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Wishful Thinking

We have already had a number of ‘Thucydides explains Coronavirus’ takes, of varying degrees of silliness – and the first sign of a fractal effect, whereby Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ misreading of Thucydides generates ‘Coronavirus Thucydides Trap’ misreadings of Allison misreading Thucydides – but I would dare to suggest that we’re already past the worst. Writing to students, the Dean of College at the University of Chicago eschewed the usual discussion of new rules and practical measures in favour of a rather idiosyncratic form of reassurance. His former graduate adviser had told him an anecdote about the dark days of 1942, when his superior officer reassured him with reference to Thucydides: wars rarely turn out in way you expect them to at the outset. Continue Reading »

Well, that happened quickly. On Friday, the latest coronavirus update from the university offered the first indication that they were considering switching teaching delivery from face-to-face to online, from 23rd March, with a decision to be made on Monday. On Sunday afternoon, the decision was confirmed. On Sunday evening, the 23rd March switchover was a minimum, with colleagues in humanities encouraged to change their approach as soon as practicable; I’d been thinking about how to do this for a while, seeing other universities in the UK and US making the change, so was all set to record short audio files, set up discussion boards, contact students etc. Then Monday evening all classes for this week were cancelled so students can, where practical, make arrangements to go home. Continue Reading »

I’ve been yelling at the internet again… Nothing new there, especially when it’s a matter of people misrepresenting Thucydides; what’s weird is that my target should be Adam Roberts, a man with astonishing breadth of knowledge and insight whose blog posts on literature and science fiction regularly leave me in absolute awe. But even Homer nods, or rather occasionally draws an unwarranted conclusion from a academic article that’s much more controversial than is obvious at first sight. Continue Reading »

I believe there’s now something of a vogue for schematic accounts of world-historical development, built around some sort of organising trope like ‘killer apps’, with far-reaching, if tendentious, contemporary implications. However, so far these seem to be mostly focused on technology and institutions, or built around grand assertions about human psychology, and inexplicably they deal with classical culture only as the/a beginning of a long process rather than as the fundamental cultural theme it clearly is in reality. It’s time to redress the balance. Yes, this is just a short blog post, but editors and publishers can be assured that I can easily turn this into a polemical op ed or trade book just by adding some striking examples, without inflicting any unhelpful nuance on the core thesis. And of course it’s just about Europe and the West; what are you, some kind of cultural Marxist? Continue Reading »

Controversy!

So, ‘cancel culture’ has been monetised: just pay Toby Young’s new Free Speech Union a load of money, and then tweet about eugenics, the glories of the British Empire and the size of women’s breasts to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that you will not have to stand alone in the face of a howling Twitter mob demanding to know whether this is entirely appropriate.

I’m not totally convinced by some aspects of the business model here – surely the sort of person who knows in advance they’re going to be wilfully offensive, so would pay for the assurance that Spiked! will write an outraged column about people objecting to this, will already be part of this crowd? And are they actually going to ignore a good controversy and opportunity to denounce excessively woke students, just because the target hasn’t coughed up their protection money?

But it also raises the question of whether there are any further business opportunities in this area… Academics! Are you worried that your research is too obscure, nuanced or sensible to attract the sort of attention and media gigs you nevertheless feel you deserve? But you’re still unwilling to strip out the ambiguity and pull out a dog whistle? We’re here to solve your problem: for a very reasonable fee we will weaponise your findings and make them the new front in the culture wars. You retain deniability and the possibility of claiming to have been misinterpreted, if you decide not to commit fully to our truth-telling mission – and if you do, Toby Young has an offer you may not be wise to refuse…

Addendum: did briefly think about also offering the opportunity to be convincingly denounced to the Turning Point UK Inquisition, but unaccountably people seem to be taking them even less seriously than the Free Speech Avengers.

Them Too?

So you like to party with the students. Ain’t that kinda skanky?

Now, I’m not saying that watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be a compulsory training element for all new university teachers – but it would certainly have been better than the training I received when I started, namely none at all. This isn’t about the series’ depiction of teaching styles (copious material there, especially with regard to different Watcher philosophies) but the handling of student-teacher relationships and the negotiation of appropriate boundaries. Basic Buffy message: ick. Or worse.

Continue Reading »

What can Thucydides tell us about the current state of global politics and the likely direction of future developments? As I’m writing a book for Princeton UP called What Thucydides Knew, it does suit me very well that people keep asking this question – even if they then keep offering the same tedious answers. I struggle to see, for example, what contribution this morning’s op ed in the New York Times makes to our understanding of anything, beyond the fact that it’s a Colonel in the People’s Liberation Army trotting out boilerplate Thucydides Trap stuff about tensions in the South China Sea, rather than one of the usual suspects.

It’s a bonus, therefore, when someone offers a new and potentially interesting take on the question, even if I disagree with a lot of it.* Continue Reading »