Arrival Cities: The Book

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011.  So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.

Doug Saunders.  Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010.  ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.

Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall.  The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us.  And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.

Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for  The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities.  I did not get it.  While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish.  And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.

Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised.  Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.

More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create.  The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents.  The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy.  This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.

The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism.  In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.

Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book.  He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.

In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris.  He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.

Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters.  In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two.  In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world.  This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States.  Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.

But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines.  Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul.  Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home.  The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city.  They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers.  The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down.  By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years).  Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus.  However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.

In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities.  He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents.  In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so.  This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh.  Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus.  But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation.  And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:

What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition.  When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].

What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto.  In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis.  I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.

The Problem With Niall Ferguson

June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

I’ve never been crazy about Niall Ferguson.  I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought, and he’s about the worst kind of academic bully, demeaning himself to attack his critics in a petty, small-minded manner.  Hell, we’re talking about a guy who in, his latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, who attacks Gandhi! Yes, Gandhi! Gandhi, in a 1931 interview in London, noted the use of disease in the European conquest of the rest of the world (indeed, Jared Diamond confirms the disease theory in his 1999 book, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fate of Human Societies).  Ferguson heaps scorn on Gandhi and goes on to argue that Western medicine did a world of good in the conquered parts of the world.  Ferguson isn’t entirely wrong, especially in the case of malaria in Africa.  But he’s too smart by half here, by mocking Gandhi, he discounts the fact that disease was a corollary of Western conquest.  Want some figures?  Try these on for size:

Caribbean Islands, 1492-1542: nearly 6,000,000 dead

Peru, 1570-1620: 750,000 dead.

Mexico, 1519-1600: 24,000,000 dead.

Ferguson’s attack on Gandhi is symptomatic of Ferguson’s general crusade against those who have the temerity to suggest that Western imperialism was not an entirely good thing.  See, for example, his Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  

At least in Civilization, when he’s done attacking the likes of Gandhi and others who experienced the negative effects of Western imperialism, he does go on to note the horrors of the German Empire in Africa, which does show some maturity in Ferguson in the decade since Empire.

Then there’s his attack on Marx & Engels.  Ferguson wrote his manuscript in 2010, twenty years after the end of the Cold War.  And yet, Ferguson, showing how petty-minded he can be, spends almost as much time attacking Marx and Engels personally than actually discussing their arguments.  Why bother? Seriously.  Ad hominen attacks in the works of an historian as eminent as Ferguson are just kind of sad and pathetic, especially when tacked onto commentary of Marxism/Communism.

Ferguson is also adept at the fine art of quoting out of context.  For example, he attributes the following quotation to Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author:

Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars?…Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate it like monkeys?  Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?

Sure, Pamuk wrote these words. However, these words are those of the narrator of his fine novel, Snow. They are not the words of Pamuk himself.  But Ferguson kind of forgets to tell us that in his book.  These words are the epigraph to Chapter 5, “Consumption” (Consumption is one of the “killer apps” we in the West invented, but have now been “downloaded” by the East, seriously, that’s Ferguson’s language). And Pamuk’s words here are meant to be mocking.  But when you know the context of the quotation, well, then they mean something quite differently, don’t they?

And so once again, Ferguson, who actually makes a pretty good, if unoriginal argument in Civilization, shoots himself in his rhetorical foot and one is left wondering just how seriously he can actually be taken.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

The Real IRA and the Royal Wedding

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Oh, dear God. British security officials are apparently afraid that the “Real” IRA is going to try to attack the Royal Wedding this week, in part due to its proximity to Easter, a high point on the Irish commemorative calendar. The first real salvo of the wars in Ireland was fired over Easter 1916, as the Irish Republican Brotherhood seized the General Post Office in central Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic. Indeed, today marks the 95th anniversary of The Rising, which was put down in brutal fashion by the British in less than a week. Nevertheless, 1916 has long held a special place in Irish memory. And 5 May marks the 30th anniversary of the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands inside the Maze Prison.

The Real IRA (RIRA) grew out of the Provisional IRA (Provos), which carried out much of the activities of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in 1997. The leadership of the RIRA, which included Bobby Sands’ sister, was frustrated with the Provos’ co-operation with the peace process in Northern Ireland. It was the RIRA which carried out the Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998, the single most deadly attack of the Troubles, killing 29 and injuring over 200 others. Since then, the RIRA has been somewhat ambivalent. Due to the outcry over Omagh, the RIRA was forced to declare a ceasefire in September 1998. This lasted two years.

The RIRA was unwilling to cause further deaths in Northern Ireland, no doubt worried about the bad PR that would result from such incidents, and instead focused its attention on England. The most significant of these events was the shooting of a rocket grenade at MI6 headquarters in September 2000. After a brief fallow period, the RIRA has continued to carry out attacks in both Northern Ireland and England since, as recently as last autumn.

It’s in this context that news that British intelligence officials are telling reporters that they have information that the RIRA is seeking to expand its base of operations from Northern Ireland to England seem odd. Indeed, Ben O’Loughlin at the Duck of Minerva wonders, amongst other things, that if British intel had information that an attack by the RIRA (or anyone for that mater) on the Royal Wedding, would it be made public in the first place?

The Shoe on the Other Foot

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Being Canadian, it sometimes feels like we’re the ones on the short end of the stick in global affairs.  We’re the ones the Americans invaded during the War of Independence and again in 1812.  During World War I, the British used our troops as cannon fodder in battles like the Somme.  We have been colonies of the French and the British.  Economically, we’re largely dependent upon the Americans.  Our peoples are descendent from the colonised of the world (ok, so is the rest of the Western world).  In short, I think Canadians like to see themselves as victims, or at least feel like victims far too often.  This is why winning double gold medals in hockey over the Americans at the Olympics is such a big deal.  For that moment, we’re the winners.

The once-great Vancouver band, Spirit of the West, wrote a song back in the early 90s called “Far Too Canadian.”  It’s a lament for our status as hewers of wood and drawers of water, amongst other things.  The lyrics:

I’m so content, to stand in line
Wait and see, pass the time
Talk a streak, fall alseep, wake up late, whine and weep
I kiss the hand that slaps me senseless
I’m so accepting, so defenseless
I am far too Canadian
Far  too  Canadian

I am the face of my country
Experssionless and small
Weak at the knees, shaking badly
Can’t straighten up at all
I watch the spine of my country bend and break
I’m a sorry state.

A sobering thought, that song. And all the cheesy, stupid, lame-brained Molson Canadian ads in the world (apparently has more square feet of “awesomeness per person” than any other nation on Earth) can’t change it.

That being said, we do have our moments, our victories, and our glories.  But we tend to play those down, too (except when they involve gold medals, hockey, and the Olympics).  We’re a modest people, I suppose.

So all of this being said, I’m always surprised to find Canadians on the other side, at least historically-speaking.  Not far from Charlemont, Massachusetts, is the town of Deerfield.  On 29 February 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a joint force of 47 French and Canadian soldiers and 200 Mohawk warriors (including the Pocumtuck, who had lived in what is now the Pioneer Valley before the English settlers arrived) raided Deerfield before dawn.  The raid was partly in revenge for the settlers’ violent and callous treatment of the Pocumtuck, which culminated in a massacre  in what is now nearby Montague Township in 1676.

The combined French-Canadian-aboriginal force caught the settlers unaware before dawn and massacred 56 people.  109 people survived the raid, they were captured and made to march 500km north to Québec, in harsh winter conditions.  21 of them either died or were killed during the trek.  Most of those who made it to Québec were eventually ransomed and made their way back to Deerfield.  A few, most notably the pastor’s daughter, Eunice Williams, chose to remain.  Williams spent the rest of her life at Kahanwake, a Mohawk settlement near Montréal, marring a Mohawk man and having a family with him.

The Deerfield Raid was no doubt a traumatic event for the people of the small settlement.  And it has lived on for the past 300 years, it is a foundational story in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.  At times, listening to people describe it, reading newspaper stories about the raid, and seeing how it is represented in the pop culture of the Valley, I even get the sense that the trauma of the raid lives on.  Certainly, it is strange for a Canadian to realise the Americans were victims of the colonial era.  It is even more bizarre to realise that one’s ancestors were the ones who caused the trauma.  We are usucally the victims, not the aggressors of historical trauma.

The fact that the 1704 raid lives on in Deerfield, and is largely forgotten in Québec (as France lost that war), is significant.  No doubt it lives on in part because Deerfield’s raison d’être today is as a tourist site.  Historic Deerfield is a national historic site, and the town’s economy centres around the historical experience there, and the 1704 raid factors heavily into it.  It is no doubt the most significant event to have occurred in Deerfield in its 337 year history.  And, as a result of the historicisation of Deerfield, the 1704 raid gets played out, reinterpreted, and re-assessed almost daily by the town’s residents, the historical educators, and the tourists who come to visit.

But for me, a Canadian, the first time I visited Deerfield, on a warm, sunny day in late May 2006, I was stunned to find a place that was traumatised by Canadians, at least a place that was not an aboriginal settlement/reserve.  And as I took in the colonial American scene in front of me that day, I couldn’t help but feel a shudder of fear imagining that 247-man strong force crawling across the plain along the Deerfield River, coming out of the mist and the snow and laying siege to a small frontier settlement.  And every time since that I have driven past, or been into Historic Deerfield, I cannot shake that feeling of terror that the colonist there must’ve felt that cold February morning 306 1/2 years ago.

The Beast & The Other Hand

July 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Over at Current Intelligence, I have posted an article on asylum seekers in the UK and Chris Cleave’s recent novel, Little Bee.  It has even garnered the attention of the man himself.  Check it out.

Vive le Canada!

June 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

Tomorrow, Canada Day, I will be on CJSW radio in Calgary, as part of their new series, “Today in Canadian History“, where I will be talking about the process of Canadian independence between 1848 and 1982.   Details below:

Today in Canadian History launches on Canada Day of 2010. Each episode of the series contains an interview with a Canadian professor, journalist, author, or “everyday” historian and focuses on a unique event or moment that took place on that day in Canadian history. To date, the series has received contributions from over sixty individuals from across Canada.

As a podcast and radio series, Today in Canadian History presents Canada’s past in a unique and accessible manner. The series is designed to be a first step to learning more about our past. We would like to remind Canadians not just about what makes our country great, but what makes it complicated, beautiful, diverse, and ours.

How Can I Listen?

Starting on Canada Day, CJSW will be making the audio available on a variety of platforms. You can listen to the episodes:

  1. Every weekday morning on CJSW 90.9 FM in Calgary and!
  2. On this webpage (audio will be posted every weekday)
  3. On our Facebook page (search, “Today in Canadian History”)
  4. As a podcast (series will be posted in iTunes on Canada Day)

The series is produced by Joe Burima and Marc Affeld. Local jazz musicians Simon Fisk, Steve Fletcher, and Jon May provided original music for the series. Original artwork was provided by Reid Blakley.
For more information, or to get involved in the series, contact Joe Burima at (403) 220 8033, or

Recent Readings on the Irish Diaspora

April 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

As I continue to read, deepening my knowledge of the Irish diaspora in the United States and Canada, I find I’m struck by the changing trends in the historiography, in particular the fact that this literature IS diasporic and transnational in nature.  Ever since Kerby Miller published his landmark Emigrants and Exiles in 1985, historians of the Irish in North America have been encouraged to keep an eye on the Irish context.  But, for a long time, this was no more than a cursory glance across the Atlantic Ocean, briefly acknowledging what it was that lead the Irish to leave Ireland in the first place.

But, in the past decade or so, a much deeper understanding of the Irish context has taken root in the literature.  Diasporic Irish historians have been caught up in the debates in Irish historiography, the revisionists v. the post-revisionists, but even the older discussion between revisionists and nationalists.  And what I’m finding interesting is the influence of these Irish historiographical debates on scholars studying the diaspora.  It also seems that it is social scientists, rather than historians, who seem to be caught up in these debates.  I suppose for historians, historiographical debates are so internalised in our work, to openly comment on them seems redundant, at least for some of us.

Take, for example, Reginald Byron’s 1999 study, Irish America, an overly ambitious title for a case study approach to the diasporic Irish of Albany, NY.  Indeed, part of the chip on Byron’s shoulder is that studies of the Irish in the US have focused on the ethnic enclaves of major cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, to the detriment of smaller centres, such as Albany.  But then the problem is that Albany itself isn’t all that representative of the larger American context, in that it was a predominately Catholic city, and it, too, is a northeastern city.  Anyway.  Byron is a cynic of the Irish, which is fine, he argues, ultimately, that symbols of Irishness, most notably St. Patrick’s Day, are no longer Irish in nature, they are American, as the Irish have been fully assimilated into the mainstream of American life.  To an extent, I agree.  He bases his conclusion on 500 oral interviews with “Albanians,” most of whom were people who are of Irish descent, amongst others (German, English, French Canadian, Italian, so on).  What he found is that most of the informants had no special knowledge of Ireland and Irish affairs, and did not live their quotidian lives in the Irish fashion, whatever that is.  Fair enough, but when you read into the Irish context he covers, in discussing the historical background as to how Albany became so Irish in the first place, one begins to see the connections.

Byron spends a lot of time attempting to portray Ireland as un nation comme les autres, to borrow from the revisionists of Québec historiography.  Indeed, this is the very goal of the Irish revisionists, who seek to downplay many of the more traumatic events in Irish history as a means to normalise its history within the mainstream of Western Europe.  The problem with this is that there are things that make Ireland exceptional: it was colonised by its neighbour, its Catholic population was oppressed and disenfranchised by the colonising power.  Byron scoffs at the common misconception that the Irish were in permanent rebellion in the 19th century.  Again, to some extent, I do agree.  However, this ignores the fact that the Irish did rebel in 1798, 1847, 1867, and that there were revolutionary, physical force nationalists operated on Irish soil for most of the 19th century leading up to Irish independence and Partition in 1921.  Indeed, the response to the 1798 and 1916 rebellions were particularly draconian on the part of the British colonisers.

Indeed, it was this on-going pattern of rebellion that galvanised the Irish diaspora, especially in Canada and the United States, as nationalist circles were strong in both countries.  Indeed, it was the Irish in North America who raised funds for the independence struggle “back home,” even if Ireland was a country many diasporic Irish never saw, and only knew through stories and memories of their ancestors and more recent immigrants.

But this also leads to problems, as evidenced in Paul Darby’s Gaelic Games, Nationalism, and the Irish Diaspora in the United States.  Darby, who plays Irish football, occasionally comes off more as a fanboy than a scholar in discussing the trials and tribulations of the Gaelic Athletic Association’s American branches, praising their dedication, hard work, and so on, and not acknowledging the American GAA’s biggest problem: an inability to make itself relevant to the diasporic Irish.  The GAA, according to Darby, was incredibly successful within circles of Irish immigrants in the cities he studies: New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.  But the American GAA faded when immigration from Ireland dried up.

At any rate, the larger issue I have with Darby’s work is that he seems to equate the Irish in North America with Irish nationalism, in that the Irish here were all nationalists.  No doubt this stems from studying a particularly nationalist organisation as the GAA.  But the GAA didn’t speak for all the Irish in North America, even within the contexts of Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Thus, Darby leaves us with a problem that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Byron.  Whereas Byron wishes to downplay the ruptures of Irish history and identity in Albany, NY, Darby seeks to keep those ruptures in his readers’ minds, in order to explain this strong Irish identity amongst his case studies in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.  Surely there is a common ground between Byron and Darby.

Indeed, my own work, as well as that of many others (Rosalyn Trigger and David Wilson, for example) explore the ambivalences and ambiguities of the Irish in North America.  It is too simplistic to say, as Byron does, that they became assimilated into the mainstream of North American culture and politics (if they did, JFK wouldn’t have been identified as an Irish-Catholic American), or to say that the Irish in North America = Irish nationalists, as Darby does.

Positive Feedback

March 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

A few months ago, I published an article in a book edited by John Chi-Kit Wong of the University of Western Washington in Bellingham.  The book was entitled, Coast to Coast: Hockey in Canada to the Second World War (University of Toronto Press, 2009), and my article was entitled “‘Scientific Aggression’: Class, Manliness, Class, and Commercialisation in the Shamrock Hockey Club, Montreal.”

Today, John forwarded the authors a review of the book from the H-Arete listserv, which deals with sport history, written by Jason Blake, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Blake had this to say about my article:

A few chapters show a keen interest in narrative, examining individual newspaper reports and trends in sports reporting. In “‘Scientific Aggression’: Irishness, Manliness, Class, and Commercialization in the Shamrock Hockey Club of Montreal, 1894-1901,” John Matthew Barlow argues that reporters in Montreal “became less concerned with the idea of fair play” and “more interested with winning and losing” (37) long before the amateur debate died. In a special subsection, Barlow provides cogent Ð almost literary Ð readings of individual press accounts. Important, too, is his highlighting of how self-consciously the journalists created stories of games. Consider this 1900 pronouncement: “Narrative in the superlative can only convey an imperfect sense of the paragon of perfection and sensation detail of this, the last and premier exhibition of a week’s great hockey” (64). It’s a shame Aethlon was not around then.

Very nice to get such good feedback on my first publication.

Mr. Islamophobe

March 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m on this listserv, I’ve been on it for over a decade, and I’m really just too lazy to unsubscribe.  Occasionally, my laziness is rewarded with insightful commentary on Canada and the world.  More often than not, I’m exposed to anti-Semitism from one member and anti-Islamic propaganda from another.  Most recently, Mr. Islamaphobe (who is also of the opinion that feminism has destroyed our culture, and if it wasn’t feminism or Islam, it was the left, and if not them, then it was the environmentalists) has declared that Islam is a religion bent on world domination, supporting Geert Weders’ idea that, although there are moderate Muslims, there is no moderate Islam.  I find this kind of commentary not just offensive, but stupid.

Both Christianity and Judaism are evangelical religions, they both seek new adherents wherever they are taken.  If Islam is, as Mr. Islamophobe argues, hell bent on world domination, Christianity is even more so.  The various Christian churches have spent much of the past two millenia seeking new converts, first as it expanded out of the Holy Lands into the European portion of the Roman Empire, then throughout Europe and North Africa, into Asia, across the Atlantic to the Americas, into sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania.  Islam has also similarly expanded out of the Holy Lands to become a global force.

Of course, the difference for Mr. Islamophobe is that Christianity is his culture/religion.  Thus, for him, Christianity and the culture it has created stand for all that is good and great and beautiful in the world, whereas Islam stands for all that is evil and rotten in the world.

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