November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes. For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting. They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc. The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous.
The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World. Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine. Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo. This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship. In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.
The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however. They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland. But they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.
The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s. The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998. It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking. It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.
It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures. The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.
But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic. This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy. In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream. But, there are a few gaps here. First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States. And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.
Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States. The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation. But this was not instantaneous. It took a generation or two. It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960. Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.
And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today. And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.
November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada. When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867. The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada). Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada. As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably. The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary. For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force. The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military). For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns. And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.
The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of). This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.
But. The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together. Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out. Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic. And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873. And the Prairie Provinces were brought in in 1905. But, this was not a united nation. No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.
This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one. This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver. Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax. But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.
Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together. The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.
The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949). This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.
But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many). The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.
As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada. Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically. And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.
The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism. The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem. He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.
When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog. The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).
But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over. As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course). No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada. And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.
Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918. Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions. And in Québec, tensions boiled over.
In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real. And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.
Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917
From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released). The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act. On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots. In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.
And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.
Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada. Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions. Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.
Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec. In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec. And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.
November 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Across Canada, the cenotaph is a central component of the central square of villages, towns, and cities. Erected in the wake of the First World War, these cenotaphs faithfully record those who gave their lives in the first global conflict. The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars.’ While not nearly as massive or bloody as the Second World War, it is the First World War that is remembered as The Great War.
These cenotaphs recording the war dead are deeply embedded on the landscape. And, unlike so many memorials, they are not invisible. Growing up, I was always aware of them and what they meant. They were solemn and dignified, almost always identical, obelisk shapes. I remember reading the names of the dead on them, and not just on Remembrance Day.
The dead of the First World War seemed so faraway from me, growing up in the 1980s, beyond living memory for me. My grandparents served in the Second World War. And whilst my grandfather’s service as a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force held a certain romance, it was nothing compared to the First World War.
As a boy in Canada, I didn’t know a lot about the conditions of the War. I learned these in university and the romance of the war dropped away quickly. And I learned more and more about the status of Canada during this period. Even still, the First World War has maintained a certain mystique. Part of this is driven by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier (and victim of the war) John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blowBetween the crosses, row on row,That mark our place; and in the skyThe larks, still bravely singing, flyScarce heard amid the guns below.We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,Loved and were loved, and now we lie,In Flanders fields.Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throwThe torch; be yours to hold it high.If ye break faith with us who dieWe shall not sleep, though poppies growIn Flanders fields.
And so the First World War maintained this mystique. Even if the veterans handing out the poppies in return for a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion were from the Second World War when I was younger, it was a symbol of the First World War they pinned to my lapel.
Last month, I was in Ottawa and visited the National War Memorial located at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington streets, kitty corner to Parliament. The Monument, somewhat ironically, was dedicated in May 1939 to honour the war dead of Canada. Ironic, of course, because the Second World War broke out in Europe barely three-and-a-half months later.
It was whilst staring at this monument that something really struck me about our cenotaphs and war memorials: they tend to date from the First World War. In this case the artillery is that of the First World War, down to the cavalry on horses. These monuments may include the names of Canadian soldiers who served in conflagrations before that one, of course, such as the Boer War. But it is the First World War dead who appear in great number. And the war dead of later wars, including the Second World War were added to the original monument. They were not the original soldiers, and whilst their sacrifices are the obvious equivalent, these memorials date not from their war(s), but the Great War.
And so these original soldiers, those who fought and died in the First World War were the baseline for the Canadian military and, even if this wasn’t the first time that war was made real for Canadians, it was the first time it was made real on a national scale. And even if the First World War left a complicated legacy on Canada, it remains that it was perhaps the first great crisis the country faced. And it gave rise to a series of stories, some true, some mythical, about the import of the war on the still young Dominion at the time.
November 9, 2018 § 1 Comment
A little while ago, I got to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Qunnipiac University in Hamden, CT. My wife’s Aunt Claire lived in Hamden, and as a good Irish American woman, she loved this museum and it is one of my great regrets that I did not get to the museum with her before she died last spring. May she rest in peace.
I was on a tour at the museum, despite my deep knowledge of Irish history, the Famine, and the diaspora, to say nothing of the practice of museums in general. I kind of regretted this. Our experiences of museums and their collections are mediated by the docent. And in some cases, this can work really well, we get docents who are knowledgeable and personable and they make us think about the artefacts, collections, exhibits in ways we would not otherwise. In sbort, the docent, as Franklin Vangone and Deborah Ryan note in their Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, ‘can make or break the visitor experience.’ Vangone and Ryan advocate a more personable approach to docent-led tours, one that lets the experience of the docent in the museum, come through. This is to avoid rote-memorization. They also advocate a non-linear interpretation (amongst other innovative measures) of the museum, one that can account for multiple interpretations and stories simultaneously.
The other major problem with docent-led museum tours is that they are telling us, the visitors, a pre-determined, pre-packaged nodes of information. But, of course, we, the visiting public, go to museums to seek out our own experiences of the artefacts, the history, etc. Indeed, when my students write museum reviews, part of their remit is to both cast a critical eye on the museum, the structure of the tour, the artefacts of the tour, the story being communicated, and so on. But they are also supposed compare their own experiences, what they looked for, what they took away, with the pre-packaged history they consumed at the same time.
People tend to either love or hate docent-led tours. I’m more ambivalent. Sometimes they’re fantastic. Other times, they leave a lot to be desired. My visit to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was the latter experience. The thing was, my docent clearly approached his job in a non-linear, personable manner. He told stories of his involvement, his approach, and why he loved doing this. He was also really good with a lot of his audience, composed of university student. He made eye contact, he had a presence. What he did not have, though, was pitch modulation in his voice. He talked in a dull monotone. And he very clearly needed to keep authority on his side of the tour, to the point where he was patronizing and insulting in taking questions or comments. And, with a group of undergraduate students (not mine, for the record), this immediately shuts down a dialogue, though it was also clear that my docent did not want a dialogue.
As a way of a comparison, my wife was on another tour at the same time, with another docent. My docent was a late middle-aged man, and hers was a similarly aged woman. Both docents were of Irish heritage, of course. But her docent was lively, had both a modulated voice and was willing to take questions and different interpretations of events and items. I was jealous.
So clearly, at least on this day, one’s experience with the museum was determined by which docent one ended with.
The museum itself holds so much promise. The building housing the museum, purpose-built, resembles an Irish Work House from the mid-19th century. The work houses were where (some) of the starving Irish peasantry were sent. There, they met with disgusting, vile, unsanitary conditions and disease preyed upon the inmates.
The Famine Museum, however, is built of much higher quality materials. And, unlike a fetid mid-19th century Irish Work House, is shiny and comfortable, of course. The visitor experience begins with a short documentary where the background of the Famine is delivered. I found this bizarre.
One has to also presume that the majority of people who seek out this museum are already familiar with the concept of the Famine. I’m not sure a 10-minute video is really going to do much to aid in people’s understanding of the calamity (as a reminder: 1845-52; potato blight; Irish peasants lived on potatoes; grain and meat was still shipped out of Ireland to Britain whilst the peasants starved; British response wholly and completely inadequate; 1.5 million or so die; 1.5 million or so emigrate; Ireland hasn’t really recovered yet). But what did surprise me was that the narrative of the documentary termed this a genocide.
I don’t disagree. As the Irish nationalist and Young Ireland leader John Mitchel said in 1846, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’ It wasn’t just that the British response was inadequate, it was purposefully so and the words of Charles Trevelyan, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury was unabashed in his delight at the suffering in Ireland, a chance to remake the country, he thought.
But what struck me was that when I was reading for my comprehensive exams fifteen years ago, the idea of the Famine as a genocide was not one that was accepted by academic historians, for the most part. Since the early 00s, however, the idea has become more and more accepted amongst Irish history scholars and now, it appears we can indeed term the Famine what it was, a genocide, caused by the massively inadequate response of the government.
And remember, that ‘British’ government was not actually supposed to be British. The country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, Ireland was part and parcel of the wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-19th century.
An example of the perfidy of the government: when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire pledged to donate £10,000 for relief for the Irish peasantry, Queen Victoria asked him to cut reduce his donation by 90%, to £1,000, as she herself had only pledged £2,000. And then there’s Trevelyan. He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’ When I teach the Famine in Irish history, my students are always flabbergasted by this to the point that more than one has asked me if I made it up. I wish.
At any rate, from the downstairs, we went upstairs and began with one of the most stunning Famine sculptures I’ve ever seen. Most Famine sculptures are haunting to begin with, wraiths of humans staggering to the docks of the River Liffey in Dublin. Or to the Foyle in Derry. But Kieran Tuohy‘s work, carved out of bog wood, defies easy description. This is the centrepiece of the museum. It still haunts me. A family of 6, victims of the Famine. Here, our docent was magnificent, I have to say, as he encouraged us to look closer. He began with the infant in the mother’s arms. He pointed to the way she was holding the infant, how the infant’s body looked.
Was the baby dead? The rest of the figures are lean and gaunt, dirty hair hanging down, vacant expression on the faces. And then as one scans downward, there are no feet. These are spectral figures, wraiths, ghosts. They are the dead of the Famine. The dead of our ancestors, essentially.
But this is kind of it. The museum is the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art. The unfortunate thing, though, is very little of it is on display. In fact, almost none of it is on display. On the day we visit, there is an exhibit about the American Civil War. The Famine is central to the story of the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to the United States. For most of us of Irish ancestry (ok, fine, I’m Irish Canadian, but part of my family actually emigrated to New York before heading north), our ancestors initially came here during the Famine. And the sons (and grandsons) of Erin who suited up for the Union and the Confederacy were in America precisely due to the Famine.
While the massive bulk of Irishmen who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union (around 160,000), some 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy. This is kind of one of the dirty secrets of the Irish diaspora. And one that is conveniently papered over most of the time. To be fair, our docent did note that the Irish also fought for the Confederacy, but they weren’t the focus of the exhibit.
Either way. The Civil War. I can’t even begin to count the places I could go to find images of the Civil War in this country, and finding this war inside a museum ostensibly dedicated to the Famine was disappointing, to say the least.
And so I was left with the remainder of the permanent exhibitions, which focus on the American response to the Famine. And a feeling that this is the most poorly-named museum I have ever visited; it should not be called Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, but The Museum of the Irish Famine in America. Aside from Tuohy’s sculpture and a few other pieces, there was nothing about Ireland to be found. This was the story of the Irish in America.
And then there was the thing I found most fascinating. Our docent told us the origin story of the museum. But the interesting thing was that after a slight mention of a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s, he moved onto the (much too long) story of how the museum came to be over the next fifteen years or so. And he made no mention of why there was a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s in the first place.
1997 was the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine. And this was a chance for the Irish, and the diaspora, to re-think the Famine, its causes and meanings, and its consequences. It led to an explosion of academic scholarship, popular histories, documentaries, and public art attempting to reckon with the Famine.
And it even gave then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair a chance for a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of the role of the British in the Famine, skirting the fine line of apologizing. That Blair couldn’t even be arsed enough to deliver the short lines himself, or have Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (the great-great-grandaughter of Queen Victoria) do it speaks volumes. Instead, an Irish actor recited the lines at a festival in Cork.
At any rate, none of this is part of the narrative of the museum, instead the narrative of the Great Men who built it is the central message. So we get the story of more Great White Men and their wonderful work in doing Great Things.
Anyone who knows me that I don’t generally like museums all that much. The ones I have visited and truly enjoyed number in the single digits. There is a reason I am a big fan of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. The lessons of it can be applied to larger institutions, of course. But rarely am I as disappointed by a museum as I was by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, from the docent-led experience to the exhibits.
November 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
There is a disturbing trend in Toronto sports for the franchises of the self-proclaimed ‘Centre of the Universe’ to brand themselves as the ultimate Canadian franchise. Of course, this should not be surprising, since Toronto hasn’t realized there is a huge country out there, and that, in reality, it only makes up around 16% of the population of the nation. But don’t tell Toronto that.
The Toronto media has a long history of denigrating the rest of the country. I stopped reading the Globe and Mail about 10 years ago when I realized that about the only time there was news about Vancouver, Calgary, or Montréal was when it was bad news or something to mock the cities about (this, of course, coming from a city that once called out the military to deal with a bit of snow and had Rob Ford as mayor).
But to suggest the Toronto sporting franchises as the Canadian teams is, well, ridiculous and insulting. The NBA Raptors a few years ago used the slogan #WeTheNorth as part of its marketing campaign. This, though, feels the least insulting to me in that the Raptors are the only Canadian NBA team, and the only other Canadian NBA team, the Vancouver Grizzlies died an ignominious death in 2001.
And, to be fair, the CFL Argonauts and MLS TFC haven’t seemed to get the memo, but that’s probably because no one cares about either one anyway.
But it’s the MLB Blue Jays and the NHL Maple Leafs who take the cake. The Blue Jays have created a cap that features nothing but the Canadian maple leaf on it. The message here is that any good Canadian must cheer for the Blue Jays. But the thing is, it’s not this simple. Until 2004, Montréal had its Expos. The Expos were killed off by MLB and moved to Washington, DC., so this remains somewhat of a sore spot. But Down East, Canadians are just as likely, if not more so, to cheer for the Boston Red Sox than the Jays. And out West, the Seattle Mariners and the Bay Area teams are also popular. And in Montréal, the Red Sox are the most popular team.
Then there’s the Maple Leafs. Sure, their name and their logo. But those go back nearly 90 years. So they get a pass on that (as an aside, the Canadiens de Montréal are so-known because the peasants of French-era Québec were called Canadiens, or Habitants, thus, the Habs). But EA Sports, Adidas (which makes NHL uniforms) and all of the so-called Original Six teams created interesting new jerseys for EA Sports’ NHL ’19.
They almost all suck and are pointless, but you just know that they will eventually be the third jerseys of the teams, though the Chicago Blackhawks jersey looks like their third jersey already. The Maple Leafs’ however, is a blatant rip off of the legendary Team Canada jersey, made famous by the victorious Canadians in the 1972 Summit Series.
The difference, of course, is that the Maple Leafs’ version is blue instead of red:
So, yeah, this is for a video game and it’s not realty. Yet. And sure you’re thinking I’m getting worked up about something that isn’t important. The thing is, it is. Jerseys, caps, hoodies, etc., these are all part of the marketing campaigns of the franchises and the leagues they play in.
And when Toronto clubs monopolize and capitalize on Canadian images and icons for their marketing campaigns, they are doing several things. First, they are cheapening our national symbols and icons (as an aside, remember when the RCMP licensed its images to Disney for marketing purposes and the outcry it created?). Second, they are changing the national discourse about what it means to be Canadian, just as Molson attempted to in the 90s with the Joe Canada commercials, which suggested to drink Molson Canadian was to make oneself Canadian. That’s what the Raptors, Jays, and Leafs are doing here: to cheer for them is to be Canadian.
In the case of baseball, again, we have divided loyalties. We do for basketball, too. All my friends in Montréal cheer for the Boston Celtics, and out in Vancouver, it’s the LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors. But hockey is something else. There are seven NHL franchises in Canada. Three of them have variations on Canada and our nationality in their names (Canucks, Maple Leafs, Canadiens). One shamelessly ripped of the Royal Canadian Air Force in its marketing and logo (Winnipeg Jets). But none of this reaches the ridiculousness of the EA Sports Maple Leafs’ jersey.
And so we’re back to the idea that to be in Toronto is to be Canadian and to hell with the rest of the nation, you know, the 84% of us who don’t live in Toronto.
November 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
In the October issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a fascinating article on the similarities of 1970s South Korea with present-day China, written by Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. Hahm’s argument is pretty much encapsulated in the title, ‘China’s Future is South Korea’s Present’: In the 1960s and 70s, South Korea modernized under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, and that paved the way for democratization in 1987. And thus, it provides a road map for China today. In other words, a pretty familiar liberal argument: with economic liberalization comes political liberalization.
Park seized power in a military coup in 1963 and held on until he was assassinated by one of his advisors in 1979 in the midst of massive political, economic, and social unrest in the country as workers and students protested the oppressive political régime. Park, however, was not your standard issue dictator. Park’s main goal was economic modernization which would, in his estimation, lift his country out of poverty. In order to do so, he ultimately made the decision to open up South Korea’s economy to the world, which forced South Korean corporations to not just modernize, but to be able to take on the world. And this is how you came to drive a Hyundai and you’re reading this on a Samsung tablet.
Hahm then argues something similar could happen in China. He notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently had the nation’s constitution changed so he can maintain power perpetually. He also notes the development of China’s economy in the past three decades, and the hyper-modernization of it. Hahm argues that economic modernization in South Korea, combined with the massive unrest of the late 1970s/early 1980s led directly to democratization in 1987. And he can see something similar happening in China.
I am not so certain. South Korea of the 1980s and China of the 2010s are not the same. And this is largely due to the power of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. This is not to say that Park didn’t have control. It is to recognize that Xi and the CCP exist in a new era.
What Park did not have in the late 20th century was the technological capabilities of absolutism in the way that Xi and the CCP have today. The internet, and specifically, state control of the internet, in China means that Xi and the CCP can control the population of the nation much easier. The Chinese government continually pressures its techno-sector to be more ‘open’ and willing to share information with the government. Chinese legislation means that data on Chinese consumers/citizens held by foreign corporations must be stored on servers physically located in China. And the Great Firewall of China means that access to the wider internet is difficult. For certain, tech-savvy Chinese use VPNs (which are technically illegal) to access the wider internet, but continued crackdowns on them and access to the net in general mean that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get around the Great Firewall.
This kind of control of the internet, and government dreams of amassing huge data sets on Chinese residents, mean that it has an almost unprecedented amount of control, and possible future control over its citizens. In short, the Chinese government has the power to be in near complete control of China and Chinese citizens; Park never had this.
More to the point, when China had its moment similar to what Hahn describes in South Korea in the late 70s, culminating at Tiananmen Square in 1989, well, we know how that turned out.
While I would not consider myself an expert on China, I do teach Modern Chinese history. And when I was in Beijing this past summer, teaching, I was fascinated by what I saw. Chinese state-sponsodered capitalism had created an opulent consumer economy and culture in the capital. Shopping malls were packed, luxury cars roamed the streets, Jingdong delivery vehicles were everywhere, and people wore expensive clothes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had a smart phone in their hands, and that’s how they conducted business, using WeChat’s platform for money transfers. In other words, other than language, Beijing is looking increasingly Western, with the infiltration of Western corporations like Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and so on.
But what struck me the most was that a lot of my students did not recognize China as a totalitarian dictatorship. Rather, they saw China as analogous to the United States, as a liberal, capitalist democracy.
Rather than share Hahn’s belief that China is ripe for an end to single-party rule, I see the CCP having delivered a masterstroke. It has allowed capitalism within a set of parameters that has created an ability for the Chinese to buy things in a consumer economy. They can enjoy great freedom as they shop in the malls, or order things on Jingdong or AliBaba, and as they sit in the big, expensive restaurants of the big cities, and so on.
I also teach a lot of US History. In the 1920s, our modern consumer capitalist culture was created with the birth of modern, psychology-based advertising. Corporations could not persuade consumers to buy their goods, using science to do so. And this is how we got our modern consumer culture. But attendant to that was what many observers noted: Americans themselves changed. Gone was the old Protestant work ethic and belief in hard work and sober, industrious, thrift. Instead, Americans wanted to acquire things, ti spend their increasing disposable income, first on things that made their lives easier (like coffee machines and refrigerators) and then on luxuries made affordable (like radios). One displayed one’s affluence through one’s stuff, in essence.
And so, when I look at China, I don’t share Hahm’s optimism. I see people content with their consumer economy and I see the oppressive power of the CCP. Taken together, I do not see an end to single-party rule any time soon. Park’s South Korea is not an historical analogue of Xi’s China.
July 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
In this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a provocative essay from Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Entitled, ‘The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom,’ Allison provides a much needed corrective to the history of American foreign policy since the Second World War.
Allison argues, correctly, that American foreign policy was never about maintaining a liberal world order. Rather, she argues, the world as we know it globally arose out of the Cold War, a bipolar world where the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies in a battle of the hearts and minds of the global populace. In essence, the two core belligerent nations cancelled each other out in terms of nuclear arms, so they were left to forge and uneasy co-existence. And then, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and, the US was victorious in the Cold War. And, of course, Francis Fukuyama made his now infamous, laughable, and ridiculous claim:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
How Fukuyama has any credibility after this colossal statement of Western hubris is beyond me.
Anyway, Allison notes that aftermath of this particular moment in time was that the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made common cause and managed to convince both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that the best way to spread the gospel of capitalism and liberal democracy was by dropping bombs. Only during the Bush II era did the idea of liberal democracy get tied up with American foreign policy, and here Allison quotes former National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State), Condoleeza Rice, speaking of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the Greater Middle East.’
Thus, we had a unipolar world, and now, with the resurgence of a belligerent Russia and a growing China, we are in a multi-polar world. And then she goes onto note larger American problems centring around democracy at home.
But what struck me about her argument was where she lays out her argument about the bipolar Cold War world, she notes that ‘the United States and its allies had just fought against Nazi Germany.’ but that the burgeoning Cold War with the USSR required new tactics.
The United States and its allies. There are several ways that this is problematic. The first is that the main Allied powers of the Second World War were the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. I don’t count France here in that it fell in 1940 and whilst Free French troops and the French Résistance were central to the Allied cause, they were not represented by a government in Paris. But those Big 3 of the US, UK, and the USSR were worth the equal billing. The UK held on and maintained a free Europe from the 1940 until the Americans got going on the Western front in 1942. And British troops (to say nothing of the Empire and Commonwealth) were central to the ultimate victory.
And then there’s the USSR. The Soviets were absolutely and essentially central to the Allied cause in World War II. It was the Soviets that took the brunt of Hitler’s fury on the Eastern front and absorbed the invading Nazi forces before expelling them, absorbing essential German attention as the US and UK dithered about opening a Western front, something that didn’t happen until 1944. And then the USSR, all by itself, defeated the Nazis on the Eastern front and ‘liberated’ the Eastern European nations before closing in on Germany and Berlin itself.
In the US, Americans like to pronounce themselves as ‘Back To Back World War Champs,’ as the t-shirt says. This is bunk. The USSR did more to win World War II in Europe than any other nation, including the United States.
Allison’s argument is made even more peculiar given that she is talking about the outbreak of the Cold War here. She makes no mention of the fact that the United States’ allies in the Second World War included the Soviet Union. Hell, Time magazine even called Josef Stalin its 1943 Man of the Year. That part of the story is essential to understanding the outbreak of the Cold War, the hostility that was festering between the USSR on one side and the US and UK on the other was an important and central story to the last years of World War II.
Thus, better argued, Allison could’ve, and should’ve, argued that in the immediate post-World War II era, c. 1947-48, that the United States was fatigued from World War II, where the Allies, of which it was one, along with the Soviet Union, defeated German Nazism. To write it differently is to elide an important part of history and the Second World War. And frankly, Allison should know better.