May 25, 2017

QotD: Lies about the past

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It has long been said that the truth will set you free. This is often true, even when that freedom is the bleak and dry eyed horror of knowing how wrong things can go. (As in, say, studying totalitarian regimes of the past.)

The corollary is that lies enslave you. They make the perfect the enemy of the good, and in making current day people long for a past that never was, turn them into the dupes and followers of totalitarians and power seekers.

Or in other words, stop making sh*t up. It doesn’t help, and it might be hurting. The future deserves better than your lies about the past.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Inventing the Past — The Great Divorce”, According to Hoyt, 2015-09-23.

April 16, 2017

Damnatio memoriae

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Latin in the title is a modern construction, but it describes a fairly common way that Romans would (to borrow from Orwell) push memories down the memory hole, including even former Emperors:

In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin didn’t just defeat his political enemies – he purged their memories from existence. Photographs were altered and history texts changed to eliminate any trace of those who stood against him, a practice that inspired George Orwell to write 1984. But Stalin was far from the first leader to erase his enemies. The ancient Romans, too, tried to erase people from history – even Emperors.

A new show on now at the British Museum explores the use of memory sanctions against Roman emperors and their families in antiquity. It also evaluates the physical treatment of objects deemed “pagan” or heretical in the Christianized empire of Late Antiquity.

But what was the point of “damnatio memoriae“? And can you ever fully expunge someone from the historical record?

A Basanite bust of Germanicus that has a series of cuts around his ear, a shorn nose, his right ear chipped away and a cross etched on his forehead. The bust is on display now at the British Museum. (Photo by Sarah E. Bond)

The British Museum is currently displaying an exhibit on ancient memory sanctions called: “Defacing the Past: Damnation and desecration in imperial Rome.” It is a fascinating look into the ways in which we interact with objects as a proxy for the actual person. It is also a look into what ancient historian Harriet Flower has called the “art of forgetting.” Although such sanctions are often called “damnatio memoriae,” this is a modern Latin phrase and thus a construct that did not in fact exist in antiquity. Use of the term suggests a monolithic way in which Romans could legally damn the memory of a disgraced or unpopular Roman emperor, when in fact there was no one term for such sanctions or even a fully systematized procedure for it. What we have today is instead the material remnants of various senatorial, imperial, and ecclesiastical decrees — as well as a number of personal choices.

Sanctions against the commemoration of a person could take many forms in ancient Rome and can be traced back to the Republican period. The dictator Sulla had the statues of his rival, Marius, pulled down. He also banned the display of wax imagines carried in funeral processions. We are told by Plutarch (Caes. 5) that the nephew of Marius, Julius Caesar, displayed these wax casts of Marius’ face for the first time in the funeral for his aunt Julia in 69 BCE. Julia had been Marius’ wife and was Caesar’s aunt. The disgraced general and his consorts were earlier declared hostes (enemies) of the Roman state, but their memory was clearly not forgotten. The absence of the imagines under Sulla had in fact always been conspicuous, rather than a tactic that led to the erasure of their deeds or memory.

November 28, 2015

“Free speech” means more than just allowing speech you happen to agree with

Filed under: Europe, France, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Brendan O’Neill reminds us that being a supporter of free speech requires you to support those who don’t always agree with you or express themselves in ways you’re comfortable with:

It’s the 21st century and Europe is meant to be an open, enlightened continent, and yet a man has just been sentenced to jail — actual jail — for something that he said. Will there be uproar? It’s unlikely. For the man is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the French comedian, and what he says — that Jews are scoundrels and the Holocaust is a fiction — is deeply unpleasant. Yet if we’re serious about freedom of speech, if we are truly committed to ensuring everyone has the liberty to think and say whatever they please, then the jailing of Dieudonné should outrage us as much as the attempts to shut down Charlie Hebdo or the jailing of a Saudi blogger for ridiculing religious belief. We should be saying ‘Je Suis Dieudonné’.

Due to the regimen of hate-speech laws in 21st-century Europe — which police and punish everything from Holocaust denial to Christian denunciations of homosexuality — Dieudonné has been having run-ins with the law for years. In 2009, a French court fined him €10,000 for inviting a Holocaust denier on stage during a gig. In March this year, a French court gave him a two-month suspended prison sentence for saying he sympathised with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and with the anti-Semite who murdered Jews at a Parisian supermarket a few days later. Now, this week, a Belgian court has given him an actual prison sentence: a court in Liège found him guilty of incitement to hatred for making anti-Semitic comments during a recent show and condemned him to two months in jail.

In all these cases, Dieudonné has been punished simply for thinking and saying certain things. This is thought-policing. It’s a PC, spat-and-polished version of the Inquisition, which was likewise in the business of raining punishment upon those who said things the authorities considered wicked. To fine or imprison people for expressing their beliefs is always a scandal, regardless of whether we like or hate their beliefs. Dieudonné really believes the Holocaust is a myth, as much as a Christian fundamentalist believes that people who have gay sex will go to hell or American liberals believe Hillary Clinton will make a good president. He is wrong, massively, poisonously so; but then, so are those Christians about gays and those liberals about Hillary. If every person who says wrong, malicious or stupid things were carted off to jail, Europe’s streets would be emptied overnight.


It is incredibly illiberal for the state to police hatred. Hatred might not be big or clever, but it’s only an emotion. And officialdom has no business telling us what we may feel — or think, or say, or write. Allowing the state to monitor belief represents a brutal reversal of the Enlightenment itself. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), set the tone for the Enlightenment as an attempt to ‘settle the bounds’ between the business of government and the business of morality. ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of every particular man’s goods and person’, he wrote. That ideal is now turned on its head. Across Europe, governments ‘provide for the truth of opinions’, and in the process they silence those they don’t like and patronise the rest of us, reducing us to imbeciles incapable of working out what is right and wrong, and of speaking out against the wrong.

All hate-speech laws should be scrapped. Dieudonné should be freed. And a continent whose governments argue against the imprisonment of bloggers in Saudi Arabia while jailing comedians at home needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

December 13, 2012

You can’t have a free society when you also have “official truth” enforced by law

Filed under: History, Law, Liberty, Media, WW2 — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:03

At sp!ked, Angus Kennedy explains why open debate and free speech is a far better solution to holocaust denial than hate speech laws and officially sanctioned “truth”:

Firstly, I think that genocide denial has always been something of a shrill brand rather a real force in the world. It had it’s heyday in 1970s France with Robert Faurisson, a rather lame literary critic in the south of France who denied the Holocaust, and was taken apart by, among other people, the French classicist and structuralist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who was also a left-winger. Vidal-Naquet did not call for the legal prohibition of denial; instead he argued that contempt is a much more effective weapon. Similarly, Deborah Lipstadt, the author of History on Trial: My Day In Court With David Irving (2005), rails against genocide denial but is still opposed to criminalising it, shuddering at the thought ‘that politicians might be given the power to legislate on history’. I think that is a useful point to bear in mind.

The decision of whether or not to criminalise genocide denial is, in a way, the key free speech issue, the fundamental taboo. In that sense, it’s interesting that there continue to be movements by governments to make genocide denial illegal. France will probably try to push through the genocide denial law, despite it being overturned by its constitutional court, and argue for restrictions on what the French can and cannot say.

To make it clear, I’m completely opposed to criminalisation of speech or, to be more accurate, criminalisation of an idea — because that’s what this is. This is governments saying that a certain idea — genocide denial — should be illegal. I don’t think history is a matter for judges; it’s a matter for historians. I think that the completely unrestricted and absolute right to free speech is simply the best method we’ve got for getting closer to historical truth with a capital ‘T’. We should not be criminalising ideas; we should never be pragmatic about where we extend tolerance — it is a principal to be defended at all costs.

March 30, 2012

“Fifty-six days. Two months. In an actual jail. For tweeting”

Brendan O’Neill on Britain joining China and Iran in punishing free speech:

This week, Britain became a fully paid-up member of that clique of illiberal intolerant, tweeter-harassing states.

On Tuesday, at Swansea Magistrates Court in Wales, Liam Stacey, a student, was imprisoned for 56 days for writing offensive tweets.

Fifty-six days. Two months. In an actual jail. For tweeting. It needs to be spelt out like that in order to show how shocking it is that in the 21st century, in a nation that gave us such great warriors for freedom as The Levellers and John Stuart Mill, a young man has now been banged up for expressing his thoughts.

Stacey’s thoughts were far from pleasant ones. In fact they were offensive and repugnant.

What kind of freedom of speech do you have when you can be punished for expressing unpopular and idiotic sentiments? None whatsoever. When you’re only free to mouth the mainstream popular opinions — or what the state tells you is acceptable — you don’t have freedom of speech at all.

When other tweeters complained to Stacey about his off-colour comments, he started to use racist language. He told his detractors to “f**k off”, and hurled pretty much every racial slur under the sun at them.

The Twitterati reported him to the police. And sure enough he got a visit from the cops, was charged with committing a racially aggravated public order offence, and now finds himself in the clink alongside burglars and rapists.

Yes, Stacey’s comments were horrible. But this was speech rather than actions, the use of words rather than the use of fists, and there should never be any state involvement, certainly not arrests and showtrials, in the arena of speech.

In finding himself incarcerated simply because he refused to “Pray for Muamba” and then expressed nasty racist thoughts, Stacey has effectively been punished for committing a thoughtcrime, or perhaps its modern equivalent: a tweetcrime.

December 23, 2010

Some interesting links

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:06

A few links to follow at your leisure, as they’re not in any sense time-critical:

November 6, 2009

Those wild and crazy guys . . . in the CIA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:03

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has many purposes, but perhaps its most popular function is to provide some underpinning to the imaginings of conspiracy theorists worldwide. But, according to History House, the CIA was also a pretty weird operation in non-conspiracy terms, too:

[Project MK-ULTRA was] conceived by Richard Helms of the Clandestine Services Department (yes, the CIA actually gives its departments silly names like that), it went beyond the construction of mere truth serums and ventured into disinformation, induction of temporary insanity, and other chemically-aided states. The director of MK-ULTRA, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, figured LSD’s potential as an interrogative agent paled in comparison to its capacity to publicly humiliate. Lee and Shlain note the CIA imagined a tripping public figure might be amusing, producing a memo that says giving acid “to high officials would be a relatively simple matter and could have a significant effect at key meetings, speeches, etc.” But Gottlieb knew that giving LSD to people in the lab was a lot different than just passing it out, and felt the department did not have an adequate grasp on its effects. So the entire operation tripped to learn what it was like, and, according to Lee and Shlain,

agreed among themselves to slip LSD into each other’s drinks. The target never knew when his turn would come, but as soon as the drug was ingested a … colleague would tell him so he could make the necessary preparations (which usually meant taking the rest of the day off). Initially the leaders of MK-ULTRA restricted the surprise acid tests to [their own] members, but when this phase had run its course they started dosing other Agency personnel who had never tripped before. Nearly everyone was fair game, and surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives . . . The Office of Security felt that [MK-ULTRA] should have exercised better judgment in dealing with such a powerful and dangerous chemical. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when a Security informant got wind of a plan by a few [MK-ULTRA] jokers to put LSD in the punch served at the annual CIA Christmas office party … a Security memo writer… concluded indignantly and unequivocally that he did ‘not recommend testing in the Christmas punch bowls usually present at the Christmas office parties.’

The in-house testing phase now over, MK-ULTRA decided to use the drug surreptitiously in the street to gauge its effects. They contract-hired George Hunter White, a narcotics officer, to set up Operation Midnight Climax, according to Lee and Shlain, “in which drug-addicted prostitutes were hired to pick up men from local bars and bring them back to a CIA-financed bordello. Unknowing customers were treated to drinks laced with LSD while White sat on a portable toilet behind two-way mirrors, sipping martinis and watching every stoned and kinky moment.” Lee and Shlain go on to comment, “when [White] wasn’t operating a national security whorehouse,” White threw wild parties for his “narc buddies” with his ready supply of prostitutes and drugs. He sent vouchers for “unorthodox expenses” to Gottlieb, and later said, “I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” In case one needs reminding, these claims are backed by recently unclassified information. Yes, Virginia, truth is stranger than fiction.

Emphasis in the original.

I have no idea what relationship this account has to the actual facts, but if the mainstream media can get away with running stories without fact-checking, then I certainly don’t feel guilty about this one.

August 7, 2009

Observe and report, citizen!

Filed under: Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:37

July 13, 2009

Games for girls, critiqued

Filed under: Gaming, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:01

With all the unending uproar about how Grand Gears of BioDoomShockWar encourages violence and anti-social behaviour among boys, games for girls have been travelling under the radar. No longer:

Ridiculous Life Lessons From New Girl Games
Some parents worry that videogames might cause their children to become violent and antisocial, but what if the opposite were true? What if games could make kids exceedingly likable and fashionable?

A wave of new games for tween girls seeks to do just that, serving up innocuous gameplay designed to let players become perfect little princesses. Aimed at that lucrative, Hannah Montana-fueled intersection of childhood and adolescence, these games might give 8- to 12-year-olds their first experiences with fashion, make-up, popularity . . . even boys.

The weird thing is that you can view these “wholesome” games as being just as bad for girls as Grand Theft Auto’s random bloodshed and rampant criminality is for young, impressionable boys. And while GTA‘s influence on boys has been dissected to death, what about the Nintendo DS’ upcoming avalanche of games for tween girls? What kinds of values do preteens learn from these titles? Valuable life lessons, or bad habits?

Just for the record, I think kids are far more resilient than either class of critic can imagine. Playing a violent video game does not, in my experience, turn youngsters into nihilistic killers, nor would I expect girls to turn into proto-Stepford Wives after playing one of these “girly” games. Kids who have pre-existing problems may find more than just entertainment value in games, but (as with so many other “problems”), depriving everyone of the opportunity just to keep some people away from it isn’t the answer . . . nor — if our collective long experiences with prohibiting drugs, sex, alcohol, and risky behaviour of all kinds — will it be any more successful.

(Cross-posted to the old blog, http://bolditalic.com/quotulatiousness_archive/005575.html.)

July 11, 2009

The new Irish Taliban regime

Filed under: Law, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:13

Victor sent me this link with the comment “Thought you might find this interesting… Worrisome, even.” He was right, I do find it quite disturbing:

As part of a revision to defamation legislation, the Dail (Irish Parliament) passed legislation creating a new crime of blasphemy. Update: The bill went to the Seanad on Friday, July 10, passing by a single vote. This attack on free speech, debated for several months in Europe, has gone largely unnoticed in the American press.

[. . .] How does this impact free speech? Just don’t be rude.

  • Atheists can be prosecuted for saying that God is imaginary. That causes outrage.
  • Pagans can be prosecuted for saying they left Christianity because God is violent and bloodthirsty, promotes genocide, and permits slavery.
  • Christians can be prosecuted for saying that Allah is a moon god, or for drawing a picture of Mohammed, or for saying that Islam is a violent religion which breeds terrorists.
  • Jews can be prosecuted for saying Jesus isn’t the Messiah.

At risk of being too flippant, it’s really just a codification of the kind of thought pattern exemplified by Canada’s various “Human Rights” commissions, focusing on religion, rather than other forms of free thought and free expression.

The actual text of the new legislation goes a long way to convert the police into uniformed Revolutionary Guards:

36. Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.

(1) A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000. [Amended to €25,000]

2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

37. Seizure of copies of blasphemous statements.

(1) Where a person is convicted of an offence under section 36, the court may issue a warrant (a) authorising any member of the Garda Siochana to enter (if necessary by the use of reasonable force) at all reasonable times any premises (including a dwelling) at which he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that copies of the statement to which the offence related are to be found, and to search those premises and seize and remove all copies of the statement found therein, (b) directing the seizure and removal by any member of the Garda Siochana of all copies of the statement to which the offence related that are in the possession of any person, © specifying the manner in which copies so seized and removed shall be detained and stored by the Garda Siochana.

(2) A member of the Garda Siochana may (a) enter and search any premises, (b) seize, remove and detain any copy of a statement to which an offence under section 36 relates found therein or in the possession of any person, in accordance with a warrant under subsection (1).

(3) Upon final judgment being given in proceedings for an offence under section 36, anything seized and removed under subsection (2) shall be disposed of in accordance with such directions as the court may give upon an application by a member of the Garda Siochana in that behalf.

What’s the Gaelic for “Death to the infidel”? Expect to hear a lot of it in the future.

(Cross-posted to the old blog, http://bolditalic.com/quotulatiousness_archive/005573.html.)

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