A Propagandist Rides to War

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.

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Stupid Students 1: The haunting fear someone may be having fun.

What better way to celebrate this week’s Thanksgiving than with a dose of liberating puritanism:

The Sun newspaper has been banned from sale at the Union, following a student vote.

Politics student, Niall MacLaughlin submitted the idea for the Union to support the No More Page 3 campaign by refusing to sell The Sun.

MacLaughlin told LS: “it is my belief, shared by many other students here, that Page 3 is damaging and completely out of place in a newspaper.”

The first year student has since been targeted by internet trolls.

This would be a relevant moment, if somewhat arbitrary in its timing, at which to kick off a new blog series about Stupid Students. Being a student myself, with absolutely no viable ambitions in campus politics, the most I’ll ever contribute is with embittered hissing noises from under the dust of this blog; I might as well make them honest.

So to begin with Leeds. At the risk of some whataboutery, I’m genuinely puzzled by these people’s mindsets:

  1. Replace “internet trolls” with “counter-revolutionary saboteurs”. Feels a tad Stalinist, don’t you think?
  2. The niqab, much like prostitution and Page 3, justifies itself under the illusion – however real – of resulting from a woman’s “choice” when external compulsion is usually a far more powerful cause. Will the veil be banned? I suppose not.
  3. Will it be banning any other potential outlets of women’s objectification? Porn websites? Sexist jokes? Pink aprons? Men with overbearing and over-enchanting charisma?
  4. More tangibly, where is the outrage at UUK’s acquiescence to sexual apartheid?
  5. What will happen if the rules are broken?
  6. And, finally, perspective. The visceral climate of British feminism could do with re-evaluating itself from time to time.


A Withering Right to Protest

The University of London, one of the only spots of student activism still worth the name, is to lose its Union; and to protest against it is to incur what can only adequately be described as intimidation:

University of London Union (ULU) President Michael Chessum was arrested today shortly after leaving a meeting with University of London management over the forced University takeover of the Union.

It is understood that the arrest is in response to the demonstration organised by ULU yesterday by hundreds of students demanding the Union remain student-led.

The National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC) wishes to reiterate its full support Michael Chessum and the campaign to defend ULU.

NCAFC also demands the immediate release of Michael Chessum, and for all charges against him to be dropped.

The moment that arrests are made, student careerists – who today form the balk of university politics today – will simply walk away; and “radicals” are not, by the implications of that silly word, in strong enough of a position to defend collective rights alone.

It’s a generation-old dictum that students are ordered to live by a paradox: they are ordered to act like adults but denied the rights to do so. If Britain is a democracy then it should not be disagreeable – to any public authority – to act as though it is.

Update:

A protest against the actions of the police has apparently escalated rather quickly:

Also:

It would be so nice if Oxford were a little less dull.


Killing me softly, with his hymn

The reactionary trend in Anglicanism showcases an unbelievable ignorance, even by the standards of our fellow primates; its number will not be pleased at the latest pronouncement that the Church is to apologise, at last, to Charles Darwin:

The Church of England will concede in a statement that it was over-defensive and over-emotional in dismissing Darwin’s ideas. It will call “anti-evolutionary fervour” an “indictment” on the Church”.

The bold move is certain to dismay sections of the Church that believe in creationism and regard Darwin’s views as directly opposed to traditional Christian teaching.

The apology, which has been written by the Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, the Church’s director of mission and public affairs, says that Christians, in their response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, repeated the mistakes they made in doubting Galileo’s astronomy in the 17th century.

“The statement will read: Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practise the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.”

Opposition to evolutionary theories is still “a litmus test of faithfulness” for some Christian movements, the Church will admit. It will say that such attitudes owe much to a fear of perceived threats to Christianity.

But wait.

Ever since the Enlightenment exposed the Church’s intellectual poverty, English Christians have drifted from the mainstream, and piety has slunk indoors and tumbled down the generations in a total daze. Many then and today have doubtless been tormented by their uncertainties which Bishops and Archbishops spent decades simply ignoring. People believed, but they had no idea what; and their prayers went unanswered and no vicar could say why (in 1904 The Telegraph ran a poll, entitled “Do we believe?”, eliciting this very ambivalence). Scientific progress, and the Church’s oscillating leaps between hysterical expulsion and embrace of it, was a powerful element of this.

And now, at last, a minor magnate has proffered an apology – to a single dead man. One who, it seems, was more than strong enough to stand up to the religious bullying thrust upon him. Nothing to see here, folks!

But it does, at the very least, shed perspective on why the Church has never apologised for the banner it raised over the millions murdered in the name of God, King, country and empire nearly a century ago. The ivory tower must be very lovely indeed.


Sorry, Alan. We’ll let you off this one.

The British government will not, it is revealed, oppose a law pardoning Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing:

The Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing is set to be posthumously pardoned, after the Government said it would not stand in the way of legislation in parliament that would quash his conviction for being a homosexual.

Ministers had previously argued that they would not be able to go any further than the apology given by Gordon Brown in 2009, because “gross indecency”, which Turing was found guilty of in 1952, was at the time a criminal offence.

But yesterday Government Whip Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the coalition would not stand in the way of a Bill brought by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, which offers Turing a full posthumous parliamentary pardon.

John Sharkey cheers from the Lords:

“It is not too late for the Government to pardon Alan Turing. It is not too late for the Government to grant a disregard for all those gay men convicted under the dreadful (legislation). I hope the Government is thinking very hard about doing both of those things.

“But while they are thinking, Parliament can act.”

Those are two very different matters to be proposed. Ignoring, firstly, the inconsistencies of pardoning the victims of only one law – when Blair himself offered only a puzzled apology on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade – we reach even deeper and inevitably darker territory of pardoning one named victim.

Down there be monsters. Firstly, the pardon – if unintentionally – implies that human rights are to be earned; that had Turing not shortened the war, his sentence would have been definitively deserved. Second, compare with the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perpetrators of apartheid were offered redemption if they accepted fully the principles upon which the new state was founded. But in the case of Turing, a moral quandary jumps from the past only to be ruled upon with a halfhearted sigh. To observers, it is lazy; to victims, and to their descendants, it is selfishly shallow.

Don’t discriminate between the crimes for which you apologise. Better either to accept you aren’t to blame – or, to repair as many of those damages that history will allow.


The Importance of Elsewhere

The Troubles – Larkin in Ireland.

Last night’s post on the BBC’s Red Nose Day (Comic Relief) reminded me of this Philip Larkin poem, The Importance of Elsewhere:

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

It’s mainly about the liberating feelings of being abroad – the brief caesura of upholding standards and conventions and the like. The Irish accent’s harsh “salt rebuff” reminded Larkin of the country’s non-negotiable differences with English culture. And yet, underlying separation is the implicit current of familiarity, mutual understanding. Much like those white celebrities watching the stoicism of the mother in a children’s hospital, a situation as alien as it is real.


Assad: Britain is Bullying Syria

To the most blatant evils in this world, there is invariably an edge of absurdity:

“To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries … The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony.

“How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supply to the terrorists?”

Meanwhile, while we consider whether we ought to be helping the secularists amongst Assad’s opponents, let’s remember how His Benevolence has transformed his countrymen for the better. Dina Shahrokhi writes:

The Syria I knew was one of the most beautiful places in the world. The heart-warming people, the beautiful landscapes, the scrumptious food, the ancient treasures – there was nothing not to love about Sham.

When I lived in Damascus less than five years ago, foreigners would come with cameras, not with guns. During my summer nights we also complained about the ruckus outside, but rather than bombs and bullets we would scathe at streams of honking cars celebrating a wedding.

My Syria smelled not of blood and war, but of jasmine that covered the country in the summertime.