In a Country Shop

Long Melford, Suffolk, February 2020

Lady Jane dept store
Lady Jane Department Store, no less, in Long Melford

Going up to the first floor of a country shop – you know the type, with everything from cutlery to pigeon figurines, accessories for the AGA and the dog, crockery and soaps – and placed in a private house, so that from the outside you would barely know a shop was there – I found that they (in addition to a tucked away room dedicated to a sale on Sunday best China) had several rooms of country clothing. And as most other things, it was all made in England.

It just so happened on this day that I had bought from a vintage stall in the village a pair of breeks, the knee-length trousers worn by country gentlemen throughout the British isles. I should explain at this point that I for my part am made in Norway, where breeks were once what you wore for skiing, as can be seen in the old, battered photograph below of my maternal grandfather wearing his plus-four breeks. In Norway we call these “nikkers” – yes, pronounced just like “knickers” and as such, a potential cause of embarrassing misunderstandings.

grandpa breeks
Back from skiing: my maternal grandfather (on the right, in case you wondered) together with my “mormor” (mum’s mum in Norwegian). He is wearing his own nikkers.

To go with my breeks I needed a pair of socks that would start at the toe and work their way all the way up to the knee, and meet the breeks half way, so to speak, thus covering the entire leg from their respective directions. 

After ascending the creaking staircase, decorated with Hunter wellies on each step and pictures of horses and dogs on the walls, I arrived at this Aladdin’s cave of country attire. There were the woollen sixpences and wax covered hats, as well as padded gilets, in the first room. To the right was the aforementioned China-room (misnamed, as all the porcelain was hand-made in England), and then on the left, a bigger room, with Tattersall checked shirts, leather gloves and, lining the walls and criss-crossing the floor, rows of great big country jackets; some were the well-known waxed variety by Barbour, and others the tweed covered type with huge pockets to keep your shot-gun cartridges in (and possibly with room to spare for a bird or two, by the look of them). All, no doubt, made in England. 

Underneath one of the rows of these plus-sized garments, along the wall, were three cardboard boxes of what were labelled ‘Shooting socks’. It is very English, I think, to have items of clothing that are very specifically dedicated to certain activities. There are school shoes and weekend shirts, morning coats and dinner jackets, but I had never owned a pair of shooting socks before. They were exactly the sort of socks that would go with my breeks, reaching, as they appeared to do, all the way to the knees and possibly beyond. 

shooting socks
Shooting socks – noun, not verb

I crouched down and started rummaging through the boxes. My breeks were in in a traditional dark green tweed, and there were several socks that would have fitted the bill, but as I zoomed in on the price tags, I realised that the cheapest pair was £45, increasing to £95. I thought that rather steep for a pair of socks I shall only be wearing every once in a great while, even though they were all made in England. So I decided that as much as I would love to have bought them in this shop and given the charming business my support, I would have to give it a miss this time and rather look for more cost effective alternatives elsewhere.  

As I rose from my lowered position a young man passed behind me, noticing that I had been perusing the shooting socks. He paused by one of the racks of jackets, putting his hand on one of them and crossing one leg in front of the other. His feet were clad in muddy wellies (as behoves a country person), his legs in well-worn jeans (no self-respecting countryman has new jeans), he wore a weathered waxed jacket and had a sixpence on top. His face was a pleasant one with a rather distinctive nose, he was skinny and slightly taller than me: what in cheap novels a young nobleman might be described as looking like.

His opening salvo, pronounced in a voice that seemed too deep for someone his age, was, “So, do you shoot?”

Perhaps it is because I am a translator, and as such take a particular interest in learning the peculiarities of the English language, but I am glad to say that, unlike the inner city kids who were shocked to hear their teacher had been “shooting” at the weekend, I did understand that the young man was not referring to taking illicit drugs by needle.

There are in fact three distinct country activities related to what in other countries we would cover with whatever word we have for the term “hunt” (in Norwegian jakt, which is etymologically related to the English boating term yacht, from the Dutch term for a jaghtschip (literally a ship for chasing), in turn from the German term jagd: to hunt, chase).

In proper English, though, the hunt is when you ride out on horseback with hounds to chase the fox – a traditional country pursuit made partly illegal in an act of class warfare by the then Labour government in 2004. Going after large game, deer for example, with a rifle is called stalking, and the downing of fowl with the use of a shotgun is called to shoot.

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This is a hunt, not a shoot

So when he asked me if I shoot, at least I knew the nature of the activity he was referring to.

“Er…well, not yet.”

“But you’re planning to.”

“Yeah, yes definitely…”

He tapped on the jacket he was leaning on.

“Guess what this costs.”

Ignoring the strangeness of this imperative, I looked at the garment. It was not entirely dissimilar to a Barbour jacket I owned, only this one was one of those covered in tweed. 

“Oh…two hundred? Three?”

“No, more”.

“Really?!”

“Yah, sixhundred and twentyfive. Look here.”

He plucked out the price tag, and there it was. 

“Goodness,” I said. “Tailor made, is it?”

“Huh…” he replied.

“So…do you shoot”, I thought it was better to counter attack before I had another question about my sporting habits. I was also genuinely curious.

“Yeah, I go shooting with my grandfather.”

Of course he did. I started feeling at a slight social disadvantage, so I thought I’d put him on the spot with a little check move. 

“And…do you have your own gun?” I was pretty certain this seventeen, eighteen, perhaps nineteen year old did not own his own gun. 

“No…”

Ha! Knew it.

“But I use one of my grandfather’s guns.”

Ah! Checkmate. Of course his grandfather had lots of guns. How silly of me.

“Oh, good, good. Yes, it’s great fun to shoot, isn’t it?” I asked moronically to avoid a return question regarding my gun ownership – or total lack of it.

“Yeah, but it’s rather expensive,” and nodding towards the desired jacket he added, “…especially the clothes.”

“Indeed…” 

woman in breeks
Where’s the bird? Expensively clad and well equipped.

Because of course one had to have the proper clothes, hadn’t one. One could not be seen pulling the trigger of an old Holland & Holland or Purdey clad inappropriately. That would never do.

I did find this preoccupation with the right and expensive shooting attire a little funny, but I also couldn’t help liking the young man. There was something about his face. It wasn’t arrogance or entitlement – as some may have seen in it – just a complete at-homeness in himself, coupled with the eternal insecurity of the young, the need to have the approval of their peers and surroundings by the wearing of the right clothes. For the urban youngster this might be the garishly branded products of Tommy Hilfiger or Reebok or some such rubbish made in China, and for the young landed gentry, as my interlocutor in the country shop, it is high quality shooting clothes, expensively made in England. And of the two I think I prefer the latter.

The conversation was rounded off at this point with the usual polite phrases, and then the tall youngster with the dirty wellies disappeared into the next room of the upstairs, and must have gone out a back door, as I didn’t see him come back out again. 

I have no idea whether he worked in the shop or had some connection to the owners of it – he seemed so very much at home there by his behaviour, but then again, perhaps he behaves like that everywhere in his natural habitat. I have no clue as to why he opened up a conversation with me on the topic of shooting, except for his perceptiveness of observation, and the assumption that as I was looking for shooting socks, I must, by logical deduction, also be looking to shoot, and therefore we had a shared interest.

I didn’t buy shooting socks that day, but I did purchase a couple of sandalwood soaps, handmade in England. And I hope when I return to the shop in the near future, I might again run into the tall, young shooting enthusiast who, I am certain, is also very much made in England.

slim breeks
Slim breeks: Self-portrait of the author as a much slimmer man (artistic licence)

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Buying Christmas

[This article was printed in the Colchester Gazette on Monday 23rd December. I share it here, for the benefit of those who are curious to know what A Christmas Carol is really all about]

Sim as Scrooge
Alastair Sim as Scrooge – perhaps surprised at my new interpretation

In the first televised debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the now outgoing Labour leader was asked what he would leave for his opposite number under the Christmas tree. His answer was very telling – mostly of Mr. Corbyn’s simplistic world-view – because he chose A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, saying, ”…and he can then understand how nasty Scrooge was.” As we are in the season of revisiting this 1843 story, with the BBC screening a new dramatisation of the text over Christmas, perhaps it is time to reconsider what A Christmas Carol really is all about, because I think Corbyn, and many with him, has failed to understand that the story of Scrooge’s redemption, far from being a rebuke of private wealth, is in fact a celebration of a consumerist Christmas; a hymn to capitalism and spending money, and the happiness you gain from consumption rather than hoarding.

The story of A Christmas Carol is well known. Scrooge the miser is visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve, three of whom show him Christmas past, present and future, and as a result, Scrooge is reformed from greedy, grabby miser to generous benefactor. 

We tend to emphasize the transition from meanness to liberality in Scrooge’s attitude to other people. We make it fit into a familiar complaint about Christmas: ‘oh, it’s all about consuming stuff, it’s all about buying things, it’s too materalistic, too focussed on spending, we are forgetting the REAL meaning of Christmas’. But what is the real meaning? In a secular age, the religious content is largely part of the aesthetic backdrop. Baby Jesus over here, Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus over there. 

What A Christmas Carol suggests, directly and indirectly, is that the consumption of goods and the happiness that can be had from it, is the real meaning of Christmas. The author spends 40 lines deliciously describing produce on offer in shops, then one feeble line stating that people went “to church and chapel”. The story certainly criticises miserliness, but it also, in Dickens’ masterly way, criticises the hypocrisy with which our society, steeped as it is in a derivative Christian morality of poverty as a virtue, sees the acquisition of wealth as evil, but the spending of wealth, ironically, as a great good (especially the spending of other people’s wealth, as in Corbyn’s case). 

This is beautifully expressed during the vision of the first didactic spirit, when the young Scrooge’s fiancé decides to break off the engagement because of his dedication to making money, referring to “a golden idol” having taken the place of his former love of her. 

Young Scrooge replies:

“‘This is the even-handed dealing of the world!’ he said. ‘There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!’”

It has been said of Microsoft founder Bill Gates that he was never so much celebrated for creating his business and making all that money, as he was for giving some of the money away. This is a modern echo of the Scrooge-story: the Old Scrooge is a miser, yes, but he is also a creator. Not only has he amassed a fortune, he has built a business that employs at least one man directly and perhaps many others indirectly by investments and financing. Mr. Cratchit, who in his toast to “the Founder of the Feast”, referring to Scrooge, shows an understanding of this. But this is not what the novella primarily celebrates, as Mrs. Cratchit’s acid response makes perfectly clear. 

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A Victorian Christmas – extolling the joys of consumerism

Let’s look a little closer at exactly how A Christmas Carol makes consumerism the real meaning of Christmas:

The first scene of the story is set in Scrooge’s counting house, after an introduction that leaves the reader in no doubt as to what kind of man Scrooge was: “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”. 

In the counting house there are two fires: a small one in Mr. Scrooge’s office and an even smaller one in the cell occupied by his clerk. The clerk is not allowed to replenish the fire on pain of unemployment. In other words, the first concrete example of the deficit of Scrooge’s character is his failure to consume more fossil fuels, thus reducing his company’s carbon footprint – perhaps old Scrooge should be a patron saint for our modern day puritans in the Extinction Rebellion movement.

His nephew enters to make the following feeble argument for Christmas: “‘…though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it’”. Scrooge naturally, as he should, rejects this argument with one of his many (in)famous “humbug!” ejaculations.

The next to make an argument for consuming more are two gentlemen, themselves portly embodiments of over-consumption. They implore Scrooge to part with the money he has made to buy meat and drink for the poor, because, as they put it, this is a time of year when, “‘Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.’” Old Scrooge, in another of his rather pointed remarks replies, “‘I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.’” In other words, consuming more could have made him merry – or happy – but he doesn’t go in for that. 

After this scene there is a whole paragraph describing how the festivities are being prepared across the city, with descriptions of glowing shop windows, of poulterers’ and grocers’ doing trade as a “glorious pageant”. The Lord Mayor orders his “fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should” whilst the humble tailor and his wife stir their pudding in happy anticipation. In other words, the trade and consumption of produce is creating the warm glow of happiness across an otherwise cold city. 

Victorian food
What Dickens might have had in mind if writing on an empty stomach

The contrast from the glowy happiness of consumer goods to the gloomy, dark house where Scrooge lives his ascetic, non-consumerist life, is stark and forms the backdrop for the visit of the first of the three didactic spirits – a strange light-emitting creature. And light is then cast upon Scrooge’s past, where his old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, as the first spirit puts it, “‘[…] has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money […]’,” to create a Christmas Eve feast of medieval proportions and abundant jollity. Then, in the next vision – one that most certainly is in breach of the General Data Protection Regulation – Scrooge is shown a scene of domestic bliss from the life of his former fiancé. Her husband, one who clearly must have worked at least as hard as Scrooge to maintain what appears to be a very large family in comfortable surroundings, enters “…laden with Christmas toys and presents.” More frivolous consumerism! 

Ghost of Christmas present

The advent of the second spirit proves even more overtly consumeristic: this is where Dickens goes to town describing consumer goods on offer; the poultry, the game, the fish, the fruit, the “broad-girthed Spanish onions, the “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen,” and so on and so forth for 40 consecutive, delicious lines. The depiction of eager customers “crashing their wicker baskets wildly” could have been from the Aldi Black Friday sales. The spirit shows him some humble Christmas gatherings, but the main scene of that vision is the house of aforementioned nephew Fred, where a solidly middle-class feast is held, with food and wine and furniture and a piano.

George Orwell, in his essay on Dickens from 1940, makes the point that Dickens seems to know very little about work. He says, “It is not merely a coincidence that Dickens never writes about agriculture and writes endlessly about food. He was a Cockney, and London is the centre of the earth in rather the same sense that the belly is the centre of the body. It is a city of consumers.” And goes on to say, “Everything is seen from the consumer-angle”. This is certainly true in the vision of the second spirit. 

But the story then moves to the more austere vision of the third spirit, that of Christmas Future. The two main points from that part are of course poor Tiny Tim’s death, genuinely moving in that way only Dickens can do it – as Oscar Wilde said of another Dicken’s story, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing’.  The other main point is the happiness caused by Scrooge’s own death. This clinches Scrooge’s conversion, and he wakes up on Christmas morning feeling happy, merry and giddy. His first act as the born-again Scrooge is to lean out the window and engage the nearest boy to tell the poulterer in the next street he wants to buy the largest prize turkey. The next act is to donate to the charity he rejected the day before, whose purpose was to buy food and drink for the poor to celebrate Christmas. He then attends his nephew’s dinner (more consumption of food and drink). The next day, he raises his clark’s salary (increasing the money supply and therefore consumption) and instructs Cratchit to “‘Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!’”. Need I say it? He is increasing his carbon footprint and destroying the lives of Swedish girls everywhere! How dare he? The story concludes with Tiny Tim surviving and Scrooge knowing “how to keep Christmas well”, and we all know what that means by now. He started spending money and it bought him happiness and friends, as even Jesus Christ said according to Luke, “…use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.”

Scrooge new
The reformed Scrooge makes new friends – after he starts spending money

Apparently Dickens’ inspiration for Scrooge came when walking through a cemetery in Edinburgh, where he chanced upon a headstone inscribed with “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – a meal man”. Old Scroggie had amassed a fortune dealing in corn, and was actually a generous benefactor, but Dickens misread it as “a mean man” and commented in his notebook on how tragic he thought this epitaph was. It is ironic that a story so widely misread and misunderstood as A Christmas Carol, was itself begot by a misunderstanding. Fake news is nothing new, it seems.

Again I will quote Orwell, who I think got Dickens just right, writing here about Hard Times: 

…its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. […] His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

But what is “decent”? Scroggie, the Scotsman whose tombstone inspired Dickens, is said to have done more good through his business than through his philanthropy. If you merely give away all your money without investing them, no new businesses or jobs will be created. The message for this, and any, Christmas, that I would like to take away from my reading of A Christmas Carol, is therefore that money can indeed buy happiness, and that it is a natural human response to abhor suffering in our fellow men. Therefore, as you spend your money to have a modern version of the pre-Christian mid-winter Yule-feast, do so with a healthy conscience: you are buying happiness for yourself, for those who receive the presents and hospitality, for those who work in the shops, who owns the shops, who work in the factories and farms producing the goods, and in addition, giving to a charity of choice buys you a nice, warm glow of self-satisfied virtue, if you need it.

Whatever rebellious crusties say, spending money, as Scrooge discovered, makes you and everyone else happy. A very Merry Consumer Christmas to you.

charles-dickens
Charles Dickens feeling merry

 

The End of Free Speech

Is free speech losing its status as one of the pillars of  our supposedly free society? Are words so harmful they must be censored by a politically correct Thought Police before they are unleashed on a fragile populace who are living on the brink of being irreversibly triggered? The academics Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt seem to suggest that is the risk we are running if we don’t change the way universities, schools and even families are operating. 

We condemn

You Can’t Say That!

When professional provocateurs like Milos Yannopoulos were shouted down or “disinvited” we perhaps did not find it particularly surprising or even troubling. But when an arch feminist like Germaine Greer cannot be tolerated at a literary festival and gets disinvited from a debate at Cardiff University, or a social scientist like Charles Murray is met with violent protests at campus, then something deep down grumbles troublingly. 

How about the creation of “safe spaces“, or the insertion of “trigger warnings” in academic material that deal with certain issues? Or what do you make of the Manchester students who chose to paint over the poem If by Rudyard Kipling, because they claimed he was a “racist“, or the Rhodes Must Fall campaign which has been trying to rewrite history, one cancelled statue at a time, and of course the free speech activist/hate speech enabler (depending on you point of view) Dr. Jordan Peterson who was disinvited by Cambridge University, apparently after having stood next to someone with an objectionable t-shirt?  (T-shirts should always be regarded objectionable, in my view). 

And perhaps most worryingly of all, a new study, published as I was writing this article, showed that fewer than half of students in Britain consistently support free speech.

In their book, published May 2018 but sadly even more current now, The Coddling of the American Mind (How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure), authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt give a worrying yet conditionally optimistic presentation of this ongoing trend in some American and British universities.

According to Lukianoff and Haidt, the situation on campus seems to be: oversensitivity to difficult subjects, including opinions that “[…] go against my dearly and closely held beliefs” as one student put it, (Lukianoff and Haidt, p. 28), overreaction to the use of certain words and phrases, resulting in a culture of “calling out” and “cancelling” of those who hold the “wrong” views or who use the incorrect terminology, engendering fear among the academic staff as well as students, which in turn leads to self-censorship and thus a stifling of free expression, free exploration of ideas and the open exchange of views. One need not be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that this in the long (or even short) term will suffocate scientific work and academic achievements.

“Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship.”  (Haidt and Lukianoff, p. 72).

Lukianoff and Haidt have an interesting, if only half right, in my view, analysis of why these sorts of things are happening and thus what needs to be done about them. The book appears to suggest that because children have been overprotected, mollycoddled, refused free play and hothoused for passing exams, they suddenly cannot stand difficult opinions. They compare it to the rise in peanut allergy, which appears to have taken off during a time when parents and schools have over-protected children from exposure to this terrorist of the legume world.

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Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt: friends of the peanut.

Many young people, mostly from middle class families, with little or no experience from the “real world” outside the educational institutions through which they have been processed as so much lean beef, seem to be more susceptible to a culture where they must call on authority figures to step in and sort out anything difficult. These youngsters have been over-protected, and enters – without ma and pa for the first time – an environment they have to manoeuvre on their own, with an insufficient amount of emotional resilience developed.

The authors are also right to consider the growth of university bureaucracy, with admin staff having a perverse incentive to create new roles for themselves, often in response to well-meaning but badly thought out equality legislation and other regulations from central government, combined with the fear of litigation. This, they argue convincingly, has contributed to a culture of “safetyism”, where universities appear to view students as fragile creatures who can be irrevocably damaged if they are confronted with even the whiff of a difficult utterance or situation. Lukianoff and Haidt argue contrary to this view that students, and all young people, are “anti-fragile” as they put it, able to learn from difficulties and grow stronger – if they are allowed to.

They write from experience and with empathy, yet their analysis has, in my view, a central weakness.

If susceptible students and a misguided bureaucracy is one side of the equation, the “demand side” if you wish, what this book skips over rather lightly is the other side of the equation: the “supply side”, or the ideas and ideologies that dominate academia and furnish the intellectual rotten wood from which these problematic attitudes are mushrooming like poisonous fungus.

 

Is postmodern leftism the real issue?

In his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands the philosopher Roger Scruton exposes the dark hole in the universe of meaning that left-wing intellectual writing represents and how this ideologically founded gibberish risks sucking not only sound judgement but the ability to make reasoned judgements at all, into an ever heavier centre of gravity from which no light of truth and reason can emerge. About one of the most influential of the new-left intellectuals, Foucault, he says,

“The unifying thread in Foucault’s earlier and most influential work is the search for the secret structures of power. Behind every practice, every institution and behind language itself lies power […]”. (Scruton, p. 99).

The professor of philosophy at Rockford University, Stephen R. C. Hicks, in his entertaining anti-postmodernism polemic Explaining Postmodernism, provide a contribution to understanding what a great number of under-graduates find when bright-eyed and bushy tailed they enter the humanities departments:

“Many [postmodernists] deconstruct reason, truth, and reality because they believe that in the name of reason, truth, and reality Western civilization has wrought dominance, oppression, and destruction. “Reason and power are one and the same,” Jean-François Lyotard states. […] Postmodernism, Frank Lentricchia explains, “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.”” (Hicks, Stephen R. C.. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Ockham’s Razor Publishing / Scholargy. Kindle Edition).

 

Image result for foucault
He believed in sweet Foucault.

Unlike their postmodernist colleagues, Lukianoff and Haidt honourably do hold up truth and knowledge as the central values that should be guiding our institutions of learning and research. But they make only a passing attempt at discussing or criticising the intellectual movement of the 20th century that denies that there is such a thing as objective truth at all.

In chapter 3, entitled The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People, the authors come the closest to discussing this:

“In a 1965 essay titled “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse argued that tolerance and free speech confer benefits on society only under special conditions that almost never exist: absolute equality. He believed that when power differentials between groups exist, tolerance only empowers the already powerful and makes it easier for them to dominate institutions like education, the media, and most channels of communication.” (Haidt and Lukianoff, p. 65).

Soldiers
Perfect conditions for free speech, according to the postmodernists.

They go on to claim, plausibly I think, that this line of thinking has been perpetuated and indeed amplified in recent times by the concept of “intersectionalism”, created by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 and promulgated to a wider audience in her TED talk of 2016.

Intersectionism draws a horizontal line through which a number of intersecting lines are then drawn. Those above the horizontal line are “privileged” (whites, heterosexuals) who can do no right, and those under (women, gays) are “victims” who can do no wrong.

Haidt and Lukianoff believe that certain ways of interpreting intersectionality can risk to  “[…] teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression as ubiquitous in social interactions.” (Haidt and Lukianoff, p. 68). In other words, social interactions, such as debates and talks, become battlegrounds for the power struggle mentioned above, rather than opportunities for the exchange of ideas.

The culture of “calling out” and “cancelling” appears to be the reheated version of the cold dish of repudiation, which Roger Scruton points out in the chapter Extinguishing the Light, in his book A Political Philosophy. Scruton explains that the postmodern agenda is not to argue rationally in favour of certain positions, but to render such discussions impossible, and thus to render their refutation impossible. That is why Haidt’s and Lukianoff’s call for the reassertion of the Enlightenment values of free speech, objective truth and rational argumentation will most likely fall on barren ground. As Scruton says,

“The many ‘methods’ of the postmodernist curriculum have one thing in common, which is that they do not argue for their political posture but assume it […]. In this respect they are theological, rather than scientific, theories: theories designed not to establish some belief but to protect that belief from rational criticism.” (R. Scruton, A Political Philosophy, p. 53).

Debate is meaningless, because all that exists is power, so it is force against force until wrongs are righted and equality reigns supreme (who defines these terms and determines when we have arrived, is anyone’s guess).

The reason I believe postmodern leftism is important to consider, is that it helps to complete the analysis of what is going wrong at campus: if there is no truth, only subjective opinions and a power struggle, the behaviour of students and left-wing activists makes perfect perverse sense. 

Although Scruton and Hicks belong roughly on the right; Scruton is a traditional British conservative and Hicks a sort of American libertarian, this is emphatically not a traditional left vs. right issue. The authors themselves are of the centre left, and many others of the left have spoken out about this new postmodern leftism (as I call it), including the Marxist intellectual Slavoj Žižek, whose attacks on political correctness – for example in short videos such as this one entitled Political Correctness Is a More Dangerous Form of Totalitarianism – has earned him a cult status.

 

Can Nothing Be Done?

George Orwell wrote much about how language itself can become an ideological weapon, not least with the concept of Newspeak from his eponymous novel 1984. In the essay Politics and the English Language, he says: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

The power struggles of language, of utterances and of words (e.g. the use of pronouns) do have a kind of purpose. In my view it is not just to control and police the discourse, bad as that is, it is also to control and ultimately change the way you think. As Douglas Murray puts it in his recent book The Madness of Crowds: “[…] we are asked to agree to things which we cannot believe.” (P. 8). If you are not only “banned” from saying certain words, but forced – either legally or socially – to use certain words, you will in effect be forced to think only those thoughts that the permitted words give you expression of.

This is turn risks feeding an explosive backlash reaction that risks becoming a Trojan elephant in the room, filled with Alt-Right maggots that multiply into disease ridden flies that bursts out of the unmentionable animal and poison the atmosphere for debate even further.

Haidt and Lukianoff point out that the much maligned “millennials” actually aren’t as bad as often made out. It was the generation after them, the iGen or Generation Z, who really made the difference in the campus culture when they started arriving there in 2013 (Haidt and Lukianoff, p. 29). They say that unlike in the past, the current crop of students has a tendency to medicalise the reasons for their protests.

“The new thing appears to be the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering.”” (Haidt and Lukianoff, p. 7).

Based on this they turn their attention to how this generation was brought up differently than the millennials. The main difference is that they were brought up completely connected to the internet, but also, as alluded to above, they were even more over-protected and hothoused for passing exams, etc.

GNM
What did they do to deserve it?

The solution therefore, according to Haidt and Lukianoff, is to get parents to toughen up their kids, for young people to take a year out and work before they enter university (not a bad idea in itself) and for universities to commit to upholding a culture of free speech  and exploration of ideas. (Greg Lukianoff works with FIRE, an organisation that campaigns for freedom of speech and academic freedom on campuses).

All that is good and laudable, but I fear wholly inadequate. Postmodern leftism has crept into every aspect of academia, penetrated its very foundations like dry rot eating up the edifice from bottom to top, and also entered the real world of politics and business.

I do not think it is only about a generational shift (although that is doubtless a factor), rather it is about reaching critical mass.

The book discusses how universities have almost completely lost all conservative voices that until recently provided a counter balance to the dominant leftism on campus (the ratio of left-wing to conservative professors went from 2 to 1 in the 1990s to 5 to 1 in 2011, (Haidt and Lukianoff, p. 110), (a minority and diversity issue no-one seems too bothered about). Professors and academic staff today are either those who were young around 1968 – the baby-booming flower power generation, who are predominantly left-wing and influenced by the New Left’s postmodern and post-structuralists thinkers – or those taught by these. This has led to an ideological paradigm shift with a new dogma, where conversation is all but impossible outside the stifling restraints of political correctness.

The grave problem with this for our society, is that it has the potential to make meaningful exchanges of ideas impossible, something we have seen in the way political debate has deteriorated in the past few years, as former US president Barack Obama pointed out in his recent attack on the “call out culture”.

If language and discourse are seen as power struggles,  utterances become dangerous weapons or ideological shields; not instruments of open exchange and trust, but of fighting and defence, of virtue signalling or denunciation.

 

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Appropriate reaction on hearing an opposing view.

The authors do try to finish on an optimistic note. They quote Steven Pinker from his  book Enlightenment Now, which I review in another place on these pages, where he says that things generally have been gradually getting better over time, despite certain temporary setbacks. Haidt and Lukianoff therefore allow themselves to believe that if the advice they give in their book is taken to heart by parents, kids and educational establishments, the wave can be turned and sanity can reign once more.

I genuinely and intensely hope they are right, but fear that the only solution might be a Henry VIII style dissolution of our current social sciences and humanities departments. 

This book is an important, valuable and highly readable contribution to the current debate, not least because the authors themselves self-identify (to coin a phrase) as left of centre. It is, however, somewhat inadequate in my view and should have had a stronger and more piercing criticism of what I suspect is the root cause of the problems they discuss: the pernicious influence of postmodern leftism in academia and beyond.

Image result for the coddling of the american mind

Tickled Pinker

Question: how long is the average person globally expected to live? Your answer is almost certainly wrong. (It will be revealed further down).

 

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Professor Steven Pinker is content.

Steven Pinker, the professor of psychology, linguist, thinker, author and 1980s glamrock star lookalike, has committed a book on the case for Enlightenment values – Enlightenment Now – The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – (out now in paperback and Kindle). Let’s look at a couple of reasons why I think you may find this book fairly interesting.

 

The right question

Pinker, himself of the American centre-left, satisfyingly kicks both to the left and to the right politically (he’s Canadian originally). The book is neither primarily nor overtly political, but an empirical look at where the world is, through numbers, figures and facts, and an attempt at understanding what brought us here – and consequently what can help move us forward in the same general direction.

A key point Pinker makes is that entropy rules. In short, what that means socially for human life is that unless there is a force (or energy) creating a useful order, a million different disorderly outcomes are more likely. A building left without maintenance will disintegrate, just as heat will dissipate from a cup of coffee left on the table. A key point to learn from this is that there can be no such thing as “social justice”, because there is no natural just social condition. The poor was not once rich and then had their money or property taken away from them. Indeed, the natural state of human kind is one of poverty, illness, cruelty and early death. As Pinker says,

“Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth. Yet even today, when few people believe that accidents or diseases have perpetrators, discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.” (P. 25).

What then are the causes of wealth? Quite contrary to what Luddite left-wingers or protectionist right-wingers might think, global free trade has not made the world more unfair, unequal or worse off.

According to Pinker, statistics inform us that globally we are becoming richer, more equal and happier, and that global starvation and poverty is fast becoming a part of history.

The international and global Gini curves show that despite the anxiety about rising inequality within Western countries, inequality in the world is declining. That’s a circuitous way to state the progress, though: what’s significant about the decline in inequality is that it’s a decline in poverty.” (Page 105)

Capitalism – free trade – has achieved more than the wishful thinking set out in the UN’s Millennium Goals, and five years ahead of schedule, (p 122).

Stat1

By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to that of Western Europe in 1964. And no, it’s not just because the rich are getting even richer (though of course they are, a topic we will examine in the next chapter). Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.” (P. 86)

The claim that we are becoming more unequal is simply not true; or certainly not the whole truth, and it is not supported by a fair reading of all available data.

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The world is getting wealthier, healthier and much smaller!

Combating “progressophobia”

So why do left-wing intellectuals, politicians and protesters counterfactually claim that it is? Pinker attempts to explain this phenomenon:

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress . […] It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class — the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” (P. 39)

Pinker’s criticism of some intellectuals’ “progressophobia”, as he calls it, has something in common with a point Roger Scruton makes in the chapter Extinguishing the Light in the book A Political Philosophy – Arguments for Conservatism:

The most striking feature of the postmodern curriculum however, lies in its explicit rejection of Enlightenment, its disposition to treat reason as a parochial concern of Western culture and to place ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ in inverted commas.” (Scruton, p. 112).

But it is not only the intellectuals that think the world is going to hell in a handcart, whilst things are evidently becoming better all around them. Another reason Pinker points to for the pervasive negative view many people hold of their contemporaneity, is the phenomenon known as availability heuristic – the tendency to think that frequency of learning about events equates to increased probability of such events to happen. Together with the negativity bias of the media (if it bleeds it leads) this adds up to a warped view of reality that does not tally with the actual state of things.

People rank tornadoes (which kill about fifty Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.” (P. 42).

This can have dangerous consequences, whether it is people voting for “populists” (whatever that is) who will cure imagined ills, or young people, as reported from Scandinavia, who are now suffering from anxiety and depression, because of the media’s reporting around the issues of climate change. In the article I link to, it is interesting to note that the campaign slogan “climate crisis” is being used as if it were an objective term of description, no doubt further contributing to the feeling of mindless dread and powerlessness by the readers.

 

Simplistic On Nationalism

The academic John Grey, who incidentally fits the above-mentioned category of modern intellectual, criticises the book for being simplistic about what the Enlightenment was and is, preachy about its liberal values and overly optimistic in a scientistic, humanistic sort of way. “The message of Pinker’s book is that the Enlightenment produced all of the progress of the modern era and none of its crimes“, he says in a review of the book in The New Statesman.

I think Grey is missing the point. What Pinker is trying to set out is how the Enlightenment ideals were different and unique from what had gone before, and how the modern world – in many areas – are a lot better off than it could have been, precisely because of those unique ideas.

Karl Marx, for example, is regarded as standing in the Enlightenment tradition, and called his theory “scientific” – as Scruton points out, many “…Enlightenment thinkers have been tempted by the idea of a planned society […]” (p. 174, A Political Ideology – Newspeak and Europspeak). But the fact that Marx’ particular ideas were so bad that they led to mass murder and destruction on an unparalleled scale of enormity, is not the fault of the Enlightenment ideals per se, any more than a particular malfunctioning car is the fault of the principle of the internal combustion engine.

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They’re all equal now – Communism in practice at a Soviet Gulag.

I agree with Grey that Pinker is perhaps a little simplistic in his analysis of counter-Enlightenment thinking, pinning most of the blame on Nietzsche. Pinker’s offhandish rejection of nationalism and uncritical lionising of international institutions certainly put him at odds with Yoram Hazony, whose book on nationalism I review in another place on this blog. Pinker seems a little too happy to throw all the stuff he likes into the bag labelled “Enlightenment” (including all kinds of international organisations and institutions) whilst all the things he doesn’t like must languish in the darkness outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

A second counter-Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up. An obvious example is nationalism, in which the superorganism is the nation-state, namely an ethnic group with a government.” (Pp. 30-31).

Not that this is merely a right-wing problem:

But not so long ago the left was sympathetic to nationalism when it was fused with Marxist liberation movements. And many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.” (P. 31).

Map
Europe – home of the Enlightenment and the nation state – and the frankfurter!

But the nation state does not necessarily conflict with the Enlightenment project – a supranational imperialist project just as can easily come in conflict with Enlightenment values. As Hazony points out in his book, surely there is enlightened nationalism, which is not about racial or national superiority and attempts at dominating others, but which is about preserving a nation’s unique character and keeping its leaders accountable to the citizens.

Pinker does not discuss this in any depth, just as he fails to discuss how the excessively mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment period fed the emergence of subjectivism, such as that expressed by Kant (mentioned as an Enlightenment thinker) in his famous dictum, das ding an sich – the thing in itself as opposed to how the thing appears to me. This shift in thinking not only fuelled the Romantic movement within art, but also lit the fuse of the extreme subjectivism that exploded in 20th century philosophy, not least in the post-modern thinking that Pinker appears to be criticising.

 

Essential Reading

The miracle of this book is that it achieves to present facts and statistics and yet be a highly readable text – indeed eminently enjoyable. And despite some of the minor shortfalls as mentioned above, the facts and figures require a reaction. They require a reaction because they gainsay some of the doom and gloom we are currently surrounded with from both left and right: a two-headed monster ceaselessly shrieking its latter day apocalyptic warnings for very different reasons, its ears deaf with wilful ignorance. For this reason, and many others, the book is essential reading to anyone who wishes to think rationally about societal issues, whether political or more broadly.

Now, back to the question I started with: what is the average global life expectancy? What was your guess, then? 40? 58? 65? I shall let professor Pinker provide the answer:

How long do you think an average person in the world can be expected to live today? […] The answer for 2015 is 71.4 years.

Happier, wealthier, healthier, more equal, and living longer. Let the Enlightenment-tree be known by its fruit, seems to be the message Steven Pinker wishes to give the reader in this engaging and surprisingly easy to read book.

If you haven’t yet decided on your light summer reading, you could do a lot worse than lifting your spirit with this dive into fact-based optimism.

Except where otherwise stated, the quotes are from Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now . Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Enlightenment Now-cover

 

Although I used a Kindle edition for this article, I bought my paper copy from the local #bookstore in Colchester: Red Lion Books.

 

Can Nationalism Be a Good Thing?

A meandering review of  Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism 

by William Hagerup

 

Hazony
Author, Bible scholar, philosopher, father of nine(!) Yoram Hazony (how does he find the time?)

For years I used to cleave to the simplistic formula that patriotism is good, nationalism is bad.

Growing up in Norway, with the history of German occupation within living memory, it was thought that patriotism is the love of your own country, whereas nationalism is the belief that your own country is better than others. The German occupation was thus seen as a manifestation of rampant nationalism on steroids; what happens when simple patriotism is allowed to become aggressive nationalism, unchecked by the sort of international cooperation represented by the birth of the UN in 1945 and the European Coal and Steel Community in 1956.

This narrative meant that most Norwegians grew up with a dichotomy that seemed perfectly reasonable: love of your own country and its independence on the one hand (as seen in the way our Constitution Day is celebrated every year on the 17th May), and a commitment to international organisations such the WTO, the WHO, the UN and NATO, to maintain a safe world for small nations such as ours to exist and thrive, on the other.

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The Norwegian National Day – Constitution Day. Citizen’s processions marches disorderly but ˌgood-naturedly through town centres. Children from local schools make up most of the sauntering marchers.

Things I have read recently have made me think again about the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism”, and what these signifiers, as Saussure called words, actually signify. Most recently the book The Virtue of Nationalism by the Israeli philosopher and Bible scholar (and father of nine!) Yoram Hazony.

Hazony’s strongest line of argument in this book, at least in terms of what I found convincing, is the contrasting of nationalism, not to internationalism, but to imperialism. What nationalism is not, Hazony says, is the belief that your nation is better than everybody else’s and has a right to trample on other nation’s rights. Instead, nationalism is a world order where nation states are left in peace to order their own affairs, unmolested by empires or regimes that transgress national boundaries.

So, what about National Socialism and the nationalistic currents powering various fascist ideologies past and present? Hazony does not discuss this in quite the depth the topic in my view deserves, but he does offer a viable explanation of why the German Third Reich was not so much about nationalism in the sense he uses the term, but about an attempt at empire building that had the domination of other peoples in a German-controlled empire as its end game. It is therefore, Hazony argues, wrong to call National Socialism nationalistic in the proper sense of the term – just like left-wingers claim it is wrong to call it “socialist” in the proper sense of that term. It is truer to think of it as a continuation of past imperialist ambitions.

For the sake of this universal doctrine, armies were sent out into the world to swallow one nation after another, with the aim of overturning the established order of life in every nation conquered. This was the case in the Thirty Years War […] It was true as well of the Napoleonic Wars […] And it was no less true of the Second World War, in which a German-Nazi Empire aimed at establishing a new order according to its own perverse theory of how mankind’s salvation was to be brought about.

If anything, National Socialism was anti-nationalistic. In this he seems to be in agreement with Hannah Arendt, who, in her seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism, writes,

The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation state, and they repeated time and again that their ‘movement’, international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory.

Hazony’s argument is that all forms of imperialism, including international federalism, become authoritarian because of the need to impose one central will. And perhaps surprisingly for a conservative thinker, he also includes USA’s international policeman tendencies in this criticism.

Hazony’s presentation of Nationalism as a potentially sound basis for a world order as opposed to the dangers of overreaching imperial projects, is convincing and worth reviving in a current debate where the usage of the expression “white nationalism” to signify racism, continues to tarnish the term “nationalism” and make it more difficult to embrace by the mainstream.

The book has surprisingly little to say about Brexit and Trump and all that, which is perhaps just as well – too much hot air is directed at that double-headed juggernaut at the moment. For a better treatment of those issues I recommend Roger Scruton’s “Where We Are”, reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Where the book has its most serious weakness in my view, is when Hazony deals with liberalism and his attempts at uncovering the origins of nation states – not once pausing to consider the dangers of the so-called Generation Identity (Discussed in the blog post mentioned above).

He devotes a chapter to criticism of John Locke (1632–1704) and his iconic work The Second Treatise of Government from 1667, which laid out the basic principles that all modern democracies follow, and which was so crucial to the constitution of the USA that Thomas Jefferson was accused of having copied the Declaration of Independence from it.

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John Locke, not a vegan.

A central principle for Locke is that the Commonwealth (a 17th century word for the state), should be limited in its scope and power. In order to set those limits one must agree on the state’s purpose. Locke argues that if in a stateless state of nature we are totally free, why would we want to give up that freedom? Because, he says, it is so unsafe that it is better to give up some absolute liberty to protect our “lives, liberties and estates” which Locke together calls property.

He says in chapter IX, “So the great and chief purpose of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.” The important concept that Locke promoted was that of “consent”: we give up some of our absolute liberty (such as the right to revenge ourselves, respecting instead the judgement of an impartial judge) and in return the Commonwealth secures our individual liberty under the guiding principle that the purpose of government is the protection of the individual’s natural right to life, liberty and property.

Hazony writes, “In speaking of “consent”, Locke means that the individual becomes a member of a human collective only because he has agreed to it, and has obligations toward such collectives only if he has accepted them.

He goes on to say that one does not choose to be born into certain families or circumstances and as such does not give consent to the various ties that such relationships entail.

This is of course true, but Hazony misses the point by a country mile. Locke is attempting to explain how a state – the organisation with the monopoly to use force against, including killing, its citizens – gets its legitimate authority. Locke says it is not from God who authorised Adam and who then passed it down the paternal line to the present King or ruler (which was seriously the argument put forward by Robert Filmer in Patriarcha, and refuted by Locke in his First Treatise of Government), but rather it comes from below, from the people, who give their consent for the reasons stated above. And although it is true that we do not choose the society we are born into, Locke deals with this argument too in chapter VIII:

“But no-one can by any compact whatever bind his children or posterity; for when his son becomes an adult he is altogether as free as the father, so an act of the father can no more give away the liberty of the son than it can give away anyone else‘s liberty.” 

Locke then explains that as each person comes into his majority, he gives – usually tacitly and implicitly – his consent by accepting the rules of society, such as the terms of an inheritance or similar. Locke’s main point as I see it, was not so much to say that this is how a state is created (although this is discussed as well), but to say this is how a state is justified.

This point is important because Hazony criticises what he claims is Locke’s views that the nation state comes about by consent; by individuals entering in a compact and agreeing what has later been known as a social contract. He contrasts this view to his own: the emergence of a nation state as an institution happens when the tribes and clans (who in turn consist of families) join together in a larger unity that ends the anarchic wars between these competing clans and tribes, yet remaining small enough to retain “[…] ties of mutual loyalty that have been established among members of a nation […]”.

He compares the “liberal” principle of consent to that of business partners and investors in a company. A nation, on the other hand, is more like a family, he says: you do not choose your family, and the obligations placed upon you do not go away as easily as those of a business partner selling up his shares or quitting a company for a better offer.

George Orwell made a similar comparison in England Your England: “A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

Hazony claims that the danger of Lockean liberalism’s contractual view of the relationship between citizen and government, is that it can give legitimacy to global, imperial forms of governance. Such an empire does not need to be like a family, as long as it fulfills its contract to protect life, liberty and property.

The problem with this argument is of course that, if an empire indeed did protect life, liberty and property, and so secured our individual freedom against nanny-statism or other abuses of power, that empire would not be such a dreadful thing at all.

But empires are never born out of a genuinely liberal approach: the closest thing to what some may call a liberal empire at the moment, the EU, is in many ways a statist, centralising, even protectionist organisation with top-heavy bureaucratic regulations, very little true democratic accountability and little regard for the freedom of the individual (banning vacuum cleaners of a certain wattage, imposing metric measurements on small business owners, imposing GDPR without proper public debate, protecting farmers against the free market, erecting toll barriers against cheaper imports from outside the EU, destroying employment in the PIGS-countries by undemocratically centralising money policy; for an interesting book on this subject, see here). Yet where the EU does give us genuine liberty: the ability to travel for work, free trade, no internal toll barriers, a more liberal alcohol policy in my native Norway & cetera, it is a wonderful thing that I certainly support.

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A queue of unemployed in Greece. Some EU-countries have seen nearly 50% youth unemployment. Unfortunately, bureaucrats were not among the unemployed.

But I suspect there is another motivation behind Hazony’s criticism of liberalism and of his rejection of the protection of life and liberty as a foundation of a consensual nation state.

As he says in the introduction, “Each of us in fact wants and needs something else in addition, which I suggest we call collective self-determination: the freedom of the family, tribe, or nation.” The use of “tribe” here is significant. Scruton, in the above mentioned book, states “It is in contrast with the tribal and religious forms of membership that the nation should be understood.” (Where We Are, p. 61).

Hazony on the other hand seems to see the nation state chiefly as a collection of tribes. “By nation I mean a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions […]”.

He further underlines this view by drawing on his knowledge of Jewish scriptures with references to the Tribes of Israel and various quotes from these scriptures.

Not that these are not interesting to some extent. He makes an intriguing point that the imperial mindset is related to Roman Catholicism and the nationalist mindset is related to Protestantism. “For more than a thousand years, Christianity thus aligned itself […] with […] the aspiration of establishing a universal empire of peace and prosperity.

Against this he puts the nations, such as France, the Netherlands, England and Sweden, who resisted the universal rule of a Holy Empire, and says that the 30 years war was really about nationalism versus imperialism. “It was in the Thirty Years’ War that the concept of a universal Christian empire, which had held sway over the West’s political imagination for thirteen centuries, was decisively defeated.” 

But the frequent references to biblical scriptures become a little distracting, or possibly revealing: is the virulent opposition to liberalism actually motivated by the wish for the nation state to be able to enforce on the citizenry religious laws or lifestyle choices?

He claims that under the “Protestant construction” one of the two principles of political life is “The Moral Minimum Required for Legitimate Government“. This includes “public recognition of the one God–roughly, the biblical Ten Precepts given at Sinai […] regarded as a natural law that could be recognized by all men.”As a claim that this was historically a view held, that may be reasonable enough. But later he talks about uncertainty created in the post WWII world due to the “…progressive abandonment of the view that family, sabbath, and public recognition of God are institutions upheld by legitimate government and minimum requirements of a just society (i.e. the first principle).

Now, I do not entirely disagree with him that a nation needs a degree of cohesiveness to work. We need to share some values, and there can be no doubt that a common language, literary history, even religious traditions, as well as a history of struggles and triumphs do help. But where Scruton is careful to point out the difference between the tribe and the nation, “The first-person plural of nationhood, unlike those of tribe or religion, is intrinsically tolerant of difference” (p. 69, Where We Are), Hazony seems to think the nation is really only important as a place to uphold and enforce the traditions and religious practices of the various tribes within that nation state: When the tribes of a nation unite to establish a nation state, they bring to this state the familiar and distinctive character of the nation, its language, laws and religious traditions […]”.

He then goes on to talk about national freedom, and after referencing the legend of the Hebrews’ escape from bondage in Egypt via the Red Sea, he goes on to say, Today, however, because nearly all political thought focuses on the freedom of the individual, the very idea of national freedom has come to seem doubtful.

Where did Hazony get the impression that the freedom of the individual is particularly important today? Perhaps in the fact that our societies today are more licentious and liberal in matters of lifestyle choices and religious practices? This is of course not a good thing for someone who is religious and socially conservative. And I do think this is where I and Mr. Hazony will have to part company.

If he wants to maintain the “freedom of the nation” in order for the government to impose laws to ban Sunday trading or limit alcohol sales or other religiously motivated lifestyle-laws (in addition to the neo-puritanical bans on smoking in pubs or drug-use we already have), then I will oppose such national freedom. This is where I profoundly believe we need Locke to guide us in terms of what is the point and purpose of government: namely to protect our liberty, not to take it away from us in the interest of “public health” or any other collectivist notion.

In fairness, I should also point out that Hazony does express some admiration for the traditions of liberty in England and America. As he says,

[…] we see that the freedoms of the individual guaranteed in England and America are not something that the individual simply has “by nature”, but are, on the contrary, the result of an intricate machinery developed through many centuries of trial and error.”

I do agree with this point, but then again, Edmund Burke already made it 230 years ago. It is right to balance theoretical liberalism with the more practical and pragmatic approach of conservatism, but that does not take away the value of the sort of ideas Locke put forward, unless you are afraid what securing individual liberty means for your desire to impose religious laws.

A serious lack in the book is Hazony’s failure to deal with the phenomenon of Generation Identity. This movement says many things that on the surface seems plausible enough, but that, when you investigate it further, appears to be collectivist, tribal identity politics, only from a quasi right-wing perspective. On their website they state among many other things, “We believe in true diversity in which all peoples have a right to preserve and promote their group identity in their homelands.” 

generation_identitaire_photo_credit_matthieu_alexandreafpgetty_images
You are all individuals! (They beg to differ).

So what they believe in is the rights of “peoples” and “group identity”, not in the rights of the people or individual people, but peoples. To me that is deeply problematic, and it can seem that some of Hazony’s arguments about the “freedom of the nation” would support this line of thinking. That to me would be worrying, and I think Hazony should have at least mentioned this phenomenon in his book and explained his take on it.

On balance the book is certainly worth a read. It is well-written, often in the style of an essay, although perhaps not as well-argued as it could have been. The points Hazony raises are nevertheless important ones for the time we live in, and a useful counterweight to the lazy assumptions that nationalism is always bad and internationalism is always good.

Open and good-natured cooperation between safe and strong independent nations, where the rights of the individual are upheld, is perhaps an ideal worth pursuing. This book is not the final word in the striving towards that, but it is certainly a contribution.

I bought my copy at Red Lion Bookstore, Colchester’s independent bookstore.

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The Joys of the Dystopian Novel

PUshwagner
Artwork by Norwegian artist Pushwagner – inspired by Brave New World?

“Utopia” is a word derived from the ancient Greek οὐ meaning “not” + τόπος meaning “place”. A non-place (or perhaps neverland?). Its antonym is “dystopia”, a word first used (at least according to the OED) by John Stuart Mill in Parliament in 1868. Hansard quotes him as saying, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”

The “caco” there is the Greek “kakos”, same as in “cacophony”, meaning “bad” or “evil”. “Cacotopian” somehow didn’t catch on, but dystopian did (the “dys-“there, by the way, meaning “bad”, “abnormal” – also from Greek, who would’ve guessed?).

Although many of the texts we call Utopian have elements in them that are problematic, not to say downright sinister (see the story of El Dorado in Candide as a wonderful example), the term dystopian later became the label for those literary stories that unashamedly presented a singularly negative, bad, evil scenario, most often at some point in the distant future, when those you most disagree with have taken over the running of the show.

I want to highlight three such delights of negativity, two of which you may not have read, perhaps not even heard of (you could test your friends at dinner parties to see who are the most literary of them, by asking who have read which of these).

  1. Brave New World – this you have heard of, and perhaps even read. (At least you started it at university). George Orwell was inspired by it when writing his dystopian novel, 1984.
  2. Anthem – you may or may not have heard of it (if you were born in, or  have ever lived the USA you are 300% more likely to), but even if you have, you have probably not read it.
  3. We – I would wager my second gin and tonic that you have not heard of it, nor read it, yet this story is said to have inspired the two mentioned above (it definitely also inspired Orwell).

Quite apart from the fact that I happen to have read them and feel pretty smug about it, there are some interesting commonalities to these works of literature:

Firstly, they are all rather short novels. More like novellas, or long short stories. So the format is similar.

Secondly they have a male protagonist who, for some reason or other, do not quite fit in to the society of the future.

Thirdly, they all raise the issue of sex, some more than others, and one more obsessively than the other two.

Fourthly, two are similar in their presentation of the technology of the future, and offer little hope of redemption, one presents a radically different view of technology, and offers some redemption.

(I will attempt not to reveal the plot in the following).

aldous-huxley
Aldous Huxley – like yours truly, he also favoured round glasses.

Brave New World is, as you know, (as EVERYBODY knows),  written by Aldous Huxley, the upper-class English writer, credited with inspiring the band name The Doors, by his later novel The Doors of Consciousness (all about taking drugs, apparently, and very popular with hippies). Brave New World was written in 1932, and I believe only 1984 is referred to more in political and popular debates, and very often by people who have read neither.

 

 

There are several similarities between Brave New World and We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the earliest of the three works, written in 1921: both are set in a highly technologically advanced society of the future, a society that has arisen after some cataclysmic global conflict. The ruling regime in both is highly collectivist, they view the past (our present times) as uncivilised, almost barbaric, not least because people were in a state of very irrational freedom (all freedom is irrational).

Sex is very much a concern of the state; in Brave New World the state wants people

Kustodiev_Zamyatin
Yevgeny Zamyatin in a relaxed moment

to have it all the time with everyone, as a means to induce pleasure and happiness (the guiding principle of the World State), whilst in We people are assigned to one another, but not on an exclusive basis, so a girl may have several males swarming about her. In We “mathematically faultless happiness” as they put it, is also the stated goal of the regime. In both stories there are geographical areas outside of civilised control, and in some of these there are uncivilised people, and carefully managed places one can visit to see how backwards people used to be before the new civilisation dawned. The geographical areas are also symbolic of the innermost areas of the individual that we sense through the protagonists the state cannot reach, despite all its brainwashing, conditioning and outside control.

Anthem, by Ayn Rand, is the odd one out in certain respects. Written in 1937, it also describes a totalitarian collectivist future, but one where technology has evaporated from the knowledge of man; not only has society stood still, it has regressed to a medieval state, having lost even the ability to produce electricity. One of the ways the regime in Anthem holds the populace suppressed, is by having eradicated the personal first person pronoun.

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand – “knows nothing about socialism”

Where in We and Brave New World the rulers keep individuals in their places by happiness, in Anthem there are no individuals to keep happy, because “I” do not exist. This is both symbolic as well as a profoundly philosophical point. If the word describing a concept does not exist, does the concept exist? I will not give away the plot, but I think it can be mentioned that the greater sense of hope offered by this story, does involve the rediscovery of the first person personal pronoun. As a linguist, I find the critical importance of a grammatical entity very satisfying.

In Anthem as in the other two, relationships are highly regulated. In Anthem sex is strictly for procreation, and as in We and Brave New World, the discovery of exclusive feelings of love for one other person stirs the protagonist’s latent sense of individual identity.

We was banned by the Soviet state (giving us an example of the fact that communism was not corrupted by Stalin, but was utterly corrupt and oppressive from day one). As in Brave New World, the evils of the regime stems precisely from its desire to make people happy – in a version of the Kantian morality of intentions, the virtuous intent is what gives these futuristic governments the right to do whatever it takes to achieve the good goals they have, and that any means are justified by their end. It reminds me of the quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  One can also with a shudder recall video footage of left-wing students at universities, who these days seem to have such a confidence in the virtue of their own stances, that they think it is fine to shout down and even physically intimidate those who hold different views.

In Anthem the ruling regime appears to have forgotten what good intentions there once may have been. Fear is now the ruling principle, exemplifying how the inherent paranoia of a totalitarian state reaches a natural and inevitable suffocating stage, just like the Soviet Union did under Stalin. The regime in Anthem is clinging to what they know, clinging to their ignorance, their power and their prejudices. I find this a more compelling vision of the future than the other two. Zamyatin and Huxley seem to both find knowledge and science scary, they present knowledge and rationality as the enemies of mankind. Rand presents the opposite perspective: it is ignorance that is dangerous, science and knowledge are our liberators, not our captors. Unlike the other two, she did not believe that a totalitarian society could develop very far technologically. Innovation would suffer if freedom was stifled. Again I think history supports her supposition. The Soviet Union continuously lagged behind the West in technological development, and today we see that the remaining Communist regimes of the world, such as North Korea and Cuba, are severely under-developed compared to the freer and more capitalist countries of the world.

One reason I believe Huxley’s work became the best known, and more widely read of the three, is that it is the only one not written by someone with first hand experience of socialist oppression. Huxley was born into a comfortable and academic English family, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. His novel speaks to us from a point of view of conservative romanticism, with its deep scepticism of vulgar modernity, mass-production and the consumer society. This is a view we all agree with, whether we want to or not, whether we know it or not. We are brainwashed – just like the mass-produced citizens of the Brave New World – into pathological self hatred of the symptoms of the capitalist disease: too much food, too much time, too much entertainment, too much fun. The novel mines this self-hatred, and I believe the recognition of it gives us the same sense of catharsis a Catholic may feel when going to confession. The depiction of sex in the novel is, it might be added, guiltily Catholic. The novel was in part inspired by what he saw as the horrors of Henry Ford’s mass production – also gloriously satirised by Charles Chaplin in Modern Times. The new God that is worshipped in Brave New World is called “the Great Ford”, and time is reckoned from the birth of Henry Ford. Huxley was not alone in finding mass entertainment tasteless and base. Many of the Marxist intellectuals who in the 1930s had fled European National Socialism, happily bit the hand that generously fed them, by attacking relentlessly what they saw as the opium of the American masses: popular films, shows and television programmes. Huxley was no Marxist – he was too intelligent, I guess – but his internalised hatred for Western values did take him down the route of Eastern inspired mysticism.

modern-times-01-still_756_426_81_s
Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times – criticising Fordism and Taylorism from the inside

As with We, Anthem was also attempted silenced, not by the government, but by publishers in the US with strong pro-Soviet sympathies. Apparently one even suggested Ayn Rand didn’t understand socialism very well. Similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin she had only grown up in Russia and lived through the violent civil war and power grab by the Communists (she was able to flee the country in 1926, Zamyatin managed it in 1931), so it is very likely she had no clue, compared to those who had grown up in the West. The story was eventually published in the UK

The themes that are treated so masterly in all three novels follow many of the same fault-lines we see in current debates: the discussions around the application of science, such as Artificial Intelligence, DNA-technology and information gathering, in the (feebly) ongoing debate about whether the state should be involved in our well-being, in the changing mores around sexuality and relationships, in the importance of the individual as an individual, in opposition to the needs and goals of “society”, if that even exists.

But the books do not need to, nor perhaps should they, be read as debating points. They are great stories, engaging and intelligent and worth to either discover (or re-discover) on Kindle (if, like me, you’re lazy) or at a second hand bookshop near you.

Soldiers
Chinese soldiers expressing their entirely individualistic preference for blue dresses.

Masking the real issue – we do not need enforced face masks now

My local newspaper published a rather brutally edited version, so for those who are interested in the issue of whether the government should enforce the use of face coverings in shops, here is the original text:


 

Column: 'Enforcing face masks is draconian and disproportionate' Main picture PA.

The latest official figures estimate that 0.04% of the population are carrying the coronavirus. That means nationally you need to meet 2,300 people before you meet one with the virus. But in Colchester, as the Gazette reported a few days ago, the infection rate is 1 per 100,000. I know it can get busy at the Tollgate Sainsburys, but not that busy.

And even if you did manage the feat of meeting this one person carrying the virus, it is far from certain you would catch the virus. And if you did? Well, Dr. David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University estimated the mortality of Covid at the start of the outbreak, and his figures have been borne out: up to the age of 49 average mortality risk is 0.14% and up to age 59 it is 0.6%. As a motorcyclist the mortality rate is 1.7%.

The current average infection rate is 0.7-0.9 and at the start of the month the total number of registered deaths were 0.5% below the five year average.

In light of this, it is quite absurd to introduce a law forcing people to cover their faces in shops all over the country, like the one that came into force this Friday 24th July. Why?

 

  1. Risk management: Protecting yourself and others whilst out and about is about managing the risk level. As this is already so low, especially in Colchester, what difference will it make now to cover your face? At the height of the pandemic, perhaps it would have made a difference in some parts of the country, but now? Sweet F.A.

 

  1. Arbitrary:You pop into your local grocer for a pint of milk, you have to cover your face, although you’re in and out of there in five minutes flat. Then you go and sit down at the pub with several other people indoors for a couple of hours. No covering required. Same in schools and offices. In most shops it is not difficult to keep six feet away from people, not least as crowd control is practised these days anyway. You are in shops for a short period of time, and they tend to have fairly good ventilation. In addition, the people who are in shops for longer periods, the staff, are not required to wear face coverings, although they are shielded behind plastic screens (to make sure you cannot hear what they are saying). The law is arbitrary and illogical

 

  1. Efficacy: The government guidelines do not require you to wear a medical grade mask. It is quite enough to tie a bandana or old hankie around your nose and mouth, like a highwayman (I seem to remember Boris Johnson had something to say about people looking like bank robbers a little while back). These flimsy pieces of fabric have been likened to wearing a chain link to stop a hail of bullets. The virus apparently hovers with the mist from our breathing in the air for a while. Unless you wear a medical grade mask you will not stop these microbes from intermixing with your breath. So you might as well wear a wreath of garlic (at least that will help with social distancing).

 

  1. How long? If you introduce masks now that the infection level and R-number are so low, when on earth do you lift this requirement? The government is backing itself into a very tight corner: the corner where depriving citizens of their liberties is the new normal, rather than a short-term emergency measure.

 

  1. The message:If the government told us to wear lucky heathers, the same purpose would have been fulfilled as this law seeks to fulfil: make people feel it is safe to go shopping so that they will spend, spend, spend, and repair the damage from the government’s overly strict and far too long lasting lock-down. But I fear the effect may be the opposite: some people (like myself) will resent being forced to wear a mask, and so will stay away from local shops in Colchester and all over the county, and instead order online. For others, seeing people walk around with masks, as if we’re all extras in an apocalyptic horror film, will induce fear. They will think, ‘well, if we have to wear masks in public, it must be bad’. Just as local shops need our support, and just as it is safe to go to them, this will make many people stay away.

The role of government is to protect our liberties. To do this we accept that the state has the monopoly on the use of violence. We accept that this fearsome power must sometimes be used to limit our absolute liberty in the public interest. We accepted the lock-down, although it was a monstrous imposition on our freedoms, as the Prime Minister admitted, because it was an effective way to stop the spread. It worked, the virus is under control. To use the power of the state now to force people to wear a flimsy face covering on pain of a £100 fine, can simply not be justified – it is a draconian and disproportionate measure.

Think also of the pressure it puts on staff – I wouldn’t want to challenge a six foot builder with tattoos not wearing a mask! Sainsburys has already declared that their staff will be told not to challenge non-wearers; they will assume they have a good reason for not doing so. The police have said they can’t be running around arresting non-wearers. So that gives us point no. 6: it is unenforceable. Laws that are unenforceable contribute to erode people’s respect for The Law in general.

I am not a rebel. If I absolutely have to go to the shops in the next few weeks, I will wear a face covering. I have a pair of old underpants customized for the purpose.

The Green Camper Van

By W. Hagerup

Camper van
‘It’s a pity we can’t live like this permanently,’ Tom had said.

‘We can if we really want to,’ Mary had replied.

And by this exchange the notion of a wish had planted the seed of an idea that grew to
a seedling of firm intent and eventually developed into the white barley grass of
action.

Tom had been promoted sooner than he had expected in his job in local government, and had used some of the unexpected extra earnings on a Volkswagen camper van
that he discovered he had always wanted to have. Then he had spent time and money
doing it up: it had been fitted with a gas cooking unit as well as seating and a table
that could be turned into a bed, whilst Mary had followed an online instruction video
and made curtains for the windows. The entire vehicle had been resprayed in a light
green colour and Tom, who had an artistic bent, had hand painted some flowers on the
front and sides, to complete the flower-power theme of the van.

It was coming up to the end of the two weeks in which they had traversed the
southern part of Britain, going from one camp site to the other, as well as occasionally
staying the night at some pretty spot that was not, strictly speaking, regulated for this
purpose. Those were perhaps the best nights. The night when the question that opened
this tale had been posed was indeed such a night. They had been driving along a
country lane, when a river came into view running alongside the lane. Then they
spotted a place next to a cluster of trees where they could stop, and take their chances.

And as they sat on their picnic chairs, sharing a bottle of Pinot Grigio and listening to
the river steadily getting on with it, Tom had made the remark. It was not quite
seriously meant, as he didn’t really for a moment think it was a realistic prospect. After all, they had only the previous year finally been able to buy a flat. It was
difficult to get on the housing ladder these days, and they had planned to pay it down
for five years and then try to up-scale, perhaps in time for any family increase. But
Mary was one of these people who, having no creativity herself, liked it in other
people. It was one of the reasons she fell in love with Tom. He painted, he wrote
poetry, he could play the guitar and sing tolerably well. All things that for her lay far
beyond the attainable. She had been good in maths, and all her school work had
always been just right and very neat. She had become an accountant, and wanted to
progress to auditor. Tom had ended up going into local government simply because a
position was advertised that he reckoned he could do, and with his Master degree in
Media and Art studies, he was formally qualified. The job suited him with its regular
hours and benefits-he had enough spare time to pursue some of his creative hobbies -and when a manager resigned to move to Italy, he was unexpectedly promoted. They were both appreciably happy with how it had worked out, and slightly nocent
about it too. From the uncertainty they both had felt in their twenties, their thirties had
been a time of really getting settled. Perhaps a little too settled. Tom didn’t paint any
more. He wrote no poetry, and he hadn’t tuned up his guitar for months.

‘Yeah, but…well yes, if we really want to, but I mean, we have jobs and a flat to pay
down on and…’, he took another sip of the pale wine. ‘Look, I can work anywhere. All I need is access to the accounts to work on, but it doesn’t really matter where I sit. We have several people working from home, and I am sure I could get a similar arrangement. If we let the flat it will pay for itself, and by living frugally one income is all we need as a nomadic couple.’
‘One income?’ Tom realised he would have to give up his job to go travelling in the
camper van. ‘Yes, but also, you could sell your paintings. You should do something more with your creative side. You are not getting to use it these days, are you?’ No, he had to admit he had not nurtured his creative side of late.

Mary said he could paint various scenery as they travelled along and sell them in the towns and cities they travelled through. The thought began to appeal more and more to Tom.

‘Shall we seriously look into the possibility of doing it?’ he looked at her with that
eager glint that she was so fond of.

‘Yes,’ she said, not wanting to extinguish it.

By spring of the following year Tom had resigned and Mary had managed to make
arrangements to be a remote worker. They had found a good tenant for the flat who
wanted to rent it on an annual basis. He was a freshly divorced man with a steady job. His ex-wife had taken over the house and he was too old for a mortgage, so would
be a long term renter. It was all beginning to come together and they were both very
excited. The final few nights before their new life started in earnest they spent at Tom’s
parents. The divorcee had moved into the flat, but they still had one or two things to
arrange before they could set off on the road. Tom’s father was very sceptical to the
whole idea.

‘You’re supposed to be lookin’ after her, not swanning around paintin’ whilst she’s
makin’ the money.’

The first property he had owned, the first property his family had ever owned, was the
council house he was able to buy when Thatcher gave tenants the right to buy.
‘It’s different times now, Clive. The woman can take care of the man if she wants to,’ said his wife. She felt a certain female pride that Mary would become the main breadwinner, and she also felt glad that her sensitive, creative son would be able to use his creative
talents. She had certain worries, but at least they hadn’t sold the flat, as she told her
husband. This, he also felt, was at least a good sign that they hadn’t completely lost
their marbles.

The evening before they were to set off they met up with friends and had a few drinks
to mark the occasion. Some of the friends had given her cards with congratulations on
your new home, but as Mary pointed out several times, they were not actually moving
anywhere else, they were just going to be on the road, but come back often.

Finally the first day arrived. ‘We’re not going that far,’ Mary said, reassuring herself as much as those listening. ‘Not travelling abroad or anything. Just within this country.’ Admonitions of safe driving were offered, and then the green flowery Volkswagen
camper van set off down the road.

The first few weeks were great fun. Mary had set up a Facebook page that she initially
wanted to call Our Gypsy Life, but then thought that might be an offensive term to
some. Then she wanted to call it Our Life as Travellers, but then thought that the
travellers’ community might think that was cultural appropriation, so in the end she
ended up calling it The Green Camper Van. On the page she uploaded pictures of
breakfast in the sunrise, of Tom painting in a landscape of outstanding natural beauty
and of herself doing her accounting work sitting at the table in the back of the camper
van. All her friends, and quite a few besides, followed the page. Even a journalist
from the local newspaper had seen it and did a big piece on them in the Saturday
edition, which made Tom’s father embarrassed and his mother proud. The online
following grew even more.

The first few months were fine. As summer turned to autumn they abandoned the plan
to tour the northern part of the country. Can do that next summer, they reasoned. Heading south, like migratory birds, they found that breakfast-and most other meals -had to be taken inside the camper van. It was more difficult for Tom to do any
painting, as there wasn’t really space inside the van, and using oils was out of the
question due to the smell. He was also slightly annoyed at having to rise early. Mary
had to get on and do her eight hours of accounting every day, which meant she needed
the table, and that in turn meant they had to break up the bed, so he could not sleep.

‘What was the point,’ he silently questioned, ‘of this freewheelin’ lifestyle, if I have
to rise at seven o’clock every day?’ On some days, if they had camped close to a town, Mary would go and sit in the public library and do her work there, to allow Tom to continue sleeping. He was, after all, the artist, and needed to be given some space to breath, she reasoned.

Her Facebook posts became fewer and farther between, although when, one day in four, the weather permitted them to eat their supper under the sky, this was shared. Of
course, a bad weather day could also be an occasion for an update: the two of them
snuggled under woolly blankets as torrential rain pours down outside, made for a very
pretty post, where the problem of heating the camper van was not mentioned.

The pictures she posted received lots of “likes” and were re-posted by numerous “friends”. There were comments underneath her posts. One said, ‘you are soo lucky, living the dream life I so wish I could do the same but bf not willing to try sad face’. Another was more philosophical, ‘You challenge the Western patriarchal structure of society, by Mary’s being the breadwinner, by rejecting having a fixed address, by not tying yourself to a local community. Without the tight nit structure of a traveller’s
community around you, you have cast adrift by severing the ties that bind, and in so
doing put two fingers up to the established order. Considering writing my sociology
thesis on you guys. Well done!’. Reading this last one made Mary slightly depressed. She hadn’t wanted to ‘cast adrift’ or ‘sever ties’ nor challenge anybody’s notion of society, patriarchal or otherwise. They had just wanted to perpetuate that feeling of relaxed freedom they had so enjoyed on their holiday. And isn’t that what life is all about? Feeling happy? Aren’t we supposed to constantly feel good about our life and about ourselves? Not literally always, of course. But most of the time. That is the goal, yes? No? Mary wasn’t sure any more.

She was looking at her friends’ Facebook posts. Pictures of ever smiling people. Sitting around tables at restaurants or at home. Glasses of wine, food, selfies where the persons obscured most of the objects of interest in the background, pets doing silly things, walks in the countryside; always feeling happy. She longed to be back in the flat. To go to the office in the morning, grabbing a coffee at the little kiosk by the train station, having a flick through the free newspaper. All those miserable faces that she had been so happy to escape in the first weeks of their turning nomadic. She missed them. Missed the shared miserability. Missed the relief of Fridays, as everybody seemed slightly more relaxed and some practised “dress down Friday”. She missed her co-workers in the office, even missed the office, with its nondescript “art” on the walls, sad green plants in corners and the photocopier that always played up.

They would be going to her parents for Christmas. She was considering what to
answer the inevitable questions on how things were going.

Tom had thoroughly enjoyed not having to go to work. Despite Facebook posts to the
contrary, Tom had hated his job. He hadn’t disliked his previous job too much, but
after the promotion he disliked going to the open plan office in the morning. He had
called in sick quite often without there being anything particularly the matter with him. Just couldn’t face another day of meetings, of memos, of long emails that were really
about covering one’s back, of trying to read the Guardian and having the right
opinions. He certainly didn’t want to go back to all that. Yet, this camper van life had
not quite been what he had expected either. Firstly, most mornings he had to get up
when Mary rose. Secondly, with the weather turning autumnal and then wintry, there
was little opportunity to do much painting out of doors, and inside was impossible too. He had to use acrylic paint if he was to get anything done at all, and that he felt was a
bit hobbyish. Not like proper artists, who used oil. He had never mastered water
colours, but he did consider trying to learn it properly. He tried to do some writing, poems on the road, the countryside, on being free and footloose. He had quite a few
started poems, but none quite finished. It was coming up to Christmas and they were
going to Mary’s parents. What would they think of him? He feared they might think
he was taking advantage. Mary did look a bit drawn and not quite as…polished, as
she had used to. She was always so smart and well presented. Now, her hair had not
seen the inside of a salon since before their adventure started, and her clothes were all
a bit crumpled, she didn’t really apply much make up, if any at all. She did put some
on for pictures for the Facebook page, but that was about it. That reminded him: he
had to get at least one painting finished to upload on the Facebook page. And a poem. He wondered if Mary was really happy about this life they had chosen. He knew he
wasn’t quite satisfied at the moment, but that it was better than local government. He
dreaded going back. Couldn’t do it.

It was very difficult to return to life in the camper van after Christmas at Mary’s
parents’ house. There they had enjoyed the huge log fire, seemingly burning at all
hours, a steady supply of food and drinks and warmth, warmth, warmth. Yet they both
put on a brave face when the week was over and said how they longed to get back on
the open road. ‘We’re quite the travellers now’, Mary had said, and posted on the
Facebook page how, despite having had a wonderful time with the family over
Christmas, they now longed to travel again.

They decided to buy an awning that could be attached to the camper van, and found a
camp site close to a market town in the south of England, where they could stay for
the rest of the cold season. Here they could connect to the camp site’s mains, there
were proper showers and even an inside swimming pool, for the use of the guests. The
days were quite pleasant again. Mary would rise first, go into the awning and put on
the heater, and after a little while she could start her work. Then, when Tom
eventually woke he would come and have his coffee, Mary would go and sit inside the
camper van itself, whilst Tom could paint in the awning. The awning made it almost
like a little house; a part fabric cottage. They went for walks in the area, the town was
charming, and it was almost as if they lived there permanently. Only less comfortable.

‘Do you wish to go back to how it was?’ Tom asked one evening, as they sat in the
awning and looked out on a dark, wet camp site.

‘Yes,’ Mary had replied before she had time to consider her response. ‘

Yes,’ Tom said. ‘It’s coming up to a year, we need to give notice to our tenant soon
if we want to move back in.’

‘Yes,’ Mary said again. She was thinking of what to put on the Facebook page. ‘Perhaps if we say that now the year of roving is coming to its close, we will be starting to make arrangements for our return to…normality…no, to…settled life again…no, to…again being persons of a fixed abode…yes, that sound good.’ She typed it out.

‘Yes, that is good. Let’s make it sound as if we all the time only planned for it to be a year. I mean, that is sort of what we did, isn’t it?’, Tom asked.

‘Yeah…sort of,’ Mary said, knowing that it wasn’t.

Their tenant was one of their followers on the Facebook page, having been fascinated
by the lifestyle choice they had made, and he was not happy to find out via that page
that the owners planned a return to their old home. Mary did make sure to send the formal notification within the correct time frame, but the damage was done, and the tenant left some rather sarcastic comments on the Facebook page. All their friends responded with messages of happiness to the news of their return to the settled fold, although they also expressed surprise that it hadn’t been a permanent change.

‘We sort of wanted to leave the option open,’ Mary explained, ‘but it was always
really meant to be for a year, actually.’

Believed or not, this was accepted, and thought sensible. Mary returned to her much missed office and Tom, just on the off chance, applied to be an arts teacher in a privately run school in the area. They called him in for an interview. In the course of it the topic of the green camper van came up, and it turned out the Head Master had been one of the followers of the page.

‘Oh! I so wished I could go roaming like that. The feeling of freedom must be
wonderful,’ he had said to Tom, and Tom had confirmed, but said that being a teacher
is like going on a journey, because two kids are not alike, so every day brings new
challenges, in much the same way as travelling brings you to new places.

He got the job.

The following year Mary was expecting a baby, and resented that yet again her career
will be delayed. They both had taken a silent dislike to the green camper van. Going
on a holiday in it was out of the question. They used the van for Glastonbury one
weekend, but apart from finding the music boring and the politically correct wannabe
hippiedom of the organisers tripe, it had given them all the wrong vibes. Shortly after,
Tom sold it. The year after, they were sitting in the nearby park, Tom was reading an article in the Telegraph’s Saturday paper edition, Mary was reading the Financial Times on her tablet, and little Jacob was gurgling contentedly in his pram. Tom put his paper down and said, ‘Mary, how would you like to go on holiday in a narrow boat?’

narrowboat-batteries-image1

 

A Norwegian short story – about gym socks and strict teachers

This is a recent short story, written for once in my native tongue Norwegian. It was my friend and former translator colleague, K.R. Castle, who posted a question about plimsolls on Facebook, which in turn inspired me to write it. It reminded me of my schooldays in Norway, where we were all made to wear special socks with rubber underneath for our PE-lessons. They were called “gym socks”, and the story also draws on an episode of bullying that the teacher dealt with exactly as described in this short story.

Gymsokkene

Nei! Krise! Fullstendig, total og absolutt krise. Jørgen så seg rundt med raskt og vaktsomt blikk. Det var ingen som hadde lagt merke til at nederst i Rema-posen med gymtøyet hans, lå der et par røde gymsokker. At det går an! Hvorfor hadde Jørgen latt moren pakke gymtøyet hans? Den dumme kua hadde pakket nedi storesøsterens gymsokker. Det var kun jenter som hadde røde gymsokker. Ikke sjans at han kom til å ha gym i røde gymsokker. Nei, nei, nei. Faen for en krise.

Gymsokker Jorgen
Drawing by W. Hagerup

Det var ikke det at han stod så sterkt på gymsokkfronten i utgangspunktet. Frode, den fregnete fyren med krøller, som drev med boksing og som hadde store muskler og … andre ting (ikke hjerne altså), Ole, den lyslyggede lusa som ustanselig skrøt av sydenturen foreldrene hadde hatt råd til den sommeren, og den rødhårede, røffe, rabbagasten Ronny, som hadde banket opp en syvendeklassing – alle de tre tøffeste guttene i klassen – de hadde alle sammen mørkeblå gymsokker.

Jørgen, han hadde hvite. En skjebne han delte med Arne-Per (for et navn!), som snakket med bonedialekt og sa “bærre” istedenfor “bare”, og Lars, som arvet dongeribuksene sine og alltid hadde for langt hår (har de ikke råd til saks engang i den familien?) samt Leif Johan, klassens tjukkas som forøvrig var Jehovas Vitne og hverken feiret bursdager eller jul. De teitingene hadde alle som én hvite gymsokker (Jørgen trodde kanskje Lars hadde arvet sine, for de var litt annerledes enn de han og de andre hadde).

Men når Jørgen ikke ble slått i hartkorn med teitingene, hadde det å gjøre med at han var god i sport. Han løp fort og var rimelig sterk; han hadde vunnet to nevekamper i skolegården det siste året, og ville unektelig vunnet den tredje, hadde de ikke blitt stoppet av den dumme kjærringa Grethe Bjerklo, som alltid gikk i lilla og underviste i håndarbeid. Hun holdt visst på med noe politikkgreier også. Jørgen husker at moren hadde hvisket “rødstrømpe” til mannen sin, mens Jørgens far hadde spyttet ut “kommunist”, som om han kastet en forbannelse over den lillakledde heksen, motivert av prinsippet “angrep er det beste forsvar”. Dette var i fjor på vei til foreldremøte med klasseforstanderen, Hansen.

Hansen var i grunnen en grei lærer, men han kunne være streng. Jørgen hadde ønsket at det ikke var akkurat ham de hadde i gym i dag. Kunne de ikke hatt Torgesen da? Han de hadde fått lov å kalle Roger. Ja, for han het det. Han var så grei. Hadde han kommet gymsokkeløs inn i salen til Torgesen, Roger altså, ville han bare sagt, “nei, hekje du gymsokka i dag da Jørgen, far?” (Torgesen var også fra bonelandet, men de så bort i fra det siden han var så grei). “Ja, ja, du lyt ha gym uten gymsokka du då, Jørgen. Kan ikkje gli rundt i sokkelesten veit du, de e’ farli’ det, veit du”.

Jada, Jørgen visste det. Og han visste også at Hansen ikke ville la saken gå så uaktet hen. Han bestemte seg for å trykke plastposen godt ned i ranselen, legge håndduken på benken og ta av seg strømpene.

Jeg får bare si at jeg har glemt dem, tenkte han med seg selv. Men ville han bli trodd? Hansen var ikke dum.

I fjor hadde Trine blitt mobbet. (Og la det være nevnt med en gang, Trine har røde gymsokker, bare så du vet det). Jørgen hadde tatt del i mobbingen han óg, klart det. Han var jo nesten en av de kule. Han var i en slags mellomstatus, Jørgen. Tøffingene respekterte ham fordi han hadde vunnet de slåsskampene. Teitingene var litt redd for ham av samme grunn. Men han hadde alltid vært grei med dem, inkludert jenteteitingene. Bortsett fra den ene gangen da de alle mobbet Trine. Han hadde tenkt at det bare var terging. Erting. Og hun var lett å erte. Hun var litt dum, tilbakestående, med utstikkende tenner og briller. Hun drev og lekte med tredjeklassingene, for faen! Også lespet hun, så det var veldig enkelt å efterligne snakkemåten hennes.

En gang i historietimen hadde hun sagt at første verdenskrig begynte i 1812. Alle vet jo at det var slaget ved Waterloo! Herregud! Så da hadde Ronny sagt “Nei Thrine, føshte verdenshkrig shtartet ikke i 1812!” Det var nok til at hele klassen brøt ut i latter. De hadde hatt en vikar, en lærerinne som var like ung og pen som de damene som var avbildet i pornobladet han hadde funnet i farens nattbordsskuffe. Ikke visste han at slike pene damer kunne bli lærere. De var tydeligvis ikke alle som Bjerklo og de andre tørre skrukkekjerringene de hadde der på skolen. Eller kanskje hun også ble slik en dag. Grøss og gru! I alle fall, hun hadde også trukket på smilebåndet. Nesten umerkelig, men ikke helt. Det hadde på sett og vis gitt dem grønt lys, lisens til å terge. Og det gjorde de til gangs. Til og med de teite guttene klarte å klatre seg noen hakk opp og redusere teithetsnivået sitt en smule, ved å være på det tergende laget. Og slik holdt de på, helt til Hansen la merke til hva som foregikk.

En dag, uten forvarsel, ble de varslet om at de skulle komme til kjemirommet i andre etage. Det var et rom som Jørgen aldri hadde blitt helt fortrolig med. De hadde et skjelett av et menneske der. Ikke ekte, visstnok, men ekkelt nok for det. Joda, han pleide å tøffe seg og ta skjelettet i dets kalde arm og late som om han håndhilste på det. ‘Goddag herr Nilsen’ (de hadde en gretten eldre sløydlærer som het Nilsen. Han var ekstremt tynn, og drakk. Han hadde en gammel melkeflaske som han hadde malt hvit, for å skjule dens egentlige innhold. De var redde for Nilsen, og derfor var det fritt frem å harselere med ham. ‘Hyggelig å se Dem, Nilsen. De ser meget bedre ut i dag, ja, Nilsen,’ ville Jørgen si til benrangelet, og alle fliret (Jørgens moromanntalent var en annen grunn til at han fant aksept hos de tøffe guttene og de penere jentene i klassen). Men på tross av denne skøyingen, fant han ikke skjelettets hysteriske hånsmil noe mer betryggende. Det var som om det lo fordi det visste, at en dag blir også vi slik som det. Og i skapene med glassdør langs ene veggen var et utvalg utstoppede dyr. Rommet var også kaldere enn andre klasserom, så man fikk grøssen uansett, på den ene eller den andre måten.

Dit kalte Hansen hele klassen. De satt seg ned stille. Merket at dette var noe spesielt, noe alvorlig, selv om de ennå ikke visste hva det var. Hansen så ut som de gjør i tegneserier når de er sinte; det var som om en mørk sky hang over ham. Det minte Jørgen også om noe de hadde hatt om i kristendommen: Da Moses kom ned fra fjellet med de ti bud på to stentavler, og fant at folket hadde begynt å tilbe avguder. Da hadde han visstnok blitt så sint at han knuste tavlene.

Hansen begynte å snakke rolig. Han forklarte hva han hadde hørt, hva han hadde sett og hva dette var for noe. Efter hvert som han snakket hevet han røsten. Mobbing blev nevnt og noe om hvor absolutt, totalt uakseptabelt og skuffende dette var. Han ropte nå. Jørgen husket ikke akkurat hva som hadde blitt sagt. Men han husker Hansen, den rolige, dog strenge læreren, med et ansikt som strålte sinne på vegne av den svake og forsvarsløse. Som tok tak i en meterstokk – det lå en slik meterstokk av tre ved alle tavlene – og så brukte han den til å denge i pulten så det smalt gjennom rommet. For hvert. Punkt. Han. Ville. De. Skulle. Forstå. Smalt han stokken i pulten så det sang gjennom rommet og slo inn i Jørgen og de andre som tordenslag. De skjønte at han var sint. Og de skjønte at de hadde gjort noe galt. Og de visste alle, at ingen kom noensinne til å mobbe Trine, eller noen andre, igjen. Den tiden var forbi.

Idet han hamret hjem sitt siste poeng, slo han meterstokken så hardt i pulten at stokken knakk i to, og den løse biten fløy gjennom luften og landet hjelpeløst på gulvet.

Det satt et naturlig punktum for det hele.

Hansen, allerede godt likt av guttene i klassen, hadde fått en helteaktig status efter dette. Og nå var det denne læreren Jørgen måtte forsøke å overbevise om at han ikke hadde med seg gymsokker.

I samme øyeblikk som Jørgen stappet gymtøyposen ned i ranselen kom Hansen inn i garderoben.

“Nå, er dere ferdige, gutter? Jørgen, har du ikke gymsokker på i dag? Hvor er de?”

“Eh…glemt dem”.

“Glemt? Du pleier ikke å glemme ting. Mor din fortalte meg at hun pleier å pakke sekken din og gymtøyet. Mener du å si at hun er glemsk?” Det var et glimt i Hansens øyne, men Jørgen så ikke dette.

“Nei, hun er ikke det, vanligvis. Av og til, kanskje.”

“Hvor er gymposen din da?

Det var dette Jørgen hadde fryktet. Hvordan kunne han vite? Hadde han sett? Nå kom han i hvert fall til å se at han hadde gymsokker, kom ikke til å forstå hvor absolutt forferdelig, grusomt, umulig det var for ham å ha på seg røde gymsokker. Han kom til å tvinge ham til å ta dem på og bruke dem, for det ‘er jo bare en farge’. Bare en farge, liksom.

“Eh…den er i ranselen min.”

“Jasså, hvorfor det da? Ta den opp, er du snill”.

Alle guttenes øyner var på Jørgen nå. Til og med teitingene tillott seg å halvsmile.

Jørgens humor kom ham igjen til hjelp.

I stedet for å løfte opp gymtøyposen, gjorde han bokstavelig som Hansen sa, og løftet hele ranselen.

Alle lo. Læreren også.

“Nå, jeg tror du vet hva jeg mente, Jørgen.”

Jørgen løftet posen sakte og delvis opp.

Hansen tok posen og fullførte løftet, hvorpå han snudde den opp ned. Ut falt et par velbrukte, røde gymsokker.

“Synes du sa at du hadde glemt gymsokker, jeg?”

Oj, tenkte Jørgen. Her var gode råd ekstremt kostbare.

“Jo, men jeg har jo det. Jeg har glemt mine gymsokker. De der er ikke mine.”

Det samme glimtet i Hansens øyne som hadde vært der tidligere, var flyktig innom på nytt.

“Å, sånn ja. Skjønner. Så et par gymsokker som ikke er dine, har på mystisk vis havnet i din gympose? Er det så?”

“Ja…”

“Akkurat. Vel, da får du heller ha gym barfot i dag, da. Ikke noe annet å gjøre med det. Eller hva tror du?”

Jørgen nikket. “Nei, det er vel ikke det.”

“Og Jørgen?”

“Ja?”

“Kanskje det er på tide at du begynner å ta ansvar for å pakke ditt eget gymtøy?”

Han nikket igjen. “Jo, skal det”.

Hansen smilte og gikk inn i gymsalen.

Alle guttenes blikk, som  hadde vært festet på Jørgen gjennom hele denne dialogen, slapp taket. De hadde stått klar, helt på randen, sprekkeferdige til å hånflire av lærerens offer. Men Jørgen hadde svart bra for seg, han hadde gjort det med ranselen, som var litt tøft og ganske morsomt, og holdt verdigheten. Og Hansen hadde som vanlig vært streng, men grei. Så guttene gjorde seg ferdig med å skifte, og så løp de til neste gjøremål uten det minste minne om det som nettopp hadde skjedd (nettopp fordi ingenting hadde skjedd – kanskje med unntak av det med ranselen).

Jørgen satt et lite øyeblikk efter de andre. Når han kom hjem skulle han forlange – FORLANGE – å få mørkeblå gymsokker.
Gymsokker

Lots to remember – the Imperial War Museum, London

Sunday, 11th November, was Remembrance Sunday, which, on this the centenary of the end of the first world war – the Great War – fell neatly on Armistice Day itself. What better way to commemorate this sombre occasion than to take the younger generation on an educational trip to the Imperial War Museum in London?

We arrived just in time to take part in the 2 minutes of silence, lined up in a long double queue outside the main entrance. From a distance we could hear the trumpeting of the Last Post being carried on the wind, then the distant boom of the cannons, and the peel of church bells. It was an affecting moment.

More than 18 million people died in this, the deadliest conflict in human history; we shall not forget. Museums like the IWM help us not to do just that.

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Imperial War Museum, London, welcomes you

Trusting The Exhibits

I don’t know about you, but I do not go to a museum to read a book. Too many times in recent years have I gone to a museum, only to be met by big pictures on the wall and masses and masses of text, printed out on huge poster-like blocks. It all looks very fancy and modern and is written in the sort of “horrible history” mock chumminess and dumbing down style that so plagues our declining civilisation. I hate it.

The exhibition on WWI was not like that, I am glad to say. It was, in fact, excellent. The museum really trusted their exhibits. And that is one of the main reasons you come to a museum: to look at the old things.

You want to see what they actually look like, and if allowed, to touch them and see what they feel like. Obviously, with literally thousands passing by only on this Sunday, the IWM could not let people touch too many objects (or they would probably wear away by 4pm), but some things could be touched, and all of the things could be seen in close proximity.

One thing you were supposed to touch was a sound installation where you put your elbows on a wooden bar and held your hands over your ears. The bar had been designed to transport vibrations based on the sounds of shells and munition exploding, as it may have sounded on the battlefield of the Somme or the Ypres. It goes on for a couple of minutes and then falls silent, like it did at 11 o’clock, the 11th November 1918.

They have also for the centenary created a set of rooms based on darkness and light (and in the light room the writings on the wall actually works – I will say no more), and another set of rooms with sound recordings of people telling about their experiences around the armistice.

Verdict? Well worth the visit, and probably a re-visit for my part, on a day when the entire population of a small European nation is not visiting at the same time.

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An real aeroplane – NOT a model – hanging from the ceiling, just by a huge Mark V tank.

Not trusting their exhibits

Spending the day at the museum meant that we not only visited the specific WWI exhibition, but also had a look at both their general exhibitions and another specific and permanent installation, on the Holocaust.

I am sad to say that this exhibition suffered from the plaster a text book on the wall-syndrome. The video installations I think worked fairly well, and they had tried to make room for presenting and explaining the role of propaganda – with special reference to Goebbels – in preparing the ground for the extermination of the Jews. This was an intelligent thing to do, and could have been done more distinctly.

They also had some exhibits: artefacts that Jewish prisoners had owned; worn tin mugs, twisted forks, all the little, mundane things that humans need for their daily life. They also had a huge number of shoes that once belonged to victims of the extermination, and some prison suits worn by the concentration camp inmates. Oh, and I will mention that the model of a concentration camp was really rather good: top marks for that one.

But throughout the expansive area they have given over to this presentation, it sometimes felt as if they were just filling in wall space. That is truly disheartening. Along with the atrocities of the communists of the world (which in numbers killed far exceeds the slaughtering done by the National Socialists) the Holocaust was one of the most evil acts of atrocity carried out in human history. The role of a museum is to make us feel a closeness to the event or time period by bringing us up close to the artefacts belonging to it. But in this exhibition this did not happen: instead the huge area, spread out, with large walls with prints and pictures, and then the odd exhibit here and there, made it feel as if they had tried to make a lot out of very little. That is the very opposite of the truth, and it is truly worrying that the curators have got away with it.

Even the aforementioned shoes failed to make the impact they ought to have: they were stacked up in a sort of bookshelf with Plexiglas, and this shelf was used as a partitioning wall between one area and the next. That is simply wrong: it should be a centrepiece.

The area seems to have been designed to herd school classes through, not a bad idea in and of itself, of course, but it really needs a rethink and a redesign: trust your artefacts, let people do the reading at the library.

 

On that bombshell…

Seeing Little Boy – the sort of bomb that was used to carry the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima – was both fascinating and terrifying: so much destruction from such a relatively small object. There was also a piece of the twisted wreckage of the Twin Towers, destroyed in the attack by Islamist terrorists on New York 11th September 2001.

Hannah Arendt came up with the phrase “The Banality of Evil”. The artefacts made me think of the mundanity of warfare: you need special cars, special aeroplanes, metal compartments with funny, little instruments, machines that spew bullets, binoculars, special shoes and special clothes. It is all so mundane because although different to our everyday clothes, shoes, cars, machines, etc., the equipment of war is also just another version of these things.

War is not evil in itself. It is justified and good in defence of justice and good values. But it is extremely destructive, and never desirable. The Imperial War Museum balances nicely the fascination that machines and events of destruction hold to us and the need to remind us of the suffering that such destruction wreaks.

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