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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Expert Opinions

As I’ve remarked before, I am never going to become a popular writer of history: my books will never be sold in railway stations or airports, or reviewed in proper newspapers or included in celebrities’ Books of the Year choices; they won’t ever have embossed gold writing on the cover; I won’t ever be invited to the Hay Festival or the Chalke Valley History Festival or the like, and as for television… Partly this is the result of wilful refusal to submit to mainstream tastes (no, Lord Bragg, I won’t talk about bloody Spartacus…), and partly sheer inability to think or write in the right sort of terms even if I wanted to – I mean, my idea of an accessible work for a general audience was a polemical account of modern theories of imperialism and the reception of the Roman Empire… (more…)

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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… (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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Thucydides 5.84ff

…and sent envoys to enter into discussions. They spoke as follows:

Athenians: Since these negotiations are not to go on before the people, so that we may speak without inconvenient interruptions and continue trying to deceive the ears of the multitude without listening to any counter-arguments, please don’t bother with any set speeches, but let us discuss things in a civil manner without reopening the question of the valuation agreed in January.

Melians: How can we have a proper discussion when you’re not willing to discuss the central issue? We see you have come to be judges in your own cause, and all that we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is continuing conflict and disruption to students, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and otherwise we just become your slaves. (more…)

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