Category Archives: Musings

“Direct” Democracy

I remember owning an undergraduate textbook called Models of Democracy. Today, you can read a comparable text (irrespective of whether you consider it authoritative or not) by simply typing the word ‘democracy’ into Wikipedia. Having done so recently, I was reminded momentarily of various theories to which I have not given much thought for quite a long time.

The inkling that led me to do so was witnessing a couple of surprising You Tube videos. One did not surprise me because of its contents but because of its participant: although 92 years old, Noam Chomsky is still “on the go” as a supremely articulate, if unconvincing, commentator.

He was suggesting that experiments in “direct” democracy in the 1960s did have an affect on the grounds that, superficial appearances aside, the nature of society “then” would actually be pretty unrecognisable “now” and things have actually “got better”. The other surprising You Tube video was seeing, for the first time, an interview with Aldous Huxley (d.1963), who is one of those many authors who seemed interesting to me when I was in my early twenties, if only because I do not think that I was exposed to similar lines of thought before reading authors like him at that time.

Sixty years apart as the interviews were, it struck me that here were two intellectuals who were seemingly very interested in the idea of “direct” democracy. When I say direct I am not thinking in terms of all ordinary citizens being able to legislate whatever they want. I am thinking in terms of people wishing to see their internal beliefs reflected externally in the laws of a state and, in particular, their sense of discomfort if such a develop was unlikely to happen. Is this a realistic expectation for an individual to have? And why should people have such a wish or expectation in the first place?

Studying and thinking about international relations in recent times had me surmising to myself that it is not a “hearts and minds” subject: it exists instead in the impersonal realm of statecraft. Is that a fair judgment? For people who get excited over the subject, it probably seems not. But it seems to me that it is. Whither democracy?

For a lot of people who wish to see their internal beliefs reflected externally in the laws of a state, to suggest that the freedom to be non-political is a fundamental human liberty rather than a reactionary stance is unacceptable. Some would even suggest that such an idea is “uneducated”. What, therefore, happened to the debate on the dangers of totalitarianism and the many different forms in which it can exist, invariably with the same root: allegiance to some kind of ideology? Is it simply “gone” in favour of a media spin that professes to sees direct democracy everywhere and within nothing in particular? Sometimes it seems to me that it is so.

If anarchists once equated liberty with a world without states then, contrary to G.K. Chesterton’s century old claim that the Archbishop of Canterbury, or his alter ego in Rome, may perhaps be considered the greatest anarchist of all, perhaps the global corporations of today, in overreaching individual states, have bypassed the danger of the totalitarianism of the state by creating a new hegemony of independent businesses and bankers. Lionel Curtis dreamt of the British Commonwealth becoming a “world government”. America said no to the offer of joining. But it took up the idea of conceiving of a world order. And therein lay the initiative of a World Bank, potentially with rotating chairpersons from different parts of the world although a quick glance at Wikipedia can remind one, if one needs reminding, that they have been predominantly American. Contemporary critics of globalisation have not rejected its premise or its offshoots, such as the United Nations. If it ceased to be, how different a time or place the present might seem. Would artistic media go back to propagating an introspective and individualist imagination like what was seen in Albert Camus’ Rebel or the melodramatic film of competing ideologies Le Combat Dans L’ile? Perhaps.

Maybe Noam Chomsky is right: the world has changed for the better since 1963, albeit not necessarily for the reasons that he purports to believe. Huxley may have felt ambivalent about “brave new worlds” but in his old age he would seem to have come to accept that existing in a society of consumer fodder is preferable to existing in a society of cannon fodder. From there has history been writ anew? If the sadism of the lord of the manor or his soldier victim no longer controls the pen, a military-industrial complex yet remains and is reputedly supreme. May it end up being tempered not by the directness of a vote but by a potentially egalitarian tool like a satellite? Kennedy said so before he was shot in 1963 on the same day that Huxley died. Some people used to pray to a Good Lord because they knew there was no such thing as a good lord on earth nor could there ever be. But if the future of politics lies in the future of satellites, maybe the earth will, in the future, start to reflect the heavens after all? Is there democracy in space? Say no more….

And what if historical conferences in the future no longer involve just historians? Bring the futurologists in too. What will be the result of the debates? A few less Star Wars fans? Or else, perhaps, just another incidental blog in a perennial present. Is that direct enough for you? As a part-time historian, it is usually good enough for me. But one can, of course, go deeper.

If one returns to the idea of “whither democracy in international relations?”, a substitute for that idea (which can explain the equal interest of old academics like Chomsky or non-academics like Huxley) using the same archaic language is “whither humanity (in international relations)?”. There is a subject and a half. If one can conceivable say “direct democracy is impractical” who can say “direct humanity is impractical” and get away with it? Henry Kissinger perhaps…but, seriously speaking, how does one actually define “humanity”?

You see, in “international relations speak”, the parlance of “human rights” is about as nebulous as that of “democracy” yet it is, if anything, a much more deeply philosophical concept. One might expect historians to have much to say about it, therefore, but do historians actually have much to say about the concept? Irish political figures, from the days of DeValera to the present, have often assumed the posture that Ireland is “all for human rights”, but I’m not conscious of many Irish authors, including historians, making an impact in such debates. Or rather, if there are Irish individuals (think Mary Robinson perhaps), they are figures that have left academia, as well as politics, and exist in a rather different orbit from any identifiable sphere within Ireland itself, including its historical debates.

So…whither “Irish think tanks” on the subject (and when will I stop using that archaic word “whither”)? Abroad, there are certainly authors who have spent a lot of time attempting to philosophise about history, seeking an answer to the question of where human rights fits into international relations, if indeed it does. Witnessing a sort of trans-Atlantic, US-EU, debate in recent times online has alerted me to the existence of Samuel Moyn, a historian who has certainly had a lot to say about the subject matter and who previously held a position called “James Bryce Professor of European Legal History” at a leading American university.

Bryce, a native of Belfast who gets a mention or two in the first two chapters of my latest book, could be called an Irishman, but as he was a British diplomat (with a slightly guilty conscience about Ireland, or at least so he hinted in an article he wrote very shortly before he died in 1922) that was certainly not his claim to fame. To a significant extent, it was not even his diplomatic skills that made him famous. Rather, he was a writer who, adopting the intellectual framework of someone who was supposedly deeply interested in human rights, turned heads with his ideas about subjects such as the American constitution and the possibility of forming a League of Nations in Geneva. He was an “ideas man” and people who thought about subjects like “direct democracy” or “human rights” in his day often paid attention to what he said. Did his public profile or his intellect allow him to assume such a standing? Probably both, although if he did not put in the intellectual effort, to be sure, there would not be Professors of European Legal History in the United States today named after him.

How many Irish people can assume the standing of a James Bryce today? Or perhaps more to the point: how many Irish people would even “want” to assume the standing of a James Bryce today, if they could? Don’t ask me, because I don’t know. But I suspect: “not a lot”. But the absence of the same is perhaps telling. Fitting Irish history into international history was the theme of my last book. Let us presume that it could so fit. Then what? Can readings of both Irish and international history start to breathe anew, and in fresh directions, through such a marriage? No more or less than in the case of many other countries’ history, I suspect, but as the old expression goes “don’t hold your breath”. At least, however, it might give me something to think about, when doing an envisioned “Ireland in Europe” study at a future date. If peace in Europe is often seen as a philosophical as much as a legal concept, how much is the same true in Ireland? How many Irish ideas are first or second hand? I don’t know. But perhaps the more Irish historical authors read historical authors like Moyn, the clearer our sense of comparative perspective might become and, with that, what is truly original can be better seen for what it is. And as for “the rest”: I guess it can remain in the public house. Cheers.

Autobiographies

While I was improvising last month’s blog, I was introduced to an autobiography by Benedict Anderson, the first chapter of which (available to see on Google Books) is interesting from an Irish perspective (why he chose to be an Irish citizen) and the remainder, which I discovered after picking up the book from an Irish seller, is mostly about Indonesia and academic politics. Anderson’s response to the question “why an autobiography?” was simple. He was asked to do it. His book, first published in Japanese, was written on request so that Asians could have a sense where western academics were “coming from”.

Literary theorists have probably spent more time theorising answers to the question “why are there autobiographies?” than the likes of me, even if they have not necessarily spent any more time thinking about the nature of writing. Historians spend time interrogating literary “sources”. They offer interpretations about others, but can they offer an “interpretation of themselves”? Can autobiographies by scholars be worthwhile, and what actually constitutes an autobiography? Can creators of popular Twitter or Youtube accounts possibly be conceived as engaging in an act of autobiography? Where does the divide between the creator and creation lie?

I had almost forgotten that I own another autobiography by a historian: Eric Hobsbawm’s “Interesting Times”, which I picked up less from interest in Hobsbawm than the fact that these days charity shops in Ireland sell off what were once expensive items to collect – books, records, videos – for next to nothing. “No risk purchases”. Although I am not an admirer of either’s writings, an impressive aspect of both Hobsbawm and Anderson’s erudition was their knowledge of different languages was such that they could have been diplomats. What might an autobiography by a historian teach you? Hobsbawm and Anderson liked to think of themselves as internationalists (they certain had “international” backgrounds), although one might be inclined to think of them as simply British and American respectively. From Hobsbawm’s autobiography one can see that he was a politically active and committed British labour activist who saw political ideology as an essential lens on life (no surprises there) but one can also find surprising, if inconsequential, details such as that he used to hang around New York blues and folk clubs with people like John Hammond (the man who “discovered” Bob Dylan). And he also deemed the fact that he never wore blue jeans to be a historically significant action on his own part. Oh well.

If correspondence is raw material to historians, who bothers to keep it? A close relative donated to an archive a few suitcases of Dublin theatre and concert programmes, dating from the 1950s to the 1980s. She had once corresponded with critics but the thought of keeping that material seemed absurd and so it was not. I recall some of the first historical memoirs that I read were, at the time of their initial publication, political memoirs and the authors evidently kept their lifelong correspondence purely for that motive. It can be that an individual who was neither published as an author nor someone who kept his private correspondence for posterity becomes, as far as historians are concerned, someone who practically never existed because the sources are missing. Now you know why politicians write memoirs/books or why the Americans started naming libraries after their successive presidents. And if your postman donates all his private letters to an archive and you do not, historians will, in the future, be writing about him and not you. But who writes the history of these people? As per the “interesting times” autobiography of Eric Hobsbawm, people like this are immortalised in history by the enforced working-class status symbol of wearing a peaked cap. I guess some people have turned dress into an ideology too, but I doubt any such perspective assists in telling the story of people whom neither published nor kept private papers.

If historians interrogate sources to get an idea of “where someone is coming from”, do others? If traditional journalists are often critical of social media as a supposed unreliable source of information and vice versa (“fake news”), if one looks up the backgrounds of the authors of some of these “polemics” online they are often affiliated with think-tanks that operate with governments. I recall hearing politically important Irish figures praising a Dublin-born historian as if he was “one of their own”, by virtue of his place of birth and his willingness to speak at Irish events, but I do not think those same Irish figures were even aware that he was also a member of the Henry Jackson Society, the priorities of which are not necessarily similar to the author’s “fans”. Of course, there is also a danger of labeling or classifying individuals as being of a particular mindset that is neither fair nor accurate. If “life is a broad church” it is generally because people tend to be catholic in their interests and are not all of the one cloth. Who is? Although it does seem clear that ideologies can often come into play whenever authors on societal trends, contemporary or historical, either exercise their tongue or their pen. For many participants, that is evidently “the whole point” or the motive or the “fun”.

And where do I, or any of “us”, fit into “all this?” The expression “god knows” may seem a cop-out but it may also seems appropriate. My self-interrogations usually revolve around a purely personal perspective on personal efficiency. “When my intellect is active, my body is tired. When my body is energetic, my mind is gone (or I am like “a big hot-water bottle without thought”). That says nothing about me, I guess, other than the existence of some kind of sensitive temperament that, to me, is disappointingly inefficient, like “a cross to bear”. If I were an ideologue with a taste for social networking, would I have a drive in life that is more efficient? Is narrowing one’s vision to a self-serving or self-justifying ambition akin to a dumb or restricting materialism?

In my usual impressionable way, I was pondering along such “not entirely logical” lines recently before I suddenly discovered a couple of unknown sources on a theme I was writing about – American-Irish relations – that opened my eyes to a different, or more “personal”, way at looking at the same “impersonal” subject. I don’t believe it will affect my judgement; it may (at best) feed, slightly, into my perspective as but one small of very many myriad factors. But anyway, “here goes”: in private, some Irish nationalists who met American government officials a century ago deemed the latter to be incapable of seeing any value in life beyond a man’s level of personal wealth. In private, some of these same American government officials deemed the same Irish nationalists to be strangely inefficient creatures that were evidently burdened by some vague mysticism and poverty that made their reasoning obscure, inconsequential or irrelevant. There’s an interesting little snapshot of a moment in time that could be said to mean something or nothing at all. Let us take the premise that it means nothing at all. What conclusion could one draw? People met and were instinctively or purposely imagining the biography of someone they could hardly be said to have known. A social interrogation became a moment of biography. But did it become a moment of autobiography or self-interrogation? Evidently it did not. And with that thought I’ll sign off from this blog, still unsure if there is any real consequence to the introspective act of autobiographies. If autobiographies of entertainers can be entertaining in their perspective, the autobiographies of historians are unlikely to attract a wide readership for understandable reasons. And yet it is surprising sometimes how many writers end up writing one or more autobiographies. Is it a vanity or a confessional exercise? Perhaps neither. It is just another excuse to write? And there may be an answer in terms of the question “why are there historians?” Some love to write. Some love to teach. Some love both. But perhaps not all are cut out for both. The didactic can be pedantic.

What is a National-(g)ist?

When I was a student, people often implicitly treated war as a result of an excess of nationalism. Putting two and two together, people sometimes made associations between themes like Baden Powell’s formation of boy scouts and a later military carnage, as if war begins in an individual soldier’s psyche. In examinations of the causes of the First World War, the rivalry between states to either attain or maintain pole position in the world of commerce is rarely mentioned because that is a competition that happens “all the time”. But realistically speaking: how else can be a war be either started or funded? An economy has to be prepared and mobilised for that purpose or goal. Wars do not happen by accident. They are “declared” by states but, even so, they need to have a military-industrial complex behind them. It is not just a mental choice. To this day, it is said, NATO is still first and foremost a nuclear alliance, but how many consider how that affects the performance or the stance of the states that we inhabit from day to day? Hmm…

I remember a few years ago experiencing the usual confusion that I experience whenever a presidential election is being held on the other side of the world and I hear locals speaking as if it were a matter that concerns them. The same underlying assumption is evident in conversations as it was when I was a child: if a Ronald Reagan type is elected, the world is heading for a “Dr. Strangelove” scenario or catastrophe because those American-style patriots naively do not understand like we do how dangerous nationalisms are. If Karl Marx professed to have seen Britain as the best hope for a particular type of revolution, he also tended to see nationalisms in all other countries as a problem. Many still abide by that thought and students used to (and perhaps still do) look back at writings by Ernest Renan or British historians like Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor Roper in order to dissect the nationalist imagination of others. Is Wikipedia correct that Benedict Anderson was an Irish citizen? Yes, apparently it is. How true it is, for me, that one learns a new thing every day.

All this probably reads as if I am about to offer a theory of nationalism myself but, in fact, the thought has returned to me passively today simply as a result of having watched a youtube video, of unknown origin, about Ireland’s neutrality in World War Two, which was uploaded around the same time as my latest book was published (literally days before the pandemic broke out, unfortunately), and witnessing a particular mindset in the comments section. The mindset was less “nationalist” than “national-gist”, which is a word that I’m making up right now to denote the idea of a “gist” of a nation’s history. In Ireland’s history, supposedly, the “gist” behind all understanding is the civil war of 1922-23; a way of looking that, to my mind, is the most depressing of mind-sets. If an administration forcefully imposed a political settlement in Ireland at that time, it actually served to remove both of the supposedly opposing camps in a civil war from any kind of commanding influence, so the essential question was the nature of that administration itself and the degree to which it was subsequently reformed, but that idea is perhaps too boring to excite the popular imagination. I came across a quote recently in a book, which supposedly came from a 1950s document in the US State Department, which stated that so long as civil war politics existed in Ireland, the Irish state could enjoy no international relations. Is it sad to think that, seventy years later, a similar question or answer can possibly dawn upon the mind? “Look around” and one might feel hopelessly out of touch, not from an awareness of nationalists but from a sense of being unable to abide by a national-gist. An attraction to the arts rather than a body politic has perhaps never been difficult to understand.

What makes a life “radical”?

If one becomes jaded, some people’s solution is exercise; for others, it is to seek “fuel for the imagination”. Probably best is some combination of both.

Being extremely jaded of late, I’ve been getting flashbacks to my student days, when I had an insatiable enthusiasm for researching in archives and a level of energy that is only a distant memory now. Attempting to understand the lives of obscure “radical” figures mentioned in decaying police reports threw my historical imagination into overdrive, often not stopping to think of a somewhat obvious point that my supervisor threw at me one day: “don’t forget, the one [the radical] cannot exist without the other [political intelligence departments] so they actually keep each other in business.”

These days, “digital storytelling” is often used a synonym for purely personal narratives as a primary focus of interest. The appetite for stories about the lives of individuals, especially “radical” individuals, seems to be paramount. Fascinating stories can emerge all the time, including these recent historical exposes of an Irish nun in the French Resistance and an Irish Buddhist monk acting as a critic of European colonialism in Asia.

Is this a giant revival of the 19th century tradition of romantic individualism we are witnessing within digital media these days? Tim Blanning’s “we-are-all-still-living-in-the-nineteenth-century” Romantic Revolution thesis was based on the idea that people are obsessed with the idea of exciting individual lives, be it as a personal aspiration or as a necessary “fuel for the imagination”.

Apply that to politics and the 1950s thesis of a French sociologist seems persuasive that the appeal of Marxism in the twentieth century was largely the romantic, or intellectual, appeal of individualism, because in an age where all politics was sown-up by political parties acting under the unitary control of party whips, to profess oneself as a Marxist was a means of rejecting all that by claiming for oneself an image of one’s motivations whereby there is nothing obstructing a sense that one’s judgment or freedom of choice was still all one’s own.

A counter argument to that perspective, of course, was the extent to which efforts to create ruled-bound international labour organisations existed, although that was also a mainstream phenomenon: if one considers the history of the International Labour Organisation (1919-to-date) that was operated by the great “capitalist” Western powers (albeit without the United States up until the Cold War), the much smaller and directly rival initiative of Comintern were but a poor state’s variation of the same thing.

If a state is experiencing a devastating civil war (as Russia was) it is not actually initiating an international/world revolution: it is more accurately trying to protect itself from one, although it is still common to witness state and university-funded historians treating the radical/Marxist thesis of “world revolution” seriously enough to portray it as a much greater or central phenomenon than it actually was. In so far as states and, in turn, historians could claim that this “radical” threat was central, then the importance of the other (in this case, the International Labour Organisation) was enhanced to either the same or to a much greater degree: “don’t forget, one cannot exist without the other”. Similarly, in the days before the “Truman Doctrine” led the US to take on the UK’s self-imposed job of containing Russian influence in Europe/the Mediterranean, the US government was evidently more inclined to see Comintern-like initiatives as a tool of British intelligence than of Russian because of extent to which the International Labour Organisation was then a British-dominated body, used to extend British influence in international affairs.

How far is radicalism a tool for promoting polemical attitudes for ulterior motives? Consider this: if society could be persuaded that the social mores of aristocrats (i.e. the most wealthy) had been unfairly discriminated against in the past through having being falsely accused of being perverse, society could be persuaded to march instead to defend and champion the social mores of these poor aristocrats as a “new normal” code of behaviour and as a matter of “policy” to boot. Next up, perhaps: the Caesars were not such bad guys after all, even if they got their kicks by throwing innocent people to the lions (amongst other things). “Roll on the new empire with flags unfurled”. Indeed, if it is as true, as some have claimed (I don’t actually have the figures), that there is a much greater disparity of wealth between rich and poor “now” than at any other time in human history, the new “aristocrats” have evidently been remarkably successful in protecting their own interests, with traditional vehicles of criticisms, such as religious charities or the former US Republican tradition of professed vigilance against corruption or imperialism, having become marginalised, stigmatised or even downright unpopular. Self-interested human behaviour moves in mysterious ways.

And what was the appeal of studying “radical” nineteenth-century Irish lives for me? And why does that appeal still exist, to a significant degree? Irish radical organisations were surely also partly a containment tool of their professed opponents. “OK”. But “the time and the place” still fascinates me. You see: if “the Comintern days” can fascinate all those with an interest in the mental universe of early twentieth-century figures of the Aldous Huxley or George Orwell variety, “the Republican days” can fascinate all those with an interest in the mental universe of the nineteenth century. A sense of aristocratic privilege ruled supreme in church and state and “the common people” simply did not exist in most political, artistic or cultural endeavours.…or, then again, did they? “The usual [Fenian] suspects” police gazettes can seem to tell as fascinating a story as a protagonist of an unknown Charles Dickens or Mark Twain novel. In some nineteenth-century French fictions, these prototype-characters do actually seem to exist (Emile Zola’s “Savage Paris” comes to mind).

So while Gustave Flaubert or whoever was indulging in some “sentimental education”, involving petticoats and scented handkerchiefs or the like, there were some guys meeting in some backroom somewhere, possibly off a street or (Parnell-ite) square that you already know (many Dublin Fenians I read police reports about in Ireland’s National Archives lived and met on the exact same street as where Ireland’s National Archives now sits), dreaming of forming a newspaper of their own or fantasising about turning the world of Dublin Castle upside down. How did the world seem to them? Was their smattering of education and revolutionary fantasies an expression of the same ambition that motivated those who enlisted in armies to acquire some formal education, the rare privilege of international travel or even social prestige (uniforms could do wonders for “the image” in those days)? Did revolutionary journalists, including Karl Marx (whose lifetime coincided with the heyday of the British Empire), aspire to the same prestige as “the great and good” by virtue of their utilising or inhabiting the exact same (print) media? Quite possibly…

And from there can emerge a picture of a whole world of really quite mundane “radical” lives that, unlike those in a novel, did actually exist, but with their stories untold. If there is any greater fuel for the imagination than that, I’m still not sure if I know of one within the world of historical studies. Lives may not, in fact, be radical in their making, but I’m inclined to suspect with Mr. Blanning that “the romantic revolution” still lives on, from the nineteenth century right up until “now” and probably well enough into the future too, in terms of people’s imagination, both public and private. Beethoven still has a lot to answer for or to be praised for, depending on your own point of view.

The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of

That “not so eloquent” line from the end of a Humphrey Bogart movie came to mind recently when the thought dawned on me: why did I never realise that “The Maltese Falcon” was supposed to have come from Malta? Indeed, why do I never think about Malta? Or Cyprus?

You see: it is not just the fact that I have never been to the Mediterranean. It is one of those tangential issues that slips the mind: “my country” (Ireland) and Malta and Cyprus are three “small island” nations within the European Union. Islands of strategic significance in the Mediterranean and an island of reputed strategic significance in the Atlantic may not obviously have much in common, although this recent talk by an Irish foreign minister was of interest to me for throwing out an idea that I had also entertained: the “small” can potentially have their ideas, or opinions, shared and, in turn, spread within the European system as much as the “large”, providing they are fully engaged with all debates. Are “we” engaged?

You know, a large facet of European studies is very legalistic: witness studies like this one. I have studied law “but a little” but enough to know that legal studies generally require a full-time commitment. Not possible for me. Which perhaps makes it “all the better” that bodies such as the Council for European Studies, which also do an interesting free newsletter, are publishing good multi-disciplinary studies like this one that bring together authors from many different countries and, fortunately for linguistically-challenged individuals like myself, are all written in what is effectively my native tongue.

Often, noticeably absent from such studies are a) a focus specifically on the question of small states; and b) contributions by Irish authors. The latter trend perhaps automatically follows on from the former, although perhaps the b) could start thinking more conceptually about rectifying the a)? That is a question that I think I will make an attempt to address in the future, potentially without Cyclops vision, although somehow I doubt it will be the stuff that “dreams are made of”.

On a different tangent, another curiosity about Malta and Cyprus is that, although within the EU, they are also members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which, if no longer effectively an economic bloc, is still a unit in international relations, encompassing all former territories of the British Empire (including India and Singapore and, so junkies for current affairs might tell you, possibly again someday Hong Kong). Ireland is actually the only state to have “ever” successfully left that bloc, although on a partitioned island subtle pressures to re-join are no doubt always present even if they are not necessarily noticed. But that is the subject of a different story.

Lockdowns in Imagination

It is the season of “the lockdown” and its unavoidable social restrictions. A more perennial thought, for me, has been “when are there lockdowns in imagination?”, i.e. why are various queries, activities or subjects not pursued, for one reason or another? Often there is a very good reason (including available time). But how does this affect the “historical imagination”…?

If an imaginative thought hit a student like “I wonder what the relationship was between Czechoslovakia and Bolivia in the fourth century…” they might well be corrected with the observation that no such relationship existed and therefore that would not be a good idea for a subject after all.

As a perennial student of sorts, the thought came to me recently that I should try and tease out the whole history of the dynamics of American-Irish relations in a single journal-article length study. On mentioning this to someone, I received a puzzled look and a query of “do you actually mean to say that there is such a thing as American-Irish relations?” Little diplomatic courtesies often do not tell a very full story but if a story is nevertheless there how should it be told? I do not mean to offer an answer to that question “here”, in this “blog”, but little fleeting pictures do nevertheless come to mind, to form tangential points of contrast…

An American who reflected on the theme (“way back” in 1973) once suggested that culture and economics were a more significant connection between America and Ireland than politics or statecraft. That is an “understandable” perspective. However, “way back” (before I ever started studying history) a potentially opposing thought to even that perspective struck me on glancing at a little publication called “an outline of American geography” while I was essentially still a child. A cartoon-like detail that caught my imagination was that Ireland was so small compared to the United States that the island could actually sink if it was placed in one of America’s “great lakes”. This made me think that Americans would probably have as much reason to ever think about “Ireland” as Irish people would ever have to think about the legendary eel population submerged in Lough Neagh. Small fish, indeed, and how might such an observation affect perceptions? Are differences in scale so large that if an Irish person ever attempted to “view America”, or an American person ever attempted to “view Ireland”, they would inevitably be looking through the wrong end of the telescope (or microscope, as the case may be)?

In the months before “the lockdown” put an end to recent commuting, one light read on the bus was a book by Alistair Cooke about his travels across America during the Second World War. He had spent about 25 years in America, “explaining America” to a British audience from his New York journalistic base, but in his posthumously published “Second World War diaries” he came to the conclusion that he had never actually “seen” or understood America until he began his “nationwide trek”. He marvelled at how each state in America seemed to be designed to serve a different but complementary economic purpose (some agricultural, some industrial etc.) and was reminded of the fact that the term “united states” does reflect the fact that there are many different and diverse states within America, many of which are bigger than most European countries. In short, the sheer scale of the “U.S. of A” was such that Cooke reflected that, despite being considered as the leading British authority on “America” who had lived in the country for half his life, he could not actually offer an “explanation of America”: its scale was so large that it was almost beyond human comprehension or, at least, human powers of description. I guess, therefore, that it is no wonder that “many” have suggested that it is the federal aspect of the government of America that inevitably forms the actual glue that binds “the nation” together, although Cooke did not decide to follow down that mental path…

If the thought of “America” (or, in particular, offering a “definition of America”) proved too much for Cooke’s perceptive capacities, how askew must be many perceptions of America amongst other peoples, including, no doubt, the general population of Ireland. Recently, I saw a biography of J.F. Kennedy, written by his former secretary just after his death, and I remember a little observation stood out for me. The author suggested that America has had “interests” to defend in the wider world, particularly since WW2, but the challenge of looking after those “interests” was so time consuming that America did not have either the time or the inclination to ever think about projecting “an image” of the country abroad. That might seem like a slightly dishonest claim in the light of how much peoples around the world have allegedly been “exposed to American culture” via various commercial medias, but is there another side to this coin? Was the author, in fact, saying something rather like Cooke: that America is actually too large or diverse to have a definable image, even for Americans, and therefore any notion of projecting a distinct image of the country abroad was too absurd a proposition to entertain? Peoples abroad may see and hear American politicians talking about international “values”, as well as various commercial entertainments originating within America, but these same peoples are unlikely to ever “see America”…and, perhaps, there is nothing that the American government can conceive to do about it even if it wished to.

And “so what”? Well, I think the “what” of this blog is an observation to explain why the idea of offering a definition of a subject such as “American-Irish relations” is one that is liable to produce “a lockdown in imagination” and so be avoided entirely. Can it be done without entertaining irrelevant paradigms? Are definitions possible? Is the subject too diffuse or vague to “pin down”? Perhaps. But then again “why do historians exist?” Sometimes I think it is to offer “a definition of the indefinable”. To be sure, most historians have not acted as basic “chroniclers of facts” since the first day that they started writing sentences, as opposing to attempting to detail data with all the fallibility of the fallible (and who today believes in the accuracy of medieval chroniclers? Oh well…).

But…to return to the theme of “the lockdown”…I had suggested to someone who was organising an Irish history seminar, due to take place at the end of this month, that I would try giving a talk on the history of American-Irish relations, but that was before “the lockdown” had closed down venues and, needless to say, put a cramp on everyone’s style. However, if I can “find the time” to study, reflect and “compose” history again, perhaps I will have come up with a worthy paper, for a talk, by this time next month? The extra-curricular existence of a part-time historian may continue, even amidst lockdowns, of one sort or another. Or, at least, “so I hope”.

Entertain Us

“Here we are now, entertain us! It’s stupid and contagious!” – Kurt Cobain

Do you like the rock band Nirvana? Neither do I. But the above song lyric has come to mind this morning. Why?

I had started to write a very heavy going “blog” about interconnections between military history and the history of slavery. But that doesn’t suit either the time or my current state of mind. The media is full of “all is changed utterly” stories that make it seem as if “the world” is at one of “those moments” that shuts down previous trends of thought. Will this be a moment for future historians to analyse long after it has passed? Or are nerves simply being frayed? It is hard not to feel uneasy. Or to seek a distraction in silly entertainments.

“The media is the message”, Marshall McLuhan once said. I cannot remember what exactly he meant. I know it was something to do with the power of media, even entertainment industries, to make things seem suddenly relevant or even out of date. “1968”. No, The Beatles did not change music. But perhaps they did mark the beginning of pop musicians being turned into politicised celebrities, even if they were just eighteen year olds who only knew the way in and out of their local public house. Even prior to then, new movie stars (being suddenly rich and famous and thereby influential) were often expected to start speaking about politics too. That thought has inspired the idea of this current improvised blog.

Many historians have written about “wartime propagandas” and associated campaigns of censorship (the Irish had a story there too). But what of “peace-time propagandas”? What are they? How and when can you recognise them? There is a theme that could inspire a thousand Orwellian dreams, or conspiracy theories, or vague impressions that are not even worth mentioning, least of all (perhaps) by “a historian”. But who has never entertained such thoughts? Go on…“confess, confess”.

For instance, “is it just my imagination or has the number of war-movies, both old ones on TV and new ones on cinema/pay per view etc., increased greatly in the last couple of years, at the same time as international political alliances are, some want us to believe, fraying?” Is this all a form of social or mental conditioning? And when and why do various historians both a) pick their themes; b) redefine their themes? During a trip to a bookshop recently, I saw books with titles such as “a global biography” of Hitler and “a global history” of slavery, which, in case you are not aware of the subtle meaning of language (which of course you are), implies that both Hitler and slavery are of “global” relevance (today). “Why do we all like or think X, Y or Z” is a great journalistic phrase to imply a collective thought that, rationally speaking, surely does not even exist. But it is a tool of persuasion that is used by many, potentially to spread confusion.

The fact that I spent a lot of time reading history means that I do not have a lot of time for reading fiction. I generally get my “fiction-fix”, if I seek one, not from novels, but from film. If I was in a DVD watching mood these last few weeks, perhaps I could have done another Saturday Night At The Movies blog. But I have hardly watched any movies at all. Instead, some random Internet browsing has reminded me of some old TV shows that I either had or had not seen before.

For instance, last night, I saw bits of a confusing 1967-68 TV show called The Prisoner, starring and reputedly co-written by Patrick McGoohan, who Wikipedia informed me, to my surprise, was actually an Irish citizen. It is a strange show with a political context. Forgive the conspiratorial thought, but the fact that it was broadcast internationally just prior to 1968 student unrests etc. had me wondering last night if that was entirely a coincidence or if there was even an element of social conditioning or preparation at work. Are fictional stories sometimes inspired by current events? Last year (or was it the year before?), I was reading for the first time about the politics of “Irish-America” in the mid-to-late 1970s and some tensions evident therein. Only last night, however (blame it on The Prisoner), it struck me as rather strange that an episode of Columbo that I remember seeing years ago called “The Conspirators” (you can read about it and probably watch it online), was made at the exact same time, portraying the same milieu in a very unflattering light. Curiously, that was the last ever episode of Columbo to be made before it was pulled off the air for a decade. “This far and no further”.

Coincidental thinking may spot how trends in public life can shape innocuous “popular culture” presentations in the media. Have you ever thought if the interactions between Tom Selleck and John Hillerman in Magnum P.I. were subtle reflections on the dynamics of a trans-Atlantic naval and commercial “special relationship”? No, neither have I. But on the “international relations front”, here is a curious one. Does anyone remember The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Well, it was from before my time, but it was still on TV when I was a kid. Apparently, however, when the show was first conceived in 1963, the idea of “U.N.C.L.E.” was actually inspired by the “U.N.” (United Nations), which was at an early peak in its popularity and that was reflected in the “serious” tone of the first series of the TV show (especially during its introductory credits: ‘U.N.C.L.E. is an organisation consisting of representatives of every nationality’). But as the U.N. started receiving less priority during the mid-to-late 1960s, the show became rather daft and was soon pulled off the air completely. Its selling point had been lost. Is that a coincidence or not? Most likely it was simply a case of bad writing/storytelling and had nothing to do with international criticisms at the UN of the Vietnam War etc.

Returning to the present day, is it not bizarre that Martin Scorsese has entitled his latest gangster film “The Irishman”? If Coppola had given “The Godfather” the title “The Italian”, I’m sure it would not have sparked a diplomatic incident, but it would possibly have raised a few eyebrows in terms of the creation of negative cultural stereotypes in the 1970s/1980s. What stereotypes will Irish guys have in the next decade? I shudder to think. And…to conclude…all this entertaining nonsense has reminded me of a book I picked up second-hand a good while ago, but have never actually read. It was called “The Irish-American in popular culture 1945-2000”. Perhaps it is time I gave it a glance (it looks like a quite detailed and sophisticated analysis). In the meantime, my mind is evidently full of more popular cultural references right now than is sensible. Blame it on having watched “The Prisoner” last night. “Be seeing you!”

Bows & Arrows & Civil Wars

Recently, I was asked to write a review of Colum Kenny’s new assessment of Arthur Griffith, presumably because I wrote a biography of Griffith six or seven years ago. Being rundown with an unbreakable head cold (not actually a virus), I hope my hurriedly written and necessarily short review (which should appear in a month or two) was both fair and positive. With an eye to the so-called Decade of Centenaries, Kenny’s study was coloured more by an attempt to locate Griffith within Irish political culture and, unlike the reputedly heavy-going tome I produced, it is written in a lively, concise and almost conversational fashion, throwing out ideas like that “it is still difficult to resist taking sides on the [Anglo-Irish 1921] treaty even today and, once a side is taken, difficult to resist stacking up details in support of an argument. The use of history for political or cultural purposes did not start or end with the Irish civil war.” My own approach to Griffith was more strictly biographical and perhaps coloured by a comparable perspective to a quote within Kenny’s study from Oliver St. John Gogarty: that Griffith “had not the armour with which I, for one, was invested, be it irony or motley. His sincerity was a bow and his belief was an arrow which, if deflected, slew his faith”. In short, “my Griffith” was a more self-possessed and private character, not “one of the lads down in the pub”, and portrayed that aspect of his character as the basis of both his strengths as a political analyst and his weakness as a political actor, for if he “had not the armour” or sense of irony that necessarily protects the political activist he could not well survive the constant barrage of bows and arrows from every quarter and his sincerity of character would actually end up becoming a handicap rather than a strength in public life, necessarily enforcing either his early retirement or, dare I say “it” in these sickly times, his “self-isolation” if he would not do others the favour of “going away”.

Therein lies the theme for this month’s momentarily navel-gazing blog, for being something of an introspective character the metaphor of bows and arrows actually rather fascinates me. A believer in the merits of affectation, Gogarty evidently saw himself as a fellow-traveller of the worldly wise, conscious of what shields and weapons an actor does possess (regardless of what company they keep or how false they play others) and he portrayed the overly sincere as vulnerable individuals, too self-preoccupied in their sense of honesty to ever don a mask or to arm themselves with the many different defences or offences that the worldly-wise do in order to survive life relatively unscathed, build up a network of mutually-supporting allies and so achieve success. Why did he choose the metaphor of a bow and arrow to express that idea? Is it because of the old adage of “all is fair in love and war”? Maybe. I’m sure he was not thinking from the perspective of the history of military technology (a very eye-opening field in itself, if you ever put your mind to it, which I have probably not done enough). Most likely, he was thinking of some concept of chivalry, those “romantic facts of musketeers foundationed [sic] deep somehow” as Bob Dylan mused in “My Back Pages” (what a great lyric that was).

Recently, I saw some episodes of Robin of Sherwood for the first time since I was a child and so was seeing them with rather different eyes. If I found the concept of bows and arrows being fired everywhere rather exciting as a child, I found it almost scary as an adult, perhaps indicating that I’ve grown timid or physically weaker, but what of more metaphorical “bows and arrows”? Or to return to a theme of Kenny’s book, what if the centenary of 1922 turns into a game of “bows and arrows”, focused on defunct policemen and being debated by various common lawyers, posing as historians, with visions no broader or higher than the King’s Inn? Governments and national cultural, media and educational institutions have all been wedded to an Anglo-Irish idea of centenaries and will no doubt carry off the exercise with as much irony as Mr. Gogarty was capable of a century ago, although I do not think I could engage with that politicised campaign without switching my historical brain off completely. So, in my “self-isolation”, I shall hope that whatever historical studies I produce shall serve a greater end by following a different and possibly more enlightening path. I have a chapter or two within my latest book A history of Ireland in international relations that deals with the period covered by the Decade of Centenaries and the perspective voiced therein, without going into too much detail, is where I have been mentally “at”, as an interpretative historian. It may be that the best approach for Irish historians to take towards “bows and arrows and civil wars” is not to revel in either party-political controversies or “war, wine and women” (the trio of supposed soldiery pursuits in yesteryear), but instead to focus on the basic question of “what international pursuits and/or defence policies did the Irish state’s founding fathers actually desire?” The likes of Gogarty were too wedded to affectation and social networking to look much beyond their own personal vanities or careers whenever faced with that question and so, in turn, generally did not come up with any answers. Am I right to say: “historians should be capable of so much more?” Within that uncertainty may come a debilitating indifference, perhaps. And so…to conclude on a bizarre and quite meaningless tangent, here is a quote from a biography of a rock musician I read yesterday who once wrote a song called “I am a small republic”: “he is a brilliant person when he wants to be, but whenever his interest drifted it was a major problem.” Let us all reflect, therefore, on what it is that should sustain our interest.

Your Terms of Reference, Please?

Does it make sense for the casual musings, or blogs, of a historian to be about the follies of history? It seems to me that it does.

One reason why famed historians have (for the past few decades now) written self-defensive books like Richard Evans’ In defence of history is that the raw data which forms the basis of (scientific) research is comparatively lacking in historical studies. Neither a historical manuscript nor a well-written sentence within a historical study meets the generally accepted criteria of “interoperable data” that is necessary for qualifying as research according to all the world’s most important research-funding bodies. Scientific-research “proper” is pretty much as is (also) defined within this open access paper that one can access via the National Open Research Forum. Everything else is “silly season”.

While I was working as an archivist and studying digital humanities, the issue of “interoperable data” was to the fore, although (to date, at least) I do not feel that I developed any great proficiency, professionally speaking, in dealing with its applicability. Perhaps I will in the future…or perhaps I will continue to be drawn to writing more history books instead…but it is “within” this very uncertainty that I am inclined to interview myself, in terms of aptitudes, with the question: “your terms of reference, please?”

When my “history brain” is switched on, this question seems to relate purely to the question of vantage points (the subject of most of the improvised blogs on this site, “come to think of it”) and how they can change.

As a student, I remember meeting an English scholar who, having initially been attracted to studying Northern Ireland Troubles because of what he read in the news, instead grew interested in the very different subject of labour politics in 1880s Ireland after he started researching in Ireland’s national archives. He was “good at it too” but because there is no career in that subject, there was no future for him here in Ireland and he went home to England to a career that could be funded. Otherwise, like me, he would have been without a career or a salary or a job.

Another typical experience as a student is to meet an American scholar who has become passively interested in Ireland but, it soon becomes clear, he/she came to the subject in a rather roundabout way. It invariably goes as follows. Step One: World War Two was a major factor in American history. Step Two: Winston Churchill was an important ally of America in World War Two. Step Three: Churchill felt that he had a lifelong association with Irish circumstances. Step Four: Because as a US historian I have become interested in Churchill, he has become my vantage point in thinking about Ireland or pursuing studies on that particular theme.

These types of connections, or associations of ideas, are all pretty natural in terms of the way exposure to some initial references leads one to seek out associated references. But, for all scholars, there tends to be a starting point in terms of their vantage point. Whatever the starting point or initial “question” is will influence the answers that are either searched for or identified as being worthy of consideration.

A mismatch of sorts may exist between the historical “decade of centenaries” programme (1912-23) agreed between the British and Irish governments as a purely “domestic” matter that is worthy of joint university funding in the UK and Ireland and the broader question of how the birth of the Irish state was shaped by the impact of the world wars on international affairs and the resulting Irish republican proclamations of 1919 and 1948. Some scholars have called for an international relations perspective to be incorporated into the writing of Irish history, but if this is not the basis of any funded research in the universities, it is not a theme or subject that scholars are likely to adopt as their theme if they want to have any hope of a career as a historian. Will my book A history of Ireland in International Relations fit “the bill”? Well, perhaps it will fit “a bill”, in terms of fulfilling a research objective, but can it be the basis of further debate? Who knows…perhaps after “the decade of centenaries” has ended…or, it would be nice to see, even before then. But “I doubt it” because I am not a funded scholar and I have no professional association.

With Valentine’s Day having come and gone, it is easy to be reminded of the old saying of “how do you expect anyone to be interested in you if you do not express an interest in them?” Do history studies work a bit like that too? Consider the BBC World Service or even its radios “three and four”: how do you like that for expressing an interest in the “rest of the world”? In turn, it’d be no surprise if “the rest of the world” reciprocated that interest. But if Ireland’s “interest” in the rest of the world is expressed only through a perspective of what Norman Davies once referred to as “The Isles”, why should the rest of the world have the slightest interest in Ireland? Perhaps Ireland, as a “prisoner of history” (Joyce’s term, I think), is often rather too fond of crawling back into its own shell to spend much time gazing upon a wider world?

The expression “nothing human is alien to me” has been used a lot to express a wide-opened gaze at the whole world. The expression “anything not deemed to be a part of the British and Irish government’s official programme of a decade of centenaries (1912-1923) is of no interest to me” is one that could make any scholar cry, except perhaps those who are funded within that prism or who, for one reason or another, do not find it too confining to serve as a prison, but it is the basis of current research in Irish history, for better or for worse. So if anyone wants to study history in Ireland as a career and so is inclined to ask as an initial question of Irish historians “your terms of reference, please?”, it would appear that they should already know the answer before they can even begin to formulate their own questions.

Needing Somewhere To Go To

Elvis Presley famously sang “are you lonely this Christmas?” (with nowhere to go to). Bob Dylan less famously sang “and the riot squads lay restless, they need somewhere to go”, which always sounded to me like a cool little reflection on militarism. Actually the whole song (“desolation row”) is essentially a satire on politics or the political minded, but…more to the point…do armies really need “somewhere to go”?

Once I met a non-national who was able to do some kind of visiting tenure with the Irish army. He said that he thought the Irish army were absolutely brilliant, in their training that is, yet he did not know how anyone could stick being in the Irish army for a long time because they “had nowhere to go” or insufficient missions to take part in to satisfy whatever it is that soldiers like to do.

Non-enlistment in the British army (a.k.a. the Sinn Féin policy) was the only thing that prevented the Irish volunteer movement founded in 1913 being what all volunteer movements inherently are, i.e. support for a territorial army, which at the time was the British army exclusively, so the history of the foundation of the Irish army (which can most accurately be dated to 1924 and, to a lesser extent, unorthodox efforts by IRB fellas to create the mindset of an Irish army up until that time) is one that was effectively governed by two factors: first, a long gestation of the development of some kind of “acceptable” command structure for a territorial army that, unusually, grew out of purely voluntarily and even elective (secret IRB style elections that is) structures; and second, and most significantly for the purposes of this blog, the idea that non-enlistment in an imperial army was the founding premise for the desire for there to actually be an Irish army.

All that has come to mind “again” recently simply from glancing at an entertaining pamphlet by a colourful Glaswegian figure, Alasdair Gray, who I’ve just discovered died very recently. I had only heard of his existence for the first time from a pop singer a couple of months ago. Although called “Independence: an argument for home rule” (2014), he ignores the question of armies almost entirely, which (it has seemed to me) is, along with issues such as currencies and crowns, a major factor in the weakness, or even unreality, of Scottish nationalism. Non-enlistment has never been a Scottish policy and, indeed, the SNP are often the first to wish all British soldiers serving overseas a merry Christmas before the royal family even gets its chance, which is a reminder that soldiers in the UK’s army, be they Scots or otherwise, have lots of places to go, even (to this day at least) within Europe.

I’ve become something of “a believer” of late that defence policies are, ultimately, largely an outgrowth of a state’s economic policies. In Ireland’s case, a curious feature of the state’s history is that it was a part of the sterling area for longer than Canada or Australia and even for decades (three to be precise) after it left the Commonwealth. Is that a significant historical factor? An article I wrote suggested that it is and I’ve just discovered tonight that it is already available for a download (at a price) along with a host of other individually priced and interesting looking articles. I hope to receive a hardcopy of the journal in June and will have to stem my desire to be able to read the rest of the journal until then.

My thought for this evening, however, is that even though my article was more about finance than geography, perhaps an “unanswered question” or a question that I have not yet either attempted to or learnt how to address is “when or where “do armies feel the need for “somewhere to go” and just why or how often does this happen? It sounds simple, perhaps, and a logical link between realms such as international finance and international (military) alliances, but just how should writers (or even historians like me) deal with the theme? Do academic networks really succeed in creating or building rational intellectual structures for understanding such subjects or themes? International relations journals of various hues may leave the mind with a great deal of uncertainty in response to that question. By contrast, can stand-alone original works of research, thought and insight sometimes be altogether “more where it is at”? Such thoughts cross the mind today, as I feel a little sense of loss about the loss of the hitherto essentially unknown figure to me of Alasdair Gray. Not that he had insights, but mavericks at least can sometimes provide the mind with lots of alternative or entertaining places to go by attempting to synthesise conventional and commonplace with unconventional and rare schools of thought. But perhaps it may be that just as musicians often say that only musicians can truly understand music, only soldiers can truly understand armies? If so, my qualifications are rather too slight to mention in more than one category.