May 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
I teach a lot of US History. And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists. To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.
They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens. How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets? How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?
And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal. And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans. They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.
FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government. Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens. Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies. But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.
That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69. In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses. The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.
Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents. A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown. The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.
But it is under attack now. One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls. Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal. This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.
But they are right. Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans. And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it. And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America. It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.
February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history? We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era. First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies. I have already commented on this. Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment. Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’ What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?
I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face. But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem. Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too. He notes that
Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter. Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on. Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.
Indeed. The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act. This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book). But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.
When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature. We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music. We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect. And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc. We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.
Historians, we tend to go further than journalists. Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why and how they happened. And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews. The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled. In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.
When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation. How do we do that? Logic and reasoning. We use other scholars as guides. We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject. We consider their interpretations based on the evidence. We agree or disagree. Or we agree and see another possibility. And so on.
Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations. So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where. We establish the facts. And we establish these from our sources. Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts. They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research. And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.
So how do we source that in the post-truth world? Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on. When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course. And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.
My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair. When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada. Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice. They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.
The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair. In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun. He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house. Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.
So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56? I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular. I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order. I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement. I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions. and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair. I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.
And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time. They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary. Maybe even blogs like mine.
We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen. And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.
December 12, 2016 § 6 Comments
Way back in 2009, failed Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin took her feud with the media to a new level. She began referring to it as the ‘lamestream’ media, bitter as she was about the justifiable questioning of her qualifications for the position, amongst other things. Her nomenclature, though, became a crystalizing moment for many on the far right, as they now had a catchy and witty term to describe the media. The far right had long had a problem with the mainstream media, which tended to dismiss them as nut jobs or worse. Indeed, far right sites like Breitbart, which had already been in existence for two years by the time Palin came up with her term, had been critiquing the allegedly liberal media. Breitbart, though, was just the most successful of these far right sites, most of which, including Breitbart, descended into conspiracy theories, hate speech, and vague threats against minorities.
And then Donald Trump happened. Trump, a life-long moderate Democrat from New York City, saw an opportunity. Clearly he was a student of Joseph Goebbels’ theories of propaganda. Goebbels, who was the Nazis’ spin doctor, noted, most famously, that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes a truth. But Goebbels also opined that propaganda works best when the manipulated group believes it is acting of its own free will. This is not to say that Trump is a Nazi, of course (though some of his followers clearly are). It is to note that Trump is a master manipulator.
All throughout the primaries and into the main presidential election, he carried out a series of feuds with the media. He refers to the New York Times as ‘failing’ in nearly every tweet about it. He even carried out a feud with Megyn Kelly of FoxNews. In that, he seemed to break with every expectation of a conservative candidate, as Fox has long been the conspiracy-driven, nearly fake-news media darling of the right (lest you think I’m biased, liberals have MSNBC, and it’s not like the far left doesn’t have its own issues with the media). It probably helped that Fox was in a crisis of its own at the time, with head honcho Roger Ailes being forced to step down due to a sexual harassment scandal.
Trump, then, coalesced an already-extant movement that developed in the wake of the rise of Barack Obama, the first African American president, and his candidacy for the presidency. Trump’s candidacy, though, took this until-now fringe movement into the mainstream, most notably through Breitbart and the appointment of its CEO, Steve Bannon, as his campaign CEO before appointing him as the Chief Strategist of the nascent Trump administration.
Trump’s media campaign and discourse has been nothing short of brilliant, even if it is nefarious and repulsive.
November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
Donald Trump is the first man elected President of the United States with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups since, well, before the Civil War (Andrew Johnson was elected Vice-President, but he did so as Lincoln’s junior partner and after taking a hard-line against Confederates, which he later walked away from). I refuse to call these people the alt-right. They’re not. They’re white supremacists.
But in the wake of Trump’s election, the media has been bending and tripping over itself to normalize white supremacy. Perhaps those in the media behind this would claim that they’re just attempting to understand. But there is nothing to understand. White supremacy is pretty bloody obvious. There is no need to explain it differently, it is deeply offensive to let members attempt to explain themselves and argue for the justness of their cause in public. There is no justness of their cause.
I came of age in the early 90s, when racist skinheads could still be found wandering around Canadian cities like Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. There, they beat on black people, harassed and intimidated non-white people, targeted LGBTQ people. Violently. And since that era, white supremacy has faded into the background, usually affiliated with violent racist fringe groups.
Until now. President-Elect Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, an anti-Semitic, misogynist white supremacist as his Chief Counsel. And much of the so-called liberal media in the United States has attempted to normalize it, like this is just a run-of-the-mill appointment.
But it gets worse. Starting the morning after the election, on November 10, NPR was interviewing white supremacists on Morning Edition, as if that was to be expected. The New York Times has alternated between shaming the incoming administration for its ties to white supremacists and normalizing those same ties. The BBC has allowed the editor of The Weekly Standard, a deeply conservative, and apparently racist, publication, onto its set to claim that the KKK does not exist and, moreover, even if it did, to compare it with the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus. Nearly every media platform I consume has had some commentary from David Duke crowing about how happy he is. And CNN had a man on last week asking whether or not Jews are people. I refuse to provide links to this. Search them yourselves if you want to see/read.
This is disgraceful. This is giving screen-time to white supremacists, it is making them acceptable members of the body politic. It is allowing white supremacy to gain a beach head in the mainstream. This is wrong. So very wrong. None of these clowns deserve support, or attention. There’s a reason they were almost personae non gratae in the mainstream for the past two-plus decades: they’re extremists. And watching the media feed these trolls is nauseating.
November 18, 2016 § 6 Comments
Liberal news media sites are all a-gog with the rise of the ‘post-truth’ politician. Donald Trump is the most egregious example, nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. But Boris Johnson. Nigel Farage. Marine Le Pen. I could go on. It’s so bad that the venerable Oxford Dictionary has named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016.
I do not like the term ‘post-truth.’ I believe this is a case where a spade is a spade. These politicians are liars. They’re lying. They tell lies. Untruths. Fibs. Fiction. Calling it ‘post-truth’ normalizes their lying. It makes it seem ok. Like, we’re all in on the joke. Like none of this matters.
It matters. Deeply. In the country I live, the United States, we have just elected a president who has determined that Donald Trump speaks the truth exactly 4% of the time. Four per cent. A further 11% of his public utterances are ‘mostly true.’ And 15% are ‘half true.’ But half-true is still a lie. I learned the term from a lawyer friend, who notes lawyers love terms like this, because it means something is essentially a lie, but because there’s some factual veracity to it, it’s copacetic. So. Even if we want to be generous to Trump, 30% of his public utterances contain factual veracity. The other 70%, the overwhelming majority of what he says? Well, they’re ‘mostly false’ (19%), ‘false’ (34%), and the remainder, 17%, are what PoliFact calls ‘pants on fire,’ as in that children’s rhyme: ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’
Yes. The United States has just elected a man who speaks God’s honest truth 4% of the time he opens his mouth in public.
This is not ‘post-truth.’ This is lying. Donald Trump is a liar. Boris Johnson is a liar. Marine Le Pen is a liar. Nigel Farage is a liar. We need to call this what it is if we wish to combat it. The decisions people like Trump and Johnson get to make as head of state and government minister, respectively, impact the lives of millions of people, and not just in their own countries.
A lie is a lie is a lie.
November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both. Anxiety is running rampant across the nation. He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. These are all things we must keep in mind. Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.
Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost. People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.
We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change. We create a record of our dissent. We demand our system of government work for us, not against us. We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’
We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.
We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here. We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.
So why letters? Glad you asked:
Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered. Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany. Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.
Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.
We are collecting them for now on our website. But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president. This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday. How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question. Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.
Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back. The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years. They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life. Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday. And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant. They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts. They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time. And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money. Got married, had kids, raised them. Eventually, you retired. Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company. But that’s all gone. Deindustrialization. And free trade.
What happened when the jobs dried up? People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages. Alcoholism and addiction became more common. Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers. Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry. But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills. Then there’s health insurance and benefits. With GE, those were all taken care of. Waffle House doesn’t take care of them. Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans. But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things. And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.
And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner). Think about TV and the movies. Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA. Now? Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous. And besides, it’s set in Chicago. Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city. America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore. There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane. Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA. For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.
The United States has long been a deeply divided nation. We like to think it’s North-South. It’s not. It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory? No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class. And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred) And then Trumpism occurs.
Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back. I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization. My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988. My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border. And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone. He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder. And my mom was university-educated. But. We lost. And so many others. Their anger is visceral. Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.
But Trump cannot deliver on his promises. If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s. Those factory jobs aren’t coming back. Automation, people. The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation. More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did. He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.
So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again? When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there. But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more. Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified. Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader. Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc. I don’t feel optimistic either way.