Posts Tagged ‘Tony Robinson’

Secular Talk on the Alabama Textbook Defending Slavery

August 18, 2016

This is another fascinating video from the atheist/secularist news programme, Secular Talk, commenting on an Alabama school history book that taught students in the state for a generation that slavery was beneficial to the enslaved Black population. Clyde Smith was a high school student in 1971, and he posted online pictures of the textbook used in the state schools. It was called History for Schools by Charles Grayson Somersell, and was taught from 1955 to well into the ’70s. The book told its young readers that slaves were given good quality clothes, and were better off than contemporary free labourers, White or Black. They were given the best medical care that the times could offer by their masters. The book didn’t mention the regular whippings, nor the frequent rape of enslaved women by their masters, who then did not take care of the children – a fact that is notorious to Black Americans. Kulinski makes the point that slaves weren’t viewed as people, quite literally, and were forced to work long hours. The textbook also explicitly stated that ‘Slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States’, and states that it was illegal for a master to emancipate a slave after he was too old to work. Kulinski points out that this meant that elderly slaves remained in chains, and slaves were worked until they died.

Kulinski makes the very good point that this shows the basic, unspoken beliefs of Whites in the Southern US, the kind of ideas they express only among themselves in private. It also explains why so many of them were shocked and outraged by demands to remove the Confederate flag. To them, rather than the symbol of evil and oppression, it represented a good and beneficial order, which looked after its enslaved workers and gave them excellent healthcare, in contrast to the poverty of free workers in the North.

Finally, Kulinski explains why he’s talking about this now: because the battle is never over. You have to explain and keep explaining certain basic points about human dignity and freedom, because to people raised on this propaganda, they were the good guys and slavery was not necessarily an evil system.

I put this video up because it boggled my mind how anyone could approve of slavery, or present it as essentially beneficial as late as the 1970s. it explains some of the racism in the Deep South, as well as some of the other weird and bizarre attitudes held by the American Right. I did wonder how far the equation of social security and healthcare with slavery explained the bizarre attitude of the Libertarians that the welfare state is also a form of slavery. There was a prize exchange on American television from Congress when Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul were talking about universal state healthcare for Americans. Rand Paul, a Libertarian Republican, started spouting nonsense that state healthcare reduced doctors and other employees to slaves, and that they would be woken up in the middle of the night by people breaking down their front door to get them to treat patients. This was done when the two were taking the testimony of doctors involved in the state medicare programme. Sanders, who wants a universal healthcare like the NHS, dispatched that piece of stupidity by simply asking one of the doctors if she’d ever had this happen to her. Obviously, she hadn’t. In Britain doctors, surgeons, nurses and other employees are paid employees with all the rights of free people. They do have to treat patients, but no-one’s going to break down their doors except in emergencies, and they are perfectly free to leave the profession. Unfortunately, their status, pay and working conditions is declining, thanks to Jeremy Hunt and the Tories, who wish to destroy the state system and replace it with private enterprise.

As for the conditions slaves endured, the Alabama text books is right on some points. Defenders of slavery in both America and Britain pointed out that slaves were frequently treated better, and enjoyed better working conditions, than the ‘factory slaves’, the free workers employed in the factories of the northern US and in Britain. They’re probably right. Factory workers worked long hours in appalling conditions for miserable pay, and in some ways their condition did tremble on the edge of true slavery. Tony Robinson in an episode of Time Team devoted to industrial archaeology pointed out – with justifiable anger – how factory masters purchased children from orphanages to use as young workers. Also, when the British were seeking to improve the conditions of slaves in the Caribbean in the 1820s, they were also forced to pass legislation forbidding masters from freeing slaves who were too old to work as a way of avoid the expense of maintaining them. This was a period when the British government was passing legislation demanding that slaves were properly fed and clad.

This does not, however, make slavery any better. Slaves were worked to death. There was a debate in the 17th and 18th centuries over whether it was more profitable to work a slave to death quickly, and so make a massive profit quickly, but then have to go to the expense of buying a new slave; or whether it was better to give them moderate amounts of work and keep them working steadily so that they lived longer.

They were not given good quality clothing. The slave laws provided that the men should receive yearly a pair of drawers – that is, underpants – and the women a petticoat or shift. But that’s it. Now much did depend on the attitude of the slave masters. Archaeologists examining the material of the slaves on Ben Franklin’s estate found that the slaves there had a very high standard of living. They were well-fed, had fine crockery, and played instruments like the violin. But there were no doubt many more cases where the slaves were given very little. Visitors to the Caribbean remarked on the enslaved workers labouring naked in the fields. And Kulinski is right to talk about the flogging and sexual exploitation, though he passes over some of the other, more extreme and vile forms of punishment that existed, such as mutilation.

It’s a fascinating, grim insight into the mindset that was instilled in a generation of southern US schoolchildren, and which is still being regurgitated by Republicans across the US today.

TV on Tuesday: Celebs in the Workhouse

May 17, 2015

The past five Tuesday evenings, the Beeb has been showing the series 24 Hours in the Past. This is pretty much a reality TV show with an historical slant. Instead of being thrown into a jungle and then made to survive, or compete against each other to produce the finest cakes or dishes, each week the programme’s cast of celebrities are required to go back to a certain period in history and do some of the nastiest, dirtiest or most unpleasant work from the period. It’s like Tony Robinson’s 2004 Channel 4, The Worst Jobs in History, but with a crew of six as the unfortunate Baldricks forced to labour and grub for their living like the inhabitants of Victorian slums. Or the rookeries of 18th century London. Or whatever.

This week, however, they reach the very nadir of poverty and desperation: the workhouse. The blurb for the programme states that the workhouse was partly intended to reform the corrupt and indolent character of its inmates. It’s therefore a kind of irony that Ann Widdecombe is so bolshie, that she finds herself placed in solitary.

The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

As the six celebrities stroll up to an impressive redbrick institution for their final Victorian experience, Miquita Oliver reckons it looks like somewhere she’d go for a weekend spa. Hardly. It’s the workhouse, where there are no rewards, only punishments, explains Ruth Goodman. So immediately bolshie Ann Widdecombe is put in solitary confinement.

In order to “reform the moral character of the undeserving poor”, workhouse inmates were degraded,k overworked and mistreated, taking the time travellers almost to breaking point.

Tempers are definitely fraying but to give them credit, nobody shouts “I’m a celebrity … get me out of here”. It’s been a filthy, gruelling history lesson.

And

Hungry and penniless after stirring up a worker’s rebellion in the Victorian-era potteries, there’s only one place left for Ann Widdecombe, Zoe Lucker, Colin Jackson, Alistair McGowan, Tyger Drew-Honey and Miquita Oliver. Clad in rough uniforms and clumsy clogs they enter the harsh world of the workhouse – the 19th century equivalent of the benefits system – where they are immediately stripped of their belongings and indentities. Filthy and exhausted the celebrities must endure relentless graft and grind for their basic necessities. Will they rise to this most daunting challenge and prove they can work their way out of the workhouse and back to the comforts of the 21st century?

As left-wing bloggers like Tom Pride, the Angry Yorkshireman, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Jayne Linney, Mike from Vox Political and myself have pointed out, the ethos underlying the workhouse – that of ‘less eligibility’ – has returned to 21st century Britain in the form of the various tests, examinations and ‘work related activity’ benefit claimants are forced to go through in order to show that they really are looking for work, if fit, and genuinely deserving of invalidity or sickness support if they cannot. And as the government has made it very plain it wants to cut down on welfare expenditure in order to shrink the state back to its size in the 1930s, conditions are being made as hard as possible so that increasingly few people are considered deserving of state support.

And although not confined within the prison-like environs of the workhouse, its drudgery has been brought back in the form of workfare and the other requirements to perform ‘work-related activity’. This consists in performing unpaid, spurious voluntary work for particular charities, or big businesses like Tesco and so boosting their already bloated profits.

So far, conditions have not become quite so appalling as the Victorian workhouse, but real, grinding poverty, including starvation and rickets has reappeared in Britain, brought about by the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ atavistic desire to return to the very worst of the ‘Victorian values’ lauded by Maggie Thatcher. So far, 45 people have starved to death due to the withdrawal of their benefits, but the true number is probably much, much higher, perhaps 50,000 plus.

And it’s significant that while celebs, including a former Tory MP, are prepared to participate in a programme like this, the Tories have most definitely refused to experience its modern equivalent for themselves. Iain Duncan Smith was invited to try living on the same amount as a job-seeker for a week. He flatly refused, declaring that it was just ‘a publicity stunt’.

Well, what did you expect from ‘RTU’ Smith, the Gentleman Ranker. He’s a wancel (hat tip to Maxwell for this term), whose cowardice in facing his policies’ victims has been more than amply demonstrated over and again. Such as when this mighty warrior, who, according to David Cameron, ‘can crack skulls with his kneecaps’, hid in a laundry basked to hide from demonstrators in Edinburgh. Or when he sneaked out the back of a Job Centre he was opening in Bath to avoid meeting the demonstrators there.

Now I’ve no problem whatsoever with history programmes showing how harsh conditions were the bulk of people in the past, who didn’t belong to small percentage that formed the aristocracy or the middle classes. It gives a more balanced idea of the past in contrast to those programmes, that concentrate more on the lives of the elite. These programmes can give an idealised picture of previous ages, in which social relations were somehow more harmonious, and the lower orders were properly grateful and respectful to paternal employers and aristocratic masters. There’s been a touch of this, for example, in the Beeb’s Sunday night historical drama, Downton Abbey.

For most people, life was not a round of glamorous society balls, or a glorious career in the armed forces abroad, or in parliament at home. Most people did not have the luxury of fine food, wines and spirits, with their wishes attended by legions of dutiful servants.

Rather, the reality for most of the country’s population in the past was hard work, grinding poverty, and the threat of a very early death through disease and malnutrition.

However, there is also a danger with programmes like this in that they can give the impression of continual progress and improvement. There’s always the risk that some will look at the hard conditions of the workhouse and Victorian Britain generally with complacency. Well, that was terrible then, but everything’s somehow much better now. Things have improved greatly since then, and we have nothing to worry about. Indeed, the standard Tory attitude is that conditions have improved too much, to the point where the ‘undeserving poor’ have returned and are living very well from the taxes of ‘hard-working people’ like themselves, and other aristocrats, financiers and bankers.

For others, however, the programme may provide a salutary object lesson in the kind of country ours will be come once again, if the Tories aren’t stopped. One of the commenters on either Tom Pride’s or Johnny Void’s blog dug out a ConDem proposal for something very much like ‘indoor relief’ – as the workhouse system was called – for the disabled in the form of special units to provide training and accommodation to the handicapped.

In actually fact, the workhouses weren’t just a feature of Victorian England. They lasted right up to 1947, when they were made obsolete under the new welfare state.

Now with the Tories trying to destroy state welfare provision completely, and sell off the NHS, there’s a danger that they’ll return. The Tories have already brought back unpaid labour and less eligibility. They just haven’t got round to putting everyone on them in a prison-like environment yet.

In the meantime, it should be very interesting indeed to see how six people from the 21st century fare in the harsh conditions of the 19th. And especially a former Tory MP, like Ann Widdecombe.

Blackadder Peddling ‘left-wing myths’: Elton Strikes back at Gove

November 6, 2014

Remember how Michael Gove attacked Blackadder Goes Forth at the beginning of this year for ‘peddling left-wing myths’ about the Great War and denigrating the heroism of those who fought in it? Now Mike, over at Vox Political, reports in the article Elton has last laugh over Gove’s Great War gaff that the shows writer, Ben Elton, is planning a satire based on Gove and his comments. It begins:

It seems some prominent people are finding that the metaphorical chickens they had thought long laid to rest are now coming home to roost. The BBC inadvertently invited comparisons with a scene from V for Vendetta during the Million Mask March, after failing to cover a similar event in June, and now Michael Gove is facing embarrassment for things he said even further back in history.

For indeed and yea verily, it was January when Mr Gove in his role as Education Secretary tried to prove that his mission really was to set the UK back 90 years – by claiming that one of Britain’s most revered TV comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth, peddled left-wing “myths” about the First World War, “designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”.

He was quoted as follows: “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”

One of the show’s stars, Sir Tony Robinson, weighed in with a quick response in contradiction, but now one of the show’s writers has added his two-pennyworth – and sure enough, it seems he’s going to have the last laugh.

Now, immaculately timed to take place right before Remembrance Day for the best impact, Blackadder co-writer Ben Elton told the BBC his latest novel was inspired by Gove’s jingoistic rant. Yes – he’s going to profit from words that Gove clearly intended as a rebuke.

The article’s over at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2014/11/06/elton-has-last-laugh-over-goves-great-war-gaff/. It’s also got a still from the series showing Rowan Atkinson and Sir Tony Robinson as Blackadder and Baldrick, which, as Mike points out, is much nicer to look at than one of Gove.

The German Workers Who Struck For Peace

March 29, 2014

German War Corpse

Corpse of German trooper outside his dugout: a vivid image of the horrific carnage experienced by all the combatants in the ‘War to End All Wars’.

This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The BBC has already commemorating this by putting on numerous documentaries about the Great War, setting up on-line resources for schools so you can see what your particular bit of the country was like and did at the time. they’re also running trailers for forthcoming dramas where idealistic young nurses meet handsome soldiers in a saga of love amid the mass slaughter of the War. Documentaries about the World Wars are a staple of British television anyway. Dan Snow on the One Show has appeared several times striding across a World War I battlefield, while a few years ago Tony Robinson presented a Time Team special on the excavation of a system of WWI trenches in Flanders. Some of the coverage has already proven somewhat controversial. There was some comment a few weeks ago on television that something the BBC broadcast had provoked a complaint from the German embassy. There’s a difference of opinion here between German historians and the rest of the world. Most other nations see the War as being caused by Germany. German historians, on the other hand, believe that no single nation is to blame and that the growth of international tension and the web of alliances with which each nation surrounded itself led inexorably to the War. I really don’t know anything beyond the most general outline of events surrounding the First World War, and so leave it to people much better informed than I do to explain it.

One immediate result of the War was the break-up of international socialism. Previously the European Socialist parties had opposed working class involvement in any conflict between the European nations. For them, it would be a fratricidal conflict, as the working classes in each country had more in common with each other than with their rulers. The war would be a bourgeois war, started by the European ruling classes for their own further profit and enrichment, with the working class troops solely the exploited means by which they sought to do so. When the War finally broke out, however, the Socialist parties all over Europe joined the other parties in backing their governments.

Karl Kautsky, the head of the German Social Democrats, modified his party’s view of the conflict. He considered that Socialists in each country should now see the war only as defending their homelands. They should also campaign for a just peace, which would maintain the integrity of the defeated nations and avoid any cause for resentment on their part. This would prevent any further War from breaking out. He wrote

Further, the Social Democracy in every nation is obliged to consider the war only as a war of defence, and to set as its goal only defending itself against the enemy, not of ‘punishing’ or belittling the enemy. As this conception seeks the causes of the war not in the personal depravity or inferiority of the opponent, but in objective conditions, it will strive for the security which they conclusion of peace brings not by humiliating or mutilating its opponent, which would only cause new wars in the future, but by replacing those condition which led to the war – that is, imperialist conflicts and the armaments race.

Patrick Goode, ed. and trans., Karl Kautsky: Selected Political Writings (London: Macmillan Press 1983) 95.

It’s a pity that the Allies did not follow this advice when imposing the reparations and conditions on Germany afterwards. This could have removed some of the feelings of humiliation and resentment felt in Germany, feelings on which the Nazi preyed and used in their campaign to seize power.

Some Socialist parties continued to campaign against the War, such as the Bolsheviks in Russia, and the USPD – the Independent Social Democratic Party in Germany. One of those who campaigned against the War was the radical deputy, Karl Liebknecht, who went on to found the Spartacist League and the German Communist Party. There were also a number of strikes in Germany against the War. When Liebknecht was tried by a court martial for treason on the 28th June 1916, 55,000 workers went on strike in solidarity.

In April 1917 there was a much larger strike due to the government cutting the bread ration by a quarter. In Leipzig, the striking workers demanded in addition to the removal of their economic grievances the introduction of a direct, general and equal franchise, the removal of the state of siege, lifting of censorship, the release of all political prisoners, the re-instatement of the right to strike and hold political meetings. the government was also to make a declaration in favour of immediate peace without annexations.

On the 28th January 1918 a further mass strike broke out. In Berlin alone 200,000 workers downed tools and elected an action committee consisting of eleven Revolutionary Shop Stewards from The Turners’ union, and three delegates each from the pro-War Social Democratic and anti-War Independent Social Democratic Parties. Their demands included the

speedy conclusion of a peace without annexations and indemnities, on the basis of the nations’ right to self-determination, according to the provisions formulated by the Russian People’s Commissars at Brest-Litovsk.

They also wanted the removal of the state of siege and military control of the factories, the release of all political prisoners, the introduction of a general and equal franchise and a thorough democratisation of all institutions of the state. The strike spread rapidly to towns throughout Germany, including Munich, Mannheim, Brunswick, Bremen, Cologne, Hamburg, Kiel, Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) Leipzig and Nuremberg. In all of these towns with the exception of Munich and Berlin the strike collapsed after a week. In Berlin Military Command suppressed it by placing the leading armaments factories under martial law. In Munich Kurt Eisner, one of the leading USPD politicians and opponent of the War, Kurt Eisner, was arrested before he could call for a general strike to bring down the government. The moderate Social Democrats were thus able to retake control and the Strike ended a few days later.

See F.L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-1919 (Aldershot: Wildwood House 1972) 14-15.

I’ve blogged about the bitterness caused by the First World War across Europe, and the anti-War poems of some of the soldiers, who fought in it, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Germany also has its great anti-War work from the time of the First World War, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The original German title is Nichts Neues Im Westen – ‘There is Nothing New in the West’. It’s also a bitter comment on the belligerent nature of Western civilisation. I think it’s also important At this time to recognise that Germany also had its campaigners for an end to the War and for a just peace that would establish friendship between nations afterwards. It’s a point that could easily get forgotten in the programmes, documentaries and debates about the War during this centenary.