February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon. I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.
Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes. It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.
But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack. It is worth quoting the review at length here:
A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?
First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable. But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones. It is just dressed up in fancier language. The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.
I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.
I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white. Black is generally a racial category in the United States. This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.
On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things. Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists. But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.
June 14, 2018 § 1 Comment
At the end of May, at the annual Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, SK, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, won a CLIO Award from the Canadian Historical Association. I wrote the best book in Québec history last year. I was stunned and surprised when I found out about this award in early April and I remain just as gobsmacked today.
It is very humbling to be recognized by your peers for your work, I have to say. It has also been humbling to see the response to the book as a whole. Last September, I hosted a book launch back home in Montreal at Hurley’s Irish Pub. It was an amazing night, as new and old friends came out, well over 100 people in all, spilling out of our main room into the bar area. In April, to celebrate the American launch of the book, I hosted another launch at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA. It was another gratifying evening, as more people than I could count came out, including friends, colleagues, and even students. We sold out the stock of the book in short order.
I am proud of this book. I think it’s a good book. But that’s only part of the story. The book is also beautifully packaged, designed by the team at University of British Columbia Press, using the art of my good friend and colleague, G. Scott MacLeod. Scott’s art makes my book cover look so stunning.
Working with UBC Press was wonderful. I had excellent editors in Darcy Cullen, the acquisitions editor, and Ann Macklem, the production editor. I enjoyed working with Darcy so much that I was sad when she passed me off to Ann. But Ann was also amazing to work with. Darcy and Ann made the often Byzantine process of academic publishing easier and more sensible to me.
And my anonymous reviewers; I know who they are now. But I will respect their anonymity. All I can say is that they both were incredibly encouraging. They found the holes in the manuscript I knew existed, they found some I didn’t realize. But they both also offered many options and possibilities to fill those gaps in the research, the theory, and so on. I learned a lot about writing a book and about history, theory, and method from them.
My book is, obviously, better for the experience with UBC Press, and my anonymous reviewers. And for that, I am eternally grateful. I am also grateful to the committee that determined the CLIO Awards, and to everyone else along the way, both before and after publication, who was supportive and encouraging.
October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
August 2, 2017 § 4 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.
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.
June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
At long last, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out from UBC Press. It is available in hardcover at present, though the paperback is coming in the fall.
I am particularly pleased with the cover and design of the book. The artwork on the cover come from my good friend and co-conspirator in Griff, G. Scott MacLeod. He and I have worked on The Death and Life of Griffintown: 21 Stories over the past few years.
Griffintown has long fascinated me not so much for the history of the neighbourhood, but the conscious effort by a group of former residents to reclaim it, starting in the late 1990s. I identified three men who were central to this process, all of whom have left this mortal coil in recent years: The Rev. Fr. Tom McEntee, Don Pidgeon, and Denis Delaney. These men worked very hard to make the rest of Montreal remember what was then an abandoned, decrepit, sad-sack inner-city neighbourhood. That Griff is known historically for its Irishness is a tribute to these men and many other former residents, most notably Sharon Doyle Driedger and David O’Neill, who worked tirelessly over the late 1990s and 2000s to reclaim their former home. The re-Irishification of Griffintown is the central story in my book. But I also look at the construction of Irish identity there over the 20th century, and the ways in which the Irish there performed every-day memory work to claim and re-claim their Irishness as they confronted their exclusion from Anglo-Montreal due to their poverty and Catholicism.
The Irish of Griffintown were fighters, they were insistent on claiming Home, even as that home disintegrated around them, due to deindustrialization and the infrastructural onslaught wrought by the Ville de Montréal, the Canadian National Railway, and the Corporation for Expo ’67. But, at the same time, they also left, seeking more commodious accommodations in newer neighbourhoods in the sud-ouest of the city, and NDG.
That these former residents could reclaim this abandoned, forgotten neighbourhood as their own speaks to the power of these people. These people were working- and middle- class men and women, ordinary folk from all walks of life, who were determined their Home not be forgotten. They re-cast Griff in their memories without the help of the state, without the help, to a large degree, of institutional Montreal.
I cannot over-state the impressive feat of these ex-Griffintowners. It has been a lot of fun to both study this process and work with and talk with many of those involved in this symbolic re-creation of Griff, drawing on an imagined history of Ireland and their own Irishness in the diaspora. And I am mostly relieved that the book is, finally, out.
May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now. My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall). And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod. Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.
This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone. We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.
I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time. But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these. It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good. I had my dog, Boo, with me. He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw. So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection. He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed. Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross. He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.