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.

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#Bellogate is making history at UCL

From the vantage point of the hour of 20.00-21.00 in Central Standard Time in Illinois, I have been tracking a story that has bypassed most of the UK’s sleeping student population. The student email system at University College London has been compromised after an unknown party gained access to the UCL Provost’s email account along with its mailing privileges; most crucially to send mass emails to ‘all-students@ucl.ac.uk’.

The beginning of the episode around one hour before midnight may have been timed to cause maximum disruption to IT services, with the UCL ISD Service Desk open between the hours of 09.30-17.00 and out-of-hours IT issues served by an automated system called NoRMAN. The Provost has issued no response to the crisis and it is likely that he along with other senior UCL faculty and managerial staff, are asleep. Emails continue to fill student inboxes, some recognised as spam but many occupying the folders normally protected by anti-spam filters.

One UCL student's inbox 20.43GMT, identity protected.

One UCL student’s inbox 02.47GMT on 09/10/14, identity protected.

Over 2,000 emails have been sent since the original ‘bello’ message, which included nothing but the text ‘bello!’ was sent to all UCL students at 22.47GMT on 08/10/14, ostensibly from the account of the UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur. Some students have claimed that the account itself is an imposture and that no authentic provost@ucl.ac.uk address prior to this existed, the closest addresses being michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk and provosts.office@ucl.ac.uk. In any case, the email accounts of approximately 29,000 UCL students and several thousand recent alumni are now in receipt of thousands of spam, joke and absurdist emails by the hour. Additionally, #bellogate became the UK’s top trending topic on Twitter within two hours of the first message being sent.

The breach appears to have placed the UCL student mailing list in the public domain, allowing pranksters to sign up the entire student body to mailing lists for football clubs, political parties, fan clubs and pornographic websites, to name but a few categories most prominent in the discussion of ‘#bellogate’ on Twitter. The Cheese Grater, UCL’s main student magazine, provided a screenshot of an email which linked all UCL students to the One Direction Fan Club:

Students from UCL’s longtime rival King’s College London (KCL) have capitalised on the situation with many prank messages apparently emanating from the KCL campus, including at least one message which signed up the UCL student body to the KCL application system as ‘Flight Lieutenant Bello’:

There is no indication as of yet whether the breach can or will affect mailing lists of other UK universities or whether similar vulnerabilities can be found in other .ac.uk networks. The episode has a precedent in New York University’s November 2012 ‘Replyallcalypse’, in which an email sent erroneously from an older sever by the NYU Bursar exposed the potential to access the entire NYU student mailing list through the ‘reply all’ function.

UCL management and UCL ISD services are yet to comment on the situation as of time of publication. As of 03.15GMT on Thursday 9th October 2014, prank and spam emails continue to flood the inboxes of UCL students. Academic schedules and class plans for UCL remain officially unchanged though communications between staff and students will almost certainly be paralysed as inboxes fill to capacity and new messages are ignored.

The episode may be recorded as one of the definitive student pranks of the 2010s or the exposure of major security vulnerabilities in university IT systems.

On having joined the American Historical Association!

This short post will consist of a declaration of joy at having finally joined the American Historical Association under a student membership. Having selected not to receive print publications (moving addresses semi-frequently, backtracking from the U.S. to my British hometown, then to the University of York, then to the hometown again), I procured a one-year membership for $28. Not bad given the services offered by the main professional community of historians and historical enthusiasts from outside the discipline.

Among the many grants, fellowships and academic opportunities that the AHA makes available to its members, there is the invaluable benefit of having immediate access to the professional and social networks of the mainstream body of history in academia. Acquiring membership of the AHA is something I would highly recommend to students even at undergraduate level (why not pre-university level?) for these reasons foremost. And for $28, why not?

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.

A New Volume on Suetonius in English

An excellent discussion of the death of Suetonius scholarship and a welcome reversal of this trend with new collections of papers on the great Roman biographer-historian.

Κέλσος

As part of my blog series on ancient biography, I thought that it would be fitting to discuss a new volume that was published just earlier this summer (July 3, 2014) on the Roman biographer Suetonius Tranquillus.

SuetoniusThe new volume Suetonius the Biographer: Studies in the Roman Lives provides a much needed collection of  essays on Suetonius in English. I say that these essays are “much needed” in light of the fact that there as been a dearth of studies on Suetonius in English over the last several decades. The most recent English monographs on the author Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Suetonius: the Scholar and His Caesars and Barry Baldwin’s Suetonius— were both published in 1983. In addition to those, Richard Lounsbury published a short work on Suetonius — The Arts of Suetonius: An Introduction — back in 1987. But, aside from those, Suetonius has largely…

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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.