I should begin today with a note in passing about the passing of Stanton Friedman, the UFO researcher who devoted more than four decades of his life to researching—and failing to find—evidence of an alien presence on Earth. A familiar face on the UFO circuit, the 84-year-old Friedman supported the authenticity of the hoax Majestic-12 documents and thus helped to promote a culture of conspiracy in the UFO community by dressing it up in scientific garb.
Meanwhile, I read a funny but compelling review of the new book by conservative British Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, best known for his outdated fashion sense and unwavering support of Brexit. Rees-Mogg has written a new volume, out next week, on the Victorians, whom he celebrates as morally steadfast supporters of Western civilization, individualism, and capitalist values. He has, of course, never met Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and a whole parade of Victorians (both British by birth or resident in Britain) whose Ayn Randian bona fides are less than stellar. Instead, he selects eleven men and one woman whom he dubs the “Titans” of Victorian Britain and imagines them to stand for the whole of the complex, morally divisive, and contradictory Victorian world.
“The Victorians knew how to run a country properly,” Rees-Mogg said on Twitter the other day, apparently praising the Victorian politicians’ deft handling the Irish Potato Famine and their policy of conquering other countries in order to use their labor and resources to prop up the economy of the Home Counties.
As Kathryn Hughes writes in her review of Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians, the book is less a history than a hodgepodge of secondary sources cut together to stack the deck in favor of the book’s real purpose, to create an origin story for Rees-Mogg’s own conservative political philosophy:
The real purpose, then, of The Victorians is to reflect Rees-Mogg back to himself at twice his natural size. This must account for some of his more unexpected inclusions. He names as one of his Titans Albert Dicey, a man whom you might generally consider as belonging to the Victorian second 11. Not so, Rees-Mogg tells us sternly. Dicey was a great legal brain, the Vinerian professor of English law at Oxford, who in the 1890s dared to champion the practice of holding referendums to avoid the great questions of the day being held up endlessly at Westminster. He called it “the People’s Veto”. Always anxious that we might not pick up on the modern parallels, Rees-Mogg finishes his portrait with a ringing “thank heavens for Albert Dicey” since it is his “understanding of referendums that provides the constitutional authority for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union”.
I am eager to see for myself how Rees-Moggs corrupts Victorian history into a political manifesto, but it’s disturbing to see a politician attempt to lay claim over the whole of Victorian period in the name of conservatism. Across the Western world, it was a period marked by strong clashes of ideology, with conservative and progressive ideas leading to an instability that eventually resolved itself into World War I and the extreme ideologies—communism, fascism, etc.—of the interwar years. The Victorian period was one that saw the push for greater constitutional democracy and racial and gender equality, the end of slavery in Britain and America (and serfdom in Russia), limits on the power of employers to control workers’ lives, and a push for universal education. But it was also a period that saw the oppression and repression of the colonial enterprise, including the genocidal tyranny of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, a literal war in the United States to prevent the end of slavery, and authoritarian monarchies whose power only seems weak because of the fascists and communists who built on their models.
To declare any single segment of the Victorian experience to be the “true” or “pure” Victorians is to impose a modern reading on the past that is little different from the fantasies we have examined among the fringe historians who want to recreate the past in the image of their spirituality or ideology.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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