Posts Tagged ‘Blackadder’

Wartime Conference on Science, Philosophy, Religion and Democracy

March 12, 2017

I found a copy of the 1942 book, Science, Philosophy and Religion: Second Symposium, over a decade ago now in a secondhand bookshop in Totnes in Devon. As the above title page states, this comes from a conference on science, philosophy and religion and their relation to the democratic way of life, held in New York in 1942. The conference was held at Columbia University and was the successor to the first symposium, held a year earlier. The book was a collection of papers by leading members of the above disciplines, edited by Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein. These were intended to show how these areas of research and experience supported democracy against the advance of the totalitarian regimes in Europe.

The volume has the following contents

I Democracy’s Challenge to the Scientist, by Caryl P. Haskins;
II Democracy and the Natural Science, Karl F. Herzfeld;
III Some Comments on Science and Faith, Hudson Hoagland;
IV The Comparative Study of Culture of the Purposive Cultivation of Democratic Values, by Margaret Mead;
V The Basis for Faith in Democracy, Max Schoen.
VI Pragmatism, Religion and Education, John L. Childs;
VII Liberal Education and Democracy;
VIII A Philosophy of Democratic Defense, Charles Hartshorne;
IX The Role of Law in a Democracy, Frank E. Horack, Jr.
X Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy;
XI, Empiricism, Religion and Democracy, Charles W. Morris;
XII Philosophical Implications of the Prevalent Conception of Democracy;
XIII The Spiritual Basis of Democracy, by the Princeton Group;
XIV Thomism and Democracy, by Yves R. Simon.
XV Democracy and the Rights of Man, Paul Weiss.
XVI The Stake of Art in the Present Crisis, George Boas.
XVIII An Approach to the Study of History, William G. Constable;
XIX Literature and the Present Crisis, Joseph Wood Krutch.
XX How Long is the Emergency, Mark Van Doren.
XXI Democratic Culture in the Light of Modern Poetry.
XXII Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism, Ben Zion Bokser.
XXIII Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition; Old and New Testaments, Millar Burrows;
XXIV Christianity and Democracy from the Point of View of Systematic Christian Theology, Nels F.S. Ferre;
XXV Philosophical Foundations of Religion and Democracy, Willliam O’Meara;
XXVI The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy, Albert C. Outler.

There is also a section of addresses. These are

I The Faith and Philosophy of Democratic Government, A.A. Berle, Jr.
II The Function of Law in a Democratic Society, Charles E. Clark.
III The Artist and the Democratic Way of Life, Walter Pach.
IV Democracy in Our Times, M.L. Wilson.
V The Religious Background of Democratic Ideas, Simon Greenberg, Clarence Mannion, Luther A. Weigle.

I’ve dug it out again as I believe very strongly that this symposium and its wisdom is needed again with the current stagnation of democracy and the rise of Trump in America, UKIP in Britain and the parties of the extreme right in Europe. The basis of democracy in the West has been gradually undermined over the last 30-odd years, ever since the election of Thatcher and Reagan. Successive governments in Britain and America have been determined to work for the benefit of rich, corporate paymasters against the poor and middle class. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth upwards, as welfare services have been slashed and outsourced, industries privatised and closed down, and public utilities sold off. As wages have stagnated, the corporate elite have seen their pay grossly inflated. Their taxes have been cut, while those for the poor have actually been increased.

As a result of this concentration on the demands of corporate political donors, recent studies by Harvard University and the Economist have concluded that America is no longer a full democracy. It is a ‘flawed democracy’, or even oligarchy.

At the same time governments in Britain and America have also supported the massive expansion of the surveillance state under the pretext of countering terrorism. At the same time, the rights of workers to strike, and ordinary people to protest, have been curtailed. David Cameron’s Tory administration tried to introduce a series of reforms to block street demonstrations and protests under the guise of preventing residents for suffering the nuisance caused by them.

We also have Tory and Republican administrations that insist that only their view of history should be taught in schools. Michael Gove a few years ago made a ridiculous speech complaining about the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War taught in schools, while the educational authorities in Arizona withdrew studies of slavery and the civil rights movement from the school syllabus. Instead, pupils in that state were to be taught the speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Donald Trump’s administration is overtly anti-immigration, particularly of Latinos and Muslims. It includes members of the Alt Right, like Steve Bannon and Curtis Ellis, who hold bitterly racist views. Many of Trump’s supporters are White supremacists and Nazis. UKIP and Brexit in Britain have also led to an increase in racism and racist violence against ethnic minorities. At the same time, these movements have also promoted hatred towards gays and the transgendered. And similar movements are attempting to take power or increase their gains across Europe, from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, the Alternative Fuer Deutschland in Germany, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Jobbik in Hungary, and other extreme right-wing parties in Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia.

Democracy, tolerance, pluralism and the rights of the poor are under threat. The threat in America and western Europe isn’t as overt and violent as it was when the Fascists seized power from the 1920s onwards. But it is there, and desperately needs to be resisted.

The Young Turks on American Conservatives Setting Up Black List of Liberal Professors

December 6, 2016

Another attack on freedom of thought and speech in America, the Land of the Free. Yesterday I put up a piece about two articles from Counterpunch, discussing Obama’s failure to repeal the gross infringements of the US Constitution he inherited from his Republican predecessors, his plans to set up some kind of official body to tell Americans what sources they should believe on the internet, and an outrageous article in the Washington Post smearing dissenting journalists as treacherous purveyors of Moscow propaganda. The latter article appears to have come from the corporatist wing of the Democrat party trying to find scapegoats for Hillary Clinton’s failure to win against Trump, and the establishment media to clamp down on its liberal, new media rivals.

Now it seems the Republicans are also trying to get in on the act. This time it they’re coming for university and college professors. In this snippet from The Young Turks, the hosts John Iadarola and Ana Kasparian discuss a Conservative student organisation that has set up a website, Professor Watch List, which aims to expose 200 or so university lecturers, who deliberately target and victimise Conservative students. They claim that they are only publishing the identities of professors, who have already been in the news. However, analysis of their sources shows that these are fake news sites. They pretend to be by students, but in fact are by ‘very old Republican guys’. Iadarola and Kasparian state that they would have no problem with the website, if it honestly did what it claimed to do – protect students, who are being targeted for their political beliefs by their lecturers. But it’s not. It’s a partisan attempt to prevent lecturers presenting facts and arguments that Conservatives find uncomfortable, and which could lead to the lecturers themselves being disciplined or even fired.

Conservative students are also demonstrating against ‘safe spaces’ on campus. This includes setting up fake ‘safe space’ events, such as bake sales, and then waiting to see who turns up. They then lay out juice boxes, crayons and other children’s items to make the point that the people, who support ‘safe spaces’ are childish, in their opinion. The two presenters make the point that they are doing so by acting as children themselves. Ana Kasparian is particularly annoyed about this. She states she does not like safe spaces, as she only really learned things at college when her beliefs were being challenged. This is part of the experience of higher education. Having your beliefs challenged forces you to present evidence to defend them, or having to admit that you’re wrong if you can’t. She states clearly that what she believes is a bigger threat to academia isn’t some Conservative students feeling uncomfortable because of what is being taught by a Chicano studies professor, but the Koch brothers funding scientific laboratories in American universities so that they’ll push out spurious ‘research’ denying climate change. The Koch brother are multibillionaire oil magnates, and they have been responsible for getting meteorologists sacks, who have spoken out about climate change. Due to their influence independent climate science laboratories have been closed down, and replaced with institutions, funded by the Kochs, which have given them the propaganda about the non-existence of climate change they want.

John Iadarola also makes the point that the definition of ‘safe space’ is so wide, that it’s practically meaningless. It can mean something like a Black union, which doesn’t want White Supremacists coming in and distributing Nazi literature. Or it could mean a classroom, where the discussion of a particularly controversial topic is not permitted. They also make the point that refusing to allow a particular individual to speak on campus, because they’ve charged too high a fee, is not censorship. It’s a perfectly reasonable attitude. It only becomes censorship if the speaker is turned down, despite requesting a reasonable fee.

The two also make the point that no political ideology should have the monopoly on education. Academic freedom is too important for this. What is needed is more dialogue, as so far the differences in political opinion have become extremely polarised and people are no longer speaking to each other. There needs to be more dialogue, and integration.

This is an immensely important issue, as academic freedom is one of the cornerstones of democracy, as is preserving students’ own freedom of thought by protecting them against indoctrination. The Blair government passed legislation intended to prevent it in schools. Part of this stipulates that if a teacher is asked a question about a particular controversial issue in religion or politics, they may give an answer provided that they make it clear that it is just their personal belief. Obviously matters become far more complicated at the level of tertiary education as the discussion of the topics being taught is much deeper, and the conclusions drawn from the facts may be more subjective. But it also demands that students also act as adults, and are able to accept and deal with material that contradicts their own person viewpoints. Kasparian has said in a previous broadcast that she came from a very Conservative background, and only became a liberal when she was exposed to left-wing views and opinions at College. She’s also a college professor herself, and so this issue directly affects her.

Many people, who’ve been through college or uni, have had lecturers with very distinct academic views, both of the left and right. That should not prevent them from holding their jobs, provided they don’t penalise students simply for holding different opinions. This Professor Watch List isn’t about protecting students from indoctrination, however. It really does appear to be an attempt by Conservatives to use claims of indoctrination to close down contrary viewpoints. They aren’t really against indoctrination. They’re just outraged that students aren’t being indoctrinated with Conservatism.

I haven’t heard of any similar movement to this having appeared in Britain. Yet. But as the Tories have launched attacks on the way history is taught, as Conservative MPs like Michael Gove decided that the teaching of the First World War in schools wasn’t sufficiently patriotic. In fact, he went on a rant comparing it to Blackadder. I think the Union of Conservative Students has been closed down and merged with the Young Conservatives to form Conservative Future. But compiling a list of left-wing university tutors certainly seems like one of the stunts they would have done. And the National Front or BNP in the 1980s did encourage school pupils to send them the names of teachers, who were supposedly indoctrinating children with Communism, so they could beat them up. It also reminds very much of the way real totalitarian regimes, from Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Nazi Germany, have encouraged children to betray their parents and other adults, including teachers.

Freedom of thought is under attack from the corporatist Democrats and the Nationalist Republicans. This is a very dangerous time, and these trends need to be defeated and reversed, if our societies are to remain genuinely free.

Tariq Nasheed Corrects Alt-Right Fascist Lies about Black Civilisations

November 24, 2016

Yesterday I posted several pieces about Richard Spencer’s Nazi speech at the weekend, in which he celebrated Whites as a race of ‘strivers, explorers and conquerors’ whose civilisation and achievements keep improving. Spencer’s one of the founders and leaders of the Fascist Alt-Right, the Nazi nature of which was made chillingly explicit with the cries of ‘Hail Trump! Hail our race! Hail victory!’ with which he opened his vile little rant.

Spencer and his Nazi storm troopers, including another racist polemicist, Jared Tailor, claim that Blacks are inferior. Tariq Nasheed is a black blogger, who is clearly active attacking racism and pernicious claims against people of colour. In this video, he refutes Jared Taylor’s claims that Black people have invented nothing, and have a lower IQ than Whites. Taylor makes the claim that Blacks didn’t invent the wheel, and didn’t invent agriculture or domesticate animals. He also claims that Africans didn’t even have a calendar. This means that they are less intelligent than Whites. The White supremacists of the Alt-Right also maintain that Whites do not exploit Blacks and other ethnic minorities, and that they have benefited from contact with superior White civilisation.

Nasheed comprehensively trashes Taylor’s and his fellow Nazis’ claims that Blacks had no proper civilisation or achievements. He refuses to talk about the ancient Egyptian civilisation, which he feels strongly was Black, as this would be too easy. Instead, he talks about the lesser-known civilisations of West Africa. He mentions the work of Clyde Winters in documenting indigenous writing systems in the peoples of that part of Africa. Black people also very definitely had the wheel. Nasheed points to the rock pictures in the Sahara desert, which show Blacks driving chariots. The Black cultures in Africa also had agriculture and domesticated animals. They kept oxen, and their kings even had pet lions. As for buildings, they had houses and other structures that were two to three storeys tall. The Songhay empire had castles, and he rightly mentions, and ridicules, how the great fortress of Zimbabwe was so impressive, that its colonial discoverers tried to explain it as the work of space aliens. He also talks about the great university at Timbuktu, which was a centre of learning before Europe had universities. As for Black Africans lacking a calendar, he talks about how there is one monumental such device in Namibia.

He states that he’s offered to debate Taylor many times, but has never received an answer. His worry, however, is that now the Nazi Alt-Right have Donald Trump’s ear, Taylor, or an ignorant bigot like him, will get in charge of the educational system, and try to stop Black people learning about the achievements of their people in Africa.

Nasheed is also very much aware that many Whites also despise the Alt Right Fascists. He’s seen a group of White guys beat one of ’em up, and gives a shout out to Whites combating the Alt-Right.

I don’t condone unprovoked violence against the Nazis. They should have the same right not to be attacked as anybody else. But I’m well aware that they themselves are extremely violent, and have beaten and murdered people. I’m very aware that some people may have had to defend themselves, just as I’m also aware that their grotesque, vile opinions and racial insults may provoke others into violence against them, especially Blacks, Jews and others, who have been on the receiving end of their race hate and physical assault.

Nasheed is absolutely right about what he says, though I have some qualifications and additions to make. Black people certainly had the wheel. The rock paintings he mentioned are, I think, at Tassili N’Ajjer in the Sahara. They were painted when that part of the desert was green, many thousands of years ago. They show Whites from North Africa and Blacks from the south crossing and crisscrossing the desert, including people driving chariots. That said, convention historians believe that the wheel was probably invented somewhere in central Asia. So, not invented by Blacks, but arguably not invented by Whites either, or at least, not by Europeans. And yes, many Black nations and cultures certainly possessed agriculture, though again, the conventional explanation is that it spread to sub-Saharan Africa from ancient Egypt. As for the ancient Egyptians being a Black civilisation, they portrayed themselves as being lighter skinned than the peoples to their south, such as the Nubians, who are portrayed in ancient Egyptian papyri as being definitely Black. However, they were darker than their Greek and Roman conquerors. A few years ago New Scientist carried an article, which suggested that the seeds of ancient Egyptian civilisation was in a Black people from the south, whose religion centred around the worship of the cow. This was the ancestral version of Hathor, the Egyptian cow-goddess. These Black race migrated north, to what is now Egypt, as the Saharan desert dried out at the end of the last Ice Age, where they encountered and intermarried with White peoples.

The Songhay and Malinka peoples, who founded the great Muslim empire of Mali, were rich and powerful, and the university of Timbuktu was one of the major centres of Islamic learning and civilisation in West Africa. There have been documentaries exploring the priceless intellectual heritage preserved in the books from its library. Unfortunately, this has been threatened by Islamism. You may recall that a few years ago, Islamist barbarians allied to Daesh tried to set the university on fire in order to destroy its vast repository of the area’s indigenous Muslim culture. The Songhay did indeed have castles. They also had cavalry troops, who have been described in European textbooks as ‘knights of the Sahara’. And yes, in this part of Africa there are multi-storey buildings and extensive palaces. These are of mud brick, but then, so were ziggurats of ancient Babylon. The great Swahili civilisation of East Africa, however, built cities made from coral, which were coated with a lime wash made from burning the same substance. Their cities are as impressive and as richly carved as any others in Islam. The great fortress of Zimbabwe, which is also in east Africa, is also spectacular. It seemed such a contrast to the architecture of the indigenous peoples, who now live in wooden huts, that the Europeans who discovered it tried to explain it as the work of the Chinese, Arabs, or indeed, anyone other than indigenous Africans, including space aliens. In actual fact, its method of construction is very much the same type of building techniques as the mud huts of the local peoples. It seems it was built by the Razwe people, but then during some disruption in the 19th century, it was abandoned.

As for his statement that Black Africans didn’t have the calendar, he is most definitely, monumentally wrong. They definitely had the calendar, and from a very early period. There’s a piece of notched bone, found in a cave in South Africa by archaeologists, which appears to have been a counting device of some kind. The bone dates from 70,000 years ago, and it has been suggested that it may have been a portable calendar. This is about 40,000 years before modern men, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, moved out of Africa to colonise Europe. If it is true that this is a calendar, then clearly Taylor in this regard couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

Regarding Nasheed’s fears of the intellectual damage Alt-Right Fascism could do to the American educational system, I think Taylor and his squadristi will have severe problems if they true to impose a White supremacist curriculum at the universities. I think the liberal traditions of many American universities are simply too strong. No reputable historian, anthropologist or archaeologist specialising in researching African culture and heritage is going to stand for the denigration of African civilisation or the attack on their academic disciplines. I also anticipate considerable resistance from Black Studies professors and their students. And this is quite apart from professors, intellectuals and students, who wish to defend American academia as seats of genuine learning and liberal culture.

However, I recognise that there is a real danger that the Nazis will try to undermine this aspect of the American education system, either by depriving it of funding, or demanding that other courses be introduced to ‘balance’ it.

In my opinion, the real danger is much lower down the educational system, at school level. A little while ago one of the left-wing news shows I watch on YouTube reported that the state educational authority in Arizona decided that the existing school curriculum and its textbooks were too left-wing. I think they objected to them, because they didn’t just present American civilisation as absolutely wonderful, with no defects or shameful episodes. It taught students about slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, institutional racism and civil rights, as well as the other, better aspects of American history. So the right-wingers in power got rid of it.

What did they insist school students learn instead of the complexities, shame and achievements of American history? Ronald Reagan’s speeches.

I kid you not. Ronald Reagan’s speeches. Which weren’t even written by him. I think this should count as a crime against education. Mind you, I think the Tories over here would like to inflict something equally stupid and sinister on our youngsters. Remember when Michael Gove was ranting about children being taught the ‘Blackadder’ view of the Great War in history? He and his fellow Tories would like to do the same, presenting a sanitised version of British history consonant with turning our children into earnest Thatcherites. In fact, I’m surprised they aren’t demanding that school pupils aren’t learning her speeches, like the poor souls in Arizona’s classrooms.

The Alt-Right are a threat to Blacks and other people of colour, and a threat to genuine history and learning. They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power, or the young minds they want to poison and keep in ignorance.

Vox Political: Kipper and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell in Row with Scientists over Tides

September 20, 2016

This piece by Mike over at Vox Political is a real gem, as it encapsulates the profound anti-intellectualism and sheer bone-headed stupidity of the Tories and the Kippers. Mike has posted up a piece commenting on a report in the Independent that Douglas Carswell, the former Tory and now Kipper MP for Clacton, has got into a row with Britain’s scientists over the origins of tides. Conventional science holds that they’re caused by the Moon. Carswell, however, believes they’re caused by the Sun, and has challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit over the issue.

The report also notes that this bizarre claim was made after Michael Gove declared that the British people were tired of experts after he failed to name one economist, who thought that Brexit would be good for Britain.

The title of Mike’s piece just about sums up the astonishment Carswell’s claim must cause in everybody, who has any idea about science: Both Tories and Kippers Have Made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read This and Asky Why?

Both Tories and Kippers have made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read this and ask: Why?

Quite. If you’re wondering whether the Moon does cause tides, Mike over in his piece has a clip of Brian Cox explaining the phenomenon.

I’ve a feeling that as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was known that the Moon caused tides. Certainly the great medieval philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln knew about it in the Twelfth century. As he was writing several centuries before Isaac Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, Grosseteste believed that they were caused by the Moon’s magnetism, rather than its gravitational effect on Earth. Still, you can’t expect too much of the people of that period, when science was still very much in its infancy. But it nevertheless shows the astonishing advances the people of the Middle Ages were capable of, simply using the most primitive of equipment, observation, and the power of their minds.

This simple fact, that the Moon causes the Earth’s tides, has been put in thousands of textbooks on astronomy and space for children since at least the beginning of mass education and popular science. Astronomy has been a popular hobby for amateurs since at least beginning of the 20th century, and I’ve no doubt probably as far back as the 19th. Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn that the Moon causes tides, along with other interesting and fascinating facts about space. Carswell, however, is clearly the exception, having rejected all that.

It all brings to my mind the conversation Blackadder has with Tom Baker’s bonkers sea captain, Redbeard Rum, in the epdisode ‘Potato’ from the comedy show’s second series. Trying to impress Good Queen Bess by sailing abroad as explorers, Blackadder, Percy and Baldrick plan to fake their expedition by sailing round and round the Isle of Wight instead until they get dizzy. They get lost instead as Rum believes it is possible to sail a ship without a crew. When they ask him if you really can, Rum replies, ‘Opinion is divided.’
‘So who says you don’t?’
‘Me.’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’
‘Bugger!’

Quite.

This exactly describes Carswell’s attitude to space physics. Everybody else believes the Moon causes the tides, except him. I can see this causing yet another panic amongst scientists and ‘science educators’. Way back around 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, various scientists like Richard Dawkins were running around demanding better science education because polls showed a majority of the British public didn’t believe in it. This was partly a response to the growth in Creationism and Intelligent Design, though both of these views of evolution have had a very limited impact over here in Britain. That controversy seems to have quietened down, though the issue of the continuing need for improved science education has carried on with the persistence denial of climate change and anthropogenic global warming by the Right in both America and Britain. One of the sceptics of global warming and climate change over on this side of the Pond is Nigel Lawson. He’s even written a book about it, which I found the other day in another of Cheltenham’s secondhand book shops. Now that Carswell’s made this statement about the tides, which flies in the face of everything scientists have known since blokes like Aristotle, it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s leading science communicators, like Dawkins, Robert Winston, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and the rest of them started worrying about this issue as well. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

As for Gove’s comment that ‘People in Britain are fed up of experts’, this also reminds me another comment by the American comedian, Bill Hicks. ‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Seems to have started about 1980 [the year Reagan was elected].’

If you’re worried that the Tories and UKIP don’t understand science, and are going to take us back to the Dark Ages, be afraid: you’re right. And heaven help the rest of us with them in charge.

George Galloway and Peter Hitchens on Blair and the Iraq War

August 30, 2016

This is another very interesting piece from YouTube, again featuring George Galloway. It’s not really a video, as it’s just recorded dialogue, presumably from his radio show. In it, he talks to the right-wing columnist and broadcast, Peter Hitchens. The two are from completely the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but on the matter of the Chilcot Inquiry and the Iraq War they are largely in agreement. Galloway acknowledges that he has profound disagreements with Hitchens, but also some overlap. Most of the talking in conversation is done by Hitchens, who makes some very interesting points.

Hitchens points out that, although the Chilcot Inquiry made Blair the sole culprit responsible for the Iraq War, there were many others involved, who have been exonerated, such as Alistair Campbell. Hitchens is not greatly impressed with Blair’s intellectual abilities. He states several times that he was only a figurehead, and the real leadership of New Labour was elsewhere. Blair, he contends, didn’t really understand what was going on around him. At one point Hitchens states that Blair didn’t really want to be a politician. He wanted to be Mick Jagger. He probably had the intellectual ability to be Jagger, but certainly lacked the necessary brainpower to be prime minister. He also argues that Blair was really only a figurehead for New Labour. He was found and groomed by the real leaders of the faction, who wanted someone who would be ‘the anti-Michael Foot’. They settled on Blair, and prepared him for the role without him really understanding what was going on.

Hitchens and Galloway also discuss the allegation that everyone was in favour of the War, and it was only the Left that was against it. Hitchens states that he was initially in favour of the War, but if he had the sense to turn against it in 2003, it shows that you didn’t have to have any great prophetic ability to be against it. Hitchens states that he feels that people were led to support the War, because of the myth of the ‘Good War’. This is based on the belief that the Second World War was a straightforward, uncomplicated struggle against evil. Ever since the War, our leaders have been fancying themselves as Churchill or Roosevelt, and casting every opponent as Hitler. They did it with the Iraq War, and they’re doing it now with the Russians and Vladimir Putin. They’re presenting Russia as an expansion power, and preparing for another war with Russia by sending troops to Estonia and Poland, when the reality is that Russia is not an expansionist threat and has actually ceded hundreds of miles of territory. Hitchens also informs Galloway and his listeners that Britain has actually sent troops into the Ukraine.

Hitchens goes on to state that much of the West’s destabilisation and attempts to destroy opposing regimes is done covertly, through the funding of opposition movements, the manipulation of aid, and – here Galloway supplies the words – ‘moderates’. This happened in Syria, where considerable damage was done before we started bombing them. But people don’t realise it, as this will never show up in a newsreel. As for how warmongers like Blair can be stopped, it can only come from parliament. Hitchens remarks approvingly on the way parliament stopped Cameron when he wanted to bomb Syria. Unfortunately, Hitchens concludes that turning Blair into an object of ridicule is the only justice we can expect. He is pessimistic about there being any tribunal that can bring war criminals like Blair and Bush before it, and so here there’s a difference between those, who have and those who don’t hold a religious belief. For religious believers, you hope that there will be an ultimate judgement coming. Galloway concludes by saying that he believes that there is such a punishment coming to Blair.

It’s an interesting dialogue, as the two clearly have pretty much the same perspective on the Gulf War. They’re both religious believers, as they themselves make clear. Hitchens converted from Marxism and atheism to Christianity, while I think Galloway has said that he’s converted to Islam. As believers in two of the Abrahamic religions, they share the faith that God does judge the guilty in the hereafter. Galloway is very supportive of Hitchens in this video as well. Hitchens states at one point that he’s going to publish a book on the myth of the ‘Good War’. Galloway asks him when it’s going to come out. Hitchens then replies that he hasn’t written it yet, to which Galloway then tells him to come on, as he wants to read it.

Hitchens is right about the manipulation of protest movements, humanitarian aid and opposition groups by the West to destabilise their opponents around the world. This is what happened in Chile and Iran with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and Mossadeq respectively. It happened in the Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, and I’ve no doubt Hitchens is exactly right about it occurring in Syria. The parapolitical magazine, Lobster, has been saying this more or lest since it was founded in the 1980s. It laments that very few, in any, academic scholars are willing to accept the fact that so much diplomacy and politics is done through covert groups.

I think Hitchens is also correct about Britain and the West always casting themselves as the heroic ‘good guys’ in their wars, though I strongly disagree with Hitchens’ reasoning behind it. Hitchens has made clear in his books, column and website that he believes Britain should have stayed away from the Second World War. He correctly points out that it was not about saving the Jews from the Holocaust, but honouring our treaty with the French to defend Poland. he also thinks that if Britain had not declared War, we would still have the Empire.

I’ve blogged before that I believe this to be profoundly wrong. We did the right thing in opposing Hitler, regardless of the motives of the time. The Poles, and the other nations threatened by Nazi Germany needed and deserved protection. Churchill’s motives for urging Britain into the War was that Nazi Germany would be a threat to British naval power in the North Sea, if they were allowed to conquer Europe. This is a correct evaluation. A Europe under Nazi domination would see Britain pushed very much to the periphery. The Nazis believed that it was control of the Eurasian landmass which would determine future economic and political power and influence. If Britain was deprived of this, she would eventually stagnate and decline as an international power.

Nor do I believe we would have kept the Empire. The first stirrings of African nationalism had emerged before the Second World War. Ghana had taken a momentous first step in being the first African colony to have indigenous members of its governing council. The Indian independence movement had been growing since the 19th century, and was gathering increasing support and power under the leadership of Gandhi. Orwell, remarking on a parade of Black troopers in French Morocco in the 1930s, stated that in the mind of every White man present was the thought ‘How long can we keep fooling these people?’ The War accelerated the process of independence, as, along with the First World War, it taught the indigenous peoples of the Empire that the British alongside whom they fought were not gods, but flesh and blood, like them, who suffered sickness and injury. The War also forced the pace of independence, as Britain was left bankrupt and exhausted by the War. As part of their reward for aiding us, the Americans – and also the Russians – demanded that we open up the Empire to outside commerce and start to give our subject people’s their independence. This was particularly welcome to the leaders of the Jamaican independence movement. This had also started in the 1930s, if not before. It was partly based on the dissatisfaction of the Jamaican middle class at having their economy managed for British interests, rather than their own. They hoped that independence from Britain would allow them to develop their economy through closer links with the US.

I also think that the belief of most British people in the rightness of the Wars we fought also comes from British imperial history. Part of the Victorian’s legacy was the Empire and the belief that this was essentially a benign institution, which gave the less developed peoples of the world the benefits of modern British rule, medicine, technology and so on, while downplaying the atrocities and aggression we also visited on them. It’s a rosy view of the Empire, which is by no means accepted by everyone. Nevertheless, it’s the view that the Tories would like to instil into our schoolchildren. This was shown a few years ago by their ludicrous attack on Blackadder and demands for a more positive teaching of British history. Unlike the Germans, who were defeated and called to account for the horrors of the Nazis and Second World War, Britain has never suffered a similar defeat, and so hasn’t experienced the shock of having to re-evaluate its history and legacy to that level. And because Hussein was a brutal dictator, Blair was indeed able to pose as Churchill, as Thatcher did before him, and start another War.

Grove, Blackadder and Comedy and Satire in the Great War

November 10, 2014

The idea that we were brought up on, that Europe is the home of civilization in general – nonsense! It’s a periodical slaughter-pen, with all the vices this implies. I’d as lief live in the Chicago stockyards.

Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to Great Britain, quoted in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 258.

The Knee

A knee is roaming, through the world,
No more; it’s just a knee.
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
It is a knee; no more.

There was a man once in a war
Got killed and killed and killed.
Alone, unhurt, remained the knee
Like a saint’s relics, pure.

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely;
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Christian Morgenstern, op. cit, 218.

Last week I posted a piece on the article on Mike’s site, Vox Political, reporting that Ben Elton was writing a satire based on Michael Gove’s denunciation of the last series of Blackadder. Way back at the beginning of this year, Gove had attacked Blackadder Goes Forth for what he considered to be its unpatriotic portrayal of the soldiers, who fought in World War 1. He criticised the series’ left-wing bias, and declared that it insulted the memory of those who fought and died in the mud and horror of Flanders by portraying them as cowards. To support his view, he then cited a number of history books presenting the alternative view of the War, which had his approval. Gove’s opinions aren’t simply those of a Tory politician, impatient and intolerant with any view that dares to contradict their own. His views were also based on by a number of historical studies of the Great War, that have attempted to overturn the traditional view that it was a bloody, brutal debacle, in which millions of men were sent to their deaths by out-of-touch and incompetent generals. These historians have argued instead that officers and the men, who served under them, got on well and that accounts of the class friction between them have been exaggerated. They concede that there were severe mistakes made during the first part of the War, but that the conduct of the War improved greatly from 1917 onwards, so that phase of the War was actually well fought with a high standard of leadership. A friend of mine a few years ago attended a military history symposium to mark the War. One of the speakers there presented a paper arguing that General Haig was actually a good general, or at least, not as incompetent as previously believed. My friend remained unconvinced.

Gove Missing Point of Blackadder Comedy

Along with Mike and many other bloggers, I also put up a few pieces on this blog arguing that Gove was wrong. At one level, Gove simply missed the point. Blackadder Goes Forth was a comedy, not a work of serious drama or historical investigation. Comedies entertain by poking fun. Their subjects and targets are the vain, the stupid, the pompous, the greedy, and the inept. The character of Blackadder throughout his four series and incarnations is that of a picaresque anti-hero. He is cynical, devious, and callous and manipulative towards his friends, particularly Baldric, but saved because of his cynical comments on the folly, greed or savagery of his social superiors. The audience likes him, without actually approving of his corruption and lack of morals.

And whatever the reality of the War, it left many across Europe feeling betrayed by a political and economic system that given rise to such colossal, horrific carnage. This bitterness and horror was portrayed in verse by poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It also inspired satirists and comic writers and artists across Europe to add their comments to the horror and absurdity of the situation.

Grimmelshausen’s Comedies of 17th Century German War

Writers have written comedies and comic novels about wars and their combatants since Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen wrote his Simplicissimus Deutsch in the 17th century. This narrated the strange adventures of a group of na├»ve innocents, who managed somehow to blunder their way through the Thirty Years’ War. This was the continent-wide war between Roman Catholics and Protestants during which a fifth of the population of the German Empire died from starvation. Apart from being a classic in its own right, Grimmelshausen’s work has also been important in 20th century literature. It was on Grimmelshausen’s Description of the Life of the Archdeceiver and Vagrant Courasche that Bertolt Brecht based his play, Mother Courage. The cartoons and satires on the War could range from the gentle and mild, to the bitter and savage. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) cartoon ‘It’s the Little Things that Worry’, with its caption from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “It is an ancient campaigner and he stoppeth one of three’, below, shows a serviceman, ‘Old Bill’, trying to hunt down the fleas that pester them in the dugouts.

First War Cartoon

Black Comedy of Christian Morgenstern

Others were far more vicious. The German poet, Christian Morgenstern, was also inspired to write poetry by his experiences in the First World War. His poems are black comedies, which express his sense of how absurdly humorous the killing and death around him was. Morgenstern himself described how he and a friend were on patrol through no-man’s land when a shell exploded nearby. His friend was killed instantly, literally torn apart from the blast, and his head and entrails thrown into a nearby tree. Morgenstern said that far from being terrified, or repulsed by the grotesque sight, he actually found it funny. This is truly black humour, far darker than anything Elton showed in Blackadder.

The Wipers Times

Although Blackadder Goes Forth was fiction, written nearly seven decades after the events it describes, it does accurately reflect the type of humour and the views of the servicemen themselves, who did fight in the War. A few years ago Private Eye’s Ian Hislop presented a programme, with an accompanying book, on the Wipers Times. This was a newspaper written by and for the troops. Hislop commented on how savagely funny and dark the Times’s humour was, stating that it was exactly like Blackadder. I’ve got a feeling it was also viewed suspiciously by the authorities, like Ben Elton’s comic creation and his view of the War.

The Good Soldier Svejk

One of the greatest satirical works of the Great War was Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Hasek was a Czech, and the book satirises the absurdity and incompetence of the War and the multinational army of the Habsburg Empire, of which the Czech republic, then Bohemia, was a part. Hasek portrays the German-speaking generals in charge of the Austro-Hungarian forces as brutal and callous. Svejk’s own motives and character are also ambiguous. He’s incompetent, but staunchly loyal to the empire. It’s unclear whether Svejk is feigning stupidity in order to divert attention from his attempts to get out of the War, or whether he is actually that stupid. The Good Soldier Svejk has become a classic of Czech literature, and been translated into a number of languages, including English. It has been filmed several times, including in German, and a few decades ago Radio 4 broadcast a play based on the book.

Post-WW II Satires on War

Satirical treatment of wars and their brutal, terrifying absurdity, did not stop with the First World War, of course. Joseph Heller famously based Catch-22 on the Korean War. The Second World War and its horrors were the subject of a number of satires in its turn. Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett satirised the war films of the period in their show, Beyond the Fringe, which launched their careers as satirists and performers. The War also inspired and influenced the SF writers Kurt Vonnegut and Harry Harrison. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was partly based on his experiences as a POW during the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut and the other captured American soldiers with him only managed to survive the bombing as they had been imprisoned in an abattoir called Slaughterhouse 5. If nothing else, it shows that the Fates have a very dark sense of humour. Harry Harrison has also served in the Second World War. He began his career as a writer through the education courses the American army laid on in order to prepare their squaddies for civilian life. His experiences of the army and war clearly influence his book, Bill the Galactic Hero. This tells the story of a recruit to the human forces waging a galaxy-wide war against a race of alien lizards. Far from being the murderous savages of propaganda, the aliens are actually highly cultured and civilised. It is the humans, who are the aggressors. His view of the absurdity of war is shown in incidents, such as one in which Bill has an arm blown off during a space battle. He receives a replacement, which to his horror is that of his Black best friend. Furthermore, it’s another left arm, like his remaining limb, as there’s a shortage of right arms. The book also contains Harrison’s comment on the violence and belligerence in human nature. When asked by an alien opponent why humans are always fighting war, Bill replies ‘I think we just enjoy it’. Bill is also given advice on surviving as a soldier by Cain, the first murderer, here presented as the first soldier.

George Grosz

Some of the most viciously satirical cartoons depicting post-War life were those of George Grosz in Germany. Grosz had enlisted in the infantry when war broke out, but became bitterly disillusioned with the conflict and its carnage. He was hospitalised, and managed to hang on to his sanity by pouring out his rage and hatred into his drawings. He was determined to hit back at the ruling order responsible for the horror, travelling to the USSR after the War. He returned to Germany even more cynical and disgusted in 1922. His cartoons, which appeared in the brief satirical magazines, Die Pleite and Der Blutige Ernst (The Bloody Earnest) depicted a corrupt and decadent society, in which rich profiteers enjoyed vast luxury on the backs of an underclass, eking out a living in slums and flophouses. The cartoon below, ‘Des Volkes Dank ist Euch gewiss’ (The People’s Gratitude is certainly yours’ shows the rich passing a beggar and a maimed ex-serviceman, forced onto the streets.

Grosz Cartoon

War Comics Spoof and Maggie’s Cuts to the Armed Forces

In the cuts that followed the Falklands and Gulf Wars, thousands of soldiers were laid off. Many of these ex-servicemen, particularly those traumatised by their experiences of conflict, ended up homeless and on the streets. Spitting Image satirised this callous discarding of courageous soldiers, who had risked their lives for their country in a spoof comic strip in their send-up of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, Thatcha: The Real Maggie Memoirs. Drawn in the style of the British war comics of the 1970s, like Battle, the strip told the story of a British soldier coming back from the Falklands. Made redundant from the army, the former squaddie takes out his rage and frustration by gunning a crowd of innocent people waiting on a bus stop.

How Long till Scenes from Grosz in Cameron’s Britain?

The Tories have introduced a series of cuts in military expenditure, laying off thousands of professional soldiers while attempting fill the ranks with recruits from the Territorials. Despite the high profile and work of charities caring for ex-servicemen, such as Help for Heroes and the Invictus games this summer, I wonder how long it will be before we see scenes like the above drawing by Grosz in Britain, as the vicious and decadent British upper class profit from the misery and horror caused by the war in Iraq.

Patriotism, Idealism and Cynicism in First World War Britain

January 8, 2014

Jubilant Crowd War

Photograph of a British Crowd Cheering the Outbreak of the First World War.

I’ve posted three pieces this week and reblogged others from Vox Political, criticising Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail, trying to defend World War One as ‘a noble cause’, and the courage, honour and patriotism of the troops and the tactical expertise and competence of their leaders from misrepresentation by ‘left-wing academics’ and biased TV programmes like Blackadder and films like Oh, What A Lovely War! Far from the British public being alienated and cynical about the War, they actively supported it as a ‘noble Cause’, according to Gove. Mike, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice, and myself have already demolished this, complete with quotes from some of the soldiers, like Harry Patch, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, were fought in the War. Now I want to go further, and examine where Gove possibly got the impression that most people supported the War.

Now there was massive enthusiasm amongst the British for the War when it broke out. The photograph above shows a crowd thronging the street cheering it when the news broke. Such crowds gathered in Parliament Square and the Mall, and sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This enthusiasm was shared by many artists, writers and intellectuals. Malcolm Brown, in his book Tommy Goes to War, recorded one artist as saying, ‘Would they (the Germans) invade us, I wondered. By George! If they should they’d find us a t5ougher nut to crack than they expected. My bosom swelled and I clenched my fist. I wished to something desperate for the cause of England’.

The modernist writer and artists, Wyndham Lewis, wrote ‘You must not miss a war … You cannot afford to miss that experience’. Lewis, it should be said, was an admirer of the Italian Futurists, who praised war and combat, calling it the ‘sole hygiene of the world’ and denouncing anything that smacked of pacificism, liberalism and feminism as ‘passeism’. Lewis founded the Vorticists, a similar movement in Britain, and was later strongly suspected of Fascist sympathies because of his authoritarian political views, expressed in the book, The Art of Being Ruled.

This war fever was also shared by Baden-Powell and the Scouts. The motto ‘Be Prepared’ is an abbreviation of Baden-Powell’s statement urging his movement’s young members to ‘Be prepared to die for your country … so that when the time comes you may charge home with confidence, not caring whether you are to be killed or not!’ Baden-Powell had other, highly unpleasant political views. Among the reasons he founded the scouts was to indoctrinate working-class boys with healthy, British Conservative patriotic values to take them away from Socialism, trade unionism and other subversive ideas. His idea of using a uniformed organisation, patterned on the military to inculcate its members with comradeship, patriotism and social solidarity, and support for militaristic, authoritarian politics was later taken up by the Fascist movements on the Continent. It’s because of this that Baden-Powell has been the subject of criticism in parts of the Left.

Poems celebrating the War, and urging soldiers to join up, were printed in the press, such as Julian Grenfell’s Into Battle, which was published in the Times in 1915. This had the lines

The naked earth is warm with Spring
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And life is colour and warmth and light,
And a striving ever more for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase….

As the War went on, and lasted far longer than the six months they originally believed it would last, disillusionment and despair set in. A Radio 4 programme on the First World War noted that this started a year or two after the outbreak of the War, when the younger brothers of men already at the front became increasingly aware of the reality of the War from their brothers’ letters and conversation when home on leave, and became very much afraid for their own lives. Among those who expressed this disillusionment was Isaac Rosenberg. In his poem, Dead Man’s Dump, Rosenberg wrote

‘The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.’

D.H. Lawrence, in Kangaroo,sharply criticised government propaganda and the patriotic exhortations to fight and die in the popular press: ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended … The integrity of London collapsed and the genuine debasement began, the unspeakable debasement of the press and the public voice, the reign of the bloated ignominy, John Bull‘.

Sassoon photo

Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon shared this cynicism, and his poetry includes sharp criticism of recruiting sergeants, who encourage others to go to their deaths while keeping themselves safe and sound:

‘If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my putty petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour, ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.’

In my opinion, this should be printed above any statement made by Bush and the other ‘chickenhawks’, who have destroyed a country and sent thousands of brave men and women to their death or mutilation in Iraq, whenever they give any kind of statement about the invasion and occupation of that country.

Sassoon himself was strongly influence by the 1916 work, Le Feu, written by Henri Barbusse in France, who inveighed against the War and the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, that had died defending Verdun from bombardment. It was translated into English in 1917, and not only influenced Sassoon but also Owen, who was also inspired to carry on his campaign against the War after meeting the former in a hospital near Edinburgh.

Wilfred Owen photo

Wilfred Owen

Owen was only one of a number of servicemen, who wrote about the War and their experience of it in order to prevent a similar conflict ever breaking out again. These works and memoirs include Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That, Montague’s Disenchantment – surely a title that itself refutes Gove’s statement that the British people were largely supportive of the War, Blunden’s Undertones of War, as well as the more recent accounts by Harry Patch, the last British Tommy, who died only a year or so ago. In 1962 Benjamin Britten incorporated nine of Owen’s poems into his War Requiem.

Many Left-wing intellectuals were opposed to the War from the start. These included the Bloomsbury Grou, including Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell. Russell was fined by the government for ‘statements likely to prejudice the recruiting and discipline of His Majesty’s forces’. George Bernard Shaw also condemned the War and the fervid patriotism that sustained it. In an article in the New Statesman he declared that the best way of ending the war would be if the troops shot their officers and went home.

Now I’ve written that modern scholarship has suggested that there was much less disaffection and cynicism amongst the British public and servicemen than previously considered. There are, however, real problems in assessing just how widespread anti-War sentiments truly were. The problem is that much of the writings about the War from the men, who fought in it has been lost. It may be stored in attics and cellars, long ago thrown away, or lost with the rest of the fortifications and camps in which it was written. The material that has survived, from Sassoon, Rosenberg, Owen, Graves and others, did so because of the social connections of those officers to the middle and upper classes. The accounts of the War belonging to those lower down the social scale has been less fortunate. Nevertheless, it has survived, as the Angry Yorkshireman has pointed out in his piece on Gove’s attempt to revise the War. Another problem, highlighted by Lawrence in the above passage from Kangaroo, is that the government and media at the time were concerned to make sure that work critical of the War had a very limited circulation. This meant that not only was the pro-War sentiment preserved from much criticism, but it’s difficult to tell how many people actually agreed with it because of restrictions on its dissemination. The amount of material surviving, that patriotically supported the War, may actually be out of proportion to the number of people, who actually shared these views, simply because it was actively promoted by government and media while critical works were not.

I have, however, pointed out that even if the numbers of people disillusioned with the War is overestimated, nevertheless, the disillusionment still existed. I also pointed out that the servicemen’s newspaper, The Wipers Times, was very much like the depiction of the War and the black humour in Blackadder Goes Forth. This episode in the War’s history has been recently explored by Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye. It is therefore quite likely that further research will reveal much more material like this to challenge the revisionist accounts so loudly endorse by Gove.

Now Gove stated that children should be allowed to study opposing views. I actually agree with him about this. It is, however, hypocritical coming from Gove, who then goes on to attack the view of the War promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’, which, as the Angry Yorkshireman has also shown, includes such notorious radicals as, er, Ken Clarke and Winston Churchill. Well, perhaps in a few years time, when Cameron has effectively turned this country into a one-party state and made the unemployed either beggars or state-owned slaves. Coming from Gove, these comments do pose a threat, as they strongly suggest that he believes that the state should dictate what views about the past should be taught in schools and universities.

Gove is wrong, often horribly wrong about the First World War, though others should certainly be free to share his views, if they agree with them. The danger is in the use of the power of the state to ensure that only the approved, Conservative version is taught. This must be strenuously resisted, so people can make their own minds up. This is the difference between education and indoctrination.

Gove on Blackadder and the First World War: Part Two – The British Went to War against German Social Darwinism

January 7, 2014

I’ve already posted a piece supplementing Mike’s excellent pieces over on Vox Political about Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail attacking Blackadder, Oh, What A Lovely War, and ‘Left-wing academics’ for undermining the patriotism, honour and courage of the troops, who served in that conflict. In that piece I pointed out that the bitterness and rejection of patriotism for which Gove reproaches Blackadder was itself a product of the First World War, and that rather than a creation of ‘left-wing academics’, it was based very firmly in the experiences and testimony of the men who fought instead.

There is, however, something far more pernicious Gove’s comments about the First World War than simply the knee-jerk resort to patriotism of a True-Blue Thatcherite Tory. This is Gove’s statement that Britain went to war with Germany because of their ‘Social Darwinism’. This simply is not true. Social Darwinist theories were held by people right across the West from the late 19th century onwards, and certainly not just in Germany. There have been a numbers of studies, which have shown that the belief in the ‘economic survival of the fittest’ underpinned much Liberal economic and social theorising, and was used by wealthy magnates, like the Carnegies in America, to justify their opposition to state intervention, welfare, and health and safety legislation. The chattering classes all across Europe and the West also discussed legislation to limit and sterilise the indigent poor and congenitally disabled, in order to prevent them overrunning society and outbreeding their physical, mental and social superiors. These ideas formed the core of Nazi ideology, but they actually predate them. Modern eugenics, by which the unfit were to be bred out through carefully controlled selective breeding, was founded by Francis Galton in England, Darwin’s cousin. In the 1920s 45 American states passed legislation providing for the sterilisation of the congenitally disabled and particularly the mentally retarded. There was a scandal nearly two and a half decades ago at the precise week of Lady Diana’s death, when it was revealed that Sweden had still continued its campaign of sterilisation right in the 1970s. This legislation also predated the Nazis. The Swedish programme’s definition of who was congenitally unfit included sexually promiscuous girls, and members of the Tartare, Travellers rather like the Gypsies. Unlike the Gypsies, they were not considered to constitute a separate ethnic group, who were exempt from the eugenics legislation, and so they, like non-Traveller Swedes, were taken and sterilised. It was only very recently that the Tartare won recognition as an ethnic group in their own right, and so qualified for compensation for their members’ forcible sterilisation.

The same eugenicist and Social Darwinist attitudes pervaded British society. Ernest Beveridge, before he accepted the recommendations of the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Socialist Medical Society on which the Beveridge Report was based, also shared these views. He believed that unemployment and disability benefits should only be given to men, on the condition that they were sterilised as ‘dysgenic’ due to their inability to support themselves. It was also espoused by sections of the British military. H.W. Koch, in his paper ‘Social Darwinism as a Factor in Imperialism’ in the book The Origins of the First World, edited by Koch himself and published by MacMillan in 1972, demonstrated, with numerous quotations, how Social Darwinism formed part of the expansionist ideology of the British military in the First World War. Leading British generals and admirals advocated war with Germany as it was believed that it was through violent conflict that the unfit were weeded out and organisms and nations evolved further. Gove’s comment that Britain went to war with Germany not only ignores this, but actually falsifies the true situation in that Social Darwinism was found on the British as well as the German side.

German historians believe that the First World War was not the fault of their country, but was due to a general move to war across Europe as a whole. This view is generally rejected by historians outside Germany, who believe that the War was caused by Germany’s desire to punish the Slavs for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand the Second by Gavrilo Princip in Serbia. Nevertheless, the web of alliances that the various powers had constructed across Europe in order to prevent war acted to pull all the various nations, their colonial possessions, and extra-European allies into the conflict. Britain had become increasingly alarmed by growing German economic and military power from the late 19th century onwards. There were a series of early science fiction stories and novels, such as the Battle of Dorking, which foresaw a future German invasion of and conquest of Britain. As a result, Britain engaged in an arms race with Germany to the extent that there were already arms limitation treaties signed in 1905 between the two nations.

There were also a number of other factors involved, and I urge those interested to read ‘Sean’s’ comments to Mike’s first article on Gove and his comments about Blackadder. He knows rather more about the war and its causes than I do. He points out that the Italian Prime Minister had a few years before the War prevented it from breaking out, from example. The point here is that Britain certainly did not go to war with Wilhelmine Germany to combat the latter’s Social Darwinism, as it was shared by this country’s own chattering and military classes, but was instead due solely to geo-political questions relating to the balance of power in Europe and freedom and autonomy of Serbia and the other Slavonic nations. To state that it was is to misrepresent the origins of the War, and produce a false, pernicious picture that ignores and covers up the prevalence of Social Darwinist views in Britain and the rest of the world. It presents a nasty, black-and-white image of righteous, enlightened Allies versus proto-Nazi Germans, quite at variance with the reality.

Beyond Gove’s ignorance of the causes and spiritual, social and cultural effects of the First World War, there is the wider issue of his attitude to education and particularly the teaching of history. Gove has specifically targeted ‘left-wing academics’ for being, as he appears to see it, unpatriotic. This has been a common complaint of the Tories ever since the days of Thatcher and before, when the Express and Mail regularly carried stories of the ‘loony left’ indoctrinating vulnerable minds with subversive subjects like Peace Studies, and attacking British identity in the guise of anti-racism. I can remember Maggie sneering at one Tory conference about ‘Fabians’ and ‘anti-racist mathematics’. Now there may have been a minority of leftist radicals like that, but most weren’t, and in any case, most teachers are teachers because they want to stand in front of a chalkboard and teach, not indoctrinate their pupils one way or the other. One of the most precious, fundamental qualities in British academia is the freedom to think, debate and argue without having to bow to the dictates of the state. By attacking teachers and the academics, who hold views on the First World War and its origins at variance to his own, Gove has attacked this principle.

And this is very serious indeed. Academic freedom is under assault across the world. In Russia last year, Putin passed a law partially rehabilitating Stalin. This piece of legislation makes it illegal to denigrate Stalin as the saviour of Russia during the Great Patriotic War, the old Soviet name for World War Two. Now Stalin did indeed save the Soviet Union, but only after he signed a non-aggression pact with Ribbentrop and was totally unprepared for the Nazi invasion to the point where in the first days of the German assault Russian troops were forbidden to fire back. Far worse than that, the old brute was responsible for the deaths of 30 million Soviet citizens during the Purge. This may be an underestimate, as the true figure is unknown. It could be as high as for 45 million or more. A few years ago the BBC screened a programme on modern Russia, in which the presenter travelled to one of Stalin’s gulags. The place was dilapidated and decaying, but there were still the remains of the barracks, guardhouses and other buildings. Most chillingly, however, there were lying scattered on the ground the bare bones of the inmates, who had been starved, tortured and finally worked to death in that terrible place.

Historians and archaeologists are extremely wary about allowing nationalist bias into their work. Every nation has, of course, its own view of history, including its own. The ideal, however, is to produce an objective account free of nationalist bias. It was one of the first things I can remember being taught in history as an undergraduate. And one of the most compelling reasons for avoiding it was the way history was used and distorted by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, like Stalin’s Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, to justify their brutal, murderous tyrannies. It has also been used to justify the invasion, colonisation and expropriation of the subject nations of the European empires around the world and the racist policies that legitimised the rule of their White masters. Hence the emergence of Historical Archaeology. The name is somewhat misleading, as it does not deal with the archaeology of the broader period for which historical records survive, such as from the ancient world onwards, but rather more narrowly of the period c.1500 to the present day. It’s called Historical Archaeology as it was founded by American researchers, for whom the written history of their country really only dates from the fifteenth century. As a discipline, Historical Archaeology tries to recover the voices and experiences of the subordinate social groups oppressed and subjected by the forces of colonialism and capitalism, who are rarely heard in the written historical accounts – the indigenous peoples, slaves, immigrants and other ethnic minorities, the working class masses and women. It’s an attempt to challenge the official histories produced by the colonial elites, which largely ignored and excluded these groups.

Gove wishes to ignore all this, to turn the clock back to what the historian Butterfield called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, in which British history is one long process of gradual improvement, culminating in democracy and the British Empire. Gove is probably keen on the latter, but I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the current administration pays anything but lip service to the notion of democracy. History is richer, and far more complicated than this, with frequent shameful episodes and periods when genuine oppression and brutality were all too common, and where it was never clear that the forces of humanity and justice would win. You can look, for example, at the period of vicious political repression that occurred in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, when the government tried to crack down on anything resembling subversion against aristocratic rule. It was a period characterised by the notorious Peterloo Massacre, when the British army and a squadron of Hussars charged a peaceful demonstration gathered to hear the radical politician, ‘Orator’ Hunt. Or the slave trade and the long campaign against it, which succeeded in outlawing it in the British Empire only in 1840. Real history gives the lie to the Whig Interpretation, and casts very grave doubts over the supposed justice of British imperialism. Gove, however, would prefer that the last fifty years and more of historical scholarship, in which the Victorian view of the correctness and justice of Britain, her society, and her imperial rule, was swept away, to be replaced with a cosily reassuring Conservative version justifying the traditional British class structure, capitalism and its militaristic expansion and invasion of the wider world. He wants to return to a history guided by the old adage, ‘My country, right or wrong’.

The best comment I’ve heard on that old saying was by the fictional space detective Nathan Spring in an episode of the BBC SF series, Star Cops, back in the 1980s. In a conversation with the very shifty, patriotic commander of an American space station, the conversation moves on to patriotism and conservatism.
‘My country, right or wrong, eh?’ remarks Spring.
‘There are worse philosophies’, replies the commander.
‘Yes,’ retorts Spring. ‘Most of them begin with that one.’

Gove’s attack on teachers and ‘left-wing academics’ is also part of a general, anti-intellectual trend in Conservative politics that’s been around since Reagan and Thatcher. Back in the 1980s, the great American comedian, Bill Hicks in one of his routines used to remark, ‘Do I detect a little anti-intellectualism here. Must date from the time Reagan was elected.’ This attempts to appeal to populist sentiment by presenting a left-wing view of history as a distortion forced upon vulnerable young minds in schools, colleges and universities by subversive left-wing teachers and college and university lecturers. It attempts to present the existing order as so obviously correct, that only out-of-touch, elite liberals, who themselves sneer and patronise the working class, wish to question and challenge.

Now, you can certainly find ‘loony-left’ teachers and lecturers of whom this is true. Most teachers and lecturers, in my experience, actually don’t want to indoctrinate young minds with dangerous and subversive doctrines so much as stand in front of a class and teach. Yes, they have their biases, but the goal is to teach an objective history as supported by the facts, although how history is interpreted naturally depends very much on the individual historian and how they see the past. Gove wishes to jettison all this, and replace academic freedom, in which the accepted view of events can be freely examined and questioned, with a Conservative, patriotic view dictated by the state. It’s an attack on the very core of academic freedom. Its the mark of an insecure political elite, who fear any questioning of their authority and their view of history. And if left unchallenged, will end with Britain becoming like Russia and so many other nations around the world, where children are taught only the official history, and the nation’s shameful actions and periods are ignored. In many of these nations, those that challenge the official view of history can be subject to intimidation and imprisonment. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, has been imprisoned for insulting Turkish nationhood, because he said the country ought to admit to its culpability for the Armenian massacres. Gove’s view of history and his attack on academic freedom threaten to bring Britain close to that state.

Unfortunately, the Tories do have form for trying to use the law to purge the educational system of those, whose political views they do not share. A friend of mine, who was very much involved with his student union at Uni, informed me that in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher passed legislation intended to bar Marxists from holding posts at university. In the end, the law proved an unworkable dead letter, at the Marxists at whom it was aimed simply declared themselves to be ‘Marxian’, instead. They weren’t Marxists, but had a culture based on Marx. Hence they were exempt from such legislation. It was a very fine legal point, and some would say that it was a difference without distinction. Nevertheless, it did what it was intended to do and they kept their jobs.

Now I am aware of the reasons why Thatcher attempted to stop Marxists teaching at university, and the arguments that have been used to support it. Communist regimes around the world, from the Soviet bloc to China, have murdered millions. The argument therefore runs that if the extreme, racist right cannot be tolerated in academia because of their guilt for the murder of millions, and the murderously illiberal and intolerant nature of their doctrines, then neither should the extreme Left, who are equally guilty of such crimes. Nevertheless, there is a danger that when states start introducing legislation to regulate, who teaches in their schools and universities, based on their personal religious or political beliefs, then a step is taken towards further state control of what their citizens are allowed to think and believe, and freedom suffers. There is, rightly, legislation in place to prevent teachers and university lecturers indoctrinating their students with their personal religious or personal beliefs. Nevertheless, schools and universities are also places where students are encouraged to think for themselves, to explore different views and perspectives on particular issues, and make their own decisions. And given the immense contribution certain elements of Marxism have made to various academic disciplines, regardless of the merits or otherwise of Marxism itself as a political creed, it is only right and natural that Marxists should be allowed to teach and publish at universities, provided they too abide by the rules of open debate.

Baroness Thatcher attempted to use the law to close this down.

And Gove with this rant about Blackadder and ‘left-wing academics’ has attempted to go some way towards following her. If you value academic freedom, and right of everyone in academia to be able to teach and research, regardless of their political views, so long as they can support their views with fact and logical argument, then Gove’s latest rant, and his desire to indoctrinate young minds with his narrow view of history, must be resisted to the utmost.

Sources

Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers (Boston: Beacon Press 1997)

Philip Rahtz, Invitation to Archaeology: 2nd Edition (Oxford: Blackwell 1991)

D.G. Williamson, The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982)

Blackadder, Patriotism and the First World War: Michael Gove Repeats ‘The Old Lie’

January 6, 2014

Anzacs World War1

Anzacs at Passchendaele, 1917, the battle described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’.

I’ve reblogged two of Mike’s articles on Vox Populi on Michael Gove’s latest attack on history and the received view of the First World War. In an interview in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised shows like Blackadder and the film, Oh, What A Lovely War!, for presenting the wrong view of the First World War and denigrating the courage, honour and patriotism of the men who fought there. It is, he said, the fault of left-wing academics, and seems particularly incensed at the cynicism and rejection of patriotism in the above TV series and film.

Now, Gove does have something of a point here. Recent scholarship within the last 30 years has criticised the old view that there was a profound gulf between the officers and the working-class men they led, and pointed out that there was more mutual comradeship, acceptance and respect between the two groups than previously considered. I was also told by a very left-wing friend, who has absolutely no time for the Tory party, that the amount of cynicism and bitterness generated by the War has been overstated. Of the men returning from the War, 1/3 bitterly hated it, 1/3 thought it was a good adventure, and 1/3 had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The same friend also told me that on the Western Front, the death rate was actually lower than in contemporary Edwardian factories. His comment on this was simply: ‘It’s sh*t.’ This does not exonerate the mass carnage of the First World War so much as show you how immensely cheaply life was held by the Edwardian factory masters. As for courage, George Orwell freely admitted in one of his essays that this was amply demonstrated by the numbers of the titled aristocracy, including dukes, knights and baronets, whose lives were ended in that savage conflict. He called the militaristic anti-intellectual upper classes ‘blimps’, and had nothing but scorn for their conduct of the War, but he did not doubt their courage.

The same friend, who knows far more about the First and Second World Wars than me, also told me that he felt that much of the cynicism about the First World War was a projection of the feelings of bitterness and alienation felt by many people after the Second, when the horrors of War and the Nazi regime seemed, to many, to discredit completely European culture. I dare say there is something in this, but, while the extent of such alienation after the First World War may have been exaggerated, the point remains that it was there.

Already in the 1920s there were complaints from British officers about left-wing propaganda about the War being spread by ‘acidulated radicals’. The film, Oh, What A Lovely War! is written from a left-wing perspective. It was based on the stage play, Journey’s End, which in its turn was based, I believe, on the experiences of First World War soldiers. The Fascist movements that sprang up all over Europe after the War, including Oswald Moseley’s BUF in Britain, were formed by ex-servicemen unable to adapt to civilian life, and who believed they had been betrayed by a corrupt political system. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain 1918-1986, repeats that Moseley himself represented and kept true to the servicemen, who had fought and suffered in the War, and now had little to look forward to on their return to Blighty. I’m not so sure. Much of the conventional view about Mosely put out by Skidelsky’s biography has since been demolished. Rather than being a misguided, but at heart decent man, Moseley himself now appears very firmly as a cynical political manipulator all too eager and ready to jettison Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist, but originally non-racist Fascism, for the Nazis and Hitler. Nevertheless, the point remains: the First World created widespread bitterness, of which European Fascism was one expression.

As for Blackadder, this can be compared to the grim reality and the gallows humour with which British squaddies and their officers faced it in the pages of the Wipers Times. This was the servicemen’s newspapers, which took its name from the British mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’, where it was published. Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, last year published a book and appeared on a BBC documentary about it. The Beeb also broadcast a drama about it. Hislop stated that it was full of very, very black humour, and was very much like Blackadder. You could hear the same sentiments expressed in the trooper’s songs of the period. Everyone remembers ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, but there were others with much less patriotic view of the War. A year or so ago I came across an old songbook, Songs that Won the War. Published about the time of the Second, it collected the songs sung by the troops during the First. Amongst the various patriotic ditties was ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’. Fred Karno, remember, was the Music Hall impresario, who launched the career of silent move stars like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. The final verse imagines how the British army will be greeted by the Kaiser when they finally reach Berlin. It has the Kaiser looking at them in horror and saying, ‘Vot, Vot! Mein Gott! Vot a shabby lot!’ Somehow, I don’t think that one has been played much at Tory party conferences.

Civilian music hall stars also shared in the deep disillusionment felt by the troops. In a programme on the Music Hall broadcast several years ago on Radio 4, the programme’s presenter, a historian of the Music Hall, noted that after the War variety stars became much more sombre in appearance. Before the War there were stars like ‘The One-Eyed Kaffir’, a White man, who blacked up for his act except for one eye, which was kept as a white patch. After the War, such grotesque make-up vanished. The presenter felt that this was part of a general, more sombre mood throughout British culture engendered by the War. This mood was felt most bitterly by some of the Music Hall stars, who had sung patriotic, jingoistic songs to encourage young men to do their bit and join up. One such singer became very bitter indeed, and stated that he felt personally responsible for the men, who had been maimed and murdered as a result of listening to him.

The bitterness about the War has been expressed most famously, and most movingly, by the great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others less well-known. One of the books in my old school’s sixth form library was Up the Line to Death, an anthology of poetry from the First World War. As well as poetry, Sassoon wrote a letter, ‘The Declaration against War’, in 1917, during his convalescence after being wounded in France. Rather than risk the scandal of a court martial, Owen was declared to be shell-shocked and hospitalised. His declaration is one of the piece anthologised in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport. Here it is:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’.

The last line sounds very much like a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and the Neo-Con ‘chickenhawks’ – men who had themselves never seen active service and who indeed had shirked it – that demanded it. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that it’s applicability to this situation was one of the reasons Arnove and Firth selected it.

As for Owen, I can remember we did Owen’s poem, ‘Gassed’, in English. This describes the horrific state of squaddies left dying and blinded by mustard gas in conflict. It ends with words attacking and repudiating ‘the old lie, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, a Latin motto meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.

So there it is, Gove, a rejection of patriotism because of the carnage and suffering it caused, by two extremely courageous men, who fought and were injured in the War. I believe Owen was himself killed just before Armistice. Oh, you can argue that Blackadder is based on the prejudiced view of left-wing academics, but they based their views on fact – on what those who actually fought in it actually felt about it.

Yes, historians modify their views about the past all the time, as new research is done, and new arguments brought forth, new topics emerge and techniques used. And that means that some of the bitterness about the War has been revised. Yet there is no doubt that the War did result in mass bitterness amongst former combatants and the civilian population, and feelings of betrayal by the old society and elites that had sent so many to their deaths. Blackadder is fiction, and throughout its four series and numerous specials often took wild liberties with the facts. Yet Blackadder goes forth and its cynicism was based on fact, and I found, as someone who simply watched it, that the final moments of the last episode, in which Blackadder, Baldrick and their friends go over the Top to their deaths, actually a genuinely moving and respectful tribute to those who did die in the muck and trenches.

Way back in the 1980s the Observer wryly remarked that the Tories were now ‘the patriotic party’. This followed Thatcher’s vociferous trumpeting of patriotism as the great British value. ‘Don’t call them boojwah, call them British!’ screamed one headline from the Telegraph supporting her very class-based, politicised view of Britishness and patriotism.

Well, a wiser man, possibly, the great Irish wit, dear old butch Oscar (pace his description in Blackadder) once described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In this case, it is. And so is Gove.