Category Archives: Articles

History: The Executioner of Bad Ideas

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The question of capital punishment has re-emerged following the death sentence passed down to the reprehensible Dylann Roof on 10 January 2017. Roof, 22, had been convicted of the appalling murder of nine African-Americans in a downtown Charleston, South Carolina church on 17 June 2015.

Roof, it seems clear to me, is a hopeless, lost cause, much in the same way as Anders Breivik, who displayed a similar, icy lack of remorse for his crimes. But as hopeless, pathetic, repressed, undeveloped and unfeeling as Roof is, and will likely always remain, to execute a person on the state’s authority is deeply troubling. But this article is not about Dylann Roof, as should become clear.

Death, in some cases, is justified. A death resulting from a legitimate act of self-defence, or the adoption of euthanasia by an informed mind who no longer wishes to suffer are two such examples. But the state, when no longer threatened by the incarcerated individual, has no moral justification to pull the lever or press the button to end a life.

Why do people still wish to see other humans put to death? Is it a religious holdover, which is why it is so prevalent in the more religious countries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, than more secular ones, including Norway, home to Brevik, who is serving a life-term? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is typical of biblical vengeance. The prevalence of Sharia Law is undoubtedly the cause of the abhorrent public beheadings in Mecca. For this writer, however, whilst decapitation is more obscene than a lethal injection, it is just that: more obscene. For humans to kill other humans as punishment is an angry display of snarling teeth and misplaced virtue. We feel we are cleansing the planet, but we are simply perpetuating the violence. We are harming our argument that murder is unquestionably wrong. Murder is wrong if I do it in my spare time, or if the state pays me to do it on their time. The legality does not make it right, it simply makes it legal.

If you are reading this article in 3017, I am quite sure you will be baffled at the continuing practice of state execution in this writer’s era. You will doubtless scratch your head at other aspects of our behaviour, too. “I cannot believe you continued to eat animals despite their suffering”, “I cannot believe you continued to burn fossil fuels and that some of you denied climate change”, and “I really cannot believe you elected the celebrity hotel-guy as President.” This is how we, in 2017, look back at the witch trials and in not sailing too far towards the horizon for fear of falling off the other side of the world. Eventually, capital punishment will end, because human development, as slow as it seems to us in our short life-terms, is generally progressive. The rise of religion, especially fundamentalism, and fascism, is very concerning, but for the most part, humans do become better, more enlightened humans in the long passage of time.

Be honest with yourself. You know state executions are wrong. I will be honest with you. If a member of my family were murdered, I would want death for the perpetrator. There is no question about that. Maybe, in a fit of rage, I would seek to enact this personally. But the state should operate on moral principles that set the tone for the society we want for our children. If life is about anything, is it not about making society more progressive and enlightened for our descendants? Keeping a man, or a woman, locked-up for years on end is a huge burden on the state, but morality is priceless. Dylann Roof, in some abstract sense, deserves to die. But the state has no moral authority to execute him. Nobody ever said that morality is inexpensive. Much of what a state does in the public good, such as education, pensions, health care and social security, is expensive. Not killing people is also expensive. But I am quite sure that our reader from 3017 will quite understand, and will wonder why we took so long to form the same opinion.

Aidan

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Dunkirk: From Spike Milligan to Christopher Nolan

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When defining what it is, or perhaps increasingly, what it was, to be British, courage under fire and Churchillian intransigence rank highly. Stiff upper lip, staying calm and carrying on. Much of this identity is borne out of World War 2, when Britain, so it was claimed at the time, stood alone. Alone, of course, apart from its vast Empire. There is no question, I hasten to add, that the evacuation from the northern French town of Dunkerque was an incredible undertaking. However, for understandable reasons of wartime propaganda, there are prevailing myths associated with Operation Dynamo that continue to this day; etched in stone within the British consciousness and collective memory.

How will Christopher Nolan’s 2017 summer blockbuster, Dunkirk, handle the realities and address the myths of this event? It will be intriguing to see how far Nolan goes in telling the harsh home truths about 27 May – 4 June 1940. Little is known about the project, which is in keeping with Nolan’s closely guarded filmmaking process. The first trailer for the film looks gritty enough. We see abandoned vehicles, a woebegone soldier walking into the sea to end his life, and the horrified reaction of a terrorised Cillian Murphy when informed that his rescue vessel is returning to the beach. Indeed, Operation Dynamo was, quite literally, far from plain sailing.

Will we see the spat between the army and the RAF, which arose as a result of the former wrongly believing that the airmen had not taken to the sky to combat the Luftwaffe? Churchill, in his voluminous memoirs of the war, noted how much it upset him to hear that rescued soldiers were furious with the RAF, unaware that a great struggle had indeed taken place above the channel. Will the bravery of the French to hold the line be featured? Will we see scuffles on the beach between the English and French over the precedence in evacuation? Nolan did much to make Batman real, so I imagine realism will dominate myth in his telling of the real story of Dunkirk.

Certainly, the fortuitous decision of the Germans not to press the assault on Dunkirk with tanks and artillery, and to instead rely on Herman Goering’s confident posturing that his Luftwaffe could finish the job, was the primary reason 340,000 personnel made it off the beach. The Allies were heroic, no doubt, but the Germans had made a huge tactical blunder.

Another aspect of 1940 which remains little known is that Britain was not as united in its desire to fight to the end as popular imagination tells us. Indeed, Churchill’s defiance was not even shared by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who considered attempting to topple the Prime Minister to pursue an armistice with Hitler. Another enduring myth of the evacuation is the apparent eager acquiescence of boat owners to assist in the withdrawal. Whilst it is true that many bravely answered the call, many certainly did not. One can quite understand their reluctance.

Another film set during the opening months of World War 2, due for release a year from now in December 2017, is Darkest Hour, in which Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman. Could either film be bold enough to explore the claim that three of Churchill’s famous radio speeches were actually read by the actor, Norman Shelley, including the legendary “Fight them on the beaches” oration? In truth, this is unlikely for reasons of disputed evidence, and moreover, because the most prominent historian to make this claim is David Irving. To put it mildly, Irving has a less than stellar reputation, and is perhaps best known for his denial of the Holocaust and the famous libel trial that resulted from it.

In any case, as a massive fan of Nolan’s work – especially Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige – and a proponent for the teaching of history in as many forums as possible, I look forward to seeing Dunkirk when it hits cinemas on 21 July 2017. Much of the reality of Dunkirk has been glossed over for the benefit of national pride, but Dynamo is doubtless an incredible story, especially when told accurately. The harsh realities of Dynamo, for my money, make the event more engaging, not less. The proud flag-waving propagated at the time and since cannot be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, war is war. But the truth is that Dynamo was something of a disaster. The British Expeditionary Force was saved, but its equipment was lost to the shores of a defeated France.

There is no question that Churchill sincerely believed what he said when voicing a willingness to continue the struggle; to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. However, what equipment Britain would have had to do such fighting is, fortunately for the United Kingdom, something that never required an answer.

The late comedian, Spike Milligan, who was serving in the British army on the English side of the channel during the evacuation, offered a frank summation of the real Dunkirk in his autobiography. Milligan could have spoken for many when he wrote, “As the immensity of the defeat became apparent, somehow the evacuation turned into a strange victory.” Milligan further noted the striking words of a Bombardier, ‘Kean’, who had made it off the beach and was posted to Milligan’s regiment thereafter. When Milligan asked what the operation had been like, Kean responded, “Like, son? It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck-up.” Churchill, for all his celestial talk of deliverance and miracles, did offer a similarly grounded, though more politically-conscious, conclusion when he told Parliament on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Update

22 July 2017

‘Notes on Dunkirk’

Upon seeing the film, here is my podcast. In this edition of the Aidan Project, Aidan looks at the glorious myths and gloomy realities of the real Dunkirk, and examines how accurately Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster addresses the bittersweet events of Operation Dynamo.

2017: Great Expectations?

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Christopher Hitchens

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The world desperately misses Christopher Hitchens. I certainly know that I do. Whilst I never met the man, somehow, in a way that is beyond me to explain, I feel like I did. I certainly wish that I had.

Hitchens possessed a beautifully eloquent, unparalleled ability to speak thought-provoking common sense without any undue reverence to his opponent. The United Kingdom’s embarrassing exit from Europe, and Donald Trump’s evisceration of decency at the highest level would have been meat and drink to Hitchens. Moreover, I am quite certain that Hitchens would have had little patience for the internecine conflict within the left and its ceaseless self-strangulation. This illogical balancing act of many well-intentioned liberals has a lot to answer for, including, I would argue, those two 2016 blockbusters previously mentioned.

Hitchens saw himself as a liberal, broadly defined. But he would not tie himself down to ideology. He was in favour of the Iraq War. He spoke favourably of Margaret Thatcher. And he absolutely loathed Bill Clinton. And I mean really loathed. The latter point would have made Hitchens’ articulate foray into the vacuum of honesty that was the Presidential race all the more fascinating. Although I am quite sure that Hitchens would have abhorred Trump, he would not have taken kindly to Hillary, either, on whose husband he wrote the scathing book, No One Left To Lie To, in 1999.

Hitchens, who was born in England but would later become an American citizen, died of cancer in 2011 at the premature age of 62. Premature not simply for him, but for a world which needs his unique qualities now more than ever. I assume that it is because of this sense of loss, selfish as it is, that I have found myself referring back to so much of his voluminous work in recent months. Reading Hitchens’ polemics or watching him on the debate podium is something of a temporary antidote to the stupidity, ignorance and lies that have blighted 2016. Hitchens versus Nigel Farage? First round knockout for Hitch. If, somehow, the battle made it out of the first round, there would no doubt be a blood stoppage from the referee to save Farage from life-altering injuries. Hitchens could go the distance, but he seldom had to. He was the Muhammad Ali of rational argument. He had swagger, for sure, but his ability to propel his arguments with energy and panache was unmatched. He floated like a liberal, but he stung like a bee.

Nobody had a quip like Christopher Hitchens. He had a return volley for everything. Speaking during one of his countless debates with committed theists, Hitchens said, “We’re half a chromosome away from chimpanzees and it shows. It especially shows in the number of religions we invent to console ourselves or to give us things to quarrel with other primates about.” Hitchens was not afraid to cause offence in the process of putting across his argument, yet he was so gifted an orator, the most offensive aspect about him was simply how damn intelligent he was.

A side of Hitchens that all too many have perhaps not seen, as he is often regarded, unfairly, as simply an angry, atheist intellectual, was his incredible wit. An example of this comedic intelligence is a word game which is featured in his memoirs.  The basis of the game is to replace a word within a well-known book title with a similar, but rather less effective one. The results are non-bestselling titles such as Mister Zhivago, For Whom The Bell Rings, and the unsurpassable Good Expectations.

Back to reality and, indeed, this time of madness, complete as it is with much burying of heads in the sand, I certainly have low expectations. However, if we can be serious about waking up from our collective coma of confusion, then perhaps, inspired by the unapologetic rationality of Hitchens, our expectations can indeed be great. To be sure, he was the greatest.

Aidan

Reflections of a Mature Student

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.

Christopher Hitchens

Preface

This edition of The Aidan Project blog is something of a public service announcement for would-be mature students. It is for those of you out there who have considered taking the leap into higher education but, for whatever reason, have put it off. If this does not speak to you in this context, then I hope you may still find my reflections interesting for what they are.

I took the academic plunge in September of this year. Now, although I may sometimes be treading water, I have not drowned. And if you are reading this, you are doubtless someone with an open mind, so I am quite sure that you would not drown either. What follows are my reflections on my first three months at University.

The First Semester

This week, I complete my first semester at University. Having made the decision to enroll only a matter of weeks before the course started, I can honestly say that only four months ago, the idea of writing a reflective blog on the experience of my first semester would have sounded unlikely. However, I cannot definitively say it would have sounded completely ridiculous, because if truth be told, I have considered becoming a mature student for several years. Nevertheless, this foray towards a degree in History did all come together somewhat spontaneously; that is to say, it all fell into place and felt correct only in September 2016.

I was 34 when the course started, and have turned 35 since. Jumping back into education for the first time since I left school was a nervous proposition. Thankfully, I am not only far from being the only person on my course in the position of entering University later in life, even if I were the only mature participant, I now realise that this was something I had concerned myself with unduly. If you are passionate about the subject, you already have something in common with your fellow students straight out of the gate. Age is trumped by interests.

Progress? What Progress?

There is browsing, and then there is reading. Overcoming one of my main concerns upon joining my course, I have now become much better disciplined in reading, and maintaining concentration whilst doing so. Prior to becoming a student, my time at home would be spent doing multiple things at once; on my laptop, scrolling through Twitter on my phone, watching documentaries, listening to a podcast or audiobook. This was a difficult cycle to break. Now, whilst I fidget and will often wonder what nonsense Donald has tweeted, I stay the course and get my reading done. And I have learnt to enjoy it.

With a strict schedule of work, gym, University attendance and home studying, I have adapted to the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions. I am at peace with my commitments, because I have ensured that all can be accomplished if you plan ahead…and sacrifice a little sleep.

The Lessons of Learning

Any piece of text your lecturers will ask you to read, no matter how seemingly confusing, can be made sense of if you approach it in the right way, with the aforementioned open mind. You may have to read the text several times. You may have to put it down and resume later. But, more likely than not, you would not be asked to read the text if there was no purpose in doing so. I assure myself that, with a bit of patience, the point of the text is there to be found, hiding in plain sight.

Indeed, sometimes the most interesting texts have the dullest introductions. Persevere and get through it. A journal article assigned to my class regarding 18th century Parisian boulevards was desperately dull for the first several pages, yet it now stands out in my mind as one of the most interesting things I have read during the first semester. The article was not merely about boulevards. The point of the article was the emergence of a rising consumer culture, which could not be more relevant to understanding the rise of the Western market society. The text was not difficult. I did not need to read in between the lines, I just needed to read the lines themselves beyond an introduction that had not immediately gained my interest.

University lectures have taught me, above all else, that it does not matter what you think, but how you think. Within some degree of reason, you can read from the bible of Karl Marx or Adam Smith, but this is less important than the role of critical thinking and keeping an open mind. Debate is healthy; always listen to the views of people with whom you disagree. Challenge your perceptions and you will do well.

Course Highlights

Discussing current events, such as Brexit, the conflict in Syria, and the US election, has been the most interesting aspect of the course. I think it will be fascinating in hindsight for me to say that when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, or when Donald Trump became President-elect, I was a student, discussing the potential implications of what was happening. Being a student of history when significant events happen can almost make you feel like you have inside information because you are housed within such accessible historical context.

As a historical event, the French Revolution is the most interesting aspect of history that I had not quite appreciated the significance of before becoming a student. I could tell you nothing regarding Maximilien Robespierre in September, yet I have spent hours since reading and writing about him, and here I am writing about him once more. The case of Robespierre is, to me, so remarkable, as he achieved so much in such a short period of time, yet he remains so little known when these achievements are considered. Perhaps the shadow of Napoleon is to blame. I will share an essay with you all regarding the French Revolution early next year, and not merely the streamlined, academic, 2000 word version, but the epic Director’s Cut edition. Or perhaps I should say the Guillotine’s Cut.

One event, not in a lecture, seminar or book, has stuck with me for the important lesson it provided. It was an understanding gained back in the hazy days of our induction week, which is ancient history now. During a trip to a local historical mansion, a lecturer pointed out what to most people would be seen as an unremarkable toy soldier from the past. This toy soldier, it was explained, was actually that of a Russian soldier, which is indicative of Britain’s political alliances at the time. The toy was a valuable lesson to look beyond the aesthetic of primary sources. As another lecturer advised the class in November, sources can be interesting for what they did not even intend to reveal.

New Skills

Academic writing was something I was looking forward to embracing, even if I was not quite sure how to approach it. I feel I have a unique, be that positive or otherwise, writing style, but the feedback I have from my lecturers has made a huge difference already. I now use full stops, rather than long, flowing chunks of text without end. Good for the markers of my work, and good for you, the dutiful reader of my blog. Indeed, it was my desire to hone my writing skills that led me to launch The Aidan Project.

I have learnt to carefully skim a piece of text for the main principles, extract them, and then make a note of them to explore them in greater depth at a later time. I am less tied up with ceaseless note taking at the expense of actually getting any meaningful reading done. I suggest you make a note of that.

I have learnt the differences and merits of being a Niall Ferguson style, big storyteller, or a micro historian, delving into otherwise obscure parish records. Through the past several months, I have come to realise that I am a storyteller. I see storytelling as not only my primary interest in my quest to gain a degree in the subject, but also an obligation. I want to inform others, and to do so in an engaging manner.

Challenges

During my reading, I have certainly found it challenging to understand the mindset of human development which experienced an Enlightenment, yet still continued to engage so tragically in slavery and Social Darwinism. More confusing still is the fact that inspirational thinkers and exceptional scientists continued to believe in God. Many incredible people behaved in a way that we would find morally reprehensible today. Ironically, I am indeed confused and perplexed by the Enlightenment. I feel many people are quick to point out that we cannot be moral relativists, which has some merit. However, for me, this dodges an imperative to investigate a difficult concept. Perhaps the truth is just too frightening? Much, much more reading to do. The truth is out there, somewhere.

There is also a strange irrationality that I think is inbuilt into many students, which while probably a good thing, is still difficult to rationalise. I have been preparing for my essays since the day I received my course handbooks. Now, despite being a veritable determinist, who knows it is simply impossible that I would somehow fail to hand my assignments in on time, the deadlines remain ominous. Perhaps this is not so irrational after all. Perhaps it is that very same inbuilt anxiety that forces me to complete the essay, which makes sense as, after all, I am a determinist. And yes, this is philosophy, not history. Sorry about that.

Confidence

When I consider what I have become more confident about at University, put simply: I am more confident in simply being a student. Whether my work is good, bad or indifferent, the physical work itself to me was always less of a concern than adapting to actually being a student. I have adapted and I consider myself as a confident student, something I always wanted to be. I was just not ready to be a student when I left school.

When I started the course, I put the odds at 50/50 that the pressures of work would cause me to make a difficult choice and to consign my studies to history before the journey had really begun. I am now confident that I will finish this degree in some distant year, and will get to wear a fabulous hat, if only for a day.

In Conclusion

I jumped back into the pool of academic learning at 35. I was not the person I am today at 18. I would not have enjoyed University as a teenager. I also do not think University would have enjoyed me then, either. But lessons outside of University have now led me providentially into lessons within it. The timing was right.

My advice, especially if you, like me, were not suited to University when all your friends were – or thought they were – is to think of it as like passing a driving test. If I had somehow passed my driving test at 21, I may well have immolated myself in a spectacular fireball shortly thereafter. In other words, had I even been able to stomach University at the conventional age, I would probably have wasted my degree anyway. Timing is everything. Let timing and circumstances be your only considerations, not the fear of being older than your classmates.

I am, to be sure, definitely learning new tricks.

Aidan

Louis XIV: An Absolute Monarch?

I am the state

Louis XIV

Louis XIV

In a recent podcast, I discussed the merits of concerns that the next United States President may turn Washington on its head and govern as a maniacal autocrat. I looked at the culture of the US and reached a conclusion about the likelihood of Trump ruling the States as a modern absolute monarch. This blog takes a look at absolute monarchy, investigating the limitations in practice of the man most associated with the term absolutism, Louis XIV of France.

The concept of absolutism is one in which the power of a territory is governed entirely by one person, and whether Louis XIV (1638-1715), King of France from 1643-1715, really claimed to be the state or otherwise, it is typical of the legend of his much-contested absolutism.(1) Regardless of the legend, and despite appearances (especially the incredible palace at Versailles which Louis fashioned for himself, and the fine work of his Finance Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), to present Louis XIV in a positive light for the attention of future historians), Louis XIV and the state were not one and the same.(2)

Three key points demonstrate that, whilst acknowledging the tremendous personal authority of Louis XIV, it would not be accurate to say that this notorious ruler oversaw an absolute monarchy. Louis’ real power, beyond the propaganda, was inextricably linked with corruption, coercion and compromise. First and foremost, in order for Louis XIV to raise the funds necessary for the state to operate (especially due to his penchant for waging war and maintaining an extravagant court), a complicated system of collaborative tax generation was essential. Secondly, Louis worked alongside nobles for mutual gain, and was quite accustomed to bribe them for even greater mutual gain. Thirdly, Louis, rather than steamrolling state institutions, was obliged to operate within limits and had a sense of how far to push his luck.

A taxing business

Louis XIV sought gloire and to strengthen France’s defensive borders.(3) Doing so was not cheap, and required that the population be taxed accordingly. But without the luxury of today’s efficient system of tax collection, gaining the revenues from across his domain was no easy task. Louis’ expansive France, drunk as it was on war without and prestige within, necessitated regional partnerships to enable the king to receive his dues.(4) Louis was content to turn a blind-eye to blatant siphoning of funds by his entrusted noble middlemen, because his only concern was the depositing of the bulk of the livres to Versailles.(5)

A classic example of the compromise system of tax collection demonstrates that Louis’ power was rather less than absolute, even when met with a seemingly simple task of tax collection. In Burgundy, a coalition, representative of the province, ensured that tax was somewhat efficiently collected and paid on time. However, in Normandy, where no such coalition existed, whilst the king could demand more tax, and in theory had more unchallenged authority, there was no mechanism for enforcing his will nor effectively collecting the revenue.(6) It was Louis’ noble tax collectors that really filled his coffers, not absolutism.

The nobles’ peace prize

Following a period in which popular unrest had manifested itself in France, Louis XIV moved to strengthen the acquiescence of nobles. Far from securing real absolute power for himself, Louis granted positions in government office to members of the higher order, along with a share of his mystical prestige, to ensure they would remain onside in the advent of further instances of revolt.(7) With regional political power sufficiently strong, no central authority could smother it.(8)

Louis XIV was not able to exert all-encompassing power, so he moved the center of courtly operations to Versailles from Paris, insisting the sycophants and hangers on took residence there. Under his watchful eye at Versailles – which John Merriman called “sort of a Euro Disney for nobles” – Louis was able to influence his courtiers and have unlimited fluid compromise readily available on tap.(9) Indeed, Louis XIV was not endeared to the realities of the game he had to play, noting to Voltaire, “Every time I create an appointment, I create a hundred malcontents and one ingrate”, which is indicative not only of Louis’ discontent with the system but, more to the point, that Louis was nethertheless obliged to operate within such a system.(10)

Louis engaged in many faire des compromis to achieve his regal grip on France, and one in particular is especially illustrative of the wider point of the check of compromise on absolutism and why it was done.  Louis, as a young prince, had seen first hand the Fronde rebellion (1648-1653), which, due to its chaotic, irreverential nature, made a strong impression on the future ruler.(11) In 1655, Colbert made sure not only to backtrack on plans to abolish the paulette (a tax levied by the French Crown), but instead continued to renew it in future years, in addition to also allowing further noble concessions. Colbert was conscious of not stirring up the ire of magistrates, who were consequently able to remain away from the direct, absolute control of the king.(12)

Intelligent compromise

James B. Collins drew attention to Louis’ “intelligent compromise” with the various political and socio-economical realities of his regime, noting that regardless of the power Louis held in theory, he would not be able to enforce an overhaul of customary law.(13) Louis was aware of the difference between his theoretical and practical power, and did not seek to, nor could he in any case, enforce absolute obedience, subject as he was to France’s lois fondamentales.(14)

An indictment of the lack of real absolute power Louis had is that whilst his elaborate rule appeared on the surface as a show of strength, beyond the glamour of Versailles, there were judicial officers utilizing the legal system to gently chip away at royal authority. This contrived game of theoretical power and compromise would be unmasked in the future when truly challenged, with historical, revolutionary consequences.(15)

To be sure, judges were concerned about the influence of Louis XIV in wider matters beyond their own goals. But for there and then, their posts were more important than their principals, and they were content to oblige him, safe in the knowledge that not standing in the king’s way would reap them other benefits. The king got his way, but via pragmatic politics, not because of absolute rule.(16) As Jeremy Black neatly put it, “Louis’ domestic power rested on uncertain foundations”.(17)

Conclusion

It is clear that Louis XIV was not an absolute monarch; there were simply too many practical obstacles in play for this to have been possible. Louis relied on coalitions for tax collection, who acquiesced out of self-interest, not out of deference. Louis played the noble game, for as subservient as he wished to make the higher orders feel by giving them the run around in the halls of Versailles, he required their assistance as a conduit for his rule. Louis had seen how pushing even nobles too far could cause an angry backlash, and Louis could not bend the entire state to his will, because even a powerful force such as the King of France could not ignore or move beyond the customs of law that existed in his domain.

Louis was an absolute showman, but he was not an absolute ruler, nor could he have been. Louis XIV, though pragmatism and the acceptance of political and socio-economic realities,was able to rule France, wage wars and bask in the glory of doing so. However, he and the state were not one and the same. His reign was undoubtedly powerful and historically significant, and for the average Frenchman, he was for all intents and purposes, the absolute ruler of legend. But in reality, and especially when it came to the less average Frenchmen who were smart and/or noble enough to understand the game, he could only be as absolute as the mutual concessions of his rule allowed. It was peace for the king’s time, via absolute appeasement.

Aidan

References

1 M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.304.

2 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.365.

3 W. Doyle. France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte, (London: I.B. Taurus, 2013), ProQuest ebrary, p.23.

4 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (pp. 201-202).

5 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633.

6 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 201).

7 S. Miller, ‘Absolutism and class at the end of the Old Regime: The case of Languedoc’, Journal of Social History, 36, 2003, pp. 871-898, (p. 873).

8 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.41.

9 ‘European Civilization, 1648-1945’, Yale web site, http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/571/hist-202, 8 September 2008, accessed on 5 November 2016. Note: this is transcript of a John Merriman lecture which is also available in audio form on iTunes University.

10 E. Knowles, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.475.

11 R. McCullough, Warfare, Coercion, Conversion and Counterinsurgency in Louis XIV’s France (Boston: Brill, 2007), ProQuest ebrary, p.53.

12 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 360-361.

13 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633, (pp. 622-623).

14 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.39.

15 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.366.

16 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 219).

17 J. Black, From Louis XIV to Napoleon : The Fate of a Great Power, (London: Routledge, 2001), ProQuest ebrary, p.34.

The Aidan Project Podcast: The Man of the Year and The Führer

A Dangerous Alliance: Putin and Trump

Randa Selim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the DC-based Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera last year, “Talking with Assad will neither defeat ISIL nor achieve a political solution. Instead, the US, Europe, and their regional allies should talk to his Russian and Iranian sponsors, while increasing military pressure on the ground to deny them and Assad a military victory in Syria.”

Only time will tell if a new direction can be sought in Syria. It is clear that the answer to the problem of Syria cannot be found within the country itself, or even within the region, but only within the White House and the Kremlin. Could Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin be already forming what, in another time, would be an unlikely alliance? I say “already”, because if Trump’s calls to Taiwan and Pakistan are any indication, he has probably been Skyping his pal, Vlad, for months. They may well be friends on Snapchat.

But what could be good for Syria, in as much as ending the conflict, may not necessarily be good for the rest of the world. Could the US legitimise Putin to pursue other interests, such as in the Ukraine? CNN reported in August 2016 that Trump had claimed Putin would not make a military move into Ukraine, even though Putin had already done just that, having seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Trump either does not know or does not care about such things, which, to understate it somewhat, is rather troubling. It is hard to imagine a misinformed John Fitzgerald Kennedy mistakenly saying that Nikita Khrushchev has no nuclear missiles in Cuba in the Autumn of 1962, before being corrected by the interviewer. Of course, Trump is merely President-elect at this stage, but if he is already eager and willing to pick-up the telephone and call whomever he pleases, regardless of established US policy, it is hard to be sure whether the White House would curtail him, where he will be surrounded by advisors, or empower him further to do as he pleases.

So, how close are Trump and Putin? Much of the speculation is simply based on Trump’s notorious Twitter activity, from where he has sent warm messages regarding the former KGB member. What is clear, however, is that both sides seek a working relationship, but I fear this is a mixture of star-struck, idiosyncratic excitement from Trump, and raw opportunism in the case of Putin. It is not going to be a relationship of intellectual equals. Trump is more KFC than KGB. And Putin is still living in the Cold War; it has been widely speculated that Russia is quietly rejoicing at Trump’s election victory because, in classic Cold War mentality, it makes the US look foolish. It is further speculated that Russia did all it could to assist in Trump’s win, spreading fictitious news and facilitating the leaking of content injurious to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. If the Kremlin really was as active in the election as has been alleged, what we may be about to witness is an era of manipulation of the US President by a far smarter man, with even less moral scruples. The purely cognitive comparison is not saying much, but the latter, ethical, point is most disconcerting for us all. Putin’s moral convictions make Trump look like a choir boy.

The free world must hope that Trump’s administration is wise to the machinations of the Moscow machine, and that they are able to successfully impart the type of advice that Trump can both understand and implement. For if this is not the case, we could be seeing a new “Special Relationship” forming, but not the traditional Anglo-American one, but a new, antithetical US-Russian incarnation, albeit with the US playing the role of the junior partner. Whilst the US undoubtedly has the upper hand over the Russians in both military and financial terms, when it comes to a battle of wits, it is a non-starter. Only one side has the ability to manipulate the other into achieving foreign policy initiatives. Putin is an implacable student of Machiavelli, Trump is a brazen man-child of McDonald’s. The world awaits a joined-up strategy for Syria, but if Trump does not have his admittedly minor wits about him, or indeed, simply does not care, an agreement over Syria may soon be followed by a shirtless Putin riding jauntily through the streets of Kiev on a white charger.

Aidan

P.S.

In a recent podcast covering Brexit, I discussed Winston Churchill’s vision for a post-Cold War Europe, and also looked at Christopher Hitchens’ views on the European Union. I feel that both great men would be most concerned at the developments in Washington in 2016. Please click here to visit the Podcast section.

Football’s Impossible Job

“Can we not knock it?”
Graham Taylor

taylor

It is seldom that I will write about sport, but when the FA confirmed today that, as expected, Gareth Southgate has been appointed the new England football manager on a permanent basis, I had good reason to do so. You see, a painful memory returned to my consciousness, which I will endeavour to explain and, with any luck, safely exorcise.

Whilst I am quite accustomed to the feeling of complete indifference when new, financially well-compensated, victims are called to the dugout of doom, the news that Southgate has been marked with the number of the beast cast my mind back to that infamous Graham Taylor documentary. I have not seen the film in years, but like a horror flick you surreptitiously watched when you, despite feeling otherwise, really were too young to endure the graphic horror, it sticks with me. I still feel like I could almost paint every scene.

Upon reflection, it quickly became apparent to me that the reason for associating this incredible disaster film with Southgate, aside from the obvious fact that the film covered Taylor during his time in purgatory as England boss, is because, like Taylor over two decades before him, this is the appointment of a seemingly likeable, decent man to the role of official, back-page villain. In fact, not content with bashing him in the sports page, the woebegone Taylor was roasted on the front page as well, with a turnip for a head, no less. A turnip!

For anyone who has not seen the unintentionally epic documentary film to which I refer, I would best compare it to the cringe humour style of The Office. The only difference with the humour is, rather importantly it must be said, the comedy in the Taylor documentary was completely unintentional. It is hilarious, it is beyond uncomfortable to endure, but intentional it was not.

Directed by Ken McGill, the 1994 release of Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job pulled no punches in revealing the depths of despair, with only the occasional moment of hope, that is the stark truth of the desperately uneasy existence of an England football manager. Again, if you have not seen it, imagine a film in which Alan Partridge is holding the top job in English football. The 2001 film, Mike Bassett: England Manager, was a satirical comedy, with Ricky Tomlinson playing the eponymous hapless England coach. Funny as it was, and clearly modelled on the Taylor documentary that preceded it, the film could not compare with the real thing, because the real thing was real. All too real.

Taylor genuinely is a good guy. Despite being a football fanatic in my youth, I do not watch a lot of football now, though I have spent many an hour in the car navigating the gridlocked town of Ipswich whilst listening to Taylor on BBC Radio. Indeed, Taylor summarises the game with a degree of excellence which rather belies his lack of success as England manager. In the documentary, Taylor’s warm, down-to-earth personality made the gruesome spectacle of Ronald Koeman’s unashamed cheating and England’s non-existent man-marking all the more painful to endure. Taylor’s mental state was fractured and unravelled in a disconcertingly pornographic fashion. Indeed, the film is littered with the anguished exclamations of a good man in a cruel world, including “Can we not knock it?”, “That referee’s got me the sack.”, and, most infamously, “Do I not like that?”.  I cannot imagine that Taylor has ever waited in line at Asda without at least one bright spark barking the latter phrase at him.

Now, I am sure if it were Sam Allardyce being skewered in such an unforgiving manner, the feeling of discomfort would have been nicely substituted by one of joyous Schadenfreude. Let it not be said that the mere concept of the self-aggrandizing Allardyce having to make do with a rather brief occupation of the hot seat was anything resembling a shock. Allardyce was completely, utterly predictably, obliterated by a painfully easy to avoid scandal, which we all saw coming. It was just a matter of how long it would be until he was secretly filmed on a shaky camera uttering something silly in his customary boastful manner. Not familiar with Big Sam? Imagine Donald Trump as a football manager. But Taylor deserved better than the back-page roasting and any comparisons whatsoever with root vegetables, even the nice ones.

Back to the present, and the latest person to sip ominously from the poisoned chalice is the former England Under-21 manager, Southgate, who is a very different personality than Allardyce. He is reserved and measured, Big Sam is anything but. Much like Taylor, Southgate is one of the good guys. That will of course mean less than nothing when it comes to the press tearing him apart over the inevitable bad results. Regardless, his apparent admirable sense of self-awareness makes him less likely to fall into the trappings of hubris that many a predecessor, including Allardyce, Sven Goran Eriksson and Glenn Hoddle, walked unknowingly in on.

I would thoroughly recommend that neither Southgate nor the FA agree to any fly-on-the-wall documentary for this latest swing on the England managerial misery-go-round. I am quite happy to see cockiness, scandals and ignorance bring down those who pushed their luck too far, but I would not wish to see another good man torn apart in so vivid a fashion. Please, no more nightmares.

Good luck to the man.

Aidan

Further information

Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job, dir. by K. McGill, (Chrysalis, 1994)