The Problem with Being Canadian
March 20, 2015 § 7 Comments
Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes. A brilliant mind, and a great writer, he was rare for an historian. An Englishman, he lived in New York and taught at New York University. The Guardian called him the ‘greatest mind in New York,’ which I always took as a play on the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Judt died of ALS in July 2010 at the age of 62, and I feel like we were robbed. I am currently reading his last work of non-fiction, Ill Fares the Land (a collaboration with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published in 2012).
In Ill Fares the Land, Judt takes on the growing meanness of our society and culture, on both sides of the Atlantic. He argues that we have lost our way in the blind pursuit of money and profit, signalling the 1980s as the period where Western culture shifted from one of trust and compassion for our fellow human beings to this individualistic focus on money. He criticizes us for having lost our way, for descending back into 19th century laissez-faire beliefs.
In one section, however, he focuses on the consensus that arose in Western society after the Second World War, when collectively we decided that we did not wish to experience the 1914-45 period ever again, and Europeans and North Americans began to build better societies, with a social safety net, seeking to eradicate the gross inequality of the 19th century, which led to the rise of dictatorships of both the left and the right in the 1920s and 30s.
Judt notes that trust is necessary to the proper functioning of society. And he is right. Trust is essential at all levels of society,and it is essential for the proper functioning of the capitalist system. Indeed, this was the trust violated in the 1980s, and again in the lead-up to the 2008 Recession: economic actors essentially got greedy and corrupt and brought us down with them. At any rate, Judt looks at what makes for a trusting society and, not surprisingly, he looks approvingly at the Scandinavian and Northern European countries. These are places where income inequality is almost (note, I said almost) non-existant, where education is free or close to it, and there is a common, collective belief in the common good, broadly defined.
What makes these societies work? What causes the trust to exist? Judt notes that Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are remarkably homogenous societies, in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc. (He also notes that Scandinavians are not so excited about the influx of impoverished refugees and immigrants in recent years, to be fair.) He then focuses on his two primary countries: The United States and the United Kingdom.
In the period of consensus from 1945 to the 1970s, both the US and the UK were a lot more homogenous than they are now. Both were majoritarian white, Anglo-Protestant nations, though with sizeable Catholic minorities. But, Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, of course. Today, however, both the US and the UK are larger, much more diverse nations. And so trust has broken down.
As a good Canadian, I was practically yelling “CANADA!” at this point of the book. To be fair to Judt, he DOES notice The Great White North. Frankly, it’s hard not to. It’s this big country just to the north of New York state. He writes:
The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.
But then he dismisses the Canadian crossover case because it’s not conducive to his argument. He immediately goes onto return to his arguments pertaining to the US and the UK. This makes no sense. Canada is a fine comparative point to both the US and the UK. It is geographically large, it has a sizeable population, it is incredibly diverse (more diverse, in fact, than either the US and the UK), and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers). And yet, “trust and its accompanying institutions” are deeply-embedded in the country, as our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (who is otherwise hell-bent on tearing down the Canada most Canadians want), has learned.
Judt’s myopia regarding Canada is nothing new, frankly. It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook the country. But that does not make it any less infuriating.
I am reminded of Trainspotting, and the rant of the central character, Mark Renton, on why it sucks being Scottish.
Re-Manufacturing the War of 1812
April 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
Over at the National Council of Public History‘s (NCPH) blog, history@work (wherein public historians such as yours truly discuss issues related to history and the public and historical public memory), I have a new piece up on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s delusional history of the War of 1812, entitled Re-manufacturing 1812: Stephen Harper’s Glorious Vision of Canada’s Past. From the title, you can probably guess my angle on Harper’s attempts to re-brand Canadian History through the War of 1812. Quite frankly, I find it disturbing. Let me know what you think.
Diaspora and Terrorism
April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
Scholars studying diaspora and immigrant communities have noticed that there are some very general, very real trends amongst diasporic immigrant communities. The first generation, the immigrants, arrive in their new home, but find themselves caught between two worlds, struggling to fit into the new home, whilst still maintaining very real and very strong ties to the homeland. Their children, the second generation, are citizens of the new country by birth, and grow up in that host culture, and generally do not express a lot of interest in the culture of the homeland; they are fully integrated into the new homeland. It’s their children, the third generation, that begins to cast an eye back to the old homeland, curious about where their grandparents are from and the culture their grandparents carried with them in the new land until they died. These are trends that have existed in North America since the Irish began coming over here in the mid-19th century, and have been replicated time and again by pretty much every single group that has arrived in the United States and Canada in large numbers since.
Immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, of course, have greatly changed North American culture ever since the Irish. Take, for example, the city I live in now: Boston. Boston is the birthplace of the American independence movement in the 1770s, and was a tight-knit Anglo-Protestant city prior to the Irish arriving. Boston was never the same after the Irish arrived in huge numbers in the mid-19th century. And as the Irish infiltrated the city’s economy, culture, and politics, they left their mark. This can still be seen today: at present Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are both attempting to gain the Democratic nomination for the special election to replace John Kerry in the US Senate. Both Lynch and Markey are currently Congressmen. Both are Irish Catholics, Markey’s from Malden and Lynch is from South Boston, aka: Southie. He grew up in the same housing projects as Whitey Bulger. The Irish still have their tentacles in the Democratic Party machinery in Boston today, 160-some odd years after they arrived.
Other cities are affected differently. Take, for example, my hometown of Montréal. Montréal has long been the recipient of immigrants, dating back to the Irish, who began arriving there in large numbers in the 1840s. The Irish completely changed the city, adding an Anglophone group that was Catholic to an already divided city. The Catholic Church was also massively changed in Montréal as the Irish muscled their way in. Indeed, they are largely to thank for the fact that there is an English-language Catholic Church in the city today. But Montréal is also being fundamentally changed by immigration from nations in the Francophonie in Africa and the Caribbean today. In the past decade or so, Montréal has undergone a fundamental cultural shift, as new French-speaking communities arrive. The consequences for French Canadian nationalism and separatism should be obvious.
But this process of acculturation may be now speeding up. Our cities have become faster, life is lived at a frenetic pace in our cities on this continent. Last week, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200 more, some very seriously. The bombs were planted by Tamerlan Tsarneav, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, who is 19. The Tsarneav brothers are immigrants, they came to the United States from Dagestan just over a decade ago. Tamerlan was here on a green card, whilst Dzhokhar became a citizen last year. Their parents have both returned to Russia in recent years, leaving them here. But they’ve been here a long time, Tamerlan was 14 or 15 when he arrived here, Dzhokhar was 8 or 9. They were both Americanised, and their brand of terrorism, experts have concluded is of the ‘home-grown’ variety.
Yesterday in the Boston Globe, Farah Stockman commented on this growth in homegrown terrorism, citing forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who in 2008 predicted that terrorism in the West would increasingly be of this variety. Of course, by 2008, we had already seen the writing on the walls. On 7 July 2005, four terrorists detonated bombs during the morning commute in London. All four were homegrown terrorists, two were the sons of immigrants, a third was an immigrant himself, but had grown up in England. The bombing of Madrid’s transportation system in March 2004 was also of the homegrown variety.
This new generation of terrorists, the so-called 3rd wave, are younger than the Al Qaeda terrorists of the previous decade. According to Stockman, the average Al Qaeda terrorist in the 90s and early 00s was in his 30s. Today, the average age of these 3rd wavers is in his early 20s. The 2nd wave were devoutly religious and had grown up in devoutly religious homes. The 3rd wave grew up secular, as the brothers Tsarneav had. So, why the turn to radicalism and terrorism, she asks:
For some, it was out of a warped romanticism for a homeland they barely knew; an act of rebellion against hardworking immigrant parents who brought them to the West for “a better life.” Others were US-born converts to Islam who found in terrorism a sense of camaraderie and purpose that had eluded them all their lives. A few became terrorists after years of gang-banging and drug dealing. It was an ideology that transformed their violent tendencies into something heroic. It made them feel they were on the side of the angels.
Sagemean concludes that for some of these young men, ‘terrorism is a fad.’ This is an interesting thought. But if these young men are attracted, in part, by this romantic attachment to their parents’ homeland, or the homeland of their families, or to the religion that sustained their family generations ago, I’m not so sure that this is a fad. Scholars looking at notions of diaspora note the attachment 3rd generation children and those beyond have to the mythical homeland. Looking at my own community and what I study (the Irish), I would note that men and women whose families emigrated to North America 160 years ago remain curious and interested in the mythical homeland of Ireland. Ireland draws them in, they’re curious about the history, the culture, and some even the language. This becomes a life-long interest.
Maybe Sagemen is correct in that the violence of radicalism and terrorism is a fad of youth and some of these young men will eventually mellow out and choose to focus on aspects of their culture that do not lead to violence. Certainly there are echoes of this in the Irish diaspora, where many young men (and some young women) have been attracted to the glory of the violence in the North. This was certainly true when I was younger, before the establishment of peace following the Good Friday Accords in 1998. Young Irish-American and Irish-Canadian men would hold romanticised images of the IRA and the resistance “back home”. Most have long since grown out of this fascination with the IRA, of course. (This did, however, inspire Bono to go on a legendary rant during a performance of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” during the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, which was released on the DVD of Rattle & Hum).
Canada and the North American Triangle
January 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Twice in the past few weeks, I have been caught up in discussions about the role of the monarchy in Canada with Americans. These discussions rather astounded me, I have to say. In all my years, I have never really thought all that much about the role of the Queen and her representatives in Canada. Sure, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in Canada (as well as everywhere else in the Commonwealth), but her actual role in Canadian politics is close to nil. Governors-General have been little more than figureheads, responding to the whims of Prime Ministers since the 19th century, not the Queen.
For my American interlocutors, however, the Queen was a big deal for Canada. They’ve all spent a fair amount of time north of the 49th parallel, and they’re all insightful people. The argument goes something like this: Canada has been prohibited from achieving a full sense of independence of its own because of the on-going association with the former colonial parent through the person of the Queen. Because Canada is not completely sovereign, it cannot be a fully independent nation. It will always be beholden to the United Kingdom. To a person, they all argued that Canadians (at least Anglo Canadians) are very British, in all manners, from our dry sense of humour to our stiff upper lips, and even down to our accents. I was dumbfounded.
I argued that the Queen means very little to Canadians. Aside from the hardcore monarchists, she’s just this grandmotherly woman who pops up on TV now and then. I pointed out that Americans are actually more obsessed with the royal family than Canadians, as evidenced by the marriage of Prince Receding Hairline to whatshername last summer. Sure, the Queen is on our money, but how is that different from Washington and Lincoln being on American money? And certainly Washington has reached the status of a monarchal icon in the USA by now. I argued that, despite the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the Prime Minister is the one who wields power, and quite a lot of it. The Prime Minister decides when elections are to be held, what the policies of government are, etc. In short, sovereignty lies in the Canadian people as expressed through our elected representatives and the Prime Minister; the Queen has nothing to do with this.
But then one of them brought up Prime Minister Harper’s underhanded attempt in 2010 to avoid an election by asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. He argued that we had an unelected representative of the Queen deciding the fate of the Canadian government. Good point, I conceded, but, the Governor General in 2010 acted in accordance with established constitutional law in Canada and the entire Commonwealth; she acceded to the wishes of the Prime Minister. This wasn’t good enough, the fact remained that the Governor General is unelected. Full stop. And this is proof of Canada’s lack of full sovereignty.
Now I certainly do not buy into the argument that Canada was born on 1 July 1867. As far as I’m concerned the date that we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial. I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal. From the granting of responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982, Canada has inched towards independence. I’d go so far as to argue that in many ways, 1982 is the true date of Canadian independence, as finally our Constitution was an Act of our own Parliament. I certainly do not buy the argument that Canada is doomed because the nation wasn’t born in violence and a war of independence like our American neighbours.
There is also the argument that Canadian unity can never be, due to the fact that upwards of 40% of the population of the second largest province (at any given time) wish to separate from the nation. And, for this reason, Canada is an artificial nation. I think this is a simplistic, and even stupid, argument. It assumes that all nations were born of the nationalist movements that swept across the world from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries. The continued existence of massive multi-ethnic nations such as Russia and China bely this. So, too, does the on-going persistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the continued threat of the Scots nationalist movement. Instead, I argue, Canada is successful precisely because it is not a national nation, it is post-national and can house more than a single nation. Indeed, this is what makes Canada not just bi-cultural, but multi-cultural, as we learned in the 1960s, whatever government policies of the day might be.
So I’ve been left stewing over the role of the monarchy in Canada, thanks to my American interlocutors. I’ve also been stewing over different conceptions of democracy. Britain is the modern birthplace of democracy. It is where the people slowly gained control over their nation from the monarchy. At one point, the House of Commons was filled with men hand-picked by the king and his minions, true. But by the 19th century, this was no longer the case. In the UK, the Queen is little more than a figurehead, just like in Canada. But, of course, Elizabeth is English, she’s not Canadian. Thus, she is a foreign queen, according to my American friends. But it’s not that simple. That is an American argument. American democracy works very differently than British or Canadian democracy. And notions of what democracy mean differ as well.
To wit, a few weeks months ago in the Boston Globe, the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, was making the argument that the best way to determine whether or not gays and lesbians should be granted rights was through referenda. Only by giving voice to the majority could we determine whether or not a minority should be granted civil rights. That, concluded Jacoby, is how democracy works. To my Canadian mindset, this idea was shocking and appalling. Pierre Trudeau once opined something along the lines that the best determinant of a free and open society is how that society protects its minorities. In short, the rights of minorities should never be left up to majorities. That is what democracy is.
And maybe that’s what this argument boils down to: Canadians and Americans have very different ideas of what democracy is. And for that reason, whilst my American conversants were appalled that Canada would have an unelected, foreign queen, I, a Canadian, could care less. The Queen has no real impact on Canadian life and politics. Her “representative” in Canada, the Governor General, is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. And the Governor General has, since 1848, deferred to the wishes of the Canadian Prime Minister. Canada is no less a sovereign nation for this.
And Canada’s inferiority complex has nothing to do with this relationship to the UK, it has everything to do with being the junior partner in North America with the United States and Mexico. Canada is the smallest of the three countries in terms of population, and ranks only slightly higher than Mexico in terms of the size of its economy. The only way in which the colonial relationship with the UK actually does matter is in the sense that Canada has never had the chance to fully stand on its own. It WAS a British colony. And today, it is by and large an American colony. I mean this in terms of the economy, Americans own more of Canada’s economy than Canadians themselves do. And we currently have a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada, that acts like a branch plant of the American Republican Party.
On Canadian Anti-Americanism
December 18, 2012 § 7 Comments
Sometimes there are few things as depressing as Canadian anti-Americanism. We Canadians are a smug lot, we think we’re smarter, more cosmopolitan, less racist, less sexist, more everything that’s good, less everything that’s bad than Americans. And yet we’re obsessed with Americans. For many of us, our self-identity as a nation is simple: we’re not American. Years ago, even the Canadian Football League fell for this with an ad that asked “WHAT’S THE DEFINITION OF CANADIAN?!? NOT AMERICAN!!!” Yeah, great, thanks for that. I find few things as sad, pathetic, and limiting as we Canadians identifying ourselves in the negative, as in NOT American, NOT British, NOT French.
But it appears that this means of self-definition still appeals to and obsesses too many of my fellow citizens. And this leads to this sad anti-Americanism. The kind that leads Canadians to proudly declare we live in a paradise of non-existant crime, racism, homophobia, etc. And sometimes, it leads to leftist Americans fetishising Canada. Think, for example, of Michael Moore’s fatuous claim in Bowling for Columbine that Canadians don’t lock their doors at night because there’s no crime. I have never, ever, ever left my door unlocked living in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Montréal. Not once. Ever. You think I’m nuts?!?
Canadian anti-Americanism is quite the phenomenon in social media right now. All kinds of Canadians lecturing, hectoring, and badgering Americans (not that they’re paying attention) about guns in the wake of the Newtown massacre (and let’s not forget the mall shooting in Oregon last week) (if you’d really like to depress yourself about mass shootings in the United States over the past thirty years, I have this for you). The script of this particular anti-Americanism is consistent: “You Americans are dumb. You have guns. And you shoot each other and yourselves with them. We Canadians are smart. We don’t shoot ourselves and each other.” And so and so forth. To that, my fellow Canadians, I will remind you of the rash of shootings in Toronto last summer. As for mass shootings, I present École Polytechnique; Concordia University; Taber, AB; Dawson College. You want a closer look at mass shootings in Canada? Go here. But this kind of anti-Americanism is predictable. But it’s not like Americans aren’t upset and distressed by these goings-on. It’s not like Americans aren’t trying to have this very same discussion.
But there’s also the more prosaic kind of anti-Americanism. Since I re-located to Boston this summer, I’ve had a few choice comments directed my way on Twitter and in real life. Comments like “I could NEVER live in the States, it’s so violent,” “Ha! Better get a gun!” and “Americans are dumb” (yes, seriously), and so on and so forth. A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, one numbskull went crazy on me in response to a tweet about the subtle difference I have noticed between the two nations: Canadians have social programmes, Americans have entitlements. This now-former tweep went on a tirade about Americans and war, suggesting that the American entry into the Second World War had nothing to do with the Allies winning the war. But it got better. Apparently the only thing Americans can do is fight, they can’t do diplomacy, and they can’t innovate unless it’s war. Cars, electricity, nope, none of that comes from the United States. Certainly, this kind of irrational anti-Americanism is not the norm in Canada, but it is still symptomatic of the larger problem.
I don’t see how this kind of irrational anti-Americanism can square with our self-image as more erudite, more intelligent, etc. than Americans. For that matter, I can’t see why this comparison even exists in the first place. I am Canadian. Full stop. I am not not-American. I don’t care what Americans are or do. That’s for Americans to decide. As Canadians, we need to get over our inferiority complex.
Canada and Empire
December 12, 2012 § 3 Comments
I often amuse myself with the attempts of Canadian historians to try to explain how, in the years leading up to the First World War, Anglo Canadians could alternately view themselves as Canadians, English, British, and as citizens of the greatest empire the world had ever seen (that would be the British, if you’re wondering). They tend to see this as a contradiction, a confusion, and get themselves twisted into knots in explaining this phenomenon. It just seems so contradictory to them. Here, for example, is Ian McKay, one of Canada’s greatest historians, with Jamie Stairs in their excellent new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety:
Many Anglo Canadians like [Bill Stairs, a Canadian hero of Empire] believed that a good British subject could and should simultaneously be loyal to Nova Scotia [Stairs’ home], Canada, and the Empire, and in doing so experience no contradiction.
To our 21st century Canadian identity, it is anathema that one could see oneself as more than just Canadian. And I just don’t get this. I really don’t. In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Canada was a colony. It was not an independent nation, no matter what the politicians of the era, the Jack Granatsteins and Stephen Harper’s of today tell you. Canadian independence is a slippery concept, there is no exact moment that Canada gained its independence. For example, it could be 1848, when the Canadas gained responsible government. Or it could be 1867, when three colonies came together to form a united whole (Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick). It could also be 1931, when the Statute of Westminster gave Canada (and all the other white Dominions: South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) control over their foreign affairs. But, there was still no such thing as “Canadian” citizenship. That came on the 1st of January 1947. The following year, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court of appeal in the land. Prior to that, it was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (not Ontario, the UK one) that held that position. In 1982, our constitution was patriated from Mother Britain and made an act of our own Parliament. If you want to go all republican on the matter, I’d note that the head of state today is Queen Elizabeth II of England. So, politically, declaring the date of Canadian independence is difficult.
But the long and short of it is that 100 years ago, Canada was not an independent nation. It was also part of this massive Empire. The British Empire controlled something like 20% of the world’s land and 25% of the world’s population at the dawn of the 20th century. Think about that for a second. I mean it, just imagine the globe, imagine 20% of that land coloured the pink of the British Empire. Or just look at this map (and imagine the red as pink).
Empire was a very powerful concept in that Canada (and if Stephen Harper has his way, we’ll be thinking this way again soon). It was not incongruous for the average Canadian of Scots, English, or even Irish, stock to see him or herself as both Canadian and British at the same time. For being Canadian made one British, such was the nature of citizenship laws, and such was the fact that the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was (and remains) the head of state in Canada.
Thus, the simple fact of the matter is that Canadians 100 years ago were both/and, not either/or. They were both Canadian and British, not Canadian or British. That was the way they rolled, so to speak. The same was true for other subjects of the British Empire throughout the Dominions. It might be time for Canadian historians to recognise this simple fact, and to stop twisting them like Mike Palmateer trying to bail out his woeful hockey team in trying to explain this. Joy Parr long ago instructed we Canadian historians that identities are not sequential, they are multiple and simultaneous. And the average Anglo Canadian’s identification with Canada, Britain, and Empire is just that: the simultaneous identities of an ambivalent population. No more, no less.
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.
Reappraisals and the Forgotten 20th Century
May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment
I picked up Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century on somewhat of a whim at Montréal’s last independent Anglo bookstore, Argo Books on rue Sainte-Catherine, a few months back. Since then, it’s been buried in the knee-deep stack of reading next to the bed. But, after finishing Jerry White’s meditation on 20th century London, as well as a short novella by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, two defining writers of the 20th century, I thought perhaps it was time to crack the binding on Judt’s book.
I am all 7 pages in and have already read more food for thought than I do in most of what I read in a month. Judt’s main point is that in the West, but especially in North America, particularly the United States, we have done exactly what Mike Edwards, the frontman of the disposable pop band Jesus Jones said we were doing 20 years ago, “waking up from history.” Except, whereas Edwards was optimistic, and Francis Fukuyama was loudly and proudly declaring we had reached the End of History (seriously, how the hell does Fukuyama have ANY credibility after that?!?), Judt is more concerned. He says we’ve lost our way, we live in a society focussed on forgetting, of ignoring the lessons of history.
Judt is particularly concerned with the States, his adopted nation, and where he died in 2010, after a battle with ALS. In particular, he writes of the triumphalism of the States after the end of the Cold War, despite the defeat in Vietnam and the stagnation of Iraq (and Afghanistan) when he was writing in 2007. He notes how the United States is the only Western nation that still venerates and celebrates its military history, a sentiment that disappeared in Europe after the Second World War. He writes:
For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the last century is that was works. The implications of this reading of history have already been felt in the decision to attack Iraq in 2003. For Washington, war remains an option — in this case the first option. For the rest of the developed world, it has become a last resort.
I’m not entirely certain this is indeed the case, given Tony Blair’s hitching of his horses to Dubya’s war machine in 2003, but it certainly does give pause for thought.
It also brings the Harper government here in Canada into sharper focus. Canada is a middle power, and that might be generous, actually. And yet, Harper is hell bent on celebrating Canada’s military history, one that by and large ends with the Second World War, and denigrating our proud history as peacekeepers (including the very simple fact that Lester B. Pearson invented peacekeeping). I wrote about this, somewhat tangentially, with the return of the Winnipeg Jets to the NHL last fall.
And yet, here we are, a minor middle power in the world, striking a more bellicose tone than even the US in some cases, most notably in our support for Israel. This is not a discussion of whether Israel deserves support or not, this is a discussion about the role of military history and veneration in public discourse. Harper has used Canada’s proud (and distant) history as a military power, and Canada’s excellent record in the two World Wars to bolster and justify his muscular vision of Canadian foreign policy.
In this sense, then, while the US remains a major military power, and indeed the world’s major one, Canada remains small potatoes. And all I can think of is an episode of The Simpsons where Bart, Milhouse, Rod, Tod, Nelson, and Martin head into Shelbyville for reasons I can no longer remember, and they decide to break into teams. Bart and Milhouse, Rod and Tod, and Nelson and Martin. As they make their way off, Martin dances around the big, burly Nelson, who is somewhat reluctant of his role as the enforcer, singing his friend’s praise and celebrating his prowess. In my vision, Obama is Nelson and Harper is Martin. Kind of sad, really.
On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Part 3
March 3, 2012 § 11 Comments
There is an SAQ outlet at the corner of Centre and Charlevoix here in Pointe-Saint-Charles. For those of you non-Quebecers reading this, SAQ is the Société des Alcools du Québec, the state monopoly, the liquor store. The SAQ here in the Pointe is a tiny one, a little boutique, but very busy and the staff there are friendly, helpful, and very knowledgeable. But the SAQ is closing it down as of 30 March this year because, it alleges, the outlet is unprofitable. If that outlet is unprofitable, I am the King of Siam. What is at work here is the SAQ forgetting its mandate as a state monopoly, which is not just to make money hand-over-fist, but to provide a service.
So the people of the Pointe, as mobilised as ever, are protesting the closure of our SAQ outlet. There was a march to our MNA’s office on rue Saint-Jacques yesterday to protest. Why are people protesting? That should seem to be obvious, quite frankly. But the SAQ at the corner of Centre and Charlevoix is in many ways an anchor of the commercial outlets along the next few blocks of Centre. Kitty corner from the SAQ is Restaurant Machiavelli, a relatively upscale eatery. Next door over is Cari Mela, one of the handful of Indian restaurants in the Pointe, and probably the best. Cari Mela, Machiavelli, and the other Indian restaurants along Centre are all bring your own wine. This makes sense, given the SAQ down the block.
Centre has seen some rough times, but in the past few years there has been a slow regeneration and revival. There have been these new Indian restaurants opening. There is a mosque acros the street and up a block. A series of Bengal dépanneurs have popped up. And a series of coffee shops/casse croutes have opened up or have maintained. More recently, a trendy boutique restaurant, Ma Tante Quiche has opened its doors next to a laundromat, and there are rumours a boulangerie is opening up where the old video store was.
Losing an anchor like the SAQ will have serious ramifications for Centre as a commercial zone.
The CBC had a short story on its website yesterday about the protest, which will no doubt come to naught. The story itself is innocuous, but the comments on it are quite simply, jaw-droppingly stupid. Michael59 says the protest was a stupid joke because the next store is a few blocks away. mikeysm notes that the Pointe is a poor neighbourhood. HughNugent reports that most of his family grew up here and their response would be for us to get up off our fat arses and walk to the Atwater Market, where there’s a big SAQ outlet.
These comments reflect the general idea of the Pointe of a neighbourhood of poor folk, collecting welfare, and spending their banlieue money on lottery tickets. But there is obviously more than that. The Pointe is a diverse neighbourhood these days, and the clientele of the SAQ reflects this. There are people of all ethnicities and socio-economic classes at the outlet buying their alcohol, primarily wine, as that’s what dominates the shelves. Atwater Market is a good 15 minute walk from the corner of Centre and Charlevoix. It’s a lot farther away if you live further into the Pointe.
But beyond that, the general gist of these comments is that the people of the Pointe are fat and lazy and because they are such, they shouldn’t be wasting their money on alcohol to start with. I am very curious what the comments would be in response to a story about the closing of a busy SAQ outlet on, say, the Plateau, or the Mile End, or Outremont, or NDG or Westmount. I’d bet they would be asinine comments such as these.
On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, part 1
February 20, 2012 § 11 Comments
A couple of weeks ago as I was coming home from work, I passed two young women on my block looking at a big, fat cat crouched underneath a pickup truck. They were concerned about the cat’s welfare and were worried it might be homeless (a tip, no cat that fat is homeless). I told them it lived in the housing project right next to us. They looked relieved and one said, “Well, you never know, you know what kind of people live in this neighbourhood.” “Yes,” I said, “I do. People like me.” This rather left them speechless, before one attempted to apologise, saying she didn’t mean…”I know exactly what you meant,” I said as I walked off, shaking my head.
So what made them think I wasn’t the sort who lives here? Could be I looked like them, wearing designer clothing, carrying a briefcase, clearly a worker commuting. Just like them. But I’m not, apparently. I’m the kind of person who lives here.
Where is here? Here is Pointe-Saint-Charles, a kind of gritty neighbourhood in Montreal’s sud-ouest borough in the throes of gentrification as we speak. Within a five minute walk out my front door, there are 8 new or on-going condo developments. And at least as many old tenement houses being renovated as single-family dwellings. But this kind of gentrification is relatively new, the past 4-5 years or so.
These two young women no doubt worked in the old NordElec building on Richardson at the corner of Shearer. The NordElec was re-jigged and fixed up years ago and is now home to a whole range of businesses, most of them of the cultural sort, producing various forms of art, there’s a yoga studio there on the ground floor, a cooking school, and a rock-climbing gym. If memory serves me, Ninja Tunes Records’ North American outpost was there once.
What amenities that exist in the Pointe are largely geared towards these workers, the various cafés and restaurants that serve them don’t think it’s worth their time to be open in the evenings or at the weekends. After all, you know the type who live here.
I grew up poor, I grew up working class. I never had security of tenure in our housing growing up, always renting, always at the whims of landlords. More importantly, we were always at the whim of the economy. The old man got laid off a lot, despite being a skilled worker (a welder). Therefore, I know what it feels like to be invisible. Not just feel it, but to be invisible. My high school guidance counsellor told me that “People like you don’t go to university.” People like me? Working class people. I keep meaning to send Ms. Samuda-Lehman a postcard.
We like to think that class doesn’t exist in Canada. It doesn’t for most Canadians. For the most part, the people who work at the NordElec building and other outposts here on the frontier of Pointe-Saint-Charles don’t see what’s around them. Or if they do, they see the housing projects and the downtrodden buying alcohol in the dep the moment it opens. And they are beneath contempt for the most part.
I see this every day in the Pointe. I see it in the yuppy and hipster workers who deem themselves to be more important than I am walking down the sidewalks, refusing to give me space to pass. Perhaps they don’t see me if I’m wearing jeans and a hoodie. Perhaps my tattoos and piercings make them think I’m just another piece of white trash. I know they don’t see me when I’m crossing a busy street, like Saint-Patrick, with my dog. I have a big dog, he weighs over 150 pounds, so maybe they just see another piece of white trash walking his overgrown, vicious dog. How do I know this? Because at least once or twice a week, the dog and I are nearly hit crossing Saint-Patrick at the intersection of Island on our way up to the Lachine Canal for a walk.
What do drivers do? They fail to stop at the stop sign, they fail to yield to the pedestrian crossing. Some look at me and then take off right in front of me, stepping on the gas as I am crossing the street but before I’m in front of them. This always scares the dog. Or perhaps they’ll just keep coming through the intersection even if I am right in front of them.
The police don’t care. I have emailed the police. I have tweeted at them. I have called them. No one returns my calls or emails. Someone is going to get seriously hurt crossing at that intersection, and given it’s on a bike path…
How do I know the drivers’ behaviour is class based? I’m not 100% certain, but it feels familiar. And also, if I walk to the train station downtown on my way to work, and I am dressed like another urban professional, they yield for me, at least most of the time.
And herein lies the crux. If I am dressed properly, if I wear the right clothes, I am given respect on the streets of my neighbourhood by the workers who come here during the day. They don’t try to push me off the sidewalk into the snow and ice. They don’t dismiss my presence in the intersections. They don’t cut in front of me in the cafés. But I’m dressed down, if I am in more comfortable clothing, this is what happens to me.
And it’s not personal. I watch it happen hundreds of times a week to the actual working classes in the Pointe. I see them squeezed off the sidewalks, cut in front of, threatened with cars. Every day.
Of course I know I am as much part of the problem in the Pointe as the solution; I am part of the crowd pushing the working classes out. But I live here, and I have lived here for most of the past decade. Certainly, there are others like me living in the Pointe. Increasingly more and more, what with all the condos, and one day, those cafés and restaurants will be open in the evenings and at the weekend, so we, too, can get a pint after work, or some decent take-away food.
In many ways, the Pointe is a fascinating place to be, as the neighbourhood both gentrifies and diversifies. The big church next to me, Saint-Charles, is an old French Canadian parish that has been rejuvenated by Africans and Haitians. There’s an African grocery store on Centre across from the Church. There are a series of Bengali grocery stores around the intersection of Centre and Charlevoix, where a bunch of Indian restaurants can also be found (interestingly, they are open in the evenings and at the weekend).
But in the meantime, the workers who come here to do just that, work, they don’t see this. They see a Pointe that existed a decade or longer ago. They see “those people” all around them, people not worth their respect or the time of day. And they act it out too.