Stupid Season in Montreal

March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

Last Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins.  They lost 5-3.  The Canadiens are having a miserable year, this loss, their 48th of the year (including regulation and overtime losses), officially eliminated them from playoff contention.  The mood in the city is dour and angry.  Fans are upset at management for mismanaging the Franchise, Carey Price.  He had some mystery ailment he said was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bothering him earlier in the year.  It wasn’t team doctors who noticed it; it was his wife, Angela.  Big defenceman Shea Weber played through a nasty foot injury before being shut down for the season and having surgery.

Then there’s the mistakes General Manager Marc Bergevin made in the off-season.  He traded away promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for moody, sulky, but very talented forward Jonathan Drouin.  And then the team put Drouin at centre, a position he hadn’t played for years.  Why?  Because the Habs haven’t had a #1 centre since the peak of Saku Koivu’s career in the late 90s/early 00s.  Drouin, not surprisingly, has been a bust.  Bergevin also let iconic defenceman Andrei Markov walk after he insulted Markov in contract negotiations.  Bergevin then had the gall to tell us that the defence was better this year than last.  I could go on and on.

Something stinks in the City of Montreal and it is the hockey team.  It is a laughing stock.

And, not surprisingly, the Twitter wars have been epic.  During last Thursday’s game, a prominent Montreal sportswriter made an idiot of himself.  This is also not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to the Habs.  He was in a discussion with a blogger, who noted that we Habs fans forget that the team has had 3-100 point seasons in the past 5.  This sportswriter noted in response that “Germany had three really strong military years in WWII.”

And then all hell broke loose, as it should.  When his interlocutor noted this stupidity, he dug in deeper, noting that “They [meaning Nazi Germany] were winning until they weren’t.  It’s not that deep.”  Another Twitter user called him out, and our intrepid journalist got his shovel out again: “Notice I said military.  Only an idiot would stretch that into anything more.”

Well, maybe I am an idiot.  As the second interlocutor noted, this is Nazi Germany we’re talking about.  Not some random war.  This is a régime that murdered 6 million Jews in cold blood, to say nothing of Roma, LGBT, and disabled victims.  The Holocaust is, to paraphrase Elie Weisel, an event that cannot be understood, but must be remembered.  There have been other genocides, particularly in the last half of the 20th century (after we, the West, declared “Never Again!”).  But, the Holocaust remains beyond the pale in our collective consciousness.

And when this was pointed out to our journalist, that he essentially compared the management of the Montreal Canadiens to the Nazis, he got out his shovel and kept on digging: “No, not every soldier was a Nazi, not every German believed the Nazi ideology. But that’s beside the point, because we all know what I was saying, and it had nothing to do with Nazis.”

To put it bluntly, this is epic stupidity.  According to the United States Holocaust Museum,

The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.

The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.

And sure, maybe the journalist didn’t mean to bring up the Nazis.  But words have meanings, and someone who works with words on a daily basis should know better.  The Wehrmacht was by-and-large Nazified.  Period.  And his comparison of the Habs 3-100 point seasons with the Wehrmacht includes the Nazis, whether he meant it or not.  And he should know better.  I did hit the unfollow button, by the way.

The History of the Gerrymander

February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around.  This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit.  In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness.  When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist.  The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.

Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work.  And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California.  We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander.  But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too.  But, without question, Republicans do it more often.  Anyway, look at these two congressional districts.  One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th.  One was Republican, one was Democratic.  Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.

CA_11thCD_clip California_District_38_2004

The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power.  That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter.  The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.

That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry.  Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans.  The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit.png

The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander.  It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’  More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’  And there we go.

For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy.  The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson.  His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today.  The other branch eventually became the Whigs.  Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.

The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada.  To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year.  So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans.  But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Halifax Explosions?

February 1, 2018 § 4 Comments

The Canadian Football League has long sought to add a 10th team in the Maritimes.  To do so would be to make the CFL actually national.  But, the CFL has also had to deal with some serious instability with its franchises in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, especially, over the past 30 years.  Ottawa is currently on its third (as far as I can count) franchise since the 1980s.  The Rough Riders folded in 1996.  They were replaced by Ottawa Renegades; this franchise only lasted from 2002 to 2006.  Currently, the REDBLACKS play in the nation’s capital.  Meanwhile, down the 417 in Montreal, the original Alouettes folded in 1982; they were replaced by the Concordes, who only lasted until 1986.  After that, Montreal was devoid of Canadian football until the Baltimore Stallions were forced out of that city by the relocation of the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1995.  The Baltimore team moved to Montreal.  Meanwhile, the Argonauts have never ceased operations, but they have been a basket case in terms of stability and presence in the city most of my adult life.  So, in other words, expansion to the Maritimes has not exactly been on the front burner.  But that’s changed recently, and reports state that not only is there an ownership group in Halifax, but there is will at CFL headquarters.

Personally, I’d love to see a Halifax CFL team.  This would both make the league truly national, it would also speak to the deep popularity of Canadian football in the Maritimes.  The universities of the Maritimes have a long and deep tradition of Canadian football.  And just like the Alouettes and the REDBLACKS (in French, the ROUGENOIRS) have offered a professional career to many French-Canadian football players emerging from Quebec’s college teams, a Halifax team could do the same.

It is unclear what the team would be called, and so, social media (as well as Halifax’s media in general) is full of speculation, and a bevy of names have been proposed.  Last week, a fan art Twitter account, dedicated to this proposed team, suggested that perhaps the team could be called the Explosions, in a tweet:

Uh, yeah. No.  The Halifax Explosion occurred on the morning of 6 December 1917, when a Norwegian ship collided with a French cargo ship, the Mont-Blanc, in the Halifax Harbour.  The French ship was carrying explosives and war munitions (this was the middle of the First World War, after all) and caught fire after the collision.  The fire ignited the cargo, which then exploded.  It devastated a large chunk of Halifax.  Nearly every building within a kilometre radius was destroyed.  A pressure wave accompanying the explosion snapped tress, grounded vessels in the harbour, and devastated iron rails.  The remnants of the Mont-Blanc were found several kilometres away.  Nearly every window in the city was broken.  The city of Dartmouth lies across the harbour from Halifax.  It suffered extensive damage.  The Mi’kmaq First Nation, near Dartmouth, was destroyed by a tsunami caused by the explosion.

The blast was the largest human-made explosion prior to the advent of nuclear weapons.  It released the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT.  Think about that for a second. Of all the blasts of bombs and munitions in war prior to 6 and 9 August 1945, the Halifax Explosion was the greatest one ever caused by humans.  It killed over 2,000 people and injured nearly 10,000 more, out of a population of around 95,000.

In short, the Halifax Explosion destroyed the City of Halifax.  So suggesting a CFL team be called the Explosions is flat out disrespectful and idiotic.  Shame on @CFLinHalifax for even suggesting it.  Since this initial tweet on Monday, the people behind the account have doubled down in their idiocy.

Meanwhile, the CFL and the proposed Halifax ownership group have had to put out press releases distancing themselves from @CFLinHalifax.

The (Sort of) End of Chief Wahoo

January 30, 2018 § Leave a comment

The Cleveland baseball team took a positive step this week.  It announced on Monday that it was going to remove the deeply offensive Chief Wahoo from its caps and jerseys for the 2019 season.  This is an important start.  Chief Wahoo is an offensive caricature of an indigenous chief, drawn in a cartoonish, stereotypical manner. Note that not only is he grinning, he is actually red.  Like, you know, ‘redskin’.  (The Washington football team is a whole other problem, for another day).

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Chief Wahoo.

Chief Wahoo has a long genesis.  The Cleveland baseball team was originally founded in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1894, and known as the Rustlers.  It moved to Cleveland in 1900, calling itself the Lake Shores. Seems pretty obvious how that name didn’t stick.  Up to that point, the Grand Rapids/Cleveland team was a minor league team, in the Western League.  In 1900, the Western League evolved into a major league, rebranded as the American League (the National League dates back to 1876, hence, it is sometimes called ‘the senior circuit’).  The Cleveland baseball team is a charter member of the AL, and for the launch of the new league in 1901, it also rebranded itself as the Bluebirds.  In 1902, they were the Barons (this name was revived by the sad sack NHL team based in Cleveland from 1976-78; they didn’t last long, in 1978, they merged with the Minnesota North Stars, which is now the Dallas Stars franchise).  From 1903 to 1914, they were named after their star player, Nap Lajoie.  But, in 1914, Lajoie left Cleveland to go play for the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics.  So, the Naps needed a new name.

And so, we ended up with the Indians.  This was meant to be a nod to Cleveland baseball history.  The original major league team in town was the Cleveland Spiders of the National League; they folded in 1899, precipitating the Rustlers’ move to the big city.  The Spiders had had an indigenous player, Louis Sockalexis, who played his whole career with the team  Thus, the Indians. So, in a way, the name came about as a tribute both to the defunct baseball team and to one of its star players.  But, of course, this is one of those historical obscurities that got lost, it has become anachronistic over time.

In 1932, the Cleveland Plain Dealer used a cartoon precursor of Chief Wahoo as a logo to stand in for actually using the full name of the team.  This version became known as ‘the little Indian,’ and the Plain Dealer used the logo in its coverage for the next several years. In 1947, the team’s owner, Bill Veeck hired a graphic design firm to create a new logo for his team.  And thus, we got the original Chief Wahoo.  He wasn’t called that at the outset, in fact, he had no name.  Also, while a cartoon stereotype, he wasn’t red-skinned. A red-skinned version appeared in 1948, but was not the official logo of the team until 1951.

Logo_of_the_Cleveland_Indians_(1946-1950)

Cleveland BasebalL Team logo, 1947-50

The name Chief Wahoo eventually came from Cleveland sports writers.  The guy who created the original, in 1947, Walter Goldbach, was only 17 years old at the time.   Goldbach has noted several times since that he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and that he actually had a hard time to render an indigenous man as a cartoon.  He also has argued that Chief Wahoo isn’t actually a chief, he’s a brave.  He only has one feather.  (That of course, brings us to the Atlanta baseball team, another issue for another day).

Chief Wahoo remained the primary logo of the Cleveland baseball team until 2013, when it decided that perhaps it was time to start rethinking Chief Wahoo.  At that time, the team unveiled a new logo, a stylized C, for Cleveland.  It’s actually the superior logo.  I much prefer it.

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The Cleveland Baseball Team logo, 2013-present

The Clevelands have not, of course, won a World Series since 1954, the longest running drought in professional sports (now that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series).  Cleveland sports writers have wondered if Chief Wahoo is actually a curse.

So the announcement this week that Chief Wahoo is being retired next year is welcome.  Except that’s not entirely the case.  You can believe there will be a run on this offensive cartoon logo as this season and year progresses.  And, in order to maintain the trademark, the team will continue to sell Chief Wahoo-branded gear in the Cleveland region after banishing the logo from the uniform.

So this isn’t a total victory.  But it’s an important start.  The next thing is to get the Cleveland baseball team to change its name, perhaps to the Spiders.  And then there’s the Washington football team, and the Atlanta baseball team.  But, baby steps?

 

Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia.  It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging.  It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye.  There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.

The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities.  In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’  As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough.  Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.

I digress.  The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation.  The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.

I have some serious problems after watching this.  The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore).  Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it.  The winner of the tournament wins $1,000.  The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins.  Portnoy is walking away with the profits.  He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide.  But he profits,the fighters don’t.  He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.

The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country.  All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else.  It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want.  Portnoy calls them rednecks.  He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term.  After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that.  I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.

Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment.  The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective.  Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training.  They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar.  And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting.  It is not professional boxing.

The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect.  Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style.  And, then, of course, come the stereotypes.  The documentary centres around one young man, George.  George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him.  Not surprisingly, George loses the fight.  But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later.  And so on.

And therein lies the problem.  Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy.  They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse.  This is universal, too.  This is not a conservative/liberal thing.  The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned.  Completely.  They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs.  The coal mining companies pulled out.  What industry existed there has also pulled out.  Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station.  People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land.  They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing.  They use food stamps.  And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.

JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally.  Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves.  He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary.  Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong.  He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.

That’s not how it works.  Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century.  Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it.  And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor.  That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.

 

Captain Charles Boycott and the First Boycott

January 8, 2018 § 1 Comment

Last week I wrote a post about the conundrum we face in dealing with President Trump, hockey rumours, and global warming.  The basic problem is the response of us as individuals, and our feelings of powerlessness, vs. the fact that we can band together to form interest groups in response.  In the case of the latter, I always think of the original boycott.

The original boycott occurred in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland.  Captain Charles Boycott lent his name to a campaign against him by the Irish Land League.  The Land League was a political organization in late 19th century Ireland with the goal of alleviating the plight of poor Irish tenant famers.  The League’s ultimate goal was to abolish the great landowners of Ireland to allow these poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked.  The Irish Land League was a central component in the radicalization of Catholic/Nationalist Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, following its mobilization by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century.  And this radicalization, of course, led ultimately to the Irish Revolution and Irish independence in the early 20th century.

In 1880, Boycott was the land agent for Lord Erne in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo.  He became the object of ire of the Land League due to his enthusiasm for evicting the poor tenant farmers of Erne’s land.  Thus, the League encouraged his employees (most of whom were Irish and Catholic, as opposed to the Englishman Boycott) to withdraw their labour.  And then the League and its supporters in Co. Mayo encouraged local merchants to not serve Boycott.  Of course, some merchants required some encouragement to participate, which the local peasantry was only happy to provide.

Boycott, frustrated by his treatment, wrote a letter complaining of his plight to the Times of London.  And the boycott became national (and international, the Irish diaspora in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand followed the news closely) news.  This led to an influx of reporters from London, who interviewed the locals and explained the issue (not always fairly) to the readers of the London papers.

With no one to serve him in the local stores, and no one to work for him, Boycott was forced to rely upon gangs of Orangemen, protected by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Irish Constabulary, as well as the British Army, to harvest the crops.  In the end, it cost over £10,000 to harvest around £500 worth of crops.  The boycotters won, at least locally.

What was the long-term effect of the first boycott?  Not much, at least locally.  Boycott left Lord Erne’s service, but he was replaced by another agent.  And evictions continued apace around Ireland.  And the plight of tenant farmers did not improve all that much.

But, the first boycott was a symbolic victory.  It brought greater exposure for the Land League, though it was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign for the Three Fs: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure.  But, even then, the Land League was, as noted, part of the radicalization of Catholic Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and, ultimately, the Irish Republican Army (the first one, led by Michael Collins, not the re-constituted IRA that was behind the Troubles in Northern Ireland).

So, ultimately, taken together with other events, the first boycott was ultimately successful.  And maybe this speaks to something else.  We seem to expect that our actions against whatever we see as oppressive to be immediately rewarded, which is no doubt a response to our general belief in immediate reward/punishment in our world today.  Our actions as individuals need to be part of a larger movement, and we need to be patient in that larger movement in order to effect change.

For example, where I live in Western Massachusetts, a collection of like-minded people have created a culture where creativity, tolerance, and inclusivity is central.  But this was’t created overnight.  While Western Massachusetts has a history of alternative subcultures and communities, our present culture was carefully and slowly created and reinforced over the past 30-40 years, beginning first down in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, and that has slowly crept up into the hilltowns on both side of the river valley.  In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Resurrecting Les Négresses Vertes

November 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

One of the wonderful things about growing up in Canada was official bilingualism.  This meant, for example, that growing up in Vancouver, I could see my beloved Habs every Saturday night on La Soirée du Hockey on Radio-Canada.  It also meant that the French-language version of MuchMusic, MusiquePlus, was broadcast across cable in Vancouver, direct from Montréal.

For the adventuresome young music fan, there was this whole other world out there from France, Belgium, Québec, and French Africa.  Musiqueplus is how I first heard a whole raft of great French artists, from Youssou N’Dour to Noir Désire to Jean Leloup to Niagara to Serge Gainsbourg, and beyond.  It is also how I first heard Céline Dion, so there’s that to take into account.  But it is also how I first came across the great Parisienne band, Les Négresses Vertes.

In high school, French music wasn’t exactly something I could share with my friends. Sure, I was part of the alternative music crowd, but that only extended to the Anglophone world.  I hunt out with some of the theatre kids, but this was a bridge too far even for them.  It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa, with its proximity to Montréal, that I found the freedom to enjoy French music publicly.

Most of the Anglo world first came across Les Négresses Vertes through their presence on the Red Hot + Blue album in 1990.  They covered Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris.’  But, by then, I had already dug on their début album, Mlah, which came out in 1988.  They were unlike anything I had ever heard in English.  They mixed French traditional music with world beat and punk.  They were complicated.  Their melodies and beats owed more to the French Empire than France.  And they had a strong sense of musicality, which bubbled up to the surface in surprising ways sometimes.  Front man Noël Rota, better known as Helno, sounded a bit like Joe Strummer of the Clash, at least sometimes (this also made Strummer’s late life foray into acoustic punks and Latin beats somewhat bizarre to me, since it sounded more like Helno fronting Mano Negra).

The Vertes were a collection of misfits and punks from Paris, originating around Les Halles.  They were a united nation of the former French empire; their name came from an insult hurled at them at one of their earliest.  I don’t get romantic about the past and locations often, but, c’mon, this is Paris.  Paris in the 80s must’ve been an amazing place.  And Les Négresses Vertes arose out of this, the cosmopolitan nature of the French metropole, plus the distinct French qualities of the city, and the inner city at that.  And the music!  Aside from Les Négresses Vertes there was Noir Désir, Bérurier Noir, Mano Negra, amongst others.

Their first two albums, Mlah and Famille Nombreuse, teetered on complete chaos, an eight-piece orchestra.  Helno was this tiny, kind of funny looking freak.  He had a pompadour and looked like something that stepped out of the 1950s.  But, in front of his band, he became something else.  He held this chaos together.  He was both the primary song writer and the vocalist.  He sounded a bit like Strummer, yes, but he also sounded world-weary.  All of this when he was in his late 20s.  He’d done copious amounts of drugs, but he still more or less lived in his mother’s flat in a poor part of northern Paris.  People all around him were dying, of suicide, drug overdoses, and AIDs.  He once told a journalist that he through that if there was a Hell, it was on Earth.  He also claimed that he wrote his lyrics whilst riding his bike around Paris, singing out loud as he rode.  Hindsight says he was damned from the getgo.  But I doubt it looked that way at the time.

His lyrics were riddled with slang and dark humour, stories of love and the gritty city (”Zobi La Mouche‘ and ‘Voila l’été‘) mixed with the occasional beautiful love song (‘Homme de marais‘, seriously one of my favourite songs ever) and dirge (‘Face à la mer‘). ‘Face à la mer’ was remixed by Massive Attack and became a huge club hit after Helno’s death (perhaps the most unlikely club raver ever).

It’s been a long time since I listened to the Vertes, probably close to a decade.  But for some reason, I put them on last weekend.  Nothing has changed, even though their first album was released almost 30 years ago.  Helno himself has been dead for almost 25 years; he died of a heroin overdose in January 1993, at the age of 29.  Their music is still immediate, still that beautiful concoction of chaos, danger, and beauty.

Les Négresses Vertes carried on after Helno’s death, eventually evolving more into a dub fusion band.  But something was lost.  Helno seemed to be the one who kept the chaos from falling off the rails, from ensuring the danger remained in the background.  After his death, the band was never as exuberant and full of life again.  They mellowed.  And as much as I like the post-Helno era, for me, Les Négresses Vertes were at their best between 1987 and 1993.

As far as I know, they’ve never broken up, but they haven’t released any new music since 2001.  They don’t have a web page.  They don’t have a Twitter or a Facebook page.  And career-spanning retrospectives were released in the early 2000s.

 

The True North Strong and Free

November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

Last week, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette gave a speech at what the Canadian Broadcast Corporation calls ‘a science conference‘ in Ottawa.  There, she expressed incredulity in creationism and climate change denial, and called for a greater acceptance of scientific fact in Canada.  Payette is a former astronaut, holds an MSc in computer engineering, and has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence.  In other words, when she speaks on this matter, we should listen.

Her comments ignited a storm of controversy in Canada.  Some people are upset at her comments.  Some people are upset the Governor General has an opinion on something.  With respect to the first, Payette spoke to scientific fact.  Full stop. Not opinion.  Fact.  With respect to the second, Governors General and opinions, I will point out that our former Governor General, David Johnston, also freely expressed his opinions.  But, oddly, this did not lead to massive controversy.  What is the difference between Payette and Johnston?  I’ll let one of my tweeps, author Shireen Jeejeebhoy answer:

But then I found a particularly interesting tweet.  The tweet claimed that for the very reason that Canada has the monarchy, the country cannot have democratic elections.

Um, what?  There is no logic to this tweet.  I asked the author of the tweet what he meant. In between a series of insults, he said that he thinks the Governor General, which he mistakenly called an ‘important position,’ should be an elected post.  That gives some clarity to his original post, but he’s still wrong.

Canada is a democracy, full stop.  Elections in Canada are democratic, full stop.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State.  The Governor General is her representative in Canada (each province also has a Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen’s representatives in the provincial capitals).  The Queen does appoint the GG (and Lt-Govs), but she does so after the prime minister (or provincial premiers) tell her who is going to be appointed. In other words, Payette has her position because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected her.

Canada, unlike the United States, did not gain ‘independence’ in one fell swoop.  In 1848, Queen Victoria granted the United Province of Canada, then a colony, responsible government.  This gave it (present-day Ontario and Québec) control over its internal affairs. All legislation passed by the colonial assembly would gain royal assent via the Governor General.  Following Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada enjoyed responsible government (which the other colonies that became Canada also had).  But Canada  did not control its external affairs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland did.  In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which granted control over foreign affairs to the Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand).  In 1947, Canadian citizenship was created.  Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the monarchy.  In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. Prior to that, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was.  In 1982, the Canadian Constitution, which had been an act of the London Parliament (the British North America Act, 1867) was patriated and became an act of the Parliament in Ottawa.  So, choosing when Canada became independent is dicey.  You can pick anyone of 1848, 1931, 1947, 1949, or 1982 and be correct, at least in part.  We tend to celebrate 1867, our national holiday, July 1, marks the day the BNA Act came into affect.  That is the day Canada became a nation, but it is not the date of independence.

Either way, Canada is an independent nation.  Lamarche’s claim that, because we are a constitutional monarchy, we do not have free elections is ridiculous.  The role of the monarchy in Canada is entirely symbolic.  The Queen (or the Governor General or Lieutenants Governors) have absolutely no policy input. They have no role in Canadian government beyond the symbolic.  None.

 

I’m not even sure how someone could come to this conclusion other than through sheer ignorance.

A History of Globalization

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.

Staging the Civil War

October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

‘Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,’ Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others.  She has a point, sort of.  We expect photographs to represent reality back to us.  But they don’t, of course, or they don’t necessarily.  For example, she discusses an exhibit of photographs of September 11, 2001, that opened in Manhattan in late September of that year, Here is New York.  The exhibit was a wall of photographs showing the atrocity of that day.  The organizers received thousands of submissions, and at least one photo from each was included.  Visitors could chose and purchase a laser printed version of a photo, but only then did they learn whether it was a photo from a professional or an amateur hanging out their window as the atrocity occurred.  Sontag talks about the fact that none of these photos required captions, the visitors will have known exactly what they depicted.  But she also notes that one day, the photos will require captions.  Because the cultural knowledge of that morning will disappear.  9/11 is already a historical event for today’s young adults.

So we return to the veracity of photos, our expectation of a documentary image of the past.  For me, the first time I was seriously arrested by a photograph was in my Grade 12 history textbook, in the section on the Second World War.  There was a photograph of an American soldier lying dead on a beach somewhere in the Pacific.  I don’t remember where or which battle.  I don’t remember the image all that well, actually, I don’t think the viewer could see the soldier’s face.  I remember just a crumpled body, in black and white.  And for the first time, I understood the devastating power of war and the fragility of the human body.

Later, in grad school, I read Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk, about how Nova Scotia’s Scottish history was carefully constructed and curated by folklorists at the turn of the 20th century. At the start of the book is a photograph of a family next to their cottage on a hard scrabble stretch of land on the Cape Breton coast.  McKay plays around with captions of the photo, both the official one in the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax, and alternative ones.  I realized that photographs are not really necessarily a true and authentic vision of the past.

And so, in reading Sontag’s words I opened this essay with, I thought of the fact that we do like to think of ourselves as literalists when it comes to photography, we expect a ‘picture to say a thousand words,’ and so on.  Just prior to this comment, Sontag discussed Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of plates that weren’t published until several decades after Goya’s death.  The disasters were the Napoléonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808.  These plates are vicious.  And Goya narrates each, claiming each one is worse than the other, and so on.  He also claims that this is the truth, he saw it.  Of course, they aren’t the documentary truth, they instead represent the kinds of events that happened.  That does not, however, lessen their power and brutality. But they are also not photographs.

This led me to Alexander Gardner, the pre-eminint photographer of the US Civil War.  In fact, war photography in general owes a huge debt to Gardner.  Gardner worked for the more famous Mathew B. Brady, but it was Gardner who took the majority of the more famous photographer’s photos.  Gardner shot some of the most iconic images of the Civil War, including the dead at Gettysburg.  His most famous is this one:

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Photo taken from the Library of Congress’s website

This photograph is staged.  Gardner and his assistants dragged the body of this dead Confederate soldier from where he fell to this more photogenic locale.  They also staged his body.  And yet, given our insistence on literalism in photography, the viewing public took this photo for what it’s worth and accepted it as a literal representation of the Battle of Gettysburg.

It was over 100 years later, in 1975, when a historian, Willian Frassantino, realized that all was not as it seems.  Of course, what Gardner, et al. did in staging the photos of the Civil War seems abhorrent to us, unethical, even.  But it was not so in the mid-19th century at the literal birth of this new medium of representation.

Nonetheless, what is the lesson from Gardner’s photograph?  Do we dismiss it for its staginess?  Do we thus conclude that the photos of the Civil War are fake?  Of course not. Gardner’s photos, like Goya’s Disasters of War, are representations of what happened.  They are signifiers that things like this happened (I am paraphrasing Sontag here).  It does not make these representations any less valuable.  Young men did die by the thousands in the Civil War.  They died at places like Gettysburg, and they died like the staged body of this unfortunate soul.  The horrors of war remain intact in our minds.  We have a representation of what happened, and this one in particular (like Goya’s Disasters) has been replicated countless times since 1863, we have seen countless other images like this, including for me, the one in my Grade 12 history textbook when I was all of 17 years of age.  The image is still real.

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