Archive for the ‘history’ category

Philosopher King

September 18, 2017

It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.

Advertisements

The world today: it’s all about migration

March 14, 2017

Whatever part of the world or country or region you may call your own, the population you share it with got there largely as a result of mass migration. Most of Europe is populated by those whose ancestors took part in the major movements of Völkerwanderung, and populations changed and shifted through major major migration or conquests. No significant country you have ever heard of has had a settled population through the centuries. Nor is this all ancient history – it has been a feature of all centuries, to some extent at least.

One of the consequences of migration has been the internationalisation of learning. Even when there were hardly any efficient methods of transport, scholars and students wandered between centres of education and enriched each other’s cultures. Universities became knowledge exchanges of scholarship and cultures, influencing national development (of which Scotland, from where I write, is an excellent example).

Of course large-scale migration also poses challenges and requires the adoption of sensible policies to manage it. But the desire sometimes expressed in modern times for a recognisably uniform autouchtonous ethnic culture that has uniform traits is not at all an expression of tradition: it contradicts civilised human experience and has the capacity to align itself with tyranny.

Many of our recent global developments have their roots in the fear of migration: Brexit, Donald Trump’s wall, ethnic cleansing. These are not good developments in so far as they are driven by fear and insecurity. Politicians must address this with more wisdom than many have shown; but in particular they must recognise that scholarship and learning cannot thrive within closed borders. And the higher education academy must keep making the case for the shared international experience of the educational community.

Presidential image

February 14, 2017

Today is February 14, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people associate this day with Saint Valentine. Although the saint’s name is today – and this day in particular – associated with romantic love and with the cajolery of the greeting card industry in particular, it is far from clear whether it is Valentine who should be attracting our attention today.

I’ll go instead for President James K. Polk, who was President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. On February 14 1849, during his final year in office, Polk was the first sitting US President to have his photograph taken – a daguerreotype taken in New York city. As an amateur photographer myself, I find this a really interesting moment of political and photographic history.

But one should not pass in the vicinity of President Polk without mentioning that he came into office unexpectedly, having offered to the electorate an ambitious set of goals which, over his four year term (he had promised to stand for one term only), he managed fully to achieve. One of the things he achieved was an expansion of the powers of the presidency.

Polk was what has been termed a ‘consequential’ president, in that his decisions and actions created change. He is mostly recognised for extending the borders of the US to the Pacific. But then again, his actions included a somewhat brutal war with Mexico, and he was himself also a slaveholder. He was at best a president with an ambivalent record in office.

His expansion of the United States from coast to coast may be his main claim to a place in history; but for me it is his photograph, taken on February 14 1849.

 

Left or right, and does it matter?

January 3, 2017

Here is a policy document by a British political party: suggesting that people should vote for it because it would ensure ‘fair conditions in industry’, the better representation of women in Parliament, ‘increased prosperity’ and ‘better wages’, the abolition of slums, better ‘maternal and infant welfare’, ‘shorter working hours’, equal pay for equal work, ‘decent homes at economic rents’. So, which party was advertising all of these progressive policies? Well, it was Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Ask anyone at all, and they will tell you that Mosley led a bunch of ultra-rightwing extremists. But look at these policies, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could sign up to all of them. Of course I am not suggesting that today’s Labour Party is fascist, and indeed Mosley held all sorts of racist views that would be anathema to any true member of the Labour Party – but he did describe himself to his death as a man of the left.

When I was beginning to form my own political views in my teens, with the Cold War in full swing, identifying the left and the right was simple enough. The left supported or to a degree tolerated the Soviet Union and/or Chairman Mao, believed in the common ownership of key industries and services and argued for workers’ rights in their struggles with big business. The right supported the United States and NATO and believed in the value of free trade and capitalism and individualism. You supported one or the other of these positions, and that was it.

But the certainties of the Cold War world have been turned upside down. The USSR’s successor, Russia, now has as its admirers a mixture of old left nostalgia addicts, but also Donald Trump and what the media like to call the ‘extreme right’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The latter, a little bit like Mosley’s fascists, mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with vague policies suggesting social concern; and for former (or nostalgic) communists, it has substructures that will sound comforting and familiar: a ‘politburo’ and a ‘central committee’. And its senior politicians are every bit as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ policies as the most committed member of the traditional left.

If the dividing line between left and right is geopolitical, then goodness knows how you would classify today’s politicians and parties: Putin, Trump, Farage, Assad, Le Pen are all on one side, but what side is that? And what about Angela Merkel, is she left or rightwing? If it’s all about economics, then how do we handle globalisation, freedom of movement (for workers and refugees), international trade?

In fact, the dividing line between ideologies is now almost certainly globalisation, though it is hugely complex. In America the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement shares with various voices of the ‘left’ a dislike of military interference in other countries, but more significantly than that wants to protect traditional cultures, and in particular the perceived (or claimed) ‘white’ history of the United States. Migration rather than economics is the new battlefield in the fight for votes. But it is really hard to identify the combatants, because the causes range from what is really just racism, to the fear of losing one’s culture, to a rampant nostalgia for some perceived golden era in which everyone kept to their ‘own’ places, to the suspicion that migrants take jobs or depress wages.

I am, though in no party political sense, a liberal. I believe in freedom and tolerance, in enterprise and innovation, and in fairness and justice. I believe that this outlook has brought progress, prosperity and enlightenment when it has been allowed to flourish.  But I am increasingly concerned that this kind of manifesto has almost no committed defenders in the global theatre of politics (though in Scotland I may not be so alone).

I doubt that the old left-right taxonomy still has much meaning. But I fear that the absence of any clear political direction will make this world a much less pleasant and a much more dangerous place. In the past, much of the key ideological debates came from the contributions of academics: Hayek, Friedman, AJP Taylor, Hobsbawm. Where are we academics now, in this new world of ideological disarray?

History man?

November 15, 2016

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.

Viennoiseries

October 29, 2015

As some readers may recall from an earlier post, this summer I was on a week’s holiday in Vienna. For those who do not know it, I can highly recommend the city. It is the capital of a a small and, in geopolitical terms, relatively insignificant country. But a century ago it was one of the great powers, ruling a good bit of central and Eastern Europe. The First World War brought all that to an end, but in Vienna its glamorous past can be seen everywhere, in the grandeur of the buildings and the visible traces of the once powerful Habsburgs.

Vienna is also a city of vibrant art and culture – and as far as I know is the only city with urban vineyards and wineries (Grinzing). I thoroughly recommend it.

The building above is the Hofburg, once the main palace of the emperors in the city centre. In 1938 Hitler addressed the people of Vienna from the balcony, having just annexed Austria.

schoenbrunn

The Habsburgs eventually spent much of their time in the Schönbrunn Palace, above. It is a grand complex of buildings, designed to rival Versailles. I was able to attend a concert in the Orangerie.

Of course, no serious-minded visitor to Vienna can spend a day or more there without visiting the Hotel Sacher.

sacher

This is the home of the famous Sacher Torte, a chocolate cake that everybody needs to try at least once.

Apart from Vienna, I also visited some rather beautiful nearby towns, including Baden bei Wien. In Baden, the town in which the last but one Habsburg Kaiser, Franz Josef, spent much of his time, there is a particularly striking war memorial, with the inscription ‘Vater, ich rufe Dich‘ (‘Father, I implore you’).

vaterichrufedich3

And I also crossed the border into Hungary, visiting another town favoured by the Habsburgs, Ödenburg (now called Sopron). It is also rather beautiful, but nevertheless still carries the signs of decades of neglect during communism.

oedenburg2

Throughout my week there I felt a strong sense of history, as one cannot really help feeling in much of central Europe. It is an area well worth a visit.

My research says they’re out to get me

June 22, 2015

Here’s the kind of thing I really enjoy. According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Russians are demanding an international inquiry on the NASA moon landings, because as we all know these never happened and were merely staged for gullible western television audiences. We know that because the the US flag planted by Neil Armstrong fluttered in a non-existent wind, there were clearly discernible studio lights, the ‘moon rock’ samples have disappeared: you get the idea.

It didn’t take the Russians to activate this particular conspiracy theory, it’s been around for years. In fact, the number of such theories is impressive, and there’s one to subvert every obvious historical fact you ever thought of. Napoleon was in fact a woman. The Second World War was just a staged show put up by international bankers. Aliens have landed all ver the planet and various secret agencies have suppressed the news. Elvis never died (well, that one’s credible). Princess Diana was murdered. The CIA staged the 9/11 attacks. You probably have your own favourite one.

But almost as resilient as the conspiracy theories are the theories about conspiracy theories. Earlier this year the University of Miami hosted a conference about the topic, with 36 presentations on various aspects of the phenomenon. The Leverhulme Tust and the University of Cambridge have conspired – oops, collaborated – on a project about conspiracy and democracy, with an eerily strange website. Overall, conspiracy theorists are thought to use different neurological methods of processing information from the rest of us, and the impact of their published suspicions can be significant: apparently most people believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

For myself, I find it really suspicious that the Miami conference was ‘not open to the public due to both space and catering considerations’. Really? Do they think we’re stupid?