Archive for August, 2016

““It’s a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center. “It’s not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50 ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The ladies that live in West Virginia—and they got a job. There’s a huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”

I want to ask about the microfilm—microfilm?—but it’s hard to get a word in. He’s already gone three rounds on the whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.

“That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.

That’s been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America’s gun owners. So people here have to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn over to the feds when requested. It’s kind of like a library in the old days—but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.

“Okay?” Charlie’s tapping a box of Winston Reds. His smile is impish, like he’s daring you to say what needs to be said: This is a fucking nightmare.

“You want to see the loading dock?” We head down a corridor lined with boxes. Every corridor in the whole place is lined with boxes, boxes up to the eyeballs. In the loading dock, there’s a forklift beeping, bringing in more boxes. “You go, ‘Whoa!’ ” he says. “Okay? Yeah, but a million a month?” Almost 2 million new gun records every month he has to figure out what to do with. Almost 2 million slips of paper that record the sale of a gun—who bought it and where—like a glorified receipt. If you take pictures of the gun records, you can save space. “Two million images! You know, it’s 2 million photo shots. I’ve got to have at least seven machines running 16 hours a day, or otherwise, right? I fall behind. And to fall behind means that instead of 5,000 boxes in process, there’s maybe 5,500 tomorrow, you know?

“These were Hurricane Katrina,” he says, leaning against a stack. “They were all submerged. They came in wet. And then we dried them in the parking lot. When they got dry enough, the ladies ran them into the imager.

“Do you want to see the imagers? I’ll show you. Imaging is like running a copy machine. So, like, if there’s staples? So what these ladies along here do, from this wall to this wall, from six in the morning until midnight…staples.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s complaining, or bragging.

“All this, everywhere, all these hallways, the boxes,” he says. “We’ve been as high as 15,000 boxes backlogged. When we go over 10,000, the General Services Administration dudes are walking around going, ‘We’ll collapse the floor.’

“And then Denise says—did you meet Denise? Denise says, ‘Let’s get some shipping containers! They’re like 70 bucks a month to rent.’ So we put shipping containers out in the parking lot here.” He pushes open a heavy metal door and there they are, three red, one orange, and one blue, pinged with rust, sitting on the hot asphalt with weeds popping through. “See, now we fill these up. Um…” He yanks the latch on the orange one, bends his knees as he heaves open the door. Inside it’s the same as the corridors: boxes. “Maybe 50 times a day a trace will come in for gun records in those boxes. Right? So, 50 times today somebody will be out here hand-searching boxes because we don’t have them imaged yet.

“You want to go see the microfilm archive?”

– Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns.” GQ, August 31, 2016.

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Slavery and Progress: A Self-Reflexive Perspective

“Medieval historiography has inherited a powerful legacy from the abolitionist era that closely associates the societies of Britain with Christian civilisation and anti-slavery sentiments. At the beginning of the twentieth century W.E.H. Lecky argued that England’s crusade against slavery “…may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of the nations.” Similarly, Sir John Harris remarked during the 1930’s that Britain’s struggle against slavery,“…deserves the admiration and thanks of the civilised world.” However, it is extremely important that we do not forget the major role that Britain played in the African slave trade. Indeed, just a few decades before abolition Great Britain had been the world’s greatest slaving nation. British merchants were largely responsible for establishing the
New World slave trade and they greatly profited from it. The irony of
Britain’s subsequent zeal for abolition was not lost upon the African
rulers with whom the British slave traders had previously dealt. The
Asante chief Osei Bonsu is said to have remarked that 

The white men…do not understand my country, or they would not say
that the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they
think it good before?

More recent historical scholarship has highlighted the powerful and
disturbing role that anti-slavery ideology played in the construction
of sentiments regarding the superior character and virtue of British
civilisation. In the decades following abolition the British became
imbued with a proselytising zeal to impose their ‘civilised’ values upon
those whom they now deemed to be ‘savages’ because of their continuing involvement in slaving activity.  This abolitionist zeal provided
the moral ideology that facilitated the nineteenth-century imperial
expansion into Africa. Nineteenth-century British historians played a
significant role in the construction of this superior image. Indeed, the
attitudes of some historians reveal how closely anti-slavery ideology may
be associated with such racist beliefs. In his book Wales, Past and Present
(1870) Charles Wilkins expressed his horror concerning the existence
of the “hideous” condition of slavery, yet, he goes on to remark that 

The African had grown up but a degree above the animal, his lot if
he fell into any hands could not be much worse, and if he became the
property of a kind master, it was even improved in some respects. But
our poor Welshman! With the love of liberty, that was part of their very
being…for these (medieval Welshmen) the transition (into slavery) was
torture most execrable.

E.A. Freeman expressed similar views in his History of the Norman Conquest. Freeman was undoubtedly opposed to slavery. He regarded Bishop
Wulfstan of Worcester to be “an unflinching assertor of the eternal
principles of right” whose efforts had ended the “evil practice” of
slavery in Anglo-Saxon England. Yet, later in the same volume Freeman qualified his arguments concerning Anglo-Saxon slavery under a
sub-heading entitled, “The difference between white and black slavery.”
Within this sub-section he commented that

…there was one great difference between slavery in earlier and in later
times…The great difficulties which have arisen from emancipation of
slaves who are unlike their masters in every respect in which a man can
be unlike a man, is a difficulty with which Wulfstan and William were
not called upon to grapple. 

The prevalence of imperialistic attitudes such as this has undoubtedly
affected the historiography of Britain in general. The nineteenth-century
Irish historian M.F Cusack made no mention at all of the slave holding
nature of medieval Irish society in his Illustrated History of Ireland from
the Earliest Period
. Yet, this omission must be placed within the context
of Cusack’s own social and political milieu and his undoubted outrage
at the impoverished state of his contemporary countrymen. This is
revealed at the beginning of his book when he remarked:

I shall state very briefly the position of the Irish tenant at this present
day…the position of the Irish tenant is simply this: he is rather worse
off than a slave.

The residual influence of nineteenth-century attitudes such as Freeman’s
have ensured the continuing sensitivity of historical analysis concerning slavery. In the 1980’s Elizabeth Curtis drew strong comparisons between
the English involvement in the African slave trade and the indentured
servitude imposed upon the Irish during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries in her study Nothing but the same old Story; The Roots of Anti-Irish
. Yet, like her predecessor Cusack, Curtis failed to acknowl-
edge the slave owning nature of pre-Norman Irish society, which she
regarded to be “relatively egalitarian.” This is an example that has
been followed by other Irish historians who have sought to distance
their medieval forebears from such unsavoury practices. Indeed, Ó
Croínín has more recently asserted that “The institution of slavery, and
its concomitant, a slave economy, remained alien to the Irish way.” Such attitudes are understandable given the disparaging and condemnatory nature of pre-twentieth-century English historiography toward
medieval Irish society. Furthermore, whilst post-abolitionist sentiments
that associate slavery with only backward, barbarous and intensely
conservative societies persist, such misleading views will continue to
be perpetuated.

Despite the very genuine motivations of many abolitionist activists,
when anti-slavery was taken up by the British government the full
potential of this powerful civilising ideology became a justification for
pragmatic political expansionism. More subtly it became a subconscious
psychological aid endorsing world-wide British hegemony. In short,
slavery helped to provide the cash for the technological advances which
made Britain great. Conversely, anti-slavery provided an ideology,
which facilitated the continuing British cultural and political dominance of global affairs during the nineteenth century. This ideology
was extremely powerful and it has deeply affected historiographical
views concerning medieval slavery. Slavery has continued to be almost
as emotive an historical subject in Britain as it is in the United States.

This may be because it lies at the root of British industrial power.
Furthermore, whilst abolitionism constituted one of the first expressions of popular democracy and lies at the very heart of our civilised
self-image of compromise, decency and fair play, it also justified the
colonial expansionism into Africa and the epoch of the British Empire.
The civilising veneer of British anti-slavery is actually very thin yet
very few nationalist historians have been willing to scratch too deeply
beneath it.

Historians must be extremely self-reflexive if they are to transcend
the, still powerful nineteenth-century abolitionist ideology. No historian
would want to condone slavery yet, it is important that we understand
the reasons for our antipathy towards the institution before we begin to
study it. Indeed, historians have frequently failed to recognise the factors
that act upon their perceptions of this medieval institution and this has
resulted in anachronistic and inaccurate interpretations. Such interpretations have allowed slavery to be compartmentalised in order to reinforce
modern ideologies and sensibilities. Modern economic rationales, which
seek to uphold capitalist values or emphasise the progressive civilisation
of the West, have permeated the historical discourse on slavery. As a
result historians have, all too often, focussed their efforts upon explaining the disappearance of this medieval institution rather than seeking
to understand it. Moreover, when historians attempt to explain away
slavery in this manner they fail to realise the vital importance of the
institution for the societies of medieval Britain.”

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 54-58.

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Philippine “Betty” Amann.  

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Lilian Gish. 

Photo by Bain News Service, New York. c. 1922. Library of Congress,


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August 27, 2016: a new episode of The Anatomy Lesson at 11pm EST on CFRC 101.9 FM (cfrcradio). Perpetually confused. Music by Distel, Alan Pellay, These Hidden Hands & Lucrecia Dalt, Computer Magic, Nikita Villeneuve, Ada Vale, King Pong Dub System, and, of course, Psychic Pollution ( eatglassrecords) and locals Deep Sixed (ft. klsealegs!), playing a CD Release Party next Thursday. Check out the whole setlist in the comments below, tune in at 101.9 on your FM dial, stream at http://audio.cfrc.ca:8000/listen.pls or download the finished show at cfrc.ca.

Transfigure – “Days Go By” Transfigure (2014)
Computer Magic – “When You See Me” Davos (2015)
King Pong Dub System – “Never Stop” Islington West
New Order – “Confusion” Confusion 12" (1983)
Alan Pellay – “Parasitic Machine” In Dub Haze comp. (1981)
Ron Berry – “Sea of Tranquility” Where Dark Forces Meet (1982)
Ada Vale – “When This Heat Runs Out” & Motion
Deep Sixed – “Defensive Architecture” Deep Six
Nikita Villeneuve – “A1” Тоска (2015)
These Hidden Hands & Lucrecia Dalt – “Variants” These Moments Dismantled
Distel – “Hale” Puur (2015)
Psychic Pollution – “Quatrefoil” Deconstructed Architecture (2012)

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Rebel Yell, “Take Away,” Mother of Millions. Rice Is Nice, 2016.

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“I finished last time by telling you about Henry Ashby Turner, his own early research into Weimar Big Business, his gradually greater and greater hatred of anything which even resembled a Communist, and his attacks on [David] Abraham’s book, which included a scathing review, an “open letter” challenging Abraham to intellectual duel, talking to everyone in that field of history he could get to at conventions, and even letters with detailed attacks on the substance of Abraham’s book. Photocopies of these letters were passed from hand to hand in the Profession —including eventually into my hands, and boy do I wish I had made photocopies of my own before returning the ones I was lent!

Turner was attacking from a strong position. Despite some unease with how extreme some of his political views had become, no fair judge could call Turner less than extremely knowledgeable in the field, personally a gentleman, and with a track record not only of meticulous scholarship, but of writing in a clear style, without elaborate theoretical frameworks or jargon. David Abraham, on the other hand, was not only hard to read (and bear in mind that the articles I have recommended to you in the syllabus are the simple versions), he was fairly easy to dislike. One of my old professors was a grad student at Princeton when Abraham was still bathing in the warmth of rave reviews. Abraham gave a talk, he got asked a tough question, and his answer boiled down to “Graduate students do not question Professors!” —which is about as wrong as you can get.

These things were very much on my mind when, as a graduate student myself, I took some copies of Turner’s letters to the Scott library to compare them, closely, with Abraham’s book. I had all but signed my enlistment papers for Turner’s side in this little war. My heart was there, but my mind reminded me of two of the points we insisted on with undergraduate essays: One is: “Don’t tell me, show me!”. The other is: “Make comparisons that really compare.” If I did less it was going to get a little hard to look myself in the bathroom mirror every day.

That May week-end in Scott, an odd thing happened. As I compared Turner’s letters with Abraham’s book, the picture Turner gave, of Abraham doing everything from deliberately misquoting his sources to actually making sources up, started to blur and fade. What is, for example, the point so vital that Abraham would make up a non-existent book and risk his career to support it? (p. 157 note 114 of Abraham’s first edition, as cited by Turner’s letter of 28 May, 1983). It turned out to underpin the point that on trade policy various individuals had different interests, and that many economic organisations sought the help of political parties or of President Hindenburg. You or I wouldn’t even bother to use a reference for a truth that obvious. It seemed odd that anyone would falsify a reference to prove something like that. Certifying a book as absolutely non-existent takes forever, so I forged on to another point.

Turner (p.2, same letter) wrote that two of the documents Abraham quotes (notional correspondence between Martin Blank (an industry lobbyist in Berlin), and Paul Reusch on 29 Dec., 1930 and 2 January, 1931) did not exist. He argued that their non-existence shoots down much of Abraham’s book because Abraham uses them to prove that Reusch —who was both a big industrialist in his own right, and an important members of various industry pressure groups— was saying “Bring on Hugenberg (the leader of the German Conservative party [DNVP]) and the Nazis, the sooner the better!”

That sort of accusation is tremendously hard to deal with. I, Donald G. Wileman, cannot afford to go to archives in Germany whenever I like and check on the existence or non-existence of documents. Even if you can afford the time and money, that sort of process is not easy. Anyone who’s ever handled a real document collection will tell you how disorganised even a carefully curated, organised one can get, and how items somehow seem to move from folder to folder and from box to box. Turner did not go to Germany before he made his charges. He relied on a letter from the Archivist in charge of the collection that the letters supposedly came from, saying that they were not in the folder Abraham said they came from. So even the Archivist’s letter does not testify that the documents do not exist —just that they were not in one particular place, at one particular time. Worse, as it later turned out,  Turner in at least one case asked the Archivist to look for a “letter” instead of a “report”, and archivists are nothing if not literal-minded. Ask for a letter with a particular date and that is exactly what they’ll look for —not for anything else that might have been the item you wanted, But that was all the confirmation Turner sought for his own memory, aside from asking a few colleagues if they remembered seeing those letters.

If I cannot go to Germany whenever I want to check on the status of a document, I, or you, or anyone can read the relevant section of the Abraham book (pp. 164-65 and 316). And that material simply does not say what Turner claimed it does. What it does do is quote one of Reusch’s agents getting all enthused about the Nazis, and Reusch replying with a much softer, more careful position. And if the document was indeed created out of thin air, doing such a risky thing, just to falsely “prove” Abraham’s argument that a coalition government of all the bourgeois parties was no longer a do-able thing by 1931 —makes no sense. Once again, it hardly needs proof since it’s widely agreed on —including by Turner. Abraham’s larger argument on the pages that Turner cites, is that the idea of supporting Hitler, which was very controversial and had very little support among Big Business as late as early 1930, was being looked at seriously by more and more industrialists by 1931 —and that contention Abraham backs with a great deal of evidence which no one disputes —including a speech made at a General Electric banquet in New York City by none other than Carl Siemens (as in Siemens microphones) —evidence which Turner did not challenge.

The more points I looked up, the more I had this sort of experience. The point slowly changed from being whether Abraham had played merry hell with the sources, to being how a scholar as careful and precise about detail as Turner, could have misread Abraham so many times, and how he could so often overplay the importance of this point or that, to the structure of Abraham’s argument, which emerged from my comparison exercise pretty much undamaged in its essentials, even if you threw out every bit that Turner attacked. I started to get the uneasy feeling that I had come this close to signing up with the Confederate army.”

– from Donald G. Wileman’s great personal history of the Turner-Abraham controversy, “On With Abraham,” undated webpage. 

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Medieval Slavery, Modern Sensibilities

Modern preconceptions and sensibilities have profoundly affected historical interpretations of the medieval institution of slavery. Paradoxically, these same preconceptions and sensibilities have been moulded
and shaped by the discourse on slavery in the modern era. The nineteenth-century struggle to abolish slavery lies at the very heart of this
paradox. Abolitionism has been widely regarded by historians as a
defining watershed in British civilisation. Modern sensibilities concerning freedom, democracy, individualism, and the superiority of western
civilisation would all appear to have stemmed from that “unweary,
unostentatious and inglorious crusade.” The abolitionist’s triumph
thereby severed one of the final links between modern industrial Britain and the less savoury aspects of its more barbarous medieval past.
The disturbing nature of New World slavery and the way in which it
was eradicated gave rise to a powerful and emotive cultural antipathy
towards the institution of slavery. This antipathy has helped to obscure
memories of Britain’s involvement in the establishment and perpetuation of the New World slave trade. Indeed, it has resulted in a kind of
collective historical amnesia concerning the fact that Britain’s industrial
revolution was financed primarily by the profits from that trade. The
events and debates surrounding the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade have shed some light on these issues.
Nevertheless, the bicentennial commemorations generally served to
reinforce longstanding perceptions associating Britain with abolitionism and progress rather than with tainted slave-trade profits and the
horrors of the Middle Passage. Yet, even the apparently noble cause
of abolition had certain less pleasant side effects that have been overlooked by the nation’s historians. The success of the abolition movement contributed significantly towards the construction of a ‘superior’ and ‘civilising’ ideology that was subsequently employed as an excuse
for aggressive imperial expansionism and colonial domination. This in
turn intensified racist attitudes towards the indigenous populations of
Britain’s colonies and created a legacy of inequality that continues to
plague us to this day. The moral outrage that accompanies the modern
antipathy towards slavery would have been harder to discern in any
British community prior to the eighteenth century. Moreover, within
the societies of medieval Britain slavery was regarded as a necessary
institution; essential for the perpetuation social and cultural order.

[We must] improve our understanding of the significance of slavery in medieval Britain by first seeking to understand
how modern attitudes and sensibilities have distorted our view of that
institution. It is important that we recognise how medievalists have
constructed the institution of slavery and acknowledge the effect that
abolitionist ideology has had on these constructions. Modern ideological perspectives and economic rationales have immeasurably distorted
our view of medieval slavery. A critique of these economic approaches
will, therefore, be provided using Anglo-Saxon society as a case study.
This critique will then be related to some suggestions regarding the
alternative and, perhaps, more fruitful lines of enquiry that will be
pursued during the course of this study.

Until recently scholars of medieval history have rarely discussed
slavery. Indeed, many medieval historians have chosen to ignore the
subject altogether. Those historians who have dealt with slavery have
attempted to sanitise our view of the institution. One consequence of
this has been a tendency to depict the enslaved as being either in need
of or deserving of this servile status. The nineteenth century English
historian E.A. Freeman portrayed enslavement as a kind of medieval welfare measure. He argued that when famine struck Anglo-Saxon
England, the destitute “became slaves to any one who would feed them,
sometimes, when happier days had come, to be set free by the charity
of their masters.” Esmé Wingfield-Stratford, who published her History
of British Civilisation
in the 1920’s, argued that the Anglo-Saxons were
“a practical folk” who took slaves rather than slaughtering everyone. Dorothy Whitelock felt that the fate of slavery fell most commonly upon
the more undesirable elements of medieval society such as convicted
criminals or individuals who defaulted on their debts. Other historians
have attempted to distance the societies of medieval Britain from the
institution of slavery by attributing its existence to the influence of other
ethnic groups. For example, in his Early Medieval Ireland 400–1200 the
Irish historian Dáibhí Ó Cróinín argued that the growth of the slave
trade in medieval Ireland was “…a less savoury influence attributed
to the Vikings.” He goes on to admit that slaves were not unknown in early Irish society but qualifies this with the comment: “…there is on
the other hand no evidence for a trade in slaves in Ireland—though
there is for England and its continental neighbours.” In an early article
examining the slave trade in medieval Wales, Bromberg argued that
“…it was probably the Viking trader-raider who turned the attention
of the Welshman to the slave trade.” Similarly, Fisher in his Anglo-Saxon
Age c. 400–1042
argued that the Anglo-Saxon exportation of slaves was
a result of “the new influx of Danes” which “had given new vitality
to old bad habits”.

Even those historians who acknowledge the significance of slavery
for the communities of medieval Britain have often, consciously or
unconsciously, attempted to temper this view. As a result they have
issued slightly awkward or contradictory statements on the subject. In
his study Scotland: The Making of a Kingdom A.A.M. Duncan acknowledges
that during the eleventh century

…the ‘good’ men of Scotia went off to rustle Northumbrian cattle and
plunder the treasuries of Northumbrian Churches, and perhaps, too to
drive men north into slavery. 

Yet, in a later reference to this very comment Duncan felt compelled
to remark, somewhat defensively, that 

It is inadequate to characterise tenth to eleventh-century [Scottish] society
as barbarian and primitive, though it had something of both qualities;
perhaps the most neutral description is archaic. 

This later qualification would appear to reflect the author’s dim view
of native Scottish slave-raiding practices; a form of behaviour which he
clearly associated, more ordinarily, with only ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’
societies. Furthermore, Henry Loyn qualified his well-known statement
that, “Right to the end of its days, Anglo-Saxon England was a slave
owning community”, by later arguing “…the slave trade operated to
feed the needs of two distinct communities: the Moslems…and the
Scandinavians.” Yet, even the most conservative estimates suggest that
at least ten percent of the population of England were still slaves in
1086. Indeed, the sources reveal that all of the societies of medieval
Britain were trading in and holding slaves into the twelfth century.
Nevertheless, the slave holding nature of these societies has been con-
sistently denied or played down by historians. In his ground-breaking
study Slavery in Early Medieval England, published in the mid-nineteen
nineties, David Pelteret provides substantial evidence for indigenous slave
raiding activities during the Anglo-Saxon period. Yet, flying somewhat
in the face of this evidence, he issues the rather confusing statement
that “… from the ninth to the eleventh century it was mainly Norseman
who enslaved many in England.”

The historical arguments that continue to rage over the nature and
importance of both ancient and medieval slavery cannot be cleanly
detached from the debates concerning New World slavery. The idea
of slavery still has a great psychological impact upon historians. This
is because any discussion of medieval slavery is intimately related
to some of modern British society’s most cherished values and also
because the invidious legacy of New World slavery still looms large. The psychological impact of New World slavery is clearly discernable
in the historical discourse on the institution in the medieval period.
Nearly every medieval historian who has examined this institution
has felt obliged or compelled to compare or contrast it with slavery in
the New World. For example, the English historian, E.A. Freeman
made a point of differentiating between Anglo-Saxon and New World
slavery under a marginal note entitled “The difference between white
and black slavery.” Similarly, Andrew Lang, a Scottish contemporary
of Freeman, commented that the cumelache (fugitive bondman) that
feature in the medieval Scottish legal tracts were not to be thought of
as a “…bondman running away to town under cover of night, like
a negro slave making for the Northern States…” but rather as “…a
migration of the bondman by the lord’s assent, and with his sanction.” Whilst discussing the existence of slavery in medieval Wales,
the nineteenth-century Welsh antiquarian, Charles Wilkins remarked
with some horror: “How often have we not expended our sympathy
in the commiseration of the African; but here was a condition on our
soil still more hideous.”

More recently, Henry Loyn clearly felt that enlightened medieval
individuals would have been equally horrified by the slave markets of
their day, remarking that “Bristol and London in 1050 were notorious in much the same way as Liverpool was to become in 1750.” Moreover, in his book The Flowering of Ireland Schermann argues that
a decree made by the council of Armagh in 1170 prohibiting the slave
trade in Ireland “…was an astonishingly progressive act for its time”
which was achieved “seven hundred years before the rest of Europe
and the United States took the same action.” Modern sensibilities
concerning slavery have also affected views of the institution in other
disciplines. For example, the archaeologist B.G. Scott interprets two seventh-century Irish slave collars in the following manner: “Although
commonly referred to as ‘slave collars’, it would seem odd that such
fine pieces would have been put to such a lowly use.” Instead he feels
that they “…might have been used for favourite animals as a way of
showing the esteem of the master for his pet.” (See fig. 1, above).  Evidently
Scott had a clear mental image of what being a slave entailed and
it had a lot more to do with ideas about the horrors of the Middle
Passage and gang-style slavery of the New World than it did with the
prestigious nature of slave holding in Old Irish society.

Such anachronistic and misleading archaeological interpretations
regarding slave related artefacts are nothing new. A number of late-Roman slave collars inscribed with Christian iconography appear to
have been deeply unsettling for the nineteenth-century scholars who
initially examined them. Their resulting interpretations of these artefacts
are strikingly similar to Scott’s view of the Lagore collars. Like Scott,
they seem to have preferred to interpret these chains as dog collars
rather than acknowledge the slave holding nature of their early Christian
forebears. Furthermore, a recent reinterpretation of the spectacular
Iron-Age votive deposits at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey has revealed
how significant archaeological evidence for human sacrifice at the site
was rigorously suppressed by the original excavator Cyril Fox. Fox, who
supervised recovery of these deposits between 1942 and 1945, appears
to have considered that such a find would not sit well with Britain’s wartime self-image as the champion of the civilised world. His suppression
of this fascinating evidence is particularly relevant for this discussion because enslaved war captives were the most likely victims for such a
sacrifice. The Llyn Cerrig Bach deposits also included an ornate slave
chain not at all dissimilar to the ones found at Lagore Crannog. 

In his seminal study Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology Moses Finley
has argued that 

No one today need feel ashamed of his Greek or Roman slave ancestors,
nor are there any current social or political ills that can be blamed on
ancient slavery.

Finley’s statement is undoubtedly true, yet our antipathy towards slavery,
as constructed through the nineteenth-century anti-slavery ideology, is
extremely pervasive. As the Greek and Roman civilisations are regarded
to be the source and inspiration for modern western democracy it is not
difficult to understand how emotive anti-slavery sentiments might have
muddied the waters of earlier historiography. Such sentiments appear
to have affected historiography in general and this is unsurprising given
that the existence of ancient slavery was held up as a justification for
the institution of slavery in both the medieval and the early modern
periods. If one follows Finley’s argument to its logical conclusion then
one must ask in what period should we begin to feel ashamed of our
slave, or indeed, our slave-holding ancestors? It is, therefore, important that we understand and acknowledge how modern concepts of
freedom and feelings of remorse concerning New World slavery have
configured the modern historiography of medieval slavery. Only after
we have recognised and attempted to take account of such modern
preconceptions will we be more able to understand the significance of
slavery for the medieval societies in which it existed.  This was point was clearly recognised by Frederick Engels during the latter half of the
nineteenth century. He remarked that 

Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery
no Roman empire as the base, also no modern Europe … It costs little to
inveigh against slavery and the like in general terms, and to pour high
moral wrath on such infamies…But that tells us not one word as to
how these institutions arose, why they existed, and what role they have
played in history.’

– introductory essay from David Wyatt’s Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 3-10.

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“In 1960 two significant judgements on the ‘documents’ [consisting of forged documents claiming a massive Communist conspiracy had existed in Spain, necessitating the ‘Nationalist’ revolt] were published by
Englishmen. One was by Hugh Thomas, a one-time Labour candidate for
the House of Commons and later ennobled by Margaret Thatcher; the other
was an English United Press war correspondent on the Republican side,
Burnett Bolloten, who later became a citizen of the United States.

Thomas’s initial positions about Documents I, II and III, were expressed
in his 1961 general history of the Spanish Civil War (probably the best-known narrative account of the conflict). In his later, and much superior,
editions, he was to change his mind. However, the publication of his second
edition in 1965 did not, understandably, have the same impact as the first.
The enormous commercial success of the first edition effectively ensured that
the majority of readers would have read what he first wrote about the documents rather than his later corrections.

In Thomas’s 1961 edition, the only authority on the ‘documents’ cited is
Loveday’s 1939 book, and it appears in a footnote. Thomas did not explicitly
mention Loveday’s 1949 book at all in connection with the ‘documents’
despite its presence in his bibliography. Still, the flagrant contradictions in
Loveday’s 1939 account of the manner in which the ‘documents’ came into
his possession should have been enough to put doubts into his mind.

It seems to me possible that Thomas’s opinions on the ‘documents’ were
influenced by Loveday (1939) as analysed by Madariaga (1942). However,
Thomas did not mention Madariaga in relation to the ‘documents’. Thomas
referred to Madariaga’s 1942 book a number of times in his text – usually in
footnotes – and in his bibliography. It is reasonable to suppose that Thomas was aware of the study of the Anglo-Spanish professor-diplomat touching on
the problems posed by Documents I, II and III. Certainly, their conclusions
were similar. Madariaga wrote, ‘If the documents reproduced … are forg-
eries, they are very thorough, and it is easy to understand that Mr Loveday
should have taken them for genuine … I incline to think they are genuine.’
Thomas, in similar vein, concluded ‘I have come to the conclusion that the
three documents … are not forgeries … The fact that these documents were
probably genuine …’.

If, as seems to be the case, Thomas did not take a look at the revised
editions of Madariaga’s 1942 book – for example, the New York edition of
1958, in which all references to the ‘documents’ are left out, with no explanation of this omission – it is regrettable. It seems probable that Madariaga
did see Loveday’s 1949 edition, with its two new explanations of how
Documents I, II and III came into the possession of the one-time English
businessman in Barcelona, and that even for Madariaga, harsh critic of the
Spanish Republic, four different versions of the same event were too

Thomas’s commentary on the three ‘documents’ is found in a fairly long
footnote, based on these lines of text:

All sorts of plots and plans to achieve this were now prepared. Despite
the fact that the establishment of a Communist régime in Spain would
have been contrary to the general lines of Stalin’s moderate foreign
policy at that time, the Communist Party of Spain, intoxicated by their
capture of the Socialist Youth, continued to feed Largo with flattery and
to egg him on to more and more extreme statements.

This citation had followed extracts from inflammatory speeches, one by
Margarita Nelken, the other by Largo Caballero (dated 24 May). Thomas
gave no further particulars concerning ‘all sorts of plots and plans’, save in
his footnote on the ‘documents’. Thomas’s opinions, by the sheer number
sold, were, after those of Madariaga, probably the most influential in the
English-speaking countries and elsewhere, in the interpretation of the ‘documents’. As we have seen, the propaganda of the ‘documents’ after the
outbreak of the Civil War was largely orchestrated from London. There is a
direct line from del Moral to Jerrold to Loveday (or Loveday to del Moral)
and with subsidiary lines to Bardoux in Paris, to ‘Belforte’, to Hart, etc., and
then to Madariaga and on to Thomas.

Here is Thomas’s conclusion:

I have come to the conclusion that the three documents alleged to have
been found in four separate places after the start of the Civil War, and making plans for a Socialist-Communist coup d’état by means of a simulated rising of the Right are not forgeries.

Thomas’s reasoning was that since the ‘first reference’ he had found to ‘those
documents’ (Loveday) was in Diario de Navarra of 7 August 1936, they
could not have been fabricated between 18 July and 7 August, for this latter
date is ‘rather early for clever propaganda forgeries’.  In fact, the Diario de
, which mentioned not three ‘documents’ but only Documents I and
II, was dated 8 August, which could have weakened Thomas’s cause by
twenty-four hours, but since the Diario de Navarra openly acknowledged its
own source to have been the Palencia newspaper cited earlier, dated 1
August, there was even less time to fabricate ‘clever propaganda forgeries’, a
mere two weeks. However, Thomas went on to write:

The fact that these documents were probably genuine does not mean
that the plans they envisaged were ever likely to be put into effect. They
were dreams more than blueprints, or rather plans for hypothetical
circumstances which might never arrive.

Thomas then continued that the fact that the ‘documents’ were ‘probably
genuine’ did not mean that they ‘justified the generals’ uprising, since the
plans of these latter were already very advanced before their enemies had
begun to prepare their own’. The net effect of this analysis was to declare
Documents I, II and III ‘probably genuine’ but without significance.

Hugh Thomas’s consideration of the historical and political problems of
the ‘documents’ led him into several errors. First, he concluded, following
Madariaga, that the ‘documents’ ‘were probably genuine’, which was, as we
shall see, inexact; and second, he declared them to be if ‘forgeries’ then
‘clever forgeries’. Third, Hugh Thomas, in deciding that the ‘documents’
were ‘genuine’, concluded that they were Republican plans and not the
production of the military rebels; and fourth, he made no effort to analyse
the ‘documents’ in the context of the Spanish political scene, nor in that of
the Soviet Union and the European political situation.

A spin-off from Thomas’s book brought a new guarantee to the ‘documents’, this time from Sir Charles Petrie, who reviewed Thomas’s book in a
popular London weekly immediately after its publication. Petrie seized on
the occasion to affirm his faith in the proofs of the ‘Secret Communist Plot’.
He wrote: ‘… it is clear that Franco’s blow forestalled one by the
Communists. Documents which fell into the hands of the Nationalists
proved that the plans of the extreme Left were complete …’! Petrie then
repeated ‘facts’ found in the three ‘documents’ and offered this judgement,
‘Russian complicity was fully established.’ He observed that the original
dates for the Leftist revolt had been changed and concluded that ‘this change
of plans enabled the Nationalists to get their blows in first’.

Hugh Thomas was a talented young graduate of Cambridge, where he was
President of the Union, published a novel or two, stood for the House of
Commons for the Labour Party in an unwinnable constituency, and then
produced for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish
Civil War the first scholarly general history of the conflict. His book gained
the encomiums of the English intellectual establishment (Cyril Connolly,
Philip Toynbee, etc.); he won a world-wide reputation, became a professor in
one of the newly founded English universities. Successfully launched from
the Centre-Left, he gradually moved to the Right and seventeen years after
having published his book on the Spanish War, he declared himself for the
Tory Party. 

Thomas had begun his career as a writer of fiction, of imaginative prose,
and, in his historical work, at times, his narrative instincts sometimes
seemed to gain the upper hand. In 1975, in my book La destruction de
, and in later editions, I called attention to Thomas’s method of
structuring his historical narrative, which was much as a novelist might do,
and which occasionally led to a greater elasticity than appeared justified by
the facts themselves. An example may be found in the way in which he
incorporated in the same chapter two events of the war: the bombing and
burning of Guernica by the Rebels and the siege of Santa María de la Cabeza
by the Republicans. 

I considered this linkage, though theoretically indicated by the
chronology, to be, in reality, unjustified. He placed in contraposition the
Franco atrocity in Guernica and the alleged Republican ‘savagery’ in Santa
María de la Cabeza: two examples of Iberian bloodthirstiness. Thomas
objected to my comments in a book review published in The Times Literary
and a discussion ensued.
Mr Thomas had written in 1961: 

The defenders were surrounded by 20,000 Republicans, who seemed
likely to be as savage as Red Indians. Doubts and difficulties arose. The
attacks began again. Aircraft and artillery led the way. The heroic Cortés
was wounded on April 30, and on May 1 the International Brigade and
the militia of Jaén broke into the sanctuary. For a while slaughter was
general. The sanctuary was burned. Flames engulfed the Sierra.

In my 1975 book on Guernica, first published in French, I had written: 

This basic anti-Republican prejudice on the part of Crozier can be seen
in his account of the end of the siege of Santa María de la Cabeza, in
Jaén province. According to Crozier, it ended with the ‘overrunning of
the improvised fortress by the Republicans, and the slaughter of the
defenders’ … However, in reality, the vanquished were treated with a generosity rare in the Spanish Civil War, and certainly nothing like it
can be found in the accounts of Nationalist treatment of Republican
prisoners. See Epopeya de la guardia civil en el santuario de la Virgen de la
. Also la Cierva, Historia ilustrada, II, p. 207. Crozier perhaps
obtained his impression of a ‘slaughter’ from Hugh Thomas, who wrote
concerning the surrender of the sanctuary, ‘For a while slaughter was
general’ … In Thomas’s book, this account followed that of Guernica,
and the English historian doubtless credited the Republicans with this
atrocity in order to keep things in balance.

In his review in The Times Literary Supplement, Hugh Thomas wrote:

Mr Southworth is entitled to read my chapter like that if he wishes. In
fact, my arrangement was logical since I had adopted a chronological
approach to my account. That Nationalist redoubt did fall on May 1,
five days after Guernica. [I presume Mr Thomas means ‘five days after
the attack
on Guernica’, for the town itself fell only on April 29.] On
April 26 itself, the fighting there was, in the words of Captain Cortés,
‘tough and murderous’ (tenaz y mortifero). There is thus a perfectly good
reason for considering the two events close together.

Mr Thomas seemed to have disregarded the first lines in my note concerning
Santa María de la Cabeza, and I replied as follows:

The chronology he [Hugh Thomas] observes is ‘logical’ and I can but
agree. However, it is clear from my text that I was protesting, not
against his chronologically ‘logical’ treatment of the two events in the
same chapter, but against the serious errors of fact in his dramatic (‘The
defenders were surrounded by 20,000 Republicans, who seemed likely
to be as savage as Red Indians’) account of the siege of Santa María de la
Cabeza. Mr Thomas wrote: ‘The heroic Cortés was wounded on April
30, and on 1 May the International Brigade and the militia of Jaén
broke into the sanctuary. For a while slaughter was general. The sanctuary was burned. Flames engulfed the Sierra.’

This dramatic account was demonstrably inaccurate. There was no
‘International Brigade’ at the final assault on the sanctuary. The attacking
forces, ‘who seemed likely to be as savage as Red Indians’ were in number
not even 20 per cent of those to whom Mr Thomas referred. The sanctuary
was not burned. No flames ‘engulfed the Sierra’. This early text of Mr
Thomas was vividly written, it made for exciting reading, but it was not
history based on facts.

More importantly, it is inexact that after the Republican forces ‘broke
into the sanctuary, for a while slaughter was general’. There was no
‘slaughter’, general or otherwise. This can be confirmed by both Republican and Nationalist accounts (Trayectoría, 1971, by Antonio Cordón, who
commanded the Republican forces; the Civil Guard’s own official history of
the siege; and Historia ilustrada de la guerra civil española, by the neo-franquist historian Ricardo de la Cierva).

I suggested in my Guernica book that Mr Thomas had used his account
of the siege of Santa María de la Cabeza in an effort to balance a Rebel
atrocity (Guernica) against a (supposed) Republican atrocity (Santa María de
la Cabeza). In my 1964 book, Le mythe de la croisade de Franco, I argued that
Mr Thomas tended to seek to equalize the blame for atrocities between the
two contending parties, ‘de couper la poire en deux’ (split the difference). I
can give many examples, but I consider the accounts of Guernica and Santa
María de la Cabeza, placed side by side, classic examples of the method. Mr Thomas’s reply did not justify his original choice of words:

Santa María de la Cabeza. The attack on this Nationalist redoubt was
undertaken by the Army of the South. Their effectiveness … surpassed
20,000 men, although the 16th Mixed Brigade which carried out the
assault, was, of course, smaller. Everything points to the fighting being
extremely violent. The Republican artillery fire was considerable. The
defending commander died of wounds and I think about 100 out of the
400 defenders were killed.


In the 1977 revision of his The Spanish Civil War, Thomas made substantial
corrections in his account of the siege. Laid aside was the comparison with
‘savage indians’, but Thomas maintained the encirclement by ‘twenty thou-
sand Republicans’. Antonio Cordón, the superior officer of Martínez
Cartón, wrote that during the occupation of the Cerro by the Civil Guards
the number under arms was around 700 and that the number of the
attacking forces was hardly superior to three times the defenders. Thomas
now eliminated from his scenario the aviation, for the good reason that the
Republicans had none. He also left the ‘brigada internacional’ on the
cutting-room floor, despite the colour it added to the story. And in the new
version there was no ‘slaughter’, ‘general’ or otherwise. But Thomas could
not cut out all the scenic effects and retained the lines: ‘The sanctuary was
burned. Flames engulfed the Sierra.’ Thomas did not mention the fact
that none of the occupants of the sanctuary was mistreated or brutally
punished after the surrender. I now want to include the epilogue to the
affair, written by Antonio Cordón. After insisting on the generous treatment
given the survivors, he wrote:

But the same thing did not happen to those who, whether soldiers or
not, had been in Andújar on our side when the Nationalists entered town after the Nationalist victory in 1939. From what I know, Pérez
Salas was shot, one of the doctors who treated Cortés, Dr. Velasco, was
shot, Rey Pastor was shot along with many more. Others spent long
periods in prison.

Thomas’s 1961 book quickly became accepted as a classic on the subject. Its
substantial sales had the effect of institutionalizing the errors regarding the
‘slaughter’ at Santa María de la Cabeza, and such careless conclusions as
those concerning the ‘Secret Documents of the Communist Plot’. As for the
influence of Thomas’s debatable account of Santa María de la Cabeza, we can
read in Brian Crozier’s Franco of ‘the overrunning of the improvised fortress
by the Republicans and the slaughter of the defenders’.Carlos Seco
Serrano, a Barcelona university historian, in his Historia de España. Epoca
, writes of those ‘who survived the slaughter that came after the
final assault’. Crozier gave no source for his account of the siege of the
sanctuary, but he refers frequently to Thomas’s book in his notes. Seco
Serrano gave no source either, but in the first edition of his book (1962) he
quoted from Thomas in the caption placed under a photograph of Santa
María de la Cabeza. Also in that first edition, Seco Serrano published a bibliography on the Spanish Civil War that was practically in its entirety copied
from Thomas’s book. It is therefore reasonable to assume that on the question of Santa María de la Cabeza, the accounts of Crozier and Seco Serrano
were following that by Hugh Thomas.

Earlier, in 1963, in El mito de la cruzada de Franco, I pointed out how
Thomas did not take a firm stand on the numerous polemical issues where
the Rebel and Republican interpretations differed. He sought to find a
middle position. This was true not only of the ‘Secret Documents of the
Communist Plot’ but also concerning the siege of the Alcázar, the Massacre of
Badajoz, the Murder of Calvo Sotelo, and a number of other events, including
the Siege of Santa María de la Cabeza. An exception was Mr Thomas’s account
of the atrocity of Guernica, where he clearly favoured the Republican version
as, overwhelmingly and outspokenly, did the bulk of English public opinion.

In his 1975 The Times Literary Supplement review of La destruction de
, Hugh Thomas made an effort to justify the campaign of misinformation carried on in England and the United States during the Civil War by
Douglas Jerrold and Arnold Lunn in defence of the Franco cause. Thomas
wrote that Jerrold and Lunn in 1937

were indeed convinced that as Mr Southworth says (though using the
words as a denunciation) the Civil War was a ‘holy war, a Christian
crusade to save the Catholic Church; as well as western civilization, from
oriental threats, and from communism’. Hence, they would champion
what their friends said and stick to it.  

It seems odd to find virtue in the sincerity of the political positions of
Jerrold and Lunn concerning the Civil War, inasmuch as most of what they
wrote about the war in Spain was incorrect and they could hardly have failed
to know it. I am still amazed that persons holding the beliefs of Jerrold
and Lunn could think ‘the Catholic Church, as well as western civilization’
could be ‘saved’ by lying and by endowing the Spanish people with forty
years of Francoism.
Thomas went on with an elaborate pun: 

These Christian gentlemen had, however, been fundamentally affected
by the terrible atmosphere of a witch’s sabbath which characterized
Nationalist Spain in those days. To understand this atmosphere requires
a more equable spirit than that of Mr Southworth who approaches his
victims with all the generosity with which the Count of Monte Cristo
approached his enemies. Was the origin of Danglar’s treachery to be
sought in the number of pregnant girls in the Rue du Chat Qui Pisse in
Marseilles in the Napoleonic era? Such pedantry would have been swept
aside by Edmond Dantes with contempt, just as Herbert Southworth,
the Count of Anti-Cristo, tries to sweep aside sceptical historians of the
next generation. With Dantes, as with Mr Southworth, you must take a

Mr Thomas seemed to wish to persuade his readers that he, unlike myself,
was above taking sides. In fact, by coming to the defence of Jerrold and
Lunn, he was surely taking sides. Jerrold had, after all, boasted of having
tried to get machine-guns for José Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Falangist

– Herbert R. Southworth,

Conspiracy and the Spanish Civil War: The brainwashing of Francisco Franco. Routledge: New York & London, 2002. pp. 51-58

Herbert Southworth takes Hugh Thomas to task in a very amusing and effective section of this really, really, great book.

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August 20, 2016: a new episode of The Anatomy Lesson at 11pm EST on CFRC 101.9 FM. Because humans are hard. Music by PM (David Prescott & Minóy), Abul Mogard, the mysterious Brian Aspro, Big City Orchestra & Deathranch, Krylon Hertz, JLK & Babysitter, Cienfuegos, ARIISK, and new releases out on summer-isle and koreaundokgroup. Check out the whole setlist below, tune in at 101.9 on your FM dial, stream at http://audio.cfrc.ca:8000/listen.pls or download the finished show at cfrc.ca or on mixcloud here.

Death Kneel – “The Margin of Leisure Immeasurably Widened” Champagne Everlast
JLK & Babysitter – “Humans are Hard” JLK&BABYSITTER II (2013)
Abul Mogard – “Despite Faith” Works
PBK & Artemis K – “Body Fixated World” Dreams Into Dust (2008)
Cienfuegos – “Trabajito” Lost In God’s Country
The New Me – “Alternative Police” God Field
Big City Orchestra + Deathranch – “For We Love No One” Massacre of the Innocents (1985)

Dogon Lock – “Pulp/Lore” Black Spring compilation
James K – “Paranormal” PET
Krylon Hertz – “Incubation No. 2” Smuggle Death (1978)
Brian Aspro – “Mysterious Sequences of Something Equally Impressive” Music for BBC2 Documentaries (1982)
ARIISK – “Zero Zero Momentum” Mode Bionics
PM (David Prescott & Minoy) – “The Lovers” The Dying Man (1987)

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“Boobs Abroad – Maybe They Tried To Apologize, But We Thought They Were Still Calling Us Names,” Toronto Star, August 19, 1913. Page 3.

Comic by Goldberg.

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“Tea for Two,” Montreal Gazette, August 19, 1952.  Page 8, editorial. Cartoon by John Collins.  Stalin cheerfully reminds Mao to ‘keep the pot [that is, Asia] boiling” as cups marked Korea, Indo-China and Malaya sit on the table. 

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Crime and Criminals by The Prison Reform League.  Prison Reform League Publishing: Los Angeles, 1910.  Title page, dedication and table of contents. Read the whole book on archive.org.

I really like this book – unlike many prison reform books from the time, it connects local and state prisons with police and capital punishment issues.  Thoroughly systemic, is what I’m saying.

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“The word stampede comes from the animal kingdom — gazelles running away from lions, horses running from some other threat. But there is really no other word for what happened last night at JFK, because panic turned us all into animals. And the airport, designed to contain and channel people, had never felt more like a slaughterhouse corral.

At some point, running, I turned, I think, into a cinder-block stairwell. There, the crowd was a little sparser, and you could slow down and take stock. There wasn’t anyone giving direction, but, downstairs, there were a few security guards who seemed a little more calm — they hadn’t just been through a stampede, anyway. But they also had no idea what was going on, or what to do. At the bottom of the staircase was a break room, I think for the tarmac workers who handle luggage and runway security, which meant there were maybe ten or 15 of them, in yellow vests, among the 50 or 70 passengers who had gathered there. Risa wasn’t among them. She’d been running down the hallway, she told me later, when the terminal turned and her crowd of sprinters met another crowd of sprinters, which everybody took to mean there were multiple shooters, attacking from multiple directions. Somebody called out they’d seen four of them. Soon she found herself in another stairwell, where there was one guard sobbing hysterically and screaming and another dismissing anyone who turned to him for help or leadership by yelling that he didn’t want to die tonight, either. Where I was, there was more variety: A few were responsible-seeming, measured and urging everyone to stay calm; others just yelled at us to back off; and others seemed like stoned teenagers on a summer job, excitedly shouting, “Fuck, a mass shooting!” That they wore yellow vests with the word “security” made them, to the rest of us, the face of authority. But to them, the vest was just a job uniform, enclosing another panicked person in a crisis situation.

Nobody knew anything. We’d pushed past a bunch of security and out onto the tarmac, which seemed both safer and scarier in its black openness. But all of a sudden, all the guards were urging us back inside, not because they knew of any threat out there, but because they were following another protocol: It’s illegal for civilians to be out on the tarmac, so we had to get back inside. Not that anyone bothered to explain that logic, or anything else; the best information anyone could give was “active shooter.” Probably ten different guards said that to me, and nothing more. Where were their radios, I kept wondering. Why don’t they know what to do with us, or at least what to tell us? Surely an airport like JFK would have a contingency plan for a situation like this, which would call for passengers to be taken to a particular place or dealt with in a particular way. If there is such a plan, I saw no evidence of it last night, nor any sign of meaningful or helpful lines of communication between the various parts of the airport operation or the security forces that flooded in after the first reports of gunfire. It was several hours in, after the second stampede, that I even encountered my first cop, a member of the Port Authority police; by the time I left the airport several hours later, I still hadn’t seen a single one of them address the crowd to give any kind of information or direction, and hadn’t seen a single NYPD officer. It was an event, in the end, of mass crowd hysteria, and yet, crowd control had fallen entirely to the people who scurry around on the tarmac beneath the planes, literally never encountering passengers in their work. One of them told me, later, that 500 cops were presently clearing the terminal; not a single one, at that point, had been deployed to deal with the crowd outside.

The complete breakdown was terrifyingly clear as soon as the security guards managed to stuff us back inside. The only place to go was that break room: a cinder-block bunker with one tiny door and no cell reception. It wasn’t hard to reimagine it as a perfect corral for a machine-gun killer; in fact, everyone kept imagining it, and kept telling the security guards that. In response, we were told that both entrances were sealed — the door upstairs I had come through and the one out to the tarmac — but we kept hearing those doors open and slam shut. Guards were rushing back and forth, themselves panicked, and each time any one of them made a sudden movement, the rest of us seemed to swell up, too, and surge forward for the door. Guards and passengers kept screaming at each other; if the security had been armed, a shooting wouldn’t have just been possible but likely. A mother was wailing about having been separated from her child and being told to keep calm by a yelling husband and a handful of angry guards. A Danish father with a big red beard had gathered his family behind him, like he would be a shield, and darting his head out into the hallway every so often to take stock of the threat. People were shouting about where to hide, and a woman in the back was screaming to move the soda machine to block the door; a security guard, ignoring her, walked up to it to buy a Coke.

At this point, I didn’t just believe there was a massacre of some kind unfolding, I knew it, most clearly in my legs, which didn’t stop wobbling at the knee for the 45 minutes I was in that room. I didn’t think there was an imminent threat, exactly; I hadn’t heard any shots in that first stampede, which felt like a sign that the shooter or shooters had been far away, and I had enough faith in the NYPD to think that, say, an hour later they’d have things under control. Then I kept remembering: Where was the NYPD? And where was Risa? I had no cell reception but kept sending her text messages. She was doing the same, and calling me, each call straight to voice-mail. And then my phone died. I don’t think I’ve ever been more panicked in my life. I knew it was unlikely that, in a terminal this large, a shooter would show up where I was. But of course, you also expect it has to happen to you. What could I do? I just stood there and waited for it.”

– David Wallace-Wells, “Scenes From the Terrifying, Already Forgotten JFK Airport Shooting That Wasn’t.NYMag, The Daily Intelligencer, August 15, 2016.

Photograph is drawn from the article, credited to BRIGITTE DUSSEAU.

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“Lurking underneath the free-speech debate is an even more fundamental one about what microaggressions, as a concept, signify. Are they just another way to understand the complicated ways race, gender, and other categories impact other life, or do they represent a new, dangerously illiberal attitude on the part of students and administrations? Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, for example, recently argued in The Atlantic that microaggression-awareness advocates are embracing speech policing and self-victimization.

This debate is part of the reason an academic paper in Comparative Sociology called “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” has made recent headlines. Written by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, sociologists at Cal State – Los Angeles and West Virginia University, respectively, the article came out last year but got a burst of attention following its discovery by Haidt, who called it an “extraordinary paper”; a long write-up by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic; and a Bloomberg column by Megan McArdle.

In the paper, Campbell and Manning, having examined a bunch of blogs in which college students report microaggressions they’ve suffered (usually anonymously), argue that these blogs signal the dawn of a new “victimhood culture” distinct from the cultures that came before it. They view this as a big deal: “If it is true that the phenomenon of microaggression complaints heralds a new stage in the evolution of conflict and social control,” they write (social control just being academic-ese for how humans handle conflict), “we should be aware that changing a moral culture also reshapes social life beyond the realm of conflict.” In other words, if these blogs and the complaints they house really do represent a new way of understanding human interactions, expect the results to ripple outward.

Part of the reason this argument appeals to folks like Haidt is it plays up the newness and potency of microaggression complaints — yes, the authors argue, this is a genuinely novel, genuinely powerful approach to questions of power and interpersonal conflict, and therefore, if you take a Haidtian view, we should be afraid (the authors themselves steer clear of making value judgments about microaggressions). In his write-up, Haidt writes that the key idea of the paper is that “the new moral culture of victimhood fosters ‘moral dependence’ and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own.”

But I found the paper a lot less convincing than Haidt did.

Explaining why will require a very quick tour of exactly what Campbell and Manning are arguing. They write that “social scientists have long recognized a distinction between societies with a ‘culture of honor’ and those with a ‘culture of dignity.’” In honor cultures, reputation is extremely important, and threats to it are taken very seriously. “Honorable people must guard their reputations,” the authors write, “so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights.” These cultures lend themselves to frequent violence as their members “aggressively compete for respect” — Campbell and Manning present the Hamilton-Burr duel as a classic example of the natural consequences of honor culture.

In dignity cultures, on the other hand, it’s not necessary to vigilantly guard one’s reputation, because “people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others.” If someone randomly calls you a name or otherwise insults you, it doesn’t matter, because other people likely won’t take it to really mean anything important about you and who you are. The general consensus, the authors argue, is that the U.S. has evolved from an honor culture into a dignity culture. Small slights are generally laughed off, while when genuine conflicts arise, “dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem.” Going to the authorities is only widely accepted after attempts at compromise have failed, or in the case of something serious. If you call the cops on a neighbor just for parking in your spot once, rather than just asking them to not do it again, you’ll generally be seen as a jerk by others. (We’re talking in big generalizations here; obviously, there are some Americans who will react aggressively if you call them a name, and Campbell and Manning note that honor culture is still present in certain enclaves in the U.S. and other Western nations, as well as big swaths of the rest of the world.)

The key thing about microaggression complaints is that Campbell and Manning don’t think they fit neatly within honor culture or dignity culture:

Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all. Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.

These complaints do, however, fit into a new kind of culture — a “culture of victimhood”:

A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. This culture shares some characteristics and conditions with the culture of dignity out of which it evolved, and it may even be viewed as a variant of this culture. It emerges in contemporary settings, such as college campuses, that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions. Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.

Got all that? Key to the whole argument is the idea that these microaggression-documenting blogs represent something new and important in the broader tale of how humans relate to one another. But there are good reasons to be skeptical of this.

The first is that this phenomenon isn’t really new. For those lucky enough to have missed or ignored a very silly episode, there was a time about a decade ago when Bill O’Reilly (among plenty of other conservative pundits) would regularly proclaim that progressives, in an attempt to tear America’s Judeo-Christian foundations out from under it, were waging a “war on Christmas.” The infidels used a variety of weaponry to undermine Christmas and Christianity, among them the promotion of nondenominational winter-holiday displays in town squares and complaints against explicitly Jesus-themed sing-alongs in schools.

Pro-Christmas warriors were particularly outraged when people like checkout clerks said “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” To them it was a perfectly concise symbol of the extent to which Christmas was being secularized. And while this hysteria has died down in recent years, a quick Googling reveals that people are still making O’Reilly-ish arguments about the holidays, such as this woman claiming in 2013 that the use of “happy holidays” — and other such secularizing trends — constitutes “a blatant assault on Christianity.” It’s a frequent subject of letters to the editor.

Doesn’t complaining to a newspaper editor or Bill O’Reilly over the use of “happy holidays” tick exactly the same boxes as complaining to a blog about a microaggression? In both cases, the complainant is portraying themselves as a victim over a slight that is, by most definitions and to most people, minor. And in both cases it’s used to make the case of a broader, more systemic sort of bias going on. Or take Conor Friedersdorf’s example: complaints about having to “press one for English.” Again, a very minor thing is inflated to amplify one’s “victimhood” and used as evidence of a broader, pernicious trend. If it’s easy to come up with examples that were prevalent a decade ago, is there really a reason to think microaggression blogs represent any sort of turning or inflection point?

In an email, Campbell said he saw the war-on-Christmas anger as “more of a backlash against the manifestations of victimhood culture. I believe what he and others were claiming was that people were taking offense at the use of ‘merry Christmas’ or ‘Christmas parties’ and such. I think you’re right to see it as ultimately very similar, though.” He also pointed out that “we’re talking about long-term trends. The ‘war on Christmas’ stuff is also pretty recent.” In other words, it’s part of the same general trajectory toward victimhood culture. Well, okay — but it’s fair to ask why it’s microaggression complaints that “[herald] a new stage in the evolution of conflict and social control” (emphasis mine), rather than stuff that came a decade before.

Perhaps more important, Campbell and Manning don’t really even prove that these blog posts fit into a new sort of moral culture. To review: The authors argue that in victimhood culture, “[p]eople are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.” They see this as a shift from how people handle minor conflicts over language in dignity cultures: “confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”

There are a couple of reasons why these blogs don’t necessarily display a victimhood tendency. For one thing, they’re mostly anonymous — how can you bring attention to yourself as a victim, or bring in the authorities or the public at large as an ally, if all or most of the people reading don’t know who you are or who the perpetrator is? Anonymous posting just doesn’t exactly fit within the moral-culture framework the authors are discussing, which is heavily concerned with calling out specific enemies, rallying the support of specific friends, or both. At most, the stories on these blogs can be seen as part of a broader sort of “awareness-raising” about the use of certain types of language on campuses — or simple venting. (In an email, Campbell argued that the complaints are more than just anonymous griping: “What they’re doing is contributing to a ‘case-building’ strategy for larger political grievances. They are showing that a minority group are victims of majorities — that lots of minor offenses that maybe do not warrant individual punishment do warrant some collective response due to the burden they impose overall on the victims of these slights and insults.”)

Plus, in many cases the authors do handle things within the guidelines of dignity culture. In one post the authors highlight in which a Latino Oberlin student launches into an unhinged rant about a classmate who referred to soccer as futbol, for example, the author sent an angry email to the perpetrator of the microaggression, got an angry response, and then posted the whole thing. In other words, his first move was to “[confront] the offender directly to discuss the issue.” The email he sent was comically mean and over the top, yes — but it was a direct confrontation. Or take this post, in which a Brown student reports having yelled at someone to stop screaming, “[Student’s name] is a faggot!” over and over at 3.a.m. Again, direct confrontation followed by anonymous posting. These students are doing exactly what you do in a dignity culture — confronting the offender directly without involving the “authorities.” How does venting anonymously about these conflicts afterward retroactively alter the nature of how they were handled?”

– Jesse Singal, “Have Microaggression Complaints Really Launched a Whole New Sort of ‘Victimhood Culture’?NYMag: The Science of Us, Sept. 14, 2015

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