Tuesday, 28 December 2010

In our time - Melvyn Bragg vs Pat Hudson - trends in Historical thinking

I urge anybody who is interested in the Industrial Revolution (I.R.), or even just currents of thought in History, to listen to "In our time from last week. I've only just got round to doing so, and it was a great treat.


Now I think we can safely say I'm not about to become any sort of historian at all  - but particularly not a Marxist historian. Perhaps Professor Pat Hudson wouldn't want to be categorised like that. I don't know. But here's the fierce debate that arose:

When Bragg and his guests were discussing the causes of the I.R., Hudson said something along the lines of "we must get away from this idea of a peculiar British genius for invention", at which Melvyn Bragg exploded into life - defending the inventiveness of some of those behind the technology that set Britain ahead at the time. Enormous fun to listen to, and very instructive. You can always learn a lot when people get very heated in an argument.

I'll discuss the arguments in more depth elsewhere - or this post will bore anyone who tries to read it to death - but I want to talk about the historical biases I think are at work here.

Hudson doesn't like the version of the I.R given in old history books, and taught in the classes I attended at school. She doesn't like the emphasis on great men, or any patriotic statements that might imply that any national superiority set Britain ahead in Industrial development. As I understand it, this was a basic trend in historiography, where 'Marxist' historians reject an old "Whig" version of history. Great men and national superiority are out, social & economic forces and accidents of history (such as where resources happen to be readily available) are in, as explanations of history.

Much of what Professor Hudson said made very good sense indeed: there is never any one cause for anyone event, let alone a huge economic trend. And too much patriotism will probably muddy our thinking - as will any bias or prejudice in our thinking.

But I think her own bias was fairly clear. She (and others) seem to equate patriotism with National Front nationalism, and therefore racism. That is a big step  And it's not just historians jumping to that conclusion. She's too anxious to discount the inventiveness of the British (as a cause for the IR) - which while it may not be the only, or most important cause, may still have it's place in the story.

If she'd said "the evidence suggests to me that Britain's industrial power had a lot to do with Empire and protectionism in trade (which all European countries were competing at) which made possible the development of the Textile industry - and that the inventions in that industry became more powerful later", then I'd have felt she was making her theories fit the facts, rather than the other way around.

But she didn't say that - I sensed a narrow "Powerful outside forces caused inventions to happen" point of view and tried too hard to emphasise other inventions made round the world.

It seems to me this kind of thinking has many disciples in this country. I meet it all the time and it's important to  realise that it is a bias - just like Patriotic history.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

"Thinking allowed" and BBC objectivity

I've just been listening to a few episodes of this program. I can't find a way to comment specifically to the makers and anyway my comments would be lost ... I'm brought to a real soap-box subject for me - my views on  which I've bored my partner with many times.

If you look on the BBC website, their concise description of the program (on the podcast page - copy/paste) is "Laurie Taylor explores the latest research into how society works and discusses current ideas on how we live today"

ie: sociology. Lots of sociologists.

My impression of the program is that it's title suggests that you'll be listening to open-minded discussion whereas in fact Laurie Taylor just seemed to be giving his prejudices, he is already in full agreement with the people who get invited on - there should be opposing opinions and there aren't.

BBC news-presenters, program presenters and editors all seem to me to share similar views and don't brook counter-argument. I think they are mixing up education with their point of view.

Take today's programme: Taylor and a guest were discussing XMAS decorations on houses and antipathy towards the people who do this. seem to have visited a website dedicated to intolerance towards "chav"s, and picked out some of the more warped views. Taylor's guest called the views "obscene" - in other words she's well on the way to the same level of intolerance shown by loony contributors to web forums - and she's supposed to be an academic...

It's not hard to find extreme language and opinions on the web - it's where (sometimes unbalanced) people give full expression to their opinions*. When Jan Moir published an article that was seen as homophobic (and it was pretty awful) the amount of hate on the web - some of it apparently praised by Stephen Fry in a tweet - was something to behold. So it isn't just the reactionaries who vent intolerant bile once you get them on forums and blogs :)

As to counter-argument, there was no mention of the obvious point that others have to live with displays they find unsightly - and hence might have complaints about the fact. Just Taylor's opinion reigned supreme. Might we change the programme title to "Thinking not allowed"? 

(We already have "A Point of view" and it is generally rather better listening, in my view)

*and here I am :)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Weekend awakening old memories

Saw my father this weekend. The way he talks about his (academic) interests makes me wonder why I haven't been spending all my time studying the same things it's just so fascinating. We ate expensively, enjoyed some tea. He put us up for the night as we couldn't get home, then on Sunday morning we walked with him through town - he is rather unsteady with his walking stick and the snow has frozen. Every time I see him I sadly wonder if it's the last time.

When I was young he was a rather different sort of creature. As if every little inconvenience and imagined slight were the last straw in a world of distractions pressing in on his life, tipping him into fury. Al this nonsense happening to me!!! A very difficult, not seemingly happy man, the side his kids saw of him, though by all accounts he led a pretty full life in those days, if you see what I mean.

Yet watch the family together all his (5) children will be competing to try and show off how clever they are in front of him (I mean they do anyway but all the more so if he's there). I try not to do that, but sometimes I probably show off a bit. It happens when your shared preferences in conversation are to do with learning and discovery. Complex people :)


Just as the title says - if I descend into self examination then sue me for mis-representation