The Fall of the Roman Empire ... on Twitter
Sorry about the picture (courtesy of the Bristol Post), but it proves to be relevant . . .
The odd thing about a Twitter storm is that it happens so quickly and very soon you cant quite remember where it started. A couple of days ago, I was in the eye of the Storm with UKIP funder Arron Banks, of whom I have never been much of an admirer, but that's by the by. As I recall, I saw in my timeline (retweeted I assume), Banks's pithy pronouncement: "True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration."
I can take many dodgy pronouncements about the end of the Roman Empire (it's not as if there is a single cause, or as if it doesnt go on being debated). But the idea that it was caused by 'immigration' and so acts as a terrible warning against modern immigration is not just bunkum, but dangerous bunkum. So I fired off a reply: "i think you all need to do a bit more reading in Roman history before telling uswhat caused the fall of Rome. Facts guys!".
And it went on from there. Loads of people piled in on both sides (I was really grateful to several academic colleagues, students and J K Rowling who stood up to be counted, as well as to a whole array of Twitter friends and acquaintances, old and new: thank you ). Mr Banks told us of his life long love of Roman history which he had learned at school, how he had much enjoyed Gladiator, and that anyway (I'm paraphrasing) academics like me didnt have a monopoly on historical interpretation.
To be fair to Mr Banks, mansplainer though he is, nonetheless he was, in Twitter terms, unfailingly polite, and ended up judging me "a sport". But quite a few of his supporters weren't (and, let me confess, one or two of mine weren't entirely courteous either!). There was plenty of the relatively overlookable "U Beard groupies r disgusting" to some rather less overlookable interventions in the penumbra of the debate, including a picture of a model guillotine with a comment "more baskets needed" (I don't think I was the intended victim, but whoever....!). And I suspect that "the days of your ilk r numbered", a phrase repeated several times (where does it come from?), was meant pretty aggressively.
So what, if anything, comes out of this?
Well, there is a randomness to it. It was probably always going to be quite big, but Rowling's 8 million followers were certainly a factor. And meant that it was more likely to be picked up by the press, which it was, than otherwise.
But there was other food for thought too. Several of Banks's supporters objected, not unreasonably in a way, that I hadnt said why I thought the empire did fall. And that is where one problem lies. If you have only 140 characters (and a lot less if you are replying @ to a couple of people), it is hard to capture any nuanced argument or complicated at all. Twitter is ideal for mono-causes (it was all immigration, wasnt it?), not fitted at all for complexity. I did try saying that even the idea of the Fall of the Empire is problematic: if we are talking the East of the Empire, then it rolled on till 1453 (we call them "Byzantines", but they called themselves "Romans"). But when it comes to deconstructing the idea of "borders" and "barbarians", and exploring the "Romanness" of some of those who it became convenient to brand "foreign", indeed the major differences in those apparent polarities between now and then, then I am beaten if it has to be half a sentence.
In a way of course, as Tom Holland observed, it was rather cheering that people were joining in to discuss a historical problem (though it was, honestly, more assertion than discussion). And I am with Mr Banks in believing that academics dont have a monopoly of historical interpretation. But in order to have an interpretation worth listening to, you do actually have to know something. And , although it is hard to pin down which interpretation is right, there are some interpretations that are wrong.
And that is back to Michael Gove and his experts. Of course, we don't want a populace that simply lies down and does what "experts" tell them (even assuming that experts sing from the same hymn sheet), in some kind of modern version of a Platonic state run by philosophers. But if you dont want to be supine, then you do have to do a bit of work. It is no good thinking that any old assertion about the end of the Roman empire on the basis of a couple of viewings of Gladiator (or about the fate of the pound on the basis of the weekly shop) is worth listening to, or acting on.
Sorry folks, experts do know a lot... and, at the same time, they should be vulnerable and open to challenge, unseating, overturn and maybe ridicule. But to do that means more than just sounding off!