November 28, 2016 § 2 Comments
Fidel Castro died this weekend. He was 90. Whatever you think of him, and I am largely ambivalent, he was a giant of the past half century. He was the dictator of a tiny, poor Caribbean nation with a population about that of New York City, and yet, he was a giant on the world stage. Even after the Soviet Empire collapsed and all that support for Fidel’s Castro dried up, he maintained power. Of course, his was a totalitarian state and, yes, dissent was dealt with harshly. And, yes, millions of refugees fled in dire circumstances for the United States.
But, what I take issue with is the New York Times declaring that Castro was “the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959.” Um. No. He did not bring the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere. It was already here. One of the two major belligerents of the Cold War, the United States, is located just north of Cuba. The CIA, meanwhile, was already running around Latin America by the time Fidel and his revolutionaries marched into Havana in January 1959, overthrowing the corrupt American puppet-dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
In 1948, the United States interfered in a civil war in Costa Rica in favour of José Figueres Ferrer, in order to rid the country of Communist rule (hint, Costa Rica wasn’t communist). Six years later, in 1954, the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, attempted to seize land belonging to United Fruit for a land redistribution programme. Instead, he incurred the wrath of the CIA, which, at best co-operated with, at worst, bullied, the Guatemalan Army, forcing Guzmán to resign. I could go on.
And at any rate, the Cold War came to the Western Hemisphere in 1945, a cypher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa (Apparently the Times needs a reminder that Canada is in the Western Hemisphere?) walked out of the embassy and wandered over to the Ottawa Journal newspaper offices to tell his story. It took awhile, but Gouzenko became the first defector to Canada, complete with Soviet secrets.
The Times‘s headline about Castro bringing the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere is simply factually wrong. And this is what concerns me. History and facts DO matter, and to play fast and loose with them is dangerous. It leads to mis-information running rampant in society. We are currently reeling from revelations of the role of fake news sites in the Presidential Election. The New York Times, however, is usually regarded as the leading American newspaper, amongst the most well-regarded globally. It would behoove the headline writers, writers, reporters, and editors of the august institution to learn history.
September 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
I’m reading a book that is, for the lack of a better term, a biography of the Kremlin. I am at the part where the Kremlin, and Moscow itself, gets rebuilt after Napoléon’s attempt at conquering Russia. Moscow had been, until it was torched during the French occupation, a haphazard city; visitors complained it was Medieval and dirty. And it smelled. And not just visitors from Paris and Florence, but from St. Petersburg, too.
In the aftermath, Moscow was rebuilt along Western European lines, in a rational manner. And the city gentrified, the Kremlin especially:
This was definitely a landscape that belonged to the rich and the educated, to noblemen and ladies of the better sort. It is through the artists’ eyes that we glimpse the well-dressed crowds: the gentlemen with their top hats and shiny canes, the ladies in their bonnets, gloves, and crinolines. They could be leading citizens of any European state, and there is little sense of Russia (let alone romantic Muscovy) in their world.
Leaving aside the fact that there were no citizens of any European state in 1814, this sounds remarkably familiar. This is the same critique I have written many times about Griffintown and Montreal: as Montreal gentrifies, it is becoming much like any other major North American city.
But it is also true of gentrification in general. There is a part on the North Shore of Chattanooga, Tennessee, I really like. It finally dawned on me that it is because it reminds of me Vancouver architecturally, culturally, aesthetically, and in the ways in which the water (in this case the Tennessee River, not False Creek) is used by the redevelopment of this historically downtrodden neighbourhood. But. I could also be dropped into pretty much any North American city and see similarities: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville. These are all cities (amongst others) where I have seen the same tendencies.
And, obviously, one aspect of gentrification is the cleansing of the city of danger and vice. Just like Moscow was cleaned up in the aftermath of 1812.
August 26, 2016 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote of some vile tweets about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the wake of the Tragically Hip’s final show in Kingston lat Saturday night. It turns out this was hardly the worst.
I read this article on The Walrus’ site last night. This is disgusting. There are people on Facebook blatantly calling for Trudeau’s assassination. Others, riffing on the Conservative Party of Canada’s pathetic milk carton ad, have descended to hoping the Prime Minister dies in an avalanche like his younger brother, Michel did in British Columbia in 1998.
I got into a discussion with an old friend on Facebook in the wake of Monday’s post. He was of the opinion that this animus against Trudeau was really nothing new, recalling the Mulroney era. I argued otherwise. That this IS new, it is the Americanisation of our political discourse.
I also wonder where the hell the RCMP is in all of this? Should it not be investigating calls to assassinate the Prime Minister?
August 22, 2016 § 4 Comments
UPDATE: I thought this rhetoric about the Prime Minister couldn’t get worse. Turns out I was wrong; it can. And it has been for some time.
As every Canadian knows, the Tragically Hip held their last ever concert in their hometown of Kingston, ON, on Saturday night. Something like 11 million TV sets in Canada were tuned to the gig, broadcast coast-to-coast-to-coast on the CBC. For those of you who don’t know, that’s about 1/3 of the population of the entire country. I haven’t seen numbers for how many of us watched on YouTube, as the CBC streamed the show worldwide. Social media was full of pics, remembrances, stories about The Hip, a quintessentially Canadian band. If you’re not Canadian, I simply cannot explain the importance of this band to most Canadians. It’s something non-quantifiable.
The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was there in Kingston, one of the lucky 7,000 people inside the unfortunately named K-Rock Centre. Gord Downie, the frontman who is dying of cancer, gave the PM a couple of shoutouts, particularly insofar as Canada’s abysmal record vis-à-vis our First Nations. In the aftermath, a picture of Downie and Trudeau sharing a hug made the rounds on social media. It’s a particularly touching image, and it shows Downie’s frailty.
But then Twitter happened. A series of tweets from bitter, and mostly anonymous, Canadian conservatives attacked Trudeau for a variety of reasons, most of them just a sad bit of bitterness. For example:
These were relatively mild, however. Others wished personal ill on the Prime Minister. But the worst tweet I saw was this one:
What kind of person says something like this? What has happened to the Canadian conservative movement that this can even happen? FACLC’s tweet is simply the most egregious example that came through my timeline in the past few days.
While I can certainly understand a deep-seated dislike, even hatred, for a Prime Minister (i.e.: Stephen Harper), I do not know anyone who tweeted vileness like this, who wished personal ill on the Prime Minister of Canada FACLC and anyone who supports such viciousness should be deeply ashamed of themselves. So should anyone who posted such vileness in the first place. This is not Canada, this is not who we are.
July 26, 2016 § 2 Comments
I was back in Montreal a couple of weeks ago to finish up shooting for the documentary my good friend, G. Scott MacLeod, and I have been working on for the past few years. We travelled around Griffintown, doing some B shots, and re-doing some other shots. And then we found ourselves at Parc Faubourg Sainte-Anne, on the site of the former St. Ann’s Church at the corner of de la Montagne and Basin. Across the street is one of the last remaining stands of 19th century rowhouses in Griff. And right behind and beside it is yet another condo development (because there never can be enough, right?).
Part of these rowhouses were part of a co-op. One Friday afternoon in April, a bunch of men in suits and hardhats showed up, milled around, pointed at things, and then disappeared. Later that night, the residents of the co-op were forced out of their homes. Their homes were quickly condemned and they weren’t even allowed to go back in to get their personal belongings (the fire department had to go back in to get the ashes of one woman’s husband). Why did this happen? Well, it seems that a water line had been opened and that had compromised the foundation of the 1867 building.
(photo courtesy of G. Scott MacLeod).
That Sunday night, around 10.30pm, a huge backhoe showed up and tore down the end unit of the co-op, the one with the leaky foundation. The residents were “temporarily” re-housed.
Today, the co-op units are empty, only three of them still stand. And they all have a notice of eviction on their front doors.
As we were filming, we were approached by a Griffintown old-timer. He doesn’t want his name used, so he will go unnamed. He showed us a bunch of photos on his cellphone of the suits and the backhoe. And he told us what he saw happen. He said that a retaining wall had been built behind the co-op units when excavation work began on the condos around it. But, interestingly, the wall behind the fourth unit of the co-op had somehow disappeared the week before the water leak. And, just as amazingly, it suddenly re-appeared after the fourth unit was torn down. As to who turned on the water, well, he left that to our imagination.
Whether or not his version of events is true or not, to me, this is symptomatic of the new Griffintown, one that is beholden to condo developers and the accumulation of tax money for the Ville de Montréal. We all know Montreal is a historically corrupt city, and the recent Charbonneau Commission detailed corruption in the Montreal construction industry.
And whether or not something fishy happened with respect to the co-op or not, the events of April do not pass the smell test. That no one seems to care is even more worrisome. Montreal is a wonderfully progressive city in so many ways, but Griffintown is a fine example of what happens when greed takes over. The city had this wonderful opportunity to remake an entire inner-city neighbourhood. And rather than engage in sustainable development, or even, for that matter, a liveable area, the Ville de Montréal took the money and ran. And this is to the city’s detriment.
Oh, and the residents of this co-op? Call me cynical, but I’ll be shocked if they end up back in their co-op. See, the developer’s office is right next door to the co-op and my guess is that these buildings will either also mysteriously fall down or become condos as part of this larger development.
September 25, 2015 § 7 Comments
Alexander Pope once opined that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” We can see multiple examples of this almost daily. But, it was truly brought home to me on Twitter last weekend. Against my better judgement, I got into a discussion that became an argument over discrimination against the Irish in Canada. My interlocutor was dead set on presenting the thesis that the Irish were the lowest of the low well into the 20th century and the infamous NINA (No Irish Need Apply) signs were ubiquitous across our fair Dominion. To back up her argument, she cited her grandparents, who reported seeing the NINA signs when they arrived (I’m not sure when they arrived, but she was roughly my mother’s age, a Baby Boomer, so I would hazard her grandparents arrived in the 1920s), a random page from a House of Commons debate where then-Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald denigrated the Irish in 1889, and a screen cap from an historical newspaper aggregator that reported some 30,000 NINA mentions in Canada. But the time frame was not clear.
This kind of logic would not pass a freshman course. In short, she cherry-picked her evidence to back up her thesis. Now, I know a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to the Irish in Canada, a result of a Master’s thesis and a PhD dissertation (and forthcoming book) about the Irish in Quebec, from the 1840s to the 21st century. I have read nearly every book on the Irish in Canada (and North America as a whole) as part of the process leading to the MA and PhD. Her basic thesis, that the Irish were discriminated against is not wrong. But this argument is largely limited to the 19th century, and more than that, to the middle decades of the 19th century. Certainly, discrimination continued to plague the Irish in Canada beyond, say, 1880, but, by then, the Irish were also successfully integrating into Canadian society, through accommodations from the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture, through accommodations made by the Irish themselves, and by the Irish forcing themselves into the Canadian body politic. As the 19th century drew to a close, the Irish had infiltrated the corridors of power in Canada, both politically and economically. But this does not mean that all discrimination went away.
First, she essentialized my argument, claiming that I said that NO discrimination occurred after 1900, as if the turning of the century was some magic boundary. And then she produced this cherry picked evidence, which I countered with the larger argument, pointing to both individual and cultural successes. She claimed that Toronto was different than Montreal. That is correct. But, I countered with information on the plight of the Irish in Toronto. No luck. She was convinced she was right. I didn’t go so far as to get pedantic and explain how history is made/written/produced, but when I rejected her argument, she accused me of calling her grandparents liars. At this point, I cut my losses and muted her on Twitter.
All I could do was shake my head and ponder why and how so many people are so resistant to logic and reason. It’s not like I’m innocent of this, either. Recently, an argument broke out on the Facebook wall of one of my friends about the level of integration of Anglophones in franco-québécois culture. All three of us arguing were ex-pat Montrealers, all three of us Anglos. All three of us have PhDs, in other words, we should’ve known better. Instead, we devolved into anecdotal evidence, personal stories, and ignored the meta-data all three of us are very familiar with on the matter. So while we did not, like my interlocutor on Twitter, devolve into cherry-picking our evidence, we still engaged in #logicfail.
My point in telling this second story is to point out we all do this. But there is great danger in this. It leads to an American populace that thinks that Ben Carson is right when he says that the President cannot be Muslim because Islam is incompatible with the Constitution. And still greater ills.
March 20, 2015 § 7 Comments
Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes. A brilliant mind, and a great writer, he was rare for an historian. An Englishman, he lived in New York and taught at New York University. The Guardian called him the ‘greatest mind in New York,’ which I always took as a play on the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Judt died of ALS in July 2010 at the age of 62, and I feel like we were robbed. I am currently reading his last work of non-fiction, Ill Fares the Land (a collaboration with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published in 2012).
In Ill Fares the Land, Judt takes on the growing meanness of our society and culture, on both sides of the Atlantic. He argues that we have lost our way in the blind pursuit of money and profit, signalling the 1980s as the period where Western culture shifted from one of trust and compassion for our fellow human beings to this individualistic focus on money. He criticizes us for having lost our way, for descending back into 19th century laissez-faire beliefs.
In one section, however, he focuses on the consensus that arose in Western society after the Second World War, when collectively we decided that we did not wish to experience the 1914-45 period ever again, and Europeans and North Americans began to build better societies, with a social safety net, seeking to eradicate the gross inequality of the 19th century, which led to the rise of dictatorships of both the left and the right in the 1920s and 30s.
Judt notes that trust is necessary to the proper functioning of society. And he is right. Trust is essential at all levels of society,and it is essential for the proper functioning of the capitalist system. Indeed, this was the trust violated in the 1980s, and again in the lead-up to the 2008 Recession: economic actors essentially got greedy and corrupt and brought us down with them. At any rate, Judt looks at what makes for a trusting society and, not surprisingly, he looks approvingly at the Scandinavian and Northern European countries. These are places where income inequality is almost (note, I said almost) non-existant, where education is free or close to it, and there is a common, collective belief in the common good, broadly defined.
What makes these societies work? What causes the trust to exist? Judt notes that Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are remarkably homogenous societies, in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc. (He also notes that Scandinavians are not so excited about the influx of impoverished refugees and immigrants in recent years, to be fair.) He then focuses on his two primary countries: The United States and the United Kingdom.
In the period of consensus from 1945 to the 1970s, both the US and the UK were a lot more homogenous than they are now. Both were majoritarian white, Anglo-Protestant nations, though with sizeable Catholic minorities. But, Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, of course. Today, however, both the US and the UK are larger, much more diverse nations. And so trust has broken down.
As a good Canadian, I was practically yelling “CANADA!” at this point of the book. To be fair to Judt, he DOES notice The Great White North. Frankly, it’s hard not to. It’s this big country just to the north of New York state. He writes:
The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.
But then he dismisses the Canadian crossover case because it’s not conducive to his argument. He immediately goes onto return to his arguments pertaining to the US and the UK. This makes no sense. Canada is a fine comparative point to both the US and the UK. It is geographically large, it has a sizeable population, it is incredibly diverse (more diverse, in fact, than either the US and the UK), and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers). And yet, “trust and its accompanying institutions” are deeply-embedded in the country, as our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (who is otherwise hell-bent on tearing down the Canada most Canadians want), has learned.
Judt’s myopia regarding Canada is nothing new, frankly. It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook the country. But that does not make it any less infuriating.
I am reminded of Trainspotting, and the rant of the central character, Mark Renton, on why it sucks being Scottish.
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.
February 13, 2015 § 6 Comments
In his Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History & Social Memory, Guy Beiner talks a lot about folklore in Connacht, the western-most Irish province. This is where the failed 1798 French invasion took place, and Beiner attempts an archaeology of the folklore of the region in relation to the invasion and its relation to the wider 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.
I’ve never really worked in the realm of folklore, but I’ve always been fascinated by it, dating back to my undergrad years, though my profs were all insistent that folklore did not belong in a history class. In grad school, I read Ian McKaye’s book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, which was about the collection of Scots and Irish folklore, especially in Cape Breton by Helen Creighton and others in the early decades of the 20th century, around the same time that folklorists were running all over Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and various other countries, collecting the folk stories of the region.
Beiner argues that
It is often claimed that modernization struck a deathblow to ‘traditional’ oral culture. Yet, developments in communication and information technologies also provided new media for the transmission and documentation of folklore.
Beiner goes on to discuss all the ways in which modern technology has aided in the collection and dissemination of traditional cultures and folklores. But he is clearly overlooking the fact that modernization DID work to kill traditional oral culture, a point made brilliantly by Angela Bourke in her The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story. This point is made all the more clearly by Keith Basso in his Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Languages Among the Western Apache. Most of the events described by Basso, in terms of his ethnographic amongst the Western Apache of Arizona, take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet his book was published in 1995. In his epilogue, Basso notes the massive change that had come to the community of Cibecue in the fifteen years between his ethnographic work and the book, and what is clear is that modern technology and modern life was killing the traditional way of life for the Western Apache, and with that, traditional relations to the land and the ancestors, which came through in what could be called folklore.
Ireland was no different (nor was any other folk culture anywhere). Modernization has worked to kill traditional oral culture. And while the stories still exist, and we can sill read them and listen to story-tellers, the culture they describe no longer exists. Folklore, through the very act of collection in the early 20th century, was made static and museumized. It became something to be fetishized and studied, and ceased to be a living thing.
February 4, 2015 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, a new report was released on the plight of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in the healthcare system. The title, “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment,” perhaps says all you need to know. The CBC also posted a story on-line about the experiences of several aboriginal people vis-à-vis healthcare in Victoria, British Columbia. A couple of the “highlights”:
- Michelle Labrecque went to the Royal Jubilee Hospital complaining of severe stomach pain in 2008. A doctor gave her a prescription. When she got home and opened the paper with the prescription on it, it was a drawing of a beer bottle with a circle slashed through it.
- Carol McFadden went to the doctor with a lump in her breast, only to be told she could’ve gone to mammography herself. She now has Stage 4 breast cancer, and it has spread to her liver.
- McFadden reports that whilst some doctors have been compassionate, others have been rude and brusque, to the point where they kick her bed when they want her attention, and continually asking her if she drinks or does drugs.
I recently read Joanna Burke’s book, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. In it, she talks about the body in pain, and the responses thereto, both from the victims of the pain, as well as the medical profession. Nineteenth century doctors, insofar as they discussed the colonialized body, they dismissed the idea that indigenous bodies could feel pain in the same way that an upper-class British man could. For that matter, they also argued that working-class men had a higher tolerance to pain. Their recommendation was to try to take the body in pain seriously, but not to be sympathetic, to be brusque when talking to the victim. We live in the twenty-first century. Why are aboriginal peoples treated this way by doctors?
Of course I know why, Canada is a deeply, deeply racist society vis-à-vis the aboriginal population. It is acceptable in Canada to be openly racist against First Nations people. I wish I could say I was surprised by the findings of this report. I am not.