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The Perils of Bloviation

The perils of what? You could live a long and useful life without ever coming across the verb “to bloviate” and its noun “bloviation”, if you were not American and kept well away from the blogosphere. Sorry about that last word, too, but it is just so neat and compact. I am sure Jonathan Miller could justify it with some complex and utterly spurious derivation, employing a made-up Greek noun “blogos”.

For a good explanation of “bloviation” you could do worse than read this page, which defines it as speaking or writing at length in a pompous or boastful manner. I feel, however, that it is a new enough term to admit of some further stretching; and I would like to add, for good measure, “speaking or writing in a way that expresses strong opinion without supporting facts or logic”. Which brings me on to the topic of newspaper columnists and other professional, er, “commentators”. I often find myself frothing and foaming when they advance one-sided, partisan arguments. Perhaps it is not the job of a columnist to look fairly at both sides of every case, but I cannot help resenting it.

Here is a recent example. It is a column written by David Aaronovitch, and published in The Times on August 7th. I have no personal axe to grind here; Aaronovitch appears to be an intelligent, well-informed, educated man who discourses fluently and with conviction. He has even written some pieces with which I agreed, and I admit to having read those with less critical attention than this one. Nevertheless, I propose to give this article the best fisking I can. If you disagree, or think I have been unfair, please post a comment to say so.

1. Headlines are usually added by sub-editors, so it is unfair to hold them against the writer of an article. Suffice it to say that the sub has chosen to be offensively provocative. (“The lessons of history? That’s a lot of bunk”) The headline’s overall sense is that history has nothing to teach us, and hardly anyone (except Henry Ford) would agree with that.

2. After his topical opening paragraph, which refers to Harry Potter mania (thus excluding those of us who have never even opened any of those works), Aaronovitch asks ironically, “Don’t you think it is so important that our rulers should have a proper sense of history?” Actually, yes I do! George Santayana‘s warning may be hackneyed, but that does not detract from its truth: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Although I prefer A.J.P. Taylor‘s more nuanced “Men learn from their mistakes how to make new ones,” which finds new relevance every day as politicians do exactly that.

3. By the time he has reached the second paragraph, Aaronovitch seems to have completely lost his balance. He inquires ironically whether it is necessary for schoolchildren and politicians to have a “grounding” or even a “keen understanding” of physics, clearly indicating his own opinion with the derisive yet folksy “Is it heck as like”. Can he have glanced back at the following sentence, even once, after writing it? “Is the operation of the physical world an essential part of comprehending the world we live in?” I would have thought the answer to that would be an unequivocal “yes”. Does Aaronovitch himself inhabit some ethereal realm of pure thought, entirely detached from the coarse universe of mass and energy?

4. In his third paragraph Aaronovitch bewails the fact that everyone has an opinion about history, whereas many fewer are qualified to hold forth on physics. Well, that would follow from the fact that anyone can read about history in the pages of newspapers, or even glean something about it from TV. The contrast, while regrettable, doesn’t seem to move his argument forward.

5. Skipping paragraph four, which also seems irrelevant (not to mention incoherent), we reach Aaronovitch’s assertion that “Back in 1968, in a London grammar school, I had to choose between geography and history, and I don’t recall the life of the nation hanging on my decision”. I suppose that is an example of irony, that wonderful escape-hatch for people who have said things that are too ludicrous even to think of defending. As far as I know the life of the nation has never been influenced, in the slightest degree, by any decision of his. So what?

6. In paragraph six Aaronovitch condescends to admit that this country has “great narratives”, heroes and villains – wait for it – “from slavery to Dunkirk”. Revealing choice of topics, that. One of the blackest aspects of Britain’s imperial era, and one of the most shattering military retreats of its entire history. No mention of Magna Carta, the Spanish Armada, the King James Bible, the Civil War, the acquisition of a global Empire, the Industrial Revolution, Trafalgar, Waterloo and victory over Napoleon, the immense achievements of the Victorian era, the evolution of democracy and the Constitution, the gradual attainment of universal suffrage, the Battle of Britain, D-Day, or the voluntary dissolution of the Empire. Not a word about King Alfred, the medieval kings who established the rule of law, Richard the Lionheart, Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Newton, Locke, Hume, Marlborough, Wellington, Nelson, Babbage, Maxwell, Faraday, Churchill or the thousands of other distinguished figures who adorn our history. Just slavery and Dunkirk.

7. Perhaps feeling a certain loss of momentum, Aaronovitch devotes paragraph seven to his concern about “the idea of history as uncontested”. Presumably he means by this the idea that there is room for only one version of history – an idea which, to my knowledge, has never been seriously proposed by anyone. As an illustration, he asks “Is it extraordinary, for instance, that the US delayed until December 1941 before entering the Second World War, or more extraordinary that in 1940 it helped faraway Britain at all?” Another revealing choice of question, not to mention his equally revealing belief that the USA “helped” Britain in 1940. (It did, in the same way that Tesco “helps” me when I shop there: I pay it, and it gives me goods). Moreover, the phrasing “the US delayed until December 1941 before entering the Second World War” implies that the USA actively “entered” the war, whereas in fact it only began fighting after Japan and Germany had declared war on it. By now it is fairly clear which version of this particular story Aaronovitch regards as uncontested, but unfortunately for him his version clashes fatally with the facts.

8. Paragraph 9 is the best yet. Supporting Tony Blair’s participation in the “war against terror”, Aaronovitch criticizes Professor David Marquand for disgreeing that “terrorism should be regarded as being an existential threat, as was the threat from Hitler or even from Khrushchev”. Assuming that he is using “existential” in the unusual sense of “to our existence”, he seems to be claiming that “terrorism” threatens to overthrow the British state, or even to kill most of its citizens. But there is no evidence at all for this assertion! So far, the terrorists to whom he refers have killed fewer than 100 people in Britain, despite having free ground access to central London. In contrast the German Wehrmacht killed over 100,000 people during WW2, and destroyed over 2 million houses. Moreover, its exploits in other countries demonstrated that Britain had got off relatively lightly. Aaronovitch then attacks Marquand for saying that Blair’s statements demeaned the memory of Churchill and the fight against Nazism. Considering that the 21st century terrorists have so far done less damage than the Luftwaffe did in a single day, Marquand seems to be quite right. Just to put the cherry on top, Aaaronovitch adds the baseless slur that, “the professor was complaining as much about his generation’s history being superseded, as he was about an interpretation of facts”. Ad hominem to the rescue!

9. In paragraph 10, Aaronovitch resorts to “what if”? Suppose all the planned attacks had succeeded, he insists. Wouldn’t that be really, really bad? Well, more people would probably have been killed, it’s true. But not many – not in comparison with the 100,000+ killed by German aerial attacks, the 1 million or so British people who died in WW2, or the 1 million or so Iraqis who have died since the USA and Britain invaded their country in 2003. Not by three and four orders of magnitude, respectively.

10. Pausing for breath, Aaronovitch concedes in paragraph 11 that Blair should have expected the occupied people of Iraq to resent being invaded, bombed, humiliated, impoverished, and having their nearest and dearest killed or maimed. He also uses the word “historicism” in a new way, writing, “Another objection to Mr Blair’s historicism was that he didn’t know enough history to understand the context in which he sought to fight terror”. None of the three meanings of “historicism” offered by my Concise Oxford English Dictionary makes much sense of this sentence. Maybe it was a “finger-slip” for “ignorance”?

11. Back to the attack in paragraph 12! Aaronovitch declares that “[Blair] would know (circa October 2001) that you cannot fight a successful war in Afghanistan, except when you can”. It’s hard to know where to start commenting on this, but historians (if they are wise) do not say things like “you cannot fight a successful war in Afghanistan”. Instead, they say things like “of the last 20 invasions of Afghanistan, over the past 2500 years, only one succeeded briefly – that of Alexander the Great – but even that lapsed after his death”. One can proceed to make various inferences based on the historical facts, but history itself does not. Next, Aaronovitch suggests that Blair rejected the received opinion that “the problems of Northern Ireland were intractable”. As indeed they were, as long as governments went on saying “we shall never negotiate with terrorists” and meaning it. Blair negotiated with the terrorists to very good effect, but I think that the process he initiated will end with a united, independent Ireland – in other words, exactly what the terrorists were fighting for. You can usually obtain peace if you are willing to surrender to your enemies. As for the people of the Balkans, the fighting there has died down for the time being, but we shall see what develops in future. Just in case the discussion is getting too sensible, Aaronovitch then closes the paragraph with a childish reference to football which has no relevance to history.

12. In conclusion, Aaronovitch tells us that “No one who knows anything about history should ever talk about ‘the lessons of history’”. It seems that he has got carried away with enthusiasm, because he began the article by pouring cold water on the idea that our leaders should know anything about history. Now he seems prepared to let us learn history, as long as we do not pretend to have learned anything from it. That sounds jejune. Stepping back for a moment and thinking the question over, it is surely quite obvious that a good working knowledge of history must be practically useful to political leaders. That was Santayana’s point, after all; and even if Taylor warned us to remember that history never repeats itself exactly – which should be obvious in any case – his advice still implies that we can learn something useful from it. As for Aaronovitch, his views seem closer to those of Hegel, one of history’s great blockheads, who wrote that “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. Very helpful.

Perhaps I have wasted a lot of time and effort on a trifle – breaking a butterfly on the wheel. After all, Aaronovitch’s opinions probably do not sway many decision-makers. And columnists – even in The Times, and especially in summer – are not on their oaths to reveal profound truth every time they sit down at their keyboards. Nevertheless, I feel a lot better.

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