Saturday, 13 August 2011

David Starkey has no idea what he is talking about, and no one should pay him any heed

*Ahem* Apologies for lack of bloggery, there were some... things I had to take care of.

Actually I thought about blogging about the riots down south (Newcastle has been spared for now), but I found the whole thing very depressing. Not just the riots themselves, the the witless bellends who went on the telly to blame the cuts and the Poles, as if it was a legitimate protest and not just a glorified mass-mugging; but also the revelation that virtually everyone else in the country is a closet Mail-reader who wanted to cut benefits to some of the worst off in society, bring back national service, give the police licence to unmask anyone they deem a threat and disrupt social networks, the general kind of illiberal shittery we condemn in Middle Eastern despots.

In the end I had to give up, since my feelings have been better articulated by others. and I've actually summed up much of my feelings in one paragraph anyway. But since renowned Tudorphile David Starkey has decided to stick his ill-suited oar into the dirtied waters of debate surrounding the riots, I feel obligated to respond: I wouldn't put up with this shit from Ferguson: why should Starkey be any different?

I'm not going to spend much time dignifying Starkey's ridiculous comments by disputing them: it should be manifestly obvious to all concerned that his views are simplistic and ill-informed at best. Deliberately invoking Enoch Powell was so patently daft that it makes me wonder if Starkey is deliberately goading outrage: why else would he bring up a name so loved by the far-right, so indelibly linked with hatred and tolerance, and yet so thoroughly discredited for painting an outlandish and, as it turns out, completely inaccurate vision of the future?

I think what he meant to say, albeit in as foolish and offensive a manner possible, was that youth culture 1. has been heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean strands and 2. glorified violence, both of which are fair (though debatable) statements in their own right. But he also went further by implying causation, that it is the influence of black culture that has inspired the glorification of violence- in effect, that black culture is inherently violent. This is a dull and tedious stereotype that I've no doubt that a man in his sixties of conservative persuasion has no difficulty believing. Suffice to say that I suspect Dr Starkey has had basically zero interaction with black (or indeed urban culture) besides what he sees through the distorted lens of the conservative press: an endless tirade of dark-skinned rappa-gangsters showing off bullet wounds, singing stuffy old songs about the buttocks and generally posing in warehouses, boasting like Celtic chieftains about how very dangerous they are. Starkey is working on a logical fallacy, that "black" equals "urban", and that "urban" equals "violent". It's an easy trap to fall into, and one that requires absolutely zero critical thinking: even a little bit of thought would have revealed to Starkey 1. that so-called "black culture" is not homogeneous, and that it includes such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Benjamin Sisko and 2. that the pastiche of urban thuggery Starkey has bought wholesale is a construct not only of Fideo Cent and Snoopy Dog, but of their non-black contemporaries like Eminem, Dappy and, um, Vanilla Ice, in addition to a dozen other sources that are wholly unrelated to black culture, like the cro-magnon exploits of footballers, the tabloid obsession with train-wreck celebrities and easy access to cheap alcohol brewed by the black monks. Yet Starkey seems in no hurry to suggest that the Rule of St Benedict is responsible for the London riots.

The problem with David Starkey as it was with Ferguson, is raging egomania. Good historians don't make television as good as bad historians do, because they have to accept that their views are subjective and fallible, whereas bad historians can arm themselves with the indefatigable, photogenic confidence of someone who knows they are right (but usually isn't). Neither Starkey's PhD nor his appearance on terrestrial television makes him qualified to comment on politics or sociology. The basic logic here seems to be that academic=smart, and that smart=qualified to mouth off on any damn subject under the sun. It's a strange real-life humanities version of the way fictional scientists like Emmet Brown or Tony Stark or Robotnik are masters of every scientific discipline under the sun, no matter how divorced from their core discipline. One would think that if Newsnight needed an actual rent-a-quote racist, they would have an actual sociologist on standby without resorting to someone who's primary interest is in the sex life of a fat men centuries dead.

The fact that David Starkey is a racist doesn't surprise me, really: the man has already shown himself to be a hateful sexist when he argued that history was being ruined by women turning it into a giant soap opera that focused unduly on Henry VIII's love life, a statement that is not only manifestly untrue and profoundly unhelpful (since any approach to history that comes from sources other than middle-aged white dudes like Starkey and my self is valuable and welcomed), but is also a tad hypocritical: a man who's entire career has revolved around Henry VIII, who has published numerous books and TV series about Henry VIII (including one that was even named The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and who was a consultant on renowned sexorama The Tudors cannot turn around and say that someone else is obsessed with Henry VIII's dick and where he put it.

Women! Know your limits! Look what you've turned history into!

If the sexism seems irrelevant at this moment, it isn't: the point I'm trying to make is that David Starkey is a hateful little publicity hound who has no idea what he is talking about (unless it's about Anne Boleyn's favourite position), and that we should all just ignore him. These are dangerous times: community tensions run high, and the public mood is the ugliest I have ever seen it in years. Already Starkey's unhelpful comments have been taken as a rallying cry for Stormfront, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the EDL used his comments as intellectual ammunition if they ever learn how to read. The last thing we need is for someone intelligent and knowledgeable to give the racists credibility. Let's not pretend that David Starkey is that person.

Edit: inevitable as the tides, some fools have come out to suggest that Starkey is correct and totally not racist, and absolutely did not say that black culture is violent and thuggish even though that's exactly what he said. There's an article on Five Chinese Crackers refuting it with far more aplomb than I could manage. There's also a brilliant analysis by Nathaniel Tapley outlining Starkey's failures as a talking head.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Phillip Davies is a despicable coward, and not just for the obvious reasons

I think we can all agree that it's a pretty shitty thing to suggest that disabled people should ask for less in order to secure employment. It's totally backward thinking: society should be tackling the prejudices that disabled people face, rather than seeing them as a cut-rate Tesco-value version of "real" employees. It is such a blatantly offensive and shameful thing to suggest that even Phillip Davies' own party has distanced itself from his comments, so we might hope that his future career as an MP is now likely to be a short one.

But I'm not sure his comments are really about disabled people. I think it's about the minimum wage.

Now, the minimum wage is something of a scam, since when it was introduced it was accompanied by a loss of benefits that actually meant those receiving it actually had less money prior to its introduction. That is not the point: I think that most reasonably minded people would now agree that the institution of the minimum wage- the concept that there is a minimum standard of income that should be provided to all employees to insure an acceptable standard of living- is fundamentally a sound idea.

Some Tory commentators might raise objections about the implementation, and may even be opposed to the principle. That's not unreasonable in itself, though it is a bit uncharitable. Today's comments suggest Phillip Davies is one of those opposed to the minimum wage, and that today's statement is meant as a direct challenge to it.

If one Sets aside the discussion about disability in particular, one could apply his suggestion more broadly and claim that to the able-bodied unemployed would also be better served by agreeing to work for a reduced wage. And if employers know that jobseekers are prepared to work for a reduced wage, then there is no motivation for them to stick to the national standard. They could even set their own, sub-par, wage, and the jobseeker would be forced to either accept the reduced wage or look elsewhere.

This is a worst-case scenario I have devised for rhetorical effect, a Dickensian dystopia where all employees are hired and fired by the day for a pittance insufficient to feed their starving children. After all, the minimum age is barely a decade old. But it does reflect the ideal of certain economic conservatives to do away with the minimum wage in order to encourage competitive business practices, even at the expense of the average standard of living.

There are therefore two possible explanations behind Davies' statement. The first is that he is simply an idiot, so out of touch with both popular mood and the realities of life on the dole that his perspective has been warped. In his eyes, people should be grateful that they have a job at all. He might earnestly believe he is doing them a favour by standing by standing up for the little man's right to be treated like shit. If that is so, then his plan seems to have backfired spectacularly

The second explanation is that he is simply a Tory dickhole who wants a job market where employers can set any price they want, and rely on the fact that there will always be someone desperate enough to apply. In this scenario the mention of disability is a smokescreen, that allows him to present his views as if they were shared by the unfortunate minority that he has decided to champion whilst claiming the moral high-ground against those wicked lefties who would rather the disabled were unemployed before they sacrificed their minimum wage sacred cow. His Twitter feed suggests he is indeed using the issue of disability to defend his views. That would make him a coward as well as an asshat who uses the vulnerability of the disabled to disguise an attack on the unemployed in general.

Davies might well be deluded enough to believe he speaks for the vulnerable in society. If that is so, we can hope that the overwhelmingly negative response to his stupid statement jolts him out of his fantasy. But I suspect it's far more likely that he honestly believes there people should be grateful to receive less than their peers for doing the same work.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

My thoughts on Nadine's Dorries bonkers legislation, and a morality tale about a man and his penis...

Fair warning: this post is probably NSFW. Unless you have a very interesting job.

So this is a huge pile of bollocks.

I’ve mentioned in the past that sex education (or the lack thereof) in Britain is of huge personal concern to me, but before I go into why the coalition policies in this field are bullshit I should probably reiterate my personal experience with its failings. I offer my apologies to anyone who has already heard this story, and a warning to those of a delicate disposition that it will include a fairly detailed description of my penis.

Anyone still reading? Alright then…

When I was a young(er) man of twenty-one summers, I discovered that my foreskin didn’t retract properly, particularly when erect (a condition referred to in fancy Greek-talk as phimosis [NSFW!!!]). I was still a virgin at the time, and was informed by a surgeon with entirely too much money that there was a danger that my foreskin could tear if I engaged in sexual intercourse, which is generally something to avoid, or so I am told. It also meant that condoms wouldn’t fit me correctly, and that the head of my penis would be extremely vulnerable if it were to become exposed. The upshot of this is that I needed to have a circumcision.

The operation itself was quick, but in the aftermath I’m sure you could appreciate I was in a certain (but manageable) degree of pain for a period of weeks. I also had to have the operation performed privately, since I was still at and it would have been disruptive to myself and to others if the issue were not resolved swiftly. Consequently it was not cheap, and I have never been more grateful to my mother than when she agreed to pay the frankly exorbitant fee for an operation a good rabbi would have performed for free (I was slightly more concerned to discover my mum had also googled “self-circumcision” on her desktop, mind).

Now this is not a procedure I would have wished upon anyone without good religious or medical reason. There’s a reason Jewish and Muslim boys are circumcised at a young age, so that (1) they don’t have any memory of the procedure and (2) any scarring is less likely to be permanent, as mine was (and is). As with any surgery there are risks, and had it not been medically necessary I do not think I would have undergone the procedure in a thousand years.

But I did need it, and the truth is that it would have been best had I had it at a young age. It would have probably been asking a bit much of the poor (Catholic) priest who baptised me to have lopped off part of my dick whilst I was naked anyway, but certainly it should, ideally, have been dealt with at the onset of my adolescence. It wasn’t, and though I am relieved to report that my undercarriage now works fine (as far as I know), there is still some rather unsightly scarring that might have been avoided had I received the procedure when I should have.

The point of this unavoidably explicit story is this: why did I not discover there was something wrong with me until I was an adult, when it should have been reported years earlier? Why was it that I had to discover this sensitive detail from someone else (whom I shall not name, but to whom I shall be forever grateful for their delicate sympathy), instead of learning it for myself, which would have meant considerably less embarrassment.

The answer is simple: no one had ever told me- let alone showed me- what an erect penis was supposed to look like.

I’m sure it seems ridiculous that an adult male had no idea how his penis was supposed to work. Honestly, I find it a little preposterous myself with hindsight. I am not a stupid person. Well, I am, in many ways, but I’m not an ignorant person. I pride myself on knowing things, I hate not being knowledgeable about anything. The idea that I couldn’t have known what a dick was supposed to look like is, quite frankly, laughable.

Nonetheless, it is true: I simply didn’t realise there was anything wrong with me. As far as I knew, everyone’s penis was the same: the foreskin wasn’t meant to retract, but was meant to hug the head of the penis like bacon around a Christmas chipolata. You can imagine that I had some very strange ideas about what circumcision actually involved: let’s just say I pitied the Jewish boys at school and leave it at that.

Here’s the bit where I Blame Society For My Misfortune: the reason I thought my condition was the norm was because no one had told me otherwise. Not once in two decades had anyone ever thought fit to tell me that the foreskin is meant to retract behind the head of the penis. Why would they? But the thing that gets to me is that I never had the opportunity to discover that something was wrong with me. I was taught about sex primarily by my mother, who was always open, direct and honest, but I’m sure you can appreciate there were subjects I dare not broach with her. My father had died when I was thirteen, so I was perhaps lacking a male figure with whom I could converse on such matters, but even had he lived I can’t imagine bringing the subject up with him. My “official” education on the subject consisted primarily of old men at school showing clinical videos about the differences between men and women, without ever actually showing sexual intercourse in practice. My unofficial education… well, I grew up in the nineties. There were plenty of exciting sensual delights on Channel 5 in those carefree days, but it was forbidden to show a man with an erection on television, and in an age before broadband, actual pornography was not as accessible to curious teenage minds as it is now.

The closest I ever saw to an actual stiffy was a terrible sex-ed video in RE at the age of fifteen in which a thermal image of a semi-erect penis was slowly revealed to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. I am seriously not making this up.* The first and only time I have seen an erection that wasn’t may own, and it was presented in fuzzy Technicolour on a tiny monitor with exclamations of the Rapture in the background. How the hell was I going to learn anything from that?

Anyway, to sum up the key points of my rambling, I earnestly believe that British sex education let me down. I feel that a culture in which middle-aged men in tweed suits nervously explain to curious teens that they shouldn’t ever have sex ever or they will get pregnant and die is the wrong approach. I feel that there is a culture of ignorance that permeates traditional sex education, where people are barely given enough information to propagate the species, let alone emerge from their first experience with their sanity and their self-respect intact. I believe there is a tendency to treat sexual activity as shameful, to present sexually active people as immoral even whilst society places pressure on them to be sexually active as soon as possible. I believe that ignorance helps nobody, that keeping information from young people and failing to deal with their concerns seriously fucks them up, emotionally and physically, and is a tantamount to a form of abuse that will stay with them the rest of their lives. I believe my own experience is the thin end of the wedge: I was lucky to have my problem eventually solved. There are many thousands of people who will face far greater sexual problems that will not be so fortunate. I believe that bad sex education does a greater disservice to the young than people realise.

The reason I have presented this rather personal confession is to highlight the reasons why I believe that good sex education is absolutely vital to ensure the physical and psychological wellbeing of future generations of adults. I also want to stress just how flawed this legislation is, and why I believe that Nadine Dorries is a dangerous cunt.

It is because of people like Dorries that the culture of embarrassed ignorance permeates British society at every level. It is because of legislation like this that I was kept from learning something I should have learned when I was fourteen.

Put crudely (and somewhat melodramatically): if people like Dorries had their way, I would have literally had my knob ripped off as soon as I had sex for the first time.

Some of the obvious criticisms of her policy- like the fact that it is sexist and won’t work- have already been pointed out, and needn’t be reiterated here. What I will say is that abstinence is not the answer. I’m not opposed to abstinence per se, nor am I opposed to empowering women to say no to sex (though God knows Nadine Dorries has precisely zero interest in empowering women, judging by her record). I have been largely abstinent myself now for some time (though whether by choice or circumstance, I could not say), and one of the things I find most grating about modern society is it’s constant expectation that sexual activity is the norm and sexual inactivity is somehow freakishly aberrant, a view perpetuated by trendy sitcoms set in New York. In fact, I believe Dorries could go further in her message and extend it to boys, who often face a similar pressure- albeit from their peers- to engage in premature sexual activity.

But the fact that Dorries is a neo-Victorian misogynist is tangential to my main point, which is that abstinence training is dangerous. Not only because it manifestly doesn’t work, since telling young people not to have sex is about as effective as telling the rain not to fall or getting Nick Clegg to promise not to raise tuition fees, but because it adds to the confused and contradictory message that young people already receive about sex. They want to have it, but they mustn’t do it. It’s cool to have sex, but it’s cool to say no. I wouldn’t even begin to describe the psychological harm such a policy must have. People are hard-wired to want to have sex all the time, a trait they share with every living creature to have ever walked the earth, apart from pandas and Tories. That doesn’t mean they have to do it all the time, but it certainly doesn’t mean they should be told that they are guilty of some moral failing if they choose to have sex, for whatever reason.

The most sinister aspect of abstinence based “education” is that it is often used as a cheap means for the conservatives (small “c”) in society to avoid proper sex education altogether, and option that must seem particularly attractive to the current government and their policy of cutting funding to anyone without a knighthood. And if I have learned anything from my own experience with sex education, it is that more education is needed, not less. Really, can anyone think of any aspect of human endeavour where more information about a topic is not immeasurably preferable to less?

The last thing I want is for other people to go through what I had to go through, not least because I imagine their experiences might be much more severe and much more permanent. Denying people education- wilfully leaving them ignorant- is quite possibly one of the worst things they will do. If sex education is replaced with abstinent programs, where will young people learn about sex? From their parents? They might not be willing or comfortably talking about sex with their children. From trendy Channel 4 documentaries? Sure, so long as one is happy that children learn more about how to staple mithril to their fannies than about sex, health or relationships? From pornography, which bears about as much resemblance to the reality of teenage sexual relations as Twilight does? No, the truth is that young people will probably be left on their own to figure what goes where, when they inevitably do have sex, with predictably disastrous consequences.

But more than that, I believe that my experience came about because of a culture of ignorance and embarrassment about sexual health. And I believe that part of the reason I emerged from it healthier is that I learned not to feel embarrassed about it. Rather than hiding the reason why I was off work, I told people the truth, and to a man my co-workers were all sympathetic I talked about my problem. I made jokes about it: my favourite was telling Daily Mail readers I was getting circumcised in order to convert to Islam (the looks of horror on their faces were priceless). The point is that I owned it; I drew strength from it. Far from being a subject of shame and embarrassment, it became a point of pride for me that I has undergone a painful and sensitive experience and emerged the better for it. I felt more confident in my own skin, better able to talk about myself, and my feelings, even about intimately. To this day I still talk about my circumcision more than I really should, even on Twitter and, it would seem, on blogposts that will be read by literally half-dozens of people! I probably shouldn’t. It’s not what one does in polite society. But I honestly think that being honest, open and transparent about this aspect of myself has been immensely beneficial. I want to live in a society where human sexuality is not a big deal, where people are encouraged to talk about their problems so that they can handle them with maturity and optimism, instead of feeling dirty and ashamed of their own bodies or feelings.

Doesn’t it seem healthier to encourage young people to talk more about sex, instead of telling them not to do it? Hell, they’re going to do it no matter what you say, so you might as well ensure the experience is positive, fulfilling and healthy, instead of stigmatising it, just like everything else fun that teenagers like to do.

*It might not have been the Hallelujah chorus, but it was certainly religious and Handel-esque. It was, at any rate, hideously inappropriate.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A ridiculously petty post about the BBC's technology news coverage

Dear BBC: the shittiness of your tech coverage is getting ridiculous…

I love the BBC, and I’ll defend to the hilt from the brain-dead cryptoracists of the Mail and their cronies, but the tech coverage on the BBC news website is really starting to annoy me. Not content to reiterate tech stories roughly two years after they first become relevant unless it is something really like Second Life or Twitter, their coverage of the announcement that Nintendo is working on a new console shows a worrying lack of effort to either research or write it.

The headline declares that “Nintendo announces Wii 2 console” and the very first line claims that “Nintendo has announced it will launch a new version of its Wii console in 2012”.

So far it all seems perfectly simple. Except for the fact that Nintendo hasn’t announced they are making a new Wii.

The actual announcement states that “Nintendo Co., Ltd. Has decided to launch in 2012 a system to succeed the Wii” (emphasis mine). The distinction is important: they haven’t announced a new model of the Wii, or a console bearing the Wii name. They have announced an entirely new console that they intend to succeed the Wii, as the Wii succeeded the Gamecube and the ‘cube succeeded the N64. Although details about the console are currently thin on the ground, rumours suggest that it is extremely un-Wii-ish in nature and is unlikely to share the name (which was, lets face it, a profoundy stupid name).

The BBC story is presenting the new console as an update, in the same way the DSi improved upon the DS or- perhaps more tellingly- in the same manner as Apple updates its products every year. They actually state that “some observers had speculated that the Wii 2 would simply update the existing machine” without actually stating who these anonymous observers were and despite the aforementioned rumours that the next console will not just be a "gimmick" like the Wii.

I know this seems like a petty point- and, in the grand scheme of things, it is- but it just annoys me. It annoys me that Nintendo’s new console is presented as an Apple-esque update without evidence. It annoys me that is called the “Wii 2” even though it hasn’t been named. It annoys me that the “b” in “Xbox” is capitalised despite being used three times in the article, petty as that may sound.

The constant drip-drip of irrelevant, outdated or poorly researched tech articles suggests it is a low priority for the BBC. I can only conclude that whoever they have writing these articles is unfamiliar with the systems they describe or the broader trends in tech news. I know they are facing some pretty stringent cuts, and I know it isn’t the BBC’s job to provide the most in-depth tech coverage. That’s what Wired is far, after all, and its not like there aren’t literally hundreds of blogs and a surfeit of podcasts from which to get the latest videogame news. But I do expect a certain degree of fact checking and accuracy. I’m not a tech expert either, and even I’m noticing the low standard of tech news stories these days. Is it really so hard to believe that no one on the BBC News team plays video games extensively or makes it a point of professionalism to pay attention to game news? I mean, I manage it, and I’m an unemployed history graduate, not a professional journalist!


Monday, 11 April 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Six: All Work and No Facts Makes Niall a Disgrace to Thucydides

In the final episode of Civilisation: Is The West History, Niall Ferguson finally loses the plot completely.

When discussing the last episode I lamented that Ferguson has neglected to cover the role religion played in fuelling the West’s domination of the rest of the world. I suggested that, since he is primarily a financial historian, he might not be interested in the ephemeral minutia of spiritual matters.

It turns out I was wrong, for in this last episode Ferguson finally gets round to describing how religion gave the Western world the self-confidence to impose itself on the rest of the world.

As usual, he makes a dog’s dinner of it.

1. Weber of Lies

Ferguson states that he was raised atheist, but he always felt a certain affinity for Weber’s “Protestant work ethic”, which encouraged Westerners to work hard in the hopes of spiritual rewards, unlike the lazy Papists and those drug-addled Mohammedans that populate his version of non-Western world (or “Resterners,” as he names them, which surely must be an illegal slur). That statement should immediately set off a few alarm bells, not least of how hypocritical it is for him to later condemn Europe as godless and shallow when he himself is not a believer. But it also raises the question why Ferguson is so focused on Protestantism as one of the West’s- *sighs deeply*- “killer apps.” One assumes he was also raised a Ranger’s fan.

Certainly it is consistent with the definition of “the West” that he has hitherto failed to elaborate on: the Protestant sphere happens to overlap with Northern Europe and the Anglosphere but also includes his beloved Prussia. It also includes Scandinavia and parts of Switzerland and the Low Countries, but he never mentions them even though it might help his case. Probably because they are a bit foreign.

Equating the West with Protestantism at least explains why he is so dismissive of South America, which is overwhelmingly Catholic. And it allows him to do what he does best: dismiss non-Western cultures by suggesting they lack the virtues that made the West awesome- in this case suggesting- and, in the case of the Middle East, outright stating that it is lazy as well as ignorant and overly bureaucratic.

Here’s the problem with the Protestant work ethic theory: it’s bollocks. Wikipedia has provided a convenient summary of the criticisms of Weber’s theory, but what is relevant here is that it totally downplays the role of Catholics and their church in establishing Western supremacy. Ferguson may have been raised atheist with Protestant leanings, but I am a humanist raised Catholic, and I can tell him that the Protestant work ethic has nothing on the power of the Catholic guilt complex. Of course, one might argue that the distinction between working in the knowledge one will be rewarded in the hereafter and working to in the fear that failure will leave one consigned to the Inferno is six of one, half a dozen of the over, but the point is that I don’t think Protestants work significantly harder than Catholics. They’re probably just happier about it.

What is relevant is that “Protestantism”- which, incidentally, is a term that covers a broad spectrum of beliefs, some of which differ but a little from Catholicism- has historically been the minority faith in the Western Europe, limited largely to Britain, North America, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany, whereas the Catholic powers have included Spain (the conqueror of most of the Americas), Portugal (the nation that gave the West its dominance of sea trade), France (the most successful non-Anglophone colonial power), Austria (the dominant central European power for most of the modern period) and Italy (the birthplace of the Renaissance). One might also point out that one of the constituent countries of Great Britain at its height- Ireland- remained largely Catholic despite attempts at Protestant colonisation, and that many areas of Britain with significant Irish Catholic immigrant populations- like Liverpool, Jarrow and Ferguson’s own Glasgow- were amongst the centres of industry that fuelled Britain’s global dominance.

To the concert of Europe we may add Russia, which, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, and Turkey, which isn’t Christian but did rule over all denominations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere with remarkable tolerance and famously drew its soldiers from them. We might even add the Papacy itself, since it did at least organise a rather significant experiment in European domination of a non-European populace in the Middle Ages.

We might also add the major non-Western economies of the twentieth century, such as Japan and the Asian Tigers, where Christianity has had a negligible influence. It would be hard to describe the Japanese as lazy, after all.

Finally, in focusing on Protestantism Ferguson overlooks the Jewish contribution to Western civilisation: men like Einstein, Oppenheimer, Kissinger, Friedman (hell, here's the damn list!) who were hardworking, brilliant, and incontrovertibly not Protestant

2. One Nation, Under God

So Ferguson is off to a rocky start in claiming the Protestant work ethic was a “killer app” for the West, since most of the West didn’t have it. As evidence for his ridiculous claim he invents a schism between Europe and the United States, saying the former has lost its way and is now only interested in shopping and pornography, too busy fapping its way into oblivion to realise its end draws near. For this he blames Freud in a bizarre and oddly self-important rant about how psychiatry has made Westerners selfish and godless. A cruel observer might point out that Niall Ferguson is in no position to criticise anyone for being self-absorbed, narcissistic and obsessed with money, but I am of course above such spiteful jibes. Perhaps he is secretly a Scientologist as well as a Ranger’s fan. I shall however point out that his weird Widdecombe-esque critique of “European” society says more about how Ferguson views the British than it does about Europe as a whole, where religion remains an important factor of society. Even in Britain, religious feeling remains strong enough to fuel sectarianism, as we have recently been tragically reminded.

Anyway, Ferguson contrasts godless Europe with pious America (home of the largest pron industry of the world, by the way) by visiting a church in Missouri which has a Christian rock band that reminded me all too much of Metalocaplypse and speaking to a pastor who (of course) is eager to reiterate the idea that religion makes people work harder and become better people.

Now here I must accuse Ferguson of deliberately misleading the audience. He is trying to equate economic prosperity with religious faith, despite the fact that in terms of national GDP the most important areas are a generally on the east and west coasts, where attitudes are more secular and Christianity is less influential, whereas the areas where Christianity is strongest are in what politicians patronisingly call “the heartland,” and tend to be more agrarian and underdeveloped. It is not entirely the case that religiosity is inversely proportional to economic importance- Texas has the second largest economy, for example, though it is also the second largest state. But it is certainly not the case that religious faith has gone hand-in-hand with economic growth.

In fact Protestant faith- and, to be fair, Catholicism- has done much to retard progress in the United States, in the realms of science (by opposing stem-cell research), legal rights (by opposing a woman’s legal right to do what she wants with her body- and in fact by opposing the well-being of women in general), demographics (by opposing birth control), the environment (by denying the link between carbon emissions and climate change) and education (by encouraging creationism be taught in schools alongside or instead of evolution). It also encouraged long, unnecessary and ugly foreign wars that diminished America’s reputation and exposed its weakness. It also barely needs mentioning that it was a Protestant nutter who inflamed the passions of idiots in Afghanistan to kill United Nations personnel by threatening to burn a copy of the Qur'an.

3. FYI, It Was The Franciscans Who Brought Christianity to China

Protestantism might therefore be charitably described as a mixed blessing to America and the West. Where Ferguson really loses touch with reality is when he starts talking about Christianity in China.

Put simply, Ferguson believes the Protestant work ethic is alive and well in China, and he points to a few Chinese businessmen who are Protestant.

Now, the number of Christians in China is disputed, with estimates ranging from 40 million to 100 million. Most are Protestant, but the number of Catholics is likely to be higher than reported, since Catholicism (or at least communion with Rome) is officially banned. What is apparent is that the total number of all Christians in China make up less than 4% of the population, way behind Buddhism, traditional religions and atheism and probably comparable to the number of Muslims, most of whom are concentrated in the west and are ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Hui and Kazakhs. Officially the state is atheist, and it is hard to imagine that Protestants represent a significant presence either among captains of industry, the Communist Party, or the government in general. Ferguson claims that it is possible up to 30% of the Chinese population will be Protestant in thirty years: as far as I know, he has pulled this statistic out of his arse, for there is no convincing evidence to suggest that this is the case.

More to the point, I don’t think you have to make China Protestant to explain its productivity. Ferguson claims that the average Chinese citizen works longer hours than the average Westerner. This is true, but it has nothing to do with religion: it is to do with different working conditions, readily available cheap labour, government-set targets and poor human rights legislation that has allowed dubious work practices like sweatshops and extended working weeks. One would hardly call Foxconn a model of Protestant virtue (or, for that matter, a haven of worker’s rights), but one cannot argue with its output.

Lest we forget, China is officially communist, and communism has always exalted the role of the working man by calling upon him to work longer and harder for the benefit of the people and the state. That might result in terrible working conditions and appalling human rights abuses, but it definitely gets results, as demonstrated by the Soviet Five Year Plans. I don’t want to overstate the case, both because of the failure of programs like the Great Leap Forward and because of the monstrous human suffering it involved, but China’s communist history- and present- surely provides a more immediate and logical explanation for its work ethic than any fictitious Christian influence.

In fact, Ferguson never mentions communism in relation to China. Not once. One assumes he doesn’t want to give Marxism even that much: the possibility that a successful, modern and dynamic economy could possibly owe anything to its communist heritage is clearly so anathema to him he has to invent some bullshit about the Chinese becoming Christian, in one of the most flagrant examples of historical fiction I have ever encountered.

4. "They wouldn't follow him to India..."

Sadly communism is not the only subject that goes unmentioned. The other potential non-Western world powers go curiously unmentioned in this episode- Turkey and Iran (Turan? Irkey?) are once again thrown together to represent the Middle East as if either was in anyway typical, but otherwise the superpowers-in-waiting like Brazil (about 98% Catholic) and India (whose Christian population makes up less than 3% of the population) are nowhere to be seen. In fact, it has only recently dawned on me that Ferguson doesn’t mention India throughout the entire series. I don’t remember him mentioning it in passing, even as part of the British Empire, despite the fact it is surely a model example of the adoption of Western values, the largest liberal democracy on Earth, one of the fastest growing economic and military powers and has nuclear weapons. It even plays cricket! One can only assume he chose to use China and a homogenised Middle East as his principle rival civilisations because Muslims and communists are so much more frightening to his audience of middle class mail-reading pseudo-intellectuals than democratic Hindus.

5. Turns Out The West Isn't History At All

There is more problem with this episode worth mentioning: the end is frankly bizarre- Ferguson starts channelling Savonarola by quoting Revelations and wailing how the West tends to see its destruction everywhere in environmental degradation and economic hardship (and I would like the record to show out that I mentioned millennialism was part of his appeal in the last blog post), where children are not being taught science (which is a bit hypocritical, coming from him) and our greatest weakness is our own loss of self-confidence (again, a bit hypocritical since he has spent six weeks trying to erode that confidence). He concludes by saying the West still has an edge, but he isn’t sure of its place in the future. He states that it has another advantage: the freedom, that he so enjoys, to say what you want, that encourages invention and development. One wonders why he didn’t mention this seventh “killer app before”- presumably Channel 4 were only willing to give him six episodes. It is, in other words, a typical reactionary call to arms, about how our civilisation is fragile but special, with enormous potential but facing enormous threats from lazy and superstitious foreign tyrants. It’s a narrative that has been repeated throughout Western history, from Cato the Elder and Herodotus to Enoch Powell and Frank Miller: the West is special, but we have to be constantly careful those damn foreigners don’t come over and ruin it. Even though they never do.

There are other criticisms to be made, but I think I’ve made my point: the Protestant work ethic is a myth, and Ferguson spends an hour trying to make it seem real. His argument is confused, speculative, grossly oversimplified and in direct contradiction with earlier episodes that extolled the virtues of the scientific rationalism and consumerist society he now condemns in favour of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

6. The Two Killer Apps

In making such a poor argument, Ferguson is at least consistent with the rest of his series. So the time has come to make a final judgement on his series. I think it’s clear that his central claim that the West is “history” is untenable: even he abandons it in the end, and the evidence he has provided for the forthcoming Gotterdammerung is sparse. That the West will face rising competition from the rest of the world is an economic and demographic certainty, but to read in that the downfall of our civilisation is scaremongering for ratings, pure and simple.

When it comes to the role of the “killer apps” themselves, his record is mixed: I agree wholeheartedly with assessment of only two of them- the first two, competition and science. I agree that capitalist competition between states and individuals drove Western domination of trade and industry, and I agree that liberalism and the Enlightenment paved the way for scientific progress that was turned into a profound military edge. Although I agree with his conclusion, I find his argument to be sloppy and full of contradictions.

I don’t agree that property laws were the reason behind Western expansion in Northern America: I believe it was driven by more complicated factors behind emigration from Europe and forced emigration from Africa. I don’t see how his discussion of medicine was relevant, and I don’t see how it is distinct from the conversation about science. I believe consumerism was a by-product and adjunct of the dominance of Western capitalism, not a cause of it. I think the idea of a Protestant work ethic is bullshit, and I find it insulting to the non-conformist contribution to Western civilisation. I believe the reasons for Western dominance are complicated and multifaceted, and not all of them are as glamorous as Ferguson intimates, as I have suggested in the past.

7. Why Niall Ferguson Is (Hopefully!) History

As for the man himself, he has done nothing to convince me he is not a lazy, ignorant and smugly self-satisfied arsehole obsessed with his own celebrity. Were he a financier, a banker or a political pundit I could perhaps live with him, as I have learned to live with so many Tory arseholes, by ignoring him. Unfortunately, he still maintains the pretence that he is a historian, despite the fact he never shows any evidence of knowledge of history before the fifteenth century, and even within his own sphere of knowledge his arguments are old-fashioned and fraught with errors.

Conveniently enough the man has provided an insight into his motivations in today’s Guardian in which, tellingly, he talks about his own status and reputation much more than he talks about history. He presents himself as the bogeyman of the left, the man they love to hate for his abhorrent political views and his arrogance, and justifies himself by stating that self-confidence is important to success: a fitting philosophy, since it accords so well with the conclusion of his series that the West has lost its self-confidence.

Niall Ferguson is an arrogant neo-imperialist Tory bastard, make no mistake. But I began commenting on his series to demonstrate that he is a bad historian, first and foremost, and I hope that I have mostly avoided simply dismissing him because I happen to disagree with him. There is a perfectly good argument that could be made in defence of Western imperialism, and an equally good argument that could be made that its place in the sun is coming to an end. Niall Ferguson makes neither argument convincingly. The fact that I disagree with him is a simple difference of opinion: it’s the fact that his argument is poorly made yet he remains so unrepentantly and arrogantly committed to it that makes him a bad historian.

His self-confidence is undeniable, but historians should not be self-confident: they must constantly question sources and interpretations for weakness and contradiction. They must even question themselves, or they risk becoming inflexible and parroting the same old tired arguments uncritically. They must not let their affection for a particular political system, culture or economic model get in the way of an objective conclusion- if they did, I would call for the immediate liberation of Constantinople from the Turk!

Ferguson dismisses the dangers of relativism for daring to teach that morality is not absolute as damaging to the fabric of Western civilisation. To question a system or an idea does not undermine it, but proves its strength if it resists scrutiny. The historian is obligated to approach her subject from a standpoint of moral relativism: there are no absolute truths, only different interpretations of the same evidence. The historian must be objective, open-minded, willing to accept that her interpretation may be faulty and willing to adjust it. She must accept that there is no single truth, that all opinions have validity so long as they are well made. She must be intellectually curious about other cultures, and prepared to revel in their differences from her own. Ferguson embodies none of these traits, instead choosing to be arrogantly certain of his believe in the superiority of Western civilisation and dismissive of the achievements of the rest of the world- including any part of the Western world he doesn't like. It’s as if he first learned history in the 19th century that the world needed to be ruled by the white man because it was better for all involved, and has remained stubbornly resilient to the passage of time and further research that has obligated more reasonable minds to accept a broader view of past events. Ferguson's conviction might make him a sound- if devious- politician; he might even be a great economist- I really have no way of knowing. What I do know is that he is a bad historian, and if we cannot stop him regurgitating half-baked theories then we should at least discourage his audience from mistaking his pseudo-intellectual posturing for actual history. His arguments are old-fashioned, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history, leaving him free to write columns for the Daily Mail.

A Big Thank You

Still, I suppose I should take this moment to thank Prof. Ferguson for giving me something to write about for the past six weeks. I estimate I may have written as much as twenty thousand words denouncing him, more than any of my dissertations, and in considerably less time. It has encouraged me to research, however briefly, aspects of history that I was previously ignorant. It’s provided some interesting conversations with other historians, some of whom agree with Prof. Ferguson, and others who do not, but all concerned about the state of history and its teaching in today’s Britain. It’s given me something to do on Mondays instead of pretending to find a job. It’s given me a chance to focus my rage on someone truly deserving and eminently dislikeable. Above all, it’s given me a chance to write something, it’s given me purpose to write this blog, and it has helped it take shape as a platform to escape the lies and deceits of bad historians around the media.

So let me make this as heartfelt as possible: Thank you, Professor Niall Ferguson BA (Glasgow). My second-greatest hope is that you continue to produce more tedious unhistorical lies for me to critique and expose.

My greatest hope is that you truly do become history, and I never have to see your conceited face on my telly again. Unless it's on Hole In The Wall.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Daily Mail forgets that Leonardo Da Vinci did not know Jesus personally...

"Is this the first ever portrait of Jesus?" asks Nick Pryer in Monday's Daily Mail

Now, it would be easy to pour scorn on the Mail's claims by pointing out the image in question is so vague and so worn by the passage of time that it resembles Tinky Winky as much as it does the Messiah, but the inscription of "Saviour of Israel," the dating to the first century and the location of the find all suggest it is at least feasibly referring to Jesus. And, in a rare display of journalistic integrity, the Mail falls short of actually claiming that the image is Jesus. Of course, I am forced to take their word for it that the codex is genuine, and I wouldn't trust the Daily Mail if they said the sky was blue.


Near the end of the article they provide an example of what Jesus is supposed to look like (as if their readership had conveniently forgotten) by reproducing the image of Him that appears in Leonardo's "The Last Supper", claiming that the codex image has "similar characteristics".

Now, I will admit that this is flogging a dead horse, but it reiterating that whatever Jesus may have looked like, He certainly didn't look like He does in "The Last Supper". He was Jewish, and He lived in first century Palestine. It is unlikely that He had fair, flaxen hair, pale skin and blue eyes. It is likely that He had a beard, since that would have been typical for a Jewish man living in the region at the time, but I doubt it was the neatly-trimmed goatee of Leonardo's imaginings. Leonardo was utilising an established schema that represented Jesus in a way recognisable to Europeans, many of whom would have never seen someone from outside their own racial grouping. To suggest that this early impression of a bearded figure is Jesus because it looks like Jesus is circular reasoning: by the same logic Saint Bartholomew literally walked around without his skin just because that was how he was portrayed in later art to distinguish him from other bearded holy guys.

As far the "similar characteristics", the only attribute they have in common is that the codex image might possibly have a beard maybe, a characteristic shared with plenty of other men, none of whom are regularly mistaken for the Alpha and Omega. The codex image is even described as having a crown of thorns, which personally I don't see, and which is notably missing from "the Last Supper" because- shockingly!- Jesus didn't wear a crown of thorns until his crucifixion! It's not like he wore it all his life to hide his baldness, like Caesar, or the Edge!

So all the Mail has established is that image that doesn't look like anything in particular also doesn't look like an image painted fifteen centuries later. The only evidence that it is in fact a image of Jesus is textual, but the Daily Mail is really clutching at straws to suggest it looks like a man whose definitive image had not yet been defined. It's a pity because it's unusually good history for the Mail undone by a small oversight. It's as if they couldn't stomach the fact that Son of Man probably looked a bit... well, foreign.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Five: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Denim Trousers

I really don’t know what to say any more…

At this point anything I have to say about Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: Is The West History would be redundant: I would just be repeating myself. It would be much easier to just link to the four previous blog posts and ask the half-dozen or so people likely to read this to look there to see why Niall Ferguson is a complete hack of a historian who disgraces his profession every time he speaks.


I seem to be a minority in wanting the man gone. In the past two weeks Ferguson has appeared in several media outlets on a number of subjects tangentially related to history, ranging from telling teachers they need to focus even more on the fucking Nazis instead of all this girly Roman crap to stating the obvious that Colonel Gadaffi is a bit of wrong ‘un. He was even on Question Time, though I only learned about it after the fact, and I dread to think what rubbish he was spouting about how “The Muslims” need to be taught the value of Coke and genocide to a live audience.

Why is the man so popular when he is so clearly a self-important buffoon? Do media outlets not realise the man doesn’t need them to feed into his delusions of importance by giving him airtime? The man must already have difficulty fitting his massive swollen head into the shower in the mornings!

So, even though I know I will be repeating myself, I am going to outline the reasons why Niall Ferguson is a bad historian and his programme is a waste of time, using examples taken from the fifth episode, which is about consumerism. In it he describes the triumph of Western popular culture of the world, just in economic terms, as befits a financial historian. I would have focused on the nature of the culture itself, but that’s the difference between him and me.

Well, that and I actually try to research my poorly thought-out rants...

If anyone who reads this cares about history, or knows anyone who admires Ferguson or buys into his simplistic and triumphalist view of history, please feel free to dispute his claims and share this post with them.

If nothing else it will give me traffic.

Let’s start with something every historian should know…

1. He doesn’t seem to understand cause and effect.

Western popular culture- its films, music, dress etc- are dominant throughout the world. It would be hard to deny that fact, though I feel Ferguson overstates the case for homogeneity (I also think he takes entirely too much pleasure in the erosion of diversity in this shrinking world, but that’s the difference of opinion between his neo-imperialist agenda and my lefty xenophilia). But I feel that he is incorrect to assert that Western consumerism supported Western dominance. In fact, I would argue the inverse was true: that it’s political and military dominance allowed the West to impose its culture upon the world.

By the time popular culture and consumerism emerged in the twentieth century, the West was already unassailably dominant, having imposed its political, religious and economic structures on a majority of the rest of the world, including the entirety of Europe, Africa, the Americas and South Asia. This provided an immense potential market, even after the end of European empires, for it remained receptive to Western goods and advertising.

Indeed, a worldwide Western culture had already been exported to much of the world in the form of Christianity, and it would be very interesting to examine why Christianity became the dominant world religion and not Islam or Buddhism, both of which are as inclusive and universal as Christianity. The reasons are far too numerous and complicated to outline here, but I would very much like to do so one day. But Ferguson is ill-equipped to deal with the role of religion- he doesn’t list it as one of his “killer apps” (*sigh*), nor does he really discuss religion in detail. It’s understandable: as I said before, his specialisation is finance, not culture.

The point is by the time Ferguson picks up his narrative in this episode, the West is already in a position to export consumer goods to the rest of the world, that was comparatively poor but aspired to a Western lifestyle and that had already been conditioned to accept Western cultural norms. The new consumer society simply reflected an existing dominance.

2. He dismisses the achievements of non-Western culture

Nowhere is Ferguson’s contempt for the non-Western world made obvious in this episode: his attempt at a comedy Russian accent is unbearably offensive; his casual dismissal of Chinese communist dress as “ugly pyjamas” is utterly infantile; his statement that Emperor Hirohito of Japan aped Western fashions is meant to demonstrate the way in which Western commodities became dominant throughout the rest of the world.

However, Ferguson has picked the worst possible example of a non-Western nation adopting Western manners, since it reveals that the process was not entirely one-way: although it is true that modern Japan has proved receptive to Western consumerism, it has also produced its own share of popular brand names and its own internationally popular culture that reflects both Western and indigenous influences. Many Japanese exports have in turn greatly influenced Western culture: the case of a famous sengoku drama that influenced a certain independent filmmaker to produce a certain series of space opera movies is simply the most celebrated example of a broader trend.

The case of Japan raises some interesting questions that should be addressed: what was the role of Western consumerism in creating a new popular culture? Why is it that Japan has proven more successful at exporting its culture than other non-Western cultures? Is it an exception to the rule of Western dominance? Or will the growing economic clout of China produce a similar phenomenon, since they already produce most of the West’s consumer goods? What about India, whose film industry is already the largest in the world? These are all interesting and relevant questions about the role of consumerism in a globalised world: Ferguson fails to answer any of them; because it would contradict his narrative that Western consumerism alone has conquered the world.

3. His definition of “Western civilisation” is faulty

I have already discussed the problem with a definition of Western civilisation that includes Spain but excludes Spanish America and that places German military prowess on a pedestal one moment but condemning its imperial excesses the next. The same could be argued for his Cold War narrative, that contrasts the capitalist west (synonymous with NATO) with the Soviet-dominated communist east. There is a case to be made that Eastern Europe is indeed a distinct civilisation from Western Europe in terms of ethnicity, religion, political structure and cultural affinity, but there is also much that unites them in those very same spheres. The distinction between capitalism and communism was an ideological and an economic disagreement, it was not a fundamental cultural distinction the way that, for example, Western civilisation is distinct from Islamic or Chinese civilisation. Rather than seeing the Cold War as a clashbetween civilisations, it could be seen as an ideological conflict within civilisation. I’m not suggesting such an argument is true, merely that it is feasible.

The point is that Ferguson only defines Western civilisation in terms of what it isn’t. Western civilisation is not a political or economic model, since Japan follows similar patterns and is militarily allied with the United States; it isn’t a shared cultural history or ethnic identity, because both Eastern Europe and Latin America are excluded; it certainly isn’t religious identity, since Ferguson is reluctant to discuss religion at all except to sneer at the irrational backwardness of Muslims.

In failing to outline what he means by “Western civilisation”, Ferguson reveals himself to be incoherent at best, and dishonest at worst: the truth is that “Western civilisation” is whatever he wants it to be, regardless of the facts of history.

4. He grossly oversimplifies the narrative of history

Niall Ferguson is a financial historian: he views the historical narratives in terms of economic movements. That approach isn’t wrong in itself, but it does mean that he tends to find one root economic cause for historical events that are in truth extremely complex. In this episode, he claims that the Western consumerist culture was so attractive that it encouraged dissent in the Soviet Bloc. He essentially states that the appeal of jeans was the reason the Soviet Union fell. I’m not even paraphrasing: he actual dismisses the role of Reagan and Gorbachev in dismantling the Cold War as unimportant compared to the role of Levis.

He doesn’t even present the role of consumerism as the primary reason communism failed: he actually seems to believe it was the only reason. So there’s no reason for any historian to suggest that the Soviet Union’s economic system, it’s political repression, its inability to match American spending or a costly war in Afghanistan was to blame. It’s useless to claim that communism failed “because of its inherent contradictions”, or because of the role of repressed nationalism, religion or civil society. It all ended because the Russian proletariat wanted to dress like James Dean.

Bullshit: everyone knows it was Rocky Balboa that defeated the Soviet Union.

5. He is a self-aggrandising egomaniac

There is a moment in this episode where Ferguson reminisces about his time living in Germany in the late 80s, when he predicted that communism was about to fall; but when he told people, they just laughed and ignored him. But, of course, events proved that he was right all along.

Now it should be pretty obvious that this is extremely fishy: we only have Ferguson’s word that he predicted the end of communism whist the rest of the world ignored him. For all we know he spent his days in Germany hidden in a concrete bunker stocked with six tons of semtex and a missile casing full of pornography in case Ivan ever came over the wall to rape Mrs. Thatcher and force our children into wearing ugly pyjamas. I wouldn’t put it past him. Even if he did predict the end of communism, so what? He’s a right-wing Little Englander: he probably predicted the fall of the Soviet Union ten times before breakfast every day, like a Tory Alice. Just because he was right once doesn’t stop him being wrong about hundreds of other things.

But what purpose does this bizarre incident serve, except to inflate Ferguson’s already massively over-swollen ego? Ferguson has moved on from acting as the West’s cheerleader and now wishes to present himself as its unhappy prophet, fated to always be correct yet doomed to be ignored by his peers, like a Glaswegian Jor-El raging against the blindness of Krypton’s doomed society. It’s as if he is desperately trying to convince us that some new catastrophe is about to befall the world.

Oh, wait….

6. He doesn’t actually prove that the West is history: instead, he downplays diversity in the non-Western world

His evidence for the downfall of Western civilisation is pathetic. Fresh from assuring us that Brazil is becoming slightly less poor and Iran might possibly one day get a weapon first invented in the 40s, his evidence for the end of Western consumerism is that women in Istanbul are rejecting Western fashion trends in favour of the veil.

Except he doesn’t provide any statistical evidence for this: he just states that he noticed more women wearing headscarves in Istanbul than he did fifteen years ago. Now, I am no scientist, but that sounds like something that one could prove empirically by citing statistics, or running a poll, or even interviewing some of these women to see what they thought about Western fashion. Ferguson does none of these things. We just have to take his word for it that there are fewer women in tank tops and boob tubes than there were in the 90s.

What we get instead of actual evidence is a very ugly, EDL/BNP friendly film that shows women buying veils and looking scared in dramatic freeze-frames whilst Ferguson drones on about “the thin end of the wedge of Sharia law,” as if every hijab came with compulsory genital mutilation. It’s intended to terrify, to act as a dog-whistle for the Daily Mail, to inform the audience “IT’S TIME TO PANIC! THE MUSLIMS AREN’T BUYING COKE ANYMORE, NEXT THEY’LL BE BLOWING UP PARLIAMENT.” It’s a cheap, dirty trick and Channel 4 should be ashamed for letting this sham of a historian get away with it.

But even if we accept Ferguson’s unsubstantiated report that the women of Istanbul are rejecting Western dress, that doesn’t prove anything. Istanbul is not Turkey: it is an extremely atypical European city whose historical legacy is profoundly influenced by European civilisation. It isn’t even Turkey’s capital city.

And Turkey isn’t “the Muslim world” (if such a term is even valid)- it’s profoundly atypical. Secular, non-Arabic, Western aligned, a proud member of NATO and an aspiring member of the European Union. True, it has a poor record on human and minority rights, but that hardly seems reason to exclude it from the halls of the West, especially given Western Europe’s own history in that regard. I don’t know what Ferguson has against the place, but this is the second time he’s sought to present it as backwards and barbarous without really doing his research.

And Turkey certainly isn’t the entire non-Western world. Even if we take Ferguson’s fallacy to its ridiculous conclusion and assume that all one billion Muslims in the world reject Western dress, what about the rest of the world? India, China, Japan, South America- all are still perfectly receptive to Western consumerism, and there is so far no evidence to suggest they will reject the Western model. They might in future, of course, if local nationalism comes to the fore, but this is pure speculation that has no basis in current trends. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest the majority of the world is going to reject the West simply because one city might be, but that is the conclusion Ferguson wishes his audience to draw.


Given that Niall Ferguson is so obviously and so demonstrably a bad historian, one has to wonder why he is so popular. It is certainly the case that he is made for television; the man is certainly photogenic, and had I not been conditioned by his idiotic statements to retch every time he speaks I might describe his voice as oddly attractive. Even I must admit that he is a cuddlier prospect than David Starkey, not to mention better at hiding his prejudices.

He’s certainly colourful: everything he says is calculated to get woolly lefties like myself riled up and writing angry letters and blog posts in response (hang on…). Making controversial statements, however idiotic or ill thought out, certainly gains attention, both for the broadcaster and the arrogant, self-important historian. He is also able to cloak his witless statements in the guise of intellectualism, which I fear has convinced some poor souls that the man is genuinely witty and intelligent instead of a worthless hack recycling theories that were rejected by real historians decades ago.

He ticks a few diversity boxes: admittedly television has no shortage of straight middle-class white men, but it’s somewhat lacking in Scottish Tories, a sight even rarer than golden eagles in modern Britain than golden eagles. He can represent absurd right-wing views whilst claiming the objectivity of a historian, therefore allowing him to present a “balancing” opinion on well-meaning BBC political shows. Naturally real Tories love him for affirming their prejudices and providing intellectual credibility.

But I think the real reason why Ferguson has been so ubiquitous in the last week has to do with the tagline of his series: Is The West History? This is an age in which the self-confidence of the West’s elite has been profoundly shaken by an ongoing financial crisis, by the resultant civil unrest, by protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the growing economic muscle of China, by renewed instability in the Middle East and by a tragic natural disaster in Japan that has challenged the reliability of the only currently viable alternative to foreign oil. Niall Ferguson appeals to a Western mind that sees internal stagnation and external chaos and concludes that, once again, the barbarians are howling outside the gates of civilisation.

But this cultural zeitgeist is fleeting. The West isn’t doomed- Ferguson has yet to provide any compelling evidence to suggest that it is. The West may be overtaken in the next century, but there are healthier ways to cope with that fact than blind panic: one should never forget the many advantages (or-*sigh*- “killer apps”) the West still possesses and will continue to possess as the century progresses. Doomsayers like Niall Ferguson are simply exploiting the spirit of their age, fuelling the paranoia of the insecure in order to make a quick buck or draw attention to themselves and their ridiculous theories about the clash of civilisations.

Unless, of course, he actually believes it all. Now there’s a scary thought…

Monday, 28 March 2011

Is Niall Ferguson History? Part Four: Paging Doctor Feelgood, MA, PhD*

*Note that Niall Ferguson has neither an MA nor a PhD...

I was going to leave Niall Ferguson alone this week. I didn’t want to bore the handful of people who read this crap (many thanks to you all) by banging on about the same thing week in and week out. Ferguson clearly has no interest in becoming a better historian, and I’m not so self-absorbed as to believe I’m actually going to discourage Channel 4 from commissioning his little-Englander bullshit. Better to put the matter to bed early and move on to something else.


The fourth episode is not only bad, but it is so awful, so insulting to the intelligence of the audience, so demeaning to the victims of Western imperialism, so dripping in racist undertones that it necessitates some sort of response. Ferguson himself seems to have given up on his central thesis that the West might soon be eclipsed; having apparently realised he was on flimsy ground claiming that Gehenna was nigh because Iran wanted a bomb and Brazil’s economy is growing, he now makes no effort whatsoever to suggest the non-Western world might take the lead in medicine (or genocide- it’s not quite clear what this episode is about), once again bringing into question why he subtitled his series “Is The West History”.

1. Stop doing the work for me!

This episode is dedicated to how medicine helped the West dominate Africa, but as usual he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how or why Western medicine became more advanced, or how it helped Europeans in the Scramble for Africa. Instead, he spends much of the episode outlining how medical science was twisted by Europeans to justify racism. It’s grossly oversimplified, but it’s a valid point, and I applaud him for finally acknowledging that Western dominance was based in part on the willingness to be enormous pricks.

But… isn’t he supposed to be arguing about how the West came to dominate Africa? Eugenics programs and genocide are terrible, of course, but they are simply evidence of Western dominance, not proof of the cause. All he’s really doing is proving why the West deserves to be history, seeing how it used its global hegemony in such an atrocious manner, a point I made in response to the first episode. I’m glad he’s decided to make my argument for me, but it does leave me rather confused as to why his tone has suddenly changed. I’d like to imagine it was a genuine change of heart; more likely it was mandated by Channel 4, a condition for paying to send him to Africa. Ordinarily I’d expect him to whitewash the issue of Western abuses entirely, but here it is presented in all its terrible glory.

Why? Because it makes the Germans look bad…

2. The hierarchy of the West (again!)

One of the themes I’ve noticed in the series is that Ferguson often identifies the best of Western imperialism with the Anglosphere. Nowhere is this clearly than in this episode, in which racism, eugenics and genocide feature heavily and British imperialism is conspicuous by its absent. Instead, German imperialism takes centre stage (or “center” stage).

There’s some mention of the French use of Senegalese soldiers as cannon fodder in the Western Front, but Ferguson is charitable enough to outline the positives of French imperialism, such as access to healthcare and grants of French citizenship. Even here, there are shades of Kipling in his belief that Western civilisation was a genuine force for good, a “civilising influence” that is reinforced by the (hopefully unintentional) racist vibe of the episode that compares superstitious and tribal “Africa” (homogeneous and culturally monolithic, as ever) with the brave, upstanding white men who have come to make their lives better, whether they like it or not. But however misplaced his admiration for French involvement in Africa, one does get the impression it is at least genuine.

The Germans are not so lucky, for Ferguson speaks at considerable length about the many unquestionably awful things that German imperialism in Africa wrought. I don't want to downplay the fact that German imperialists did some pretty shitty things in Africa, but it is profoundly disingenuous for Ferguson to pick one European power for special criticism. I don’t know if Ferguson has seen Blackadder recently, but I will remind him that in 1914 “The British Empire [encompassed] a quarter of the globe, whilst the German Empire [consisted] of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika,” and that Germany was hardly the only- or even the worst- perpetrator of crimes against native peoples

I’d ask what Ferguson has against the Germans, but instead I have to remind him once again that the German state he condemns so viciously is not the same as the Nazi state, any more than it is the Prussia of Frederick the Great that he spent so much time praising in the second episode. He appears to be confused: praising the merits of German militarism when contrasted with Ottoman stagnation but condemning it becomes apparent that he must link it with the road to Auschwitz. He wants to have his cake and eat it: promote Germany as an exemplar of Western superiority when compared to the non-Western world but condemn it as barbaric when German atrocities risk making the whole of the West- especially the English-speaking world- look bad.

3. Some genocides are more equal than others

The other advantage of talking about Germany is that it allows him to link German atrocities in Africa with the Holocaust, the genocide that is likely best known to his audience but with which conveniently the British had no involvement. In Ferguson’s mind the mistreatment in Africa was a trial run for the Final Solution, where amoral German scientists practiced their craft of human experimentation and racial engineering. He even goes so far as to suggest the Germans invented genocide, that this was as “the first genocide, before the word was even invented,” a statement of such profound historical ignorance and of such crass insensitivity to the many, many, many, many, many, MANY examples of pre-twentieth century genocide in a just world it would cause any decent historian to be thrown out of the halls of academia post-haste.

It’s an extremely vile tactic that equates pre-war Germans with Nazis, reinforcing the old lie that there is something evil about the German national psyche, something dark and primeval that suggests that all Germans, everywhere, should and must take the blame for the actions of their government between 1933 and 1945. It’s not only xenophobic, it’s unhistorical and unsympathetic, for it ignores both broader historical trends and the specific circumstances of the 1930s and 40s that caused and triggered the Holocaust. As usual, Ferguson wants simple explanations for large events, and for him the explanation of the Holocaust is that the Germans were (and, perhaps, still are) simply evil. Once again, this is the same Germany he praised so fulsomely in the second episode.

But there is a more sinister racist undercurrent in viewing African genocides as practice for the European sequel: it downplays the importance of crimes against humanity. For Ferguson, what matters is that they contributed to genocide in Europe, not that they were terrible in their own right. It is a sad truism that history- like the media- simply doesn’t care about crimes committed against black people; it’s what allows vile carcinogenic parasites like Richard Littlejohn to state about the Rwandan genocide that “If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them”.

Ferguson’s problem is that he has to see history in parochial terms: for him, history is the story of the triumph of the West, and events are only important if the West is somehow involved. The terrible crime of African genocide is not that thousands of people died needlessly and pointlessly to satisfy a sick ideology, it’s that it allowed another, bigger genocide to be committed on European soil.

4. Equating racism with climate change (no, really!)

In a casual remark, Ferguson attests to the universality of theories of racial inequality in the 19th century by stating that people believed in it ‘as readily as people believe in man-made climate change today’.

The unspoken implication is that “people believed in one theory that turned out to be rubbish, just as they believe in a theory today that I don’t agree with that will be proved rubbish.“

I wish I was making this up.

I shouldn’t have to point out why this is stupid. Race theory is pseudoscience: it was a social construct that was supported by a false scientific methodology to lend it credence and which was conclusively disproved by rigorous scientific analysis. Climate change is an established scientific fact, denied only by fruitcakes: the overwhelming body of evidence claims that it is man-made, with the only major dissenting views coming from the energy lobby and God-botherers whose motivations are, at best, suspect.

I see what Ferguson is trying to do: he wants to present science as “fashionable”. He wants to say it was once fashionable to believe in a geocentric universe, that it was once fashionable to believe white men were better than black men, that it is currently fashionable to believe humankind is harming the planet. The implication is that, just as racism became unfashionable after World War II, so climate change will one day be dismissed as pseudoscience, and the whole world will look back and sigh that it ever believed anything so ridiculous. In doing so he has shown a profound ignorance of the process of scientific enquiry.

It’s ironic that he spent the entire second episode outlining how Western rationalism contributed to scientific progress, yet here he rails against the consensus of most of the world’s scientists by suggesting that one day they will fall out of favour and be proven wrong. For a man who believes that science is the basis of Western dominance he doesn’t seem to put a lot of faith in scientists themselves.

It might seem like a petty point to make, but its indicative of the problem with this episode, this series, and Niall Ferguson himself: he is utterly incapable of approaching history dispassionately. He is by inclination a right-wing conservative, an economic neo-liberal so enthralled with the idea of wealth he wrote a book about it (accompanied by a TV series here) that curiously only started in the fifteenth century. For him, he ideal world order is the current one: dominated by rich, white, middle-class men, like him. And for him history is the study of rich, white, middle-class men like him, and how they came to dominate the world. All of past events must be seen in terms of how they contributed to modernity, and history must be presented in a way that makes the current world order look like the best of all possible outcomes. If there is to be a world power, we are to be grateful that it’s us, and not those backwards Muslims, those authoritarian Chinese, or those superstitious Africans.

A true historian puts her prejudices aside: Ferguson uses his to paint he whole of history the way he wants it to be. And that bothers me, because I don't think any man so obviously incapable of understanding history has any business advising the government on how to teach it to the next generation.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Where Eagles Dare (oh yes, I went there!)

Film-makers, we need to talk about Hadrian's Wall.

First things first: The Eagle is nowhere near as bad as the marketing made it out to be: there's no Godsmack in the soundtrack, there are some interesting themes about the nature of slavery and cultural identity, and its a fun, well-acted romp with some gorgeous Scottish scenery.

Okay, it's not perfect: it seems to be employing some sort of reverse-Bechdel Test where women are shown for less than a minute of the film with no dialogue, and the plot takes some strange leaps where the audience has to believe that Caledonian tribesman can run faster than two dudes on Horseback. But it isn't terrible, and it's pretty fun to watch.

It isn't even all that historically inaccurate, at least not as far as I can tell: there are a few nitpicky points I could make, but they don't really serve to sink the film. It's certainly no King Arthur, which not only had the gumption to be terrible but was also rife with bizarre anachronisms (like having the Anglo-Saxons invading Berwickshire instead of, y'know, England!) whilst claiming- in-movie, no less- to be a faithful interpretation of historical events.

But there is one thing that the Eagle shares with King Arthur, and Braveheart, and Highlander, and just about every film set in pre-modern Scotland: it confuses ancient Caledonia with the Chaos Wastes

Hadrian's Wall was, to some extent, a cultural frontier, a way of dividing Roman-occupied Britain from the unconquered north. It was also a means of projecting power upon an unruly province that required four legions to be stationed there- the same number as guarded the Rhine, Danube and Persian frontiers. It was also a customs barrier that controlled trade and immigration between both sides, not unlike the frontiers between the US and Mexico today. It was not primarily a defensive fortification, and it certainly was not the edge of the Roman world. There were no signs saying "Caledonia: No Civilisation for one hundred miles": there were almost certainly Romans and British living and working on both sides of the wall. It is not true that "no Roman can survive north of the wall," as if the very air was a poisonous fume and the frontier was patrolled by Shelob.

To whit: why do films insist on presenting Northern Britain as a barren near-tundra filled with fur-clad- or in this case- almost nude savages? The Caledonians of the Eagle are shaven headed, mohawked and painted so that they look like the Na'vi crossed with hardcore punks. Visually they have more in common with Zulus than Asterix, which gives some of the fight-scenes an eerily racially-charged imagery to them. And they sleep outdoors, uncovered, despite the fact they live (apparently) on the West coast of Scotland and it's winter, judging by the constant rain, snow and fog.

On the subject of the whether: this film was made by Film 4, a British company. It stars Jamie Bell, who's from Stockton on Tees, for God's sake! It was even filmed, on location, in Scotland. Did no one tell the producers that Northern Britain is not constantly assaulted by the elements, and that when the weather is bad even Geordies do not sleep outside wearing loincloths? For that matter, why not head north during the summer to find the aquila? The weather would be better, and you'd have more hours of daylight available.

I know it's more dramatic to contrast the civilised south with the barbaric north, and would like to reiterate that this is not King Arthur, where the Grampians were somehow confused with the Alps to ensure the film could be comprehended by an audience unfamiliar with Britain's geography. This film at least presents Scotland as it is. But it focuses only on the highlands at their most inclement whilst presenting the people as utterly divorced from reality as possible, even by the standards of the somewhat biased accounts of the British people provided by the Romans.

It's a little thing, really: the film isn't bad, or even all that inaccurate. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, as might be expected of a northerner by birth who lived in Scotland for six years. But it reinforces the ancient view held by many people who have never visited northern Britain that it is a land apart, a land of beautiful scenery but hostile weather, full of savage brutes that do little but drink and fight and don't wear enough clothes in winter. There's some truth in the stereotype, but it still needs to be challenged, not reinforced, especially in an age of government cuts where the ruling government is dominated by middle-class southerners who do not understand the needs of the North.

I might be over-thinking this: here's a fanservice shot of Jamie Bell to make up for it.