January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments
Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being. And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them. And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour. This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.
But now he’s back. And somehow, getting booked for shows. Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre. That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes. That’s part of what makes comedians funny. But this was crossing a line, and he knew it. He had to. He’s a smart guy.
But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’ He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million. And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:
People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.
And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.
And so there we go. Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour. His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now. Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish. He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s). And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.
Fuck that. We deserve better.
December 19, 2018 § 3 Comments
For roughly the past 25 years or so, I’ve referred to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as the date rape song. The lyrics are creepy as all get out. And yes, I know the song was written in 1944. And I know that the lyrics actually reflect pop culture in the 1940s, including jokes about drinks being spiked (with alcohol) and young men and women were not allowed the kind of freedom depicted in the lyrics in 1944. And that the song was actually written by a married man so he and his wife could sing it at their housewarming party. I get that. But it’s not 1944, it’s 2018.
The lyrics of the song include the woman saying she ought to say no and the man complaining about his wounded pride; then she wonders what he put in her drink; and then she even says the ‘answer is no’, and he continues to badger her. In 2018, this conjures up images of rape culture, of roofies, and continues the idea that it’s romantic to badger and harass a woman until she gives in. And in the context of #MeToo, this shouldn’t be acceptable. The fact it took us until now to figure this out is something else, of course.
I posted something along these lines on Facebook earlier this month (minus the historical context) when a series of radio stations in Canada decided to stop playing the song. Personally, I see that as no major loss. There are still countless Christmas songs we can listen to in 45,000 different versions until we want to pull our hair out. The song kinda sucks anyway, I mean, aside from the rape-y feel to it.
And then the commentariat! My feed lit up with my friends arguing against me. I even got chastised for being a bad historian for failing to note the song is from the 1940s. Over and over, the context of the song was explained to me. But that’s the thing, this cuts both ways. If we want to consider historical context for things, then let’s discuss Confederate War monuments.
Historical context is a real and important factor in debates about history and artefacts from the past. And ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is an artefact. Questions of historical context and artefacts are immediately loaded. So, to take the example of the Confederate War monument, it does not belong in a public park, but on the grounds of a museum or inside the museum, where it can be historicized and explained, and put into its context. That is possible and doable. And it solves the problem of ‘erasing history,’ which gets pro-Confederates riled up. But a song is not a monument. A monument is not a a living artefact. In the past couple of years, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, from Cee-Lo to Trisha Yearwood. So in addition to being an artefact, it’s a contemporary pop song. And radio DJs can’t be expected to provide the historical context of the song, nor can we expect that in our Spotify and Apple Music playlists, or on our satellite stations on our TVs.
Something else was fascinating about my Facebook post and the blowback I got. There was a very clear disconnect between the ‘likes’ and the comments. The comments were all written by men, save for one woman, a good friend, who noted that she attempts to keep the context of the song in mind when playing it or when she hears it. As for the likes, they were 90% women.
At the end of the day, I find the song creepy. And have for a long time. And while I don’t think the song should be banned (I’m generally not a fan of this kind of censorship, having grown up in the era of Tipper Gore’s PMRC). But I am fine with radio stations refusing to play it. That’s their choice. We generally skip the song when it plays on random Christmas playlists or Apple Music Radio around here. Life goes on.
But, perhaps due to what I do for a living, having spent much of the past 20+ years in classrooms with university students, I do see very clearly the effects of pop culture on the kids. I see the effects of rape culture on both the men and women in my classes, I see the effects of misogyny, racism, classism, etc. And I see that they (like I did at their age) take their cues from pop culture as a whole first, their education second (generally-speaking).
And it is in this sense that I see the problems with ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ all the more.
December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
Twenty-nine years ago today, a violent misogynist marched into the École Polytechnique in Montréal, separated the men from the women and gunned down fourteen women. Another fourteen were wounded. He then killed himself. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life. He claimed that feminists attempted to play the advantages of being women whilst also seeking to claim advantages that belong to men. He had a list of nineteen prominent women in Québec whom he considered to be feminists and whom he wished dead.
The Montréal Massacre shocked a nation. I was sixteen and living at the other end of the country, in the suburbs of Vancouver. This felt a little more real for me because I am from Montréal. My mother, also a montréalaise, was ashen-faced and shocked watching the news, crying. At school the next day at school, a Thursday, the shock was real and palpable. Nearly all of us felt it. Nearly all of us were sickened. Some were crying in the hallways. Some looked like zombies. We talked about this incessantly. We didn’t understand. We didn’t understand such violent misogyny.
I remain shocked by this event even today. What I didn’t know or understand about violent misogyny as a teenager I now do. I am a professor myself and teach my students about misogyny. And violent misogyny. I often talk about the Montréal Massacre, even to American students. In 1989 I was shocked by the irrational hatred of men towards women. In 2018, I am still shocked, but more jaded, I know it’s there and and am not all that surprised when it plays out.
In 2017, my wife and I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, TN. A lot of the older women protesting, the women of my mother’s generation, were carrying signs saying ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit.’ They were right. This is the same shit.
Every 6 December in Canada, we wring our hands and ask how and why did this happen? But we haven’t done much to make it so that this cannot happen again. In the United Staes, we have done even less to make women safe. This is just immoral and wrong.
The worst part is that nearly all of us know the killer’s name. I refuse to utter it, I refuse to use it. To do so gives him infamy, it gives him something he does not deserve. Instead, I am always saddened that we cannot recite the names of the dead. Here is a list of the women he killed that day in 1989:
- Genviève Bergeron, 21
- Hélène Colgan, 23
- Nathalie Croteau, 23
- Barbara Daigneault, 22
- Anne-Marie Edward, 21
- Maud Haviernick, 29
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewic, 31
- Maryse Laganière, 25
- Maryse Leclair, 23
- Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
- Sonia Pelletier, 28
- Michèle Richard, 21
- Annie Saint-Arneault, 23
- Annie Turcotte, 21
It saddens me to think that these fourteen women died because one immature little man decided they’d ruined his life by trying to gain an education. The futures they didn’t get to have because of one violent misogynist with a gun depresses me. And every 6 December, I stop and think about this. I pay tribute to these women. And I think about how I can make a difference in my own world to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes. For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting. They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc. The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous.
The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World. Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine. Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo. This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship. In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.
The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however. They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland. But they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.
The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s. The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998. It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking. It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.
It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures. The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.
But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic. This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy. In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream. But, there are a few gaps here. First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States. And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.
Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States. The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation. But this was not instantaneous. It took a generation or two. It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960. Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.
And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today. And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.
November 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
In the October issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a fascinating article on the similarities of 1970s South Korea with present-day China, written by Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. Hahm’s argument is pretty much encapsulated in the title, ‘China’s Future is South Korea’s Present’: In the 1960s and 70s, South Korea modernized under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, and that paved the way for democratization in 1987. And thus, it provides a road map for China today. In other words, a pretty familiar liberal argument: with economic liberalization comes political liberalization.
Park seized power in a military coup in 1963 and held on until he was assassinated by one of his advisors in 1979 in the midst of massive political, economic, and social unrest in the country as workers and students protested the oppressive political régime. Park, however, was not your standard issue dictator. Park’s main goal was economic modernization which would, in his estimation, lift his country out of poverty. In order to do so, he ultimately made the decision to open up South Korea’s economy to the world, which forced South Korean corporations to not just modernize, but to be able to take on the world. And this is how you came to drive a Hyundai and you’re reading this on a Samsung tablet.
Hahm then argues something similar could happen in China. He notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently had the nation’s constitution changed so he can maintain power perpetually. He also notes the development of China’s economy in the past three decades, and the hyper-modernization of it. Hahm argues that economic modernization in South Korea, combined with the massive unrest of the late 1970s/early 1980s led directly to democratization in 1987. And he can see something similar happening in China.
I am not so certain. South Korea of the 1980s and China of the 2010s are not the same. And this is largely due to the power of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. This is not to say that Park didn’t have control. It is to recognize that Xi and the CCP exist in a new era.
What Park did not have in the late 20th century was the technological capabilities of absolutism in the way that Xi and the CCP have today. The internet, and specifically, state control of the internet, in China means that Xi and the CCP can control the population of the nation much easier. The Chinese government continually pressures its techno-sector to be more ‘open’ and willing to share information with the government. Chinese legislation means that data on Chinese consumers/citizens held by foreign corporations must be stored on servers physically located in China. And the Great Firewall of China means that access to the wider internet is difficult. For certain, tech-savvy Chinese use VPNs (which are technically illegal) to access the wider internet, but continued crackdowns on them and access to the net in general mean that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get around the Great Firewall.
This kind of control of the internet, and government dreams of amassing huge data sets on Chinese residents, mean that it has an almost unprecedented amount of control, and possible future control over its citizens. In short, the Chinese government has the power to be in near complete control of China and Chinese citizens; Park never had this.
More to the point, when China had its moment similar to what Hahn describes in South Korea in the late 70s, culminating at Tiananmen Square in 1989, well, we know how that turned out.
While I would not consider myself an expert on China, I do teach Modern Chinese history. And when I was in Beijing this past summer, teaching, I was fascinated by what I saw. Chinese state-sponsodered capitalism had created an opulent consumer economy and culture in the capital. Shopping malls were packed, luxury cars roamed the streets, Jingdong delivery vehicles were everywhere, and people wore expensive clothes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had a smart phone in their hands, and that’s how they conducted business, using WeChat’s platform for money transfers. In other words, other than language, Beijing is looking increasingly Western, with the infiltration of Western corporations like Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and so on.
But what struck me the most was that a lot of my students did not recognize China as a totalitarian dictatorship. Rather, they saw China as analogous to the United States, as a liberal, capitalist democracy.
Rather than share Hahn’s belief that China is ripe for an end to single-party rule, I see the CCP having delivered a masterstroke. It has allowed capitalism within a set of parameters that has created an ability for the Chinese to buy things in a consumer economy. They can enjoy great freedom as they shop in the malls, or order things on Jingdong or AliBaba, and as they sit in the big, expensive restaurants of the big cities, and so on.
I also teach a lot of US History. In the 1920s, our modern consumer capitalist culture was created with the birth of modern, psychology-based advertising. Corporations could not persuade consumers to buy their goods, using science to do so. And this is how we got our modern consumer culture. But attendant to that was what many observers noted: Americans themselves changed. Gone was the old Protestant work ethic and belief in hard work and sober, industrious, thrift. Instead, Americans wanted to acquire things, ti spend their increasing disposable income, first on things that made their lives easier (like coffee machines and refrigerators) and then on luxuries made affordable (like radios). One displayed one’s affluence through one’s stuff, in essence.
And so, when I look at China, I don’t share Hahm’s optimism. I see people content with their consumer economy and I see the oppressive power of the CCP. Taken together, I do not see an end to single-party rule any time soon. Park’s South Korea is not an historical analogue of Xi’s China.
July 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
In this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a provocative essay from Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Entitled, ‘The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom,’ Allison provides a much needed corrective to the history of American foreign policy since the Second World War.
Allison argues, correctly, that American foreign policy was never about maintaining a liberal world order. Rather, she argues, the world as we know it globally arose out of the Cold War, a bipolar world where the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies in a battle of the hearts and minds of the global populace. In essence, the two core belligerent nations cancelled each other out in terms of nuclear arms, so they were left to forge and uneasy co-existence. And then, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and, the US was victorious in the Cold War. And, of course, Francis Fukuyama made his now infamous, laughable, and ridiculous claim:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
How Fukuyama has any credibility after this colossal statement of Western hubris is beyond me.
Anyway, Allison notes that aftermath of this particular moment in time was that the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made common cause and managed to convince both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that the best way to spread the gospel of capitalism and liberal democracy was by dropping bombs. Only during the Bush II era did the idea of liberal democracy get tied up with American foreign policy, and here Allison quotes former National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State), Condoleeza Rice, speaking of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the Greater Middle East.’
Thus, we had a unipolar world, and now, with the resurgence of a belligerent Russia and a growing China, we are in a multi-polar world. And then she goes onto note larger American problems centring around democracy at home.
But what struck me about her argument was where she lays out her argument about the bipolar Cold War world, she notes that ‘the United States and its allies had just fought against Nazi Germany.’ but that the burgeoning Cold War with the USSR required new tactics.
The United States and its allies. There are several ways that this is problematic. The first is that the main Allied powers of the Second World War were the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. I don’t count France here in that it fell in 1940 and whilst Free French troops and the French Résistance were central to the Allied cause, they were not represented by a government in Paris. But those Big 3 of the US, UK, and the USSR were worth the equal billing. The UK held on and maintained a free Europe from the 1940 until the Americans got going on the Western front in 1942. And British troops (to say nothing of the Empire and Commonwealth) were central to the ultimate victory.
And then there’s the USSR. The Soviets were absolutely and essentially central to the Allied cause in World War II. It was the Soviets that took the brunt of Hitler’s fury on the Eastern front and absorbed the invading Nazi forces before expelling them, absorbing essential German attention as the US and UK dithered about opening a Western front, something that didn’t happen until 1944. And then the USSR, all by itself, defeated the Nazis on the Eastern front and ‘liberated’ the Eastern European nations before closing in on Germany and Berlin itself.
In the US, Americans like to pronounce themselves as ‘Back To Back World War Champs,’ as the t-shirt says. This is bunk. The USSR did more to win World War II in Europe than any other nation, including the United States.
Allison’s argument is made even more peculiar given that she is talking about the outbreak of the Cold War here. She makes no mention of the fact that the United States’ allies in the Second World War included the Soviet Union. Hell, Time magazine even called Josef Stalin its 1943 Man of the Year. That part of the story is essential to understanding the outbreak of the Cold War, the hostility that was festering between the USSR on one side and the US and UK on the other was an important and central story to the last years of World War II.
Thus, better argued, Allison could’ve, and should’ve, argued that in the immediate post-World War II era, c. 1947-48, that the United States was fatigued from World War II, where the Allies, of which it was one, along with the Soviet Union, defeated German Nazism. To write it differently is to elide an important part of history and the Second World War. And frankly, Allison should know better.
July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments
Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal. ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters. Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band. A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.
There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are. But I was in Montreal. But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.
I never did. He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation. I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago. It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer. It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him. We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way. I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.
Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America. Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers. It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion. It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs. I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.
Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid. I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so. But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city. My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped. Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens. Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul. I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that. And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era. Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.
And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years. In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:
The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?
In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward. As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently. This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times. Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home. Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’ And so we never do really fully leave.