As we approach the centenary of a war that butchered hundreds of thousands in the name of God, King and Country, the Education Secretary insists that it was entirely “just”:
In an article for the Daily Mail, Mr Gove says he has little time for the view of the Department for Culture and the Foreign Office that the commemorations should not lay fault at Germany’s door.
The Education Secretary says the conflict was a ‘just war’ to combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination.
‘The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,’ he says. ‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’
Mr Gove writes: ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’
The Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has ‘demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’.
Let the propaganda die, Michael. But don’t take it from me; the Thatcherite Niall Ferguson has explained very well why the First World War was a mesh of blunders and lies.
Firstly, not only did Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary – refuse to commit Britain to neutrality in the event that Germany respected Belgium’s sovereignty, which would have side-lined the 1839 treaty with which his government declared war, but in the weeks before the war the Committee for Imperial Defence even considered invading Belgium if the German generals chose to attack through France. There was no casus belli in “defending the Western liberal order”.
Britain’s Liberal government, though, was another matter. With a slender majority in the Commons, there was a serious threat that the government would have to call a general election if Britain reneged on its pledge to Belgian neutrality; it would have led to the resignation of Grey at the very least. It was judged to be more more convenient to fight, instead of the Tories, the greatest war that humanity had ever waged, and to do so people who couldn’t even vote.
For all the propaganda, indeed, there was little need for liberal ideas in the early months of the war. Posters of soldiers standing in English meadows had no bearing on the thousands of the dispossessed urban class moving en masse to enroll in the effort; declaration of war led to financial collapse and the rocketing of unemployment, to which – and never let it be said that war has no ironies – the only salvation was found in uniform in Europe’s trenches. It was grab a gun (if there were enough) or go hungry.
The war was sustained not only in poverty, but in vengeance killing. A bloodied terror came to haunt No Man’s Land as men saw their friends butchered in front of their eyes. Desertion remarkably rare, blood feuds drove soldiers to fight with ferocity they had never known before; often to be gunned down in exactly the same way. This is not something, I imagine, that we should be rushing to defend. Were it valid, there’s not a single war in history that wouldn’t be justified by the horror of soldiers dying in vain – by the fatuous and arrogant verdict that the death of one man justifies those of many more.
The Great War was a waste. Millions died for no reason that could ever have pretensions to be justification. A stupid decision, made at a late hour in Whitehall, impoverished men and made them the oxen driving a war to its exhaustion; and they deluded themselves, as all people are capable of doing, into the belief that letting the blood of every remaining Hun might vindicate the sacrifices their friends made to causes that were never theirs. Forget liberal freedoms; to call the defence of Belgium simply “tragic” is dishonest and disgraceful.
For all the failures of the British government’s propaganda drives – which made compulsory enlistment so necessary – it’s a belated irony that the Education Secretary should fall for them so easily. Some advice for him: if he is serious about returning children to literature and history, he should probably start with Wilfred Owen.
In decreasing order of likeliness:
- Make Assad and Putin fight to the death in the stadium of a Sochi Olympics turned hunger games.
- Get drunk only when necessary.
- Blog more copiously.
- Be able to run a half-marathon.
- Learn to speak Russian.
Perhaps gender segregation’s a non-issue; Universities UK has withdrawn its endorsement. But it seems to me as though the most common liberal reaction to it has by its immediate feminist knee-jerk – however laudable – generally underplayed the damage it poses to men.
Take Yvonne Ridley, whose conversion to Islam is indebted to a promise that she made to her Taliban captors a decade back to read the Koran – or the “magna carta for women“, as she calls it. (One imagines why she is so keen to jump for a Medieval metaphor.)
Yesterday evening she posted the following to Twitter:
I think #LondonTransport should offer a female-only carriage on buses and Underground during an evening. Pilot 1st to see how successful
— yvonneridley (@yvonneridley) December 26, 2013
Just some typical misogyny from the conservative choir, you might say; and let them wallow in their masochism. A number of Muslim women do not seem to worry that leaving their “spiritual” authority to the guardianship of male scholars and imams might have leave them some dangerous consequences.
But do not let me stand accused of misrepresenting her position. Ridley states that her position is purely a discussion in the interests of public safety; an additional female-only service on buses or the tube late at night, she suggests, might reduce the number of sexual offences committed against women.
— yvonneridley (@yvonneridley) December 26, 2013
I followed the discussion for a bit, and by the end of the evening Ridley was showcasing her good multi-faith credentials by praising such alternative suggestions as well-lit platforms, conductors and better security. To this, she constantly stressed that even if women were to receive their own, segregated public transport it would be voluntary; how, after all, could a reasonable fellow turn down the request of elderly women to travel alone, if it gives them safety?
Does Ridley seriously believe that segregated seating is a matter for the secular authorities, and those looking to control violence against women? Maybe; I don’t know. It is why she so instinctively considered the idea as a solution that bothers me when, to my mind, no Hindu, atheist or Christian woman would be so likely to suggest it. Ridley’s statement that “all rapists are men” might just have been to say that all men are rapists: men cannot be trusted. They are prone to sexual desires egregious to the sanctified woman, who gains in spirit what she lacks in muscle, or in legal rights:
The Prophet said, “Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” The women said, “Yes.” He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”
(—Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:48:826)
Gender segregation as a woman’s oasis immediately occurs to Ridley, in other words, because she has taught herself to believe that one can build a society from its chromosomes. Instead of looking to cross-gender solutions, she jumps to misandry.
If violence is disproportionately aimed at women, then it is important to bring as many of both genders into the support of campaigns against it; to question the roles of schools, and ask why alpha-males still think they matter; to encourage people to travel where it is busy; to attack binge drinking; and to promote a sense of equality between men and women. Whatever the case, it could never be healthy for one half of a society to be constantly subject to the wicked prejudice of the other.
I recently cited Milton to show can people can reach the right answers from the wrong origins; a belief in liberty of conscience so that the soul can reveal its true intentions. Ridley could learn from how the Victorian suffragists fought for equality from the deflated utopianism of the middle-class and its “separate spheres”; as Millicent Fawcett, leader the NUWSS, wrote in 1898:
To women as mothers is given the charge of the home and the care of children. Women are therefore, by nature as well as by training and occupation, more accustomed than men to concentrate their minds on the home and the domestic side of things. But this difference between men and women, instead of being a reason against their disenfranchisement , seems to me to be the strongest possible reason in favour of it; we want to see the home and the domestic side of things to count for more in politics and in the administration of public affairs than they do at present.
(—Home and Politics)
It’s a little unsatisfying that the rough-and-ready suffragettes would be the most serious blow to the pace of feminism’s first wave; that said, it would be rather encouraging if conservative Muslims could, like Britain’s tame Christian forebears, promote the integration of women rather than opine on a world from which it has taken many women rights activists a century to escape.
They’d still be wrong, though.
When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?
Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.
This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure - but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.
Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.
John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.
This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:
On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)
Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.
At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.
Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.
If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.
It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.
Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.
There’s my test. Take it.
Another stupid, misleading article by Myriam Francois-Cerrah:
Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.
“Do anything controversial, however bad, and I’ll support it. Because I like disagreeing with things.” And who said careerists were vacuous?
Francois-Cerrah has either not read UUK’s guidance, which she so readily explains to us, or she has so subsumed herself into the inferiority complex of the Muslim community that she feels that she must throw herself behind its most reactionary – and unrepresentative – elements. It’s either ignorant or dishonest.
Firstly, take a look at what UUK actually said:
Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely- held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.
In other words, for men and women to choose to sit next to one another in a public gathering is an attack on the speaker’s “genuinely-held religious beliefs”; if you do not abandon your rights when you are instructed, you are being an odious, inward-looking and regressive troublemaker. Indeed, Omar Ali appeared on Channel 4 News to celebrate the victory of religious bigotry as being that “we live in a liberal society.”
One has to wonder whether he has completely misunderstood the meaning of liberalism – which, to its credit, were such frivolities as the emancipation of women – or whether the political Islamic pressure groups have finally understood the virtues of their alliance with the far-left.
But to Francois-Cerrah:
It is Universities UK which is calling for bans; here, on the right of individuals to express their beliefs in the physical (not merely “spiritual”) equality of the two sexes. That is an assault on freedom of expression. No one is saying that deluded victims of indoctrination – male or female – may not voluntarily segregate themselves at a mosque or Agatha Christie-esque dinner party. But I will not allow you to force me to sit where I do not wish to sit.
1) Grow up.
2) This is why we need socialism and not this stupid wishy-washy liberal attitude to things.
I forget why – something probably riled me on Twitter – but I was thinking about that quote widely, if erroneously, attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It makes for a very poor argument. We can do much better. Hardly one to whom hubris was unknown, Voltaire would nevertheless, on the back of his truer if more ironic comment – that “a witting saying proves nothing” – have known how flippant that dictum is; why it has become the most lubricated quote on liberal matters completely eludes me.
Firstly, how many people say things that they really believe? To me it doesn’t matter; arguments don’t change. But there is a problem in “Voltaire’s” suggestion, perhaps reminiscent of Milton’s statement in Areopagitica that the vocalising of injustices may undo them, that an individual’s emotional engagement matters. It’s very easy to understate another person’s intellectual integrity, however high-minded you might be of your own. It allows, for example, the religious to prioritise their “genuinely-held beliefs” (as that semi-literate report from Universities UK put it) over secularists, whose views apparently lack divine sanction.
Matters of deeply-held beliefs shouldn’t matter, but when this part of the quote is challenged it leads on to part two:
Will you really fight to the death to say something of which you disapprove? A few minutes on Twitter, with all the virtual safeguards afforded to the cowardly guttersnipe intelligentsia, and their bitterness, provides a rough glance into what people think when they are without their social mannerisms and inhibitions. They (or we, I guess) hide behind keyboards because we want people to know that they are wrong, and they must, at once, alter their views. I for one, I suspect like most others, do not tweet out of a desperate urge to laud pillocks and their faceless avatars.
It is necessary, in other words, to be a political masochist in order to defend freedom of expression. And I am not sure whether it is a positive or negative corollary that this means most people will not, by instinct, want everyone to say what they want. So the statement entirely fails to convince; freedom of expression is all about legal safeguards, not the curious system of liberal fealty that Voltaire supposedly cherished.
No, no. This over-worn cliche – however succinct – is weak; detach it from Voltaire and throw it away. In our fight for pithy principles I’d much rather turn to my favourite heroine; the greatest rebellion against the classical view of human liberty – see Dryden’s stale remark that “slaves are made citizens by turning round” – was dreamt in a single line by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom,” she said, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”
Now stop filling Voltaire’s mouth with garbage.