Barack Obama had Cairo. That was where he delivered a speech calculated in its intention and high-flown in its language. It was 2009. He had just ascended to office. It was his moment: a young, fresh-faced American president on his first major visit to a Muslim country. He turned his address into an invocation, extended to the Muslim world at large. Continue reading
Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading
The question of individuality is an important one. What makes us individuals may not be similar in fundamental terms to what makes us people, but it is an essential component of personhood. Being different, being unique – these are facts to treasure, and there is something redeeming in being able to notice such things in others and in oneself. This uniqueness ought to extend beyond the intimately personal and into other areas of life; the right to act individually, without coercion of compulsion, is a vital one. And the ability to go about one’s business uninterrupted and unmolested is a fundamental aspect of living in a free society. The same can be said for the ability to think individually, to harbour different thoughts, some of which will be entirely unique. Even if they are incorrect or offensive to the current orthodoxy, the right to do so must be protected; and it follows that the same rights should be extended to speech. Continue reading
Samuel Johnson, the Dr Johnson of national memory, is primarily known for his wit. His epigrams are hardly common currency, but they do have a certain appeal – and a certain constituency. Who has not heard ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ or ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ (a particular favourite of Boris Johnson) deployed in conversation by someone altogether too keen on appearing intelligent? Continue reading
With the PR battle over Britain’s EU membership hotting up, it is a dispiriting thought to remember that the official campaigning period has not even begun.
As a country we are in for yet more of the seemingly endless, vituperative debate surrounding Europe; and some of what has been said already touches on certain subjects in a worrying manner.
There is a distinct possibility of the EU referendum campaign giving an airing to some of the nastier debates and perspectives within the British body politic, including borderline racist sentiments. Continue reading
Security forces gunning down peaceful protesters on the streets of Homs. Regime helicopters bombarding whole neighbourhoods of Aleppo with indiscriminate barrel bombs. The Islamic State storming through the desert, executing all those who don’t adhere to their radical ideology along the way. Massive car bombs ripping through the heart of Damascus. A toddler lying dead on a Mediterranean beach. These are the images that have become both iconic and all too commonplace during five years of war in Syria. Continue reading
The ghosts of the past continue to entrance. While the topic of Montaillou – the thoroughly individual history of the village of the same name by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie – and memory is a particular enthralling one, it can also serve as an ultimately ineffable subject, something which could prove completely out of the grasp of those who no longer occupy the same space and time as those whose lives they study. The historian is well suited, however, to studying the concepts of time, space and individualism in Middle Ages Foix; and they are no less fascinating. Continue reading