As a specific genre, the historical novel is only about two centuries old. Historical fiction in the wider sense, though, is at least as old as the written word. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric poems, the narrative books of the Old Testament, Beowulf — the earliest literature of every people is historical fiction. The past is interesting. It’s glamorous and exciting. Perspective allows us to forget that the past, like the present, was mostly long patches of boredom or anxiety, mixed in with occasional moments of catastrophe or bliss. Above all, it’s about us.
Have you ever stared at old family pictures, and had the feeling that you were looking into a mirror? I have a photograph of a great uncle, who was an old man before I was born. I never knew him well. But in that picture, taken when he was about fifteen, he has my ears and eyes, and he’s hugging himself and looking just as complacent as I often do. I have a picture of one of my grandmothers, taken about the year 1916 — she’s photographed against a background of flags and Dreadnoughts. She looks astonishingly like my daughter. It’s only natural that I want to know about them. I want to know what they were thinking and doing, and I want to know about their general circumstances.
For most people, even now, family history comes to a dead end about three generations back. But we are also members of nations, and what we can’t know about our immediate ancestors we want to know about our ancestors in general. You can take the here and now just as it is. But the moment you start asking why things are as they are, you have to investigate the past.
Why do men wear collars and ties and jackets with buttons that often don’t and can’t do up? It’s because our own formal clothing stands in a direct line from the English and French court dress of the late 17th century. Why do we talk of “toeing the line?” It’s because in 19th century state schools, children would have to stand on a chalked line to read to the class. Why does the British fiscal year for individuals start on the 6th April? It’s because, until 1752, we used the Julian Calendar, which was eleven days behind the more accurate Gregorian Calendar; and the first day of the year was the 25th March. Lord Chesterfield’s Act standardised us with Scotland and much of Europe, and moved the first day of the year back to January — but the fiscal year, adjusted for the new calendar, was left unchanged.
Why was Ireland, until recently, so devoutly Catholic? Because the Catholic Church was the one great institution of Irish life that could be neither abolished nor co-opted by their British rulers. Why is the Church losing its hold? Because it is no longer needed for its old purpose. The child sex scandals are only a secondary cause. History tells us who we are. We may feel trapped by it. We may glory in it. We can’t ignore it.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake, 7th March 2014”, 2014-03-07.
October 20, 2016
September 19, 2016
September 17, 2016
… the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.
But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.
Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).
In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to meet their expectations.
One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real samurai delivered the coup de grace by decapitating their opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.
No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name and rank would be displayed to best advantage.
While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that ‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of “protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.
Eric S. Raymond, “The Last Samurai”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-12-15.
July 28, 2016
Rape is a serious crime: those convicted of it face a lengthy prison sentence. Sexual foolishness or stupidity should not be a crime, although its protagonists may well be deserving of moral censure. There is a line to be drawn between sex that is criminal and sex that lacks the criminal culpability to warrant a lengthy prison sentence. In recent years, that line has moved so that those who deserve the shameful tag “rapist” are now joined by some who do not.
The point was well made by the journalist Sarah Vine, who wrote of sexual behaviour that should not be criminalised: “Let’s face it, we’ve all done it at one time or another. Shared a cab home with someone we shouldn’t have; invited the wrong guy in for coffee. Unless you’re a saint, the chances of getting through life without making at least one disastrous sexual choice are very small.”
Acts of sexual foolishness or stupidity by men and women, particularly the young, have always happened. But, as Vine pointed out, “it used to be that women who made stupid mistakes with men, who had non-violent sexual encounters in dodgy circumstances — while drunk or otherwise intoxicated, in the heat of the moment or for a million other reasons — did not wake up the next morning and decide they had been raped. They took a shower, gave themselves a stern talking to, maybe told a friend about it , had a bit of a cry — and then moved on as best they could, vowing along the way never to end up in that kind of damn stupid situation again.” Likewise, men who made stupid sexual decisions would, in days gone by, have learnt from their mistakes, often as part of a process of growing up.
But today, to use Vine’s words, “there’s a far easier option” for the woman: “blame the bloke” by “crying rape”. And for the bloke there is now the stark scenario of being woken up not just with a splitting headache and a guilty conscience, but by a policeman’s knock on the door.
Jon Holbrook, “New rape laws: turning sex into a crime”, spiked!, 2015-02-12.
July 25, 2016
Nicolai Sennels is a Danish psychologist who became the focus of debate on the influence of cultural and religious background and criminality:
After having consulted with 150 young Muslim clients in therapy and 100 Danish clients (who, on average, shared the same age and social background as their Muslim inmates), my findings were that the Muslims’ cultural and religious experiences played a central role in their psychological development and criminal behavior. “Criminal foreigners” is not just a generalizing and imprecise term. It is unfair to non-Muslim foreigners and generally misleading.
Discussing psychological characteristics of the Muslim culture is important. Denmark has foreigners from all over the world and according to official statistics from Danmarks Statistik all non-Muslim groups of immigrants are less criminal than the ethnic Danes. Even after adjusting, according to educational and economic levels, all Muslim groups are more criminal than any other ethnic group. Seven out of 10, in the youth prison where I worked, were Muslim.
Muslim culture has a very different view of anger and in many ways opposite to what we experience here in the West.
Expressions of anger and threats are probably the quickest way to lose one’s face in Western culture. In discussions, those who lose their temper have automatically lost, and I guess most people have observed the feeling of shame and loss of social status following expressions of aggression at one’s work place or at home. In the Muslim culture, aggressive behavior, especially threats, are generally seen to be accepted, and even expected as a way of handling conflicts and social discrepancies. If a Muslim does not respond in a threatening way to insults or social irritation, he, not “she” (Muslim women are, mostly, expected to be humble and to not show power) is seen as weak, as someone who cannot be depended upon and loses face.
In the eyes of most Westerners it looks immature and childish when people try to use threatening behavior, to mark their dislikes. A Danish saying goes “…Only small dogs bark. Big dogs do not have to.” That saying is deeply rooted in our cultural psychology as a guideline for civilized social behavior. To us, aggressive behavior is a clear sign of weakness. It is a sign of not being in control of oneself and lacking ability to handle a situation. We see peoples’ ability to remain calm as self confidence, allowing them to create a constructive dialogue. Their knowledge of facts, use of common sense and ability in producing valid arguments is seen as a sign of strength.
The Islamic expression of “holy anger” is therefore completely contradictory to any Western understanding. Those two words in the same sentence sound contradictory to us. The terror-threatening and violent reaction of Muslims to the Danish Mohammed cartoons showing their prophet as a man willing to use violence to spread his message, is seen from our Western eyes as ironic. Muslims’ aggressive reaction to a picture showing their prophet as aggressive, completely confirms the truth of the statement made by Kurt Westergaard in his satiric drawing.
This cultural difference is exceedingly important when dealing with Muslim regimes and organizations. Our way of handling political disagreement goes through diplomatic dialogue, and calls on Muslim leaders to use compassion, compromise and common sense. This peaceful approach is seen by Muslims as an expression of weakness and lack of courage. Thus avoiding the risks of a real fight is seen by them as weakness; when experienced in Muslim culture, it is an invitation to exploitation.
July 11, 2016
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”
This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
Indeed elite tribalism is actively encouraged by the technologies of globalization, the ease of travel and communication. Distance and separation force encounter and immersion, which is why the age of empire made cosmopolitans as well as chauvinists — sometimes out of the same people. (There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)
Ross Douthat, “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism”, New York Times, 2016-07-03.
July 9, 2016
In 2003, Disney brought us its latest animated feature, Brother Bear, the usual New Age mumbo-jumbo with a generic Native American gloss. It told the tale of Kenai, a young fellow in a bucolic Pacific Northwest at the end of the Ice Age. To avenge his brother’s death, Kenai kills the brown bear responsible. But trouble’s a-bruin: his late brother is wise enough to know that killing is not the answer and so gets the Great Spirit to teach Kenai a lesson by transforming him into a bear. He thereby learns that bears are not violent beasts but sensitive beings living in harmony with nature who understand the world they live in far more than man does. I would certainly agree that bears are wiser and more sensitive than man, if only because I’ve yet to meet a bear who’s produced an animated feature as mawkishly deluded as this.
Among the technical advisers on the film, hired to ensure the accurate depiction of our furry friends, was Timothy Treadwell, the self-described eco-warrior from Malibu who became famous for his campaign “to promote getting close to bears to show they were not dangerous”. He did this by sidling up to them and singing “I love you” in a high-pitched voice. Brother Bear is certainly true to the Treadwell view of the brown bears, and he would surely have appreciated the picture had he ever gotten to see it. But, just as Kenai found himself trapped inside a bear, so did Mr Treadwell — although in his case he was just passing through. In September, a pilot arrived at the ursine expert’s camp near Kaflia Bay in Alaska to fly him out and instead found the bits of him and his girlfriend that hadn’t yet been eaten buried in a bear’s food cache.
Treadwell had always said he wanted to end up in “bear scat”, so his fellow activists were inclined to look on the bright side. “He would say it’s the culmination of his life’s work,” said his colleague Jewel Palovak. “He died doing what he lived for.”
I wonder if he was revising his view in the final moments. And if his girlfriend was quite so happy to find she had a bit part in “the culmination of his life’s work”.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter at the fate of the eco-warrior, but it does make Brother Bear somewhat harder to swallow than its technical adviser manifestly was. There are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but sadly no Animals for the Ethical Treatment of People. And, just as bugs are becoming resistant to antibiotics, so the big beasts are changing, too. Wild animals are not merely the creatures of their appetites; they’re also astute calculators of risk. Not so long ago, your average bear knew that if he happened upon a two-legged type, the chap would pull a rifle on him and he’d be spending eternity as a fireside rug. But these days it’s just as likely that any human being he comes across is some pantywaist Bambi Boomer enviro-sentimentalist trying to get in touch with his inner self. And, if the guy wants to get in touch with his inner self so badly, why not just rip it out of his chest for him?
North American wildlife seems to have figured that out. Why be surprised if other predators do..?
Mark Steyn, After America, 2011.
July 7, 2016
In The Guardian, Nell Frizzell talks about the seamier side of Hollywood as it declined from its cultural peak in the mid-twentieth century:
The show, which sounds like a dreamy mix of film noir voiceover, 1940s gossip column and Pathe news broadcast, looks at the now lesser-known figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age; women like inventor of “the vamp” Theda Bara, whose agents claimed she was the daughter of an Arab sheik, born in the Sahara and growing up in the shadow of the Sphinx when in fact, she’d been born in Cincinnati, Ohio; or inventor of grunge Frances Farmer, an alcoholic communist committed to several mental health institutions who later became the subject of the Nirvana song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”.
Instead of merely making an episode about the legendary aviator, director and millionaire eccentric Howard Hughes, Longworth uses him to talk about many of the age’s leading ladies with whom he was involved, from Katharine Hepburn to Jean Harlow. “It’s a rubric to tell the story of a lot of fascinating women,” says Longworth. “He arrives in Hollywood in 1925 and starts to disappear in the 1950s, so you can use him to tell the story of Hollywood in that era.” Which is precisely what she’s doing in her upcoming book, which will chart the love affairs of the enigmatic film-maker and pilot who once used his understanding of aeronautical engineering to design Jane Russell a more supportive bra.
As well as the Manson episodes, You Must Remember This has run several other miniseries. There was “The Blacklist”, which looked at the way several of Hollywood’s most successful stars were ruined by accusations of communism by the House Un-American Activities Committee. These included the legendary wit Dorothy Parker, the actor Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin, who was banished from the US in 1952 for being “sympathetic to the communist cause” – accusations based on little more than Chaplin refusing to cross picket lines in the 1940s, speaking out about the suffering of the Russian people in the second world war and being “prematurely anti-fascist”.
Then there was “MGM Stories”, which told the stories of 15 people who worked in the studio as it went from silent movies to talkies, including Elizabeth Taylor (who once described her 18-year contract as being “MGM chattel”) and the legendary “sweater girl” Lana Turner who burned through seven husbands and countless affairs before becoming embroiled in one of Hollywood’s most shocking scandals after her 14-year-old daughter was accused of killing Turner’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato. And “Star Wars” looked at the efforts Hollywood stars went to support the war effort – such as Bette Davis and John Garfield’s founding of The Hollywood Canteen, where servicemen could get served pie by, and even dance with, some of the era’s most famous actors, and where Lena Horne was drafted in as the only African-American pinup and therefore the only famous woman deemed appropriate to dance with black servicemen.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
July 1, 2016
At Questions and Observations, Dale Franks writes about the distrust of the traditional “elites” among the non-elites of society:
There’s a growing sense, not only in Great Britain, but in the US as well, that the elites, or the political class, or whatever you’d like to call them, are incompetent and have been leading us astray. And the response from elites is to call those criticisms illegitimate. Those doing the carping are assumed to be racists or nationalists, both of which, of course, are unpleasant, dirty types of people. Both the UK’s Leavers and the US’s Trumpers share some commonalities. Among them are skepticism over free trade and free immigration; concerns that elites dismiss as foolish and uneducated. And, of course racist.
But perhaps the Leavers weren’t so concerned with brown people because they were brown, but because they were concerned at seeing buses being blown up in London, British soldiers being beheaded in broad daylight in the High Street, and dozens of children being raped for years in Rotherham. Perhaps, the British people have come to wonder about immigration because many immigrants seem less interested in becoming British than they are in making Britain more like the Middle East. And, maybe, just maybe, the Leavers prefer to live in Britain, in the free and modern culture that has developed over the last 1,500 years, rather than go back to live in the year 692. Maybe they wouldn’t be any more interested in living in the 13th-century culture of Richard the Lion-Hearted any more than they are in living in the Dark Age culture of Middle Eastern immigrants.
When people come into your country from elsewhere, they don’t do so simply as fungible economic units, but as real people, who bring along cultural and political ideas that may conflict those that are traditional in your country. It is almost at the point where elites cannot even conceive of an argument that implies the superiority of one culture over another, so they dismiss this argument as nationalism and nativism. But, the thing is, a free society that continually imports immigrants who have no interest in individual liberty, religious freedom, and political pluralism, will eventually have none of those things. The problem isn’t race. It’s culture.
National sovereignty means something. At the very least, it means that the people of a country have the absolute right to restrict immigration to the sort of people that will, in their judgement, benefit the country, and, once the immigrants arrive, to force them to assimilate to the country’s national culture more than the country accommodates the culture of the immigrant. No obligation exists, in any sense whatsoever, that requires the people of a country to allow entry to immigrants who desire to transform the country into something different. It is entirely legitimate to reject calls for sharia in the UK, just as it’s entirely legitimate to be upset by seeing political protestors in the US waving Mexican flags or wearing “Make America Mexico Again” hats, explicitly letting us know where their primary political allegiance lies. Nor is it illegitimate to wonder why such people are in this country, and not in the corrupt shithole of a country that they so obviously prefer, yet so oddly fled.
June 29, 2016
Scratch the surface of “Silicon Valley culture” and you’ll find dozens of subcultures beneath. One means of production unites many tribes, but that’s about all that unites them. At a company the size of Google or even GitHub, you can expect to find as many varieties of cliques as you would in an equivalently sized high school, along with a “corporate culture” that’s as loudly promoted and roughly as genuine as the “school spirit” on display at every pep rally you were ever forced to sit through. One of those groups will invariably be the weirdoes.
Humans are social animals, and part of what makes a social species social is that its members place a high priority on signaling their commitment to other members of their species. Weirdoes’ priorities are different; our primary commitment is to an idea or a project or a field of inquiry. Species-membership commitment doesn’t just take a back seat, it’s in the trunk with a bag over its head.
Not only that, our primary commitments are so consuming that they leak over into everything we think, say, and do. This makes us stick out like the proverbial sore thumb: We’re unable to hide that our deepest loyalties aren’t necessarily to the people immediately around us, even if they’re around us every day. We have a name for people whose loyalties adhere to the field of technology — and to the society of our fellow weirdoes who we meet and befriend in technology-mediated spaces — rather than to the hairless apes nearby. I prefer this term to “weird nerds,” and so I’ll use it here: hackers.
You might not consider hackers to be a tribe apart, but I guarantee you that many — if not most — hackers themselves do. Eric S. Raymond’s “A Brief History of Hackerdom,” whose first draft dates to 1992, contains a litany of descriptions that speak to this:
They wore white socks and polyester shirts and ties and thick glasses and coded in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN and half a dozen ancient languages now forgotten .…
The mainstream of hackerdom, (dis)organized around the Internet and by now largely identified with the Unix technical culture, didn’t care about the commercial services. These hackers wanted better tools and more Internet ….
[I]nstead of remaining in isolated small groups each developing their own ephemeral local cultures, they discovered (or re-invented) themselves as a networked tribe.
Meredith Patterson, “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit”, Medium.com, 2014-04-23.
June 24, 2016
“Let us be clear,” as the Obama loves to say, in his station as talking-head-in-chief. Grand displays of public grieving are invariably fraudulent. Those who knew none of the victims are faking it. Those who encourage them are morally disordered.
David Warren, “Orlando”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-06-14.
June 22, 2016
Of all the sound, fury, and quiet voices of reason in the storm of controversy about tech culture and what is to become of it, quiet voice of reason Zeynep Tufekci’s “No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it” moves the discussion farther forward than any other contribution I’ve seen to date. Sadly, though, it still falls short of truly bridging the conceptual gap between nerds and “weird nerds.” Speaking as a lifelong member of the weird-nerd contingent, it’s truly surreal that this distinction exists at all. I’m slightly older than Nate Silver and about a decade younger than Paul Graham, so it wouldn’t surprise me if either or both find it just as puzzling. There was no cultural concept of cool nerds, or even not-cool-but-not-that-weird nerds, when we were growing up, or even when we were entering the workforce.
That’s no longer true. My younger colleague @puellavulnerata observes that for a long time, there were only weird nerds, but when our traditional pursuits (programming, electrical engineering, computer games, &c) became a route to career stability, nerdiness and its surface-level signifiers got culturally co-opted by trend-chasers who jumped on the style but never picked up on the underlying substance that differentiates weird nerds from the culture that still shuns them. That doesn’t make them “fake geeks,” boy, girl, or otherwise — you can adopt geek interests without taking on the entire weird-nerd package — but it’s still an important distinction. Indeed, the notion of “cool nerds” serves to erase the very existence of weird nerds, to the extent that many people who aren’t weird nerds themselves only seem to remember we exist when we commit some faux pas by their standards.
Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. Tufekci argues that “life’s not just high school,” but the process of unlearning lessons ingrained from childhood takes a lot more than a cap and gown or even a $10 million VC check, especially when life continues to reinforce those lessons well into adulthood. When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game? Telling us to grow up, get over it, and play a game we’re certain to lose is a demand that we deny the evidence of our senses and an infantilising insult rolled into one.
This phenomenon explains much of the backlash from weird nerds against “brogrammers” and “geek feminists” alike. (If you thought the conflict was only between those two groups, or that someone who criticises one group must necessarily be a member of the other, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) Both groups are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us, and we don’t appreciate either group bringing its cultural conflicts into our space in a way that demands we choose one side or the other. That’s a false dichotomy, and false dichotomies make us want to tear our hair out.
Meredith Patterson, “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit”, Medium.com, 2014-04-23.
June 9, 2016
Published on 7 Jun 2016
“The experience of having everybody around me on campus say the left is the way to go and then…seeing communism collapse made me think maybe the libertarians have a better handle on how these things work,” says Todd Seavey, author of the new book Libertarianism for Beginners. “While the Soviet Union existed, the Marxists on campus were rooting for the Soviet Union.”
A New York-baseed comic-book writer, one-time producer for TV’s own John Stossel, and a contributor to Splice Today, Seavey found his way toward libertarianism while attending Brown University in the late 1980s.
His new graphic book, Libertarianism for Beginners, argues that the core message of libertarians is to “keep the government small and let people do what they want with their own bodies and property.”