Posts Tagged ‘history’

Sanitised history

June 2, 2020

A Stanford professor, lecturing on the historical context of the US Constitution and law, explained that he was going to quote from that time – over 200 years ago.  He felt it should be heard  because it was important they understand the period of the debate.

He turned off Zoom recording while giving the quote, knowing that his reading could be shared out of context.

Some students complained to the University, arguing that it used a racial slur and reminded those of black american background of past oppression.  The professor gave the obligatory apology.  The main online news outlets coyly described the slur as “the n-word” and did not give the quote with the offending word asterisked or dashed, or even give a link to the quote.  This sort of thing happens nowadays.

What was the quote?  Apparently,  an anti-Constitution quote from Patrick Henry, referencing the nascent federal government:

“They’ll take your ni**ers from you,”

Most of that worries me.

It seems  words now deemed slurs make  speech too distressing to share, a thing to be removed from the historical record, as Shakespeare’s bawdy  bits and The Song of Solomon were removed in the 1800s.  If a university  academic wants to share them in context, students have to be warned, and given time to air their emotional responses, and even then remain aggrieved and have their grievances supported by the administration  – so few now risk the backlash.  History is being Bowdlerised, even in serious education and the media.

Without understanding the differences between what is usual now and what was usual in the past, the students (especially those not of afflicted ethnic backgrounds – and Stanford has many overseas and white students) cannot understand the degree to which the outcome of the debates was revolutionary.  They will also lack the cultural context behind later arguments over and changes to laws, as well as the cultural background to past books, films, and news articles, and to older peoples’ dialects.  Without that, they will misjudge the nature of the people whose voices are represented.  Worse, they will be encouraged to believe that they are right to judge those others harshly – because the words per se must be magically powerful, or there would not be such a fuss if someone had used them, in any time or place.

Even worse, without the chance to grasp the true scale of the vast cultural changes from then to now, not understanding what once was believed and normal, they will not gain the historical perspective – and without that sense of change over time they will have less ability to dream of ways their cutlure could be changed.  Indeed, they may lose hope that it CAN be changed.

What happens in the USA is copied here.  And so I worry.



Dismissing Freud – baby and bathwater time.

January 6, 2015

According to university student reports, Psychology students are now taught to dismiss Freud – that is, if they are even introduced to his name.  I see three problems with this,  Firstly, they lose the good bits such as  the concept of “Freudian Slips.”  Secondly, they miss the historical perspective – which can inform a properly sceptical view of current theories.  Thirdly, they miss the anthropological perspective, the link between the theories and the culture in which they were developed (for example, penis envy and castrtion fears in a society where men have social power and freedom of movement and body details are a taboo topic, what a surprise….)

The third point is a sad loss in our increasingly multicultural society:  If a woman seeks mental health support and comes of a very patriarchal and female-restricting society, would current approaches help her fit the social rôle her family expects, and would the health professionals be sufficiently aware of the problem to even consider offering culturally sensitive counselling?  I have the uncomfortable feeling that old-style Freudian would be more fitting for some groups – not just Muslim, consider and assault on non-compliant

– our underlying WEIRD cultural  assumptions will challenge these families should they migrate here.

Should people be offered the option of psychiatric help to fit in with their sub-culture’s expectations for their rôle, rather than to achieve full mental health as our culture defines it?  To what extent would a Freudian approach help?

Mad Jack Churchill.

July 4, 2014

A bloke worth remembering.  Not Scottish.  Honestly.  But he liked this sword and played bagpipes and fought in a kilt …

Was in 1939 world Archery competition.  In WW2 became a Commando, killed a German NCO using a bow and arrow; with his NCO captured 42 German soldiers in one night raid, one or two at a time; played the bagpipes as, with his troops,  moved out to attack; carried and fought using  a basket-hilted scottish one-handed sword.

After the war he qualified as a parachutist and transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders, before serving in Palestine as second in command of the 1st Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry.  While there he successfully defended a medical convoy from Arab attack while  in full dress uniform of kilt, white spats, glengarry and red and white diced stockings – he had come straight from a battalion parade.

Served as an instructor in Australia and, naturally, learned to surf.

Mad Jack Churchill, 1906 – 1996

Do the politicians think we have no memory? Part 3

March 23, 2014

After an Australian election, if  one party gets a majority of the whole population vote but another party wins the majority of seats the losing  politicians regularly grumble, throwing around words like “gerrymander.”

Politicians say they want schools to teach students to understand and value our way of government.  They say they want schools to emphasise teaching of history, and it is an important part of our history that a great deal of care was put into setting up our system, which started peacefully and by negotiation well after the hasty and violent starts of the main European countries and the USA.   They say they want these things in the curriculum,  but I wonder whether they want voters to remember their schooling when they come to vote.

Background  to  the Australian Electoral System

(Skip this if you know it already)

It was a deliberate choice to have States’ federal Senate numbers equal regardless of population and representing proportional votes within each State, to prevent the tyranny of the majority.   They were certainly influenced by John Calhoun’s ideas on concurrent majority as an approach to the problem, ideas still discussed this century .   It was also a deliberate choice to have each voter  have as many preferential votes as there are candidates up for election in the State,¹ a change made in 1949, even though the mathematics and vote tracing were horribly curly in the days before computerised  counting.    A voter may vote for all one party first, or one Green, one Independent, one Labor, one Liberal, and one Euthanasia party candidate, then mix up the remaining candidates in any order as long as each candidate has ves preferred number on the paper.  If a candidate has more first preferences than ve needs (one-sixth-plus-one of the votes is the quota if there are 6 seats), ves surplus votes are distributed as first preferences in proportion to the preferences of the voters who gave ver the votes.  Candidates who get less than the fraction needed to get a seat are knocked out from least votes up, and at each step the loser’s votes next preferences are distributed and the scrutineers check whether someone has got the quota.    (Messy!  I’m not making this up – check with the Australian Electoral Commission)  No wonder they introduced “Or you can tick one party’s box and we will distribute all their preferences the way they have told the us to.”

It was also a deliberate choice to have each House of Representative seat linked to its own area (and electorates other than islands are single patches of land), and that the voters from that area  vote  for  individual candidates as individuals, though the candidates  could ally to parties.  That way, local interests could be well represented by someone known to the locals.   Also, in each area, the voter has preferential votes as in the Senate – so that if they like Alan but would rather have Jan than Ursula if they can’t have Alan, they can try for Alan but know that Jan will get their vote if he fails.  They just number the order of preference in the candidates’ boxes.  This means that you don’t get someone hated by 60% of the electorate into the seat just because the 60% have slightly different ideas about the best way to do things and vote for 3 other candidates first.  If they all prefer a 4th to the 40%er, they get their way.


For philosophical reasons, State governments have been selling off State-owned housing in expensive areas, buying housing in less expensive locations,  and subsidising private rentals for those in need – who can seldom get private rentals in the prime locations.   In addition, those short of money sell out of high-value areas to free up the money, and the wealthy seek houses close to well-known exclusive schools and other valued social resources.  This has led to the service-providers (shop assistants, teachers, police, cleaners, etc) having to travel long distances to work, and tertiary students having to travel hours to their studies, with the associated travel costs – while the wealthy are within easy foot or  public transport access of resources.  This is fair in the  eyes of those benefiting from the user-pays  approach, and they see its good points:  after all, if the State provided enough low cost housing in the  upmarket areas, the dregs of society would lower property values.  An additional benefit is that the local State schools have a better class of student and parents and thus better outcomes than in the more difficult suburbs..

You got over half the total but not enough seats.  Problem?

True, there are many reasons people vote their different ways, but let’s pretend that wealth-aligned interests are usually enough to swing the vote.  Let us assume that the electoral boundaries are fair, with pretty similar numbers in each electorate, and thus there is no real gerrymander.  Our Electoral Commission does work at being fair that way.

Pretend there are 10 electorates.

Rich party has 90% of the votes in each of 4 electorates.

Poor party has 60% of the votes in each of 6 electorates.

% of total voters                   %  of total vote             seats / 10

R 36%        P 4%                                 40%                      4

R 24%        P 36 %                              60%                      6

total votes by  party                 R 60 %        P 40 %

Total seats by party                 R   4             P  6

Don’t complain.  This was part of the design of the Australian system, deliberately included to control concentrated power groups with regional agendas inimical to the wider society.   This is in the curriculum – the intersection of History with Society and Environment.   Why don’t the journalists call the politicians on this, rather than just quoting them?

I am so annoyed that I am going to shout.  

If  you want a greater proportion of the seats, have a better distribution of your supporters across electorates. 

A good start would be:  Get out of your enclaves of power, and make housing available for the “lower orders” closer to the places that they work.  If you can’t stop the worsening inequality, at least reduce home address’s value as a predictor of socioeconomic status.  


¹ I know, it is really “a preferential vote” but they used be allowed to number only a limited number of preferences and I wanted to make the distinction .

Anorexic approach to “Cutting the Fat” in the Australian public service: cut the fat at the Executive level instead.

January 2, 2014

The Centre for Policy Development   says  that the Australian public sector is as efficient as the private sector once different responsibilities (e.g. more at-risk students going to state schools) are taken into account, and that OECD 2010 reports said Oz had 5th lowest taxing government in OECD but still 9th most effective.

Current State and Federal Oz governments are denigrating their public service staff performance, cutting staff without cutting duties, and not giving the staff guidance as to which officially required activities should be cut when there isn’t time to do everything.  They are  trumpeting “increased investment” in areas when the money is spent on basic construction for aging infrastructure and increasing population,  but actual staff-hours-per-thousand-clients are cut.  They are calling for us to match the  best of OECD results despite lower taxes, less cultural support , and more diverse population – and they dread talk of increasing taxes. Their political philosophy echoes USA conservatives.

It still looks better here than in the USA (read  ) – but the local politicians are working on matching USA’s treatment of the most vulnerable.  They are even continuing to negotiate “Free Trade” agreements without provision for “Human Rights and OH&S” tarriffs.

It makes sense to learn from others’ mistakes, but our politicians seem determined instead to repeat the errors their predecessors made in using slaves (cheaper than the working class) in Ancient Rome and in too-rapid attempts to balance budgets when dealing with the recovery from the Great Depression.  (See Bill Fawcett’s “Doomed to Repeat”)  We aren’t using slaves?  Consider the conditons in the third-world countries to which work is “outsourced.”

That’s Modern Western democracy in action: “leaders” too much led by daily polls and the “perceived self-interest” push of their wealthy backers.  Alas,  the wealthy backers do not remember that a great gap between employee income and owner’s income leads to social problems which can destroy a civilization.  And our civilization is now global.

So, how about all shareholders (and Oz is, famously, a nation of shareholders – we just don’t usually vote our holdings) getting together and giving our proxies to some socially aware groups, on the condition that they vote to make companies limit the highest pay rate per hour (maximum 24 hours / day 365 days/year)  for any organization to be twenty times the hourly pay of the lowest paid employee – including those overseas, and including those hired by subcontractors.  This includes directors’ “remuneration.”  Remember, as voters, we can limit our politicians’ pay if we choose.   And add an “insult tax” where people are paid too much more than others : where the poorest in your country live on $13,000 pa and the median income is $43,100  an income over $800,000 is a dire insult.

Too hard?

Consider  limiting the “remuneration” to twenty times the workers’ pay as expressed as a percentage of average weekly earnings (AWE) in the county in which the work is performed, and remuneration in terms of the AWE of the Director’s country of residence.

Worried about talented people going overseas?  Consider: if they want more than the limit,  and don’t want to support the poorest, what attitudes will their children bring to our schools?  Do we want that in our society?  What type of society do we want our politicians and business leaders to aim for?

Imagine being known as a country dedicated to equality of opportunity,  and with an underlying belief in “from each according to ability, to each according to need, with our descendants able to live as we do.”  Imagine a society where your value is not measured in money.

Now help make reality fit the dream.

Should we intervene when chemical weapons are used, if we don’t when guns and bombs are used?

October 7, 2013

At one point, listening to Tim Minchin’s address to a University ceremony reminded me of – among many things, as he is a thoughtful comedian –   an argument I observed continuing on the web.

That reminder leads me to write about the train of thought which followed my observations.

The point Tim Minchin made was that extremist positions lead to false dichotomies, and that good decision-making is difficult if we forget that reality is complex.  It was enhanced by his advice to learn as much as you can about everything, not be limited to a goal-driven life.

 The argument is about the “correct” response to the use of chemical weapons.  If we don’t intervene if a government is shooting or bombing its citizens, why should we suddenly do so if chemical weapons are used?

The train of thought which followed my observation of the argument follows:

The responses I observed seemed limited by the limited vision of most of those taking part: they seemed to see any death or injury as equivalent to any other,  they seemed to think that the question could be considered without considering the opinions of those who had experienced both sorts of weapons, and they had little knowledge of history.

The situation  reminded me of the distinction scientists make between different ways of being wrong: for example,  considering only one of a number of equally valid theories to explain a result; “experimental error” – we are not perfect, and random elements are inevitable; “not even wrong” in the sense of a theory being not a testable hypothesis; “totally wrong“, in the sense of having an appalling flaw in reasoning; and “bad science” in the sense that someone is lying about what the figures show, taking some belief system as being correct even when measurements contradict it, or ignoring agreed basic measurements which have repeatedly been found to be accurate without strong proof that the measurements are affected by a confounding factor.  Scientists see the last one as a distinctly different and morally reprehensible type of error.   The crunch is that  followers of science assert that assuming that all wrong theories are equally wrong is “wronger than wrong.”  

Similarly, I feel that those who discuss interventions by equating conventional  and chemical  weapons  are “wronger than wrong.”

Just as scientists are the ones to consult about different ways of being wrong in science, soldiers and the health workers dealing with the injuries resulting from war are the ones to consult about different forms of warfare.  In World Wars I and II the soldiers knew what it was to be shelled, hit by machine gun fire, cross barbed wire, be taken prisoner … and they saw the opposing forces have the same experiences.  They knew what the horrors of modern warfare could bring, and hated them while believing that they sometimes had to be faced.

However, soldiers saw a difference in type between classes of weapons of war, just as they saw a difference in type between “proper” prisoner-of-war camps and  Andersonville  (American history – Confederates imprisoning Union soldiers)  , Stalag III-C  etc. (German history – Soviet soldiers and other non-influential people),  and the Thai-Burma railway labour camps (Japanese history – Allied soldiers).  For example, I have heard old men who served in WW II speak of enemy flamethrower-operators in the same way as they speak of the people who authorised napalm bombings – with plain disgust, and quite unlike the respect with which they spoke of the other soldiers.

Similarly, in WW I the experience of chemical weapons proved profoundly different from the experience of the other horrors experienced – so different that it was felt to be of a significantly different type, and so deeply horrible that the deployment of such weapons was felt to be morally reprehensible.  After WW I it was the horror experienced by soldiers and medical workers which led to the push to have certain weapons outlawed, and for their first use to be stated, internationally, to be a war crime.  (You know before you use them that you will be in deep trouble… except for the slimy exceptional cases which the diplomats put into the treaty, so that the major powers keep developing the weapons…)  Despite the disgust at flamethrowers, they were not hated with the deep passion which led to the continuing and developing agreement to stop the use of chemical weapons.

(Me, I’m draconic, and the parent of twins.  From this background I would say that I don’t care who did it, as soon as chemical weapons are used “the rest of the world” should arrive in force and disarm both sides.  Completely.  No guns or tanks or warplanes left, just household implements.  Maybe get the Chinese army to sweep step-by-step across the whole country.  And then all go and leave them to it.)

So, from this thought, and remembering the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides,   I found myself wanting to start a different discussion:

How do we get our peoples to discuss these questions outside of the context of a specific instance of  oppression:

  • What sorts of oppressions should warrant intervention in another country – ethnic, religious, gender, political…?
  • Does it matter whether it is oppression by a government or an influential group?  (The government denies all responsibility…)
  • Does a democracy have the right to elect a tyrant – and if they do, are they allowed to complain about and resist tyranny?
  • If we object to other religions trying to make us follow their laws, but they get democratically elected to govern another country, do we have the right to stop them using their religious laws to oppress their citizens who are of their religion? Of other religions? To oppress travellers?  What do we do if they call for their co-religious to force other countries to accept their rules?  How is that different from us calling for intervention in their country?
  • When does resistance against oppression become terrorism?
  • How oppressive must the treatment be before other countries intervene?
  • How should they intervene?  What effective interventions are available?
  • If we intervene, how do we arrange to leave the country if the divisions are profound and the culture favours violent retribution?

Only after we have thought about these seriously can we start on the next batch – for example:

  • If a major power unreasonably blocks United Nations approval, under what circumstances should our country intervene without it?
  • What penalties should there be for unjustified (by whose standards?) intervention in the internal affairs of another country?

So, that was my train of thought.

However, it wasn’t my discussion – I was kibbitzing on someone else’s interests – so I said nothing and put it aside until the thoughtful entertainer made me think.  And that thought was  that I should make some effort to raise the questions, recognising the complexity of the problem.

So, if you’ve read this far, how about talking about those questions with your friends?

A legend with moral authority

September 30, 2013

I am considering a question from implementing the Australian Curriculum: why and how to teach history.   (I am also breaking a half-dozen of the “rules” they teach for writing-to-the-test, because my authentic voice doesn’t fit the standard pattern.  Just saying …)

My main interest here is not the understanding that, as Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  It’s not the hope that flows from seeing the marvellous changes over time, and the thankful feeling from comparing most of the-lives-lived with our own.  (I really appreciate instantaneous hot water, vaccination, soap, and eye-glasses, for example.)  It’s not the intellectual training from asking the questions like “When does now become history?  How do we know what happened – what do historians do?” – or the surprises that brings when we find that our “history” was propaganda, as in Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time.”  (Worth borrowing from the library, even if you have read it – I reread it this week, and was enthused.)

It’s the creation of legends with moral authority, to give a deeper meaning to”Being Australian.”

Consider the etymology of the word:

from the delightful  legend (n.)

early 14c., “narrative dealing with a happening or an event,” from Old French legende (12c., Modern French légende) and directly from Medieval Latin legenda “legend, story,” literally “(things) to be read,” on certain days in church, etc., from Latin legendus, neuter plural gerundive of legere “to read, gather, select” (see lecture (n.)). Used originally of saints’ lives; extended sense of “nonhistorical or mythical story” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “writing or inscription” (especially on a coin or medal) is from 1610s; on a map, illustration, etc., from 1903.

As a child I came across “Van Loon’s Lives” and was entranced by the stories of truly interesting people from the past.  I read and watched many biographies, but few were of Australians, and none of those struck me as really amazing.  It was only as an adult, through an ABC Radio National program (one which seems no longer to be on the net, alas)  that I was introduced to the life of an Australian whom I rate with those Van Loon chose:  Sir John Monash.

Sir John Monash was the child of Jews who had emigrated from Prussia, at a time when Jews were socially unacceptable unless wealthy (remember, this bias continued in many places even after WWII – “No Blacks or Jews” signs in lodging house windows.)  He excelled at school and loved music and drama as well as  languages and mathematics.  A respected  engineer, he served in World War I as an officer – not in Engineering – becoming one of the most respected Generals of the war.  Higher ranks were impressed by his planning, execution of plans, and ability to command; returned soldiers appreciated his victories, but praised his ability to get them hot food.

After the war, he chose not to seek election to Parliament, but – despite social rejection by some traditionalists – used his skills to improve the country.  For example, he worked as the head of the Victorian State  Electricity Commission, changing electricity from a “rich man’s commodity” to a basic utility.

A more important example to consider: when the police were on strike and looting and rioting broke out, he led – at the request of the Premier – a group of other  generals and ex-servicemen ( five battalions, not just a mob) to restore order.  Another:  when the State government had rejected a proposal for developing the power grid, he talked his way into addressing the Cabinet, and told them 

‘Gentlemen,  you have rejected my proposal because you have clearly failed to understand it’. He explained it to them. For thirty minutes. In the end, they agreed! He then said ‘Well, you will now need an Order in Council to implement the decision’, pulling from his pocket one that he had prepared earlier. He stood there while it was signed.

There are many sites with pieces on his life, but I am interested in an aspect less commonly (at present) reported: his decision not to lead armed groups to overthrow the Australian Government.   The Australian Returned Services League (RSL) has one teaching resource which puts it in historical context ( it is in Source 9), and Engineers Australia has a biography    where it is in his life context on page 9.

An outsider by birth, often insulted for his race and his ideas, a brilliant man who cared for the unfortunate, a polymath  who had won the respect of common soldiers, an expert who faced down politicians for the good of the State, a man who saw fools in elected positions of power at a time of crisis, a man who was then offered the chance to take control of the nation  – and supported the fledgling democratic system.  Would you like that to be the children’s idea of a hero?  Their idea of  what it is to be Australian?

That’s a man who deserves to become a legend.

Do the politicians think we have no memory? Part 2

July 28, 2013

I have previously commented on this, but recently journalists and “letters to the editor” editors have been letting worse rewriting-of-history activities go unchallenged:

they are not referring to the facts when others claim in speeches, interviews, or letters that the John Howard-led Australian Government “turn back the boats” policy was working in the early 2000s.

I lived through that period.  I remember the trickle of early (intelligent!) refugees from the just-begun crises in the Near and Middle East, and predictions that it would become a flood.  I remember the boats being less and less seaworthy, ensuring that the refugees had to be rescued rather than returned to Indonesia.  I remember the Tampa,  SIEV 4 (where it transpired that government claims of children being “thrown overboard” were false) and SIEV X, and the community horror at the forseeable results of  “turn back the boats” in action.  There are many sources to confirm my memory – for example,  , .  The photos on the latter site could be matched tomorrow without anyone being surprised..

Journalists and media owners note:  allowing the publication of unchallenged lies is either incompetence, cowardice, or a form of lying.

Do the politicians think we have no memory?

November 14, 2011

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” — John F. Kennedy, 1963

Here  in Oz, it is starting to feel as though the Federal opposition think the voters are really, really ignorant of law and history, and that they want to keep things that way.  They seem to be going on the premise that

You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  The trick is to fool enough to get elected into power.

Unfortunately, the media seem to be going along with it, to the detriment of our version of democracy.

I started to wonder how dim the average journalist is when no-one challenged the claim that, if a proposed tax did not get passed by parliament, the current government should (with voice tones suggesting “are required by tradition to…) dissolve parliament and hold an early election.  Now, I remember several occasions when financial bills were not passed, were resubmitted and rejected again, and the government of the day had a “double dissolution trigger” which they might choose to use.  Usually they did not.  Therefore, the clain was false – however, the press let it through unchallenged.

Then the Opposition started saying that Australia can’t be run by a Coalition – referring to the agreement between the Labour Party and the Greens.   They suggest that it is in some way wrong for Labour to trade favours with the Greens.

Not even the satirists have commented that we were run by the Liberal/National (a.k.a Country Party) coalition for many years (they joined in 1922), and that “The Opposition” is that same bunch, so famous that Wikipedia    gives them as the primary meaning for ” Coalition” in Australian politics.   None of the political journalists have mentioned the thousands of times Liberal policies were shifted to meet the demands of the gerrymandered rural electorates.

Now the Opposition is suggesting that the Labour party is wrong or weak to trade favours with the Independent Senators, who hold the balance of power.   Strangely, no-one has mentioned former Senator Brian Harradine, who served from 1975 to 2005, and strongly represented the conservative Christian viewpoint for many years by enthusiastically exploiting his position as a “balance of power” senator.    I have heard no-one  in the current commentariate  ask whether the series of (now) respected former PMs who did dubious deals with hin were, by that argument, wrong, or weak.  (At the time, it was a common left-wing  grumble about lack of courage – but dismissed by The Coalition, who liked many of his opinions.)

I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the Opposition’s attempts to sway voters if (i) they weren’t misleading voters as to the traditions and Law of our parliamentary system; (ii) if they hadn’t done exactly the same themselves; and (iii) if the current affairs programmes and satirists were hammering them for their hypocrisy.

The trouble is that younger voters haven’t lived through the events which this campaign ignores, schools haven’t the time to go through the details of past political horsetrading, most children learn just enough about the system for just long enough to pass their school tests, and most people don’t read political history for fun.  If the journalists don’t challenge them publicly, politicians can spread false views of Law and history.   Then we get the downside of democracy: the lazy and below-average together vastly outnumber and outvote those who are both gifted and thoughtful.

Where the lazy, average, and  below-average are not properly advised by the knowledgeable (or, even worse, are led by demagogues to distrust and mock those of high intelligence),  they have fewer thoughtful members to debate with the gifted and thoughtful and thus are less able to make a strong democracy.  Instead  we see the situation Mills warned of:

“A people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it.” — John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 1861  (My emphases)    


Fortune favours the well prepared, well-mannered, and hard-working

May 10, 2011

 How British horse chestnuts influenced the foundation of Israel.

There is a tale of a British politician in WWI  who had a policy of having tea with a wide range of people, and one day had tea with a  White Russian (refugee from destruction of Czarist Russia) Jew.  It happened that conversation turned to the problems of the military, as their main source of acetone –   an ingredient in cordite  for munitions – was lost through the war.  The refugee said ” I can help you there – I have a way to make acetone from horse-chestnuts”  .    The government invested in his method, and was able to make the shells needed to continue the war.  Later, grateful for his assistance, the British listened to his arguments in support of the creation of Israel.

This sounds like chance favouring the politician who was willing to meet odd people and listened to a refugee grumble , and the refugee who met the politician – but the reality is more complex.  The politician was Lloyd George, the “refugee” was Chaim Weizmann.

According to Wikipedia, “Weizmann studied chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Darmstadt, Germany, and University of Freiburg, Switzerland. In 1899, he was awarded a doctorate with honors. In 1901, he was appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Geneva and, in 1904, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester.”

Weizmann had become interested in the bacteriology of fermentation, and sent many years testing cultures for the ability to produce useful chemicals like butyl alcohol from fermenting maize.  This was complicated by commercial restrictions on other scientists sharing processes and cultures.  One of his cultures (later named ‘Clostridium aceto-butylicum Weizmann’) produced good amounts of butyl alcohol, but also fair amounts of acetone.

At the same time, he was strongly involved in the more militant branch of Zionism, weary of centuries of racism.  He was invited to tea with a middle-class, well-assimilated Jewish family, and there met another guest – a distinguished journalist. Through conversation with this gentleman he gained introductions to senior politicians, arguing for his cause.

In  1915, through a series of contacts suggested by scientific friends, and through demonstrations of the laboratory-level success of his bacillus and brewing and distillation techniques, he became one of three scientists separately funded to develop methods for manufacturing acetone.   He made modest requests for immediate funding,  accepting later payment in order to support the war effort, with a gentlemanly manner much appreciated by the Government.    He rapidly scaled up the process from kilogram to tonne output, and found ways to ferment carbohydrate sources other than maize.

The other two methods proved less successful, and, with the strict rationing required later in WWI, the ability  to ferment horse-chestnuts was a strong factor in Weizmann’s popularity: children would collect the nuts for shipping to the factory, “helping the war effort.”  Thus,the Government’s willingness to support early-stage science paid off, even though two in three did not pan out.  They prepared for later needs by seeking out appropriate science,  were courteous in dealing with the scientists, and  dealt with the bureaucratic labour involved – so fortune later favoured them.

And Weizmann?  From a great deal of hard work, a gentlemanly approach, and knowing influential people on more than a scientific basis; with a good public profile and with the British Government in his (moral) debt, as the head of the British Zionist Federation and later the World Zionist Organisation he dealt with British (and other)  politicians.    This took up a great deal of his time between the wars (WWI and WWII), while he continued his research, industrial production of fermentation products, and development of what became the Weizmann Institute of Science in what became Israel.

Weizmann became the first President of the new state of Israel in 1949.

Fortune favoured the well-prepared, well-mannered,  and hard-working.


This blog entry was made possible through talking with a friend who watched a documentary on the Atlantic, through Wikipedia, and through my paying an annual fee to have access, through a University library, to online versions of journal articles. In this case, particularly to J. Reinharz (1985) Science in the service of politics:the case of Chaim Weizmann during the First World War. English Historical Review Vol. 100, No. 396 (Jul., 1985): 572-603. doi: 10.1093/ehr/C.CCCXCVI.572: .  This is worth reading in its entirety.

The title derives from “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.”  (In the fields of observation chance favoors only the prepared mind) : Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)

The topic here is a wider field than observational science, but I assert that the concept still applies.