Thursday, July 09, 2015

What do they know of breathing who only breathing know?

While going through issues of The Christian News-Letter from 1945, I ran across a positive review of Arthur Koestler's The Yogi and the Commissar. It quoted, rather inexactly, parts of the following passage, which I found elsewhere.

And which is quite striking.

The tragedy is that only those realize what oxygen means who known the torture of suffocation; only those who have shared the life of the ordinary native in Nazi Germany or Stalinite Russia for at least a year know that disintegration of the human substance which befalls people deprived of their basic liberties. But how many of us are capable of drawing comparisons?

The English dock yard worker has not experienced the difference between risking, for the same negligence, a cut in pay or death as a saboteur. The English journalist does not know the difference between a limited freedom of expression and the status of a human teleprinter. The English highbrow, fed up with a statesman's cigar or a general's photo-mania, has no idea the abject idiocy of regimented Byzantine leader worship.

The English public, disgruntled but secure within the law, does not know the shivering insecurity, the naked horror of an autocratic police-state. They only know their own frustrations. The atmosphere of democracy has become a stale fog, and those who breathe it cannot be expected to be grateful for the air which it contains. The predicament of western civilization is that it use ceased to be aware of the values which it is in peril of losing. 

Arthur Koestler, "The End of an Illusion" 1944. Collected in The Yogi and the Commissar. (210)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Be true to your school

So there I am, on my birthday, somewhere in my mid-40s, and already feeling a bit nostalgic for my youth and the place I come from.

And then I see: yesterday Charlie Sheen launched an attack not only on his ex-wife -- Denise Richards -- but also on the town in which she grew up.

A hometown that we happen to share.

As reported in the "Downers Grove Patch":

He calls Richards, whom he married in 2002 and divorced in 2006, a “doosh phace” and a “charlatan” and the “worst mom alive.” Most of the post is unprintable and not worth reading. But this swipe stood out:
“last note; this lab rat is from a retarded (expletive) hole named ‘Downers Grove’ nothing further your Honor”
OK. I can't claim any inside knowledge into the Richards-Sheen relationship. But I did grow up in Downers Grove.

And I spent a year of middle school together with Denise Richards, separated only by a relatively few number of pages in the 1984 "Herrick Spartan":

I don't, I must admit, have any specific memories of Denise, but I have no doubt that we probably crossed paths at some point in junior high: it was, after all, a small place. (Though hopefully it was not one of those points where I was being humiliated by bullies, which was a fairly common occurrence in those days.)

As the article notes, Denise herself has had some kind things to say about her home town.

“Downers Grove was a charming little town with cobblestone streets and cute mom-and-pop stores. There was one movie theater, where I saw ‘E.T.’ and ‘Star Wars.’ On summer nights, we walked to Bogg’s ice cream, which to this day is the best homemade ice cream I’ve ever eaten. My parents took my sister and me to church on Sundays, and both of us attended CCD classes one day a week after school. We made our Communion and Confirmation. Though we had our own rooms, Michelle and I did everything together, from gymnastics to pom-poms in junior high. Both of us had a crush on Rob Lowe, we had a poster of him in our room, and we never missed an episode of ‘The Facts of Life.’”
I don't remember too many cobblestone streets, but I do remember the excellent movie theatre -- the Tivoli -- where I probably saw "E.T." and "Star Wars" along with Denise.

Actually, there were times in my past when I would have used language to describe the town of my birth that closely resembles that used by Charlie Sheen. I suppose a lot of us hate the places that we come from at some point.

But since then -- not least since I've moved fairly far away from there -- I've come to have a different and rather fonder memory of the place, and it's always a pleasure to return.

I mean, we can't all be born, like Mr. Sheen, in New York, a city which is certainly close to my own family's origins.

But there's nothing in that origin, I think, that automatically protects one from being a complete asshole.

Though that's just an opinion.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The contemporary condition #3

Nick Cohen, at the Spectator:

For all the videos of beheadings Islamic State shamelessly posts on the Web, Islamists may one day say that they are American/Zionist forgeries, if that lie is tactically useful. In the West, meanwhile, there are many who want to hear that their own governments are the “root cause” of the violence. Cage is not some shabby outfit hidden in a London backstreet. Absurdly given their professed principles,the Quaker Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Anita Roddick Foundation have funded it.

Amnesty International meanwhile tore up a hard-won reputation for impartiality, it had taken decades to build, just so it could ally with Cage. My friend and comrade Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit in 2010, warned Amnesty  that allying with a jihadi advocacy group, whose members included supporters of the Taliban, undermined its fight against misogyny.

The rest is also worth reading. 

The contemporary condition #2

In the midst of a lengthy and very worthwhile discussion by Laura Kipnis at the Chronicle of Higher Education on changing campus sexual politics, the topic turns, unsurprisingly, to anxiety

These are anxious times for officialdom, and students, too, are increasingly afflicted with the condition—after all, anxiety is contagious. Around the time the "survivor" email arrived, something happened that I’d never experienced in many decades of teaching, which was that two students—one male, one female—in two classes informed me, separately, that they were unable to watch assigned films because they "triggered" something for them. I was baffled by the congruence until the following week, when the Times ran a story titled "Trauma Warnings Move From the Internet to the Ivory Tower," and the word "trigger" was suddenly all over the news.

I didn’t press the two students on the nature of these triggers. I knew them both pretty well from previous classes, and they’d always seemed well-adjusted enough, so I couldn’t help wondering. One of the films dealt with fascism and bigotry: The triggeree was a minority student, though not the minority targeted in the film. Still, I could see what might be upsetting. In the other case, the connection between the student and the film was obscure: no overlapping identity categories, and though there was some sexual content in the film, it wasn’t particularly explicit. We exchanged emails about whether she should sit out the discussion, too; I proposed that she attend and leave if it got uncomfortable. I was trying to be empathetic, though I was also convinced that I was impeding her education rather than contributing to it.

I teach in a film program. We’re supposed to be instilling critical skills in our students (at least that’s how I see it), even those who aspire to churn out formulaic dreck for Hollywood. Which is how I framed it to my student: If she hoped for a career in the industry, getting more critical distance on material she found upsetting would seem advisable, given the nature of even mainstream media. I had an image of her in a meeting with a bunch of execs, telling them that she couldn’t watch one of the company’s films because it was a trigger for her. She agreed this could be a problem, and sat in on the discussion with no discernable ill effects.

But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking, because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn.

The contemporary condition #1

Following up on a topic mentioned before.

At Tablet, James Kirchick has some insights into competitive victimology and online mobbing:
The problem with these little purges, these forced incantations of the latest auto-da-fés, however, is that they never quite end, for the tumbrils always need replenishing. Like all good left-wing revolutionaries, these latter-day cultural warriors are eating their own. There is an unholy synergy existing between the notions of identity politics and the mechanisms of social media, which fused together form a concatenation that is debasing political debate. The mob-like mentality fostered by Twitter, the easy, often anonymous (and, even if a name is attached to the account, de-personalized) insulting, fosters a social pressure that aims to close discussion, not open it. [...]

What makes this current cultural moment so depressing is that both identity politics and the preferred tool of enforcing its precepts—social media—are so easy and widely available to use, and are being used in regressive ways by people who claim to be promoting social justice. What they are actually doing—quite deliberately—is making themselves social despots by driving out everyone who lacks the taste or the ability to shout angry slogans and personal accusations through the social media megaphone. It’s actually difficult to write an essay saying simply that someone is a racist or sexist or homophobe without making easily refutable mistakes—unless they are in fact guilty of that crime. Twitter, however, puts the burden of proof on the defendant, making it very hard to defend oneself against the 8-word tweet that uses a hot-button word to slime whoever becomes the target of the mob’s ire. It’s Salem, with 21st-century technology. And sooner or later, we will all become witches.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Like a chain of grotesque paradoxes": Adolf Löwe on England

Something I ran across in my research just now:

“Thus the England and the Germany of the liberal age represent two extremes of social formation. On the one side a society which has grown up and is daily maintained by the spontaneous conformity of its members—on the other side a social chaos which from time to time produces wonderful flowers of individual development and then relapses into the dullness of the herd, held together by the mechanical forces of the state.”*

This was a comment by Adolf Löwe (later Adolph Lowe), who came to Britain -- or as he consistently refers to it in his book, "England" -- in the mid-1930s from Germany for reasons that I probably don't have to explain.  

In case there should be any misunderstanding, he's praising Britain (sorry, England) in the passage I quoted, which appears in his 1937 book The Price of Liberty. (He became a naturalised British subject in 1939.)

To Löwe, the English capacity for "spontaneous conformity" was a model for facing the need to balance freedom and order in the world of the new mass society.

From a little earlier in his book.  

“When I landed in England three years ago, with my German background everything which happens naturally here at first seemed to me like a chain of grotesque paradoxes. … It was only gradually that I succeeded in finding the common denominator which gives these paradoxes coherence. This forced me to cast about for some of the historical factors which have moulded this peculiar social form. From here a road suddenly opened up to a certain insight into the significance of the English social order for the future. This must even be understood in a double sense: not only of England’s own further development, but especially of her value as an example for a new Western civilisation.”**

* Adolf Löwe, The Price of Liberty: An Essay on Contemporary Britain (3rd edn., London, 1948 [1937]), 26.
**Ibid., 10.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Secularism continued

Excellent article by Nick Cohen in The Guardian to support my previous post. The following sums it up nicely:

Do I need to remind you that insulting the gods, the pope or the synagogue were the charges the faithful levelled against Socrates, Galileo and Spinoza? Or that insulting religion is everywhere the favourite charge of fanatics?

Sadly, what is happening at the moment makes me wonder whether we haven't been overestimating the extent to which the mentality of the West has actually been shaped by spirit of these (and other) thinkers. The whole debate post-Charlie Hebdo has confirmed a nagging hunch of mine, namely that the secularisation of the West has never been as complete and all-encompassing as some of us seem to have believed. Most people have not understood what secularism means or fully embraced the values that this term denotes, or abandoned latent beliefs in the Christian roots of our ways of thinking, morality and sense of justice. How many of my friends and colleagues whom I had thought to be intelligent rationalists have puzzled me with abrupt und unmotivated references to the Sermon on the Mount as the dominant precept of Western Thought (well, the "liberal" Pontifex's recent endorsement of the principle of honour and lex talionis should have vaporised that fallacy) or even described the Ten Commandments as the basis of our justice system.

This means, in turn, that these are not "post-secular times", nor that religion is "returning". At this very moment I'm actually wondering whether we might not still be in a pre-secular stage of history and that this is a crucial moment for us to prove that we want to - and are able to - live in world that is as free as possible from ignorance, prejudice and fanaticism as it can be.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Thank you, Pope Francis: This settles the matter, then, whether Islamist terror is a religious issue. Because - as you have made so perfectly clear with your tasteless intervention - it is (though it has to be emphasised, of course, that all religious orthodoxies have committed heinous crimes).

And while we're at it, Angela Merkel: Papa's candor puts paid to the claim, reiterated ad nauseam all over the place, that "our" values are Christian. No: Our values are the values of secular reason. They are what must be defended.

UPDATE: And here another reason why free speech must be defended at all cost.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Vorsprung durch Natur

The German company Festo makes a wide range of fascinating devices, many of which are based upon some kind of naturally occurring model of movement.

Among their products are various drones, and I have to say that the AquaPenguin is among my favourites.

The AirPenguin is obviously less based on actual penguin characteristics; still, it must be one of the most lovely and elegant drones created so far.

Still: stick a Hellfire launcher on that puppy and it'd make the most elegant Flying Robot of Death in the world.

A guy can dream, can't he?

(The BionicKangaroo, BionicOpter and SmartBird are also worth looking at.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Touring the ghostly technopolis

Via Reason, a video tour around Masdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

It's a short, interesting and eerie journey through a kind of eco-Ballardian "community" in the desert: there's even an empty swimming pool 53 seconds in!

Whether this particular venture is sustainable or economically viable over the long term, I can't say.

But it does give me the urge to re-read Super-Cannes.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The dragons are already slain

An entertaining performance at the Bundestag today in an event related to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It helps if you speak German, but if not, Alex Harrowell has provided a description and a few highlights in English at A Fistful of Euros:

Where do we start here? Obviously there’s the bit where he calls the Left Party MPs the “wretched remnants of everything we so fortunately overcame”. There’s the speaker of parliament, the CDU’s Norbert Lammert, a man who looks and talks exactly like a conservative called Norbert, who calls him to order on the grounds that he was invited to sing, dammit, and if he wants to speak he can always get elected. Biermann remarks that the DDR didn’t manage to shut him up and Lammert won’t.

The original:

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Full English Brexit

...comes, perhaps, one step closer.

Indeed, as Britain's conservative government is rapidly approaching a red line, it looks from Berlin as though Cameron is neither willing nor able to apply the brakes. Should Cameron move to establish numerical limits on immigration from EU member states, "there will be no going back," say sources in Berlin. First, they say, Cameron's proposal would be torpedoed in Brussels by Germany and several other EU countries and then he would return home and lose the referendum on Britain's exit from the EU.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Special journal issue: Crime Stories

I am very pleased to be able to announce that a special issue of Media History edited by myself and Paul Knepper -- "Criminality, Policing and the Press in Inter-war European and Transatlantic Perspectives" -- has now left the printers (which I can confirm since I received my copy today).

The four main articles (access to which will require an institutional subscription, probably through a university) consider a variety of topics:

In "Rogues of the Racecourse: Racing Men and the Press in Interwar Britain", Heather Shore (Leeds Metropolitan) considers the often dramatic (and sometimes violent) world of racecourse gangs and their presentation in both the serious and sensationalist newspaper press. (Among those gangs considered in the article are then then-infamous Sabinis, who have featured recently in fictional form in the hit British television show Peaky Blinders.)

In "Two Suspicious Persons: Norwegian Narratives and Images of a Police Murder Case, 1926-1950", Per Jørgen Ystehede (University of Oslo) takes a cross-media look at a case of police murder that, although legendary within Norway, has yet to be given the attention it deserves outside of that national context. Featuring stills from the 1949 feature film based on the case (which was banned in 1952 and not shown again until 2007), the article locates the Norwegian discourse around the case both within national and broader European trends involving perceptions of crime.

My own article, "The Constables and the 'Garage Girl': The Police, the Press, and the Case of Helene Adele", considers the controversy that arose when two London Metropolitan Police constables arrested a young woman for alleged disorder in the summer of 1928. She accused the constables of attempting to sexually assault her and use false charges to discredit her story, leading to a trial (and the eventual conviction) of the two men. Placed within the context of the period's sensationalist press and a long series of police scandals, the case has much to say about the complexities of "human interest" journalism in the 1920s.

Paul Knepper (University of Sheffield), in "International Criminals: The League of Nations, the Traffic in Women and the Press", explores one of the lesser known aspects of the League's activities in the inter-war period: the campaign against the traffic in women (previously known as "white slavery"). An important stage in the evolution of the modern language of "human trafficking", the League's investigations and reports were not only given widespread coverage but served as an important justification for the international organisation's existence.

In addition, Paul and I present an introductory essay (access to this is FREE) that explores some European and transatlantic contexts of recent crime-and-media historiography, which has--certainly for the inter-war period--become a very active field in recent years.

The special issue had its origins in a session of the 2012 European Social Science History Conference in Glasgow that I organised, though there have been a few twists and turns since its origins.

It has been a great experience to work with such talented colleagues who are, truly, not only engaged in some fascinating research but also capable of framing their work in clear and vivid language.

Furthermore, it was a very positive experience working with Media History, and we are all quite happy with the result.

Should anyone be interested in a copy of these essays but not have access to them through their institution, please do contact me. (Drafts of the introductory essay and my own article are available via my page).

[Cross-posted at The Most Remarkable Woman in England]

Friday, August 15, 2014

On directing "the madness of crowds to unexamined targets of outrage"

While I certainly don't agree with everything in Gary Indiana's review of a new biography of William Burroughs (is it really necessary to disparage realism and coherent narrative in praising more experimental fiction? I think not), it is certainly a readable engagement with an author about whose work I know far too little.

In any case, I also liked these passages:

The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or ‘antinomian morality’, in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.

On social media legions of isolated individuals, with the brainless malice of a concierge, spread ‘the real dirt’ on artists, writers, actors, musicians, athletes and others in the public eye. A tsunami of ugly feelings surges across the global clothesline at the mere mention of ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Roman Polanski’ in the press; Burroughs, too, has an anti-claque of Torquemada wannabes, enraged over his accidental shooting of his wife in 1951. Social media can launch a witch hunt or pogrom just as readily as a ‘progressive’ uprising, and in either instance directs the madness of crowds to unexamined targets of outrage; the technology itself is probably as addictive as heroin, since it acts directly on neural synapses, and its instantaneous transmission eliminates any space for reflection or analysis between emotional impulse and action. 

It rather seriously overworks the biological analogy of the-internet-as-drug, but as a description of the ultimately frustrating nature of social media discussions these days (one wave of overheated tribal screaming after another...), it certainly struck a chord with me.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Forthcoming article on ethnicity and the British criminal justice system, 18th and 19th centuries

I have just noted that an article by myself and Prof. Peter King -- "Black People and the Criminal Justice System: Prejudice and Practice in Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century London" -- has now appeared in an "advance access" version at Historical Research.

I'm not sure exactly when it'll appear in its final form, but for those of you with institutional access, it might be of interest already.

The abstract:

This article explores how attitudes to black people were translated into practice by examining how they fared as victims, witnesses and especially as the accused when they came to the Old Bailey in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It concludes that there was no significant discrimination against blacks as prosecutors and witnesses. Moreover, between 1791 and 1805, when a source containing systematic evidence on the ethnicity of the accused is briefly available, black people probably formed a smaller proportion of the accused than they did of the London population as a whole, and those who were prosecuted were less likely than average to be convicted and more likely to have their charges reduced. Although punishment patterns for black convicts included rather greater emphasis on transportation, an investigation of criminal justice practice in London reveals little or no systematic prejudice towards black people, thus indicating important contrasts with the experience of black people in colonial contexts and with the ways other ethnic groups such as the Irish were dealt with at the Old Bailey.

I'm quite pleased that this is finally seeing the light of day. This article was my first excursion into a more quantitative approach to history--though ultimately there was a lot of qualitative analysis as well--and it gave me the opportunity to focus for a while on the interesting and difficult history of ethnicity and "race."

The article emerged from a broader project led by Pete King, and it is best enjoyed in conjuction with his publication on the treatment of the Irish in the London courts: Peter King, "Ethnicity, Prejudice, and Justice: The Treatment of the Irish at the Old Bailey, 1750-1825," Journal of British Studies 52, no. 2 (2013): 390-414.

I will also note when the article appears in its final, printed form (with actual page numbers and everything).

Monday, July 28, 2014

"Quite simply an absorbing read"

The June issue of the English Historical Review contains a very fine review of The Most Remarkable Woman in England which is all the more enjoyable because it was written by Adrian Bingham, who is not only one of the leading historians of the twentieth-century British press but also someone whose own work influenced my approach to some of the topics in my book on the Pace murder trial.

I'm particularly pleased by the review as it is attentive to a difficult problem with which I wrestled throughout the more than five years I spent researching and writing the book: how to combine an exciting story that would appeal to as broad an audience as possible (essentially anyone who is interested in real-life human drama and not overly averse to endnotes) while also maintaining enough academic street cred for my professional historian peers to still take it seriously.

Or, as Bingham puts it in his review:  

What is the best way for academic historians to broaden their audience? How should they reach out to the much-sought-after ‘general reader’? One option (the Niall Ferguson or Simon Schama route) is to produce bold grand narratives and dazzle the public with new ways of looking at the ‘big picture’. An alternative, pursued here by John Carter Wood, is to narrow the scale, and to focus upon a dramatic human story, which can then be used to illuminate the period in question.

Happily, he finds that I have succeeded in this effort: 

The spectacular success of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009), based on a murder mystery that unfolded in Wiltshire in 1860, seems to have created a demand for real-life historical detective stories, and Wood has produced a pacy, scholarly and thought-provoking contribution to the genre. ...

Although this book is clearly designed to appeal beyond the academy, it will be of interest to scholars.... Firstly, it is quite simply an absorbing read. The case itself is a fascinating one, and Wood does it full justice. He writes crisply and vividly, and shows a real empathy for his protagonists, teasing out the likely motivations for their actions.... He has clearly learned well from the crime novelists, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, who so entertained the British public in the 1920s.

At the end, Bingham raises a potential problem that was always on my mind (and which plagued my efforts to publish the book until I made contact with the wonderful people at Manchester University Press):

There is a danger that books like this may fall between two stools. Wood is far more measured in his approach than a writer such as Summerscale, and he is too scrupulous a historian to let his imagination take him further than the evidence allows in order to entertain the reader. At the same time, some of those working in the field would undoubtedly have been interested in seeing some of the underlying themes developed further. 

However, this dilemma has a very happy ending:

On its own terms, though, as a forensic historical examination of one of the decade’s most intriguing murder cases, this is an undoubted success. I hope it gets the wider readership it deserves.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I do too.

I've had a fairly detailed look at reviews of the book at the blog for The Most Remarkable Woman in England, and there is also a shorter and more concise reviews page if you just want to skim all the nice things that people have been saying about it.

And if you feel so inclined, please do order The Most Remarkable Woman in England from your local bookstore, from Manchester University Press or from the online retailer of your choice.

Rumour has it that you may be glad you did. 

[Also posted at The Most Remarkable Woman in England blog]