Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mary Beard, historians and evil

Not often that someone provokes me to swear at Desert Island Discs, but Mary Beard, the Cambridge Professor of Classics, managed it today by repeating her views on the 9/11 terrorist attacks (In case you need reminding, she was the one who wrote: This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. ..World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price).

A couple of things have become increasingly clear to me in recent years:

First, that academia is where society puts its idiots in an attempt to minimise the harm they can do.

Second, that professional historians are not, as they usually think they are, better qualified than the rest of us to pronounce on current affairs because they see them ‘in context’. I do hate it when historians, usually Starkey or Schama, come on telly to talk about Gordon Brown and say, with a dismissive wave, that “of course we’ve been through all this before in Henry VIII’s day” (or whenever their specialism happens to be). In fact, all they are doing is what everyone else does: giving their personal opinion. They interpret both the contemporary and the selected historical narratives to fit their purpose. (In this case, Beard compares US ‘imperialism’ with the Roman Empire, her specialism.)

Beard’s original “article” – which, amongst worse offences, puts the word “terrorists” in scare quotes - was written just three days after the 9/11 attacks and published a few weeks later. Pressed on it now, it seems that Beard believes the worst that can be said of it is that her timing was a bit tactless. But the evil of her views, now so banally and gently expressed, only becomes more vivid with the years, as the excuse of a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction has passed. She did not take the opportunity to acknowledge that the targets and the victims of the 9/11 attacks were not US “imperialists” or Government policymakers, but civilians and the families they left behind. Ongoing, nearly all of the victims of Al Qaeda terrorism (or “terrorism” as Beard would have it) are Muslim civilians.

The worst commentariat reactions to 9/11 – namely conspiracy theorising and the Mary Beard/Ward Churchill school of leftist cant – continue to appal and provoke swearing at the radio nearly a decade on.

If someone consistently says evil things, is the fact that they really believe themselves morally right an excuse? Is stupidity an excuse? On balance, probably not, at least in this case. Beard’s statements are unequivocally evil – certainly as evil, in their way, as Pat Robertson’s views on Haiti. Given that she’s still professing them, I think we can reasonably say that Mary Beard is in a particular way evil, and in a more general way stupid.

16 comments:

malty said...

Proof, if proof were needed, that academic excellence and intelligence frequently are not bedfellows. We seem to be in an age where the media's default reaction is to reach into the sack marked 'experts' for some professors, who then upload their opinions into our homes, many of them come with more baggage than an Airbus and are incapable of rational thought. Far too long spent in the same cabin probably, from aged five until retirement, has to limit their horizons.

Beard's remarks are so offensive that they would appear to smack of racism.

I had an acquaintance who was in the carrots and straw trade, professor of agricultural economics, he was responsible for the background research and frequently the speeches of the UKs common market minister responsible for handing French farmers our wage packets, another acquaintance, a farmer, used to spit nails when the prof's name was mentioned and go into some detail over his misdemeanors, he was one of the most successful local farmers, I have no reason to doubt him. I would imagine that by now the prof's jolly japes have cost the country hundreds of millions.

Outa_Spaceman said...

I'm fond of quoting my granny (who was not an academic by any stretch of the imagination) when I hear of the distress caused by remarks similar to those made by the Beard...
"Just because someone has an opinion it doesn't mean it's worth having or, that you have to listen to it.."
Now that's what I call wisdom...
Turn the radio off and take the sprog out for a bit of fresh air instead...
It'll do you the world of good...

O.S.M.

Brit said...

Sound advice, OSM, especially re avoiding Today, Question Time etc... but Desert Island Discs? A sucker punch.

Outa_Spaceman said...

"Expect the unexpected"
Kwai Chang Caine (Kung Fu)

Word to the wise...
Avoid Woman's Hour at all costs...

Gadjo Dilo said...

If she had better considered views then she probably wouldn't be famous and wouldn't get on Desert island Disks, that's what disturbs me most. (Please tell me that The Archers at least is still a repository of common sense.)

Gaw said...

MB is a woman with ridiculous and unpleasant views. But isn't the wider lesson that is drawn here - that learning isn't guaranteed to make you good or wise - something of a truism? The terribly clever Dickie Dawkins demonstrated this the other day as do uncountable experts in all fields every day.

Re historians and their views on the present, I think they're more likely to say something that's interesting rather than correct. I think even professional historians would admit this - after all they can't all be right (cf. Baddiel and Newman)!

Brit said...

I'm all for people saying interesting things, Gaw. There is however a Starkey Syndrome whereby the historian aims to give the impression that he is the only one in command of the full sweep of history, and the current events and all the other commenters on the panel are but straws in the wind on which he soars.

Gaw said...

There are Starkeys in every walk of life, of course. But they probably shout a bit louder when they're historians as they're so used to other historians shouting them down. They live a torrid, embattled, red-in-tooth-and-claw life, where you're only as good as your last article in Renaissance Quarterly.

Anyway I think on balance Dr Starkey firmly contributes to the gaiety of the nation. There are those tweed suits just for starters.

Brit said...

I thought you might stick up for the historians...:)

ghostofelberry said...

Academic expertise often involves generalisations, seeing things en masse - seeing the people who died in the World Trade Centres as just "Americans" rather than human beings, or even as allegorical figures representing "America" - and not America in its great width and strangeness and variety, but the monolithic Death Star America.

It's still a grossly irresponsible and stupid thing to have said. One wants to corner her and say politely but insistently, "what do you mean by 'pay the price', exactly?" and "what do you mean by America?" and so on until it comes down to "civilians should die horribly because of their Government's actions" - which is, it seems, what she's really saying.

Peter Burnet said...

Jean-Francois Revel once said something like, if you took anti-Americanism away from the French political elites, they would be left with nothing to say. Meanwhile, lower down the ladder...

But it can be complicated. This story illustrates how there can be a very fine line between philo-Americanism and anti-Americanism, and why they can perhaps be forgiven for taking everything the rest of the world says to them with a grain of salt. Weakness will do that to you.

David said...

You can't fool us. You all love us now that we've elected President Obama.

Rachel said...

Beard wants us to believe that because she listens to the music of Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin she really does love America and relishes its culture without partaking in its politics.

Beard ought to stick to her Roman history: Dylan and Franklin are both musicians steeped in American political reality - by the nature of their lyrics, delivery, record deals and skin colour.

How pathetically patronising. Beard is like other lefty intellectuals who want to be considered hip because they have a few "black" friends, are "anti-American" or prescribe to what ever the hipster association is of the day.

Beard is utterly pathetic.

TJ said...

Well I tend to judge people by the kind of people they are, rather than whatever they claim to believe.

Consider Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. Both were imperialistic racists, but which one would you rather have a beer with?

Beard seems nice enough.

Selah.

TJ said...

Another problem with our host's article is that it isn't fair to turn what Beard actually wrote into "civilians should die horribly because of their Government's actions" as ghostofelberry has it.

Beard really makes two claims:

1) Given American foreign policy over the period preceding 9/11, it is not surprising that America has suffered some kind of reprisal. This is the "world bullies" point.

2) Refusing to analyse the motives behind terrorist attacks is stupid.

bloguay.com/mueblesmadrid768 said...

A great deal of useful information for me!