April 08, 2013

Geoffrey Elton and Alexis de Tocqueville

Although the Ancien Regime is still quite close to us in time, since we daily come across men who were born under its laws, it already seems to be lost in the obscurity of the past. The radical revolution which separates us  from it has the same effect as centuries would have- it has cast a veil over everything it did not destroy. Thus few people exist today who might give a precise reply to this simple question: how was the countryside administered before 1789? In fact, it cannot be answered with any accuracy or in any detail unless you have studied, not the books, but the administrative archives or that period (Alexis de Tocqueville The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution)

I love this quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: in part because it reflects the thought of Geoffrey Elton about history- one of the intellectual legacies that I've grown up in the shadow of. Partly though I think what Tocqueville gets at here is a really interesting distinction. There is a history that we all know and a history that was documented at the time. Neither history is free from distortion: the history that we remember is interpreted through what happened next. You can see this everywhere. Take two periods in American history. The 1850s are always remembered as the prelude to the 1860s: we think of them through the lens of the war that was to come. It can lead to mistakes. Some might argue that the divisiveness of the politics of the 1950s in the UK is forgotten because of the breakthrough of Thatcherism in the 1980s. What comes after often means that we forget about what came before.

Tocqueville's history is based on what he sees as more contemporary evidence and that's a very modern concern. Memory though is important and can itself be underrated. Tocqueville in this way is a predecessor to Ranke- but documents can deceive as much as they can illustrate. To privilege what is recorded over what is not recorded may privilege those activities which are recorded and those actors who author the records. This can have sinister implications. Tacitus in the annals speaks of the control that emperors had over those who kept records and we know from our own century too well the danger of propaganda. However distortion doesn't need to be sinister to be there. For example, Geoffrey Elton's histories of the reign of Henry VIII were focussed on Thomas Cromwell because Cromwell was the master of the records: more recently historians have embraced a more expansive vision of court culture precisely because they recognised that documents may distort. To use another example, documents only preserve the trace of an activity which is documented: take an operation, a document will preserve what the operation was, it will preserve how much it cost, it might even preserve what the medical outcome was and possibly a scale of patient satisfaction. It won't preserve the doctor's forgiving manner, the nurse's smile, the feeling of pain and of relief: those things are lost.

I'm not criticising Tocqueville here- more I'm riffing on his words- but I do think its interesting to think about what he was trying to analyse. He was trying to get to the meaning of an event: the French Revolution. The key question there though is that the meaning of an event may be dual. It may be what the event meant in reality: the actual conditions which provoked and ended up sustaining or failing to sustain that event and the change it brought. It may mean that we are interested in the meaning of the event for those who lived through it- people who might have believed all sorts of inaccurate things about it. Meaning is multifaceted and the stories people tell about events can be more important than the events themselves: the revolution in France for example only meant something to the world because people told stories about it as the origin of democracy or the bourgeois moment of conquest. Its worth us both reexamining the validity of those stories but also enquiring into what stories people told about events: we must go back to the documents for both halves of that picture.

April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert's death yesterday is a sad moment. There are many reasons I think why its so sad. He was one of those writers that made you feel like he would be fantastic to meet. He wrote with such engagement and enthusiasm that it was hard not to share what he thought. He also incarnated I think one of the key functions of a critic- he was an essayist rather than a writer of articles. The difference is that whereas often reviewers of films seek to write about the film and its story and the performances- Ebert often managed to use the film to think about wider issues. This didn't mean his reviews were an excuse to write about those issues: rather Ebert allowed the film to grow those issues inside his head. I didn't always agree with his reviews- some of them I downright disagreed with- but I always found his reviews interesting to read and rewarding. Sometimes I read a review of a film I wanted to review on this blog and thought having read his article that I couldn't say anything- there wasn't anything left to add. More often I found his perspective was interesting and different. His writing about his later cancer was moving and profound at moments and his blog came across like the blog of someone who you could like.

March 29, 2013


I have walked out of films because I found them execrably bad (Four Weddings and a Funeral), I've walked out of films because I thought the history was inaccurate (ok I didn't see JFK in the cinema but I would have....) but I've never walked out of a film because I found it too painful to watch- or not until now. Amour is a wonderful film- but its a deeply disturbing film because it takes you right to the frontier of what human life is at the end. Its not pretty. It deals with a couple in their old age- they come on to the screen as typical representatives of a particular European intellectual and social class, rejoicing in the classical music that postwar respectability has brought them. The day afterwards they have breakfast together but it slowly becomes evident that she is unable to function properly anymore- she is suffering from several little strokes and will eventually lose her mind and her individuality.

The film's title points I think to its subject- and plenty of other reviewers have made this comment- that amour is about love. Its about sexual love between a couple and the way that that becomes at the end the only love in this case that matters. Children, friends, even former pupils cannot reach the woman who can only be exposed in the nakedness of her madness to her lover. In that sense it says that Lear would have company on the heath, if his queen survived. I think this picture of romantic love is of course very relevant. In a society where generations are torn apart culturally and economically and even technologically, its very difficult to see people outside your cohort as your peers. The picture of love here is an assertion of understanding: the husband asserts he understands the wife in a way that daughters and nurses can't- the problem and I've faced this myself in a small way- is that there is an insistant totalitarianism is this assertion of understanding. Its hard to understand someone who is closed off from the world- but as soon as you start saying that you understand them better than anyone else by virtue of your relationship with them, the ethics get cloudy.

Most people talk about amour as though its a film about the power of love and I suppose yes it is- but I think its more powerful as a film about the limits of love. We are what we think and how we behave ultimately. Once only the shell of the human being is left: what is it that you are loving? I think Emmanuelle Riva's performance conveys this perfectly- the cultivated older woman slips into being a grotesque infant, one without the capacity for growth. What surrounds her is her husband's memories and we call that love: but in reality whereas love is often seen as a moment of communication- this kind of love is a deliberate deception about the continuing of something that has just left. Or rather we are left with the sense that the husband for all his charity and ability to communicate, just can't break through the wall to his wife- can't communicate to her.

March 27, 2013

Epictetus being pleasant

'While you are kissing your child', Epictetus once said, 'murmur under your breath, tomorrow it may be dead.' 'Ominous words' they told him. 'Not at all' he said 'but only signifying an act of nature. Would it be ominous to speak of the gathering of the ripe corn'.

This comes from Marcus Aurelius's meditations but its a fascinating vignette about Epictetus. I think it demonstrates something about the ancient world: after all his advice was much more practical in the days when infant mortality and young child mortality were much higher. In one of Chinua Achebe's novels about Nigeria the young Nigerian is not reckoned a full human until they have passed 12, before then they might easily die and I think Epictetus is making a similar point. Whereas Achebe's characters think religiously though, Epictetus is using a philosophical comparison to nature- and perhaps this comparison allows us to explain a bit more of the psychology behind Stoicism. Its a theory of acceptance of the world- elsewhere in the Meditations, Aurelius says that the fool experiences the world through sensation, the wise man through action- note he doesn't say that the wise man experiences the world through thinking. What's going on here is a theory of acceptance.

March 25, 2013

Marcus's attitude to the present

I'm sure that everyone has thought about the meaning of a particular metaphysical proposition for their own lives. I rather like Marcus Aurelius on this:

Either things must have their origin in one single intelligent source and all fall into place to compose, as it were, one single body- in which case no part ought to complain of what happens for the good of the whole- or else the world is nothing but atoms and their confused minglings and dispersions. So why be so harassed?

The argument is of course very comforting! Its also interesting that those are the alternatives- picking up on an earlier post they look still like alternatives that seem real to us today.

March 23, 2013

The concept of Infinity

One of the least appealing modern traits is to imagine that we've discovered everything new- in some ways that's true. The ancient world did not have television and were not plagued by endless reruns of Friends on E4. But equally they did have concepts that we might not have expected them to have: take this statement from Marcus Aurelius: 'the phrase infinity may pass, even if the world be in fact administered in finite cycles'. It seems to me what this throwaway comment is getting at is that there are different types of infinity: one might be an infinity which is truly infinite, one might be an infinity that is infinite because the finity that really exists is unccountable or unknowable and a last might be that infinity is a reasonable approximation of a set of a finite number of cycles. I'm happy with whichever infinity you want Marcus to define- but the fact seems to be here is an ancient author, not a mathematician, with at least two concepts of infinity.

March 21, 2013

A sobering reflection

Mislead yourself no longer, you will never read these notebooks again now, nor the annals of the bygone Romans and Greeks, nor that choice selection of writings you have put by for your old age. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)
I read this passage from the Meditations with nothing but despair- for since Marcus died, all those centuries ago, how much has been published? How many learned men and women have worked and slaved away at scholarship? You could get amazingly dizzy thinking of all the fields that you need to understand to really understand even one fraction of human knowledge- one subject today. Think about the history of Marcus's life: just to read all the books about the Meditations would probably take at least the length of a post-graduate qualification, probably half an academic career. Then move on to the think about the archaeology and sociology of that period- its interpretations by further periods and more and more. Intellectual vertigo existed in Marcus's life- it exists just as much today.

March 20, 2013

Marcus Aurelius and monarchy

Monarchy is distinguished from tyranny by several things in the classical tradition. One might be that monarchs are restrained, whereas tyrants are servants of appetite. I've just come across another really interesting reflection in Marcus Aurelius's meditations

Through him [Marcus's brother Severus] I came to know of Thrasea, Cato, Helvidius, Dion and Brutus, and became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.

Marcus's statement here is fascinating. Monarchy is coupled with liberty. Furthermore within the statement is an implicit rebuke to tyranny: Thrasea was executed by Nero, as was his son Helvidius. Cato died at the hands of Caesar. Brutus could refer either to Lucius Brutus- who slew Tarquin- or Marcus Brutus- who slew Caesar himself and died at the hands of Octavian. These are emblems not just of good citizenship in a republic- indeed none of them lived under a republic (if you agree with Harriet Flowers' account of the Roman state)- they were emblems of rebellion. Its as though Prince William were to sign off a letter about the liberty under a crown by saying that he believed in the ideal of liberty under monarchy as preached by Cromwell and Tom Paine.

How could Marcus say this? In part I think its because he shared a philosophical attitude with these men- throughout his meditations he stresses the importance of standing up for one's own beliefs and opinions- being true to onesself in the ghastly modern phrase. Marcus means something more by this than we might- in the sense that he sees every single human reason as an expression of divine reason. In part I think its because the contrast he draws here is between one type of 'bad' monarchy and another more legitimate 'good' monarchy: because Rome's system was not hereditary, Marcus is not involved in the fate of Nero or Caesar in the same way as Victoria was in the fate of Charles. His belief system brings together these two conceptions- the first of self control and the second of good monarchy- I think through something else- which is the image of a good statesman. Curiously enough a rebellious subject may become the emblem of a good statesman in Marcus's world- so Brutus looks more like a monarch than does Nero. If that's true then lauding these individuals for their steadfastness in the public interest becomes in a way a certificate that men can hold to the principles of good statesmanship. In that sense- the rebellious subject is the mirror image of the good monarch- the tyrant of the flattering subject.

March 11, 2013

Bertrand Russell and FC Coplestone

Here is a rather interesting debate on the existence of God between Bertrand Russell and F.C. Coplestone- which the Open University edited and broadcast. I'll let it stand for itself.

March 08, 2013

The Master

I saw the Master a couple of weeks ago and tried to review it then but couldn't find the words. I'm not sure I can find them now. I was deeply impressed by the film. Images from it keep returning to me during the day and the night. They are not pleasant images. The Master was not a pleasant film. They are not scary either. They neither terrify nor appall. There is no hideous injustice in the film. There is nothing that cries out to the viewer as a deed that must be avenged. Rather the sense I've got- the enduring sense I've got- is of a very strange world. The world of the Master- the world of religious indoctrination- is weird. It could turn unpleasant very easily and there are plenty of hints in the film to suggest how that might happen. It could turn unreasonable. Ultimately though in this film it is not unpleasant- it is just strange.

The Master is a film about a science fiction writer in the states who founds a religious cult. That's what the publicity rightly says. Its also a film about a soldier returning post World War Two to find his place in society. It is also a film about how men sublimate the desire for sex into religion. It also might be a film about how followers can become even more zealous than their religious masters. I think though more than anything its a film about the 1950s in America. There is something in it that reminds me of Pleasantville- the film in which two modern teenage kids- Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire- find themselves in the midst of a Happy Days like sitcom and proceed to wreak sexual and psychological havoc. It reminded me of Pleasantville because of the same sense of restraint and violence.

The Master is about a man who returns from war, damaged. He returns to a world in which all he basically wants is sex. Joaquin Phoenix's character is not very pleasant: he is positively unpleasant. He'll sleep with anything- even piled sand on a beach and kill for kicks. What restrains him is the fact that he finds religion. Under the tutelage of the Master, he sublimates his violence and his sexual anger into the practice of religious dogma, the dance of cultic movement. Within the group, he is seen as dangerous- the Master's daughter wants to sleep with him, the Master's wife wants him expelled and in a curious way, both are sensing the same thing: he represents the possibility of change and of disruption, of violence. The Master feels that the real test of his repressive system is whether it can cope with this ultimate explosion of the human unconsciousness- in a sense the film deals with the fundemental question of the fifties, how does one repress the memory of war and the difficulty of desire?

Perhaps that's why my favourite character in the whole film is neither of the male protagonists but Amy Adams's wife of the Master. It is because she incarnates the double sense of the film- this masterpiece of repression and desire. She will permit her husband to have affairs, to do anything, so long as the religious movement survives- and she will turn on anyone who in any way damages that survival. Its a fantastic piece of acting- never has a fanatic been brought to screen with such tender ferociousness. Amy Adams both smiles tenderly and stabs at the same time. Its a terribly horrifying display of what repression is. I was wrong the Master is terrifying: its all in Adams's smile.

March 07, 2013


What's the purpose of writing history? Some people might say "to tell the truth" and that's a perfectly reasonable response- its there in one of the first history books when Herodotus talks about making sure that the deeds of Greeks and Barbarians are not forgotten. Some more postmodern people might talk about writing different narratives of the past and that's legitimate too: whether its women's history or black history or the history of the poor, that kind of history has added a lot to our understanding. We don't write history from the perspective of white men anymore and that's all to the good: we are more sensitive to the fact that there are other stories about the past that need to be read and written. These two modern senses of history though don't really help us understand why someone would write a history about someone who was a King but who they believed almost certainly never existed. Such a history isn't true but nor does it rescue some marginalised group from the margins- so why would you write it?

I can see your raised eyebrow right now- why Gracchi are you asking that kind of question. I'm asking it because it gets right to the heart of something I find fascinating about ancient historians- because they did write that kind of history. Take Plutarch. I'm currently reading his life of Theseus. Early on he admits that to write a life of Theseus goes beyond the 'solid foundation of fact'. He promises his readers that he will attempt to purify fable and 'make her submit to reason' but he acknowledges that she may defy him and he may not be able to tame her. (The verbs are lovely- the historian here is male, the myth is female and the language is that of 'submit' and 'defies'. Let me stick to my task though and not wonder off into an excursus on Plutarch's sexism!) The question therefore remains why should he write such a life?

Plutarch is quite coy. Firstly it must be said he does accept that something around Theseus's life is probably true. At the end of the life for example he talks about Cimon's discovery of the bones of Theseus and his restitution of them to Athens and talks about Theseus's qualities as a King- his ability for example to help the poor as though these were real things. But I think something else is going on here.

Plutarch's history is being used in a two different senses. Firstly he wants to tell the story of Theseus because he thinks Theseus was an admirable man- in that sense Theseus's life is one of instruction and he takes moments in the life to compare between Theseus and other politicians. For example he suggests that Theseus thought of Hercules like Themistocles later thought about Miltiades: Plutarch sees some aspects of politics as universal through time- a key difference to a modern historian who would stress discontinuity rather than continuity. Amongst those continuities is the continuity that Plutarch sees in a state. So Plutarch's lives are mapping out the histories of Athens and Rome- by addressing Theseus as well as Romulus Plutarch maps out a continuity in the city's characters. In both cases, the continuity means that the myth doesn't have to be true- it is the universal quality that has to be true. Plutarch is using his history to explore the nature of Athens and the nature of envy, and the key issue is whether he is right about them- his story is just an illustration.

March 05, 2013

Enlightenment Economics and the US constitution

What did the writers of the US constitution think about the major issues of economic policy? The question has a vital political importance in America because it is tied to an argument about the legitimate sources of law. Some judges and scholars argue that the original writers' interpretation of the text that they wrote must take precedence over any later interpretation: consequently they argue Americans should refer to the past in thinking about their institutions. I'm not interested in that argument today. What I am interested in is another argument- which is what did the writers of the constitution actually think about economics. 

Renee Lettow Lerner has written an exceedingly short article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy on exactly this issue. She basically argues that in the eighteenth century Europeans in general were moving from one theory of economics- in which national wealth was crucial and mercantilism was axiomatic- to another in which the free market promoted the wealth of all. She sees Adam Smith as the crucial influence in this movement and argues that British power rested on a swift adaptation of Smith's ideas. Furthermore she suggests that the framers of the US constitution came to their task with a copy of Smith in one hand and a draft in the other. She argues that luckily Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were away from Philadelphia and consequently the framers were able to draft a Smithian document. 

Professor Lerner's characterisation of European history is a caricature at the least. There were plenty of people in Europe in 1800 who did not believe in the free market- plenty who held to Rousseauian ideals of Republican liberty as opposed to Smith's view of a self sustaining market. This caricature is not the centre of her argument though: that revolves around the individuals at Philadelphia. It is significant that Professor Lettow cites almost no historians of the political thought of the period- no John Pocock, no Bernard Bailyn, no Gordon Wood. Although she derides Jefferson as an agrarian, she fails to mention that many of his attitudes were shared by others at the convention: James Maddison for example derided paper money and despaired of easy credit. For many Americans, Machiavelli and Cicero were as key to the revolution as Locke and Hobbes.

Professor Lerner's views are obviously part of a current legal argument- and in that argument I have no stake. However there is a historical question as well as a legal question at the heart of this argument. The historical question is did the people who framed and the people who ratified the US constitution (the people who granted it authority were those who ratified it, not those who framed it!)- did those people believe universally in the economics of Adam Smith. Given that so many of them believed in a different kind of economics and elected an agrarian (to use Lerner's words- I would prefer Republican) Thomas Jefferson as President 13 years later- I think that case is uncertain to say the least.

March 01, 2013

The Failure of Peter Jackson

When I was 12 and first read the Lord of the Rings I loved it. When I saw the films which came out later, I felt betrayed. Let me show you why and then explain why I think Jackson made the choices he made. The youtube clip below shows a key moment from the Two Towers. In the film, Saruman has possessed the King of Rohan, Theoden and Gandalf deals with the possession. In the book Gandalf persuades the King to be more vigourous and cast away the pretence of his old age. This key scene in the Two Towers has the same outcome in both versions of the tale- but in the film Gandalf is a wizard who does a magic trick, in the book Gandalf is a wizard who acts as a wise counsellor. The difference is pretty profound and disappointed me when I saw the scene.

However Jackson's choice I think, on rereading, reveals a weakness in the architecture of the book at this point. Tolkien quite clearly means that Gandalf should argue Theoden out of his dotage and onto his steed to fight evil- but he doesn't show us argument. Gandalf asserts that this is what Theoden should do. After many years of sitting depressed in his halls about old age, Theoden discards the counsellor- Wormtongue- who supported the latter course after a speech from Gandalf and then proceeds to mount his steed and ride away. He surprises Gandalf with his own dedication. Tolkien's choice is undoubtedly more interesting but he gives us nothing to explain Theoden's decision: he shows us none of the reasoning, none of the mechanism. His story is psychological but lacks psychological depth. Partly that's because Tolkien is writing a kind of myth- possibly one that Jackson does not understand- because what Tolkien was doing was not writing a fantasy novel but a myth about consciousness. In that sense both psychological motivation and magic do not fit his purposes: what he writes is assertion based because he writes in a mode which seeks to assert not to explain.

February 27, 2013

Sadness and the Lord of the Rings

I'm rereading the Lord of the Rings for the first time in a long time. I first read it when I was 12 and loved the books and the BBC radio series. It is strange to come back to it after all that time and some things in it seem overblown. My 12 year old self did not take offence at the bombast in the book nor did he notice the racial divisions within Middle Earth. One thing though that he noticed and I notice now is the deep sadness that permeates the book. Tolkien's vision is filled with pathos and the ebbing of the tide. The Ents ride to their last fight. The men of the West may be accomplishing their last great deed. The great heroes of the story are flawed and mortal and even victory is tinged with death and disappointment. In part this is a legacy of Tolkien's religious vision: the Lord of the Rings is as much a Catholic epic as Lewis's Narnia is an Anglican ethic. He picks up though on other elegy- rereading it I can't hope thinking of Tennyson's line on Virgil 'Thou majestic in thy sadness at the doubtful doom of human kind'.

The Lord of the Rings is based on sadness. I think its wrong to read that sadness in the light of Britain's long withdrawing roar from the world. Tolkien himself pointed to the story's origins in the war of 1914 not the war of 1939: however historians now look at the First War, at the time Britain was a victor and her empire expanded. If the world was ever painted pink, it was in the 1920s. I don't think the Lord of the Rings should be read as a sad epic about national or political decline. I don't read myths of socialism into the book nor was Tolkien writing about liberalism (which he probably would have hated). I think the sadness of the book is much more tied to the industrialisation of England. The fall of Isengard is about the fall of the industrial city scape: the way that Tolkien describes Isengard, this black stone fortress, with claws that rise to the skies, almost evokes Fritz Lang's visions of modernity in the 1920s films (which I doubt the Oxford scholar would have ever seen). Tolkien in his introduction says that the new mill in Hobbiton was based on his own personal memories of a new mill near where he grew up.

Tolkien no doubt did not write just about industrialisation- but I think its there and may be at the root of the sadness that he expresses. His story form is archaic itself: Aragorn, Eomer, Gandalf, these are all characters whose roots are medieval not modern. Even the speech is consciously archaic. There are many reasons why this is interesting. Firstly I think it betrays something I feel often as well: a sense that the lives I have studied are now all forgotten, passed away and gone and that this is unbelievably sad. To be a scholar (and I am no scholar) is to get deeply involved in the lives of people who breathed and lived and loved as much and as tenderly as any of us: but have now vanished. Perhaps I import my own attitudes into Tolkien's work- but its a meaning his writing has to me. A lamentation that the past is past. Secondly I think he shows us how close the industrial revolution in England is- even to us. To put it in context, he could mourn the demise of an England that he almost remembered- and he died in the 1970s.

Tolkien may have had more in mind than just these sadnesses when he came to write his book. His battle scenes and the walk over the dead marshes are definitely filled with memories of the first war. I think some of the grief of parting which is in this novel: whether its of Elrond and Arwen, of the company which splits almost as it is formed, of the Hobbits at the grey havens must be modelled on the deaths of his own friends in the 14 war. I think though these other sadnesses permeate the book as well- it is strange to think that this most modern of genres has at its back a kind of elegy for a world which has been lost.

February 18, 2013

Weather Forecasting

Does anything ever change? It seems not. In 1863 Lincoln appointed Francis Capen meteorologist to the war department, however he soon regretted his choice:

It seems to me Mr Capen knows nothing about the weather in advance. He told me three days ago that it would not rain until the 30th of April or 1st of May. It is raining now and has been for ten hours. (Abraham Lincoln 28th April 1863)
So much for weather forecasting.

February 15, 2013

The Selfishness of Salmon Chase

Following on from seeing Lincoln on Saturday, I'm currently in the midst of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals- her account of the Lincoln administration. I remember it really as the book everyone talked about when Barack Obama appointed Hillary Clinton in 2008: apparantly Obama had read and reread it before he made that decision,. Whether that's true or not, the idea of writing a book which concentrates on the relationships between leading politicians rather than focussing on the heroic figure of Lincoln (or say in a British context Churchill) is interesting. That noone has done this for the 1940 cabinet is fascinating.

I'll write a bit more on that once I've finished the book though. Today I want to think about something else. Goodwin begins her book by taking us through the histories of the men who ran against each other for the Republican nomination for President in 1860: Abraham Lincoln, William H Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio and Edward Bates of Missouri. They are all fascinating characters but Chase is the one I'm going to write about tonight because one of the things that earned him his reputation was a case which I think offers a fascinating insight into his personality.

The case is that of a farmer called Van Zandt. I'm relying entirely on Goodwin here for her summary: basically Van Zandt picked up some slaves on an April night in 1841 and promised to help them escape to freedom. 2 slave catchers acosted him on the route and found the slaves and the owner of the slaves brought a suit against Van Zandt for harboring and concealing the slaves- essentially helping to 'steal' their property. The key thing about the case, which Salmon Chase took up in the Ohio courts and then Chase and Seward prosecuted in the Supreme Court, was that if he lost Van Zandt would be ruined.

What Chase did was bring a case which would almost certainly lose. As Goodwin argues it, he argued before the courts that slavery was unjust, unconstitutional and could not therefore be maintained in law. Think about what that argument is. Its an argument on principle. As soon as Chase made it, three things instantly followed from it. Firstly Chase acquired a reputation as a stalwart opponent of slavery who could make a principled argument against it- hence he obtained an appeal to others who shared his values. Secondly making that principled argument meant that the cause of American anti-slavery was pushed along- was articulated even to the highest cause in the land. Thirdly it meant that Van Zandt would lose his case- no court would strike down slavery as property on a case such as his- especially when that court as the Supreme Court had, had a southern majority.

Van Zandt was completely ruined- he lost his land, property, children and life. Chase went on to serve in the US Senate, in the governorship of Ohio, in the cabinet of Lincoln and on the Supreme Court. Slavery was abolished. I'm not saying that Chase was entirely selfish, Goodwin suggests that his ambition was married to his belief and that sounds right. What I'm trying to get at and what I think is interesting here is that Chase's strong belief, allied to his ambition, rendered him blind to the interests of the individual whose case he was defending. I'm not sure what I think of this as an individual act of morality but I think its revealing of the priorities of the man- who probably could think more about the abstract needs of the slaves than the concrete difficulties of the man in front of him.

February 12, 2013

A thought on Lincoln

At one point in the film Lincoln that Steven Spielburg has just released, Lincoln comes face to face with his great radical republican opponent Thadeus Stevens and they argue about slavery. Stevens says and I cannot remember the actual words, but near enough says that Lincoln is a compromiser. He argues that he had always known what was right and wrong and had fought for the repeal of slavery for years and years. Stevens compares himself to a compass which always points north, Lincoln he says veers about all over the map. The rejoinder from Lincoln is equally powerful. Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln responds that yes he is compromiser: but he wants to get things done. He compares himself to a traveller, journeying with a compass. Of course he knows where north is but sometimes he has to go south and then east to go round a swamp, sometimes west to go over a mountain pass. He asks Stevens rhetorically what use it would be if the traveller confronted with a desert and a swamp which were impassable, just continued to assault them. A bit more subtlety and the traveller might find his way north.

In the context of the film- the debate matters because it sets up Stevens to later accommodate the northern moderates by implying that repealing slavery will not bring in black equality. I think there are some wider points that are interesting though that flow from the conversation. The most important and probably most surprising to modern ears is the simple fact that this conversation takes place in the film after the civil war. The North had won- and yet still the problems of the war had not gone away. Civil Wars don't resolve things in that way. The English Civil War is the same: you still had to think about the royalists in 1647. What Lincoln is arguing with Stevens about are two alternative attitudes about the end of an ideological civil war. The first attitude (associated with Stevens here) is the attitude which says, we won, we now go in, reorganise our opponents, impose military rule and hope that they come round to our view. The second attitude (associated here with Lincoln) is that we won- now we can begin negotiations again: maybe this time we can get free slaves- but we might not get black equality till further down the line.

I'm not going to say that one is right or wrong or works or doesn't work. The important thing I think here is that both courses of action have costs. What Lincoln as a film is good at is portraying that cost. So Lincoln's view has an obvious cost: it is what happened. In 1865 the black slaves were free. Blacks were not free really in the south though until the 1960s and the Civil Rights act. Jim Crow was able to rule in the south for a full century after Lincoln's abolition. On the other hand the film makes it clear just what the price of conviction was: hundreds of thousands died in the civil war and all that achieved was the abolition of slavery. How many more would have had to die in the occupation of the south that Stevens wanted. I expect almost everyone reading this has strong views one way or the other. I thought the excellent thing about Spielberg's film was that it allowed you to see the strengths of both cases.

February 08, 2013

The Captain of Kopenich

On Tuesday I went to a play at the National Theatre with some friends- an adaptation of a German classic the Captain of Kopenich.

We opened at a prison with all the men (disrespectfully) listening to an old warden recounting stories about Sedan and the victory of the Prussians over the French. One of the prisoners to be released that day- Voigt- has no papers to be released with and therefore no legal personality in outside society. Those two sentences set up what is interesting about the Captain of Kopenich- as adopted at the National at the moment- on the one hand the cult of reminiscence and the military, on the other the man who has no name and therefore no chance within society. That is until he, by chance, comes across the uniform of a captain within the Germany army, masquerades as said Captain to get a passport, fails and eventually only succeeds in doing so by... you'll have to watch the play to find out but the realisation of his plan is amusing.

The point of the play seems to be specific to its time. The play is set by the director as though it was the 1930s in Germany. Great displays that resemble the silent film Metropolis are set up behind the set. You can see and feel the atmosphere of pre-war jingoism: we are off to fight the French at every opportunity. Perhaps its just what I've been reading recently, but there is a certain poignancy about those scenes- if the stress on Prussian militarism plays a bit much to type and prejudice. The point though is well made. Germany in 1910 and in 1930 was a heavy militarised society. Something of that cult of the military went into what happened in 1914. Jonathan Steinberg argues as much in his book about Bismark: so do Chris Clark and Norman Stone in their books which I have written about on this blog. The cult of the military was important to Germany: Prussia, founded as an army with a country attached, had founded the new German empire and founded it through military success.

The second dilemma is also true and perhaps even more interesting. Voigt has no papers and therefore no personality. The play doesn't really play with this as an idea enough. The play is set in 1910 when two things drive the creation of papers for people (don't forget that until 1914 most European states did not have passports). The first thing was conscription- the Boer war in Britain revealed that the British poor were just unable to fight for example. The second related phenomenon was the welfare state. To have either conscription or the welfare state you need to know who your citizens are. Taking England as an example, in the 18th Century noone knew how many Englishmen there were- quite simply because services were administered by parishes. As long as the clergyman or local notable knew who was who: it didn't matter what Whitehall thought. In a world with conscription and welfare, Whitehall and its equivalents have to know who people are. Voigt's dilemma is a real one but it is a much more modern one than the director gave it credit for: and its a German one for Bismark's welfare state was amongst the most advanced in Europe.

These are interesting ideas but the play at the National disappointed me because it did not really take them further- and the points it did make- gestures towards 1914 and the Nazis were too broad. Much of the first half of this Captain was made up of broad humour and platitude- both of which left me tired and grumpy. I confess at the interval I walked out in a mood, wondering if I should walk back in. The second half focussing on the military issue was much better but still just played either issue for laughs: both issues have more to them than the play revealed- a pity as it was based on a real case and the original text is supposed to be a classic (no doubt this was heavily adapted).

February 05, 2013

Ancient Israel

I'm fascinated by ancient Israel- not for religious reasons but because for religious reasons documents have survived from a very ancient civilisation and from some quite interesting people in that civilisation.  William Dever's book on the origins of Israel is really interesting, not primarily because of its theological content. It basically argues that one story in the Bible (the Exodus story) is less likely to be true than another story in the Bible (Judges) when it comes to explaining who were the Ancient Israelites. That's interesting because it sheds light on a question that I think is important. If we exclude for a  moment theological explanations about why the idea of monotheism arose, and leave those as beyond the bounds of this article: we are still left trying to account for why monotheism arose and what the inspiration for the religious literature of the Bible was in historical terms.

Dever's account basically argues that the people we call Israelites- he calls them proto-Israelites- were Canaanites. If you imagine the ancient world in the second millennia BC- you are imagining a world that has been hit by economic crisis. We know that many of the great ancient states of that era were disturbed: Egypt was invaded by mysterious 'sea peoples', the Myceneans vanished never again to rise. Dever posits that all this stuff had an impact on Canaan. Falling farm yields, rising prices, rising inequality: these are all the attributes of crisis. And in letters from the Kings of Canaan to the Egyptians we can see these crises impacting on Canaan in those ways.

So the story he puts together goes like this. Groups of people in the Canaanite towns became frustrated and irritated and moved. They moved up into the hills around the coastal areas- into the hills near Jerusalem and began farming there. They elected their own chiefs. These chiefs fought with the Canaanite states below. He suggests this makes sense of the archaeological evidence which describes an increase in population in this hill country (and shows no record of the kinds of conquest that Joshua is said to have made)- and of Egyptian evidence which names Israel as the hill country. He devotes a lot of time to proving this- and I don't have either the expertise or the patience to rehearse the argument.

The implications though are really fascinating. Firstly they suggest that the Bible's attitudes to wealth and poverty are very much the attitudes of peasant farmers who were faced with inequality and mounting debt. The problem of debt slavery- so intrinsic to later societies right up until and beyond colonial Africa- is not unknown in the Bible and reflects this kind of societal transformation. Secondly the Bible's model of statehood must be influenced by this early history: so the Book of Judges becomes a very interesting text because it shows a movement from poverty and chieftenship to Kingship.

February 03, 2013

Italy and the First World War

In 1924, Miroslav Skalajkovic, the former political head of the Serb Foreign Ministry, said of the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911, 'all subsequent events [including the First World War] are nothing more than the evolution of that first aggression'.

Both Norman Stone and Chris Clark argue that the Italian invasion of Libya was the starting gun for the first world war. The reason is that the First World War started in the Balkans- as everyone knows. A Serb assassin's bullet was its first real shot. The roots of that moment though go back to Italy. Italy's invasion of Libya demonstrated the weakness of the Ottoman authorities- furthermore they demonstrated that Britain, Turkey's great power guarantor, no longer insisted upon Turkish independence. Sir Edward Grey, then the British Foreign Secretary, encouraged the Italians to attack Libya. What's interesting about this attack is that it starts the chain of events leading to World War One- because the Balkan states saw the Italian victory as the announcement that they too could start to prey on Turkey. It also was the first moment at which Arab nationalism- in the resistance to Italian forces- becomes an important factor in global affairs.

Its worth thinking about the Italian invasion though. The First World War partly came out of the weaknesses of the European power system- and in particular its two weakest states. The policy of Britain and France was effectively in 1914 that Austria had no right to exert its influence over Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Italian invasion was a consequence of the presumed weakness of the sick man of Europe. And this presumed weakness lent Italian and Russian policy makers a sense of urgency: if they did not strike quickly then another power would seize what they wanted. In 1912 for example during the Balkan war, Russia became terrified that Bulgaria might seize Constantinople- the long term Russian ambition. Russian policy makers during the period just before World War One were seeking to recreate the Balkans as an arena of little brother Slav states that they could sponsor- as opposed to independent actors.

Weakness and fear were main drivers in what happened in World War One. Clark disagrees with the thesis that Germany sponsored the war because of a terror about Russian power- the thesis that Stone supports. But paranoia is to be found in all European states: there were German generals who were scared about Russia, Britain feared Russian incursions on its Asiatic empire, France of course feared Germany and feared that Russia might in the end not need a French alliance for its ambitions to be fulfilled. The coming power of Russia destablised the European balance of power- but it is the interraction between that fear and the weakness of other powers that drives the action in World War One. The weakness of Austria and the Ottomans presented the opportunity for people to realise their fears of conquest: Russian or German domination in Vienna and Constantinople would it was feared lead to the enslavement of Europe to either Berlin or St Petersburg.

This helps explain I think something which I'd not thought about but which Clark points out is a paradox. The First World War began about the Balkans and its first subsidiary wars happened in Libya and in the Balkans but it was on the Western and Eastern Fronts that the war happened. The war did not take place between Italy and Serbia, Austria and Turkey but between Russia, France, Britain and Germany.


Incidentally apologies for not publishing some comments over the summer- a long hiatus that was influenced primarily by stuff happening off line- but I really do apologise!

January 29, 2013


Christopher Clark quotes this fragment from Stefan Zweig. I thought it worth sharing

the wind in the trees, the twittering of the birds and the music floating across the park were at the same time part of my consciousness. I could clearly hear the melodies without being distracted, for the ear is so adaptable that a continuous noise, a roaring street, a rushing stream are quickly assimilated into one's awareness only an unexpected pause in the rhythm makes us prick our ears. [...] Suddenly the music stopped in the middle of a bar. I didn't know what piece they had played. I just sensed that the music had suddenly stopped. Instinctively I looked up from my book. The crowd, too, which was strolling through the trees in a single flowing mass, seemed to change; it, too, paused abruptly in its motion to and fro. Something must have happened.
The something was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria. Zweig's writing is so interesting- at once it combines an observation about 1914, how ordinary life was. One can almost imagine the crinolined crowds passing in front of the park, through the boulevards of 19th Century Vienna and then the 20th Century with all its horror arrived. At the same time Zweig says something important about memory and history: we remember change, the continuous strand of music is something we are acculturated too- we remember disruption not stillness. History as Gibbon put it was the record of the crimes, follies etc of human kind- I think Zweig gives us a reason here for Gibbon's statement: crime not kindness is a disturbance.

January 28, 2013

The future and the first world war

There isn't much that's more dangerous in diplomacy than assumptions about the future. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the arguments for the hardline position was that if the Russians are going to be around forever, it might be better to have a nuclear war now when America will win and the losses will be limited, rather than later when both great powers can unleash infinite destruction on each other. The same is true in the First World War. One of the motivating things in any war is the attitudes with which the parties enter the war. In the First War, that's most evident in the attitudes of Britain and France towards Serbia and Austria Hungary. Put bleakly the British and the French saw the plucky Serbs as the instigators of a new wave of nationalist and democratic history- in their imagination, they dressed the Serbs, as Byron had dressed the Greeks almost a hundred years before, with all the clothes of European liberty. Whereas they saw the Austrian monarchy as a doomed experiment that had run out of time, an empire and a power in decline. Neither of these impressions were particularly correct: Serbia was economically primitive, had low levels of education and an irredentist movement that destabilised the state. Austria on the other hand was stable, and to the eyes of many 21st century observers looks much more progressive than its nationalist neighbours.

The complacency of that judgement helped steer the Entente powers into a much more assertive Balkan policy, may have contributed to the origins of the war itself. It all stemmed from a basic teleology- that history was aiming in a particular direction. Of course history has no necessary direction: and the complacency of current understanding can swiftly become the obvious error the next generation despises.

January 26, 2013

Russian Power

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book about the first world war by Norman Stone. Stone argued, I think convincingly, that at the root of the causes of the first world war lay a very simple calculation by German statesmen. They looked east and they saw Russia, when they saw Russia, they saw a rising curve of manpower, economic power, military power and cultural might that might be deployed within Europe. Von Moltke for example then argued that Germany had to fight a war soon- in 1912, 1914 or earlier- before it would inevitably lose such a war. Russia must be eliminated. Read this way the first war was in a sense a kind of success- the story of the 20th Century in Europe is largely the story of what didn't happen: Russia never dominated Europe in the way that Bethman Hollweg or Moltke believed it would.

Reading Christopher Clark though places a different emphasis on Russian power- because it was not Germany alone who was worried about Russian power. Both Britain and France saw the same things- British and French generals believed that Russia had the strongest military machine in Europe and that their economy and army was getting stronger. The consequences of this perception in Paris and London, according to Clark, also supported war. Clark argues that the French looked at Russian power and came to a simple conclusion: after 1920 Russia would no longer need France to assist it in the Balkans. France would return to isolation, whereas Russia would be able to make a positive case for Berlin to drop Vienna and do a deal over the Balkans. French hopes to retake Alsaace Lorraine would therefore fall away. France therefore as much as anyone needed a war swiftly, as then it would have Russia as an ally. For the French therefore, as well as the Germans, Russian growth was a reason to have an early war: not so that Russia could be wiped out but so that it might be engaged on French terms.

Britain too saw Russian growth as a threat. From 1815 onwards, the British had seen the greatest threat to their empire as lying in Russian ambition. Russia, not Germany, was the power that Britain had fought in the 19th Century, in the Crimean War. Both Disreali in the 1870s and Salisbury in the 1880s had directed their foreign policy to counter the ambitions of St Petersburg, not of Berlin. Although Britain and Russia had signed an entente in 1907, the British were consumed by agony about Russia right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. Quite simply, the British saw the Russians as their only colonial competitor in a huge swathe of key territory across Asia- from Persia to China- a swathe of territory that protected the jewel in the British crown, India. The British foreign policy elite saw the rise of Russia as a reason to keep the Tsar close and support his desires more emphatically- without that close alliance the British feared they would be taking on a Russian empire which was more powerful than ever before and more threatening to them than ever before. If Russian growth made Germans and the Frenchmen think about war more eagerly, Russian growth made the British abandon their neutrality.

These conclusions of Clark's (and it must be emphasized in all three cases, he identifies individuals rather than the entire foreign policy community as holding these views) support another statement. I always believed that the end of the First World War marked the moment where European politics changed forever: that in 1919 with Wilson's fourteen points, Europe for the first time became subject to an extra European power. Reading Clark suggests to me that picture is not true. Europe's slow decline from a position of complete independence from the rest of the world was a cause not a consequence of World War One.

January 21, 2013

Serbia pre-1914

Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the First World War is a triumph in one way at least. Its a topic that has been 'done to death' over the years. I've read innumerable studies myself about it from the classic (AJP Taylor) to the more modern (Norman Stone)- and the basic contours of the crisis which provoked the war are familiar to almost everyone who knows anything about European history. We are all jaded when it comes to 1914- which is why saying something new (at least to those who aren't experts) is so intriguing. Clark's newest work on the origins of the war does indeed start with something new- he starts where so few books about the war start- not in London, Berlin, Paris, Petersburg or Vienna but in Belgrade.

Of course once you think about it Serbia is one of the most interesting players in the war. All the major powers could have a realistic thought about deterring each other or even winning the war: at least that thought could apply to Germany, Russia and Britain and to France and Austria by virtue of their alliances to the big three. Serbia though could have no realistic chance of winning a war with Austria. Secondly we often forget that the twentieth century began as well as ended with a terrorist atrocity that provoked conflict: in 2001 September 11th led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in 1914 the death of the Archduke led to the invasion of Serbia and World War One. Of course the conflicts that were produced were entirely different in nature, length, scope and size: but the original pistol shot was similar- an act of a multinational terrorist network that had an intriguing relationship with a state apparatus.

What the case of Serbia reveals interestingly is the link between terrorism, nationalism and modernity. The story Clark tells is one in which those three concepts interlock through the first two decades of the twentieth century to produce the crazy calculation of July 1914. Serbia in the early twentieth century was an economically backward place, heavily dependant on external parties- mostly the French for its continued solvency, and largely rural. Its population were illiterate and its politics were unstable. In 1903, the then Serbian King and his wife had been murdered, and the politics of Serbia were torn between on the one hand democratic civilian politicians who came to prominence in the democratic regime that succeeded him, and on the other the military network of conspirators that got rid of him. Fused with this unstable scenario was a sense of nationalistic irredentism in which the Serbs claimed vast swathes of the Balkans- from parts of Bulgaria all the way to Montenegro. Often these areas were no longer inhabited by people who deemed themselves Serbs: hence ironically that the first lands of greater Serbia to be returned to Serbia post the Balkan Wars (1912-13) were governed as colonies.

What Clark draws out though is an interesting sense of how these factors became intertwined. For example, irredentism made sense to a nation with a growing peasant population but without a manufacturing base (save for making plum jam!). Nationalism worked as a uniting force in a nation that was basically illiterate and where the main unifying force was the power of popular song. The army, in a country without a manufacturing base, became the only route out of the village. Terrorism was an acceptable alternative form of diplomacy in a country without any democratic strength- giving Serbia plausible deniability when for example terrorists supported rebellion in Macedonia in 1907. The conditions of July 1914 flowed out of the politics of a deeply dysfunctional society: a society in which politicians may have been aware of the activities of their own security services because of their insertion of double agents into those services. The picture of Serbia on the edge of war is a vivid one and makes sense of the seemingly mad decisions that the Serbs made- decisions which precipitated Austrian invasion.

Hard as it may be for me to recognise the politicians in charge of Serbia made what seemed to them rational decisions. One of the more penetrating points made by Robert McNamara in the Fog of War (the Erroll Morris documentary about his career) is that we cannot assume our opponents are irrational: they merely proceed from different premises. In the Cuban missile crisis, Castro, Kennedy and Krushchev were all rational actors: the same was true in Serbia in 1914.

January 19, 2013

The fall of the Roman Republic

I have a degree in modern history from the University of Oxford: that will give you the wrong idea of what I studied though. Oxford took modern history when I studied there to have begun with the acclamation of Diocletian in 285AD as Emperor of Rome: whatever you would conventionally think of  modern history, whether its industrial history, the history of democracy, of total war or even of nuclear war, I doubt you would start with the tetrarchy. I'm not being trivial here- periodisation within history matters. We identify something common about the centuries or decades or even years that we group together- and we use periods to make polemical points. One of my favourite books about history is John Pocock's Machiavellian Moment in which he groups the thought of early modern Englishmen and Americans by their allegiance to the Florentine Republican across a span of two centuries- a moment!

You can see the impact of periodisation by looking at the Roman Republic. In a wonderful history of the Roman republic Harriet Flower argues that there was not one but several Republics. She describes the early history of Rome in fascinating detail- leaves the middle years around the second punic war- and then advances into the late Republic. What's so interesting about her treatment of the late Republic is that she discards the conventional narrative. That narrative perpetuated by dozens if not hundreds of historians sees the Roman Republic ending with the demise of Julius Caesar, the rise of Octavian or a number of other markers in the 40s and 30sBC that mark a transition to Principate. At one point the Republic had fallen, at another the Principate had risen to replace it. The space from consuls to Princeps could be measured in milliseconds! Flower discards this image. She argues, convincingly, that what actually happened was that the REpublic ended in the 80sBC. From 80BC onwards custom after custom was discarded. Sulla attempted to reinvent the Republic in the 80s and it is the fall of his invention that we are watching as we watch Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Cicero, Caelius, Cato and the rest battle on the streets of Rome and cross their individual Rubicons.

This matters because it reorientates our explanations for the fall of Rome's Republic. That matters because the fall of the Republic is the foundation myth of our own democracies- I will come later to what I think this means for our thinking about why democracies end. Rome's Republic was killed in the final analysis not in the 40s but in the 80s: the implications of this are vast because they tie Rome's fall to an existential crisis in the late Republic (130-100). This crisis was dual. On the one hand Rome had to work out whether its citizenship criteria should make it a city (Rome for the Romans) or a representative civilisation for the entire Italian Peninsular. This conflict broke into actual war in the Social Wars (91-88BC) but was a deep contradiction at the centre of Rome's incarnation as a European Empire. Secondly in the 100s, external military crisis- the invasion of the Cimbri and the Teutones and the war against Jugurtha- forced Marius the great general to widen the recruitment of the army. His military reforms meant that Rome's army changed in nature at the same time as Roman citizenship fluxed. Furthermore the failure to cope with invasion without reform of the military system indicated something was deeply wrong with the traditional structures of power. The Republic fell.

Lastly Flower tackles the Sullan effort to reform in the 80sBC. She argues that the republic that Sulla created was inherently unstable. She argues this because it was based on the rule of law not the rule of custom: it was brittle to the touch. Politicians like Cicero began to use extra legal mechanisms to attempt to shore up the rule of the Senate: when Cicero proclaims Catiline an enemy of the state and murders him, he follows in the line of previous aristocratic murderers (from the Gracchi brothers down!) in a practice of illegality which proclaimed the Republic ended. Put another way- the rule of law is useless without the rule of custom. Secondly she suggests that the key thing which undermined the Sullan republic was not so much the instability of its arrangements as the fact that by the end of its rule, nobody knew what freedom and republicanism actually meant. This insight is as old as Tacitus. Rome's Republic fell because its citizens had forgotten what it was to be Republican: as Tiberius strode into the senate, there was no Brutus because noone could remember a time before either anarchy or tyranny.

January 15, 2013

Remembering Cuba

John F. Kennedy's response to the Cuban missile crisis has become one of the icons of the Cold War. The film 13 days captures it well: Kennedy stood against the Chiefs of the Defence staff, along with his staff, and argued against an invasion of Cuba. At the last moment, the Americans received two messages from the Soviet leadership: in one the Soviets wrote that they did not want to go to war and asked the US for a guarantee of Cuban independence- after which they would withdraw their missiles. The next day, before the US had a chance to respond, the Soviets issued a second message over Moscow radio: this public offer was for a trade, Soviet missiles would leave Cuba if the Americans would withdraw their missiles from Turkey. On the night of the 27th, Kennedy and his colleagues came to a decision: they stood resolute and decided that they would ignore the second message, and respond to the first- they responded and the Russians decided to leave Cuba. This account is now under serious attack from historians: most notably Sheldon M. Stern who works on the papers surrounding the Cuban missile crisis.

Stern's arguments are based on the transcripts of the Excomm meetings in October and November 1962. They are interesting I think because they reveal something about the crisis and about the nature of memory. Stern's vision of the crisis sees JFK much more on his own: arguing not just against his military men, but also against people that previously we've seen as his supporters- people like his brother Robert Kennedy or his Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. Dean Rusk emerges in Stern's story as a far more important character than in the conventional story. Of course the difference between the two, according to Stern, comes down to the sources that they are using. Stern uses the actual words that were spoken- whereas most modern historians have relied upon the accounts from Robert Kennedy and others of those conversations. The differences between the two are fascinating: because they imply to me at least that the entire fabric of who took the decision, who said what and what was said is wrong.

Stern argues that some of this is down to lying: Robert Kennedy wanted to sell an image of himself in 1968 as a conciliator who would oppose Vietnam. Robert Mcnamara comes through Stern's book as one of the most Machiavellian operators of all, concerned with preserving his own image. Both reflected that those outside the Kennedy circle- Ambassador Adlai Stevenson or Secretary of State Rusk were insignificant. Neither wanted to acknowledge a difference with John Kennedy himself. That seems plausible to me as an account of why they might have construed the story- but I think it misses something important. The story that Stern tells is not one that is completely straightforward: he shows that members of the committee veered all over the place during their high level discussions. Rusk for instance advocated both invasion and conciliation. You would expect this- they were under massive stress. It is natural therefore that when politicians came to write their memoirs- they made the process look simpler and more straightforward and they also remembered the attitude they had taken that had turned out correctly.

Stern also suggests that the denouement of the crisis was diametrically opposed to the conventional account. Far from rejecting the second letter, Kennedy rejected the first letter and went to negotiate on the back of the second. The outcome- that America secretly withdrew its missiles from Turkey in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal from Cuba- might look the same but the clever acceptance of the first letter never happened. This is not a field that I am in any way expert on- and the reasons he gives for the US initial position on this (the lie about the letters) is important: Kennedy wanted to win the midterms and not to be seen to be soft on communism. Again though one wonders about the quality of memory- once you start repeating a story, does it become your story, once you start creating history, does it become history?

The Cuban missile crisis is something that occurred relatively recently: and yet its only due to the existence of these tapes that historians and others have not, according to Stern, made a major mistake about the course of the crisis. That makes me reflect upon the other events that we may have got wrong.   We don't have tapes for most of the crucial meetings of history: but if McNamara and Sorenson and Kennedy got the meetings of Excomm wrong, how likely is it that others back in the past recorded their meetings inaccurately? How sceptical should we be about our own sources? How sceptical about our own memories?

January 07, 2013


The first thing I noticed about Architects was the way that it threw me. Its been hard writing this review because what I remember most about the play is not an idea but a sense of confusion. Let me explain: when you enter the theatre in an abandoned warehouse in Bermondsey, you find yourself in a labyrinth. Through its twists and turns you eventually come to a bar- hopefully having found your friends you sit down and join them for a cup of tea (in my case) or a glass of wine or beer (if you are more adventurous or come in the evening!) and then the play begins. It begins with a pregnant woman removing a shoe from the interior of a model cow, then we have a speech about architecture and are informed that we are on a boat, a pleasure cruiser where everything that we could possibly want is available. Everything- yes that's everything- there is even the opportunity for women to have sex with Dolphins if they want- by again crawling into the model of a Dolphin and well, I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

This is unsettling- this was unsettling to me. It becomes clear as you proceed that this is really a re-telling of the myth of the Minotaur- a retelling in which the audience has become the virgins and youths sent from Athens to become the food of the minotaur in Crete. This retelling is subtle: many within the party I went with did not immediately get it, but it is definite. Its subtle because it is clothed in thoroughly modern clothing. We are presented with an image of the Minotaur story as it might look to a modern audience- filled with the coarse hedonism of modern life. Its also a story that retold in this fashion takes on ideas about totalitarianism: lost in the dark with others shouting that they don't need or want you around, you are reminded of the reality of democratic tyranny. It is not that we all fear execution as in the old days: but that we know execution as show trial. It is when as Bukharin found you convict yourself with the crowd that you too become of the horror of your own demise.

Ovid may not have imagined the uses to which his story could have been put in this sense. The features are there: we have Daedalus, the architect, the queen pregnant with the bull's child, the bull human itself roaming the world, children who dance in the air above and fall to the ground in death (see Icarus), the virgins and youths taken to death. In a prologue about architecture we are even told how to interpret the story: architecture, our actress tells us, is the way that the past is reinterpreted constantly by the present. The old materials, old forms, old ideas are neither discarded nor copied, but changed. A tradition is formed through its continual alteration and we speak, not just with each other, but with the past. She declaims about the neccessity of art and architecture making a statement about past and present, about future too. But this is where I was confused.

Because ultimately I could admire the cleverness, the subtle work of translation- even the Borgesian argument about the fact that copying is not possible anymore- but couldn't really see the point of any of it. Two things stuck in my mind: was the argument that only the Dionysian, ecstatic, sexual side of Greece had survived into the modern world, leaving the Appollan behind? Was the argument something about the nature of human relationships? Either I was not clever enough to see- or the problem with Architects was simple: its an amazing idea, its disturbing, but it functions on the level of style and not substance. If this is a statement, I'm not sure that its saying very much.

January 04, 2013

Sunday 12 January 1947

On Sunday 12 January 1947, Alistair Cooke recorded a letter from America. It is as ever an immensely well read and erudite document of its time- but it reflects its time and the mood of that long dead moment. Cooke recorded it whilst contemplating the election of the 80th US Congress. Like today's Congress, that Congress was a Republican Congress elected to face a Democratic President. Cooke's argument though is one that no one has made in popular print or on radio or television today- he tied his argument both to American history and to contemporary events. It is interesting to see how the world has changed since then and follow his thought.

Cooke compared the new Republican Congress to a different event which took place 70 years before he had made his broadcast. In Montana, when the West was still the West, Colonel George Custer led his troops into one of the United States's greatest military disasters. Custer's last stand became an example of heroism for the new Republic though- still recovering from the strain of civil war. Cooke suggested the new Congress like Custer was standing, for Americans as a set of heroes, embarking on a last stand- in this case an ideological last stand for capitalism. He did not elaborate on their success- and perhaps the recording, a brief five minutes was cut off, but it is a defining image of the fears of America at that point in history.

Three things instantly struck me as I listened to the letter- apart from the beauty of the language. The first was that the familiarity with which Cooke talks about Custer- of course seventy years ago is nothing in the lives of  men. There would have been living people who were alive when Custer died in 1947- Custer was as far away from Cooke as he read his letter as the Second World War is from you as you read this blog. Secondly the context of our lives has changed unutterably since the Cold War: for America to be making a last stand for capitalism in the manner of Custer, there must have been an aggressor, a foreign aggressor against whom to stand. In 1947 that aggressor existed in the Communist Soviet Union. Thirdly Cooke's artistic delivery is something we never really hear today: his talk, especially his final comment that the Republicans are making a last stand for capitalism is subject to two interpretations. One that the Republicans are like Custer making a futile stand after a foolish charge: the second that they are heroes. I don't think I've heard such subtle ambiguity on a news broadcast for a while.

January 03, 2013

Don't believe what you watch

Years ago, I visited a friend doing his PhD at Oxford. I mentioned Linda Colley's book 'Britons'- a book that when I went up to University was the staple of every aspiring undergraduate's library. He looked at me with scorn, 'That,' he said 'is a typical undergraduate's book'. Aside from demonstrating the famed art of the Oxbridge put down, my friend's comment had a serious point. Colley's book, he thought was clever and exciting but didn't do much new evidential research. I'm not qualified to comment about that volume- indeed I still rather like it- but I do think the point is well made. I've always been a bit wary myself of being the historian with the best ideas, and the least archival research. If each of us has his personal Charybdis, that is mine. Its an analogy that came to mind yesterday evening when I watched on 4oD a documentary by a chap called Francis Pryor.

Pryor produced three documentaries in 2004. They argued for a continuing British culture that underlay the Roman conquest, survived the dark ages and furthermore that this culture was not wiped out by a Saxon invasion- because the latter never happened. Now I must declare an interest: although I have never studied the Saxons properly myself, my ex-girlfriend was a student of Old English and so were many of my best friends as an undergraduate: I'm not sure their reaction would have been anything short of vitriolic to Mr Pryor's argument. Suffice it to say, I began watching sceptically and I have to say that I was not convinced by his arguments. There are many reasons why I think there probably was a massive disruption in the Dark Ages in Britain- there wasn't elsewhere in Europe and Peter Brown amongst others has changed historical minds on that. In Byzantium or Italy or even parts of France, the real crisis occured later- with the wars of Justinian or of the Persians or the Muslim Conquest.

But that's not what I want to argue with. You see the real fault of my friend's adversary- the undergraduate book- is not so much that its wrong but that it might be right, in the wrong way. Documentaries are striving to be news events: Mr Pryor in this documentary claims that his documentary breaks new ground and changes the world with its new insights. The problem is that no documentary could support such a stance. In this case for example, Mr Pryor's claims are not set against  the claims of historians who might disagree: Bryan Ward Perkins has written of the cataclysm that the fall of Rome represented for Britain (and the rest of the Western Empire) but he isn't invited as a contributor. Even when a contributor is invited to make an opposing case- as one is in the last documentary- their points are dismissed as facile and they appear to lose a rigged argument. The control of the narrator means that documentaries do not represent a place in which argument can be represented fairly. And a fair representation of the opposing argument together with the evidence for it is essential to actually understanding whether a novel argument about the past works.

So what am I saying? I am not capable of assessing Mr Pryor's evidence and deciding whether there isn't other evidence out there that he has neglected: however I am suspicious. The argument as with so many historical documentaries which seek to present 'new' evidence sounds too good to be true. Counter balancing evidence cannot be fairly represented because of the nature of the medium- nor can counterbalancing views. The fact that Mr Pryor is taking on a historical consensus does not mean he is right anymore than it means he is wrong: but for the non-expert it means that his views must be taken with a degree of caution. Ultimately to come back to my friend's point it is not the interesting idea but the idea that is tied to evidence that matters: and that must be tested in argument, either honest argument developed at length or argument within the literature. It can't be tested in an hour's television. Documentaries making bold claims should come with a disclaimer, let the watcher beware!