Within hours of the July 7 2005 bombings in London, the BBC stealth-edited its reports so that any references to “terrorists” that had initially appeared were changed to “bombers” or a similar purely descriptive, non-judgmental term. This was done in response to a memo from Helen Boaden, then Head of News. She did not want to offend World Service listeners. Given this reluctance to use the word “terrorist”, suspended for a few hours when terrorism came to its front door and then reimposed, I often wondered what it would take for the BBC to rediscover the ability to use words that imply a moral judgment.
One answer was obvious. It was fine to describe bombing as a “war crime” if it was carried out by the Israeli air force.
But in general as the years have gone by the BBC stuck to what it knew best: obfuscation. For instance, this article from last December, describing how fifteen Christians had their throats slit in Nigeria described the perpetrators as the “Islamist militants Boko Haram”. In venturing to describe the murders as a massacre, that article went further than most; the bombings of churches in Nigeria by Boko Haram are routinely described in terms of “unrest”, or as “conflict” – as if there were two sides killing each other at a roughly equal rate.
However, on Sunday I observed something I had not seen before. An atrocity carried out by Muslims against Christians was described as an “atrocity”. It happened in 1480, but still.
The BBC report says,
Pope Francis has proclaimed the first saints of his pontificate in a ceremony at the Vatican – a list which includes 800 victims of an atrocity carried out by Ottoman soldiers in 1480.
They were beheaded in the southern Italian town of Otranto after refusing to convert to Islam.
A reminder that “martyr” used to mean someone who died for his faith rather than killed for it. A reminder also of a centuries-long struggle against invading Islam that has been edited out of our history. You can bet the Seige of Vienna, which proved to be the high water mark of the Ottoman tide, does not feature in any GCSE syllabus. Nor does the rematch one and a half centuries later. The epic Seige of Malta was once celebrated in song and story, but don’t expect to see a BBC mini-series about it any time soon. Damian Thompson recently said a lot of what I had been thinking when he wrote about the the mass canonisation of the martyrs of Otranto in the Telegraph (subscription may be required):
Martyred for Christ: 800 victims of Islamic violence who will become saints this month
The cathedral of Otranto in southern Italy is decorated with the skulls of 800 Christian townsfolk beheaded by Ottoman soldiers in 1480. A week tomorrow, on Sunday May 12, they will become the skulls of saints, as Pope Francis canonises all of them. In doing so, he will instantly break the record for the pope who has created the most saints.
I wonder how he feels about that. Benedict XVI announced the planned canonisations just minutes before dropping the bombshell of his own resignation. You could view it as a parting gift to his successor. Or a booby trap.
The 800 men of Otranto – whose names are lost, except for that of Antonio Primaldo, an old tailor – were rounded up and killed because they refused to convert to Islam. In 2007, Pope Benedict recognised them as martyrs “killed out of hatred for the faith”. That is no exaggeration. Earlier, the Archbishop of Otranto had been cut to pieces with a scimitar.
There are, however, good secular reasons for welcoming this canonisation. Our history is distorted by a nagging emphasis on Christian atrocities during the Crusades combined with airbrushing of Muslim Andalusia, whose massacre of Jews in 1066 and exodus of Christians in 1126 are rarely mentioned. Otranto reminds us that Islam had its equivalent of crusaders – mighty forces who nearly captured Rome and Vienna.
The Muslim Brotherhood is still committed to a restored Caliphate; this week its supporters prophesied the return of a Muslim paradise to Andalusia. These are pipe dreams, it goes without saying. But they matter because they inspire freelance Islamists whose fascination with southern Europe has nothing to do with welfare payments. They think of it as theirs because they know bits of history that we’ve forgotten.
Our amnesia comes in handy in dialogue with Muslims: we grovel a few apologies for the Crusades, sing the praises of the Alhambra, and that’s it. But what does this self-laceration achieve? Arguably it’s counterproductive, because it shows Muslims that we’re ashamed of our heroes as well as our villains. Which is why the mass canonisation of 800 anonymous men is so welcome: it ensures that, even though the West has forgotten their names, it won’t be allowed to forget their deaths.
This made me laugh:
These expensive professionals seem to be very fragile creatures; the smallest hack, which no Public School boy would think of noticing, is enough to send them to earth in a well-acted, but supremely ridiculous, agony of pain, whereupon the referee blows his hard-worked whistle and hurries to soothe the injured spot with a sympathetic paw.
As you can probably tell from the language it’s from a while ago. 1913 to be exact and it’s from The Times’s report of that year’s FA Cup final. Yes, people then were making exactly the same complaints about footballers that they do now. At least they weren’t trying to eat one another.
What is really astonishing is the size of the crowd. 120,000 (the second highest ever) at Crystal Palace, of all places. I googled and found this photo from 1905:
What a mess! But as the article I linked to points out most of the crowd had no idea what was going on. Not only that but it was clearly a dangerous place to be:
Many of the railings designed to render the crowd of standing spectators less fluid and mobile collapsed with a crash, and there must have been scores of minor casualties.
Read the whole thing as they used to say.
Today I received one of those collective emails with a big list of recipients at the top. It was from Tim Evans to the Essex University Liberty League, and copied to the rest of us, suggesting all the copyees as potential speakers to the Essex University Liberty League. I was pleased to be even suggested, because I was a very happy student at Essex University in the early 1970s. Fingers crossed, hint hint.
But much more importantly, following a little googling for the Essex University Liberty League, I found my way to this, which I had not noticed before and which is a video of a talk given by the noted libertarian historian Stephen Davies to … the Essex University Liberty League. Having both hugely enjoyed and been hugely impressed by the talk that Stephen Davies gave to the Liberty League Freedom Forum in London just under a fortnight ago, on the subject of healthcare, I cranked up this video about the history of British libertarianism and had a listen.
Brilliant. The time, nearly fifty minutes of it, just flew by. Davies really is a master communicating a large body of ideas and information, seemingly with effortless ease, in what is (given the sheer volume of all those ideas and all that information) an amazingly short period of time, although in other hands the same chunk of time would feel like an eternity.
Thank goodness cheap videoing arrived in time for Davies to be extensively captured on it, for two reasons. First, it would be very hard to take notes that would do justice to a Stephen Davies talk, and it would be impossible to remember it all. There is, every time, just too much good stuff there. You want to be able to hear it all again, with a pause button available. Second, I get the distinct impression that Davies knows a great deal more about the present and the past of the world, and of the people trying to make the world more liberty-loving, than he has so far managed to get down on paper. Indeed, I sense that Davies’s recent IEA job, stimulating Britain’s student libertarian network, is a calculated trade-off on his part, between one important job, namely that, and the other important thing that Davies ought to be doing, namely writing down many more of his brilliant thoughts and discoveries and opinions and historical wisdoms than he has so far managed to write down.
Although, now would be a good time to flag up a piece Davies wrote for the Libertarian Alliance entitled Libertarian Feminism in Britain, 1860-1910, which is about the kind of thing his talk is about. The point being that most feminists then were libertarians, in contrast to the collectivists that most feminists are now. So, Davies has written some of his wisdoms down, just not as much as he might have.
However, meanwhile, and as a natural consequence of all the student networking that he has lately been doing, Davies does often give a talk, and sometimes someone records it. Like I say, thank goodness for video. And congratulations to whoever did video this particular Davies talk to the Essex University libertarians. Richard Carey, who did the short blog posting where I found the video, does not say who did this. Presumably an Essex libertarian. As I say, kudos to whoever it was.
Sadly, the Stephen Davies talk to LLFF2013 about healthcare was not videoed.
Indulge me in a little sermon. The tradition among many anthropologists and archaeologists has been to treat the past as a very different place from the present, a place with its own mysterious rituals. To cram the Stone Age or the tribal South Seas into modern economic terminology is therefore an anachronistic error showing capitalist indoctrination. This view was promulgated especially by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who distinguished pre-industrial economies based on ‘reciprocity’ from modern economies based on markets. Stephen Shennan satirises the attitude thus: ‘We engage in exchanges to make some sort of profit; they do so in order to cement social relationships; we trade commodities; they give gifts.’ Like Shennan, I think this is patronising bunk. I think people respond to incentives and always have done. People weigh costs and benefits and do what profits them. Sure, they take into account non-economic factors, such as the need to remain on good terms with trading partners and to placate malevolent deities. Sure, they give better deals to families, friends and patrons than they do to strangers. But they do that today as well. Even the most market-embedded modern financial trader is enmeshed in a web of ritual, etiquette, convention and obligation, not excluding social debt for a good lunch or an invitation to a football match. Just as modern economists often exaggerate the cold-hearted rationality of consumers, so anthropologists exaggerate the cuddly irrationality of pre-industrial people.
- This little “sermon” is on pp. 133-4 of The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (also quoted in this earlier posting here), in the chapter about the simultaneous rise of agriculture and early industrial specialisation, all within the context of a wider web of exchange relationships. What most clearly distinguishes humans from animals, and successful humans from all the failures, says Ridley, is trade.
Early agriculture and early industrial specialisation are both manifestations of the division of labour, which depends on trade. You can’t have early agriculture without specialists supplying crucial agricultural implements, such as axes to clear forests. You can’t have specialist suppliers of agricultural implements without specialist food-growers feeding them.
“William Shakespeare evaded tax and illegally stockpiled food during times of shortage so he could sell it at high prices, academics have claimed“.
Last night being the last Friday of March, there was a meeting at my place, as already flagged up here. But it was also Good Friday, so I did a bit of extra hustling and emailing around beforehand to ensure some kind of turnout. It worked. Great talk, and there were nine libertarian-inclined Londoners present in the form of: two Americans, a German, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a New Zealander and three Englishmen.
I neglected photography at the January meeting, which I already regret, and did hardly any better at the end of February. This time I tried harder, this being one is my favourite snaps from last night:
Those are two of the three Englishmen who were present, the other being me. On the right there is speaker for the evening Richard Carey, and on the left Simon Gibbs, both of Libertarian Home fame. Gibbs was not rudely ignoring the conversation and catching up on his emails; he was looking up names and titles that were being mentioned in the conversation. I particularly like the potato crisp in Carey’s left hand at the very bottom of the picture.
The talk was everything that I personally was hoping for. There was lots of biographical detail of who the key early Austrians were (Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Wieser) and what kind of intellectual context they were operating in and what they said. And then the same for the later figures of note (von Mises, Rothbard). Other twentieth century figures were mentioned. Given how admiringly Carey spoke about him, I was particularly intrigued by Frank Fetter, only a name to me until now.
Carey made no attempt to disguise the fact that he is a recent arrival to the task of getting his head round Austrian Economics, which for me was a feature rather than a bug, just as I thought it would be. And he made no attempt to suggest that he understood more than he actually did about the subject. His talk entirely lacked that sub-agenda that you so often sense with some speakers, that half the point of telling the story is to tell the story, but the other half of the point is to prove how very clever and well informed the speaker is, more so than he actually is. That Carey had no time for such nonsense only made me admire his intellect all the more.
I had been expecting that the abstract theorising about what it all meant, what the intellectual guts of it all consisted of, would come at the end. The economic way of getting stuff versus the political way, trade versus stealing, individualism versus collectivism, the subjectivity of value, and so forth. Actually that bit came, at some length, at the beginning, so much so that I at first feared that all that biographical detail that I had been so looking forward to would be somewhat skated over. But all ended well, and I learned a great deal.
I did not record this talk in any way. However, Simon Gibbs, the man on the left in the picture above, has already invited Richard Carey to do a repeat performance of this talk for Libertarian Home, and a video camera will presumably then be running. Meanwhile, I am very happy for Carey to have given this talk a first outing in friendly surroundings, and for him to get some early feedback on it. I find that I am making a point of getting speakers to speak about things they’ve not spoken about before, but will undoubtedly be speaking about again, for just these sorts of reasons.
Two books were mentioned in the course of the discussion afterwards that I intend to investigate further.
Christian Michel mentioned this collection of lectures by Michel Foucault, in one of which he apparently said something embarrassingly (given the kind of people who were listening) nice about the free market as the only place where freedom actually happens, or some such surprising thing. I’ve already emailed Christian asking for chapter and verse of the quote in question.
And second, Aiden Gregg (who is an academic psychologist and who has already been fixed to speak at a later one of these meetings) mentioned the writings of somebody called Larken Rose, a new name to me, and in particular this book, which appears to cover similar ground, albeit in a somewhat different style, to that discussed in Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, which has been written about here recently.
Evenings like this don’t have any immediate world-changing impact, but every little helps.
One many significant dividing lines between, on the one hand, enthusiasts for free economies and free societies, and on the other hand those who favour a large role for the state in directing and energising society, concerns where you think art and science come from.
Those looking for an excuse to expand the role of the state tend to assume that art and science come from the thoughts and actions of an educated and powerful elite, and then flow downwards, bestowing their blessings upon the worlds of technology and entertainment, and upon the world generally. Science gives rise to new technology. Art likewise leads the way in new forms of entertainment, communication, and so on.
While channel surfing a while back, I heard Dr Sheldon Cooper, the presiding monster of the hit US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, describe engineering as the “dull younger brother” (or some such dismissive phrase) of physics. The BBT gang were trying to improve their fighting robot, and in the absence of the one true engineer in their group (Howard Wolowitz), Sheldon tries to seize the initiative. “Watch and learn” says Sheldon. Sheldon’s attitude concerning the relationship between science and technology is the dominant one these days, because it explains why the government must pay for science on the scale that it now does. Either governments fund science, or science will stop. Luckily governments do now fund science, so science proceeds, and technology trundles along in its wake. Hence modern industrial civilisation.
If the above model of how science and art work was completely wrong, it would not be so widely believed in. There is some truth to it. Science does often give rise to new technology, especially nowadays. Some artists are indeed pioneers in more than art. But how do science and art arise in the first place?
Howard Wolowitz is the only one of The Big Bang Theory gang of four who does not have a “Dr” at the front of his name. But he is the one who goes into space. He builds space toilets. He was the one who actually built the fighting robot. Dr Sheldon Cooper, though very clever about physics, is wrong about technology, and it was good to see a bunch of comedy sitcom writers acknowledging this. After “Watch and learn”, Sheldon Cooper’s next words, greeted by much studio audience mirth, are “Does anyone know how to open this toolbox?”
→ Continue reading: Some thoughts about where science and art come from (and about why governments don’t need to pay for either of them)
The Times, Tuesday, Feb 25, 1913; pg. 10. Click to enlarge
“We should recognize the issue of communism and Soviet espionage has become an antiquarian backwater. After all, the Cold War is over.” With these words, a typical leftish US historian, Ellen Schrecker, recommends that a whole sector of an historical era should be ignored and work on it effectively closed down. “It is time to move on,” remarks another academic, using the modern terminology that neither denies nor accepts responsibility, but leaves a mess behind for someone else to clear up. Now historians are, by definition, paddlers up backwaters, investigators of things that are “over” and move in, not move on when invited to examine data never before available. When World War Two ended historians started, not stopped, writing about it, just as an unending stream of books about Napoleon has continued in the nearly two centuries since he was bundled off to St Helena. The idea that, just as enormous quantities of material from Soviet and other archives are being released, work on them should be called off is so ludicrous that it could only have been suggested by those who feel the foundations of their beliefs and attitudes crumbling beneath their feet.
- Findlay Dunachie, reviewing a book called In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage for Samizdata, in 2004. I came across that while trying to find something else, and was immediately hooked. Findlay Dunachie is sorely missed, now, still.
The good news is that, following the recent Samizdata makeover, we can now peruse the entire Samizdata Findlay Dunachie author archive.
I enjoyed reading this:
What we know about events in the Middle Ages depends upon a surprisingly narrow source base. We need to imagine a stage with ninety per cent permanently in darkness. An occasional spotlight flickers upon this corner or that, suddenly revealing details and colours that we might not otherwise imagine existed. A vague half-light enables us to discern some broader outlines, a few darker and lighter shadows. For the most part, however, we depend upon inference and imagination to establish what is there. It is no coincidence that those trained as medieval historians have occupied a disproportionately significant role in both MI6 and the CIA, precisely because the medievalist’s training ensures that the bare minimum of detail is employed to the maximum effect in intelligence gathering.
That comes right near the start (page 3) of A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485 by Nicholas Vincent. Whenever I read something that interesting at the start of a book, I am encouraged to continue. Dipping around in other parts of it suggests that there is much else in this book of interest. I was especially held by the bit I happened to read about how William the Conqueror and his heirs turned vast swathes of England into royal forests for their own hunting pleasure, the previous owners just being turfed out. That King William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, died in a hunting accident, caused much satisfaction among the conquered Anglo-Saxons.
Changing the subject somewhat, but only somewhat, from the disaster that engulfed Anglo-Saxon England to an earlier disaster that seems to have deranged the entire world, I see that Instapundit today linked to an article about a lady geophysicist called Dallas Abbott. Ten years ago, she had the bright idea of looking for evidence of asteroid strikes under the sea. She concluded from her investigations that a big asteroid splashed into the Gulf of Carpentaria (the big bite out of the north coast of Australia) in the year 536. I wrote about this event in an earlier posting here. The book I was reading then was by a certain David Keys, and he reckoned that the various climatic horrors fitfully reported around the world at that time, horrors also noted by Ms Abbott, were triggered by a volcanic eruption, in 535. But they are quite clearly both talking about the same disaster.
It is not surprising that we can’t even be sure that such a thing even happened, let alone what the details were. By the nature of such events, not a lot of written evidence survives about catastrophes. The people at the time were concentrating on trying to stay alive. Keeping us fully informed of the details of their difficulties was not their top priority.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have states. But we don’t live in an ideal world and so we do have states and the borders that exist between them.
In the run up to the First World War state power was on the rise. For reasons I don’t entirely understand but I suspect are related, nationalist movements were springing up all over the world. Irish nationalism was one of them.
In 1912 the British government, which was dependent on Irish nationalist support began its third attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland. This would have given Ireland a similar status to the one Scotland enjoys today – autonomy but not independence. Unionists objected.
On 1 January 1913 Edward Carson, the leader of Irish unionism, moved an amendment to exclude Ulster. This can’t have been easy for a man who as MP for Dublin University represented a non-Ulster constituency. It is significant because it marks the moment when Unionists accepted that Home Rule in some form was going to happen. What they were trying to do was to salvage something – as they would have seen it – from the wreckage.
The Times of 2 January 1913 explained the situation:
Ireland is a geographical expression. Statesmen have to deal with things as they are, not with the names of things, if they wish their work to stand. Politically, socially, and economically there are two distinct communities inside the geographical area we call Ireland. These two are not merely different, but sharply opposed in their ways, their ideals, their character, and their material conditions.
This is something that was recently echoed by Ruth Dudley-Edwards:
As a Dubliner from Catholic, nationalist stock (albeit by then an atheist), the biggest problem I faced when I began to cover Northern Ireland as a journalist two decades ago was that I couldn’t understand the thought-processes of most Protestant unionists. It took me a while to grasp that one of the biggest differences between the two tribes is that Catholics are naturally hierarchical, and Protestants aren’t.
John Redmond (leader of the nationalists) thought exclusion was absurd.
The proposal for the exclusion of the four counties of Ulster had some characteristics which enabled men to use more or less plausible arguments in its favour. But, if they were to give Unionist representation to these four counties, why not also give representation to the Nationalist minorities in Belfast?
Frankly I rather wish he’d been taken up on his suggestion. But anyway, the disturbing part is that he didn’t accept Ulster’s exclusion. Why not? Was it really so difficult to accept that there are two nations in Ireland and still are? Was it really so difficult to accept that if the Irish had a right to independence from Britain then the Ulster British had a right to independence from Ireland? Had Redmond accepted it he would have saved us all a lot of trouble. There would have been no Rising in 1916, no martyrs, no IRA campaign and no subsequent myth that the IRA were responsible for Ireland’s independence.
So, why the resistance to Ulster’s exclusion? Money may have been a factor. Then, as now, Ulster was much richer than the rest of the island. Revenge may have been another. This would have been revenge for lands nationalists felt they had lost three hundred years previously, although one dreads to think quite what form this revenge might have taken.
One of the baffling aspects of what was going on was the utter refusal of the British government to take note of the strength of opinion in Ulster. Half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant committing themselves to resisting Home Rule. The following 18 months would see large-scale gun-running, the foundation of an Ulster militia and an army “mutiny”.
Bringing this all up to date a recent poll suggested that only 7% of Northern Ireland’s population want unification with the Republic immediately and only 32% in 20 years’ time. It does rather beg the question why 45% or so vote for explicitly nationalist parties.
By the way I couldn’t help noticing that this historic parliamentary debate took place on New Year’s Day. In 2013, the politicians didn’t turn up until the 7th.
In a discussion about a computer game, someone mentioned a book about 18th century piracy: The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson. Click to look inside and the first words you will read are:
I’m not a historian. Nor am I a pirate. I’m an economist with a long-standing interest in privately created law and order who happened to wonder one day how pirates cooperated since they had no government.