Wednesday 31 August 2011

Heil, Bertie!

Open any anthology on fascism and there is bound to be an introduction telling you that fascism is difficult if not impossible to define. At my own risk I’ll hazard a definition: fascists, generally speaking, are wholly devoid of a sense of humour.

Let me give you a practical example. Take the great humorist P. G. Wodehouse, the satirist of the English upper classes, the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, possibly the greatest craftsman in words that our language and literature ever produced. Jeeves and Bertie are his best known creations, but there is also Roderick Spode.

Those who love Wodehouse will know all there is to know about Roderick Spode, the seventh earl of Sidcup, the founder of the Black Shorts, because when he got round to fascist politics there were no more shirts!

Now just imagine any Italian or German author writing about Mussolini or Hitler in the way that Wodehouse wrote about Spode, an obvious parody of Sir Oswald Mosley, the real-life leader of the British Union of Fascists. You know and I know what would have happened to such foolhardy souls. You know and I know what would have happened to anyone who could have written this;

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

There are few writers more brilliant than Wodehouse and few less political. Caught up in the German invasion of France in 1940, he was subsequently interned as an enemy alien (“If this is Upper Silesia one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like.”) Released on the grounds of age, he went on to make a series of broadcasts in the summer of 1941 from Berlin at the behest of the Propaganda Ministry, light-hearted banter on life in Europe in typical Wodehouse style, intended for an American audience, for a people not yet at war.

Light-hearted or not, apolitical or not, they were enough for some in England to condemn him as a traitor. In hysterical over-reaction some libraries banned his books, clearly not conscious of the political irony here. He was even accused with total absurdity of being a Quisling, after the notorious Norwegian collaborator. As late as December 1944 in Parliament it was urged that he should be indicted on a charge of treason. Most absurd of all were those who combed through his books looking for ‘fascist tendencies’. What, fascist tendencies, in Bertie Wooster?! Oh, well, maybe in Jeeves.

Wodehouse was later to describe the decision to give these broadcasts as naïve, not treasonable or malicious. He was certainly not treacherous in the way that, say, Ezra Pound was treacherous, broadcasting in a distinctly political manner from Rome. But the criticism, hurtful and vicious on the part of some, caused him to move permanently to America after the war, where he became a citizen in 1955. It was an outcome anticipated by George Orwell in any essay published ten years earlier;

In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years later -- and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery -- is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and Quislings…I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse -- just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age -- became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed. If Ezra Pound is caught and shot by the American authorities, it will have the effect of establishing his reputation as a poet for hundreds of years; and even in the case of Wodehouse, if we drive him to retire to the United States and renounce his British citizenship, we shall end by being horribly ashamed of ourselves.

Sad to say the accusations have not entirely gone away, fresh fuel being added by a recently declassified Ministry of Intelligence (MI5) memo, part of a file on Werner Plack, an official of the German Foreign Office who acted as Wodehouse’s minder. Reported recently in the Times, it mentions an interview with H. W. Flannery, an American journalist, in which the author is alleged to have said that he was at liberty in Berlin but had to report occasionally to a “Mr. Slack or Black or something”, whom he claimed to have met while in the internment camp.

The memo says “This clearly referred to Werner Plack and was clearly intended to suggest that Wodehouse had so little acquaintance with the German foreign office official that he was uncertain as to his name.” But MI5 already knew that Wodehouse was acquainted with Plack, the two having met in Hollywood prior to the war, where the German was acting as a film extra and a spy. The memo concludes “This incident suggests that Wodehouse is not always quite as frank and ingenious [sic] as he pretends.”

Oh, my, what a heavy burden of guilt, a Plack by any other name would smell as sour! Poor old P. G; poor old Bertie, the one moment in his life when he really needed Jeeves the dashed fellow had taken a spot of French leave!

Although Wodehouse was later to admit that he had, in his own words, made a ‘ghastly mistake’ in broadcasting from Berlin, he categorically denied Flannery’s statement that he had been misleadingly vague about his contacts with Plack.

It would seem obvious that Flannery, a rabid anti-Nazi who believed – wrongly – that Wodehouse had done a deal with the Germans to get out of the internment camp, is far from being a reliable source. But no matter; if this is the weight of the evidence then it is ludicrously light.

I would excuse Wodehouse anything, a return for all the delight he gave me when I was at school, trying to suppress my laughter, reading undercover by torchlight after lights out. We, as a nation, treated him shabbily when he should have been treasured. Our loss was America’s gain.

It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Envying Dogs

It was in March 1999 that Dr Kim left the fatherland. She couldn’t take any more. She had already given up paediatric medicine because she could no longer bear to look into the eyes of the starving children. She switched to pure research, which at least allowed her to get away from the dying, from people she was completely unable to help. But the doctors were starving too; more time was spent in foraging for food than medical work.

Kim dropped in weight to eighty pounds; her breasts shrivelled and her periods stopped. Finally she gave up going to work altogether. What was the point? She did not have the energy. Besides, she had long stopped receiving any pay; all the doctors had. All that mattered was finding food. There was none; the countryside had been stripped as if plagues of locusts had passed. The only remaining hope was to go to look for some long lost relatives living in another land, names from a list that her father had given to her prior to his own death, a legacy of desperation.

With difficulty she travelled north to the border, unable to afford to hire a guide. Spring was coming but winter had still not lost its sting. Covered by darkness, she wadded waist-deep across the freezing river, thrusting aside the lumps of ice, hoping that the border guards would be sleeping. Numb and frozen, she made it to the other side, where, weak with hunger, she had no other course but to throw herself on the kindness of strangers.

At one farm she found the gate unlocked, pushing it open and peering into the courtyard. There, on the ground, was a bowl of pure white rice, a luxury she could not remember when she had last seen. More than that: the rice contained scraps of meat. Who could possibly leave such precious food on the ground like this? Then she heard a bark. A moment’s epiphany; it was for a dog. At once a lifetime of faith fell away. This was China; here the dogs ate better than doctors in North Korea.

That, for me, was the most striking story in a striking book – Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. I don’t really think there is much more to be said about this brilliant work of reportage, which deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction last year, that hasn’t already been said. I’ve come lately, a point when the stock of superlatives has all but been exhausted. All I can do is add a few words of appreciation and admiration for a book that unfolds a tragedy in a wholly intimate and human fashion, through the eyes of those, like Dr Kim, who had experienced it first hand.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so is said. Let me refine that by saying that a million lights are worth a single darkness. Look below: there is North Korea by night, an island as black and as impenetrable as the seas, a contrast with the surrounding illumination. This should tell one all there is to know about an implosion, the death of a country, the death of its people and the death of a tawdry ideal.

Demick gathered the material for Nothing to Envy while she was based in Seoul, working as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Although she travelled to North Korea her visits, like that of all foreigners to a state that has effectively quarantined itself and its people from the world, were highly supervised. The truth behind the façade of Pyongyang, the capital that serves as a kind of Potemkin village, would have to be sought elsewhere. It came in a series of interviews with defectors living in South Korea, six of whom are featured here, all coming from the closed city of Chongjin in the north-east.

It’s worth stressing that none of these people were political dissidents. Rather they were all believers, believers in the infinite benevolence of Kim il-Sung, the Great Leader, and Kim Jong-ill, the Dear Leader. After all, in the words of the children’s song, the words that Demick uses in the title, “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.”

No, it wasn’t politics that forced them into exile: it was hunger, the famine which gripped this ideological museum in the 1990s and is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of as many as two million people, reduced in their final extremity to eating bark and weeds. It was only afterwards that they became aware that with little food came the big lie. There people were in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

Demick’s story is as good a piece of journalism as I have ever come across, written in a clear and undemonstrative style. She tells the story of people like Jun-Sang, a science student and Mi-Ran, the teacher with whom he had a chaste affair in the all-enveloping darkness of their homeland, neither of whom dared confide in the other that they were making plans to escape. There is the story of Mrs Song, another true believer, who watched her husband and son starve to death.

They were told nothing, the government told them nothing, other than issuing exhortations to eat less when there was nothing to eat at all. When people had taken to removing kernels of undigested corn from the excrement of animals the state news agency was reporting the case of a man whose stomach had allegedly burst open from eating too much rice.

The few who eventually made the passage to South Korea came almost as a different species, stunted by hunger and deprivation. Fifty years of separation, fifty years of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, had created a kind of sub-group of humanity, people who took time to adjust to a new life, a people who realised just how much they had to envy, even so far as Chinese dogs.

Nothing to Envy is an extraordinary book by an author whose style of reporting recalled for me the narrative power of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s difficult to remain dispassionate in reading books like this, no matter how much one tries.

Monday 29 August 2011

The Witch Child

In one of my very early blogs here I wrote about the case of Brigitta Hörner, a seven-year-old girl who once lived in Rothenburg ob der Tauber in seventeenth century Germany (Remembering the Little Witch Girl). In 1639, for reasons unknown, Brigitta claimed to be a witch. I wrote;

In much the same fashion that was appear later that century during the Salem witch trials Brigitta began to identify the members of her 'coven', adults from both Rothenburg and Spielbach. This added to the social tensions in the area, with people asking her to identify those whom they suspected of witchcraft. It was concerns over public order that caused the city council of Rothenburg to have Brigitta arrested on 8 July. She was now widely known in the area as the 'Little Witch Girl.'

This was a dangerous time. The Great European Witch Craze had not yet come to an end. Hysteria, fuelled by no more than accusation, could have taken hold of the community in much the same way it was do elsewhere. But the authorities, who treated Brigitta with kindness, decided that her stories were simply not plausible, allowing the matter to settle down.

I called this back to mind on watching The Pendle Witch Child, a BBC documentary about another accusation of witchcraft, this time in the county of Lancashire in north-west England. It’s a case that also involved the testimony of a little girl, one with a wholly different outcome. In concerned nine-year-old Jennet Device, whose evidence was enough to send her whole family, her mother, her brother and her sister to the gallows, along with a number of others.

It’s England in 1612. The country is on the cusp of huge changes, poised between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment. It’s a time of great religious and political uncertainty, a time of fear and suspicion; against perceived outsiders, against Catholics in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, against all those who are believed to be a threat to good order.

On the throne sits James I, the intended victim of one plot after another, not just the political terrorists of 1605 but those who allegedly tried to ensnare him by witchcraft when he was still king of Scotland. James, the wisest fool in Christendom, according to his fellow monarch Henri IV of France, was a bit of an expert when it came to the nefarious arts, bringing all sorts of Presbyterian prejudices from the north, all outlined and codified in Daemonologie, his witch-hunter’s manual.

To Lancashire now, a county in England’s wild north-west frontier, a place still considered to be beyond the pale by those living in the tamer regions of the south. This was an area where old religions and old beliefs did not die readily. Here a great many remained loyal to England’s Catholic heritage. Others remained loyal to an even more ancient set of beliefs, giving particular prominence to the wise women, the local healers in the absence of any other, the only healers the poor could afford.

It’s a dry and explosive mixture that really only required a spark, that and an ambitious guardian of public order, ready to fan the ensuing flames. The spark came in March, 1612, when one Alizon Device laid a curse on a peddler by the name of John Law. Alizon, the older sister of Jennet and part of a local family of beggars, was at once convinced that she had the power of a witch. Full of contrition for the doom that had befallen Law, who on the evidence seems to have suffered a stroke, she held to her story, bringing it so far as the guardian, Roger Nowell, a local magistrate.

Now a witch hunt was truly underway, a hunt that drew in not just suspected wise women but Catholic dissidents, as the circle moved wider and wider still. Enter Jennet, full of accusations against her own family and their neighbours.

There was something deeply tragic about this little girl, as tragic in her own way as Brigitta Hörner. The greater tragedy is that her accusations, unlike Brigitta’s, were taken seriously. She had a story to tell and she told it in open court, a key witness for the prosecution. Was it right to trust the word of a child when there was no other corroborating evidence? Yes, of course it was; had not the king said as much in Daemonologie?

Why did Jennet act as she did? We can’t be sure but according to Simon Armitage, who presented The Pendle Witch Child, she seems to have harboured a particular animus against her family, perhaps for neglect, perhaps for other perceived slights. After her mother, making hysterical appeals from the dock, was removed from the court at the little girl’s request, she proceeded to give her evidence with calm authority, even evading a trap laid out for her by the judge.

As the story unfolded it was brought vividly to life by some haunting hand-drawn images of Elizabeth, the mother, of Alizon, the sister, and of little Jennet, who looked particularly forlorn. Tragic and malicious, a pawn and a player, she was to have an impact far beyond Pendle, beyond Lancashire, even beyond England itself. It was her actions and this precedent that allowed child testimony to play such an important part in Salem in 1692.

Ironically Jennet herself became a victim and by the very process that she initiated. In 1634 she was accused of witchcraft along with a number of others on the fantastic evidence of a ten-year-old by the name of Edmund Robinson. But times had changed; a new mood of sceptical inquiry was coming into prominence. The political, social and religious tensions that sustained events earlier in Pendle - and later in Salem - were in abeyance. Robinson’s accusations were eventually dismissed as fantasy, though not until after he had initiated a mini reign of terror. It did not do Jennet much good. Though acquitted, the evidence suggests that she died in jail.

It’s easy to dismiss this sort off thing, part of the age of superstition, not the age of reason. But reason, as Armitage pointed out in his presentation, is always superficial. Fear, superstition, if you will, remains with us in some fashion or another, though the targets may have altered. Demonization, after all, is not limited to Daemonologie, and witches come in many guises.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Foul Rose

Ida Siekmann was 58 when she died, jumping from a third floor window in the summer of 1961. Chris Gueffroy was only 20, shot while trying to swim across a canal in the winter of 1989. What's the connection between the two? Simply that they were the first and the last victims of the Berlin Wall, killed trying to escape from a bleak communist tyranny. Gueffroy's death was particularly tragic, not just because of his age, but because a few months later the Wall came a-tumbling down, the greatest revolution of the twentieth century, a true springtime of the people and of liberty.

Siekmann and Gueffroy were the overture and finale of a long tragedy. We will never know exactly how many people were killed between their deaths, between August 1961 and February 1989. The official figure stands at 136, though it is thought to be higher. Overall up to seven hundred people are estimated to have been killed in attempts to escape from the old East Germany, the so-called German Democratic Republic, at various points along the border. It’s also worth noting that the guards who shot them earned a bonus for each and every kill, money and time off, something they can reflect on as they enter the twilight of life.

Earlier this month, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its construction, Berliners along with people from elsewhere in Germany gathered in the city's Bernauer Strasse, the scene of many escape attempts, where a memorial is now situated, visited by half a million people every year. "We bow our heads in remembrance of all who died at the Wall and of the hundreds who died on the inner German border", said Christian Wulff, Germany's president. "The dead and wounded", he continued, "the hundreds of thousands who were imprisoned and politically harassed aren't the only victims of this Wall. Millions were also forced to renounce the lives they wanted to live."

The construction of the Wall was an act of monumental bad-faith. Only two months before it went up, Walter Ulbricht, the hatchet face of a hatchet regime, announced that "no one has any intention of building a wall." The concrete and the barbed wire were already on order.

It was on the early hours of 13 August that 'Operation Rose' was launched. Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, this is another day which will live in infamy, a Sunday, deliberately chosen to catch people off-guard as they enjoyed a summer day off. Up to this point Berlin was the only place in the world where people could move with relative ease from the communist East to the free West.

As I said here recently, the new structure was described officially by the government of the East as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall", when it should more accurately have been called "We Have to keep our Miserable Citizens in Wall.” Some 3000 had been leaving every month up until that point. Amazingly 2.5 million of a population of 19 million left in the brief thirteen years the German Democratic Republic had been in existence.

There is little left now either of the Wall or of the ideological perversions that conjured it into existence. The so-called wave of the future is now the ripple of the past. The sections that are left are quite rightly being preserved as a memorial, a way of ensuring that Ida Siekmann, Chris Gueffroy and all the other victims of Communism are never entirely forgotten.

Thursday 25 August 2011

We must be Free or Die…Really?

In a my review last month of Anthony Browne’s The Retreat of Reason - Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain I said that intolerance and sanctimonious moral superiority are among the defining features of the proponents of the politically correct, people whose chief response to criticism is ad hominem attacks.

I was reminded of this once again as the liberal sledgehammer went bang bang on the historian David Starkey’s silver head for daring to raise question about the wholly negative effects of a certain type of subculture.

If he had said all sorts of nasty things about the British National Party or the English Defence League he would have been applauded; because these are safe objects for the two minute hate, safe objects of liberal hysteria. Throw the Newspeak dictionary at the face of Nick Griffin of the BNP, who cares? But raise questions about gangsta rappers and their incomprehensible patois, raise questions about their responsibility for the recent riots – racist! racist!, screams the mob, urged on by that cretinous vulgarian Piers Morgan.

The rest is silence, or it would be if Starkey had not come out fighting at the weekend with an article in the Telegraph. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, and a man in the same league was Morgan, apparently gave a speech after the history don’s appearance on Newsnight (the horror! horror!), at the end of which a member of the audience invited him to ‘stamp out’ the kind of opinions expressed by Emmanuel Gold…sorry, David Starkey. Yes, yes, blah, blah; the comments were racist and “there should be condemnation from every politician, from every political party of those sorts of comments.”

Starkey reminds us of the comments to be stamped out: “A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gang culture has become the fashion…This sort of black male gang culture militates against education…It’s not skin colour, it’s cultural.” Rejecting this view, as Miliband does, presumably means embracing the corollary: gang culture is “personally wholesome and socially beneficial.”

Tony Parsons, a left-wing Labour MP, does not seem to think so, despite Red Ed’s admonition. Writing the Daily Mirror he goes even further than Starkey, saying that “without the gang culture of black London, none of the riots would have happened – including the riots in other cities like Manchester and Birmingham where most of the rioters were white.”

If we accept the Miliband-Morgan-Moron line then the views of Lindsay Johns should also be ‘stamped out.’ He is an Oxford-educated writer of mixed race who works with young people in the Peckham district of London. Like Starkey, he has drawn attention to the insulting and demeaning acceptance of a fake Jamaican – or ‘Jafaican’ – patois. “Language is power”, he wrote, “and to use ghetto grammar renders young people powerless.”

Powerless, that’s the key; moral relativism, the kind of moral relativism embraced by Miliband; the moral relativism bequeathed to this nation by thirteen years of the most awful government in our history, has created a powerless sub-class that shares nothing of a common identity, one that can only express itself in ignorance, violence and disorder.

There is another dimension to this. The attack on England, the attack on English identity, on the symbols of English identity, has contributed to a process of alienation and cultural fragmentation. Over several decades there has been a systematic devaluation of Englishness, of the symbols of Englishness, including the flag of Saint George – “The attack was astonishingly successful”, Starkey writes, “But it left a void where a sense of common identity should be. And for many the void has been filled by the values of ‘gangsta’ culture.”

Starkey reminds us of Somersett’s Case of 1772, one of the most famous legal rulings in English history, a judgement against slavery, in which it was resolved that “England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in.” But it’s not too pure for parts of the black community to be effectively re-enslaved, in the ghettos of language and in the ghettos of the mind. How many centuries will it take for some future politician to offer an apology for this betrayal?

We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held.-In every thing we are sprung
Of Earth’s first blood, have titles manifold.

No, we must not; we must have uncomfortable questions ‘stamped out’; we must condemn all those who attempt to raise these issues howled down as racists; we must deny them a platform least they corrupt the gullible public; we must avoid all attempts to understand the recent disorders in England least they prick the bubble of complacency. That’s the decent way; that’s the Miliband way; that’s the Morgan way.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The War of Northern Greed

It’s October, 1861. In American the Civil War has been underway for some months, really just the overture to what was to become a tragedy of epic proportions. That same month a German exile living in London summed up the situation as he saw it – “The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty,”

A few months later similar sentiments were to be found in the words of another writer, an Englishman of impeccable liberal credentials – “The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.” He goes on to say "...Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as of many other evils... The quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel."

Who were these men? Karl Marx was the first and Charles Dickens the second, not people one would expect to have very much in common, the prophet of world revolution and the prophet of moral reform, the one a hard-nosed theorist and the other a bourgeois sentimentalist. But they were both, in their individual ways, absolutely right: the War Between the States had nothing to with slavery or any other great issue of principle.

But myths die hard if they die at all. I open the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine. There is an article by Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, on slavery in Classical Athens (Democrats and Slaves). He offers this view in his preamble – “One hundred and fifty years ago…the northern and southern States of the (dis)United States went to war in large part over these very issues.”

I think that’s the answer one would get from most people, even those who are only vaguely aware of the details - that it was all about human bondage, all about the virtuous North and the wicked South.

I watched, and enjoyed, Ken Burns' television documentary about the Civil War a while ago. I remember the episode, soon after the Battle of Antietam, when parts of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation were read, all very moving, cut with images of a black people as slaves and then black people as soldiers in the Union Army, all against a rousing chorus of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Yes, it was great television…and wholly misleading history.

It was good to see a corrective to the mythology in History Today, where Tim Stanley writes on the North-South Divide in the Contrarian section of the magazine. It’s a return to first principles, a return to the Victorian view of Marx and Dickens. This was not a war about morality; it was a war about naked self-interest. Slavery was certainly an issue between the States but it was far from being the most significant; no, that rested on the altogether more mundane issue of revenues and taxes, which had been poisoning relations for years.

We are dealing with two economies – the rural economy of the South and the nascent industrial economy of the North. But it’s more than that. Northern industrialisation was effectively built on Southern backs; built, it also has to be said, on the backs of Southern slaves. To protect domestic industry from foreign competition, Congress imposed crippling import taxes, which hit the South particular hard because it had to buy the machinery it needed from abroad.

In the 1850s, in the wake of an economic downturn, Congress increased duties from fifteen to thirty-seven percent. In a mood of outrage Southerners began to consider the virtues of secession. An alarmist editorial then appeared in the Chicago Daily Times. If the South left the Union;

…in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than half of what it is now. Our coastwise trade would pass into other hands. One half of our shipping would lie idle at our wharves. We should lose our trade with the South, with all its immense profits.

Not a word about the morality of trading with the Slave Empire, not a word about the morality of slavery. Secession meant war, but war less for the preservation of the Union as a great political principle, more for the preservation of the economic dominance of the North.

For the South the election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final confirmation of all of its fears, not because the Great Liberator was a threat to their ‘peculiar institution’ – he wasn’t – but because the ‘black’ Republicans represented a coalition of interests inimical to the whole Southern way of life. That year the outcome of the presidential election, as Stanley puts it, was interpreted in the South as a Northern coup d'état.

For almost two years the North fought to reimpose its hegemony without giving any thought to the question of slavery. The Republican Party was opposed to slavery but it was not abolitionist; and, yes, there is a very big difference. When Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the mawkish Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as “the little lady who started this big war” it was nothing but the worst kind of political hyperbole and cant.

The Emancipation Proclamation, for all its high-minded rhetoric, was even more hyperbole and cant. It only freed slaves in areas beyond Union control. It did not free them in the Border States or those areas under Northern occupation. Even William H. Steward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, remarked on the obvious hypocrisy – “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

Slavery is a great moral evil but let’s not be confused about the issues here: the Civil War was about Northern greed more than Southern iniquity.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Tyranny Remains

The more things change in China the more they stay the same. In social and economic terms no greater contrast could be imagined between the country at the time of the death of Mao in 1976 and the high-tech nation of today. But the political technique, the technique of oppression, the techniques favoured by Mao Zedong both before and after the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949, are still very much in place.

There always have to be enemies, always outsiders, counter-revolutionaries then, disruptive elements now. China, in a sense, is in a state of permanent revolution. The enemies may have changed, the definition of what constitutes an enemy certainly has, but the fallback position remains the same – they have to be eliminated in one manner or another. It’s the technique inherited from Mao, the default position as Jonathan Minsky argued recently in an article in the political journal Standpoint.

Here it’s as well to remember that that it was Deng Xiaoping, the man normally associated in the West with modernisation and reform, who oversaw the so-called ‘anti-Rightist’ campaign of 1957, which saw the purge of thousands, and who also presided over the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 as well as the ensuing reign of terror.

Now, in the midst of prosperity, when even the word ‘jasmine’ is banned, as if it carried a kind of plague bacillus, it has been estimated that the number of extra-judicial executions range between 5000 and 10000 per annum, more than the rest of the world combined.

Thousands of people, often the poorest and least powerful, are being held in secret ‘black jails’, free enterprise institutions run by thugs to contain ‘troublemakers’, often no more than petitioners anxious to redress some abuse – a right granted to them by precedent and by law -, people who are an embarrassment to the authorities. There they can be held indefinitely without charge, beaten, starved and abused, out of official sight and out of official mind.

Corruption, mismanagement, official neglect and sheer incompetence get worst by the day. Officially the casualty toll from the recent high-speed rail crash near the city of Wenzhou stands at 40 dead and 191 injured, though according to the buzz among the country’s micro-bloggers the true figures are much higher. What is certain is that the government cleaned up the site with indecent haste, burying one of the carriages and restoring rail services even before rescue operations had been completed.

True or not, the rumours are based on past perceptions, on other scandals that have created a mood of widespread cynicism and scorn, a reluctance to believe anything the authorities say. Here the case of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when so many children died as a result of shoddy school construction, comes to mind. It was the determination to establish the true facts over this scandal that lead to the first serious clash between the complacent and negligent authorities and Ai Weiwei, the brilliantly unconventional artist, recently convicted on a charge of ‘tax evasion.’

In Mao’s Invisible Hand, a collection of papers edited by Sebastian Hellman and Elizabeth J. Perry, published earlier this year by Harvard University Press, the point is made that the policy style that emerged from Maoism was “fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic and merciless. Unchecked by institutions of accountability, guerrilla leaders pursue their objectives with little concern for the interests of those who stand in their way.” Rightist opportunists, class enemies, counter-revolutionaries, seditionists, disruptive people, inharmonious elements - the terminology may change, the tyranny remains the same.

Monday 22 August 2011

Ending Moral Nihilism

It’s not often I agree with the Bagehot column in the Economist but today I do, and for good reasons. The recent riots in London were a bit of a jolt, but something positive is emerging in the aftermath of anarchy: there has been a general shift in the popular mood towards the conservative right.

We had thirteen years of New Labour rule in this country, thirteen years of liberalism, political correctness and multi-culturalism. The end result has been not freedom but licence, not harmony but fragmentation. As Bagehot says, in the debate between freedom and order the latter is winning out on several fronts.

An orgy of burning, murder and looting has helped to confirm the Prime Minister’s repeated mantra that ours is a broken society. While the economy still operates a commanding position in most people’s minds, concerns over law and order are beginning to close up fast.

Our police force has been badly mismanaged, as I said in my previous article, with repeated waves of liberalisation reducing its effectiveness as an agent of order. There is nothing more dangerous to peace than a police service that is perceived to be weak; ordinary people loose faith and criminals become bolder. Civil liberty is all very well but not when it is accompanied by laxity and lawlessness.

If you think acts of disorder reflect badly on the ruling government I would urge you to consider a retake. Disorder in itself is not the issue; it’s the way in which the politicians act that’s important, the way in which they respond to the public mood. There is one paragraph where Bagehot really hits home;

…the backlash could extend beyond crime to include welfare and other social issues. The left is imploring the public to consider the underlying causes of the riots. They should be careful what they wish for. Voters might conclude that the deep-seated causes are not poverty, discrimination and austerity – the riots took place in a country whose government currently spends half of its national income – but welfare dependency, broken homes and moral nihilism.

We’ve been here before, of course, we’ve seen moral nihilism at its worst. One need not go as far back as the Gordon Riots of 1780, an episode I mentioned in The Shaming of England; there are the riots of 1981 in the same urban ghettos. Then the political mood of the country shifted decisively to the right, with Margaret Thatcher hugely increasing her Parliamentary majority in the subsequent general election. Consider also the urban and campus riots which blighted America in the late 1960s, which served as an overture for the age of Nixon.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has emerged from the burning a little like a phoenix, shining with a new lustre. His green and salad days are gone. At the height of the disorder he described parts of Britain as “not just broken but frankly sick”, going on to call for a “clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by”. Yes, indeed, values and standards that were lost in thirteen years of political drift at home, aggressive warfare abroad, all accompanied by the most abject forms of moral decay.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream

I recently mentioned, in a response to Calvin, the Fifth Monarchists and Thomas Venner, a movement and a name that will be familiar to students of seventeenth century England and the millenarian madness that gripped the country as a fever grips a body. I thought I would say a bit more about this.

The movement itself took its name from the Second Book of Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has a dream interpreted for him by the prophet;

The king had had a dream which greatly perturbed him. He burned with eagerness to know what it meant, but reasoned that he could be sure that an interpretation was correct only if the interpreter was able to narrate the dream itself without being told it. Since none of his masters of occult lore was able to do this, the king ordered his captain of the guard to execute all the savants of Babylon. The officer proceeded to do so, and since Daniel and his companions came under the definition of savants, they were also to be put to death. On asking the captain of the guard for the reason and receiving his answer, Daniel persuaded him to discontinue the slaughter for a few hours and promised that at the end of that time he would come up with the answer to the king's questions. Then he and his companions prayed, and the solution was revealed to Daniel in a dream. Brought before the king, Daniel narrated the king's dream and interpreted it to mean that Nebuchadnezzar's domination of the whole world would be followed by the successive world ascendancies of three other monarchies, after which God would set up a fifth monarchy that would destroy the four previous monarchies and would endure forever.

One of the most important things to bear in mind about the politics of the mid-seventeenth century, when the world truly was turned upside down, is that the Bible became a kind of manifesto, used to interpret and explain events in the secular world, used, moreover, as a guide for action. As we have come to understand, there is no greater danger than the naïve and literal interpretation of sacred texts.

The Fifth Monarchists were a group of people who believed in the literal truth of Daniel’s prophecy, that the four monarchies had come and gone, evidenced finally by the execution of Charles I in January, 1649, and that the Second Coming was immanent, in which Jesus would set up the Fifth and final kingdom of the earth.

So who were they, these people, the Taliban come Marxists of their day? They were the godly in league with God; at least they were according to Thomas Gataker, a leading seventeenth century clergyman and theologian. In practice they were an odd mixture of puritan enthusiasts: soldiers, clergymen, tradesmen, small farmers and the urban poor. Some of them wanted to transform the world by the power of prayer, others by the power of politics.

In normal times history would have passed these people by unnoticed. But the Civil Wars followed by the Interregnum was the most abnormal time in the whole of English history. Prophecy, in one form or another, gave shape to dreams. Besides texts drawn from Daniel and the Book of Revelations, there were popular contemporary works, notably Henry Archer’s The Personal Reign of Christ upon Earth, published in 1642. Archer was nothing if not exact, always a danger with prophets. The Jews would be converted, he said, in 1650, the Turks destroyed - presumably meaning Muslims in general - and Christ would return to earth in 1700. But that wasn’t quick enough for some, as the removal of one king in 1649 clearly portended the arrival of another.

In the meantime they had to make do with Oliver Cromwell. It was in the court of this ersatz king that the Fifth Monarchists achieved their greatest influence. The most influential of all was Thomas Harrison, one of the men who condemned King Charles to death. It was on his urging that Cromwell summoned in 1653 the Parliament of Saints or the Nominated Parliament, better known as the Barebones Parliament after one of its members, a Fifth Monarchist who went by the name of Praise-God Barebone. Yes, that really was his name!

This was the high noon of the Fifth Monarchy men, but as saints are notoriously inept in managing earthly affairs, the Barebones Parliament collapsed after only a few months, dismissed by the more conservative elements around Cromwell, in no mood for millenarian radicalism. Thereafter the movement went in to decline, horrified by the establishment of the Protectorate, King Cromwell and no King Jesus. For these men the new Lord Protector was none other than the Anti-Christ.

Plotting away in the background, they immersed themselves in fresh prophecies, some centring on the year 1666 and its supposed relationship to the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelations. In other words, it was a case of paradise postponed, until next time, when the Beast will be succeeded by Beauty. Cromwell went and a new king came, though not King Jesus.

Enter Charles II, of blessed memory; enter in his shadow one Thomas Venner, a cooper by trade. Actually Venner was not completely unknown to history, having been involved in a 1657 plot to depose Cromwell. Now, in their senescence, the rump of the Fifth Monarchists gathered around this petty prophet, intending to overthrow the newly restored king. In his biography of Charles II Ronald Hutton describes these people as politically mad if not clinically so, a judgement with which I’m in complete agreement.

Armed with the power of prophecy and little more, Venner and some fifty men began a rebellion against the government in early January 1661, parading around London, shouting out “King Jesus and the heads upon the gates.” There were to be heads upon the gates alright – their own.

Venner’s Rising, as it came to be known, lasted all of four days, more of a kind of minor riot with intent. Suffering from multiple wounds received in fighting with royal troops, Venner was executed along with a number of others. Thereafter the movement slipped into the final shadows, not even revived by the portentous events of 1666, when life in London really did become more beastly than usual.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Sonata of a Good Man

It’s fifty years since construction began on the Berlin Wall in August, 1961, dividing a city, dividing families, dividing lives. Built by the government of the then German Democratic Republic, it was described absurdly as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall”, when it should really have been called the “We Have to Keep our Miserable Citizens in Wall.”

It stood for so long as the ultimate symbol of the abject failure of communism. I have no great opinion of John F. Kennedy, but his Berlin speech summed up the situation with poetic intensity;

There are many people in the world who really don't understand--or say they don't--what is the greatest issue between the free world and Communist world. Let them come to Berlin!

There are some who say that "communism is the wave of the future." Let them come to Berlin!

And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere, "we can work with the Communists." Let them come to Berlin!

And there are even a few who say "yes, that it's true, that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress." Lass' sie nach Berlin en kommen! Let them come to Berlin!

Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us!

No, we did not.

It was the Wall I was thinking about recently, not just the physical wall but the wall that states like the GDR constructed in the minds of people, a wall of secret and lies intended to hide hypocrisy and corruption. I saw Das Leben der Anderen – The Lives of Others – when it was first released in 2006, before I started this blog. I decided to revisit it recently on DVD on this anniversary year.

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, the movie tells the story of a Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an idealist, a patriot, a believer…and an officer in the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police. He is assigned to spy on one Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright, one of the state’s cultural icons. Why? Well the simple secret policeman finds out the secret: it’s because the Minister of Culture (Thomas Theime) wants to get his fat paws on Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and it would be ever so helpful if the inconvenient artist could be removed from the equation.

Bit by bit, in the course of his surveillance of Dreyman, a sordid reality chips away at Wiesler’s idealism, as the system is exposed in all its corruption, the corruption not just of the politician but also of his immediate superior in the Stasi, who would destroy a man’s life simply to advance his own career.

His disillusion is matched by that of Dreyman, hitherto a committed Communist, who sees a colleague, blacklisted by the state, driven to suicide. The two men, unbeknown to Dreyman, enter into a silent collaboration, with the policeman acting less as a spy and more as a protector, deliberately sabotaging the investigation and hiding evidence of the playwright’s exposure of suicide rates in the GDR in an article published anonymously in the West. As a consequence his own career is ruined.

Fast forward to the new united Germany. The ex-Stasi agent is now working as a postman. Dreyman, now a novelist, discovers that he had been placed under surveillance. Not just that but a case could never be made against him because he had his own guardian angel, HGW XX/7, Wiesler’s Stasi code, which he finds in archives now open to the public. The novel he then writes, Sonate vom Guten Menschen, carries a simple dedication: To HGW XX/7 with gratitude.

It’s a tremendous piece of cinema, a simple and moving story, proof that lies have a lease as short as summer, that goodness and virtue can survive even the worst forms of criminal turpitude.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Ana in the Slaughterhouse

The following is an interview with me carried out by Richard Godwin, author of Apostle Rising, a novel I previously reviewed here. It was published recently on his own site under the Chin Wag at the Slaughterhouse Section ( ). I’m reposting it here with his permission. Thanks, Richard. :-)

Chin Wag at the Slaughterhouse

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont is a student of Stuart history. She is a widely read deep political thinker who has an extensive grasp of the history not only of England but the world. She is not afraid to speak her mind on issues that are contentious. She is also extremely well read in fiction. Her analyses of current and historical situations are individual and outside the stereotypical tired political thinking that is prevalent. If my opinion is worth anything her historical analyses deserve to be widely read. She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about government and politics.

I made sure the sommelier fetched and decanted the finest Gevrey-Chambertin from The Slaughterhouse cellar.

1. John Locke, known as the Father of Liberalism, developed his theory of the social contract which looked at appropriate relations between individuals and their governments. What do you think of his analysis of the state and how would he have viewed the liberty granted or denied by the Big Society of Britain today?

Richard, for the long answer I would refer you to I must be free or die, a piece I wrote on my blog at the beginning of December last year The most pertinent extract is as follows;

I believe in freedom; I believe the state to be an intrusive imposition, an attempt to place limits on freedom. Still, we life in communities and communities have to be ordered, so I accept the state as a necessity, just so long as it is kept at a maximum distance. I dislike any form of welfare or state subsidy, which I believe to be corrosive of self-respect and economic freedom. More than that, the high levels of taxation they require do much to bleed the life out of enterprise, impacting on the very people that welfare is supposedly meant to help.

I think Locke would have been horrified by the development of the modern state, particularly the degenerate form created by the previous government, intrusive and authoritarian to a quite obnoxious degree. I still have no clear idea what our present Prime Minister means by the Big Society, undefined and nebulous, the intellectual child, I suspect, of the woolly-minded Philip Blond, that well-known ‘Red’ Tory. I do not want the big battalions; I want the little platoons that Edmund Burke placed so much reliance on, a point on which I think Locke would agree. I’m in the process of discovering the work of Frédéric Bastiat, whose views on liberty and the state accord so much with my own.

2. In ‘Manufacturing Consent’ Chomsky put forward the theory of the Propaganda Model, which posits that corporate-owned news mass communication media distort news reportage because they are businesses subject to commercial competition. To what extent do you think Britain today is subject to these distortions and how effectively do you think the propaganda machine is working?

I could easily make out an argument to the contrary, that insofar as corporate owned media are in competition with one another, and with other sources of communication, a premium is placed on gathering genuine news, on not distorting stories for simple political ends. Rupert Murdoch may be politically motivated but he is a business man first with enough sense to leave news gathering to professional journalists.

Journalism is a cut-throat profession and we have seen from some of the less scrupulous newspapers that people will break all rules to get a story, or create a story where there is none. That’s a form of distortion, I suppose, but it’s on the margins, the kind of thing one sees in the newspapers I never read. Newspapers as pure propaganda would quickly end up dead. People may be stupid, but not so stupid that they are blind to a message, blind to the fact that they are being manipulated. Josef Goebbels was a propagandist of genius because he recognised this simple fact. Consent can never be manufactured. I have to say, as a general principle, I’m far more concerned by super injunctions and the invidious effects this legal tactic is having on free expression.

3. Laurence Sterne’s innovative novel ‘Tristram Shandy’ uses John Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ to explore his theories of empiricism and raise the question of how much we can really know of ourselves. Do you think his theories still hold good today and are we living in an age of heightened narcissism?

Is this an age of heighten narcissism or degenerate narcissism? The latter, I suspect, the age of reality TV, of Big Brother, of a succession of mediocre celebrities, of people famous for being famous. How Locke would have hated this unreflective time and its unreflective people, whose empiricism, if I can even use that term, is one without any interior examination, simply an animal-like response to one bogus stimulus, trend or fashion after another. Maybe Sterne would have understood better:

With all this sail, poor Yorick carried not one ounce of ballast; he was utterly unpractised in the world; and at the age of twenty-six, knew just about as well how to steer his course in it, as a romping, unsuspicious girl of thirteen.

4. Do you think under current anti-terrorism laws it is arguable that burning Guy Fawkes is incitement to terrorism and if you were alive at the time of the gunpowder plot how would you have legislated against the plotters?

Sorry to burden you with yet another reference but I give you to this, a piece I wrote last year, a response to an article by Frank Skinner calling for the scrapping of Bonfire Night.

Actually, people burning Guy Fawkes, by contemporary lights, should really be pursued for incitement to hatred against a religious minority. I’m sure there must be something under the previous government’s laughable blasphemy legislation.

It’s impossible to legislate in advance against plotters, for the simple reason that their schemes are devised in secret. If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded it would have wiped out virtually the whole of the English governing class, causing monumental political chaos. In 1605 legislation against traitors like Catesby and Fawkes was already in place; there would have been no need for any additional measures. But if I had been alive then, and in a position of influence, I would certainly have argued against a general campaign against all Catholics, few of whom were traitors in words or deed.

5. In ‘Metahistory’ Hayden White posits the theory that a historian begins his work by putting together a chronicle of events which is organized into a story before the material is put into a plot which is latently expressing an ideology. As a historian what do you make of his theory and how do you avoid narrative prejudice when writing history?

It’s a good question. If I understand White correctly he seems to be saying that the whole process is already mapped out before a single document is examined. Of course no researcher comes to a topic in the raw, so to speak, as she or he will have already gone through the background literature and to that extent have already formed a broad impression.

However does this necessarily mean that a strict explanatory framework is already in place, that there is necessarily a narrative prejudice or an ideology determining how the evidence is interpreted? I’m not saying this can’t happen but the best, the most original historical writing, is free, or should be free, of any marked political or philosophical bias. I would like to think that my argument would always be driven by the evidence; that I can, with the right approach, understand what motivates a Whig as much as a Tory.

6. Elias Canetti in ‘Crowds and Power’ writes ‘No political structure of any size can dispense with order, and one of the fundamental applications of order it to time, for no communal human activity can take place without it. Indeed one might say that the regulation of time is the primary attribute of all government.’ What do you make of his observation?

Right, OK, this is a difficult one for me because I have such a poor opinion on Canetti! I’ve read Crowds and Power and Auto-da-Fe, his novel, and was impressed by neither. But I had already been soured, I suppose, by a reading of P. J. Conrad’s Iris Murdoch- A Life. Here is what I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between Canetti and Murdoch:

Elias Canetti lived in England for nearly forty years, seemingly hating the experience. In his resentment he turned on Iris Murdoch, with whom he had had an affair, seeing in her all of the perceived faults of the country. She was, in his eyes, a ‘complete Oxford parasite’. She dressed badly, her figure was wrong; she was promiscuous, bisexual and religious. She was a person who had enjoyed ‘vulgar’ success, in novels that were far too Oxonian, with characters that were merely caricatures of her friends and pupils. She was, unlike him, an illegitimate Poet or Master of Transformation. And so his memoir continues in this sour and silly tone. At one point he uses literally hundreds of words to criticise a revealing blouse she wore to attract Sir Aymer Maxwell, who, though homosexual, was grandson to a Duke of Cumberland.

It all reveals so much about Canetti’s character. It also, perhaps, reveals some lack of judgement on Murdoch’s part in ever entering into a relationship with such a shallow egoist. As far as I am concerned his writings, both his fiction and his non-fiction, are amongst the most grossly overrated of the last century.

So, there you are! Sorry, I’m getting so far from the point of your question. I think the regulation of time has precious little to do with government. Government has existed for centuries, back to a time when time was no more than the rhythm of the seasons. If time has become quicker and more intrusive that’s because of the general changes within society that emerged with the Industrial Revolution. Time gets faster by the minute, if that makes sense, too fast often for government to keep up let alone regulate.

7. How do you think matriarchal and patriarchal social structures differ?

In answer to your question all I can say here is that patriarchy is a practice and matriarch merely a hypothesis. I imagine matriarchy, understanding this to be a society run specifically by mothers, would be a lot less competitive and far more nurturing. By that definition Amazons are not matriarchs; they are just female patriarchs! Feminism, I should add, is not really part of my intellectual makeup. I can see and I can understand the artificial barriers that a society dominated by men erects against the advance of women, but the higher the barrier the greater the challenge. I suppose I must be something of an Amazon too.

8. As a historian specialising in Stuart history you are dealing with a period in British history where there is an Interregnum. During this period England was dominated by Puritan literature and official censorship, as exemplified by Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ and his later retractions of that statement. Although some of the Puritan ministers of Oliver Cromwell wrote poetry that was elaborate and carnal, such as Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, this poetry was not published. What do you think the literature of the period reveals about the time and why do you think the Commonwealth failed?

My focus has chiefly been on the political literature of the period, particularly the polemical pamphlet, in which the age excelled. To some extent these still colour our view of the whole period: we are still influenced by some of the myths, as you will discover if you keep your eye on my blog! I will be publishing an article in a day or so showing how modern day perceptions of the Puritans continue to be influenced by John Cleveland, a minor Royalist poet.

Generally speaking the literature of the period, thinking specifically of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, is quite barren, setting Marvell and Milton to one side. Censorship, despite Milton ’s appeal, was the dominant force, not just political censorship but also the censorship of artistic expression. The previous golden age of the theatre was brought to a juddering halt by Puritan intolerance. The sterility of the Interregnum with what went before, and what was to come with the Restoration, is quite startling. Even Milton ’s greatest work came in the reign of Charles II.

By the Commonwealth I’m assuming that you mean the whole period of the Interregnum, from the execution of Charles I to the Restoration of Charles II? The experiment failed simply because it was impossible to find a permanent political settlement, one that was not backed by military force. By the time of its dismissal by Cromwell in 1653 the Rump of the Long Parliament was hopelessly unrepresentative, even of that narrow part of the nation that was allowed to vote. It was also self-serving and corrupt. Its successor, the Nominated or Barebones Parliament, was ineffectual.

What then? Why the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, a restoration of the monarchy in all but name. He was even offered the crown shortly before the creation of the Second Protectorate, only refusing because of the hostility of the army. Although Cromwell was not a dictator in the modern sense, in that he continued to seek parliamentary legitimacy, his power did not depend on his narrowly selected legislatures but on the New Model Army. The rule of the Army, particularly in the period of the Major Generals, was hugely unpopular and ruinously expensive.

With the death of Oliver Cromwell he was succeeded by Richard, for no better reason than that he was his father’s son. But Richard had no legitimacy whatsoever, no power base in either parliament or the army. His fall in 1659 was succeeded by complex political manoeuvring, but in the end it was obvious that the only real solution was to restore the monarchy and the ancient constitution of the country, subverted by Cromwell and the Puritans, a far greater threat to English liberty than Charles I had ever had.

9. To what extent do you think the problems between Israel and Palestine were exacerbated by the Balfour Declaration?

So, on to Balfour. Did you know that Robert Cecil, his predecessor as Prime Minister, was his uncle? When Balfour succeeded in 1902 people clearly amused by this perceived nepotism invented the expression “Bob’s your uncle.” Doubtless you knew this already.

I think there would always have been problems between Jewish incomers to Palestine and the Arabs who already lived there. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 – made when he was Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s government – was a clear hostage to fortune, a promise made under a particular set of circumstances, a political investment that was to flower into some truly intractable problems for the British, especially after they obtained the Mandate of Palestine. It was simply impossible to reconcile the two sides. A promise made and then cynically ignored made the British look hypocritical and untrustworthy, a fact that made a final settlement all the more elusive. To encourage Lawrence and the Arab Revolt while promoting Zionism (incidentally in the belief that this would keep Russia in the war because the country was supposedly dominated by the Jews) was a monumental miscalculation. The Jews and the Arabs may have hated one another, but they ended up hating the British more.

10. Do you think New Labour was bordering on totalitarianism and how many elements of George Orwell’s ’1984′ do you see in their policies?

I wrote a piece in May of last year I called Bad Law, a gloss on Philip Johnston’s book Bad Laws. Since we are on the subject of Stuart history, and since I’ve already mentioned the rule of Cromwell’s Major Generals, I think this provides a more pertinent example of the forms of killjoy governance favoured by Blair and Brown than the totalitarian tyranny of Nineteen-Eighty Four. BB they may be but they were not BB, if you take my meaning!

Yet, as I wrote in Bad Law, there are some parallels with Orwell’s dystopia and New Labour Britain. The Religious Hatred Act effectively introduced thought crime into English law. The various pieces of anti-terror legislation created a greater threat to our liberty than Al-Qaeda ever could. The Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act, something that could have been put in place by O’Brien of the Thought Police, allowed officials to read private correspondence and monitor the movements of even the most law-abiding citizens. The spread of CCTV meant that we were all under closer observation than even the citizens of Cuba or North Korea . I concluded my argument with another Stuart reference;

…each and every one of us has become a potential suspect, guilty until proved innocent. Sweep the lot away, sweep away the legacy of a dreadful thirteen years, either that or reintroduce Royal Absolutism, my favoured solution. We were much freer under its gentle guidance.

Yes, we were.

Thank you Ana for a brilliant and refreshing interview.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Starkey and the Morlocks

I recently watched a movie called Adulthood. I can’t tell you an awful lot about it other than it was set in London among an unprepossessing set of violent thugs and drug dealers. The reason I can’t describe what it was about is because I barely understood one word in ten. They were all speaking a language that I take to be a form of English, the argot of an underclass, referring to each other as bloods or buds or bluhs, I really can’t be sure which, the sort of gobbledegook that I suppose gives these types ‘street cred.’ It just so happens that I saw this a few days before the London riots. There they were again, the same types, all the same types, all the bloods or buds or bluhs.

When I say ‘all’ I mean black and white; I mean that white teenagers of a certain class have adopted aspects of what I take to be a type of black culture, specifically a kind of coded language, because it’s considered to be ‘cool’ or because they have never known anything else, growing up in places like Hackney or Tottenham or wherever. There is nothing racist about this kind of observation; it’s nothing to do with skin colour and everything to do with cultural identity. Oh, but it is racist, at least according to some.

David Starkey is a historian who specialises in Tudor England, an expertise which he has carried so far as the nation’s television screens. But he’s also an all-round media person, offering his opinions on a variety of subjects. I find him highly entertaining, not just the way in which he presents his historical documentaries, but his direct and no-nonsense approach in discussion. He speaks to the point, not suffering fools gladly or at all. Altogether there is a refreshing honesty to his manner, quite free from cant and anodyne platitudes.

Last Friday he offered his opinion on Newsnight, a current affairs show, saying that the recent riots happened because too many young white people “had now become black.” It was all because a “violent, destructive and nihilistic gang culture” had been embraced by as many white people as by blacks, a culture that militated against education. As for their speech patterns;

Black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false, which is Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded into England and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.

Shock, horror; crucify him!, crucify him!, the cry went out. To paraphrase Macaulay, I know of no spectacle more ridiculous than the liberal chattering-class in one of their periodic fits of moral outrage. One by one his fellow broadcasters fell over themselves in attempts to drive home the nail. Piers Morgan, another media person and a bit of a twerp, had a tweet – “RIP David Starkey’s TV career. And good riddance. Racist idiot.”

Now, if you don’t know Morgan let me just say that he is well qualified to refer to other people as idiots, being a first class idiot himself, a kind of jumped up chav, Burberry Man at his finest, easy to make fun of, as he has been made fun of during his embarrassing apperances on Have I Got News For You. He’s as stupid as Starkey is clever. He’s also a hypocrite. But he’s in so many ways typical of the oiks that dominates so much of contemporary life.

His word has been added to by Robert Preston, the BBC’s business editor, saying that “David Starkey’s nasty ignorance is best ignored not worthy of comment or debate.” Oh, really? Then why, I ask myself, did this clot feel compelled to comment? I don’t suppose it really matters now, as his intervention is doubtless evidence that Starkey’s TV career is indeed over, that his voice has forever been silenced by Auntie’s Marxist Men.

It really makes no difference that Starkey was talking about gang culture and not skin colour or ethnicity, a point he has made since, raising this issue at all has ensured him a passage to the gulag of all that is unacceptable, all of the issues that dare not speak their name.

Unlike Piers Morgan, aka Baron Phone Hacker of the Daily Mirror, I do not see any racism here. I see plenty of idiots, though, arbiters of what can and cannot be said. The evidence is overwhelming that the low life gangstas, bloods or buds or bluhs, the semi-literate rappers, black or white, are to blame for London’s madness, that they represent an alien culture and a wholly alien world that I despise, a threat to culture and every standard of civilized decency. They are a wretched sub-class, Morlocks and Calibans, who should be ushered off to some nether world where they can all speak their incomprehensible jargon in complete freedom. Either that or they could set up home besides Piers Morgan.

Monday 15 August 2011

An Alibi for Pigs

Sir Tony Brenton, the former British ambassador to Moscow, writing in the Times on Friday, said that most people under thirty will be ‘blissfully ignorant’ of the nonsense of Marxism, which is apparently undergoing something of a popular and intellectual revival in the fallout from the latest ‘crisis’ of capitalism.

Under thirty I may be but I am assuredly not ‘most people’, having made a particular study of utopian ideologies, of which Marxism is by far the most repellent. It was delivered to the world by a bearded prophet in tablets of stone, grave slabs, really, for the millions done to death in the name of these commandments of perfection.

Marxism really is the road to hell. I’ve never understood why fascism is held in such obloquy, why symbols like the swastika are perceived with revulsion while the communist star is not. I’ve seen the traces of communism, the shadows, and the bones, it left in Cambodia. I see the traces indirectly. Among other things I’m reading Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s account of life in North Korea, which really is nothing to envy. Imagine the life of a termite. No, imagine something worse.

Apparently Das Kapital shot up the best seller lists after the banking crash of 2008. Perhaps you have a copy in your book collection? Have you read it; have you even glanced through its pages? Yes, I know: it really is awful, the dullest book ever written, the prose so turgid and heavy that it won’t rise from the page. I imagine it stands proud in many a trendy household, occupying the commanding heights of the bookcase, accusatory, imperious and forever unread, the ultimate word in superfluous value.

Professor Terry Eagleton, a sort of intellectual lumpen proletarian, a useful idiot of the most idiotic kind, has just published a book called Why Marx was Right, providing further proof, if proof is needed, that he and his kind have learned nothing and understood less.

Yes, markets are not infallible; they will continue to move in cycles, and boom and bust are features of free economies. But Marx was not right; he was bloody well wrong in everything, most of all in the contention that capitalism eats up its own profits and pauperises the working-class. Crisis after crisis we have had since Moses was interred at Highgate in north London, resting under an awful slab of old Eastern European monumentalism, but people are still better off than in the old dog’s day. Even in China, where Marxism coupled with blind dogmatism was responsible for unbelievable levels of suffering, free market capitalism has rescued the people from abject poverty, showing that history does not move in one direction only.

Marxism poisons everything it touches. As Sir Tony says, the civic spirit of Russia has still not recovered after seventy years of communist tyranny, which makes it all the easier for authoritarianism and corruption to flourish almost unchallenged.

Then there is the argument, he continues, that we have never had ‘real’ communism, that the revolution happened in the wrong places, that it will all be better the ‘next time’ around. It’s all fodder for muddle-brains like Eagleton and those who fly under his wing, a fairytale for the unreflective. The Marxist Utopia is predicated on the assumption that the world is a kind of cornucopia, forever pouring out the good things of life, ready to be shared with equality once the parasitical ‘bourgeois’ have been eliminated from the picture of perfection.

Time and again we’ve seen it; time and again we have seen the Lenin-style elites take the good things, always a scarcity, for themselves. People who read Orwell’s Animal Farm and see it as a fable about Stalinism are wrong; it’s a fable about hypocrisy and greed. Remember those wind-fall apples? The corruption did not begin with the triumph of Napoleon over Snowball; it was there from the outset. The revolutionary vanguard are all pigs. Marxism is the alibi of pigs.

Sir Tony’s article concludes with a reference to Hegel’s observation that the only thing we ever learn from history is that no one learns anything from history. Eagleton is a living reminder of this truism. Still, so long as we live in a free society, a capitalist society, we are all better off; he earns royalties from the mugs who take this nonsense seriously; I am under no compulsion to read this meretricious rubbish or contribute to his profits. In Utopia I would have no choice and he would have no income.

Sunday 14 August 2011

The Shaming of England

One other circumstance is worthy of remark; and that is, that from the moment of their first outbreak…every symptom of order or preconceived arrangement among them, vanished. When they divided into parties and ran to different quarters of the town, it was on the spontaneous suggestion of the moment. Each party swelled as it went along, like rivers as they roll towards the sea; new leaders sprang up as they were wanted, disappeared when the necessity was over, and reappeared at the next crisis. Each tumult took shape and form, from the circumstances of the moment…in a word a moral plague ran through the city. The noise, and hurry, and excitement, had for hundreds and hundreds an attraction they had no firmness to resist. The contagion spread, like a dread river: an infectious madness, as yet not near its height, seized on new victims every hour, and society began to tremble at their ravings.

So, what do you think? Is this a description of events in London last week? It’s a description of events in London alright but it’s not August, 2011; it’s June, 1780, the Gordon Riots as depicted by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge.

The savagery of 1780 was brought on by a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria, but this kind of thing really requires no motive; disorder, violence and the ugliness of the mob becomes an end in itself; it became an end in itself last week in London and other English cities, as a Twitter contagion spread across the land, shaming it in the eyes of the world.

The thing that outraged me most about this outrage was the way that it was wilfully misinterpreted, a serious news story draped in an ideological fog, balderdash about deprivation and cuts. I wrote Shopping with Violence, my previous article, as a rapid corrective to misinformation. I also wrote it, I freely confess, in a mood of acute anger. But I had no time to stand and stare; I had to react, a little attempt to ensure that a lie was not swallowed as the truth.

Now I have had time to think, and I’ve been thinking hard ever since, talking to friends and contacts over the weekend, including some journalists I know. I’m no less angry but a lot more focused. There is now some additional information that I would like to share. So, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London; I’ll show you something that’s bound to shake your mind.

Let me begin by telling you a tale of two cities, of two lives about as far apart as is possible to imagine. My first is an 89-year-old man by the name of Aaron Biber, a barber who has been cutting hair in Tottenham, the district where the riots started, for over forty years. His shop, a one-man business, was trashed; his equipment, such as it was, taken, even his kettle. “I will probably have to close because I haven’t got the insurance and can’t afford the repairs”, he said afterwards.

My second is Laura Johnson, a 19-year-old student. She does not live in Tottenham, oh, no; she is the daughter of a millionaire whose gated home, complete with tennis court, is in opulent Orpington. What on earth is the relevance of this spoiled little rich girl to the story of Biber the Barber? Simply this: he is a victim of a riot; she is an alleged rioter. She has been charged with driving away in a car containing stolen televisions, mobile phones, cigarettes and alcohol, all at an estimated value of $8000. Is if fair to ask if daddy was keeping her short in her allowance? Was she a victim of the government’s heartless cuts? Was she outraged by the condition of the hungry proletariat? I’ll leave you to make up your own minds.

It goes on like this, the stories go on like this, stories of little people whose lives and businesses have been blighted by a venal mob, out to take what they could, and what they could not take they destroyed. I mentioned in my previous article an injured man, robbed as he was helped to his feet, an incident filmed and posted on YouTube. I now know that his name is Asyraf Rossli, a 20-year old student from Malaysia, here on a visit. He has now become a symbol for the riot, a living indictment of the sub-human brutes that broke his jaw and took his things.

He is one symbol. Another is Chelsea Ives, an 18-year-old who was seen hurling bricks at the police. She also stands accused of leading an attack on a mobile phone store. This woman, who previously had been selected as an ambassador to promote the London Olympics because of her sporting abilities, later boasted that she had had “the best day ever.” Unfortunately for her she was spotted by her own mother, who, in a mood of disgust, reported the incident to the police. Ives has now been remanded in custody.

Now I’m going to take you further north, out of London to the city of Birmingham, where the disorder spread in Twitter copy-cat fashion. There 21-year-old Haroon Jahan was killed after a suspected looter drove a car directly at him and his two brothers as they attempted to defend shops, mosques and businesses from the contagion. As justifiable anger overtook the Muslim community, his father, Tariq, with incredible nobility of spirit, prevented an even greater evil:

I have no grievance against anyone, especially the guy who ran his car into my son. I don’t feel anger. What he did I leave in the hands of the Lord to punish him the way he wants. I have nothing to do with that. I don’t blame the police; their hands are tied by the Government. I don’t blame the Government; they can’t control the kids. They can’t stop everyone; there are more public that there are police.

I have a grievance alright; I feel anger and sadness on Mister Jahan’s behalf. I also feel anger and sadness at the fate of 68-year-old Richard Mannington Bowes, a pensioner from Ealing in London, who was beaten unconscious by a group of youths after he tried to stop them setting fire to large rubbish bins across the green from his apartment. Police were held back from reaching him by a mob throwing bricks and chunks of paving slabs. Mister Mannington Bowles died after three days on a life support machine.

I took part recently in a discussion thread on Blog Catalogue, a multi-author forum, concerning Another Brick in the Wall, a song by Pink Floyd, an old British rock band. “We don’t need no education”, they sing self-refutingly. The mobs in London, Birmingham and elsewhere do not have no education, I would guess, and do not want no education. But they certainly needed those bricks in the wall, to loot and to maim. There is a sickness in this land, the sickness of people who care for nothing but themselves and their own vile appetites, the sickness of those who would look for political purpose in murder and mayhem, people like Ken Livingstone the former mayor of London, a man whose brains are more addled than most.

Whatever the outcome of these August days, this summer in the city, I sincerely hope there is no repetition of the mealy-mouthed, hand-wringing liberalism that saw previous disorders given a kind of retrospective justification, which saw millions of pounds of public money wasted on wasters. I sincerely hope that you, who may not know this country, are not deceived by attempts at a political whitewash. I hope you understand that hooliganism is no more than hooliganism, theft no more than theft and that violence, for some, simply carries its own vicarious pleasures.

England was shamed last week but I would like to finish on the upbeat. There has been a huge upsurge in support for the police, a community counter-reaction against thuggery. There has been a popular surge in support for Mister Biber, an online campaign called Keep Aaron Cutting set up on his behalf. So far over $45,000 has been pledged. Aaron will keep cutting. London and England will keep cutting too; the world expects no less.