Literature

Self-Taught Engineer Successfully Flies aboard Steam Rocket

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 22/09/2018 - 3:17am in

And now, before the serious stuff, something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. This is a short video I found on YouTube from the Inside Edition channel. It’s their report on the successful flight of a steam-powered rocket, built and crewed by ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes. Hughes is a limousine driver and a self-taught engineer. His reason for building the vehicle is, er, eccentric: he wanted to see if the Earth was flat.

The video was posted on 18th March 2018, and shows Hughes and his rocket taking off in the Mojave desert in the south-western US. It climbed to an altitude of 1,850 feet before finally returning to Earth, its descent slowed by two parachutes. Hughes had spent ten years building it, and the video shows stills of early versions of the rocket.

Hughes’ landing was rough, however. The video describes it as a crash. A rescue team got him out of the cockpit, but he complained that his back was broken. When the news crew caught him with him to talk, ironically just outside a courthouse where he’d been giving a ticket for speeding, Hughes’ claimed that he might have a compressed vertebra.

The video ends by reassuring its viewers that, yes, the Earth is indeed flat.

I’m actually saluting this bloke, because he’s obviously really clever and has done something I’d love to do myself: build a low power rocket that could hold a man or woman and send them up to a reasonable height. Way back in the 1990s I had a paper printed in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society arguing for the construction and flight of such vehicles as a new leisure industry. I based this on the use of hang-gliders, paragliding and microlight aircraft as hobby aviation. People fly them because they want to enjoy the experience of powered flight, not because they actually want to go from A to B. In the same way, I feel, human-carrying rockets could be built and flown to give ordinary people something of the experience of astronauts going into space aboard real rockets, like the Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz craft. But obviously without having to spend millions on a ticket to space.

Steam, or hot water rockets, have been around since the 19th century. The first modern hot water rocket was patented in Britain in 1824 by the American inventor, Jacob Perkins (1766-1849). The American Rocket Research Institute, based in California, and founded in 1943, established a special centre for the research and construction of hot water rockets, the Perkins Centre, named after him. The Institute runs a number of training programmes for students and aspiring rocket engineers. The rockets developed could carry payloads up to 5,000 feet.

After the War, the German rocket scientist, Eugen Sanger, and his wife Irene Sanger-Bredt, carried out research into hot water rockets to see whether they could work assisting heavily loaded aircraft into the air. The main US researcher in the area was Bob Truax.

The rocket engines developed by the RRI ranged from senior student college engineering projects with a thrust of 700 lbs per second to the Thunderbolt II constructed by Truax Engineering, which had a thrust of 16,000 lbs per second.
The photo below shows the STEAM-HI III hot water rocket being installed at the Perkins Safety Test Centre in 1963.

This photo shows Truax Engineering’s Thunderbolt rocket and its static test firing in 1973.

See ‘The Rocket Research Institute, 1943-1993: 50 Years of Rocket Safety, Engineering and Space Education Programs’, George S. James and Charles J. Piper, in Jung, Philippe, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics, AAS History Series, Vol. 22; IAA History Symposia, vol. 14 (American Astronautical Society: San Diego 1998), pp. 343-400.

And the Earth is very, very definitely round. As it has been known to be by educated European since the 9th century, and by the Greek astronomers long before that. All that stuff about how people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and that if you sailed far enough west you’d fall off was basically invented in the 19th century by Washington Irving. The Church Fathers knew and accepted that it was round. St. Augustine said so in one of his works, and argued that when the Bible spoke of the world as flat, it was an instance of God using the beliefs of the time to make His moral message intelligible to the people then alive.

I’ve no idea where the modern delusion that the world’s flat comes from. Well, actually, I do – it seems to have started a year ago in 2017 with the comments of a rapper on American radio. But before then I thought the idea was very definitely dead and buried. In Britain, the Flat Earth Society had dwindled to a single member. This was actually a physicist, who believed that the Earth was round. He used the Society to argue against dogmatism in science. And I thought he had packed finally packed it in, leaving the number of Flat Earthers in Britain at zero.

Now it seems that there are any number of eccentrics, who believe the world is really flat. They’re completely wrong about that, including Hughes.

But Hughes did something superb in building his own, human-carrying rocket

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Anti-Semitism and the Aristocracy

Last night I put up a piece debunking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, based on the chapter about this vile book in Jon E. Lewis’ The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups (London: Constable & Robinson 2007), pp. 433-50. The Protocols are a notorious anti-Semitic forgery, probably concocted by Matvei Golovinski of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, to make his master, Nicholas II, even more anti-Semitic and to intensify the persecution of the Jews.

The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a secret meeting of a group of elite Jews, intent on destroying all non-Jewish religions and conquering and enslaving Christians and gentiles. They claimed that the Jews were at the centre of a massive conspiracy controlling the banks and were encouraging the downfall of Christian civilization by promoting liberalism, democracy, socialism and anarchism. At the same time they were distracting gentiles from uncovering this plot through using alcohol, gambling, games and other amusements.

There is absolutely no truth in any of this whatsoever. But the book became an immense success and was read and influenced many Fascists and anti-Semites. These included Adolf Hitler, who made the book a compulsory part of the German school syllabus.

Like much of Fascism, it’s a rejection of modernity – the mass society of modern politics that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Modern politics and secular ideologies were attacked. At one point, the Protocols claim that Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheanism have been successful because they have been promoted by the conspiracy. (Lewis, Mammoth Book of Covers-Ups, p. 444). The forger’s own view of what constitutes the best society is revealed very clearly in another passage, in which the conspirators celebrate their destruction of the aristocracy.

The people, under our guidance, have annihilated the aristocracy, who were their one and only defence and foster-mother for the sake of their own advantage, which is inseparably bound up with the well-being of the people. Nowadays, with the destruction of the aristocracy, the people have fallen into the grips of merciless money-grinding scoundrels who have laid a pitiless and cruel yoke upon the necks of the workers. (p.446).

Historically, some of the persecution of the Jews in the later Middle Ages was due to the fact that a large number of the aristocracy had become seriously in debt to Jewish bankers, and tried to get out of their obligation to pay it back by urging for their persecution and expulsion.

A significant number of aristocrats and the upper middle class were supporters of Nazism before the Second World War. The leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, was a baronet. Aristocrats and landlords joined pro-Nazi and appeasement organisations like the Anglo-German Fellowship. Martin Pugh on his book on British Fascism between the Wars describes how the aristos welcomed members of the Nazi elite at dinner parties on their estates, when the swastika was discreetly flown from the flagpoles.

And there still seems to be a fascination and dangerous sympathy with Nazism even today. Way back in the 1990s and early part of this century, Private Eye published a number of stories about one Cotswold aristocrat, who had very strong anti-Semitic, racist and anti-immigrant opinions.

And then there’s the Traditional Britain Group on the far right of the Tory party. These also have the same, genuinely Fascist attitudes, and one of their leaders is fascinated with the Nazis and the Third Reich. It was the Traditional Britain Group, who invited Jacob Rees-Mogg to their annual dinner, which Mogg accepted. When the Observer published the story, Mogg claimed that at the time he hadn’t known anything about them. If he had, he wouldn’t have gone. Which doesn’t really sound convincing, as people don’t normally accept dinner invitations from organisations and people they know nothing about. But perhaps Mogg, as well as being viciously right-wing, is also very naïve.

As for the Tories being good friends of the Jews, as the current head of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyle claimed in a speech, David Rosenberg posted up in response a series of incidents across the decades which put the lie to it. These showed very clearly how anti-Semitic the Tories had been, and which parts of it may very well still be.

And one of the attractions of anti-Semitism, apart from sheer racism, is that, in the form of conspiracy theories like the Protocols, they blame the Jews for all the forces of modernity that threaten the aristocracy and the upper middle class, and celebrate the aristocracy itself as the people’s saviours, and so appealing very strongly to certain types of Tories.

Love and Money: On Keith Gessen’s “A Terrible Country”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 20/09/2018 - 12:24pm in

The title of Keith Gessen’s new novel is A Terrible Country, but the novel is less about a country than a city: Moscow. Not just Moscow as a city in its own right, though the city is very much a character in the novel, but the experience of Moscow by an American millennial, Andrei Kaplan, a 30-something academic in flight from his failures in Brooklyn, failures of love and work, family and friends. A Terrible Country, in other words, is the anti-Brooklyn novel.

If the Brooklyn of the public imagination is the place where young intellectuals move to make their lives among writers, journalists, academics, and artists, public lives that happen out of doors, in parks and readings and rallies and talks (now in election campaigns, too), Kaplan’s Moscow is the opposite. Everything of interest happens inside. In part by necessity.

For most of the novel, the city is so damn cold. Even spring is haunted by the cold: as the rooftop snows begin melting during the ever so slightly warming days, the sub-zero nights freeze the droplets into murderous icicles, which then fall on the heads of unlucky passersby the next morning.

The cold is one barrier. The vast tracts of Moscow’s thoroughfares—avenues, plazas, ring roads, highways—are another. The entire city seems as if it was dreamed up by Robert Moses in the late stages of his hubris, with no constraining hand of Jane Jacobs.

A master artist of physical desolation, Gessen gives us a city that can’t be lived in public. As the narrator observes near the novel’s end, “The city was closing itself off from itself.” That becomes not only a through line of the novel (even in springtime, even in love, Andrei is constrained by the sprawl) but a symptom of the neoliberal world that we slowly begin to realize Gessen has been sketching for us, without our noticing it. Every road, every sidewalk, every street, courtyard, cab, bus, train, subway—everything that’s out of doors is a conveyance to somewhere else, somewhere inside.

I don’t know of another urban novel that devotes so much of itself to the getting of places. One thinks of A Hazard of New Fortunes, but instead of the Marches’ epic quest to find the perfect home, we have an equally epic quest, rendered in exquisite detail, to get from home to home, place to place. Or Notes from the Underground, where Nevsky Prospect is the setting of the Underground Man’s struggle for public recognition. Gessen offers a wonderful little homage to that famous moment of Dostoevskian struggle, where the Underground Man confronts his tormentor, a haughty officer who scarcely notices him: only this time the settings are a bar and a hockey rink, and the tormentor is a lowlife without a cause. An urban novel of interiors, A Terrible Country serves as an unexpected comment on not only the St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky but also Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

A Terrible Country is the anti-Brooklyn novel in a second sense. Though Andrei develops a circles of friends, and even a girlfriend, the central relationship in the book is between him and his grandmother, with whom he returns to Moscow to live. She’s frail and failing, slowly slipping into dementia, and through his care-taking of her, Andrei becomes a grownup. Capable of not only the greatest gentleness—some of the most tender passages in contemporary fiction have Andrei cooking for his grandmother, walking her to and from the market, shopping for her, and playing anagrams or reading to her—but also terrible betrayal.

It is through his grandmother that Andrew gets drawn out of his cramped and claustrophobic world of online teaching, cafe internetting, and the like. It’s telling that the world of this novel opens up in this tiniest of spaces, the grandmother’s apartment. (“Inside that circle,” says the narrator, “and inside the city that the circle had created within the larger city, was a whole other world.”) Gessen renders its window sills, medicine cabinets, even plumbing, with great care. There’s a memorable scene involving a clogged drain that recalls the opening passages of The Wealth of Nations and chapter 15 of Capital: two books about the worlds nested within worlds that is modern capitalism.

But it is the relationship itself, between Andrei and his grandmother, that love across the generations, that is the real motor of the novel, which adds to the sense of its disruptions of the canons of contemporary urban fiction.

There is one sense, however, in which A Terrible Country is not the anti-Brooklyn novel, in which it becomes a novel of something larger than urban matter and anti-matter. And that is the emphasis it places on money. There’s not a bowl of soup that’s purchased, not a bottle of vodka that’s drunk, not a coffee that’s consumed, not a cab ride that’s taken, not an hour on the internet that’s used, that we don’t know the price of. That’s how much of an obsessive theme money is in this novel. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel of such detailed and deliberate attention to the cost of living, in both senses of the word. Virtually every experience involves a commodity; virtually every experience has a price.

Gessen captures, like few other contemporary writers, the cost of modern life. Whether through his own experience, study, or intuitive sympathy, he seems to know that terrible feeling of material deprivation and anxiety, where the cost of commodities is less a subject of academic abstraction than a real constraint on what we can and cannot do. “She needed to make money,” says Andrei of his girlfriend. “Yulia was trapped.” If Andrei’s love for his grandmother is the motor of the book, money is its gasoline. Once it runs out, the motor stops.

That nexus of finance and freedom, of cash and capability, is a central motif of the novel, making its sense of constraint and grim proportion, of money and measure—so evocative of the nineteenth-century novel—a resonant and necessary new key of contemporary fiction.

Conspiracy Book’s Debunking of Anti-Semitic Forgery ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’

A week or so ago I put up a post about The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups by Jon E. Lewis, and its chapter roundly debunking Holocaust denial. The book is a popular volume on conspiracy theories, describing and frequently debunking 100 such conspiratorial beliefs about the death of Princess Diana, the Men In Black, the assassination of J.F.K., and Martin Luther King, Area 51, Ronald Reagan, the Priory of Zion of Holy Blood, Holy Grail infamy and many more, including Holocaust denial.

Another infamous anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, that also gets thoroughly disproven, is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the book gives in its full title, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and deals with on pages 433 to 450. The Protocols are a notorious forgery, concocted by the tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, to encourage Nicholas II to be even more anti-Semitic and persecute the Jews even worse than he already was. It is one of the leading sources of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and was read and influenced many Fascists. It was proven to be a forgery as long ago as the 1920, but even after this was revealed, some of those, who had read it continued to be maintain that it was symbolically true, even if it wasn’t factually. Unfortunately, the book continues to have a very wide circulation, particularly in the Middle East and in eastern Europe.

The history of this vile book is briefly described on pages 433-5. The chapter states that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first published in 1897 as an appendix to the book, The Antichrist Is Near At Hand by the Russian writer, Sergei Nilus. It claims to be an instruction manual for a cabal of anonymous Jews planning to conquer and subdue the Christian world.

It states that the chief points of the Protocols are that the plot will remain invisible until it is so strong it cannot be overcome; government is to be increasingly centralized; press freedoms shall be restricted; gentile are to be distracted by games and amusements; and all non-Jewish religions will be swept away.

The book was immensely popular in Russia and the rest of the world. One enthusiast was the industrialist Henry Ford, of motor industry fame, who printed sections in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He believed it exactly described the world situation as it was in his time, and used them to try to influence the US senate to stop America joining the League of Nations.

The first person to show that the Protocols were a forgery was Lucien Wolf. In his The Jewish Bogey and the Forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion of 1920 showed that sections of the Protocols had been lifted with only very minor changes from a satire written by a French lawyer, Maurice Joly, Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavelli (“Dialogue in Hell between Montesquieu and Machiavelli”). This was itself influenced by Eugene Sue’s 1843 conspiracy novel, The Mysteries of Paris. The Protocols was also based on the 1868 novel, Biarritz, by the German spy Hermann Goedsche, written under the pseudonym Sir John Retcliffe. This had a chapter describing how a fictitious group of rabbis met at midnight every century in a cemetery to plan the further progress of Jewish world domination.

Lewis suggests the Protocols were probably forged by Matvei Golovinski, one of the agents of the Okhrana. He hoped to justify the tsarist regime’s persecution of the Jews by whipping up a scare about revolutionaries in the pay of the Jews planning the downfall of the monarchy. As a result, pogroms were launched against the Jews in 1905-6. And the truth of the conspiracy described by the Protocols was seen by all too many people as confirmed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, some of whose leaders happened to be Jews.

After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, Adolf Hitler made the Protocols compulsory reading in schools. Lewis goes to describe how, despite or because of their influence in causing the Holocaust, the Protocols continue to be held as ‘fact’. Egyptian television broadcast a series in 2000 that claimed there was a connection between the Protocols and the foundation of Israel. The Protocols could also been found in al-Qaeda training camps. They’re also popular with Hamas, and in America they’re distributed by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. That section of the chapter ends

In fact, wherever anti-Semites gather you’ll find well-thumbed copies of the Protocols. That any of these organisations or their adherents could not discover within at most thirty seconds’ worth of research that the Protocols are, as a Swiss court described them as long ago as 1935, “ridiculous nonsense”, forgeries and plagiarism, beggars belief.

The book gives each conspiracy a threat level, according to how apparently plausible they are. You won’t be surprised to find that the threat level of the Protocols is zero.

The chapter also lists for further reading the following:

Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1996.

Daniel Pipes, The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy, 1998.

Lucien Wolf, The Jewish Bogey and the Forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, 1920.

The book provides extracts from the main documents behind or about the various conspiracies, so that readers can make up their own minds. This includes the Protocols, extracts from which are reproduced on pages 436-50. Lewis obviously trusts his readers to follow his entirely correct judgement of the Protocols, and similarly realise that they are a forgery. This is also useful, because opponents of anti-Semitism, racism and Fascism can read them without having to give money to Nazis, anti-Semites and Islamists.

I wondered if they’re shouldn’t be a proper, scholarly edition of the Protocols, written by orthodox historians and opponents of anti-Semitism, aimed not just at debunking the Protocols, but also for decent people interested in its noxious influence on Nazism and other anti-Semitic ideologies. The Bavarian government did something like this a little while ago to Mein Kampf after it came out of copyright. The government had used its ownership of the book’s copyright to prevent its publication in Germany. When this expired, they decided that the best way to combat its adoption once again by neo-Nazis would be to prepare a properly annotated version by mainstream historian of the Third Reich.

The problem with suppressed literature is that it acquires a glamour simply by being forbidden. I doubt very many people in Britain have even heard of the Protocols, but they are published and read by Nazis, and briefly appeared on the shelves of one bookshop in the north of England during the conspiracy craze of the 1990s because they were cited by one of the UFO conspiracy theorists, Bill English, in his book, Behold a Pale Horse. In this situation, it is very good that apart from general books on Fascism and Nazism, there are works specifically dedicated to exposing and debunking this vile, murderous hoax.

Private Eye on New Labour’s Support for Private Sponsorship at Party Conference

New Labour’s desperation to obtain and please donors and sponsors from private industry is clearly displayed in this old snippet from Private Eye’s edition for Friday, 2nd October 1998. Entitled ‘The Lobby Party Conference’, it runs

Clear proof of Labour’s commitment to cash-for-access comes in a memorandum from party organizer Chris Lane to “all MPs and MEPs in the South-East Region and any staff or guests accompanying you to party conference in Blackpool.”

Lane urges the MPs: “Please make a priority in your conference diaries for Thursday evening for a reception sponsored by Seeboard PLC. This is a generously-sponsored event, on condition that we enable the company to maintain contact with regional MPs and MEPs.” In other words: come and talk to the bosses of privatized Seeboard which supplies electricity to the south-east, or the party doesn’t get the sponsoring money. If that’s not cash for access, what is?

The reception was due to take place at Yates Wine Lodge, Blackpool, on 1 October. The subject of pay awards for the fat cats of the electricity industry was not high on the agenda. (p. 5).

Lane’s letter is a very clear example of the corporativism that has corrupted politics both in this country and America, where private companies donate and sponsor the political parties and individual politicians. The result is that those parties and politicos, once in power, work for their donors and not for their constituents. It’s why less than 20 per cent of Americans feel their government works for them. And a few years ago, Harvard University published a report that concluded that because of this, America was no longer a functioning democracy but an oligarchy.

You can read how far Blair took the policy in George Monbiot’s Captive State, which describes how Blair’s New Labour passed legislation that enriched the corporate donors at the expense of public services and small businesses, like farmers and local shops. And Blair also rewarded the donors by giving them or their senior management positions in government.

But this cosy relationship between private industry and the Labour party is threatened by Jeremy Corbyn and his policies of reviving the traditional Labour policy of a mixed economy, strong welfare state, workers’ rights, strong unions and a proper, nationalized NHS.

Blair’s policy was to court private industry and Tory voters at the expense of ignoring the wishes of ordinary party members and Labour’s traditional, working class electorate. He and the rest of his coterie arrogantly assumed that the working class would continue voting for them because there was nowhere else they could go. The result was widespread disaffection with New Labour. Many members left the party, and the number of people voting for Labour actually went down. The party won elections because even more people were sick and tired of the Tories.

This has been massively reversed under Jeremy Corbyn. Millions have joined the Labour party since he became its leader, and its now the largest Socialist party in western Europe.

Which is why the Tories, the Blairites, the Israel lobby and the mainstream media are so desperate to destroy Corbyn’s leadership and even the party itself. It’s why Corbyn and his supporters have been and are being smeared as Trotskyites, Stalinists, Communists and the Hard Left as well as anti-Semites. It’s why the Blairites in parliament have tried coups, and threatened to split the party. And why Blair crawled out of whatever vile hole he’s been living in since he left office ten years ago to warn that the Hard Left had taken over the Labour party, and that ‘moderates’ – meaning far right Thatcherite entryists like himself – should leave and join a new, ‘centrist’ party. Which sounded very much like ‘Unite for Change’, which seems set up to carry on the old, corporatist politics of Blair’s New Labour.

Conspiracy Book’s Debunking of Holocaust Denial

The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups: The 100 Most Disturbing Conspiracies of All Time, Jon E. Lewis (London: Constable & Robinson 2007).

As the book’s cover tells you, this is a popular treatment of 100 assorted conspiracies, ranging from the assassination of JFK, 9/11, the Da Vinci Code, the death of Princess Diana, the Men In Black of UFO lore, the belief that Roosevelt knew about the coming Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour?, the Illuminati, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and so on. It’s a selection of conspiracies and conspiracy theories that were current at the end of the 1990s and early part of the 21st centuries.

As you might expect of a popular work of this size, the individual chapters tend to be brief. Many are only about two or three pages long, and so this isn’t an in depth examination of them by any means. Most of these theories are absolutely spurious, and so get properly debunked. Most, but not all. Some conspiracies, like the Iran-Contral scandal and the Masonic lodge P2, which was deeply involved in Italian Fascism, the Mafia and had connections to the CIA.

Lewis writes in his introduction that his aim has been to understand and treat the conspiracy theories objectively, to find which are true, and which aren’t.

Hostility to conspiracy theory is as useless in understanding the world as an indiscriminate acceptance of it. The task, surely, is to disentangle the mad and bad conspiracies from those that illuminate the darkened, secret corners of power. To this end The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups takes a considered, objective scalpel to one hundred of the most compelling conspiracy theories of modern times. The theories are arranged alphabetically, assessed and interrogated. Where appropriate, the relevant documents are reproduced, and details of where to look to find out more are listed. Each conspiracy theory is assigned an “Alert Level” rating indicating its likely veracity. (p. 3).

One conspiracy theory that the book thoroughly debunks is Holocaust denial, discussed on pages 180-2. The first two paragraphs briefly state what it was, and how its existence is supported by a mountain of very trustworthy evidence.

The Holocaust is the name given to the extermination of some six million Jews and other “undesirables” by the Third Reich of Germany between 1933 and 1945. To industrialise the genocide process, the Nazis purpose-built a number of death camps such as Auschwitz, which gassed the Jews in batches; most victims, however, simply died of malnourishment in concentration camps. In occupied Eastern Europe, from where more than five million Jews were taken, special SS killing squads, Einsatzgruppen, sometimes shot Jews in situ.

A wide spread of sources confirms the nature and extent of the Holocaust: the thousandfold testimonies of camp survivors; film and photographs taken by Allied reporters as the camps were liberated in 1945; the confession by Auschwitz SS camp commandant Rudolf Hoss; the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann in 1960-2 and his sentencing to death for “crimes against humanity”. But all of this is dispute by a number of historians and politicians, who speculate that the Holocaust, if it happened at all, was on at most a minor scale. (p. 180).

It then goes on to discuss David Hoggan and his The Myth of the Six Million, one of the earliest and most influential books pushing the lie that the Holocaust never happened. Hoggan claimed in it that the Jews had falsely accused the Germans of genocide in order to gain reparations. This set the pattern for later works, claiming that the Jews had made it up either to gain money or international sympathy. It was the latter which led the United Nations to look kindly on the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland. The book notes that from 1970s, the most prominent mouthpiece for Holocaust denial in the US has been the Institute for Holocaust Review, led by the neo-Nazi Willis Carto. Publications from the Institute and similar organisations in the US speculate that the gas chambers at Auschwitz weren’t there to kill Jews, but to kill the lice they carried. There are many versions of Holocaust denial. One of these is that there was indeed an extermination of the Jews during the Nazi occupation, but that this was small and not official Nazi policy. This was the view of the notorious David Irving, who claimed that the Nazis were too busy fighting the war to organize the mass extermination of the Jews, and that Hitler was unaware of it.

The chapter goes on to describe how Irving’s version of the Holocaust and Hitler’s involvement was challenged by Deborah Lipstadt in her 1993, Denying the Holocaust. This accused Irving of anti-Semitism and distorting evidence. Irving sued her and her British publisher, Penguin, for libel. Lipstadt and Penguin defended themselves by hiring the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, who then went through Irving’s works. He found that Irving had deliberately used unreliable documentation. One such was the report made by Fred Leuchter, who designed gas chambers for the American prison service. Leuchter stated that he found no significant deposits of cynanide at Auschwitz. However, this was in 1988, nearly 40 years after the camp was used and Leuchter himself was not trained in forensics. Evans also found that Irving also expressed very anti-Semitic sentiments in his books, such as calling Jews ‘the scum of humanity’. The court found in Lipstadt’s favour, with the judge declaring Irving to be ‘an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semite and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism’.

The chapter also makes it clear that Hitler knew very well what was going on. He knew its scope even if he didn’t know all the details about every train of victims going to Sobibor. He set the agenda for the Holocaust, as shown in his speeches. In 1939, for example, he declared

If international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result will be … the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. (p. 181.)

Fifteen other leading Nazis attended the Wannsee conference in 1942, which was held outside Berlin on how the extermination of the Jews could best be arranged. The meeting was minuted, and its protocols used to incriminate those present.

The chapter concludes

The Holocaust happened. Most reputable historians put the lower limit of Jews, gypsies, Romanies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled and the mentally ill exterminated by the Nazis at five million. The upper limit is as high as 11 million.

In 1979 the Institute for Historical Review offered a $50,000 reward to anybody who “could prove that the Nazis operated gas chambers to terminate Jews”. Mel Marmelstein, an Auschwitz survivor, forwarded to the IHR affidavits concerning the fate of his family in Auschwitz plus other documentation, and duly claimed his money. When the IHR failed to give him the $50,000 he sued. The court awarded him the $50,000 plus an extra $40,000 for distress. In other words, the leading outfit for Holocaust denial, giving it its best shot, could not convince a neutral jury of its case. (p. 182).

The book properly gives Holocaust denial an alert level of zero, as it is a completely false conspiracy theory.

It also has a short bibliography, which includes the following two books debunking Holocaust denial:

Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, 1993; and

Michael Shermer, Alex Grobman and Arthur Hertzberg, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, 2002.

Archbishop of Canterbury Condemns ‘Gig Economy’, Tories Go Berserk

More hypocrisy from the Tory party. This week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave a long speech attacking Universal Credit and zero hours contracts. He described the ‘gig’ economy the Blairites and the Tories have created, in which workers in insecure jobs are only called in if their bosses decide there’s work for them to do, and go without pay if there isn’t, the ‘return of an ancient evil’.

He made the speech after Labour had outlined its commitment to empowering workers, which included a comprehensive attack on the gig economy. Zero hours contracts will be banned, and employment benefits like sick pay and maternity leave will be extended to cover part-time workers. The party also pledged to end the ruse in which many firms seek to dodge their obligation to provide their workers with proper rights and benefits by making them officially self-employed.

The Archbishop mentioned Labour’s John McDonnell in his speech, who in turn praised the Archbishop. McDonnell said

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has set out a bold vision for a different society, one without the evils of the gig economy, the exploitation of workers and tax dodging of the multinationals.

“I welcome his speech, and the growing movement against the failures of austerity and neoliberalism. Labour will end zero hours contracts, clamp down on the tax avoiders, and ensure everyone has access to sick pay, parental leave and protections at work.”

The Tories, however, immediately went berserk, and showed their own hypocrisy when it comes to supporting the political intervention of religious leaders. They were more than happy when the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claimed that Corbyn and the Labour party were anti-Semitic. However, they were outraged that the Archbishop had dared to criticize the wonderful Thatcherite capitalism they’d created.

The Tory MP, Ben Bradley, tweeted

‘Not clear to me when or how it can possibly be appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be appearing at TUC conference or parroting Labour policy.’

He added: ‘There are a diversity of views as to what is best for the economy, but [he] only seems interested in presenting John McDonnell’s point of view.’

Simon Maginn tweeted his response

Rabbi Sacks: “Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite.”
Tories: “Listen to the holy gentleman.”
Archbishop of Canterbury: “Tories have increased poverty.”
Tories: ‘Must keep religion out of politics.”

Mike in his article notes that Archbishop Welby was unapologetic, and observed that ‘The Bible is political from one end to the other’.

Mike concludes

His intervention is to be welcomed.

The Church of England is often seen as a haven for Conservatives and it will be interesting to see what happens to those Tories’ attitudes, considering this new direction from the pulpit.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/09/13/tory-hypocrisy-over-archbishops-intervention-in-employment-politics/

This has been going on for decades. The Anglican Church has been described as ‘the Tory party at prayer’, and the Tory party itself was set up back in the 17th century by supporters of the aristocracy and established church against the more liberal Whigs.

However, the Church has also contained passionate reformers working against social evils. Archbishop Temple in his book, Christianity and the Social Order, published in 1942, pointed to reformers like William Wilberforce and the others in the ‘Clapham Sect’, who campaigned against slavery; John Howard and Elizabeth Fry and prison reform; and F.D. Maurice and the Christian Socialists in the 19th century. These latter wished to see businesses transformed into co-operatives, which would share their profits with their workers. This strand of Anglican social activism continued into the 20th century, and in 1924 the Anglican church held a conference to examine the question of how the Church should tackle the poverty and injustices of the age. Temple also pointed to the example of the pre-Reformation Church in attacking some of the economic and social abuses of the times, and particular Protestant Christian leaders and ministers, like John Wesley, after the Reformation.

He also quotes the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament to show how property rights, while certainly existing and respected in ancient Israel, were also limited and intended to ensure that each family had their own portion of land and that great estates held by single individuals, did not develop. He writes

In the days of the Kings we find prophets denouncing such accumulations; so for example Isaiah exclaims: “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and yet be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah v.*8); and Michah: “Woe to them that devise iniquity and work evil upon their beds! When the morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields and seize them; and houses, and take them away; and they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage” (Micah ii, 1, 2). And the evil here was not primarily economic, though that may have been involved. The evil was the denial of what Tertullian (c.160-230) would call ‘fellowship in property’ – which seemed to him the natural result of unity in mind and spirit. (p. 38).

The first chapter of the book, ‘What Right has the Church to Interfere?’, gives the reasons Temple believes that the Church indeed possesses such a right. It’s too long to list all of them, but one of them is that the economic structure of society is immensely influential on the formation of its citizens’ morals. Temple writes

It is recognized on all hands that the economic system is an educative influence, for good or ill, of immense potency. Marshall, the prince of orthodox economists of the last generation, ranks it with the religion of a country as the most formative influence in the moulding of a people’s character. If so, then assuredly the Church must be concerned with it. For a primary concern of the Church is to develop in men a Christian character. When it finds by its side an educative influence so powerful it is bound to ask whether than influence is one tending to develop Christian character, and if the answer is partly or wholly negative the Chu5rch must do its utmost to secure a change in the economic system to that it may find in that system an ally and not an enemy. How far this is the situation in our country to-day we shall consider later. At present it is enough to say that the Church cannot, without betraying its own trust, omit criticism of the economic order, or fail to urge such action as may be prompted by that criticism. (P. 22)

Temple was also very much aware how some politicians resented the Church speaking out on political issues. For example, Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, is supposed to have said after hearing an Evangelical preacher that ‘if religion was going to interfere with the affairs of private life, things were come to a pretty pass’. Temple added

(L)ater prime ministers have felt and said the same about the interference of religion with the affairs of public life; but the interference steadily increases and will increase. (P. 15).

And the friction between the Tory party and the Anglican and other churches has been going on ever since Thatcher set foot in 10 Downing Street. She got very annoyed when the-then Archbishop, Robert Runcie, issued a report detailing the immense poverty that had been produced by her policies. Norman Tebbitt, her attack dog, made comments casting aspersions on the good clergyman’s sexuality, on the grounds that he had a sing-song voice and the slightly camp manner of many churchmen. He was soon showed to be very wrong, as Runcie had been an army chaplain, whose ferocity in battle had earned him the nickname ‘Killer Runcie’. A friend of mine remarked about him that the really hard men don’t show it.

The Church has gone on issuing reports and holding inquiries into poverty in Britain, and other social issues. And the Tory response has always been the same: to attack and criticize the Church’s interference. There have been comments of the kind that the clergy should stick to preaching the Gospel, and then they might have larger congregations.

But if Thatcher and the Tories didn’t feel that the Church had any right to interfere in politics, they definitely believed that they had the right to interfere in the church’s ministry and pastoral theology. And that this right was absolutely God-given. When Thatcher was on the steps of Number 10, she started quoted St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer, ‘Where there is darkness, let us bring light’ etc. She also took it upon herself to lecture the ministers of the church on the correct interpretation of scripture. I can remember her speaking to a conference of the Church of Scotland, in which she explained to the assembled ministers and faithful her own view of charity and the welfare state, based on St. Paul’s words, ‘If a man does not work, he shall not eat’. Needless to say, the guid ministers were not impressed, and showed it in the massed ranks of stony faces.

Temple was absolutely right in stating that Christians had a duty to examine and criticize the economic structure of society as the major force affecting people’s morals and character. But Thatcherism goes far beyond this. I’ve read pieces that have stated that Thatcher’s whole outlook was based on her peculiar right-wing religious ideas. Thatcherism isn’t simply an economic system. It’s a political theology. Thatcher was strongly influence by Keith Joseph, who was Jewish. It’s why she prattled about ‘Judeo-Christian values’ rather than just Christian values. I have no doubt that the Jewish readers of this blog will have their own views about proper Jewish morality, and that these may be very different from Joseph and Thatcher’s interpretation.

Thus in Thatcherism the free market is absolutely virtuous, and any interference in its operation is an attack on a divinely sanctioned system. But from the standpoint of a left-wing interpretation of Christianity, Thatcherite theology is like its economics, profoundly wrong, bogus and harmful. And her celebration of the free market turns it into an idol, an object of false religious worship.

More and more Christians both here and in America are turning against this idol, just as left-wing Jews are turning against right-wing politics as incompatible with the liberal politics of traditional Judaism. The Church has every right and, indeed, a duty as a moral body concerned with people’s spiritual welfare, to attack Thatcherism and its destructive legacy.

I’m very much aware that we now live in a post-Christian society, where only a minority attend Church and most people profess to have no religious beliefs. Just as there are also sizable non-Christian communities, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and the various neo-Pagan groups, who also have every right to make their voices heard politically. Temple also advances other reasons why the Church should speak out on more rational, non-religious grounds, such as morality and common human sympathy for the victims of suffering. I hope, however, that regardless their religious views, people will support Welby on the issues of employment rights as an entirely justified attack on an iniquitous situation, which desperately needs to be corrected.

What is the connection between Ezra Pound, the Constitution, and the Steel Industry?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/09/2018 - 9:08am in

Tags 

Literature

The steel industry is making profits, hand over fist. But it’s not passing the profits on to the workers. So the 30,000 members of the United Steelworkers Union are talking strike. If the workers wind up benefiting from the current boom, it’ll be in spite of the industry, not because of it.

Which reminds me…

Literary scholars know the publishing house New Directions as the publisher of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, and Wallace Stevens, among others. It was founded by James Laughlin, scion and heir of the Pittsburgh Laughlin family, of Jones & Laughlin Steel fame, after Pound told him that he didn’t have a future as a poet.

Constitutional scholars know that Jones & Laughlin Steel produced one the most transformative Supreme Court cases of the New Deal era, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, which upheld the Wagner Act, thereby making joining and organizing a union a fundamental right, blessed by the Constitution (the Commerce Clause, however, not the 13th Amendment, as an earlier generation of labor organizers and scholars had hoped). With that case, as Karen Orren argued, the entirety of the old constitutional order, grounded in feudal common law, came crashing down.

NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel was decided in 1937, one year after Laughlin founded New Directions.

So two bursts of modernism: one literary, one constitutional; one in 1936, the other in 1937—both the products of the American steel industry, in spite of itself.

Shana Tova.

Poetry and Philosophical Thinking

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/07/2018 - 2:33am in

I still hold that there is an important and significant role for traditional forms of philosophy but the question remains, is there something more to philosophical thinking that we can access through engagement with poetry which is filled with rich images, emotional sensitivity and attention to language?

That’s a question that Karen Simecek (Warwick) raises in a recent interview about poetry and philosophy at 3:AM Magazine. She notes what I take is a common skeptical view about whether poetry can be a kind of philosophy, expressed by Peter Lamarque, who “thinks that poetry cannot be philosophical because the poem itself does not offer philosophical propositions which it establishes and defends through principles of logical reasoning.”

Simecek says “it’s clear that the poem does not rely on argumentative structures and logical reasoning in order to establish its themes” but doesn’t take that as decisive because it takes for granted a certain conception of what philosophy is. She says:

A key barrier to making the case for the potential for philosophical poetry is that there isn’t much agreement on what philosophy is. However, there does seem to be agreement that minimally there are at least three virtues of philosophical thinking—it is of a certain generality, rational and reasoned. This is not just an issue for poetry but an issue for metaphilosophy; before we can evaluate poetry’s philosophical potential, we had better work out what it is for something to count as philosophy. If we don’t address these metaphilosophical questions, then we either end up including all sorts of things as philosophy or it becomes arbitrarily narrow.

Though “not all poetry will count as philosophical,” some of it will, she argues. How?

Poetry can make a significant and valuable contribution to philosophical inquiry by facilitating active, self-critically aware and rational thinking about the concepts we use to capture aspects of human life. Poetry allows us to consider the structure and meaning of our everyday concepts with reference to the human subject in play. The experience of reading is able to achieve this philosophical thinking because the reader is encouraged to adopt a human perspective, in other words, ‘the standpoint from which we are best able to bring to light the range of values, desires, frustrations, experiences, and practices that define the human situation’ (Gibson 2009, p. 1). The experience of reading poetry is unique in the way it implicates the reader, revealing the values we have embedded in such concepts through our use of them, which could not have been established using valid arguments. We come to think of human life in this way through poetry because of the images we are presented with and as readers we are required to do more than merely make these connections, we also evaluate and appraise them.

She makes use of a couple of poems to make her point, including “The Drift of Things” by Robert Gray and “The Execution” by Alden Nowlan to make her point. Here’s an excerpt of Gray’s poem:

Things, Berkeley says, are the language of God,
this world that we know is really His thoughts—
which Hume remarked brings us no conviction,
but to me is almost justified,
for things are worthy of such existence,
of ultimate stature. It often seems
I am listening to them. What could it mean,
that intuition? I think the appeal
is their candour, it’s the lack of concern
at being so vulnerable. So we sense
they are present entire. One feels these things
that step through the days with us have the fullness,
in each occasion, of reality.

The clouds on water; in reeds, a boardwalk;
a bus that rides the dust like a surfboard;
the lizard, tail hung from a mailbox drum,
inert, all a long-shadowed afternoon;
the planks through mud, from where chickens’ pollard
is thrown; the skirmishing of cherry trees
in bloom, with sabres of wind; the warped length
of a boat on the beach, as if replete,
that’s warmed by morning; the cobwebs of foam
on the shore; or an avenue of trees
to exalted snow—these are each itself
and no other thing. It’s plurality
we experience, it is differences,
not the smear of Oneness—the haecceity
we knew as children. (This is mysticism
for materialists.) Glad animals,
for us phenomena were then enough;
we took variety and relations
as literally, we’d find out later,
as William James had enjoined us to do.
We were so awed, so entranced, in childhood
by objects’ insistence, to us they’ve seemed
sufficient. That ‘concrete particulars’
are basic existence was something that we’d
have agreed with Aristotle about.

Check out the interview for her take on the philosophical work this poem does, and much more.


Justin Weinberg, “Clouds from Underwater”

The post Poetry and Philosophical Thinking appeared first on Daily Nous.

Why Davos Man Loves Big History

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/07/2018 - 9:01pm in

On the face of it, David Christian’s Origin Story doesn’t look like the kind of book that demands a political analysis. Subtitled A Big History of Everything, I imagine it will strike most readers as a weightier, less amusing, version of Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything – a book for the interested non-specialist, if not the shameless dilettante. Its author, an Australian academic, is the sort of populariser that can communicate complex concepts with an energy and enthusiasm bordering on showmanship. His 2011 TED talk ‘The History of Our World in 18 Minutes’ has been viewed over eight million times. No doubt they’ll be a TV series, or Netflix doco, down the road. Make room, Prof. Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Unlike space and time, however, books do not appear ex nihilo, and the story of how this particular book came to exist is an interesting one. A book, of course, should be judged on its contents, not on the circumstances of its conception. Nevertheless, the events leading up to the publication of Christian’s opus, which purports to be a history of humankind told from a universal perspective, and to furnish our embattled species with a new and globalising mythos, strike me as inseparable from its thesis. So what is the origin story of Origin Story?

Notwithstanding the creation of atoms and molecules and intelligent life and the printing press, it all began with Bill Gates. In 2008 the tech billionaire was exercising on his private treadmill and watching a series called Big History, which took its title from the approach to history pioneered by Prof. Christian (then at San Diego State University) – an approach combining numerous disciplines from both the humanities and sciences, and beginning, not with farming and the invention of writing as per traditional history, but with the creation of the universe itself. Impressed with its ambition and scope, Gates decided to track Christian down, and to bung him a cool $10m to develop a course for high-school students. The resulting course, The Big History Project, is essentially Origin Story in embryo.

Nor was Gates the only rich-lister to be impressed by the concept of Big History. In 2015, Christian was invited to address the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and his speech (introduced by Al Gore) seems to have touched off an enthusiasm for histories of the longue durée variety. In the last two years especially, there has been much discussion amongst the Davos faithful about the newish concept of the Anthropocene – a geologic designation describing the profound effect that the human species has had on the planet, pressed into service, more often than not, in debates around anthropogenic climate change. In 2016 Davos was abuzz with the news that the International Commission on Stratigraphy was considering a recommendation to make the designation official, while last year the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Johan Rockström, was invited to present a talk entitled ‘Beyond the Anthropocene’. The excitement has even extended to the decor. In 2017 the meeting featured Tomas Saraceno’s installation Aerocene, the purpose of which, according to the artist, was to propose a new, post-Anthropocene epoch, ‘where we together learn how to float and live in the air, and to achieve an ethical collaboration with the environment’.

Christian’s Origin Story, then, did not appear in a cultural vacuum. To adapt one of the author’s favoured metaphors – the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it emerged, or is emerging, at a time when the conditions for its reception were/are ‘just right’ – at least amongst a certain, influential cohort. The question is: What is it about Big History that so appeals to this powerful cohort? Why are the global elite so taken with the new historiography?

Well, it’s reassuringly global, for a start. Eschewing the microscope for the telescope, Big History takes a species-level view of humankind’s development, which must be reassuring indeed when the economic class to which you belong is in the frame for massive inequality, economic and environmental collapse, and a host of other planetary evils. I’m not being facetious here. Big History in its various forms necessarily obscures much messy detail in favour of a panoramic perspective. Referring to ‘the Anthropocene narrative’ and how it operates ideologically in the debate on anthropogenic climate change, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg summarise the issue thus:

The Anthropocene narrative portrays humanity as a species ascending to power over the rest of the Earth System. In the crucial field of climate change, this entails the attribution of fossil fuel combustion to properties acquired during human evolution, notably the ability to manipulate fire. But the fossil economy was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general […] Steam-engines were not adopted by some natural-born deputies of the human species: by the nature of the social order of things, they could only be installed by the owners of the means of production. A tiny minority even in Britain, this class of people comprised an infinitesimal fraction of the population of Homo sapiens in the early 19th century […] Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation stone for the fossil economy: at no moment did the species vote for it either with feet or ballots, or march in mechanical unison, or exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the Earth System.

Even if the Davos faithful are genuine in their desire to combat climate change and environmental degradation more generally, they are unlikely to warm to a narrative that points to the devastation wrought by a system based on endless growth. But with its focus on the species as a whole (and thus on no one in particular) the Anthropocene narrative circumvents this problem. As Malm has put it elsewhere: ‘Climate science, politics, and discourse are constantly couched in the Anthropocene narrative: species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.’

The same point could be made about Christian’s universal focus in Origin Story, which is similarly instrumental in its desire to instil a global consciousness that can be weaponised in the fight against climate change. His central idea is that the universe in general, and human societies in particular, have developed across certain ‘thresholds’ that have led to ever-greater complexity – this in the teeth of the more general tendency towards entropy that will do for us all in the end. Christian identifies eight key thresholds that have brought humanity to its current juncture: the creation of matter in the wake of the Big Bang; the formation of stars and galaxies; the emergence of chemical complexity; the formation of the Earth and solar system; the emergence of life on Earth; the emergence of Homo sapiens; the development of agriculture; and the dramatic and possibly catastrophic emergence of the modern world, or Anthropocene. But however fascinating it may be to think about the development of human life in these terms, the effect of such a narrative is to collapse natural and human history in a way that ‘naturalises’ the latter. In one sense, the idea that human beings evolved from other animals, which emerged from rudimentary life-forms, which are composed of molecules and atoms, which formed after the Big Bang, is a tautology: who is claiming otherwise, apart from creationists and other oddballs? But to insist that human history be viewed as part of this broader process is something else entirely, and nothing like as value-free as Christian makes it sound.

To his credit, Christian is not deterministic. He knows that what he calls ‘collective learning’ differentiates humans from other species: that our knowledge accumulates over generations, with the result that we are no longer at the mercy of nature, and can argue for different versions of the future. But if this is the case – and I believe it is – then what is the point of the Big History narrative, other than to provide a bit of inspiration? A truly instrumental history would stress, not humanity’s ‘origin story’, but the ways in which the exploitation of nature and dangerous inequality are mapped into a system based on waged labour, profit, property and perpetual growth. Christian’s Carl Sagan-like wonderment is affecting and sincere. But his belief that such a posture will be politically and economically effective is unconvincing.

It’s also, it seems, a cause of mild tension between Christian and his principal patron, Bill Gates. Consider, for example, this revealing passage from Gates’ laudatory review of Origin Story, published on his website, gatesnotes.com:

The book ends with a chapter on where humanity – and the universe – is headed. David is more pessimistic about the future than I am. He gets a little stuck on the current economic and political malaise happening in the West, and I wish he talked more about the role innovation will play in preventing the worst effects of climate change.

So: The one occasion on which Christian’s thesis approaches politics and economics is the one from which the billionaire recoils. No doubt the ‘innovations’ that Gates believes will deliver us from climate change are of a determinedly non-political nature.

In the words of educationalist Diane Ravitch, one of Gates’ most strident critics: ‘When I think about history, I think about different perspectives, clashing points of view. I wonder how Bill Gates would treat the robber barons. I wonder how Bill Gates would deal with issues of extremes of wealth and poverty.’ Drawing explicitly on the ideas of complexity theory – a species of computer science that explains how complexity increases over time – Big History necessarily obscures such questions of distribution and power in a way that is no doubt appealing to Gates. Indeed, the very language of Big History is implicitly flattering to the billionaire and his analogues. In Origin Story, the evolution of human brains under social pressures is explained in terms of ‘computational tasks whose complexity increases exponentially as groups get larger’, while the Big Bang itself is described in terms borrowed from computer science: the cosmos, writes Christian, ‘bootstrapped’ itself. Not since the conservative historian Niall Ferguson described the six ‘killer apps’ of Western civilisation (competition, science, property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic, in case you’re interested) has a metaphor so clearly identified the black-skivvied ‘gurus’ of Silicon Valley with the progress of the human species.

And that, surely, is the key point about Big History: that in making increasing complexity the measure of human development it obscures the ideological aspects of that desperately uneven process and makes such development as is yet to happen identical with the ‘complexity’ that Gates and his Silicon Valley pals have effectively privatised in the pursuit of profit. In the rarefied air of Davos-Klosters, Prof. Christian’s ‘origin story’ becomes a just-so story for the global elite – a universal history for the Masters of the Universe.

Marx and Engels were overstating the case when they said that all history was the history of class struggle; but they understood that human history was a site of conflict and exploitation – that humans, though bounded by their material nature, were also unique in their ability to recreate the conditions of their own reproduction. In recent times, and thanks in no small part to writers such as Naomi Klein, we’ve come to see how the exploitation of human labour and the environment are part of the same process of capitalistic development, and that the existential challenge we face is matter, nor just of technology, but of political economy. In that sense, these panoramic histories strike me as a giant leap backwards. The last thing we need is an origin story in which Davos Man can cast himself as the agent of our species’ progress.

Pages