historical stuff by Gareth Millward

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What is history?

22/10/2014

E.H. Carr covered this a while back. So there’s no need for an extended essay. However, The Internet linked me to an interesting piece in New York about the perils of predicting how the present will sit in the history of the future.

The fact is that we can’t write history while we’re in it — not even that first draft of history that journalists aspire to write. While 2014 may have a shot at eternal infamy, our myopia and narcissism encourage us to discount the possibility that this year could be merely an inconsequential speed bump on the way to some greater catastrophe or unexpected nirvana. This was brought home to me when, in a quest for both a distraction from and a perspective on our current run of dreadful news, I revisited 1964, the vintage American year that has been serving as an unofficial foil, if not antidote, to 2014.

Frank Rich, ‘Nothing you think matters today will matter the same way tomorrow‘, New York, 21 October 2014, 8.00am EST (accessed 22 October 2014, 10.40am BST).

Immediately, a couple of things jump out. The first being that “we can’t write history while we’re in it”. The author, Frank Rich, might have a point here. However, there’s a question over when history ends and the present begins. There’s a strong case to be made that what happened this morning is already in the past, and therefore the realm of history. My own work falls into the domain of “Contemporary History”, which can often include analyses that take into account events yet to play out.

Second, the idea of an “inconsequential speed bump”. Is history “one fucking thing after another”? A series of events, marking the ebb and flow of human evolution? While steering away from the word that makes historians go into anaphylactic shock – progress1- there is a tacit idea that history is somehow the story of how we got from A to B; how some things got better and other things got worse; but ultimately it’s the story of how things that exist today came to be. That isn’t, necessarily, how historians approach their subject. Change over time is often an important concept in giving meaning and context to our work, but we often write about things and people that don’t exist today. Or if some remnant of them does, we make it very explicit that the “feminism” of the 1890s was a very different beast to the one of the 1990s – and that to attempt to trace a hard lineage from one to the other would be to impose presentist values of what “feminism” “really” “is”.2

Ultimately, this is the point we definitely agree on. It is certainly difficult to “write history while we’re in it”. History relies on context. It is the contextualisation of the past which allows us to even begin to understand events and the lives of people who lived there. That context might include what happened before and what would happen after – but this is not always so. Sometimes it will require greater understanding of the cultural, social and political situation and how it may have impacted upon our subject matter. Sometimes it will require rejecting presentist labels and attempting to redefine certain concepts using the values of those who would have understood them at the time.3 These things are incredibly hard to do when one has an incomplete set of sources (the events haven’t finished yet), or one is far to close to the subject matter at hand to be able to take a step back and reinterpret this history with a different conceptual framework.

As the piece shows, reading back to the 1960s to try and explain the present’s exceptionalism (in this case, how exceptionally bad today is), is just terrible history. It has to ignore so much of the context of the time that it risks painting an unrealistic picture of our society. Unfortunately, it is a common reaction to troubling times. The rise of UKIP in Britain has relied upon nostalgic visions of a past society in which England benignly ruled the Commonwealth, marriages lasted forever, and people knew their roles in life. This was never the case. Any historian of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries – and in that I include “anyone who has read a book” – can tell you what twaddle this vision is. But it resonates as an easy explanation for the supposed problems of the present, and a template for a better future. That we lack the tools as a society to question it says a lot about the state of history education in this country. We might teach kids facts, but we’re certainly not teaching them how to weight and evaluate evidence. I believe scientists are having a similar whinge right now.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid about beginning to write histories of the present. Our problems usually stem from trying to “predict the future” or placing today in the grand chronology of stuff what happened. By using historical context to place some of the trends, events and people of the recent past within a larger explanatory framework of human activity, we’re just doing our jobs. And showing how today is just as historically constructed as the past.

  1. The glossary entry on “Progress” explains some of my misgivings about the term.
  2. Yes. The scare quotes are necessary… ahem.
  3. Ethnography.
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Help for Heroes are political – don’t pretend otherwise

25/09/2014

In what is becoming a depressing series of “charity is political, and if you pretend otherwise you’re living under a rock“, The Sun is using Help for Heroes wristbands to attack the leader of the Labour Party.

If you don’t know about Help for Heroes, they are a charity that provides support for armed forces veterans. Unlike the older British Legion, they have been much more willing and able to use social media and populist support for the military to further their cause. During the late 2000s and early 2010s, they were particularly high-profile, riding a wave of concern over the memory of World War Vets and the conditions to which combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan were being subjected.

Some of this was laudable. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) was accused of regularly sending troops into battle with sub-standard equipment. It was also at a time when general public opinion was beginning to doubt the point or legitimacy of campaigns in the Middle East.

But there was, and still is, something unsettling about Help for Heroes from a political perspective. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the existence of such charities can often be an excuse for the government to shirk its responsibilities. There has long been a campaign – a justified one – that the government should provide adequate support for people leaving the army. Medical and psychological care is, frankly, abysmal; and war pensions and benefits are often sub-par. This is all stuff that should be factored into the government’s budget. If you can’t afford to look after veterans, you can’t afford to go to war. Help for Heroes, despite its attempts to draw attention to this, can often be seen as a sticking plaster. While they keep doing the MOD’s work, why should the MOD or Treasury step in?

Worse, they have been literally doing the MOD’s work. BBC’s Newsnight ran a report accusing the charity of spending it’s money on government buildings and facilities and not on helping veterans and soldiers directly. Help for Heroes strenuously defended themselves, and the BBC’s complaints procedure agreed that their report had lacked editorial balance. But the fact remained that there was a clear relationship between government and the charity. To pretend otherwise – or to pretend that they are somehow apolitical – is nonsense.

And then there was the more sinister side of stirring up populist fervour for “our lads”. Britain has always had, compared to many other countries, a very positive view of the army. Even when individual wars have been opposed, the general narrative is that the soldiers themselves are brave individuals, risking their lives for our freedom. You can – for the most part – grumble about war itself. But the soldiers are untouchable. You don’t talk badly about veterans or soldiers without immediately offending large sections of the British public.

There are a number of historical reasons for it. First, our army tended to win the conflicts it fought in. Second, it very rarely turned its guns on its own people (though the Indians, Irish, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians might want to argue with me on that one). Third, as a democratic nation, our army is often seen as a servant of the people, not as the enforcement platoon of the ruling classes. (The US has a similar relationship with its troops, though arguably with an even less critical gaze.)

I’m not going to try to overturn this view. It’s one, rightly or wrongly, I mostly buy into myself. But I am going to tie this to something which Help for Heroes has helped to create over recent years, and which should completely destroy the idea that these sorts of charities are apolitical. The hysteria over the poppy.

For those outside the British Isles, the British Legion produces millions of paper/plastic poppies every year in the lead up to Armistice Day – the commemoration of the end of World War One on 11th November. Everybody (or almost everybody) on British TV will be wearing one in October and November. It is meant to be a solemn, tasteful and low-key reminder of a generation of men who were slaughtered because of the whims of the ruling classes. And it represents everybody – repeat, everyone – who has lost their lives in conflict.

Over recent years, however, Help for Heroes and their ilk have consciously whipped up the poppy as a symbol of Britishness in the face of… well, who knows. Politically correct lefty feminist lesbian Romanian health and safety inspector censorship politicians, perhaps? As time has gone on, poppies have become more distasteful (and the British Legion has become complicit in this too). It culminated (for me) with the horrendous debacle over whether the English soccer team should be allowed to wear the poppy on its shirt.

Oh, the English. Unable to see how the poppy was a political symbol (how could the commemoration of fallen soldiers possibly be political) outrage was raged out across the internet. The English Defence League (see: fascist) led protests. The whole thing was highly distasteful. England had gone nigh-on 100 years without needing to wear a poppy on its shirt. But it needed to in a political climate in which outward shows of doing the right thing had become more important than actually doing it. Help for Heroes, amongst others, had helped create this storm.

So, to return to The Sun. So what if Milliband doesn’t back your campaign? One doesn’t need a bracelet – presumably a campaign which will directly compete with the British Legion’s poppy appeal this autumn – to show commemoration for the fallen. Milliband’s a Jewish public figure, whose dad fled the Nazis. I think he knows what war can do.

If Milliband has committed a faux pas by not supporting Help for Heroes, we should be worried. Because while not being involved might be seen as a political act, do not for a second think that supporting it is apolitical. I get the feeling that many in this country think the opposite. And that should worry us all, not just historians of charity.

We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do…
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That guy is just the worst. The. Worst, you guys…

17/09/2014

The Independent ran a piece this week on whether David Cameron risked becoming the worst prime minister of all time. Like, in forever, guys. Srsly.

Now, I sort of think this isn’t a bad little game to play. Thinking back over the Prime Ministers you remembered, the ones you studied – the stories you vaguely remember from history class or grainy documentaries. For instance, was Anthony Eden the worst ever for the whole Suez “snafu”? Or does Spencer Percival get the gong for “Prime Minister least able to leave office without a bullet through his chest“. Difficult, hard-hitting questions. And we historians aren’t afraid to shy away from them.

The problem is, while academics half-mockingly weigh up an impossible-to-even-begin-to-quantify conundrum, some people take it a bit… well… more seriously. And without any real recourse to historical method or evidence will blindly throw around accusations about how terrible a Prime Minister was based on not very much at all.

However, the Americans seem to take this sort of thing a little more seriously. There is actually a “Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States” page on Wikipedia. And it’s backed up with data from C-SPAN, ABC, Gallup and more.

They seem to have given the middle finger to Warren G. Harding, though based on his love letters that might not surprise many of you.

So, we could look at PMs and try to rank them. What might we use? Popular defeat at the following election (indicating a terrible approval rating)? Losing a war? Getting involved in unnecessary conflict? Internal rebellion? A lack of concrete legislative victories? Getting shot? (OK, OK, I’ll lay off Perceval…)

It’s virtually impossible, especially for a twentieth-century historian with a self-professed ignorance of any Prime Ministers before 1939.1 So, while the article itself is worth a read, I think, the comments below the line offer some serious history porn. That seedy side of the internet where logic is damned and you can just go all out with the complete lack of disciplinary rigour. Be honest. You love that stuff really.

And so:2

What do you mean by about to become the worst PM? he already is in the majority of peoples minds.

Drole. Very drole. Not very original, given the variations on this particular theme, but an interesting premise. What Cameron has done so far makes him the worst PM ever?

He didn’t win the General Election outright against a very unpopular Labour government, but to be fair he did that while an MP and not a PM. The order of the letters is important. Since then, living standards (if measured in terms of the growth in real wages) have stagnated, the worst such dip since before man landed on the moon. Then there’s the whole unpleasantness over education, social security reform, and not having enough security for the Olympics.

But is any of that worse than, say, failing to secure Irish Home Rule (Gladstone, you muppet)? Or having your army mow down civilians (the Peterloo masacre – cheers, Liverpool)? Perhaps perspective is in order. Whatever your personal views on Cameron, up to now he’s just been pretty bad. But worst? That’s hyperbolic.

However, were he to lose Scotland, he’s certainly in the title hunt. Stay tuned.

Get real you bunch of Lefties Gordon Brown was the worst PM ever.

You talkin’ to me? Probably. The idea of Brown being the worst ever is even more ludicrous than thinking Cameron is. Yes, the world crash happened on his watch, but the clue is in the title – world. As Chancellor and PM, Brown’s oversight of the financial sector was as poor as everyone else’s. Doesn’t excuse it, but it does contextualises it. Besides – despite that, the economy was recovering when he left, and he could (or at least his party could) have formed a coalition with the minority parties. If he’s the worst ever, how come the opposition didn’t win outright? Next.

Has this numbskull never heard of Tony Blair????????

The most ruinous traitor the English have ever had to survive!!!!!

Cameron is a wet fart liberal, but never in Bliars league!!!!!

Strong words. Strong words from a strange man.

Blair will be forever synonymous with Iraq. And yet despite that he won three elections by landslides, presided over the longest period of continuous economic growth in British history, and became the longest serving Prime Minister of the twenty-first century (OK, that last one might have been by default). Still, he is perhaps the best example of a successful Labour Prime Minister.

Then there was the introduction of the minimum wage, the human rights act, strengthening of equalities legislation, the Northern Ireland peace process.

Once again – you might not care for the man. You might think he did horrific things. You may think he sold the soul of the Labour Party. But the worst Prime Minister ever? Mebbe not…

The reason all prime ministers’ careers end in failure is simple. They’re all cr*p.

This internet comment has it all. Censoring mild cursing. Painting all politicians with the same brush. Yes folks, Clement Attlee, who created the welfare state; and Winston Churchill who won the Second World War. Both those men are as fundamentally flawed (and, by association, as great as) as Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan, David Lloyd-George, Benjamin Disraeli, Ramsay Macdonald and Ted Heath.

This may well be the best conclusion, since we don’t have to do any historical research to verify it. Since they’re all shite, they all win. It’s like one of those sports days the Daily Mail hates.

You obviously cannot remember Thatcher.

Well, this one’s a twofer. Not only does it imply that memory is the key component in determining the worst ever (note: no history before c. 1910), it also plays the Maggie T card. Who was, as we all know, the worst/greatest heroine/traitor this glorious nation/run down sack of shit the world/Europe has ever seen/smelled.3

Not going to touch this with a ten foot barge pole. Except to say anyone who wins three consecutive elections, reforms the role of the state and became the first ever PM without a Y chromosome4 cannot be the worst ever. Sorry.

What utter nonsense. This paper is becoming unreadable.

Fair point. And this blog is going the same way. Apologies. I will return to “actual history” at some point in the near future.

By the way – if you have any nominations for the worst PM ever, do let me know by e-mail or in the comments section. The sillier the better.
  1. So much so, in fact, that I named all of my dwarves in Dwarf Fortress after PMs once, just so I could at least recognise the names.
  2. Names removed to protect the – well, let’s call them innocent.
  3. Delete as applicable.
  4. A fact both a) not verified by actual medical tests and b) reinforces the patriarchy’s binary, biologically deterministic views on gender politics.
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Charity is politics – only English “common sense” pretends otherwise

10/09/2014

The claim by Brooks Newmark that charities should stick to knitting rather than politics was greeted with some rather amusing responses. But it betrayed two deeper elements of English politics. First, conservative (small c) Englishmen believe so uncritically that charity is somehow a neutral, apolitical beast. And second, a complete lack of understanding about the history of voluntarism in this country.

In an otherwise typically pompous and Self-righteous piece on language, Will Self made an important point about the English middle classes:

Orwell’s ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman – an Englishman such as himself.

It’s by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it’s an ideology all the same.

Charity is one of those things that falls under “common sense”. Giving is good. But somehow this private act, conducted by associations of individuals in public, should remain outside the world of politics. We don’t even like it when charities get too close to business. Charities – that invisible hand of capitalism – are supposed to be this nation’s uncorrupted soul. Our apology for all that… unpleasantness.

Historically, this makes no sense. Changes in technology have given charitable organisation the ability to reach far more people than before. The rise of state provision in welfare and health has changed the domains in which charities operate. Without an element of professionalisation, it would be impossible for many organisations to operate; and since their work cannot happen without some state or business involvement, it is ridiculous to think they shouldn’t comment upon or try to steer government policy.

Larger national charities have always attempted to influence Whitehall and Westminster, but since the second world war there have been far more active lobby groups. Organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disablement Income Group worked to improve the lives of people living in poverty. Their currency, however, was expertise. And while they raised significant sums to make a real difference on the ground, their real skill came in giving politicians the evidence and motivation to change government policy.

CPAG and DIG were directly involved in helping the DHSS of the 1960s and 1970s formulate the specifics of new policies. Today, Royal Commissions and government enquiries could not function without voluntary-sector input. It’s not just that these group lobby – the government requires them to do so.

Moreover, since the 1970s many have become reliant upon government grants (central and local) to survive. The economic downturn, combined with the hiving off of central services to third parties means that charities have become more and more intertwined with government policy. This has been true of governments of both hues. It seems absurd to ask those involved in providing state services to refrain from comment on said services.

What we have seen, however, is that many personalities in this government do not take criticism well. The Prime Minister has struggled to move “difficult” people on for fear that they might try to oust him, or that it would look like a damaging volte face. A lack of a majority means he has few options. And, indeed, the fact that only a minority of people actually voted for his party at the last election (a growing problem for both Labour and Conservatives with the rise of small parties and declining turnout) means that the majority of people are likely to take issue with his policies. Silencing a sector which has become an integral part of British social policy isn’t going to fix that.

Charity has never been apolitical. It is a political choice when we decide which sections of “the poor” are worthy of our help (veterans? disabled people? homeless?); when we decide what sorts of schools we want to fund (Eton? faith schools? Steiner?); whether to support hospitals or stray cats; global warming or teenage mothers; its all political. To pretend otherwise may be “ineffably English” – but it’s also a lie.

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Indulgences, Charity and Masturbating

06/09/2014

Good. I have your attention.

There was an interesting article on VICE this week about “The Fappening”. For those who don’t know what that is, congratulations – you have managed to avoid yet another depressing internet story of misogyny and internet trolls. But please now allow me to disabuse you of your innocence.

The Fappening is a mix of “The Happening” (a horror film by M Night Shyamalan, rated 17% on Rotten Tomatoes) and “fap” meaning… well, check the title of this piece.

It refers to the leaked pictures of celebrities which were stolen by hackers and uploaded to the internet. But then things got weird(er). As Allegra Ringo, author of the VICE piece explains:

Within hours of the photos leaking, a subreddit devoted entirely to these nude photos had not only sprung up, but acquired over 100,000 subscribers. As of this writing, the subreddit had grown to over 140,000 subscribers. In many ways, these connoisseurs of fapping are behaving in ways you’d expect them to. They’re posting tons of celebrity nudes, desperately asking for verification on others, and doing the math on how much jizz has been expelled as a result of the celebrity photo leak. But these math-and-jizz-loving Redditors also have a surprising goal: to raise money for charity, and in the process, improve Reddit’s public image.

Do read the rest of the article, if only for fantastic neologisms such as “fappuccinos” and “fappingly”. Anyway, the interesting thing is that once the charities found out where the money had cum from, they declined it. It would appear that one cannot buy salvation for one’s crimes. Or something.

This is a long-standing issue with charity and donation. For many rich(er) people, public giving has often been a way of showing contrition, improving one’s image or as a form of “giving back” to a community. “Indulgences” in the medieval Catholic Church, for example, allowed people to donate significant sums to the Church in exchange for forgiveness from sin or bad behaviour.

Simple Google searches for “charity, donation, apology” reveal a number of organisations and people who have made a mea culpa by giving. Heat, for example, apologised to Katie Price by donating to a disability charity after mocking her disabled son.

Then there are the many industrialists in Georgian and Victorian England who presided over the slums and poverty of urban Britain but gave significant sums to erect public libraries, hospitals, mental health institutions and museums.

Of course, not all public giving is necessarily egotistical or an effort to right past wrongs. If nobody gave publicly, it is difficult to imagine how many charities would be able to “raise awareness” of their causes so effectively. Whatever one’s views on the Ice Bucket Challenge, it has certainly been an effective fund raiser, and at least a decent proportion of those involved will have learnt a little bit about motor neurone disease.

By the same token, there is a belief in society on some level that donation to charity is somehow unequivocally “good”. Regardless of cynicism about individual cases, there is something altruistic about the act of gift giving which can be used for political or social gain. Bad people don’t donated to charity.

It causes problems for charities too. They know that part of their allure is their ability to make people feel better about themselves, and (whether they want to admit it or not) they know that others use them to make themselves look better in the eyes of their peers. That is why it is often very interesting to see when charities actually say “no”, especially in times of economic restraint.

Historians of charity and voluntary action deal with these issues constantly. Just not necessarily with so much naked Jennifer Lawrence. The lack of neutrality in charitable donation is something we must always be aware of, while being careful not to descend into nihilistic cynicism. Charities can do a lot of good; but they are often inextricably linked to people who do a lot of the opposite.

Image from Wikicommons
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