From Cat’s Cradle the TV show to the modern Left’s ‘White Man’s Burden’, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
According to the late celebrated author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle is tied with Slaughterhouse-Five as Kurt Vonnegut’s best book with a grade of “A-plus.” Given that the latter was treated to its own film version in 1972, its co-winner is long overdue for an adaptation. Better late that never, as they say: IM Global Television has optioned the rights to Cat’s Cradle, and the series will be executive produced by Sandi Love of Elkins Entertainment and Brad Yonover.
Released in 1963, the original work is Vonnegut’s fourth novel. It follows a narrator named John who gets involved in the lives of the adult children of Felix Hoenikker, a fictional co-creator of the atomic bomb. Through the family he learns about ice-nine, a way to freeze water at room temperature that could, in theory, destroy the world. The novel tackles science, technology, and religion with equal fire, and mostly takes place on the fake Carribean island of San Lorenzo, home to the mysterious Bokonon and his strange cult, Bokononism. [continue reading]
No one who—like we blog editors—has recently completed their first year of history graduate school could be in any doubt that “global” history is enjoying its moment in the sun. When we decided this summer to choose a common text to read and write about in book club fashion, we were looking for something that would capture the spirit of the historiographical times as well as offer entry points for historians with a variety of interests. We didn’t have to look long to settle on Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World, which, following the great popular success of its original German edition, has also received numerous accolades for the range, clarity, and accessibility of Patrick Camiller’s English translation.
In just over a thousand pages, Osterhammel aims to offer a comprehensive account of “the nineteenth century” as its own category of analysis—rather than the lenses so often used to explain that period, such as capitalism, industrialization, imperialism, and the jockeying of European powers. Thematic chapters begin with the nineteenth century’s own understanding of itself in relation to world history, moving on to consider themes as diverse as slavery, coal, and world languages. [continue reading]
The British Cold War
‘Historians are the most powerful and dangerous members of any society. They must be watched carefully… They can spoil everything’, was the (possibly apocryphal) view of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The last few years seem to suggest that both sides in the cold war took Khrushchev’s warnings seriously. Last year the national archives released the security files of some of the Communist Party Historians Group including Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and John Saville, whilst last month it came to light thatSir Martin Gilbert had met with the Hungarian secret service who had attempted to recruit him. It might seem odd to many that historians would draw the attention of security services but the nature of the cold war meant that history became a battlefield of ideology that was of vital interest to all involved.
The British state’s observation of historians shows the level of paranoia that the cold war created. Whilst the Communist Party was a subversive group who acted under the influence of Britain’s cold war enemy, we should consider that British values exalt the freedoms of belief and association. Both of these principles are challenged by an almost continuous state of observation that was applied to potential subversives during the cold war, and which is currently being universally expanded. Many of the documents relate to the direction of the Historians Group following the turmoil of 1956 which led to the creation of the new left and Evan Smith has blogged on the subject. [continue reading]
Human Rights: a refrain that has almost become a byword for progressive activism. If, pace Jameson, post-modernism is the cultural logic of late-capitalism, human rights is the politics of the post-political era. Yet, those on the left—from the liberal twitterati and Non-Government Organisations, to some on the radical end of the spectrum—try to appropriate this language. In doing so, the left are “running to the barricades of liberalism,” as James Muldoon puts it in a recent article for Overland journal, no longer interrogating these ideas as “white, masculine bourgeois ideology,” but holding them up as “the best that can be hoped for in the current political climate.”
The recent furore over Tony Abbott’s appointment of Institute of Public Affairs policy analyst Tim Wilson as the Australian Human Rights Commission’s “Freedom” commissioner has demonstrated the left’s outrage that the political right would dare intrude on “our” terrain of human rights. Globally, ever-more pressing demands by activists for western intervention into civil conflicts of third world nations in the name of these universal principles—often framed around the Responsibility to Protect principles—also illustrates a disturbing return to a 19th century notion of the White Man’s Burden. The question we need to ask, however, is whether these ideas are really ours to begin with? Looking at recent writing on the topic, and examples of human rights “activism” in Australia and globally, it becomes obvious that this tendency provides a poor way of imagining possible futures. They impose a frustratingly narrow moral compass onto politics, shifting attention away from the task of broader social transformation. [continue reading]