MONTHLY BLOG 155, The anonymous author, seeking justified privacy or avoiding responsible transparency?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2023)


Last month I meditated on the need for fair and intelligent framework regulation for all manner of human activities. We are an ingenious but tricky species. Our best qualities and finest inventions can be used for dire purposes; or can generate malign results in the long run, even if no-one has actually willed such an outcome. Hence the need for clear and intelligent regulation.1

Such thoughts also raise questions about the pros and cons of anonymous writing. It can today be such a scourge. For example, on social media, vituperative hate messages are often sent to families of murdered children. Parents are accused of negligence in leaving their child at risk – or charged with outright complicity in the death. All from anonymous writers who have fierce anger to express, and not even minimal concern for the recipients’ feelings.

Logically, of course, it may even be that – however rarely – such accusations are correct. Children are sometimes murdered by family members. But pointing a finger anonymously, in an outpouring of anger and blame, does not help to identify a malefactor. It makes innocent parents feel worse. And (at a guess) it is likely to make guilty ones even more determined to hide their guilt.

The only ones pleased by such anonymous accusations are presumably the accusers themselves. They can feel, self-righteously, that they have seen the truth; denounced the guilty; and purged themselves of their own distress and anger at the brutal death of a child. Hence, in a world of ever-extending mass literacy, all can have a voice and vent their innermost primal feelings.

But is such a justification good enough? Do not primal feelings also need to operate within a broad (if flexible) set of rules?

So let’s review the case for anonymity. Firstly, it can be an essential shield for the powerless, when seeking to take action against the powerful.2 Whistle-blowers in the workplace, who do not wish to lose their jobs, but who do wish to reveal wrong-doing, often use the cloak of anonymity. Indeed, some organisations today positively recommend having a known channel for such communications to be made secretly and safely; and there are companies that either offer to set up a secure internal hotline or to provide one themselves.3

Similarly, would-be rebellious citizens living under powerful tyrannies may choose to act anonymously against their oppressors. If rebels oppose publicly, they often end up dead or in prison. If they act covertly, they live to continue the fight another day.

Historically, too, there are well-documented cases of anonymous protest. Desperately poor agricultural labourers in early nineteenth-century Britain sent barely literate unsigned letters to local landowners and magistrates, voicing grievances and threatening violence unless remedial action was taken.4 Hence, while anonymous letters are often considered to be written with a ‘poison pen’5 – like anonymous messages on social media today – they can be used to issue challenges to apparently impregnable powers-that-be.

Throughout, however, it’s wise to remember the trickiness of humans. Not all anonymous accusations against powerful – or even tyrannical leaders – are automatically accurate. While anonymity may, be justifiable in specific circumstances, it cannot confer infallibility.

Then there’s a different set of reasons. A considerable number of modest authors want public attention to focus entirely upon their writings, not upon themselves.6 They may be shy, private people. Some too may be acutely anxious.7 They all want to communicate but they want their output to stand or fall upon its own merits.

Moreover, numerous women writers, in the early days of the novel, rightly did not want to be patronised or side-lined because of their sex. As a result, a number first published anonymously, as did Jane Austen – though she did admit to being ‘A Lady’. Others used male pseudonyms. In the mid-1840s, the three Brontë sisters famously first published as Acton [Anne], Currer [Charlotte] and Ellis [Emily] Bell. At least they kept their original initials in full. Marian or Maryanne Evans, who published as George Eliot, had other concerns in mind – saluting her unofficial partner George Lewes by using his first name. The options are endless. It suffices that the ‘pen-name’ is the alter ego, standing forth in the public eye.8

In all cases, anonymous or pseudonymous novelists preserve the capacity to go quietly about their lives – observing the follies and foibles of their fellow humans – without being pestered or pursued by readers. Remaining unknown also safeguards authors from public embarrassment in the event of failure.

Presumably some combination of these motivations inspired numerous male authors to follow the same route. Samuel Leghorne Clemens later flowered as the celebrated American author, Mark Twain. One Marie-Henri Beyle later turned himself into the magisterial French author, Stendhal.  The insightful British author, George Orwell, was named by his parents as Eric Arthur Blair – with a first name that he was particularly keen to discard, thinking it too ‘priggish’.

Today, moreover, the successful crime thrillers by the female Spanish author, Carmen Mola, turn out to be authored by not one man but by three, working together anonymously.9 So an element of fun and play may also lie behind the use of pseudonyms. And no doubt an element of private laughter may follow, when the public is successfully hoaxed.

Yet … what about the principle of transparency? What about ‘owning’ one’s actions? Taking responsibility? Standing up to be counted? Playing fair with the public? Preventing false attributions and fake identities? Thoughts on these further burning questions, which haunt the history of publishing and communication, will be the subject of my next BLOG/156 in December 2023.

ENDNOTES:

1 See PJC BLOG/154 ‘In Praise of (Judicious) Regulation’ (Oct. 2023).

2 K. Kenny, Whistleblowing: Toward a New Theory (Cambridge, Mass., 2019); J.R. Arnold, Whistleblowers, Leakers and their Networks: From Snowden to Samizdat (Lanham, Md, 2020); T. Bazzichelli (ed.), Whistleblowing for Change: Exposing Systems of Power and Injustice (Bielefeld, 2021).

3 See e.g. https://www.northwhistle.com or https://www.safecall.co.uk/en/why-safecall.

4 E.P. Thompson, ‘The Crime of Anonymity’, in E.P. Thompson and others, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York; 1975), pp. 255-308, with sampler of anonymous letters, pp. 309-41. [It’s good to acknowledge here the help in this research given to EPT by his old friend, the local historian E.E. Dodd].

5 E. Cockayne, Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters (Oxford, 2023).

6 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Works_published_anonymously (viewed 27 Oct. 2023).

7 For meditations on the psychology of anonymity, see E.M. Forster [Edward Morgan], Anonymity: An Enquiry (London, 1925); J. Schecter, Anonymity (London, 2011).

8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Works_published_under_a_pseudonym (viewed 27 Oct. 2023).

9 They are Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez, and Antonio Mercero, three Spanish script-writers: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_Mola (viewed 27 Oct. 2023).

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MONTHLY BLOG 154, IN PRAISE OF (JUDICIOUS) REGULATION

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2023)

Image 1:
© Flaticon 2023

Humans are wondrously inventive. It’s the cultural trademark of the species. Simultaneously, however, humans are also reflective creatures. They eventually realise – with greater or less reluctance – that their inventions and innovations need good framework regulations to operate successfully. Unless the impact of significant change remains fully monitored, there is always a risk that creative inventions may help in one direction but may simultaneously cause unintended collateral damage in another.

Think of the motor car.  Freedom on four wheels – for those who have their hands on the wheel.  Immensely exciting. Yet … there are other people on the roads. Initially, in towns, the exciting new motor cars were each preceded by a walker, carrying a flag. Hardly the romance of the open road.

It quickly became apparent that the new vehicles could kill and main. In August 1896, for example, one Mrs Bridget Driscoll from Croydon received fatal injuries when she was struck by a slow-moving car which was giving demonstration rides at Crystal Palace, London (UK).1 And the drivers were themselves at risk. A wall plaque at Harrow-on-the-Hill records that fact, under the blunt heading ‘TAKE HEED’. It marks the location of the first recorded car accident in Britain (in 1899) that was fatal to the driver.2

Now, over one hundred and twenty years later, there are billions of motorised vehicles in all corners of the globe. And there are ample regulations and ‘rules of the road’.

In many (though not all) streets, pedestrian walkways are demarcated from driving areas. There are rules about which side of the road drivers should use. There are markings to designate traffic lanes. There are parking regulations; and, in places, local road taxes. There are traffic lights to regulate traffic flows at major junctions. At key places, there are also special pedestrian crossings. There are speed limits (if not always honoured). In many countries, too, there are rules about the wearing of seat belts. Further regulations require drivers to pass an official test, before being licensed to drive. (Beginners in Britain have to display the letter L for ‘Learner’ on their cars). All vehicles meanwhile need to be tested annually for road-worthiness; and to be fully insured against accidents.

Collectively, the aim is to obviate dangerous driving and to safeguard all road users. In Britain, the emergent ‘rules of the road’ were codified in 1931 as The Highway Code. It applies to all individuals using the roads, whether on foot, on horseback, or on wheels.3 Other countries produced their own versions. And in 1968, these variegated rules were codified into an international standard. Known as the Vienna Convention of Road Traffic, it is designed to facilitate international road traffic.4 Not all countries have ratified the treaty which confirmed its regulations. But the long-term pressures, arising from increasing cross-border traffic, make it unlikely that individual countries will be able to stand aloof from the international consensus.

At every stage in the evolution of these regulations, there have been arguments – often heated ones. Rival calls for ‘freedom’ and for ‘communal safeguards’ have been issued, often with intense passion. Currently, the same arguments are being canvassed with reference to urgent campaigns to reduce noxious carbon emissions, especially in large and heavily trafficked cities. As yet, there is no consensus; but it is not hard to predict that the unfolding climate crisis will hand eventual victory to the regulators – and, hopefully soon at that!

All these outcomes are far from the stately steps of the first flag-bearers, who walked in front of the first motor cars. But the undeniable need for community standards was apparent from the start. Imagine today’s 1.49 billion motor vehicles at large, without any regulation whatsoever. There would be total global grid-lock. And the first to call for properly enforced rules of the road would be the global billions of drivers.

So what follows? Mass human living depends upon proper regulation of all manner of things. From the safe building of houses, schools, bridges, and roads; to the safe storage of nuclear waste; to the efficient removal and treatment of human bodily waste.

Rather than arguing abstractly about the pros and cons of ‘freedom’ versus ‘regulation’, it’s much more productive to consider instead the key principles that should underpin judicious and appropriate community regulation.

Here then are five key principles:

(1) It’s essential that the need for regulations should be clearly explained and understood by a good majority of the adults within any community.

(2) It’s also vital that regulations are set and supervised by disinterested parties, whose identity is known and on the record. Self-regulation quickly becomes slack and ineffectual’; and can degenerate into criminal negligence.

(3) It’s also important that regulation is undertaken intelligently with a good sense of the overall objectives, so that rules are clearly comprehensible and manageable. Rules that appear to constitute nothing more than nit-picking and obstructive ‘red tape’ are liable to be held in contempt and evaded.

(4) It’s equally essential that the reporting of regulatory scrutiny and assessment is undertaken with scrupulous fairness – and the outcomes conveyed to interested parties with empathy and care. It may be that criminal prosecutions will follow in some specific circumstances; but regulation and assessment is a social and communal art, not primarily a legal process.

(5) Regulators always need reasonable security and independence in their role, so that they cannot be influenced in a partisan manner – or dismissed on a whim. Yet, simultaneously, they themselves should be regularly reviewed and their authority regularly renewed. Thus it should always be known to whom regulators are answerable: whether to local, national or international authorities.

Lastly, is there a better term for ‘regulation’? It can seem, at best, to be merely petty. Or, at worst, to be intrusive and meddling. After all, most people have broken minor rules on one occasion or another. Drivers sometimes exceed the specified speed limit. Pedestrians at times cross roads when the pedestrian lights signal ‘WAIT’. Even the most law-abiding citizens can be occasional rule-breakers on a minor scale. But that’s not really the point.

The key need is for a known framework of collective standards, which are set, monitored, and updated communally. In that way, human creativity and invention can flourish, without back-firing. Community standards with mass endorsement can obviate chaos. These tasks require debate, negotiation, clear-eyed realism, goodwill – and optimism. All excellent qualities! Onwards! 

ENDNOTES:

1 Guinness World Records: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-person-killed-by-a-car (viewed 20 Sept. 2023).

2 H. Turner, ‘The Story of Britain’s First Fatal Car Crash’ (2016): in https://harrowonline.org/2016/04/13/the-story-of-britains-first-fatal-car-crash-harrow-1899/ (viewed 20 Sept. 2023).

3 A preliminary booklet was introduced in 1921, following discussions between the police and the Automobile Association (founded 1905). In 1931, the rules were standardised as the Highway Code, and issued by the government: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Highway_Code (viewed 20 Sept. 2023).

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Convention_on_Road_Traffic (viewed 20 Sept. 2023).

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MONTHLY BLOG 147, A Great Painted Tribute to an Eighteenth-Century Cultural Ambassador between Global East & West

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2023)

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai

Image 1: Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai (c.1776)
This cultural ambassador to Britain from the other side of the world
is shown in ‘exotic’ robes and with bare feet –
but his pose is open and friendly,
and his gaze (said to be a good likeness) is candid

As British sailors and explorers increasingly travelled the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,1 so the public back home clamoured to read all about it. Fictional fantasias like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) became instant best-sellers. And factual accounts were eagerly consulted too.

In 1703, London society was enthused by the presence of a strange traveller, purporting to have arrived from Formosa (today’s Taiwan).2 He had exotic habits; and recounted tall tales about life in the orient. His Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704) had a huge success – and was quickly translated into German and French. The book included details of the Formosan language; and provided a Formosan translation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Alas, however, it was all invented nonsense. The author turned out to be a mendacious Frenchman, named George Psalmanazar (c.1679-1763). His imposture was soon discovered; and his fame collapsed. Oddly, however, the man himself did not disappear, shamefaced. He continued to live in London as a jobbing writer, and later repented his Formosan hoax. Psalmanazar’s brief surge to fame had, however, undeniably shown that there was great public curiosity to learn about the wider world.

Another exotic visitor reached Britain in the 1770s. But this youthful Polynesian newcomer was the real thing. Omai (c.1751-c.1779), also known as Mai in his own language, was a cultural ambassador, bearing witness to his own people’s distinctive way-of-life.3 In personality, he was gracious, charming and amusing. And he was also willing to learn, managing after a while to speak good English, with his own accent.

Omai had arrived in 1774, on one of the ships returning from Captain Cook’s second voyage of discovery in the Pacific; and was greeted with immense excitement. He socialised with many luminaries, including King George III, Dr Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, and the novelist Fanny Burney. All who met Omai could observe differences of race, language, culture and clothing – as well as their shared humanity.4

The eminent artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) painted Omai as a princely visitor, majestic yet with his feet well and truly on the ground. He was no threat; no monster; no fiction.

Eventually, Omai returned to the island of Tahiti with Captain Cook (1728-79), when the great explorer made his third voyage to the Pacific – a voyage that took Cook on to discoveries, misunderstandings, quarrels and his own death in Hawaii.5 Reflecting upon the impact of the Tahitian traveller, the playwright John O’Keefe sought to dramatise the case for peaceful co-existence. In the pantomime, Omai, the heir to the throne of Tahiti, is due to marry Londina, the daughter of Britannia. Yet they struggle against many obstacles. The play helped to gild the reputations of both Cook and Omai. However, by the time that Omai: Or, a Trip Round the World was first performed in 1785, the real-life hero had died young in Tahiti.

Given that global encounters throughout the eighteenth century were very often marred by misunderstandings and conflicts, Omai’s peaceful embassy was a model for the constructive exchange of global knowledge. He did not do amazing things. Nor did he write his memoirs (shame!). Instead, he was a living cultural ambassador, whose message is as relevant today as it was then.

Today there is a campaign to save the Portrait of Omai for the nation.6 If successful, the painting will be sent on tour in Britain and possibly also at some future date to Tahiti, to continue the mutual cultural exchange that the real man himself undertook. Would Omai, Captain Cook, and Joshua Reynolds (to name but three eminent Georgians) have approved? They certainly would. They valued shared global knowledge; and so must we.

Images 2 and 3: Details from separate portraits of Omai and of James Cook,
here with their heads put together as if conversing,
as they undoubtedly did in real life.

ENDNOTES:

1 P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (London, 2022), pp. 20-40.

2 M. Keevak, The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax (Detroit, Michigan, 2004).

3 G. Rendle-Short (ed.), Cook and Omai: The Cult of the South Seas (Canberra, 2001); R.M. Connaughton, Omai: The Prince who Never Was (London, 2005).

4 L.H. Zerne, ‘“Having a Lesson of Attention from Omai”: Frances Burney, Omai the Tahitian, and Eighteenth-Century British Constructions of Racial Difference’, Burney Journal, 10 (2010), pp.  87-104.

5 G. Williams, The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade (London, 2008); N. Thomas, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook (London, 2018).

6 J. Gapper, ‘Joshua Reynolds’ “Painting of Omai” is a National Treasure. Why Are We Struggling to Save It’? Financial Times, 23 Feb. 2023 https://www.ft.com/content/bfa30b2c-b1bc-446a-89ad-03b558f37ba5 (consulted 24-4-2023). For information on the appeal, see artfund.org/donate.

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We Can Do It. Womens symbol of female power and industry. Doodle cartoon woman with grl pwr tattoo.

MONTHLY BLOG 145, Being a Citizen whilst Living under a Hereditary Monarchy

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2023)

We Can Do It. Womens symbol of female power and industry.

‘Yes We Can!’
Campaigning Citizens today are Not Halted by Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy
© Vector 26202920

It was infuriating twice over: firstly, to be informed by a contributor to the New York Review of Books that the British people are ‘subjects, not citizens’;1 and, secondly, to realise that my protesting Letter to the Editor, sent twice in case it went astray first time round, is not going to be published in the NYRB columns.

But what the hell!? Instead, my riposte is going to appear as my January 2023 BLOG, slightly expanded from my original letter. And I will send copies both to the author of the erroneous comment; and to the negligent editor, who is apparently uninterested in correcting factual mistakes in the NYRB columns.

The infuriating remark about the Brits appeared in an otherwise eloquent and enlightening essay by the Dublin-born author and critic, Fintan O’Toole. I guess that his constitutional put-down of the Brits is a common enough view among the Republican Irish. And it is true that Britain still maintains its hereditary monarchy, as recently demonstrated by the peaceful transition from Elizabeth II to Charles III. And it is equally true that, according to strict monarchical theory, those living under such a monarchy are ‘subjects’.

However, that is only half of a long story. Well before the twentieth century, the ‘free-born’ Brits were intensely proud of their rhetoric of personal freedom and independence. They stressed their individual rights vis-à-vis the executive powers of the land, going back to Magna Carta. And they knew the terminology of ‘citizenship’. Over time, the English use of the term was broadened – from originally meaning the freemen of chartered cities – to indicate, by extension, all legal residents within a national jurisdiction.

So Dr Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary in 1755 gave the term three shades of meaning – one being simply ‘an inhabitant; a dweller in any place’. And a later study by Thorold Rogers, entitled The British Citizen: His Rights and Privileges (1885), was not intended to be controversial.2

Moreover, the concept was extended to cover not only Brits at home but also the residents in Britain’s colonies. One famous rhetorical flourish from Lord Palmerston made that point. As Britain’s Foreign Secretary, he practised gunboat diplomacy. So when a Gibraltar-born merchant named Don Pacifico was maltreated in Greece, Palmerston sent the Royal Navy to blockage Athens in protest. He stated that all people living under the British flag were entitled to protection, whether at home or overseas, by the British state. And he cited a proud maxim from classical Rome. ‘Civis Romanus sum’ [I am a citizen of Rome] – implying that ‘all, who mistreat me, will face the wrath of Rome’.3

How the press and public loved it. On the day after Palmerston’s big speech, one newspaper praised him for extending his protecting arm ‘over every one of his countrymen’.4 Opponents sniffed at the cost and the potential diplomatic ramifications. But, by clear implication, ‘civis Britannicus’ could expect to be as well safeguarded as were the citizens of Rome. (How that protection works in practice was and is, needless to say, not always straightforward or satisfactory).

Interestingly, Palmerston’s rhetoric of shared citizenship referred simultaneously to his fellow Britons as ‘British subjects’. In the custom of the time, he used ‘men’ as the collective term for men and women. He also alluded interchangeably to the state as ‘Britain’ and ‘England’. These imprecisions were highly characteristic of the linguistic eclecticism of a country, whose constitution evolved in bits and pieces over time, as did the organisation of its overseas empire. (Another example of imprecision is the still-continuing practice of referring to the British monarchs of the United Kingdom post-1707 as kings and queens ‘of England’).

Eventually, pressures for international standardisation and clarification encouraged moves for legislative elucidation. In 1948, the Labour government responded with the Nationality Act. It declared all Britons and all residents of Britain’s colonies to be citizens of the United Kingdom and its Colonies.5

King George VI signed the new law into existence without hesitation. And there were no protests from ardent monarchists. (Perhaps the shade of Palmerston was cheering). In effect, this legislation was clarifying the already-existing dual status of the British people – both as subjects of the monarch as Head of State, and as free citizens of an independent nation.

A further British Citizenship Act in 1981 refined the categories of people who are entitled to claim that status.6 Its details proved controversial. But again there were no protests from ardent monarchists at the explicit terminology of national ‘citizenship’. And Queen Elizabeth II obediently signed the law into existence. She also accepted without protest Britain’s accession to the European Union, which technically turned her too, between 1993 (the Maastricht Treaty) and 2020 (Britain’s secession from the Union), into a citizen of Europe.7

There are manifest complexities alongside evident simplicities. Britons have long lived with plural identities. We are Britons – yet also English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – plus the national affiliations of all who have settled in the British Isles from overseas. We are legally the subjects of a hereditary monarchy. Yet we are also free citizens of the British state. And some of us like to think too that we are ‘citizens of the world’.

Does this lack of strict logic matter? The answer is: No, not really. It is a way of living with organically evolving constitutional changes. Even nations with tightly written constitutions find that they have to make adaptations upon occasions. A flexible illogic works well enough, as long as all concerned can agree to accept its functional viability.

In the case of Britain, I have lived a lifetime under a monarchy. I do feel myself to be a free citizen. I don’t feel ‘subjected’. If there were a referendum tomorrow on keeping the British monarchy, I would join the minority of Britons who would vote for a republic and an elected president (on grounds of logic and constitutional principle).8 Yet I would accept the verdict of my fellow citizens if a majority wish to keep the institution. It works as long as the British people want it to work – and as long as the hereditary monarchs play their ceremonial roles correctly.

Lastly, some American friends claim that life under a hereditary monarchy is worse, constitutionally and psychologically, than living in the USA, with its lack of strict gun controls. I disagree. Uncontrolled guns kill the innocent, in large numbers. By comparison, today’s constitutional monarchs are pussycats. Ok – they are gilded pussycats, but they lack killer claws. (Virtually all royal prerogative powers are exercised by ministers. They do need reform – but that’s another issue). Britain’s monarchy is an evolving institution. One day (into the future) the monarch will be known as the ‘First Citizen’. And once (back in the past) an English king was convicted of High Treason against the people – and publicly beheaded.9 Monarchs today remember 1649 as do citizens.

ENDNOTES:

1 Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Two Elizabeths’, in New York Review of Books, Vol LXIX/16 (20 October 2022).

2 J.E. Thorold Rogers, The British Citizen: His Rights and Privileges (1885). The possessive adjective indicated that prime political rights in this period were thought of as pertaining to men, although women were not without some legal protections.

3 Palmerston’s speech in the House of Commons, 25 June 1850: see Hansard, CXII [third ser.], pp. 380-444: ‘as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong’. See J. Ridley, Lord Palmerston (2013); L. Fenton, Palmerston and The Times: Foreign Policy, the Press and Public Opinion in Mid-Victorian Britain (2012); and wider context in T.K. Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-86 (Oxford, 1998).

4 The Globe, 26 June 1850.

5 British Nationality Act (1948), cap. 56.

6 British Citizenship Act (1981), cap. 61.

7 For the status of Europe’s remaining monarchies within the European Union, see https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/m/Monarchies_in_the_European_Union.htm (consulted 1 Jan. 2023).

8 For the history of British republicanism, see A. Taylor, ‘Down with the Crown’: British Anti-Monarchism and Debates about Royalty since 1790 (1999); and for the cause today, see https://www.republic.org.uk/what_we_want (consulted 2 Jan. 2023).

9 All those who signed King Charles I’s death warrant, later known as the Regicides, were punished after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 – and the corpses of dead regicides were disinterred and publicly dishonoured: see J. Peacey (ed.), The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I (Basingstoke, 2001). Nonetheless, after 1649 future monarchs were much more cautious; and no longer attempted to use absolute powers to legislate or tax at will. For the diminution of independent royal power over the centuries and the consolidation of a ceremonial constitutional monarchy, see B. Hubbard, The Changing Power of the British Monarchy (Oxford, 2018); W.M. Kuhn, Democratic Royalism: The Transformation of the British Monarchy, 1861-1914 (Basingstoke, 1996); and F. Prochaska, Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (New Haven, 1995).

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MONTHLY BLOG 132, IS TEACHING SEXY?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 Symbol for Infinity,
referencing the infinite unknown …
Image from Wikimedia Commons (2021)

It’s the author and playwright Alan Bennett who says that teaching is sexy. And, before the massed ranks of educationalists protest instead that their work is exhausting and under-paid, let’s clarify Bennett’s precise formulation. In The History Boys (2004), one of his fictional school-teachers states firmly that: ‘The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act’.1

Of course, there are immediate qualifications to be made. Not all words voiced on stage can be taken as representing the playwright’s deep beliefs. Just as well, for otherwise it would be impossible to write a play about conflicting ideas and contested ideologies.

Nonetheless, The History Boys is infused with tenderness for adolescent boys on the verge of manhood. And the play is conspicuously sympathetic to close teacher engagement with the charms of youth.

So Bennett’s proposition stands, if not as his ultimate personal credo, then as a viewpoint worthy of serious consideration. And, by way of context, it may be noted that, in the early 1960s, the young Alan Bennett was himself briefly an apprentice History don at Magdalen College, Oxford.

First-hand testimony from friends, who had the benefit of his tuition,2 confirms that Bennett was an excellent tutor. He was not only knowledgeable and sagacious, but also very good at inducting baffled student beginners into the required skills for self-directed study. Some came from schools where they relied for information upon ‘teachers’ notes’. Such students were astounded to be given a booklist of 20+ massive tomes and told cheerfully to return in a week with an original essay. Bennett was good at demystification, without being patronising. And, if he was gaining erotic satisfaction from these pedagogic exchanges, he gave no outward intimation of any such state of affairs.

Yet it is still worth asking: is the transmission of knowledge an erotic act? Here this discussion rejects entirely all sexual exploitation of students by teachers. At any and every stage in the educational system, such behaviour is illegal and immoral – and almost invariably damaging to the exploited young. It may be noted, too, that, in The History Boys, the school-master Hector’s explanation of his fondling of young boys’ genitalia as part of the eros of transmitting knowledge, as in the Renaissance, is robustly rebuked by the head-master: ‘Fuck the Renaissance’.

But is there a deeper point to explore about the pleasures of educational exchanges? Something that is not directly sexual. Nor even particularly sensual.

Yes, there is. Indeed, there are genuine intellectual pleasures to be gained from the life of the mind, as well as of the body. The best moments of transmitting and debating ideas with others are exhilarating. It’s exciting to push collectively at the boundaries of knowledge, which reach to infinity. It engenders a genuine electric buzz of the mind. Such excitements are particularly associated with advanced level teaching; but they can occur in any context of intellectual breakthrough. Out of uncertainty into the light: wow!

No special terms comes to mind to acknowledge this joyous and far from everyday experience. Something that is not directly ‘sexy’ or ‘erotic’. But, as they say, something else.

Greek terms offer some range. It is understood that Eros, the god of love, comes in many forms. His/her manifestations are protean. So the lofty Greek agapé means a god-like, universal, and unconditional love. And there is another term, which falls between agapé and eros. It refers to deep, nurturing, supportive and non-sexualised friendship, known as philia. That’s a very pleasant thing to give and to receive.

However, good friendship is not really the same as the intense stimulus of shared intellectual endeavour. Dictionaries of synonyms offer variants such as ‘mental stimulation’ or ‘food for thought’.

All of those are nice. Yet those terms are a bit tame. So let’s simply say that there is a positive intellectual buzz to be derived from the shared transmission of knowledge.

Is the experience erotic? No. Does it happen in every teaching context? No. Does it happen often enough to add zest to the educational process? Yes. Is the intellectual buzz intensely joyous? Yes. It’s generating real intellectual electricity, with its own power and light.

ENDNOTES:

1 A. Bennett, The History Boys (2004), p. 53.

2 Those friends include my life partner, Tony Belton, who studied History at Magdalen College between 1961-64.

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MONTHLY BLOG 127, World citizens in the twenty-first century are generating an ‘international sphere’ of public opinion, outside and beyond the control of national governments.

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Fig.1 Globe in Speech Bubble by Moilleadóir (2009):
from WikiMedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WiktLogo-Bubble-WikiGlobe-red-1-.svg

There is today a growing international sphere of public opinion. It stretches well outside and beyond the control of national governments. It is purely informal; often fragmented; and lacking direct power. Nonetheless it is an identifiable liberal trend in world history – which is causing particular anxieties for repressive states. As a result, there are also hostile forces, working against the emergent international sphere. Yet the global advance of mass literacy since c.1800 is laying the foundation (in 2015. 86% of adults across the world were able to read and write);1 the diffusion of print continues to fan the fire; and the advent of personal computing, plus especially the invention of the world-wide-web in 1989, has thrown (metaphorically) petrol on the blaze.

Not all, but many citizens are now sharing and debating ideas world-wide. The numbers participating are likely to grow. And, in time, the strength of global public opinion, when united, will increasingly influence governments. To take one example, there may well be international people-power calling for faster action to cope with climate change. Of course, global public opinion will not always agree – any more than does public opinion within any nation-state. But debates are part and parcel of all civic life. In other words, it’s better to have people arguing and voting rather than fighting and killing.

This collective arena has recently been identified as a ‘global civil order’.2 And others detect the operation of an ‘international sphere’.3 That latter terminology is a verbal adaptation from an earlier usage, popularised by the German social philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.4 Writing of western Europe in the eighteenth century, he identified the advent of a new ‘public sphere’ or civic arena, which he contrasted with the ‘private sphere’ of the domestic household. Details of his interpretation are disputed. The two spheres were not as separate and self-contained as Habermas assumed. And his dichotomy between the supposedly ‘male’ and ‘bourgeois’ civic sphere and the supposedly ‘female’ household was not nearly as clear cut either.5

Nonetheless, an adapted version of overlapping, rather than separate, spheres is a helpful one, In the course of the eighteenth century, an increasingly literate population across Britain joined in debating ideas and ideologies in books, newspapers, homes, schools, theatres, market-places, coffee-houses, and debating chambers – all the way from private societies to national legislatures.6 And today the debates are taking places not only in household, local and national spheres but also internationally. There is no need to choose between one civic forum or another: they interconnect and overlap. Individuals can thus share interests not only locally but also with others across Planet Earth.

One criticism of this emergent trend was voiced in Britain in 2016 by the then Conservative premier Theresa May. Those individuals who view themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ are really, she claimed, ‘citizens of nowhere’. She further implied that the would-be internationalists were talking just to other international elites, and were betraying their fellow citizens ‘who live down the road’.7 Some cheered. But many, including some of her fellow Conservatives, rebuked her myopia. People should be praised, not blamed, for taking seriously their responsibilities to the global community that lives on Planet Earth. Today, that point is being underlined, more emphatically than ever, by the Covid pandemic and by galloping climate change.

At this point, it’s worth stressing that the emergent international sphere is not in itself hostile to the world’s governments in general (even if specific governments may be strongly opposed). On the contrary, the global exchange of ideas and opinions depends upon a degree of international order. Chronic armed conflict between rival nations clearly does not promote reasoned discourse.

So the achievements of national governments, from the early twentieth century onwards, have been vital, in establishing an institutional framework for international cooperation.8 It doesn’t always work. Crucially, however, this framework does exist. Key bodies include: the League of Nations (founded 1920), followed by the United Nations (1945); plus Interpol (1923); the World Bank (1944), the World Health Organisation (1948); the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT: 1948), followed by the World Trade Organisation (1995),9 the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare (1949); the International Telecommunications Union (1965), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) and, not least, the International Criminal Court (1998). Support for such initiatives came from national populations who backed governments in thinking internationally; and these changes in turn encouraged further international thinking among ordinary citizens.

All the ensuing non-governmental global conversations are thoroughly diverse. Some are initiated by individual activists. The role of Greta Thunberg, the youthful Swedish environmentalist, is one remarkable case in point, as she tours the world to highlight the need for urgent action on climate change.10

At the same time, many non-governmental links are sustained by an immense number of global organisations.11 Sporting associations had practical reasons for collating their rules. Leading the way in 1881 was the International Gymnastics Federation. Another leader was the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA; founded 1904). Other groups which think globally include the churches; trade unions; professions; academics; librarians; scientists; doctors; and many specialist occupational groups, such as investment bankers. All these, and many others, run international organisations. One venerable and still thriving body is Apimondia, founded by the world’s bee-keepers in 1897.12

There are also numerous international aid or development agencies (some with government funding; many without). These bodies indicate that the charitable impulse, found within most countries, is now being energetically applied world-wide.13 Significantly, too, global lobbying on contentious global issues has grown ever more vigorous. In 2007, Avaaz, an American non-profit web-based organization, rallies international support to advance a liberal-left (non-ideological) agenda, opposing climate change, corruption, poverty, and conflict – and supporting human rights and animal rights.14 By contrast, some international networks deliberately operate on the dark side: those of criminals. money-launderers and people-traffickers, being prime cases.15 Unsurprisingly, these people do not contribute to the global discourse, but are instead the   subject of earnest international debate, in the difficult quest to curb them.

Another admirable set of organisations are devoted to literary and cultural matters. One congenial case is the Robert Burns World Federation, founded in 1885. Run by enthusiasts, it is a charity that promotes and celebrates Scotland’s most famous poet and song-writer. And it provides organisational links for a world-wide network of Burns Clubs (numbering over 250 in 2013).16 The fact that this Federation has now flourished for well over a century is impressive.

Robert Burns has also proved to be a song-writer for the world. In 1788, he wrote Auld Lang Syne, celebrating friendship and remembrance. Set to a traditional Scottish tune, the song has now been translated into at least 41 languages. Not only is it sung at private parties, but it is regularly performed in many countries at graduations, passing-out army parades, and festivities at the turn of the Old Year/New Year.17 It has thus become the world’s most frequently sung song, giving the international sphere an unofficial anthem. (‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness then/ For the sake of auld lang syne’). Once on a visit in Japan, I gave an ad hoc rendering, only to be asked by my audience, with pleased surprise, how I knew this traditional Japanese song so well.18

These internationalist thoughts have been triggered by my participation in the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies/ Société internationale d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, of which I am currently President.19 This body, founded in 1963, is now nearing its 60th anniversary. It is run on a shoe-string, without any institutional backing, and has 35 affiliated national and regional societies (some more active than others). Together, its membership may be viewed as an update of the eighteenth-century scholars’ ecumenical Republic of Letters.20 And today the Society proudly contributes to the international sphere.

ENDNOTES:

1 See variously D. Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2020); M. Roser and E. Otriz-Ospina, Literacy (2013) in website: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.

2 See D. Laqua, W. Van Acker and C. Verbruggen (eds), International Associations and Global Civil Society: Histories of the Union of International Associations (2019).

3 See two recent book titles: B. Winter and L. Sorbera, Contending Legitimacy in World Politics: The State, Civil Society and the International Sphere in Twenty-First Century Politics (2018); and C.R. Alexander, Frontiers of Public Diplomacy: Hegemony, Morality and Power in the International Sphere (2021).

4 See J. Habermas, Strukturwandel der Bürgerlichen Öffentlichkeit (1963), in 4th edn. (Neuwied, 1969), transl. as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1989). p. 40.

5 For one pertinent critique among many, see J.A. Downie, ‘The Myth of the Bourgeois Public Sphere’, in C. Wall (ed.), A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2004), pp. 58-79.

6 See e.g. H. Barker, Newspapers, Politics and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford, 1998); H. Kerr, D. Lemmings and R. Phiddian, Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture: Public Opinion and Emotional Authenticity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2015); and M. Ellis (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture, Vols. 1-4 (2017).

7 For the full text of Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016, see The Spectator: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/full-text-theresa-may-s-conference-speech.

8 See e.g. I. Trauschweizer, Temple of Peace: International Cooperation and Stability since 1945 (Athens, Ohio, 2021); and meditations on future prospects by D.R. Kelley, Understanding a Changing World: The Alternative Futures of the International System (Lanham, Md, 2021).

9 B. Spiesshofer, Responsible Enterprise: The Emergence of a Global Economic Order (Munich and Oxford, 2018).

10 See A. Chapman, Greta Thunberg and the Climate Crisis (2020), and a detailed summary, covering her achievements, her school-fellow colleagues, and her critics, in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Thunberg.

11 Listed in Laqua, Van Acker and Verbruggen (eds), International Associations. as cited above n.1.

12 See https://www.apimondia.com/en/the-federation/history.

13 See S. Harland, D. Griffiths, and L. Walker (eds), The International Development Directory (2001); and Directory of International Development and Relief Agencies (2021), in https://www.guidestar.org/NonprofitDirectory.aspx?cat=6&subcat=32&p=8.

14 For details, see https://secure.avaaz.org.

15 See e.g. D.R. Liddick, The Global Underworld: Transnational Crime and the United States (2004); and M. Glenny, McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld (Toronto, 2009).

16 For further information, see http://www.rbwf.org.uk.

17 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Lang_Syne.

18 Translated as 蛍の光 / Hotaru no Hikari.

19 See the ISECS/SIEDS website, hosted by the University of Trois Rivières, Canada:   https://oraprdnt.uqtr.uquebec.ca/pls/public/gscw031?owa_no_site=304&owa_no_fiche=11.

20 Among a large literature, see D. Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994); A. Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (1995); G. Ostrander, Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776–1865 (Madison, Wis., 1999); J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2001); S. Dalton, Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2003); and A. Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Oxford 2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 126, Does classifying people in terms of their ‘Identity’ have parallels with racist thought? Answer: No; Yes; and ultimately, No.

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Specimen HC1
© Michael Mapes (2013)

It’s impossible to think without employing some elements of generalisation. (Is it? Yes: pure mental pointillisme, cogitating in fragmentary details, would not work. Thoughts have to be organised). And summary statements about fellow human beings always entail some element of classification. (Do they? Yes, individuals are more than the sum of their bits of flesh and bones. Each one is a person, with a personality, a consciousness, a name, perhaps a national identity number – all different ways of summarising a living being). Generalisations are therefore invaluable, whilst always open to challenge.

Yet are all forms of classification the same? Is aggregative thought not only inevitable but similarly patterned, whatever the chosen criteria? Or, to take a more precise example from interpersonal relationships, does classifying a person by their own chosen ethnic identity entail the same thought processes as classifying them in terms of oppressive racial hierarchies?

Immediately the answer to the core question (are all forms of classification the same?) is No. If individuals chose to embrace an ethnic identity, that process can be strong and empowering. Instead of being labelled by others, perhaps with pejorative connotations, then people can reject an old-style racial hierarchy that places (say) one skin-colour at the top of the social heap, and another at the foot. They can simply say: ‘Yes: that is who I am; and I exult in the fact. My life – and the life of all others like me – matters.’  It is a great antidote to years of racial hatred and oppressions.

At the same time, however, there are risks in that approach. One is the obvious one, which is often noted. White supremacists can use the same formula, claiming their group superiority. And they can then campaign aggressively against all who look ‘different’ and are deemed (by them) be in ‘inferior’. In other words, oppressors can use the same appeal to the validity of group affiliation as can their victims.

There are other difficulties too. So reverting to the core question (how similar are systems of classification?) it can be argued that: yes, assessing people by ethnic identity often turns out, in practice, to be based upon superficial judgments, founded not upon people’s actual ethnic history (often very complex) but upon their looks and, especially, their skin colours. External looks are taken as shorthand for much more. As a result, assumptions about identities can be as over-simplified as those that allocate people into separate ‘races’. Moreover, reliance upon looks can lead to hurtful situations. Sometimes individuals who believe themselves to have one particular ethnic affinity can be disconcerted by finding that others decline to accept them into one particular ‘tribe’, purely because their looks don’t approximate to required visual stereotype. For example, some who self-identify as ‘black’ are rejected as ‘not black enough’.

Finally, however, again reverting to the core question: No. Identity politics are not as socially pernicious and scientifically wrong-headed as are racial politics.1 ‘Identities’ are fluid and can be multiple. They are organised around many varied criteria: religion, politics, culture, gender, sexuality, nationality, sporting loyalties, and so forth. People have a choice as to whether they associate with any particular affinity group – and, having chosen, they can also regulate the strength of their loyalties. These things are not set in stone. Again, taking an example from biological inheritance, people with dark skins do not have to self-identify as ‘black’. They may have some other, overriding loyalty, such as to a given religion or nationality, which takes precedence in their consciousness.

But there is a more fundamental point, as well. Identities are not ideologically organised into the equivalent of racial hierarchies, whereby one group is taken as perennially ‘superior’ to another. Some individuals may believe that they and their fellows are the ‘top dogs’. And group identities can encourage tribal rivalries. But such tensions are not the same as an inflexible racial hierarchy. Instead, diverse and self-chosen ‘identities’ are a step towards rejecting old-style racism. They move society away from in-built hierarchies towards a plurality of equal roles.

It is important to be clear, however, that there is a risk that classifications of people in terms of identity might become as schematic, superficial and, at times, hurtful as are classifications in terms of so-called ‘race’. Individuals may like to choose; but society makes assumptions too.

The general moral is that classifications are unavoidable. But they always need to be checked and rechecked for plausibility. Too many exceptions at the margins suggest that the core categories are too porous to be convincing. Moreover, classification systems are not made by individuals in isolation. Communication is a social art. Society therefore joins in human classification. Which means that the process of identifying others always requires vigilance, to ensure that, while old inequalities are removed, new ones aren’t accidentally generated instead. Building human siblinghood among Planet Earth’s 7.9 billion people (the estimated 2021 head-count) is a mighty challenge but a good – and essential – one.

ENDNOTES:

1 For the huge literature on the intrinsic instability of racial classifications, see K.F. Dyer, The Biology of Racial Integration (Bristol, 1974); and A. Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 2001 edn). It is worth noting, however, that beliefs in separate races within the one human race are highly tenacious: see also A. Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). For further PJC meditations on these themes, see also within PJC website: Global Themes/ 4,4,1 ‘It’s Time to Update the Language of “Race”’, BLOG/36 (Dec. 2013); and 4.4.4 ‘Why is the Language of “Race” holding on for so long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science?’ BLOG/ 38 (Feb. 2014).

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MONTHLY BLOG 123, THE PEOPLING OF BRITAIN: PROPOSED SCHOOLS COURSE FOR TEENAGERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

123.1 Black-and-white diagram showing ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ on the move:
© binary template from research.net (2021)

Humans are a globe-trotting species;1 and the people of Britain are notable exponents of that trait. In fact, continental Europe’s sizeable offshore islands, with their long maritime tradition, are among the world’s most hybrid communities. Its people come and go. Many stop and stay. Others move on and depart, and, not infrequently, return. In the process, their histories say much about both the culturally positive and negative aspects of migration.

For that reason, there’s a great case for a schools course for British teenagers to study ‘The Peopling of Britain’, from the earliest times until now. Everybody’s family plays a part in the collective story. Such a course can be located within Modern History, or Sociology, or Civics: and it can easily be associated with individual Roots Projects, in which students discuss their history with older members of the family.2

Such themes need to be addressed with care and sensitivity. Not all families are happy to uncover past secrets, if secrets there be. Some are happy to be revealed as ‘stayers’. Yet not all families are satisfied with staying put. Conversely, not all cases of migration are happy ones. And some adopted children don’t know their full family history. They especially need thoughtful and sensitive help in tracing their roots, in so far as that’s possible.3 But they can also benefit from understanding their adoptive families’ stories, which show how population mixing happens from day-to-day, as part of ordinary life. These are all crucial issues for young adults as they grow up and find their places in a complex society. So it is helpful to confront the long history of ‘the peopling of Britain’ in a supportive class environment, with supportive teachers.

One immediate effect is to provide historical perspective. Population movement into and out of Britain is far from a recent invention. It goes back to the very earliest recorded settlements by Celts and Basques; and has continued ever since. In 1701 the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe amused his readers by poetically lampooning the mongrel heritage of The True-Born Englishman:

‘The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit;

And with the English-Saxon all Unite.’4

He was not intent on disparagement. On the contrary, he was glorying in the country’s diversity. Moreover, Defoe was writing about the English as they had recruited population in the millennia before 1066. After that date, the Norman French invaders followed in 1066, Dutch and Walloon religious refugees arrived in the sixteenth century; French Huguenot, German, Irish, and Caribbean migrants settled from the eighteenth century onwards; and many others have followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Canada, North and South America; from the Middle East; from India, Pakistan, China, and the Far East, including the Philippines; from many parts of Africa; from Australia and New Zealand; as well as from Scandinavia, from across central, southern and eastern Europe – and, on a small scale, from Russia.5

Defoe’s point, as he explained in the  Preface to the 1703 edition of The True-Born Englishman, was that population migration was and is normal. Accordingly, he explained that: ‘I only infer, that an English Man, of all Men ought not to despise Foreigners as such, and I think the Inference is just, since what they are today, we were yesterday; and tomorrow they will be like us’.6

Of course, migration has not always been easy. That is a big, obvious and important point. There have been tensions, hostilities, riots, rejection, and simmering bitterness.7 But such responses should not therefore be brushed under the historical carpet. Instead, it is helpful for students to explore: why tensions emerge in some circumstances; and not in others. And in some periods; but not in others? What factors help integration? And which factors impeded cohesion? The answers include crucial contextual factors, like the availability of work and housing. And they also highlight the behaviour both of host communities and of migrant groups, including rival languages, religions, and differing cultural attitudes – for example to the role of women.

At the same time, migration has its positive and dynamic side. The acceptance of social pluralism, for example with different religions worshipping peacefully side by side, is a useful civic art, in a world full of different religious groups. Equally, learning from and sharing the global diversity of food and music adds much to cultural creativity. And the same applies across the board, in terms of generating and sharing the global stock of knowledge, to which all cultures contribute.

Moreover, there is one quietly successful – almost secret – experience that underpins migration, which many students’ own family histories will reveal. That is, the very great extent of intermarriage between these migrant groups, especially over time. (Needless to say, not all the unions between people from different backgrounds were actually legal ones; but ‘intermarriage’ is the demographers’ term not just for sexual encounters but for all unions which produced children). Such relationships happen across and between different ethnic, religious, and social groups, even when forbidden. Romeo and Juliet are the tragic theatrical representations of a human story of love despite barriers.

It is certainly a common experience for Britons, who delve back into their ancestry, to find forebears from a variety of ethnic, religious and geographical origins. Equally, many known migrants to Britain from ‘foreign parts’ have descendants who merge seamlessly into the population today. One example stands proxy for many. The ancestry of Lord ‘Bill’ Wedderburn, a noted Labour lawyer and politician (1927-2012), stretches back, on his father’s side, to Robert Wedderburn, the Jamaican-born radical and anti-slavery campaigner (1762-c.1835). They couldn’t meet in daily life; but they do meet in the pages of British history – complete with their intent gazes and small frown lines between the eyes.

123.2 (L) Jamaican-born Robert Wedderburn (1762-c.1835), anti-slavery campaigner, and (R) his descendant, Bill Wedderburn, lawyer & Labour politician (1927-2012).

Incidentally, Britain’s long-standing aversion to national identity papers made it hard for the authorities in earlier times to track the location of migrants. Hence many ‘foreigners’ quietly Anglicised their names and disappeared from the official record. That situation contrasted, for example, with non-Islamic newcomers into the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. They were required, in theory at least, to wear distinctive dress, featuring specifically coloured turbans to indicate their religious/ethnic origins.8 But all such regulations were difficult to sustain over time, as migrant families became established over successive generations.

Studying these issues provides a long-term perspective on issues of social and personal sensitivity. The Schools’ curriculum tends to be divided into chunks around specific periods of history – often very recent ones. But it’s good for teenagers to study some long-term trends. History is rightly not taught today as one inevitable success story. Old Whig views of ‘the March of Progress’ have been discarded in the light of chronic warfare, famines, genocides, racism, chronic poverty, and sundry catastrophes. And an alternative Marxist view of history as unending class struggle, leading to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, has also been revealed as a massive over-simplification.9

Yet all British students can study with benefit the long-term peopling of the country in which they live. They will confront conflict, but also cooperation. Enmities but also love. They will learn how and why people move – and how societies can learn to cope with migration. These complex legacies impact not only upon society at large but also upon all individuals. (At the same time, too, there is a parallel story of the massive British diaspora around the world).10 Understanding the history of humanity’s chronic globe-trotting is part of learning to be simultaneously a British citizen and a global one.

ENDNOTES:

1 L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Harlow, 1995).

2 See companion-piece PJC BLOG/122 (Feb.2021), ‘Proposed Roots Project for Teenagers’. And relevant analysis in R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2.

3 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

4 D. Defoe, The True-Born Englishman (1703), lines 25-26.

5 J. Walvin, Passage to Britain: Immigration in British History and Politics (Harmondsworth, 1984); P. Panayi, An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1800 (Harlow, 2010); M. Spafford and D. Lyndon, Migrants to Britain, c.1250 to Present (2016).

6 Defoe, True-Born Englishman, Preface to 1703 edn.

7 A.H. Richmond, Immigration and Ethnic Conflict (Basingstoke, 1988); R.M. Dancygier, Immigration and Conflict in Europe (Cambridge, 2010).

8 D. Quataert, ‘Clothing Laws, State and Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1829’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997), pp. 403-25.

9 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 74-5, 174-8; and idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and Till Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert; transl. as Obsession with the Here-and-Now: Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century, (Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91, esp. pp. 78-80, 83.

10 E. Richards, Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 122, PROPOSED ROOTS PROJECT FOR TEENAGERS

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Line Drawing of Tree & Roots:
© Vector Illustrations (2020)
65691748

It’s important for individuals to know about their personal roots, Humans all live in Time-Space (also known as the Space-Time continuum).1 And knowing a bit about personal family roots helps to locate people in their own individual spot in history and geography.

So this short essay speculates about a possible School Roots Project for children in their mid-teens. (Perhaps in a Civics class; or a part of a contemporary History course). The aim is not in any way to encourage family- bragging, whether for ‘lofty’ aristocratic lineage or for ‘authentic’ proletarian roots. Instead, the value is chiefly for the individuals concerned, to know more about themselves – and to have the chance to talk seriously about their roots with parents/ grandparents/ influential family members/ and/or any others who played a significant role in their upbringings.

Clearly teachers need to organise all such Roots Projects with great sensitivity. Not all families are happy ones. Not all older relatives will be at ease talking about the past with people of a younger generation. And thoughtful arrangements have to be made for students who are adopted, who may know little or nothing about their biological background – but who share the same human need to be socially well rooted in Time-Space. Indeed, it can well be argued that those whose position is, outwardly at least, relatively unsettled have the greatest need for this exercise in rooting, both with their adoptive families and/or with their biological families, if they can be traced.2

The more that individuals know about their personal background, the more secure they feel – the more they understand their connections with others – the better their sense of self-esteem – and the more they feel in control of their own lives. Rootedness is a prime indicator of emotional health and happiness. And the more that people are secure in their own skin, the better they can relate to others.3 They can simultaneously see their own role as part of a wider human history, set in unfolding Time which links the generations.

What then should a Roots Project for teenagers entail? The details are best left to be specified by teachers who know the relevant age-group. There’s no magic formula. Just a desire to get children talking to their parents/ grandparents/ or any other significant figures in their upbringing. At infant school level, there are many good storybooks about families; and there are projects which invite children to ask grandparents (say) simple questions, such as ‘What sort of toys did you have as a child?’ For teenagers, the discussion can be more probing – but may be hampered by years of not talking about personal matters. Therefore Projects should start modestly: asking children which adults influenced them as they grew? And then asking the youngsters to think of questions to ask the grownups in their lives?

Students should also be briefed on asking for family help with their Roots Projects. It must be stressed that all information will be used exclusively by the students. These talks will not be ‘on the record’ – here contrasting with what can happen to taped interviews as the result of formal Oral History exercises.4 Instead, the Roots Projects are intended as launch-pads for informal chats, enabling the students to write a short account of one or more significant adults who influenced their upbringing.

Afterwards, the class can be invited to share their experiences of the process. Some families will already be talkers. Others not. In every case, there is always more to be learned. Did the students find it easy or difficult to get the adults to talk? If difficult, why was that? Was it that they themselves were embarrassed? Or the parents shy? Did the talking exercise make things any easier? Did they learn anything surprising? What might they ask next time that they have a family chat? To stress again, the exercise is not a competitive exercise in bragging about comparative social backgrounds. Instead, it is an exercise in Rooting – taking specific steps in what may become a longer series of family discussions.

Generally, it’s very common for people to exclaim, at the demise of a parent, grandparent or any other significant relative or carer: ‘I wish I’d asked them more about themselves, when they were alive to tell me’. Death locks the doors to personal memories of a shared past. Rooting Projects help to open the conversations while all the protagonists are alive to relate their own histories.

ENDNOTES:

1 Whether the chosen terminology is Time-Space or Space-Time, the proposition is the same: that Time and Space are integrally yoked. For further discussion, see P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 15, 9-11, 17-18, 218, 220, 248-52; and PJC current research-in-progress.

2 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

3 R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2/

4 Oral History, professionally undertaken, provides a wonderful set of original resources for historical studies: among a huge literature, see e.g. A. Zusman, Story Bridges: A Guide for Conducting Intergenerational Oral History Projects (2016); F-A. Montoya and B. Allen, Practising Oral History to Connect University to Community (2018). These Schools Rooting Projects can be regarded as early stepping stones in the same process of tapping into the powers of the human memory – and sharing them with others.

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MONTHLY BLOG 112, ON RECONSIDERING THE (INTERRUPTED) FUTURE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Silhouettes of grass in fog

It is not possible to learn from the future that has not yet unfolded. The unidirectional nature of Time forbids it. So when people assert airily: ‘We don’t learn from the past’, I am incredulous. What? Of course, humans must learn from the past because they can’t learn from the future – and the unstable present, in which they learn, is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the past.

However, while humans can’t learn from the future, it is certainly pertinent to think again about future expectations, now that routine life has been so suddenly interrupted. Diaries that were full of engagements and plans have suddenly been voided. The clear future has become foggy. It’s disconcerting but educational, particularly for those, like myself, living voluntarily under something near to house-arrest for the duration of the health emergency.

In fact, humans have a lot of advance knowledge about the long-term future. One certainty, confirmed by universal past experience, is that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die. Generally, however, humans manage to live their daily lives without dwelling on that thought. But, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic – a contemporary plague – an awareness of the reality and ubiquity of death is sharpened. It’s a valuable jolt. Remember to finish projects; to express affection; to help others; to enjoy every immediate minute; to make the mental leap into long-term history which will continue whatever; and to breathe deeply.

Then there’s the immediate future. That’s much more under personal control. Coming through the fog more clearly. Living indoors and making minimal trips outside heightens appreciation of the usefulness of daily routines. It helps to have a structure to the day, without over-organising. Remember to exercise; to laugh; to contact friends; to eat healthily; to think about others; to do a daily crossword; to study history; to tend the plants; to listen to music (sometimes to sing); and (vital for me personally) to write.

Yet the most problematic area of the suddenly interrupted future is the uncertainty of the intermediate span of the soon-to-follow weeks, months and years. Very far ahead will look after itself. Close at hand can be managed. But the intermediate future is the foggiest of all. Very disconcerting. For how long will the lockdown continue? Will the containment policy work? For how long will the population consent to the current state of affairs? Will historians judge the government’s efforts kindly or unkindly? Will the laid-back Swedish approach to the health emergency prove to have been the right one? How far will life in Britain be radically changed once the crisis is over? No-one knows.

Informed guesses can be ventured, based upon past experience. One pattern suggests that the people – and particularly those at the ‘foot’ of the social hierarchy – will want major reforms, after the great upheaval and sacrifices of a collectively fought war. Yet the actual outcome is unknown.

The foggy shapelessness of the intermediate future contains threats and promises. Remember to roll with the punches; to keep a measured optimism; to avoid being disconcerted by history’s capacity to spring surprises; to recall also the staying power of history’s deep continuities; to be ready to resume life outdoors and on the move; to enjoy hugging friends and family again; to look for the wood in the trees – the big picture in the daily details – the pattern emerging from the fog; and, above all, to embrace the unknown future, which will become the past from which humans can learn. Unseen, social energies are being recharged. Through the fog,  community options are emerging. Yet only Time will reveal the precise story, as it always does.

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