July 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
In this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a provocative essay from Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Entitled, ‘The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom,’ Allison provides a much needed corrective to the history of American foreign policy since the Second World War.
Allison argues, correctly, that American foreign policy was never about maintaining a liberal world order. Rather, she argues, the world as we know it globally arose out of the Cold War, a bipolar world where the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies in a battle of the hearts and minds of the global populace. In essence, the two core belligerent nations cancelled each other out in terms of nuclear arms, so they were left to forge and uneasy co-existence. And then, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and, the US was victorious in the Cold War. And, of course, Francis Fukuyama made his now infamous, laughable, and ridiculous claim:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
How Fukuyama has any credibility after this colossal statement of Western hubris is beyond me.
Anyway, Allison notes that aftermath of this particular moment in time was that the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made common cause and managed to convince both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that the best way to spread the gospel of capitalism and liberal democracy was by dropping bombs. Only during the Bush II era did the idea of liberal democracy get tied up with American foreign policy, and here Allison quotes former National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State), Condoleeza Rice, speaking of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the Greater Middle East.’
Thus, we had a unipolar world, and now, with the resurgence of a belligerent Russia and a growing China, we are in a multi-polar world. And then she goes onto note larger American problems centring around democracy at home.
But what struck me about her argument was where she lays out her argument about the bipolar Cold War world, she notes that ‘the United States and its allies had just fought against Nazi Germany.’ but that the burgeoning Cold War with the USSR required new tactics.
The United States and its allies. There are several ways that this is problematic. The first is that the main Allied powers of the Second World War were the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. I don’t count France here in that it fell in 1940 and whilst Free French troops and the French Résistance were central to the Allied cause, they were not represented by a government in Paris. But those Big 3 of the US, UK, and the USSR were worth the equal billing. The UK held on and maintained a free Europe from the 1940 until the Americans got going on the Western front in 1942. And British troops (to say nothing of the Empire and Commonwealth) were central to the ultimate victory.
And then there’s the USSR. The Soviets were absolutely and essentially central to the Allied cause in World War II. It was the Soviets that took the brunt of Hitler’s fury on the Eastern front and absorbed the invading Nazi forces before expelling them, absorbing essential German attention as the US and UK dithered about opening a Western front, something that didn’t happen until 1944. And then the USSR, all by itself, defeated the Nazis on the Eastern front and ‘liberated’ the Eastern European nations before closing in on Germany and Berlin itself.
In the US, Americans like to pronounce themselves as ‘Back To Back World War Champs,’ as the t-shirt says. This is bunk. The USSR did more to win World War II in Europe than any other nation, including the United States.
Allison’s argument is made even more peculiar given that she is talking about the outbreak of the Cold War here. She makes no mention of the fact that the United States’ allies in the Second World War included the Soviet Union. Hell, Time magazine even called Josef Stalin its 1943 Man of the Year. That part of the story is essential to understanding the outbreak of the Cold War, the hostility that was festering between the USSR on one side and the US and UK on the other was an important and central story to the last years of World War II.
Thus, better argued, Allison could’ve, and should’ve, argued that in the immediate post-World War II era, c. 1947-48, that the United States was fatigued from World War II, where the Allies, of which it was one, along with the Soviet Union, defeated German Nazism. To write it differently is to elide an important part of history and the Second World War. And frankly, Allison should know better.
July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments
Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal. ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters. Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band. A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.
There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are. But I was in Montreal. But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.
I never did. He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation. I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago. It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer. It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him. We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way. I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.
Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America. Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers. It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion. It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs. I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.
Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid. I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so. But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city. My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped. Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens. Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul. I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that. And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era. Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.
And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years. In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:
The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?
In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward. As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently. This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times. Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home. Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’ And so we never do really fully leave.
July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.
In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump. In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires. Her argument is compelling and well argued.
But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground. She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him. She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that. So far, so good. She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country. Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.
She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing. I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists). But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality. The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality. And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s. In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence. As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).
Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today. Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live). But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time. I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected. My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too. The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too. And so on.
Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor. But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either. In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines. The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier. There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened. The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival. In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder. And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally. But they also intermarried and socialized together. But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.
But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels. In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it. That’s not how it works. And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness. Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.
In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new. Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too. And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course). But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.
So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here. Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.
July 20, 2018 § 4 Comments
News has erupted in the United Kingdom that Scotland Yard has been using children as spies for criminal cases. Not surprisingly, most British are sickened and appalled by this, as are the usual array of human rights groups. There can be no defence of this. None. This is one of the most morally repugnant things I have ever come across in my life.
The children are pulled from a database about gang members, apparently. And certainly, some have already decided that they’re criminals and therefore forfeit their civil rights. It’s not that simple. First, they’re children. Second, being in this database is not necessarily an indication of criminality. Third, even if they are, that is not an excuse to curtail someone’s civil rights. To do so is inhumane. It says that someone is less of a human due to past behaviour.
The House of Lords committee that revealed the existence of this programme is sickened. Even David Davis, one of the most self-serving British politicians of our era (he resigned from PM Theresa May’s cabinet a couple of weeks ago) is appalled. I wonder what Boris Johnson thinks?
And yet, here is May’s spokesperson defending this practice:
Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and they’re only used when it is very necessary and proportionate, for example helping to prevent gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. The use is governed by a very strict legal framework.
In other words, we don’t care about the rights of children, we think they are there to serve the needs of the police, and if you’ve got a problem with this, it is frankly because you are a bleeding heart. This is disgusting. And immoral.
And this is moral relativism at the root. Doing something immoral, disgusting, and wrong can be explained away as just another policy in the Met’s crime-fighting tool kit. We have reached the point where in one of the wealthiest, most powerful Western democracies in the world, exploiting children is seen as an acceptable practice by a circle of the government and the police.
June 14, 2018 § 1 Comment
At 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.
June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario. Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say. The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid. Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message. The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.
It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country. And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America. And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.
Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments. But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have. Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole. The reasons for this are for another post.
The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.
But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past. It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada. Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn. But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.
Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995. In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990. Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light. Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution. Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics. This went about as well as you’d imagine.
Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce. He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders. Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.
Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario. The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000. There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system. Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died. Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.
And then there was Kimberly Rogers. Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud. Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school. This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year. Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest. And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000. She was also pregnant at the time. Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree. The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity. She committed suicide in August 2001.
An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications. Rogers had the first, but not the other two. And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went. And this was due to Harris’ reforms. Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.
Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices. The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city. Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.
But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter. Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone. He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto. During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic). And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Lastman told a reporter:
What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.
Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother. Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism. He wasn’t qualified for the job. But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning. The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse. He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine. He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him. And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members. Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.
So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as. He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.
March 30, 2018 § 1 Comment
Rusty Staub died yesterday. ‘Le Grand Orange’ was the first franchise icon for the Montreal Expos. The Expos, in hindsight, were a star-crossed franchise from the getgo. Staub arrived in Montreal in the winter of 1969, just before the Expos inaugural season. He was dealt away in 1972, to the New York Mets. Social media today in the United States remembers Staub as a long-time Met. In Canada, he is an Expo.
Staub was before my time, he was traded away before I was born. But I grew up knowing the story of Le Grand Orange, the greatest player in franchise history when I was a kid. He did return to the ‘Spos, as we called them, in 1979, though he left again in 1980 for Texas. His #10 was the first number retired by the Expos.
His death got me to thinking about the sad history of my first baseball team. The Expos lasted from 1969-2004, before moving to Washington. They weren’t a great team, to be honest. They had their ups, but had more downs, and they left town with an historic losing record. They won the NL East once, during the 1981 strike season, but then they lost a playoff to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rick Monday hit the homer that crushed my childhood dreams of a World Series for the ‘Spos. That day is still called Blue Monday in Montreal.
The Expos were a decent team in the early 1980s. But they peaked in the mid-90s. In 1992 and 1993, the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series. In 1994, the Montreal Expos were the best team in baseball, with a 74-40 record on 12 August 1994, when the players went on strike, and were well ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. The Expos were the favourites for the 1994 World Series. Alas, it was not to be. The 1994 players’ strike was disastrous for Nos Amours, as the Expos were called in French. And over the next 10 years, they died a slow and painful death due to a horrible stadium, worse ownership and MLB.
In thinking about Staub yesterday and today, I realized that the Expos do not even own their own franchise icons. All of the icons of the Montreal Expos are famous for, or even more famous for, their play in other cities. Like Staub, Gary ‘The Kid’ Carter went to the Mets, where he also won a World Series. André ‘The Hawk’ Dawson (my childhood favourite player) went onto Chicago, which had a grass field, easier on the Hawk’s knees. Tim Raines went on to play for a handful of teams, winning two World Series with the Yankees. Pedro Martinez, perhaps the Expos’ greatest pitcher, is more famous for his exploits in ending the Boston Red Sox’ long World Series drought. Larry Walker, Canada’s first superstar, became a batting champion in Denver. And the Expos’ last great player, Vladimir Guerrero, is more famous for playing for the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels.
It’s a depressing tale. Of these greats, all but Walker and Staub are in the Hall of Fame. The only consolation is that Carter, Raines, and Dawson went in wearing their Expos caps.