May 11, 2017 § 18 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
May 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
I teach a lot of US History. And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists. To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.
They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens. How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets? How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?
And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal. And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans. They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.
FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government. Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens. Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies. But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.
That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69. In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses. The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.
Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents. A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown. The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.
But it is under attack now. One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls. Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal. This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.
But they are right. Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans. And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it. And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America. It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.
March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now. My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall). And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod. Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.
This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone. We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.
I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time. But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these. It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good. I had my dog, Boo, with me. He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw. So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection. He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed. Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross. He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.
March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments
Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states. In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed. This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War. It fascinates me on both levels.
Factually, there is not much in this that is true. And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong. The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world. I don’t know who did it.
Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865. Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union. Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812. There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.
But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing. And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me. It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.
Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North. And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this. On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North. Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy. And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.
Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession. It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy. It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim. In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery. Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).
And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. But there is also a question of history. When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement. Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together. His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.
But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution. Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars. Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system. Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.
But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution. In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.
However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II). However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917). But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln. Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power. Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war. He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion. And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session. Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era. In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases.
Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:
On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.
Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all. In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.
As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act. Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country. Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.
Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war. I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.
As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely. Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property. They did rape Southern women. But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war. There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war And the war was fought in Southern territories. Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.
Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner. And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South). Lincoln was the enemy, obviously. And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).
In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War. Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post). Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).
And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy. I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864. She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source. Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war. And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter. They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership. But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves. As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter. Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia. In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership. But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.
It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich. Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising. So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men. And celebrating their ancestors. But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history. And the wrong side of the Civil War.
And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War. Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim. Or others. The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War. First, the slavery issue. Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners. And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature. He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries. The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones. They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’ And you can see the logic here. Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction. And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.
I use fiction a fair lot when teaching. I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction. This is true both in the case of literature and film. So how is literature history, you ask?
Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written. This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction. The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times. It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past. Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry. What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us. It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.
So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past. Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.
And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not. Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader. And this is the point of using literature as an historical text. Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.
And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.