October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment
We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS. Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies. And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies. I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.
The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious. But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.
As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth. But it’s not just ESPN. Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports. It is also 20% owned by ESPN). A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states, that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”
Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings. Why? Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN. The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour. TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.
And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story. Sure they are. But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words. They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’
This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell. But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around. Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it). But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts. Players do.
Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language. Good for you. You’re wrong.
Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes. Ever heard someone speak 18th century English? Or how about the word ‘awful’? Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’ Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’ And awful means something that sucks. But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).
The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely. So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded. It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness. And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.
August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black. Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism. I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March. In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY. In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.
It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour. Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour. (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science). But. Racism persists. Racism is all around us. And Oluo reminds us of this.
And so back to Oluo. She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state. As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices. She posted on Twitter:
And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in. In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism. Or read the article I linked to above.
But, back to the Facebook post of my friend. The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’ I pointed out that she isn’t racist. She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel. But this isn’t racist. Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.
See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.). Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another. And this is coupled with power. This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.
For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black. Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital). The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.
That is racism. The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist. Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced. They can also be stupid and tone deaf.
But racism is rare. Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet. She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.
But the responses to her? Well, they kind of prove her point. The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale. That is what racism looks like. And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).
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.
May 31, 2017 § 1 Comment
Bill 101 is 40 years old this year. For those of you who don’t know, Bill 101 (or Loi 101, en français) is the Quebec language charter. It is officially known as La charte de la langue française (or French-Language Charter). It essentially establishes French as the lingua franca of Quebec. For the most part, the Bill was aimed at Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec. Just a bit under half of Quebec lives in Montreal and its surrounding areas, and this has been the case for much of Quebec’s modern history. Montreal is also where the Anglo population of Quebec has become concentrated.
When Bill 101 was passed by the Parti québécois government of René Levésque in 1977, there was a mass panic on the part of Anglophones, and they streamed out of Montreal and Quebec, primarily going up the 401 highway to Toronto. My family was part of this. But we ultimately carried on further, to the West Coast, ultimately settling in Vancouver. At one point in the 1980s, apparently Toronto was more like Anglo Montreal than Montreal.
Meanwhile, back in the metropole, nasty linguistic battles dominated the late 1980s. This included actual violence on the streets. But there were also a series of court decisions, many of which struck down key sections of Bill 101. This, in turn, emboldened a bunch of bigots within the larger Anglo community, who complained of everything, from claiming Quebec wasn’t a democracy to, amongst some of the more whacked out ones, that the Anglos were the victim of ethnocide (I wish I was kidding).
But, in the 30 years since, much has changed in Montreal. The city settled into an equilibrium. And I would posit that was due to the economy. Montreal experienced a generation-long economic downturn from the 1970s to the 1990s. In the mid-90s, after the Second Referendum on Quebec sovereignty failed in 1995 (the first was in 1980), the economy picked up. New construction popped up everywhere around the city centre, cranes came to dominate the skyline. And then it seeped out into the neighbourhoods. By the late 90s/early 2000s, Montreal was the fastest growing city in Canada. It has since long since slowed down, and Montreal had a lot of ground to catch up on, in relation to Canada’s other two major cities, Toronto and Vancouver. But the economic recovery did a lot to stifle not just separatism, but also the more radical Anglo response.
Last week, the Montreal Gazette published an editorial on the 40th anniversary of Bill 101. It was a shocker, as the newspaper was central to the more paranoid Anglo point-of-view, even as late as the mid-2000s. But, perhaps I should not have been surprised, as it was written by eminent Montreal lawyer, Julius Grey. He is one of the rare Montrealers respected on all sides. At any rate, Grey (who was also the lawyer in some of the cases that led to sections of Bill 101 being invalidated), celebrates the success of the Charte de la langue française. It has, argues Grey correctly, led to a situation where, in Montreal, both French and English are thriving. He also notes that there is much more integration now in Montreal than was the case in the 1970s, from intermarriage to social interaction, and economic equality between French and English. Moreover, immigrants have by-and-large learned French and integrated, to a greater or lesser degree, into francophone culture. Many immigrants have also learned English.
But the interesting part of Grey’s argument is this:
On the English side, dubious assertions of discrimination abound. It is important for all citizens to be treated equally, but often the problem lies in the mastering of French. The English minority has become far more bilingual than before, but many overestimate their proficiency in French, and particularly when it comes to grammar and written French. By contrast, francophones tend to underestimate their English.
In other words, speaking French is an essential to life in Montreal. And Anglos, I think, are more prone to over-estimating their French-language skills for the simple fact that it’s common knowledge one needs to speak the language.
Grey goes onto make an excellent suggestion:
These difficulties could be eased by the creation of a new school system, accessible to all Quebecers, functioning two-thirds in French and one-third in English. Some English and French schools would exist for those who do not wish to or cannot study in both languages, although most parents would probably prefer the bilingual schools.
However, this would never fly. The one-third English does not bely the demographics of the city (let alone the province, and I really don’t see the point of learning English in Trois-Pistoles). The urban area of Montreal is around 4 million (the population of Quebec as a whole is around 8.2 million). There are a shade under 600,000 Anglos in the Montreal region, largely centred in the West Island and southern and western off-island suburbs. That means Anglos are around 15% of the population of Montreal. The idea that Montreal is bilingual is given lie by these numbers.
Nonetheless, there is merit to this argument of an English-language curriculum in Quebec’s public schools (including in Trois-Pistoles). Like it or not, English is the lingua franca of the wider world, and global commerce tends to be conducted in that language. There is also the fact of the wide and vast English-language culture that exists around the globe. One of the things I enjoy about my own partial literacy in French (one that has certainly been damaged by not living in Montreal anymore) is the access to francophone culture, not just from Montreal and Quebec, but the wider francopohonie).
For any group of people or individual, there is a lot to be learned from bilingualism (or, multi-linguality). In Montreal (and Quebec as a whole), it could ensure that the city’s economic recovery in the past two decades continues. Along with this economic recovery has been a cultural renaissance in the city, in terms of music, film, literature, and visual arts. It is a wonderful thing to see Montreal’s recovery. And I want it to continue.
May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments
Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec. The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year. And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.
But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote. The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec). They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States. They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.
From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec. The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government. They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor. And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.
In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement. I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837. The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec. The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day. This is not, obviously, an actual translation. The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population. The results are more of the same. And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?” This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.
This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes. And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background. And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally. I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists. When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing. I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.
Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec. That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States. Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West. O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table. Both were Irishmen. Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest). The Griffintown Irish were radicals. They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.
And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred. They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement. Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November. This was the battle the Patriotes won. Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized. He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly. Both Nelsons survived the rebellions. Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.
Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city. In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided. It was class that cleaved the city. Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals. And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical. Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals. The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks. It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.
It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes. While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not. They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions. Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown. Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.
February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments
We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days. This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre. But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting. Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).
But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves. In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left. I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94. This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton. It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.
During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate. They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things. Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page). Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened. Not good enough for one of my accusers. She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’ No, it’s not. But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources. So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits. None of this changes historical fact.
In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States. This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh. And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude. They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans. In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs. And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion. Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong. And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US. The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country. Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country. Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession. So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.
He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong. And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854. But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.
In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged. I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century). In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit. But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them. They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.
This is deeply disturbing.