Griffintown Book Launch

September 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

This Thursday, 21 September 5 à 7, come to my book  launch at Hurley’s Irish Pub, 1225, rue Crescent, Montréal.  2nd floor.

griffintown poster copy

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#FakeNews, Memes, and US History

September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us.  They tend towards the stupid.  I have written of this before, here and here.  This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:

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And once more we have a stupid meme.  The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this.  Let’s start with Lincoln.

The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862.  Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,
A. Lincoln.

In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union.  And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal.  Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war.  That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this.  It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.

Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65.  During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state.  And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army.  At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Full stop.

Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states.  It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy.  Not states’ rights. Not taxation.  Slavery.  And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.

So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant.  One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.

But, the meme is not correct.  It is FAKE NEWS.

Remembering Zmievskaya Balka

August 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka, a ravine in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.  The literal meaning of Zmievskaya Balka is ‘ravine of snakes.’  It was here on 11-12 August 1942 that the Jewish men of Rostov were marched out to the ravine, just outside the city, and shot.  The women, children, and the aged of the Jewish population were gassed, and their bodies dumped at Zmievskaya Balka.  Communists and some Red Army soldiers met the same fate, along with their family.  All told, 27,000 people were massacred.  At least 20,000 of them were Jewish.

This massacre is one of the forgotten ones of World War II and the Nazis.  My guess is no one reading this post will have ever heard of it.  Soviet and Russian authorities have done their best to make sure the massacre, or at least the Jewish fact of it, is forgotten due to the on-going anti-Semitism of the state.

In 2004, activists managed to get a memorial plaque erected that identified one of the massacre sites and noted the Jewishness of the victims.  In 2011, approaching the 70th anniversary of the massacre, this plaque was removed. It was replaced with a more banal commemoration of the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-On-Don and Soviet Prisoners of War.”  This erases the primary act of the Nazis in Rostov 75 years ago: the eradication of the city’s Jewish population.  And, it obscures the Nazis murderous anti-Semitism.

This morning, organizers held a march to the sites of the massacre in Rostov, to remember this brutal massacre.  We owe it to them to hold the memory of these victims in our

The Perilous Territory of Roman Britain

August 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the most fascinating things become the centre of public shitstorms.  For example, recently, a British conservative got all worked up into a later over a BBC cartoon for kids that appears to show a Roman family as African, as in black.  Chances are, this character was based on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman Berber governor of the province of Britain from 139-42.  He was from what is now Algeria.  Mary Beard, Professor of Ancient Literature at Cambridge University and author of the Times Literary Supplement’s column/blog A Don’s Lifegot involved on the discussion on Twitter and noted the ethnic diversity of the Roman Empire in general, which is kind of obvious, given the geographic spread of said Empire.

And then, things got insane, as they do on Twitter.  Beard was attacked in the typical misogynist tones of social media. And then, NYU Professor of Risk Management, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, got involved and mocked Beard on Twitter.  Now Taleb is usually somewhat of a buffoon on Twitter, he seems to have fun with the platform. And there is nothing wrong with this.  But, he acted like a prat.

His response:

Then British journalist Nick Cohen got involved:

Ah, the fragility of the male ego.  But, here’s the thing, Beard did not go after his credentials.  She went after his knowledge-base and area of expertise.  Beard, of course, knows a thing or two about a thing or two about Rome.  Taleb, on the other hand, is a professor of risk management.  Apples and oranges.  But, male privilege means that one does not need to defer to greater expertise on the part of a female colleague.  This reminds me of the time that my wife, who was then writing a dissertation on Northern Ireland, was told by a male colleague that The Troubles were ended because of the Cranberries’ song, “Zombies,” as if the people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, suddenly realized that they were the zombies!

But Taleb was just a bore.  He became the cover Twitter misogynists used to attack Beard, not for her ideas or commentary.  No.  They commented on her body, her age, and so on.  And they denigrated her academic qualifications.  Commentators continually referred to Prof. or Dr. Taleb and to Ms. Beard.

This, I hate to say, is par for the course in academia and the wider world.  I cannot count the number of times I have seen or heard this in action, where my female colleagues are disrespected in this manner.  One reported that her course evaluations talked more about her body than her teaching efficacy.  Another reported that her looks seemed more important to her students than her knowledge.  The now largely disused site RateMyProf initially only allowed hot tamales to indicate the hotness of a professor for women.  Eventually, it was applied to men as well.

Women have to work harder to gain the respect of students.  I see this almost everyday at work.  And, frankly, this is bullshit.

The thing is, we’re taught to believe that we live in a time of progress, that things are getting better.  They’re not.  The simple economic measurement women’s wages as a percentage of men’s for equal work has barely changed in the past 30 years.  And then there’s social media.  Remember #Gamergate?  That’s one egregious example.  Beard’s story is another. But it happens every single day.

I don’t think this is getting better.  I think it’s getting worse.  And the same is true, in many ways of racism, homophobia, and the like.  Social media allows people to hide behind anonymity to be bullies.

We need to be better.  This cannot keep happening.  We need to do a better job of educating people, so that they’re not bullies.  And the thing is, I’m not sure that many of the people who act like this online actually recognize their real-world actions.  As in, it’s easy to call someone names on a computer screen, not seeing the actual impact of it.  There are, essentially, no consequences for the abuser in this world.  Thus, education.  We need to convince people that there are consequences of their on-line actions, just as there are consequences for their real-world actions.

Maybe then we can live in a world where women, amongst others, aren’t attacked on-line for the simple fact of their gender (or race, orientation, etc.).

 

The Simple Fact of Racism

August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black.  Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism.  I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March.  In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY.  In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line.  We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.

It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour.  Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour.  (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science).  But.  Racism persists.  Racism is all around us.  And Oluo reminds us of this.

And so back to Oluo.  She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state.  As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices.  She posted on Twitter:

And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in.  In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism.  Or read the article I linked to above.

But, back to the Facebook post of my friend.  The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’  I pointed out that she isn’t racist.  She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel.  But this isn’t racist.  Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.

See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.).  Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another.  And this is coupled with power.  This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.

For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black.  Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital).  The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.

That is racism.  The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist.  Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced.  They can also be stupid and tone deaf.

But racism is rare.  Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet.  She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.

But the responses to her?  Well, they kind of prove her point.  The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale.  That is what racism looks like.  And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).

Harm Reduction in Drug Addiction

August 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

The opioid crisis that has taken root across North America exposes several ugly truths.  The first is racial.  The use of drugs is treated differently in the United States, depending on the race of the victims of addiction.  When they are African American and/or Latinx, they are criminalized.  But when it is white people using drugs, it becomes a crisis.  To a degree. The important disclaimer here is class.  When poor white people are using, it remains a criminal issue. But when middle- or upper- class white people are using, it becomes a public health issue.  Thus, this is the second truth: class.

I think of all the jokes I have heard about ‘white trash’ and meth labs in trailer homes since I moved to the South. But, on the flip side, there is the criminalization and demonization of poor white people, and nearly all African American and Latinx drug addicts.  Addiction, I remind, is a public health issue.  Addiction is a question of psychology.  It is not a matter of criminality.

Addiction is something very real in my world.  It is something I grew up with in my family.  When I was a university student in Vancouver in the early-to-mid-90s, the city was in the midst of a heroin epidemic.  Walking through the fringes of the Downtown Eastside one afternoon, I passed the back alley on Carrall St., between East Hastings and East Pender, and saw a young woman, around my age, with a needle in her arm, foaming at the mouth and her fingertips going blue.  There was no one around.  And she was dying.  I went into the alley,  she was unresponsive, and her pulse was very faint.  There was no one around.  No police, no other pedestrians on Carrall St.  All the doors in the back alley were closed, some of them barred from the outside.  There was no one looking  out the windows onto the alley.  She was completely alone.  And then she died.   I don’t know how many people died in Vancouver of heroin overdoses in 1997.  But I know she was someone’s daughter, sister, grand-daughter, girlfriend.  I did find a police patrol on East Pender about two blocks away, and I told them.  I told them everything I saw.  I was very shaken, of course.  I went home, they went to the back alley to deal with her body.

Vancouver is the site of a long-term heroin crisis.  This crisis has been made worse by the addition of fetanyl to nearly every drug on the market on the West Coast.  My mother is an addictions counsellor in Vancouver.  Every time I talk to her, she says that her recovery centre has lost 2, 3, 4, 5, or more, guys in the past week or however long it has been since I last talked to her.  Nonetheless, at least Vancouver has engaged in harm-reduction, which at the very least, makes it safer for heroin addicts, in terms of needle exchanges and safe-places for injection.

Vancouver is home to the only heroin-injection clinic in North America. It has been in operation for eight years now, operates at capacity (130 people, only a fraction of the addicts on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of the city), and is controversial, not surprisingly.  In 2013, the then-Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, tried to shut it down, claiming that it enabled addicts.  But it survived.

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a sea-side town about an hour north of Boston, police there decided to begin treating the opioid crisis as a public health issue in May 2015.   Police Chief Leonard Campanello notes, as many others have, that there has been a failure to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country (be it Canada or the US), and that, ultimately, we have lost the war on drugs.  Campanello thinks, rather, that it’s a war on addiction.

The important thing to note in both Vancouver and Gloucester is that the police and other agencies there treat addicts as human beings in crisis.  And they treat all addicts as such, class and race are not part of the calculus.  And Vancouver and Gloucester are just two examples of many across both the United States and Canada where jurisdictions have sought to treat addiction as a public health issue in order to engage in harm reduction.

Last month, in Philadelphia, news broke that the staff at the public library branch on McPherson Square in the Kensington neighbourhood had become first-line responders to heroin overdoses in the park.  Several times a day, librarians were rushing out to administer Narcan to people overdosing.  Volunteers scoured the park daily for used needles and other paraphernalia of addiction.  Librarians referred to the addicts out in the park as ‘drug tourists,’ as Philadelphia, as a port city, has a particularly pure form of heroin on its streets.

But, within a couple of weeks, McPherson Square was nearly devoid of addicts.  The police had descended onto the park and pushed them away.  Thus, the addicts were back in the shadows, living and shooting up in abandoned homes, in back alleys, hiding in the dark corners of the city.  And while some community organizations continued their work of trying to help the addicts, it appears that the police in Philadelphia have not turned to a new model, but, rather, to the old model of scaring off drug addicts, criminalizing them and sending them into the shadows.

I don’t think there is anything new or revelatory in what I’ve said here.  Drug addiction is a public health crisis, first and foremost.  Harm reduction in locations like Vancouver and Gloucester have made a difference, they have made positive changes in addicts’ lives, including saving lives and getting people off the streets. And harm reduction programmes have got addicts into rehab and off drugs entirely.  The criminalization of drug addicts does not have such results.

More to the point, society’s response to drug addiction amongst marginal populations (poor white people) and ethnic and racial minorities (marginalized in their own ways) speaks to how we see some people as disposable.  The morality of such a view is beyond my comprehension, it is something I just fundamentally do not understand.

 

The History of White People

August 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

I am reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.  For those who don’t know, Painter is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University.  She is, in academic parlance, a heavyweight.  This might be one of the most frustrating books I have ever read.  Not for its content argument and its basic argument, which is to trace the history of ‘whiteness’ as a social construct in American society, stretching back to the Greeks.  Rather, it is frustrating for a certain sloppiness and factual inaccuracy that dogs the book.

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Part of what we base our reputation and claims to authority on, as historians, is our attention to detail and our attempts to make sure we remain factually correct.

To wit, only seven pages in, in discussing the great Greek historian, Herodotus, Painter writes:

Herodotus’ world is still flat — that notion would stand for another thousand years.

She is correct, Herodotus did believe the world was flat.  So, too, did, amongst others, Homer.  But, for many Greek philosophers (to the Greeks, philosophy and science was the same thing), the world was anything but flat. Pythagoras (he of the theorem) was amongst many Greek thinkers who believed in a spherical Earth.  Plato believed the world was spherical.  So, too, did Aristotle.  Eratosthenes, around 240, attempted to estimate the Earth’s circumference.  He did this without any modern tools, of course, and though he was wrong in his estimation, he was only off by around 10%.  The great Ptolemy thought the Earth spherical. So, too, did the Romans.  Even the early Christian Church believed in the spherical nature of the Earth.  Indeed, the belief in a spherical Earth lasted into the Middle Ages and beyond.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that the belief in a flat Earth was non-existant amongst the educated classes of Medieval Europe.  So, clearly, Herodotus’ error in the belief in a flat Earth did not stand for another thousand years.

Other anachronisms abound.  For example, she discusses Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race during his academic career in late 18th and early 19th centuries.  And while, when introducing him as the president of the College of New Jersey, she notes that said college is now Princeton University, on the very next page, she calls Smith the President of Princeton.  He was not.  Princeton did not exist until 1896, until then, it was the College of New Jersey.

And then there is a long discussion of the works of Gustave de Beaumont, a French lawyer, more famous for his fiction and quasi-sociological studies of the United States and Ireland.  Beaumont is even more famous for being the second fiddle to Alexis de Tocqueville.  Beaumont and Tocqueville were life-long friends and Beaumont accompanied Tocqueville on his famous tour of the United States that led to his legendary Democracy in America.  In fact, Beaumont published his own work, a novel, that examined that which Tocqueville did not, race in America.  But, his Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, while it won the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, quickly faded from view.  Following their tour of the United States, the two French gentlemen made their way to Ireland, and were rather shocked by the wretchedness of the Irish peasants.

But here, Painter engages in some very sloppy and lazy historical accounting.  The Irish Famine was from 1845-52.  During the Famine, any number of ‘journalists’ headed out from London and other English cities to the Irish countryside, to see the conditions of the starving nation first-hand. Painter is correct to suggest many of these journalists thought the news reports sensationalized.  They discovered they were not.  But, she conflates, for example, Thomas Carlyle toured Ireland in 1849, two years after the worst of the Famine in 1847, but in the midst of the Famine.  Painter conflates the trip of Beaumont and Tocqueville a decade earlier, before the Famine.  She also goes on about the Famine conditions Beaumont saw and wrote about.  Except, of course, he was in Ireland six years prior to the Famine.

She also, I should add, claims that the Irish were slaves in North America.  That is the subject of another post, at an another time.

This is nothing but sloppy and lazy scholarship.  Painter is flat-out wrong in her characterizations of views of the shape of the Earth and Beaumont’s journey to Ireland vis-à-vis the Famine.  She severely mis-characterizes what Smith was president of.  Errors like this should cause the reader to stop and question the author.  Is the author to be trusted?  How could she make such lazy mistakes?

And this is most unfortunate.  Because The History of White People is a fascinating read for the very fact that Painter historocizes and problematizes whiteness as a category.  Anyone who knows anything about race and science knows that race is social, not scientific construct, and yet it still dominates our society.  So, quite frankly, unpacking the constructions of whiteness in the US is an important historical, sociological, and political act. I would say that this is a book that everyone should read, but such egregious errors with historical fact makes me hesitant.