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Posts Tagged ‘history’

One of the things I always do in the Christmas vacation is catch up on the year’s music that I’ve missed. Partly it’s a matter of having a little bit more leisure to try out the unfamiliar, that might throw me off my stride or drive me up the wall, rather than sticking to things that I know will relax me or offer a suitable background for lecture prep or marking. Partly, though, it’s because of the End of Year lists – not so much those of the mainstream press, but something like The Spill, for its random eclecticism and the fact that I know that if contributor X likes something then it is at least worth a listen. It’s how the Spotify algorithm ought to work: a selection of people from across the globe with very different tastes, just presenting what they thought was great. Especially this year, when my involvement in composition classes means I’ve been listening to much more jazz and much less of anything else, this is invaluable in giving me a sense of what else is out there. (And I now have some new marking music – strong recommendation for the latest album from Ulrike Haage, not to mention her soundtrack to the recent Berlin 1945 series).)

And that is what I aim to do with this post every year: (more…)

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Bad Company

In 1924, the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža was travelling on a night train from Riga to Moscow, and fell into conversation with a Lithuanian schoolteacher of German heritage who was reading Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism. She had, she said, become interested in him when he held a lecture in Riga the previous year at the invitation of the Courlandic German Bund.

“But everyone was disappointed with the gentleman. He is a boring, elderly professor with illusions of grandeur, who earned a pretty fee with his lecture. The Courlandic German Bund had to pay for his trip in a sleeping car, first class, all the way from Munich to Riga and back, and on top of that even the door receipts, and then he came, read from his papers for half an hour, and at the banquet did not speak a single word with anyone the whole evening. A disagreeable, opinionated fool!”

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Thucydides doesn’t mention the fact that a statue of the Athenian tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, occupied a prominent position in the agora; almost certainly he didn’t have to, as this would be well known to his readers, but in any case he had a bigger and more important target: the story that the statue was intended to commemorate. “People accept the traditions that they hear quite uncritically, even when it relates to their own country,” he remarked caustically (1.20) – though perhaps he should have said especially when it relates to their own country, in the light of his observation a little further on (1.22) that accounts of the same event might vary “depending on individual loyalties”. Athenians – at any rate the democratically-inclined majority – knew what their past was all about, without any need for inconvenient historical fact, and they would surely have been outraged at any proposal that the statue should be removed because the real story behind it wasn’t quite as straightforwardly noble and democratic as they believed. (more…)

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This Is What We Do

Even before Friday morning, I was feeling despondent; partly premonitions of doom (local political doom, apocalyptical climate and environmental doom), partly the after-effects of a heavy teaching load this term and of a year in which I seem to have been ill and/or insomniac quite a lot of the time, hence massively behind with research and writing commitments. And now? We’re definitely leaving the EU, and still at risk of a disastrous version of that departure; the culture war will continue and probably accelerate, with Johnson’s ‘bring the country back together’ a form of ‘you lost, time to get with the programme’ coercion rather than a genuine concern about engaging with other views; nothing will be done about climate change, or poverty. (more…)

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WAG the Dog

Somewhere on my ever-expanding list of ‘Things it would be really cool to try if I wasn’t already deep into time/energy/sleep deficit’ is the idea of a video series called Thucydides Explains It All, in which the incomparable wisdom of Thucydides would be applied to the analysis of contemporary issues – not just vacuous speculation about China, but things that actually matter to people. Case in point, which is why I thought of this again yesterday: the Rooney-Vardy bust-up. It was the rise of a new generation of WAGs, and the fear of media obsolescence this aroused in the established influencers, that made conflict inevitable… My wife suggested that I ought to buy a false beard and present these videos as Thucydides; I would much rather hire the brilliant animators who did the ‘Heavyweight Champion Historian’ video, so if anyone out there has lots of money and fancies sponsoring this project… (more…)

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I’ve just had a review published on War On The Rocks (a reliably interesting website for analysis of foreign policy and strategy, from a viewpoint that is predominantly US-focused and frequently Realist), on the new book by Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: statecraft and world order (Yale UP, 2019). As you can probably gather from the review, I found this rather an odd experience; indeed, half-way through the book I became increasingly convinced that I was a completely unsuitable reviewer, as after the first couple of chapters the ‘tragedy’ element largely disappeared, and B & E’s conclusion is not that US strategy people all need to start reading tragedy (that might be fun…), but that they need to review more recent history in the alleged spirit of tragic sensibility, which largely boils down to an assumption that bad things will continue to happen. (more…)

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It’s been one of those years… As far as the blog is concerned, I’ve managed to keep up a reasonably steady routine of posts – it does help that the WiFi on South Western trains is pretty reliable, so I can get things written on the commute down to Exeter – and the viewing figures have been pretty steady (no weird public controversies, and I managed to resist the temptation to launch unprovoked attacks on any prominent media figures during the slow weeks). I have at various points wondered whether it’s worth it; on the one hand, this remains a great opportunity to write about things that would never make for a proper academic article (or which perhaps might count as groundwork for something more substantial in due course – I am committed to giving a paper about Thucydides on Twitter in February), but on the other hand it is a time commitment, and in a year when it feels like I’ve lacked both time and energy even for the regular work stuff, sometimes it’s felt like that ‘one more bloody thing’ which could turn out to be that one thing too much. (more…)

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Ah, history. To quote Catherine Morland, “I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” The reasons are familiar: not just a tendency to focus on content rather than form, as if the two can be separated, but also a determination to deny or obscure its invented nature by being as dull as possible. And even as some professional historiography has become more interesting and adventurous in its techniques of representation, history written for students or for a general audience defaults time and again to good old-fashioned naive realism, with predictable results. (more…)

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Holiday Snaps

In clinching proof that I am incapable of switching off the academic brain even when surrounded by beautiful countryside, unfeasible numbers of storks, fine food and excellent beer, I have been getting cross with an innocuous History of Croatia. The first 80% of the first chapter is more or less okay – the account of the Romans is unnecessarily confused by the fact that the author knows Octavian and Augustus are the same person but clearly isn’t sure why and certainly doesn’t see any need to explain it to the reader – but then we come to the arrival of the Croats. They came with other Slavs. Or not. Their language is Slavic, but other characteristics point to a different origin, according to some theories. They were a distinct group. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they actually came from Iran. But we don’t actually have any evidence. It’s all a mystery. (more…)

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992 Arguments

How do we teach our students to argue, in an appropriate academic manner? At least one of the key elements is to help them to recognise, and criticise, different sorts of arguments in the secondary literature – and then to encourage them to turn this critical sense on their own work, to question every statement that they make and probe every possible weakness. But this needs to be critical criticism, so to speak; criticism that’s tempered by a sense of realism, of what is actually possible in historical studies – and by an awareness that there is rarely a single straightforward answer to anything, or a single correct approach. For example, identifying every source, ancient and modern, as ‘biased’ may be true, and better than total credulousness, but it’s generally unhelpful; at best it’s a first step rather than a conclusion, given the impossibility of finding a source that doesn’t have its own perspective, concealed or unconscious or otherwise. And if I thought it would help, I’d spend a lot of time citing Matthew 7.1-5… (more…)

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