We, The Other People

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

constitution

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.

Reflections on Feminism and Class

February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night.  Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.  I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day.  Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front.  And we listened to her.  She was an intimidating presence on a stage.  The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys.  Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream.  Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to.  Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist.  If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.

Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion.  We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities.  So.  I asked my students if women were a minority.  To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms.  Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population.  But.  Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially.  The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it.  The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.

Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.

In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed.  And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class.  And I had this lightning bolt moment.  This is why I have always been pro-feminist.  I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women.  Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement.  Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role.  I like that.

I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!).  But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class.  From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation.  To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor.  Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.”  Hidden, yes, but still very real.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary

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.

Niall Ferguson: Somewhere a village is missing its idiot

May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

By now it is no secret that I think Niall Ferguson is a pompous simpleton.  I give the man credit, he has had a few good ideas, and has written a few good books, most notably Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  His recent book, Civilization: The West and the Restwould have actually been a pretty good read if not for his sophomoric and embarrassing discussion of “killer apps” developed by the West and now “downloaded” by the rest of the world, especially Asia.  He has also been incredibly savvy in banking his academic reputation (though he is losing that quickly) into personal gain.  He has managed to land at Harvard, he advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.

But a few days ago, Ferguson outdid himself.  Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California, Ferguson responded to a question about John Maynard Keynes‘ famous comment on long-term economic planning (“In the long run, we are all dead”).  Ferguson has made it abundantly clear in the past that he does not think highly of the most influential and important economist of all time, which is fine.  But Ferguson has also made it abundantly clear that part of his problem with Keynes is not just based on economic policy.  John Maynard Keynes was bisexual.  He was married in 1925 to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, with whom he remained with until his death in 1946.  By all accounts I’ve read, the marriage was a happy one.  But they did not have children, which obviously upsets Ferguson.  But more troublesome for Ferguson is the fact that Keynes carried out many, many affairs with men, at least up to his marriage.  Fourteen years ago, in one of Ferguson’s more forgotten books, The Pity of War, Ferguson goes on this bizarre sidetrack on Keynes’ sexuality in the post-WWI era, something to the effect (I read the book a long time ago) that Keynes’ life and sexuality became more troubled after the war, in part because there were no cute young boys for him to pick up on the streets of London.  Seriously.  In a book published by a reputable press.

So, in California the other day, to quote economist Tom Kostigen (and who reported the comments for the on-line magazine Financial Advisor), who was there:

 He explained that Keynes had [no children] because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

It gets worse.

Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

Indeed.  Remember, Ferguson is, at least sometimes, a professor of economic history at Harvard.  That means he has gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in his classes.  How are they supposed to feel about him when they go into his class?  How is any right-thinking individual supposed to think when encountering Ferguson in class or anywhere, for that matter?

Today, Ferguson apologised on his own blog.  He called his comments his “off-the-cuff and not part of my presentation” what they are: stupid and offensive.  So for that, I applaud Ferguson.  He has publicly owned up to his idiocy.  But, I seriously doubt these were off-the-cuff comments.  Those are not the kind of comments one delivers off-the-cuff in front of an audience.  How do I know?  Because I’ve talked in front of large audiences myself.  I’ve been asked questions and had to respond.  Sometimes, we do say things off-the-cuff, but generally, not.  The questions we are asked are predictable in a sense, and they are questions that are asked within the framework of our expertise on a subject.

Moreover, there is also the slight matter of Ferguson’s previous gay-bashing comments in The Pity of War a decade-and-a-half ago.  Clearly, Ferguson has spent a lot of time pondering Keynes as an economist.  But he has also spent a lot of time obsessing over Keynes’ private life which, in his apology today, Ferguson acknowledges is irrelevant.  He also says that those who know him know that he abhors prejudice.  I’m not so sure of that, at least based on what I’ve read of Ferguson’s points-of-view on LGBT people, to say nothing of all the non-European peoples who experienced colonisation at the hands of Europeans, especially the British. Even in Empire, he dismissed aboriginal populations around the world as backwards until the British arrived.

I do not wish Ferguson ill, even though I do not think highly of him.  But I do hope there are ramifications for his disgraceful behaviour in California this week.

On Libertarianism

May 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

Libertarianism is a very appealing political/moral position.  To believe and accept that we are each on our own and we are each able to take care of our own business, without state interference is a nice idea.  To believe that we are each responsible for our own fates and destinies is something I could sign up for.  And, I have to say, the true libertarians I know are amongst the kindest people I know, in terms of giving their time, their money, their care to their neighbours and community, and even macro-communities.

But there are several fundamental problems with libertarianism.  The first problem is what I’d term ‘selfish libertarianism.’  I think this is what drives major facets of the right in the Anglo-Atlantic world, a belief in the protection of the individual’s rights and property and freedom of behaviour, but coupled with attempts to deny others’ rights, property, and freedom.  This, of course, is not real libertarianism. But this is pretty common in political discourse these days in Canada, the US, and the UK.  People demand their rights to live their lives unfettered, but wish to deny others that freedom, especially women, gays/lesbians, and other minority groups (of course, women are NOT a minority, they make up something like 53% of the population in Canada, the US, and UK).  So, ultimately, we can dismiss these selfish libertarians as not being libertarians at all.

My basic problem with true libertarianism is its basic premise.  If we are to presume that we are responsible for our own fates and destinies, then we subscribe to something like the American Dream and that belief we can all get ahead if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work hard.  I find that very appealing, because I have worked hard to get to where I am, and I feel the need to keep working hard to fulfill my own dreams.

But therein lies the problem. Behind the libertarian principle is the idea that we’re all on the same level playing field.  We are not.  Racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny: these all exist on a daily basis in our society.  I see them every day.  I have experienced discrimination myself.  And no, not because I’m Caucasian.  But because I come from the working-classes.  I was told by my high school counsellor that my type of people was not suited for university studies.  I had a hard time getting scholarships in undergrad because I didn’t have all kinds of extra-curricular activities beyond football.  I didn’t volunteer with old people, I didn’t spend my time helping people in hospitals.  I couldn’t.  I had to work.  And I had to work all through undergrad.  And throughout my MA and PhD.  In fact, at this point in my life at the age of 40, I have been unemployed for a grand total of 5 months since I landed my first job when I was 16.  And having to work throughout my education simply meant I didn’t qualify for most scholarships.  So I had to work twice as hard as many of my colleagues all throughout my education.  And that, quite simply, hurt me.  And sometimes my grades suffered.  And within the academy, that is still problematic today, even four years after I finished my PhD.  But that’s just the way it is. I can accept that, I’m not bitter, I don’t dwell on it.  But it happened, and it happened because of class.  Others have to fight through racism or sexism or homophobia.

So, quite simply, we do not all begin from the same starting line.  We don’t all play on a level playing field.  Mine was tilted by class.  And, for that reason, libertarianism, in its true sense, does not work.  If we wish to have a fair and just society, we require ways and means of levelling that playing field, to give the African-American or working class or lesbian or son of immigrant children the chance to get ahead.  Me? I worked hard, but I also relied on student loans, bursaries, and what scholarships I could win based on grades alone.  My parents didn’t pay for a single cent of my education, not because they didn’t care or want to, but because they simply couldn’t afford it.  I got some support from my grandparents each year, to go with the student loans/bursaries/small scholarships.  And thank god I did.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it.  I’d be flipping burgers at a White Spot in Vancouver at the age of 40.

Punk Rawk, Maaaaan!

January 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

I managed to not sound entirely daft in an interview with the Halifax Commoner on the place of women in punk rock.  That’s a goal in and of itself, no?

Remembering the Montréal Massacre

December 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

On 6 December 1989, a lone gunman burst into the École Polytechnique de Montréal, part of the Université de Montréal, and opened fire.  He targeted women specifically.  He was upset that “feminists” had ruined his life.  For his delusions, 28 innocent people were shot, before he turned the gun on himself.  In the first classroom he broke into, he separated men from women, then shot all 9 women, 6 of whom died.  Then he wandered the hallways, the cafeteria, and another classroom, targeting women, shooting another 14 women, and 4 men.  All 4 men survived, of the 24 women who were shot, 14 died.  All this within 20 minutes.

I was 16, living in suburban Vancouver when this happened.  I remember the shock.  I couldn’t fathom then, and I still can’t, how someone could open fire in a school, let alone, to kill women for being in school.  These 14 women died because they were just that: women getting an education.  I have never been able to wrap my head around that concept.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  It didn’t in 1989 and it doesn’t in 2009.  The Montréal Massacre is one of those transformative moments in my life, it is deeply embedded in my view of the world.  It was a shocking, terrible event.  And despite all of the school shootings since in both Canada and the USA, this is the one that is, to me, a horror story.   Every 6 December, I remember watching the chilling news footage in the living room back in BC, I remember trying to understand why this had happened, my mother and I both horrified.  And every 6 December, I find myself asking those same questions over and over.  I still don’t have an answer.

But what particularly upsets me about 6 December is that the shooter’s name lives on, in infamy, of course, but nearly everyone of my generation, we were all affected wherever we were, know his name.  I refuse to utter it, print it, post it, etc.  I do not want to remember him.  Diane Riopel, who taught at L’École Polytechnique in 1989, and narrowly missed meeting the killer, echoes this sentiment: “We have given him enough publicity. Out of respect for the victims, the killer should be completely anonymous.”  I don’t think Hell exists, but when I think of him, I hope it does.  I don’t think anyone can name all 14 women who died.  I certainly can’t.  They’re all agglomerated as “the victims.”  The shooter maintains his individuality in death, but the 14 women he martyred lose theirs.  All we seem to know is that they were engineering students.  But what else about them?  What were their dreams?  What did they plan to do with their lives when they finished school?  What books did they read?  Where did they hang out with their friends?  All of this, I wonder about every year at the anniversary.  And I have no idea what the answers to these questions are.

These are the victims:

  • Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student, age 21.
  • Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student, age 22.
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student, age 21.
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student, age 29.
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department, age 25.
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student, age 23.
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student, age 22.
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student, age 28.
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student, age 21.
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student, age 23.
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student age 20.
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student, age 31.

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