Catch me on BBC’s The Big Questions (‘Do we have free will?’) on Sunday 18th April!

EDIT (23/04/2015): Here is the link to the episode on BBC iPlayer. It will be removed within the next week so catch HistoryJack’s appearance at 29.30!

One for the watchers of the blog and for anyone interested in philosophy, theology, economics or sociology – that is, subjects that would still be excorbiantly costly to study under Nigel Farage’s vision of a tuition-free STEM subject Britain.

On Sunday 18th April 2015, BBC One will broadcast an edition of The Big Questions, a flagship daytime discussion programme, which I was privileged to take part in as an audience member. The single question posed for the programme was “Do we have free will?” Though not one of the main panelists whose name and profession gets listed in a purple banner at the bottom of the screen, I was thrilled to be seated right behind the author and campaigner Owen Jones. Whatever you make of his debut polemic Chavs and his latest book The Establishment, let alone his firebrand populist leftism, Jones is a prolific figure in contemporary political commentary and someone who I have no doubt will rack up many footnotes in the history of the 2010s. Getting to make his personal acquaintance was a great honour if only to meet a person who serves as a rare case of sincerity and commitment to principles that do not step into fanaticism.

The episode was recorded at the Manor C of E school in Nether Poppleton, York, the previous Sunday (11th April). The discussion was preceeded by an unrecorded warm-up wherein Owen Jones and his sparring partner Deidre Bounds, an entrepeneur, produced some high-quality informal debate. It was unfortunate that this dummy question concerning inequality and the economy was mainly for the calibration of cameras and getting the audience in the right mindset. The debate which followed saw less talk about business and taxation and more on matters theological.

Expecting the quesiton to receive answers from the religious and naturalistic sperspectives followed by migrations into economics, class and social relations and eventually into neuroscience. This outline, intentionally or not, corresponded with great chronos to the history of philosophy – from Aristotelianism and religious debate through the Enlightenment and social theorists of the Industrial Revolution through to modern theories of society and the demystifying process of science.

However, the Age of Reason came quite late in the discussion; the Dickensian arguments about the condition of the poor and the best way to resolve social distress barely got a word in and we were fortunate that the word ‘neuroscience’ received mention at all. The programme was, true to its Sunday brief, a meaty religious argument through and through. Livening up proceedings were the presences of a Calvinist civil servant, Mike Petit at one end of the set contrasted with Catholic Voices member and commentator Peter D. Williams. Arguments about pre-destination and the proper place of reason were the dominant markers of discourse for much of the programme. What made things all the more fascinating as an historian was the consideration that had this discussion occurred some three to four hundred years previously, the use of pikes and pyres to settle points of clash would have been a plausible outcome.

I was very lucky to get a point in when the cameras were turned to the audience. At one point I even heard Nicky Campbell say that I had “got the ball rolling!” with what I hoped was my best line on the coherence or otherwise of theological conceptions of free will. This comes in about halfway through the debate but only when the programme is broadcast will I be able to leave an exact time-stamp.

The episode will be available on BBC iPlayer tomorrow after broadcast if you wish to catch up. Watch out for an enthralling debate between some great minds in the front row and some not-too-shabby ones in the rears!

– HistoryJack

The erstwhile British Empire, Islamic State and Eric Hoffer

As planes of the Royal Air Force conducted their first sorties over Iraq following the House of Commons vote authorising UK military involvement in the war against Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh), it seems apt to post something about the relationship of the present crisis to British history. The Noahide flood of online traffic discussing the crisis undoubtedly contains many arks of dubious construction, their inhabitants the opinions formed over generations of commitment to theoretical or theological understandings of Middle Eastern politics. Pro-intervention, anti-intervention, blame the West for the situation or blame the heart of the Islamic faith itself, you may find your own tent and a flag to hoist above it in the online armies of political certitude. To declare interest, I was a phone-in guest on LBC 97.3’s Andrew Pierce Show on Saturday September 27th and briefly set out my views therein – they may be considered cautiously pro-interventionist in this instance.

As you may have guessed by the title, this will also be an apt place to discuss the work of Eric Hoffer, one of the greatest and most under-appreciated political thinkers and social theorists of the twentieth century. He holds a rare distinction of having been publicly vaunted in his time for the profound insights of his bestseller books, most notably The True Believer (1951), yet his present-day legacy is largely restricted to fans in American conservative intellectual life. He is the subject of laudatory posts in The American Spectator and typically ranked among ‘Great Conservative Thinkers’ but is relatively unknown in political science classes. This may be an ancestral curse resulting from his criticism of the anti-war, anti-capitalist subversive orthodoxy he perceived to have consumed scholarly and student life at UC Berkeley, where is served as an adjunct professor in the 1960s, as well as Hoffer’s dislike of intellectuals generally. His unfinished tract on the character of the intellectual contained the inflammatory accusation that “Any social order…which can function well with a minimum of leadership will be an anathema to the intellectual” – libel to the intelligentsia and gold dust for neo-con opponents of campus leftism. But Hoffer has greater appeal than a minor deity of the conservative thinkers’ pantheon and offers far greater critical insight into the driving forces behind mass movements, whether religious, political or beyond taxonomy.

Britain’s state of collective self-belief has not only changed but has shifted paradigms; the imperial power which redrew the boundaries of entire regions of the Middle East within the horizons of 1920s geopolitics has, in less than a century, taken the position of a minor and even ceremonial participant in an American-led multinational campaign against one ideological descendant of that same era. The first Islamist movement of the modern era, the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in British-dominated Egypt. The boundaries of modern Middle-Eastern states were not all drawn with the dramatic simplicity of the tale of ‘Winston’s Hiccup’, a legend about imperial diplomacy which the latter-day Churchill encouraged himself in vein of his fondness for the old historical tropes of Great Man and accident-driven historical contingency. However, as Michael Collins Dunn, the Editor of the Middle East Journal stated of the ‘Hiccup’, “It’s one of those apocryphal tales in history that should have been true, even if it’s apocryphal”. The wages of short-sighted colonial map-drawing have caused generational headaches far and wide beyond the Middle East; consider the resounding successes of British ‘Divide and Quit’ partitioning in India and the post-1921 constitutional settlements for the counties of Ireland and Britain’s handling of the Mandate of Palestine up to 1948 become marginally more comprehensible.

What fun Christopher Hitchens may have between prophetic despair at the realisation of warnings about the explosion of radical Islamism dealt with in all ways but the effective. In a 2003 article for The Atlantic, the British imperial ‘legacy’ to the Arabian peninsula and surrounding regions is summarised with the relevant associations between past and present laid bare:

Sir Henry Mortimer Durand had decreed so in 1893 [the separation of Pashtun peoples between ‘India’, later Pakistan, and Afghanistan] with an imperious gesture, and his arbitrary demarcation is still known as the Durand Line. Sir Mark Sykes (with his French counterpart, Georges Picot) in 1916 concocted an apportionment of the Middle East that would separate Lebanon from Syria and Palestine from Jordan. Sir Percy Cox in 1922 fatefully determined that a portion of what had hitherto been notionally Iraqi territory would henceforth be known as Kuwait. The English half spy and half archaeologist Gertrude Bell in her letters described walking through the desert sands after World War I, tracing the new boundary of Iraq and Saudi Arabia with her walking stick. The congested, hypertense crossing point of the River Jordan, between Jordan “proper” and the Israeli-held West Bank, is to this day known as the Allenby Bridge, after T. E. Lawrence’s commander. And it fell to Sir Cyril Radcliffe to fix the frontiers of India and Pakistan—or, rather, to carve a Pakistani state out of what had formerly been known as India”

The anti-war movement is significantly quieter than a decade ago; the political mainstream, including most of the Labour Party has now in 2014 taken a similar position to that of Hitchens and his pro-interventionist ally Nick Cohen in the 2003-2011 Iraq War (see Nick Cohen’s direly necessary 2007 polemic What’s Left?, a tome I think will one day be regarded in the same breath as Paine’s Common Sense and the post-Catalonia essays of Orwell). ISIS cannot be written off as a reaction to Western neocolonialism and, as Cohen argued potently in What’s Left? and since then, an anti-imperialist narrative which places the moral responsibility for Islamist movements and their atrocities at the foot of Western powers alone is in itself an inversion of the white imperialist mentality; political power and responsibility can only be exercised by all-powerful Westerners, whilst political and moral agency cannot be ascribed to Muslims or the Global South. To deny the agency and decision-making faculties of individuals who make up Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and other groups in turn removes any agency from their victims and the cultures most radically affected by their existence. Even a recent article on ISIS by Matt Carr for Stop the War Coalition, one of Cohen’s many targets in What’s Left? recognises that, “Such collaboration doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are mere pawns of Washington. It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States.”

Material interests are certainly not the driving force behind the exponentially growing ranks of ISIS; what material, rational, self-interested goals are realised by severing ties to the developed world, renouncing one’s identity and making tracks to join a new rogue state engaged in an apocalyptic war with all its neighbours and all the world’s major powers? ISIS has threatened attacks on Russia and promised to extend its ‘Caliphate’ to Chechnya, thus destroying any prospect of advantageous neutrality or covert support from the Putin regime. It is reasonable to provisionally assume that ISIS regards itself at war with the world, or any world outside potential integration into its proclaimed Caliphate.

One notable example of the driving mentality behind ISIS’s wave of foreign fighters (there is a debate to be had on whether one should consider any members of ISIS ‘foreign’, as the entity seeks the establishment of a transnational theocracy – is a British jihadist more ‘foreign’ to the Islamic State than an Iraqi, Syrian or Jordanian jihadist?) can be seen in this September 25th Vice News interview with Abu Usamah Somali, a Canadian jihadist who burned his passport in a video ‘message’ to the West. In a statement with some implications for the public portrait of ISIS/Da’esh theology and its relationship with orthodox Islam, Abu Usamah responded to the question “how do you guys get recruited to go?”:

“No one recruited me, actually no one spoke a single word to me. All I did, I opened the newspaper, I read the Qur’an – very easy.”

Self-radicalisation did not begin with the ease of propaganda and training availability proffered by the Internet. Much commentary has been made on the sophisticated propaganda methods employed by ISIS, which has mastered the use of online communications and social media. The FT offered the assessment from jihadist expert Aaron Zelin that ISIS was “probably more sophisticated than most US companies” in its use of social media platforms to spread awareness of its victories and draw recruits from across the globe to its captured territories. However, the individual radical can be won over without electronic media and historically radicalization has required materiel no more technologically sophisticated than pamphlets, Gospels and well-executed demagoguery. Ted Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, along with his fellow ‘lone wolf’ terrorists of late-twentieth century American nightmares Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolf were brought to radicalization by readings of texts which matched up with their own frustrated understanding of the world and personal psychologies that remain difficult, if at all navigable territory for the historian.

But ‘lone wolf’ incidents aside, what makes ISIS a most relevant subject for a penetrative critique using Hoffer’s aphorisms and perceptive litmus tests for fanaticism is its very self-proclaimed status as a transnational movement. It has certainly succeeded in convincing young men and women to uproot from otherwise settled and undistinguished lives outside the Middle East to join its ranks, most with no previous experience in combat or any fighting capacity, let alone as black-garbed volunteer martyrs.

One of Hoffer’s most consistent themes in The True Believer is the relationship between Self and the externalized Self in the form of mass movements; principally, that the self-abrogation demanded by religions, political parties and other ‘greater causes’ is actively sought out by the most zealous recruits to the movement:

There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

– Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Section 7.

Marxist analysis of class conflict and the struggle for markets can go so far in history even among non-communists and non-Marxists – it was indespensible for E.P. Thompson’s magnificent studies of the working-classes in England and Richard J. Evans’ later work on German social history. However, the individual will – from Weber’s charismatic figure of authority to Hoffer’s multitude of True Believers – exists in an historical paradigm outside materialism.

The Dialectic can help; one long-term project of this blog will be to sow the seeds of a Marxian-Weberian synthesis of a kind which accommodates for advances in psychology and anthropology, particularly in the origins of religions and the group mentality of board-room politics at the heart of global capital. But in addressing the historical questions of ISIS, we cut ourselves short by making conclusions with Empire and American geopoliticking. To understand what has caused hundreds of young individuals from around the globe and across the social strata to make flight in the direction of almost certain death, fighting for a movement which has emerged from obscurity to the world’s terrified focus in the space of mere months, we must pay attention to the individuals. Economic classes are of comparably little relevance in the question of ISIS. What drives the formation and growth of mass movements like ISIS is foremost belief. Among Marx’s shortcomings was his underestimation of the power of belief – this is where, as an historian interested in the beginnings as much as the pathology of religions and political movements, I find Weber is our better friend here.

And Hoffer, the ‘longshoreman philosopher’ of San Francisco who stated not only of the propagandistic arm of the mass movement, but of the movement in general, “Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience… and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle.” When Hoffer is read alongside the video streams of ISIS’s defiant barbarism and spectacles of neo-medievalism, proudly narrated by British, American and Canadian-born jihadists, complaints of cliche should be muted in light of the self-evident.

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.