Outrage at Michael Gove shows that historians trump scientists at indignation

© Policy Exchange
© Policy Exchange

IT is not very often that historians get to act like scientists. History is a field of interpretation, nuance and theory, and while evidence is the blood in its limbs, a historian would rarely claim to use a word like “true” in same way as a scientist.  Gravity, evolution: true. Agincourt, Pankhurst: contested. A crude summation, but the sciences and humanities operate in different (though not exclusive nor always competing) planes of experience.

So it was with some relish this week that historians got to pull out the “not true” card, stored often in the back pocket for Holocaust deniers and let-them-eat-cakeists, to attack Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for his comments on World War One. Scientists dip into that pocket with greater ease to batter climate change deniers, Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, and so on. This time, Professor Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and Tristram Hunt MP, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, led the charge from the historians’ trenches.

Gove said that interpretations of World War One as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ are left-wing myths, propagated by Marxist academics and Blackadder, ubiquitous in school classrooms, and that the war was ‘just’, fought to repel German imperialism. It is a view as simplistic as it is contrived, contrarian point-scoring designed to out-muscle Labour in the mawkish, national festival of commemoration to come in 2014, imbibed with a zest of anti-European paranoia and British protectionism: let’s have our memorial. Which party can appear the most British? It was, after all, a British war. Britain alone. Not the 17 other nations who sent soldiers to the Triple Entente. Not the Australians who, having not been granted the right to declare war by the British empire (so much for German imperialism), were forced to send thousands of combatants as part of the war effort, many of whom were sent to a slaughter at Gallipoli by broadly inept British generals.

As Evans pointed out, the British fought alongside a regime, in the form of Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, that was arguably more despotic than the Kaiser’s Germany as was no more a democracy than their enemy. In 1914, only 40% of adult males had the vote – unlike 100% of Germans. Nor do the left run criticism of the war: historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings – not so much your average anarcho-syndicalists – have been largely critical of British commanders.

Still, lets not let facts get in the way of history. Or truth. While Gove’s attack on how we teach history is welcome – Blackadder is a text, not necessarily an authority –  and he is right to point out that the caricature of the war’s commanding officers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘scarlet Majors’ who, after sending men over the trenches to be mown down, would ‘toddle safely home and die – in bed’, may not be all that helpful for historical scholarship. Iconoclasm is a valid tool of the historian. But, crumbs, Michael. I think most historians had worked that out. In the 1920s.

Reaction to Gove shows us much. Historians enjoy the opportunity to be unequivocal, to deliver a helping of outrage based on a serious body of all but indisputable evidence. Scientists, though it is easier for them, are not always as good at this. They have more on their plate, perhaps, with homeopathy, left-side, right-side brain nonsense, Darwin, global temperature rises etc. Our planet burning itself up with fever is largely more important than whether the Wild West really was a bit like the Wild West or not like the Wild West or in part like the Wild West (and whether that semiotic approach is at best limited, and does it denigrate materialist interpretations? And what about socio-economic factors? History is fun).

Perhaps scientists are spread more thinly, battling the fires of misinformation across the world such that historians’ responses to Gove seemed more dramatically audible because they were so concentrated. Perhaps, as Professor Lisa Jardine says, it’s that humanities graduates run the media and can more readily digest and transmit arguments within intellectual history than developments in particle physics. But Gove gave historians the chance to enjoy a run of indignation, harnessed to a rare sighting in history: something that looks a bit like historical truth.

Unmeatly Meditations

The full title of this essay is Unmeatly Meditations, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Utilitarianism and Love Lentils for no reason other than that is funny.


Beware my will to power
Beware my will to power

LAST month I stopped eating meat. The days of the calendar year clicked into October 1 and I surrendered my love of bacon, steak, chicken fajitas, smoked salmon and ham and cheddar panini. The plan was to give up for a month, to see if I had the required mental fortitude to eschew pepperoni pizzas. After twenty-plus years of eating meat – and eating it well, often, encheesed and with abandon – it was a tough ask. (I later found out that National Vegetarian Month in the US takes place in October; a happy coincidence.)

Why? Nobody asks socialists ‘why?’ Or act consequentialists. Or presbyterians. Alongside atheism, what other political, epistemic or ethical position seems to require such perennial, torrential and cyclical social justification? Sometimes the ‘why?’ takes the form of disbelief – usually from meat-eaters (now known to me as shmucks, or lesser folk) questioning my voracity: just how could you forego a bacon sandwich or roast lamb? Often, and encouragingly, the ‘why?’ is followed by a ‘how might I…?’ or a broad agreement with some general conception of what vegetarianism means in an ethical context, viz. I like animals, eating them might not be very nice, perhaps I shouldn’t. (Also, the ‘so why not vegan?’ question was common, one for which the answer was always along the lines of chickens, hatching and counting. It’s in the pipeline.)

The month proved tricky. Full disclosure: there was one day in week one when I opted for prawn toast at the work canteen, plated it, carried it back to my seat and performed its mastication end before realising the error, so I added an extra day to the month-goal. The activity of eating out was (and is) often exasperating as a vegetarian. Challenge: find a veggie burger anywhere, in any restaurant, that is not “spicy”. Flavour cast asunder, swapped with chilli powder. It’s not always so glum. Quorn savoury eggs, meanwhile, are, surprisingly, deeply great.

Why do it at all, even for a month? A number of reasons shape this answer. A very good friend whom I miss dearly inspired me to live a more generous life without causing pain or discomfort to other animals and while it has taken some years to follow his lead it is of no small pleasure to traverse the same road. It is also important for someone of near-unrelenting fatness to make positive choices about the foodstuffs that enter their mouths. Paying more attention to what and how to eat via not eating meat has been enlightening in this regard.

Furthermore, it became, for reasons made clear below, increasingly difficult to conceive of our partner species as something other, as merely thinged objects with which we relate but do not commune in ways that share our common vitality. It became impossible to see foxes in the car park outside my house, scraping through bins, through the refuse of capital, the disregard of the world, turning our economics into their food, finding life-giving in the shittest of human spaces, without considering them to be entities of inconceivable brilliance, equal to and as evolved in every way as the pie-eating, crud-discarding, over-stuffing, inconsiderate flesh sacks from whom they reappropriated their means to be alive. Can I eat you? Can I chew through your beefy cousin, your porcine great aunt? A month proved not to be enough time in which to avoid the killing of utter majesty.

And, sure, I read some Peter Singer, too. His environmental statements on vegetarianism are well-known, summarised neatly in an essay of 1997 commenting on the McLibel case:

“To convert eight or nine kilos of grain protein into a single kilo of animal protein wastes land, energy, and water. On a crowded planet with a growing human population, that is a luxury that we are becoming increasingly unable to afford.”

His consequentialist argument is both very convincing and very troubling, a conversation with which I have tried to engage for a number of months, someone with whom I have tried to think. One argument of his, broadly construed, is that there is no morally justifiable way to remove or ignore animals from our moral considerations in that they can clearly suffer and, through our consciousness, we can interpret this suffering. Any being that does not wish to suffer, and acts to avoid pain, deserves not to have its suffering increased.

This requires us to make some assumptions about the human interpretation of animal behaviours. However, recent scientific work has shown correlations between analogous animal behaviour during pain-states and human behaviour. If an animal behaves in a way in which we interpret it as being in pain, we can monitor its vital signs and find out if anything detrimental is going on to get a sense of how to appropriate its behaviour. For example, if most mammals cower away it usually happens simultaneously with pupil dilation, increased sweating/panting, muscle tension, increased heart rate and an increased tendency for it to run away from the stimulus. All of these things happen during human fear-responses. We can therefore make a reasonable (though contested) assumption that the two are analogous, admitting that animals cannot speak to us and tell us that they are in pain, so we must fill in some blanks.

So we should not cause pain in beings if we are able to prevent such pain-giving. It is an argument utilitarian in form, taken to mean an ethical theory that considers the correct actions in a given scenario to be ones that avoid the giving of pain in favour of ones that increase the maximising of pleasure. And in relation to animals it is seductive: by not eating meat, by attempting to avoid producers or retailers which I know commit to the increased aggregate pain of animals, either in causing them to die or in the use of their products (e.g. eggs). But this is a moral argument that I reject in terms of human behaviours, so why consider it useful in relation to animals? Is it my own speciesism?

So hang on, Quorn-botherer, you might say; what’s wrong with utilitarianism? Happiness is considered a noble aim in moral actions, one that dominated philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the nineteenth century and beyond. Many associate some kind of goodness with being happy with one’s family, with one’s conscience, and so on. But while this foregrounding of happiness is, indeed, valuable to many, it betrays the naturalistic spirit of human action.

Utilitarian arguments place the finding of happiness, or pleasure, at the centre of the “good” action. But “good” people, that is to say, the best people, actualise self-overcoming; via their creative, passionate and destructive actions, they forge new values that celebrate and protect life and change; they destroy “being” as something antithetical to true human experience. Those who can see and act beyond the injured spirit of utility, the meek veneration of the defeated, those who, as Nietzsche would say, become, are the good. And while their actions may create unhappiness, pleasure and happiness are irrelevant in the creation of good humans. So, to be a good human, I need not consider my actions in relation to the happiness/pleasure/pain of the animal. There may be another way.

Is utility realistic? Rational action, as our Enlightenment brothers, our Lockeans and Humeans, might contest, is the root of human action. For we, given the right opportunity and circumstances, would act in rational ways to achieve x and y ends. As Plato displayed in Meno, this form of thinking is open to all: the very wisest or the least-educated. In reality, humans are something of a psychological lucky dip; a stew of emotions, impulses, desires, fears, misinformation and irrationalities which merely take the form of the “rational” when we attempt to give an explanation for a particular choice in a given selection of alternatives. How often is it true that one has thought of surrendering meat eating, with the best of intentions, only to find that the bacon sandwich smells too irresistible, that the roast lamb looks too juicy? These are not always rational impulses. Human action is too varied; we are vast, we contain multitudes.

In Nietzsche’s collection of essays, Untimely Meditations, the second essay, entitled ‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, contains an invocation of the problem of human temporality. Our relation with time, he argues, is unhealthy. We allow the past to enslave us. In over-historicising – in placing too great a value on our antecedents, our social memories – we deny the forces within us that affirm life. The animals, on the other hand, do no such thing, he argues. Now, Nietzsche is wrong about this. Proper wrong. Wrong as fuck. Book of Genesis wrong. Apes, dolphins, wolves are just a selection of species who display a social memory, whose actions as part of a group have social connotations and who in some way grasp some primitive aspect of temporality. But what Nietzsche is getting at, and where he is valuable for us meat-deniers, is in showing that our animal cousins are far closer than we, for the most part, in affirming life, in allowing for the passionate processes of natural will to dominate our actions. In thinking unhistorically, we can use history for a revolutionary purpose: divorce ourselves from it and start anew.

So don’t eat meat. Don’t pretend that either the animal’s happiness or its will to life are worth less than yours. Animals are healthier than us; they are more “good” in the sense that they act more often according to their irrational, creative wills. They are more full of vigour, of memento vivere, as Nietzsche would say, the more beautiful for it.

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal… A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away – and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says “I remember” and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever (UM, I).”

Some reading, so it please ye
Nietzsche, F., Untimely Meditations (trans: R. J. Hollingdale), 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1983).

Singer, P., Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York, 1990)

––– Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1993)

––– ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy’, in Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (eds.), Consuming Passions (Manchester, 1998), pp. 66-72.

The attacks on Russell Brand show that we are paranoid about our politics

We’ve all seen it. Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman this week has caused a stirring of the pants and a stirring of the bowels among social media patrons. And we’ve all seen the whinging.

Very few informed people – and those who did are deserving of praise – commented approvingly on Brand’s interview and essay in this week’s New Statesman, which the comedian also edited. That is, very few applauded on the argument’s own merits or its value in the context of global inequality and political disenfranchisement.

The first line of attack was accusing Brand of being too reductionist, simplifying vastly complicated processes of capital and social relations, as if in a 10-minute interview in which Paxman asked him two questions with discernably different content and a 5,000-word essay he is expected to coherently address the inadequacies of international capitalism. Paxman was not there to listen.

The second attack was that Brand was not an economist/philosopher/social scientist, etc, and so should not be making such arguments. Instead, it goes, he should not be getting involved unless he is an expert. Staggeringly undemocratic, this argument also claims it contrary to progress to have the unqualified talking on things they know nothing about. (This argument also took the form of poking fun at Brand’s ‘bad’ writing.)

This neatly leads to the third line of attack. Brand is an actor and therefore his opinion either has no value for the reasons above, or that he must guard against propagating any political thoughts of his own because people who listen – that is, idiots – will just gleefully and dumbly hoover up his words like they are greedily devouring truffles. As such, this argument goes, celebrities operate in a different sphere of influence to us mere lumpenproletariat and a different one again to the intellectuals, so Brand should butt out. Leave it to Chomsky and Žižek to duke it out. It is startling how often this argument is made by ‘liberals’ or ‘democrats’.

What do these arguments tell us about social media users, and thus about our political climate? It shows us that educated, mostly left-wing people are paranoid. They are paranoid that their cynicism is being undercut by a bubbling of optimism about the future, whether that be a revolutionary one or not. They are paranoid that they aren’t the only Marxist in the village. They trip over themselves to post about how Brand is a moron in order to trump up their own revolutionary vanguard status. Being well-read is a game. For many of those moans I noticed on my various timelines are from people who call themselves progressive and are quick to disassociate from Westminster but slow to support anything that looks like popular approval of the very ideas they profess to hold.

Moreover, this pattern of behaviour is linked to far wider social and cultural causes. This is the self-denial of an aborted search for meaning among my generation. We don’t know what we like so we say what we don’t like (usually whatever is popular) and get horribly sensitive when someone offers us an opportunity to find some truth, a bit of power, a gram of creativity. Hipster Marxism. For what Brand said is to be lauded in almost all possible contexts. Anyone who seriously considers themselves left-wing, progressive, socialist, Marxist, and so on, should do nought but delight in our arguments being shouted louder and louder. It is almost always a good thing. When was the last time anti-capitalist revolution was discussed on Newsnight?

The revolution is/is not coming. (Delete as applicable according to your cynicism.) But we certainly can’t pretend we aren’t heard when we try our hardest to stop people like Brand talking about it. Everyone agrees that politics is a dangerously exclusive discourse. Truly radical ideas are, at best, sneered at. By kicking Brand, you’re only making it worse.

Stop blaming lads-mag sexism on the working classes

Now, as someone who rather enjoys the benefits of employment (eating, a roof, non-death), I know that it is not often wise to criticise one’s employer.

Nevertheless, The Times ran an interview this morning with Seren Haf Gibson, a former glamour model who appeared on the front cover of Nuts, as part of a feature on lads’ mags and the growing disapproval thereof, which I enjoyed enormously, but is full of the fruits of bourgeois exceptionalism.

The article is an attack on the self-objectification of my generation, particularly by its female members. Women have, says Gibson, started to objectify themselves on a “on a day to day basis, via Facebook, via Instagram.”

“Social media is full of girls pouting in shots they have taken themselves — perpetuating the male gaze themselves. It’s that ingrained in us now. If you get rid of lads’ mags – what will it do? Objectifying yourself has become synonymous with our generation.”

Not only does Gibson assume that many women even own enough of their own personal identity to themselves objectify it – they don’t, rich men do – she also reckons that the case for female empowerment has been sold off:

“I was 18 in 2006 – the message was, ‘You are girls and you can do what you want.’ We were the power generation: you can be whoever you want to be, whether that’s a politician or a librarian or a sex worker and it doesn’t matter because at least you’re choosing. Everything you did was ‘empowering’. And now people are saying that was all a masquerade, that that wasn’t an empowering thing to do at all and you’re anti-women and, actually, you’re a victim. This is why it’s jarring. Our generation has a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. We’ve made these choices, they might not be the best choices but now people are going to take those choices away from us.”

But the case for empowerment was always a lie, a panel agenda optimised, sanitised and published by white, straight, middle-class men who wanted to see big tits in magazines but also wanted the option to blame it all on the working class man when someone inevitably noticed that it was all a bit exploitative. Empowerment needs power – and the wealthy aren’t giving it up, especially not to women.

Worringly, Stefanie Marsh, the author, is being utterly complicit in a convenient abortion of responsibility by the well-off: “The culture they [lads’ mags] helped to create can still be seen in towns and cities all around the UK — from the Saturday-night porny perspex heels to the casual DIY sex tapes and still-held hopes for fast fame,” she says. No middle-class activity here. Blame the poor, they don’t know any better. The same game, we ought to remember, sees the working classes blamed by politicians and the press for the welfare bill, or immigrants attacked for the temerity to seeks the means to enjoy life.

After all, Marsh writes, Gibson “has a normal job with normal friends who have normal jobs too: in media, in medicine, in law.” In other words: she is proper. Bourgeois is the norm – and sexism is ‘other’, something for the proletariat, something not ours. Not us in our affluence but those Tesco shoppers in their shit. Do only women who are desperately poor agree to model in the nude for money? It’s hopelessly reductive.

Marsh and Gibson are both right that banning lads’ mags would not solve the problem. Gibson is also right to say that lads’ mags are part of the “old media”, that “the elite have taken it upon themselves to ‘look after’ these poor young boys who are reading it and the poor young girls who are posing in them”. But the privileged, like Gibson (she has a “normal job”, remember?) and Marsh, are using a more than justified feeling of discrimination to discriminate against another group.

And while the treatment of women in capitalist societies is heinous and objectionable (as are the comments of Martin Daubney, the former Loaded editor who said in that article that men – poor, poor (lucky) men – “just don’t know what to do… men are being made to feel ashamed that they find women attractive because they are branded misogynists, perverts, morons or sex pests… it’s a campaign against masculinity”), so too is the treatment, often by the media, of the working classes. And we cannot hope to eradicate the sick way in which we, as a society, treat women until we recognise that all discrimination, by sex, race, class, and so on, comes from the same place.

But of course, if you read The Times, or have a “normal job”, you probably won’t know where that is.

Our students face the highest student loan interest rate in western Europe

© Selena Sheridan
© Selena Sheridan

We all know that the student loan system is rubbish. £9,000 fees combined with a lack of job prospects are bad enough, but The Guardian showed last month that the Government has been advised to make repayment terms more stringent for graduates. It turns out that the small print on that massive loan allows for the Government to adjust the interest rate and rate of repayment on the loans at any time. Which is nice of them.

But that’s not all. Research published this week by the Intergenerational Foundation (written by this veritable blogger) has found that graduates in England and Wales are currently charged twice as much interest on their loan (6.6%) as the average across the OECD (3.3%). The interest rate is also the highest in Western Europe, the third highest in the OECD.

The only two countries charging more than this Government for tuition are Mexico and the Czech Republic, both of whom have public universities that charge exceptionally low fees. Tuition fees in England and Wales are the highest headline figures of any public university system in the world. Yeah. Ouch.

Recent research has shown that the overall cost to the Treasury of the higher-cap, £9,000 scheme is far more than under the Labour cap of £3,000, with any hope of savings rather forlorn. The impact of this lack of foresight will likely fall most heavily on future generations via higher income tax, climbing retirement ages and a rising cost of living.

But this has been well documented. The Government continues to harden the loan system for students, even in the same month of the most recent Budget speech this year in which pensioners’ benefits were – once again – safeguarded and long-term savers were protected. And despite the austerity measures causing a disproportionate impact on the younger generations, applications to UK universities remain high and, in fact, increased 3.5 per cent for the 2013/14 intake.

The repayment plan for UK graduates has not been so heavily scrutinised. It has been ignored, somewhat, that the interest rate on student loans has more than doubled since 2010, from the APR rate of 1.5 per cent to the RPI rate of 3.1 per cent. This rate increases to RPI plus 3 per cent when graduates earn more than £21,000, a rate which (it is worth repeating) is the third-highest rate across the OECD, combined with the third-highest tuition fees.

Upon graduation, whether their course is completed or not, graduates are liable to repay their loans and start doing so once they earn above £21,000, and not before. 9 per cent of any earnings over this threshold are owed to the Treasury. While studying, interest on the loan matches RPI, currently 3.6 per cent, + 3 per cent. After graduating, the rates change as shown in the table below.

Under the Labour Government, students borrowed at a rate that matched APR (currently 1.5%) but the current loan scheme switched the interest rate to RPI, meaning students are to accrue a heavier interest burden on their loan. Now, since the interest on UK loans will in most cases simply not be repaid (whether or not graduates can find work) the real rate of interest is used primarily to bend the distribution curve of repayments to make the scheme more progressive.

For example, a 2016 law graduate from a low-income family earning under £25,000 studied for their 3-year law degree in London. In order to take the course, they were entitled to 3 years with the maximum maintenance loan (£7,675) offset by the maximum maintenance grant (£3,354), giving a total maintenance loan for those 3 years of £12,963. On top of this, the tuition fee loan at £9,000 per year totals £27,000 giving a total outstanding loan of £39,963.

Now, suppose they graduate and are set to earn £42,000 per annum while taking their training contract at a City law firm. They are obliged to pay 9% of their earnings over £21,000 which would total £1,890, or £157.50 per month. By the end of their first year since graduation, they have repaid £1,890. However, earning over £41,000 requires our law graduate to pay RPI + 3 per cent, totaling 6.6 per cent. This interest rate applied to their loan of £39,963 adds, in the first year, £2,637. As such, they are not likely to begin repaying their loan – or, indeed, the interest accrued on the loan – until they earn a significantly higher amount. (They would not begin to meet the interest repayments until they were earning in the region of £51,000.)

Suppose our graduate, perhaps owing to tough economic conditions, cannot secure a training contract and, instead, takes up work as a paralegal, and let’s suppose they are earning £22,000 per annum. They owe 9 per cent of their earnings over £21,000 (so £1,000), which would total £90, or £7.50 per month. Their annual interest rate matches RPI (and they would not accrue the additional 3 per cent on top of RPI until they were earning over £41,000) – at 3.6 per cent. In the first year, the interest on their loan is £1,438. Clearly, a graduate on this salary would not make a substantial dent in their accrued interest, let alone the outstanding loan amount.

Though the UK holds a position of esteem in global higher education, with universities like Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL continuing to lead global league tables, it is clear that the value of a UK degree is very high, in comparative terms. As such, one would expect the fees, to an extent, to reflect this.

However, the current situation means that UK students are agreeing to pay fees which they may never meet, on the basis that they agree to pay at a rate which, combined with income tax, means they may never pay off the capital on their loans. Dr Andrew McGettigan has claimed that the “income-contingent repayment loans offered to students are also future-policy-contingent, potentially creating an indentured class of graduates from whom higher repayments can be extracted.”

This tax, on top of a necessarily longer term of repayment on loans to cover the increased fees, means that graduates are settling a significant bill left by the Government’s austerity plans. With high youth unemployment, a serious fall in first-time buyers, rapidly increasing rents and absent growth, the high rate of interest on student loan repayments is another impertinent assault on younger and future generations on whom the new system places atrocious financial burdens compared with the relative comfort of many of the older generations.

The full report, ‘Squeezing Our Students? An English/OECD Comparison’, is available here.

This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.

This report was also covered by The Telegraph and the Huffington Post.