Published on 1 Feb 2016
The execution of British nurse Edith Cavell by German soldiers in 1915 was instrumental to British propaganda at that time and the story became legend. But who was Edith Cavell really? Find out more about the humble nurse in Brussels and if she was really a spy after all.
February 2, 2016
February 1, 2016
“I’ll find friends to wear my bleeding roses,” cries Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, in Harey the vjth. Standing in a rose garden, he has plucked a red flower from a great bush that stands between him and his nemesis, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. York has selected a white rose – “with this maiden blossom in my hand/I scorn thee,” he spits – and the noblemen standing by have followed suit, choosing the colour of their rose to advertise their allegiance.
In 1592, this image made perfect sense. This was how the Wars of the Roses were generally understood. Against the backdrop of weak kingship and disastrous military defeat in France, two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty – Lancaster and York – had gone to war for the throne, using red and white roses as emblems of their causes. The war had shattered the country, causing tens of thousands of deaths and incalculable misery.
Only after decades of chaos had the family rift been healed by the victory of a Lancastrian, Henry Tudor, over a Yorkist, Richard III, at Bosworth in 1485. Henry’s victory, and his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York, reconciled the warring factions. Thus had been created the red-and-white ‘Tudor rose’ that seemed to be painted everywhere, reminding the populace that the Tudors stood for unity, reconciliation, peace and the incontestable right to rule.
It was a powerful and easily grasped story that, by Shakespeare’s day, had already been in circulation for 100 years. And, in part thanks to the success of Shakespeare’s brilliant cycle of history plays, this vision of the Wars of the Roses remains in circulation – on television, in film and in popular historical fiction. Lancaster versus York, red versus white: it is a story as easy to grasp as a football match at the end of which everyone swaps shirts. Yet it is misleading, distorted, oversimplified and – in parts – deliberately false.
December 27, 2015
Published on 26 Dec 2015
It’s time for the Chair of Wisdom again. This time Indy explains why he deems Franz Ferdinand a horrible person, why the soldier did not mutiny all the time and what the Philippines did in World War 1.
December 8, 2015
Patrick Crozier says we shouldn’t automatically believe the “common wisdom” about the career of Senator Joe McCarthy:
The vast majority of books and articles written on the subject claim that [Senator McCarthy] made it all up. M. Stanton Evans begs to differ. In Blacklisted by History: the Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies he argues that in the vast majority of cases those accused by McCarthy of being communists were exactly that. Some were out and out spies. Some were agents of influence. Some were happy to help in the running of communist front groups. But the argument still stands: they were aiding a power that was hostile to the United States.
Evans comes to this judgement mainly by leafing through the files that have become available. These include the FBI files and what have become known as the Venona transcripts: Soviet messages de-crypted by the US military in the 1940s.
It is important to realise that these weren’t just spy games. Communist activity had a real impact. In the early 1940s, for instance, John Stewart Service, the State Department’s man in China produced a string of reports. In them he praised Mao’s Communists to the hilt claiming that they were democrats and successfully fighting the Japanese while condemning Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) for being incompetent, corrupt and uninterested in prosecuting the war. This was a travesty of the truth. Reports like this led to the KMT being starved of money and weapons which may well have tipped the balance in the Civil War leading, in turn, to the misery that was subsequently inflicted on the people of mainland China.
So, if he was right why has he been condemned and why does he continue to be condemned by history? Some of it appears to have been McCarthy’s own fault. He puffed up his war record. He over-stated his case. He bullied witnesses. He made the odd mistake. He criticised revered war heroes. Some if it was snobbery. McCarthy was from the wrong side of the tracks. There was no Ivy League education for him. He left school early but through hard work still managed to become a lawyer. He was also a Catholic. But most of it was because he was up against the combined forces of the communists and the establishment.
The Tydings Committee – a special sub-committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – was established to get to the bottom of his initial 1950 claim that there were 57 communist agents working in the State Department. It did no such thing. In fact it didn’t even try.
According to Evans it was a cover up from start to finish. There was almost no attempt to get at the facts. Often a denial from the accused was sufficient. At one point they even asked the leader of the US Communist Party if certain people were members. He had to be prompted to say “no”. Most of the hostile questioning was not aimed at the accused – who were often evasive – but McCarthy himself. An inordinate amount of time was given over to attempting to prove that McCarthy had initially claimed a figure of 205 rather than 57 – as if it mattered. There was a definite suggestion that State Department personnel files had been tampered with. It was no great surprise when the official report concluded that McCarthy had made it all up.
November 13, 2015
J.M. Berger discusses the challenges of having to overcome an extremist narrative in the struggle with ISIS:
“The United States is engaged in a war of ideas — and it’s losing.”
This refrain feels modern, but it has echoed through most of American history. The argument that the U.S. is losing a war of ideas or narratives to ISIS is only the latest iteration. As Scott Atran recently wrote at The Daily Beast, the various military campaigns against the Islamic State obscure “a central and potentially determining fact about the fight” — namely that it “is, fundamentally, a war of ideas that the West has virtually no idea how to wage, and that is a major reason anti-ISIS policies have been such abysmal failures.”
The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population, even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.
In the United States, the notion of a “war of ideas” dates almost as far back as the Revolutionary War, according to Google Ngrams, which searches the text of English-language books that have been digitized. The phrase appeared during the Civil War, in the context of slavery, and returned during World War I. References soared as the United States entered World War II, and became a fixture of American political discourse during the Cold War. The Korean War was a war of ideas; so was Vietnam.
And in every era, the same alarm bell has sounded.
September 21, 2015
I have never forgotten these visitors, or ceased to marvel at them, at how they have gone on from strength to strength, continuing to lighten our darkness, and to guide, counsel and instruct us. They are unquestionably one of the wonders of the age, and I shall treasure till I die as a blessed memory the spectacle of them travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid, over-crowded towns, listening with unshakeable faith to the fatuous patter of carefully trained and indoctrinated guides, repeating like schoolchildren a multiplication table, the bogus statistics and mindless slogans endlessly intoned on them. There, I would think, an earnest office-holder in some local branch of the League of Nations Union, there a godly Quaker who had once had tea with Gandhi, there an inveigher against the Means Test and the Blasphemy Laws, there a staunch upholder of free speech and human rights, there an indomitable preventer of cruelty to animals, there scarred and worthy veterans of a hundred battles for truth, freedom, and justice – all, all chanting the praises of Stalin and his Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It was as though a vegetarian society had come outwith a passionate plea for cannibalism, or Hitler had been nominated posthumously for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, 2006.
August 17, 2015
If twentieth-century history teaches us anything, it’s that political religions spell trouble. Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism, and Nazism aren’t just called “political religions” by scholars today. In all three cases, observers at the time recognized and worried about the movements’ religious natures. Those natures were no accident; Mussolini, for instance, called his ideology “not only a faith, but a religion that is conquering the laboring masses of the Italian people.”
One reason that observers saw the great totalitarianisms as religious was that each had its idol: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Lenin in Russia, followed by Stalin. Take Grigory Zinoviev’s description of Lenin: “He is really the chosen one of millions. He is the leader by the Grace of God. He is the authentic figure of a leader such as is born once in 500 years.” Stalin’s cult of personality was far more developed and sometimes explicitly idolatrous, as in the poem that addressed the despot as “O Thou mighty one, chief of the peoples, Who callest man to life, Who awakest the earth to fruitfulness.” And in Italy, writes the historian Michael Burleigh, “intellectual sycophants and propagandists characterised [Mussolini] as a prodigy of genius in terms that would not have embarrassed Stalin: messiah, saviour, man of destiny, latterday Caesar, Napoleon, and so forth.”
To point out these words’ uncomfortable similarity to the journalists’ praises of Obama is not to equate the throngs who bowed down to totalitarian dictators with even the most worshipful Obamaphiles. But the manner of worship is related, as perhaps it must be in any human society that chooses to adore a human being. The widespread renaming of villages, schools, and factories after Stalin, for example, finds its modern-day democratic parallel in a rash of schools that have already rechristened themselves after Obama, to say nothing of the hundreds of young sentimentalists who informally adopted the candidate’s middle name during the presidential race. Even the Obama campaign’s ubiquitous logo — the letter O framing a rising sun — would not have surprised the scholar Eric Voegelin. In The Political Religions (1938), Voegelin traced rulers who employed the image of the sun — a symbol of “the radiation of power along a hierarchy of rulers and offices that ranges from God at the top down to the subject at the bottom” — from the pharaoh Akhenaton to Louis XIV and eventually to Hitler.
Benjamin A. Plotinsky, “The Varieties of Liberal Enthusiasm: The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience”, City Journal, 2010-02-20.
July 24, 2015
Matt Ridley on the danger to all scientific fields when one field is willing to subordinate fact to political expediency:
For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.
Sure, we occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience — homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.
Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.
This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.
What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.
What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.
July 19, 2015
Theodore Dalrymple discusses the changing opinions about Germany within the European Union, but especially in France:
There seems to be growing anti-German feeling in France, at least if what I read is anything to go by (which it might not be, of course). For example, a book with the title Bismarck Herring (The German Poison) is on sale everywhere. It is not by an unknown person, but rather by a very well-known left-wing French politician, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
You don’t have to go far in it to discover a tone of sheer hatred. The Germans, according to him, have returned to their old arrogant ways (which, of course, they never really lost); the price of their industrial and financial success is a land of oppressed, impoverished, and fat workers who don’t want any children; their industry spreads pollution all over Europe; and, unlike the French, who purified themselves of collaborationist industrialists after the war, the Germans just went on as if nothing had happened. At the end of the book, Mélenchon says that France (and presumably only France) has the wherewithal to liberate Europe from German imperialism. In a chapter headed “Spitting Out the Poison,” he mentions that, unlike Germany, France still has considerable military capacity. The obvious implication, I am afraid, is that France could, and perhaps should, use it to occupy the Ruhr again if Germany does not change its wicked ways.
Is it not strange that such thoughts should occur to a deputy of the European Parliament? After all, the most commonly used justification for the existence of the European Union is that it ensures the peace of the continent — by which, of course, is meant the pacification of France and Germany, since Belgium was never very likely to send its troops to occupy, say, Portugal. But from the first, the EU has taken Yugoslavia as its model, and Mélenchon’s rant at least has the merit of drawing our attention to a similar possible denouement.
July 15, 2015
Michelle Orange on the ways that photography can mislead and even change reality:
It may be that some of the great philosophical work of our time is taking place, hidden and unheralded, in the field of image forensics. Where but under the scrutiny of digital experts who draw a line separating false representations of the world from truthful ones are contemporary questions of perception and reality brought so keenly to bear? Who but these detectives of the real pursue as explicitly — as intricately — our crime wave of the fake, the contrived, the uncanny, the exponential image? With exquisite, singular focus, photo forensics engages the conundrum that photographic technology has tilted toward, steadily but ever more frankly, since its inception over 150 years ago: Does reality have a tipping point?
Dangling from the cliff edge of that question is the World Press Photo competition. In recent years the annual competition, which recognizes images submitted by photojournalists working across the globe, has dissolved into chaos, recrimination and a round of post-mortem soul-searching. Earlier this year, the WPP was forced to disqualify 22 percent of the competition’s finalists after forensics experts determined that certain images had been altered or manipulated beyond the currently accepted industry standard. This almost triples the number of disqualifications from a year earlier, suggesting a certain forward momentum, a trend larger and more fearsome than any set of standards.
Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the 2013 World Press Photo competition with an image of a Gaza City funeral procession, led through an alley by men bearing the shrouded bodies of two children killed in an Israeli airstrike. Separate from the horror it depicts, with its fish-eye depth of field, stark figuration and stony matte light, the photo meets the eye as unreal. Complaints in this vein led to an investigation of the image, specifically its manipulation of tone — a quality central to photography’s evolving grammar of realism. Somehow both a beautifying tool and, in the right hands, possessed of the very texture of reality (as every Instagram filter maven knows), tone is transformative. For that reason, “excessive toning” is against WPP rules; Hansen said he adjusted tone only to balance uneven light, “in effect to recreate what the eye sees.” Ultimately, Hansen retained his prize: the judges stood behind what they saw, though it would appear their eyes prefer altered images a good portion of the time.
June 4, 2015
In The Lancet, Richard Horton discusses the problems of scientific journalism:
The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.
Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.
June 1, 2015
Published on 26 Feb 2015
Created in 1965, 1400 Zulu is a classic British propaganda and recruiting film that profiles the Royal Navy’s operations around the world: from the Caribbean to Aden to the Suez Canal and beyond. It’s a job that involves hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men both above, on and below the water of all the world’s oceans. The film shows some of the newest weapons in the RN’s arsenal including nuclear submarines, missile systems and the Guided Missile Destroyer HMS Hampshire, Harrier Jump Jets and carrier-based Buccaneers, and helicopters. The Royal Marines including frogmen are shown performing maneuvers, and various military exercises are shown and activities demonstrated.
HMS Hampshire was a County-class destroyer of the Royal Navy. Laid down, in March 1959 a couple of weeks behind the class leader Devonshire, she was classified as a guided missile destroyer, as the Sea Lords regarded the concept of the cruiser and big gun ship as discredited by the perceived failure of the Tiger class and the obsolescence of the heavy gun. The description of guided missile destroyer seemed more likely to win approval from the Treasury and Government for an adequate number of warships the size of small cruisers which could play many traditional cruiser flagship and command functions but had armour around neither its gun or missile magazine.
The Blackburn Buccaneer originated in the early 1950s as a design for a carrier-borne attack aircraft able to carry a nuclear bomb below radar coverage. It was a British low-level subsonic strike aircraft that served with the Royal Navy (RN) and later the Royal Air Force (RAF), retiring from service in 1994. Designed and initially produced by Blackburn Aircraft at Brough, it was later known as the Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer when Blackburn became a part of the Hawker Siddeley group.
The Royal Navy originally procured the Buccaneer as a naval strike aircraft capable of operating from their aircraft carriers, introducing the type to service in 1962 to counterbalance advances made in the Soviet Navy. The Buccaneer was capable of delivering nuclear weapons as well as conventional munitions for anti-shipping warfare, and was typically active in the North Sea area during its service. Early on the initial production aircraft suffered a series of accidents due to insufficient engine power, thus the Buccaneer S.2, equipped with more powerful Rolls-Royce Spey engines, was soon introduced.
Although they originally rejected it in favour of the supersonic BAC TSR-2, the RAF later procured the Buccaneer as a substitute following the cancellation of both the TSR-2 and its planned replacement, the F-111K. When the RN retired the last of its large aircraft carriers, its Buccaneers were transferred to the RAF. The South African Air Force also procured the type. Buccaneers saw combat action in the Gulf War and the South African Border War. In RN service, the Buccaneer was replaced with the V/STOL British Aerospace Sea Harrier. In RAF service, they were replaced by the Panavia Tornado.
H/T to @NavyLookout for the link.
May 28, 2015
A fascinating little bit of German history (by way of Open Culture:
The more World War II history you read, the more you understand not just the evil of the Nazis, but their incompetence. Sometimes you hear variations on the observation that “in Nazi Germany, at least the trains ran on time,” but even that has gone up for debate. It seems more and more that the Holocaust-perpetrating political party got by primarily on their way with propaganda — and in that, they did have a truly formidable apparatus.
Much of the dubious credit there goes to Hitler’s close associate Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda and an anti-semite even by Nazi standards. “Power based on guns may be a good thing,” he said in a 1934 Nuremberg Party Convention speech. “It is, however, better and more gratifying to win the heart of a people and keep it.” He understood the power of film in pursuit of this end, providing not only essential assistance for productions like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, but also attempting to recruit no less a leading light of German cinema than Fritz Lang, director of three Doctor Mabuse pictures, the proto-noir M, and the expressionist epic Metropolis.
Goebbels loved Metropolis, but had rather less appreciation for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, going so far as to ban it for its supposed potential to instill in its viewers a distrust of their leaders. And so, on one fateful day in 1933 when Goebbels called Lang to his office, the filmmaker wondered if he might find a way to get the ban lifted. But Goebbels preferred to talk, at great length, about another proposal: Lang’s employment in artistic service of the Nazi cause.
May 12, 2015
The problem with the posters in the airport was that they resembled the political propaganda of a totalitarian regime, insinuating what could not be dissented from without some danger or personal inconvenience. I do not mean to say that we now live in such a regime in the most literal sense, that we have already to fear the midnight knock on the door, but rather that the posters contribute to a miasma of untruth, the kind of untruth that is becoming socially dangerous, or at least embarrassing, to point out. For if you do dissent from such a slogan you will be immediately cast into the social Gehenna where the reactionaries are sent, whose cries of outrage can be dismissed merely by virtue of who they are. If you say that science does not need women, you will be taken to mean that you think that women should be confined to children, kitchen, and church, and that you are an advocate of the burqa (though actually I would make it compulsory for young English women in the center of English towns and cities on Friday and Saturday nights, though only for aesthetic, not for moral or religious, reasons).
Not to be able to answer back to perceived untruths: such is the powerlessness that can eventually drive people to espouse the worst causes.
Theodore Dalrymple, “A Miasma of Untruth”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-06-29.
April 29, 2015
Published on 27 Apr 2015
Indy takes place in the chair of wisdom again to answer your questions. This week we deal with the outer ends of the Western Front, changes in propaganda and the logistics in the Carpathians.