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It's Time Dr Starkey Got The Chop

Posted: 2/03/2012 23:00

As someone with a French mother, watching Dr David Starkey on the BBC's Question Time left me both shocked and appalled...

...that he had spotted our evil Gallic plan to destroy America and the UK. Ze b***ard! We would 'ave got away wiv it, if it were not for zat pesky historian.

Oui, it's true. Since 1944, la belle France 'as been systematically trying to destroy your stupide country, wiv your disgusting liberating armee zat sullied the streets of Paris, and trampled our bee-utiful French campagne. Were we grateful zat you freed us from ze Nazis? Non! We were getting ready to do it ourzelves, wiv our armee of ze invisible tanks, and our airforce disguised as ze fluffy clouds.

You stupide Brits, you ruined all ze fings! So, disgusted at ze shame of being liberated by ze Allies, we plotted ze revenge against you. Over ze past 40 years, we 'ave infiltrated your nation and undermined ze vital infrastructure of Britain. Margaret Thatcher? Zat was us! 'Er real name is Jeanne and she was just a simple peasant girl when we took 'er from 'er home, and trained 'er to learn your ignorant ways, before sending 'er undercover to les Tory party conferences!

Zis is not all, my fat English chums! Le Binge-Drinking? My idea! Katie Price aussi. We 'ave also been funding le warfare asymmetrique through l'homme qui s'appelle Simon Cowell. Ee iz a genius, non? Ze way he makes you so disechanted wiv ze concept of music iz totalement magnifique. Toutes les problemes avec la Britain moderne, zey are caused by le government Francais... avec l'exception of ze England football team. Zat required no help at all.

OK, so I'm being silly, but silly is the only justified retort to Dr Starkey's absurd rant. If he is going to be ridiculous, I may as well be ridiculous in kind. As a person of French descent, I was not particularly angered by the professor's wildly conspiratorial accusation that France is suffering some sort of collective shame, now manifested in passive aggression that requires it to sabotage the political efforts of Britain and America. This is, obviously, gibberish. What angered me, as a public communicator of history, was a reckless coupling of historiographical over-generalization with outlandish political xenophobia from a man who ought to know better.

Disappointingly, Dr Starkey was aiming at a valid point. When asked if Britain should intervene in Syria, he emphatically denounced the idea, saying that liberators can be misconstrued as conquerors - a fair point, though not an insurmountable obstacle - and that, in the case of France in WW2, the nation was left feeling embarrassed by its reliance on the Allies to emancipate itself from Hitler's grasp.

Not satisfied with this surprising argument, he then embarked on a bizarre monologue about France "spending the past 40 years doing everything they can to obliterate the shame, by damaging Britain and America."

This is simply ridiculous, and for a noted academic and broadcaster to lower himself to such ignorant slander is troubling, particularly when called upon as an expert historian to answer a question of vital importance.

There was a strange irony that also on the debate panel was Clark Carlisle, the articulate and thoughtful footballer. We hear a lot these days about footballers being role-models for our young generations, and it is great to see one who dispels some of the stereotypes. Alarmingly, while not necessarily a role-model himself, Dr Starkey seems not to comprehend the responsibilities placed upon him by society. The role of the public intellectual is to engage the populace with ideas, to challenge misnomers, and to promote evidence-based critical thinking. Historians are guardians and interpreters of our heritage, but they can also be sage advisors on policy pitfalls.

The UK has a Chief Medical Officer and a Chief Scientific Advisor, yet disappointingly there is no Chief Historical Advisor. Calls for such a thing have come from the excellent History and Policy group, an interdisciplinary organisation housed by the Universities of Cambridge and London.

They work as closely as they can with government and the media, attempting to inject evidentiary reasoning into political rhetoric. As one of the nation's most famous historians, Dr Starkey should be amidst their allies, yet his performance on this edition of Question Time and Newsnight last year suggests he is actually damaging the reputation of historians. His statements in both cases were prejudiced in bias, and wildly unfounded in evidence. More worryingly, they were communicated with a familiar hostility. This is, after all, the man who called a teenage pupil in Jamie Oliver's education-based TV programme, "so fat, I'm surprised you can even walk." This is not conduct becoming an esteemed historian.

We, the media, may be partly to blame. Dr Starkey is a brilliant Tudor specialist but through the eager prompting of Channel 4 and the BBC, he has become one of the most familiar faces on our screens.

His reputation for rude arrogance and catty putdowns has earned him a place as go-to commentator on all facets of current affairs. Most historians have a broad knowledge of the past, and a keen interest in politics, but none are experts on everything. There has long been a tradition, continued by the brilliant Professor Mary Beard, of classicists being consulted on modern matters, but while Professor Beard has occasionally challenged the status quo, she has never sunk to the exaggerated rhetoric of Dr Starkey's slur against the French, or denigration of Black culture as inherently damaging on Britain. The truth is, he is simply not qualified to talk authoritatively on many subjects, but through our urging, he has found himself being constantly rewarded for generalised sensationalism.

Dr Starkey seems to have strong political views of his own, which he wilfully cherry-picks from history to defend, but tellingly he is often the only historian on a debate panel. History, as a discipline, is dialectical. It works through opposition and attrition, with punch and counter-punch there to gradually broaden the understanding of the often contradictory past.

Without another historian to counteract his statements, Dr Starkey's statements stand unopposed. As a viewer of Question Time, I enjoy an undercurrent of passion in the debate, but I believe Dr Starkey's communication skills have become overly bombastic, and his insight often lacking in nuance or genuine depth.

The nation is blessed with many exceptional historical minds, and it would be surely a better thing to call on expertise when relevant to a particular subject, and substitute Dr Starkey for a less aggressive scholar when looking for broader historical analysis.

Put simply, like Sir Thomas More, I think it's time Dr David Starkey got the chop. Not literally, mind.

 

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