Spoilt children and whipping-boys

May 14 2009

Toynbee remembered

the atmosphere of animosity against Islam and against the Turks in which I had grown up.

Gladstone on the Bulgarian atrocities:

“Let the Turks now carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned.”

Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, John Murray, 1876. Bulgaria was re-established two years later.

Toynbee’s 1917 pamphlet “The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks” (too short to be shown in the bibliography here) was the descendant of Gladstone’s.

During the First World War Toynbee had written anti-Turkish propaganda for the Foreign Office. In 1921, while Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine Language, Literature and History at King’s College, London, he had travelled to the Near East for the Manchester Guardian to report on the Greco-Turkish War. His new-found sympathy for the Turks cost him his professorship. See Richard Clogg, Politics and the Academy, Arnold Toynbee and the Koraes Chair, Routledge, 2004. We have seen that happen in our own time with wrongly-applied sympathy in Arab-Israeli matters.

The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922) rehearses certain ideas which are developed on a large scale in A Study of History. This book is, among other things, about Western foreign policy as a cultural distorting lens and about the effects of inconsistent policy on people who are affected by it. The ambiguous passage below, in a very complex book, seems to me to anticipate modern ideas about, inter alia, Orientalism and “objectification”. Toynbee’s “Western Question” is a deliberately ironic reversal of the “Eastern Question” of British foreign policy. The “Question” is dated to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74 and the beginning of Turkey’s status as the “sick man of Europe”. The phrase dates from the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, when much Western sentiment attached itself to the Greeks. The phrase “sick man of Europe” is, rightly or wrongly, attributed to Nicholas I (reigned 1825-55).

A working-man often makes allowances for an acquaintance who is a gentleman, and a gentleman for a working-man, which they would not either of them make readily for individuals of their respective species, or even for a shopkeeper. This well-known psychological fact has not been without benefit to the Turk. When a Westerner meets a Turk (whether it be an unsophisticated peasant or a Western-educated doctor, official or officer), he finds himself in contact with an individual who has traditions, standards, manners, and a soul of his own. Social relations with him are straightforward and full of interest. They possess all the charm and vividness of intercourse with a live human being, with a minimum of those moral commitments which ordinarily follow. The western traveller takes the same aesthetic enjoyment in his live Turk as in the fictitious personalities of a novel or a play, or as in the ghosts of a dead civilisation. The author, and every reader after him, of Paradise Lost can idealise and sympathise with Satan in the imaginary world of that poem, without having to feel the disapproval obligatory when much less serious offences are committed in this world by sons of Adam. Scholars, too, can take delight in the poetry of Aeschylus, the heroism of Leonidas, and all the glories of Ancient Hellenic civilisation, without being unduly distressed by the paederasty and infanticide which co-existed with them. In the same way, a Westerner who has once made friends with a Turk will shake hands with him again, next time he visits Turkey, without embarrassment, however red the hands of other Turks may have been stained, since his last visit, by massacre. Without his being aware of it, the conventional picture of the “blood-stained Turk,” with which he has been familiarised since infancy, has made him proof against being shocked by the reality. This feature in the personal relationship between Westerners and Turks, on its present footing, is as undesirable as that noted above in the case of Westerners and Greeks; but it has the same psychological origins, and neither feature will disappear until the “complex” of prejudice in Western minds has been removed.

It is imperative to remove it, for unwarrantable prejudice and unwarrantable indulgence do not in this case counterbalance one another. When you have made a spoilt-child of the Greek, it is no good rounding on him as an impostor; and when you have used the Turk as a whipping-boy, you do not heal the stripes that you have inflicted by congratulating him on his fortitude. Unnatural treatment is made doubly harmful by inconsistency in its application […].

The shadow of the West

Acquaintances, OUP, 1967

“The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks”, with a Preface by Viscount Bryce, Hodder & Soughton, 1917

The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, A Study in the Contact of Civilizations, Constable, 1922

5 Responses to “Spoilt children and whipping-boys”


  1. “The same aesthetic enjoyment”. Yes, absolutely spot on.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The ambiguity here is in the question of personal relations. Are they a haven or do they prevent us from seeing political matters clearly?


  3. I think it is more literal, that it raises (or lowers) our relationship to an aesthetic — rather than personal — level; which is exactly what happens ‘in the field’: the human element becomes part of the tableau.

    • davidderrick Says:

      Yes, but he almost seems to be questioning the basis of the personal. I’ll try and do a synopsis of this book. Essentially, it is a casting-off of pre-1914 diplomatic and imperialist language and world views and a rehearsal of some of the ideas about contacts between civilisations that he develops in the Study. I am not sure whether, as a whole, it works.


  4. […] The same front matter page in the same pamphlet quotes Gladstone. […]


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