November 28, 2009

20th Century Violence

James Hamilton has an interesting piece about early football violence up at his blog. It concerns a game between Bolton and Glossop in 1908 where the referee was threatened, the stands turned riotous and even the players were fighting on the pitch. Plus ca change, you might think- and indeed scenes from the 1970s and 1980s wouldn't be unfamiliar, by James's account, to your average Edwardian spectator. Furthermore like today, it was not the very poor who indulged in football violence- priced out of the game then and now- but the respectable, stockbrokers and others who went mad on the terraces. What I found most interesting though about James's article was that he brought out a link I had not noticed before- between levels of violence in society and the world wars. Violence in football, he argues, dropped off after World War One and continued after World War Two- indeed if it matched actual crime rates you would find it rising again after 1955. Lots of people I have met over the years who know these facts conjecture that the later rise, with which we are still living, is due either to changing structures of society or changing structures of punishment- but given what James wrote, I wonder whether the history of crime in the twentieth century is related to the history of war in the twentieth century and if so how that relationship works.

I have no idea about this beyond the dates being aligned and the fact that war was a universal experience with violence in the 1910s or the 1940s. It would be interesting to know more.

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it over the ocean!

November 25, 2009

What is a revolution?

Stephen Pincus in his latest volume on 1688 has gone some way to providing an answer to this question and I think it is useful both to describe what his answer is and see what people think and to give my own provisional thoughts on his answer. Pincus thinks of a revolution as a social and political event which lasts perhaps several years- the French Revolution he stretches until the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the English of 1688 (the subject of his book in which this doctrine makes its appearance and which shall be reviewed here soon) from 1688 to 93 or even to the end of the war of the Spanish succession in 1720. Pincus is perhaps more interested though in why revolutions happen.

For him revolutions happen 'when the political natino is convinced of the need for political modernization but there are profound disagreements on the course of state innovation' (Pincus 1688 34). In all revolutions, he suggests, the ancien regime had already broken down. The France of 1789 had been through the reforms of Necker and Turgot, the England of 1688 was the subject of absolutist experiment by James II, the Russia of 1917 had seen Stolypin make his attempts to create the Kulak class, the Shah of Iran was a compulsive reformer before swept away in 1979- even in less famous revolutions such as that of Mexico, the reforms of Porfirio Diaz preceded the later revolution. Modernization, in Pincus's account, creates two impulses towards revolution: in the first place it creates a group of people who are affected by state policy and disagree with it- a constituency for revolution and secondly it associates the forces of order with radical change. If Kings and Ministers have deserted tradition, then the people will listen to radicals and insurgents and give each competing view of modernisation a hearing. This view has antecedents going back to De Tocqueville and definitely had some truth to it- but are there gaps?

My own view is that there are some interesting reflections to be made upon revolution as an entity. However there are a couple of things to be said first- there may not be a type of revolutions to abstract from. For example you could make a case that James II was never stronger than in 1688, and you could make a sensible case that Nicholas II of Russia was never weaker than in 1917. Military defeat seems to provoke revolution as in Nicholas's case- but the costs of victory are no less dangerous as Louis XVI might attest. Equally revolutionary conditions- modernization affecting a state- might not always give rise to a revolutionary situation (something Pincus accepts)- and modernisation itself is an odd concept. More recently historians have stressed the ways that state efficiency is modern- so Charles I and James II become 'modern' kings, earlier historians though stressed that representative institutions were 'modern' so divine right monarchs were definitely not modernisers by definition. Revolution might be instable- and how also are we to make sense of reactionary revolutions like that of the forty tyrants in Athens or ancient revolutions- was Caesar not a revolutionary? You could have fooled both Cicero and Cato. I have some sympathies with Pincus's viewpoint but also as the paragraph above suggests I'm unhappy with the typology and unhappy with the idea of modernisation, what are other people's views?

November 23, 2009

Minucia

Fragments in Livy are often as interesting as his main tale. For example he tells us that

This year the Vestal Minucia first attracted suspicion by her dress, which was more elegant than was proper, and was subsequently charged before the pontiffs on the evidence of a slave. She was ordered by their decree to abstain from performing sacred rites and to retain her household slaves in her power, after sentence was passed, she was buried alive near the Colline Gate, to the right of the paved road, in the Polluted Field- a place so named, I believe, from her unchastity. (Livy VIII 15)


There are three interesting things here that I think deserve us to comment or pause. The first is that Vestal Virgins were supposed of course to be the latter- virgins. They were supposed not to have sexual intercourse- proving that they had or had not had sexual intercourse was not easy. You were lucky if a Vestal became pregnant but sex does not have to result in pregnancy and so that was not an infallible test. Consequently Romans on many occasions reverted to thinking about reputations. In a patriarchal society such a stress on virginity of course was tied to a fear of women and particularly women's adornment and sexuality: this is perhaps what we see with the unfortunate Minucia. My second observation is that Minucia was ultimately suspected because she seemed to behave inappropriately: morally forbidding societies like ancient Rome or no doubt some more modern communities tend to have a totalitarian suspicion of their member's activities. The ancient Romans expected Vestals and women in general to behave chastely as well as be chaste- the commandment to be chaste extended to cover dress and behaviour- the moral code justified a moral judgement on the totality of Minucia's life. Thirdly we have the comment about her slaves which reflects Roman practice- slaves must be kept because they might be tortured in law to reveal evidence- consequently it is not unusual to hear that slaves are not freed when a man or woman is jailed. Torture was a sign of not being free and in the Roman conception, to be subject even to the threat of torture was to be a slave.

Lastly I think we have a just so element. We do not know where Livy got his tale from that Minucia was executed in a certain place- but what we can say is that he seems to have linked it to the 'modern' name for the Polluted fields. In a sense what Livy may be doing here is an ex post facto justification- the field is deemed polluted and therefore a reason for the pollution must be found, we do not know where Minucia was executed so why not here.

November 22, 2009

Crossfire


Crossfire announces itself as a film about racism. A police drama about a man who tries to evade a charge of murder by implicating something else- it eventually comes down to a discussion of who might have a motive to kill the victim. The policeman in charge of the case decides that the only motive within the case is a general one- anti-semitism- and suggests that none of the suspects actually knew the murdered man. He turns out to be right. Crossfire in a sense therefore is a pretty simple film and as a police drama it does not quite work- the acting is good, both Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan do well and Gloria Graham confirms my prejudice that Gloria Graham was one of Hollywood's best underused actresses of all time. Yet again she has a tiny amount of screen time and yet again she makes the most of what she has. The story though is too simple and slow to really make you feel intrigued by the 'thriller' aspect: from the start you can easily guess the murderer, from the start you feel confident that Mitchum's laconic sergeant and Robert Young's intelligent if cynical police officer will solve the case. The suspense just is not there.

There are three things though which make the film worth remembering. All of them relate to the dialogue of the characters. The first is a set of ideas, the second a historical circumstance, the third is a set of motifs which until now I feel have been ignored. Lets start with the ideas. The reason the film has survived is because of its analysis, in particular Robert Young's analysis as Captain Finlay, of prejudice. Prejudice says Young starts as a decision to exclude a race from country clubs or to say that your daughter shouldn't marry a Jew or an Irishman or an immigrant, and it ends in a man walking around to someone's house after he has had a few drinks in a bar and beating the other fellow to death because he doesn't want to share another drink with him. What Young does and the film seeks to do is provide the bridge between different types of prejudice and explain why and how the space for one allows another more murderous prejudice to thrive. Murder in this film is seen as an unconscious consequence of prejudice- it is not something anyone intends- but filled with hate and passion, a violent attack swiftly turns into murder. Prejudice is harmless or if not harmless, not murderous for most, but for some including one character it can easily turn into murder.

Secondly this is one of the few films made in Hollywood in the late forties that is explicitly post war. Almost every major character has served in the army and their service has consequences for them. As Robert Mitchum's character says it has exposed them all to the kind of killing 'for which you get medals', that kind of killing impacts on these men in different ways. It has helped Robert Ryan's character to hate: hatred as another man in the film says must be turned in another direction now the enemy is defeated and curiously for Ryan, it means that he can turn his bitterness on civilians but also ironically on Jews (the victims of the regime he was fighting). Mitchell, another key character, comes out of the war with chronic depression: wandering listlessly across Washington, missing his wife, and straying through drunkenness and tears into sadness and disaster. He evokes pity in most of the characters he comes across, but 'good old Mitch' is as much a victim of the war as anyone else. His character brings up a third aspect of the war, removal from wives and families- Mitchall longs for his, Robert Mitchum's character just feels cut off from his and from his previous life. If the one feels deadened by the absense of family and his presence in the army, the other looks back on his old life as something that has died.

Mitchall wonders through the city and at one point encounters Gloria Graham in a bar- she takes pity on him, dances with him and kisses him, telling him to go back to her flat and wait for her there. Whilst in Graham's flat, Mitchall encounters possibly the most mysterious character of them all: he might be Graham's husband, her boyfriend or her pimp, or he might be all three but we never find out. He delivers two monologues to Mitchall that I think are inspired- they are almost Pinteresque, both in the menace conveyed by ordinary sounding words and in the use of pauses as he finds a new story to intimidate both us and Mitchall. He ends up seeming rather pathetic as he offers to help the police again and again, but in those two little speeches last only about five minutes, I think there is something that later film makers and playwrights would and could take advantage of.

Crossfire is not a great film- it does not succeed in its main task as a suspense thriller but it does succeed in other ways. It has a message element, it reflects a historical situation and it provides a rather intriguing enigmatic character: these don't add up to a good film but they do add up to a historically significant film.