Obituaries and first drafts of history

So Fidel Castro died.

I’m currently teaching a fair amount of Cold War history, so I’ve been thinking of Castro and Cuba, of the way in which both became symbols in American foreign policy. It’s a sad truth that this enemy state is — and, apart from a few weeks in 1962, always has been — so basically harmless to the US that the US can treat it like a symbol despite the fact that it is full of real people.

Harmless other than symbolically, of course.

Nothing inspires confidence like a ruler-for-life in a military uniform.

So Fidel Castro died. Cue three responses, each no doubt sincere:

  • Fidel Castro was a real piece of work, a dictator who ruled without challenge for decades and then handed power off to his brother, which isn’t exactly the most anti-tyrannical thing you could do. Jailed journalists, oppressed homosexuals, looted businesses, show-tried political enemies and generally demonstrated a complete disregard for civil liberties second only (and crucially) to the rotten gangster he replaced. The fact that leftists are sad about the death of this villain only shows that they don’t live in the real world. Yes, OK, the US’s policies toward Cuba are silly, but that doesn’t mean Castro wasn’t a son of a bitch. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Justin Trudeau/Jeremy Corbyn, what the hell is your problem.
  • Fidel Castro stood up to US imperialism for decades, surviving the malice of a much larger and more powerful enemy that explicitly aimed to kill or topple him (although how seriously they pursued this goal is up for debate). The fact that he could do this — and do this while theoretically more powerful allies dried up and blew away — is a vital corrective to the myth of US omnipotence. He also showed that a country — even a poor country, even a country suffering from a crippling economic embargo enforced by its largest obvious trading partner — could focus on social services in a way that provided a much better standard of living for its citizens than its wealth would suggest. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he resisted the unfair attacks of the US and that’s what really matters. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Donald Trump, what the hell is your problem.
  • Criticism or praise of Fidel Castro falls more or less like you’d expect on political lines. What matters, good or bad, is that he was important, a historical figure who punched way above his weight and had a huge impact on politics not only in his own country and the region but around the world. Probably came closer to genuinely starting World War III than anyone else, which … is good? I guess? Not sure about that one.

Naturally I tend to fall into the third category, since the impulse of my temperament is to look at binary thinking and go “must be some possible synthesis” even when there might not be. In this case, I think there is and I think it’s obvious: you can think that the Bay of Pigs was a bad thing and Castro is a bad guy simultaneously, even if prominent politicians in this and other countries don’t seem to be able to.

But the truth is that the people we look up to were often pretty bad guys in ways other than the ways we look up to them. We just gloss over that because it’s history and in history we try to be conscious of and accept contradiction (I guess, maybe). And here we have, I don’t know, current events becoming history, and that transition seems to be painful.

Obituaries and first drafts of history

Election interlude: or, some caution about the Nov. 9th explainer

So as you may have heard, on Tuesday the United States had a Presidential election. I’m trying not to think about the existential implications of this for a republic that, despite the fact that I am not a citizen, nevertheless matters profoundly to me as the place where I grew up and where my parents, brother, in-laws and so on still live. When I think about the issues I care most about — protecting the rights of minorities, taking action to prevent climate change and building a stable international order — I have to say the outlook is not promising. But that’s not what I want to talk about!

Nothing to do with this election looks good, so here’s a picture of me looking serious. 

If you’re like me, then your post-election-day social media feeds have been full of people with links to articles explaining exactly why the election turned out the way it did. These are often presented as the real reason for Trump’s victory, which contradict the previous reason you believed in. This showcases a remarkable ability to understand the election 24 hours after it by people who, 24 hours before it, were apparently way off base, but let that pass. Here are a few of the explanations I’ve seen so far:

  • Clinton was a weak candidate who failed to motivate 2008’s powerful “Obama coalition.” Optional extra: Sanders would have won.
  • The Electoral College has once again betrayed us.
  • Liberal elites have overlooked the valid anxieties of working-class whites.
  • Liberal elites have overlooked the ignorant racism of working-class whites.
  • Clinton is friends with too many celebrities.
  • American voters do not want a female president.
  • Voter suppression in states like North Carolina depressed African-American turnout.
  • Young people voted in insufficient numbers.
  • Trump voters are throwing a bomb at what they perceive as an unaccountable elite.

Now on the face of it, most of these seem reasonable, except of course for the one about the celebrities (by this view, “ordinary Americans” don’t like celebrities, something I have not seen a lot of evidence of). I might also quibble with the Sanders thing — for most Americans, the word “socialist” is a filthy one, and the guy who didn’t run always looks appealing, as we can see from the New Hampshire voters who wrote Mitt Romney’s name in.

But what seems obvious to me is that, maybe apart from those, they’re all true. Like, voter suppression definitely happened and definitely had an effect. Voter ID laws are all about suppressing the Democratic vote based on essentially groundless concerns about fraud (if you were going to rig an election with phony ballots, hiring extras to impersonate voters would be the absolute worst way you could do it in 2016), and voting rights advocates have been saying so forever. The pattern is pretty clear.

But does that mean that American voters aren’t actually opposed to a female president? I mean, I think you only have to look at the gendered rhetoric of the campaign, especially the unofficial Trump merchandising, to see that a lot of people don’t like the idea that Hillary Clinton is a woman. So that’s true. But the fact that that’s true doesn’t mean that Trump voters aren’t angry at a system that they feel — erroneously or not — isn’t working for them and just want to blow it up. Many of them said as much, and I don’t see any reason to doubt them. And it is true that elites sneer at working-class whites, especially southerners, that conservative elites have done a somewhat better job of hiding the fact, and that those working-class whites have noticed.

So it seems like all or many of these possible explanations hold some water and that we could see them as contributing factors. And I’m sure that if you asked many of the authors who write these stories, they’d agree with you. But they way they’re shared and promoted is as though each of them is the key, the explanation that makes it all make sense (since a Trump victory is understood not to make sense).

My natural inclination is to view these as mainly being the product of how long an online article is meant to be — or of the way that headlines, which everyone knows journalists don’t write themselves, are phrased — and assume that the ultimate goal of a lively debate, well-informed polity, etc. is to be served by people reading a bunch of these and eventually assimilating them all into some general sense of a post-2016 Democratic party or whatever, in the same way that the aftermath of 2004 led to the rise of the Obama coalition. Perhaps. My main point is that the process of understanding how people take their complex and contradictory mess of motives and beliefs and turn that into a multiple-choice answer which then turns into a binary choice is a difficult one.

Of course, this is not to downplay the importance of some of these conclusions. African-Americans, for example, are obviously alarmed by what this seems to say about their countrymen, and it’s not hard to see why. If people want to highlight that reaction, that’s more than fair.

I just mean overall that this is the kind of analytical challenge that historians struggle to overcome. To understand even one of these factors, you have to devote a certain amount of your time to learning about it. As a result, you get a kind of flashlight problem, where we all shine our light very intensely on one thing but more dimly on the areas around it.

I’m also a little surprised that I haven’t seen these two explanations put forward more:

  • Americans are reluctant to vote the same party a third term in power.
  • James Comey, who had better watch his back.

I’m not sure about the first one, if only because the sample size for presidential elections is so small, but given the thin margins involved, the second one seems like a pretty plausible factor. I dunno.


Election interlude: or, some caution about the Nov. 9th explainer

Low content mode again

Hi all,

as you know, I try to keep this blog on a regular schedule in which I update every other weekday. However, the end of half-term has revealed to me that with my present workload and other projects (about which hopefully more later in these virtual pages) I just don’t have the time. I’ve found myself desperately trying to mash out posts at the last minute more than once, and that’s usually a sign that I can’t keep up. So for November at least I’m going to shift to an as-and-when posting schedule. Normal service should be restored before too long, but right now I just need the time more. Thanks for understanding.

Low content mode again

TV Tuesday: Reign

So I got a few votes here and on G+, and the verdict was that I should write about Reign, the pretty-people drama about the early life of Mary, Queen of Scots. I have written about Mary in a previous Movie Monday, so you can check that out if you want to.

I’ve only watched the first episode (maybe two by the time this article gets done), but let’s talk about the obvious things first:

  • this is a romantic drama show looooosely inspired by the life of Mary, and bears very little relationship to the actual history apart from the sort of general premise.
  • And that’s OK.

At the same time, I’m still going to point at some of the changes because I find trying to figure out the train of thought interesting.

Let’s start by talking about the accents. There were three ways that the show’s creators could have approached the question of Mary’s accent:

  1. They could have given her a Scottish accent, for sentimental purposes. This would have been silly in a way, but roughly consistent with the idea that her character is, you know, Scottish. This is the obvious approach.
  2. They could have given her a French accent. This is the “interesting historical fact” approach. Mary’s mum was French and she lived for years in France. Presumably these conversations are happening in French, and this would be incongruous enough to be jarring. This is the approach taken by Liz Lochhead in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, in which Mary speaks in kind of a weird Scots-French hybrid.
  3. They could have given her an Australian accent, since the actor herself is Australian. This is the approach taken by Mary of Scotland, where Katharine Hepburn just uses her own voice, or at least her own stage voice. This is the “minimal interference with the actor” approach.

Instead, they do none of these things, giving her an English accent instead. You guys don’t need me to tell you that this makes no sense, right?

They change the names of some characters in a way that makes obvious sense — in reality, all four of the noble women who accompanied Mary during her time in France had the same name: Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston. It makes sound dramatic sense for them not to do this.

They change things to be sexier. For instance, Nostradamus was in his 50s at the time of this show, but he is presented as a younger, better-looking guy, because the CW.


Certain characters have been removed, including most of Mary’s court, presumably to build up the theme of Mary being a stranger at court rather than a visiting dignitary with a substantial entourage. I think Antoinette de Bourbon would have been a fun sharp-tongued old grandma character a la Game of Thrones.

No one mentions the idea that Mary is queen of England, an idea that was important to the French.

Now, this is not a history lesson, it’s just a derpy fun TV show. It’s not really my kind of derpy fun, though, so I don’t know if I’m going to persist with it unless something really weird or interesting happens in the next few episodes.

TV Tuesday: Reign