Saturday, April 27, 2013

George Jones, 1931-2013

One of the greats, no longer hurtin'.

Changing perspectives on the history of violence

One shouldn't, perhaps, take such things too seriously, but I was interested to see the results of Prospect magazine's 'World Thinkers' list last week.

More specifically, I was pleased to find a few of my own favourite authors placing highly and equally glad to have some potential new favourites brought to my attention who are now on my -- sadly ever-expanding -- to-read list.

There they are, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and a few others: people who, while I might not agree with everything they've argued or written, have nevertheless positively influenced how I see the world.

They're people with whom I find it's even worthwhile disagreeing, and you can't say that about everyone.

(There are some people on the list for whom that doesn't apply...but I've been trying to focus on the positive recently, so I won't go into that.) 

Coming in at number three is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whose most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surely needs little introduction, seeing that it was both a bestseller and generated a substantial amount of debate and discussion.

I'm particularly pleased about that, for a few reasons. 

His earlier book The Blank Slate was one of those works that began shifting my views on violence from being more or less at home within 'cultural theory' toward trying to integrate cultural history with what might be called 'biological', 'evolutionary' or 'behavioural science' perspectives. (The others being works by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Robert Wright and Frans de Waal.) 

An early version of that shift can be glimpsed in a 2007 essay that I wrote on violence and cultural change; the most recent culmination of my thinking on the matter was in an article that appeared as part of a special issue in the British Journal of Criminology in 2011.   

Steve and I engaged in several mutually rewarding email discussions of violence, psychology and history while Better Angels was taking shape (it is humbling to find myself in the book's acknowledgements), an exchange that we were finally able to take up in person a couple of times in recent years in Bern and London.

Bern, Switzerland, September 2011
We also exchanged our most recent books as gifts. Going by weight and page length, I fear that Steve might feel he got the worse of this deal, but it was very nice to find him recommending my new(ish) book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, on Twitter as 'A fascinating real-life murder story.'

So, for all these reasons -- and like some other people -- I feel inspired to add my personal congratulations on yet another public recognition.

Then, relatedly and coincidentally, last week I received (from the author) a copy of a review essay in the current issue of the English Historical Review that that considers Better Angels together with some other recent works on violence history.

In the article, Gregory Hanlon -- author of the pioneering Human Nature in Rural Tuscany: An Early Modern History -- offers some constructive criticism of Better Angels from the perspective of an early modern historian; however, he argues that historians will 'learn a great deal' from the book's analysis of the psychological abilities that encourage and restrain violence.

He then critically considers some recent broad-scale analyses of long-term changes in European which have emerged from a more traditional social/cultural history perspective and concludes by pointing out a few more recent contributions to the debate that have begun (whether on a more theoretical or empirical level) to seek some degree of methodological integration.

For those historians interested in (though even for those perhaps sceptical about) behavioural-science approaches to violence history, this essay should certainly be on your reading lists.

And it occurs to me, once again, that I am very fortunate to know such fascinating people. 

Congratulations, Steve!

Well done, Greg!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Doing her bit

Inspired by my last post -- as the image is used as the cover of the book I quoted -- I thought I would post this British Second World War poster.

I have always loved it since I first saw it.

This is not least, I suppose, since my mother actually did, during the war, work in an aircraft factory (one that, if I recall correctly, built and repaired Bristol Beaufighters.)

But it's also just beautifully designed.

If I remember her words accurately, my mother didn't take up that job because she was inspired by such a poster or out of some surfeit of patriotic fervour but rather because the labour exchange suggested it to her, after her father forbade her from taking up the other recommended employment: bus conductress.

He was himself a bus conductor, you see, and was concerned, as she put it, about the (im)moral influences to which she might be subjected in such a job.

Though, from her other reminiscences, I didn't have the impression that the factory was actually that much better. 

Lion, Unicorn, Hammer and Sickle

Here's something interesting I just ran across while doing background reading for my current project. From Sonja Rose, a portrayal of the popularity of Soviet Russia in Britain during the Second World War (after the point when Britain and Russia became allies in June 1941):

Numerous celebrations across the country were organized throughout 1942 and 1943. There were, in addition to Anglo-Soviet weeks, International Woman’s Day rallies, Red Army Day celebrations, and commemorations of the day the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

In early January 1942, for example, Coventry staged an Anglo-Soviet week. It began on a Sunday at the Opera House, with the Mayor of Coventry presiding over the opening ceremonies. Sharing the platform with the Mayor was the Bishop of Coventry and the MPs for Coventry and nearby Nuneaton. A respected historian and the author of numerous books on Russia, Sir Bernard Pares, spoke. The programme was designed to ‘appeal to every class of the community’, according to the Coventry Evening News announcement of the week-long gala.

Each day there were public functions scheduled featuring aspects of Russian life including the showing of numerous Russian films. The week-long festival included school programmes, lectures, and a concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent playing an Anglo-Russian programme of music; there was a woman’s rally and an education rally. The week concluded with a parade of local organizations including civil defence workers, members of the National Fire Service, and a salute by the Mayor from the Council House steps. Opening during the week and on display for the month was an exhibition of Soviet life and books.

The exhibition was positioned behind a frontage that featured the British Lion and the Hammer and Sickle, surmounted by the flags of both nations. There were large photographs displaying aspects of life in the Soviet Union as well as charts and posters demonstrating, according to the press, the ‘tremendous strides’ made in the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans.

Sonya O. Rose, Which People's War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945 (Oxford: OUP, 2003), p. 50. (line breaks and highlighting added for clarity)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Equalising dialogue

This comment from an interview with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski does a pretty good job of summing up one problem with the internet:

The net has a way of equalizing dialogue in ways that run counter-intuitive to our powers of perception. They’re just words on a screen, one subset of words no more valid than the other...even though one may be written by an expert, and the other by a guy who wears an orange fright wig and lives in his mother’s basement where he tortures Barbie dolls for fun. Seeing one or the other, you would know to let one close and the other not so much (unless you had strong anti-Barbie tendencies). But absent being able to see them, you don’t know what you’re dealing with and tend to apply equal credibility until the day the monster bares its teeth. 

OK, back to those Barbie dolls.... 

(Via Io9)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

News you can't use

My friend Andrew brings to my attention an article by Rolf Dobelli, who raises various doubts about the value of avidly following the news.

One of Dobelli's reasons for being sceptical:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what's relevant. It's much easier to recognise what's new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

I have to say that, although I've been a pretty compulsive news reader for a long time now, I see the point of what Dobelli's on about here, and I have recently felt a pretty strong urge to withdraw from the day-to-day information overload and try to focus on things that are more important to me.

I did a pretty good job toward the beginning of the year in filtering things out and trying just to focus on the half-dozen or so information sources that I really do find valuable. 

Dobelli has inspired me to perhaps redouble my efforts.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Draughts of pure thought from the fountain-head of some abstruse philosopher"

Although I have been hitherto mainly a historian of crime, violence, criminal justice and policing, I'm in the midst of a reorientation of sorts toward something that I'm still working out a concise description for but involves a mixture of cultural, intellectual and religious history focused on the period of the 1920s to the 1940s.

An element of continuity in all this is my interest in media history, particularly the history of the inter-war press.

Anyway, I'm pleased to announce that one of my first publications as part of this new direction will soon be seeing the light of day: a study of the reception of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West in the inter-war British press.

It will be part of a forthcoming collection of essays edited by a couple of my colleagues that will consider Spengler's reception in various countries. 

A pre-press version of my essay, '"German foolishness" and the "Prophet of doom": Oswald Spengler and the Inter-war British Press' is now available on

A brief passage, from a section on Spengler and 'Germanness':

Although Spengler's work was highly controversial in his homeland, British commentators tended to depict it representing something typically German. On this basis, in a radio broadcast titled »Spengler–A Philosopher of World History« (reprinted in the Listener in 1929), popular philosopher C.E.M. Joad sought to explain national differences related to Spengler's reception: »The Germans have an appetite for ideas which rivals, if it does not exceed, the English appetite for emotions«*. Referring to then-popular authors of romance novels and histories, he observed: »While the Englishman is enjoying a feast of passion at the luscious boards of Miss Dell or Miss Hull, the German refreshes himself with draughts of pure thought from the fountain-head of some abstruse philosopher«**. Spengler's sentences, he continued, »seem to be the necessary accompaniments of German philosophy in the grand manner: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, all wrote them and worse; they sound the authentic German note«. [166-67]
Note: If I've been successful in achieving the aim I set out with, you don't even have to know a lot about Spengler to enjoy the article.

Though that might be a big if.

I will, in any case, provide another update when the collection is released.


* Listener, 27 February 1929, p. 250.
** »Spengler, the most abstruse German now writing, is also the most popular. He belongs, it is clear, to the grand tradition of German philosophy«. Ibid. Ethel M. Dell was a romance novelist and Eleanor Hull wrote Irish history. See also: »[F]or whereas the success of the Anglo-Saxon best-seller depends upon a facile acceptance of emotions, the Teutonic best-seller demands of the reader an equally facile acceptance of ideas«. New Statesman, 3 July 1926, p. 332.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Speaking the unspeakable, again

As with events not all that long ago in Newtown, I find myself again haunted by a single sentence that encapsulates, for me, the immediate horror of yesterday's attack on the Boston marathon.

It's at the beginning of an article from the New York Times on the explosions' direct aftermath:

“These runners just finished and they don’t have legs now,” said Roupen Bastajian, 35, a Rhode Island state trooper and former Marine. “So many of them. There are so many people without legs. It’s all blood. There’s blood everywhere. You got bones, fragments. It’s disgusting.”

Had Mr. Bastajian run a few strides slower, as he did in 2011, he might have been among the dozens of victims wounded in Monday’s bomb blasts. Instead, he was among the runners treating other runners, a makeshift emergency medical service of exhausted athletes. “We put tourniquets on,” Mr. Bastajian said. “I tied at least five, six legs with tourniquets.” 

'These runners just finished and they don't have legs now.'

I am, myself, someone for whom running has become a vitally important part of life (though I'd never make a marathon).

This doesn't, of course, give me any special insight into the suffering that has resulted from -- and will continue long after -- yesterday's events.

But I think it, somehow, has heightened my horror even beyond where it would otherwise have been.

Which seems scarcely possible.