September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
The Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has met and exceeded its goal, and with three days to spare! As of right now, the Indiegogo page has raised $49,335! The goal was $45,000.
The Foundation is also hosting a fundraising soirée at the Horse Palace, 1226, rue Ottawa, in Griffintown, on Thursday night, 2 October, from 5pm. Tickets are $75, and can be purchased here. More details on the soirée can be found on the Foundation’s Facebook page here.
A huge thank you to all who have contributed. Even though I am no longer involved with the Foundation, I strongly believe in its mission and want to see Leo’s Horse Palace saved!
December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year. The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago. It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan. The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy. Frank is a drunk asshole. There’s no other way to put it. His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left. The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona. There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained). Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids. The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank. Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.
I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father. But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America. It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston. The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side. Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.
As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers. I find myself torn every time I watch it.
On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun. No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs. But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing. There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.
When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor. And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed. To a degree. It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on. Scams tended to be smaller scale. Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain. Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white. It was complicated.
And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show. Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes. But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated. Their lives aren’t all of one or the other. They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes. Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house. In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.). In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours. They are, essentially, fully human.
Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes. Poor people are lazy. Poor people are scammers. Poor people are dishonest. Poor people are victims. Poor people need help. And so on and so on. In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more. In fact, the poor are just like you and me. And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.
And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in. MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie. He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype. In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.
December 5, 2013 § 4 Comments
Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island. He was the keynote speaker. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s. I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family. But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification. He was eloquent and fierce at the same time. He is, of course, an ageing punk. He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.
I finally got around to reading All Souls last week. I’m glad I did. I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence. One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs. And another brother falsely accused of murder. It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point. I know how the story ends, obviously.
It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston. The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974. And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence. But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate). And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).
But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie. I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up. Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods. And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.
I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place. All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project. Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories. Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh. Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it. And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.
This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:
Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie. Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns. Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.
The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty. Doyle Driedger didn’t. But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do. It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do. Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.
But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them. There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back. I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood. Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.
I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not. But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times), I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism. But there is something about this view of Irish slums.
July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
Janet Reitman‘s Rolling Stone feature on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a fascinating read in many ways, as she explores just what might have radicalised him and turned him into a terrorist. Reitman talked to pretty much everyone in the Boston region who knew him growing up. He comes across as the pretty stereotypical American urban kid. As a Bostonian, the article interested me for obvious reasons. But as an historian, I was struck by questions and notions of diaspora concerning the Tsarnaev family and the youngest son, especially.
Reitman talked to Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches Islamic Studies at UMass-Dartmouth. UMass-Dartmouth, of course, is where Tsarnaev went to school. Interestingly, Tsarnaev, who by all accounts was interested in his history as a Chechen and a Muslim, didn’t take a single one of Williams’ classes. But Williams also comments on the older brother, Tamerlan, who by all accounts was the ring-leader. Williams, says Reitman,
believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.
I find this comment interesting. Being an Irish Canadian, and having spent much of the past decade-and-a-half studying the Irish in North America, I’ve always been struck by the willingness of Irish-Catholics in both Canada and the United States to identify with the IRA. Usually this identification with the IRA came without complications. Supporters never thought about where that money in those tins was going, what it was going to be used for. What happened when the guns and bombs it bought were used, who got hurt, who got killed. If they had stopped to think about this, if they removed the romanticism of the struggle back “home” (even if Ireland hadn’t been home for several generations), I’m sure support for the IRA would’ve dried up pretty quickly. Not many Irish Canadians or Irish Americans actually went back to Northern Ireland and got involved in the fight.
And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev did. He went back to Chechnya and Dagestan. He was, however, told by a cousin in Dagestan that this was not his fight. So he brought the fight home. I shudder at the consequences.
But that is exactly what makes Williams’ comparison invalid after a certain point. All those Irish in Southie who contributed to the IRA’s cause have several degrees of separation from the consequences of their donation. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quite literaly have blood on their hands as a direct result of their actions.
April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
Scholars studying diaspora and immigrant communities have noticed that there are some very general, very real trends amongst diasporic immigrant communities. The first generation, the immigrants, arrive in their new home, but find themselves caught between two worlds, struggling to fit into the new home, whilst still maintaining very real and very strong ties to the homeland. Their children, the second generation, are citizens of the new country by birth, and grow up in that host culture, and generally do not express a lot of interest in the culture of the homeland; they are fully integrated into the new homeland. It’s their children, the third generation, that begins to cast an eye back to the old homeland, curious about where their grandparents are from and the culture their grandparents carried with them in the new land until they died. These are trends that have existed in North America since the Irish began coming over here in the mid-19th century, and have been replicated time and again by pretty much every single group that has arrived in the United States and Canada in large numbers since.
Immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, of course, have greatly changed North American culture ever since the Irish. Take, for example, the city I live in now: Boston. Boston is the birthplace of the American independence movement in the 1770s, and was a tight-knit Anglo-Protestant city prior to the Irish arriving. Boston was never the same after the Irish arrived in huge numbers in the mid-19th century. And as the Irish infiltrated the city’s economy, culture, and politics, they left their mark. This can still be seen today: at present Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are both attempting to gain the Democratic nomination for the special election to replace John Kerry in the US Senate. Both Lynch and Markey are currently Congressmen. Both are Irish Catholics, Markey’s from Malden and Lynch is from South Boston, aka: Southie. He grew up in the same housing projects as Whitey Bulger. The Irish still have their tentacles in the Democratic Party machinery in Boston today, 160-some odd years after they arrived.
Other cities are affected differently. Take, for example, my hometown of Montréal. Montréal has long been the recipient of immigrants, dating back to the Irish, who began arriving there in large numbers in the 1840s. The Irish completely changed the city, adding an Anglophone group that was Catholic to an already divided city. The Catholic Church was also massively changed in Montréal as the Irish muscled their way in. Indeed, they are largely to thank for the fact that there is an English-language Catholic Church in the city today. But Montréal is also being fundamentally changed by immigration from nations in the Francophonie in Africa and the Caribbean today. In the past decade or so, Montréal has undergone a fundamental cultural shift, as new French-speaking communities arrive. The consequences for French Canadian nationalism and separatism should be obvious.
But this process of acculturation may be now speeding up. Our cities have become faster, life is lived at a frenetic pace in our cities on this continent. Last week, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200 more, some very seriously. The bombs were planted by Tamerlan Tsarneav, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, who is 19. The Tsarneav brothers are immigrants, they came to the United States from Dagestan just over a decade ago. Tamerlan was here on a green card, whilst Dzhokhar became a citizen last year. Their parents have both returned to Russia in recent years, leaving them here. But they’ve been here a long time, Tamerlan was 14 or 15 when he arrived here, Dzhokhar was 8 or 9. They were both Americanised, and their brand of terrorism, experts have concluded is of the ‘home-grown’ variety.
Yesterday in the Boston Globe, Farah Stockman commented on this growth in homegrown terrorism, citing forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who in 2008 predicted that terrorism in the West would increasingly be of this variety. Of course, by 2008, we had already seen the writing on the walls. On 7 July 2005, four terrorists detonated bombs during the morning commute in London. All four were homegrown terrorists, two were the sons of immigrants, a third was an immigrant himself, but had grown up in England. The bombing of Madrid’s transportation system in March 2004 was also of the homegrown variety.
This new generation of terrorists, the so-called 3rd wave, are younger than the Al Qaeda terrorists of the previous decade. According to Stockman, the average Al Qaeda terrorist in the 90s and early 00s was in his 30s. Today, the average age of these 3rd wavers is in his early 20s. The 2nd wave were devoutly religious and had grown up in devoutly religious homes. The 3rd wave grew up secular, as the brothers Tsarneav had. So, why the turn to radicalism and terrorism, she asks:
For some, it was out of a warped romanticism for a homeland they barely knew; an act of rebellion against hardworking immigrant parents who brought them to the West for “a better life.” Others were US-born converts to Islam who found in terrorism a sense of camaraderie and purpose that had eluded them all their lives. A few became terrorists after years of gang-banging and drug dealing. It was an ideology that transformed their violent tendencies into something heroic. It made them feel they were on the side of the angels.
Sagemean concludes that for some of these young men, ‘terrorism is a fad.’ This is an interesting thought. But if these young men are attracted, in part, by this romantic attachment to their parents’ homeland, or the homeland of their families, or to the religion that sustained their family generations ago, I’m not so sure that this is a fad. Scholars looking at notions of diaspora note the attachment 3rd generation children and those beyond have to the mythical homeland. Looking at my own community and what I study (the Irish), I would note that men and women whose families emigrated to North America 160 years ago remain curious and interested in the mythical homeland of Ireland. Ireland draws them in, they’re curious about the history, the culture, and some even the language. This becomes a life-long interest.
Maybe Sagemen is correct in that the violence of radicalism and terrorism is a fad of youth and some of these young men will eventually mellow out and choose to focus on aspects of their culture that do not lead to violence. Certainly there are echoes of this in the Irish diaspora, where many young men (and some young women) have been attracted to the glory of the violence in the North. This was certainly true when I was younger, before the establishment of peace following the Good Friday Accords in 1998. Young Irish-American and Irish-Canadian men would hold romanticised images of the IRA and the resistance “back home”. Most have long since grown out of this fascination with the IRA, of course. (This did, however, inspire Bono to go on a legendary rant during a performance of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” during the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, which was released on the DVD of Rattle & Hum).
January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Twice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans. These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada. Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil. Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.
For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada. They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people. The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen. Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation. It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents. I was dumbfounded.
I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians. Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then. I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer. Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money? And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now. I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it. The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc. In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.
But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government. Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister. This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected. Full stop. And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.
Now I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial. I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal. From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence. I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament. I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.
There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation. And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation. I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument. It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries. The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement. Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation. Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.
So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors. I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy. Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy. It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy. At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case. In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada. But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian. Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends. But it’s not that simple. That is an American argument. American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy. And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.
To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda. Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights. That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling. Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities. In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities. That is what democracy is.
And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is. And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less. The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics. Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister. Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.
And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico. Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy. The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own. It WAS a British colony. And today, it is by and large an American colony. I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do. And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.