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Never mind the hover board, what I was really expecting by 2018 was that we’d all be projecting ourselves into overseas conferences as holograms. Sorry, Belfast, but while I did find some quite nice beer, I still would have preferred to experience the round table discussion of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler and other delights of this year’s European Social Science History Conference without all the rain… Continue Reading »

There’s been a minor flurry of references to Thucydides in the context of the BBC’s bizarre decision to give Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech the historical monument treatment. It’s an interesting variant on the argument put forward by opponents of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and similar campaigns to protect the legacies of racism and imperialism, that something can be simultaneously incredibly important for historical understanding (and so must be preserved) and yet absolutely separate from contemporary concerns (and so shouldn’t be attacked). The claim is that Powell’s speech matters because of its role in history (so celebrating it now has nothing to do with contemporary politics, honest, and we’re going to be really critical of it), and yet the only reason anyone pays any attention to the racist pronouncements of a failed politician is the persistence of such racism as an undercurrent in British society ever since, with the increasing tendency of mainstream political parties to treat it not as a problem and source of shame but as Very Real Concerns that Should Be Addressed. A healthy, modern society would be one in which Powell’s speech was of purely historical concern – in which case this anniversary would be of interest only to a tiny number of specialists. Ours clearly isn’t – but that doesn’t mean the BBC should be pandering to such tendencies. Continue Reading »

My book has been published (on Friday, to be precise, at least for the UK)! Rather to my surprise, it’s already been getting some attention, with blog posts from Matthew Reisz in the Times Higher Education Supplement and from Mary Beard. Yes, a gratuitously stroppy account of the current state of Classics as a discipline and Why It Matters is more accessible than some of my usual obscure ramblings – but I have written would-be accessible things in the past, which have largely sunk without trace. Maybe it’s the moment.

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In recent years, it’s become clear that the traditional model of work, in which one is paid a regular wage for specified hours and tasks, generally carried out at a designated workplace, applies to ever fewer people, at any rate in the West. The division between work and non-work is blurred, as increased connectivity and/or zero hours contracts both, in different ways, create and support the expectation of permanent availability, and – especially but not only in the creative industries, including academia – the mantra of “do what you love, love what you do” turns enthusiasm and dedication into a system of self-exploitation. One of the revelations of the recent (ongoing) industrial action in British universities has been the revelation – for me, as I suspect for many, not so much a hitherto unknown bit of information, but something previously not fully registered or felt – of how far the whole system depends on us all working way beyond contracted hours (insofar as those can be defined at all), so that working to contract is tantamount to failing to fulfill the terms of the contract. Goodwill, self-sacrifice and willingness to go the extra couple of miles are now treated as the norm, or even the minimum. Continue Reading »

He’s Back

Ever since the days of Thucydides, states have used force to get what they want, and have expected weaker states to comply with their wishes. Ever since the days of Thucydides, they have claimed that this is all perfectly justifiable as the way of the world. Ever since the days of Thucydides, men have made confident claims that war is easy, straightforward, risk-free, simply an opportunity to demonstrate one’s greatness and reorder the world in a more congenial manner. Ever since the days of Thucydides, international relations academics and military strategists have spouted cliches like “Ever since the days of Thucydides…” as a cheap source of borrowed authority and gravitas. I just don’t get the part where this is supposed to be reassuring, even if it is delivered by a chiselled jaw and Action Man stare. Continue Reading »

Must Try Harder

If ever there was a good week to smuggle out an announcement of a conference with a few diversity issues, it’s this week; unless you have Jordan Peterson and Steve Bannon as keynotes and put on a minstrel show as part of the evening entertainment, there’s no way you could look worse than the Stanford Sausage Fest.

But having more female speakers than none is hardly cause for self-congratulation; 25%, as we have for our forthcoming workshop in Berlin at the beginning of next month on Thomas Piketty and Capital in Classical Antiquity, really isn’t great. I’m writing this partly to acknowledge the problem and accept responsibility for it, and partly – more importantly – to emphasise the lesson: having a diverse range of speakers as one of your goals in putting together a conference programme, and taking various steps to try to ensure it, may still not be nearly enough. Continue Reading »

Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. Continue Reading »