On Black History Month

February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments

It is Black History Month.  Specialized history months exist for a reason.  They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history.  Take, for example, a typical US History survey course.  Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today.  In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress.  Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture.  Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.

But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men.  Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter.  Then they share centre-stage with the colonists.  Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion.  Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters.  Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.  As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery.  But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery.  Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves.  Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s.  And that’s it.  Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history.  Hence, Black History Month.

The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism.  The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively.  We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day.  Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history.  As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it.  Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy.  For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.

I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February).  The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents.  Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black.  He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.

Racism is very real.  And it is historic.  It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence.  It comes in more peaceable ways, too.  It is subtle, it is silent.  But it’s still very real.  Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States.  But this was inherited from the British.  The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit.  British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade.  In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee.  And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.

Why?  Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution.  I would suggest it was a failed revolution.  Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed.  And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners.  Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person.  The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War.  And today, we live in an era of  backlash against the Civl Rights Era.

All of this, though, is due to the weight of history.  On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later.  The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations.  Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society.  And this is not a uniquely American problem.  Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.

For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us.  And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month.  And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.

Niall Ferguson Almost Gets It Right

February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Niall Ferguson likes attention.  There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements.  Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown.  Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay.  Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument.  Ugh.  So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.

The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account.  Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914.  He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms.  He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage.  In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.

And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war.  It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918.  It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).

There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization.  At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war.  An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war.  The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture.  It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.

Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire.  This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.

As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not.  But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914.  From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies.  Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.

Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement.  There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war.  One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians.  The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route.  At least at this point.  I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.

Canada and the North American Triangle

January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

imagesTwice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans.  These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada.  Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil.  Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.

For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada.  They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people.  The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen.  Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation.  It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents.  I was dumbfounded.

I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians.  Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then.  I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer.  Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money?  And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now.  I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it.  The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc.  In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.

But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament.  He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government.  Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister.  This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected.  Full stop.  And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.

UnknownNow I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial.  I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal.  From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence.  I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament.  I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.

There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation.  And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation.  I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument.  It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries.  The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement.  Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation.  Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.

So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors.  I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy.  Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy.  It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy.  At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case.  In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada.  But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian.  Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends.  But it’s not that simple.  That is an American argument.  American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy.  And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.

To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda.  Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights.  That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling.  Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities.  In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities.  That is what democracy is.

And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is.  And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less.  The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics.  Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.  And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister.  Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.

And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico.  Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy.  The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own.  It WAS a British colony.  And today, it is by and large an American colony.  I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do.  And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.

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