Culture Wars

If politics has always been a rich-man’s game, or at least a game for those who aspire to be rich, have historians (always?) been practitioners of auxiliary “culture war” games? And what is a “culture war”?

An article in a Polish publication that I picked up many years ago in Krakow led me more recently to pick up an interesting book that is partly, if not exclusively, about culture wars in “cold war” Europe (it also looks back to the nineteenth century). Lately, I found a book in a bargain bin that is essentially about “cold war” America, called The Cold War and The University, which falls into a “lefty but not polemical account” by American academics upon not entirely dissimilar themes, albeit from their own purely national, or internal, perspective.

There is certainly a growing literature “out there” on cultural diplomacy, which is a potential source of debate, but is it a fresh or a novel idea? As per the first book I read on this theme, it most definitely is not.

I remember suggesting to a student/practitioner of foreign policy a while ago that it seemed curious to me that there have been publications that, although ostensibly about welfare-state policies and the like, seemed (to me) to be actively calling for a continuation of the “same old” cold war divide within Europe on the basis of supposedly liberal or non-liberal values (‘cosmopolitans’ versus ‘religious’) and his response was “ah, that’s just the cultural wars talking”, as if such debates are of very little practical consequence.

Is it “just because” I am a historian that I have my doubts? And, if so, what does that say about either “me” or historians in general? Are we sometimes unwittingly an audience of, or even participants in, “culture wars” every time we attempt to come up with an interpretation without even realising it? I do not have an answer to that question but, today at least, the thought has crossed my mind.

As the central bankers aspire (pray…let us not say “conspire”), let us historians perspire or expire or, at the very least, give in to our healthiest expressions of self-doubt or self-criticism. That’s my motto for this afternoon, at least. And then…youtube recommended to me to watch this.

Are You A Civilised Pantheist?

“Today, the vast majority of humans claim adherence to some form of sacred scripture” (Martin Puchner, The Written World: how literature shapes history, 2017, p.61)

Last week, I read that comment about a half-hour before seeing on youtube (via an algorithm prompt) a TED talk by an English professor of statistics, who claimed (in one of those monotone, expressionless, English accents that are adopted by people who wish to appear to be a supremely rational human being) that statistics prove that nobody has a sense of the “divine”. Both men are probably on salaries of £100,000 a year for expressing those two entirely contrary and eminently bald opinions. “Ain’t that something”?

Around the same time, I read a quote from an author who suggested that the great “civilising” achievement of “the age of Charlemagne” was to eliminate “pantheism” (which was equated with paganism or illiteracy), which led me to ask myself: why, at the age of twenty, did I tell an atheist that I was a pantheist (without exactly being sure of what I meant)? Was I being “uncivilised” or can one be “a civilised pantheist”? And does it matter?

Probably not. Indeed, it did seem a peculiar thought to be running through one’s mind at the same time as reading online headlines by evidently knowledgeable economist-journalists about G Summits and the like, written with all the sense of urgency of those who evidently believe that the entire world pivots on the daily news or, at the very least, have a very clear sense of how it is that the daily news still allows them to pay their bills. Is that motivation enough for you?

It is “surely” sensible to consider the costs of living. I, by contrast, seem inclined to be “insensible” through considering the origins of thinking.

Perusing Brendan Simms’ “Britain’s Europe” on-and-off during coffee breaks over the past few days has been an interesting “historical” experience for two reasons.

First, as a writer/author, Simms is capable of some impressively neat synopses. As an example, I opened a page at random and a light bulb went off in my head just by the way he managed to describe the subject of army reforms in the 1860s in a “slightly different way than usual”. Give him some “writing cred” (a different thing to “street cred”) for that.

Second, the author evidently revels in reading public statements, or even private letters, by British statesmen of yesteryear (when are old statesmen new statesmen and vice versa?) who “lived their own propaganda” by expressing the idea that “the world’s liberties depends on us” (as well as promoting national self-interests, as if it was one and the same thing) and acted as if such expressions of self-belief were a self-evident truth that should be accepted at face value by “everyone”. Howzthat? (as in: “how is it possible for people to think like that?”). Is it because it helps to pay the bills? Does Simms really believe what he says (including when he argues that the USA is effectively the UK’s baby, constitutionally speaking) when he adopts such language as his mode of analysis? Or (and here’s the punch-line) is it all just an expression of “good faith”?

That is an expression that the media has reported a visiting dignitary to Ireland as having used today, and it gave rise to an idea (for me at least): did the statement carry within it a claim that people had succumbed to expressing “bad faith” in others and, in turn, shown themselves to be essentially “in the wrong”? But who is in the right and who in is the wrong when it comes to misplaced faiths? That is, I guess, “just a matter of opinion” or even of personality…or perhaps even of politics?

Yet, for me, entertaining that thought can cause all the nonsense about civilised and uncivilised pantheists, or non-pantheists, or recollections of reading masonic authors saying “Jahbulon to You Too” (U2?), to come back to mind, like a game coming full circle once more.

So …“I guess all that I am saying is that”… at the very time when I should probably be focused on refining some historical prose (that essentially remains to be fully edited) to an even finer tone than Mr. Simms at his best, I seem to be drifting off mentally, like some “mystic fog” in an Andrei Tarkovsky film that I haven’t been inclined to watch in over a decade, which, come to think of it, is all rather like the imagination of an “uncivilised pantheist”, isn’t it? Perhaps (I should just get back to work)