Month: July 2016

Very Short Reviews: Dominic Sandbrook’s _Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979_

Over the course of a decade, Dominic Sandbrook has written a series of works detailing the history of contemporary Britain: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2007), State of Emergency: The Way We Were—Britain, 1970-1974, and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (2013). Sandbrook is apparently at work on the next book in the series which will cover the period from 1979 to 1984 and is provisionally entitled Who Dares Wins.

But back to Seasons in the Sun. Why read an 811-page book that covers only five years of British history? First and most important, the years between 1974 and 1979 (which included Harold Wilson’s second ministry and Jim Callaghan’s stint as prime minister) are widely perceived as a major tipping point in contemporary British history. Second, it was an eventful period, not just in politics, but socially, economically, and culturally. Third, Sandbrook is a wonderful narrator with an eye for symbolic anecdotes.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

  1. Although historians have generally represented this period as one of wrenching change, from politics to punk rock (to name just two examples), Sandbrook stresses the continuities in British life during this period; Callaghan’s government anticipated some of Margaret Thatcher’s moves (e.g. making a priority of fighting inflation rather than unemployment) while art colleges, which had long influenced British popular music, continued to play a vitally important role in in the punk movement.
  2. If the period was not characterized by wrenching change, it was no doubt wrenched: high inflation, rising unemployment, a falling pound sterling, anemic rises in productivity, declining competitiveness, a mortifying IMF bailout, massive strikes, and the drop in real wages created a profound sense among almost all Britons that their country had entered an irreversible decline—something that was reflected in literature and music throughout this period.
  3. Yet Wilson’s Labour administration was paralyzed largely because the Cabinet was terrified of crossing the unions, while Wilson himself was exhausted, bankrupt of ideas, involved in petty quarrels, and consumed by conspiracy theories.
  4. After Wilson retired in 1976, however, Jim Callaghan, the new Labour prime minister, along with Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought inflation below 10% by explicitly abandoning Keynesian economics (see below), cutting government spending, and limiting wage hikes.
  5. This achievement was fragile because Labour did not command a majority in the Commons (it relied on support from Liberals), and wages could only be held down for so long when inflation was still above 8%.
  6. Sandbrook argues that the problem with keeping wages down was not that the unions were leftist and wanted to continue building a “New Jerusalem;” rather, years of affluence under the welfare state had eroded class solidarity, contributed to greater individualism among blue collar workers, raised expectations, and led to competition between unions to obtain ever greater pay hikes.
  7. At the same time, the great union bosses who oversaw the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was the backbone of the Labour Party, belonged to an older generation that had lost touch with the shop stewards on the factory floor; in other words, the connection between the Labour Party and the union rank and file had begun to dissolve in such a way that the party could not control union members or appeal to their loyalty.
  8. When Callaghan sought to keep wage from climbing higher than 5%, the result was the infamous “Winter of Discontent” (1978-1979), when a massive series of strikes (coupled with terribly cold weather) practically paralyzed the country before the Labour government had to climb down in humiliating fashion; the stage was now set for the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979—although Sandbrook emphasizes Thatcher’s weaknesses and the extent to which her positions on the issues in that particular contest were not all that different from those of Callaghan.
  9. The Labour government’s vain attempt to stay in power and fix Britain’s economic problems is at the heart of Sandbrook’s story, but this book is about so much more: the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which spread to England), the public debate on the emergence of comprehensive schools (and new, experimental pedagogy), the rise and fall of punk rock (according to Sandbrook, Elton John was the real soundtrack of the 1970s), the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Notting Hill riots of 1976, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Scotland’s improbable (and disastrous) run at World Cup glory in 1978, the 1979 devolution referenda in Scotland and Wale, the rise of leftist student organizations, strikes too innumerable to mention, the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage around Leeds, attempts at police reform, the terrible sex-attempted murder scandal that brought down Jeremy Thorpe (the Liberal Party leader), the varying fortunes of the National Front, the discovery of North Sea oil, and more!
  10. The stress on continuities, the marginalization of certain movements (e.g. Sandbrook claims student radicals were not particularly representative of students as a whole), and the evident respect for leaders of the Labour Party’s moderate wing (Sandbrook obviously appreciates the work of Callaghan and Healey while Tony Benn comes off as a worm) marks this out as conservative history, but a fine history it is.

Ironic Fact: The EEC referendum of 1975 was curiously the reverse of the EU referendum of 2016. In the former, Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was prime minister, sought to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s entry before the vote. He himself was very lukewarm on the EEC, and his party was divided on the issue. The Conservatives—both the parliamentary party and the voters–led by Margaret Thatcher no less, wholeheartedly supported entry into the EEC. But in 2016, it was David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum. And this time, it was the Conservative Party that was divided on the issue, but Labour was generally pro-Europe.

And Finally: What makes this book so fascinating is that many key moments that Sandbrook describes appear on YouTube. Here’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan not being so sunny, as he drops some truth on the Labour Party Conference of 1976 and abandons Keynesian economics.

Or how about Scotland’s run at the World Cup in 1978? Many thought the Scots had a shot at the title. However, they lost 3-1 against Peru and tied Iran 1-1. According to the rules as they then stood, Scotland needed a three-goal victory over the Netherlands to advance. The Dutch had come in second in 1974 and would finish as runners-up in 1978, so Scotland had a tall order. The Scots did not get their three-goal victory, but look at what they managed against the second-best team in the world.

Hugh Dubrulle

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Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21636708-secularism-or-religion-more-authoritarian-trouble-and-strife)
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-fields-of-blood-by-karen-armstrong/2014/10/23/a098e374-4d90-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html)

Hugh Dubrulle

Professor Hardin’s Research Trip to Senegal

Hardin in Senegal 2016

NOTE: To see the photos referred to in this post, go here.

Professor Hardin’s recent four-week research trip to Senegal was productive.  She interviewed twenty-two individuals in six municipalities about the history of the southeastern region of the country, particularly how people there cultivated cotton in the 1970s (see photos 407, 421 and 422).  Cotton production was remarkably profitable, but it required the use of strong pesticides. Interviewees discussed the ways they dealt with the toxic chemicals and why they found the work worthwhile at the time, but that now they would appreciate less dangerous and more lucrative economic opportunities.  Interviewees cultivated cotton and other crops with and for their families. Individuals of both noble and slave descent gained and lost with cotton production as the industry ebbed and flowed.

Professor Hardin also interviewed a bambaaɗo (a griot or traditional oral historian) about the nineteenth-century history of the region as well as a few traditional healers about their work. These men and women, including Professor Hardin’s interpreter, Aminata Kaba (see photos 456 and 464), continue to treat patients using plants and other means.  This research will inform Professor Hardin’s course on the history of African health and healing.

The timing of Professor Hardin’s trip was fortuitous. The National Archives of Senegal had been closed for the last two years for building renovations. A few days before she was scheduled to depart the country, however, the archives reopened in a new location in Dakar, and she was able to see a few documents (see photos 620-622).

From the hustle and bustle of the capital city to the pressing urgency to prepare fields for the coming rains in the countryside, Professor Hardin witnessed the range of Senegalese life. In the heat of late May and early June, young people were preparing for final exams despite their teachers’ strike. Teachers are asking the government to respect their contracts though the government has threatened to dismiss them. Teachers debated whether they should continue to go without their contracted salaries for the sake of the nation’s children or whether they should press the government to decrease the number of ministers making large sums. See this opinion piece published in Le Quotidien by Professor Hardin’s friend, Cheikh Kaling, who also holds a doctorate in history and trains some of Senegal’s history and geography teachers at the College of the Science and Technology of Education and Training  [Faculté des Sciences et Technologies de l’Education et de la Formation (FASTEF)] at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar:

http://www.lequotidien.sn/index.php/opinions-debats/des-menaces-illegitimes-sur-les-enseignants-a-l-heure-du-dialogue-national

While education remains a long-contested sector, so too is agriculture. In May the director of the Company for Development and Textile Fibers (Société de Développement et des Fibres Textiles or SODEFITEX) visited remote towns to drum up enthusiasm for the impending cotton campaign, as well as for the production of corn, millet, sunflowers, hibiscus, rice, and sesame. Such outreach is necessary given that agriculture has not paid much for over a decade, many farmers are deeply indebted financially, rains have not been regular, and labor is scarce.  Some tractors are currently being brought in, but some people are skeptical of the economic impact the technology will ultimately have.

Almost every family has someone living in Dakar and/or abroad who sends money back from as far away as Congo-Brazzaville, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the USA . Since the 1970s, remittances have been one of the largest sources of revenue for the area.  But migration is dangerous and people sometimes die trying to get to Europe. See this article on Tambacounda which is on the way to Vélingara:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-34060931

See also photo 404 from Professor Hardin’s host family’s home in Vélingara. It’s of a blackboard for the private tutorial of the eleven-year-old nephew.  It’s a dictation on “a stowaway” which teaches not only the French language but also the dangers of migration.

Traveling through Tambacounda to and from Vélingara in the Upper Casamance region of southeastern Senegal in late May, Professor Hardin saw fields being cleared by controlled burns. The remaining ash makes good fertilizer (see photos 410, 411, and 384). The burns were just in time too, since it rained in Vélingara for the first time for the season on the night of Friday May 27, 2016.

Vélingara is a town of over 25,000 people that feels like, in the words of someone born there, a “giant neighborhood.” Everyone knows everyone, people visit each other’s houses regularly and kids play in the streets.  The vast majority of buildings are one-story; there is one gas station, one bus station, one bank (along with several money transfer offices where people pickup remittances), one post office, one large market, a cotton gin factory, one tourist motel and now two paved roads.  Daily life centers around the market, the schools, the mosques, the bus station, and the health clinic. Common ailments for children are malaria and diarrhea while older adults suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, and respiratory infections.

Hope springs eternal due to the recently paved road in town, dubbed the “road of Macky Sall” (the new president). The Compaganie Sahélienne d’Entreprises (CSE) which is paving the roads between Vélingara and other major cities is hiring some men locally, another cause for optimism.  From Vélingara, Professor Hardin took the paved road to Médina Gounass and Linkéring, and took a dirt road to Wassadou, to do interviews. Each trip took over an hour but on the way to Wassadou Professor Hardin was able to stop and take pictures of the industrial rice field and the anti-AIDS sign near the border with Guinea-Bissau (see photos 442, 444, and 426—on the road to Wassadou. Agence de Gestion des Routes or AGEROUTE: “Let’s open the roads for development, but bar the road to AIDS.”) Cross-border trade is long-standing and essential to the region’s economy, but prostitution at the major market towns increases the rates of STDs.  Despite these dangers, the state of health and health care in Senegal is better than in some of its neighboring countries.

Professor Hardin’s trip ended during the first week of Ramadan. Before it started, she saw on T.V. Arabic music videos and commercials celebrating the season. The day people began fasting in Senegal depended on whether they chose to start with people in Saudi Arabia or follow local clerics who decided based on how they saw the moon there. The daily schedule then changed with some people rising earlier than usual to drink water and eat a few dates before the sun rose at 7:00 AM; they would not eat or drink water until the sun set at 7:40 PM, at which point they would have their breakfast of coffee, a sandwich, and dates, followed by dinner at 9:30 PM, followed in turn by ataya, sugared gunpowder tea.  Of course these meals and the day was interspersed by prayers at 6:00 AM, 2:00 PM, 4:30 PM, 7:30 PM, and 9:00 PM.  Since people tended to go to bed late and get up early, those who could take a nap in the late afternoon did. Children, the elderly, the ill, and Professor Hardin, however, ate breakfast and lunch at regular hours.

In Senegal’s cities and towns, one hears the calls to prayer from mosques; the sounds of cows, donkeys, dogs and chickens; the honks of horns from trucks and cars; and most often people greeting one another. Salaam alaikum!