Tuesday, 29 December 2009

I have to agree with this one

Unfortunately, everything I read of Gayatri Spivak's In Other Worlds passed at least 10 inches above my head. I place the blame squarely at the feet of my brain (so to speak).

Friday, 20 November 2009

Not your place to say

That urge to leave angry comments in any available space, even though the writer you're annoyed at isn't going to read your insights and everyone else will think you're a prat? It's not just an internet thing:

Comment left in Marianne Hester's book

From Marianne Hester's Lewd Women and Wicked Witches

Ok, so it's within the bounds of possibility that the reader had genuinely linked two thoughts in their brain and was worried they wouldn't remember, just as they hadn't remembered to buy any paper before starting their course. This one, however, is pure spite:

Comment left in Nancy Love's book

From Nancy S. Love's Marx, Nietzsche, and Modernity

These are just the ones I found today. Anyone else found a good one?

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Cameron wants a return to narrative history in schools. I don't.

David Cameron has pointed out that the BNP "are not pleasant people". Well done him. On the other hand, the same Q&A session brought up this:

A mother raised the issue of her two children not knowing what it was to be British because they did not learn history at school.

Mr Cameron said: “It is one of the great betrayals of school children that we have swept away with narrative history.

“We should be proud of what we have achieved as a country. Teaching people about the British Empire does not mean covering up the bad things that happened. It means having an honest explanation about the good and the bad.”
Now, I'm seriously contemplating a whole academic career of looking at narrative history and the problems it throws up, especially when it's the main way that history is spoon-fed to children, and especially when one of the aims is to "be proud of what we have achieved as a country". Naturally it would be unthinkable to cover the history of the British Empire without bringing up "the bad things that happened", but simply covering the negative sides isn't necessarily enough.

I'm currently reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which has some brilliant observations about the way in which atrocities can be trivialised or brushed over, even when the events are described accurately (very long quote coming up, but it didn't seem fair to cut it down):

Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multi-volume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
That is one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. [...]
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
But he does something else - he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important - it should weigh very little in out final judgements; it should affect very little what we do in the world.
It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others, This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographical information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.
My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economical or political or racial or national or sexual.
Furthermore, this ideological interest is not openly expressed in the way a mapmaker’s technical interest is obvious (“This is a Mercator projection for long-range navigation - for short-range, you’d better use a different projection”). No, it is presented as if all readers of history had a common interest which historians serve to the best of their ability. This is not an intentional deception; the historian has been trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.
I don't have enough information on current history teaching in schools, and I know that many people are scathing of the 'transferable skills' approach which has taken time away from providing children with an overview of British history. On the other hand, I don't want to see a return to the situation 100 years ago, when history was taught to the proles primarily to foster unquestioning patriotism and respect for the all-important drive for 'progress'. I'd much rather children learned that one narrative, from a single narrator, is never enough to understand past events, that every historian has a point of view and limits to their knowledge and understanding, and that critical thinking skills are the only real protection against the bullshit they'll have to deal with when they enter adulthood.

It doesn't surprise me all that much that the leader of the Conservative Party might prefer the Victorian approach.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Guess the paper

Now here's a surprise:

  • It's a story about public funds being wasted.
  • It contains a quote from the Taxpayers' Alliance.
  • It suggests that the findings are just common sense.
  • It's linked to from the front page under the sarcastic heading: Science advances - ducks 'like water'
  • There's no evidence that the words 'like water' appeared in the original research.
  • An amusing picture of a duckling takes up rather a lot of space.
  • You have to wait until the end of the article to find out the real, useful point of the research.
  • In no way can the title be considered an accurate summary of these scientific findings.

So in which tabloid can this shrieking piece of anti-public-funded-science fluff be found?

The Guardian

On the other hand, at least they're not warning working mums that their house-husbands might be cheating on them.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The original's always the best.

First of all, I've put another book up on Tatty Jackets.

Secondly, I'm a bit bemused by the controversy - if there is indeed a fire lurking behind the Daily Mail's industrial smoke machine - surrounding the BBC's Robin Hood series. I seem to remember some previous grumblings about them making it all dumbed down and relevant (as if making a program no-one's interested in would be a better use of the license fee) but it's the introduction of a martial arts expert that's caused the latest kerfuffle. Hang about, that should read "black martial arts expert".

Now, I can sometimes be a stickler for historical accuracy, but it only has steam coming out of my ears when it's a rubbish, misleading reenactment in what's supposed to be a serious documentary. This is fiction. It's a fictional series loosely based around a character who has appeared in lots of other fiction. Absolutely none of his appearances can be considered more 'accurate' than the others.

Maybe some people would disagree and claim that you can trace a likely candidate for the 'real' Robin Hood, find his mortal remains, discover his height and build, run DNA tests, reconstruct his face, pin down exactly what years he was alive and dress him only in the fashion of the time, in the materials that would have been available. Above all, make sure he speaks only medieval English, in his local dialect. Oh, and perfect teeth are not an option.

Does this sound like any Robin Hood you've ever seen? A quick image search reveals variety of hair colours and facial hair arrangements, shoes ranging from hobnailed and durable, to ridiculously pointy:

There's been a futuristic Robin Hood, a vain, idiotic Robin Hood whose band was led by Maid Marion (also on the BBC) and I don't think that was considered a problem. Nor do I recall howls of protest when Disney "reinvented" Friar Tuck as a bear.

This process of making stories more relevant to the audience is not a feature of modern political correctness or dumbing down. It's been carried out in various art forms for centuries. Artists have always sought to present characters in a new light, to make their audience think and see new aspects of the stories or morals they portray. That's the whole damn point of art - that's what separates fiction from fact. Do an image search for Helen of Troy or the Virgin Mary (ignoring any result involving toast) and you'll see how their clothes and hairstyles and stance were altered as tastes changed. Those medieval manuscripts that every European country is so proud of - most of those are rehashed old tales, chopping and splicing stories from different centuries and different areas, changing names, adding or removing characters. Digressing from these 'original' stories isn't some kind of travesty or a betrayal of our heritage. It's merely continuing an artistic process that those manuscripts were one small part of.

I only read through a few of the readers' comments before deciding that life is too short for that kind of thing but I still found one worth getting very, very angry about.

Well what a surprise, the BBC does it again. They won't be happy until they have completely removed all traces of native English culture from our land by brainwashing the public, gradually introducing anti English and dare I say it anti White propaganda; and by the way, its not racist to highlight the concerns of white people who want to hold on to their own culture!

Why is it suddenly racist to say I'm proud to be White? It's not racist to openly say I'm proud to be Black!

Why is it racist to say I love my country and my culture? It's not racist for a Black person to say I'm proud my homeland and my culture!

Having other races and faiths in the UK is fine, but don't tell me I'm racist for being proud of who I am!

These issues are a concern when we have the BBC trying to rewrite history in an attempt to put other cultures first!
Click to rate Rating 234

- John, Birmingham, England, 28/3/2009 14:52

Now, David Harewood was born in Birmingham. He has British citizenship, and no other. The legends of Robin Hood are as much a part of his cultural heritage as of any other Brit. We could of course decide that only actors who can prove that all of their ancestors since the reign of King John were born on English soil are worthy enough to play these characters. On the other hand, that would result in Robin Hood disappearing from our screens altogether. Then we'd have a real example of 'native English culture' being lost.

As always, my heartfelt thanks go to MacGuffin and all other bloggers who trawl their way through the tabloids so the rest of us don't have to.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Once you start looking you can find it everywhere

This was going be a short post about one stupid thing but has ended up covering four very different kinds of stupid. I've attempted to rein in my criticism as far as possible, firstly because it's more fun if people find the stupid for themselves, and secondly because if I analyse these masterpieces of mindfartery for much longer the bile is going to reach and kill my brain.

  1. PETA's "Sea-kittens" campaign - As I wrote a post on this last year, I was delighted to see this topic hit the Guardian and - far more importantly - Unspeak. Ingrid Newkirk's defence of the campaign is less than convincing:
    And while "sea kitten hunting," formerly known as angling, is cruel to animals, commercial sea kitten hunting is environmentally catastrophic. It has devastated the ocean's ecosystem to the extent that large fish populations are only 10% what they were in the 1950s. Scientists warn that the damage caused by the fishing industry is irreparable.
    We invite everyone of any age to play the sea kitten game and find out more about Peta's Sea Kittens campaign. It's a bit of fun with a serious message: never dismiss any individual's interests just because they look a bit funny.
    I completely agree that overfishing is a huge environmental problem which needs to be prevented as it cannot be cured later. What I don't get is why "everyone of any age" should be invited to wade through a flood of drivel before they can find out important facts about the situation. And how is that "serious message" in any way linked to the campaign? My mental faculties clearly aren't up to scratch, maybe I should start eating fish.

  2. Elizabeth Wurtzel's explanation of how all criticism of Israel is anti-semitic - One reason I love the Guardian's Comment is Free section is that people are given space to explain opinions that you may have suspected were only straw-man positions. I've come across many things refuting this idea but never met anyone who supported it. Wurtzel's article is similar to Newkirk's defence of PETA, in that it only serves to inspire fresh counter-arguments. I have one thing that I'd like to add to the existing criticism of this article, specifically countering this assertion:
    [...]while I'd like to artificially separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism, like most American Jews, I'm not willing to make that false distinction: when there is more than one Jewish state, the world's hatred of Israel might become no different from its exasperation with any other country, but since Israel is the only homeland, and really it is nothing more than six million Jews living together in an area the size of New Jersey, I can't pretend that the problem with Israel is that it's a poorly located country that happens to be at odds with its neighbours and only coincidentally happens to be Jewish. The trouble with Israel is the trouble with Jews.

    In fact it's easier to make a distinction between "the Jews" and Israel than it is to separate a country from its citizens. Whether you're talking about Judaism or "Jewishness", you're discussing a worldwide community of millions of people, with vastly different backgrounds and opinions, with members who have inspired profound respect in many different fields. Israel is just one political / geographical entity. It's really very difficult to confuse the two, unlike discussions about "Iran" and "the Iranians", for example.

  3. "Six months after the MMR jab... a bubbly little girl now struggles to speak, walk and feed herself" - If there's one word I'd like to ban from Daily Mail headlines, it's "after". This article made me very angry indeed, being the shameless exploitation of a parent's fear and misery in order to shamelessly exploit other parents just to sell cheap paper to wrap potato peelings in. Every damn line is either persuading parents to mistrust vaccinations or manipulating their emotions to make the persuasion all the more effective. It's such a dangerous campaign to run, with absolutely no reason for it, but once tabloids get up on a high horse they'll happily trample anyone into the mud. It seems impossible to me that a literate individual could write the following sentences and not grasp the reality of the situation:

    [Doctors] have told Melody's mother Alicia Ellis, 25, there is no reason to believe the MMR vaccine has anything to do with her condition.
    However, Miss Ellis is convinced it is the only logical explanation and there could be a connection to a neurological problem she had as a newborn baby.
    Miss Ellis, from Leeds, said: 'Show me the evidence that it's not linked to the MMR jab and I might be all right, but they can't.
    The tiny baby was seriously-ill in hospital and was close to death. Doctors feared she would suffer from developmental problems as a result, but to their amazement she made a complete recovery and grew up as a normal, healthy little girl.
    'I think the jab has attacked the part of her brain that was damaged when she was a baby. It's just too much of a coincidence for this to happen just two days after her jab, but no-one wants to listen to me.'

    It only seems like too much of a coincidence if you've been manipulated into believing that vaccinations are very dangerous and that doctors don't care if they are, and a child has only "grown-up" healthy once they've stopped growing. Furthermore, it's impossible to provide proof of a non-link which would convince a lay audience (*trivial parallel warning*)- the more you tell someone that there's no evidence linking their choice of underwear to their team's performance in a cup final, the more they'll suspect you of rooting for the other side.

  4. "foul, lowest-common-denominator, sub-literate emotivist twattery" - I couldn't think of a better description of this video. For goodness sake, don't follow this link. It's not worth it. It's billed as "tear-jerking" but then so is waxing your nose-hair (probably). I learned two things from it: A. that presenting single-braincelled judgements on the state of modern Britain in the voice of a child only highlights their over-simplicity and B. that it's not a good idea to watch something which someone called "Pigdogfucker" finds offensive.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

"simple, unpolitical children's stories"

I've recently been reading ,,Lügendetektor" by Saul K. Padover. Padover was a US intelligence officer responsible for interviewing German citizens or foreign workers recently returned from Germany, in areas occupied by American forces. It looks like it was published in 1946 under the title "Experiment in Germany" (or "Psychologist in Germany" in the UK) but is out of print, and only available as an expensive second-hand hardback. I bought the 1999 German translation from a bargain basement for 2 Euros, funny old world.

Even though it may be a monumental waste of time to translate something into English which was recently translated into German from an English transcript of interviews conducted in German... that's exactly what I've done. While the actual words the interviewees used have been repeatedly mangled, hopefully the meaning has been passed down intact. Just imagine it's been written by a 12th Century monk.

Chapter 17 - Padover and his men are stationed in Roetgen, recently captured without too much trouble:

As a matter of fact it was here that we first noticed a phenomenon which we would often encounter in Germany; the level of skepticism and defeatism stood in direct relation to the suffering that people had experienced. In largely destroyed towns, attitudes of defeatism or criticism of the regime were widespread, while untouched areas were filled with fascism and confidence of victory. In the small, undamaged town of Roetgen, around one third of the population counted as between convinced and fanatic Nazis. Those left over were running with the pack.
(p. 67-8)

Tatsächlich bemerkten wir hier erstmals jenes Phänomen, das wir in Deutschland noch sehr oft vorfinden sollten: der Grad an Skepsis und Defätismus stand in direkten Bezug zu dem Leid, das die Menschen erlebt hatten. In schwer zerstörten Städten waren regimekritische und defätistiche Haltungen sehr verbreitet, während unversehrte Orte von Faschismus und Siegesgewißheit erfüllt waren. In dem kleinen, unzerstörten Roetgen bestand etwa ein Drittel der Bevölkerung aus überzeugten bis fanatischen Nationalsozialisten. Die übrigen waren Mitläufer.

A local boy who runs errands for them urges them to interview his old school teacher, Agnes Pernitz. He describes her as one of many "Mußnazis" - people who claim they supported the Nazi Party out of necessity:

She had worked as a teacher in a Volksschule [standard state primary school before 1968] for forty years and claimed to be unpolitical. “In political matters,” she said, her whole face beaming, “I am like a child, like a real child. All that I know about this complex subject matter, I have from my husband.”

Sie habe vierzig Jahre lang als Volksschullehrerin gearbeitet und sei unpolitisch. „In politischen Dingen,” sagte sie und strahlt über das ganze Gesicht, „bin ich wie ein Kind, wie ein richtiges Kind. Was ich über diese komplizierte Materia weiß,habe ich alles von meinem Mann.”
Had she taught any political subjects or told her pupils about political events?
“For heaven’s sake, what can you be thinking?” she cried, as if shocked. “I only taught reading and mathematics. I read simple, unpolitical children’s stories to them, from the life of the Leader*, for instance.”

Ob sie politische Fächer unterrichtet oder ihren Schülern von politischen Begebenheiten erzählt habe? „Um Gottes willen, wo denken Sie hin?” rief Frau Pernitz wie schockiert. „Ich habe nur Lesen und Rechnen unterrichtet. Vorgelesen habe ich einfache, unpolitische Kindergeschichten, etwa aus den Leben unseres Führers.”
Did the party exert its influence on the syllabus in any way?
“Not at all. No-one laid down rules for the teachers to follow. Naturally the school books were all changed after the Leader came to power, but we teachers had complete freedom. We were completely at liberty to choose different topics from the teaching materials provided for us and nobody supervised us in any way.

Hat die Partei in irgendeiner Weise Einfluß auf den Lehrplan genommen? „Keineswegs. Niemand hat uns Lehrern Vorschriften gemacht. Natürlich wurden nach dem Machtantritt der Führers die Schulbücher ausgetauscht, aber wir Lehrer hatten völlige Freiheit. Wir konnten aus dem Lehrmaterial, das uns zur Verfügung gestellt wurde, ganz nach Belieben die verschiedensten Themen auswählen, und niemand hat uns in irgendeiner Weise kontrolliert.”

She offers a schoolbook description of Germany’s recent history:
Wilson didn’t keep to the Fourteen Points. Germany needed a rescuer. Then Ebert came, who was a socialist, and everything got worse. Then came the inflation and the situation got even worse. The German people yearned for better times, and then came Field Marshal Hindenburg. He was getting older and suddenly the Leader came forward. He promised the workers a better life. Hindenburg named him Chancellor and after Hindenburg’s death he became the Leader of Germany. He won over the people because he gave then work and because they could go travelling with the organisation “Strength through Joy”. Ordinary Germans were overjoyed at the Leader. And when industrialists recognised that the Leader had brought them a better life, they joined with the workers and adopted the new ideas as their own. In the end, the whole German population was behind the Leader.
„Wilson hat sich nicht an die Vierzehn Punkte gehalten. Deutschland brauchte einen Retter. Da kam Ebert, das war ein Sozialist, und alles wurde schlimmer. Dann kam die Inflation, und die Verhältnisse verschlechterten sich noch mehr. Das deutsche Volk sehnte sich nach besseren Zeiten, und dann kam der Feldmarschall Hindenburg. Der wurde immer älter und plötzlich trat der Führer hervor. Er versprach den Arbeitern ein besseres Leben. Hindenburg ernannte ihn zum Reichskanzler, und nach Hindenburgs Tod wurde er Führer des Deutschen Reiches. Er gewann die Menschen, weil er ihnen Arbeit gab und sie mit der Organisation „Kraft durch Freude” verreisen konnte. Die Masse des deutschen Volkes begeisterte sich für den Führer. Und als sie Industriellen erkannten, daß der Führer den Arbeitern zu einem besseren Leben verhalf, schlossen auch sie sich den Arbeitern an und machten sich die neuen Ideen zu eigen. Am Ende stand das ganze Volk hinter den Führer.”

On the factors which led to the war:
“That's quite simple. England started the war. The English wanted to dispute Germany’s rightful position in Europe. They have their own great empire of colonies but again and again, when Germany tries to gain more space for the population*, they put obstacles in the way.”
And how did the war with Russia start?
“The Russians,” she said darkly, “had been arming themselves for a long time because they wanted to launch an assault on Germany. And so we defended ourselves by attacking them. We’ve always found the Bolsheviks to be abominable, there’s no place for them on German soil. That’s why we attacked them before they could attack us.”
And Poland?
“That was purely a defensive war. Germany needed to protect herself from the Poles.”

„Das ist ganz einfach”, sagte Frau Pernitz. „England hat mit dem Krieg angefangen. Die Engländer wollten Deutschland seinen rechtmäßigen Platz in Europa streitig machen. Sie selbst haben ein großes Kolonialreich, aber wenn Deutschland versucht, Lebensraum zu erwerben, legen sie uns immer wieder Hindernisse in den Weg.”

Und wieso kam es zum Krieg gegen Rußland?

„Die Russen,” sagte sie düster, „hatten schon seit langem aufgerüstet, weil sie Deutschland überfallen wollten. Also haben wir uns verteidigt, indem wir sie angegriffen haben. Die Bolschewisten sind uns schon immer ein Greuel gewesen. sie haben auf deutschem Boden nichts zu suchen. Daher haben wir sie angegriffen, bevor sie uns angreifen konnten.”

Und Polen? „Das was ein reiner Verteidigungskrieg. Deutschland mußte sich vor den Polen schützen.”

*Due to the overwhelming extra connotations the words Führer and Lebensraum have acquired since World War Two, I’ve decided to translate them as everyday English terms. I believe that that’s how an “unpolitical” person such as Agnes Pernitz would have used them.

Extra, extra: I was wondering how Germany's invasion of Poland could have been seen as self-defence and came across this info on "Operation Himmler", a false-flag campaign in which German positions close to the Polish border were attacked by German soldiers, who left dead concentration camp prisoners at the scene dressed in Polish uniforms. I'm not sure why this didn't come up in any history lessons.