Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Another post updated: Transformations of Romanness

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I have updated this post from last year, to represent the finished text sent for publication rather than the one originally delivered.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Society, Individual, Exclusion: Update

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I have updated this post, the text of which is now the version submitted for publication rather than that delivered at the Padova conference.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

In which (not for the first time) John McAdams reveals himself to be a worthless [complete this sentence in no more than one word of no more than four letters]

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What this is is a blog-post by a senior - indeed possibly senile, certainly (born 1945) superannuated - professor at Marquette University (Milwaukee, Wisconsin - what do you mean you never heard of it?) who, on the word of a student, publicly names and (he hopes) shames a young, female graduate student for - reading between the lines - refusing to allow a vocal conservative male student to sidetrack a discussion of rights into an attempt to deny that gay people have certain rights (i.e. marriage).  Safe in the knowledge of his status at a Jesuit university, this "hang 'em and flog 'em" conservative (find out more about this overgrown schoolboy attention-seeker here) publishes a blog-post in which commenters call for the woman in question (not even in his department) to be fired.  Conservative associations from the USA's religious right have joined in the attack.

I am not interested in what happened in the class - I don't know what happened.  A counter-version shines right through the clearly bigoted version McAdams posted without needing to be articulated. You can find more information and plenty of viewpoints that would echo mine on this precise case here (though I will say that I find Rawls to be about the most pointless 'significant philosopher' in history).  I am not relying on the other version of events.  Whatever actually happened is irrelevant to this blog-post, which is about the way to deal with the situation.

What is at issue is just good, basic, human practice.  Even had this Post-grad tutor done something that genuinely constituted malpractice in her class, you just don't publish a blog post about them, in which they are named.  Certainly you don't do so on the mere hear-say of one parti-pris student, simply because you share their politics.  Were something done contrary to good practice then one takes the matter through the usual routes, via the faculty in question, involving the student's supervisor, assuming innocence until guilt is proven.  And if guilt is proven you take appropriate steps, with an eye to a fair or balanced outcome (new tutor/first offence treated differently from a serial offender who just won't be told, etc).  None of that has anything to do with the politics involved. 

What this is is bullying pure and simple, Nasty, old white male bullying, hiding behind a vacuous claim to be defending free speech (because classes taught by female graduate teaching assistants are really the most important battlefield on that front?), hiding behind privilege, hiding behind tenure, hiding behind the fact that he can just keep going until he drops dead while talented young people cannot find academic posts.  The 'Marquette Warrior', McAdams calls himself.  Yeah, what a real, mighty 'warrior'.  Marquette really ought to do something, regardless of the details of the classroom incident, because they have a harassment policy, which actually begins:
Marquette University, as a Catholic, Jesuit institution, insists that all human beings possess an inherent dignity and equality because they are made in the image and likeness of God. The university entirely and consistently disowns, as a matter of principle, any unlawful or wrongful discrimination against the rights of others.
As the university is committed to maintaining an environment in which the dignity and worth of each member of its community is respected, it will not tolerate harassment of or by students, faculty, staff and guests or visitors.
If this is not an open-and-close case of harassment, I do not know what is.  There are plenty of things that attract me to the USA but also plenty of things that put me off and suggest a society on the verge of downward spiral - and the fact that this sort of thing can happen is certainly one of the latter. There are many things I dislike about the snobbish, Oxbridge-dominated, upper middle class culture of UK academia, but one thing I do appreciate is the fact that this sort of behaviour would never be tolerated.

Coda
Just so we are clear.  My reaction to this would be exactly the same if this case involved an old tenured male professor with liberal political views publicly naming and shaming a conservative female grad student for stopping a student going off on one about - I don't know - Ayn Rand [when did Ayn Rand become a philosopher?].  Indeed if it was a tenured liberal, female, gay, black disabled professor publicly naming and shaming a young, conservative, white, heterosexual male grad student,  my view would be very negative, if not the same because the power relations would not be the same (in brief: how many tenured female, gay, black disabled professors do you know? Exactly.  Enough said).  Perhaps I would not be as moved to blog about it, and that would be 'my bad', but I should.

Also, note from Warrior McAdam's other posts that when an accused subject is a male professor of possibly conservative views, he carefully protects his anonymity.  What that clearly means is that - aside from anything else - McAdams is discriminating against the graduate student on the grounds of her sex.  Case closed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Blog-post Published

2 comments:
As of today, this post - one of the more viewed blog-posts on this site - is published:
Two Worlds Become One: A 'Counter-Intuitive' View of the Roman Empire and 'Germanic' Migration Guy Halsall
German History 2014 32 (4): 515-532
doi: 10.1093/gerhis/ghu107

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ethically-engaged Early Medieval History-writing. Why it matters and how (not) to do it ... or 'They was asking for it!'

5 comments:
Every year I do a session on 'History and Ethics' with the students on our Public History MA course.  As you know, this is a topic that matters a lot to me, and about which I have blogged before (see posts with the label 'the unbearable weight' and/or 'ethics of history'). 

I like to open these discussions with these two passages written by a well-respected and prominent early medievalist.(1)

The first comes in the context of a passage trying to minimalise the extent or severity of Viking attacks on ecclesiastical persons and property.

In 860 the monastery of St-Bertin was attacked but the community had plenty of warning.  According to the author of a translatio written a generation later ... all the monks fled save four 'intent on martyrdom, save that God had to some extent decided otherwise'.  ... [The Vikings] had been 'hoping to capture some monks' - after subjecting three of the four who were 'older', thin and wasted' to 'painful acts of scorn and mockery' (such as pouring liquid into the nostrils of one of them until his belly was distended) [they] tried to take away the fourth, 'more succulent than the rest'.  The idea was surely to take this one for ransoming.  He was the only one to be killed.  He refused to go quietly, throwing himself to the ground and insisting that he wanted to die on the spot, where he might be buried 'in the cemetery of his ancestors, and his name be entered on the commemoration lists of his brother monks'.  Apparently out of sheer vexation at his obduracy, his captors began to beat him with their spear-butts', then pierced him with spear-points' ... and the cruel game got out of hand.  [I have added emphasis.]

The second comment is in the context of alleged Viking 'pillage, plunder and rape':

Among all the Annals of St-Bertin's references to Viking plunder and pillage, there is no mention of rape, and this is significant, given these Annals twice mention the episodes when the followers of Christian Carolingian kings committed rape, in one case the rape of nuns.  It hardly follows that Northmen never raped: it does seem that they were not notorious rapists. [Emphasis added.]

The second passage in particular tends to shock the students; the first less so (though I think it is every bit as bad).

I am not concerned with the 'Viking atrocity' debate, within which this is situated and about which I have written before.  What concerns me is the ethical implications of this piece.  It is one thing to say that the Vikings were no worse than anyone else (an argument with which I would agree), but this goes far beyond that and into an ethical relativisation of violence, torture and rape.  That, as you might imagine, I find objectionable, offensive and irresponsible.

Let's look more closely at the first paragraph.  Here, above all, the blame is shifted onto the victims.  The monks allegedly had 'plenty of warning', so they should have got away.  Silly old monks!  It was after all the four monks' own 'decision' to stay behind.  Wouldn't they learn?  Then we essentially have the torture (including waterboarding) of frail old men passed over without any comment, other than to quote the description in the contemporary source, which in this passage is in any case explicitly being 'read against', of 'painful acts of scorn and mockery'.  Finally we come to the monk whom the Viking wanted to take away. 'Surely', says the author, this was to ransom him.  Why 'surely'?  If this intention was attested in the source, the term 'surely' would not have been employed.  Why was the intention 'surely' to ransom him, rather than - say - to torture him to death for fun, to rape him (he was after all 'more succulent than the rest'), or anything else?  [Note that rape is only envisaged in this passage in heterosexual terms, although 'painful acts of scorn and mockery' is a broad category.]  And then maybe ransom him?  That interpretation is the modern historian's assumption and that seems to me to be unwarranted.  Why, we are authorised to ask, make that assumption?  Anyway, the monk refused to 'go quietly' and this excuses the Vikings (driven 'apparently by sheer vexation at his obduracy'; why 'apparently?'  Again this begs serious questions) for their act of pig-sticking him slowly to death.  Just to add the icing on the cake, this lengthy and painful murder is described merely as 'a cruel game'.  Boys will be boys, eh?  What can you do?

The second passage requires little by way of commentary.  There is, apparently, rape and then there is 'notorious rape'.  We might call this the 'Ken Clarke view' of history.  Whether the relative mention of rape by Christians and pagans might have other explanations within early medieval textual strategies is not considered.  Here, frequency of mention equals relative notoriety.  Frankly, I don't think much else needs to be said.

So - why does this passage vex me so much (other than the fact that is written by someone who, one would like to think, damn well ought to know better)?

For one thing it raises the issue, which I have discussed before, of the historical 'statute of limitations': how far back in the past do events have to be before it becomes acceptable to write about them like this?  Let's leave the obvious 'limit case' to one side for now.  Would it be considered acceptable to consider the Austrian troops rather brutally occupying Serbia during the Great War in this fashion, playing down torture and rape because allegedly no worse than what the Serbians did?  At what point does it become acceptable to go beyond the sometimes necessary but nevertheless pretty vapid 'well they were no worse than anyone else' argument(2) to actively playing down violence like this - actively introducing victim-blaming and assumptions about (*relatively*) benign intentions to the aggressors?  When?  Those Serbian civilians: they had plenty of chance to escape you know.  If they didn't flee, well that was their decision.  If they didn't want to 'go quietly' who, I ask you, among us, can blame the Austrian soldiers for shooting or bayoneting a few of them?  At least they weren't 'notorious rapists'.  Transposed to that context, the nature of the writing really becomes apparent.  Don't ninth-century people (and these were, I assume, real people - at least the author assumes so) deserve better?  Don't they deserve the same respect?

When the historicising of violence goes this far - as far as to attempt to excuse the perpetrators - what is the logical implication?  The logical implication is that, in certain contexts (so, why only historical?  why not geographical, social or cultural?) violence - here, murder, torture and rape - can be relativized.  Whenever we are thinking of the public role of history, or of the socially-committed historian (something that the author of this piece not infrequently strikes postures about) it seems to me that implying this sort of thing is the very last thing a historian ought to be doing.  To call this irresponsible would seem to be saying the very least, but I would go further.  I will say, unapologetically, that I find it disgusting.  Why, therefore, we are entitled to ask, is this kind of writing considered unremarkable and acceptable in a book about the ninth century when it would more than merely raise eyebrows if found in a book on the twentieth?
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(1) You can, if you are interested, find the passages on pp.28-9 and p.47 of this book.  I have not named names directly because, although there is certainly no love lost between me and the author, the point of this blog-post is the general issue of attitude and acceptable methodology - that this sort of writing is seen as generally unobjectionable by the historical profession - not an ad hominem/feminam attack.

(2) My own Viking piece was about why, when the Vikings did the same as everyone else, they got a worse press for it and had demonstrably worse effects.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

More manifestos

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If you are a (the) long-standing reader of this blog, you may remember the original three-minute version of my manifesto.  Whether or not you do, though, it is - and has been for some time - published, in this book (pp.59-61), alongside many other, more interesting ones.  You can download the whole thing free or buy a hard copy.  Do please do the latter too.  I urge you to support Punctum Books: they are a very good thing.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

How History Forgot Its Public Role/The Importance of the Long Term

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You all should be interested in this, which suggests an interesting and important debate.  You can find the whole of this 'manifesto' here and download it free.  I have not read and digested it all but I think I have some significant reservations about it.  See what you think.