This year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. To commemorate the movement and the struggle for social change through the non-proliferation and cessation of nuclear power, a series of posters, badges and pamphlets has been reissued from the first campaigns in the 1950s. One of these posters demonstrates how much we as scholars and activists have lost – or relinquished – in the past half century.
I love collecting old political posters. The ephemera of history rarely receives the attention it deserves. In our digitised, mediated age, the texture, tone and colours bleed from analogue research. Certainly, through a hypertext link, readers of this article can view these posters. But to have the full-sized objects within our reach is a different experience. In stark lettering on a blue background, one CND poster proclaims a mass meeting in February 1958 at Central Hall, Westminster. The speakers at the event included Michael Foot, Stephen King-Hall, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell and A. J. P. Taylor. The commitment from academics to the organisation was profound. Joseph Rotblat, the only physicist to leave the Manhattan Project before Hiroshima on the grounds of conscience, was one of many scientists who joined other scholars, writers, journalists, musicians and the Society of Friends to warn and argue that nuclear weaponry was a threat to civilisation and humanity. The calibre of the public commitment from Russell, Taylor and – later – E. P. Thompson was extraordinary and humbling to those of us fixated in the backlit glow of e-mails, text messaging and wiki-enabled media.
When we teach first-year students history and historiography, simple tropes and shapes ease their passage from empiricism to empirical scholarship, or from fetishising facts to developing an interpretation. Even simple binaries – such as continuity and change – can offer a matrix of connections between present researchers and the past that we study. But when entering the realm of iconography and artefacts from CND 50 years ago, it is like passing into another world. The differences seem almost too great to fathom.
Academics from the arts and sciences dialogued and debated the future of the planet, rather than the mix of bibliometrics and “light”- touch peer review in a research assessment exercise. Secular socialists and faith-based peace organisers aligned in a common goal for peace. There was no fighting of fundamentalism with other fundamentalisms. There was a broadly based coalition for social change. The CND aligned politics, intellectual expertise and public opinion to agitate, question, probe and transform.
There is hope, belief and commitment to carry forward these noble parts of our academic history. Kate Hudson is the current chair of the CND and the head of social and policy studies at London South Bank University; she also founded the journal Contemporary Politics in 1995. In time for the 50th anniversary, she has released the organisation’s history, CND: Now More Than Ever. Passionately written and effectively researched through the use of the organisation’s rich archive, she has captured a hot history of debate, struggle, anger and a deeply felt desire for change. She has realised that the CND “has inspired, led and organised - and no doubt infuriated and annoyed! – many hundreds of thousands of people, and has contributed to changes in politics and society that have shaped the lives of millions”. Their flexibility of campaigning – from vigils to lobbying, education to festivals, music to fasts – has moved from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War, the Cold War to the crumbling Berlin Wall, and on to the casual violence that has become part of our lives through the War on Terror. In the final chapter of Hudson’s book – “Campaigning since September 11” – there is a subheading that should both chill academics and serve as a call to arms: “What is actually going on in the world?”
In answer to this question, I return to that poster from 1958. Through the antics of Posh and Becks, Katie and Peter, Sharon and Ozzy, alongside a fixation on big televisions and small phones, “public opinion” is more difficult to understand or conceptualise than at any point since the Second World War. Blogs have not substituted for democratic action. The RAE did not reconnect academics with the society we are meant to serve.
At the end of our academic careers, when we answer that final telephone call, relish in deleting those last e-mails and empty our filing cabinets into the recycling bin, we will not log the greatest achievement of our academic career as running a successful meeting with a solid agenda and accurate minutes. Whispered gossip over coffee or the development of a particularly attractive set of PowerPoint slides will not make us relish the integrity and value of our professional lives.
Instead, we will remember the students we have taught, the citizens we have influenced and our small role in building momentum for social justice and democracy. Significantly, scholars such as Zygmunt Bauman, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, A. J. P Taylor and E. P. Thompson combined research with journalism, teaching and public speaking, intellectual rigour with social conscience.
It is very easy to blame the changes in media ownership and journalism for the invisibility of academics in public discourse. It is much harder to assess our role in disconnecting from the social issues of our time and busying ourselves with the urgent but unimportant. Those of us who work in universities have been given the great endowment of shaping knowledge and guiding the best and brightest of this next generation to become the best people they can be. But such a privilege presents responsibilities to arch beyond ourselves, to do better and be better.
In thinking about the past 50 years, I compiled a list of 2008’s historical anniversaries.
• 50 years ago – founding of the CND
• 40 years ago – May ’68
• 30 years ago – Rock against Racism
• 20 years ago – Acid house
• 10 years ago – Impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton
This list is troubling because it shows how our definitions of relevance and importance have changed. From the fear of nuclear annihilation to celebrating an incomplete revolution, from a fight against racism to a fight for the right to party, we are still left mopping up the consequences of impeaching a president for “not having sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”, and/or lying about it. The question is what those of us who have been given the benefits of education will do about this shift in priorities.
Through his life, Albert Einstein uttered many statements of both wisdom and humour. Two serve as a compass for those of us who read and write, teach and think. The first, which is featured on another CND poster, is “if I’d known what I know now, I would have become a locksmith”. But the other is even more poignant and important: “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.” In our time of ruthless greed, where a credit crunch and property prices matter more than the daily drip-drip-drip of civilian deaths in an illegal pre-emptive war being fought without an exit strategy, we need to remember our humanity more and our shopping lists less.
To put the issue another way and to cite Vitalia, one of my remarkable first-year students, from our final lecture of this academic year: “I just don’t get it, Tara, why did we go to war in Iraq?” This woman is 19. As scholars – as humans – we have a choice. We can fill Vitalia’s mind with skills, competencies and vocational goals, or we can actually answer her question with honesty, clarity and empathy. She, like all our students, deserves our best so that she can become a scholar of integrity, reflection and thoughtfulness. Perhaps when we answer her question, we may silence the shrill and macabre melody of war, bombs and violence for the rest of us.
Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.