The Wisdom of Marc Bloch

October 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

10724719_716131381768977_171791364_nMarc Bloch is one of the most influential historians ever.  An historian of mostly medieval France, he, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of historiography in the late 1920s.  The Annalistes preferred examining history over the long durée, and across various periods of time.  They also advocated a more complete history than one of generals, presidents, prime ministers, and other so-called Great Men.

Bloch met his end at the hands of the Gestapo on in Saint-Didier-des-Champs, in France, on 16 June 1944, ten days after D-Day, as the Nazis realised they were going to lose France.  Bloch had been a member of the Résistance since 1942.  He was captured by the Vichy police in March of that year and handed over to the Gestapo.  He was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, and tortured.  It was a sad end for a great man.

Bloch had served in the French Army during the First World War, and remained a member of the Army reserve in the interregnum between the two wars.  He was called up into action during the Second World War and was on hand for the baffling collapse of France in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg attack in May 1940.  That summer, he wrote his blistering and searing account of the Fall of France, Strange Defeat, not knowing if his words would ever see the light of day.  The book was published in 1948, four years after his murder, and three years after the war ended.

Bloch is unflinching in his critique of French High Command, and France in general, for the collapse of its Army in 1940.  In part, he blames the High Command’s over reliance on a false reading of history, that led it into a state of pathetic stasis, incapable of recognising that 1939-40 was not 1918, and that the Second World War was a different war than the Great War.  In this passage, he makes a passionate argument for what the study of History is.

History is, in its essentials, the science of change.  It knows and it teaches that is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical…the lesson it teaches is not that what happened yesterday will necessarily happen to-morrow, or that the past will go on reproducing itself.  By examining how and why yesterday differed from the day before, it can reach conclusions which will enable it to foresee how to-morrow will differ from yesterday.  The traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future.

I assigned this book for my historiography class, and was deeply struck by this passage.  I’ve re-read it four times now, it goes against what our culture thinks history is.  Our culture thinks history is exactly what Bloch says it isn’t, that it can teach us to avoid the same mistakes over and over again.

I was thinking about this in light of my Irish history class dealing with The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell last week.  O’Connell led the movement for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, succeeding in 1829.  He the turned his sights on the Repeal of the Act of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  In this, he failed.  He failed because times had changed, and attitudes were different.  In the early 19th century, many in Britain, and even some amongst the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, had come to the conclusion that the denial of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland was not a good thing, and that Emancipation was necessary.  Three of the staunchest opponents of Emancipation came around to O’Connell’s way of thinking: Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary; The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and King George IV).  In the 1840s, though, when O’Connell’s Repeal movement reached its apogee, he did not have a groundswell of support in Britain (or amongst the Protestant Ascendancy) for Repeal. Thus, he failed because O’Connell failed to learn the proper lessons of History.

We would do well to remember Bloch’s maxim. Even we historians.

Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: “Race” and the “True Celt”

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

I’m currently finishing off my Griffintown manuscript, and continuing the endless revisions of the PhD dissertation it was based on.  By this point, “based on” is loose, like when movies claim to be based on a book, but you can’t really see the book in the movie.  Anyway, right now I’m revising the sections on Irish nationalist sentiment amongst the Irish-Catholics of Griff in the early 20th century.  And so, I’m reading Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925. McLaughlin’s work, like mine, is part of a growing movement amongst historians to challenge a decades-old belief amongst Canadian historians that Irish Catholics in Canada couldn’t care less about what happened in Ireland.  This is a refreshing change.

McLaughlin, unlike most of us who study the Irish in Canada, focuses on both sides of the divide, looking at both Catholics and Protestants.  This is what makes his book so valuable.  Off the top of my head, McLaughlin’s is the only book-length study to look at the Protestant Irish response to agitations for Home Rule and outright independence for Ireland in Canada.

As such, McLaughlin spends a fair amount of time discussing Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists in Ireland.  I talked about Carson in class the other week in discussing Home Rule and Unionism.  I had a picture of him up on the screen, blown up behind me.  When I turned around, I kind of jumped, not really expecting Sir Edward to be so big and glaring at me.  The picture, however, is beautiful.  Sir Edward looks out contemptuously at his audience, his lips pursed into a sour look, as if he had just smelled some Catholics.  His jawbone is fierce, and his hair slicked back.  He looks for all the world like a hard man. But, of course, he wasn’t.  He was a knighted politician.  But he was also the perfect avenue into discussing the “manliness problem” of the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and the response, created by Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts, “muscular Christianity.”  Sir Edward looks like he could tear you a new one as easily as argue the merits of Unionism versus Home Rule.  And, in turn, this allowed me a direct entré into the Gaelic Athletic Association’s concept of “muscular Catholicism,” which turned muscular Christianity on its ear for Catholic Irish purposes.

At any rate, back to McLaughlin and his quoting of Sir Edward.  Sir Edward wrote to his former Conservative Party colleague, Sir John Marriott in 1933, long after Irish independence and the partitioning of Ireland:

The Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder.  Irishmen who have turned out successful are not in any case that I know of true Celtic origin.

I find this humourous.  See, by Sir Edward’s day, there was no such thing as a “true Celt” (not that Irish nationalists didn’t speak this same language).  By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, were a wonderful mixture of Celtic Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, and so on that no one was a “pure Celt” or pure anything.  But, of course, that myth persisted and still persists today.

I still have people come up to me today, in the early years of the 21st century, and want to discuss the “real Irish” or the “pure Irish” or the “real Celts” in Ireland.  After disabusing them of the notion that there is such a thing (anywhere in the world, quite frankly, we’re all mutts, no matter our various ethnic heritages), I am left to just shake my head.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

The Making of the Historian

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of my favourite history books is Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary.  The book, published in 2001, tells the story of Bridget Cleary’s death at the hands of her husband, Michael, and a mixture of extended family, in Ballyvadlea, Co. Tipperary in Ireland in March 1895.  As Bourke unravels the story, the murder of Bridget Cleary is an opportunity for the historian (or folklorist, in her case) to examine the collision between modern culture and folkways.  Ballyvadlea in 1895 was essentially the boondocks of Ireland, far removed from the encroaching modern world, people there still lived according to old Irish ways, with beliefs in fairies, banshees, and the like.  Whether or not Michael Cleary and his cohorts actually believed in this is neither here nor there, argues Bourke, what matters is that the belief system still existed and was still accessible to Cleary and his co-conspirators. 

When I was in graduate school, I was fascinated by the collision between modernity and ancient folkways.  In particular, I was interested in charivari, a means of community policing in pre-modern societies in Europe and amongst settler societies in North America.  In fact, I was so interested in this, I set out to do my Master’s degree on this topic in Québec.  What fascinated me then, and still does today, and why I enjoy Bourke’s book so much (I usually assign it when I teach Irish History) is the way in which modern legal culture intersects with traditional folkways. 

Societies have traditionally been able to police themselves.  Today, we live in a society where the state is omnipresent, whether in the form of of our driver’s licenses, or the regulation of education, and various other means.  When someone breaks the law, we expect the police to make an arrest, the prosecutor to secure a conviction, and the jail to secure the lawbreaker until her debt to society is paid.  But it hasn’t always been that way. 

In October 1855, Robert Corrigan was beaten to death in Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, a remote agricultural community, some fifty miles south of Québec City, in the foothills of the Appalachians.  He was beaten by a gang of his neighbours for stepping out of line.  They did not mean to kill him, they meant to discipline him for his bullying, aggressive behaviour.  That Corrigan was an Irish Protestant and his murderers Irish Catholics was secondary (at least in Saint-Sylvestre, for the rest of Canada, that was the most important detail in the highly sectarian mid-19th century).  When the state attempted to arrest the accused men, they were easily able to elude the police forces sent in from Montréal and Québec, aided by their neighbours.  When they did finally turn themselves in in January 1856, they did so on their own terms.  They were also able to rig the jury when they went to trial in February so that they were acquitted. 

The Corrigan Affair, in this light, was entirely about a local community maintaining its right to police itself in the face of the power of the state.  The mid-19th century in Canada was a time of massive state formation and expansion.  The same period in Québec saw a spate of construction projects around the province of courthouses and jails and other such buildings.  The buildings were all the same down to the shade of paint used on them.  Why?  Because the state was attempting to establish its control across the province and it was attempting to do so with the message that the state was indifferent to local contingencies.  Not surprisingly, the people of Québec rebelled against this.  The mid-19th century in Canada offers endless examples of local communities rebelling against the state in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. 

The Wild West in the United States is another such example.  The West has a reputation for violence that is only partly deserved.  Much of the legends of the Wild West are just that: legends.  But violence there was.  Much of it was about the same thing as charivari in England or The Corrigan Affair in Québec: community policing.  Disputes were settled between the belligerents for several reasons, most importantly, the state did not have the power yet to mediate between its citizens. 

Historians have been studying this collision between folkways and the rise of modernity since the 1960s.  During that era, that great generation of English historians (E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Dorothy Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm) became fascinated by this collision.  I always find it interesting when I see the influence of the historians I read in graduate school still on me today, all these years later. 

Last semester, our favourite work study student, Alvaro, graduated.  Alvaro had worked in our departmental office since we both (as in my wife and I) arrived here in the fall of 2012.  For his graduation, we decided to buy him the books that had the greatest impact on us in our development as historians, as Alvaro is planning on going on to graduate school.  I got him E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.  I first read this book in 1996, my first semester of graduate school.  It was one of the few books I read in graduate school where I just couldn’t put it down.  Meticulously research, and brilliantly insightful, Thompson crafted an historical study that could stand on its own on its literary merits.  I re-read it a couple of years ago.  It remains one of my favourite books of all time. 

OMG! Seriously?: On Language and Swearing

October 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

In today’s Boston Globe, I read a column that I thought had been printed by mistake.  Or maybe it was a leftover from 1976.  Jennifer Graham, a columnist for the venerable (and quite good) Boston daily, is upset that OMG and it’s more offensive variety, “Oh my God!” are lingua franca in our culture today.  She’s upset that blasphemy is everyday language.  To which I say, where have you been for the past 40 years, lady?

I am from a culture where all the choice swear words are religious-based.  French Canadians have a whole range of blasphemous and offensive words for all situations, the worst of which is “Tabarnak!” That literally means “tabernacle.”  Other highlights are “câlisse!” and “osti!” (chalice and the holy host, respectively).  If you really wanna set grandma’s wig on fire: “osti de tabarnak câlisse” will do the trick.  Once more, in English, that’s “holy host of the tabernacle, chalice!”  Sounds much better in québécois French, trust me.  When I was a kid, these were very bad words (even Anglos in Québec swear in French, it’s much more fun), respectable people did not use them.  But, by the time I was an adult, they were everywhere, even in polite company, including in newspapers, on TV, and even my dear great aunt once said “tabarnak!” (I nearly fell over).

It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that the ramping up of swearing is due to the general breakdown of authority in western culture as a whole in the past 40 years.  Sometimes even I am stunned by what I hear coming out of the mouths of my students in the hallways and around campus.  Some of the names they call each other, even in jest, would flip the wig of my grandmothers, I can tell you that much.

But. Oh my god? Seriously?  Graham is upset by this one because she thinks it insults people’s value systems.  Oddly, I learned this particular gem within my Catholic family as a kid.  For that matter, my memory of this gem of a swear is that I have tended to hear it from the mouths of Catholics, especially devout ones.  Sacrilegious? Oh, heck yes.  But spend an hour watching Irish TV and you’ll see what I mean.

It seems to me that Jennifer Graham is about a generation or two late in her hand-wringing over the use of oh my god in pop culture.

Immigration: The More Common North American Experience

September 6, 2013 § 4 Comments

The scenery as we drove across the United States and back was amazing.  So were many of the place names.  There is a town in Colorado named Rifle.  Another town in Colorado is called Cahones.  I kid you not.  But perhaps my favourite highway road sign in all of the United States was this one we saw on the side of I-84 in Eastern Oregon.

photo The sign pretty much says it all.  Canadian and American culture is full of stories of the successful immigrant, the ones who came to these shores with nothing and made lives for themselves, who made fortunes and found fame.  And while certainly there were a few who experienced this good fortune on North American shores, the majority did not.  Most settled somewhere in between fame and fortune and poverty and despair.

Certainly, pop culture contains references to the downside of emigration.  In Canada, university students in Canadian history and literature are tortured with perhaps one of the worst books in Christendom, Susanna Moodie’s interminable Roughing It In the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, about the trials and tribulations of Moodie and her husband, John Weddiburn Dunbar Moodie, a down-at-the-heels member of the British gentry, in the wilds of Upper Canada in the 1830s and 40s.  While Moodie was a horrible writer and her husband an even worse poet, the book is a key text on the struggles of even wealthy emigrants in the British colonies in the mid-nineteenth century (it worked out ok for the Moodies, they ended up moderately wealthy and living in the thriving town of Belleville, Ontario).

One of my favourite Pogues songs is “Thousands Are Sailing,” which is the story of downtrodden Irish emigrants in New York City in the 19th century.  The song is actually kind of heartbreaking.

So this sign for an exit on I-70 in Eastern Oregon struck me as a remarkable site.  Old Emigrant Hill Road is on the northern side of I-70, and it runs into Poverty Flat Road on the southern side of the highway.  Obviously, these two roads have been there for a lot longer than the Interstate.  And, as you can see from the terrain surrounding the sign for the exit on the highway, the landscape around Poverty Flat Road isn’t exactly all that welcoming.  This was also a common experience for emigrants to the “New World” in the 19th and 20th centuries: they ended up farming lands that were not conducive to growing much of anything.  Generations struggled to make a living on these farms until someone, whether out of optimism or desperation, decided to clear off the land and make his or her fortunes elsewhere.

Perhaps this is the more common story of the immigrant in North America than the one of fame and fortune.

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).  

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