Bad Fashion and the Importance of History

September 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

kent-state-shirt-625Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversy, having a long history of doing stupid things the-young-hipster-shopping-mecca-urban-outfitters-offends-parents-yet-again-with-t-shirts-that-seemand offering up offensive products to tasteless and tactless hipsters.  A sample of the company’s idiocy sees anti-Semitic t-shirts and accessories, racist board games, and the like.  But this week, we got an offensive sweatshirt.  Urban Outfitters began selling a “vintage” Kent State University sweatshirt (at $120, a price only a clueless hipster would spend) that looked like it was spattered with blood, complete with what looked like bullet holes.  This, of course, recalled the 1970 Kent State shootings, when four students were killed and nineteen injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed protesters.  Almost immediately, the company was besieged with howls of protest, calling this move insensitive, at best (do a Twitter search for some more colourful responses).  It then responded with a typical corporate nothing-speak empty apology:

If you click on the link in that tweet, you can read the end of this empty apology, which talks about sun-faded vintage clothing and discolourisation and “how saddened” the company was by public perception.  Given the company’s history of provocation and offensive behaviour, I see nothing sincere here.

ikyo9YeJkiIQIt’s been a bad stretch for clothing makers, last month, Spanish clothing retail giant Zara tried selling a children’s pyjama that recalled the uniform Jewish prisoners were forced to wear in concentration and death camps during the Holocaust.  Faced with a similar storm of protest on Twitter and elsewhere, Zara withdrew the item and issued a similarly empty corporate apology. In its version of the gormless apology, Zara said this pyjama shirt was meant to recall the star sheriffs wore in the American West. Sure.  Right.

I won’t even get into the downright daftness of hipsters wearing aboriginal headdresses.  That’s an entire dissertation on stupidity, cultural appropriation, and a how-to guide on offensiveness. (There is, however, a Tumblr devoted to mocking hipsters in headdresses).
But all of this idiocy reinforces the importance of history and the impact a little bit of historical knowledge can have on the world.  Someone in my Facebook feed today suggested that fashion companies simply hire someone to be an historian-minded vettter, to ensure plain, outright stupidity like this doesn’t happen.  But the very fact that these two items of clothing actually got to market displays an epic failure of corporate oversight.  In order for something to get from design to retail to production means that both items went through many checks, were seen by many eyes.  And no one thought, “Hey, this is a bad idea.”  Or, no one cared.  Certainly, one can come to that conclusion vis-à-vis Urban Outfitters, given the serial nature of its offensiveness and lack of good corporate citizenship.

The Long View vs. The Immediate View in History

September 13, 2013 § 7 Comments

When I was doing my PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, I TA’d for one of my favourite profs there, Norman Ingram.  Norman is a French historian and in the Western Civ class I TA’d for him, he had what I still consider to be a brilliant assignment.  He had the students read and compare two books written about the Fall of France in June 1940 during the Second World War.  The first book was by eminent French historian, and member of the résistance (and Jew, which is how Bloch ended up being tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944, as the Allies were swiftly re-conquering France), Marc Bloch, the founder of the Annales School.  The second book was written in 1996 by an historian at the University of Winnipeg, Robert Young.

Strange Defeat was written by Bloch, a captain in the French Army, in the summer of 1940, immediately following the Fall of France.  It is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War was, obviously, written some 50+ years after the fact, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, other historical views, as well as archival sources.  It is dispassionate, though eminently readable.

The students were then asked to compare and contrast the two books, the immediate view versus the long view.

I think of Norman’s assignment often, both in my own teaching career, as a public historian, and, quite often, on Twitter.  When I worked for a now-defunct web magazine based in London, any time we published anything to do with the Bosnian Genocide, without fail, we would get attacked almost immediately by people arguing that there was no genocide, that the suggestion there was a genocide is just Western imperialism and further proof of a conspiracy against Serbia and the Serbian people.  It was almost like clockwork.

So, yesterday, when I posted this piece commenting on a New Yorker profile of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, I expected more of the same.  As you can see from the comments, my expectations were met.  I also got something a bit different, however. I was indeed assailed on Twitter, by a woman who says she’s from Bosnia, who seemed to be arguing that there was no genocide in Bosnia at all, and that she should know, because she was there.  Upon further argument, she was saying something slightly different, that there was a lot of killing going on in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 90s, involving Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians as both aggressors and victims.  That was certainly true.

However, it is indisputable that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide.  It is indisputable that the VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army, committed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as a whole in the 1992-95 period.  This has been established by countless experts in the field, it has been confirmed by the ICTY in The Hague.

As the argument carried on, I began to think back to Norman’s assignment, and to think about the difference between the immediate view of the spectator and the big picture view of the analyst.  I’m not convinced that it wasn’t clear that the VRS was engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide.  But I am convinced that whatever side of the ethnic divide one was on in Bosnia/Herzogovina in the period from 1992-95, it was something close to hell.  And so I am back pondering the difference in what we see based on where we’re standing (there is, of course, also the fact that metric tonnes of ink have been spilled in the past twenty years by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians about the events).  I reject the view that there was no genocide, but I do find myself wondering about what someone who was Bosnian Serb would have seen on the ground in that era.

When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, I talked to this guy, Dragan, a refugee from Sarajevo, at the local café.  He wouldn’t say what side of the divide he was from, just that he was Yugoslavia.  He was deeply traumatised by the war and genocide.  Vancouver had an international fireworks competition in those days, and we lived in the West End, where the fireworks were.  On those nights, if Dragan was at the café, he’d flinch, noticeably, with every loud noise from the fireworks.  I don’t know what he did in Sarajevo before he escaped in 1995, and I didn’t want to ask.  I don’t know if he was a perpetrator, a victim, or both.  But I often think of how he described the outbreak of war in his cosmopolitan Yugoslav city in 1992.  He said that, quite literally, neighbours of twenty or thirty years turned on each other, that families collapsed in spasms of violence if there was inter-ethnic mixing.  And, as Dragan noted, that was very common in a city like Sarajevo.  The entire world, he said, fell down, everything that had held up his universe collapsed.  He knew very bad things happened in his homeland.  I kind of suspected he might have played a role in his steadfast refusal to say anything, and the cold, steely glare that passed over his eyes when the subject came up, which was often, given he talked about home a lot.

And so, as I was arguing with my interlocutor on Twitter yesterday, I thought about Dragan and I thought about Norman’s assignment.  I thought about the chaos of war and the view on the ground as opposed to the view from the sky, the micro vs. the macro, and I thought how much they could vary.  I don’t have any real answers here, other than the obvious, but I did find the discussion and all it brought up for me rather interesting.

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