March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now. My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall). And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod. Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.
This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone. We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.
I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time. But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these. It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good. I had my dog, Boo, with me. He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw. So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection. He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed. Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross. He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.
March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments
Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states. In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed. This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War. It fascinates me on both levels.
Factually, there is not much in this that is true. And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong. The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world. I don’t know who did it.
Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865. Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union. Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812. There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.
But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing. And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me. It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.
Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North. And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this. On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North. Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy. And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.
Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession. It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy. It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim. In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery. Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).
And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. But there is also a question of history. When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement. Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together. His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.
But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution. Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars. Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system. Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.
But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution. In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.
However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II). However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917). But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln. Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power. Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war. He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion. And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session. Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era. In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases.
Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:
On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.
Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all. In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.
As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act. Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country. Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.
Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war. I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.
As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely. Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property. They did rape Southern women. But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war. There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war And the war was fought in Southern territories. Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.
Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner. And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South). Lincoln was the enemy, obviously. And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).
In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War. Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post). Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).
And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy. I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864. She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source. Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war. And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter. They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership. But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves. As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter. Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia. In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership. But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.
It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich. Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising. So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men. And celebrating their ancestors. But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history. And the wrong side of the Civil War.
And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War. Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim. Or others. The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War. First, the slavery issue. Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners. And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.
October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments
I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood. It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press. To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement. The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.
September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments
I spent late last week laid up with the flu. This means I read. A lot. I don’t have the patience for TV when I’m sick, unless it’s hockey. And since it’s late August, that didn’t happen. While laid up, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s early career Amnesia Moon, and also ploughed through Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia. On the surface, these two books don’t have anything in common. The former is a novel set in a dystopic American future, whilst the latter is a polemic against austerity and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.
But both point to a golden era past. In the case of Amnesia Moon, obviously, given its dystopic future setting. And Hatherley is perplexed over the British right’s ability to control a public discourse of British history and memory.
In Amnesia Moon, the protagonist, a man named Chaos in some situations and Everett Moon in others, finds himself in Vacaville, which is actually a real place, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco in North Central California. In Vacaville, the residents are kept unstable by the central state: they are forced to move residences every Wednesday and Sunday. The majority of the residents work mind-numbing jobs, including Chaos’ love interest, Edie. The society is run by the gorgeous, who are featured on TV every night, parading about in an early version of reality TV. The people of Vacaville love and worship them. All of pop culture in Vacaville has been re-written to venerate the president and the ruling class. But most insidious, everything in Vacaville, for all residents, is based on ‘luck,’ a state-sponsored system based on a test administered by bureaucrats. Not surprisingly, those with the best luck are in the ruling classes. And then everyone else is organized and assigned their place in society based on their luck. Not surprisingly, our Edie has bad luck: her ex-husband has lost his mind, so she is a single mother with two children. She is also kept in place by a desperate government official, Ian Cooley, who is in love with her.
Compare this to Hatherley’s view of the United Kingdom in 2016:
We find ourselves in an increasingly nightmarish situation where an entirely twenty-first century society — constantly wired up to smartphones and the internet, living via complicated systems of derivatives, credit and unstable property investments, inherently and deeply insecure — appears to console itself with the iconography of a completely different and highly unlikely era, to which it is linked solely through the liberal use of the ‘A’ [i.e.: austerity] word.
See the similarities?
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.
September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
Yesterday I met with a stage and set designer for a new play being produced at the Hudson Village Theatre in Hudson, QC (just off the Island of Montréal), opening Thursday, 28 October, entitled Wake of the Bones, written Montréal playwright David Gow. Wake of the Bones centres around the discovery of a mass grave of Famine victims on Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montréal by Irish labourers constructing the Victoria Bridge a decade later. The labourers were from Griffintown, at least in this version, and they decide that a wake needs to be held to send the dead souls off to their eternal paradise.
The designer, Anouk Louten, contacted me as she attempts to get a handle on Irish culture and life in Griffintown in the mid-19th century, attempting to re-create a set as authentic as possible.
This, of course, got me thinking about the usual intersection of history, memory, and the public. Because of course Gow is taking licence from the historical record for the purpose of creating art. It is true that the mass grave of Irish Famine victims was found by the bridge workers, who were also Irish. But the workers probably lived in Goose Village, not Griffintown. A minor quibble with the historical record, to be sure, but still one that those who argue for ‘authenticity’ get their knickers in a twist over. And, I’m sure Gow will also take artistic licence with the characters, their setting, and so on and so forth.
This week, in class, I was teaching the Persian Wars, including the legendary battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE. Of course, pretty much the entire Western world has seen the movie, 300, which fictionalises what actually happened at Thermopylae some 2,490 years ago. The movie over-dramatises the valour of the Spartans, distorts and obscures the rationale for battle decisions made by the Greeks (including the Spartans, who are conveniently left out of the decision to withdraw 6,700 Greek troops from Thermopylae to avoid being caught in a pincer movement by the Persians), leaving the brave Leonidas and his 299 Spartan warriors to hold off the Persians. As much as I love this film, I always find myself somewhat troubled by it, I kind of feel the film-makers made like the cops in the OJ Simpson case with the glove. Recall that the glove didn’t fit Simpson, who more than likely got away with murder at that trial. At the time, a friend of mine, a law student, opined that the cops may’ve planted the glove, so desperate they were to secure a conviction. If this is true (and really, who knows?), the over-zealousness of the cops allowed Simpson to walk (though, as they say, karma is a mother, and Simpson is in the slammer for other crimes right now). In the case of 300, the film-makers took an already dramatic story about Leonidas and his warriors and over-shot, they over-dramatised something which could’ve stood on its own.
So, as an historian, films like 300 bother me. Not because they take licence with the historical story, but because they pull an Oliver Stone. Stone, of course, once said that you had to hit American film audiences over the head with a mallet in order to get their attention. I think he’s wrong, people aren’t that stupid. But sometimes it makes great art, sometimes, most of the time, it’s just superfluous.
But artistic licence, I fail to see what’s wrong with that, it can make the story more interesting, it can allow the artist to make their point more effectively.
As for authenticity, I’m not sure it matters so much in the larger sense. Certainly, I like Anouk’s attempts to create an authentic set. That, for whatever reason, matters to me. The setting of historical novels, plays, films, this is the detail, the background of people’s lives. Take, for example, The Gangs of New York: a wildly fictional account of the goings-on in the Five Points of Manhattan in the early 1860s. The story itself may be a load of bollocks, but the setting of it in the Five Points, from what I can see, that’s authentic, that reflects the reality of life in what was probably the worst slum in the world.
But authenticity of story or experience (in the case of museums, etc.), I’m not so sure this is desirable or even possible. I think it is impossible to completely re-create the ‘authentic’ historical experience. For one, there’s the obvious problem: it’s impossible, because it is no longer 1861, or whenever. The physical setting is just that, a re-creation of the historical, it can be an authentic re-creation, but that’s as far as it goes. And I think that by itself is a laudable goal, but that should be the end goal. There is no need to go any further, because it is impossible to go any further.
And, so far as I’m concerned, if the story is based in this historical record, that it aims to reflect the setting, then that’s fine. Artistic licence needs to be taken, at least most of the time, maybe not so much in the case of Leonidas’ last stand.