January 28, 2011


I've been rereading Maddicott's discussion of Medieval Parliamentary history. Its a very interesting book but one aspect interests me. What do you mean by the word Parliament? Arguing with a friend at work about Maddicott's overall thesis- that Parliament dates back to the 10th Century- I realised that we were arguing about very different things. He believed that Parliament was connected to representation and therefore dated its formation to the first elections (probably 1254). I connected Parliament to its function- so who cares when it was elected first- its the fact that a claimed representative starts taking decisions and becomes key to the royal governance of the Kingdom. We can date that far earlier: the Abbott of Bedford said in 1140 that no King could ammend the laws beyond his own lifetime without the consent of some council. I think that council was a Parliament because its functions, as Maddicott argues, are continuous with the functions of the Parliament that emerges in the 14th Century. Its an interesting debate and reveals how much people can agree about narratives whilst disagreeing about what they mean and are: the definition of the word Parliament might not matter much, but take that disagreement to other issues and it could easily matter a lot.

The other thing my argument this morning illustrated was how difficult a single language is at capturing an evolutionary reality. Take the French revolution: its easy to say that before 1789 you have a monarchy, post 1793 you don't- why? Because the King is dead and his heir in exile. Its not as easy to discuss when something became a Parliament. The first law making powers are very early, the selection of successors is very early. Kings are making promises to Parliament as early as 1014 with Ethelred. On the other hand the Commons only separated from the Lords in 1311. Parliamentary privilege was only constructed in 1526. Democratic elections involving women only happened in 1928. So you have an argument for suggesting that we have had a Parliament since 924 with Maddicott, or that you've have had a Parliament since 1928! You pays your money and takes your choice to some extent: but the problem is one embedded in our own historical language. We have a blunt instrument to describe the past which cannot capture its subtlety.

January 23, 2011

Anthologies and why I worry about them

Anthologies can be wonderful. One of the ways I became interested in poetry was through Palgrave's Golden Treasury, but anthologies are also dangerous. Harvey Kaye's review of Newt and Jackie Gingrich's anthology of American speeches and proclamations identifies one danger- that an anthology could be used to spread an ideology. Professor Kaye leaves out the most important danger though. It is not that an anthologizer will use or manipulate the wrong narrative out of his or her sources (although with a particularly unscrupulous anthologizer this may happen- Gingrich et al don't appear to be too bad from Kaye's account in this regard) but that they will use a narrative at all. Let me put it like this. If you read Gingrich's anthology cover to cover, you would go from Tom Paine to Ronald Reagen: the temptation would therefore be to imagine that Paine can be evaluated in the light of Reagen, Reagen in the light of Paine. This is a basic historical mistake: Paine never read, never knew, could never imagine the society in which Reagen lived. Reagen may not have read or wanted to read Paine. The two may not be communicating across the centuries at all: even if they are, Paine will have been heard by Reagen and not the other way around.

Its a basic idea but its an important one. The danger in these anthologies is that you imagine that Reagen's concerns and Paine's concerns are the same. So they are involved in the same debates. When Paine talks about American liberty, he means what Reagen means by American liberty. It is of course nonsense: Paine was talking about American liberty from colonialism, Reagen American liberty in the era of superpowers. The debate is very very different and who knows whether Paine would have endorsed the latter liberty. When Patrick Henry says 'Give me liberty or give me death', he doesn't mean the same liberty as Barry Goldwater did when he said 'Extremism in the course of liberty is no vice'. Henry could not and did not imagine the kinds of debates about liberty that occurred in the 20th Century: Goldwater was not interested in the republican liberty that suffused the eighteenth century debates. Henry could not read his Friedman, Goldwater had not read his Harrington. When we read the same words, we are not reading the same concepts.

The best way to understand a speech or a statement in the past is to read it against its context. So you read Paine against other people at the time who used or were interested in Paine. You read Reagen against speeches by people like Helms and Goldwater. You can read a writer that interested a figure in their past: so you understand more of Thatcher if you read Hayek, but what you can't do is imagine that the past and the present have the same agendas. They do not. The story of something like liberty or democracy or love or any other concept is not that of an unending debate from the same positions (is liberty to be contrasted for example against coercion or against slavery) but its the story of a debate in which the meanings of the words shift endlessly. An anthology is therefore dangerous because it lines up the past with the present and invites us to imagine a debate which probably never existed, using terms which have a meaning in the present and another meaning in the past.

This is not to deny that anthologies are useful. They are brilliant as entrances into subjects, but that is all they are and they should come with a health warning. It does undermine the entire principle of Harvey Kaye's review though- he wants us to look at anthologies and evaluate them politically. The problem is that whether they are right, left or centre leaning, they are all bad history. Professor Kaye holds a chair in Democracy and Justice Studies at Wisconsin, at the very least he should know that democracy has a thousand meanings and justice tens of thousands of meanings. The point of an anthology is to make us read behind the texts: I have no idea of whether Mr Gingrich and his daughter's anthology does that, but if it does, I don't really care if its on the right or the left of American politics. All it is is an entrance and if people go through- they will find out that the world is more beautiful and more interesting than any single narrative of the past can make it.