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.


Origins of World War One
The Rap Battle of Kings

King Charles II & The British Restoration

Epic Magna Carta Rap Battle
Horrible Histories


Martin Luther, His 95 Theses 
and the Protestant Reformation


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!


The Fracking Song (with funk)
Yeah, Baby.


The Antonym Rap

Word! Professor. . . .  or something.

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

Wednesday 14 August 2013

What are Church Services For?

First I want to draw attention to how artificial our church services are in a way.

We gather together for an hour a week, generally, in order to worship God, carry out our liturgies, and celebrate the eucharist. And then we go out back to our lives.

But we all recognise that God's call, and particularly Christ's call in the Gospels, is a call about our whole lives. We are meant to be first transformed by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and then also grow in  holiness throughout our lives, not just on a Sunday.

In fact God makes it very clear that the details of our worship are irrelevant, almost worse than useless if we don't have love and faith and sincerity in our hearts generally.  

 And sometimes what we do in church every week can seem detached from how we live our lives, especially when we spend so much of our time surrounded by people who aren't Christian and don't necessarily know or understand anything about our faith.

Now, to be honest, this s already quite a common topic for Christians.  I'm sure we've all sat through at least one sermon about not just being Sunday Christians, or Christians for one hour each week.  But I'm just going to share some thoughts about it that I've found useful.
 Today in many churches, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, URC the basic service can be divided into two main sections: The Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  

Basically the first is based around offering prayers, reading the Bible, and discussing it in a Sermon, which is taken from the traditional Jewish Synagogue service (which was based around the Torah).

The Second is based around Eucharist, re-creating the last Supper as Jesus commanded "Do this as often as you eat and drink it in remembrance of me".

In more Protestant churches there has generally been an emphasis on the first part, preaching the Word, in more Catholic and Orthodox churches over the centuries there has been a growing emphasis on the 2nd part:  The Eucharist.

What is clear is that this basic form comes from the earliest days of the Church.  The quote below is from Justin Martyr, one of the earliest of the Church fathers, writing only 70 years or so after the writing of last of the New Testament books, and giving a description that must be familiar to any Christian today.

The two main differences is that this describes a relatively simple structure compared to some liturgies today, and that it obviously dates from a time when there was no set liturgy or text for the service. This came later, when instead of relying on the president to make up the prayers set texts were given both to give the ‘best’ prayers, to ensure that correct doctrine (Ortho-doxy in Greek) was taught and just to save the presiding person from always having to come up with something.
Fundamentally, though, this is the same structure we all use today and reflects the essential features of Christian worship and community. 

Historically what happened to the liturgy/service was a steady trend of making the central communion service more and more elaborate and mystical, with embellishments and more prayers and sections, until the time of the Reformation, when in reformation churches steps were taken to simplify it.

In some churches such as among the Quakers this led to totally abandoning formal, structured worship or liturgy, and in evangelical churches it led to a dramatically reduced form of liturgy.
In the Catholic church it led to one stable form of the Mass being adopted that endured for 500 years from the 1580's before it was simplifed slightly (and translated out of Latin) following the 2nd Vatican Council In 1960's.

What is astonishing to me though is how similar the liturgies and services still are, not just in general structure but right down to individual bits of vocabulary.  Below are selections from the current Anglican common worship, and a translation of the Latin Mass set in 1580, itself derived directly from forms of the Medieval Catholic Mass. 
 Services in Western Christianity (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran etc) contain a very similar basic structure dating back to the medieval Catholic service containing many or all of the elements I list below, and at least many of these should be familiar to any Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and many other western Christians. 

Eastern Orthodox churches are slightly different and date back even earlier, but contain most of these same features in a slightly less instantly recognisable form.
 Some more protestant services have a considerably more simple structure, especially if they don't necessarily involve communion.

A common evangelical approach is known affectionately as the Sandwich:  'Worship'-Prayers/testimony-Sermon done.

 Some evangelicals at least claim that they don't like liturgy, they say it's boring and fake and meaningless, but what they generally mean is they prefer a minimalistic liturgy. But the evangelical churches I've been to are definitely using a liturgy of a type even if they don't know it. Whether it's a better or worse liturgy is a very good question. And it can be just as boring and repetitive as any full Catholic-orthodox traditional liturgy.

But the evangelicals do have a good point, I don't think there is any point to church services or liturgy if we are just mumbling through the words every week, or just sitting there feeling bored, however complex or simple our liturgy may be. There is very little to be gained whatever form we use if it is not helping us grow in holiness throughout the week and the year and over our whole lives.

(Slight disclaimer: ‘catholic’ Christians such as myself who believe in the Real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist believe there is a real spiritual, blessed benefit to taking that Eucharist more or less regardless of what else we get from the service. I think what I say here is still strongly relevant in addition to that value though).

Some bits of the liturgy just don't seem to make much sense as we commonly perform them. My favourite example is the confession, which sounds a bit like this:  
 Now certainly in churches I have visited this is read out by the priest and then there is a two second delay before he pronounces God’s forgiveness for our sins. Now I don’t know about you but I need more time than that to confess my sins for the week.  In fact I’ve usually only got to about Monday lunchtime. 
And that’s not the only thing.  If we really, truly confessed our sins, in full realisation of what that meant, of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, the Love of God, and the darkness of sin then we would only ever need to confess them once and never again.  And again, I don’t know about you but I find myself coming back week after week and confessing more or less the same sins.
So what is the point of this?  Is it just bad, lazy religion?   

I think the answer is no. I do really value the liturgy and structure to our services, I really think that there is a lot that is really beautiful and valuable in these bits of liturgy that have come down to us and have been treasured by centuries of Christians.
So I want to try to think of how we can think about our liturgies and services to make them useful to our whole lives:
And my idea is basically this: Our services and liturgies offer us a model in concentrated form of what we should be trying to think about and follow for the rest of our week.  They don't do the job on their own, though they are particularly valuable as you are doing them.  But their main value is in acting as a model of spiritual discipline and the things we should be thinking about all the way through the week. In order to help us reflect on those ideas and grow in holiness.

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: 

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Populations of Middle Earth: Lands of 'The Hobbit'

In this final article of my series on Populations of Middle Earth, I look at the lands and peoples described in The Hobbit. The first half of this has, entirely by coincidence  recently been made into a major movie 'The Hobbit: There and Back Again', with Richard Armitage (on the left, for the ladies). We start in Eriador, in the Shire, home of the Hobbits, and will move east along the route taken by Bilbo and the Dwarves. (If you've already read my article on Eriador, then please skip to the sections after the map below. Alternatively if you haven't read The Hobbit and want to avoid all spoilers about the 2nd and 3rd film then only read above the map).

Probably the largest of the populations we encounter in the Hobbit is the one that will be most familiar to any fan of Middle Earth, and where both the Hobbit and LotR begin: the Shire, friendly, idyllic home of the friendly Hobbits. Also probably the largest settled land in Eriador. The Hobbits not having an army, we have no military figures to use as a basis to estimate the total population, as we have for Gondor and Rohan (here).  What we do know is the size of the Shire, some idea about roughly how densely it was settled, and various contextual references to the numbers of Hobbits in LotR.  We have numerous references to groups of "hundreds" of Hobbits: at Bilbo's party, with the implication this was a sizable part of the local population; and the hundreds of hobbits who quickly rallied to answer the call to fight the Ruffians in Scouring of the Shire.  We even have a few references to thousands of Hobbits, as in the following passage about Sam's work to repair the Shire: "Hobbits can work like bees when in the mood and the need comes on them. Now there were thousands of willing hands of all ages..".  We also have the description of the Shire as a place seemingly nowhere densely packed with Hobbits, and the seeming lack of any major towns or centres of population. All these point to a relatively low figure for the population of the Shire.  If 'thousands of willing hands' constituted 10% of the population, as we can perhaps imagine such a popular effort doing, then that would mean a population of 10,000's, perhaps anywhere from 30,000 - 100,000.

There are other clues that point to much larger number of Hobbits.  Firstly, there is the size of the Shire, a country of 20,000 square miles, about 35% of the size of England. Even taking the English population as far back as Saxon times as a model, that would indicate a population of hundreds of thousands of Hobbits. This seems to conflict with the small numbers of Hobbits described elsewhere, and also the level of political and legal organisation of the Hobbits, who seem to exist with almost zero government of any kind at all, most unlike the larger populations of Rohan and Gondor who have recognisable government structures. The other fact that points to a larger population is the sheer history of the Hobbits.  They have been in the Shire for 1,400 years by LotR and although there have been wars and plagues in that time, compared to Europe in the last thousand years they have led a sheltered and peaceful existence in a temperate and fertile land. To be honest their population should have grown massively in that time, which any figure below the hundreds of thousands just does not seem to match up with.

One partial solution may come from assuming that although the Shire was itself large, that large parts of that area were not heavily populated. From Tolkien's maps and description it does appear that population was concentrated in a central and eastern belt. Also ,we are given the names of at most a few dozen settlements.  Even assuming as many more un-named ones, we have at most 50-100 settlements with some population scattered in between. These would have been small by any modern standard.  The largest towns of Buckland and Michel Delving would not have numbered more than a few thousand, or they would have required larger scale infrastructure than the Hobbits seemed to have anywhere.  Most villages would have numbered no more than hundreds. If we assume that the Shire population was spread across about half of the actual shire area, with large areas of the North-farthing, west-farthing, marish, hills, and other areas, almost uninhabited; and we divide the Shire up into approximately a hundred settlements (and their hinterland) with on average 1000 population each, then we start to very roughly converge on a median figure of about 100,000 Hobbits. This is a very rough figures, between the tens of thousands suggested by some information and the hundreds of thousands suggested by other information, but it's probably the best we can ever hope to do, with a likely range of perhaps 50,000-150,000 Hobbits.

After leaving the Shire, Bilbo and the Dwarves travel through large areas of empty wilderness. But they eventually reach the beautiful Elvish settlement of Rivendell, where the House of Elrond stood. Rivendell, or Imladris existed from year 1700 of the 2nd age through to LotR. It has been depicted as of varying sizes from a large house to the size of a small, densely packed village. It's importance seems to bely the small size described for it, and not just its importance to the plot either. In the 2nd Age and early 3rd Age it seems to take an active military role, something that doesn't seem possible for a large house. Even if we assume that a large part of Rivendell's power was in the wisdom and magic of the people who did dwell there, as well as the power of the Elven ring that Elrond wore, it still seems that the population there fluctuated. Rivendell was founded by a force led by Elrond that rescued refugees from Eregion in the 2nd Age, and then came under siege from Sauron for more than  a year.  This group could not have numbered less than a few thousand, and this seems a reasonable guess for Rivendell's population in the 2nd Age. Certainly by the LotR it had diminished in a similar manner to Lindon and probably no more than a few hundred people dwelt there, perhaps 400 at most.

From Rivendell, the Dwarves pass through the Misty Mountains where they are captured by the Goblins. Orcs infested the Misty Mountains at the time of The Hobbit and later LotR, especially Moria to the south and Mt Gundobad in the north. Goblin-town, into which Bilbo stumbled, and which constituted a series of tunnels and caverns running through to the far side of the mountains, seemed to be occupied by at least several hundred to a few thousand goblins. Estimates for the wider hordes of goblins, wargs and great spiders are impossible to any accuracy. There were around 2,000 Elves, Men and Dwarves at the Battle of Five Armies, and these were severely outnumbered by the goblins and wargs, which probably numbered somewhere between 5,000-15,000, with a media estimate of about 10,000. These would have been a substantial portion of the northern goblins whose total population could have been around 30,000. (And further south Moria alone seemed to be home to thousands more.) 

After Bilbo and the Dwarves escape from the Misty Mountains they are rescued by an Eyrie of giant Eagles (whose number is not known exactly but was presumably somewhere in the low tens) and ended up staying with Beorn the shapeshifter in the Anduin valley.  Beorn was the last of his race, but he wasn't the only inhabitant of the Anduin valleys. There were a race of hardy woodmen living in homesteads scattered around the west Anduin valley and the fringes of Mirkwood. In between the time of the Hobbit and LotR Beorn became their leader and they flourished.  They are referred to as "keeping open the high pass" and driving back the Orcs.  There could not have been many of them, given they lived in scattered farmsteads as Beorn is described in the Hobbit, with apparently no large villages or towns, certainly none are described or named, and the depredations of the orcs would have kept numbers down.  But there must have been quite a few to fight off the Orcs of the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood and keep open a relatively sizeable area. The male population must have numbered somewhere in the thousands, possibly the total population numbering up to the low tens of thousands: 20,000 would probably be a good estimate.

After staying with Beorn, Bilbo and the Dwarves passed through Mirkwood and were captured by Elves from Thrandruil's Kingdom.  Thrandruil's kingdom was made up of Silvan Elves with a small nobility of Sindar descent from Beleriand.  It was founded by Thrandruil's father at the start of the 2nd Age, and his son was the famous Legolas, who went with the Fellowship and was played in the movies by Orlando Bloom (girls may remember). At first it had covered the entire northern half of the forest but later as Sauron's power grew the forest became evil and the Elves retreated north.  The main, possibly only, town or city was Thandruil's under-ground capital, cut into the rocks beneath the hills in north-east Mirkwood.  

Once again we go to military descriptions to get our best estimates of the size of the population of Silvan Elves.  In the 2nd Age they are described as populous and contributing a sizeable army to the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, but by the end of the 3rd Age they had diminished.  Thandruil brought a force of at least 1000 spearmen plus hundreds of archers and hundreds of swordsmen to the Battle of Five Armies, say around 1,500 Elves. There is good reason to think this wasn't all the troops his Kingdom had, more of an expeditionary force sent to investigate the Mountain and the death of the dragon. I think this sense is reinforced by the later success of Thandruil's forces during LotR and the fact they had been holding back Sauron's evil for centuries, though this would partially have been due to Elven magic rather than sheer force of arms. During LotR they successfully defeated an army from Dol Guldor that came north and gave battle under the trees and then with Lorien advanced forward and destroyed Dol Guldor. The armies Sauron sent forward in LotR were big, and it would have taken some serious force to beat it. Thandruil must have had at least a few thousand troops he could call on if things got bad. That would give the following estimate for the total population.  3,000 troops, a total adult male population of 3,000 x 4 = 12,000 (not all male Elves were warriors) and a total population of 12,000 x 2.5 (women, children) = 30,000 Elves.   

After escaping from Thandruil's dungeons Bilbo and the Dwarves reached Lake-Town, the remnant of the once larger city of Esgaroth, and then the ruins of Dale. Dale was the city of men that had been destroyed, along with the Kingdom under the Mountain by Smaug (as well as presumably Esgaroth itself). We can actually make surprisingly accurate estimates of the size of Lake-town at the time of the Hobbit thanks to the description Tolkien gave and the official illustrations.  And it's surprisingly small, perhaps only 200 x 300 metres with a central pool reducing that area even further.  Even if we take a reasonably more generous estimate for the physical size, and assume that it was quite densely and efficiently populated, using population density figures for modern cities gives a population estimate of around 400-700 people.

After leaving Lake-town Bilbo and companions finally arrive at the Lonely Mountain after passing through the ruins of Dale.  Smaug ends up getting it in the neck with an arrow and Elves and Men turn up seeking a share of the treasure.  Thorin refuses and sends for help from his kinsmen in the Iron Hills, the nearest Dwarven realm. The Iron Hills were ruled by Dain II, who sent 500 stout, armed Dwarves to help Thorin. The Iron Hills had been occupied by Dwarves since the 2nd Age, and were the only Dwarvish realm left in the East after the destruction of Moria, the Grey Mountains and Erebor. Again when considering this force of 500 warriors, I take it to be very much an expeditionary force sent out by Dain II to scout out the situation, rather than a muster of the total population. The level of organisation and standard equipment, and the suspiciously round number all point to this fact. So again we can make some reasonable assumptions.  Faced with a kinsman in danger, plus the important of the Mountain, Dain would have sent a significant portion, but not by any means all his forces. We can hence again assume there would have been a few thousand Dwarves potentially under arms in the Iron Hills, perhaps three times that number of Male Dwarves in total, half that number again of Dwarf women (there were twice as many dwarf men as women) and a relatively small number of children. Perhaps 500 x 4 =2,000 Dwarves under arms.  2,000 x 3 = 6,000 adult males. 6,000 x 2 = 12,000 Dwarves in total, or a likely range of 10,000-15,000.

The quest of the Hobbit ends with the Battle of Five Armies, after which both Dale and the Kingdom under the Mountain were re-founded. Dale was, of course, abandoned at the time of the Hobbit. But we hear that by the time of LotR 70 years later it is a thriving mini-kingdom that plays a role defeating one of Sauron's armies in the War of the Ring. We can only assume that Dale's population would have come partly from Lake-Town, which it may have taken sovereignty over, partly from the woodmen of Anduin and partly from wider Rhovanian.  As we have seen from the discussion of the Elven-King, Wilderland Kingdoms could be very small. In a few generations Dale would have expanded rapidly, with immigrants, increased prosperity, alliance with the re-founded King under the Mountain, and fame from the death of Smaug.  But it still could not have numbered more than a few tens of thousands at most, just due to the lack of Men in the surrounding lands to populate it so quickly. Perhaps 20,000-40,000 people.

As for Erebor itself, it too was restored and became the centre of Durin's folk in Middle Earth. It was also described as thriving come the time of LotR 70 years later. But where did all these Dwarves come from?  Due to the slow rate of Dwarven population increase the population cannot have come from natural increase.  Almost all of it would have come from a massive immigration of Durin's Folk: largely from the Blue Mountains in the far west, but also from various scattered homes to which the Dwarves had wandered after the initial loss of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, as well as possibly a significant contingent from Dain's original realm in the Iron Hills. The total population of Erebor by the time of LotR is cannot be stated with any accuracy.  But given our figure for the population of the Iron Hills; the expectation that a significantly larger population of Dwarves would have gathered in the safer and main dwellings of Durin's folk in the far west; our estimates for the other main populations of Wilderland; and the pull of the fame of the Kingdom under the Mountain and the quest, including the recovery of the Arkenstone; then I think we can reasonably assume a figure considerably higher than our estimate for the Iron Hills above.  Perhaps 30,000, but certainly in the range of 20,000-40,000.