Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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On the Radio: Boston College’s Belfast Project

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

radio_mainTomorrow, Thursday 29 May,  I’ll be appearing on CKUT, McGill University Campus Radio’s programme on Oral History, O Stories.  The show will be hosted by my old friend, Elena Razlagova, a professor of Public History at Concordia University.  I will be talking about Boston College’s Belfast Project, and the fallout therefrom.  So tune in around 2pm tomorrow, I’ll be on around 2.30.  You can tune in the old fashioned way, on your radio at 90.3 fm, or on CKUT’s website.

On Being Called a “Frog”

May 23, 2014 § 27 Comments

I got called a ‘frog’ today.  Every time this happens, it stuns me.  Like stops me in my tracks stuns me.  It’s happened a handful of times in my life, a few times in Ontario and British Columbia and now twice in Massachusetts.  The last time it happened was at the bar of a restaurant in a small town in Western Massachusetts.  I was having an amiable conversation with a guy about hockey.  He was a New York Rangers’ fan and I, of course, cheer for the Habs.  When I told him I was from Montreal, he said, “Oh, I guess that makes you a frog.”  I don’t think he really understood what the word meant.  But it was a conversation stopper, I visibly recoiled from him.

I have asked most of my French Canadian friends about this.  They, of course, have been called ‘frog’ many times in their lives, in Canada, the US, and Britain.  None of my friends is particularly fond of this particular epithet, of course, but most of them are also rather sanguine about it.  Perhaps due to being called a ‘frog’ repeatedly, according to one friend.  One of my tweeps is married to a French guy, as in from France, and she calls him ‘the Frog.’  Clearly, for most people who actually are French or French Canadian, the term isn’t a big deal.  Me, on the other hand, it is a big deal for me.  Maybe because I’m an Anglo.

The term ‘frog’ was actually first applied to the Dutch by the British, who saw the Dutch as marsh-dwellers.  Get it? Frogs live in marshes, too.  But then, in the mid-18th century, the French became the main enemies of the British, so the term got applied to the French due to their propensity towards eating frogs’ legs.  Eventually, the term ended up getting applied to French Canadians, just, I suppose, due to Anglo laziness.  Then again, Anglo Canadians have come up with other names for French Canadians, such as ‘pea soupers’ and ‘Pepsis,’ due to their alleged fondness for pea soup and Pepsi.  One Anglo Montrealer once told me that the Pepsi epithet also worked because French Canadians were said to be ’empty from the neck up.’  And French-speaking Quebecers also have a whole long string of nasty names for Anglos, including my favourite, tête-carré.

But.  I’m not French Canadian.  I’m an Anglo from Quebec.  So when I get called a ‘frog’, it stuns me.  Today I was called a ‘frog’ because I was wearing my Montreal Canadiens ball cap around.  I’m used to the abuse the hat brings me in and around Boston.  I welcome most of it, especially since the Canadiens knocked out the Bruins in the last round of the playoffs.  But usually it doesn’t go beyond “Habs suck” and variations thereof.  I don’t get told to go back to Canada (though I was once told to “Get out of my country” by a guy in Vancouver once), I don’t get called names or anything like that and 98% of the banter is friendly.  Since the Canadiens knocked out the Bruins, most people have even been respectful.

What makes today’s name-calling all the more puzzling is that I’m wearing a t-shirt that makes fun of Irish stereotypes and I have a huge Celtic cross tattooed on my right calf.  So clearly I’m not French Canadian.  And when this guy called me ‘frog’ and dissed the Habs, I actually stopped cold in my tracks.  I was stunned.  I just looked at him, he seemed to realise he’d gone too far and scooted off.

But I do find it interesting how much I detest the term.  And how much it offends me.  Any thoughts on the matter are welcome.

Alienation and Belonging

March 28, 2014 § 2 Comments

An old friend visited us this weekend, and as he and I drove up the Massachusetts coast to hunt down the best pizza in the Commonwealth (Riverview in Ipswich, if you’re wondering), we got to talking about New England.  Despite having lived in New England, he always feels like he could never penetrate the insularity of New England culture, and he always feels alienated here.  I found that interesting, given I don’t feel that way at all, despite obviously being a transplant.

This might be the advantage of being an Anglo from Montréal. Anglo Montrealers are always at least slightly alienated from the city and dominant culture.  We are a (small) minority, and we speak a minority language.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

I’ve always felt alienated from my surroundings. I grew up in British Columbia, very aware of the fact I didn’t belong, which came out in everything from my distaste of the wet, soggy climate to continuing to cheer for the Montréal Canadiens, Expos, and, when they existed, the Concorde or Alouettes of the CFL, as opposed to my friends who cheered for the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and either the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners.  I felt similarly alienated in Ottawa.  It was only when I moved back to Montréal I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings.  But I still felt alienated from the larger culture, mostly due to language, even as my French language skills improved.

But, as with all things Montréal, it was never this simple.  My Anglo friends and family dismissed any suggestion I might be a Montrealer, by continually reminding me I grew up out west.  On the other hand, my francophone and allophone friends made no such distinction, and this is also true of my separatist friends.  Go figure.  Anglo mythology would have it the other way round.  One of the most amazing moments of my life in Montréal came during the 2000 federal election campaign when I answered a knock on my door and found Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc québécois, with Amir Khadir, who was the BQ’s candidate in my riding (Khadir has since gone on to be the co-leader of the sovereigntist provincial party, Québec solidaire, and is currently the MNA for the Montréal riding of Mercier).  Duceppe, Khadir, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes talking about place, identity, and belonging in Québec.  Largely in English.  Even the leader of a separatist party and the candidate for my riding didn’t dispute my bona fides as a Montrealer and a Quebecer (maybe, in part, because I assured them the BQ had my vote).

Since 2006, I have spent a lot of time in New England, before moving here in 2012, on account of my wife being American.  She lived in Western Massachusetts when we met, so we did our best to split our time between Montréal and Western Mass.  After all those years spending time out there, I came to feel like it was Home.  Sure, I was never going to fully fit in, be a part of the scenery, but that was ok by me.  And, even now, living at the other end of the Commonwealth, in the massive urban sprawl that is Boston, I feel similarly at home.  The ways I feel alienated here are mostly due being Canadian.  But I don’t find myself feeling excluded by New Englanders, or, really, Americans as a whole. In other words, I can deal with my alienation, it has kind of become my default way of being.

No doubt this is due to being an Anglo Montrealer and experiencing some degree of discomfort and alienation my entire life in my hometown and anywhere else I lived in Canada, tainted as I was, so to speak, by being from Montréal.

Dear Boston: Reflecting on the Marathon Memorial at the Boston Public Library

March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Back in July, when the insta-memorial for the Boston Bombing of 15 April 2013 was taken down, I wrote this piece at the National Council of Public History’s history@work blog.  In it, I expressed my cynicism of what happens to the items of the memorial when they are removed from the site and put in storage, or even brought out again for a more permanent exhibition.  I also argued in favour of insta-memorials such as this, seeing some value in our hyper-mediated lives, watching the world through the screens of our iPhones.  What resulted, from the piece on history@work, as a notification here on this site, as well as Rainy Tisdale’s blog, was a rather robust discussion, especially between myself and Rainy, a Boston-based independent curator about authenticity and memorials.

IMG_1530To sum up the discussion, we debated whether or not Boston needed an exhibition on the first anniversary of the attack.  I argued that the running of the 118th Boston Marathon, as well as the traditional Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, would serve as a chance for Bostonians to reclaim Boylston Street and Copley Square one year later.  Rainy, on the other hand, argued that an exhibition was necessary in order to prevent the kind of frenzy that began to emerge surrounding the #BostonStrong rallying cry when the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring (and lost. I hate the Bruins).

IMG_1528In the time since, I have come around more to Rainy’s argument than my own, though I still worry about questions of authenticity and memorial mediation on the part of the curatorial hand (though, of course, that spontaneous memorial, first on Boylston Street and then at Copley Square was also curated, in part).  Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to Rainy’s exhibit at the main branch of the Boston Public Library on Copley Square.  Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial opens on 7 April, and will run to 11 May.  It is a tri-partite exhibit: the first part will encompass the immediate responses to the bombing, the second will be people’s reflections on the bombs, and the final part will be the hopeful part, messages of hope and healing.

IMG_1529I appreciate the exhibit’s title perhaps more than anything at this point, as it makes direct references to the curatorial hand at work here, as the exhibit will deliver messages from the memorial.  In July last year, I worried about the loss of meaning of the individual artefacts when they were boxed up and stored in the Boston Archives.  A running shoe had a very poignant and powerful meaning when displayed at the memorial, and in a box in the archives, it’s a running shoe.  Restored to the public eye, however, attached with a symbolic meaning that no one in Boston, or anyone visiting the exhibit, will miss, the shoe regains its poignancy.

What struck me in my discussion with Rainy last summer was how she intended to approach the exhibit, and her sensitivity to the very issues that concerned me.  I am very much looking forward to what she comes up with.

The Upside to Gentrification?

January 22, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification.  Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one.  In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming.  Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence.  But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.

Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others.  In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open.  There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down.  However, it is also obvious that people stay.  In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing.  And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.

Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish.  Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.

What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie.  And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones.  However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons.  The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.”  The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.

At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us.  We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.

 

Shameless

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year.  The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago.  It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan.  The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy.  Frank is a drunk asshole.  There’s no other way to put it.  His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left.  The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona.  There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained).  Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids.  The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank.  Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.

I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father.  But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America.  It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston.  The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side.  Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers.  I find myself torn every time I watch it.

On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun.  No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs.  But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing.  There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.

When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor.  And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed.  To a degree.  It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on.  Scams tended to be smaller scale.  Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain.  Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white.  It was complicated.

And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show.  Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes.  But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated.  Their lives aren’t all of one or the other.  They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes.  Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house.  In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.).  In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours.  They are, essentially, fully human.

Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes.  Poor people are lazy.  Poor people are scammers.  Poor people are dishonest.  Poor people are victims.  Poor people need help.  And so on and so on.  In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more.  In fact, the poor are just like you and me.  And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.

And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in.  MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie.  He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype.  In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.

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