|Brick Wall - Duh!|
The following is a revised version of a comment I posted at a website concerning the 2006 movie The History Boys1 with added references.
The movie is about an English school where two Profs, Irwin and Hector teach. Hector I will leave aside for the moment; it is Irwin that is of interest to me here. Irwin is a contrarian; the sort of thinker who delights in being contrary and getting under peoples skin. He in other words is full of what is called the epater le bourgeois mode of thinking. Like the late English historian A. J. P. Taylor he enjoys annoying people and slipping people academic banana peels for them to slip on.2
Such a pose is of course frequently a form of narcissism, in which the person thus posing can congratulate himself on just how brilliant he is. And it is also rather easy to do because all you have to do is say outrageous things that are contrary to what you think are received opinion. Of course what is all too frequently the case is that the “contrary” positions aren’t that contrary and are in fact clichés and not backed with any sort of intellectual rigor.
Sorry but contrarianism is frequently lazy and Irwin comes across as a posing performance artist in love with his shock the middle class mentality. It isn’t original it is simply dull. As for his contrary positions? Well let us look at a few. There is for example Irwin’s championing of dispassionate discussion of the Holocaust. That of course merely indicates Irwin’s great ignorance of the subject and a desire to tilt at imaginary windmills. I guess Irwin is supremely ignorant about decades and decades of research on the Holocaust. A dispassionate and cool look at the event is more than 50 years old and hardly contrary or daring. Just read Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews published originally 50 years ago.3
So why does Irwin think he is so daring and outré to discuss such an approach? Well the motives of fictional characters can be trifle hard to figure out but obviously Irwin, feels bold and daring to do so with his misperception of received opinion. Which only reveals his deep ignorance. I also see in this a certain sangfroid, given his pose of contrarianism, in which he gets to put the horrible deaths of millions as not affecting him and thus vicariously kills them again. This is unlike the historians discussed who adopt such an approach in order to better analyze the event, not in order to consign the deaths to a moral memory hole.
Then we get such trite clichés combined with idiocy as:
Our perspective on the past alters, and looking back immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.4
It is trite and boring and utterly conventional to say that our view of the past alters. It is of course conventional dull contrarian rhetoric to assert this like this cliché is a new and daring opinion. Irwin merely is indicating the dull mediocrity of his opinions.
As for his opinion that we don’t “see” the immediate past and therefore there is no past so remote has the immediate past. Well perhaps he actually means something sensible. Actually of course people “remember” the immediate past better than the distant past and certainly the 20th century C.E. is better remembered than the 20th century B.C.E. Once again Irwin is trying to be “daring” and "bold" and instead says something that is, on the face of it, stupid and idiotic.
I just can’t get what he means by saying we don’t “see” the immediate past. We do has indicated in everyday experience. Perhaps if we parse the statement and semantically redefine terms this comment would not have the same load of cream my jeans contrarianism. After all in his ham fisted way perhaps he is merely saying that events are better understood, for various reasons when we achieve a little temporal and hence emotional, intellectual distance from them. If that is the case all he is uttering is another dull cliché / truism but dressing it up as contrary, outré and daring and patting himself on the back for it.
Another example of Irwin’s fake daring is this comment:
While they had no artistic merit’, he says, the Carry On films deserve attention since ‘they achieve some of the permanence of art simply by persisting, and acquire incremental significance if only as social history.5
Sigh! The Carry On films have gotten a lot of attention has cultural / sociological artifacts. Zero daring in saying they should be studied. Irwin just cannot stop thinking conventionally and yet ratcheting up the megaphone about how “daring” he is.
As for this bon mot:
If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher, study Henry VIII.6
The above comment that the way to study Mrs. Thatcher is to study Henry VIII is again a shock for the sake of shock comment and it is of course pretty stupid. It makes about as much sense as saying Japanese court politics of the 11th century C.E. would teach us about Mrs. Thatcher. I can’t think of a better way to not understand Mrs. Thatcher. Of course Irwin no doubt felt ecstasy while uttering the line which to him indicated how daring and outré he was. YAWN!
As for this quote:
The truth was in 1914, Germany doesn’t want war. Yeah, there’s an arms race, but it’s Britain who’s leading it. So why does no one admit this? [Pointing to a monument] That’s why. The dead – the body count. We don’t like to admit the war even partly our fault, ’cause so many of our people died, and all the mourning’s veiled the truth: it’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.7
All I can say is WOW! What a collection of addlepaided clichés. Let us deconstruct it. First the fact is that during the 1920′s and thirties it became received wisdom that everyone was responsible for the war (World War I) and that no single power was largely or disproportionally responsible for its outbreak. In fact this opinion played a role in helping to cause, quite unintentionally, the Second World War. That Irwin is ignorant of the actual causes of the First World War is rather obvious. Either that or he is being deliberately “contrary” for the purpose of massaging his ego and demonstrating his mythical “daring”. Also it is of interest that once again Irwin puts forth a clichéd conventional opinion and by unilateral declaration claims it is new and daring. Of course the massive abundance of data indicates that Irwin here is merely illustrating and proving his thoughts are conventional thoughts.8
Interesting this view was largely conventional wisdom until the 1960′s when the work of Fritz Fischer, a German historian working in Germany, revealed quite clearly that The German Empire was indeed disproportionally responsible for the outbreak of war. Yes Imperial Germany didn’t want war but they were prepared to risk war. Further England, France, Russia didn’t want war also. Austria-Hungary wanted war but just with Serbia. Imperial Germany was however willing to risk a European conflagration.9
Oh and just what “arms race” is Irwin referring too? Britain did not have conscription or a huge standing army, (In fact its army was under 500,000 and a very narrow number of reservists), unlike the continental powers; if it had there likely would not have been a war. All the continental great powers had conscription and very large standing armies. If Britain was in a total arms race she would have gone whole hog into creating a huge standing army.10
I suppose Irwin is referring to the naval race with Germany, but then he “forgets” it was started by Germany and it was, according to German documents, aimed at Britain and sought to gain naval supremacy in the North Sea and threaten Britain. In fact Imperial Germany repeatedly rejected any attempt by the British to negotiate a freeze or end to the Naval race which the British felt, completely accurately, was aimed at them.
The German Kaiser said in 1908:
I have no desire for a good relationship with England at the price of the development of Germany’s navy. If England will hold out her hand in friendship only on condition that we limit our Navy, it is a boundless impertinence and a gross insult to the German people and their Emperor…The [Navy] Law will be carried out to the last detail; Whether the British like it or not does not matter! If they want war, they can begin it, we do not fear it!11
Oh and even though the British had a significant lead by 1914, the Imperial German leadership was still planning for achieving naval supremacy over Britain. In fact given Britain’s lack of interest in continental politics the suicidal and ultimately fruitless effort to compete with Britain in Naval terms was a case of Imperial Germany shooting itself in the foot. It appears that Imperial Germany was all too deliberately pursuing a policy guaranteed to end British isolation and move Britain into the ranks of Germany’s enemies.12
No doubt in retrospect it turned out that the German fleet had basically been a waste of money and effort but then that was all too predictable right from the beginning. For basically the entire war the German High Seas fleet spent its time impotently trapped in the North Sea not doing much of anything.
As for not admitting that the outbreak of World War One was partly our, (i.e., the British,) fault. I suppose all those Brits who between the wars said it was partly our fault don’t exist and neither did they become the received conventional wisdom! As for the best way of forgetting something is to commemorate it. This is just another outré expression by Irwin no doubt once again pleased with how clever he was to say it. I suppose what he means is misremembering something by commemoration for at face value his comment is just idiotic. I note he just assumes that Brits don’t think their government was partly responsible for the war.13
What of course comes through is that Irwin is not moved; neither does he feel much connection with those who died and so is dressing up his indifference, much like in his Holocaust comment, with an outré “daring” comment. But then disparaging the war dead etc., has been a cliché with some intellectuals since the end of World War One. It is merely contrarian received wisdom.
The Irwin character is a perfect example of a superficial contrarianism that is struck like a pose and beneath it is little of substance. It relies on a continual clamour that it is “daring” “brave” and “contrary”, yet in the end it is superficial and ignorant.
The author of the website claims that:
His [Irwin] contrarianism isn’t empty or inauthentic, it’s a means of happening on astute deductions.14
Contrarianism isn’t lazy, it’s instructive: no better way exists of finding out an ivory tower’s weak spots than by banging one’s head incessantly against its walls.15
Sorry but given the evidence of the play Irwin is a facile contrarian, much in love with himself. Further his contrary positions are cliché ridden and banal and frequently not contrary at all but merely conventional. Further his repeated pose that his opinions are daring is simple bullshit and false. Irwin tends to think that his intellectually lazy poseur posing is clever. It is not. Well it isn’t any more clever than going naked into a busy intersection and defecating and calling it “art”. No doubt that is “daring” “brave” and “contrary” it is also lazy and idiotic.
As for his astute deductions I see no evidence of that; merely recycled truisms, ignorant statements and outré expressions that are nonsense. Irwin strikes me as a phony.
As for contrarianism not being lazy? Well in Irwin’s case it most definitely is lazy, easy and could only lead to superficial understanding assuming it could go even that far. Of course constructive contrarianism can lead to greater understanding of things but being contrary, just to be contrary leads to nothing but fog and confusion if not huge self-regard. If one is going to intellectually contrary one must bring to the table knowledge and thought not just a childish “No No!”.
As for finding the ivory tower’s weak points by banging one’s head repeatedly against a brick wall? Well in real life that is just stupid and leads to brain damage, a concussion and possible death. This is a bad metaphor. Intellectually speaking mindlessly “banging” one’s head against “orthodox” opinions etc., leads nowhere except to the intellectual equivalent of concussion and brain damage and of course intellectual death. One does not bang one’s head against a brick wall. One studies the wall, probes for weaknesses. Thus one corrects errors etc. One does not mindlessly bang one’s head against a brick wall either in real life or in a metaphor.
Well Irwin’s studied contrarian ignorance doesn’t impress me in the least; and thanks to Gabriel for reminding me why I disliked the movie.
2. For A. J. P. Taylor see Here.
3. Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews, New Viewpoints, New York, 1973, (Original publication 1961)
4. Gabriel, quoting Bennett, Alan, The History Boys.
8. The literature regarding the causes of the First World War is large and massive; for the notion that it was / is conventional opinion no one was largely or disproportionally responsible see Kagan, Donald, On The Origins of War, Anchor Books, New York, 1995, pp. 290-293. See also Fischer, Fritz, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1967, pp. 3-92. See also Fischer, Fritz, World Policy, World Power and German War Aims, in Ed. Koch , H. W., The Origins of the First World War, Taplinger Pub. Co., New York, 1972, pp. 79-144, Joll, James, The 1914 Debate Continues, in Koch, pp. 13-29, Janssen, Karl-Heinz, Gerhard Ritter, in Koch, pp. 257-285, Epstein, Klaus, Gerhard Ritter and the First World War, in Koch, pp. 286-306.
9. IBID, and Kagan, pp. 81-231. For Fischer, see Footnote 8, 1967. See also Joll, James, The Origins of the First World War, Longman, New York, 1984.
10. Kagan, pp. 89-93, 210-213.
11. Kagan, p. 155, quoting Kaiser Wilhelm II.
12. Kagan, pp. 139-141, 153-158. For a fuller discussion of the Naval race see Massie, Robert, Dreadnought, Ballantine Books, New York, 1992.
13. Footnote 8.