On Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, Holocaust Denial is Becoming Fashionable in Western Life

 

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Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in general is rapidly on the rise in the West. This should not surprise us; polite society has allowed atrocity-denial and the hatred it vomits out to become normal and acceptable. If a person can deny the documentary and photographic proof of a massacre in Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda or anywhere else without suffering ill for it, the denial of Auschwitz will follow suit.

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Holocaust Memorial Garden, Hyde Park, London, UK. Photo: Royal Parks

Denying the Holocaust is now at risk of becoming fashionable once again. It is on the cusp of being, so to speak, ‘cool’. It positions you against the Establishment, the metropolitan elite, the leisured and educated bien-pensants who have been losing every election and Referendum for some time. Denying the “official story” gives you the ability to fight back against the Mainstream Media (MSM) whose agenda to manipulate you into conformity can be resisted by “doing research” and getting your facts from true and alternative media sources. Believing the Holocaust happened makes you an establishment shill; but “questioning” it makes you an independent mind who cannot be bought off or brainwashed by the globalists who control all the television networks, newspapers and History Departments in the Western world.

If this parody is offensive, the subject matter is an obscenity. I wrote an undergraduate Dissertation on the subject of genocide denial in two libel trials; Irving v Penguin and ITN v LM, both concluded at the High Court in the year 2000. I completed and printed this work in the summer of 2016. Even in the time since then, I find the scale of the successes enjoyed by genocide and atrocity-deniers in recent years to be staggering. Do not heed the well-meaning advice of “don’t read the comments”, and gaze into the comments section below any major news story related to Syria published in 2015 or 2016. As the Syrian conflict draws to a bloody denouement; the “peace” of silence over a graveyard once everything remaining in it is dead; we may forget these stories ever happened as they did.

There you will see, with hundreds of upvotes of approval from other users, fellow members of your society accusing CNN, the BBC, Channel 4 News, the Guardian or the Washington Post of promoting fabricated atrocity stories in the service of an imperialist or ‘globalist’ geopolitical agenda. The work of journalists and war correspondents is dismissed out-of-hand as a calculated effort to deceive and manipulate. The photographs of bloodied, crying children and the mass graves holding their relatives are “dubious” or outright fraud given centre-stage by “the media”, a monolith dedicated only to demonising the Syrian government for the purposes of regime-change. Inevitably, anti-Semitism and allegations of “Zionist” puppetry behind Western involvement and Western media reporting on Syria emerge, gaining hundreds of upvotes even when openly proclaiming admiration for Hitler and the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

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Heavily-upvoted comments on a Channel 4 News FactCheck video describing Channel 4 journalists as “criminal propaganda peddlers”.

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Anti-Semitic comments posted on a YouTube video claiming ‘TRUTH REGARDING SYRIA – NOT CIVIL WAR BUT US INVASION’.

The rage against the victims of atrocities, and those exposing the atrocities, has never been more publicly visible and hence, publicly acceptable. I submit that, as a result of the acceptability of denying other genocides, we are now facing the prospect of a new generation denying or shrugging-off the Nazi Holocaust. If you want some immediate evidence, break the “don’t read the comments” rule again, and go to the YouTube uploads of theatrical trailers for the historical and courtroom drama film Denial, released in British cinemas on Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th. Every YouTube video related to the film is flooded with downvotes; the ‘dislikes’ have been in the majority or winning 50-50 since each video was uploaded, the comments section dominated by tech-savvy members of the alt-right or the conspiracy subculture. Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whose legal battle with neo-Nazi historical fraudster David Irving inspired the film, regards the problem as the same:

“Of course the thumbs down and the comments on [the trailer] were pure anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt tells TIME… “I think we’re living at a time when conspiracy theorists and people with outlandish ideas that do not correspond to the facts are finding more of a fertile field, more of a welcome, more of an ability to promulgate their claims than we’ve ever had before…”

They are winning the battle of approval and platform vocals in burying the film’s online reputation as a Hollywood propaganda exercise to promote the ‘Holohoax’. The favourite quote of the commenters is the favourite of all anti-Semites who abuse history; the immortal quote by Voltaire that “to know who rules over you, notice who you cannot criticise.” Except it is not an immortal quote by a French philosophical and political genius; it is a claim made in an hysterical 1993 book by none other than “Kevin Strom, an American white nationalist, neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.” The quote itself, a favourite of neo-Nazis which has spread into a broader conspiracy subculture, entered the news in Australia in 2015 when a conservative politician tweeted it with the Internet-sanctioned authority of its Voltaire origins. Unfortunately:

“The suspected source of the quote is Strom’s 1993 essay, All America Must Know the Terror that is Upon Us… In 2008 Strom was sentenced to 23 months in prison for possessing child abuse material.”

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Anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial comments in the majority of hostile comments posted on a ‘Making of’ Featurette for the film ‘Denial’.

The online warriors, who exist in the very real physical world, fear no response and no repercussions, socially or otherwise, for their actions.

None of this matters. Truth has already been abolished for those who spend their time downvoting film trailers and upvoting comments proclaiming the most well-documented events of the twentieth century to be a hoax propagandised by an invisible global conspiracy. Case in point is a popular online documentary praising and lavishing glory upon Adolf Hitler, enjoying high ratings on IMDB and more than 140 user reviews, called ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’. The approval given by fans to the documentary in the top-rated reviews, is primarily for the Hitler-worshipping film challenging “history as told by the other side (the winners). Which is the story we are indoctrinated with through the school system and our media.” The Truth, or in this case, the denial of overhwelming evidence of the Truth, shall set you free. So saith the collective wisdom of the alt-right.

The far-right and the alt-right are not alone in their quest for ‘truth’.

The front pages of a socialist newspaper, one disseminated and promoted by the leader of the British Labour Party who remains a contributor, proclaim the “liberation” of a city being subjected to massacres and mass executions by a dictator who has used chemical weapons against civilians. Viral videos circulated among the politically interested, those who consider themselves ‘activists’ for one or many causes, whose favourite words are ‘resistance’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘justice’, boastfully deny the existence of atrocities which are extensively-documented. Unsatisfied with denying the suffering of those in the frames of photographs and videos, the deniers embrace the intoxicating self-righteousness of the conspiracy narrative; the alleged surviving victims are not survivors at all, but merely actors and fakes, paid as part of a malevolent conspiracy led by the mass media and Western governments. As the American children massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 were victimised again after their deaths by InfoWars.com and its owner Alex Jones denouncing the massacre as a “hoax” by the US government, and their families denounced as “crisis actors”, so to for every Syrian civilian murdered by the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The White Helmets volunteers trying to dig them out of the rubble and save them from barrel-bombs are not really humanitarian rescuers at all – they are really Al-Qaeda terrorists trying to overthrow the Syrian state. Their ‘volunteers’ are jihadists, the children they rescue are props, their statistics and documentation are a propaganda effort organised by the CIA and/or Mossad.

ISIS is a terrorist death cult which has brought racial genocide, social apocalypse and totalitarianism to Iraq and Syria, and would launch a war of extermination against the Jewish people if it possessed the material capacity to do so. Yet, the “anti-establishment” and “open your eyes” media have discovered the shocking truth. ISIS is in fact a creation of Israel itself, designed to bring chaos to Arab Muslim countries and distract the world from Israel’s own catalogue of offences. This belief has taken hold powerfully in many Muslim countries; whether by state propaganda in Iran, statements by the foreign minister of Lebanon, or simply where the cognitive dissonance and moral conflict of confronting a self-identified ‘Islamic’ holy state, has been too difficult for many believers to manage. Muslim communities in the West face similar problems. According to a study by Policy Exchange which surveyed 3,000 British Muslims on their beliefs, a shocking 52% of respondents in the survey said that they “do not know” who was responsible for the September 11th 2001 attacks. More respondents (7%) blamed ‘Jews’ than Al-Qaeda (4%). This could represent a combination of factors; failures in the education system, the difficulty of discussing recent and politically-loaded historical events and again, the cognitive dissonance in confronting members of one’s own group being responsible for a violent atrocity against others. However, the fact that the gradual development of the “don’t know” majority has faced no response from wider society is the most troubling aspect of these findings.  Khalid Mahmood MP wrote of the damaging impact that this was having, in the Foreword to the study:

“But it is deeply troubling that this seems to have led a not-insignificant-minority to believe that the world is at the mercy of the machinations of dark, anti-Muslim forces… This readiness to believe in conspiracy theories and the mentality of victimhood to which it speaks is having a pernicious effect on British Muslims and the way they see the world. It is holding us back – as a community – and ensuring that we remain locked in a paranoid and at times fearful worldview.”

No substantial government or civil society effort has been made to counteract the spread of this ignorance among members of the Muslim community or among others. From this it would seem that “don’t know, don’t care” has become the attitude taken to 9/11 conspiracy beliefs by the body politic and even those who do not share said beliefs.

Conspiracy-belief and denial pertaining to ISIS and Islamist terrorism have also taken hold among Western non-Muslims, for whom opposing another military intervention in Iraq leads them to believe, for the preservation of their own worldview, that ISIS atrocities are hoaxes by the US government. The Anti-Defamation League has catalogued a repeating wave of stories and viral images blaming various terrorist attacks in the West, as well as the workings of ISIS itself, and even natural disasters, on Israel and “Jewish lobby” conspirators. Whilst many such claims originate in mainstream newspapers in the Middle East, including leading daily papers in Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, there is a base of support for them in the West. They extend beyond anti-Israeli conspiracy sites like the neulously named ‘Veterans Today’. There is the case of Naomi Wolf, a respected feminist author and former Presidential campaign adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in October 2014 declared her belief that videos of ISIS members beheading foreign hostages were faked, along with the equally baseless claim that the US response to Ebola in West Africa was a plot to deliberately infect the US population with the virus. After a predictable critical response, she ‘clarified’ her comments – but there is no doubt that many of her 100,000+ Facebook fans will have shared and further disseminated her ideas.

A similar storm erupted in 2016 when Joy Karega, a professor at the prestigious Oberlin College in Ohio was revealed to have spent several years claiming ISIS was a “CIA and Mossad operation”, reposting anti-Semitic claims about the Rothschild family, and responding to the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack by posting an image referring to the trope ‘JSIL’ – that is, ‘Jewish State of Israel in the Levant’, a ‘satirical’ slur created by anti-Israel activists to promote moral equivalence between Israel and ISIS. The image in question is one depicting ISIS emerging from the body of Benjamin Netanyahu, with a Star of David Tattoo bearing their ‘real’ name. As it happened, the Charlie Hebdo attack was carried out by self-proclaimed supporters of Al-Qaeda, not ISIS.

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Anti-Semitic image posted by Oberlin College professor Joy Karega following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January 2015.

In this case, the professor was eventually fired – though not without considerable support from the student body, particularly on the ‘social justice’ left. What is startling is that the posts, of a grievously anti-Semitic character, which denied historical events (recent terror attacks) or assigned blame for them to Jews, were posted openly under Karega’s own name whilst she was teaching at a higher education institution. Her friends, colleagues and those who could see the posts did not raise them prominently until they were first exposed on the website of The Tower magazine in February 2016. Despite her dismissal, Karega has apparently doubled-down in her beliefs and according to Matthew Gidin, is producing an academic text to ‘study’ the following:

“(1) How has the term “conspiracy theory” been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?; (2) How has the uncomplicated tying of conspiracy theories to accusations of anti-Semitism been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?”

Those who attempt to criticise conspiracy theories or anti-Semitism, are merely reinforcing their own power as part of the conspiracy itself. As Gidin put it, “In other words, Karega wants to study how Jews silence anti-Semites.”

A similar process occurred with many subjects of the British Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal which dragged on throughout 2016. Complaints were made that “old social media posts” had been “dredged up” by muckrackers to cause embarrassment to Labour and particularly to Jeremy Corbyn. His defenders were adamant that the posts had only come to light for this specific purpose. However, if the posts were ‘old’, why had it taken so long for them to be exposed and the authors challenged? Why would it have taken anti-Corbyn muckrakers to find and condemn anti-Semitism among Labour members?

Hoax executions and terror attacks are but one facet of the conspiracy world’s fascination with blaming the existence of ISIS on everyone but ISIS. “ISIS armed by America” is a pervasive myth fed by a network of conspiracy sites – some dismissable as ‘fake news’, others pursuing long-established propaganda wars waged by a gargantuan conspiracy site with the deceptively academic name of ‘Globalresearch.ca’. Its philosophy towards democracy and human civilisation can be summed up in an article it actually thought morally and socially worthy of publishing: “North Korea, A Land of Human Achievement, Love and Joy”. Needless to say, it is the home of the most far-reaching claims that “Is Uncle Sam Funding the Islamic State?”. Globalresearch is just one of a network of conspiracy sites which have been servicing the demands of the “alternative media” market for Syria and ISIS-related stories for years. Others include Mint Press News, a site founded specifically to act as a pro-Assad outlet in the West, The Duran, and the Russian state media vehicles Sputnik and RT.com.

The work of outfits like this would be laughable were it not for the reality of what they deny. The victims of mass murder, torture, assassination and yes, genocide, are either screamed at for being fakes and stooges, their deaths attributed to other parties to excuse the guilty, or as the Jews of Europe were intended to be by the Final Solution, their very existence is erased from the historical record entirely.

Why is this monstrous enterprise increasing in popularity? Why has the denial of atrocities become so casual, so commonplace and out-in-the-open? Why do people not fear to speak, in public, that the parents of children killed in airstrikes or shot at point-blank range by death squads are just actors? Why do the ‘Holohoax’-obsessive trolls seem to be gaining the upper hand over any online media to do with the Holocaust?

I have considered several ideas; their relationship and contributory causality is not precise. However, I think all are important in understanding why Holocaust denial specifically is apparently on the rise in Western society, and its relatedness to atrocity-denial more generally. The most important, I think, is this:

People who casually deny atrocities are no longer paying any meaningful social price.

Probably the ultimate example of conspiracy theorising, atrocity denial and brazenly dishonest acts of defamation going unpunished is the election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency. Trump, who had pursued a bizarre self-appointment as the birther-in-chief, had promoted discredited and wholly fraudulent claims about links between vaccines and autism, repeatedly claimed climate change was a “hoax”, came to his logical conclusion when he rewarded the Sandy Hook victim-abusing fanatics at InfoWars with his loyal support during and after the 2016 campaign. Writing in The Washington Post in October 2016, Cheryl Greenberg discussed the complex and confusing relationship between Trump’s loud-and-proud xenophobia with an apparently more subtle undertone of anti-Semitism in his speeches:

“Trump’s alt-right followers… have certainly understood the anti-Semitic implications of these particular allegations. The stunning recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, politicians, performers and others, as well as the violent threats against their lives and their families, has made that clear. In the past few days, a new Nazi-inspired expletive has been reported at Trump rallies: “Lügenpresse!” (lying press)…”

Trump’s most devoted support base derives its news, when not watching the Fox News Channel, almost entirely from its own compartments of the online conspiracy subculture aforementioned. But the problem extends elsewhere, not least to Britain and to any country besieged by the tsunami of fake news which smiled so favourably on Donald Trump. The promulgators are not all Russian state agents; many have their own ideological agenda, some considerably more sinister even than Russia’s geopolitical gamesmanship.

For those who have carved out an audience and a support-base for their ideas, social rules of shame or disgrace which would preclude a person from speaking easily-exposed falsehoods about an historical event, no longer apply. The dedicated readerships of fake news websites and those who believe in a conspiracy narrative, or are open to entertaining it on equal terms with an empirically-based narrative, see no disgrace in casually blaming 9/11 on the Israelis or attributing the massacre of children in Syria to video-fakery. David Irving once had a ‘respectable’ career in popular history writing and an associated reputation which was destroyed by his exposure as a Holocaust denier and professional anti-Semite. However, if you have built your career and primary appeal around your anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-everything credentials, your income and social status are not threatened.

In the UK, this lack of consequence is found in the leadership of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has been wearing the badge of the Holocaust Memorial Trust this month, perhaps out of admirable solidarity. This cannot rewrite the historical record that Corbyn took £20,000 from Iranian state television Press TV, and by extension from a state which organises official conferences denying the Holocaust. He vociferously defended an Anglican priest, Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer, who had been investigated by the Church and criticised by members of the Jewish community for persistently posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media. Blaming a particularly nasty post made by Sizer in 2012 on “a technical oversight in terms of computer links”, Corbyn portrayed Sizer as the victim, predictably: “Might I suggest that such criticism is part of a wider pattern of demonising those who dare to stand up and speak out against Zionism…?”

Sizer eventually did suffer appropriate consequences for his persistence in promoting conspiracy theories which claimed Jewish involvement in 9/11 or getting too chummy with Holocaust deniers – such as at a 2014 conference organised by the Iranian state. From the Jerusalem Post:

“Iranian-run Press TV has described the conference as intending to “unveil the secrets behind the dominance of the Zionist lobby over the US and EU politics,” with one session devoted to examining “Mossad’s role in the 9/11 Coup d’Etat,” and another discussing “9/11 and the Holocaust as pro-Zionist ‘Public myths.’”

For this and other offences against reason and human decency, Rev. Sizer was first banned by his superiors from posting about Middle East issues on social media, and is now accepting an ignominious departure from his position with the Church. Jeremy Corbyn, however, was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 with a large personal mandate, and was re-elected on a larger mandate in September 2016. The scandals and political damage caused by the anti-Semitism crisis in Labour which have alienated the Jewish community from the party have not removed him. Even David Irving, whose entire political career has been on the far-right, recently stated that he was impressed by Corbyn, calling him “a very fine man”. What the Jewish community considers to be a matter of moral urgency is dismissed entirely by Corbyn’s supporters. Headlines about his work for Press TV, his praise of Hamas and Hezbollah or defending individuals like Rev. Sizer are dismissed as proof of a media conspiracy to oust him – sometimes of course inflected with the prefix ‘Zionist’ media conspiracy. Anti-Semitic incidents rose in Britain and especially London during the first half of 2016, when the anti-Semitism crisis was in the news, with many incidents directly linked to it, such as through the abuse of Jewish Labour MPs via social media. No amount of protests or complaints from the Jewish community, whether made by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust or polls of Jewish Britons generally, had any dent or measurable impact on Corbyn’s re-election and personal popularity among his base.

Why should Holocaust denial not begin to flourish when political allegiance triumphs over historical facts and basic empathy for the Jewish people on such a scale?

The liberal-left writer George Monbiot has long been a critic of genocide-denial in all quarters. He despairingly asked in May 2012, “How did genocide denial become a doctrine of the internationalist left?” Casual belief and promotion of atrocity-denial and attendant media conspiracy narratives by intellectuals; not least John Pilger, Edward S. Hermann, David Peterson and to an extent by Noam Chomsky had not prevented them maintaining loyal followings of fans and academics who considered their work worthy of praise and emulation. Much of the controversy involving Chomsky related specifically to Bosnia; the location of a genocide during a war of aggression by Bosnian Serb forces and allies from Orthodox Christian countries which an undercurrent of popular opinion in Serbia and throughout the Orthodox world has been attempting to deny since.

During the late 1990s, a series of conspiracy theories promoted by the magazine Living Marxism, re-named LM in February 1997, alleged that the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia were based on exaggeration and fakery by ITN and Guardian journalists. ITN sued and won at the High Court – but whilst the magazine folded under bankruptcy, its members re-formed under various names (collectively known as the ‘LM Network’ by the monitoring group Lobbywatch) to continue promoting the group’s professional contrarianism. Today, the most prominent members of the group, including Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill and Claire Fox, enjoy decent media careers writing for The SpectatorThe Telegraph and The Times and the LM-successor project Spiked Online. Those on the left and the right who defended LM’s right to publish lies about the Bosnian camps against ITN’s apparent “deplorable attack on press freedom”, included the writer and columnist Toby Young, the playwright Fay Weldon and the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who never suffered any lasting damage to their credibility. Nor did the Institute of Contemporary Arts which hosted a three-day conference lavishing support on LM and its members.

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ITN footage of the Trnopolje concentration camp, 6th August 1992. This image would become the subject of a libel suit after LM published articles falsely claiming the camp was a “hoax” invented by British journalists.

An expert on the ITN v LM case, Prof. Duncan Campbell of Durham University, discussed the legacy of the trial in a 2009 article concerning other efforts to obfuscate the historical record of Bosnia, ‘Chomsky’s Bosnian Shame‘. The lack of remorse, and more importantly the lack of any long-term loss of influence for the LM network was clear and unambiguous:

“It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist.”

No shame, and no loss in terms of commanding influence over public discourse. Genocide denial and libelling of professional journalists and the victims of concentration camps may have been reprimanded by the High Court, but it commanded few negative social results. On the contrary, the ‘LM network’ is doing better now than it ever did as a glossy, loss-making special interest magazine in the 1990s. Its members, who have never issued a moment’s apology to the victims of the genocide they dismissed as a hoax, are much more successful today.

What the past decade has taught us is how little the educated and professional world cares about investigating or delivering consequences for a person committing the act of denying a genocide. You could spit on the graves of the murdered, scream “liar!” at those who published photographs of the dead and buried, and keep your column, your academic post or your political party membership. Even if you lost one of these, the act of losing it would earn you the mantle of a victim of persecution by the establishment, and a fan base to follow you to your next enterprise.


 

Who is ultimately responsible for this? We could easily blame the post-truth generation of politicians and the anti-consensus contempt of the 2016 illiberal revolutions. Perhaps more controversially, Brexit comes into consideration. There is a chilling undertone to Michael Gove’s now-infamous denigration of experts and expertise during the Vote Leave campaign. It is unclear, and unlikely that the majority of people really have “had enough of experts”. But the democratisation of information via the Internet has brought with it a renewed vigour in popular contempt for sources of information based on the empirical sciences and quantitative research. Since “the experts” failed to predict the financial crisis, wrongly predicted the outcome of General Elections, Referendums and Presidential Elections, their word is worth no more than the viral video shared by a politically active friend on Facebook.

But the “experts” and acronym-holding organisations who can be denigrated and dismissed, whose painstaking research is no better or preferable to that promoted via Globalresearch or Naturalnews or InfoWars are not just economists or climate scientists. It includes historians and Holocaust experts, whom amateurs and imposters can demolish for the audience of an unknowing and unfamiliar public. There has been since Brexit a similar phenomenon to the publicly acceptable posting of anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories by persons who feared nothing would happen to them. Since the Referendum vote, racially and religiously-motivated hate crimes have rapidly increased across the UK, the attackers feeling legitimised in their actions – as well as a belief that they can act without endangering themselves to negative repercussions. Despite the scoffing and conspiratorial efforts of Brendan O’Neill and other LM Network members, all of whom took a pro-Brexit line and are defenders of Trump as an “anti-establishment” force, to paint the increase in hate crimes as an establishment media plot to undermine Brexit, the figures and combined weight of personal accounts are hard to dispute.

In the new wave of Holocaust denial, the discourse resembles the contempt for established knowledge aimed at the targets of Brexit and Trump’s contempt for experts and ‘the elite’. To reject the ‘mainstream’ and ‘elite’ consensus, and to embrace the controversial knowledge, the alternative media, the “alternative facts” as Trump’s Presidential spokespeople now describe them, is to be a rebel in a narrative of resistance to tyranny. The hatred of the media common to all deniers was expressed in a sinister vogue by Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who wrapped an authoritarian threat to the media in populist tones: “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”

To the British left, I would argue that the Middle East dictatorship-hopping cranks were tolerated and kept around for too long. New Labour tolerated the presence of MPs like George Galloway for years, despite his slavish enthusiasm for genocidal dictators like Saddam Hussein, and only expelled him when his behaviour spilled over into inciting the murder of British soldiers. Similar tolerance was given to Jeremy Corbyn despite his involvement in the same sinister promotion and apologetics for various anti-Western terrorist organisations when it suited his interests. Both have since given their credibility as Western politicians and media figures to the state-sponsored churnalism of foreign dictatorships. Both have been embroiled in rows over anti-Semitism which keep recurring without them discarding their particular beliefs which cause the rows to erupt.

More prominently and with a greater shrug of the shoulders, British and American society have normalised the denial of atrocities, along with the denial of ordinary historical facts, to the point where Holocaust denial is no longer as publicly outrageous as it once may have been. Anti-Semitism and belief in conspiracy theories which lead inexorably to it is not a career-ender for many people with a social circle that is amiable to their warped understanding of the world. Only when concerned members of an outside community notice the obscenity is it picked up. Soon, we may no longer regard publicly posting viral photos on Facebook claiming the gas chambers to be a “mainstream media Zionist hoax” to be an obscenity or an abnormality of any kind.

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ITN vs LM revisited and undergraduate thoughts on the British Library

Ordering the copies of texts and materials held by the British Library (BL) can be an exciting experience for new scholars and I would suppose any scholar who loves the nuts-and-bolts side of their work. Collection times at the humanities reading rooms can feel like Christmas if you have found that one juicy text or pile of texts that you have wanted to get your hands on for some time. Fresh discoveries and the unexpected find can be an exhilerating source of anticipation.

That was the mood which struck as I discovered that the BL held among its collections the back issues of the now-defunct Living Marxism (known after 1997 as LM). This magazine will form one of the cornerstones of my History Undergraduate Dissertation; if we imagine a basic four-column structural plan, the temple of the Dissertation is supported at one side by the work of Deborah Lipstadt and Richard J. Evans and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy and on the other by the writings of David Irving and Living Marxism. Perhaps the analogy is fudged; the Dissertation is, after all, the subject-container for content which involves the discussion of this literature. That would make Irving and LM the sacrificial offerings. Or the Scriptures. Henceforth theological and ecclesiastical analogies shall be withdrawn from circulation.

And withdrawn from circulation was LM following the successful suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) against the small magazine in 1997 following the publication in LM 97 of allegations that ITN journalists had exaggerated, misrepresented or even staged atrocities during the Bosnian War in 1992. The case lit up the world of literary London in the late 1990s and attracted much fanfare, much of the support which LM received coming from writers and journalists who defended the publication on free-speech grounds. By LM 105, the campaign to raise war-fighting funds for the magazine’s defence had adopted this line. The editors and publishers fought the legal battle in the public domain by asserting a resolute commitment to their rights to publish the work of Thomas Deichmann, a German writer and electrical engineer whom Nick Cohen described as a “power-worshipping fruitcake” and a “crank”. The back of LM‘s print editions adopted a fundraising campaign logo in the shape of barbed-wire (central to the original Deichmann article in LM 97 alleging misrepresentation in the ITN report) which had been ‘redacted’ in the censor’s black pen.

This information is now in my possession thanks to the archiving practices of the BL. I am uncertain how they procured their copies of LM, possibly deposited at the time of the magazine’s publication or donated after LM folded in 2000. But my initial fears that the Dissertation would have to rely entirely on second-hand accounts of the magazine’s contents, like ferreting through Eusebius to find quotations of lost ancient works, have been allayed. When I first read Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, one of the most widely-read and compelling accounts of the intellectual and moral crisis of the post-1989 political Left in the Western world, I pondered where Cohen had got hold of his sources for the discussion of the LM trial. The magazine which ITN sued was at its peak reaching a readership of around 10,000. Aside from copies tucked away in the attics and personal collections of bibliophiles or the magazine’s former staff, I would not have been surprised if no physical traces of the publication readily existed. I seriously doubted that physical copies would be procurable, not least for an undergraduate student researching for a dissertation.

However, thanks to the BL, I was able to take a look at the records for the entire back catalogue of LM, requesting and collecting their copies of issues LM 97 and LM 105 for my first source reading. They have the dubious honour of being the first pieces of primary sources to enter my notes for the Dissertation, which is still awaiting final formal proposal and approval by the Department of History. Honour is something which really belongs to the BL; preserving the physical copies of the weird and the bizarre for posterity should be the archivist’s bread-and-butter. I felt proud to be handling the copies of this quite ignominious publication knowing the work that must have gone into keeping it safely stored in the BL’s possession. For this reason and much else besides, I sincerely hope that the BL does not cave to the pressure of critics and boot out undergraduate researchers by raising the membership age back up to 21. It would be a terrible blow to my new plans for the Dissertation and I have no doubt would adversely affect the plans of many others – even if, as many older academics plead, “we want out British Library back!”.

‘Back in the Nineties, I was in a very famous libel case…’ – the Dissertation post!

HistoryJack is what else but a student of History. Following several consultations with members of the Faculty of the Department of History at the University of York and many months of deliberation, I decided yesterday on a definitive topic for my undergraduate Dissertation. It is something I found to be both original and intellectually demanding but one that would provide myself with something that combined many of my existing interests.

The subject will be a comparative study of genocide denial in British libel cases of the 1990s. Wait, come back!

Whilst reading into the relationship between academic historians, independent enthusiasts and the murky swampland of cranks, cooks, crackpots and quacks (readers of a scientific bent will be familiar with the interplay between creationist and Spirit Science quackademics and actual scientists), I stumbled upon a fascinating factoid and what might be one of the bizarrest coincidences in British legal history. In the late 1990s; in fact, from the years 1997 to the Spring of 2000 to be precise, two libel cases were contested concurrently in the Royal Couts of Justice, Queens Bench Division – both of which concerned accusations of genocide denial and defamation of character.

The first case, best known to historians, was Irving v Penguin Books, the infamous suit filed by the far-right military historian David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers for Lipstadt’s claim that Irving was a “dangerous” promulgator of racist pseudo-history and a prolific Holocaust denier. The case involved the expert witness testimony of Richard J. Evans, Professor of History at Cambridge and author of the now celebrated text In Defence of History, published 1997. Despite becoming known as ‘the Irving trial’ in the press, the civil case was brought against Lipstadt and Penguin by an Irving as claimant. English libel law then (and still) placed the burden of proof on the defendant and Lipstadt was forced into a costly legal battle against an author whose work had been published to popular and bestselling acclaim in previous decades. The outcome of a case, championed as a vindication of History and its methods, resulted in Irving’s professional discrediting as an author as well as bankruptcy from the award of legal costs to the defendants. Irving’s name became synonymous with Holocaust denial and he has not been granted a column or contract by a respectable newspaper or publishing-house since.

The second case remains less well-known among historians specifically but famous among journalists and the London intelligentsia; the suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy against the publishers of LM, a magazine formerly known as Living Marxism. The magazine had printed allegations in 1997 that an ITN report on the Bosnian war broadcast in 1992 had fabricated evidence of atrocities committed by Serb forces, particularly the subsequently infamous scenes of starving concentration camp inmates in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The case, as did the Penguin trial, dragged on for three years and LM became a cause celebre for many on the intellectual Left, as well as several libertarians and conservatives who had opposed intervention in the Balkans and regarded LM‘s right to print the accusations as a free speech issue. Reputations were dragged through the mud of the docks in cross-examination and ITN won a resounding victory; the magazine folded but subsequently reformed under new imprints. Bosnian genocide denial has only become more contentious as former leaders of Serbian forces and political movements were tried for war crimes and genocide throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Even Noam Chomsky entered the lasting affray in 2005 and one of the most common tropes for Serb nationalists and their supporters who deny that genocide in the Balkans took place are rehashes of the original claims made by LM.

So what would this have to do with history? The libel trials provide, not least for their simultaneous occurrence, a tremendous insight into the relaitonship between historians, the public, the press and everybody else. The Irving trial was an instance of historians becoming agents of causation; Evans’ expert testimony led to Irving and his claims being completely discredited, with press and public confidence in History restored to new heights. Historians became actors and participants in major events in British legal history. Postmodernism and the narrative question were thrown into focus once more as the rationale for LM and Irving’s claims was invoked as a defeater for the claims of postmodernist conceptions of History. Denial of historical crimes against humanity and the spectre of organised racial hatred seeped into public consciousness again as the supporters of both denying parties were exposed as propogating intellectual fraud in the guise of radical scholarship and ‘dissent’.

The exact angle I wish to take with this study is not entirely settled upon yet. However, the trials were major subjects in polemical writing and reportage by one of my favourite and most-cited authors, Nick Cohen, and Richard Evans was one of the most influential forces in my decision to pursue History as an A-Level student. It would be an appropriate culmination of my study to turn the analytical focus onto the career of an historian who set the hare running to begin with.

Intellectual, social and legal history in a time very far removed from our own – the 1990s!

Here is to a year with some of my favourite writers and some of the darkest hours that modern history has had to confront.

Artsy history: pre-Raphaelites as the original ‘fan art’ people?

The_Young_Lord_Hamlet

The Young Lord Hamlet by Phillip H Calderon (1868).

The author’s ignorance of historical matters artistic will show through as the light of the Last Judgement over Patmos, but one subject that came to mind today was the issue of ‘fan art’ and its precursors or prototypes in the History of Art. It would be easy to reduce fan art to an invention of the digital natives, or at the very least a product of twentieth century mass culture and mass communications. Drawing one’s own conceptions of images from cinema or television is a hobby of any child raised with a visual medium as a major influence alongside those of creative disciplines. For me, that meant drawing my own reimaginings of the Death Star Attack and the Batte of Endor with felt tip pens. The freedom to extrapolate an existing license or canon of ltierature, film, television or otherwise and add one’s own spin has been the impulse behind the world of fan fiction and Live Action Role-Playing in vast subcultures of ‘fandom’, as well as the titular subject of fan art.

However, is fan art something which came into existence only with mass culture and the age of comic books and the cinema screen? Fandom as a social force existed before the movie camera; the hounding of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle following his decision to send Sherlock Holmes falling to his death is known well enough, though authors long before Doyle had legions of devoted followers. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther became famous for the wrong reasons after a wave of copycat suicides were attributed to young men in depsondency deciding to emulate the character in dress, philosophy and self-destruction. This behaviour was subsequently named the ‘Werther effect’ in 1974 by the American sociologist David Phillips. Modern studies have challenged the extent to which media reporting and the power of suggestion influence the overall rate of suicides, as well as the number of suicides causally linked to the novel itself in the late 1700s, but the power that Goethe’s novel held over some of its fans was one approaching religious fervour. Among those who did not follow Werther’s pistol-based solution to rejection, the character remained an endearing hero for the bitter and unrequited. Antecedent to the bard Morrissey, doth thou not concur?

Fandoms are understudied social movements; the impact they can have on cultural evolution in the long term can be immense. Arnold Schwarzenegger would unlikely have risen to the public prominence which allowed him to sweep into the California Governor’s mansion had it not been for truck driver and future Terminator creator-director James Cameron’s obsession with emulating 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, resulting in his aggressive advance through the film industry. The enduring devotional power of fandoms to have killed-off characters resurrected or entire series returned to publication and airtime (think the original Sherlock Holmes and his current Cumberbatchian iterations as well as Futurama and Family Guy) is a force to be reckoned with that historians have paid relatively little attention to cf. labour movements, permanently rising middle classes and social activist groups. Something for the future, perhaps.

But away from this and to the matter of fan art. If fandoms existed before the term itself entered the lexicon and before ‘fans’ would even self-identify as such, could their artisitc proclivities have done so likewise? This is an area that, were the author an art historian, it would be consuming a great deal of my time in the library. We know the famous trope, established most prominently by journalist and full-time science-denying crackpot Christopher Booker of there being only five, six or seven at the most core stories that are adapted and retold across every culture. There may be some weight in it – the Hero Archetype of Joseph Campbell generally holds up under scrutiny at the very least. But the fact remains that the adaptive storytelling practices of humankind have made it possible for Shakespeare and Milton to retell older chronicle-histories, ballads and folklore as dramatic catastrophes and centuries later have their theatrical versions reshaped and retold by Hollywood and Broadway. Humans of every generation adapt the fictions and histories of old for their own purposes. Among the reinvention is the adding, subtracting and division of characters. Entire scenes are invented and when juxtaposed with the source material, the process can be consternating. Dramatic license can quite literally be a license to kill (entire dynasties who actually lived) and a license to conjure. Shakespeare worked from adaptation and invention, though his deployment of familiar characters from earlier works and the use of earlier dramatic structures (medieval morality plays influenced the presentation of the monstrous Duke of Gloucester in Richard III and his soliloquies) draws the lines for a brutal fisticuffs over whether the he undertook ‘fan fiction’ of a kind.

What merits consideration is the place of art in all of this. Shakespeare, who “departs from his source materials repeatedly” (in relation to Coriolanus in the linked accessible example) was not above inventing entire scenes that existed not in the historical or dramatic sources from which he worked. In the dramatic cases it was probably beneficial; though no copyright laws as modernity knows them existed at the time, originality and innovation are why we study Shakespeare and not the poems of Rupert Brooke with such intensity. So what of the artistic depictions of dramatic works? The inspirations for portraiture and draughtsmanship found in the works of Shakespeare himsef provide one of the most illuminating examples.

Now to the titular matter. It should be worth pointing out that this idea came to me whilst looking through the vast interconnecting fandoms on dedicated social networking platforms for, among other things, the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, SherlockStar Trek and the plethora of popular works that encapsulate the attentive fantasy and focus of the Millennial generation. Of course fandoms for these and countless other works existed before the age of the online fan forum but modernity gifts such ease of access to the inner workings of fan minds. Fan art, particularly the representation of imagined scenes from established canons, ranks hugely in popularity in fan communities. Imagined backstories, uncanonical actions by characters and the meeting of impossibly separated individuals, whether by crossover or resurrection from the canonical dead, are standard fare in the genre. It is difficult to believe, given the long pedigree of adaptive and creative license taken in literature and drama for centuries before the advent of modern communications, that this genre of artistic expression was itself merely a by-product of digital modernity.

The one exceedingly good example of this wroking thesis aforementioned is the 1868 painting by Phillip H. Calderon, The Young Lord Hamlet. The traditional depiction of scenes from the stage play are dispensed with in favour of something radically different. Hamlet is seen playing with Yorick the jester as a child, as family look on. Happier times. This memory or something resembling it is merely alluded to in the ‘gravedigger scene’ of Act V, Scene 1 in the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and not even indirectly depicted besides the reference made by Hamlet’s speech:

“… he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Could Calderon’s work be among the first examples of truly imaginative ‘fan art’? Taking an unstaged scene, drawing the entire foundations of a painting from one stanza in the tragedy would not be out of place among Tumblr pages dedicated to the unknown histories of various Doctor Who villains, the lovelorn youth of Professor Snape or imaginings of Luke Skywalker’s boyhood on Tatooine. Is the Calderon imagining of Yorick and Hamlet among the first of its kind? Nestled among the work of the Pre-Rafaelites of the later nineteenth century could be the starting-point of devotional fan art extending beyond the parameters of canonical authority.

With the help of fellow postulators on Reddit, I have located the works of John William Waterhouse in a similar context. An artist in the post-Pre-Raphaelite vogue (they ought to have found better prefixes and placeholders for their clubhouse name), Waterhouse was immensely fond of classical and mythic subjects, especially women. Among his forays into myth-making with historical characters are his The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of his Mother in addition to his Shakespearean portraiture which includes a consistent fondness for Ophelia.

This midnight rambling has gotten to the ghost of a point. Was there a genus of the modern fan-art phenomenon within the pre-Rafaelite movement? Did it begin even earlier? Again, there has been comparably little historical study of this when one considers the energy expended upon textual criticism of the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Middleton or the career-bending controversies thrown up over two centuries of the Stratfordian Question (like creationism and climate change denial, most scholarly effort has been sunk into rebutting the curve-arrow claims of cranks and crankhood, fired from the high parapets of quackdemia). Nor has there been much social history done on the issue of fandoms, again treated mainly by sociologists in their contemporary contexts.

Treat this, as you like it, as a placemark for future research. The question of what constitutes ‘fan art’ and whether a chronology can be developed based on the work of the pre-Rafaelites will be of interest to the author for some time to come!

Brief thoughts on apologetics and propaganda

This is a post most unscholarly of which to boast and I must plea for contrition for the relative sparsity of references in advance. However the recent wave of discussion on every platform of political and social discourse concerning the relationship of religion, politics and belief to the events in Paris this month have prompted a pause for thought. What are the boundaries and distinctions, if any, between apologetics and propaganda?

All who have at some point followed or engaged with the practices and subcultures of Christian apologetics, particularly the popular and populist veins that are currently led by book sales and hit counts by a subset of the American evangelical right, will have seen the command given in 1 Peter to believers that they must present a reasoned defence of their beliefs to outsiders. To present such a defence or apologia in the Koine Greek of the Epistle’s original (and somewhat pseudeipiegraphic or forged) composition. That believers must give an “answer” for the faith, especially during times of persecution, and explain the veracity of their convictions for holding it. With some apologetic irony, in defending my ascription of ‘forged’ character to 1 Peter, one of the evidences that modern New Testament scholarship uses to date the Epistles are references made to events external to the audience of each letter in addition of the language of the epistle itself. St. Peter, the original Cephas, would almost certainly have lacked the rhetorical training and Greek composition skills required for authoring the epistle. Furthermore, the persecutory events referred to throughout, whether describing social marginalisaiton or forcible suppression of the Christian faith by Roman authorities, are better fitted to the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) rather than his predecessors from the 30s to the 70s AD.

And without planning, I have gone on a New Testament Studies digression. Was this not meant to concern propaganda?

If an apologia gives a defence of a belief or position, that may reasonably extend to beliefs in policy and the conduct of individuals and parties beholden to this belief. Communicating the message (the truth-bearers, as it were) of the Christian religion to outsiders is the exercise undertaken in apologetics. In that sense, it is hard not to think of one of the most famous residents of Downing Street in the modern era; not the occupants of Number 10 or 11, but instead that prototypical Malcolm Tucker and Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications. Most Christians and believers in general may know him as Alistair ‘We Don’t Do God’ Campbell. The original context of that infamous reply is something demanding a lengthily post of its own.

Campbell, as with every spin-doctor and image handler, was charged with defending the positions of the Blair government, as well as the character of Blair himself, to outsiders. He bore the hope and faith of the New Labour project on his back – the scenery could come crashing down around him if things went badly wrong. Somewhat like S/Paul of Tarsus, he was an expert at handling difficult and seemingly insurmountable challenges to the credibility of his creed; call him any name under the sun for his handling of the Iraq War and the media circus surrounding it in 2003, but you cannot call him ineffective or impotent. Campbell was paid well for his work but was not a mercenary or hired gun – there was never any risk of him defecting to the other side for a handsomer pay packet.

So what this meandering late-night post is digging toward, as the confused but hopeful Biblical archaeologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hoped they were, is a solid conclusion to a serious question. Is apologetics a matter of spin?

The vast compendiums and encyclopedias of evangelical inerrancy, explaining away every contradiction and misnomer in the Bible as merely “apparent” contradictions, the legions of reply books to any atheistic, sceptical or scientific text (consider the upwards of thirty hardback responses to The God Delusion that were published by major or minor firms, not even considering the vanity press replies and online apologetic scrambling) and the vast expenditure made on training seminars and conferences for apologetics. Apologetics is taught at Christian universities; the most influential are probably Biola University, home to the philosophical apologetics megastar William Lane Craig and ‘investigatory’ apologist J. Warner Wallace, and Houston Baptist University, home to evangelical New Testament scholar Michael Licona as well as Lee Strobel, a former legal editor for the Chicago Tribune whose book The Case for Christ became one of the best-selling and most influential apologetics texts of the early 21st century. If bold and somewhat extravagant claims are made about the number of independent attestations of Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts, it probably stems from the claims made in this and similar books. Again, more posts will follow.

Between these institutions and individuals, a vast theistic higher education sector has come to exist in the United States, offering a parallel to secular universities and colleges for families and students who wish to remain firmly within the fold of their faith. When these universities state that “Through a rigorous, Christ-centered and Spirit-led education we enable our students to grapple with and engage in the spiritual, intellectual, ethical and cultural issues of our time, their implications and application to everyday life.”, they make their purposes evident. Apologetics-based education is ultimately a training program for the promulgation of the Christian faith. There would be nothing contestable in itself about this – students must be free to pursue any course of education they wish without impediment by the state or others – except we might be more cautious about supporting similar academic projects undertaken in the name of political ideologies. Consider Alistair Campbell retiring from politics has he has done in order to establish a private university with a “Labour-centered and Blairism-led education” as the ethos of its curriculum and eyebrows would begin to rise.

With regards to Paris, argumentative of the Islamic faith in the light of another atrocity carried out by self-appointed martial defenders and representatives of the Prophet Muhammad has led to great indulgence in one of the most well-attested and intellectually galling logical fallacies: No True Scotsman. Francois Hollande stated on French television following the attacks that the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff, several police officers and four people in a Jewish supermarket had “nothing to do with Islam”. This juxtaposition begs the question – if men shouting “we have avenged the Prophet” and acting entirely upon belief in just retribution for blasphemy against the Divine and his appointed human servants has “nothing to do with Islam” – what would? Evidently it is diplomacy and the need for civil calm has trumped razor-sharp or even moderately watered-down logic. The French President speaking more plainly about the connections between belief, indeterminacy and action and the theological claims of the Qur’an and Hadiths following the attacks may not have aided the stability required after several days of chaos. Spin can prevent riots and pogroms. But it can, as generations of antisemitic and racist canards in Christian and Islamic nations have proved, be both the root and the accelerant of them.

Apologetics and the misuse of history is something which, when I can allot the proper time, earn much of the attention of this blog. Alongside political abuses and distortions of history made most manifest in the school classroom per the efforts of overzealous education ministers, as well as the myth-making of popular histories furnished by newspaper columnists, the subject suffers egregiously in the hands of religious apologetics. Again, this is not to cast disparaging criticism at the work of all religious authors and certainly not to religious believers generally. As stated previously, the field of Christian apologetics at present remains under the predominant influence of conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists in the American cultures of Christianity. Likewise, Islamic apologetics remains in the grip of conservatives – when the faith is not being externally defined and ‘defended’ by jihadism and militant Islamist ideology, it is usually upheld to outsiders by representatives whose ultimate vision of an accomplished Islamic society is comparable with minor differences to militant counterparts. This helps none in the Muslim community attempting to protect their rights to exercise beliefs without threat of intimidation or harassment by the self-styled counter-jihadist movement and only provides fuel for disingenuous media outlets thriving on Chaucerian characters that provide inflamed controversy with every appearance. It is small wonder that Sean Hannity and FOX News have repeatedly picked Anjem Choudary as their guest speaker on matters Islamic. One spin-drying machine races against another in an arena where rhetoric wins out and facts are left bloodied by the wayside.

Whether the fields of Christian and Islamic apologetics constitute propaganda, and the defence of religion from association with violence and militancy in general falls under a diplomatically necessary denialism, will require greater scholarly focus. I must state immediately my own lack of confidence in the reaction to the Paris attacks from several quarters; first, those on the political Left who forgot the supposed values of 1789 and 1848 and 1870 and declared France to have been a ‘racist country’ inviting violence upon itself with its structural oppression of Muslims and other minorities. The fetid ignorance of this dogmatic adherence to an unfalsifiable structuralism is made all the more laughable by the origins of structuralist theory, along with the very concept of a right-left spectrum, in the nation and capital city subjected to theocratic terror from January 7th to January 9th 2015. The worst was probably epitomised by one very unwise tweet by Laurie Penny, made whilst the second wave of attacks (this time targeting Jews in a market) were still taking place: “Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.”

This attempt at contrarianism fails every litmus test but passes succinctly as an effort to spit on the dead and blame the victim. Trolling knows no irony.

If Sartre, Foucault and Barthes had been abducted and butchered in their offices by Catholic fundamentalists aggrieved at their critiques of mass society, would the chorus of the identity politics Left have resounded quite as loudly “Murder is wrong BUT.” This post from 2005 by the late, great and insightful Norman Geras, then Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, entitled ‘Apologists Among Us’, makes the link explicit. The excuse-making and denialism of the causal agents behind the beliefs of Islamist militants during the Iraq insurgency was, in Geras’s view, an act of apologia for evil. It stands the test of time; sadly, history is yet to make Geras’s comments appear dated or from an epoch before the present.

Apologetics takes many guises and it would be unfair to characterise it as merely the art of excuse-making, denial and outright lying. There are schools of apologetics which have produced useful and significant contributions to logic and the advancement of human reason – hard to believe in the age of banana-wielding science deniers and the school of historical method hijackers whom I would like to be known as the Empty Tombers. But in the reactions to events like the January Paris massacre and the diplomatic needs for face-saving denial of the self-evident, we see apologetics at play in the most sordid and dishonest manner. Something worth apologising for.

Herodotus, Hayden White, historical fiction and communicating the past

In 2011, the Institute for Historical Research held a conference titled ‘Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction’, addressing the role of historians in writing fiction and the growing subset within the publishing world of historians-turned-novelists. Though now moribund, the resources produced for and by the conference are available here and bear noting for all interested in writing historical fiction or for that matter any fiction which involves an historical subject.

Several questions remain perennial for historians and history enthusiasts when discussing fiction, the novel and popular literature generally. Some constants can be found in the relationship between ‘literary’ history and its professionalised or ‘scientific’ descendant in the modern academic discipline of History and the realm of fiction and entertainment – the enmity felt for sacrifice of truth on the altar of myth being a basic archetype that has roots in antiquity. As Dr. Vasiliki Zali of UCL notes in ‘Agamemnon in Herodotus and Thucydides: Exploring the historical uses of a mythological paradigm:

Thucydides does not favour mythological argument much, especially in his speeches, and when it is deployed it is all too often proved to have little or no meaning at all. Moreover, his pragmatic outlook, his interest in hard facts and the intra-Hellenic nature of the war he describes render the use of myth as political argument hardly relevant and highly questionable.

But it would be a grave, even anti-historical error to summarise the positions of Herodotus, his successor Thucydides and the legacy of historical writing to follow them in the Greco-Roman world and beyond as having drawn resolute distinctions between ‘history’ and ‘myth’ or even between fact and fiction. Katharina Wesselmann provides exposition on the mythological frameworks of the work of Herodotus which provided more than mere underpinning or communicative facility for his Histories:

Especially his treatment of myth has been of great interest to scholars, who have often emphasised his critical distance from a mythical tradition, seemingly explicit in his resolution to focus on human achievements in the prooemium. And indeed, tradition is criticised in the Histories, as can be seen e.g. in Herodotus’ rationalisation of mythical stories, one of the most famous examples being the discussion of Helen’s stay in Troy in the second book (2.120): Helen could not possibly have been in Troy, says Herodotus, because the Trojans would have been crazy not to give her back.
However, it has always been obvious that Herodotus could not simply have been the great rationalist, easily detaching himself from every poetic or religious tradition. Of course he remains indebted to myth; mythical elements permeate his entire narrative.
Nor does Herodotus make a clear distinction between a spatium mythicum and historicum, as has sometimes been claimed.

The postmodernist critiques of history that reached the high-water mark in the later twentieth century, also at a time when the ‘hard’ sciences came under similar or equal attack from postmodernism and cultural studies, provided the most polarising answers to questions of proper relations between history and fiction. The 1960s and 1970s had seen Roland Barthes and his disciples infamously characterised the work of historians as reliant upon the production of a ‘reality effect’ in the same manner as the writing of fiction, and Hayden White’s hugely influential criticisms of traditional historical empiricism and the validity of historical paradigms; White declaring famously that “all stories are fictions”, he identified the ‘narrative’ basis of historical writing as existing in the same form of representation as those of myth and fiction. Summarizing White’s positions from this period is a 1984 article, ‘The Question of Narrtive in Contemporary Historical Theory’ (usefully available as a free HTML download here) in a more accessible distillation than his groundbreaking 1973 work Metahistory. It is here that White makes plainest his assertions on the probing relationship between history and fiction:

“The fact that narrative is the mode of discourse common to both “historical” and “non-historical” cultures and that it predominates in both mythic and fictional discourse makes it suspect as a manner of speaking about ‘real’ events… One can produce an imaginary discourse about real events that may not be less ‘true’ for being ‘imaginary’. It all depends upon how one construes the function of the faculty of imagination in human nature.” (White, ‘The Question of Narrative’, p.33)

Under this paradigm, would it be possible to declare Tudor ecclesiastical history better served by Hillary Mantel than David Starkey and the Late Roman Republic better by Robert Harris than Mary Beard? Other questions of discourse and power would be a relevant follow-up here. If public understanding of history constitutes a discourse in itself, the novelists command far greater influence than even popular historians, at least in Anglosopheric literary cultures at this point in the twenty-first century. The much-maligned (and not without cause) Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown yields a greater by-numbers readership than any combination of books on Early Christianity or European art history – his historically spurious Gnostic-fancying conspiracy thriller remains the bestselling book in UK publishing history according to the statisticians behind Nielsen Bookscan. No Religious Studies professor or biblical scholar could hope to top that, not even popular Christian apologetics masquerading as ‘investigations’ into New Testament Studies such as Lee Strobel’s similarly distorting tract, The Case for Christ.

Is White therefore partly to blame for mass historical ignorance and misunderstanding fostered by Brown and his contemporaries in the commercial fiction world, as the Christian apologetic scholar Scott McKnight claims? McKnight, writing in Jesus and his Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus and the Atonement Theory (Baylor University Press, 2006), explicitly ties White’s ideas to the problems associated with popular fiction and historical imagination:

“The impact of this theory is at times quixotic… History, the postmodernist says, is the study of ancient texts, not the ancient past… In effect, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Jaroslav Peliknan’s Christianity and Classical Culture (to pick an egregious example) are simply different readings of phenomena, but neither is right, neither is wrong. Any search for the “best explanation” is removed from the map.” (McKnight, ‘Jesus and his Death’, p.7)

Hayden White’s critique of the practice of history, it is carefully emphasised in a 2011 text on White’s thought written by Herman Paul, does not advocate the wholesale destruction of the scholarly apparatus integral to the historical profession and learned by the freshest inductees to the study of history (archival research, the use of footnotes, bibliogrphical tables, etc.) Nor is it sympathetic to the egregious distortions of the kind engaged in by Brown and other fiction authors in pursuit of a bestseller. Both caveats are summarised in a review of Paul’s work (one may uncharitably call it ‘apologetics’) on White’s ideas conducted by Adam Timmins:

“Given the charges of relativism that have been levelled at White throughout his career, Paul is at pains to stress that the forcing open of the ironists’ cage does not leave historians free to write whatever they please. Although White frequently challenges the authority that historians bestow on practises such as archival research or source criticism, he does not advocate doing away with them. Nor does he hold that there is no difference between the writing of history and the writing of fiction, or that there are no criteria for distinguishing between good and bad historiography.”

It is a stretch to link the critiques made by White to the pained non-history (not to mention the nightmarish prose) produced by Brown and disseminated in mass-market paperback. McKnight’s position on White and postmodernism in this text is superficial; but what is lacking from White is an effective means of combating or at least nullifying the appeal of bad history and pseudo-scholarly knowledge when it marches under the banner of fiction and popular myth.

One possible solution that this blogger proposes is a broader collaborative effort between academic and university-based historians with the literati of the bestseller pages. Mantel has already proved that readers of popular historical fiction can be respected enough to be treated to historically faithful and plausible exploration of past events in the confines of a gripping yarn. The reading public are not hopelessly ignorant about historical matters despite the disinformation packaged in many glossy paperbacks, and the continued interest in historical novels which fuels their ascendancy of the bestseller lists is more than sufficient evidence of hunger for good history. Historical fiction can spur interest in the subject ‘proper’ among non-historians; my own Damascene conversion to the pursuit of history came whilst enthralled by a copy of Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius on a train.

If White was indeed ‘correct’ in his interpretation that history cannot be, much less claim to be a scientific discipline and is anchored in the use of narrative to represent and convey information about the past, then historical fiction must undoubtedly play a stronger role. This follows from the recognition that history cannot be made without ‘story’ – so narratives built in the ‘fictional’ camp that seek access to the realm of history can be a useful means of deliverance. In a crude analogy, popular historical fiction may act as a re-purposed neurotransmitter; though this would involve the academe acting as the cerebral cortex and the reading public as the rest of the anatomy – a rather medievalist elite conception of knowledge and receivership that I would rather avoid here.

And Hayden White himself? As anybody introduced to history in the last three decades will known, he is no longer any guerrilla theorist fighting the established regime under the dense canopy of historical theory. As a recent conference held in his honor proudly declared in a vindication narrative of its own:

“To them [historians critical of Metahistory], White’s rapprochement between literary or fictional storytelling and the historical or biographical account amounted to an indictment of history as a factual discipline, scientific in spirit, if not in method. Nevertheless, White’s books and articles are standard reading in history and humanities courses.”

Rebels becoming the establishment. Now there’s a constant mythos that history and popular fiction can find agreement on without much argumentation.

One youth’s take on the History Wars

With the exit of Michael Gove in the surprise reshuffle of July 2014, teachers up and down the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (potentially soon to be the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth of Scotland) will be celebrating the start of a new term sans the man described by the Financial Times as the “most hated education secretary in history”. The struggle for direction of the state education system in every area of policy-making from performance-linked pay to P.E. lessons fractured relations between the Coalition Government and teaching unions. Opposition struck Gove not only from the unions but from unusual opponents such as the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, a group of elite private schools whose “grave reservations” about Gove’s plans to replace GCSE exams with a proposed English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) was one factor in Gove’s eventual abandonment of the project in February 2013.

But one policy which drew the intense focus of academics and ratcheted the stakes of national emotions perhaps more than any other was Gove’s designs for school history curricula. Affecting pupils from ages five to fourteen, the ages at which history is a compulsory subject in British schools, the curricula would have determined the content, interpretive framework and teleology of how history was taught and examined in schools in England and Wales. The proposed changes were ardently opposed by Professor Sir Richard J. Evans not least for establishing a chronologically-driven curriculum whose main aim was “to foster a sense of British national identity”, an agenda Evans first accused Gove and his supporters of pursuing in a scathing March 2011 article in the London Review of Books, ‘The Wonderfulness of Us (The Tory Interpretation of History)’.

Evans remained the new curriculum’s most prominent public critic, responding to each revision with meticulous rebuttals in The Guardian from August 2011 up to Gove’s removal from the Department for Education in July 2014. When the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge is leading opposition to your designs on history, you may wish to reconsider. Leading figures from the Historical Association, the British Academy, History UK and the Royal Historical Society criticized the British-centric character of the new curriculum in an open letter to the Observer, though offered an olive branch to Gove in proposing a new consultation with historians.

Despite revisions to the first published plans and Gove’s expression of ‘openness’ to a broader consultation, the first rumblings of the need for “major revision” to the DfE’s plans became public in June 2013, thanks in no small part to the opposition by historians and the backtracking of some of the project’s erstwhile supporters. The historian Simon Schama, initially selected by Gove as an advisor and public champion of the history curriculum became a virulent opponent, describing the curriculum as including a “pedantic, utopian scheme” guilty of “insulting, offensive, imperviousness” comparing it to the classic history satire “1066 and All That, but without the jokes”. In a bully-pulpit address at the Telegraph‘s Hay Festival 2013, he urged history teachers to oppose and obstruct the implementation of the plans and was met with rapturous applause. At this point, a reading of Antony’s Funeral Oration might have assisted Gove, though it is unlikely that colleagues in school English departments would have been enthusiastic in assisting his comprehension.

Professor Evans, Schama and the academics were not lone Ivory Tower reactionaries shouting in the wilderness – the Historical Association produced a shocking poll result that revealed the level of discontent among history teachers resulting only from how the curriculum plans were announced and formulated: “96.2% of all the secondary teachers we surveyed felt that not enough attention had been given to the views of history teachers”. Teachers’ opinions of the plans themselves did not rate much more favorably for Gove – the Historical Association’s poll further stated that “93% of respondents strongly disagree that everything from Stone Age to 1700 should be taught at primary” and that “96% of our survey respondents thought the new NC [National Curriculum] was over prescriptive”. What Michael Gove and the supporters of his proposals, including the right-wing historians Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and Max Hastings failed to recognise was that history, from the seminar to the schoolroom, had refocused to more internationalist perspectives not without good cause.

The retreat or rather calculated extraction from ‘kings and battles’ history was undertaken as an essential task in the expansion of the historical profession in the postwar era. The limitations of nation-centric historical chronologies was recognisable even to perceptive school pupils in the periods where it dominated private and state education. Whilst Schama lambasted the contents of Gove’s proposed curriculum as “essentially memories of A-levels circa 1965, embalmed in aspic and sprinkled with tokenism”, the realisation that historical fixation on the nation-state, elite culture, power-brokers and military campaigns was inhibiting the potential of historical understanding had been expressed even before the mid-1960s. The Orwell of the 1930s recalled the history education of his Etonian boyhood and the shortcomings of chronological periodisation: “…in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages… and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance.”

No less a towering intellect as E.H. Carr recognised the continued blinkering effect that ‘kings and battles’ history held over students’ interpretations of historical periods when more complex historiographical debates were consuming the attention of academics, dedicating part of his classic 1961 study What Is History? to addressing the problem. It was a worthy effort to take time out from his arguments with Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin in a text adapted from the 1961 G.M. Trevelyan Lectures in order to speak almost directly to younger students. His effort was well-timed. A young Christopher Hitchens in 1962, found a life-affecting outlet of discussion in an American history teacher who “wanted to stray into the awkward territory of “modern” history, which broke the usual bounds and challenged the idea that the past was a pageant – of one damn king after another – culminating in a map of the world (still displayed in my boyhood) which showed the British Empire in majestic red.” (Hitch-22: A Memoir, p.207). In 1963, the independent historian E.P. Thompson published his classic social history, The Making of the English Working Class, made all the more celebrated for its contributions to the English historical lexicon via Thompson’s objective to rescue “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity.” (The Making of the English Working-Class, p.13). It was to condescension that the topics set for the chop under Michael Gove’s proposed curriculum were to be lost, replaced with a reversion to the national myth-making and treehouse history which fails even at its intended purpose. As Evans put it, “The patriotic British – or for the most part English – historical narrative, envisions mainland Europe largely as the scene of British triumphs over evil foreigners… Propagating inaccurate myths about alleged British victories is no way to create a solid national identity.”

The limited perspective that I can offer is one of a student whose school years ended in the same month as the Coalition deal was brokered. Having said Goodbye to 1066 and All That (an artless literary elision I have for long lurked awaiting an opportunity to make) in May 2010, my experience can relate only to the much-maligned primary and secondary curriculum which Gove and the DfE sought keenly to hurl into the abyss in favour of the kind of school history last promoted in state schools at a time when the Union Jack still flew above colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. All that can be said for my history schooling can be bracketed to my current position – that of a BA History student at a leading research university possessing a commitment to the subject and its relevance for society. There were undoubtedly problems – any education programme which claims imperfection can be deduced without much inference to be under the control of a totalitarian state – but flaws were most common in preparation for externally set exams. Driving students to please and propitiate multiple examination boards that possess the empathetic capacity of an early experiment in A.I. robotics (“it hasn’t quite figured out ‘irony’ or ‘tears’ yet, boss”) is, as the majority of teachers in any subject will inform you, never consonant with instilling or inspiring passion.

I left school having got a better grasp what history was and how to do it than I think I would have received at any state school a century or even fifty years heretofore. I would not trade my comprehensive-wrought GCSE in History for any substitute at the Eton of Orwell or the Leys School of Christopher Hitchens; my A-Level in Modern History from a state Sixth Form College would rank among my most precious personal effects, in the “save from house fire” list close to passports and birth certificates.

Reforming the education system to accommodate for changes in culture and scholarship is a necessity that goes without saying or much need for justification. How those reforms are implemented, however, requires the careful consideration of a vast array of factors, interests and contingencies – something they teach you at the most basic level of studying history beyond the personalities of ‘great men’, and something which Michael Gove’s battle with Britain’s historians and school teahers rather callously overlooked. The work of his successors is just getting underway and the prospect of a change of government in 2015 may consign the current Parliamentary term’s education policies to the dustbin of missed opportunities. Gove’s reforms were announced without consultation, promoted with a propaganda campaign tinged by myth-making and disparagement of entire professions, watered down in the face of overwhelming opposition and eventually put on indefinite hold following Gove’s personal defeat in the reshuffle. The whole affair, like the 1914-18 War, would appear to be a great waste with unresolved outcomes and sufficient bitterness sown for a resurgence of hostilities in the coming decades.

I think the current education secretary, Nicky Morgan, would benefit from taking in a live performance of Alan Bennett’s living masterpiece The History Boys. It would certainly help relations between the DfE and history teachers if Gove’s successors were able to exercise greater use of hindsight and foresight before declaring the start of Great Crusades.