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Modern History

Human Rights and the COVID-19 Lockdown

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The speed with which we have given up some of our most basic rights and freedoms in the face of an incurable epidemic would be noteworthy, if it were not also such a cliché. Everyone has seen films in which the rights-bearing body of an individual becomes a disease-vector, and ultimately little more than toxic waste to be placed under rigorous cordon sanitaire, if not summarily obliterated. The mediocre Tom Clancy techno-thriller Executive Orders (1996) had the USA fight off a weaponised Ebola attack, with only conniving political opportunists moaning about rights, as the pragmatic authorities intoned the legal pabulum “the Constitution is not a suicide-pact!”[i]

Less entertainingly, it is also very nearly a truism of real-life commentary that the inequality with which “rights” are distributed in good times is multiplied in bad ones. While the virus itself may not discriminate, as we have been repeatedly advised, it seems to be having a disproportionate impact in the ethnic-minority communities of major Western nations, while the economic effects of lockdown are, of course, more violently traumatic the closer one is to the margins of society.

Human rights are supposedly universal and unconditional. But the protections they claim to offer have always proven flimsy and threadbare in practice. One reason for this is that the evolution of rights-language in the last three centuries is in fact frequently about two other things: firstly, an idea of grounded, foundational rectitude which has only partially shifted from theological to “scientific” underpinnings, and secondly, the doctrine of state sovereignty, historically entangled with the assertion of national identity. In the way they are used in practice in the world, “human rights” are frequently a cover for assertions and practices that entirely contradict their supposed premise of individual autonomy and security.

Human rights began their modern life as “natural rights”, an offshoot of centuries of European intellectual debate about the existence and contours of “natural law”. Understood, implicitly and explicitly, as a function of the fact of an ordered and purposive divine creation, and of the sovereign state as a component of such an order, rights retained their theological tinge very clearly into the Age of Enlightenment. The US Declaration of Independence invoked the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” as its foundation, spoke of the trinity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as rights “endowed by their Creator” upon men, and appealed to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for validation. Thirteen years later, the French declared the “natural and imprescriptible rights of man” at the heart of a document they decreed to be proclaimed “in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being”.

The French declaration of 1789 also placed the imagined rights-bearing individual in a complex and ultimately subordinated relationship to the other rising force of the era, in stating that “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation”, and that “Law is the expression of the general will.” Across the declaration’s seventeen articles, although “every citizen” has the “right” to participate in lawmaking, the law itself – the encoded power of the nation-state – stands above anyone’s “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression” (the four enumerated natural rights).[ii]

The modern sovereign nation-state that increasingly took shape in the 1800s was built on claims of inherent superiority that displaced divinity with reason, but were no less, and sometimes more, discriminatory as a result. In France, even before the Revolution had transitioned into Napoleon’s dictatorship, the savants of the new National Institute had taken up the reins of scientific leadership dropped by the abolished royal academies of the old order. Alongside scholars of the sciences and literature, equal prominence was given to practitioners of the “moral and political sciences”.

One of the supposedly great truths that these scholars enunciated, for a country now explicitly referring to itself as “the Great Nation”, was that such a nation, while naturally superior to others, also contained many – multitudes indeed – who did not measure up, individually, to that greatness. France’s leading intellectuals quite deliberately defined the egalitarian republicanism to which they were sworn as something that required, in practice, a rigorous hierarchical division between the fully-enlightened and able elite, and the majority, still seeking to pull themselves out of the mire of the past, who could only expect to be led, gently but firmly, for the foreseeable future.

The legacy of the early nineteenth-century approach to the superiority of rational knowledge has been the creation of waves of ideological thinking, predicated on the foundational entitlement of those who know better to dominate and manipulate the common herd. Over the past two centuries, ideologies from to fascism to Marxism-Leninism, via the imperial liberalism that dominated Anglo-American and French public life, have used claims about their superior understanding of past, present, and future to claim the right to forcibly remake humanity for the collective good, using the overwhelming power of the state.

When the founders of the United Nations produced a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, they proposed to endow all people with a remarkably wide-ranging set of entitlements. The first clause of Article 25 states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

A noble aim, perhaps, but also a staggering act of hypocrisy on the part of France and the UK, ruling over swathes of subjugated and impoverished empire, the USSR, winding up to launch the antisemitic persecution of the so-called “Doctors’ Plot”, and the USA, mired in racial segregation and discrimination. The ultimate paradox of the notion of individual “rights” is that, if they are violated by a higher power, only a yet-higher and more righteous power can set matters straight. It is easy to believe such a power can exist, much harder to identify it in practice.

The past six decades have seen repeated and ever-more elaborate forms of international covenants binding states to increasing portfolios of rights that purport to demand respect. Yet, where are we? Half of the world’s ten largest countries – more than 3 billion people in those five states alone – are ruled by demagogues and autocrats.[iii] The UN’s “Human Rights Council”, founded in 2006, is a rotating talking-shop of forty-seven states which to date has never failed to include some of the world’s most notorious human-rights abusers in its membership.

Sitting in our homes, in a world which has, with the best intentions, summarily crushed many of our most fundamental everyday freedoms, we might legitimately wonder whether all discussion of “human rights” remains in the shadow of its pre-modern origins. We have, mostly, displaced the notion of divinely-ordained absolute sovereignty with more modern ideas, but we may well have given the sovereign nation and the state that embodies it almost as much power, while gaining in return little real regard for the individuals whose rights it supposedly protects.

David Andress is Professor of Modern History at the University of Portsmouth, and author of many works on the era of the French Revolution. He edited the Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (2015), and has recently published Cultural Dementia (2018) and The French Revolution: a peasants’ revolt (2019).

Cover image: The universal declaration of human rights, 10 December 1948.

[i] The short-lived 2004 BBC show Crisis Command grimly demonstrated what might happen if a plague outbreak in the UK was not mercilessly stamped out, and to hell with rights.

[ii] According to the canonical text, the law may constrain liberty, in a whole number of ways, if behaviour troubles “the public order established by law”; it may overrule people’s own understanding of both security and resistance to oppression, for “any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offence.” It may even, in the text’s final article, take away property, despite this being reiterated as “an inviolable and sacred right”, as long as due forms are followed and compensation paid. And what those are, of course, will be determined by the law.

[iii] In 2005 the UN invented the doctrine of a collective “Responsibility to Protect” human rights in other states. In 2015 the Saudi government invoked its “responsibility” to “protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government” in launching the savage and near-genocidal campaign that continues to this day.

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Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?

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The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. https://unsplash.com/photos/HA0Rgl-ISko [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

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‘The Great Australian Silence’: Sexual Violence in Australian History

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Like many settler colonies with evolving frontiers, there has been a continuous undercurrent of sexual violence in Australian history. From the first establishment of European settlements in Australia, forced sexual relations perpetrated by white settlers have remained relatively unspoken about in recollections of the Australian frontier experience, regardless of the victim’s race.

The term ‘the Great Australian Silence’ was first coined in a 1968 lecture delivered by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner. Stanner utilised the term to address the manner in which certain critical areas of Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, including invasion, dispossession and massacres, had generally been ignored by Australian historians as part of a long-term structural trend, otherwise known as the ‘cult of forgetfulness’.[1]

Although scholarship has evolved over the past two decades to address certain aspects of ‘the Great Australian Silence’, a silence which undeniably excludes or minimises the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by white settlers predominantly against Aboriginal women, the scholarship has centred around massacres, genocide and child removal, with no substantial historiography on sexual violence.

Subsequently, it has been historically-set works of fiction that have been most effective in drawing public and academic attention to the relationship between the frontier, frontier violence and sexual violence. This includes the efforts of John Hillcoat and Kim Scott, whose works The Proposition and Benang: From the Heart will be briefly examined in this post, as well as the works of other contemporaries such as Kate Grenville (The Secret River, 2005) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002).

Although Scott and Hillcoat investigate these ideas in slightly different contexts, namely sexual violence towards white women in nineteenth-century frontier Queensland in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, and sexual violence towards Aboriginal women in Western Australia from European arrival through to the twentieth century in Scott’s Benang, they both attempt to highlight sexual violence as intrinsic to the frontier experience.

These two texts, when compared, emphasise differing aspects of colonial sexual violence. Hillcoat, in depicting the raped white colonial woman, presents sexual violence as a threat to the ideal of white nationhood; whereas Scott, in showing interracial sexual violence between settlers and Indigenous women, presents sexual violence as necessary for the survival of the white Australian nation.

In The Proposition, sexual violence is a vital and indivisible aspect of the film; indeed, “women’s bodies, or the violation of white women’s bodies to be exact, are called upon as both the motivation and means of resolving the proposition propelling the film”.[2]

The crime that motivates the proposition that drives the film is especially horrific as it involved the rape and murder of pregnant Eliza Hopkins, who embodied the future of the white nation. Furthermore, the place of sexual violence in relation to the frontier is emphasised in the penultimate scene in the Stanley homestead whereupon Martha, wife of Constable Stanley, is the victim of an attempted rape.

In this regard, Hillcoat draws substantial attention of the place of sexual violence against white women on the Australian frontier. In comparing The Proposition and Benang, the role of race is important to note, and here both creators serve to offer a nuanced insight into how sexual violence is presented in the context of colonial Australia based on the race of the violated woman. Rape is deemed a crime in The Proposition, arguably the worst crime that can be committed in such a society, whereas in Benang it is either an unacknowledged, un-criminalised consequence of the wider, also unacknowledged, crime of mass murder, or merely taken as an accepted aspect of colonisation

The sexual violence against Indigenous women in Benang does not serve to drive the plot of the novel; instead, it supplements and further highlights the violence faced by the Nyoongar people under white settlement. Furthermore, Scott highlights how sexual violence is intrinsic to other brutal and silenced aspects of colonialization, namely the eugenicist ideals held by those such as A. O. Neville, which subsequently motivate the mass removal of Indigenous children.

The most predominant occasions of rape are committed by Ern Scat, a Scotsman who legitimises his constant rape of his two Nyoongar wives as part of his eugenicist attempts to “breed out the colour”. For Scott, sexual violence and the expression of colonial hegemonic masculinity are depicted as a necessary part of colonisation, via the likening of the bodies of Aboriginal women to the land they are dispossessed from.

Indeed, Ern’s first experiences with the Aboriginal camps is a memory overwhelmed by sexual violence; as he remembers “the first night. The dirt on his bare knees, and how she turned her head away as her body took his thrusts”. Shifting between Sandy One’s mother being the product of rape, to the intrinsic place of rape after the massacre of Indigenous groups, through to Ern’s exploits, Benang details how sexual violence towards Aboriginal women is a continual and substantial feature of Australian history.

In comparing Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Scott’s Benang, one can see how historically-set texts have been vital in attempting to address the national silence regarding the place of sexual violence in Australian history.

It is worth noting that these examinations of sexual violence are done from the perspective of male creatives, and although they are successful in opening dialogue about ‘the Great Australian Silence’ regarding sexual violence in the history of the Australian frontier, texts by women, particularly Indigenous women, could offer further insights and perspectives into the relationship between sexual violence and Australian history.

Yet undeniably, Hillcoat and Scott both succeed in starting to challenge the silence and unspeakability regarding historical sexual violence in Australia, and thus offer a foundation for further discussion and research from a myriad of different perspectives. Ultimately, both texts work to render sexual violence in Australian history speakable, as it should be.[3]

Zoe Smith is a history and literature student at the Australian National University, with a specialisation in gender history and feminist theory. Having just completed a semester of study with the University of Sheffield History Department, she will be completing her third year of study this year, with full intentions of doing further research into sexual violence on the Australian frontier via an honours thesis and a PhD. You can find Zoe on Twitter @ZoeASmith4

Cover image: View of Millstream-Chichester National Park, Australia. The barren landscape is suggestive of the cultural silence discussed in the blog. Courtesy of Gypsy Denise. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Millstream_National_Park,_Pilbara,_Western_Australia.jpg [Accessed 4 February 2020].

[1] For more information on Stanner and the ‘Great Australian Silence’, see Andrew Gunstone, ‘Reconciliation and “The Great Australian Silence”’ in R. Eccleston, N. Sageman, and F. Gray (eds), The Refereed Proceedings of the 2012 Australian Political Studies Association Conference, (Melbourne, 2012).

[2] Tanya Dalziell, ‘Gunpowder and Gardens: Reading Women in The Proposition’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 3.1 (2009), 122.

[3] The ideas and research presented in this blog post are featured in and further extended upon in an upcoming article due to be published in March by the Australian National University Undergraduate Research Journal. Interested readers will be able to access the article here: http://studentjournals.anu.edu.au/index.php/aurj

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Holocaust Memorial Day: A Universalising Message?

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On Monday 27 January, thousands gathered across the globe to commemorate International Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, which also marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the Nazi concentration and extermination camp where European Jews and other minorities were imprisoned and murdered en masse. In Sheffield it was no different, with residents coming together for a candle lit vigil in the Winter Gardens that was well-attended by important representatives of the city, such as the Lord Mayor, as well as religious leaders from local Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

Every year Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK is given an accompanying theme by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and this year was no exception, the 2020 theme being ‘Stand Together’. Underlying this phrase is a message of solidarity: solidarity with Jews in the face of the global rise in antisemitic hate crime, solidarity with survivors, and solidarity with those who perished in the Holocaust – which is still subject to widespread denial and revisionism. This solidarity also allies us with the victims and survivors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, who are also commemorated on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Connecting this annual event with an overarching theme can help to direct the focus of Holocaust commemoration and make it more relevant to a contemporary audience, and to young people in particular. Symptomatic of our western liberal approach to memory making, however, these themes also have the potential to dilute or otherwise universalise the specific ‘lessons’ to be learnt from the attempted annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany over seventy-five years ago.

This concern was brought to my attention during Sheffield’s own vigil, which opened with several upbeat renditions of well-known pop songs by a primary school choir, including (to my surprise) Randy Newman’s Toy Story hit ‘You Got a Friend in Me’. Audience members clapped along and applauded the performance, which led into the evening’s scheduled readings and reflections.

It’s encouraging that so many Sheffield residents of all ages and backgrounds feel willing and able to participate in a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, which is always welcome to all. It is also perhaps easy to understand the inclusion of songs that advocate for friendship, camaraderie and love within an event of this kind, especially for children. The problem with using a Disney-associated song about the love of two fictional characters for a commemorative Holocaust vigil is that it entirely obfuscates the identities of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

We are in danger of reducing Holocaust Memorial Day to an event defined by well-meaning but platitudinal phrases such as ‘never again’, which serve to depoliticise the antisemitic roots of the Holocaust. Memory is always political and is inextricably linked to power and identity: this means we cannot refer to the ‘people’ who died during the Holocaust, as this constitutes a generalised description of the victims of Nazi genocide who were persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs and ethnicities. As the numbers of those who witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust first-hand are sadly dwindling, it is more important than ever that official commemorations of the Shoah (the Jewish Holocaust) are firmly situated in their historical and political contexts.

Yet there is a degree to which the sometimes-universalising effect of Britain’s National Holocaust Memorial Day is a product of our nation’s identity-affirming motives for establishing this commemorative event in the first place. Established in 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day was designed to bring national recognition to the suffering of Jewish victims and other minorities of the Holocaust, and to critically reflect on how the past can inform our approach to religious, ethnic and racial prejudice and discrimination in the present. As Daniel Tilles and John Richardson argue, however, Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day is just as much about emphasising what Labour MP Andrew Dismore called the ‘positive values of Britain’ as it is about commemorating victims.[1]

As such, the Holocaust has been deployed in national commemorative practice as a tool not only to advance Britain’s false superiority as liberators, but, as historians have argued, to mask the more uncomfortable aspects of Britain’s wartime past. According to Tilles and Richardson, this includes Britain’s ‘collaboration in deporting Jewish residents from the occupied Channel Islands to Nazi death camps’ as well as its little-acknowledged ‘reluctance to facilitate the escape of Jewish refugees fleeing occupied Europe’.[2]

Moreover, the designation of a day dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust is an important opportunity to remember Holocaust victims. It should, however, be viewed as part of a rigorous and ongoing critical reflection regarding the treatment of Jews as well as a chance to educate upcoming generations of the atrocities of the Third Reich. In order to better express our solidarity with Jewish victims of persecution past and present, an acknowledgement of their identities must be at the forefront of British Holocaust commemoration, as should the current reality of antisemitism that increasingly rears its ugly head in the political sphere. Holocaust Memorial Day is not a marker of western sophistication; rather, it is a reminder of the continued threats of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia to minorities.

Emily-Rose Baker is a final year PhD researcher based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis examines postcommunist representations of Holocaust memory and dreams in central-eastern Europe, and is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). You can find Emily on Twitter @emily_baker18.

Cover Image: Holocaust memorial in Rishon LeZion, Israel, 2006. Courtesy of Zachi Evenor. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holocaust-Memorial-MKZE.jpg, [Accessed 3 February 2020}.

[1] Daniel Tilles and John Richardson, ‘Past, Present and Future: Poland’s New Memory Law Exposes the Problematic Nature of Holocaust Remembrance’, History Today, 68:5 (2018).

[2] Ibid.

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Mr. Jones: Rediscovering the Remarkable Journalism of Gareth Jones

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‘I don’t have an agenda, unless you call truth an agenda.’  So says James Norton as the titular character in the trailer for the new film Mr. Jones.  A line that might seem to connote dramatic hyperbole is actually admirable testament to the extraordinary career of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist whose life was tragically cut short in August 1935 on a reporting visit to China.

After serving as private secretary to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Jones became a reporter at the Western Mail in Cardiff.  A talented linguist, in early 1933 he was on hand in Germany to record Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship, and the story of Mr. Jones focuses on his travels in the Soviet Union in March 1933, where he discovered the extent of famine conditions in the Ukraine that resulted in an estimated death toll of between five and seven million.[1]

Western eyes had been opened to the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 by the reports of Malcolm Muggeridge that were published in the Manchester Guardian on 25, 27 and 28 March.  Jones himself returned to Berlin on 29 March and issued his own press release.  His depiction of life in the Ukraine was bleak: ‘Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread; we are dying.”’[2]

Jones went further by attacking the complicity of the Soviet regime, recounting a train journey where he gave short shrift to the denials of a local Communist:  ‘I flung into the spittoon a crust of bread I had been eating from my own supply.  The peasant, my fellow-passenger, fished it out and ravenously ate it.  I threw orange peel into the spittoon.  The peasant again grabbed and devoured it.  The Communist subsided.’[3]

In making his case – he reported that the Soviet state had brought Russia ‘to the worst catastrophe since the famine of 1921’ – Jones refused to play the game that underpinned the work of Western journalists in Moscow.   Shockingly, however, this marked Jones out as a target for these same journalists.

Jones’s exposé occurred at the same time as the Metropolitan-Vickers trial, where six British engineers were arrested on inflated charges of espionage.  Eager for the story, Western journalists dared not jeopardise the favour of the Soviet regime.  Walter Duranty, played as a servile character in the film by Peter Sarsgaard, was English by birth and the doyenne of the press community as the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, and he led efforts to discredit Jones.  His own report, ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’, shrugged off the scale of death and deprivation, claiming with semantic sophistry, ‘There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition’.[4]

The attacks on Jones were a combination of ideological apologia, journalistic self-interest, and unfortunate timing.  The Metropolitan-Vickers trial provided short-term leverage for the Soviets that was exploited by Konstantin Umansky, head of the Press Department of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.  At a celebration for Eugene Lyons, United Press correspondent in Moscow, a collective decision was taken over snacks and a ready supply of vodka to hang Jones out to dry.[5]

Jones’s revelations were somewhat dwarfed by this weight of denial.  He replied to Duranty directly in the New York Times on 13 May 1933, calling his fellow journalists ‘masters of euphemism and understatement’.[6]  But in this situation, Duranty’s seniority was a trump card; after all, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 1932 for his Soviet coverage.  The citation commended his reports as ‘marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement and exceptional clarity’.[7]

Mystery surrounded Jones’s death in China on the day before his thirtieth birthday, with some suggestions that the Soviet state was implicated.  This tragedy has been extended by the relative loss of Jones to posterity.  He may have featured in Muggeridge’s satire on ‘fellow travellers’ and Western press correspondents, Winter in Moscow, as Wilfred Pye – Jones’s report about the orange peel is replicated almost verbatim – but it is more likely that Muggeridge simply fleshed out Pye’s narrative with Jones’s experiences.

It is fitting that, some eighty-five years since his death, Mr. Jones presents a wider audience with the story of Gareth Jones.  In an age of ‘fake news’ and when we doubt (often with just cause) the press’ role as the Fourth Estate, we could do with a few more reminders of the bravery of journalists for whom truth is their only agenda.

Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He has recently finished a project on political engagement, the press and the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain, which will result in two journal articles in 2020. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @DavidCVessey.

Cover image: A memory plaque at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, erected in 2006 by Ukrainian organizations to commemorate Jones’s deeds. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gareth_Jones_3.jpg, [Accessed 27 January 2020].

[1] Stephen Oleskiw, The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (London: The National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983), pp. 54-5.

[2] Manchester Guardian, 30 March 1933, p. 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] S. J. Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow (Oxford, 1990), p. 207.

[5] Marco Carynnyk, ‘Making the News Fit to Print: Walter Duranty, the New York Times and the Ukrainian Famine of 1933’ in Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko (eds.), Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (Edmonton, 1986), pp. 76-7.

[6] Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, p. 208.

[7] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (London, 1986), p. 320.

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There is No War on Christmas

(not so) Happy Holidays!

There is hardly a Christmas in memory upon which there wasn’t a war waged—or, at least, so it seems if one is tuned into American right-wing media. According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, as a part of a plot to banish religion from the public sphere and bring forth a ‘brave new progressive world’, liberals were banning religious floats from parades and calling Christmas trees ‘holiday’ trees instead. Similar (but fewer) complaints have been made in the U.K.—say, about the use of the phrase “Winterval” instead of Christmas.  But fear not, dear reader. The great and powerful Trump has singlehandedly won the war on Christmas by making it acceptable to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again—a phrase which, according to Trump,  was never uttered publicly during the Obama years.

In reality, however, the so called ‘War on Christmas’ doesn’t exist. It never has.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there has been (what historian Stephen Nussbaum called) a battle for Christmas for centuries: a fight over how Christmas is celebrated. As Earl Count points out, December celebrations originate from pagan festivals (like Zagmuk and Saturnalia) which date back at least two thousand years before Jesus would have been born. And during the 300s, Constantine tried to Christianize these celebrations by declaring 25th December (the sun god Sol’s birthday) to be Jesus’ birthday. But it never really worked; people forgot the pagan origins sure, but throughout the middle ages (what came to be known as) Christmas was celebrated in mainly pagan ways: with drinking, feasting, and sex. It was so debaucherous, in fact, that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas all together.

Now, thanks to people like Clement Clarke More, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, Christmas did make a comeback in the early 1800s—but when it did, it was again as secular drunken celebration. Thanks to capitalism, however, it was quickly domesticated into a holiday about giving gifts to your children (and, later, to nearly everyone you know). And once it was popular again, Christianity renewed its efforts to ‘Christianize’ it.[1] But despite what we now call it, ‘Christmas’ has never been celebrated, primarily, as a religious holiday. Christians lost that battle.

Once Christmas was popular again, however, it was very useful for vilifying one’s enemies. In the 1920s, for example, the anti-Semite Henry Ford claimed that Jews were waging a war on Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, ‘The International Jew.’ In 1959 it was the communists that were targeted. The right-wing conspiratorial John Birch Society claimed that ‘One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.’ And in 1999, it was right-wing pundit (and founder of the hate group VDare.com) Peter Brimelow complaining about liberals using phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ and government Christmas parties being called ‘A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.’ Of course, the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is just a short way to reference all the holidays celebrated in December and January. It dates back to at least 1863, and was popular (and uncontroversial) in the ‘30s and ‘40s—especially after the song ‘Happy Holiday(s)appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. But today, it’s use is viewed as ‘political correctness gone mad.’

The idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas really took flight in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly becoming obsessed with the idea that December—and (along with Fox News) remaining obsessed with it pretty much every December since. But, in reality, none of the events that they saw as ‘shots across the bow’ in this war actually occurred.  As I point out in the second chapter of my book The Myths that Stole Christmas, religious floats were not being systematically banned from parades. No school in Plano, Texas banned the colors red and green during Christmastime. [2] Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin didn’t change the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ to eliminate all references to religion.[3]  And while it’s true that Democratic Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t call the tree in the Rhode Island Statehouse a ‘Christmas tree’ in 2011, neither did the Republican governor Donald Carcieri from 2003 to 2010…and yet Fox News never made a peep.

It’s true, of course, that Walmart once encouraged (but did not require) its greeters to say ‘Happy Holidays’ (instead of ‘Merry Christmas’) because not all their customers celebrate Christmas. And there have been a number of lawsuits in response to courthouses or other government entities (like schools) putting up lone nativity scenes or otherwise favoring Christian ways of celebrating. But such actions do not constitute a war on Christmas. They are simply efforts to be more inclusive, and (in the latter cases) to protect against violations of the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. But there has never, ever, been any effort to make the celebration of Christmas, or the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, illegal.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to capitalize on the idea that there has. Rick Perry cited it as part of ‘Obama’s war on Religion’ in a 2010 campaign ad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did something similar during the 2012 Republican campaign. And, of course, Donald Trump cited the ‘War on Christmas’ numerous times during his 2016 campaign. Indeed, he (and his family) have been taking a victory lap ever since (2017, 2018, 2019) by declaring that he ended the war by allowing everyone to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. This is why, without any evidence at all, or any clarity about what he meant, Trump this year declared that liberals are now waging a war on Thanksgiving. Declaring that your political enemies are waging a war on things that are universally loved is just too useful for vilifying them.[4]

Before you fall for it, however, realize: in 2005, when he was raging about the liberal War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s website was selling ‘holiday ornaments’ to hang on your ‘holiday tree’, and the Bush White House wished everyone a ‘Happy Holiday Season’ in their ‘holiday card.’ And today, despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s online store has a ‘holiday gift guide’, a ‘holiday collection’, and wishes people ‘Happy Holliday’s’ [sic], and avoids the term Christmas altogether. The same is true in Trump Tower, where the word ‘Christmas’ is nowhere to be found.

In reality, the only wars on Christmas that have ever been waged were waged by Christians, either to Christianize it (like Constantine) or shut it down (like the puritans). But just one look around this December will show that these wars were the most unsuccessful wars in all of history. [5] Not only is Christmas celebrated in mostly secular ways, but in our society (unlike in Trump Tower) Christmas is literally everywhere—taking over the calendar and our entire economy for over a month every year. If there was a war on Christmas…Christmas won.

David Kyle Johnson is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (PA) and author of the book ‘The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked that Holiday. His latest book, Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, is available now. You can find him on Twitter @kyle8425

[1] By, for example, falsely declaring Jesus to be the ‘reason for the season’.

[2] Other towns where this supposedly happened include Saginaw Township, Michigan and Orlando, Florida. None of the stories are true. All the schools in question proved as much by posting their guidelines online.

[3] In reality, a church choir director had changed the lyrics to make them easier for children to learn.

[4] Indeed, the stories that circulate about the war on Christmas are part of a larger, absolutely false, ‘Christian victimization narrative’ that tries to paint Christians as a persecuted minority.

[5] And the only causalities were these poor birds.

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