All posts filed under: History

My Dissertation Disaster

“This is your chance to write in depth about what interests you,” said my lecturers as I prepared to embark upon my History dissertation. I had just finished studying the Russian intelligentsia’s epistolary networks of the nineteenth century, and had enjoyed it so much that I had often found myself deep-diving into the Soviet literature of the twentieth century, too. In my thesis I wanted to marry this newfound twentieth century interest to my longstanding fascination with totalitarianism. Whenever the concept of totalitarianism had come up in classes, it had intrigued me, but during my three years at university I hadn’t had an opportunity to study it in any depth. I was enthralled by what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “the long blank page of Russian history” during the 1930s and 1940s, and I wanted to find out more about the institutionalization of literature in the USSR. My dissertation provided me with the chance to do so. But a little over a year later, I found myself turning in a paper entitled: “What Can the Relationship Between Soviet …

Giving the Devil His Due: Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman.1 Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and Why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are ‘anti-hate’ statutes and laws against spreading ‘false news’ that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the …

‘If I Want to Hold Seminars on the Topic of Empire, I Will Do So Privately’: An Interview with Nigel Biggar

“Crete, unfortunately, made more history than it can consume locally,” Saki once wrote. The same can be said about the University of Oxford. Perhaps England’s last struggling bastion of meritocracy and intellectual hierarchy, Oxford is lately under relentless attack from equity activists trying to install affirmative action, and historical revisionists and ideologues trying to wreck Western canon in the name of ‘decolonization.’ I was invited at Christ Church College to take part in a private and secret colloquium and roundtable (a lot of the participants didn’t want their name and photos out because their careers might be jeopardized), on colonialism and imperialism. The chief speaker was Portland State professor Bruce Gilley, whose article argued that colonialism was much more nuanced than presented in modern Marxist and post-colonial discourses, and was then predictably retracted by Third World Quarterly, after protests by social justice activists. Somewhat similarly, at Oxford, professor Nigel Biggar was targeted immediately after his project “Ethics and Empire” was launched.  The colloquium itself went smoothly without protests perhaps because it was a secret, with …

A Liberal’s Case for Conservatives in History Departments

I am a liberal historian, and in my four years as a Ph.D student in history, I have found that my conversations with conservative peers have often been most productive in challenging my biases. This benefit may be rare within the discipline. According to research cited in Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn’s book Passing on the Right, only around 4-8 percent of professional historians are registered Republicans.1 This experience suggests that the liberal-to-leftist makeup of the discipline significantly influences the questions historians ask, the answers that we privilege, and the ways we teach and engage with the public. We devote our lives to certain subjects largely because we believe they have great moral weight and relevance, but we often overlook how our political tilt shapes what we see as important. We also possess the human tendency to gravitate toward answers that fit our preconceptions. These observations raise an important question: What does the discipline of history miss by not having conservative historians in the room? To explore this question, I conducted interviews with eight conservative …

A Soldier’s Duty and Moral Injury

It’s tempting to say that the most important thing about US Marine veteran Christian Ellis is that he had an opera written about him. Few people can make that claim. Unfortunately, his story is far too complex and troubling to be reduced to any one factoid. Ellis is openly gay, did three tours of Iraq, fought both battles of Fallujah, and came home wracked with grief and guilt, sitting with his back to walls in restaurants scanning for hostiles and avenues of egress. The arc of his transformation from Marine to civilian to artist does more than operatically highlight the horrors of war. It also challenges much of the basic narrative that we’ve come to accept about the mental suffering of combat veterans, over half a million of whom have been diagnosed with PTSD in the United States alone following their return from Iraq, Afghanistan and other theatres of war since 9/11. At the same time, his story also deeply implicates the society on behalf of whom this suffering is endured, a civilian world that …

A History of the Struggle for Gay Equality: Civil Rights or Counterculture Movement?

The history of the gay rights movement in the United States is fascinating, and its progress raises an interesting question about the nature of its activism. Has the struggle for gay equality been primarily a universalist drive for equity and civil rights, with the inter-related goals of individual liberty, respect, and freedom from persecution? Or is it a social justice movement driven by a countercultural constituency intent on separating itself from mainstream culture? The answer is that the gay rights movement in the United States is a complicated combination of both perspectives. To date, the successes of the gay rights movement in the United States have been laudable. The repeal of laws that criminalized homosexual sex was a significant gain. As a consequence, gay people can now live openly and are free to marry. It is true that elements of anti-gay prejudice linger, mainly among the ranks of the religious and the socially conservative. It also remains the case that only a patchwork of laws exist across the 50 states prohibiting discrimination in employment on …

The Elites and Inequality: The Rise and Fall of the Managerial Class

In analysing the political upheavals across Europe and America in the past several years, it has become customary to talk about ‘the elites’ and about ‘inequality’. This article will explore both concepts in political and socio-economic analysis, and posits that certain elites in the West need narratives of inequality to maintain their stranglehold on power. It concludes by suggesting that we are witnessing the passing of an old and increasingly irrelevant class of elites, whose wild attempts to cling onto the old order will see them lash out in unpredictable directions. When the political left talk about elites, they typically refer to ‘the haves’ (as opposed to the ‘have nots’), that is the top 1% of income earners, a concern which has a legacy in outmoded and demonstrably incorrect Marxist analysis. Thus, here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s far left Labour party routinely trot out the old line that ‘the rich keep getting richer while the poor are getting poorer’. However, even The Guardian – albeit through gritted teeth – pointed out in 2017 that …

On Quasi-Religious Appeals to the Judgment of History

I was outside the Supreme Court the day that equal marriage was legalised in the US. My office at the Library of Congress next door enabled a swift venture to join in the celebrations. That sunny Friday I duly picked up my purple ally flag and wandered around the scenes of jubilation. For months leading up to the judgment, a mom-ish lady had stood out in front of the court, holding a bright red sign emblazoned with a biblical warning for homosexuals and their enablers. Morning and afternoon, she’d fielded the objections of woke kids on school trips, batting back their arguments with assurances that, tolerate this, and one day soon it would be legal for a man to marry his mother. The day the court upheld equal marriage, I couldn’t see the red sign lady, but I found another clutching a cardboard banner scrawled with warnings that Obama was an undercover Muslim. I am British, but by this point I was used to seeing the infamous American culture wars up close, so I barely …

The Privilege Paradox

Check your privilege. This is a phrase that many of us, especially from the college-educated class, have heard or read with increasing frequency in recent years. It is sometimes used to counter the views put forward by an opponent belonging to a supposedly ‘privileged’ social group, without necessarily having to refute them. It is also just one of a series of comparatively new phrases using the word ‘privilege’ that have proliferated in current social and political commentary. A quick search of the headlines on a single given Sunday in February shows the word appearing in large print in the New York Times (“Black With (Some) White Privilege”), the Seattle Times (“White Privilege Diminishes Our Humanity”), and Teen Vogue (“Kylie Jenner’s Privilege Helped Her Avoid the Stigma Other Pregnant People Can’t Escape”). Even this cursory glance reveals two important facts about the usage of the word ‘privilege’ today: first, it is usually paired with an adjective linking it to the putative advantages of a particular racial, sexual, or other identity group, especially ‘white privilege’; second, it …

“What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” A Discussion of Helen Dale’s Kingdom of the Wicked

It’s 31 AD or 784 AUC (ab urbe condita) in the Roman calendar. Jerusalem is packed with visitors for the Passover, and Pontius Pilate returns home from the office with a thick dossier on the recent riot at the Temple, caused by Yeshua Ben Yusuf and his rowdy followers. He greets his wife (hi honey), pats the dog, welcomes his young daughter’s handsome lover, has a bath, turns on the TV, and orders pizza for dinner, home delivered by a Greek boy on a motor-bike. It’s the Easter story, but not as told in the St Mathew Passion: the Rome of Kingdom of the Wicked has experienced an industrial, electronic and medical revolution and, with all our domestic comforts, sophisticated weaponry, computer equipment and wonder drugs, it is in many respects indistinguishable from the world of the 21st Century. The plausibility of this scenario is less important than the creative use that Helen Dale makes of it, but let us consider the case that she puts forward. Are there any reasons for thinking that the …