Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Not From Concentrate

A very minor footnote to current debates about the treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border… The emotive phrase ‘concentration camps’ has been used a fair amount, and whenever that happens you can guarantee that someone on the Twitter will come up with the “well actually they were invented by the British in South Africa” line – not, I think, with the aim of relativising the Holocaust or playing down the outrage, but perhaps to side-step invocations of Godwin’s Law and emphasise that respectable Anglo-Saxon democracies can do this sort of this as well.

This week brought a new variant: well actually it wasn’t the British but the ancient Greeks, see Thucydides’ account of the Athenian prisoners kept in terrible conditions in quarries after the Syracuse disaster (7.87). Hmm. The obvious objection is that, however inhuman their treatment, these were prisoners of war, whereas the hallmark of the modern concentration camp is the internment of civilians. The obvious question is: What function does such a claim serve? In the actual Twitter exchange it comes across less as an attempt to exculpate the British than simply as the provision of yet more historical information. But it still feels like a distraction, a missing of the point, or at least a dissolving of the point into a general ‘humans have always done this to each other’ sigh of despair rather than a focused attack on the choices of a particular state.

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Going Underground

In Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, academics who fell foul of the regime – merely for expressing ideas that didn’t fit the party line – were censored, silenced, forced out of their positions and even imprisoned. It’s no exaggeration to say that exactly the same thing is happening today, in the very countries which once stood for freedom and liberal values. Totalitarian regimes tolerate no dissent; we see academics once again being denounced simply for discussing inconvenient ideas, forbidden from organising lectures (and hounded by organised mobs if they do so), forced to hold seminars on radical ideas under conditions of the greatest secrecy, barred from publication in mainstream journals, and persecuted on trumped-up charges simply for trying to engage students with political issues.

These colleagues need our help and support – and we have the historical example of brave liberals like Roger Scruton and the Jan Hus Educational Foundation to show us the way. We need to show these beleaguered intellectual heroes that they are not alone, and make sure that their ideas can still be heard despite all these attempts at censorship. We propose the formation of a new organisation, the Conservative Academic Network Trust, to coordinate the activities of the academic underground. This will, for example, arrange plausible cover stories for those wishing to participate in clandestine seminars on imperialism without attracting the attention of the authorities, make and distribute homemade YouTube videos of inspirational lectures and interviews, and ensure the publication of forbidden ideas – preferably in multiple copies, to evade the censors.

We have already recruited academics willing to travel to ideological wastelands like Oxford and Stanford, ostensibly to deliver lectures on cultural Marxism and post-colonial gender theory, where they will be able to meet secretly with persecuted academics and hand over vital supplies of paper, green ink and tweed. But this requires money – more money than our few supporters among the proprietors of international media empires are able to provide. Please donate whatever you can. If simply being a conservative apologist for racism, sexism and imperialism is a thought crime, then we should all be Spartacus!

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8 Chansons

I’ve been re-watching Francois Ozon’s magnificently silly comedy 8 Femmes – a wonderful means of relaxing, that can be enjoyed just as a bit of fun but offers so much more if you’re in the mood. If Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven offers one sort of hommage to the films of Douglas Sirk, revealing the real darkness and painful secrets within such stories, Ozon revels in the melodrama and visual sumptuousness. One of its glories, and of course the major selling-point, is the simple fact that it packs eight great French actresses into a snowed-in house with a murder mystery and eggs them on into acting off against one another in contrasting styles. I can’t help wishing for a Hearts of Darkness documentary in which we discover the real dynamic behind Catherine Deveuve hitting Danielle Darrieux with a bottle or wrestling on the floor with Fanny Ardant, or the multi-layered stares exchanged between Emanuelle Beart and Virginie Ledoyen. (more…)

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Interest Free

I’m very conscious of the risk of seeming – or indeed becoming – obsessed with one negative review; I’m sure there are plenty more such reviews to come, probably more carefully framed and less entertainingly vituperative. But my sense is that this review is less about my book than what that book is perceived to represent, from someone who feels outraged by it not just on their own behalf but on behalf of an entire scholarly tradition that feels under attack; and so it’s not unreasonable to reflect on what the review tells us, perhaps inadvertently, about that tradition. Especially to reflect on the bits that seem really odd… (more…)

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Bemusement So, my new book Classics: why it matters has been reviewed on the Classics For All webpage by Richard Jenkyns – I’d asked for a copy to be sent to them (I don’t know if they’re on the regular distribution list for review copies) as they’re a worthy organisation seeking to promote the study of classics in state schools rather than keeping it as preserve of the elite, and that’s one of the points of the book. Jenkyns is one of their patrons, so it’s entirely reasonable that they asked him to write the review – and he didn’t like it much… Okay, I wouldn’t have expected my comments on the place of ancient languages to win much favour with an eminent Oxford classicist, but is it really true, as is implied, that the book only shows any liveliness when it’s attacking classics? How must I have failed to express myself clearly, if someone thinks that I’m recommending David Engels’ prophecies of doom as a model for classical studies, rather than offering them as an example and symptom of alarming politicised appropriation of the ancient world? And as for the idea that Thucydides is straightforward to read in translation whereas such an approach in the case of Tacitus would inevitably lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding… (more…)

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Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Week, I spent most of Friday in a training course with departmental colleagues on Mental Health First Aid, aimed at improving our understanding of mental health and our ability to help support students and colleagues. Highly recommended for all teachers in higher education, if you get a chance (we did the one-day course specially for higher education, rather than the half-day taster or the two-day full qualification); plenty of things that I found moderately annoying, especially the ridiculously small amount of space left for discussion in order to fit everything essential into the day, but the ratio of useful stuff to moderately annoying stuff was far better than on the majority of training courses I’ve done over the years. (more…)

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“The best are those who are raised in the severest school.” To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother never read Thucydides (whence that quote comes; Archidamus at 1.84), or Herodotus, or Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, or any of the other ancient accounts of Sparta and its values, but she didn’t have to; she could draw on a substantial popular tradition of images of Spartan life and attitudes, including her favourite admonitory story of the Spartan boy and the fox. As a child I was never sure what the lesson was supposed to be – don’t get caught? if you get caught, never confess? – but in retrospect I think it was more a kind of mood music: big boys don’t cry, that’s just a scratch, a family of starving Bangladeshis could live on that for a week (on failing to eat one’s crusts), and in my day we’d have been sent to bed without any supper for less than that. The Spartans tell you why you shouldn’t ever have more than one slice of cake. (more…)

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