Friday, December 07, 2018

Jingoism and myth making: An early 20th cnetury school history of the British Empire

     John M. Wood & Aileen G. Garland. The Story of England and the Empire (1951) A textbook for middle schools, adapted by Garland for Canada. This is a revised edition, containing hints that the first edition was published sometime in the 1920s or 30s. It’s a fascinating example of school history as propaganda and myth making. The message radiates from the title on down: Britain is the most important country in the world, it has created the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, the rest of the world still depends on British values and ideals to lead it into the uplands of a bright, happy future; etc.
     It’s also a Great Man history. Almost all the important actors are men (Elizabeth I is the major exception), usually characterised as one of the greatest soldiers/kings/etc; wise, strong, just; etc. Or weak, lazy and feeble; unable to command obedience; etc. The best rulers are described as gentle and just, making good laws, and making sure the people obeyed them. Clearly, you are supposed to be grateful for having such wise, strong, gentle, and just people in charge of your life.
     What’s even more interesting is what’s missing: there are almost no specific details or stories that would illustrate what life was like. It’s almost entirely about politics and economics. Vague words like prosperity, peace, happiness, etc, abound. The writer (Mackenzie) admires power, and has no sense of what middle school children (aged 10-14) would like to know about. I’m not surprised that from the late 1950s on the “enterprise method” became popular in Canada for teaching history. It set pupils the task of finding out about the everyday lives of their ancestors, and representing them in models, pictures, and stories.
     The tone and attitude of this book persisted for at least another generation, and fomented a sentimental and stupid nostalgia for the great days of empire, which has had a malign effect on British politics, most obviously in the Brexit vote. I think the fantasy of a Great Britain motivates a minority, but it was enough to bring the Leave vote over the 50% mark.
     School history has always been a contentious issue. Its primary purpose is to tell the nation’s story so that children will develop a proper sense of citizenship. This inevitably results in exaggeration of the nation’s international role and influence, and more or less obvious myth making and jingoism. For example, although the history I was taught in Austria in the 1950s wasn’t quite as jingoistic as this book exemplifies, it was focused on Austria’s past role in geopolitics, which was considerable. It was after all the murder of the Austrian Crown Prince that triggered the first World War, an event that itself testifies to the fantasy that some Great Man who leads a Great Power can make a decisive difference.
     What popular histories have tended to ignore or downplay is the fact that we can choose only from the (always limited) options available to us. Whatever influence we do have rarely produces new options for ourselves. It’s left to those who come after us to choose from the options we have created. That's usually some variation on cleaning up a bloody mess. Historians who tell the story more objectively tend to be ignored as mere academics.
     This textbook is interesting and IMO important data for anyone who wants to understand how popular sentiment affects the options available to our leaders, leaders who are themselves of course influenced by the same sentiments that we have developed in school, and which the press and entertainment amplify, simplify, and distort. As history, the book is awful. As sociological data, it’s priceless.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Stories of love and grief by Maeve Binchy

    Maeve Binchy. The Return Journey (1998) Binchy’s usual mix of bittersweet near-sentimentality, and sharply observed foolishness and vice. She’s very good at showing how self-deception and fantasy are more likely to cause trouble than the intentional wickedness of others. Her morality is straightforward: cheaters get their comeuppance as often as not, and good folk often get unexpected opportunities for happiness. Respectability is no shield against grief. And the apparently small injuries and disappointments of ordinary lives are as significant as the failures of the famous and powerful. More so, if anything. For most of us lead ordinary lives. Binchy’s talent is compressing a lifetime’s meaning into a few scenes. She loves ironic twists and poetic justice.
    I like her stories. This is an early collection. In her later work, she’s more willing to look at the evil that indifference, selfishness, and folly can cause. ***

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Textbooks as they used to be

      Miriam Rosenthal. The French Revolution (1965) A textbook for middle school, one of a series published by Longman’s. Ah, the days of carefully written history books for all ages of children. The assumption was not only that children should know a good deal of history, but that well-written books would interest them. This book addresses the reader directly, which may feel somewhat patronising to the adult reader. But it’s a pretty complete account of the Revolution, unafraid to comment on the characters involved, and equally willing to recognise the puzzles, for example, Why and how did Robespierre change from a man who refused to be a magistrate because of the death penalty into a man who dispensed death sentences with cool indifference. The answer is interesting: Robespierre was a man who “lived in a world of words”, not of people. He was what Fromm and others have called a True Believer, a man who believed he could make the world conform to his theory of what it should be. Such people sooner or later will kill those who can’t or won’t conform.
     Many illustrations, about as well printed as was possible back then, and a number of quotations from diaries, letters, etc. The general conclusion: The French Revolution was a necessary but sadly violent phase of the journey from autocracy to democracy, from oppression to freedom, from privilege for the few to rights for all. In 1965, one could still believe that democracy and universal human rights were well established, and life across the globe would continue to improve. Worth reading both as a helpful summary of a complicated history, and as an example of the values underpinning the teaching of history in the 1960s. ***

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Jewel Goes Missing (A Morse Mystery)

    Colin Dexter. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991) The jewel is the tongue of an Anglo-Saxon buckle, and will be returned by the widow of the man who bought it many years ago from a shady collector. She’s one of a busload of Americans on a tour of England. The tongue goes missing, the widow (remarried by this time) dies of a heart attack, the intended recipient (on behalf of the Ashmolean) is found in the Cherwell dead of a couple blows to the head. The usual cross-purposes and assorted sexual shenanigans interfere with the investigation.
     The story’s told in short chapters headed by more or less apt quotations. A note states that the novel is “based in part on an original storyline” supplied by Dexter to Central Television. That episode was titled The Wolvercote Tongue, and it’s much better than the book. Dexter indulges in his usual shticks, mostly foreboding foreshadowings and gratuitous leering. **

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A History of Leisure

     Witold Rybczynski. Waiting for the Weekend. (1991) Where and when did the weekend habit originate? Answering this question takes Rybczynski into the history of our calendars, religious customs, and the effects of industrialisation, which severed work from leisure in a way that no other techno-cultural innovation did. That leads to the puzzle of what we mean by leisure. Chesterton famously said that leisure was the opportunity to do nothing. Nothing except sit or stroll and experience the present senses, or think about them. But idleness has always been frowned upon by the serious people who want us all to be good. So leisure has become suspect unless it’s used for serious pursuits, or for the serious pursuit of frivolities.
     As always, Rybczynski writes with grace, wears his learning lightly, and triggers both clarification of old insights and recognition of new ones. Best of all, he connects the dots. The result is another nice web of ideas and fact.
     He also encourages thought about what think we already know. One thing we know is that work is good, and idleness is bad. That making stuff is good, and using it up is bad. Both of these ideas helped create our economy of abundance and waste. Both of them will have to be abandoned if we want to survive climate change and maintain a comfortable life. We make too much, and what we can’t use up, we throw away.
     Read the book. ****

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Players Come Again, again

      Amanda Cross. The Players Come Again (1990) A reread, and just as good as the first time. Better, because I knew the solution, so the path to it was more interesting. Cross makes a case that the Minoans were an egalitarian culture, uninfected by the brutal masculinity of the Greeks, who retold the Minotaur myth to conform to their pro-patriarchal prejudices and misogyny. As always, the conversation is adult and literate. The puzzle circles round the question of who wrote Emanuel Foxx’s great modernist novel Ariadne, he himself, or his wife Gabrielle. A pleasure to read. Cross’s men aren’t very convincing, though. **½

Friday, November 23, 2018

Free Will: Real or illusion?

     Sam Harris. Free Will (2012) A well done essay on the illusion of free will, argued not only from first principles (a deterministic universe), but also from neurology, psychology, and self-insight. Basically, we are what we are, and that means we do what we do. We cannot account for any kind of free choice, all attempts to do so are either infinite regress (did we choose to choose? If so, did we choose to choose to choose?); or else misapprehensions of the meaning of chance in a deterministic universe. He’s most convincing, I think, when he points out that we cannot determine what moved us to make a choice in the first place. We simply make a choice, but we cannot show that it was free. For if we are free to make any one choice, what other choice would we have made?
     It’s clear that accepting that free will is an illusion there’s a serious question about moral responsibility, and hence culpability. Does it make moral sense to exact retributive justice if the criminal’s choice was a thoroughly determined as my choice to have strawberry jam instead of marmalade on my breakfast toast?  Harris points out that criminals are either more or less damaged, or else lack those psychological structures that prevent most of us from acting criminally. Either way, it’s basically the luck of the draw, of the confluence of genetics and environment. You can’t blame a person for developing cancer, for that too is the result of genetics and environment.
     So how to deal with criminal actions? Recognise that people can change: obesity is caused by genetic and environmental factors, but changes in behaviour can reduce it. Thus, rehabilitation should always be attempted. If that requires removing the criminal from society, then do so, for however long it takes. Also, subtle and not so subtle changes in social norms change people’s behaviour: they affect the choices people make. Example: the reduction in drinking and driving. All choices are made within a context of available choices: so make undesirable choices difficult or impossible. You can’t choose to shoot someone if you don’t have a gun.
     Harris knows we can’t avoid the illusion of free will, but we can treat each other more humanely using the knowledge that free will is an illusion. He doesn’t ask or answer the more profound question of why we have that illusion. I think it’s because the illusion of the self requires it. We can’t experience ourselves as agents without it. Yet experiencing ourselves as agents is vital to our survival. Without it, we would be incapable of acting. We would merely respond. But I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that.
     An essay worth reading and rereading. It makes you think. Just what you will think depends of course on factors over which you have no control whatsoever. ****

Perfect potato-chip book

       Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander. 100 Malicious Little Mysteries (1981) A wonderful potato chip book. The stories are mostly 3 to 4 pages long, with a few outliers. Plot twists featuring poetic justice, radical shifts in point of view, or sudden recognition of a minor clue’s meaning are common. Each could be redone as a full-length novel. Most are little gems of narrative art, the whole book a master class in how to put much meaning into a very small frame. A keeper. ***

Short stories by Rankin

     Ian Rankin. Beggars Banquet (2002) Collection of short stories, several of which are about Rebus. Like Rendell, Rankin enjoys imagining psychopaths. Makes for page-turning, but too many of these tales leave a bad taste, despite slatherings of poetic justice. **