Ben Affleck Speaks

April 22, 2015 § 10 Comments

Well, Ben Affleck has spoken.  And he has said what I would have hoped he’d have said the first go around.  He posted on his Facebook page last evening:

After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.

I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.

Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.

I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.

Ben Affleck

Obviously, I wish he had said this last October, but kudos to Affleck to taking this head on.  I don’t think anyone can have issue with anything he (or, more likely his PR people) say here.  I would like, though, to see him do  more than just make this statement, I would like to see a Hollywood mega star actually start a discussion on the legacies of slavery.  But.  I suppose I’m asking for too much.

On Ben Affleck and Slavery

April 21, 2015 § 173 Comments

A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode.  The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version.  For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.

So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s.  Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.

In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City.  It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692.  As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives.  Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser?  Turns out her ancestor was the victim.  I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?

Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck?  Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year.  The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network.  Anyway.  Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps.  No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.

According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show.  As Gates noted,

One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?

This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship.  Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.

Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information.  However.  Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country.  If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners.  We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.

History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone.  Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies.  Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions.  At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial.  On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.

Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing.  It is the only way to come to terms with the past.  And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.

Scary Ideas and Lazy Journalism

April 3, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last week, the New York Times published another in a depressing series of articles in the print media about how colleges and universities are allegedly catering to sensitive-little flower millennials, who cannot handle big ideas that challenge their deeply-held beliefs, and how, instead, they seek to create ‘safe spaces’ all across campus, where they won’t come into contact with big, scary ideas.  I can never get through one of these articles without seething.  See, I am a professor.  That means I work and teach on a university campus.  I come into daily contact with these millennials.  And I’ve come to despise generational stereotypes about them, as much as I despised the stereotypes applied to my generation twenty years ago.  The stereotypes are largely similar: apathetic, self-centred, self-obssessed, etc.  And, just as they were a ridiculous accusation against Gen X, the same is true of millennials.

The larger problem with these kinds of articles is that they are written by journalists looking for sensation, and supported by their editors looking for clickbait (hey, look, Ma! I used the term ‘clickbait’ in successive posts).  These articles are drive-by smearings of academe (not that there aren’t a lot of problems within the system, but journalists aren’t interested in them, because they don’t generate headlines), written without bothering to understand how the academy works, how ideas are exchanged, and how we professors work to challenge and destabilize commonly-held beliefs, even if we agree with them ourselves.

Take, for example, the story of a course at Arizona State University called “US Race Theory and The Problem of Whiteness.”  FoxNews host Elizabeth Hasselbeck attacked the course, after talking to a student at ASU.  The problem was that the student Hasselbeck talked to wasn’t enrolled in the class, and she herself never bothered to talk to the professor.  No, instead, Hasselbeck instead ranted about the problems with this kind of course, in predictable fashion.  This led the professor of the course to doxxed and to receive death threats.

But back to the Times article.  I was going to write a strongly-worded riposte to it here, but my wife beat me to it.  So, instead, I point you, gentle reader, over to Margo’s blog, as she says what I wanted to say in a much better fashion.

The Dangers of the Internet of Everything

April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation.  She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US.  She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part.  Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still.  That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny.  Her music is catchy as all get out.  Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars.  But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick.  In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom.  The chorus goes:

Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.

RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.”  Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did.  On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian.  FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness.  FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers.  That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.

As Morozov argues:

FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.

The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.

Wonderful.  Sign me up.  Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out.  Or whatever.  This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments.  But he doesn’t any more.  His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain.  This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald.  I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid.  In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up.  And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).

Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.  Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage.  In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling.  The Globe makes more money off this than real news.

Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically.  FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet.  And many people will think this is a great thing.  But it is not.  Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives.  As Morozov argues,

[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.

In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle.  In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there.  Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health.  Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet.   Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency.  Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room.  But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state.  Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.”  The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy.  They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world.  Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.

And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing.  It can democratize.  It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter.  Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter.  And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek.  And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone.  But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world.  And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.

Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)

Eggers’ dystopia is fiction.  The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real.  And why should we be surprised?  As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Landsometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money.  The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything.  Greed drives us.  And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out.  Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.

The Problem with Being Canadian

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.

Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.

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.

The International Museum of Folklore

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.

In Defence of Irish Revisionist Historiography

February 11, 2015 § 3 Comments

I’m reading Guy Beiner’s masterful study of the folk memory of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland for my Irish Public History class. In it, Beiner, like nearly every single Irish historian of the past two decades, goes off on Irish revisionist historiography.  For those who are unfamiliar with the wars of Irish Historiography, revisionism in the Irish context dates back to the 1920s.  In that decade, young scholars, educated at English universities, became frustrated with the fundamental lack of critical studies of the Irish past.  Thus, centred around T.W. Moody and R. Dudley Edwards, they began to re-assess Irish history.  They eschewed myth and folk tale for fact.  They abhorred Irish nationalism for its warping of Irish historiography.  They sought a dispassionate, “value-free” national historiography.

Revisionism became the dominant vision of Irish historiography for a period from the 1930s through to the 1990s.  In the late 1980s, however, revisionism came under attack for its inability to deal with the more traumatic events in the Irish past.  One of the problems with revisionism, critics charged, was that in its desire to view Ireland as un nation comme les autres, it whitewashed calamity: 1641, 1798, 1847, 1916, 1922, etc.  At its fundamental core, revisionism is incapable of processing the fact (I know, ironic) that Ireland was an English, and then British, colony from roughly the 13th century until the 20th (there is also the complicating factor of Northern Ireland, still a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland).

I certainly have no great love for the revisionist project, in part because it denied the colonial fact of Ireland.  This means that those moments of atrocity, most notably the Famine, get played down.  Revisionism tends to shy away from criticising the English/British for their actions in Ireland.  But sometimes, as during the Famine, it is simply the fact of the matter that Britain did little to alleviate the starving and misery in Ireland whilst at the same time continuing to export food from the nation.

However.  In reading Beiner’s devastating critique of revisionism, I am reminded that it DID serve a purpose.  Once.  A long time ago.  When Moody and Edwards were organising their critique of Irish nationalist historiography, their corrective WAS a necessary tonic.  Moody argued that nationalist histories were harmful to an understanding of the Irish past, arguing that it was a matter of “facing the facts of the Irish past” as a means to countering the falsehoods of mythology.  In the 1930s, for a newborn nation, this was an essential process.  The problem is that revisionism went too far and was never able to accord to its internal contradictions.  But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once necessary.

Stephen Harper’s War on Canada

January 30, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last weekend, the Toronto Star published a scathing article, looking at how Canada’s elected government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has muzzled, shut down, and otherwise sullied government branches.  Harper has silenced scientists working for Environment Canada and Health Canada, all in an attempt to keep them from publicising the harm caused by the Tarsands in Alberta.

Then there’s Harper’s war against the Library and Archives Canada.  This is the national archives and library of the country.  In other words, it’s kind of important.  Rather than fund it properly, ensure that Canadians have access to their national history, Harper has cut funding, shut down branches, and done everything it can to prevent us from knowing the history that his government spends too much time blaming us for not knowing.  This is unacceptable, and downright terrifying.

Mark Bourrie, the author of the article notes that: “In 2008–2009, Library and Archives Canada spent $385,461 on historic documents. In 2011–2012 it spent nothing. In Washington, the Library of Congress’s acquisition budget was between $18 million and $19 million annually from 2009 to 2012.”  Think about that.  In 2008-09, LAC’s acquisition budget was .02% of that of the Library of Congress.  In 2011-12, it was 0%.  This is a national disgrace.

During Daniel Caron’s reign of error at the the LAC, he and his management team came up with a code of conduct for employees:

Caron and his management team came up with a code of conduct banning librarians and archivists from setting foot in classrooms, attending conferences and speaking at public meetings, whether on the institution’s time or their own. The 23 pages of rules, called “Library and Archives Canada’s Code of Conduct: Values and Ethics,” came into effect in January 2013. Employees could get special dispensation from their bosses, but the fine print of the gag order made it unlikely that permission would be granted. The rules called public speaking, whether to university students, genealogy groups, historians and even other archivists and librarians, “high risk” activities that could create conflicts of interest or “other risks to LAC.” The code stressed federal employees’ “duty of loyalty” not to history or to Library and Archives Canada, but rather to the “duly elected government.” Employees breaking the code could find themselves reported to LAC managers by colleagues who turned them in on what James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called a “snitch line.”

“As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities,” the code said. It reminded librarians and archivists, many of whom do not consider themselves public menaces, that they must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted). They were warned not to fall into the trap of social media. And LAC employees were warned that teaching a class or speaking at a conference put them at special risk, since “such activities have been identified as high risk to Library and Archives Canada and to the employee with regard to conflict of interest, conflict of duties and duty of loyalty.”

This is appalling.  I cannot think of a universe where giving a pubic talk is “high risk.”  Especially for an archivist.  How is it high risk? University students might learn how to use the archives?  Various publics may learn how to look for their ancestors?  And the very fact that Harper has farmed out aspects of LAC’s geneaology department to Ancestry.ca is criminal, and nothing short of that.

Then there’s the part about “loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials.”  Um, no.  Civil servants DO have a loyalty to the Government.  It’s part of their job.  But a loyalty to the elected officials.  No.  Wrong.  The loyalty of civil servants in Canada is to Canadians, the taxpayers and citizens.  We have a right to know whether or not the tarsands are harming our environment.  We have a right to be able to go to the LAC to discover our history.

Harper’s war on brains, as The Star terms is, is unacceptable, wrong, and dangerous.  The way to build a healthy nation is through an educated populace.  But Harper clearly does not want this.  He wants Canadians to be poorly-educated, to not have the essential information they need to make decisions on matters of public policy.  Stephen Harper needs to be stopped.  The Government of Canada needs to recover its moral compass.  The government should serve Canadians, not see them as contemptuous and a nuisance to the government.

Harper’s behaviour is nothing short of undemocratic and un-Canadian.

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