The Sad Thing About Useful Idiots Is That They Are Often Intelligent And Educated

Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” – George Orwell

There is a two-part brilliant series from the BBC World Service, presented by journalist John Sweeney, currently available in the archive, about the so-called “useful idiots”, otherwise intelligent people who become apologists for abhorrent regimes, which they think they understand, but do not. Read More…

The Past Is Not Perfect And We Should Not Expect It To Be

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our relationship to the past. History was one of the subjects I studied at University, so the past has always been of great interest to me. I also know that the past is not one and the same for everyone. History can be broken down into so many different areas and people from different countries, regions, economic, religious and political backgrounds etc. will each have unique stories to tell about the same period of history. There is no overarching grand narrative. History is more complex than that.

Which is why I am concerned by the political tendency nowadays to oversimplify the past and take a very negative view of it as racist, sexist and oppressive. Just to name a few examples: there is the recent Rhodes Must Fall movement which tried to topple statues of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and Oxford University. (They were successful at UCT, but not at Oxford.) The British writer Afua Hirsch wrote a very controversial article last year in The Guardian calling for the removal of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. The reason: Nelson did not voice opposition to slavery whilst he was alive. There have also been attacks on 90s sitcoms such as Friends because some of the characters made un-PC jokes. A pre-Raphaelite painting by John William Waterhouse was taken down in February from a gallery in Manchester because it “sexualised” women. Read More…

This Is A Great Debate About Masculinity and Men’s Issues

This is a really great discussion about “masculinity” and  “men’s issues”. This subject can get quite heated quickly, but this particular discussion was intense without getting nasty (for the most part). They disagreed with each other and listened too. It also represented a broad spectrum of views which made for a good adversarial debate. I highly recommend it:

 

 

 

 

ISIS Hated Beauty, History, Freedom, Music and Art

 

Two BBC documentaries which are available to watch right now show just how much Islamic State hated beauty, history, freedom, music and art.

In the The Road to Palmyra, architectural historian Dan Cruickshank and photographer Don McCullin journey to Palmyra to observe the destruction IS wrought after they invaded the ancient Syrian city in 2015.  Cruickshank is visibly overcome at times as he discovers just how much precious human history IS tried to obliterate.

Manchester: Bomb Our Story interviews the young victims of the 2016 bombing of Manchester Arena, all of whom are deeply traumatised by the wicked events of that night. They were supposed to enjoy an evening of innocence, dancing, laughter and fun. But a crazed, murderous terrorist had other plans.

I highly recommend you watch these two deeply moving and insightful films.


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Night Will Fall

Night Will Fall is a powerful documentary about the footage captured by Allied forces of newly liberated concentration camps in the closing days of WW2 that was later made into a film titled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey(1945).

The scenes the soldiers were confronted with were so shocking that they feared no one would believe that they were real. Indeed the first accounts that Soviet soldiers had given of Auschwitz and Majdanek in eastern Europe were written off by Britain and America as atrocity propaganda. They soon realised how wrong they were. In fact, the Soviet footage of Auschwitz contains some of the most infamous images of the monstrous extermination camps. An elderly Soviet soldier interviewed in Night Will Fallis overcome with emotion as he remembers the terrible things he saw.

The army cameramen carefully documented the gruesome reality of the camps and the appalling cruelty that had taken place there. It was decided that the reels would be made into a film about humanity and civilisation and what happens when human beings descend into utter barbarism. The legendary media mogul Sidney Bernstein was contracted to make the film along with acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock and writer Richard Crossman. They worked with a team of editors and technicians to organise the footage into a well scripted and coherent narrative. It was a harrowing task which surviving editors interviewed in Night Will Fall recall with horror.

In the end, however, the film was never finished. It was stored away in the National Archives, along with Bernstein and Hitchcock’s notes and Crossman’s script. Night Will Fall explores the political reasons for why this happened. The film also contains interviews with historians from the Imperial War Museum in London who began to restore and complete the documentary in 2008 and released it as a film in 2014.

The footage was used during the Nuremberg trials as evidence to convict Nazi war criminals.

It still stands today as an incomparable testament of man’s inhumanity to man.

Free Speech Is The Only Way To Shift Consciousness

Last week, the writer Sam Harris posted an incredible conversation recorded between himself and Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now tries to counter extreme political beliefs with what he describes as “listening” and “compassion”.  Picciolini has a lot of insight into what drives ideological fanaticism and he knows that much of it fuelled by emotional undercurrents of insecurity, self-loathing and basic ignorance.

He and Harris make the point that rather than shaming or silencing people with extreme opinions that we disapprove of, we should engage with them instead. That is how the battle for hearts and minds are won. This is very similar to what Megan Phelps, a former member of the religious cult the Westboro Baptist Church said in her now famous TED talk, which I have written about before:

Her decision to leave the WBC was not a Damascene conversion. It was part of a long process of engaging with people who opposed her on social media. Often they did so with anger or bemused disdain, but, occasionally, she would encounter individuals who would argue with her civilly. It was these discussions that began to slowly chip away at her harsh worldview, eventually causing it to collapse.

Harris also makes the important point that people will never build up “intellectual antibodies” to manipulative and hateful ideas if they are not exposed to them. Sunlight and air is the best disinfectant for odious speech.

Listen to to the full conversation here.

Steven Pinker: Literature Improves Our Ability To Empathise

Is literature a type of empathy technology? In the video below, the Harvard academic Steven Pinker observes that the rise of the novel correlates with some of the most significant humanitarian drives throughout history. Pinker makes the excellent point that fiction requires the reader to use his/her imagination to project themselves into the life of another person whose experience may be far removed from their own.

One example he names is the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which served as a powerful intellectual impetus for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Other notable examples are the collected works of Charles Dickens and their depiction of poverty in 19th century England.  And though The Diary of Anne Frank  isn’t a novel, it is still one of the major humanitarian works of literature of the 20th century.

This is yet another argument against the strange notion that the arts and humanities are “useless“.