February 11, 2019 § 4 Comments
Whenever I write about racism, white privilege, feminism, etc., I get a slew of comments from usually anonymous trolls calling me every name you can imagine. And then I get some comments from people who may or may not be using their real names, almost always identifying themselves as white, who complain that the world is racist against them. Or white men complaining that the world is sexist against them. And so on. Usually, these comments also include a series of ad hominem attacks on me.
I can handle the abuse, I’m a big boy. But I will not approve comments that include racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynistic commentary. Nor will I approve comments that are nothing more than insults.
You don’t like it? Too bad. Go read something else.
November 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Across Canada, the cenotaph is a central component of the central square of villages, towns, and cities. Erected in the wake of the First World War, these cenotaphs faithfully record those who gave their lives in the first global conflict. The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars.’ While not nearly as massive or bloody as the Second World War, it is the First World War that is remembered as The Great War.
These cenotaphs recording the war dead are deeply embedded on the landscape. And, unlike so many memorials, they are not invisible. Growing up, I was always aware of them and what they meant. They were solemn and dignified, almost always identical, obelisk shapes. I remember reading the names of the dead on them, and not just on Remembrance Day.
The dead of the First World War seemed so faraway from me, growing up in the 1980s, beyond living memory for me. My grandparents served in the Second World War. And whilst my grandfather’s service as a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force held a certain romance, it was nothing compared to the First World War.
As a boy in Canada, I didn’t know a lot about the conditions of the War. I learned these in university and the romance of the war dropped away quickly. And I learned more and more about the status of Canada during this period. Even still, the First World War has maintained a certain mystique. Part of this is driven by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier (and victim of the war) John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blowBetween the crosses, row on row,That mark our place; and in the skyThe larks, still bravely singing, flyScarce heard amid the guns below.We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,Loved and were loved, and now we lie,In Flanders fields.Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throwThe torch; be yours to hold it high.If ye break faith with us who dieWe shall not sleep, though poppies growIn Flanders fields.
And so the First World War maintained this mystique. Even if the veterans handing out the poppies in return for a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion were from the Second World War when I was younger, it was a symbol of the First World War they pinned to my lapel.
Last month, I was in Ottawa and visited the National War Memorial located at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington streets, kitty corner to Parliament. The Monument, somewhat ironically, was dedicated in May 1939 to honour the war dead of Canada. Ironic, of course, because the Second World War broke out in Europe barely three-and-a-half months later.
It was whilst staring at this monument that something really struck me about our cenotaphs and war memorials: they tend to date from the First World War. In this case the artillery is that of the First World War, down to the cavalry on horses. These monuments may include the names of Canadian soldiers who served in conflagrations before that one, of course, such as the Boer War. But it is the First World War dead who appear in great number. And the war dead of later wars, including the Second World War were added to the original monument. They were not the original soldiers, and whilst their sacrifices are the obvious equivalent, these memorials date not from their war(s), but the Great War.
And so these original soldiers, those who fought and died in the First World War were the baseline for the Canadian military and, even if this wasn’t the first time that war was made real for Canadians, it was the first time it was made real on a national scale. And even if the First World War left a complicated legacy on Canada, it remains that it was perhaps the first great crisis the country faced. And it gave rise to a series of stories, some true, some mythical, about the import of the war on the still young Dominion at the time.
September 19, 2017 § 1 Comment
This Thursday, 21 September 5 à 7, come to my book launch at Hurley’s Irish Pub, 1225, rue Crescent, Montréal. 2nd floor.
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.
February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian. I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs. Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more. And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work. It got published today.
January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
I read David Means’ novel, Hystopia, last week. It is an alternative history of the 1960s and 70s in the United States; a novel within a novel. Hystopia, according to the editor’s notes, was actually written by a Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen, shortly before he killed himself in 1973 or 1974. In Hystopia, JFK survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, and continued on as president and is now in his 3rd term (the scholar in me wonders how he got passed the 27th Amendment, mind you). He oversaw a massive increase in American involvement in Vietnam, much greater than that of his successor in real life, Lyndon Baines Johnson. And, of course, there was no Great Society policy initiatives. He was eventually assassinated in Springfield, IL, in 1970. But this is not the interesting part. The interesting part is what happens to Vietnam vets when they get home: they get enfolded.
A new branch of the government, Psych Corps, has attempted to use drugs to deal with the horrors that the soldiers in Vietnam saw, with a caveat: they only accept men who are not physically disabled by the war. At the Psych Corps HQ, the vets are fed an anti-psychotic drug and ‘enfolded.’ Psych Corps re-creates the source of the trauma and PTSD for soldiers, they are forced to relive it, and in so doing, their memories are essentially wiped. Thus, veterans who have been enfolded don’t remember their experience in the war, such as the ‘hero’ of the novel, a veteran named Singleton. Singleton, we eventually realise was an officer in Vietnam and commanded the unit that also included the other main characters of the book. But he has no recollection of this. The only thing that connects him to Vietnam is a horrible burn scar on his left side. Singleton’s scar comes from a friendly fire caused by a soldier calling in the wrong co-ordinates for a fire bombing, resulting in his own death.
Now employed by Psych Corps, Singleton falls in love (against regulation) with a fellow officer, Wendy, and sets off to Northern Michigan to track down Rake, a former member of his unit and a failed enfold. Rake, meanwhile, has kidnapped the beautiful but deeply troubled, Meg, whose boyfriend and first love was the soldier who got himself killed. Meg is also Eugene Allen’s sister.
Immediately after Hystopia, I picked up Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, for a new researh project I am undertaking. It turns out that Hystopia and The Body Keeps The Score are directly related for my purposes. I am still only about 100 pages into the book, but van der Kolk is talking about his early experiences in the field of psychiatry in the early 1970s (the same period the fictive Eugene Allen was writing his novel, incidentally) and his first clients, including Vietnam vets at the VA in Boston.
He writes about what trauma does to the brain, using a vet as an illustration. This guy was a high functioning, and very successful criminal lawyer in Boston. But, he was completely empty inside. He went through the motions at home, with his family, at work. He felt violent impulses and thus recused himself from his family, spending weekends at a time drinking heavily in an attempt to get his war experiences out of his head. He had been a platoon leader, and watched helplessly as he lead his men into an ambush. They were all killed or wounded. He was not. The next day, he took his wrath out on a Vietnamese village, killed at least one child and raped a woman.
As I read this story, and others, I couldn’t help think of Hystopia, and the vets being drugged to forget stories such as this veteran’s. In the late 1980s, van der Kolk began experimenting with PET scans and, ultimately, fMRIs, by which the traumatising event is re-created, according to a script, in order to discover which parts of the brain are triggered. It turns out it is exactly the same parts of the brain that one would expect to be triggered during a traumatic event. More to the point, the participants in these experiments reported feeling exactly as they did during the original event. And thus, van der Kolk notes, his colleagues began to wonder about how to use drugs to treat PTSD patients, using the information from the PET and fMRI scans to learn which parts of the brain neeed to be treated. Or, in other words, exactly what happens in Hystopia when the soldiers are enfolded upon return from Vietnam. The difference, of course, is that enfolding works for the majority of patients. There is no cure-all for PTSD for us in the real world.
Nonetheless, van der Kolk notes that we tend to respond to deeply traumatising events, whether something as graphic and terrifying and terrible as his Vietnam vet, or other traumas such as sexual assault, rape, being beaten as a child, etc.. And I found myself wondering about how our brains work to incorporate these memories and recast them in terms of society, how our memories and our traumas are never ours alone, but also belong to our wider society. Our memories are formed, re-formed, and re-fined in light of our interaction with society, of course. And it is difficult to tell where our individual experiences end and our societal imports begin, or vice versa.
And as I embark on a this project, I am wondering where that dividing line is between our own personal traumas and where society intervenes in the reconstructions of the narratives we tell ourselves about our experience. What makes our traumas unique and what makes them like other victims of traumatising experiences?
November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both. Anxiety is running rampant across the nation. He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. These are all things we must keep in mind. Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.
Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost. People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.
We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change. We create a record of our dissent. We demand our system of government work for us, not against us. We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’
We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.
We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here. We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.
So why letters? Glad you asked:
Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered. Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany. Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.
Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.
We are collecting them for now on our website. But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president. This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
August 5, 2016 § 2 Comments
I welcome comments on this blog. Discussion and disagreement is good for us all. However, I will not tolerate trolls, I will not tolerate bigotry of any kind. I control who comments on this site because it is my site. Your First Amendment rights are not being abrogated if I delete your comment. I hate that I have to post this warning, but, such is life.
July 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
Nancy Isenberg‘s new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, is attracting a lot of attention. No doubt this is, in part, due to the catchy title. White trash is a derogatory and insulting term, usually applied to poor white people in the South, the descendants of the Scots-Irish who settled down here prior to the Civil War, the men who picked up their guns and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. (Oddly, the term is not really applied all that often to poor white people in the North).
I am also deeply suspicious of books that promise to tell me the “untold” or “true” story of anything. And certainly, if you asked American historians if class was an “untold story”, they’d laugh you right out of their office. But no doubt the title is due to Viking’s marketing department, not Isenbeg.
Nonetheless, I bought the book, but as I was doing so, I read some of the reviews on Amazon.The negative ones caught my eye. Most of the negative reviews were either misogynistic or anti-Semitic. But, one, by someone calling themselves Ralphe Wiggins, caught my eye:
This book purports to be a history of white trash in America. It is not. It is a series of recounting of what others have said about the lower white classes over the past 400 years. In most cases the author’s summarizations are a simple assertions of her opinion.
The book is 55% text, 35% references and 10% index. The “Epilog” is a mishmash of generalizations of Isenberg’s earlier generalizations.
Let us now parse Wiggins’ commentary. First, Wiggins complains that Isenberg simply summarizes “her opinion” and then generalizes her generalizations. Clearly, Wiggins does not understand how historians go about their craft. Sure, we have opinions and politics. But we are also meticulous researchers, and skilled in the art of critical thinking. The argument Isenberg makes in White Trash are not simply her “opinion,” they’re based on years of research and critical thinking.
Second, Wiggins complains that the book is 35% references and 10% index. Of course it is, it’s an academic work. The arguments Isenberg makes are based on her readings of primary and secondary sources, which are then noted in her references so the interested reader can go read these sources themselves to see what they make of them. Revealing our sources is also part of the openness of scholarship.
Wiggins’ review reminds me of Reza Aslan’s famous turn on FoxNews, where he was accused by the host of not being able to write a history of Jesus because he’s a Muslim. Aslan patiently explained to her over and over again that he was a trained academic, and had spent twenty years researching and pondering the life and times of Jesus. That was what made him qualified to write Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
But all of this, Wiggins’ review, Aslan’s turn on FoxNews is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the turning away from expertise. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the satirical news site “News Thump” announced that all experts would be replaced by Simon Kettering, a local at the neighbourhood pub:
Williams knows absolutely everything about any subject and is unafraid to hold forth against the received wisdom of 400 years of the scientific method, especially after four pints of Strongbow.
Amongst his many accomplishments Simon is remarkably well-informed about optimal football formations, the effects of political events on international capital and bond markets, and the best way to pleasure a woman – possibly his favourite subject.
His breadth of knowledge is all the more impressive as he doesn’t even need to bother spending ten seconds fact-checking on Google before issuing a firm statement.
As my good friend, Michael Innes, noted in response:
Yep. Personally, I’m looking forward to all the medical and public health experts at my local surgery being fired and replaced with Simon. Not to mention the car mechanics at my local garage. I’m sure with a little creative thinking (no research!!!) we can dig deeper and weed out yet more of the rot, too.
See, experts can be useful now and then. And Nancy Isenberg is certainly one, given that she is T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University.
June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments
There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision. This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know. And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.
I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people. OK, then.
But this is where history does matter. The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.” Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly. There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly. Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.
And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies. The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.
The two situations are not analogous. At all. In other words, this is just another stupid meme. #FAIL