October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
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 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.
February 2, 2015 § 151 Comments
Two weeks ago, MacLeans, Canada’s only national news magazine, published an article that caused quite the uproar. Written by a former diplomat, Scott Gilmore, and entitled, “Canada’s Racism Problem? It’s Even Worse Than America’s,” it’s not hard to see why this upset people. Even better was the sub-title, “For a country so self-satisfied with its image of progressive tolerance, how is this not a national crisis?” I wish I had written this article, it says what I’ve been saying for a long, long time.
Aboriginal peoples in Canada get screwed. Have been since the first Europeans arrived, and still do today. And that’s not going to change any time soon unless Canadians do something about it. But, in my experience, they don’t care. Last year, I wrote a post about a funny sweatshirt that an aboriginal man, Jeff Menard, in Winnipeg (which MacLeans also called out as Canada’s most racist city) created that said: “Got Land? Thank an Indian.” I wrote this post in response to a response I got to a tweet stating that if you thought this hoodie racist, you’re an idiot. This response tweet said “I’m offended because they used the word Indian. My grandfather was from India. He worked for a living.”
How to unpack that? This tweet was anti-historical and offensive on so many levels. Starting with being upset at the use of the word “Indian,” the term applied to aboriginal peoples by Euro-Canadians historically. But the real kicker is “He worked for a living.” Many of the comments on Gilmore’s article, and a lot of the vituperative, racist tweets I saw complained that aboriginal peoples in Canada survive on handouts from the government and don’t work for a living. No mention of imperialism, the taking of land, the systematic attempts by the Canadian government to steal away aboriginal languages, cultures, religions, and names, of the residential schools designed to also take the children of aboriginals away from them (to say nothing of the horrific sexual abuse therein).
Gilmore pointed just how badly aboriginal peoples get screwed in Canada, by comparing them to African-Americans in the United States, in easy table format, which I produce here (and hope that MacLeans doesn’t mind). Look at those statistics and just try not to be offended, saddened, and, if you are Canadian, embarrassed. Hell, even if you’re American, you should be embarrassed by these stats. But, Gilmore’s right. Canadians are a smug lot. My Twitter feed is usually full of all kinds of anti-American comments, the implicit meaning is “Well, the US is a mess, thank god I live in Canada.” Information such as this should end such discussions and puncture our smugness forever.
At the same time the furor over Gilmore’s article was raging, another debate was happening over the death of Makayla Sault, an 11-year old from the New Credit First Nation in Ontario. Makayla died of leukaemia. When she was first diagnosed last year, she underwent chemotherapy in Hamilton, ON. But the side-effects were too great. And so she refused further treatment, preferring instead traditional medicine. Obviously, it didn’t work.
This raises interesting questions, starting with who has the right to control the lives of children who have cancer. But. Ultimately, we have to respect her decision. Why? Because it was her life.
But, then the enfant terrible of Quebec journalism, Denise Bombardier, had to get involved. Bombardier is perhaps most famous outside of Quebec for having been fired by Radio-Canada for having participated in a debate on marriage equality, taking the position against it. At any rate, this is Bombardier’s comments on Makayla Sault (thanks to Mikayla Cartwright for the image):
For those who cannot read French, a few of the highlights: After complaining about the cost of political correctness, she states that Makayla made the choice to be treated according to traditional medicine, encouraged, perhaps, by her parents and other members of her First Nation. Then the kicker, “A white child wouldn’t have to make this choice. This is where we see the delusional ancestral rights of the aboriginals open the door to quackery. This child died because she was the sacrifical victim of a deadly, anti-scientific culture that is killing aboriginal people.”
It took me all of about 0.33 seconds to find a Euro-American child who faced this dilemma. Daniel Hauser, a 13-year old boy who was refusing treatment in 2009, for religious reasons. Daniel Hauser, I might add, is white. My Google search turned up other kids faced with this same awful dilemma (the same search also turned up other children in the same position). So, Bombardier is factually wrong.
But she is also morally, ethically wrong. Bombardier’s screed reads like far too many documents I read in the records of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the government agency (which has had many names) in charge of carrying out the responsibility that the Government of Canada has to aboriginals, according to treaties that both pre- and ante- date Confederation in 1867, as well as Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. In many of the documents I read during my days working in the field of aboriginal law and litigation in Ottawa, various employees of Aboriginal Affairs, from lowly agents in the field to the directors of the department in Ottawa, referred to the need to civilise the aboriginals, and how white people knew what was right for them. In academia, we call this imperialism.
Bombardier says the same thing. She dismisses aboriginal culture as “anti-scientific” and “deadly.” She refers to traditional ways of life as “quackery.” In short, Canada needs to civilise the aboriginals for their own good, just as Aboriginal Affairs agents and employees argued a century ago.
In short, Gilmore is bang-on correct. Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal population is a national disgrace and tragedy, made worse by the fact that most Canadians don’t know or don’t care, and a good number of them are part of the problem, as Bombardier shows. Gilmore writes:
We are distracted by the stories of corrupt band councils, or flooded reserves, or another missing Aboriginal woman. Some of us wring our hands, and a handful of activists protest. There are a couple of unread op-eds, and maybe a Twitter hashtag will skip around for a few days. But nothing changes. Yes, we admit there is a governance problem on the reserves. We might agree that “something” should be done about the missing and murdered women. In Ottawa a few policy wonks write fretful memos on land claims and pipelines. But collectively, we don’t say it out loud: “Canada has a race problem.”
And until we do, nothing is going to change.
January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History. I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad. I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies. The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003. It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.
But one thing struck me as I was reading. Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:
The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.
These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career. But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded. I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.
It gets better though, Cronon notes:
…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.
November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47. Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system. So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.
However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa. For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives. The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling. Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns. Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth. These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones. And yet the British win, because of the guns.
The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.” It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans. When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts. This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault. This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism. The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass. The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process. The colonised are reduced to something not quite human. The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources. By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble. They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.
None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism. It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge. It is almost like reading it again for the first time. And reading The Gun, I feel that way.