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 Henceforth theological and ecclesiastical analogies shall be withdrawn from circulation.

And withdrawn from circulation was LM following the successful suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) against the small magazine in 1997 following the publication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.