December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments
I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend. Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here. My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw
upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.
As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials. I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem. Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover. Some of the trials took place here, though. Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.
But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events. I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria. But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England. Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs. In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts. There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica. The economy was suffering. Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.
Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace. Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston. In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts. All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.
The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland. What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that. Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries. Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.
Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland. She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title). But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.
November 25, 2014 § 10 Comments
This is Emmett Till, who was murdered when he was 14 years old. This is Emmett Till after he was abducted by a gang of men in rural Mississippi on the night of 28 August 1955. These men, headed by local grocer Roy Bryant, pistol-whipped Till, beat him, gouged out his eye, and then shot him. When Bryant, who was transporting Till’s body in his pick-up truck, was questioned as to what happened by an African American man, Bryant said that “this is what happens to smart niggers.” This picture sickens me. Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted on an open casket for his funeral so the world could see what happened to her little boy.
Last night, as I listened to the prosecutor in Ferguson, MO, and, then watched President Obama’s response, and watched the outrage on Twitter in response to the Michael Brown decision, I thought of Emmett Till. Last night, I had the depressing thought that Emmett Till died for nothing. I teach American history, and Till’s murder is usually regarded as a key moment in the birth of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Michael Brown is just one of many black men and boys to be killed in the United States by white men, oftentimes white police officers. I couldn’t help think last night of Trayvon Martin, and of Tamir Rice, the 12-year old boy gunned down by a police officer for waving a toy gun at a playground. But, the kinds of events that led to the deaths of Rice, Brown, and Martin aren’t all that new. For example, Yusef Hawkins. Or Amadou Diallo. I could go on.
Till was killed because he flirted with a white woman. Martin was killed because a neighbourhood watch captain thought him suspicious. Rice was killed because he was playing with a fake gun. Hawkins was killed because he was black in a white neighbourhood. Diallo was killed because he looked like a suspect in violent rapes. Brown was killed, well, I’m not entirely sure why. Because in August, the police claimed that the officer who shot him didn’t know he was a suspect in a convenience store robbery, though last night, the DA said that that’s why Brown was stopped.
So the right has come to the conclusion that Brown was a criminal and got what he deserved. My Twitter timeline last night had the occasional tweet or re-tweet to this effect. And news coverage I’ve read this morning follows that up. I say whether or not Brown rolled a convenience store is immaterial to his murder. The officer fired twelve shots at Brown. Six of those hit him. Two of this hit him in the head. The issue here is that a white police officer thought it necessary to fire twelve shots at an unarmed man. Fox News in the summer wondered whether Brown was, in fact, unarmed, given his physical size.
Perhaps, like last time I posted on race, I will get trolled by the racists. This time, I will not post racist comments in response to this article (I control what comments get posted, and, until last time, I generally allowed free speech here), but I will take them, and create a new blog post of racist, idiotic comments. And should I receive threats in response to this post, I will report them to the authorities. Consider that your fair warning.
November 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
My students in my Irish History course read Angela Bourke’s fantastic The Burning of Bridget Cleary and wrote a paper on it. The essay question asked them to situate Bridget Cleary’s murder within the context of Irish politics at the time, as this is what Bourke does, and why her book is so powerful. So much so that I assign this book every time I teach Irish History.
In reading the essays this semester, my students were particularly struck by the comparison of the Irish Catholics of the late 19th century with ‘Hottentots’ and Catholic Ireland with ‘Dahomey’ by both the British and Irish Unionist press. This was, of course, code for dismissing Irish claims to the right to Home Rule by comparing them with what the British regarded as ‘savage’ African nations. Leaving aside the racism inherent in this construction of Africa for another day, what struck me this year with the papers was the very fact that my students were so struck by these comparisons.
The major theme of my course is the way in which Ireland existed as a British colony, and the ways in which the British colonial discourse worked in keeping Ireland separate from, and excluded from, the wealth that accumulated in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by the 19th century. This is obvious in moments like The Famine, especially when the Under Secretary of the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, declared The Famine a gift from the Almighty and celebrated the change to reform Ireland away from the ‘perverse’ character of the native population.
For me, teaching Irish History, this has become de rigeur, I see this discourse and I don’t, it’s so deeply embedded into my brain. Thus, I really enjoyed seeing my students’ response to the discourse of Irishness on the part of the Unionists and British in 1895, when Bridget Cleary was murdered. I suppose it’s one thing to imagine Trevelyan’s cold response to The Famine as something that happened a long time ago. But, sometimes 1895 doesn’t seem like so long ago.
Bourke’s book has pictures of the inside of the Clearys’ cottage in Ballyvadlea, Co. Tipperary, and we see their poverty laid bare. However, the Clearys were not, actually, poor by Irish standards. But, because we can see some comparison between the Clearys in 1895 and our world today, they don’t seem so far away. Michael and Bridget Cleary were in their 30s and were childless. But perhaps more than that, they both had careers, so to speak. He was a cooper and she a milliner. Bridget, unlike many women of her era, especially in rural Ireland, was more or less independent. Thus, the Clearys look more like us than Trevelyan, and therefore, closer to us. So to read this comparison of the Clearys’ people, Irish Catholics, with African tribes dismissed as ‘cannibals’ is shocking (again, leaving aside the racist assumptions implicit in the dismissal of Dahomey as the land of cannibals).
And this is why I love teaching, I love the opportunity to get refreshed and re-enforced by my students as they discover something for the first time.
November 4, 2014 § 78 Comments
[Note: Comments have become out of control on this blog post, including some downright racist terminology that I have not allowed to be posted, as well as a few that include veiled, and occasionally direct, threats against me.]
So Ben Stein thinks that Obama is the most racist president in the history of this great republic. He thinks so because allegedly Obama “is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans,” and is using the ‘race card’ to convince all African Americans to vote for the Democratic Party. Ben Stein is wrong.
Obama is not the racist one, but Stein is tapping into a new discourse of racist ideology arising from the right in this country. In this discourse, anyone who mentions race as an issue in contemporary American life risks being called a racist. Anyone who points out racial inequality is at risk of being branded racist. In the mindset of those who trumpet this new discourse, we’re all equal, no matter our ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or racial background. And any attempt to point out inequality is therefore racist/sexist/homophobic, etc, by definition.
But what this discursive technique does is to deny the experiences of women and minorities in our society. It says to those who have experiences different than white men that their experiences are invalid. In short, this new racist discourse is meant to work as shorthand for racist viewpoints. Thus, by claiming Obama is racist, Stein is both diverting attention from his own racism, and engaging in that very racism he blames on Obama.
More often than not, this discursive technique comes hand-in-hand with declarations of what is in the best interests of African Americans. And in this sense, we return to the paternal racism of slave owners in the pre-Civil War era. I’m not saying that Ben Stein = slave plantation owner. I’m saying the tricks of technique here are very similar. Last spring, we saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops up in Vermont. Towards the end of the show, Rhiannon Giddens, the frontwoman of the band, told us of her own explorations of American history, and a book she read on slave narratives in the post-Civil War era. One story in particular struck her, and she wrote the song “Julie” about it.
In the story, the mistress of the plantation is shocked at the fact that Julie, the former slave woman would have a will of her own. She thought that she knew best for Julie, as did slave owners in general in a paternalist racist system.
And every time a white man or woman purports to know what’s best for African Americans, or any other minority, they’re engaging in this kind of paternalistic racism, which appears to be part and parcel of this new racist discourse from certain sectors of the political right in the United States.
September 22, 2014 § 8 Comments
The Macon County Fair in Decatur, Il, was cancelled this year. The fair has been a going concern for 158 years, but it also survives through funding from the state of Illinois. Illinois, of course, is a particularly cash-strapped state, which is saying something. It has the lowest bond rating from Moody’s of all 50 states of these United States of America. So funding for county fairs in Illinois has dropped drastically since the turn of the century, from $8.16 million to $5.07 million. Meanwhile, Macon County’s population has been in steady decline since the 1980s, falling from 131,375 to 109,278 today.
We were in Decatur last summer, in our drive across the continent to my sister’s wedding in Portland, OR. It was a pretty, but sleepy town in Central Illinois. It remains a central component of the industrial/agricultural heartland of the United States. It is also the birthplace of the Chicago Bears, the franchise known as the Decatur Staleys, after its original owner, a food-processing magnate.
But Decatur is in trouble, its population also in steady decline since the 1980s. And this decline is reflected in the trouble the Macon County Fair has encountered, as the organisation that puts on the fair is carrying a $300,000 debt, and its headquarters was damaged by heavy rains in July.
What is happening in Macon County is not unique, it is symptomatic of most rural areas in the United States (and Canada) today, as corporate farming becomes further and further entrenched, in the wake of deindustrialisation. Oportunities in these areas dry up, people are left with no choice but to move away, most of them to big cities, both in the MidWest, but also Chicago and coastal cities. Most Midwestern cities continue to grow, though St. Louis seems to be bucking this trend, its population in free-fall since the mid-20th century.
The story of deindustrialisation in North America is one that has been largely limited to big coastal cities, most notably in the northeast, and the so-called “Rust Belt” that stretches around the Great Lakes on both sides of the border (for an excellent treatment of deindustrialisation in the Rust Belt, check out Steve High’s book, Industrial Sunset). Left out of this story is the affect of deindustrialisation on the rural areas across the Heartland.
September 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’m always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about. Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative article in The Boston Globe last weekend. In an article about Sahro Hussan, a young Somali-American, and Muslim, woman who has created a business of avant-garde fashions for Muslim women, in Lewiston, ME, Linda Matchan, The Globe‘s reporter, writes:
Lewiston was one of the largest textile producers in New England, rolling out millions of yards in cotton fabrics every year. In time, though, the industry struggled to compete with Southern states where production costs were lower. Lewiston went into decline.
While there is nothing factually wrong with Matchan’s description of what happened in Lewiston (or any other industrial town across the northern portion of North America), note how any responsibility for what happened is removed from the equation. Matchan makes it sound like this was just an entirely natural process.
Deindustrialisation wasn’t a natural process, it didn’t just happen. The reason why the mills in Lewiston (or Lowell, Laurence, Lynn, or anywhere else) struggled wasn’t some random event. It happened because the corporations that owned those mills decided that they were not producing enough value for share-owners. So these corporations pulled out of places like Lewiston and moved down South. Why? Because production costs were too great in the North, the workers made too much (they were often unionised), and there was too much regulation of the workplace for the corporations’ preferences. So, they were induced to pull out and move down South where workplace regulation was minimal, where workers weren’t unionised, and the corporations could make great profits. The governments down South actively worked with these corporations to bring them South, mostly through these unregulated workplaces and tax incentives. As a friend of mine notes, this is how the South won the Civil War. But the South’s victory was shortlived, as soon, the corporations realised they could make even more money for their shareholders by moving overseas.
So. Long and short, deindustrialisation wasn’t just some random process, it was a cold, calculated manoeuvre by the corporations that owned these mills, in conjunction with cynical state and local governments in the South.
September 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversy, having a long history of doing stupid things and offering up offensive products to tasteless and tactless hipsters. A sample of the company’s idiocy sees anti-Semitic t-shirts and accessories, racist board games, and the like. But this week, we got an offensive sweatshirt. Urban Outfitters began selling a “vintage” Kent State University sweatshirt (at $120, a price only a clueless hipster would spend) that looked like it was spattered with blood, complete with what looked like bullet holes. This, of course, recalled the 1970 Kent State shootings, when four students were killed and nineteen injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed protesters. Almost immediately, the company was besieged with howls of protest, calling this move insensitive, at best (do a Twitter search for some more colourful responses). It then responded with a typical corporate nothing-speak empty apology:
If you click on the link in that tweet, you can read the end of this empty apology, which talks about sun-faded vintage clothing and discolourisation and “how saddened” the company was by public perception. Given the company’s history of provocation and offensive behaviour, I see nothing sincere here.
It’s been a bad stretch for clothing makers, last month, Spanish clothing retail giant Zara tried selling a children’s pyjama that recalled the uniform Jewish prisoners were forced to wear in concentration and death camps during the Holocaust. Faced with a similar storm of protest on Twitter and elsewhere, Zara withdrew the item and issued a similarly empty corporate apology. In its version of the gormless apology, Zara said this pyjama shirt was meant to recall the star sheriffs wore in the American West. Sure. Right.
I won’t even get into the downright daftness of hipsters wearing aboriginal headdresses. That’s an entire dissertation on stupidity, cultural appropriation, and a how-to guide on offensiveness. (There is, however, a Tumblr devoted to mocking hipsters in headdresses).
But all of this idiocy reinforces the importance of history and the impact a little bit of historical knowledge can have on the world. Someone in my Facebook feed today suggested that fashion companies simply hire someone to be an historian-minded vettter, to ensure plain, outright stupidity like this doesn’t happen. But the very fact that these two items of clothing actually got to market displays an epic failure of corporate oversight. In order for something to get from design to retail to production means that both items went through many checks, were seen by many eyes. And no one thought, “Hey, this is a bad idea.” Or, no one cared. Certainly, one can come to that conclusion vis-à-vis Urban Outfitters, given the serial nature of its offensiveness and lack of good corporate citizenship.
September 15, 2014 § 2 Comments
[We now return to regular programming here, after a busy summer spent finishing a book manuscript]
So U2 have a new album out, they kind of snuck up on us and dropped “Songs of Innocence” into our inboxes without us paying much attention. Responses to the new album have ranged from ecstatic to boredom, but I’ve been particularly interested in how the album got distributed: Apple paid U2 some king’s ransom to give it to us for free. Pitchfork says that we were subjected to the album without consent, a lame attempt to appropriate the words of the ant-rape movement to an album.
As for me, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of “Songs of Innocence.” I think it’ll ultimately be disposable for me, though it’s certainly better than their output last decade, but not as good as the surprising “No Line on the Horizon” which, obviously was not up to the standard of their heyday in the 80s and 90s. And I’m not sure about Bono’s Vox as he ages, it’s starting to sound too high pitched and thin for my tastes, whereas it used to be so warm and rich.
Anyway. iTunes is now offering U2’s back catalogue on the cheap. I lost most of my U2 cd’s in a basement flood a few years ago, so I took a look. But looking at the album covers, I was struck by the flood of memories that came to me. For a long time, U2 were one of my favourite bands, and “The Joshua Tree” has long been in the Top 3 of my Top 5. But, just how deeply U2’s music is embedded in my memories was surprising. For example, looking at the cover of “The Unforgettable Fire,” I am immediately transported back in time, to two places. First, I’m 11 or 12, in suburban Vancouver, listening to “Pride (In the Name Of Love)” for the first time, on C-FOX, 99.3 in Vancouver. Secondly, I’m on a train to Montreal, from Ottawa, in the fall of 1991, listening to “A Sort of Homecoming” as I head back to my hometown for the first time in a long time.
The cover of “Zooropa” takes me back to the summer of 1993, riding around Vancouver in the MikeMobile, the ubiquitous automobile of my best friend, Mike. That summer, “Zooropa” alternated with the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Twins” in the cd player, which was a discman plugged into the tape deck of the 1982 Mercury Lynx. US and the Pumpkins were occasionally swapped out for everything from Soundgarden and Fugazi to the Doughboys and Mazzy Star, but those two albums were the core.
“Boy” takes me back to being a teenager, too, my younger sister, Valerie, was also a big U2 fan back in the day, and she really liked this album, so we’re listening to it on her pink cassette player (why we’re not next door, in my room, listening on my much more powerful stereo, I don’t kn0w). She went on to become obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys’ horrid, evil, and wrong cover of “Where the Streets Have No Name” (and the PSB were generally so brilliant!), to the point where she once played the song 56 times in a row on her pink cassette player, playing, rewinding, and playing the cassette single over and over.
Obviously the soundtrack of our lives (or The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, a brilliant Swedish rock band last decade) is deeply embedded in our memories, much the same way that scents can transport us back in place and time. But I was more than a little surprised how deep U2 is in my mind, how just seeing an album cover can take me back in time across decades, and in place, across thousands upon thousands of kilometres.
August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments
I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States. The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States. In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists. They believed in a United States for Americans only. We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock. But, we’ll leave that alone. They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”
I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854. The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists. Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards. Here’s the list:
- They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
- They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
- They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
- They HATE the liberty of conscience.
- They HATE the liberty of the Press.
- They HATE the liberty of speech.
- They HATE our Common School system.
- They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
- The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
- They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
- They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
- They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
- They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
- They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
- They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.
The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.” Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising. But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.
As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record). And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant). And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed. The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.
Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority. The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants. But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.