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Category archive: History

Monday November 23 2015

I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism.  And very good it is.  Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:

After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal.  Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism.  Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.

Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control.  Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run.  Nor was Owen a political revolutionary.  What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work.  Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.

Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve.  Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.

Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester.  Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year.  Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill.  He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time).  However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.

Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits.  New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families.  It was most necessary for orphans.  Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands.  David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well.  By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.

Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.

The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire.  According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit.  But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.

Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop.  Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.

At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer.  One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.

As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.

Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical.  John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”

Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”

Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia.  Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.

Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose.  Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan.  He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.

Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success.  Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”

New Harmony soon started to fall apart.  Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all.  A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.

The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare.  When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate.  (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)

After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.

One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.

The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories.  He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism.  Mexico demurred.  Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures.  He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year.  Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product.  The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices.  The labour exchanges collapsed too.

Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:

Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.

Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground.  One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.

Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world.  Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.

Friday November 20 2015

I see that of Counting Cats, in the person of Julie near Chicago, recently linked to a piece by the late Antony Flew entitled The Terrors of Islam, a piece which I had totally forgotten about.  But I am sure that this piece influenced me very strongly when I read it.  And I definitely did read it because I published it, for the Libertarian Alliance (Chris Tame Tendency).

It always pleases me hugely when someone links to an old LA effort of mine like this.  Not exclusively mine, you understand.  Somebody else had to write it.  But … mine.  And this particular piece of Flew’s is downright prophetic.

Counting Cats had a strange outbreak of junk postings about fake university essays a week or two back but seems to be over it now.

Sunday November 15 2015

This is a hastily drawn illustration of a characteristic urban phenomenon of the late twentieth century, namely: the Meaningless Triangle:


The blue lines are the edges, aka the curbs, of two city streets, which, for reasons lost in history, meet each other at an angle.

The black lines are are piece of Modern Movement type Modern Architecture, circa 1970, made of grey concrete, with big, boring windows.  Something like an office block or a department store.  The Meaningless Triangles are the pink bits.

In the days of Modern Movement type Modernism, architects were obsessed with making everything rectangular, which explains that jagged, saw-like edge to the big Modern Movement type building, at the bottom of my diagram.  In order for the building to be in line with one of the streets, it has to be at an angle to the other street, because the streets are not themselves at right angles.

So, why not just have wall to the building that are not at right angles?  This is what is done now.  Why not then?

There are many reasons.  One is that doing this kind of thing, in the days before computers, was a bit difficult.  But more fundamentally, right angles were, you know, Modern.  Only the despised higgledy-piggledy Past had walls at crazy angles.

More fundamentally, Modern Movement architecture was not so much about building a mere building, as about building a small fragment of a potentially infinite urban grid.  In a perfect world, the Modern Movement type building would not stop at the boundaries of the site.  It would instead stride madly off in all four directions, covering the whole earth in a single rectangular grid.  You think that’s mad?  Sure it’s mad.  But this was how these people thought, in those days.  Hey really did publish schemes to cover the entire world with just the one new building, and smash all the others.

The boundaries of the site were an affront to the building.  The building did not end gracefully and decorously at the boundary, and then show a polite face to the world.  No.  It merely stopped, as gracelessly and rudely as possible, and in a manner which threatened to go bashing on, just as soon as a socialist upheaval (preferably worldwide) could clear all the higgledy-piggledy crap of the past out of the way.  In a perfect world, there would be no boundaries, no property rights.  No arbitrary lines where one bit of “property” stops and another bit starts.  Oh no.  All would be owned by the People in Common, and our architect is the instrument of the People in Common, and supplies tham all, all I say, with a new and infinitely huge new building.

I know, insane.  Don’t blame me.  I’m just telling you what these lunatics were thinking.

Luckily, the higgledy-piggledy old world kept these maniacs under control.  They had to stop their damn buildings at the edge of the site.  If they had tried to bash on beyond the site, they’d have been arrested.  But, they could make the ragged edge of the building look as ragged and ugly as they liked, and they did.

Hence all the Meaningless Triangles.

If you want to hear me talking about the above, go to this video, of me giving a talk about Modern Architecture, and start watching at 41 minutes.

What got me blogging about Meaningless Triangles was that I recently, in the course of wandering through my photo-archives, came across this photo:


What we see there is a very meaningful building, built to fill in a Meaningless Triangle.  As I recall, this is a few dozen yards from the entrance to Kensington High Street Tube station.  Yes, I just found the Caffe Nero in Wrights Lane, near that very tube station.  That’s the one.  I took my photo of it in 2010.

Saturday November 14 2015

I never did get to see that gas holder park I was on about yesterday.  I had thought it would be clearly visible and clearly signposted, but it was neither, and I placed myself on the wrong side of a big building site, and never got near it.  I only worked out exactly where it had been hiding when I got home.

But none of that matters.  The point of having a photo-objective of this sort is to get me to a part of town that I might not otherwise be visiting, and in general, to get me out into the town. Gas Holder Park isn’t going anywhere, and my failed attempt to visit it, I got to be on the exact right bit of pavement to take this photo, which is definitely one of my recent favourites:


It’s not just the craziness of the vehicle.  It’s the way that, with no other traffic - or even pedestrians - choosing to get involved in the short, and with my camera tracking the crazy vehicle and thus blurring everything else, the crazy vehicle becomes a sort of disembodied presence, liberated from the urban bustle that it was in fact surrounded by, like it was a movie character on drugs, or something similarly unenmeshed in reality as the rest of us perceive it.

Seconds later, I took another shot of the crazy vehicle as it sped away from me, hoping that it tell me what the white sphere was in aid of.  It wasn’t a great picture ...:


... but it did the job:


And (see above) it’s a recently opened ping pong drinkery.  The white sphere is a ping pong ball.  More about the place here, where there is another picture of the Morris Minor, surrounded by urban bustle, so not on drugs.

Thursday November 12 2015

Not to say the sexist-est.  Those Victorians often used to let their hair down in public.  It’s all around us, if only you are willing to look at it and see it.  It’s only a matter of time before the feminists start defacing such things, because they are already in a state of fluttering Victorian spinsterish hysteria about the sort of feelings expressed in this statue.

This statue is in honour of Sir Arthur Sullivan.  A while back, I and Alex Singleton did a recorded conversation about him, and about Gilbert of course.

So yes, In among yesterday’s picture archive rootling, I came across this amazing picture:


That picture, like yesterday’s effort, was taken in 2010, by which time I was in the habit of photoing the bit on statues where it tells you what it is.  So I had no trouble learning more about this statue today.  The great thing about the internet is how you no longer have to do “research” when you write about something like this.  All that is required is a link, and all is explained, by somebody else.

And the somebody else at the other end of this link, “Metro Girl”, has this to say about this amazing statue:

Situated in the slimmer part of the gardens nearer to the north-eastern exit, it is located looking towards The Savoy Hotel. Sullivan and his frequent collaborator, dramatist WS Gilbert were closely linked to The Savoy Theatre, which was built by their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1881 using profits from their shows. Gilbert and Sullivan’s last eight comic operas premiered at The Savoy Theatre, so it is only fitting that the Sullivan memorial is so nearby.

And, more to my particular point, this:

The monument features a weeping Muse of Music, who is so distraught her clothes are falling off as she leans against the pedestal. This topless Muse has led some art critics to describe the memorial as the sexiest statue in the capital.

Not knowing every sexy statue in the capital, I can’t be sure that this is indeed the sexiest.  But I’ve not seen anything to top it.

Monday November 09 2015

The German conductor Herbert von Karajan probably did more to popularise classical music after WW2 that any other single person.  His LPs and then his CDs and DVDs sold in their millions.  I have many Karajan CDs myself.  So, the question of whether he was any sort of Nazi and if so what sort remains a hot topic.

Playwright Ronald Harwood, author of a play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recently interviewed on BBC4 TV.  During this, Harwood mentioned, in contemptuous passing, that Karajan was obviously a Nazi.  Furtwängler was interesting because it wasn’t clear, hence that play.  Karajan?  Not interesting, because clearly he was.  He hired a Jewish secretary after the war.  What more do you need to know?

Well, I for one needed to know a bit more than only that, so I did some googling and came across this by Peter Alward, former vice-president of EMI Classics:

I first met Karajan in 1976, and we remained friends up to his death. He was one of EMI’s flagship artists in the late 70s and early 80s; most of his operatic work was for us, his symphonic work for Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, he cultivated the cult of the maestro - he was a shrewd businessman and recognised his market worth. He was not slow in coming forward and speaking his mind, but no conductor is a shrinking violet. I feel he was misunderstood. There was the glamorous image - the jet-set lifestyle - but this was all a defence. He was really very shy, a simple man with simple tastes. I vehemently oppose the theory that he was a Nazi. He was an opportunist. I’m Jewish, and if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent a minute in his company.

Opportunist sounds about right to me.  Karajan, like all conductors, needed power, over an orchestra.  Needing this sort of power, he had to avoid antagonising whoever the politicians were, the ones with the more regular sort of power.  But he did not care about politics for its own sake, merely as a means to the end of his music making.

Trouble is, you can surely say the same for a great many other servants of the Third Reich.  I bet plenty of rocket, airplane, tank, bomb and ship designers were equally opportunistic, and equally free of any positive desire to be Nazis.  But whoever happened to be Germany’s politicians, these people would have served them.  All they cared about was rockets, airplanes, tanks, bombs and ships.  Classical music was not as important to the Nazi regime as armaments were, but it was quite important.  Karajan did help.

The most interesting titbit I learned from this little burst of Karajan-googling was that apparently his second wife, Anita, whom he married in 1942, was burdened with a Jewish grandfather.  But hKarajan wasn’t merely “burdened” thus.  He burdened himself.  Wikipedia:

On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman).

Just marrying a quarter-Jewess, before that was dodgy, is one thing.  Being a celeb and marrying a famous heiress with a famously rich and half-Jewish dad, and doing all that in 1942, is something else again.  That’s more than just hiring an entirely Jewish secretary after the war.

When I read about such people and about such times, I don’t feel inclined to condemn.  I merely wonder how I might have behaved, or misbehaved, had I been confronted by such pressures and such temptations.

Thursday November 05 2015

At his blog, Capitalism’s Cradle, Anton Howes writes about Matt Ridley’s latest book.  Is innovation, asks Howes, autonomous?  Yes, but not because of what Ridley says:

Today, however, it’s practically in the air. I could flick through a copy of em>Wired magazine in a supermarket, or see the statue of James Watt in St Paul’s Cathedral.  Innovation is unstoppable, but not because the Internet has innumerable nodes of useful information, as Ridley claims.  It’s unstoppable because across the world, innovation is so deeply rooted in our speech, thought and culture. And we don’t even know it.

Innovation is, at root, the idea of innovation!  And the idea that innovation is a good idea!

Anton Howes is making good progress as a scholar, his latest little victory being that he has been invited to present his findings at this event at Columbia University.  My thanks to Simon Gibbs for alerting me to this latter happy circumstance.

Saturday October 31 2015

It seems that I am not the only one reminiscing about photos taken nearly a decade ago.  The Atlantic is now doing this, with the help of NASA and its Cassini orbiter, and the Cassini orbiter’s oresumably now rather obsolete camera:

Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus (504 kilometers or 313 miles across), is the subject of much scrutiny, in large part due to its spectacular active geysers and the likelihood of a subsurface ocean of liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter has studied Enceladus, along with the rest of the Saturnian system, since entering orbit in 2004. Studying the composition of the ocean within is made easier by the constant eruptions of plumes from the surface, and on October 28, Cassini will be making its deepest-ever dive through the ocean spray from Enceladus - passing within a mere 30 miles of the icy surface. Collected here are some of the most powerful and revealing images of Enceladus made by Cassini over the past decade, with more to follow from this final close flyby as they arrive.

Here is a picture of Enceladus taken on June 10th 2006:


That is picture number 25, or rather, a horizontal slice of it.

Beyond Enceladus and Saturn’s rings, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is ringed by sunlight passing through its atmosphere. Enceladus passes between Titan and Cassini ...

That’s right.  Those two horizontal, ever so slightly converging white lines and the edge of the Rings of Saturn.

Picture number 10 is even more horizontalisable:


A pair of Saturn’s moons appear insignificant compared to the immensity of the planet in this Cassini spacecraft view. Enceladus, the larger moon is visible as a small sphere, while tiny Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers across) appears as a tiny black speck on the far left of the image, just below the thin line of the rings.

That one was taken on November 4th 2011.

My thanks, for the second time in as many days, to 6k for pointing me to these amazing images.

Wednesday October 28 2015

So I had gathered together a little clutch of photos of photoers that I took in 2007, about a dozen of them, and I was going to shove them up here, and call them something like: Photos of photoers taken in 2007.  But then I noticed that five of them - five - were all taken on 18/07/2007.  In English: on July18th 2007.  And apparently all within the space of a few dozen minutes.

So I dug up the original directory I’d got (quite a while back) those five pictures from, and here are (insert how many (it’ll be a lot (42))) of them, all taken between 6pm and 7.30pm, from outside Westminster Abbey to Westminster Bridge:

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And note this.  These were only those pictures which did not feature computer-identifiable faces.  There were that many again that were just as nice, but with clearly recognisable faces.  By that I mean both eyes and the nose and mouth all simultaneously visible.

And there you were thinking I had got bored with showing you photos of photoers.  Well, I have got a bit bored with taking such pictures, and have been taking rather fewer of such snaps lately, although maybe my interest in snapping snappers may reignite.  I don’t know.  But I now have a huge archive of such photos, and as the cameras in them get more and more obsolete, and as fashions begin to change, these pictures become ever more enjoyable with the passing of time, like good wine or so everyone says.

Normally I don’t go on about what sort of camera I used for a picture or for a bunch of pictures, but I must say I am impressed with what my Canon PowerShot S5 IS was doing, with its x12 zoom, all those years ago.  This camera has of course been discontinued, but as of today, you could get a “used - good” one, not boxed but in good condition, for fifty quid.

Tuesday October 27 2015

One of the key themes of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is that moral advance has on the whole not been lead by religion.  Religious people have often defended ancient moral positions, as when defending slavery, for instance.  Only when persuaded by secular moralists of the wrongness of slavery did religious people then become fierce and very vigorous opponents of slavery.  But the secularists lead the way when it came to winning the argument in the first place.  All of which is unsurprising, if you look at what it says in the Bible about such things.  Which Pinker does.  One of the most remarkable passages in The Better Angels is Pinker’s description of what the Old Testament actually says (pp. 7-14).  If you get tired of all the mayhem and slaughter, at least skip to the end and read Pinker’s final paragraph.  As he says, he is not accusing Christians of believing this stuff.  Christians pay the entire Bible “lip service as a symbol of morality”, but they no longer believe in the morality that is actually contained in the first half of it:

Like the works of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 2nd millennium BCE but written more than five hundred years later.  But unlike the works of Homer, the Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values.  The world’s bestselling publication, the Good Book has been translated into three thousand languages and has been placed in the nightstands of hotels all over the world.  Orthodox Jews kiss it with their prayer shawls; witnesses in American courts bind their oaths by placing a hand on it.  Even the president touches it when taking the oath of office.  Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.  And the Lord God took one of Adam’s ribs, and made he a woman.  And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.  And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.  And she again bare his brother Abel.  And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.  With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.

No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they are sinful and that the suitable punishment is genocide.  (In Bill Cosby’s comedy sketch, a neighbor begs Noah for a hint as to why he is building an ark. Noah replies, ‘How long can you tread water?’) When the flood recedes, God instructs Noah in its moral lesson, namely the code of vendetta: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’

The next major figure in the Bible is Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who settles in Sodom.  Because the residents engage in anal sex and comparable sins, God immolates every man, woman, and child in a divine napalm attack.  Lot’s wife, for the crime of turning around to look at the inferno is put to death as well.

Abraham undergoes a test of his moral values when God orders hm to take his son Isaac to a mountaintop, tie him up, cut his throat, and burn his body as a gift to the Lord.  Isaac is spared only because at the last moment an angel stays his father’s hand.  For millennia readers have puzzled over why God insisted on this horrifying trial.  One interpretation is that God intervened not because Abraham had passed the test but because he had failed it, but that is anachronistic: obedience to divine authority, not reverence for human life, was the cardinal virtue.

Isaac’s son Jacob has a daughter, Dinah.  Dinah is kidnapped and raped - apparently a customary form of courtship at the time, since the rapist’s family then offers to purchase her from her own family as a wfe for the rapist.  Dinah’s brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this transaction: the rapist is uncircumcised.  So they make a counteroffer: if all the men in the rapist’s hometown cut off their foreskins, Dinah will be theirs. While the men are incapacitated with bleeding penises, the brothers invade the city, plunder and destroy it, massacre the men, and carry off the women and children.  When Jacob worries that neighboring tribes may attack them in revenge, his sons explain that it was worth the risk: ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ Soon afterward they reiterate their commitment to family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery.

Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, find their way to Egypt and become too numerous for the Pharaoh’s liking, so he enslaves them and orders that all the boys be killed at birth.  Moses escapes the mass infanticide and grows up to challenge the Pharaoh to let his people go.  God, who is omnipotent, could have softened Pharaoh’s heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the executioner angel’s passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea.

The Israelites assemble at Mount Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments, the great moral code that outlaws engraved images and the coveting of livestock but gives a pass to slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide of neighboring tribes.  The Israelites become impatient while waiting for Moses to return with an expanded set of laws, which will prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath.  To pass the time, they worship a statue of a calf, for which the punishment turns out to be, you guessed it, death.  Following orders from God, Moses and his brother Aaron kill three thousand of their companions.

God then spends seven chapters of Leviticus instructing the Israelites on how to slaughter the steady stream of animals he demands of them.  Aaron and his two sons prepare the tabernacle for the first service, but the sons slip up and use the wrong incense.  So God burns them to death.  As the Israelites proceed toward the promised land, they meet up with the Midianites.  Following orders from God, they slay the males, burn their city, plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive.  When they return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom had led the Israelites to worship rival gods.  So he tells his soldiers to complete the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape at their pleasure: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.  But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for your-

In Deuteronomy 20 and 21, God gives the Israelites a blanket policy for dealing with cities that don’t accept them as overlords: smite the males with the edge of the sword and abduct the cattle, women, and children.  Of course, a man with a beautiful new captive faces a problem: since he has just murdered her parents and brothers, she may not be in the mood for love.  God anticipates this nuisance and offers the following solution: the captor should shave her head, pare her nails, and imprison her in his house for a month while she cries her eyes out.  Then he may go in and rape her.

With a designated list of other enemies (Hittites,Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites), the genocide has to be total: ‘Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them ... as the Lord thy God has commanded thee.’

Joshua puts this directive into practice when he invades Canaan and sacks the city of Jericho.  After the walls came tumbling down, his soldiers ‘utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.’ More earth is scorched as Joshua ‘smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.’

The next stage in Israelite history is the era of the judges, or tribal chiefs.  The most famous of them, Samson, establishes his reputation by killing thirty men during his wedding feast because he needs their clothing to pay off a bet.  Then, to avenge the killing of his wife and her father, he slaughters a thousand Philistines and sets fire to their crops after escaping capture, he kills another thousand with the jawbone of an ass.  When he is finally captured and his eyes are burned out, God gives him the strength for a 9/11-like suicide attack in which he implodes a large building, crushing the three thousand men and women who are worshipping inside it.

Israel’s first king, Saul, establishes a small empire, which gives him the opportunity to settle an old score.  Centuries earlier, during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites had harassed them, and God commanded the Israelites to ‘wipe out the name of Amalek.’ So when the judge Samuel anoints Saul as king, he reminds Saul of the divine decree: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ Saul carries out the order, but Samuel is furious to learn that he has spared their king, Agag.  So Samuel ‘hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.’

Saul is eventually overthrown by his son-in-law David, who absorbs the southern tribes of Judah, conquers Jerusalem, and makes it the capital of a kingdom that will last four centuries.  David would come to be celebrated in story, song, and sculpture, and his six-pointed star would symbolize his people for three thousand years.  Christians too would revere him as the forerunner of Jesus.

But in Hebrew scripture David is not just the ‘sweet singer of Israel,’ the chiseled poet who plays a harp and composes the Psalms.  After he makes his name by killing Goliath, David recruits a gang of guerrillas, extorts wealth from his fellow citizens at swordpoint, and fights as a mercenary for the Philistines.  These achievements make Saul jealous: the women in his court are singing, ‘Saul has killed by the thousands, but David by the tens of thousands.’ So Saul plots to have him assassinated.” David narrowly escapes before staging a successful coup.

When David becomes king, he keeps up his hard-earned reputation for killing by the tens of thousands.  After his general Joab ‘wasted the country of the children of Ammon,’ David ‘brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes.’ Finally he manages to do something that God considers immoral: he orders a census.  To punish David for this lapse, God kills seventy thousand of his citizens.

Within the royal family, sex and violence go hand in hand. While taking a walk on the palace roof one day, David peeping-toms a naked woman, Bathsheba, and likes what he sees, so he sends her husband to be killed in battle and adds her to his seraglio.  Later one of David’s children rapes another one and is killed in revenge by a third.  The avenger, Absalom, rounds up an army and tries to usurp David’s throne by having sex with ten of his concubines.  (As usual, we are not told how the concubines felt about all this.) While fleeing David’s army, Absalom’s hair gets caught in a tree, and David’s general thrusts three spears into his heart.  This does not put the family squabbles to an end. Bathsheba tricks a senile David into anointing their son Solomon as his successor.  When the legitimate heir, David’s older son Adonijah, protests, Solomon has him killed.

King Solomon is credited with fewer homicides than his predecessors and is remembered instead for building the Temple in Jerusalem and for writing the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (though with a harem of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, he clearly didn’t spend all his time writing).  Most of all he is remembered for his eponymous virtue, ‘the wisdom of Solomon.’ Two prostitutes sharing a room give birth a few days apart.  One of the babies dies, and each woman claims that the surviving boy is hers.  The wise king adjudicates the dispute by pulling out a sword and threatening to butcher the baby and hand each woman a piece of the bloody corpse.  One woman withdraws her claim, and Solomon awards the baby to her.  ‘When all Israel heard of the verdict that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king, because they saw that he had divine wisdom in carrying out justice.’ The distancing effect of a good story can make us forget the brutality of the world in which it was set.  Just imagine a judge in family court today adjudicating a maternity dispute by pulling out a chain saw and threatening to butcher the baby before the disputants’ eyes.  Solomon was confident that the more humane woman (we are never told that she was the mother) would reveal herself, and that the other woman was so spiteful that she would allow a baby to be slaughtered in front of her - and he was right!  And he must have been prepared, in the event he was wrong, to carry out the butchery or else forfeit all credibility.  The women, for their part, must have believed that their wise king was capable of carrying out this grisly murder.

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery.  People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families.  Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children.  Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.  And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.  These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure.  They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons.  And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond.  According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible ‘contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. ...  Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.’ Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible.  (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total.

The good news, of course, is that most of it never happened.  Not only is there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly fictions.  Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians’ notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE.  And if there was a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki.  It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.

The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably originated in the 10th century BCE.  They included origin myths for the local tribes and ruins, and legal codes adapted from neigh boring civilizations in the Near East.  The texts probably served as a code of frontier justice for the Iron Age tribes that herded livestock and farmed hillsides in the southeastern periphery of Canaan.  The tribes began to encroach on the valleys and cities, engaged in some marauding every now and again, and may even have destroyed a city or two.  Eventually their myths were adopted by the entire population of Canaan, unifying them with a shared genealogy, a glorious history, a set of taboos to keep them from defecting to foreigners, and an invisible enforcer to keep them from each other’s throats.  A first draft was rounded out with a continuous historical narrative around the late 7th to mid-6th century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and forced its inhabitants into exile.  The final edit was completed after their return to Judah in the 5th century BCE.

Though the historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE.  Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea.

The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind.  The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces.  Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.

If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point.  The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions.  Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic.  In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored.  And that is the point.  Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible.  They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

Saturday October 24 2015

The week’s latest manifestation of the Michael Portillo Train Journey Show took us to Austria, and featured a spectacular viaduct, which made it possible for trains to go from Vienna to Trieste, the one big seaport of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  This is the Kalte Rinne-Viadukt, which gets the trains through the Semmering Pass.  I think I have that right.

Here is what it looks like, from above:


The man who designed and supervised the building of this railway would appear to be a very big cheese in that part of the world.

Now for another picture which tells you about something else that is going on in that part of the world, something Michael Portillo did not mention.

They’re building a tunnel:


I found that map (here it is bigger) at a place placed on the www in 1996.  Amazing. 

As part of an on-going programme to improve national and international railway links for the year 2000 and beyond, Austria embarked on excavation of a 9.8km-long pilot tunnel ahead of full construction of the planned 22km-long Semmering base line tunnel through the Alps. The new tunnel is on the domestic route between Vienna and Villach, which is on the main Trans-European railway route between the states of middle and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean harbours in Italy. The new alignment will supplement the existing 41km-long route, which was built more than 100 years ago and winds slowly and steeply up and over the Semmering Pass. At the lower elevation the new tunnel will allow for higher train speeds, ensure continued services through severe weather conditions and reduce travel times substantially. When complete, the new ‘fast’ track will carry high-speed passenger services and heavy freight trains while the existing mountain pass railway will continue as a local community service and as a tourist attraction through the spectacular Alpine landscape.

Work began on the tunnel in 1994, checking out the route, preliminary drillings, that kind of thing.  Amazingly, the tunnel only got the actual green light to be actually made, constructed, dug, drilled, built, tunnelled, in May of this year.  The present schedule says that the thing will only be finished in 2024.

In other words, it’s going to take thirty years from first use of a digger in anger, so to speak, to the last.  That sounds to me like a lot of years.

Friday October 23 2015

Earlier in the week, I journeyed under Trafalgar Square, in a pedestrian subway.  The subway was adorned with history lessons, one of which was this one:


I did not know this, about what a Mews is.  It’s not the kind of thing you ask.  By which I mean: I never have.  A Mews is a Mews.  I have never questioned this.  I accepted it.  And then someone answers the question: Why is a Mews called that?  Before I even realised I was ready to be told.

Click on the above picture, and get the darker and less artfully composed original.

Sunday October 18 2015

I’m talking rugby, not life.  If you came here because of the above headline but care only about life, relax, the Northern Hemisphere is safe.  It isn’t being culled.  It is merely that the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby teams haven’t been doing very well in the Rugby World Cup, which is now taking place in England.

Watching Ireland lose to Argentina had me conflicted, as they say.  On the one hand, another Home Nation succumbs to a Southern Hemisphere monster.  But on the other hand, England don’t now need to feel quite so bad.  Wales knocked out England by a whisker, and that was disappointing.  But England, Wales, and now Ireland, all got beaten by Southern Hemisphere sides.

And if Scotland do anything different against Australia in the last of the quarter-finals, about to be played, it will be a major upset.

England merely got the same bad news just the one game earlier.

Which means that, unless Scotland have entirely failed to read this script, the semis will be NZ v South Africa, Australia v Argentina.  These four teams have their own tournament every year, in their own stadiums.  Now, they are having another such tournament, in England.

As for France, well, they have done almost as badly as England, and perhaps worse.  They beat their minnows, as England did.  But, like England, they lost very upsettingly in the group stage to a home nation, Ireland in their case, and they were then completely shredded by the All Blacks.  Many neutrals had hoped for a repeat of 1999 or 2007.  By the end, even the humiliation of NZ only winning by one mere point in 2011 was expunged from the record.  This time around, the margin was: 49.

John Inverdale told a good joke after England got beaten by Australia 13-33.  He was in a taxi afterwards with a couple of England supporters, and one of them said: that was as bad as 1066.  Not really, said the other.  It was only 1333.

But 1362 (the year of the battles of Brignais and of Launac (blog and learn)) is quelque chose else again.  And if an All Black hadn’t dropped the ball just as he was about to score yet another try right at the end, it would have been 1367 or 1369, years in which other things presumably also happened in France.

LATER: Scotland have NOT been reading the above script.  They now lead Australia 34-32 with five minutes to go.  In-obscene-present-participle-credible.
But, penalty to Australia.  They lead 35-34 with a minute to go.  End.  “Southern Hemisphere clean sweep”, see above.

Tuesday October 13 2015

Here are the last pictures from my trip to Richmond last week that I’ll be showing you.  They are both of a house.

No cranes.  No roof clutter.  No scaffolding.  No white vans.  No taxis.  No Big Things in the background.  No me, reflected in it.  Nobody else photoing it, or even doing a painting of it.

Just a house, and some leaves:


But not any old house.  It was once the home of Henrietta Howard, Mistress of His Maj King George 2.  How do I know this?  From this sign:


Click on that if you don’t believe me and the above picture is too small for you to read properly.

Tip for when you are out and about photoing.  Take pictures of signs. That way you record not only what you saw, but what it was.  Maybe you won’t care about that in five or ten or twenty years time, if and when you are looking back through your pictures.  Maybe “P1250679.JPG” will be enough for you.  But maybe it won’t.

Monday October 05 2015

Photoed by me last night, at Southwark tube station:


Next to the ticket barrier at Southwark tube there are a number of these little history lessons, of which this was my favourite.  This is the kind of thing you can usually chase up quickly on the internet, and find a fuller account of.  But, my googling abilities are such that I can find no reference to this fish-discouragement story.  Anyone?