Showing posts with label History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label History. Show all posts

Friday 25 September 2015

The Refugee Crisis and the Holocaust - How not to learn the lessons of History.


I am a big fan of learning the lessons of History. Without understanding the past our understanding of the present will always risk being superficial. 

However, amid the chaos and confusion that has been exploding across Europe due to the refugee crisis some people have not got the idea quite right.  The problem comes when people pick out entirely superficial resemblances to historic tragedies when much larger problems are raging around. 

Hundreds of thousands of migrants are struggling across the continent, and there is massive confusion among official bodies in about what they were meant to do with the tide of people.



The BBC reports in one Czech town migrants "had numbers written on their skin with felt-tip pen". The police thought the "priority in dealing with the 200 migrants at Breclav railway station [...] was identifying them and trying to keep family members together. This was a difficult task when many had no documents and did not speak English; hence the numbers in felt-tip pen on their arms."

But many news outlets were outraged because somebody felt this vaguely visually resembled something that was done during the Holocaust: the tattooing of prisoners at Auschwitz, the largest Concentration/Death camp. This is one of the most trivial historical comparisons I've ever seen. The Czech authorities were faced with a situation that was crowded, noisy, confused, dealing with large numbers of people with no ID papers and with whom they probably didn't share a language: whether Czech, English or Syrian Arabic, and so they resorted to felt tip pen. And no, they didn't "stamp" it, they wrote it. The difference is quite clear.

Of all the things that are a problem with the refugee crisis, the EU response (and even the Czech response) this is really not one of them. Even on a surface level the resemblance is not that close. Auschwitz prisoners were tattooed on the arm or chest and some of these tattoos are still visible on survivors 70 years later. The refugees had a number written on their hand in felt tip, which they could rub or wash off in a few minutes. It's hard to know where to start with the other important differences between the planned mass murder of millions of people and a temporary measure to organise a small group of migrants in a Czech train station. It feels like no-one should need to say that but apparently we do. Seemingly news outlets would rather officials cared less about what they were doing to help people, and care more about whether their actions bore a totally superficial resemblance to tiny parts of a vast historic crime.

This summer was very hot in Poland, reaching 100F (or 38C) and so the Auschwitz memorial museum set up mist sprays to cool visitors cueing for long periods in direct sunshine. Apparently though, this caused complaints that they resembled the gas chambers used to kill hundreds of thousands of people there. Actually, I say complaints, but every article I've seen on this repeats exactly the same complaint from one tourist. Again, though, that same article has then been copied and pasted into many online news outlets until it popped up on my computer.

It's hard to know where to even start. Firstly, the museum had an entirely legitimate health and safety reason for putting the mist showers up. Secondly, again, the resemblance is entirely superficial and frankly vague. I can do no better than quote the Auschwitz museum trust's own words from their Facebook page, in which they sound frankly bemused by the whole thing.

"And one more thing. It is really hard for us to comment on some suggested historical references since the mist sprinkles do not look like showers and the fake showers installed by Germans inside some of the gas chambers were not used to deliver gas into them."

That means that some of the gas chambers were disguised as shower blocks to avoid panic and resistance among the victims and to encourage them to strip before being murdered. The shower-heads in the blocks were never used though. Anyway, how anyone could confuse an old fashioned concrete building with fake shower-heads inside with an outdoor mist sprinkler is beyond me. Also, I can't help but feel the complaint is bizarre because surely you're meant to feel uncomfortable when visiting Auschwitz? You're meant to be reminded of the gas chambers? It is unclear whether the person thought the idea of people not being too hot was insulting to victims, or was too light-hearted or what.


"Officials in the German town of Schwerte have made plans to place some 20 refugees in barracks which were once part of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. The 'pragmatic solution' to provide shelter has sparked criticism, German media reported."

The wave of refugees entering Germany this summer has strained local resources and available accommodation. So one town has decided to use vacant buildings that were once barracks for guards of a sub-camp of Buchenwald, one of the Nazi concentration camps. This genuine attempt to help in a time of major demand and limited resources is apparently not good enough for some people.

"the decision has sparked criticism among the country's activist groups, with many calling the plan "questionable" and "insensitive."

It's not clear who it is insensitive to: not the migrants who will have somewhere decent to stay, not the victims of the camp who almost certainly couldn't care less even if they knew. And as for 'questionable', that has to be the weakest criticism known to man, to be reached for by politicians and activists when they have nothing to actually say. I would hope that almost everything is 'questionable', except perhaps the fact the sky is  blue (and even then one may ask, why).

The activists do not seem to be making any alternative suggestion of where the refugees should be housed.  And I shudder to think what they would have said when for years after 1945 many of the camps were used to house the millions of refugees and displaced persons who flooded Europe at that time, in some places for years afterwards. In times of great need you do what you can with limited resources to help people.

And finally my last Holocaust related example of people missing a major issue and clinging on to the completely superficial and irrelevant. Migrants and asylum seekers are commonly kept in camps for periods of time while they are being processed, especially when large numbers appear at once. And particularly in this current crisis large numbers have been travelling by train across Europe.




Which will be sad news for anyone who has ever taken the train to Butlins, or Centre Parcs, or a festival of any kind.

Now, it shouldn't need to be said, but to avoid confusion, I'm not saying that the European response to the refugee crisis has been perfect. But I am saying of all the things wrong with it this isn't one.  It's like people's minds are just trying to cling onto something, anything, so they latch onto the surface level visual resemblance to something terrible that once happened.

Maybe I'm over-reacting to a few daft news articles and twitter comments. But I saw all these examples within literally a couple of days, and I wasn't going looking for them. For a brief period it seemed like we were entirely losing our critical faculties. Hopefully it was just a one-off fluke of social media. But most people spend understandably little time in their day thinking about complex global problems. This kind of total trivia just chews up that valuable time and distracts people from actually considering what is really important about these crises, and makes them think these are the kind of issues that they should be concentrating on.

The whole model of 24 hour online news media is partly to blame. We have actually reached a point where there is too much 'commentary' . There are so many news sites that have to be constantly filled with a stream of 'articles' that it just encourages sites to put up any old rubbish with a title that might get a few clicks. It's staggeringly lazy. Each of these 'stories' could be found pretty much word for word identical on many, dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds even of different online news 'platforms', presumably just copied and pasted from Reuters or Associated Press or whoever actually originally wrote the piece. There's no creativity or intelligence or effort involved whatsoever, and once you become aware it's incredible how much of even respectable newspapers and media channel's content is just lazily copied and pasted in this way without any thought of the quality of the 'story'. Even when it's not just copied and pasted from somewhere else the need to constantly update with new content leads to attempts to generate stories left, right and centre where frankly none exist.

More generally, some in our society seem to think you show what a good person you are by finding things that nobody else has thought to be outraged by and getting really angry and pissed off about them.  And the more obscure the thing is you've found to get outraged about the better. That just shows you care more than the other people who haven't noticed that offence or 'insensitivity' enough to be screaming into their computer screens. Any idea that taking a pompous position of personal moral superiority is itself bad, or that people might make innocent mistakes that deserve some benefit of the doubt, or might just be doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, seems to be get lost. 

I imagine the format of many online media, whether short blogs, twitter, facebook, tumblr or whatever, adds to this: difficult to present a nuanced view that understands both sides, easy to scream outrage and bile. Neither do I think this helps get more good done. Often it just makes the world an angrier, shoutier place and distracts people from doing any good, rather than attempting to appear good. As well as quite possibly making us all more miserable and stressed, apart from that small number who seem to actively enjoy having someone to yell at.

I understand the irony of criticising people for criticising people over trivial issues instead of focussing on what's important when this itself is not exactly vastly important. And I am sorry for that, we are all trapped in the same hell. In fact, I don't want to criticise any individuals in particular because there's no point. I just want to encourage greater consideration about what really are the serious issues, common sense, and the occasional benefit of the doubt. That would make the world a less angry place while actually seeing more genuine understanding of complicated historical issues, and more good done in the long-term. 

When there is genuine, serious injustice and suffering, people need to raise a voice, even an angry voice. But we would be better able to hear that voice if it wasn't drowned out by a constant, screeching tidal wave of trivialities.

Update

There appears to have been another outbreak of this nonsense in Britain itself. This time linked to help for asylum seekers. While, as always, there are genuine questions to be asked to improve our treatment of those in need, people squawking about Nazis are not helping. This article covers my point admirably:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/12120009/Red-doors-and-wristbands-Another-day-another-comparison-to-Nazi-Germany.html

Thursday 26 February 2015

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

By Percy Bysshe Shelley


This poem was chosen by my friend Catherine Richardson, whose own blog is  http://borderlineaspie.blogspot.co.uk/. She explains why: 

"I don't know if this is my favourite poem, but it makes me think about how something so powerful and fearsome can, in the end, fade to nothing but ruins. How so much time had passed that the narrator hadn't even heard of Ozymandias the 'King of Kings', that he must learn of him from a distant traveller.

In a way it's reassuring to think that even the largest problems in life will one day be long-forgotten, but on the other hand the same can be said for our achievements (both personal and those of humanity). Recently I was talking with my flatmate whose parents lived under the dictatorship in Spain.  We talked about how those memories and the impact it had on their lives are currently fresh in their minds and passed down to the next generations, but one day the impact of Franco will be long-forgotten.

In a way when the topic first came up not long after I arrived here, I felt like the narrator: someone from a 'different land' who didn't know much about what had happened. Even in the present day there is still so much going on in the world now, that has a great impact on many people's lives, like Ozymandias during his reign, but we're unaware of so much of it."

Monday 2 February 2015

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be an Israelite
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be Dreyfus
The Philistine is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars. Beset on every side.
Hounded, spat on, slandered.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The bar-room rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
"Beat the Yids. Save Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart,
I know you are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these anti-Semites-without a qualm
have pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!
I seem to be Anne Frank
transparent as a branch in April.
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little we can see or smell!
We are denied the leaves, we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much -- tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
"They're coming!"
"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Come then to me. Quick, give me your lips."
"Are they smashing down the door?"
"No, it's the ice breaking ...
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous, like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am each old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me shall ever forget!
May the "Internationale," thunder and ring
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
But in their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason I am a true Russian!

By Yevgeny Yevtushenko

For Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

This is a beautiful poem from the Soviet Union and one of my favourite growing up.  On September 29–30, 1941 Nazi Einsatzgruppen and local police murdered over 30,000 Ukrainian Jews in the pit called Babi Yar on the edge of Kiev. 

In August 1961 Yevgeny Yevtushenko was went out to Babi Yar and was shocked that not only was there no monument on the site, but that there were trucks emptying rubbish onto the land tens of thousands of massacre victims were buried beneath. Overcome by emotion he wrote Babi Yar in four or five hours that day.  It was a protest against both the loss of the massacre, the Soviet denial that the Jews had been especial victims of the Nazi horror, and the continuing anti-semitism in the USSR.  

Monday 4 November 2013

Educational Hip Hop

For a long time I have been very fond of what I'd call 'Educational Hip Hop'. These videos make a particular niche of Youtube content: a charming mix of of entertainment with educational substance.

Hip Hop is better than most other musical genres for education because of its emphasis on quick speech, meaning you can get across a lot more information in the same two to three minutes than you can in a traditional song.

And the genre is happily expanding all the time. Below is a small selection of videos I've come across that span History, Theology, Economics, Energy Science & English. Please do let me know about any other quality productions so I can add them to this growing library of Hip Hop academia.

And thank you, Educational Hip Hop, for combining two of my great loves: Hip Hop and Academia.


HISTORY




Origins of World War One
The Rap Battle of Kings


King Charles II & The British Restoration



Epic Magna Carta Rap Battle
Horrible Histories





THEOLOGY

Martin Luther, His 95 Theses 
and the Protestant Reformation




ECONOMICS



Fear the Boom and Bust with F.A.Hayek and J.M.Keynes


The Fight of the Century.
Hayek & Keynes . Government Austerity vs Stimulus


Deck the Halls with Macro Follies.  
Have a Very Austrian Christmas!




ENERGY SCIENCE

The Fracking Song (with funk)
Yeah, Baby.





ENGLISH

The Antonym Rap




Word! Professor. . . .  or something.



(Obvious disclaimer: No videos are my own. All thanks to respective Youtube creators.)



Wednesday 22 May 2013

In Defence of Margaret Thatcher

After the calm comes the storm, and then the calm again. After years out of the limelight Mrs Thatcher finally died, and there was a predictable burst of emotion that is now calming again, now the solemnity of her funeral is done. Now hopefully people can speak from reason as well as emotion, whether positive or negative. I had hoped that she may be allowed to pass quietly, and be mourned quietly, and that her opponents would maintain some basic decency and decorum. In the end both and neither happened.  Most of her opponents maintained some dignity and decency in the face of the emotion of the event, especially the leadership of the Labour Party, but some people sadly and publicly descended into petty, spiteful hate. Not that Mrs Thatcher would have cared at all, or could be hurt by it. All hate does is poison the heart of the person who hates, doubly so when it is totally impotent.

Margaret Thatcher was always a towering figure in the background of the world I lived in. As I was growing up every single adult had an opinion about her. But I, of course, did not. I was two years old when she left office. I just about have memories of John Major as Prime Minister and the 1997 election but Mrs Thatcher I only knew 2nd hand. I don't have the experience other people have, and neither does anyone else my age, and certainly no-one younger. At this point I should stick my colours to the mast. I am a sort of tory liberal and I always admired Mrs Thatcher, the hard decisions she took and what she achieved: I am a proud Thatcherite. And that is partly why I feel the need to defend her now. But I'm also a historian. She has died and been buried and now her legacy may be discussed without  it being a vomiting of emotion. This is conveniently exactly what her detractors said they wanted or at least was the excuse they gave to justify spitting on her corpse, so in my own way I'm hopefully helping to make everyone a bit happier. I do believe that a lot, but not all, of the criticism that is made of her is unfair, or just plain silly. And I believe the rest does not justify the mindless hate that she uniquely receives.

It is difficult to know where to begin when talking about criticism of Mrs Thatcher. Some, like the complaints about the sinking of the Belgrano, are so silly that they can hopefully be ignored, and can only be evidence for the wider thesis that the sheer vehemence of criticism was motivated by emotion rather than reason. More generally I want to start with the people who claim that Mrs Thatcher was a total disaster of a Prime Minster, or claim they oppose almost everything she did. When I hear such a person I want to ask, which part of the 1970's would they like to return to?  Nobody actually opposes Thatcherism these days unless it is not defined as real policies but rather as a vague moral plague that people can claim to oppose. Almost all the great battles of 1980's in this country Mrs Thatcher won, and won so comprehensively that still, 23 years after she left office, nobody seriously suggest reversing any of her main reforms: The Conservatives, Labour, UKIP, Lib Dems, SNP, all Northern Irish parties, are Thatcherite parties, by any description that would be recognised in the 1980's, as are most governments across Europe and around the world. Of all our serious political parties only the Greens and probably Respect could be described as having any intention of reversing the Thatcherite consensus. But they are about as far from the levers of power anywhere as I am.

Only in two areas can I trace that the criticism of Mrs Thatcher is even vaguely justified, in terms of gay rights, and in terms of failing to appreciate the devastating effects of mass unemployment across large areas of the country. But I do not believe either of these areas justify the bile directed at Mrs Thatcher uniquely among politicians in this country.

First, I want to refute those who claim Mrs Thatcher was an unalloyed disaster. I'm, generally, not entirely sure how precisely she managed to win three decisive election victories in a row if she was such a disaster. Nor can it be denied that she was popular and is still popular. She got a total of 40.4 million votes across 3 elections, an average of 13.5 million votes per election, the best record in UK history. Nor was her success just down to FPTP.  The progressive majority has always been a myth and the anti-Thatcher majority is as much a myth. Actual data on 2nd preferences show voters split 53% to 37% for Mrs Thatcher in 1983, and 54% to 38% for Mrs Thatcher in 1987. And she remains popular today. At the time of her death she topped a poll for best Prime Minister in British history, and the same poll showed 52% to 30% claimed she was a good rather than bad Prime Minister, a better opinion poll rating than any current politician from all four parties, and even in the north of England 49% to 35% had a positive opinion of her as PM. In fact the sheer similarity of those figures from this year and 1983 and 1987 suggest perceptions remain stable, with about 50% in favour, 35% against and 15% ambivalent both now and then. I imagine this is one of things some of those who hate her most bitterly really cannot stand, the fact they are a decided minority, and that most of the country did and does support Thatcherism.

Those figures reflect the fact that Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly a good thing for the majority of both the population and areas in the country. Certain critics continue to maintain that Thatcherism only helped 'The Rich' or 'Bankers', or some other unsympathetic group. This is just silly. Millions of ordinary people supported Thatcherism for good reasons. Mrs Thatcher's aspirational free-market capitalism was not a ruse but a genuine and heart-felt belief. Under her premiership home ownership rose from 55% to 67%, an increase of around 2.5 million, and share ownership more than trebled, rising by several million, spreading assets and wealth to millions more than ever before. Nor can her achievements be doubted in other areas. In 1975-1980 inflation was 15.69% on average, in 1990-1995, the 5 years after Mrs Thatcher left office, Inflation was only 4.63%.  Economic growth increased from 2.1% on average in the 1970's to 3.1% on average in the 1980's and stayed at 2.8% on average in the 1990's. The chart below shows the dramatic turn-around in the UK economy relative to a near and similar competitor: France.



Income tax rates fell from 98% and 33% to 40% and 25%. Now, we can argue about whether the top rate of tax should be nearer 50% or 40%, but I presume there isn't anyone who seriously supports a top rate of tax of over 80% or 90%? I also struggle to believe that any person actually wants to roll back any of the other minor changes of the Thatcher years, whether a nationalised trucking industry, not being able to take more than £250 in currency abroad, not being able to get a mortgage from a bank, or being unable to buy things on a Sunday. Days lost to strikes fell from 11.7 million (on average) in 1975-1980 to only 0.8 million (on average) from 1990-1999. I also challenge anyone to seriously argue that the decline in trade union militancy is a bad thing. Does anyone seriously regret the loss of closed shops, or think it a disgrace that trade unions actually have to ballot their members before a strike, or are forbidden from calling entirely spurious strikes in disputes when they don't even have a grievance?

There is also a more fundamental argument. I have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of coal miners and their communities.  But for the trade union movement in general I have none. In the 1970's trade unionists deliberately sabotaged both Labour and Conservative governments and put their face totally against any beneficial economic reform regardless of the cost to ordinary people or the country. In a democracy it cannot be allowed than ANY group believes it has a right to fundamentally over-turn the democratically elected government, except fairly at the ballot box. A coup by the trade union movement is as much a coup as one by military officers, and the Thatcher government was right to crush it. Nor should it be forgotten exactly what those trade union leaders were fighting to defend. Arthur Scargill's bargaining position was clear: The government subsidy to the coal industry was already in the billions of pounds and yet Arthur Scargill would only accept mine closures on grounds of "exhaustion or geological difficulties". In other words he was demanding unlimited subsidy to maintain UK coal mining the state it was in at that time regardless of the economic or environmental cost.

The other great successes that ought to be mentioned are of course those in Foreign policy. Mrs Thatcher led Britain through the Falklands War and successfully defended British territory and citizens from the unprovoked military invasion of a fascist dictatorship, which victory was certainly not guaranteed, and which was itself instrumental in leading to the collapse of that dictatorship and a return to democracy in Argentina.  Not that they thank us for it much. Also worthy of mention was her role in the Cold War. She didn't win the war, but still her courage and determination to oppose the Soviet Union deserves mention. Communism and the Soviet Union in particular are as bad as fascism of any type, but still there were a great many people in Britain, even in the 1980's, who were morally ignorant enough not to recognise that. Mrs Thatcher did and acted as a beacon of freedom to millions of East Europeans and contributed to the strong western Anti-Soviet response that itself contributed to a largely peaceful victory in the Cold War, with the result of freedom and peace for tens of millions of people.

Which leaves me with more difficult territory to cover. It is wrong to say Mrs Thatcher oversaw the collapse of British industry, even more ridiculous to claim that she deliberately and gleefully engineered that collapse. In fact Manufacturing output grew by 7.5% during her time in office, only to then steadily decline under 13 years of Labour government. Neither was Mrs Thatcher responsible for the greatest relative decline in manufacturing: In 1970 Manufacturing was 20.6% of GDP, in 1979 17.6%, in 1990 15.2% and in 2010 9.68%. What did happen under Mrs Thatcher though was that jobs in manufacturing, and other traditional industries like mining, collapsed.  Manufacturing employment collapsed from 4 million to 2 million and mining employment fell from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. This brought disaster across areas of the country that became long-term unemployment blackspots, with undiverse economies and workforces poorly trained to create or take up other jobs. It is fair to say that the government did not foresee how bad this problem would get, how long it would last, or have any plan to solve it that was even vaguely up to the task.

But it is meaningless to pretend that this entire fall in industrial employment, and the more than 3 million unemployment it lead to, can be placed at the door of Mrs Thatcher. The first point worth mentioning is the 1.5 million already unemployed when the Conservatives took office in 1979. The second is the fact that the recession that plagued Britain in the early 1980's was not just a British event, it was an international recession that did not originate in Britain. Mrs Thatcher had been in government for only a year when the economy slid into recession and unlike Labour in 2008 cannot be blamed for the years of decisions that led up to it. And, more importantly, manufacturing across the developed western world went into serious decline in the 1980's due to an explosion of globalisation and increasing competition from developing world economies. Britain, America, Germany all have their abandoned factories and rust belts. Should Mrs Thatcher be blamed for Detroit, or the abandoned factories of the Ruhr?

It is true that Britain was hit hardest of any major economy but there is plenty of blame to spread for that too. Short-termism by successive governments and Trade union militant pig-headedness meant that much of British Industry was inefficient, untrusted, over-manned and only supported by government subsidy and protection. Industry should have adapted gradually to those changing realities through the 1970's but due to a mix of governments and unions who fundamentally refused to face up to the reality it had to deal with it all at once in the early 1980's with destructive results. But in this case there really was no (long term) alternative. Government attempts to hold back change had already broken down with unemployment reaching 1.5 million and Inflation peaking at over 20%. The traditional Keynesian attempts to inflate the economy were simply not an option as Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan stated in 1976:

"We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment."

Now I can't deny that the Thatcher government could have done more to stop unemployment rising quite so high. Interest rates were raised higher than was probably needed to combat inflation and public spending was cut to control borrowing during a recession. But these measures weren't spiteful attempts to punish northerners or manufacturing workers or miners or labour party supporters. Mrs Thatcher's own words were "This Government are pursuing the only policy which gives any hope of bringing our people back to real and lasting employment."  They were a conscious choice that 20% rates of inflation were a more dangerous long-term risk to the economy and long-term employment. They were decisions taken in light of an ongoing deficit and the memory of an IMF bailout only a few years before.

There are reasons to argue that these policies succeeded in the long term. Even within the 1980's over-all employment grew by 1.8 million, despite the fall in traditional industries. After 1992 Britain had 15 solid years of falling and then low unemployment, low inflation, and steady growth, totally reversing the long-term post-war trend of higher inflation, higher unemployment and lower growth. And when that period did end we have seen, despite a deeper recession, lower levels of unemployment: 7.8% rather than 12%. And at least a significant part of this difference has to be put down to the Thatcherite reforms that increased Labour market flexibility and allowed wages to take the strain of recession rather than jobs, especially when one remembers unemployment was 6% even when Mrs Thatcher took over.

It is extremely easy in retrospect to deride the policies of those in government in the 1980's, or to throw around accusations of personal malice or evil. It is a lot harder to say what you or I would have done in the same position, faced with the fundamental long-term problems that existed by the end of the 1970's. It is particularly easy in a country with entrenched Thatcherite policies to say the government should have been specifically more moderate on interest rates while presumably pursuing all the rest of the policies we take for granted today. But at the time that wasn't a clear option. All Thatcherite policies received massive opposition, and the main clear alternative was not Thatcherism with more awareness of the long-term damage of mass unemployment, it was the unapologetic big-government, nationalised industry, trade-union dominated, real socialism of Old Labour, attempting to hold on, without compromise, to the world that had already failed in the 1970's, Canute-style, against the tide of growing globalisation. I don't say this to excuse the mistakes that were made at the time by the government, but to put them in the extremely difficult context in which they existed, without a clear better alternative on offer.

Moving on from actual policy, the other main accusation I want to mention is that despite the actual historical evidence, Thatcherism (and the lady by extension) were unacceptable sources of evil purely on some moral basis. They stress the "spiritual or "moral" damage that Thatcherism supposedly did to Britain, by preaching individualism, greed, selfishness, blah, blah. Some even draw a direct line to the financial crash of 2008. The thing is that nobody can actually factually explain this. The charge of individualism is true: Thatcherism was unashamedly pro-individual achievement, pro-aspiration, pro-freedom, and I don't apologise for that in a world where collectivist ideologies have left an unequalled legacy of death and human misery. The charges of greed and selfishness are less clear. Mrs Thatcher obviously never stood up and said "greed and selfishness are good". I can only presume that people mean she correctly pointed out there is no shame in wanting to earn money and do better, and society is based on people striving to achieve that for them and their families. If they mean anything more I presume they can quote some actual evidence for the accusation of vague moral malevolence?

I presume they are also expressing moral outrage at the fact Mrs Thatcher oversaw the failure of the post-war socialist consensus without any particular sadness, and assume this could only come from some sort of personal evil. This is nonsense because, as previously discussed, Mrs Thatcher did not dismantle the post-war consensus because it was already failing, and she did not choose to end full employment because it had already ended, and there was no way to realistically turn the clock back. What she could try to do was reverse the long-term trend of decline, which is what she took pleasure over. I just don't recognise privatising an airline, to give an example, as a promotion of selfishness and vice in society.  Moreover, it is morally ridiculous to judge someone on the basis of how sad they looked about something happening, as opposed to by their actions.

Even more over, what Mrs Thatcher supposedly did or did not personally morally promote is utterly irrelevant to the moral health of society. Whatever that state may be, to blame the PM in a limited democracy for it is cowardly, incompetent and crazy. Individuals and communities are responsible themselves. To pretend otherwise is a deliberate abdication of personal responsibility on a massive scale. Even more ridiculous is to pretend that some direct chain of blame can be traced over 20 years to events that weren't even a glimmer in anyone's eyes in 1990. People and politicians are responsible for their own actions over a generation. Attempts to project guilt back into the past instead of blaming the people who are actually responsible for the actions is stupid.

The one concrete example that is often given to support this idea of some moral plague emanating from Mrs Thatcher is the "there is no such thing as society" quote. This quote has been taken out of context. Mrs Thatcher was specifically opposing the idea of 'society' as an abstract entity that should solve all people's problems for them:

"people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” [...] and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business"

The fact she evidently did believe in society is demonstrated by a range of other quotes: "We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them'." "'the basic ties of the family are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue'. " "we learn our interdependence and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of Society'." The fact is not that the initial quote proves anything but that for those who blamed Mrs Thatcher uniquely and personally for the breakdown of the society of the post-war consensus "there is no such thing as society" was too good to pass up. It just confirmed all the things so many people thought they already knew.

The one final subject is that of Gay Rights, and particularly the notorious Section 28. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 banning local authorities from "promoting homosexuality" or "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" was a nasty piece of legislation that made life unnecessarily difficult for countless young gay people by effectively banning schools from supporting them or promoting tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality. Mrs Thatcher had been an early supporter of decriminalising homosexuality in the 1960's, and the Section was not introduced by the government but by a private backbencher. But that is small defence. It was accepted and passed by the government, for party political ends, which is a disgrace. Another quote illustrates her attitude, taken from a speech on Education: "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay." This clearly reflects the traditional view that being gay is a 'choice', a moral failing, as much as anything, that people need to be strictly cautioned against. This idea is ridiculous and wrong, and the only defence that can be given is that it reflects, not personal animosity or evil, but the generation Mrs Thatcher was from. This is a woman who grew up before the 2nd world war, and her thinking on this issue sadly reflected the prejudice of an almost bygone age.  But it is one sadly still shared by millions of people who grew up in that time and shared those widespread social assumptions before awareness of the real nature of homosexuality became widespread in society.

That finishes my defence of Mrs Thatcher. I do not want to claim that she was perfect, far from it. She made mistakes,serious ones, her attitudes to homosexuality was a serious moral failing, if a partially understandable one given the age she grew up in, and her governments should probably have acted to bring inflation down more slowly and keep unemployment lower (though possibly for longer). Though to what extent that would have been possible, or beneficial in the economic long term, is hard to judge, even retrospectively. What I think is unarguable is that she did a great deal of good and that a lot of the criticism she does receive is simply undeserved. On economic issues a lot of that criticism and hatred seems to reflect the childish view that she could have just flicked a switch to make the unemployment and suffering of the 1980's go away and chose not to.  That view is idiotic to the extreme. Criticisms of general incompetence can only reflect ignorance about what she did achieved and the situation she inherited. She was right about 9 issues out of 10, and her accuracy, motivated by a passion for personal freedom, is reflected by the ongoing adherence to the Thatcherite consensus, both in Britain and around the world. In extremely difficult times I believe her record was was certainly no worse than that of any other politician and does not justify the ugly hate that is thrown at her. It is easy to feel good because you have a bogeyman to despise. It is hard to face up to the fact that the world is a complicated and difficult place and there are no simplistic explanations or solutions to our problems.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Remembering Victims of Genocide

Updated 10th September 2015: Please see the end of the article

This article presents some of my own thoughts about remembering victims of genocide and other acts of evil. This is not meant to  criticise anyone else, merely to present some thoughts that I have found helpful. It was inspired by my own study of the 2nd World War, by the recurrent prod of the annual Holocaust remembrance day, and, directly, by a visit I made last summer to the Nuremberg Trial museum in Nuremberg.  (Warning: some of the photos are quite graphic; The term democide refers to any organised mass murder, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, etc)

The first question I want to try to answer is 'Why it is important to take steps to actively remember victims of atrocities and violence?' After all these people were nor individually related to us as friends or family. Why do I think it's important we take active steps to remember them?

I think we do have a duty to remember. I think gross injustice affects us as a society, as a whole, and the more the bigger the injustice. These terrible acts were perpetuated not by single individuals but by and against societies as a whole, with all the complexity that brings; and I think the only level at which we can properly respond is as a society, as a whole itself. Just as grief and mourning is almost essential on an individual personal level to move on from loss, so acts of social remembrance and exploration are the only proper response to mass loss of human life.

And this is the  only response we have left. Justice requires that we act to stop evil, and when we can not stop it to at least recognise it as evil. We didn't stop it, or we couldn't stop it, so all we can do to acknowledge something terrible and wrong happened to people and to remember, to bring them to mind, and make ourselves aware. I believe we also have a duty to remember, to honour their names, because, on a very real level, we live through other people. A real and large part of our existence, when we are alive, and continuing when we are dead, is through other people thinking of us, caring for us, remembering our lives and appreciating what we have done. Thinking of people brings them to life again, in the only way we can, insufficient as it is.

I think genocide, or any other act of mass murder or violence, is not only an attempt to kill people in the sense of ending their individual life. It is an attempt to erase them from the world, to take away everything they have been as well as what they are or will be; To make the world as though they never existed, only to be ever thought of, rarely, and if at all, as an extinct, forgotten shadowy mass. To actively remember those who suffered is to directly frustrate and undo the work of those who hated them so much in life. It honours their lives that were, in the same way we show respect to be people who are alive: by committing to them our time, interest and concentration.

Then of course there's the obvious reason, so oft repeated as to become cliche: to prevent such a thing ever happening again.  But because this is an, often failed, cliche does not make it any less true. Also because acts of violence never occur alone, but as the symptom of a complex process of mental and spiritual poisoning that stretches back long before,and can continue long after, the violence has been stopped and the bodies buried. This poisoning can and will continue unless consciously fought, and because it is buried deeply in men's psyche it requires a sustained effort to root out and prevent its return.

So that is why I think remembrance is so important.  The next question is how?

The thing about acts of democide is that the numbers and the scale make it impossible to relate to. 6,000,000 Jewish people killed in Europe between 1939-1945. Several million non-Jewish victims of the same Nazi campaign of mass murder. 700,000 people shot in a single year during the Stalinist great terror in the Soviet Union. 500,000 people murdered in a few months in a tiny country of Rwanda with primitive machetes and knives and sticks. Neither do the pictures help for me:


















Partly it's the black and white of these pictures.  But mostly when I see images of what people have became there is a feeling of numbness.  The mind recognises it is seeing something horrific, but cannot reach across to feel the loss of each individual, because so many malformed corpses just look like planks of wood. My brain cannot wrap itself round this like it should. Just like when presented with the numbers the response is blank shock, a certain unbelieving horror even when faced with the grim reality. But mostly a lack of feeling; somehow these bodies just don't really seem real and these numbers don't seem human.

It is so far beyond anything we have experienced or can understand. Bits of the evil can even seem almost comical at times, with villains and schemes that just seem cartoonish.


This silent movie villain of a man was Wolfram Sievers. And he was responsible for what is known as the 'Jewish Skeleton Collection', which sounds like a bad name for a rock band, but was in fact an effort during the Holocaust to scientifically document the supposed racial inferiority of Jewish people. The idea was to kill a number of people in controlled conditions and preserve their corpses so they could be displayed after the war, like "diplodocus skeletons" in a museum: a testament to the supposed physical inferiority of the Jewish race. They were worried that all the Jews would be exterminated, and so there would be no 'specimens' left. As such 86 people were selected for their perceived exaggerated racial characteristics, murdered with gas, and their bodies preserved.

 
At first the photo just looks like another horrible waxwork. But then the details start to creep through. This man was Menachem Taffel.  He was a dairy merchant in Berlin, he sold milk. He had a wife called Clare who was a year older than him and a daughter called Esther who was 15 and volunteered at a local nursing home after school.  He was born July 21st 1900 in the Russian Empire, in 1938 he and his family moved in with his wife's parents and on August 17th 1943 he was murdered  in a gas chamber in some god-forsaken Hell in what is now Eastern France. The night before he ate his last meal on earth: it was potato peelings. His wife and daughter were already dead, having been murdered on arrival at Auschwitz on 13th March 1943.

And already for me the emotions have changed. I hear the name and read the scant details of an ordinary life and my brain moves from blank horror to connect with the reality that these were individual, innocent persons, with their own ordinary lives, virtues and foibles, whose lives were taken away, their hopes and dreams snatched from them.  All at some madman's whim.



This is Elisabeth Klein nee Thalheim. She was born in 1901 in Vienna, daughter of Saul and Karoline Thalheim. She married Koloman Klein on 6th January 1924 and moved to Belgium in 1938 with her mother, father, and husband to avoid the Nazi persecution. She was arrested, and later murdered in 1943, like Menachem Taffel, in Natzweiler, in a refrigerator room used as a crude gas chamber. Her husband had been arrested earlier in 1940 in Brussels and was murdered in 1942 in Auschwitz. She almost certainly never knew.

She was another one of the victims of this particular small, noxious, macabre episode in such a large period of evil. When confronted with this image, with a name, and with these ordinary facts about ordinary people again my immediate emotional response is different. Instead of numb, almost unbelieving shock, my gut is heaving, my pulse starts to race, I feel both like I am going to throw up and suddenly unbelievably angry, and like I want to do something right now to make this evil not have happened.

Please excuse the introspection. My point is that when we learn about people who suffered great evil as individual, living human beings with their own small and detailed lives, rather than as victims, or corpses, or numbers, the psychological response is totally different and much more powerful. When I just see piles of corpses it is easy just to feel shock. When I know who these people were, the inconsequential details about them and the ordinariness of their lives, it makes real empathy easier, because it sounds like the ordinary people who are part of my life, and not just like 'victims'.  Then suddenly I feel burning, rising anger.  And that is a very different response. This is the response of being confronted with an act of evil and injustice to a human being in front of me. Not the incomprehensible shock of something I know I reject but I cannot begin to really understand.



That is an 18 year old Russian girl. But the face is so distorted by suffering and deprivation that it is barely recognisable as human, and so again when I look at that face I can't seem to manage the same reaction as when I look at that picture of Elisabeth Klein. But I start thinking of how pretty she must have looked before being imprisoned, when the face was not drawn by starvation. I think that she must had all the same thoughts teenagers had: the worries about making friends, doing well at school, attracting boys, what to wear, squabbles with parents and siblings, all the the same things we all had and seemed so important at the time. She had all that before she was torn away from that normal life by a horror no-one could have predicted or imagined. Only then can my mind really recoil in the horror and anger that I think is the proper response to this being done to someone.

If we remember people only as they became and what was done to them we risk presenting them only as victims, which is what they were turned into; not human beings with lives and accomplishments, which is what they were. When we only remember that way I think we fail to properly consider them as human beings, and even, in a totally unintentional sense, view them in a manner similar to that their murderers viewed them: as statistics, as objects, rather than as individuals. Individual humans who are valuable not only because they are human but also because of all the things they achieved and did and were. Whether that meant they were doctors, bakers, pretty, Old, young, top of their class, lazy, businessmen, mothers, funny, kind, friends, postmen, shy, athletic, tall, sad, musical; and all the other list of features and qualities that make up actual human beings.

There are, I think, two parts to this. The first is that presenting these individuals as the people they were with the lives they had, rather than just as the victims they were turned into, is a more effective and whole way of enabling people to make the emotional connection to what happened to them (as I have described myself going through above). Not just in a detached sense, but in visceral, emotional sense. The kind of emotion that can reach across differences of decades and continents and sparse knowledge, and that drives and motivates us to not just recognise something as wrong but to act against it.

The second part relates to what I said at the start that in a real way we all live partially through how and whether other people think, act and feel about us. And because one of the purposes of democide was to erase people from existence in the widest sense, as much as biologically kill them. To remember people as they were, rather than as what they were turned into, feeds into both of these points. By remembering the people they were before evil overtook them we undo, in a horribly small and horribly insufficient, but still real sense, and the only one we have, what their murderers tried to do to them. Remembering them as who they were is an act of defiance.



This girl really illustrates what I mean.  Anne Frank's diary is world-famous, though she never meant it to be.  And I have always thought it was one of the most important and powerful historical accounts we possess.  This is not only despite but because it does not make any direct description of the historical events that surround it, rather it is the intensely personal account of a teenage girl with literally nowhere to go, with all its moments of boredom and pettiness and personal selfishness. And as such it makes Anne the most unavoidably human, and hence unbearably poignant, victim of the Holocaust. Anne's book contains nothing of her tragic fate; It obviously ends without warning the day before her family were captured. And in fact we know almost nothing about her time after arrest, and how she died, certainly nothing to the richness of the account of her life. And so despite what was done to her she will always remain the pretty, gawky, adolescent girl she was first, who is recognisable across the world.

Finally, I think that it is important to both look at the large numbers, to understand the scale of evil, but also to focus on single individuals, to understand the depth of the evil. But this does not mean that any one person can or should be taken to represent all victims. Each individual's loss belonged solely to that individual, and was valuable because of that. This quote by Miep Gies, one the people who hid Anne Frank's family, explains that:

"Anne's life and death were her own individual fate, an individual fate that happened six million times over. Anne cannot, and should not, stand for the many individuals whom the Nazis robbed of their lives ... But her fate helps us grasp the immense loss the world suffered because of the Holocaust."

What individuals stories can do is give us a window that reveals at least a tiny part of the totality of loss properly. What I believe is needed, in exploration and remembrance, is a holistic approach that takes in all these elements: the total, the individual, the before and the after of people's lives, rather than gets distracted into any one of these features. And this is becoming ever more important in our current time, as we reach the point where the last living survivors and eyewitnesses of the Nazi terror are dying and the events slipping out of living memory and into history. So it becomes so much more important to think in a structured way now about how we can keep the understanding of what happened alive in our society, and communicate it to each new generation.  Especially as in my young life-time the number of genocides and democides around the world tragically continues to increase: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria.

Each of these further tragedies is a testament to fact we have not, as a world, learnt the lessons of the Holocaust; but each act of evil itself must be considered holistically, as its own unique event. Each one hence also raises its own unique questions about the proper means of remembrance and awareness, though I believe the points I have outlined here also apply. In general though, I am a historian, and so I guess biased, but I really believe that only by knowing the past and understanding the past. Only by keeping faith with those who died before us can we hope to understand our present situation, where it has come from, and where it might go, and lead our world into a better future.


Update: 10th September 2015

In this article I use examples taken from the appalling story of the 'Jewish Skeleton Collection'. This was one small story within the tragedy of the Holocaust that particularly touched me, including the image of Menachem Taffel, who for decades was the only identified victim due to the photo above.

Amazingly, in July 2015 some of the dismembered body parts of Mr Taffel and one other victim were discovered in Strasbourg Medical institute, 70 years after it was believed all the victims were decently buried. Last weekend these remains were given a Jewish funeral at the Strasbourg-Cronenbourg Jewish cemetery, hopefully bringing a final end to this awful tale. The full story can be read in the following article: 
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3225272/Remains-Polish-Jew-wife-children-gassed-Auschwitz-dismembered-pickled-test-tube-sadistic-Nazi-doctor-finally-laid-rest-72-years-later.html 

Sunday 26 February 2012

Is the Holocaust Unique?

Holocaust Memorial Day January 27th 2012

Between the outbreak of war in 1939 and its final total defeat in May 1945 Nazi Germany ordered, orchestrated and carried out the deliberate murder of 6 million Jewish people from every territory in Europe in which the Nazis had control, in an effort to kill every single human being of Jewish descent in the world.

That is the barest factual statement of what happened. To try to say more is to fall into an abyss, once started it seems impossible to find a decent point to stop without it being somehow inappropriate.  There is always so much more to say.

It is impossible to fully tell the true story of what happened across almost every country in Europe, involving uncountable different communities,  millions of individual experiences and six years, in what were really a series of associated atrocities by different methods united  by the same evil purpose. If I started now and kept talking without pause to a ripe old age I could only tell you a small fragment of the whole story of what happened to so many people.

One of the major historical and popular arguments about the Holocaust relates to whether the Holocaust was in some sense unique. The precise answer to that is that it depends in what manner you mean.  The less precise, but fundamentally more accurate, answer is simply, Yes.  There have been other massacres, other atrocities, other genocides, other periods when more people were killed in total.  But still the Holocaust is unique.  The Holocaust was a uniquely significant event in Western history and world history as a whole.

In the most trivial sense all historical events are unique.  They all involved different places, different people, different real lives and experiences, different contexts and circumstances. The impulse to lump them all in the same and rank them by various criteria, as though it were some crude measuring exercise, should be avoided at all costs.  It is cheap and unworthy, as well as intellectually lazy, to try to reduce them to a few rough yardstick criteria.  Especially when they involve such vast but personal tragedy.

But even in those crude senses the Holocaust is still unique. Despite a sad series of events that have made a mockery of the solemn vow 'Never Again', the Holocaust is still the largest single genocide in human history. But that is not what makes it truly unique.

Even in the 2nd World War, the Jewish Holocaust happened within a much larger campaign of indiscriminate mass murder of unarmed prisoners and civilians by the Nazis and their allies in areas under their own control. It also included (in roughly descending order of size): Soviet POW's, Polish gentile civilians, Romany and Sinti Gypsies, Serbs, Soviet civilians, disabled people, Homosexuals, Left Wing political activists (social democrats, communists, trade unionists), Freemasons, Jehovah's witnesses, Catholic and protestant clergy, and other political prisoners who resisted the Nazis. Including all these groups raises the number of victims to 11-12 million. And this is itself small next to the 65 million victims: massacred civilians, civilians killed due to total war, and military deaths in WW2 as a whole.

I've often thought that there should be separate accepted words to refer to the specific destruction of the Jews and the wider campaign of murder by the Nazis using the same methods and infrastructure: mass shooting, starvation, extermination through labour, and gas chambers.  Possibly one of the commonly used words Shoah or Holocaust could be assigned to refer to each one. This proposal does have one significant problem, namely the visceral and etymological connection both of these terms have to the specifically anti-Jewish campaign of Genocide.

What makes the Jewish Holocaust unique is not the size though. What makes it so unique is the nature of the event, the place it takes in the psychological development of western civilisation. The Holocaust was a continent-wide campaign to murder every man, woman and child of a scattered nation of 9 million people based on nothing more substantial than a wind of vaguely defined, nonsense, paranoid, racist fantasy.  To this end one of the largest and most developed states in the modern world directed every means and instrument at its disposal, utilising its every branch and department in all their administrative complexity and efficiency, the most advanced expertise in science and engineering of the time, and the entirety of a vast professional military and police establishment, as well as the help of collaborators in every country it reached.  All to the end of murdering specific human beings with the greatest efficiency and speed possible, all thoroughly documented and recorded with all the precision one could expect of a modern state bureaucracy.

The genocide was at the centre of the very purpose of the Nazi state as seen by those leading and organising it. In the midst of Total War, even when they were losing that war, Nazi Germany prioritised the genocide over prosecuting the War.  Even into 1944 & 1945 trains deporting Jews were given priority for precious space on Europe's railways over desperately needed war materials heading to the armies. Scarce resources were directed into killing millions of skilled workers despite Germany's desperate inferiority in industrial production. Vital military personnel and administrative capability were tied up in organising and directing the genocide despite the steady collapse of the Nazi state. Quite simply the Nazis would rather murder Jews than win the war. And all for nothing.The Holocaust had no purpose, no possible practical gain, even by the flimsy standards and excuses of historical genocide and mass murder. It was not central to securing anyone's power or some tangential military or economic advantage. It was just pointless, brutal, sadistic murder and destruction for its own sake.

The echoing result of this appalling event was that the European, modernist, rationalist, arrogant Enlightenment myths of superiority, civilisation and progress that laid at the basis of so much Western self-belief were destroyed for ever. Along with so many assumed truths about what modern man was capable of, about the possibility for evil in supposedly ordinary, decent human beings and even the providence of God. The Nazis twisted all the things that modern, western civilisation had built its assumption of superiority and civilisation on into the utmost mindless evil.  Organisation, law, modern technology, industrial efficiency, modern medicine, even the language and dressings of science and rationalist, naturalist enquiry itself. The Holocaust revealed the veneer of civilisation, morality, compassion or religion, on which we place so much faith, to be dangerously thin and transparent, and devastated western faith in itself, in civilisation and even in reason itself.

Its horrors were so great, so widespread, so unthinkable, so utterly without meaning or purpose but also so targeted, so regimented and so coldly planned that they penetrated into the very core of the understanding of western civilisation in a way no other event ever has. And uniquely among historical events it was so powerful that it shocked the Western World into taking a real step back and considering itself again: The United Nations, War Crimes, International Human Rights Law, Genocide, Israel, Crime against humanity, European Union, Refugee Status, Hate Speech, Memorial, Education & Intervention.

All these organisations and categories were developed, or greatly increased in importance, as a response to the War in general, but particularly the Holocaust, which was by far the most shocking and horrifying nadir even in a conflict not otherwise short of horrors.  These ideas were radically creative and new, driven by a deep-seated sense that the tragedy represented something radically, horribly new in our shared history and hence required an entirely new response.  A recognition that the instruments and assumptions of the old world had proved totally inadequate to what had happened and that if the civilised world was to hold onto or regain any sense of justification then it had to formulate a new response.

These measures also came from a wider horrific realisation that responsibility, if not guilt, for the Holocaust did not just rest with a handful of Nazi criminals, or even all Germans. It was facilitated and passively supported by a deep spiritual and moral malaise in societies across the western world.  As early as the 1930's Hitler made no attempt to hide his desire for personal dictatorship, nor the violent and barbaric methods of his henchmen, nor his rabid hatred of Jewish people but he succeeded anyway because, to quote Norman Davies, "the prevailing political culture in Germany at the time did not preclude the election of gangsters".  Hitler could not have legally abolished the constitution with the votes of the Catholic Centre Party, a liberal, bourgeoisie Christian Democrat party that at the crucial moment voted with Hitler and thus ensured its own destruction and the horrors that followed. He pursued racist and violent policies to harass and exclude Jews from German life well before the outbreak of War. But still he had defenders and supporters in Western countries, or just well meaning politicians like Chamberlain, who were able to believe he was anything other than a grim, anti-human psychopath.

His crimes were only possible because anti-semitism and political violence were deep-rooted and accepted within German culture, whether among more mainstream conservatives, or the wider population, even among groups that would never themselves have gone as far as the Nazis did. The Christian churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, even where in some cases they half-heartedly opposed Nazism or Hitler's excesses, such as Michael von Faulhaber Archbishop of Munich, had a long history of promoting anti-Judaism, which contributed to anti-Semitism pervading German society as an acceptable component.  This all meant that when the time came the plight of Jewish citizens was met, admittedly not by joy, but also not by resistance or outrage, but by indifference.  To quote Ian Kershaw "the road to Auschwitz was laid by hatred, but it was paved with apathy".

And the German Nazis could not have acted alone.  In almost every country they exploited widespread anti-semitism to one degree or another.  Anti-semitism that meant there were always those willing to collaborate and in vast numbers those willing to stand aside. Anti-semitism that had been a widely accepted part of culture and life even among supposedly civilised and liberal countries. In some countries, like the Baltic states and Ukraine, some locals were willing participants in pogroms and massacres.  In others, like France or Hungary, the local police and security forces were willing, even eager participants in rounding up and deporting Jewish people in their country at the Nazi's command, to the point where their enthusiasm  surprised the Germans.

That inadequacy was not limited to those countries occupied by the Nazis.  In the environment before WW2 countries had very strict limits on  immigration and refugees, regardless of circumstance, unless a person was very wealthy or important.  Many refugees fled Nazi occupied Europe, in the 1930's and even after war started, but were turned away by country after country that would not accept them, either through anti-semitism or sheer indifference. Even in Britain or America desperate refugees were deported back to central Europe, where they would later be caught up in the Holocaust and murdered. Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust museum has a whole program devoted to remembering those relatively few non-Jews who did risk their lives to rescue Jews. Among these people is a whole category made up of diplomats in various European countries who, faced with the desperate refugees, ignored the strict rules governing immigration at that time and mass produced the official Visas these people desperately needed to cross borders and be safe in other countries.  Tens of thousands were saved by the compassion of a few people in important places in handing out these documents without the usual checks and procedures.  But perhaps hundreds of thousands more died because the vast majority of such diplomats, faced with these people and their obvious terror, stuck, mindlessly, to the rules they had been given, and thus trapped them where they would be killed.            

During the War the Nazis made some effort to hide the full extent of what they were doing.  But even despite this, primarily thanks to the astonishing bravery of a few incredible individuals who escaped the death camps, news about what was happening slowly leaked back to the West.  These people were widely disbelieved, their honour doubted, their stories written off as wartime propaganda. Tragically symptomatic of the inbuilt indifference and lack of seriousness given to the horrific events that were occurring.

After the War, though tentatively at first, Western society grasped all these things.  And took some steps, some efforts to change.  The concepts of International Human Rights Law, or War Crimes, and the need to formally try and convict people for such acts, were created out of thin air to give some of legal framework to respond to the atrocities that have happened.  The Nuremberg trials were criticised at the time for having no legal basis in existing law.  This was undoubtedly true, but the words of the Chief US Prosecutor at Nuremberg best described why the Trials had to occur regardless.  "Civilisation asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance."   The word and concept of 'Genocide' was invented and recognised, and made a particular recognisable category of war crime, with the hope that explicitly recognising the type of event would make it easier to ensure that it never happened again.  'Refugee' status was explicitly defined and, shamed by the way they had failed so many refugees from the Nazis, the United Nations members accepted an unprecedented new duty to accept those fleeing persecution regardless of restrictions on numbers or place of origin.  In the political sphere it drove the creation of the UN, the EU and the State of Israel and the turmoil that surrounds those institutions even down to today reflects the turmoil that drove their creation and the fact they were created in an emotional response to the tragedies that had happened, and not necessarily in even-handed consideration of the circumstances.

More widely there was a new commitment across the Western World to banish and reject the casual bigotry, prejudice and hate speech that had been such an accepted part of even civilised society. I believe this had a powerful impact on the unprecedented drive to remove the casual bigotries, whether sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist that had shaped the assumptions of western societies, especially from the 1960's onwards. The horrifying circumstances these attitudes had enabled gave a powerful and sustained reproach that drove the move to make those attitudes unacceptable in any polite society. The near immediate abandonment of the previously popular idea of eugenics in British and American society being one good example.  The concept of Hate Speech was invented, and has taken on a powerful role both in law and in our political and social discussions.  Western democracies took on a new and continuing emphasis on education, on intervention and memorial, a drive to ensure people never forgot what had happened and the lessons of those terrible events, to fight against their causes in society root and branch.

Monday 25 October 2010

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946.

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Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

And so begins this classic essay by George Orwell. Recently I've read some truly awful pieces of prose, especially about politics, which I have always noticed is cursed with being more densely infested by cliche than almost any other area of writing. There is nothing I could say about this that has not already been said better in this essay by George Orwell. It is piercingly intelligent, accurate and really funny. It is all about some necessary features for writing well and clearly, but should be of interest not only to anyone who writes but also to anyone who wants to think clearly in words (and that should be everybody). It also about how language is particularly abused when dealing with politics. It challenges some of our pre-conceptions about what makes good and clear writing and is not too long either. 

It is especially interesting if you have read 1984, Orwell's masterpiece, with its sections on Newspeak, because much of what George Orwell puts into Newspeak in 1984, he discusses in this essay. This is an important feature of Orwell's writing often not understood. He was mainly a journalist and campaigner, using his writing as a weapon, and only secondarily a writer of fiction. Features of his work always correlate with features of reality. And whereas Animal Farm was a parable of recent history, 1984 was a piece of prophecy, in the true sense of the word.  The prophets in the Bible did not just, or even mainly, tell what was going to happen in the future, but what would happen IF certain things continued to occur, often for the purpose of stopping them happening. Jonah prophesied Nineveh would be destroyed if the people did not repent. But he was so effective they did repent, and he then felt pretty stupid when they were then not destroyed.

George Orwell, in 1948, prophesied in 1984 what could happen if the worst trends he saw around him came to dominate society. It is a worst possible outcome but not a fantasy, in the sense that all the things he put in that book, and feared for our world, were things that he saw actually occurring or developing in the world, and had fought, spoken and written against his whole adult life. And many of those relating to the abuse of language he argues against in this essay, using real world examples. It's a fascinating bridge between the world presented in 1984 and the real world Orwell fought with in 1948.

It is also interesting because it argues a middle path between two views often subconsciously accepted in our intellectual society. Firstly, that language is something we have complete control over, an entirely neutral tool we may shape as we wish. And secondly, in the opposite direction, that the language we use defines and forces our thoughts and ideas, like a straitjacket we can't reach out of. The truth is, as almost always, somewhere in between. Like with any tool what we can do is shaped by what we have at our disposal. The language and vocabulary we have does exert pressure on our vision of the world and ourselves, subtly, and often totally outside our awareness. But, we are not slaves of our language.  We can make new words, new phrases, to match new ideas and ways of thinking, or just use different words and thoughts from the stock we already have, to change and express ourselves differently. But this requires conscious effort, to use our imagination and our knowledge to encourage ourselves in different directions. Enough of me though, I give you the words of Orwell himself, and they are well worth the read.


Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad -- I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen -- but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that i can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder .

Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

4. All the "best people" from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream -- as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma'amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!

Letter in Tribune

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged:

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning withouth those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.* The jargon peculiar to
                                                                                                                                                                                                            
*An interesting illustration of this is the way in which English flower names were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, Snapdragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.
                                                                                                                                                                                          
Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.† Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in
                                                                                                                                                                      
† Example: Comfort's catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . .Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bull's-eyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet of resignation." (Poetry Quarterly)
                                                                                                                                                                                           
the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal P├ętain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry -- when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech -- it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash -- as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot -- it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip -- alien for akin -- making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means; (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he "felt impelled" to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: "[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe." You see, he "feels impelled" to write -- feels, presumably, that he has something new to say -- and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence*, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases
                                                                                                                                                                     
*One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.
                                                                                                                                                                                   
and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a "standard English" which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a "good prose style." On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Many thanks to Mount Holyoke's College, Massachusetts, Woman's Liberal Arts College, for the text of this essay  http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm