November 3, 2018 § 2 Comments
In the October issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a fascinating article on the similarities of 1970s South Korea with present-day China, written by Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. Hahm’s argument is pretty much encapsulated in the title, ‘China’s Future is South Korea’s Present’: In the 1960s and 70s, South Korea modernized under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, and that paved the way for democratization in 1987. And thus, it provides a road map for China today. In other words, a pretty familiar liberal argument: with economic liberalization comes political liberalization.
Park seized power in a military coup in 1963 and held on until he was assassinated by one of his advisors in 1979 in the midst of massive political, economic, and social unrest in the country as workers and students protested the oppressive political régime. Park, however, was not your standard issue dictator. Park’s main goal was economic modernization which would, in his estimation, lift his country out of poverty. In order to do so, he ultimately made the decision to open up South Korea’s economy to the world, which forced South Korean corporations to not just modernize, but to be able to take on the world. And this is how you came to drive a Hyundai and you’re reading this on a Samsung tablet.
Hahm then argues something similar could happen in China. He notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently had the nation’s constitution changed so he can maintain power perpetually. He also notes the development of China’s economy in the past three decades, and the hyper-modernization of it. Hahm argues that economic modernization in South Korea, combined with the massive unrest of the late 1970s/early 1980s led directly to democratization in 1987. And he can see something similar happening in China.
I am not so certain. South Korea of the 1980s and China of the 2010s are not the same. And this is largely due to the power of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. This is not to say that Park didn’t have control. It is to recognize that Xi and the CCP exist in a new era.
What Park did not have in the late 20th century was the technological capabilities of absolutism in the way that Xi and the CCP have today. The internet, and specifically, state control of the internet, in China means that Xi and the CCP can control the population of the nation much easier. The Chinese government continually pressures its techno-sector to be more ‘open’ and willing to share information with the government. Chinese legislation means that data on Chinese consumers/citizens held by foreign corporations must be stored on servers physically located in China. And the Great Firewall of China means that access to the wider internet is difficult. For certain, tech-savvy Chinese use VPNs (which are technically illegal) to access the wider internet, but continued crackdowns on them and access to the net in general mean that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get around the Great Firewall.
This kind of control of the internet, and government dreams of amassing huge data sets on Chinese residents, mean that it has an almost unprecedented amount of control, and possible future control over its citizens. In short, the Chinese government has the power to be in near complete control of China and Chinese citizens; Park never had this.
More to the point, when China had its moment similar to what Hahn describes in South Korea in the late 70s, culminating at Tiananmen Square in 1989, well, we know how that turned out.
While I would not consider myself an expert on China, I do teach Modern Chinese history. And when I was in Beijing this past summer, teaching, I was fascinated by what I saw. Chinese state-sponsodered capitalism had created an opulent consumer economy and culture in the capital. Shopping malls were packed, luxury cars roamed the streets, Jingdong delivery vehicles were everywhere, and people wore expensive clothes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had a smart phone in their hands, and that’s how they conducted business, using WeChat’s platform for money transfers. In other words, other than language, Beijing is looking increasingly Western, with the infiltration of Western corporations like Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and so on.
But what struck me the most was that a lot of my students did not recognize China as a totalitarian dictatorship. Rather, they saw China as analogous to the United States, as a liberal, capitalist democracy.
Rather than share Hahn’s belief that China is ripe for an end to single-party rule, I see the CCP having delivered a masterstroke. It has allowed capitalism within a set of parameters that has created an ability for the Chinese to buy things in a consumer economy. They can enjoy great freedom as they shop in the malls, or order things on Jingdong or AliBaba, and as they sit in the big, expensive restaurants of the big cities, and so on.
I also teach a lot of US History. In the 1920s, our modern consumer capitalist culture was created with the birth of modern, psychology-based advertising. Corporations could not persuade consumers to buy their goods, using science to do so. And this is how we got our modern consumer culture. But attendant to that was what many observers noted: Americans themselves changed. Gone was the old Protestant work ethic and belief in hard work and sober, industrious, thrift. Instead, Americans wanted to acquire things, ti spend their increasing disposable income, first on things that made their lives easier (like coffee machines and refrigerators) and then on luxuries made affordable (like radios). One displayed one’s affluence through one’s stuff, in essence.
And so, when I look at China, I don’t share Hahm’s optimism. I see people content with their consumer economy and I see the oppressive power of the CCP. Taken together, I do not see an end to single-party rule any time soon. Park’s South Korea is not an historical analogue of Xi’s China.
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 25, 2016 § 8 Comments
So 16 towns and cities in France, all on the Mediterranean Coast, have banned the so-called burkini, a body-covering garment that allows devout Muslim women to enjoy the beach and summer weather. France, of course, has been positively rocked by Islamist violence in the past 18 months or so. So you had to expect a backlash. But this is just downright stupid.
There is a historical context here (read this whole post before lambasting me, please). French society believes in laïcité, a result of the French Revolution of 1789 and the declericisation of French society and culture in the aftermath. To this end, French culture and the French state are both secularised. Religious symbols are not welcome in public, nor are the French all that comfortable with religious practice in public. Now, this makes perfect sense to me, coming as I do from Quebec, which in the 1960s, during our Revolution tranquille, also underwent a process of declericisation. Quebec adopted the French model of a secular state.
But, in Quebec as in France, not all secularism is equal. Catholic symbols still exist all over France as a product of French history, to say nothing of the grand cathedrals and more humble churches that dot the landscape. But other religious symbols, they’re not quite as welcome, meric.
Nonetheless, it is in the context of this laïcité that the burkini ban arises.
But in practice, it is something else entirely. This is racism. This is ethnocentrism. And this is stupid. Just plain stupid. French Prime Minister Manuel Valis claims that the burkini is a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women.’ The mayor of Cannes claims that the burkini is the uniform of Muslim extremism. It is neither. And the burkini bans are not about ‘liberating’ Muslim women in France. They are not about a lay, secular society. They are designed to target and marginalize Muslim women for their basic existence in France.
In the New York Times this week, Asma T. Uddin notes the problem with these bans when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights and symbols of Islam. Back in 2001, the Court found that a Swiss school teacher wearing a head scarf in the classroom was ‘coercive’ in that it would work to proselytize young Swiss children. I kid you not. And, as Uddin reports, since that 2001 decision, the Court has continually upheld European nations’ attempts to limit the rights of Muslims, especially Muslim women, when it comes to dress.
Then there was the shameful display of the police in Nice this week, which saw four armed policemen harass a middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach. She was wearing a long-sleeved tunic and bathing in the sun. The police, however, issued her a ticket for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’ Again, I kid you not.
Laïcité is supposed to be not just the separation of church and state, but also the equality of all French citizens. Remember the national motto of the French republic: ‘liberté, éqalité, et fraternité.’ These are lofty goals. But the attempts to ban the burkini and attack Muslim women for their attire is not the way one goes about attaining liberté, nor égalité nor fraternité. Rather, it creates tiered culture, it creates one group of French who are apart from the rest. It is discriminatory and childish. And let’s not get on the subject of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to run again, and promises to ensure that Muslim and Jewish students in the lycées eat pork.
I understand France’s concerns and fears. But attacking Islam is not the way to defeat terrorists who claim to be Muslim. It only encourages them. It is time for France to live up to its own mottos and goals. And Western feminists (and pro-feminist men) need to speak up on this topic.
News comes this evening that the Deputy Mayor of Nice, and President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has threatened to sue people who share images of the police attempting to enforce the burkini ban on social media. I kid you not. Christian Estrosi states that the images cause harm to the police (if that is true, that is not right, of course).
It is worth pointing out that it would be very difficult for Estrosi to find legal standing to launch a lawsuit, as French law allows citizens and media outlets to publish images and videos of the police and that, without a judicial order, French police cannot seize a photographer’s camera or phone.
August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things. But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book. So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it. It was pretty phenomenal. I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both. Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.
The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room. He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare. Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK. Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives. So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him. But then he contracted lung cancer. His time was almost up. So, he got Epping involved.
After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson. I’ll spare you the details. But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.
But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland. Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy. The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.
Anyway. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.
I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president. See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president. This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam. Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war. And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.
But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster. Domestically, he was a rather good president. He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society. LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States. This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues. We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas. We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970. Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society. In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination. It was a lofty goal.
LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.
Of course, the Great Society failed. In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it. It did cause massive change, but not enough. In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society. Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda. And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.
Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé. No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white. I could go on.
King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened. JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers. And worse, the Great Society did not happen. There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc. JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.
Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair. LBJ had ideas, at least. And he was a visionary.
June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments
There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision. This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know. And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.
I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people. OK, then.
But this is where history does matter. The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.” Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly. There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly. Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.
And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies. The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.
The two situations are not analogous. At all. In other words, this is just another stupid meme. #FAIL
March 24, 2016 § Leave a comment
Phife Dawg, also known as Malik Taylor, died a couple of days ago. He was only 45. Phife is a hip hop legend, one of my favourite MCs of all-time. His music as a member of A Tribe Called Quest and his single solo album from 2000 have long been part of the soundtrack of my life. The Five-Foot Assassin was a perfect foil to Q-Tip’s smooth delivery, with his guttural growl and ability to drop a patois. He also wrote wicked rhymes, tougher and more menacing than Tip.
Tip was the unquestioned leader of Tribe. And eventually, egos got in the way of old friends. Phife always said that he felt especially excluded because both Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ, had both converted to Islam and he had not. And he was largely absent from the 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life as Tip’s cousin, Consequence, was featured (why, I have no idea, he couldn’t hold a flame to Phife’s abilities). I remember buying Midnight Marauders in the fall of 1993 at Zulu Records on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver. I was with my friend, Tanya. It was one of the first CDs I ever bought. I still have it. The fall of 1993 was when I moved back to Vancouver from Ottawa, transferring to the University of British Columbia. I lived in the Mötördöme, with three other guys I didn’t know all that well. I worked with Steve at the Cactus Club (or the Carcass Club, as we called it) on Robson St. We also lived with Skippy, who had a law degree, but preferred to play in punk bands, and J., who was also in a punk band. That was the fall when I took the #22 bus to work on weekend mornings, I rode with Chi-Pig, legendary front-man of SNFU. Punk was the regular soundtrack at the Mötördöme; Fugazi and Jesus Lizard were our favourites. But we also played a lot of Fishbone and Faith No More. And when we were in reflective moods, we dropped some Tom Waits on. Skip, Steve, and J. were not fans of hip hop. But I insisted on playing Midnight Marauders as well. And when me and my main man Mike rode around Vancouver and its environs in the Mikemobile, a 1982 Mercury Lynx, Midnight Marauders was amongst the albums we rotated. I listened to the album on my long bus ride to UBC on the #9 Broadway bus.
Everytime I listen to that album, I am immediately dropped back into Vancouver in 1993. Similarly, their last album, 1998’s The Love Movement came out the year Christine and I moved to Ottawa, so she could begin law school. I had just graduated from Simon Fraser with my MA in History and would soon begin a long run at Public History Inc., which launched me back into academia. I got to Ottawa a month earlier than her. And in a small flat, in a very hot Ottawa summer, I listened to The Love Movement almost obsessively. It’s generally not regarded as Tribe’s best, but Phife’s rhymes, especially on “Find A Way” and “Da Booty,” made the album.
I got backstage at a couple of Tribe shows back in the day. I got to meet them. Phife was unfailingly the nicest, most polite dude you could imagine. He was just a genuinely nice guy. He was always humble, he also seemed kind of surprised he was a big deal.
I am listening to Midnight Marauders right now. Hip hop has lost one of the greatest MCs of all-time. And he was too young to go.
February 4, 2016 § 2 Comments
Yesterday, one of my alma maters, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, sent out a video from Facilities about #NationalSweaterDay, which is a Canadian initiative to turn down the heat in the winter, to remind consumers about environmental responsibility (and the cost of heating). The video itself is several years old, but it was circulated again.
To my eyes, this is horrible. A female professor is named “Pinkums” and is addressed as “Miss.” I know from conversation with my female colleagues that they have a real struggle to be addressed as Doctor, or Professor. Oddly I, as a white man, do not. And, frankly, this video is degrading.
News of the video became widely known through the blog of Elise Chenier, a professor at SFU. I was appalled when I came across this and tweeted my shock and dismay at SFU. No university should engage in this. Ever. To the credit of the university, it apologized almost immediately. And the video had long been pulled from circulation. According to the CBC:
SFU vice-president for external relations Joanne Curry later released a statement addressing some of Chenier’s concerns. In the statement, Curry agrees the videos were “inappropriate, sexist, and not in keeping with our equity commitments.”
“As the video was produced by an external vendor, I had not seen it. When I did watch it, I immediately agreed with the feedback we had received,” the statement read.
“We took steps to remove the video as quickly as possible and have followed up with the group who produced and distributed the video to ensure it will no longer be used.”
Note, however, that Curry immediately passes by buck, noting that it was made by an external vendor. But, the university did the right thing, as Chenier notes.
Today, I awoke to find my Twitter feed aflame with trolls. Interestingly, all but two were men. The two women both noted they were “anti-feminist” in their bios. Getting trolled on Twitter is nothing new. It has happened before, it will happen again. I have received all kinds of hate on Twitter, including death threats. But today’s trolling was interesting in the sense that the men, all of whom were white, who attacked me descended into homophobia from the get go. Some hoped I got raped, others told me to perform sexual acts on other men. One threatened to rape me. And then there was the garden variety name-calling.
I spent a good amount of time blocking and reporting people today, thinking that this happens everyday to feminists on Twitter. I can only imagine the abuse Chenier is getting right now. There was #Gamergate. Or what about when women suggested that a woman’s face be put on paper money in the UK? This happens every, single, fucking day to women who are threatened with rape and death for calling out patriarchy and male privilege. And we let that happen. Every single one of us. Right-thinking men, in particular. We need to find a way to fix this, we need to figure out a way to marginalize these kinds of men, or the likes of Roosh V. This is not ok.
MLK noted that the problem African Americans in his time faced wasn’t actually an African American problem. It was a white problem. Hence, he worked to raise white consciousness. To convince white people they were the problem and had it in their power to fix racism. By no means have we succeeded, but we have made a lot of progress.
Misogyny and sexism, similarly, is a male problem. But, it seems that sexism and misogyny is considered acceptable for some men. When people are offended by things like the SFU video, they respond with banal statements like “Can’t you take a joke?” Yes, I can. But this isn’t funny. This is the basic laddish response. But then there’s the anger, the violent, misogynist, threatening anger.
Male anger needs to be curbed.
But as much as I want this kind of thing stopped, I still struggle with the basic question of why some men act like this? Is it simply about power? Is it because they feel marginalized? Why do some men feel the need to respond to feminism with vile, disgusting language? And in some of these men, I think it goes beyond words and there is a danger in their threats and fits.
Sadly, I fully expect more trolling in response to this post. The trolling will continue on Twitter. And there will be some nasty comments left on this blog.
November 9, 2015 § 15 Comments
My wife and I are watching the BBC show Indian Summers. It’s about the British Raj in 1930s India and its summer retreat at Simla, in the foothills of the Himilayas. The show centres around Ralph Whelan, an orphan who has risen in the British civil service in India to become the Personal Secretary to the viceroy, as well as his sister, Alice who has mysteriously shown up in Simla, leaving behind some murkiness. Alice, you see, was married, and she claimed her husband is dead. However, it turns out he is not. I don’t know how this turns out yet, we’re only 5 episodes in.
But what interests me is the relationship between siblings. Ralph is the elder child, though it’s not entirely clear how big a difference in age there is between he and Alice. Nevertheless, it is big enough to make a huge difference in their upbringing. It’s also not clear when their parents died. Both Ralph and Alice were born in India, but Alice was sent back to England when she was 8, presumably when their parents died. She has only recently returned to the colony. Ralph, it appears, has spent most of his life in India.
The memories of Ralph and Alice of their childhood are radically different. In the first episode, Ralph manages to have dug out a rocking horse that Alice apparently loved as a child. She has no recollection of it. And this sets the pattern. Every time Ralph recalls something from their childhood, Alice responds with a blank look. At one point, she says “I didn’t have the same upbringing” as Ralph did.
I found myself thinking about the relationship between siblings and memory. Halbwachs notes the social aspect of memory, how we actually form our memories in society, not individually. In her acknowledgements to her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel provides a hint to the disparate memories of siblings when she thanks her family for not objecting to her publishing the book. In Fun Home, Bechdel ponders her father’s death against the discovery that he was closeted, all the while she figures out her own sexuality and comes out. Her memory of the events, and the way it is told, is carefully curated. She controls the entire story, obviously, as its her story. But, clearly, the hint is that her siblings (to say nothing of her mother) might remember things differently.
Even in my own family, largely due to the 5 1/2 years separating me from my younger sister and the 12 1/2 years between my brother and I, it often feels like we grew up in three different families. I remember things differently than my sister, and we both remember events differently than our brother does. Even events all three of us clearly remember, there are wide disparities in how we remember things go down.
As the experiences of the fictitious Whelan siblings, the real Bechdels, and me and my siblings, the existence and function of memory in a family counters Halbwachs’ claims about the formation of a collective memory. Indeed, given the strife that tends to exist in almost all families, it is clear that perhaps the formation of memories and narratives in families works differently tan in wider society.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers. In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling. Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.
The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable. Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too). The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country. And they all agreed on things.
Reality is far from this. The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are. Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not. Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population. And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%. The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.
The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe. The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other. Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought. In other words, the Constitution was a compromise. The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.
Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814. But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country. In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.
It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time. Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless. You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race. It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.
But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements. The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central. I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives. Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.
Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs. So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.
April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments
It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers. I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years. Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides. The Famine, in particular, gets me down. The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well. It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora. Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.
It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas. But, Irish history is massively complicated. My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up. I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.
O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic. But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously). So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.
My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Way, last week. It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War. Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did. But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers. And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin. He’s confused. He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland. When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused. And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders. This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.
One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history. He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland. But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated. He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.
Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation. And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.
And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.