June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments
There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision. This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know. And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.
I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people. OK, then.
But this is where history does matter. The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.” Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly. There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly. Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.
And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies. The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.
The two situations are not analogous. At all. In other words, this is just another stupid meme. #FAIL
February 4, 2015 § 2 Comments
Yesterday, a new report was released on the plight of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in the healthcare system. The title, “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment,” perhaps says all you need to know. The CBC also posted a story on-line about the experiences of several aboriginal people vis-à-vis healthcare in Victoria, British Columbia. A couple of the “highlights”:
- Michelle Labrecque went to the Royal Jubilee Hospital complaining of severe stomach pain in 2008. A doctor gave her a prescription. When she got home and opened the paper with the prescription on it, it was a drawing of a beer bottle with a circle slashed through it.
- Carol McFadden went to the doctor with a lump in her breast, only to be told she could’ve gone to mammography herself. She now has Stage 4 breast cancer, and it has spread to her liver.
- McFadden reports that whilst some doctors have been compassionate, others have been rude and brusque, to the point where they kick her bed when they want her attention, and continually asking her if she drinks or does drugs.
I recently read Joanna Burke’s book, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. In it, she talks about the body in pain, and the responses thereto, both from the victims of the pain, as well as the medical profession. Nineteenth century doctors, insofar as they discussed the colonialized body, they dismissed the idea that indigenous bodies could feel pain in the same way that an upper-class British man could. For that matter, they also argued that working-class men had a higher tolerance to pain. Their recommendation was to try to take the body in pain seriously, but not to be sympathetic, to be brusque when talking to the victim. We live in the twenty-first century. Why are aboriginal peoples treated this way by doctors?
Of course I know why, Canada is a deeply, deeply racist society vis-à-vis the aboriginal population. It is acceptable in Canada to be openly racist against First Nations people. I wish I could say I was surprised by the findings of this report. I am not.
February 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
Ypres was a hotspot in the First World War. No fewer than five major battles took place around this Flemish town between 1914 and 1918. During the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May 1915, the Germans wafted a cloud of chlorine gas at the Allied troops across No Man’s Land. The other side was occupied by Moroccan and Algerian troops, flanked by Canadians. In other words, the main targets were French African colonial troops. The Germans didn’t dare set the gas towards Europeans.
The Moroccans and Algerians died on the spot and/or broke ranks and ran. This left a massive gap, 4 miles long, in the Allied lines, which the Germans were rather hesitant to rush into, for obvious reasons. That meant the 13th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force was left to counter the German attack, on its own. It was reinforced by the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, as well as the 16th Battalion of the 3rd Canadian Brigade the next day. It’s worth noting that the Canadians became the first colonials to defeat a major European power at Ypres.
In short, the Allied lines when the Germans used chlorine gas on them were manned by colonial troops: Moroccans and Algerians who took the brunt of the gas, and then Canadians who also got hit with gas, but to a lesser extent (they urinated on handkerchiefs and then put them to their faces to survive the attack).
This is the version I was taught in school and university in Canada. And it was also the version I saw in pop culture, films, literature, history books, at least until recently. In the past year or two, this story has been simplified: French and British troops were gassed by the Germans. And while that is technically true, it is massively mis-leading.
In the case of Canada, our national mythology says that our country came to age on the battlefields of the First World War. It led to Canada demanding and gaining the ear of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the creation of the Imperial War Council (along with the other Dominions). And Canada (as well as the other Dominions) were seated at the Versailles conference. Eventually, in 1931, Canada (and the other Dominions) gained control of their own foreign affairs in 1931 with the passing of the Statute of Westminster. And, as I argue myself in my own forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013, Canadians were consciously fighting for their own nation, they fought in their own army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force. And even if the CEF was appended to the British Expeditionary Force, Canada was coming of age as a nation of its own right. So, to state that the British and French were the victims of the German gas attack is disingenuous. And yet, there it is in our culture, everywhere from writers who should know better to Downton Abbey.
Imagine my surprise, then, to be reading a quick review of Graeme Kent’s new book, On The Run: Deserters Through the Ages, (which has yet to be published in North America) in The Times Literary Supplement, that states that the gas attack “fell four square on the French and to a lesser extent on the Canadian First Division.” I quickly flipped to the back to see who the reviewer, Nathan M. Greenfield, was. A Canadian military historian. So that sort of doesn’t count. And, there is also the fact that while Greenfield did wave the Canadian flag, he also denied the Moroccan and Algerian troops their due.
February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments
Niall Ferguson likes attention. There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements. Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown. Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay. Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest. Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument. Ugh. So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.
The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account. Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914. He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms. He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage. In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.
And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war. It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918. It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).
There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization. At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war. An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war. The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture. It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.
Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire. This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.
As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not. But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914. From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies. Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.
Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement. There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war. One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians. The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual. And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route. At least at this point. I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.
January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History. I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad. I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies. The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003. It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.
But one thing struck me as I was reading. Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:
The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.
These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career. But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded. I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.
It gets better though, Cronon notes:
…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.
November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47. Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system. So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.
However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa. For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives. The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling. Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns. Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth. These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones. And yet the British win, because of the guns.
The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.” It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans. When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts. This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault. This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism. The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass. The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process. The colonised are reduced to something not quite human. The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources. By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble. They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.
None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism. It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge. It is almost like reading it again for the first time. And reading The Gun, I feel that way.
June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century. It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course. For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class. In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester. I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.
A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago. In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did. According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight. To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos. Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error). Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history. We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion. Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.
Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen. When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this. This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe. But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering. What we control is our response to that.
So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads. Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it. We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop. My car emits pollution into the air. Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe. That’s how order is kept. Uplifting, isn’t it?
So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class. I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire. I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution. Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil. Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies. Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner. So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China. Or the British imperial system in Africa or India. Or the Belgians in the Congo. But this wasn’t an export of Europe. Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century. The list goes on and on.
How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do. We find religion. We despoil ourselves in debauchery. We find joy in religion or debauchery. Or we find it in flight. Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic. It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge. In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic. But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.
Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight. Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history. We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.
The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news. But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news. Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon. If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb. So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms. And humans have always had them. But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.
This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies. The terror of that, the horror, the devastation. All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities. We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism. Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related. This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.
At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something. Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.