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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Leadership for Dummies

Suddenly the idea that political power should be allocated on the basis of legitimate descent from generations of ruthless thugs, or even on the whim of a strange woman in a lake handing out swords, doesn’t seem so bad, because apparently the alternative – the unanswerable reason why Labour politicians are unfit for government – is the ability to recite a large chunk of material in a foreign language, learnt by heart back at school.

Not just any material, of course. (more…)

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There’s a persistent belief that simply describing contemporary political figures in classical terms automatically furthers understanding; Trump is depicted as a Roman emperor, Johnson as Pericles, Cleon or Alcibades, as if this offers us vital clues to their personality or to the situation we’re in. I’m not referring to the passing comments or allusions – the endless evocation of Caligula supposedly making his horse a senator, whenever one or other of these modern autocrats makes an especially egregious appointment, for example – but to the longer-form discussions, the essays and op ed pieces, where the classical frame is clearly intended to illuminate (or at the least to indicate the illumination of the author; the audience may simply be expected to nod admiringly at their erudition). (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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A country divided; politics becoming ever more partisan and extreme; increasingly violent rhetoric, with knee-jerk defence of your own side and a refusal to accept the slightest possibility that your opponents – now branded as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’ – might be speaking or acting in good faith. Not (only) Britain in 2019, or 1930s Germany, but ancient Greece. (more…)

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The Thucydides virus continues to spread through British political culture, and has inevitably made the jump from the naturally-susceptible Conservatives (cf. the statistics on the number of MPs with classical degrees) to the wider population. On Monday, Ian Blackford of the SNP came out with a bit of Pericles in the House of Commons: “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it” – no, not the most exciting or original quote, but it’s normally the preserve of the E”R”G Sparts, not least because of its association with the Bomber Command Memorial, and a few years ago any sort of classical reference in the House of Commons would have been greeted with mockery. And yesterday Nick Clegg read a substantial portion of the same Funeral Oration as part of the memorial service for Paddy Ashdown in Westminster Abbey. I fear that my new paper for History & Policy on the use and abuse of Thucydides in political commentary has come too late to serve as any sort of vaccine…

The obvious reason for including Pericles in Ashdown’s commemoration (more…)

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I for one welcome our new Thucydides-quoting overlords… Well, no, not really. Back in 2013, when Dominic Cummings publicly expressed his love for Thucydides and his belief that there is no better book to study for understanding politics, I expressed concern that this was one more data point for the proposition that studying Thucydides can be a Really Bad Thing that leads people to Terrible Conclusions. I decided then not to spend any time developing a detailed analysis of the role played by Thucydides (and Pericles) in his essay ‘On education and and political priorities’, aka the ‘Odyssean Education’ piece, as on first reading it seemed that Cummings was mainly taking Thucydides as a model for critical thinking, something with which I wasn’t inclined to disagree too much, even if this idea clearly then led us in very different directions. A few years later, when Cummings resurfaced in the Vote Leave campaign, there seemed more important things to do than re-read the essay – though in retrospect, as discussed below, I now suspect that there were a few clues in there about his approach to politics that could have been worth discussing.

And now? (more…)

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Between the Wars

One of my least favourite novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence is the sixth, The Kindly Ones. I’m not entirely sure why; it offers one of his most sustained bits of classical reception, the Kindly Ones being of course the Eumenides or Furies – but my love of Powell, and personal response to this book, long pre-date any serious classical interest – and is just as full of unforgettable scenes and character sketches. More than likely it’s my habit of over-identifying with certain characters and then feeling vicariously miserable, and perhaps I simply shouldn’t enquire too closely. But in the last year or so it’s been difficult to avoid being reminded of the book on a regular basis, and that is Not Good – finding oneself in The Kindly Ones is akin to the Chinese curse of living in ‘interesting times’. (more…)

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The problem with developing an interest in classical references in modern political discourse is that the evidence never stops piling up. It’s the advantage of blogging, of course, that it’s easy to update whenever something interesting comes along. When it comes to proper academic analysis, however – since blogs are still not taken seriously for that purpose – there’s a constant fear that a new development will suddenly put things into a different light, locked in endless struggle with the wish/need to get the thing finished.

I cannot decide whether it’s a good or bad thing that my chapter on depictions of Trump as Roman emperor was submitted months ago so can’t include references to the analogies being drawn between his 4th July authoritarian military spectacle and the vast, expensive shows put on for Caligula (more…)

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I’ve just discovered this blog post lurking in my ‘Drafts’ file, having apparently been created in mid-March; I can’t remember why I never got round to finishing it – unlike another post I started back in the autumn, which perhaps needs to wait for an appropriate moment – but that’s probably revealing in itself. Anyway, in a number of ways this unfinished discussion connects to what I was planning to write this morning, so I’ll post it here and then add current thoughts underneath…

If what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If what you have is a copy of Thucydides, everything looks like the Melian Dialogue. (more…)

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This week is especially heavy on travelling, which is terrible for doing all the writing I imagined I’d get done once marking was out of the way, pretty terrible for my waistline as I resort too often to coffee and cake to keep going, moderately good for starting to work through the long list of overdue book reviews, and very good for blog posts. I’m currently, in theory, on my way to Zagreb for a doctoral workshop on pre-modern economics [update, three hours later: finally on the move…] On Tuesday I was in Manchester, and on Wednesday in London, for teacher-training sessions for the ‘Understanding Power’ project – aka ‘Thinking Through Thucydides’, but that name isn’t going to pull in the punters – that Lynette Mitchell and I have been developing with the Politics Project.

This was tiring, a little stressful – and finally a joy. (more…)

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