Filthy Lucre

June 15, 2015 § 1 Comment

Last week, news broke that the Sex Pistols, those paragons of punk rock, were going to be featured on new Virgin Money credit cards in the UK. Not surprisingly, the response has been pretty passionate in attacking the Pistols for “selling out.” Even I posted a firmly tongue-in-cheek tweet:

But in all honesty, I don’t quite see what all the hubbub is about.  Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were pretty clear about their motivations in the song, “Pretty Vacant” off Never Mind the Bollocks:

I look around your house, you got nothing to steal
I kick you in the brains when you get down to kneel
And pray, you pray to your god

And if that wasn’t obvious enough, the 1996 reunion tour, which spanned 6 months, was entitled “The Filthy Lucre Tour.”  There’s even a live album.  The Pistols were always about making money, that’s not changed, and, frankly, despite all the hot air ridiculous marketing lines from Virgin Money, a Sex Pistols credit card is about the most punk rock thing the band can do at this point. C’mon, they’re a bunch of punters in their 50s dancing around like they’re still 22.  What else did you expect?

Success at Failure!

June 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

Last spring at the NCPH’s annual conference, I, along with colleagues, presented a roundtable discussion on what happens when we encounter failure as public historians.  The roundtable was a huge success, leading to other conference-goers referring to me as “Mr. Failure” for a day or two afterwards. One of those colleagues, Margo Shea, and I just had a short piece published in The American Historian.  You can read it here.  As always, let me know what you think in the comments section.

Memory and the Screaming Trees.

January 26, 2015 § 4 Comments

Memory works in odd ways. So this course on space, place, landscape & memory.  Last Thursday, in addition to that article on Western Mass, we read Doreen Massey’s article “Places and Their Pasts,” from way ‘back in 1995.  And, this got me thinking.  About music.  I’m currently in a hard rock phase, where everything I’m listening to has loud, very loud guitars.  And inevitably, when I am in one of these phases, I come back to the Screaming Trees’ 1992 album, “Sweet Oblivion.”  My favourite Trees’ song, “Nearly Lost You” is on this album.  But, the album as a whole is one of my favourites of all-time.  I first bought it on cassette tape, back when it came out in the fall of 1992.  I bought it at the Record Runner, a legendary record store on Rideau Street in Ottawa, that closed in January 2006, after 31 years in business due to gentrification and condofication.  When I moved back to Vancouver the following spring, 1993, my best friend, Mike, had the album on CD.

We spent a lot of time driving around the Vancouver region that summer and fall, in his 1982 Mercury Lynx, which I had dubbed the Mikemobile. Mike had a Sony Discman, which he plugged into the cassette player of his car to listen to CDs.  It was incredibly moody and jumped when the car hit bumps.  Nonetheless, “Sweet Oblivion” was in constant rotation that year.  There is, however, a difference between the cassette and CD (and now, digital) versions of the album, however.  Track 6, “For Celebrations Past” was not on the cassette version.  I listened to the cassette version of the album a lot, but I’ve listened to the CD and digital versions of the album even more.  I’ve listened to this album hundreds of times, and I’d estimate at least 80% of those plays are either the CD or digital version.  And yet, every time I hear “For Celebrations Past,” it feels like a rude interlude into a classic album of my youth, even though I like this song, too.

I find it interesting that my initial memories of this album trump the memories of the version of the album I’ve heard many more times over the years.  I’m not sure what to make of this, really.  My memories of Ottawa in 1992-3 are not all that happy, though there was the diversion of Montreal and the Habs’ last Stanley Cup victory, but by the time Guy Carbonneau lifted Lord Stanley’s mug that spring, I was back in Vancouver.  So it is bizarre, I think that, my initial memories of the album trump the happier ones, back in Vancouver.  And yet, listening to the album, as I did last night, doesn’t transport me back the sub-Arctic cold of Ottawa anymore than it puts me back in the passenger seat of the Mikemobile.  Unlike a lot of the music of the early 90s, it’s not evocative of that time and place.  Maybe because I’ve continued to listen to the album in the years since.    Yet, for me, the proper version of the album lacks “For Celebrations Past” and goes straight from the organs and guitars of “Butterfly” into the vicious punk-inflected “The Secret Kind.”

Thoughts on Ferguson

November 25, 2014 § 10 Comments

emmett-till-funeral-photoThis is Emmett Till, who was murdered when he was 14 years old.  This is Emmett Till after he was abducted by a gang of men in rural Mississippi on the night of 28 August 1955.  These men, headed by local grocer Roy Bryant, pistol-whipped Till, beat him, gouged out his eye, and then shot him.  When Bryant, who was transporting Till’s body in his pick-up truck, was questioned as to what happened by an African American man, Bryant said that “this is what happens to smart niggers.”  This picture sickens me.  Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted on an open casket for his funeral so the world could see what happened to her little boy.

Last night, as I listened to the prosecutor in Ferguson, MO, and, then watched President Obama’s response, and watched the outrage on Twitter in response to the Michael Brown decision, I thought of Emmett Till.  Last night, I had the depressing thought that Emmett Till died for nothing.  I teach American history, and Till’s murder is usually regarded as a key moment in the birth of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Michael Brown is just one of many black men and boys to be killed in the United States by white men, oftentimes white police officers.  I couldn’t help think last night of Trayvon Martin, and of Tamir Rice, the 12-year old boy gunned down by a police officer for waving a toy gun at a playground.  But, the kinds of events that led to the deaths of Rice, Brown, and Martin aren’t all that new.  For example, Yusef Hawkins. Or Amadou Diallo.  I could go on.

Till was killed because he flirted with a white woman.  Martin was killed because a neighbourhood watch captain thought him suspicious.  Rice was killed because he was playing with a fake gun.  Hawkins was killed because he was black in a white neighbourhood.  Diallo was killed because he looked like a suspect in violent rapes.  Brown was killed, well, I’m not entirely sure why.  Because in August, the police claimed that the officer who shot him didn’t know he was a suspect in a convenience store robbery, though last night, the DA said that that’s why Brown was stopped.

So the right has come to the conclusion that Brown was a criminal and got what he deserved.  My Twitter timeline last night had the occasional tweet or re-tweet to this effect.  And news coverage I’ve read this morning follows that up.  I say whether or not Brown rolled a convenience store is immaterial to his murder.  The officer fired twelve shots at Brown.  Six of those hit him.  Two of this hit him in the head.  The issue here is that a white police officer thought it necessary to fire twelve shots at an unarmed man.  Fox News in the summer wondered whether Brown was, in fact, unarmed, given his physical size.


Perhaps, like last time I posted on race, I will get trolled by the racists.  This time, I will not post racist comments in response to this article (I control what comments get posted, and, until last time, I generally allowed free speech here), but I will take them, and create a new blog post of racist, idiotic comments.  And should I receive threats in response to this post, I will report them to the authorities.  Consider that your fair warning.



November 17, 2014 § 6 Comments

A couple of week ago, I published this piece on the new racist discourse in the United States, thinking that this was pretty bloody obvious to anyone paying attention.  I was surprised at the response.  The post went viral, it’s been re-blogged a bunch of times, tweeted and re-tweeted, and got a lot of readers.  I was also inundated by comments on the post, to the point where I had to close comments on it.  I closed comments largely because I got a couple of threats in response to the post, I should note (nothing serious).  This soured me to some degree, that people would take time out of their days to threaten me over what I wrote.  Some of the comments that I did allow to be posted were bad enough, but there were a good 15 or so I did not post that were largely incoherent rants about Muslims, African Americans, and women, and how they are collectively ruining the world.  But, it’s easy enough to dismiss wingnuts.

But what I suppose I overlooked in this storm of negativity is the positivity that came out of the post, and all the people who left positive comments on the post itself, as well as those who took time to send me a note of gratitude or agreement, all the people who re-blogged it, tweeted it, shared it on their own Facebook feeds.  And, after having some time to reflect on all of this, all I can say is: thank you.

On the New Racist Discourse in America

November 4, 2014 § 78 Comments

[Note: Comments have become out of control on this blog post, including some downright racist terminology that I have not allowed to be posted, as well as a few that include veiled, and occasionally direct, threats against me.]

So Ben Stein thinks that Obama is the most racist president in the history of this great republic.  He thinks so because allegedly Obama “is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans,” and is using the ‘race card’ to convince all African Americans to vote for the Democratic Party.  Ben Stein is wrong.

Obama is not the racist one, but Stein is tapping into a new discourse of racist ideology arising from the right in this country.  In this discourse, anyone who mentions race as an issue in contemporary American life risks being called a racist.  Anyone who points out racial inequality is at risk of being branded racist.  In the mindset of those who trumpet this new discourse, we’re all equal, no matter our ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or racial background.  And any attempt to point out inequality is therefore racist/sexist/homophobic, etc, by definition.

But what this discursive technique does is to deny the experiences of women and minorities in our society.  It says to those who have experiences different than white men that their experiences are invalid.  In short, this new racist discourse is meant to work as shorthand for racist viewpoints.  Thus, by claiming Obama is racist, Stein is both diverting attention from his own racism, and engaging in that very racism he blames on Obama.

More often than not, this discursive technique comes hand-in-hand with declarations of what is in the best interests of African Americans.  And in this sense, we return to the paternal racism of slave owners in the pre-Civil War era.  I’m not saying that Ben Stein = slave plantation owner.  I’m saying the tricks of technique here are very similar.  Last spring, we saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops up in Vermont.  Towards the end of the show, Rhiannon Giddens, the frontwoman of the band, told us of her own explorations of American history, and a book she read on slave narratives in the post-Civil War era.  One story in particular struck her, and she wrote the song “Julie” about it.

In the story, the mistress of the plantation is shocked at the fact that Julie, the former slave woman would have a will of her own.  She thought that she knew best for Julie, as did slave owners in general in a paternalist racist system.

And every time a white man or woman purports to know what’s best for African Americans, or any other minority, they’re engaging in this kind of paternalistic racism, which appears to be part and parcel of this new racist discourse from certain sectors of the political right in the United States.

UPDATE: The Griffintown Horse Palace

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has met and exceeded its goal, and with three days to spare!  As of right now, the Indiegogo page has raised $49,335!  The goal was $45,000.

The Foundation is also hosting a fundraising soirée at the Horse Palace, 1226, rue Ottawa, in Griffintown, on Thursday night, 2 October, from 5pm.  Tickets are $75, and can be purchased here.  More details on the soirée can be found on the Foundation’s Facebook page here.

A huge thank you to all who have contributed.  Even though I am no longer involved with the Foundation, I strongly believe in its mission and want to see Leo’s Horse Palace saved!

Save the Griffintown Horse Palace

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I lived in Montreal, I was a member of the Board of the Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation, an organisation which has been trying to save and preserve Leo Leonard’s Horse Palace on Ottawa street in Griffintown.  The Horse Palace dates back to 1862, it is older than Canada itself, and is one of the last remaining horse stables in the city.  It is currently owned by a developer who is sympathetic to the Foundation’s cause, but the money must still be raised to purchase the property to permanently protect it.  The Ville de Montréal did its part last year when it bought the land that had been used as a paddock for the Horse Palace and turned it into a park.

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2013. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2013. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

The buildings, however, do not have a proper foundation and are in danger.  So, the Foundation is attempting to raise the money to rebuild the foundation, and have started an Indiegogo page to help.  We are eight days out from the deadline, and so far, 75% of the $45,000 CDN has been raised.

Young Street, Griffintown, redevelopment.  Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell, 2014

Wellington Street, Griffintown, redevelopment. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell, 2014

The Horse Palace and its preservation are central to Griff, especially in light of the onslaught of development there.  A walk through Griffintown today is bewildering for anyone who has known it.  Towering, uncreative condo buildings abound, and the formerly human landscape of the neighbourhood, with narrow streets and two- and three -storey buildings is being obliterated with formless condos.  The Horse Palace is almost literally the last remnant of a Griffintown that once was, and an Irish Griffintown.

Please consider donating some, every little bit helps.

Memory and the Music of U2

September 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

[We now return to regular programming here, after a busy summer spent finishing a book manuscript]

So U2 have a new album out, they kind of snuck up on us and dropped “Songs of Innocence” into our inboxes without us paying much attention. Responses to the new album have ranged from ecstatic to boredom, but I’ve been particularly interested in how the album got distributed: Apple paid U2 some king’s ransom to give it to us for free. Pitchfork says that we were subjected to the album without consent, a lame attempt to appropriate the words of the ant-rape movement to an album.

As for me, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of “Songs of Innocence.” I think it’ll ultimately be disposable for me, though it’s certainly better than their output last decade, but not as good as the surprising “No Line on the Horizon” which, obviously was not up to the standard of their heyday in the 80s and 90s. And I’m not sure about Bono’s Vox as he ages, it’s starting to sound too high pitched and thin for my tastes, whereas it used to be so warm and rich.

u2_unforgettable_fire_castle_Moydrum_CastleAnyway. iTunes is now offering U2’s back catalogue on the cheap.  I lost most of my U2 cd’s in a basement flood a few years ago, so I took a look.  But looking at the album covers, I was struck by the flood of memories that came to me.  For a long time, U2 were one of my favourite bands, and “The Joshua Tree” has long been in the Top 3 of my Top 5.  But, just how deeply U2’s music is embedded in my memories was surprising.  For example, looking at the cover of “The Unforgettable Fire,” I am immediately transported back in time, to two places.  First, I’m 11 or 12, in suburban Vancouver, listening to “Pride (In the Name Of Love)” for the first time, on C-FOX, 99.3 in Vancouver.  Secondly, I’m on a train to Montreal, from Ottawa, in the fall of 1991, listening to “A Sort of Homecoming” as I head back to my hometown for the first time in a long time.

Zooropa_albumThe cover of “Zooropa” takes me back to the summer of 1993, riding around Vancouver in the MikeMobile, the ubiquitous automobile of my best friend, Mike.  That summer, “Zooropa” alternated with the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Twins” in the cd player, which was a discman plugged into the tape deck of the 1982 Mercury Lynx.  US and the Pumpkins were occasionally swapped out for everything from Soundgarden and Fugazi to the Doughboys and Mazzy Star, but those two albums were the core.

U2_Boy_America“Boy” takes me back to being a teenager, too, my younger sister, Valerie, was also a big U2 fan back in the day, and she really liked this album, so we’re listening to it on her pink cassette player (why we’re not next door, in my room, listening on my much more powerful stereo, I don’t kn0w).  She went on to become obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys’ horrid, evil, and wrong cover of “Where the Streets Have No Name” (and the PSB were generally so brilliant!), to the point where she once played the song 56 times in a row on her pink cassette player, playing, rewinding, and playing the cassette single over and over.

Obviously the soundtrack of our lives (or The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, a brilliant Swedish rock band last decade) is deeply embedded in our memories, much the same way that scents can transport us back in place and time.  But I was more than a little surprised how deep U2 is in my mind, how just seeing an album cover can take me back in time across decades, and in place, across thousands upon thousands of kilometres.

On Immigration, Redux

June 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

In response to my post on immigration and immigrants, my friends and I got into a discussion on Facebook, comparing the political rhetoric in the US, Canada, and the UK.  Certainly, attitudes such as that expressed by my Dallas friend exist in Canada and the UK.  And there are similarities and differences between the old Anglo-Atlantic triangle.  Canada takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation in the world (bet you didn’t know that) and the United States takes in more immigrants in absolute numbers than any other nation in the world (bet you did know that).  Canada, however, while it does have some undocumented immigrants, does not have the same issues as the United States (which likely has the highest number of undocumented people in it) and the United Kingdom.  The UK gets the undocumented through Europe and its former empire, as aspirants sneak into the nation, or overstay their visas (if you want a heartbreaking account of the undocumented in the UK, I point you to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, or, as it’s called in Cleave’s native UK, The Other Hand).

But. There is one fundamental difference between the three nations.  In Canada and the United Kingdom, the political parties that pander to racism and anti-immigration positions (and let’s leave the undocumented out of this for now, ok?) are not in the mainstream.  Certainly, these types exist in Canada’s governing Conservative Party, but they are not in the centre of the party, at the cabinet table, etc.  And in the UK, there are certainly a few in the governing Conservative Party that express these views, but they are also similarly on the margins, and the odious UKIP party is a fringe movement.  Whereas, here in the United States, the Republican Party panders to this mindset.  It doesn’t mean, of course, that the GOP does much about to tighten immigration laws when in power, but, it still gives credence to arguments such as my Dallas friend’s.  It seeks the vote of the likes of him.  So, ultimately, anti-immigration positions are very much nearer the mainstream in the United States than in Canada or the United Kingdom.

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