December 08, 2007

Grizzly Man: Company in the Wilderness

Grizzly Man is a film about Timothy Treadwell- a man who went out to live with bears in Alaska and was eventually after about 12 years eaten by a bear, along with his then girlfriend. Narrated by the great director, Werner Herzog, the film takes the form of interviews with people who knew Treadwell and were involved in the story of his death and alongside that videos that Treadwell took of himself in the wilderness with the bears, foxes and other animals. The nature footage is astonishing. Treadwell 'tended to want to become a bear' according to one source and therefore he got incredibly close to them- right up metres away from them, and hence his footage is extraordinary. The sound too is interspliced, we have Herzog's commentary and we have Treadwell's own descriptions of the bears that he lived with- whom he called names like Mr Chocolate, Melissa and Sergeant Brown.

Herzog tells us towards the end of the film that Treadwell's story tells us something about ourselves- the film is not so much a film about bears as it is a film about human beings. As Herzog describes it the stare of the bear is blank and bored, looking for food but seeking neither understanding nor feeling from Treadwell. Their brutal strength, their wild exhileration, emerges through the footage but as Herzog keeps reminding us in his commentary what doesn't emerge is any sense that the bears have an identity to relate to. Treadwell imagined they did. He imagined that the bears liked him, he talked to them as you would talk to a human child, coaxing them and rebuking them. There is a wonderful section of film where he tells off a fox for running off with his cap- but of course the fox can't hear him, the fox doesn't care, the fox is foreign- a blank canvass upon which Treadwell has drawn the marks of intelligence.

When we relate to the world, we draw upon it features. We are creators of our world- assigning to it names. I think no film gets closer to that reality than this documentary. When Herzog tells us at one point that nature is chaotic and violent, he refers in part to this. Part of this attempt to explain resulted in the creation of Gods, nymphs and spirits in ancient mythology who inhabited fountains and streams- part of it results in the creation of regularities and laws which we observe (this is not to imply equivalence between the two attempts- no more than the attempt to eat cardboard and to eat bread are equivalent though they meet the same need). The point though is that as humans we are inspired to give meaning to the world, to assign regularity to the world and to attempt to suggest that we understand it.

Treadwell out in the wilderness, abandoned and abandoning human society, sought to give the animals he had met a meaning, a regularity in their behaviour. He said he could control the bears and live with them- ironically he said it days before he was eaten alive in a spot just metres behind where he stood as he declared his security with the bears. Escaping human society was in a way his escape into this world of illusion. But escaping to the world of bears was almost more than that- it was an escape to a world where he knew that he was not alone. We seek company in order to escape the torture of our own loneliness, Treadwell sought that resolution not in the face of a hostile world, which he hated, but in the world of the bears which he loved.

Love becomes in this sense something that is given, and not neccessarily taken. Treadwell's image of the world was strange- but it reassured him. Frequently in his diaries he left the impression that he found human society difficult- he said repeatedly that he found it difficult to maintain longterm relationships with women, he was a failure as a student and as an actor, took drugs and drank too much. In his films what emerges is his rejection of society, rejection of its norms and his distrust of human beings- he sought fulfilment in a second life. He could begin again socially with the bears and furthermore he could and did treat them as dependents upon him. The bears could not object to his love- because ultimately they did not wish to understand it or him- he could offer it to them and imagine their grateful receipt. He did not have to harmonise the image of an individual with the imperfect reality- for within a bear rested no contradictory impulse. No object objects to being objectified.

Treadwell's life in some senses reveals something about the nature of humanity- for like most mental illness, Treadwell's problems were not ahuman but rather essentially human. What Treadwell struggled with was the problem of loving other minds: as soon as you love another mind you admit the possibility of dissapoinment, frustration and contradiction. We all love images that we have created out of discreet data points- points of experience, we love not people but the paintings of people that our minds create by connecting the dots of our mutual experience. But people are always there to contradict the paintings that we have drawn- to behave in different ways, to force us to redraw the picture. Treadwell never had to meet that contradiction, until he was eaten, because there was no reality to challenge the image he had created. The bears were a calm offstage presence onto which he could graft the image of a character- talking to them about their relationships and about their world as though it was a relationship or a world instead of an endless unconscious desiring present moment.

The last moments of Treadwell's life illustrate to us the nature of his mental illness- the illusion by which he lived. But until then he had the consolation of living with the bears in his own world- a world unconnected to reality, unchallenged by the words of another human being- uncontradicted. For him the moment of contradiction was a moment of consummation- his life's vision had become so distinct from reality that it led him into death.

December 07, 2007

Lacking the Heavyweights

Iain Dale has a rather good piece up about how few possible Labour leaders there are in the present cabinet save for Brown. Its an interesting issue- the Tories have a similar problem- I can think of only (apart from Cameron) four or five Tories that would make a good alternative leader. Dale is rightly interested in comparing it to the past- I wonder if there is something in the idea that two things have diminished the presence of heavyweights around the cabinet table. The first being that we seem to have longer times in government for each party- so the opposition are comparatively less experienced coming in. I dealt with some issues about experience recently on Wednesday- and I think those points hold.

Something else though strikes me as important and its an idea I mean to develop more fully at some point- its the old Denis Healey point about hinterlands. Politicians I think lack something if all they know about is politics. One of the reasons that my favourite opposition frontbench spokesman is William Hague is not just the fact that he is one of the wittier speakers around, but also that Hague wrote, admittedly not a very good, biography of the younger Pitt which seemed to engage with some of the evidence. I do think and its a precept on which this blog runs, that to understand one part of life you need to think quite deeply about other parts of life. Its a vague sense and at some point I want to write it down more fully- but I do think that engaging with other bits of life strengthens you as a politician. For a start it reminds you that the Westminster game is ultimately not the centre of the universe- nor is someone's political orientation or career the only way to judge them.

Mitt Romney and Atheists

Apparantly Mitt Romney's spokesman declines to say whether the Republican Presidential candidate sees any positive role for Atheists or Agnostics in America. Another blow for tolerance in the States!

December 06, 2007

Considering Condi

A really fascinating Bloggingheads diavlog on Condi Rice, Bush's National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, its well worth watching for several reasons. The inter agency politics of the Bush administration- Bush telling Andy Card you are the Chief of Staff get a cheese burger or the way that Cheney took charge at the National Security Council. Furthermore there are fascinating insights into the personalities- the effect of Karen Hughes who came along and made the State Department respond much quicker to rumours in the Middle East. Condi Rice also seems focussed on the first Bush administration- it went well then, so the argument is that it the same policies that worked on Germany would work in Korea, or that the same democratic flowering in Eastern Europe would work out in the Middle East. Furthermore Rice has consciously immitated the style of Jim Baker, Bush 1's secretary of state. This is a truly interesting insight into the minds of the current administration- well worth watching.

Press Bias: are blogs in danger of repeating it

Press Bias is something that we on blogs talk about endlessly: its interesting to note in that connection what Dan Bartlett, George Bush's speechwriter said recently about press bias:

I don’t think they’re purposely doing it. Look, I get asked the question all the time: How do you deal with them when they’re all liberal? I’ve found that most of them are not ideologically driven. Do I think that a lot of them don’t agree with the president? No doubt about it. But impact, above all else, is what matters. All they’re worried about is, can I have the front-page byline? Can I lead the evening newscast? And unfortunately, that requires them to not do in-depth studies about President Bush’s health care plan or No Child Left Behind. It’s who’s up, who’s down: Cheney hates Condi, Condi hates Cheney.

Bartlett is entirely right: the real problem with press bias isn't a bias to either side but a bias towards the contemporary and the relevant- and away from the complicated and the historical. Consequently almost all reporting on the Israel Palestine crisis is wrong because it never sets the conflict within a context. If a journalist has to choose a story- they would rather write as Bartlett says about Cheney and Condi and how they dislike each other or in the UK about how Mr Blair can't stand Mr Brown and finds his decline funny, than analyse the precise reasons for the collapse of Northern Rock. The real bias in journalism is not towards the left or the right but towards the headline.

That prompts though a worrying reflection about blogging. Because we are often told that blogging will wipe away the sins of the mainstream media- but often it seems to me we don't. For instance of the four top UK blogs reported by Peter Franklin, two of them Guido's and Iain Dale's are concerned mostly with following the press, following and seeking headlines. The political world is of course fascinated by the undulations of particular political careers- and many blogs are so closely tied to the political world that all we get is the Westminster Village- valuable yes but how does that really supplement the media that we already have. Ultimately blogging has to offer something more than Nick Robinson does- and I wonder whether part of the answer is in Bartlett's formulation- that what blogging can offer is analysis- whether through fisking or normal analytical writing- of the kind that journalism driven by headlines can't offer.

And that makes me wonder about audiences for blogs. The Iains and Guidos of the world are lauded for their vast audiences- and that's fair enough- but in reality they should be compared against what their real competitors which is the gossipy bits of the rest of the media are providing. Analytical work requires more patience on the part of readers and writers so I wonder if analytical blogs will be the tortoises in this race- slowly building up readers rather than avelanching them at the beggining. Definitely I think that blogs should now be judged by genre and not against each other- Devil's Kitchen is much more similar to Ministry of Truth than either are to Iain Dale. Chris Dillow has more in common with Matt Sinclair than Matt has in common with Guido. Perhaps when bloglists are done in the future- genre of blog rather than persuasion of blog ought to be the way that they are listed- that might create more diversity and also allow people to search out sources of information that don't just do what the mainstream media does.

Facebook and Privacy

Reading James's latest post about Facebook and having seen a recent Bloggingheads episode between Jim Pinkerton and David Brin, I think that Brin is right and that there is a changing attitude to privacy on the internet symbolised by the fact that my generation are relaxed in sites like Facebook and MySpace. Privacy is obviously a problem in these sites- I realise what James is talking about- ultimately you are committing information about yourself to the internet where anyone can access and see it and where others can monitor it, save it and store it for the future. The real question though is what kind of information you are submitting and how worried should you be about another person knowing that information about you.

Facebook is a website for those who don't know it which basically provides a social linkup service- a facebook page provides a list of people who have accepted being your friends (that list may not be contiguous with those who are your friends in real life- or even those who are on facebook and are your friends) and allows you to keep in touch with them. I've used facebook to meet people that I haven't seen for years and years and years- and its often been quite fun to reactivate friendships. Facebook can if you want it to hold other details about you for others to look at- things like your favourite film and favourite book and there are a variety of ways that the site can take more information from you (you can do a test to establish your film taste) and you record there basic demographic data- your relationship status. People put photos up there too- I had one of myself with Hans Blix for a while- some of the photos are more embarrassing, taken when people are drunk etc. I hope though that everyone gets the idea- Facebook is basically like a University common room noticeboard which documents the activities of all its members- some are juvenile, some are embarrassing but through providing contact details it facilitates social contact.

James and others are worried about privacy. There is some reason to suspect that Facebook has been installing cookies on its members' computers tracking their activity around the internet and tailoring their advertising to meet the activity seen therein. Obviously there was a lot of anger about that amongst those who use the site. But its worth getting things in perspective: Facebook may indeed have violated corporate ethics (it admits to having done so), but that's a seperate issue to the whole point of a social networking site. Ultimately the thing about Facebook and Myspace and other sites like them is that they symbolise the growth of a new attitude to privacy I think amongst a new generation. Basically people don't care anymore about their antics being broadcast. Part of this has to do with the growth of celebrity culture- if I am willing to comment on Princess Diana's marriage then why should I care if my own love affairs are out there. Part of it is a sense that if everyone is doing it, it doesn't matter as much- ultimately there is anonymity in quantity. There is also anonymity in quantity of information- talk to most modern historians and they throw their hands up in despair about what historians of the future will do with all the information contained on the internet, how will anyone ever work out how to categorise or understand it.

The last point I suppose is James's real point, which is that by providing the information to the world on Facebook, information which will not be deleted (either by Google cacheing it or by Facebook retaining it) the government has automatically more knowledge and hence more power over us all. I'm not sure that is actually true. Governments have always been able to find out about their subjects- and more about their subjects than their subjects have known about each other. Yes this probably makes it easier for the government to know whether you had a lesbian fling when you were 19 or that you got horribly drunk when you were twenty two and embraced a lamp post and declared ever dying passion to said lamppost (don't laugh one of my mates at Oxford was once left hugging a lamppost on St Giles!) but the point is so does everyone else. Information is now not solely the governments- it is the collective's and I suggest that makes things slightly different. Furthermore just as in the 18th Century society evolved to meet the new needs for the defence to be made more powerful after the creation of a police force, so do I beleive society in the twenty first century will evolve to meet the facebook phenomena. We can see it already happening: David Cameron will be I think the first of many politicians to argue that his youthful indiscretions are of no matter besides his later claims to office.

We'll see but in general like David Brin I am an optimist about the transparant society- I don't think that we will end up in Big Brother partly because we all have this information about each other- there isn't a monopoly of information handled by the state and partly because I think information becomes less powerful as there is more of it out there about everyone. I might be wrong- but human life is a grand experiment and the internet is part of it. Ultimately the internet facilitates this kind of exposure- whether through blogs, facebook, myspace or whatever other kinds of website you think about- and I think that society will evolve ways to cope with it.

December 05, 2007

Peter Franklin on Blogs

Peter Franklin has written an article on blogging for Conservative Home. He says that there is an elite of blogs, defined by whether politicians read them. He lists Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale and Conservative Home- with a couple of media blogs as being that UK political elite. Well he may be right about those blogs being the ones that politicians read- but that has nothing to do with the idea that they are actually the best blogs out there. Indeed one of those blogs- Guido's- is very far from one of the best blogs out there, imitating the actions of Matt Drudge, the fact that the political elite follows it tells us more about the elite than it does about the qualities of Guido's blogging. (Incidentally the best one on that list is Conservative Home- but given that Franklin excludes CIF on the grounds of its sprawling nature- I wonder how he navigates the site that he works for!)

There are some great blogs out there- Mr Franklin and his chums should start reading. There is interesting intellectual thought being done throughout the internet about the problems of politics- not the problems of whether Gordon Brown picked his nose or not. Harry's Place for example is at the heart of any internet discussion about the interface between religion and politics. Pickled Politics is a great group blog for getting into Asian politics. You'll see better rightwing commentary than Guido has ever written on the Devil's Kitchen and Mr Eugenides and you'll understand the intellectual foundations of the right much more if you read Matt Sinclair. Peter Franklin thinks that the left isn't doing well on the sphere- well Chris Dillow and the Ministry of Truth would disagree, as would Not just a Hippy and they'd be right. I could go on naming blogs that inspire thinking about politics- could go on ad infinitum but I won't, I think most people reading this blog are aware of the good stuff that is being put out there on the net- and know that there is far more to the British blogosphere than hand me down gossip from Westminster and fake revelations from Nick Robinson. Afterall two of the biggest campaigns of the last year- Dan Hardie's for the Iraqi interpreters and the campaign against Usmanov had almost nothing to do with the Franklin's elite (though Dale was involved in the second).

Lastly the idea that the gossip blogs are radical is about as stupid as it comes- they aren't radical at all. They are the work of insiders- insiders who are purveying stuff that used to be leaked to Westminster correspondents. The more interesting work is going on outside of those blogs- is going on when Conservative Home analyses an issue, when the EU blogs get hold of a report, when political betting works out where the market stands on an election- that's the interesting bit of political blogging and its the new bit. And based on the American example its the bit hopefully that will grow and grow.

Political Experience

Simon Heffer isn't happy. Well Simon Heffer is almost never happy- as any regular UK readers will know, Simon Heffer's very existance is premised upon his unhappiness with the modern world and everything in it. Today his unhappiness is focused upon our political classes- and his article took my attention for it crystallised something. We often talk about the ways that politics is different now from how it was 'then' though we never define the 'then'. Of course in some part we are wrong in our definition of 'then'- career politicians aren't an invention of the modern age- the younger Pitt, Gladstone, Peel, Liverpool, they were all career politicians. But there are differences- and I wonder whether in one way we do make a chronic mistake.

At the moment in the UK, politicians seem to have a shorter and shorter lifespan. Maybe this is an illusion created by my own youth- but I can think of no politician now who was in the front rank in 1990, twenty years ago, bar the Prime Minister and Margerat Beckett. There are almost no senior figures in the conservative party who were senior in 1997- indeed should the Tory party take office at the next election they won't have anyone bar William Hague who served in John Major's cabinet. Labour in 1997 were in a similar position- only Jack Cunningham and Margerat Beckett had been around in 1979. This lack of ministerial experience means that the Labour government and probably the next Tory government spent lots of their time trying to work out how the system worked before they could start actually doing things.

That's not a good thing. It has something to do I think with Heffer's critique of politicians today. If ministers seem callow, it is often because they are. Partly that is the responsibility of the electorate- we have grown used to electing parties in very long chunks going back to the thirties (1931-45, 1951-64, 1979-97, 1997 till now). Unlike in the US as well there aren't alternative routes to political office- Condi Rice might become an advisor in the UK but would never attain the foreign secretaryship, Gordon Brown's attempts to change that haven't really succeeded. There is something systemic about the way that the British system creates governments and political careers very swiftly from a sole group of people- MPs in Parliament. That prioritises certain skills though and its worth thinking lastly about what skills our politicians cultivate.

It is silly to say that our politicians aren't bright. Tony Blair, David Milliband, David Cameron and William Hague are all bright and interesting men- none of them are thick. However all of them might be described as shallow- they are all bright and used to working quickly to come to opinions. But there is this lingering doubt- take George Osbourne the shadow chancellor. Osbourne is effectively holding his first really big job- and his second could be to take charge of the nation's finances. Its not that Osbourne is a bad guy- but that he is only in his mid thirties- his career could easily be over by the time he is in his mid forties. That worries me too- thinking of the names discarded over the last few years- from Portillo to Blair, Dorrell to Forsyth- political careers seem to start and end young. They don't last long- if you get to the top increasingly you do it quickly, and once there if you don't survive you are out very quickly too. We don't seem to have patience and that means that our politicians are rough diamonds, to be shaped in office, but once shaped kicked out the door. The exception that proves the rule is William Hague- who seems so much abler a politician since his failed stint as leader of the Conservative Party- as shadow foreign secretary Hague has matured into the older statesman of the Tory party.

I'm not sure what you do about this- perhaps though the solution to Heffer's dilemma is for us not to feel like Heffer. Perhaps we need to be more patient with our politicians and allow them time to mature on the job- perhaps as well we ought to expect more people to reach the top at the age that say David Davis has- in their fifties rather than in their thirties. Speaking for youth means that you ultimately end up with people like Hague getting to jobs before they are ready. Maybe its time to give experience a chance...

December 04, 2007

Republican Primaries

I've just put an article up about the Republican primary over at Bits of News. It doesn't say anything particularly interesting- only explains a recent Rasmussen poll which has all the Republicans levelpegging more or less.

What blogging can and can't achieve

Never Trust a Hippy has a good piece on what blogging can and can't achieve over at his place. He suggests that blogging in the UK has only managed to do two things. There are rumour and scandal mongering blogs like Guido Fawkes- who are attempting to become a British Drudge report. Then there are blogs which lead intellectual discussion- Matt Sinclair, Chris Dillow and others come to mind. Its an interesting point and to be honest I agree in part with Paulie about this- the best blogging I have come across has not been partisan but has been the thoughtful bloggers who work on a more interesting brief than those digging up new email systems in Downing Street, dodgy donaters to any party or racist activists. All that stuff is to me of limited interest- it has its place- because of Watergate and subsequent events the political landscape is obsessed with scandal. Actually scandal is pretty boring compared say to the discussions about how we can and should govern ourselves.

So I agree with Paulie largely- but I differ from him in one perspective and its something I don't think anyone in the UK blogosphere has really thought about. The Americans are obviously years ahead of us in readership and in the influence of blogging- and there are big differences in the market for political blogging- there is no Guardian website equivalent in the states- furthermore the British newspaper market has always provided partisan commentary in a way say that the New York Times or Washington Post in the States have never sought to provide. But the American example is fascinating- because its interesting to reflect for a moment on where and on what the blogosphere has had a real effect on politics.

To stick to one site on the left for a moment, consider Daily Kos. Kos performs a number of functions on the American left- but to caricature his biggest successes in terms of influencing politics have come in sponsoring or promoting candidates who are second tier in the states and have been neglected by others. You could think of Howard Dean's Presidential campaign, you could think of Ned Lamont's challenge to Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut senatorial primary, of Jon Tester's run for the Montana senate and of a number of other races. Kos and others like him have been effective at promoting people who were second tier, not known much and creating a momentum behind them. The Democrats have raised vast amounts of money and got large numbers of volunteers to work through the web. You could say the same thing has grown on the right behind the 'no hope' candidacy of Ron Paul: Paul would be nowhere without the millions raised on the net, the volunteers that he has produced through the net and is now running in high single figures in New Hampshire and Iowa.

It is hard to see how that might work in the UK. Central party organisation means that there is much less space for a grassroots campaigning support for people on the web. We can overestimate the degree of centralisation in British politics- local campaigns can work (say in Wyre Forest) and on both sides millions have been donated directly to the campaigns in marginal constituencies particularly between elections. I'm not sure though how directly this model will work in UK politics- constituencies aren't like states- politics in the UK is far more centrally directed than in the US. The donation of a thousand individuals might effect a local campaign, but they are nothing when compared to the money that a Mittal or Ashcroft can pour in to the central party coffers. Local MPs often lack identity beyond their position as lobby fodder- though again one can imagine mavericks or charismatic individuals getting support from the blogosphere which would help them in marginal seats. In general though the structure of politics is much less hospitable for bloggers in the UK- much more centralised, much more national than politics is in the US.

Obviously things can and might change- and will have to change if the British political blogosphere is to have more of an impact- but at the moment the British blogosphere is a pale shadow and imitation of its American cousin.

Crossposted at the Liberal Conspiracy.

December 03, 2007

The merits of Conservatism

Having spent my last post berating young Mr Sinclair, it feels appropriate to commend him and this post gives me a worthy opportunity. Matt argues that political competence can be defined thus

I would call someone incompetent if they make a policy decision that led to problems that could easily have been foreseen but that took them unawares (expected problems aren't incompetence, more often they are trade-offs).

Matt is entirely right and what he has captured here is a key strength of conservatism- caution. One of the main intellectual attractions of conservative thinkers from Burke to Popper is the emphasis on caution and thinking through change rather than implementing it swiftly. Amongst the major curses of Mr Blair's government and previous British governments have been their neglect of process, a good conservative understands that process is vital because it means that you go through checks so that hopefully you do think through the things that Matt discusses. Rule by whim exposes you to more of these errors- its not a good thing and Matt is entirely right to call it incompetence.

Public Sector Rich Lists

Matt Sinclair has gone on the attack about the Public Sector Rich list and my criticisms of it on his blog. I must clear up one thing- Matt points out quite rightly that the report got a heavy amount of media attention- I hadn't remembered that it had got that media attention and apologise to anyone who was offended by my statement that it hadn't. To be honest I viewed that as the least significant sentence of my argument- its far more important to be right than to be noticed but I retract that statement fully and realise that whatever the public sector rich list was, it was well covered.

Ok lets turn to Matt's more substantive points- the article is uncharacteristically full of sneers and jibes- more worthy of a lesser blogger than Matt who is more often a polite and interesting interlocutor. The average private sector CEO is paid less than many of the individuals on the public sector rich list- but ultimately that average is not comparable to some of the big organisations we are talking about here. Take the Royal Mail, it is a reasonably large organisation delivering to 27 million addresses in the UK. Its not exactly a small manufacturer- its chief executive deserves to be compared in terms of wages with the boss of a FTSE 100 company which undoubtedly it would be if the thing was privatised all together. The average FTSE 100 chief executive takes home 737,000 pounds worth of salary but added to other benefits takes home almost 3.2 million pounds.

If we believe that FTSE 100 chairmen have skills which make them good leaders of large organisations than we ought to be employing them in the public sector. If we argue they don't, it calls into question the fact that they are paid these massive wages to begin with. Now Matt can argue quite rightly that there is no obvious link between a large salary and good performance in the public sector, but neither is there necessarily such a link in the private sector- despite the fact that shares have only gone up 7.5% in the last year, salaries according to the Daily Telegraph have leapt 40% for the same period. The Remuneration committee at the Royal Mail seems to have as much of a good idea as how this functions as that of any major company. Ultimately if you believe that these guys make up 120 times the average worker in what they can add to a company, there is no reason not to recruit them to work for the state at the same wages. If you disagree with the salaries you must disagree at some point with the principle that these salaries are necessary to attract the best executives to run these companies both privately and publicly.

Lets put this in a more sensible form- Matt is completely right that just because someone is paid millions wrongly that doesn't mean it is right to pay another person millions. But that applies in both sectors- unless Matt is arguing that the public sector doesn't require the skills to run its extensive bureaucracy that a large company requires- and across many jobs. Perhaps the TPA should do some more focused work on where the wage of a particular public employee isn't justified- suggesting alternative models for recruitment that would produce a better person in the job. Perhaps the government doesn't need to employ the best lawyers, accountants, consultants, hospital chairmen, company directors, perhaps the public can settle comfortably for second best and pay that way- but doesn't that call into question whether the best really are the best.

In a society which awards high wages for particular jobs and skills, if the public sector wants to use those skills ultimately it will pay the appropriate market price. I'm not sure what bit of that sentence that Matt disagrees with.

December 02, 2007

Civilisation- the teaching aide

The game Civilisation for those who don't know it is incredibly addictive and great fun. In it you take charge of a civilisation- from a set of options including such noted civilisations as the Persians, Babylonians, Chinese, French, British and even Americans. You take your civilisation through the course of history, from the demise of nomadism to the age of the fighter jet. Its a wonderful game and has built into it all sorts of ideas about forms of government and economics and all sorts of things, it provides quite a useful intro for anyone playing it to all those ideas and to the idea that history could well have taken a different course- once you have built the Great Wall of China in Egypt and taken Mongolia to the space race you reall understand the idea that history is contingent, there is no plan and everything could have happened differently.

It is unsurprising therefore to me to find that educationalists have picked up on this and there are increasing efforts to use games like Civilisation and its cousin Simcity (where you build and govern a city) as teaching aides in the classroom. Aaron Wechel writes interestingly in the current issue of World History Connected about the way that teachers can use the games- both to introduce kids to concepts used in the game that they might not come across in other ways, and in making them think as though they were world leaders. Of course as Wechel notes there are problems with the whole concept of civilisation- world leaders don't choose to have Newton discover the laws of gravity and democracy doesn't emerge in a society just because someone says it ought to (if it did Donald Rumsfeld would still have a job!) There are additional detailed problems that Wechel doesn't really deal with- are the effects of particular governments and systems right for example- indeed kids need to realise that the effects of particular systems aren't neccessarily understood and are often a matter of dispute. Wechel rightly doesn't want teachers to teach kids to uncritically absorb the games they play but to critique them as well.

But I think what this whole discussion brings out though is the fallacy that many people still hold to, that computer games have no beneficial effects for children in terms of education. I think that they do- Civilisation is an obvious example where a game can teach kids about some historical concepts. But other games too are interesting in the way that they breed better cognition- for instance SimCity makes you really think about how to be a City mayor in America- how rising crime effects economic performance and prosperity for instance. Even a game that might seem not to have so much educational merit- Championship Manager (a game in which you are the manager of a football team and buy and sell players in order to create the perfect team) actually has benefits. The game teaches you to analyse massive databases of players- filter them- deal with psychology and most importantly deal with a budget. All of that is important for kids to learn. Of course all the games have presumptions built into them which maybe and often are faulty- but they shouldn't be dismissed.

Sometimes we can be too focused on being Jeremiahs, actually there is plenty of good in computer games and plenty that people can learn from them- especially when the game itself is treated with caution.

The History Carnival

Historians like to think that we are doing something for other people when we research- and to a large extent we are. Writing for a blog about history involves teaching others about their own histories and telling them why this particular story. Most of us emerged as historians when we first realised that stories were fascinating and that some of them were true, when we first as MarthaQ did with Alexander the Great thought about the differences between accounts of the past and tried to reconcile them. Martha's original questions might be naive, but soon historians and students of history begin to probe even greater questions- questions about whether people in the past felt about things in the same way as we do, or whether they even understood themselves in the same way. Well any reasonable history carnival ought to present some posts that consider some historical stories and their relevance to the modern day. This month's carnival is no exception- and in addition to the posts above there are plenty more which will make you think about your place in the world.

Place is a keynote for any historian, wondering around the streets of local towns or cities you can get a real sense of the past. Any historian of New York must know that he walks the streets that Alexander Hamilton once strolled. Sometimes that sense can be illusory, who would imagine wondering modern London, particularly Camden, that only sixty years ago those streets echoed with bombs. Historians though also need to look at things that stay the same- Poland's history has been shaped as David Frum argues by its geographic position. The shape of Poland has been used in different ways by different rulers: but the same goes for words, whose history tells us something about the history of the societies that use them- consider for example the word Tiger and the related Tigris river. Familiarity can often jolt us into understanding both the past's continuity with and difference from the present- moments of epiphany in which empathy seems stronger. For instance, dates are crucial in this. Over the last month, we have seen a number of anniversaries of executions pass us by, those of the murderer Dr. Crippen, six Greek politicians and an unknown allied airman. Each story has something vivid to contribute to us, because each story allows us to enter into a piece of the past.

Individual stories are often the best way of entering into history. They provide us with someone to directly empathise with. For years Americans recalled the events of the revolution whenever they saw Benjamin Franklin's ghost appear. We ourselves can have our own Franklin's ghosts to remind us of the past. The history of women for instance in the nineteenth century is illuminated this month by two wonderful articles about great women of the past: one about the French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and the other about the early life of Emily Chesley. Entering into the past via a person often requires a hook for us to hang our thoughts on, sport can provide an interesting hook for comparison and thought about cultural differences between our times and times past. The great player revolt in Baseball in the late nineteenth century led by Fred Dunlap stands as one supreme example of sporting change accompanying cultural change. And of course the evolution of British culture can be charted in the videos of the teams that almost won the footballing treble (FA Cup, League and European Cup) over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Without understanding the times in which people lived, it is very difficult to work out what they were doing- even the dates of marriages and births can be hard to comprehend, unless you appreciate that for instance in 18th Century America many wives went pregnant into the churchyard. But that is not the end of it, for understanding the way that culture and individuality interact gets incredibly complicated- as this paper by Eileen Joy on Saint Guthlac demonstrates.

So from the individual, we turn as historians to the collective, to the grand narratives, the grand frames into which we fit the individuals that we study. In order to start understanding the life of a medieval West African, it is vital that you know this kind of outline of West African history before you start. Evidence though sometimes is a problem- archaeologists for years made a mistake about how North America was peopled but are now going back to new types of evidence and reconsidering their earlier verdicts. Automatically as soon as we get into these broader questions, we get into issues which are even today political. The American Indians suffered greatly from their White Conquerors and at the Washita Massacre Indians were particularly cruelly killed by a future American hero. A genocidal hero- surely not, but the same thing is happening in Russia at the moment where Joseph Stalin is being used in advertising campaigns. History though can be inspiring- its worth remembering that there were Europeans who didn't massacre the Indians but instead met and engaged with them as human beings- worth remembering because it tells us a lesson treat your opponents as individuals and you stand a much greater chance of being merciful when they are in your power.

Political thought arises naturally from history- history is the only experimental ground for political philosophers and there are plenty of subtle ones out there. Take for example Ashok who provides this month an inciteful reading of Jefferson's inaugural. Some argue that we are approaching another crisis period in American history- if so strap your seatbelts tight. Others suggest that democracy itself depends on certain presumptions and that the modern West looks very like Rome in the late Republic.

All of those ideas depend on a historical basis- but of course historians disagree all the time- indeed the only thing that historians do more than read is disagree. At the moment there has been a right battle going on about English Civil War historiography- David Underdown took a shot at John Adamson and the blogs have been responding in force. Chris Bray is openly contemptuous of any argument that America was anti-military in the first decades of its existance and David Frum aims his guns at a series of second world war targets from Western Generals to Russian commissars, in a review of Max Hastings' latest book on the subject. However the outcome of a conference on gender and diet in the middle ages- did women eat differently from men- reminds us that much about history remains inconclusive- history is less about answered questions than unanswered ones, get ye back to the libraries. You can see this as well in the fact that we still don't understand whether a meteorite blew up in the atmosphere only a ninety nine years ago- if we don't know that, then its no surprise that we are ignorant of other things.

History, as I hope you are aware through surveying these links, is very much an alive subject. Money is being poured into lots of areas of the subject- Canada is seeing millions of pounds being spent on a new history of science network for example. Courses are now being constructed using the web and blogging as a tool, whether for discussing history or historiography. And the power of history can be seen in the way that others are reevaluating documents like the Bible in the context of historical discovery.

Whatever history is, it isn't history!