In Praise of the Go-Between

Suzannah LipscombI doubt there are any who read here who don’t know that I’m a history buff, although I’m no historian, except maybe an amateur, not overly disciplined one. But part of that is that so many academic historians forget that history isn’t a spreadsheet, it’s a story. It’s a story that has fascinated us from the beginning, after all, it’s our story, the story of where we’ve been.

For me, one of the joys of the internet is that I watch a fair amount of British TV, both BBC, and others, and they do a far better job of making history interesting. Why? Mostly I think because they have some very good academic historians, who can span that bridge from academic historian to a popular book, or as the presenter of a TV show or series.

One of those who does this better than most is Suzannah Lipscomb is Head of the history faculty at the New College of the Humanities, London and a frequent presenter on British TV, and a best-selling author, who deserves to be. Yesterday she wrote about this, and I think it important.

In recent weeks I have gone from reading 16th-century manuscripts in a French provincial archive to speaking at two literary festivals. The close juxtaposition of these two ends of the historian’s spectrum has made me reflect on the nature of history as a discipline.

The sort of raw data historians dredge up from archives requires many filters and processes to become the finished product: a book, a television documentary, a literary festival talk. Extracting that raw data and conveying it in meaningful terms to an audience require very different skill-sets. Yet both are essential. Finding treasures in the archives is the essence of historical research, while, as G.M. Trevelyan put it: ‘If historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is useless except insofar as it educates themselves.’ This is why at my college we are starting an MA in Historical Research and Public History. Both of these subjects come under the historian’s purview.

Emphasis mine because that Trevelyan quote is the crux of the matter. If historians want to matter, and we need them to, they need to keep this in mind.

Nevertheless, they are different and it is easy for historians to get lost in one or the other. Public historians can be irritated by academic historians who get caught up in the minutiae and cannot see the wood for the trees, who cannot communicate and write in impenetrable prose, or who squander their material by failing to convey the importance of their subjects.

In turn, academic historians can be frustrated by media-savvy popular historians who come and prey on the material they have acquired through long hours trawling through archives, painstakingly deciphering ancient handwriting, or slogging through useless document after useless document in order to harvest some hard-won fruit, which the popular historian then serves up as a trifle for public consumption.

via In Praise of the Go-Between | History Today

Suzie ends with this:

Those who think of history as much more of a soft, easily accessible discipline than, say, physics or chemistry should be warned that it is not as easy as it looks. There is a rift between the two ends of the spectrum, but it seems to me that the very business of being a historian lies in that space. We are go-betweens.

They are indeed, and they, and we need to remember that the best guide we have to the future, is the past. We need them, both those hidden in the stacks, and those out in the world telling us about what they found. We should also remember what Mark Twain, a pretty good amateur historian, himself said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it surely rhymes.”

What Muslims think: and why do we care

This is definitely worth reading, and thinking about. So much of opinion is driven by polling (or is it, really, maybe polling is driven by something else as well). In any case, this highlights how easy it is to draw false conclusions from polling, especially when viewing filtered results.

Do you have sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria? It’s a hard question to answer: perhaps you’d wonder who the ‘fighters’ were. Or whether the ‘young Muslims’ were 14-year-old girls, groomed by fanatics to be jihadi brides. But if you answer ‘yes’, you may be surprised to find yourself described as having ‘sympathy for jihadis’. Such are the perils awaiting British Muslims who respond to opinion poll questions.

The Sun this week found itself in a row about a front-page headline: 1 IN 5 BRIT MUSLIMS’ SYMPATHY FOR JIHADIS. The poll, by Survation, had asked a rather different question: what level of ‘sympathy’ the respondents had ‘with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria’. A small proportion — 5 per cent — had ‘a lot of sympathy’, and 15 per cent had ‘some sympathy’. But sympathy lay with the young Brits, not the Isis jihadis — and there is a difference.

It’s the latest of many polls since 9/11 which ask Muslims if they have sympathy for the devil. Typically, these polls declare that a significant minority does. Even if just 5 per cent are found to entertain crazy ideas, it’s then argued, that amounts to 130,000 people. But what is seldom asked is: what about the non-Muslims? Given that you’ll find a significant minority agreeing with any crazy proposition — Elvis still being alive, light sabers being real — how much weight should we attach to the polls which purport to identify embryonic British jihadism? […]

Not so very long ago, Muslims were being left alone and Catholics were being asked whether they had sympathy with IRA attacks. Even in day-to-day politics, those with religious convictions are always interrogated about whether their faith clouds their judgment, while those with secular stances whose judgment may prove equally unsound are left alone. […]

If you torture the data for long enough, you can show anything. Any poll of any group in Britain will always find a small minority supporting the bizarre or the deplorable — that doesn’t make the whole group gullible, or crazy. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the average British Muslim harbours any sympathy for the Islamic State.

Source: What Muslims think » The Spectator

If you remember, it was Mark Twain you commented that “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure”. Sometimes the lies are innocent and inadvertent, but sometimes they aren’t. And even innocent lies are not the truth, and we shouldn’t be navigating ships of state by them. I don’t know how British Moslems feel about IS, and they don’t either. Every one of us has a plethora of feelings and they vary from hour to hour depending on what we just watched, read, or happened in the world.

The answer for us, and for our countries as well, is to do what we think is right, and just, without regards to polls. We have the same right to exist, prosper, and be happy as anyone else, so there is no need to defer to lowlifes as ISIS. We deserve to live our lives in peace, and that is the first obligation of our governments, along with guaranteeing our freedom. It’s a hard job, but hey, they volunteered. And we’re paying them pretty well, too.

History Rhymes

Rudyard Kipling

Cover of Rudyard Kipling


Mark Twain told us that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. As we look at the economic numbers which show the workers and the middle class are losing income every year, and only the connected are succeeding in increasing their income, it struck us that it is literally true in this case.


Why? Because it was much the same in Rudyard Kipling’s day, and he wrote about it. So, on Sunday morning, we bring you this


The Wage-slaves

OH, glorious are the guarded heights
Where guardian souls abide—
Self-exiled from our gross delights—
Above, beyond, outside:
An ampler arc their spirit swings—
Commands a juster view—
We have their word for all these things,
No doubt their words are true.

Yet we, the bond slaves of our day,
Whom dirt and danger press—
Co-heirs of insolence, delay,
And leagued unfaithfulness—
Such is our need must seek indeed
And, having found, engage
The men who merely do the work
For which they draw the wage.

From forge and farm and mine and bench,
Deck, altar, outpost lone—
Mill, school, battalion, counter, trench,
Rail, senate, sheepfold, throne—
Creation’s cry goes up on high
From age to cheated age:
“Send us the men who do the work
“For which they draw the wage!”

Words cannot help nor wit achieve,
Nor e’en the all-gifted fool,
Too weak to enter, bide, or leave
The lists he cannot rule.
Beneath the sun we count on none
Our evil to assuage,
Except the men that do the work
For which they draw the wage.

When through the Gates of Stress and Strain
Comes forth the vast Event—
The simple, sheer, sufficing, sane
Result of labour spent—
They that have wrought the end unthought
Be neither saint nor sage,
But only men who did the work
For which they drew the wage.

Wherefore to these the Fates shall bend
(And all old idle things)
Werefore on these shall Power attend
Beyond the grip of kings:
Each in his place, by right, not grace,
Shall rule his heritage—
The men who simply do the work
For which they draw the wage.

Not such as scorn the loitering street,
Or waste, to earth its praise,
Their noontide’s unreturning heat
About their morning ways;
But such as dower each mortgaged hour
Alike with clean courage—
Even the men who do the work
For which they draw the wage—
Men, like to Gods, that do the work
For which they draw the wage—
Begin-continue-close that work.
For which they draw the wage!


Have a good day.


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