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West's weekly round-up: July 11-17
The Hun, the Tories and the decline of history
Good morning from a freakishly hot London. The week in Britain was dominated by the contest to become the next prime minister; on Monday I wrote about Boris Johnson’s obsession with history and classics; on Wednesday about the rising importance of market-dominant minorities in the Conservative Party.
In between that, Tuesday was the anniversary of England’s foundation, a long-forgotten date which was the work of our long-forgotten first king. I hope my suggestion of building a giant statue of Athelstan somewhere in London by 2027 can be picked up rather than, as I wrote, the great milestone being marked by me and five or six other cranks. Our nation’s founder has no statue in our capital, but there is one of St Volodymyr, founding father of Russia, or Ukraine, depending on how you see things. Friday was his feast day, and I wrote about how the Vikings continue to influence Ukrainian history and identity.
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The myth of the stolen generation
Helen Andrews, among the super league of commentators and editor of the American Conservative, previously lived in Australia and recounts the brutal reality of dealing with entrenched social problems among Aborigines. As with Canada now, Australia had a historical reckoning with schools set up to teach indigenous children, and the results have been incredibly tragic. Helen’s pieces are always worth reading but this one really is a must-read.
Child sexual abuse was so rampant that Howard sent in the army. That is the one sentence version. There were towns where it was basically impossible for a girl to make it through adolescence without being sexually abused. Across the territory, hundreds of girls between 12 and 15 (out of a total Indigenous population of less than 60,000) were presenting at clinics with venereal diseases every year. Once in a while, a particularly egregious case would make it into the national media, like the 11-year-old boy hog-tied and gang-raped repeatedly for months in Maningrida. Helen’s work demonstrated that these cases occurred against a monotonous backdrop of petrol-sniffing, wife-beating, alcoholism, and joblessness.
The theme was given Hollywood treatment in the film Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), which depicts three Aboriginal girls who escape from government custody to return to their families. When filming was over, director Philip Noyce realized that his 14-year-old child star Everlyn Sampi would have to go back to the remote town where she had been sexually assaulted at age 8 and was by her own account “drinking and stealing and robbing” from age 9. To save her, he paid for her to attend a boarding school in Perth, where he hoped they would at least teach her to read. She escaped from school and ran home to resume her old life, just like her character. In 2012, she nearly died when her neck was sliced by shards of a glass bowl that broke during a fight with a male friend. “Me and him got into a lot of fights,” she explained to a reporter.
The decline of history
As regular readers will know, I’m a big history enthusiast, and in my facile imagination heaven will involve poncing around the south of France and northern Italy with Kenneth Clark and John Julius Norwich, drinking Bordeaux and talking about the Middle Ages. How can anyone not find the subject endlessly fascinating? Yet history is in decline, as Tanner Greer observes.
In the 1960s, when history and English majors were among the most popular on campus, America was a very different place. This was an America where most kids memorized reams of poetry in school, where one third of the country turned on their television to watch a live broadcast of Richard III, and where listening to speeches on American history was a standard Independence Day activity. The most prominent public intellectuals of this America were people like Lionel Trilling (literary critic), Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian), and Richard Hofstader (historian). This was a world where the humanities mattered. So did humanities professors. They mattered in part, as traditionalists like to point out, because these professors were seen as the custodians of a cultural tradition to which most American intellectuals believed they were the heirs to. But they mattered for a more important reason—the reason intellectuals would care about that birthright in the first place.
Americans once believed, earnestly believed, that by studying the words of Milton and Dante, or by examining the history of republican Rome or 16th century England, one could learn important, even eternal, truths about human nature and human polities. Art, literature, and history were a privileged source of insight into human affairs. In consequence, those well versed in history and the other humanistic disciplines had immense authority in the public eye. The man of vaulting ambition studied the humanities.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is when it all started going wrong. I think it’s probably quite unhealthy for the wider population to be so unaware of a shared past, but I also think there are deep-seated ways in which the subject is made almost purposely boring, starting with school. It’s why I love The Rest is History, my favourite podcast. History is one great black comedy, and should be fun; that’s why my longer-term aim is to focus on writing a series of banterous short history books covering all the major topics, from Henry VIII to the crusades to the French Revolution, so that in my small way I can help the general public have some common collective memory beyond superhero films; although mainly so I can ponce around the south of France drinking Bordeaux and talking about the Middle Ages.
The great (Razib) Khan on the inhuman Hun
No people provoked more terror in the European imagination than the Hun, who played a significant part in the destruction of the western Empire, largely by pushing other groups towards Roman territory (although the fall of Rome is the most contested subject in history).
Yet the ultimate origins of these people has remained quite obscure — until now. As Razib writes:
The story of these fearsome warriors of the steppe that wreak so much havoc between the 5th and 15th centuries AD actually begins in the Far East long before Atilla, more than 2,000 years ago. Attila's empire was actually one of those rarities, a sequel that topped the original, the New Testament to the Old. Scholars have now assembled a mass of circumstantial evidence pointing to the fact that the Huns that bedeviled the Romans were actually descended from the Xiongnu Confederacy that had harried and menaced Han-dynasty China six centuries prior.
I’m a bit late to this, but Jacob Siegel last month identified something I’ve noticed but couldn’t put my finger on — the Yawning tendency.
An American who wants to understand how political change occurs in their country must study what I’ve come to think of as the “yawning” habit of sophisticated liberals.
The yawn is an avoidance tactic that feigns moral and intellectual superiority while exhibiting dullness and cowardice. It is deployed when some flagrantly abnormal thing is occurring, which the sophisticated liberal is too sophisticated to defend outright—since to do so would expose them to potential mockery and loss of status—but too cowardly to condemn, since that would risk placing them on the wrong side of Progress.
Marshall has not given much thought to why thousands of people, including adolescents, have suddenly decided to alter their bodies in irreversible ways. He’s not just incurious, he’s bragging about it. Only right-wing, extremist Putin lovers (of course, Marshall was a Russiagate conspiracist) would possibly care about an historically unprecedented, institutionally directed revolt against sexual dimorphism. A 2018 study by the British government found that the number of minors being referred for gender treatments, including hormone injections, increased by more than 4,000% in a single decade … How uninteresting. Yawn. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health just lowered the minimum age for children to receive puberty blockers or undergo transition surgery from 16 to 14. Double yawn.
I’ve seen this a great deal, the ‘why would you even care about that?’ response which began with adult sexual matters but has now spread into areas where I think we obviously should care.
The Hungarian Genius
Scott Alexander previously wrote a fascinating post about Hungarian Jews and this week he reviewed Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man From The Future, all about John von Neumann. Von Neumann was pretty clever, it has to be said:
John von Neumann invented the digital computer. The fields of game theory and cellular automata. Important pieces of modern economics, set theory, and particle physics. A substantial part of the technology behind the atom and hydrogen bombs. Several whole fields of mathematics I hadn’t previously heard of, like “operator algebras”, “continuous geometry”, and “ergodic theory”.
The Man From The Future, by Ananyo Bhattacharya, touches on all these things. But you don’t read a von Neumann biography to learn more about the invention of ergodic theory. You read it to gawk at an extreme human specimen, maybe the smartest man who ever lived.
By age 6, he could multiply eight-digit numbers in his head. At the same age, he spoke conversational ancient Greek; later, he would add Latin, French, German, English, and Yiddish (sometimes joked about also speaking Spanish, but he would just put "el" before English words and add -o to the end) . Rumor had it he memorized everything he ever read. A fellow mathematician once tried to test this by asking him to recite Tale Of Two Cities, and reported that “he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes”.
Yet he was also something of a party animal, not at all the speccy nerd one would imagine.
Tory troubles #1
I wouldn’t say I’m down on the Tory candidates, but Tom Tugendhat is probably my second favourite and I think his premiership might well end with nuclear Armageddon. But even that might be preferable to Penny Mourdant becoming prime minister, if her book is any guide. As Sam Ashworth-Hayes writes:
The Houses of Parliament? Why, they’re ‘about as out of touch with a modern democracy as it’s possible to be’. The government should set ‘regional economic growth targets’. The various Orders of the British Empire? Well they should have been abolished long ago: ‘even when we recognise an issue… we are slow to change’. The ‘stuff of which our dreams, history and culture are made’? According to Mordaunt, they include ‘Minority achievement’, as illustrated by the famously British Barack Obama, Boudicca, and Marcus Rashford. And how do you get things done? You ‘need national missions to be codified, like the UN’s Development Goals.’
Intriguingly, Mordaunt’s book lists any number of reasons why British people should be patriotic: ‘pride in the NHS, the countryside, diversity, pubs, the armed forces or the BBC.’ British history is notably absent from this list, as in fact is the presence of culture or institutions not owned or licensed by the state.
This is not a terribly conservative view of the world, which would explain why the book’s introductory pages are filled with praise from Elton John and Tony Blair, and a foreword from Bill Gates. The omission of history as a reason for pride is probably not an accident: the Kenneth Clark series Civilisation is described as explaining ‘how superior Oxford-educated British middle-aged white men were.’ Beloved sitcoms Dad’s Army and Hi-de-Hi! are dismissed as ‘churned out’ programmes, while ‘the legacy of the past’ apparently consists of ‘pub opening times, football racism, casual violence’.
In fact, the big problem facing Britain is that ‘most of our leaders are drawn from a narrow background’, educated in the last century. These leaders are not suited to the challenge of modernising Britain, coming as they did from a ‘heterosexual, white, Christian, Western-orientated’ world, where ‘there was no mansplaining. No white privilege. No colonial historiography’. Many attended universities which ‘teach a Western reductionist model of thinking… they don’t teach empathy, humility, or integrity’. This education explains why Britain has managed to outlaw hate speech for ‘race, religion, and sexual orientation’, but still lacks an ‘offence of stirring up hatred on the grounds of transgender identity’.
This why I just want to go and live in the Middle Ages.
Tory troubles #2
Meanwhile at UnHerd, Aris Roussinos is not too keen on Liz Truss and her whole Thatcher thing, and argues for a return to the 1951 manifesto, which declared: ‘Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses.’
Personally I’d vote for anyone who promised to build like the Dutch and actually cared about making our cities and town beautiful; has our era left a single building worthy of love or care, or one that will be cherished by future generations? A prime minister who built something beautiful (or rebuilt something beautiful and lost) would leave more of a lasting legacy than any of their contemporaries.
Last week the world mourned the loss of Shinzo Abe, and over at The Critic Eggroll Shogun (not his real name obviously) pays tribute.
Abe admired and regularly referred to the nationalist Meiji Restoration that created modern Japan and — by virtue of its newfound strength — defended its independence during the era of high imperialism. The Meiji state was a synthesis of Western systems and a new nationalism, built on the ancient institution of the emperor. It died with the surrender in 1945, and it was under the postwar system dominated by Kishi’s rivals that Japan recovered and outgrew the European powers.
For rightists like Abe, the pacifist constitution and consensus it symbolised stopped Japan from taking the proper place among nations that the Meiji state had won for it. The end of the economic miracle and increasing threat of China and North Korea were for them further evidence that things had to change. But while American planners had also long come to regret the pacifist idealism of their predecessors, the public never quite gave Abe the mandate to revise the constitution. That will be up to Kishida and his new supermajority.
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