The Real Problem the SNC Lavalin Affair Exposes

March 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

Canada’s media is beside itself right now over a case of politics within the cabinet of the Trudeau government.  The problem begins with SNC Lavalin, ostensibly an engineering firm headquartered in Montréal.  About a decade ago, it did some skeezy things in Libya.  SNC Lavalin, however, is no stranger to skeeziness.  The issue arises from something called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), which, under Canadian law, allows the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PSSC) to essentially allow corporations to plea bargain their way out of a spot of bother.  It would appear the the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wished this current mess for SNC Lavalin to go away via a DPA, though the then-Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to do.  She has complained that she felt pressured to alter her decision, which she refused to do.  This has been denied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts.  And through it all, Trudeau has managed to keep his trademark calm, upsetting Canadians who want him to at least acknowledge some wrong-doing.

But, despite both the Canadian and the foreign media’s best attempts to make this look like something, the fact of the matter is, we have two versions of a process, and at worst, Trudeau looks like a jerk. Nothing illegal happened here.  This is not corruption.  What Wilson-Raybould described reads to me as little more than business-as-usual Canadian cabinet-level politicking.

But all of this obscures two, if not three, larger issues at hand here.  The first is the dual portfolio of Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Canada.  The two roles appear to be contradictory, as this person is both responsible for the Department of Justice as well as being the Chief Federal Legal Advisor.  As well, this portfolio is ultimately responsible for legal enforcement at the federal level in Canada.  In other Parliamentary democracies, such as the UK and Australia, these two roles are separate, and in the UK, the Attorney General is not technically part of the cabinet.  While politicking of the sort Wilson-Raybould has, as far as I can tell from my own research, is part and parcel of Canadian government, the time has come to split the two roles.

Second, and perhaps the greatest problem is the influence of corporatism in our politics in Canada.  The idea of a DPA, or an equivalent, has been part of American law enforcement since the 1980s.  In the UK, DFAs have legally been in place since 2015; in France, since 2016, and Australia in 2017.  In Canada, Bill C-74 became law in 2018.  But, what this did was formalize an already extant option used by the PSSC.  Legal scholars tend to prefer the idea of a DPA, especially in the case of multinational corporations and the difficulties of carrying out corruption inquiries on this level, to say nothing of the massive amount of money and resources such an investigation requires.

Taken on that level, of course, a DPA makes perfect sense.  But, what this kerfuffle over SNC Lavalin currently shows us is how much influence our major corporations have in our politics and legal enforcement.  It would appear that our Prime Minister, who is also the Member of Parliament for Papineau, a Montréal riding.  And where is SNC Lavalin based?  Montréal.  So, the optics aren’t good.  The PMO was lobbying for a DFA to protect SNC Lavalin from the cost of a conviction, which is a 10-year ban on federal contracts.  And while it is not surprising that a powerful MP from Montréal would wish to intervene and save SNC Lavalin from prosecution.  But, once again, the optics are not good when that MP is also the Prime Minister.

But there is this corporate influence.  And it’s not like the main opposition party is any better.  During the long nine-year reign of error of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, there were countless instances of corporatism, from selling out Canadian Crown Corporations to foreign corporations, to striking down oversight of corporate behaviour.  And whilst our third party, the New Democrats (NDP) have never come close to forming a federal government, the party has been the government in several provinces, multiple times (in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario).  Despite the NDP’s leftist claims, its behaviour in power shows it’s no different than the Liberals or Conservatives.

In other words, corporate influence in Canadian politics is real, powerful, and dangerous for our democracy.

And this leads me to our third problem: our media.  Canada’s media is highly centralized, consolidated, and corporate.  The daily broadsheet newspapers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Montréal (in English, anyway), and Ottawa are owned by Postmedia.  Postmedia also owns the tabloid newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa.  In other words, the newspaper market in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa is monopolized by Postmedia.  Postmedia also owns nearly every small-town newspaper in the country.  And finally, the company also owns The National Post, Canada’s second and largely ignored national newspaper.

Toronto’s major daily broadsheet, the Toronto Star is owned by Torstar, a major media company.  Toronto is also home to the Globe & Mail, which bills itself as Canada’s national newspaper. The Globe is owned by the Woodbridge Company, which until 2015 owned the Canadian Television network, or CTV.  Woodbridge is the primary investment firm of the Thomson family, one of Canada’s wealthiest families. The Globe is also the Canadian newspaper most closely aligned with Bay Street, Canada’s financial district in Toronto.  The National Post,

The only major Canadian city that is served by a largely independent press is Montréal, where the two major French-language dailies, La Presse and Le Devoir fall outside of these larger Canadian firms.  Presse is owned by a social trust.  La Presse also no longer publishes a physical paper, it has been entirely online since 2017.  Le Devoir is owned and published by Le Devoir Inc.  But Montréal’s other French language paper, the tabloid Journal de Montréal, is owned by Québecor, one of the largest media corporations in Canada.

Québecor also owns most of Québec’s media, including the TV broadcast network, TVA.  It owns Vidéotron, the primary cable, internet, and cellular service firm in Québec.  TVA Publishing is the largest magazine publishing firm in Québec.  It also publishes books under Québecor Media Book Group.  And finally, it owns Canada.com/Canada.ca, a major on-line news site that covers the entire country of Canada.

Meanwhile, BCE Inc. owns CTV, as well as Bell, which is one of the largest cable/satellite TV providers in the country, to say nothing of cell services.  It also, interestingly, owns parts of both the Canadiens de Montréal and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two biggest hockey teams in the world.  Rogers, the other major cable provider in Canada, also owns a cell service, one of the largest magazine publishing firms in Canada, a large chunk of Canadian radio stations.

In short, our media is corporate, deeply and widely, except for the newspapers in Montréal.  We also have the state-owned broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so it is technically independent, as it is arms’ length from the government.  But the CBC’s problem is it tries to be too many things to too many different people.  The Société Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service, suffers from many of the same problems.

And our independent news sites, outside of La Presse and Le Devoir, are essentially partisan outlets, preaching to the converted.

So, with our government beholden to corporate interests, many of which are the same interests which own our media, we have a very deep and serious problem.  And, of course, this is not what our political parties are talking about.  The Liberals, obviously this isn’t something they’ll touch right now.  The Conservatives will, of course, score as many political points as they can off SNC Lavalin, but they’ve down the same thin in power and will do again.  And, then there’s the NDP.  This should be the chance for embattled leader, Jagmeet Singh, to take a stand and talk about the influence of corporations in our media and politics. But, nope.  He and his party are too interested in scoring cheap political points from SNC Lavalin, which, of course, suggests the NDP would be no different in office.

Meanwhile, Canadian democracy suffers.

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Merci Beaucoup and Thank You

June 14, 2018 § 1 Comment

fullsizeoutput_4cfAt the end of May, at the annual Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, SK, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, won a CLIO Award from the Canadian Historical Association.  I wrote the best book in Québec history last year.  I was stunned and surprised when I found out about this award in early April and I remain just as gobsmacked today.

It is very humbling to be recognized by your peers for your work, I have to say.  It has also been humbling to see the response to the book as a whole.  Last September, I hosted a book launch back home in Montreal at Hurley’s Irish Pub.  It was an amazing night, as new and old friends came out, well over 100 people in all, spilling out of our main room into the bar area.  In April, to celebrate the American launch of the book, I hosted another launch at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA.  It was another gratifying evening, as more people than I could count came out, including friends, colleagues, and even students.  We sold out the stock of the book in short order.

I am proud of this book.  I think it’s a good book.  But that’s only part of the story.  The book is also beautifully packaged, designed by the team at University of British Columbia Press, using the art of my good friend and colleague, G. Scott MacLeod.  Scott’s art makes my book cover look so stunning.

Working with UBC Press was wonderful.  I had excellent editors in Darcy Cullen, the acquisitions editor, and Ann Macklem, the production editor.  I enjoyed working with Darcy so much that I was sad when she passed me off to Ann.  But Ann was also amazing to work with.  Darcy and Ann made the often Byzantine process of academic publishing easier and more sensible to me.

And my anonymous reviewers; I know who they are now.  But I will respect their anonymity.  All I can say is that they both were incredibly encouraging.  They found the holes in the manuscript I knew existed, they found some I didn’t realize.  But they both also offered many options and possibilities to fill those gaps in the research, the theory, and so on.  I learned a lot about writing a book and about history, theory, and method from them.

My book is, obviously, better for the experience with UBC Press, and my anonymous reviewers.  And for that, I am eternally grateful.  I am also grateful to the committee that determined the CLIO Awards, and to everyone else along the way, both before and after publication, who was supportive and encouraging.

 

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 Problems With Polling

January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments

I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week.  In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many.  I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad.  There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.

My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called.  Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked.  I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling.  Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US).  It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.

The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results.  For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare.  So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA.  Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA.  They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA.  It worked.

But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA.  Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA?  Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA?  How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue?  Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.

But this was only one part of the problem.  I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys.  We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word.  We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously.  More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor.  But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls.  There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room.  And 125 individuals were not robots.  Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices.  Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.

When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded.  One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different.  But sometimes it could.  Another guy had a weird valley girl accent.  The result was the same as the Serbian’s.  And some people just liked to mess with the system.  It was easy to do.  They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.

Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data.  There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy.  Or support for candidates.  And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.

But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data.  And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.

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.

 

Governmental Power

February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Historians tend to take the long view of everything.  We tend not to be make rash judgements of the world.  We are just trained not to.  And so, of late, I have been thinking of the longue durée of government and society.  One of the truisms of history is that the government really has no bearing on the lives of the majority of any given state.  Kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and prime ministers have come and gone and for the overwhelming majority of society, life carried on.

Sometimes the government’s policies came home, such as when a village’s young men marched off to war.  Or a particularly oppressive government came to power and instituted surveillance.  But even then, whether in medieval France or Ancient China, or Nazi Germany, for most people, the sun still came up, the fields still got tended, the factories still produced.

But all the while, something arose from Enlightenment thought.  And this was the idea of the rationalization of government.  By this, I mean the standardization of government and the state, and its attempts to impose itself in the lives of its citizens/subjects.  Quite often, the growth of the state was met with resistance.  In the early 1850s in rural Quebec, the guerre des éteignoirs broke out against the attempts of the Canadian government to impose a standardized, compulsory education on the children of the country.  To call it a ‘war’ is a misnomer, it was a collection of violent acts of resistance.  Still, it was a very dogged resistance.  Yet, it was ultimately fruitless.  State-sponsored education had arrived.

The mid-19th century was a period of massive state growth in Canada and the United States.  Both nations got the idea from the British, where the growth of the state and government surveillance may have staved off the spread of the French Revolution to the British Isles.  In the United States, of course, this process was both interrupted and sped up by the Civil War, as the federal state grew exponentially during the conflict, and has only continued to grow since.

This mid-19th century state building occurred through the imposition of the state into communities, through the construction of courthouses, post offices, and the like.  And the buildings followed a standardized form, designed by the same architects.  The Catholic Church had already figured out the value of standard design by this point, the state was a bit of a latecomer.  But the effects were the same.  Newly designed and constructed courthouses brought the state into a community.  The uniformity of the buildings from one town to a next reinforced the impartial eye of the state.  Back at the centre, the state also underwent tremendous growth, as new departments were created and new bureaucrats appointed to oversee this growth.

The process of the expanding state picked up from there, to the point now where it is nigh-on impossible to escape it.  It is in our wallets in the form of our driver’s licenses and our Social Insurance/National Insurance/Social Security cards (to use the Canadian/British/American terms).  It is on our cars as license plates and in the dashboard as registrations.  It knows where we live.  It knows where we work.  It knows how much we work and how much we make.  It knows intimate details of our lives.

You can see the effects of this and the various periods of state growth in any mid-size town to large city.  For example, post offices tend to look the same, built either in the late 19th century or the mid-20th.  Courthouses follow a similar plan, whether built in the late 19th century, the early 20th, or the late 20th, though they follow different plans based on era.

For example, Government Center in Boston is a massive neo-brutalist construction in the centre of downtown.  Government Center houses Boston’s city hall, federal courts, state courts, and government offices at all three levels (city, state, federal).  The building style is familiar.

IMG_0733

Government Center, Boston

The same sort of neo-brutalism exists very far away from Boston, in a different country.  Winnipeg, Manitoba’s city hall is also a neo-brutalist construction.  And this architectural style is repeated for government buildings (and university campuses) in nearly every city I can think of in North America.  The style is immediately recognizable as the state, whether it’s Winnipeg’s City Hall or the campus of the University of Massachusetts — Amherst.  We see this style of architecture and we instantly know its purpose.

WpgCityhall

City Hall, Winnipeg

These buildings are designed to be immovable and permanent, to show us the permanence of the state, and the implied power behind it.  These are overwhelming buildings.  Standing in Government Center, Boston, or Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, is an exercise of feeling one’s insignificance in the face of the state.  When I went for my interview to receive my Green Card at Government Center, I thought about this, how insignificant my individual power was in the face of the state.  Whether we think about this implicitly or explicitly, it is there.  And that is the point (just as Edwardian era bank buildings make their point)

So we are left to believe that the state is unmoving and immovable.  And so it is.  But, something else has happened in the wake of this massive growth of the state, as it has invaded our wallets, our dashboards, and more.  The power of the state has continued to grow, its presence in our lives in inescapable.

And thus, now, when government changes hands through the democratic process and a new one takes control, whether it is in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, or Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, or Washington, DC, or Ottawa, there is a very real possibility that it will change the lives of the people of that state/province/nation.  Major governmental policy shifts on everything from foreign affairs to net neutrality to consumer protection laws to immigration laws impacts nearly everyone.

And this is something to think about as we enter the era of the Trump Administration in the US.

Writing the History of the Trump Era

February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history?  We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era.  First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies.  I have already commented on this.  Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment.  Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’  What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?

I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face.  But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem.  Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too.  He notes that

Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter.  Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to  determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on.  Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.

Indeed.  The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act.  This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book).  But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.

When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature.  We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music.  We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect.  And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc.  We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.

Historians, we tend to go further than journalists.  Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why  and how they happened.  And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews.  The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled.  In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.

When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation.  How do we do that? Logic and reasoning.  We use other scholars as guides.  We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject.  We consider their interpretations based on the evidence.  We agree or disagree.  Or we agree and see another possibility.  And so on.

Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations.  So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where.  We establish the facts.  And we establish these from our sources.  Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts.  They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research.  And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.

So how do we source that in the post-truth world?  Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on.  When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course.  And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.

My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair.  When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada.  Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice.  They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.

The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair.  In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City  press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun.  He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house.  Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.

So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56?  I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular.  I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order.  I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement.  I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions.  and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair.  I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.

And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time.  They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary.  Maybe even blogs like mine.

We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen.  And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.

 

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