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Thursday, 12 March 2009

Recently I was prompted to post up my notes on my modern definitions of cynicism, pseudoscepticism, ancient scepticism and modern scepticism. They are virtually unedited, completely unbalanced and taken straight out of an email conversation. I also admit them to being partial as there is a lot more I could have added. However, seeing that more people I am in contact with have taken some interest in the scepticism and what is often meant by the term I thought I'd best share it here. For the record, this is not a sceptical blog, although I am an unashamed modern sceptic and individualist.

Cynic = A person who always assumes worst in everything. Varies from a Samuel Beckett or Phillip Larkin (both who I enjoy reading) pessimist to someone who has a generally nihilistic view on life and an irrational capacity to seeing the worst in everything. It’s a position that should be avoided, but we all have it in us in some form.

Pseudosceptic = Teenage syndrome! In short, those who attack something that has the biggest body of evidence, but refuses to accept the burden of proof. Some are controversial for the sake of being controversial whereas others are your typical confirmation bias conspiracists etc.

Ancient scepticism = I can’t pretend I have a large amount of knowledge on this subject, but from what I can gather this form of scepticism started off with very good intentions – like today’s modern version – but ended up becoming very much like the pseudosceptics. Advocators of this traditional form of scepticism ended up posing improvable academia like “Prove that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago and we arrived with all our memories intact” or “Everything is just a figment of our imagination”. This is where my prejudice may come in, but at its worst I see this as cowardly cop-out mental masturbation. It’s the sort of nonsense I loathe in martial arts - “Ah but in a real situation I would do this and you wouldn’t do that”. If we can’t replicate it, test it or see workable examples to support the hypothesis aside from “philosophical evidence” (there’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever seen one) then it doesn’t warrant an equal oppositional argument. It’s the same sort of thinking that con-theos or conspiracists use when all their arguments have been debunked by hard evidence – “Everything is a conspiracy!”

See a description George Edward Moore' s philosophical argument against traditional scepticism and the case for "common sense":

Modern sceptic = Not to be confused with the ancient Greek school of philosophy, which many do. I think the modern sceptic at his best is a hard rational thinker with a genuine open mind. He accepts facts as “temporary conclusions with the biggest body evidence”. He doesn’t accept absolutes, but will go where the evidence is strongest and continually tests and questions with logic. Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Lister, Jenner and Einstein all questioned the prevailing opinion of their times, but they did so with hard data and compelling evidence. They took their burden of proof and were willing to prove their ideas. What I love most about these examples is that they didn’t do it through force of personality – often the staple tactic of religions, cults and philosophies – but through ideas that could be proven the world over by similarly educated individuals.

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Forgotten Fame: Salt and Sauce meet Seabiscuit and the Match King

'CoverCover via Amazon

It amazed me when I first started researching the two music hall/circus elephants Salt and Sauce just how much I didn’t know about my own cultural history. Salt and Sauce were often quoted as being the most famous elephants of their time, and yet four decades after the death of Sauce at Butlin’s Holiday Camp, they had been all but forgotten. I guess it is appropriate, as their demise occurred when a new era arrived. Salt died in 1952 and Sauce in 1960. The ‘50s were a time of dramatic cultural change and just as Salt and Sauce moved on from Music Hall, a form of live entertainment that declined with the advent of the “talkies” on the cinema, circus began to slowly fall out of favour. The traditional circus wouldn’t disappear altogether – my parents’ own show toured from the late ‘70s until the early ‘80s – but by the end of the 1960s two of the three biggest UK circuses, Billy Smart’s and Bertram Mills, would both have ceased touring.

It was extraordinary. They were featured in books, radio broadcasts and cultural folklore. The celebrity artist and circus fan, Dame Laura Knight featured them in an etching. They had appeared on some of the most famous stages and circuses in British history alongside its most famous contemporaries, but when Sauce died the smallest of obituaries marked her passing in the weekly newspaper for showmen, the World’s Fair. They were seemingly locked in their time. Very little has been written about them since their death and most my research came from the era they lived in.

Forgotten fame is an interesting phenomenon. There are other examples of figures that were even more famous than Salt and Sauce, but little was written about them in retrospect. Another animal celebrity contemporary of Salt and Sauce that gallops to mind is the rags to riches racehorse “Seabiscuit”. Seabiscuit, of course, has since had his fame resurrected in the form of a book written by Laura Hillenbrand, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” in 2001, which was made into a major feature film starring Tobey Maguire in 2003. At the time of the stallion’s success he captured the depression era’s imagination as a real Cinderella story in much the same way that James J. Braddock did around the same time. Seabiscuit had inauspicious beginnings on a farm in Kentucky, where his undesirable size and appearance did not originally bode well. However, after he changed hands from the legendary trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimons to trainer “Silent Tom” Smith, employed by the thoroughbred’s new owner Charles S. Howard, the automobile entrepreneur, his potential began to be realized.

Seabiscuit became a massive celebrity throughout the 1930s and a symbol of hope in the depreciation era as he won race after race against serious competition under odds that included some apparent foul play. 1938 saw him win “Horse of Year” and set the country alight with the drama of the racetrack. What made Seabiscuit exciting was not only the back-story of a “no-hoper”,* but also his style of racing. He would pace out the race and then make a sudden burst towards the end. This is something that would make his story the stuff of celluloid joy especially when he made his return to racing after an injury that many believed would signal the end of his career. He not only returned but won the Santa Anita Handicap race in 1940 for the $121,000 prize in front of 78,000 paying spectators. That year noted track writer, K. Beckwith wrote “Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion” and “The Story of Seabiscuit” was the inevitable yet highly fictionalized feature film about the horse’s racing career released in 1949 and starring former child star prodigy Shirley Temple. However, the legend would fade and Seabiscuit’s next notable appearance would be in an illustrated children’s book “Come on Seabiscuit” written by Ralph Moody in 1963. This would serve as the inspiration for Hillenbrand’s book written almost four decades later when Seabiscuit had almost faded into obscurity.

Ivar Kreuger is a different type of historical animal altogether. The only human of my trinity of forgotten famers, he’s a character that would not be popularly thought of as “noble” or “heroic”. This is especially true at the time of writing. I am living in a post-Enron era when we are in the midst of a global recession. The old capitalist model is being seriously challenged and so are questions regarding individualism. Kreuger, at the height of his fame, was the embodiment of the capitalist entrepreneur. He inspired the great libertarian philosopher and writer, Ayn Rand, to create several characters after his model. Gail Wynard of her breakthrough novel “The Fountainhead” is very much an Ivar Kreuger personality and the circumstances surrounding his death clearly influenced her play “Night of January 16th”. Rand saw in Kreuger a dynamic individualistic force that seemed unstoppable in his ambitions, but yet was far from perfect. Rand would perhaps see this imperfection simply as weakness – he committed suicide in 1932 when it came out that his financial empire was unstable and later would be revealed to be involved in mass fraud. Many others would see his weakness as unquenchable greed and after his death he would sometimes be given the title “The World’s Greatest Swindler”.

Ivar Kreuger’s most famous title was “The Match King” and this was no understatement. He changed the whole the face of the safety match industry, starting in his home country of Sweden and then expanding outside until he controlled the vast majority of match production in the world. Before he tried his hand at the family match producing business he was already an ambitious innovator. He had tried his hand at running several businesses, including a restaurant in South Africa, and was a qualified and trained engineer who introduced new building construction methods to Sweden. It was while he was a building contractor that he formed the company that would later be known as “Swedish Match”. He would grew his business interests in huge monopolies and generate tremendous trust that he was able to huge raise loans from various governments. By 1929 and through the acquisition and investment of over 200 companies, Ivar Kreuger was considered to be worth the equivalent of about $100bn by 2000 standards, according to the Wikipedia article.

Kreuger’s life story is a far more fascinating, complicated and involved biography than the mashed together paragraphs I have written for the purposes of this article. He was massively famous at the time purely based on the immense power he wielded and his innovation on virtually areas connected to business including sourcing materials, manufacture and production, financing, distribution, marketing and branching out. In many ways he was a Randian hero and a champion of the individualist cause. However, after his death his fame would make a giant descent into infamy. Many might argue that he was perhaps he was the moral lesson that Enron proved the industrial world hadn’t yet learned. As Seabiscuit was bringing hope and joy to those who lived in the Great Depression Iver Kreuger became a symbol for all that had been wrong about the extravagance and selfish greed of the era that had preceded it. And yet by the time the Second World War was over his memory would also fade in the public interest.

A book, “Kreuger”, was written by Paul Bjerre in the Match King’s native country of Sweden upon the year of his death. With the exception of a book written by Allen Churchill called “The Incredible Ivar Kreuger” in 1957 there was little written about this individual until 1995’s Swedish book “Ivar Kreugar” written by Lars-Erik Thunholm. This was then translated into English and republished in 2002 at “Ivar Kreuger: The Match King”. It was Professor Frank Partnoy who would bring up the subject of the lessons history could teach us and what got roused my attention on BBC Radio 4’s the “Today” programme on 23 February 2009. He also likened Kreuger’s temporary fame to be like Seabiscuit’s. In both instances it would take a good many decades before anyone took any serious interest in writing again about these figures that definitely warrant a position in western history.

And so I arrive back at my minor celebrities who also had their history truncated. Why do figures that excite so much attention at the time, suddenly fade into historical obscurity? Let us not confuse them with the “one-hit wonders”. All three examples were not famous for a short period - they were famous for most of their lives. One theory I would like to offer is that the dramatic change of the times made their story suddenly inappropriate. Salt and Sauce were not TV celebrities, in fact despite being one of the numerous pachyderms featured in “Elephant Boy” I have yet to see any film footage of them. When Sauce died the era of the TV had arrived and traditional travelling circus had already peaked. Seabiscuit was a symbol of hope for those of the Lost Generation and Greatest Generation that lived through extreme hardship through and between two world wars and economic disaster. His story had little relevance to the children born into prosperity and optimism of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In fact, horseracing did not have the mainstream appeal it clearly had during the Seabiscuit era. As for Iver Kreuger, the last thing anyone wanted to hear in the time of rebuilding and re-invention was a story about a hugely successful man who seemingly destroyed everything.

As historians, however, it is not our business to be trendy. My dear online friend and historian Dr. Heather Vallance has often discussed the folly of how many historians try to read into past events with the eyes of today. Although our technologies of today are great for doing this and we can perhaps collate more data that can help unravel mysteries, we need to understand why people behaved a certain way by understanding how they viewed things. Salt and Sauce were two amazing animals that regularly lumbered into the lives of communities with far less connection with the rest of the world than we can imagine today. They were seen on the roads, through the countryside and then onto a public field to impress the spectators with their incredible abilities and sheer size. Seabiscuit defied odds and showed the hard beaten victims of the Great Depression that seemingly anyone could make it if they had enough belief and spirit. Iver Kreuger revolutionised his industry with the spirit of innovation and then his fall showed them the people of his time extreme folly of greed. As we learn more and progress forward we must always be mindful of what has gone before. We don’t need to just learn from our previous mistakes or even draw from the wisdom of old. Rather we should look with the eye of objectivity and try to see with the eyes of that past.

*Historical sceptic check, it would appear according to the Wikipedia account that as amazing and full of drama Seabiscuit’s story was, his early career with Fitzsimons was not as bad as Hillenbrand and the subsequent feature film would have us believe. The price Fitzsimons sold the horse to Charles S. Howard was $8,000 (equivalent of $100,000 in today’s monetary terms).
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