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A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

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666: Omen in results a reminder of darkness lurking beneath the surface of the beautiful game


Goals. Goals galore. What a feast of football the new Premier League season has already provided. We’ve had a bit of everything. From the ageing ginger maestro showing the new crop how it ought to be done to the youthful English goalkeepers beginning a battle for the national side’s number one jersey, to all three newly promoted teams notching one good win and one crushing loss. There’s been so much incident and entertainment to remind us that the new kits and faces of club football are so much more satisfying than the repeated disappointment and failure of England. However many papers were quick to latch onto the trio of 6-0 results this weekend and lead with the ominous headline “666”. The results themselves made it clear that immense gulfs in class still exist within our great league, in which teams like Blackpool cannot hope to compete with bigger clubs’ financial might. The headline prompted me to examine the true greatness of our league when such vast inequality exists and generally to think about the morality of the game in this country, especially in the light of the 2018 World Cup Bid gathering pace.

Let’s start with the good. Paul Scholes being interviewed on Football Focus on Saturday after surprisingly stealing the limelight in the opening games of the season with commanding displays showed that it is possible to still be a modest professional and family man in this mega money era. The interviewer refused to let his awkwardness at being questioned drop, either trying to paint Scholes as a saint for shunning the media or a freak for not realistically acknowledging their existence. The chaps in the studio chuckled at Scholes’ schoolboy shyness and simultaneously gushed about his legendary passing ability and awareness. Lee Dixon dismissed Arsene Wenger’s gripes about late tackling, saying that Scholes had had to learn to put his foot in when playing in the middle alongside the likes of Roy Keane. It was generally agreed that Scholes was a great and United’s worrying overreliance on him this early in the campaign was glossed over.

Also largely good was Newcastle’s 6-0 thumping of Aston Villa, showcasing the return and rehab of former bright young things like Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton as well as the emergence of the next big thing in Andy Carroll if you believe the papers, all in front of a loyal, long suffering Geordie faithful at St.James’ that deserved a reward. Let’s not mention that Villa’s shambolic defence and an awful penalty miss enabled the victory, or the ridiculous hyperbole greeting Carroll’s hat-trick in the press. In The Times the match write-up lays the comparisons to Alan Shearer on thick, all the implications suggesting an England call-up and a solution to the long term question of who partners Wayne Rooney. The praise is present throughout the press, as are the criticisms of Carlton Cole, with writers shooting down notions that Liverpool were thinking of paying handsomely for his services a few weeks ago as a lucky escape for Roy Hodgson. The fickleness apparent here after one hat-trick performance against a defence that were laying goals on a plate and a couple of non-effectual performances in an essentially unchanged, poor West Ham side shows a negative of our game. Andy Carroll has gone from unproven Championship striker to England’s next number 9 overnight and Carlton Cole has crashed and burned in a similar period. Whereas the praise heaped on Scholes is backed by medals and many minutes of evidence on the pitch Carroll’s is premature hype. The yo-yo of fortunes in the press makes it easier to see why players like Scholes, content and detached from the media bubble, are a dying breed. When Carroll’s stock falls as Cole’s has done he might well become understandably disillusioned and unloved.

You could certainly not call the Blackpool players unloved. The amazing orange fans of the seasiders were still applauding their team at the final whistle after their demolition by Arsenal at the Emirates in cruise control. I saw Blackpool beat Yeovil Town in the League 1 Play-Off Final at Wembley a few seasons back and their support that day was an eclectic, enthusiastic mass of good natured colour then too. Their rise to the top flight from that moment has been nothing short of a fairytale. In a week in which FIFA inspectors examine the potential cons of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, we can only hope that supporters across the country were as loyal and well mannered as Blackpool ones. An article in The Independent points out the black marks left by the behaviour of fans of teams like Millwall in the past, as well as other weaknesses in our supposedly “unbeatable” bid according to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. We have sold out in this country, the article implies, so that we will be quite comfortable watching teams of foreigners play each other in the 2018 tournament. For a nation that boasts about being the home of football we have neglected the grass roots, our own national side and embraced excess and great waste of wealth. There is also a strong argument that whilst England might be the “easiest” place to host the tournament according to Sepp Blatter, another country would benefit more, invigorated by the investment. Another country not already saturated with football might use the tournament to develop more sustainably, with beautiful stadia and clubs as well as proper training and investment in their own youngsters.

Manchester City of course has come to symbolise all that waste and excess in football that was already lurking beneath the surface. On Monday night City’s gladiators finally clicked, delighting their giving emperor the sheikh who had made the trip to see what his drops of oily magic had achieved. Roberto Mancini spouted after that final whistle that it had been important to him to put on a show for the owner and yet he still only started with the one striker in Carlos Tevez. City’s embarrassment of riches meant a midfield packed with holding players in Barry, De Jong and Toure, forcing out exciting players like David Silva that ought to be gracing the field every week. On the plus side Adam Johnson and James Milner both sparkled, both with English blood coursing through their veins, even if it does seem tainted by their warm, greedy embrace of the millions instead of that English quality of loyalty shining through.

Despite the excess and the greed Man City’s win over Liverpool demonstrated that the fundamentals, the crowd, the goals, the colours of the game, remain what is important. The extravagance may both add and take something away from our beautiful game, but when it comes down to it the pure pleasure remains and that feeling, not the mounds of money, would make sure we hosted a fantastic World Cup.