February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
Historians tend to take the long view of everything. We tend not to be make rash judgements of the world. We are just trained not to. And so, of late, I have been thinking of the longue durée of government and society. One of the truisms of history is that the government really has no bearing on the lives of the majority of any given state. Kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and prime ministers have come and gone and for the overwhelming majority of society, life carried on.
Sometimes the government’s policies came home, such as when a village’s young men marched off to war. Or a particularly oppressive government came to power and instituted surveillance. But even then, whether in medieval France or Ancient China, or Nazi Germany, for most people, the sun still came up, the fields still got tended, the factories still produced.
But all the while, something arose from Enlightenment thought. And this was the idea of the rationalization of government. By this, I mean the standardization of government and the state, and its attempts to impose itself in the lives of its citizens/subjects. Quite often, the growth of the state was met with resistance. In the early 1850s in rural Quebec, the guerre des éteignoirs broke out against the attempts of the Canadian government to impose a standardized, compulsory education on the children of the country. To call it a ‘war’ is a misnomer, it was a collection of violent acts of resistance. Still, it was a very dogged resistance. Yet, it was ultimately fruitless. State-sponsored education had arrived.
The mid-19th century was a period of massive state growth in Canada and the United States. Both nations got the idea from the British, where the growth of the state and government surveillance may have staved off the spread of the French Revolution to the British Isles. In the United States, of course, this process was both interrupted and sped up by the Civil War, as the federal state grew exponentially during the conflict, and has only continued to grow since.
This mid-19th century state building occurred through the imposition of the state into communities, through the construction of courthouses, post offices, and the like. And the buildings followed a standardized form, designed by the same architects. The Catholic Church had already figured out the value of standard design by this point, the state was a bit of a latecomer. But the effects were the same. Newly designed and constructed courthouses brought the state into a community. The uniformity of the buildings from one town to a next reinforced the impartial eye of the state. Back at the centre, the state also underwent tremendous growth, as new departments were created and new bureaucrats appointed to oversee this growth.
The process of the expanding state picked up from there, to the point now where it is nigh-on impossible to escape it. It is in our wallets in the form of our driver’s licenses and our Social Insurance/National Insurance/Social Security cards (to use the Canadian/British/American terms). It is on our cars as license plates and in the dashboard as registrations. It knows where we live. It knows where we work. It knows how much we work and how much we make. It knows intimate details of our lives.
You can see the effects of this and the various periods of state growth in any mid-size town to large city. For example, post offices tend to look the same, built either in the late 19th century or the mid-20th. Courthouses follow a similar plan, whether built in the late 19th century, the early 20th, or the late 20th, though they follow different plans based on era.
For example, Government Center in Boston is a massive neo-brutalist construction in the centre of downtown. Government Center houses Boston’s city hall, federal courts, state courts, and government offices at all three levels (city, state, federal). The building style is familiar.
The same sort of neo-brutalism exists very far away from Boston, in a different country. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s city hall is also a neo-brutalist construction. And this architectural style is repeated for government buildings (and university campuses) in nearly every city I can think of in North America. The style is immediately recognizable as the state, whether it’s Winnipeg’s City Hall or the campus of the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. We see this style of architecture and we instantly know its purpose.
These buildings are designed to be immovable and permanent, to show us the permanence of the state, and the implied power behind it. These are overwhelming buildings. Standing in Government Center, Boston, or Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, is an exercise of feeling one’s insignificance in the face of the state. When I went for my interview to receive my Green Card at Government Center, I thought about this, how insignificant my individual power was in the face of the state. Whether we think about this implicitly or explicitly, it is there. And that is the point (just as Edwardian era bank buildings make their point)
So we are left to believe that the state is unmoving and immovable. And so it is. But, something else has happened in the wake of this massive growth of the state, as it has invaded our wallets, our dashboards, and more. The power of the state has continued to grow, its presence in our lives in inescapable.
And thus, now, when government changes hands through the democratic process and a new one takes control, whether it is in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, or Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, or Washington, DC, or Ottawa, there is a very real possibility that it will change the lives of the people of that state/province/nation. Major governmental policy shifts on everything from foreign affairs to net neutrality to consumer protection laws to immigration laws impacts nearly everyone.
And this is something to think about as we enter the era of the Trump Administration in the US.
February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments
We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days. This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre. But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting. Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).
But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves. In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left. I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94. This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton. It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.
During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate. They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things. Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page). Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened. Not good enough for one of my accusers. She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’ No, it’s not. But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources. So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits. None of this changes historical fact.
In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States. This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh. And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude. They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans. In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs. And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion. Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong. And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US. The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country. Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country. Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession. So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.
He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong. And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854. But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.
In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged. I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century). In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit. But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them. They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.
This is deeply disturbing.
February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature. He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries. The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones. They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’ And you can see the logic here. Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction. And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.
I use fiction a fair lot when teaching. I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction. This is true both in the case of literature and film. So how is literature history, you ask?
Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written. This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction. The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times. It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past. Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry. What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us. It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.
So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past. Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.
And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not. Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader. And this is the point of using literature as an historical text. Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.
And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.
February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history? We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era. First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies. I have already commented on this. Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment. Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’ What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?
I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face. But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem. Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too. He notes that
Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter. Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on. Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.
Indeed. The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act. This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book). But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.
When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature. We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music. We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect. And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc. We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.
Historians, we tend to go further than journalists. Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why and how they happened. And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews. The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled. In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.
When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation. How do we do that? Logic and reasoning. We use other scholars as guides. We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject. We consider their interpretations based on the evidence. We agree or disagree. Or we agree and see another possibility. And so on.
Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations. So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where. We establish the facts. And we establish these from our sources. Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts. They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research. And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.
So how do we source that in the post-truth world? Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on. When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course. And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.
My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair. When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada. Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice. They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.
The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair. In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun. He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house. Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.
So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56? I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular. I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order. I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement. I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions. and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair. I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.
And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time. They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary. Maybe even blogs like mine.
We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen. And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.
February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian. I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs. Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more. And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work. It got published today.
January 30, 2017 § 2 Comments
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognized until DSM-III, published in 1980. But that, of course, does not mean it does not have a long history. In the First World War, symptoms that look a lot like PTSD were called ‘shell shock.’ We have all heard of shell shock. When I played hockey, I was a goalie. It was not uncommon for me to come out of the net after a game where I was peppered by shots to have my teammates joke about me experiencing shell shock (I played for a string of really bad teams). In other words, shell shock has become part of our lexicon.
One of the jobs of historians is to complicate matters and what we think we know about the past (my other job as an historian is to explore what we know about the past and why and to what uses such knowledge gets used). I joke with my students that historians can ruin anything in this manner. And so, shell shock.
The British were the first to diagnose and name shell shock, in the fall of 1914, right after the war started. The name itself actually came from the soldiers themselves. There was not, however, much in the way of agreement over what shell shock actually was; it became a catch-all phrase. It could be physical. It could be psychological. It could even be a lack of moral fortitude.
But shell shock was also complicating for the British Expeditionary Force (as the British Army in Europe was called in the First World War) and its attached colonial expeditionary forces (most notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the Dominions). In particular, it was demoralizing. So, the British High Command did what you would expect: it banned shell shock. In June 1917, the order came down: the term was no longer to be used in any reports, any diagnoses, in any conversation. It simply no longer existed.
This echoed the German response to shell shock, which the Germany Army dismissed simply as a lack of moral fortitude. So it punished shell shocked soldiers.
By 1922, the British government was adamant that shell shock would never exist ever again. The Southborough Report of that year recommended that the symptoms of shell shock should be regarded as nothing greater or lesser than any other battlefield injury. The government and the army came to the conclusion that troops who were well-trained and properly led would not suffer the fate of the malingerers of World War I.
The reasons for denying the existence of shell shock differed between 1917 and 1922. In 1917, it was a question of morale and defeating the Germans. In 1922, it was a question of finances, as the United Kingdom was nearly broke. Shell shock diagnoses from World War I cost money, in the form of compensation to affected veterans. The government simply didn’t want to pay anymore casualties in any future wars.
January 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day in Canada. For every Tweet and Instagram post with the hashtag, #BellLetsTalk Bell (a major telecommunications corporation in Canada) will donate $0.05 to to Canadian mental health programs. For every txt and long distance call made on Bell’s cell and land line networks, it will donate $0.05. And for every view of a video about the initiative on Bell’s Facebook page, and every use of the Bell Let’s Talk geofilter on SnapChat, Bell will donate $0.05. See the theme here?
We can debate the fact that this is a corporate-sponsored thing. Personally, I don’t care. I am more interested in the donations to mental health programs and ending the stigma about mental health. I find it shocking and depressing that in 2017, there still exists a stigma surrounding mental health.
As I noted in a previous post, I am reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma for a new research project on childhood, memory, and trauma. Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist and, it would appear, a pretty good one. One thing that has really captured my attention in reading this book is his argument about the power of diagnosis. In particular, he is concerned with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which arose out of his work with Vietnam veterans at the VA in Boston in the late 1970s. Since then, he has worked with probably thousands of children and adults suffering from PTSD and other ramifications of trauma.
I have long been sceptical of diagnoses in mental health, as they can also lead to a stigmatization of the individual in question. This is certainly an issue, and van der Kolk notes it. But he also argues that diagnosis is very important because it allows for a systematic plan to deal with mental health issues. It allows practitioners and patient/clients to draw on a great deal of expertise from researchers, clinicians, and patients/clients and a variety of treatment models that have been theorized and tested. And, he also notes, there’s the question of research and funding. For example, he notes, between 2007 and 2010, the US Department of Defence spent over $2.7 billion USD on treatment and research of PTSD in combat veterans.
In other words, there is something very valuable in the diagnosis of mental health problems. I still have serious problems with the stigmatization of diagnoses. And I still have a serious problem with the ‘disorder’ terminology used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatry Association (APA). The term ‘disorder’ is a dangerous one in mental health precisely because of the stigmatization that comes with it.
Van der Kolk, to be fair, is aware of this and is also leery of what he dismisses as pseudo-scientific diagnoses. In fact, he goes on the attack of DSM-V, which was published in 2013. He recalls how before the likes of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, doctors were limited to treating physical symptoms, that which could be seen. Koch and Pasteur, however, pointed out that bacteria, unseen by the naked eye, caused many diseases. Thus, physicians changed their tactics to treating underlying causes, rather than the symptoms of illness. The problem with DSM-V, he argues is that with over 300 diagnoses in 945 pages, it offers ‘a veritable smorgasbord of possible labels for the problems associated with’ severe early-life trauma. He dismisses many of these labels, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Intermittent Explore Disorder, and Disruptive Mood Regulation Disorder, as ‘pseudo-scientific.’
Fundamentally, he argues that the problem with all of these labels is that they are symptoms, not the actual problem.