief at an increase in student applications this year, without considering whether the rise in numbers might be despite, rather than because of, their policies. I thought that there might be a significant overall deterrent effect in the new higher fees and loans. I was wrong. However, this isn't the main argument against the policy; it is the one that should most bother a left party - equity.
Much is made of the boost a degree gives to lifetime earnings and the argument that students should pay more towards their degrees is fairly made, but all students pay the same regardless of the benefit they receive. Those who use their degrees for corporate management, accountancy, commercial law etc. pay the same as those who become teachers, social workers, community development workers etc. Not only are the rewards disproportionate but the debt burden is equally so.
The model is also fixated on young people leaving school. This is totally unrealistic. 50% of students are classified as "mature". Many are at the younger end of the age range but those entering in their 30's or 40's pay back the same despite having significantly fewer years to reap the 'earnings premium'.
On top of which, 40% of the total number of students are part-time and they are discriminated against in that they have to pay their fees up-front. They are currently in a vacuum.
To try to deal with this, the government has a monstrously complex and ever-changing network of income contingent grants, bursaries and discretionary Access funds. Some of these can make a big difference to individuals but they do not deal with the central inequity of the system and their reach can be haphazard.
So the system is administratively expensive, inequitable and complex, but it didn't put a number of people off. As they pat themselves on the back for this magnificent success, perhaps the words 'graduate tax' - simple, equitable and social democratic - might linger in their minds for a few seconds to remind them of their socialist past.
Friday, February 16, 2007
Several pints later, over a curry, still arguing, I finally spotted a point on which we could agree – debate is an outlet for competitive people who are crap at sport. He roared with laughter and we argued about football after that.
That was a good couple of days. Nice man and as an argumentative so-and-so, world class!
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The result; I am fat and she is rich. Hmm…
(I also spent thousands of years doing a real PhD part-time, but at least I can call myself Dr all the time and she now can't.)
Thanks to this new explanation I can now see that it is based on shock and ignorance and it is all the government's fault.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Mailer has a way with sweeping and alarming statements. His Hobbesian view of Iraq was exposed on a Radio 4 interview with Mark Lawson when he said that democracy could not be imposed by force as Iraqis did not want it. And how about this from an interview with Robert McCrum in the Guardian, 'the real damage Hitler did to the Jews, after killing six million, was to wreck the minds of the survivors. Before Hitler, the Jewish mind was more inquiring and much more elegant.' What on earth does that mean?
The real problem though is the way he describes his novel; it is about Hitler's father and his childhood. In the Guardian article he is quoted as saying that Hitler 'was an order of evil that can't be understood'. The historian in me bristles given the extensive research that is swept away by this seemingly casual remark. However, the Radio 4 interview made it clear that the theme of the book, diabolic intervention, is not a literary device or a metaphor, he is being literal. He appeared to argue that you can only understand Hitler by seeing him as an agent of the Devil. He sacralises Hitler as a satanic force for evil.
In fact, the whole point about anti-totalitarianism is that it recognises that there is a distinct and recognisable political and historical phenomenon, totalitarianism, which is not unique or supernatural. It is human, secular and malignant. It has to be recognised and opposed and it neither started nor ended with Hitler. By refusing to countenance a supernatural explanation, by rendering totalitarianism human, it makes resistance possible and practical. I do not think that Mailer is helping the cause, however fine the novel may be as a work of art.
Follow Will's link for a wonderful review. It describes the book as 'nearly five hundred of the most revolting pages in recent American fiction'.
The conclusion is spot on 'What is most vexing about such diabolical fatalism is that by foisting responsibility for man's evil onto an army of devils, Mailer effectively strips humanity of its moral agency, and thus of its ability ever to inhabit fully the deepest mysteries of the heart. If the last sixty years of meditation on Hitler's character have taught us anything, it is surely that the Nazis were neither gods nor demons, but finally all too human, and that is the most terrifying thing of all'.
Monday, February 12, 2007
So the other reason is that it is bloody warm in cold weather. At 54 looking cool is not quite as important, or even possible, whereas looking sad is positively easy. I was teaching on the West Bank in the summer of 1981 and brought two back with me. Twenty five years later I am still wearing the first one, it refuses to wear out. The second sits pristinely at the top of the wardrobe awaiting the first one's demise. I think that at this rate my own will come first.
Friday, February 09, 2007
The digested read digested:
Kampfner says of Cohen, "He's Not the Messiah. He's a Very Naughty Boy."
Thursday, February 08, 2007
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
This is the passage from a BBC report he takes exception to,
Teachers have steered the Shakespeare curriculum for younger pupils in England away from Othello and Henry IV Part I in favour of lighter texts. After a poll, plays set for 13 and 14-year-olds in England could include Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It. Othello did not make the list because more than half of those questioned said the themes of sexual jealousy and racism were not suitable for that age.
Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that adolescents of 13 and 14 haven't experienced sexual jealousy and might be bewildered by Iago's malevolent imagery of "an old black ram ... tupping your white ewe". Ought they not to learn about such common and destructive sentiments before they enter adulthood?
What he is doing is mistaking the ideal with the practical. The teachers who were polled are not a bunch of rabid ideologues fixated with the idea of 'relevance' but enthusiasts and professionals who will be desperate to get their reluctant charges to love Shakespeare. All they are saying is that kids of that age are not intellectually or socially ready to be able to learn from those particular plays and others would be better to fire their imaginations. Most importantly, they know this because they have tried.
School teaching is a formidably difficult job, I would be absolutely terrible at it, and I trust teachers' ability to make a judgement about the best curriculum to follow. I have several exhausted teacher friends. One of them, given the highest praise by OFSTED recently, says the worst thing about teaching is that people who have never done it think that they are experts and pontificate about it to him endlessly. Sorry Oliver, that is what you are doing.
Kamm goes on to base his criticism in a theory of literature and again I can't fully agree with him.
But here I am accepting the utilitarian notions of the "teachers" who responded to the survey: we must teach what is relevant. That is an appalling notion. Literature gains its force not in describing a world we already know, but in illuminating enduring human concerns. Great writers see more and better than the rest of us. We gain experience through their art; we do not (or ought not to) fit the art to match our own experience. Anyone who thinks otherwise ought not to be teaching.
Here I can half agree, but to me great literature is not an instruction book, it does not just prepare us for experience or take us to places we have not seen. Really great literature is subversive. It takes what we think we know, what we thought we have seen and felt, and leads us into looking at the familiar in a completely different way. It challenges us. This literary experience is intimate and once we have read a book that touches us in that way we are not quite the same person afterwards. This is something that comes with maturity. A book you read when young, without experience, learning and your own personal history can be re-read later in life and be startlingly different. This is not fitting art to match experience, but using art to understand it anew. Writers know this; the best are ambiguous and not didactic. Literature is about "enduring human concerns", but they are enduring because we all have to deal with them in our own lives. This is why children's literature and teenage fiction exist after all, to talk to different levels of maturity.
Kamm clearly loves literature and is restlessly ambitious to share this love with others but if I were a teacher, I would not want to meet him on an appointment panel , especially if it was for teaching geography.
Monday, February 05, 2007
The Council of British Druid Orders say "We would like people to reconsider their relationship with the bones, … We view them as living people and therefore they have rights as people".
I'm sorry, I am not medically trained but, as far as I can see, they look very dead to me.
So far, so bonkers. But, here comes the cruncher:
Some in the museum community say it is unfair for scientists to impose their world view on pagans. "We think that there is actually an intellectual argument for pagan claims to be taken seriously," said Prof Bienkowski, "It is a different world view which, actually, like the scientific world view can be neither proved nor disproved. It is actually our responsibility to take those views into account." What right, he asks, do scientists have to speak for the bones either?
So it has come to this. We can't distinguish between science and bollocks eh? Post-modernism, you have so much to answer for.
Patrick Henry approached, punched him on the nose and shouted, "You wanted to end our liberties but you failed!"
James Madison followed, kicked him in the groin and said, "This is why I allowed our government to provide for the common defence!"
Thomas Jefferson was next, beat Osama with a long cane and snarled, "It was evil men like you who inspired me to write the Declaration of Independence."
The beatings and thrashings continued as George Mason, James Monroe and 66 other early Americans unleashed their anger on the terrorist leader.
As Osama lay bleeding and in pain, an Angel appeared. Bin Laden wept and said, "This is not what you promised me."
The Angel replied, "I told you there would be 72 Virginians waiting for you in Heaven. What did you think I said?"
(Thanks to Helena)
The thing I fear most is the growth of an alternative account of reality among radicalised youth …
Never mind just worrying about radicalised youth. How about New Age quacks, diet fetishists, conspiracy theorists, Mail readers, Mohammed Al-Fayed and, most of all, large numbers of reviewers of "What's Left"?
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Saturday, February 03, 2007
There was one thing that bugged me though. She used a quote to imply that Winston Churchill was an anti-Semite. I couldn't square that with his known Zionism. She wrote the following:
Today the Middle East is the focus of a challenge to American political and economic hegemony, which is being presented as a "civilisational conflict with Islam". Nearly a century ago, the Russian revolution sent shockwaves through western states and financial markets. Anti-semites argued that Jewish involvement in revolutionary politics was part of a conspiracy by "the homeless wandering Jew" to replace European states with their "Hebrew nation". Winston Churchill, as secretary of state for war in 1920, wrote an article in the Illustrated Sunday Herald claiming there were three categories of Jews - good, bad and indifferent - and arguing that they were part of a "worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development".
OK the first sentence is worthy of a bit of fisking but I am an historian and it was the history that was worrying me. Where did her quote come from? This is the joy (?) of the Internet, it didn't take me long to find the article she refers to plastered all over neo-Nazi web sites, including David Irving's publishers Focal Point (and no, I am not going to link to them on principle).
At first, I had my doubts as to its validity due to the far right's typical technique of bolstering credibility by quoting seemingly authoritative academic sources. All the sites carried the same line that the authorship of the article "has been authenticated by one of the world's leading Churchill bibliographers, Richard Heinzkill, of the University of Eugene, Oregon". In fact, he was from the University of Oregon, which is based in Eugene, and it seems that Heinzkill was an ordinary librarian with no connection to the far right. All I could find by him was a 1993 article on the history of Oregon newspapers and a joint 2001 article entitled, The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession. He retired in 2000. In the 1984 letter that he wrote to David Irving, published on the site, he describes himself as "not enough of a Churchill scholar to discuss his stand on Zionism" and speculates that it might have been ghost written by Edward Marsh. He quotes his source for the attribution of the authorship to Churchill as Frederick Woods. Woods is in the British Library catalogue as the author of A Bibliography of the Works of Sir Winston Churchill (St Paul's Bibliographies, 1979). I guess that Heinzkill must have just looked it up in the book. Not very impressive, but I suppose that as the article has the by-line, "By the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill", this masterful piece of expert authentication might just be right.
So I looked at the text. Of course, it is hugely misrepresented. Churchill starts by saying,
Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.
Hmm, not quite the words of a racist. What about the quote about the "world wide conspiracy"? It is there, but Churchill was talking about Bolshevism. However, then he does exactly what Malik accuses him of (and the Fascists celebrate) and equate Bolshevism with a malign form of Judaism. He had accepted, hook, line and sinker, the very common right-wing myth of the Jewishness of Communism. To modern eyes, it reads as completely unacceptable and not wholly sane. But where were these "three categories of Jews - good, bad and indifferent". The answer is nowhere really. It is a misreading. Whilst Churchill categorised Jews, he wasn't identifying and praising a group of "Uncle Toms", he was being virulently anti-revolutionary and ardently pro-Zionist. On top of which there were more than three categories. Another group he praised were the "National Jews" in pre-revolutionary Russia:
As bankers and industrialists they have strenuously promoted the development of Russia's economic resources, and they were foremost in the creation of those remarkable organisations, the Russian Cooperative Societies. In politics their support has been given, for the most part, to liberal and progressive movements, and they have been among the staunchest upholders of friendship with France and Great Britain.
Again, hardly the words of an anti-Semite. His stereotypes were the "International" and "Terrorist" Jews who were malign global revolutionaries. However, salvation was at hand, the struggle for the Jewish soul was now one between these and Zionism. And it is Zionism "which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal" that must triumph. This article is a pro-Zionist tract. For Churchill, Zionism is the saviour of the Jews. He is calling for them to reject Bolshevism and embrace Zionism. This, Malik glosses over.
Churchill may have indulged himself in the casual anti-Semitic prejudices of his day, and particularly of his class, concerning the Russian Revolution. However, he writes as a betrayed lover rather than as a convinced racist. His beloved people had fallen in with the wrong crowd; they needed to come back from futile international utopianism to the practical nationalism of building a state of their own in the Promised Land. His Zionism was steadfast from the Balfour Declaration onwards. A real expert on Churchill, Martin Gilbert, has a new book out this summer, Churchill and the Jews. The synopsis makes interesting reading.
Churchill and the Jews covers the whole life of this greatest of Britons -- from his youth, when he was shocked by the anti-Semitism displayed during the Dreyfus Affair, to his last meeting with David Ben-Gurion in 1960, when he gave Ben-Gurion an article he had written about Moses. In the intervening years, during which Churchill cemented his place in history, his affinity with the Jews remained undimmed, even though his championing of Zionist issues and interests was often like a red rag to the bull of the British Establishment. One of those closest to Churchill once confided to the author that "Winston had one fault -- he was too fond of Jews." What does this mean? How did this fondness manifest itself? Exploring all aspects of his life and career, Churchill and the Jews sheds new light on a key figure of the twentieth century and how his attitudes affected not just the prosecution of the Second World War but the establishment of a Jewish state that followed it.
You can't expect good history from those who like to "revise" it but Malik is an academic and both she and the Guardian's editors should be a bit more scrupulous about their research. The false association between the Jews and Bolshevism was widely believed, but using a misconstrued quotation from Churchill as an exemplar is a serious distortion.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Enter the Athens headquarters of YSEE, an umbrella organisation of pagans, and the first thing you encounter on feast days are white-clad believers offering libations before a life-size marble kouros symbolising eternal youth. Busts of Athena, Aphrodite, Hermes, Hera and Zeus cast their stony eyes on to an altar replete with burning incense, herbs and flowers. Housed in a decrepit apartment block, between a Kurdish-run cafe and a bathroom utilities store, YSEE has become a meeting point for pagans. Here believers, such as Vlassis Rassias, gather to discuss ancient Greek history and solace-giving gods.
Like pagans the world over, Rassias says he was drawn to polytheism by the religion's focus on humanity, ecology, cosmic connections and reverence for the past.
Oh well, is this how the Enlightenment will end, not in an ideological struggle over fascistic doctrines but in a "mostly harmless" general lunacy? Bring back the Titans, I say.