The Freedom of Freedom

I like to think that most people would want to live in a world in which individuals are free from the persecution of others, and live in peace. I like to think that freedom of expression is a tool for creativity out of which beautiful art, music, literature, and personal development are encouraged. I like to think that individuals wish to use freedom of expression for the advancement of science, technology, and the seeking of the greater truths. Sadly, it appears that instead of these things, freedom of expression is a tool used as an excuse for quite the opposite behaviours.

In recent days, weeks, and months, one can perceive an enormous surge in groups for whom freedom of expression has been wielded as a weapon in order to advance the march towards a puritanical, anti-diversity, dogmatic pursuit of racial, sexual, and personal (small ‘c’) conservatism. In the complete abandonment of the scientific rationality that our ancestors wrestled from the grips of the Churches, we have stumbled drunkenly towards an era in which the phrase, ‘I don’t want to believe that and therefore I am right,’ appears to be an unstoppable force. We can observe it when our doctors and scientists recommend the simple act of wearing a face mask to stop the spread of a global pandemic are belittled, and crowds of angry people wilfully ignore them whilst picking up their latest capitalist necessities. We see it in the scorn meted out whenever global warming is brought up in conversation, and vast corporations do all in their power to denounce what is almost universally accepted as fact by the scientific community. And we see it in a million everyday acts that ignore the injustices imposed upon downtrodden communities across our planet that we are relentlessly assured our capitalism machinery will one day lift out of poverty and oppression, in spite of never actually doing so.

But there is an irony in the latest wave of conservative (again, small ‘c’) rhetoric about freedom of expression that makess the current crop of foaming-at-the-mouth truth-avoiders look so deliciously silly. To explore this, I will refer to the open letter signed by a number of high-profile individuals, including JK Rowling, Salmond Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood. There is no need here to discuss the strange beliefs of some of these individuals that have led them to endorsing the message of this letter. That is for another article. But the nature of the letter itself is what will be called into question.

The letter suggests that, ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.’ It goes on to suggest that ‘cancel culture’ is obliterating creativity and making content-creators more risk-averse. It is a scathing indictment of those who do not agree with the viewpoints and opinions of those who have undersigned it. But therein lies a colossal irony that they appear to have missed.

Whilst freedom of expression is a concept that we should strive for, in no way does this suggest that individuals are required to agree. Opinions are not protected, and nowhere does it say that they must be listened to. There is no provision to force individuals to listen to something with which they don’t agree, and there is no prerequisite that content must be consumed or transmitted. Freedom of expression works both ways; you are free to air your opinion, but that does not mean that anybody has to listen to it, agree with it, package it up and ship it for resale. If you wish to deify your own belief system, you simply cannot expect that others will promote it. You are on your own.

If you find yourself at the receiving end of the so-called ‘cancel-culture’, that is simply freedom of expression working both ways. If you find your controversial opinions ignored, that is sad for you, but it is simply the system that you are desperately trying to skew in your own favour working on its own. Your words and beliefs are not guaranteed protection, or a platform for distribution, and you at the whim of the prevailing zeitgeist just like everybody else. If you find your beliefs making you an outsider, then that is the very process of the freedom of expression that you claim to hold dear.

In a world where we are closer than ever to our fellow human beings thanks to the wonders of technology that the scientists who are currently under threat have created, every opinion and belief now has a platform on which to be shared. But this does not mean that people must automatically listen. Fortunately, diversity, equality, and difference, are all things that the vast majority now celebrate. If you wish to fight against that, you have your mountain from which to shout. But should people move out of the range of your voice, you must realise that this is simply their method of asserting their own freedom of expression.

Pearls and Poverty in Elizabethan England

To the vast majority, the Elizabethan period means little more than fabulously dressed courtiers, exquisite jewellery, a queen with the most incredible hair, and giving the Spanish a bit of spanking when they got a bit too intimate with the South coast of England. For those a little better acquainted with the period, they might make note of its increased economic growth, prosperity, and the first tentative steps towards the creation of a colonial empire – all predicated upon state-sanctioned piracy of ships returning from the New World to the Old, attempting to head towards those same Spanish ports from which the infamous Armada set sail. The period is often cited as one of relative religious toleration, with Protestants and Catholics moving towards a detente although, of course, the extent to which that is the case is, in truth, limited.

But there is one aspect in which the Elizabethan period is considered to have paved the way towards the modern world; the assistance of the poor.

The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, drew together a disparate set of prior legislation, and consolidated the idea that local parishes were required to provide alms, assistance, or work, to the destitute of their area. And this is often considered to demonstrate the care and maternal instinct of the mother of the nation. However, there are significant issues with considering this Act some kind of proto-socialism, and considering Elizabeth herself a kindly monarch for enacting it.

Firstly, the Act came in the final two years of the Queen’s life, and prior to it, a number of barbaric changes to the law were implemented that ensured the poor would have a genuinely miserable, and often violent existence. Henry VII had introduced a law in 1495 ordering those out of work and in poverty to be placed in the stocks for three days. Henry VIII raised the stakes to include a severe whipping. But the worst was yet to come. Elizabeth allowed a law to be passed in 1572 that required beggars to be burned through the ear for their first offence, and hanged for persistent poverty. Hardly the actions of a magnanimous ruler.

Admittedly, Elizabeth was the first monarch to legalise the distinction between the so-called ‘deserving poor’ and those who were able to work, and formalised assistance for the former group. However, the brutal punishment meted out to the latter group demonstrates that society was nowhere near an attempt to move towards social equality at that time.

The second issue is that the reasons behind why they were enacted demonstrates that there was no kindly intent in the Poor Laws. Quite aside from the Catholic hang-ups that still existed around alms-giving as part of the sacrament of penitence (which was a requirement if you wished to get to heaven), there were more terrestrial rationales.

Even 400 years ago, the wealthy recognised that people must be kept well-enough fed and sheltered to prevent crime; hungry people will steal to eat. It was a genuine concern of the day, amid a growing population and increasing unemployment, that there would be so many in poverty that they would band together in groups and form a substantial rebellion against the state. As it simply would not do to upset the social order in this way, a minimum quantity of resources was required to pacify the masses, keeping them docile enough to rule.

It was also believed that the poor were in and of themselves a cause of disease. In an age where it was believed that illness spread through miasma – bad smells – it is not difficult to imagine how this belief came about. Preventing widespread poverty was considered a way in which, to some extent, the spread of disease could be controlled.

By the time Queen Elizabeth I passed away in 1603, laws had been put in place that provided consistent assistance to those within society who were unable to care for themselves. But it was by no means a selfless act. And, whilst the Poor Laws continued to exist in some shape or form until their eventual and complete repeal in 1967, they can in no way be considered as a form of proto-socialism.

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The British and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Whenever one engages a white British individual in dialogue about the Transatlantic slave trade, you are guaranteed to hear one or more of the standard, practiced responses that are surely by now an inbuilt part of the genetic make-up of the citizens of this United Kingdom. The first usually goes something like, ‘all European nations were engaged in the trade’. The second, ‘but it was Africans who were selling Africans to the Europeans’. And the third, almost invariably accompanied by a smug expression, ‘ah, but the British Empire abolished the slave trade’.

Whilst none of these are factually incorrect statements, they lack a fundamental comprehension of the context surrounding them that displays a terrifyingly wilful ignorance of reality from those who speak them. It is the context of those statements that will be addressed here.

It is true that slavery has existed since before we have the historical records to document it. Whilst there has been debate over the extent of their role in various historical events, such as the construction of the pyramids, it is fairly irrefutable that civilisation marched forward, built upon the backs of the oppressed, for several millennia. That is not to say that all slaves were treated equally; the Romans provide a number of examples of slaves who were in positions of great power throughout society, whilst simultaneously dishing out harsh treatment such as routine rape and torture of their human property.

Fast-forwarding to the early years of the European slave industry, and it was the Portuguese and Spanish who kicked things off by setting up trading posts on the west coast of Africa, and sending captured individuals to their colonies in South America. Not to be outdone, the Dutch, French, Italians, and pretty much any nation with the capacity to build ships got in on the game. The British were, of course, as usual a little late to the whole colonial-imperialism party, but they soon caught up on the action. It is thought that John Hawkins was the first Englishman to undertake a slave-trading voyage; from 1564 to 1569 it is estimated that he transported around 1100 Africans across the Atlantic. This might sounds like an enormous number, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the five millions of individuals that Britain alone transported from Africa to the Americas, and an even smaller percentage when compared to the estimated twelve million total. Added to the 10-15% of those who died during passage and were unceremoniously dumped overboard, and the babies who were born into slavery, this is a truly staggering figure. There is no denying that most European countries played their part in adding individuals to this total, but Britain and Portugal alone are calculated to have been responsible for around 70% of this trade, with Britain transporting over eight hundred thousand slaves in a single 25-year period between 1751 and 1775. In fact, with impending abolition, in the twenty years prior to 1808, Britain sent more slaves across the Atlantic annually than any nation had done previously. This does not excuse the other European nations for their part in this barbaric system, but it certainly highlights the ridiculous nature of those who seek to downplay the role of the British in this heinous activity.

For those who look to the USA as a means of excusing the British role in the North Atlantic slave trade, their total number of transportations was ten times less than their former imperial masters.

On to the next point. And it will be brief.

Any person who enslaved another was complicit in the Transatlantic slave trade, be they white European, or Black African. However, most individuals, given the choice between more power and more wealth, or a musket shot in the back of the head, would choose the former over the latter. One is welcome to be an idealist about this, and say that those Africans who participated in the slave trade should have taken the musket shot instead (and I am sure some will have done), but I will not condemn a person for choosing life. Particularly when their place in the industry would simply have been filled by another person. The machine of slavery was driven by European supply-and-demand, financed by European wealth, and enforced by superiority and might of European weaponry. There is little that an individual African, or indeed an African nation, could have done at this point in their history to counter this. For proof, one must only look to other complex and developed civilisations, the Aztecs, the Inca, Mughal India, Imperial China, and see what happened to them when a European nation desired to impose its will.

So to our final point. The British Empire abolished the slave trade. And forgive the abandonment of professionalism for a paragraph or so.

Of all of the decontextualised tripe that is spouted about the British role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and its eventual end, this is one that causes my blood pressure to rise the most. Of course, for many, this is the direct result of their education; until relatively recently, anything and everything British-related was taught through a rose-tinted lens, and a whilstfull sadness, shrouded in a post-imperial malaise. The Empire did nothing but good. ‘We gave them the railways!’, or ‘but where would they have been without the British Empire?’ You get the point. The shiny, glossed-over horrors of multiple genocides, economic devastation, racism, brutality, and of course, slavery, are ignored in the delicious imagery of Britannia striding forward bringing peace and civilisation to the world. Our slave owners were surely gentlemen who lived their lives with a misty-eyed romanticism, on beautiful plantations, who fed, housed, and cared for their chattel property. Let us forget that slave-owners such as Thomas Thistlewood wrote gleefully in their diaries about the times that they punished their slaves by tying them down and, ‘shitting in their mouth’s’. Or taking a pregnant woman, fastening her belly-down upon a plank, lashing her until her bone showed through, and leaving her there in the Jamaican mid-day sun. Of course we want to ignore this; the British were too civilised for such behaviour. Except that they weren’t.

Which brings us around to our final quote; ‘ah, but the British Empire abolished the slave trade!’

Yes. There were two acts of parliament that brought about the end of the slave trade within the British Empire. In 1807, the trading of human beings was prohibited (though one was still permitted to continue owning slaves already in their possession), and in 1833, a second act was passed abolishing slavery altogether. Hurrah! Aren’t the Brits wonderful, and kind, and liberal, and all of those other lovely adjectives. Except for a couple of things.

Although it is right to say that there were various abolition movements, such as the Sugar Boycotts, prior to the 1807 act, they had relatively little affect upon the governments of the time. It wasn’t until the Act of Union in 1800, bringing 100 Irish MPs into the House of Commons to shift the balance in favour of abolition. Even then, it was no certainty. There was no moral will to see the practice of slavery come to an end. Instead, it was an economic argument that won the day. Ever since Adam Smith wrote his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, the cumbersome mercantilist policies of the British Empire had come under question, and a desire to replace them with a laissez-faire style of governance had arrived, with the philosophy that minimal central intervention of the markets would provide the greatest opportunity for the greatest number of people to acquire the greatest amount of wealth. However, unwilling to abandon its symbol of imperial prestige – the Empire – entirely, Britain mashed up various political philosophies and spluttered into the nineteenth century not really sure what to do about the rest of the world. Laissez-faire required markets into which to sell manufactured goods, but of course we did not want to open up our borders to competition – that would be a disaster! Yet, there simply wasn’t an overseas market within the Empire big Enough to drive demand for manufactured products. In short, it was considered that there was more profit to be made in manufacturing goods and selling to an emancipated empire, than using free labour to create raw materials.

I’m sure you see where this is going.

It did not go unnoticed by a new class of capitalists, that around the Empire were thousands upon thousands of individuals who currently had no purchasing power; they were not a potential market for goods, because they had no money with which to buy them. However, if this unwaged population could be transformed into consumers within the Empire, all of the questions of how to implement laissez-faire, whilst retaining the Empire, would be resolved. The economic argument was persuasive, and as history shows, it did win out in the end. However, the ancient mercantilist system did not go away without a fight.

We must remember that all of this was occurring at a time when democracy was not defined by every person having the right to vote. It was restricted to the wealthy, land-owning classes. Almost exclusively men. So for those, predominately women, who had arranged abolitionist movements such as the Sugar Boycotts, they could not simply vote their way to seeing their goals come to fruition. To compound the issue, consider who, within Britain, might have owned slaves. Of course, it was those who had the right to vote. Nobody in their right mind would vote away their source of income, wealth, and power on the basis of, what was considered to be, a moral ambiguity at worst.

Yet, the old money had a problem; a new and emerging breed of capitalists. They had the wealth and land-holding to satisfy the conditions necessary to be granted the right to vote. And they wanted change. Alongside their new Irish allies within the House of Commons, they created a tipping-point within parliament, where any vote on the subject of slavery truly was in the balance. So how could they win their argument; how could they see their economic fantasies come to life? Well, they would appeal not to the hearts or minds of the old money, but to their pockets.

A truly monumental program of compensation was proposed for British slave-owners in order to bribe them into accepting abolition. And, for the most part, it worked. 1807 Act, 1833 Act, hey presto. Done and dusted. The story is over. In a manner of speaking. Many slave owners simply could not accept what was coming to pass. They petitioned the government, demanding additional cash in order to set their property free. There are detailed records of correspondence between individuals and the department set up to deal with compensation claims in which elderly widows pleaded their case to be given more money, because they simply could not cope without their slaves in the Caribbean providing them a source of income. It was ultimately a futile effort, as compensation was dealt with in a uniform manner, but it demonstrates the mindset of those who could not let go of their power. The compensation package was so monumentally huge that it accounted for a staggering 40% of the British Treasury’s entire annual income – the largest expenditure ever undertaken by a British government. To put this into context, it took Britain 61 years to pay off its Second World War debts. Yet it took 182 years to pay off its slavery compensation bill. Britain had to be bribed to the value of a debt that would take nearly two centuries to pay off in order to unwind itself from the brutality of its slave system. But we have still not reached the end of our story.

Britain may have been the first major empire to leave behind its slave trade, however it continued to profit enormously from the existing global system.

The powerhouse of the British industrial economy, Manchester’s Cottonopolis, still required raw materials. From whom would it purchase its raw materials? Our partner across the sea, the USA. Britain consumed vast quantities of raw materials from slave-owning nations in order to power its new capitalist economic machine. And although it nominally condemned nations for not following in its abolitionist footsteps, no real pressure was exerted upon others to follow suit. Indeed, when civil war broke out within the USA, the majority of wealthy British individuals supported the slave-owning Confederacy of Southern States, and trade with it continued unabated. Hardly the actions of a newly morally-enlightened people.

So, Britain can hardly be applauded for its role in abolishing slavery. But there is one final point that simply must be addressed before concluding.

To praise Britain for abolishing slavery is to ignore one absolutely crucial point; slavery is an evil practice. Therefore, to offer congratulatory applause is suggesting that something extraordinarily magnanimous took place. However, that simply is not the case. It was not ‘kind’ to free the slaves; it should be considered a basic behaviour. Yet there is an adulation reserved for the 1833 Act that is simply not deserved; we should surely focus solely on the cruel and barbaric activity that went before, and look upon 1833 as a return to what should be normality.

Any other way of perceiving British actions in relation to this system would be like, for instance, if a police officer had kneeled on the neck of an individual for eight minutes and forty six seconds, followed by a crowd applauding him for finally doing the right thing by removing it, two minutes after the individual had already suffocated to death.

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The Flaw in the System

Recent global events have demonstrated that we live within a system that is simply not designed with any capacity for resilience. After only a brief pause in productivity, the entire mechanism of capitalism has been brought to its knees, and is begging to be rescued by the kind and generous people of nations in which its companies reside. At the direction of their governments, via taxation, of course.

The capitalist system is the ultimate in hypocrisy; simultaneously demanding of the population that they rely only upon themselves as sole provider, whilst requiring assistance when things do not go the way that any given corporation might intend. Over the last decade or so, we have seen bailouts for the automotive industry, banks, and insurers. Of course, there is a delicious irony in the idea that the hyper-capitalist banking industry has been the recipient of the greatest amount of public cash. It seems that in the most capitalist nations, where socialism is but a dirty word uttered only behind closed doors between individuals considered to be part of some kind of liberal conspiracy to destroy the planet, individuals are seen as social pariahs for seeking public assistance in bad times, yet companies may dip their hand in the public pot as and when required.

But back to recent global events.

The Great Productivity Pause (as I would like it to be known) has thrown the world travel industry into some kind of terminal downward spiral, and now governments are considering throwing billions at airlines in order to keep them afloat, and reopening hotels regardless of the Covid-19 threat level. What’s a few thousand additional deaths here and there if it ensures CEOs and shareholders receive their payments?

Most recently, the retail giant Intu has collapsed into administration, just as our government in the UK has decided that we should be encouraged to go out and spend, spend, spend in order to keep our wonderful capitalist economy going. We are assured of an economic bounce-back! Hurrah! Everything is going to be fine. Do not worry about a second wave of Covid-19; just make sure that our shops do not go bankrupt.

Intu is not a retailer itself, but an owner of large shopping complexes – temples of retail in which people sacrifice their paycheques upon the alter of useless trinkets. Yet, since the early 2000s slowdown, and the 2007 global recession, customers have been less faithful to their gods. Spending in retail stores has seen sharp declines, and in turn, the high rents they were able to pay in exchange for locations with heavy footfall has diminished. As such, the revenue potential for these giants of retail landlording has been equally suppressed, whilst their costs have remained. Therefore, haemorrhaging money, they have had no option other than to place themselves into administration.

Although this may seem like a recent problem, the economic slowdown that has resulted from the Covid-19 crisis is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Capitalism itself.

The goal of capitalism is, as its name suggests, the acquisition of capital. This is done by producing goods and providing services to consumers, at a profit. This profit is used to produce more goods and provide more services to consumers, at a profit. This profit is used… you get the picture.

In order to create a profit, goods must be produced at the minimum possible cost, and sold at the maximum possible price. In the past, this system worked relatively well. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution, all that began to change. It has become less and less necessary to keep humans in the production loop. Goods produced by machines can be created at a far lower cost, far more consistently, and can be sold at a greater profit.

But isn’t this good for the consumer?

Well, for the short-termists, yes. But if you consider the greater consequences, you see that capitalism has a fundamental flaw when it comes to profit-maximisation. To explain this, we will consider a generic example.

A company produces kitchenware for the mass market. It sells lots of units and makes a great profit. However, a new machine comes along that is able to take the place of the humans in the factory who produce those plates and cups and dishes and other things. So, the business owner buys the machine and produces the same items at a lesser cost, selling them for the same price to the market. The business owner gets richer. Yay! Capitsalism is working.

But what about those workers who no longer have jobs? How do they access the market without the capital that they had previously earned from producing those kitchenware items? They must get another job elsewhere, either producing some other good, selling it, or providing a service. However, in reentering the labour market, they have increased the supply of labour, driving down the cost that they are able to charge for their service.

Repeat this across several companies, or several hundred companies, or several thousand companies, and you have replicated the situation within large and complex economies across the world. Labour costs are constantly driven down by increased supply until a significant portion of the population simply cannot afford the goods that are produced within the market of which they are a part.

So, you have a population that cannot afford the goods that are produced, so companies seek to drive down their production costs yet further, implementing further cost-cutting measures in order to drive their unit prices down. Yet this puts further individuals out of work and back into the labour supply, and the situation becomes gradually worse.

Eventually, a tipping-point is reached at which nobody can afford said goods, and the company is no longer selling units in order to make its profits. Where does it turn? To the government of its nation, who bails it out with public money. Where does this money come from? The public, via taxation. Or printing money. Both of which lead to the same devastating problem; inflation. And so the value of the capital owned by every person within the market is diminished. Not such an issue for those with plenty of spare capacity, but a potentially life-threatening problem for those on the edge of financial survival. And of course, as the supply of labour increases, and the cost of labour decreases, and the value of the money in circulation is reduced, more people are pushed towards that line of financial destitution.

Yet, we exist within this system, which self-protects at all costs. It continues to devalue money in order to perpetuate the inexorable march toward the endgame, at which the majority of people will no longer have the capital available to sustain the market.

So what does this have to do with Intu? Well, it is an example of what happens when the population does not have the capital to sustain the system around it. Managed protection of the system may delay the inevitable, but at some point in the future, the Intus of this world will become so numerous that systemic failure will become inevitable.

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The Paradox of Politics

During a lovely long walk to the middle of nowhere and back, a conversation was struck up about why the political right always seems to have greater periods of electoral stability and success than their politically left rivals. Certainly, if one looks over the timeline of British election results over the last couple of centuries or so, it reveals a startlingly blue hue. As the conversation progressed, it evolved into a more generalised look at how things generally remain broadly (small-c) conservative over the longue durée, with brief moments of liberalisation during which previously withheld rights are granted to repressed groups. Naturally, I start musing on the reason why this might be, and, why the left might in fact never win in the long run.

Although I wont pretend to be an expert on such matters, something became apparent very quickly. To explore it, I am going to use some incredibly blunt generalizations about the two wings, but it will save us from wasting the time to categorise and label each and every scenario when the majority understand broadly what is meant when referring to ‘left’ and ‘right’ in both situations described.

It should be noted that at this stage, these are very loose-fit thoughts that I shall probably return to ruminate upon at some point in the future. I would gladly welcome helpful input!

The first problem for the left is that it tends to err towards a position of acceptance of difference. This openness is seen by the likeminded as a forum for constructive debate, in which issues that face individuals and the wider world can be solved, and is one in which every person is entitled to hold their own opinion. However, whilst this is a perfectly good system when engaging with those of a similar persuasion, when faced with the more generally closed-mindedness of the right it faces an issue. Those on the right are traditionally less accepting of difference, and more likely to surround themselves with those of their own cultural background. When challenged on a resistance to change, the right must only remind the left that it is supposed to be accepting of all opinions, and that they must treat those of the right with the same respect as those of their own. In this, the left faces a conundrum. How does the left claim that the insular opinions of the right are incorrect, whilst maintaining their acceptance of free thought? To do so would be to undermine, and create a paradox within their own philosophy. Furthermore, the right is far more likely, due to its inherent homogeneity, to reach consensus between individuals and thus create a more unified position from which to fight their political battles. The left, however, is philosophically bound to allowing the voices of all to be heard, precluding the possibility of unification. The only binding consensus is that everybody may condone differing courses of action – which is not a useful position from which to launch an offensive upon an ideological rival. The only way in which this can be countered is to adopt the consensus strategy of the right; a hypocritical action. This undermines the left, creating a logic-crisis that can be easily exploited. ‘You believe in diversity and difference, yet you are all presenting the same front. You believe we should all have free thought, yet you wish to eliminate my preference for homogeneity.’ Furthermore, the likelihood of any left-consensus surviving over a significant period is inversely proportional to the willingness to abandon the core philosophy of individual thinking.

The second problem for the left is the preference towards pacifism. In practical terms, this faces the same paradox as the first problem in that the right only has to arm itself to fight a battle in order to have won both the physical and philosophical fight. In this situation, the left will either stick to principle, and be wiped out, or take up arms, and become the hypocrite that abandoned their philosophy. Once again, the left has no hope of winning.

The only hope of a stable and long term victory for the left is the permanent abandonment of some core beliefs by a select few who are willing to sacrifice their principles in order to ensure the survival of the deeper philosophies. Yet, even though this is something that is part of the day-to-day political vernacular, the true left attack this position, leading to yet more fragmentation.

As stated, this is only loose-fit thoughts at this stage. Furthermore, it relies on gross oversimplification of complex ideologies predominantly based on how one side views the other, rather than any basis in reality. However, I hope it is an interesting thought experiment nonetheless. I find it an interesting topic for consideration, and so I shall return to this at some point in the future when it is more developed!

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Addressing the Binary Characterisation of Historical Figures

During the Second World War, there existed a leader who so perfectly characterised the actions of his nation that he has become not only a symbol for his side, but for the entire war. He is a leader who was willing, to do anything necessary to win; someone whose pre-war political guile was so effective that it put him in a position of almost unchallenged power. During the war itself, he took decisions that had disastrous consequences for his people, and were barbaric in nature. He used his citizens as a meat-shield to protect the military. People were allowed to starve to death to enhance his war effort. And of course he was directly responsible for the deaths of two to three million people in a single year alone. He stood proudly amongst the ruins of his bomb-ravaged cities, whilst enemy aeroplanes flew overhead, proclaiming that the sacrifice of the civilian population was necessary for the war effort. As the war drew to a close, he even stood by and allowed the Holocaust to continue, ensuring that the grotesque and evil genocide taking place would continue until the very end of the conflict.

Yet to the electorate, he was a hero. He appeared to the public as a sole voice of reason against a sea of political insanity. Whilst his rivals wound themselves up in knots, attempting to politic their way out of national crisis, his voice cut through the nonsense, and appealed directly to the people.

Of course, you know of whom I am speaking.

Over the last few days and weeks, there has rightfully begun a debate about the esteem in which we hold our historical, national heroes. Much has been said about them, and much has been ignored. As a historian, what saddens me the most is that people are unwilling to see the nuances of humanity; nobody who ever lived had an exclusively good or evil nature. Every human has elements of both. Yet I have observed over recent days historians who have for years been my own academic heroes drawn in to this black hole of binary conflict, and joined in the rhetoric of absolutist argument.

I will not be detailing the individual actions and atrocities undertaken at the behest of Winston Churchill whom, if you had not guessed was the subject of the opening paragraphs. He directed some actions the morality of which is absolutely unforgivable. So, why then do we overlook the evil within the man and celebrate him as a national treasure?

Imbued within the man lies not only the decisions that he took, rightly or wrongly, that brought about British victory in the Second World War, but also a metaphor for Britain at that time. In his image lies not only his successes and failures, his kindness and his evil, but the actions of every soldier who stormed the beaches at Normandy, protected the skies in the Battle of Britain, and who sacrificed his life so that we might be free to criticise Churchill today.

His image is not simply the representation of one man, but it is the encapsulation of millions upon millions of human beings who died in those horrific years. We must learn to accept the flawed man – and he most certainly was flawed; the perfect human does not unnecessarily sacrifice the lives of three million Bengalis, or set a Howitzer upon democratic protesters.

So why maintain his image at all? Well, for better or for worse, he was the one chosen to lead Britain at that time. And amongst all debate, that fact will never change.

We must acknowledge all of the triumphs, inadequacies and evils of the man but at the same time, understand that his image has transcended the simple likeness of a singular human, to become an embodiment of the millions who gave their lives in that terrible time.

The Damned Media

Over recent days and weeks, it is fair to say that there has been considerable unrest across a number of countries, including the United Kingdom. The fires of civil disobedience have been stoked, in part, due to the inequality that still continues to be a fact of life for many within the black, and other repressed minority communities. Whilst it has been heartening to see the inclusion of white allies in calls to take action against injustices, it has also broken the hearts of many to see the outing of neo-Nazis and fascists, who have taken to the streets in a show of hatred against all that is different to the straight-white power hegemony that has existed across the globe since the early days of European colonialism.

These racist, homophobic, misogynist, fascist nut-jobs have been, in recent years, emboldened by the rise of the political right, particularly in (thought not limited to) the English-speaking world. Here, we have seen nationalistic insularism become the new alter upon which politicians have decried the evils of immigration and cultural integration; difference has become a dirty concept. An increasing number of followers of this not-so-new cult of hatred have lapped it all up, seeking more and more, as if requiring their next hit of heroin. And just like those who cannot control an addiction to heroin, a tipping point has been reached in which all sensible activity has been suspended in the crazed need to get their next hit of hatred. For these people, it has become a need, and there are dealers who are ready, willing, and able to supply them with their fix.

I am, of course, talking about that symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media. On the face of it, this should be a simple relationship in which the politician speaks, and the media reports what is said. Yet, as with so many things in this modern world, that is simply not the case.

It seems that the media has, in recent years, taken it upon itself not only to report the news, but also to create it. They no longer need the input of the political side of the relationship. They have surpassed the requirement. This is a terrifying prospect; the organisations that we reply upon to let us know what is going on in the world around us are manipulating events in order to sell more advertising space. The shinier and more exciting a story is, the more people will consume the article. Therefore, media organisations are in a constant battle with one another in order to ensure their survival by providing the consumer with the most tantalising and exhilarating stories possible. This is capitalism at its not-so-finest.

But surely, you ask, this is all just a conspiracy dreamt up in the mind of some oily little person in the basement of their responsible adult’s home? It does sound awfully like it. But when one looks, even with just a hint of criticality, it is easy to see that it could not be more horrifically true. I shall highlight this with a few choice examples.

On the face of it, when Charles Saatchi grabbed Nigella Lawson by the throat whilst having breakfast in a London restaurant, the story was clear; an abusive husband physically harms his wife. There can be no excuse for this kind of physical violence. And initially, that was the story. Our national treasure, that slightly-naughty tv cook with a bubbly personality and assets that drew men to her shows, had been dis-respected, and we were not going to have it. However, as the months drew on, stories began to appear in the press about how Nigella was a habitual cocaine user, may not have been faithful, and was a poor wife. The media had begun to reframe her not as an innocent victim of a violent attack, but as a person who perhaps had driven Charles to do something out of character. Why on earth would this kind of story manipulation take place? What could be gained from it? Well, aside from dragging out a tragic tale of love gone wrong, it was to fill column inches and to draw out more details; Nigella could not simply stay silent and have her name tarnished in such a manner, so she and her team of course would respond. Now, it is up to others to consider what role Saatchi, whose multi-millionaire status was crafted in advertising and media, had to play in the attempt to discredit his victim. But with his contacts list, it cannot have been hard for him to make a couple of phone calls. Did these stories require fact-checking? Of course not. Throw the word ‘allegedly’ in front of any sentence and it becomes legally acceptable. Does the public read this as potentially misleading? Of course not. They see the words, ‘Nigella’ and ‘cocaine’, and immediately she is a drug user, and her reputation is tarnished.

This practice has been applied with devastating effect to the events surrounding the murder by the police of George Floyd. Never mind the fact that there is video evidence of the police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds, with him begging for his mother and his life, having not resisted arrest or engaged in violent conduct. Never mind that two other officers were also allegedly kneeling on his back. Never mind that his pulse was checked after six minutes or so and none was found, but the officer continued to kneel on his neck. Never mind the fact that his supposed crime was the use of a fake twenty dollar bill, which at the time could not be proven. Never mind the fact that when he was murdered there was no evidence whatsoever that he was guilty of any offense. What matters to the media is that, in the past, he was guilty of armed robbery, and that he was ‘allegedly high on drugs’. Note that canny little word again, that absolves the writer of any responsibility to fact-check their claim. ‘I heard it from a reliable source.’ Will the public read this as a potentially misleading statement? Of course not. They will see, ‘George Floyd was on drugs, he was a violent criminal, and the police officer needed to restrain him because he was dangerous’. It is despicable.

Why would the media seek to discredit individuals in such a manner? There could be a number of reasons. It could be to protect a wealthy and powerful individual who has influence over a particular outlet or organisation. It could be to draw out the story in order to generate more revenue. Or, it could be to push a certain agenda. There are many reasons for doing so, but it is unlikely that from the outside it can ever be established with any certainty.

Another way in which the media creates its own news it by the careful and cynical manipulation of facts. In the past, this has been a subtle art, but in recent years it has become a blunt-force instrument used no differently than a police officer uses pepper spray to blind a peaceful protester.

I will firstly use the example of Laura Kuenssberg, a vile individual whose only rival in the art of manipulation would be the theoretical devil-spawn of Rita Skeeter and Delores Umbridge. Her BBC title gives her a sense of credibility that she simply does not deserve. And lets not forget, the BBC is an organisation itself that cynically manipulated the image of a candidate during an election cycle to make it look as though he were a Soviet soldier. Kuenssberg has managed to get away with more lies than a child whose parents catch them drawing graffiti on the walls with crayon. Let us not forget the occasion upon which a story was released of, ‘A labour supporter viciously attacking a Tory electoral candidate’ in Leeds. This story was release, picked up by the wider media, and then escalated to the Tory Prime Minister who willingly lapped it up as the next story in the ongoing propaganda attempt to paint the Left as hooligans. Even the person who was the supposed victim of the attack got on board with the witch-hunt. Until it was revealed the next day that the whole affair was fabricated. It had never happened. Kuenssberg tweeted a brief apology, and that was the end of the matter. Except that it wasn’t. The apology did not matter one jot; the aim of the story had already been achieved; the right-wing rage indicator had risen another notch, and strengthened their resolve to do anything they could to ensure the ‘loonie lefties’ were punished. By the time the apology was issued, the impact of the fabricated event was over, and no amount of back-tracking could undo the damage it had caused.

Next, we turn to the USA. Fox News has, for many years, been known to those with anything more than two brain cells as the media outlet of choice for those who like to consume their news content in a right-wing, subtly racist flavour. Over the years, this has mostly been presented in the form of praising one individual over another, ignoring character faults of those to whom they are sympathetic, and finding the most trivial transgressions of their enemies and presenting them as atrocities. But in recent days, things have taken an alarming turn. For context, it should be noted that social media is a place upon which images are photoshopped, and videos are misattributed with astonishing regularity in order to prove a point, regardless of accuracy or truth (see any number of examples from the recent right-wing riots in London, labelled as left-wing violence). However, direct manipulation like this has been below the standards of traditional media. That is, until Fox News decided that it was acceptable to take the perfectly peaceful protests in Seattle, and attribute to it images of a man standing with a machine gun amid rioting and looting, and the burning of cars and buildings. Not only is this misattribution alarming, but in the first instance, some person had even gone to the effort of photoshopping the man with the machine gun into the image. If this is the new standard of the traditional media industry, what hope does the public have of being able to discern truth from it? What does the media, in this case, Fox News, have to gain from such a heinous activity? They play into the hands of their hard-won audience by blowing the dog whistle and proving that they were right all along. They cement the loyalty of their fanbase by reconfirming their beliefs, and in doing so ensure that their audience in the future is assured. That day-long right-rage that exists before the inevitable admission of deception is, as with the Kuenssberg incident, worthwhile to craft the narrative they have decided upon in advance. The rage dies down after a day or so, and the apology becomes meaningless as the story has already served its purpose.

The British are alarmingly arrogant about their superiority in many aspects of their culture. I should know – I am indeed British. And for that reason, many that read these words might well be thinking, ‘ah yes – but that sort of thing would never happen over here. We have far higher standards!’ If only this were true. We have had occasions where the mobile telephones of dead children have had their voicemails hacked in order to generate a story. We have had newspaper stories printing images of queues of migrants in order to present the image that our borders are ‘under attack’, only to be shown that they are entirely false. And we have had blatant lies about this, that, and the other fed to us (£350m per week for the NHS? Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?) channelled through to us throughout the last few decades, with little regard as to the quality of information given by the ‘reliable source’.

But for my last point, I turn to a large, regional media outlet with a declining physical newspaper readership, but a loyal and dedicated Facebook following of over 200,000.

Over the last week or so, the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP) has posted no less than twenty articles to its social media sites, highlighting the disruptive nature of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world. They have noted when protests have turned into riots in the USA, that UK BLM protests have resulted in social distancing laws being broken, and that vandalism and destruction of statues has taken place. Each time one of these stories is posted, it is followed up, usually two to three hours later, with a ‘reaction article’, in which a local politician has given a response. These articles might in and of themselves seem like they are presenting the facts, but for one small issue; those 200,000 followers. Articles are immediately lost in a maelstrom of comments, angry-faces, and abuse, all of which the YEP relish. Once the commenting begins to quiet, the ‘reaction article’ pops up in people’s feed to ensure that the rage never truly subsides. And what rage it is. I have witnessed numerous comments along the lines of, ‘If they don’t like it, they should leave England – this is our country’, written about protesters taking part in the BLM movement. I have observed, ‘these people should all be shot’. I have noted hundreds of occasions where images of far-right, fascist and racist riots have had a label such as, ‘see what the BLM protesters are doing’ have been posted. And the YEP does nothing to prevent this. In fact, I added a number of comments underneath these types of posts over the last few days, mentioning that the supposed facts that these contributors presented were indeed incorrect, only to find that they had been subsequently removed and the misleading images left in place. Twenty or more articles posted denigrating the BLM movement as violent and illegal, yet upon the occasion when the far right took to the streets of London, smashing up property, throwing missiles at the police, urinating on memorials, and making Nazi salutes, at the time of writing this piece, there has been absolute silence on the matter. What does this tell us about the YEP?

Well, it tells us the same story as can be drawn from every one of the above examples. Traditional news media is dying. It is at its endpoint. In the ultra, possibly even late-stage-capitalist world warned about by Werner Sombart over a century ago, they have to justify their reason to exist, and fight with every fibre of their being to do so. In a world where social media reports the news instantly, as it happens, and with high quality camera equipment in every street of every town of every country, traditional news media must use its coffers as a war-chest in order to fight for its existence. The capital it has built up in money, power, and public trust ever since the moment the Gutenberg pressed his first piece of paper are being used to fight for survival by any means possible. If the news can no longer simply be reported, for that is now the job of those with a phone in their pocket, then it must be created. In order to ensure consumption, they must ensure loyalty. In order to ensure loyalty, they must provoke rage and inspire fear. By doing this, they might continue on, but at what cost to society at large?

The actions of the industry whilst attempting to survive in the modern world has been the cause of division, anger, and violence on a global scale. After all this noise and pain, it is time for traditional news media to go into retirement, and die a quiet little death.

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Should We Reevaluate Comedy?

In the wee hours of the morning, having been watching my favourite Twitch streamer get slowly sozzled playing Final Fantasy 7, I found myself inadvertently engaged in a discussion of the highest quality and respect with a good and dear friend of mine. What was particularly surprising was that upon re-reading the chat transcript the next morning, considering the quantity of gin that had been consumed by that uncouth hour on the o’clock-metre, its points remained valid and interesting. As a historian, I enjoy having my personal opinions questioned, challenged, and cross-examined by those able to make intelligent, reasonable, and cogent arguments. And the friend in question is more than capable of doing so. At this point, you are probably wondering what this particular discussion was about.

Under consideration was the recent trend of censoring certain types of comedy that do not fit into the socially ‘woke’ narrative of society’s left, in which socially repressed groups are considered an endangered species that must be protected from insult at all costs. In recent days, this has led to a multitude of censorships of past broadcasts, demanded apologies, and outrage. But to what extent is this necessary?

My friend, a kind, reasonable, and balanced individual prodded me towards this discussion by asking the question of whether it is right or not to censor comedy, and if comedy should be a protected form of art (much like speaking in parliament) in which special leeway is given due to its irreverent nature. I will attempt to summarise the points that were made, before explaining where, having had time to process my thoughts on the matter, I stand on the issue. This post is somewhat long, but please do stick with me on this one to understand the full justification of what is written; half a story could paint an alarmingly erroneous picture.

The discussion opened by considering what comedy actually is. This sounds like an obvious question, but not necessarily so. It exists in such diverse forms that really, it is rather hard to nail down as an art form. There are gentle, rambling comedy films that one can happily watch with Granny on a rainy afternoon, and there are Scottish comedians who stand up and make jokes that would make the most hardened criminal gasp. But the point is, it is a medium that is supposed to make people laugh, or at least chuckle, and it is supposed, to a greater or lesser extent, to be funny. But what makes something funny, and another thing not? I am brought to mind of a comedian who I cannot remember discussing this very subject. Comedy is a genre that always has a ‘victim’ – be they human, animal, or inanimate. Humour is derived by the interaction that is created with that ‘victim’. Where this became interesting was in the description of who this ‘victim’ is; it is nearly always a person or group that is higher in social, economic, or political status than the person throwing the punch. Punching upwards is a perfectly acceptable way of creating humour. What is most definitely unacceptable is punching downwards, and there is a very good reason for this; making fun of somebody who is socially, economically, or politically not as fortunate as yourself is a behaviour that we are taught from a young age has a specific name – bullying.

Of course, there are caveats to this upwards/downwards punching thing as there are with any broad-spectrum rule. Do forgive the crude adjectives that are used from here onwards, but I do not wish to dwell on nomenclature – nothing here is intended for offense, simply description.

It is absolutely acceptable to point at any ridiculous action taken by an individual who would be below oneself for the sake of comedic value. People do stupid things regardless of their position in life and society, and people doing stupid things is intrinsically funny. What is not acceptable is using generalised, broad-brush characteristics about a vulnerable group within society that is below your own position. Why? Because this has become bullying. I will get to some examples a little later to show how looking at what is acceptable comedy in this way is phenomenally complex, yet it is a rule generally followed by comedians, even if subconsciously.

But that does not really answer the question of censorship. Should comedy be censored at all? Should it be a protected form of speech? Should audiences be left to make their own minds up about whether to engage with controversial topics? Well, herein lies the trickiest of topics.

Certain types of comedy, stand-up for example, require a tacit contract between the audience and the performer in which the former accepts that the latter has the intention of deriving humour, and not insult, from the output of their work. The audience in this case is an informed observer in that they are broadly aware of what they are about to be viewing. It then becomes the opinion of the audience as to whether or not the output is indeed humourous in nature. I fully accept and agree that stand-up should have a free hand to allow speech in whatever form the performer desires; the audience is, in essence, the regulating function in this scenario. No comedian worth their salt is going to blow their career by saying something so socially unacceptable that the audience walks out. Unless they do. At which point the audience walks out.

But should this free-hand extend to other forms of comedy, in which there is a wider, less well-informed audience? In this, I am not so sure that we can apply the same rules as per stand-up. Audiences are far more likely to come across comedy by chance, and a far less likely to be informed as to the nature of its content. But, one might ask, surely there is a measure of personal responsibility involved? We are all consumers of any number of things on a daily basis; would we drink from the bottle without first knowing whether it was beer or boric acid? Of course not. We are responsible for our own consumption. What is required is the necessary information to judge whether or not we want to consume the item – something which is not necessarily forthcoming when dealing with comedy outside of the canon of the safe and vanilla. With adequate labeling, would access to this comedy be acceptable? I believe so, yes. It is consumed by an audience which has been presented with the information necessary to make a personal decision to do so. What form should the labeling take? That is a question far better left to better bureaucrats than I.

At this point, I imagine many people would be thinking that this is all well and good, but free speech is one of our fundamental rights and so the entire discussion is moot. Well, unfortunately for you, you are wrong. In this country we do not, and not in the lifetime of any living person, had free speech. We have freedom of speech within the law. There are numerous prohibitions on what can be said and written, all in the attempt to create a better society. It is illegal to conduct hate speech, for example. This is where comedy treads a fine line; many a line said with humourous intention can be said with malevolent intent. The same words can be said by two different people with vastly differing purposes, and can be received in a multitude of ways. This is summed perfectly up by a phrase I heard once spoken by Jimmy Carr who when talking about offense in comedy said, and I paraphrase, ‘humour does not happen in the mouth of the comedian, but in the ear of the listener’. That is to say, you take something that is said by another, it is processed through your brain which applies all of your life experience, social bias, cultural influences, and decides whether it is funny or not. The same is of course true of things not intended for comedic purposes. But yes, broadly speaking, freedom of speech is a protected activity in our nation, and so long as things do not stray into the realms of the ridiculous, people should be free to follow this law – even in comedy.

So far, we have said that comedians effectively self-regulate their material, that with appropriate labeling an informed audience could choose whether or not to consume content, and that freedom of speech protects the activity. So, it is looking rather positive for the genre to have free reign. But what about the cause of so much recent controversy; legacy comedy? In this particular field exists a wealth of content which, at the time, was perfectly acceptable, but today finds itself outside what is now considered decent.

Putting my historian’s hat back on, I would immediately say that one cannot judge the actions of those in the past by the standards of the present day. It is fundamental in the study of history that we do not taint the past with our own cultural and societal projections. So, alongside the measures listed above on labeling as to the possible offense that the content might cause a modern audience, I do not see that there is issue with it remaining available for public consumption. After all, we are able to observe depictions of vastly more grizzly events from history that a distasteful joke through the ancient media forms of tapestry, painting, and the written word. Should images of Harold getting shot in the eye be banned simply because we do not allow the public to carry bows and arrows through the street in modern Britain? Furthermore, as noted above, comedy happens in the ear of the listening and is subject to the social conditioning of its audience. If you find a joke humourous, that is because the humour is being constructed by your own mind. For evidence of this, one only has to watch Peter Kay standing, saying nothing for minutes on end, to an audience howling with laughter. If we have as a society moved beyond seeing certain types of comedy as humourous, then it ceases to be comedic content and simply enters the canon of historical artifacts reflecting the culture within a given time period.

Returning to the notion of what is and what is not acceptable comedy, my first example will consider one of the greatest taboos of them all; blackface. This is a clear example where, predominantly in the past, comedians most certainly punched downwards at a vulnerable group. So, would this be covered by the freedom of speech argument? I do not believe so. As discussed, punching downwards is a form of bullying, and bullying is a form of hate. As promoting hate is prohibited under freedom of speech laws, censoring it would be fully justified in my own opinion. And yet, I still do not believe it should be. As noted back in Blog No. 0000001, any historic mistake provides a learning opportunity. Why not use what already exists to provide an opportunity for future generations to learn? Apply the suggestion of a label requirement, inform the audience the reasons as to why such content is no longer acceptable, and allow an informed decision to be made as to whether or not it is consumed. There have been recent blackface revivals, such as depictions by Keith Lemon, Ant and Dec, Matt Lucas, etc., and I will not excuse their creation. However, I believe that these still, with adequate warning as to their content, provide a learning opportunity. Particularly as their cringeworthy attempt at humour is enough of a deterrent for people not to repeat the mistake. In any case, the public backlash that they have received in recent weeks is enough of a learning experience for artists considering undertaking such an attempt at humour to consider otherwise.

There are two complex examples that I would like to mention to explain why shock and outrage should always be moderated and measured before implementing action. The first is regarding an episode of Fawlty Towers in which a family of Germans stay at the hotel. The second is a joke told by Jimmy Carr that divides audiences.

The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers has two points of contention. The first is the outmoded and derogatory way of referring to Indians and West Indians as used by The Major. The second is the humour apparently drawn from the presence of the German family itself. With regards The Major’s choice of language, I have covered the use of language in my writing above. Use a content-warning, and explain why it is no longer acceptable. The deriving of humour from the German family is, however, far more complex. Superficially, the humour of the episode is the result of jokes made at the expense of the German family. That would be unacceptable based on the punching downwards rule; Basil is clearly in greater control of his surroundings than his victims. However, more careful consideration reveals that it is not the family, nor indeed Germans in general that Basil is making fun of. It is Nazi behaviours and characteristics that he erroneously attributes to the family. I cannot imagine many people take issue with poking fun at the Nazis, however the family is still a victim, and therefore it is unclear which way the comedy is punching. That is, until you realise that the humour of the situation comes from the fact that Basil, through his own ignorance, is entirely unable to differentiate between Germany and the Nazis. When watching this episode, the viewer does in fact have sympathy for the German family; laughter is directed entirely at Basil himself. Whilst not strictly punching upwards, punching oneself is tantamount to the same thing.

‘Poor little Suki has to walk fifteen miles each day just to collect water. I can’t help but think; she should move.’

A joke that divides even the hardened audiences of Jimmy Carr. Superficially, Carr is punching significantly downwards in this joke. However, once again, if we look more closely for the person who is the butt of the humour, it is not Suki, but the (presumably) white, middle-class viewers who are ordinarily the target of such the charitable advertisements, and are most likely to misunderstand Suki’s true difficulties. The audience here is laughing at the stupidity of the ignorant, white middle-classes, hence Carr is punching upwards once more. It is delicate here, to be sure. Removing the words, ‘I can’t help but think’ would place the responsibility of the situation squarely at Suki, making her the victim of the joke, and redirecting the swing of the punch downwards, making it unacceptable.

As demonstrated, comedians are rather good at their craft (for the most part), even if what they do is subconscious. And for that reason, they should be allowed to continue, as they have done through history, to speak and act with freedom and no fear of censorship. An audience will judge the output on its content, and any content that goes too far is hate speech, which is already prohibited by law.

Yet there is one final problem. I shall call it, ‘The Bernard Manning Clause.’ There might be occasion upon which a comedian becomes popular by telling comedy which is of a racist nature, or derogatory towards another vulnerable group. Perhaps this comedy reaches the ears of an audience who are sympathetic to such a cause. It is not unfeasible that such a comedian could become a lightening rod for unsavoury individuals. In a case such as this, how could one prove that the line between comedic use of derogatory terms, and hate speech had been crossed? What is the limit of freedom of speech in comedy? I leave that very difficult subject open to discussion.

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Reconciling the Imagery of Our Past

Until recently, I’ve been a fairly quiet in public on current political happenings. I absorbed myself in my work, quietly sitting and contemplating the big questions of historiography. I have been a historian of empire for several years now, considering many aspects of how they are born, grow, and decline. Empire fascinates me. Not in we-must-get-back-to-the-glory-days, pomp and circumstance, flag-waving way. But I am truly fascinated by the political, financial, and social dimensions of how great empires rise, what sustains them, and what causes their downfall. I have studied the subject for years, possess an excellent, first-class degree in the subject, and have written numerous papers musing on historiographical questions and philosophy. I would say that I am fairly well qualified to discuss history and politics.

Recent events have been shocking for everybody to watch. What started as the murder of an unarmed black man by four armed police officers, in an 8 minute and 46 second strangulation and suffocation has resulted in mass protests around the world, where black individuals, and thousands if not millions of well-intended allies, have protested, marched, and yes, rioted, in demand of racial equality. Only a few days after action broke out in the USA, it hit sleepy little England like a ton of bricks.

When future historians look back at this huge event, what is likely to be the focus of interest, and what is likely to be shown to children learning about it, are the scenes of the statue of Edward Colston being unceremoniously ripped from its plinth in a handsome Bristolian square, knelt upon by protesters, and dumped into the nearby docks. This singular event has become a rallying cry for both sides of the argument; battle lines have been drawn, and it is scarily polar.

I will not delve too much into the flurry of activity that has happened subsequently, but what has become apparent is a dire need for a sensible debate about the history of Britain, and how we aim to portray ourselves to the world. The argument right now is far too raw. On one hand, we have a group of individuals advocating the tearing down of every statue with historical links to the British slave trade; on the other, individuals who willfully ignore the atrocities caused by the men depicted upon them.

Clearly, neither side is going to, or indeed should, get their way. Britain has a past, and it must be addressed. However, the anger felt by individuals over these statues of slavers means that something must be done. But what? I will return to this shortly.

Pro-retention groups cry out with passion that, ‘a statue teaches us about history!’ And in a very, very minor sense, that is true. But then, what can really be learned by the ordinary passer-by about history from a statue? Usually, a plaque will tell you who they were, and when they lived, and (as they are almost invariable paid for by the person portrayed or an admirer of them) a very brief, propaganised synopsis of their life telling a couple of the best bits, and ignoring anything untoward. What are we learning from the statue? From a historical sense, very little. Does it tell us how much they gave in philanthropic causes? Probably not unless it is on the plaque. Does it mention that the subject beat his wife, or was the town drunk? Also rather unlikely. What they do offer is a sense of period, of grandiose history, of wealth, and of power. Statues are not an unbiased historical document; they are a propaganda piece created to the glorification of that which is depicted. We learn little about the individual, or the period in which they lived, other than the superficial. So, we should tear them down?

Well not just yet. On the other side of the argument, these pompous creations are simply empty vessels devoid of detailed meaning. They are simply an item, showing an individual who lived, and died. They are not asking for adoration, or adulation, or plaudits. They only exist. Why in that case should they be torn down? If we are honest, many of these statues are incredible works of artistic merit. Wouldn’t their intrinsic beauty be worthy of retaining them in situ? Considering the recent loading of meaning upon many, particularly nasty individuals from history, probably not. Yet, as the supporters cry, they have stood for so many years without anybody bothering with them; why tear them down now, and where is the line? Do we tear down the pyramids as they were built with slave labour? It is hard to counter this reductive logic, so should we leave the statues in place?

Well not just yet. A third option is to remove the statues, and place them with a museum setting. This has its advantages. Statues could be correctly labelled, and their story told with the proper gravitas as part of a wider educational journey. But, closed away behind doors, the teaching opportunity is lost, and its audience much reduced.

I see two main questions emerging from this bipolar debate. Firstly, and most obviously, what should we do with statues of individuals that no longer represent our values? Secondly, where do we draw the line as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to display in public? I will answer the second question first, as in many ways it is the most facile.

The current issue with these statues is that they are representing people who still, to this day, represent a division within society that is causing pain and anguish. Slavery may be two centuries in the past, in Britain at least, but its affects are not. There are enormous wealth disparities between black communities and white communities, and discrimination is still apparent both within society and institutionally. So when is the cutoff? Should we be demolishing the pyramids? Obviously not, and to suggest so is the most cynical reductio ad absurdum. I would suggest selecting a period in time that still has connections to the present state of the world. In Britain, that might well be 1707, or 1607, or perhaps even 1492. I will leave you to look up the significance of those dates – and I encourage you to learn for yourself! This may be different in other countries, and necessarily so. However, these dates to me provide tangible pointers to a system in which we still exist, and is still relevant today. Why not demolish the pyramids? Well, to be quite honest, if you can find a person today who is directly affected by their construction, then I will happily demolish them myself with a hammer and chisel.

So, we should move our post 1492/1607/1707 statues into museums then? Well, no. I do not agree with that either. At this time. Perhaps in future. What we must do is both easy, simple, cheap, and will be remarkable effective and educational.

We must leave the statues exactly where they stand. We must allow them to remain where they are, in full view of the public. However, we absolutely must create a new national institution that places them within a wider network and context. I am talking about creating a whole new type of museum to Britain; a National Outdoor Monuments Museum, or something to that effect. Each statue would have close by to it some form of location sensor, or QR code, or… something which can be scanned by smart phone, and leads to an information page detailing everything about the individual and history of the statue. And here is where it meets the modern world; the page allows visitors to the NOMM to discuss the piece, reflecting upon what it means to them, and how they feel about it. Some may simply reflect upon a statues beauty, whilst some may consider more detailed historiography, engaging in debate about why an individual was great, or indeed evil.

These statues should remain public. But the information and emotive content that they carry that must change. With modern technology, this can be done easily, cheaply, and, with political will, incredibly quickly.

These statues are not currently devices for learning. Many are symbols to a barbaric past. But with modern technology, they could be repurposed, and transformed into one of the greatest historical learning tools at our disposal.

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