October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment
We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS. Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies. And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies. I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.
The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious. But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.
As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth. But it’s not just ESPN. Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports. It is also 20% owned by ESPN). A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states, that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”
Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings. Why? Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN. The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour. TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.
And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story. Sure they are. But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words. They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’
This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell. But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around. Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it). But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts. Players do.
Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language. Good for you. You’re wrong.
Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes. Ever heard someone speak 18th century English? Or how about the word ‘awful’? Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’ Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’ And awful means something that sucks. But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).
The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely. So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded. It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness. And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.
May 31, 2017 § 1 Comment
Bill 101 is 40 years old this year. For those of you who don’t know, Bill 101 (or Loi 101, en français) is the Quebec language charter. It is officially known as La charte de la langue française (or French-Language Charter). It essentially establishes French as the lingua franca of Quebec. For the most part, the Bill was aimed at Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec. Just a bit under half of Quebec lives in Montreal and its surrounding areas, and this has been the case for much of Quebec’s modern history. Montreal is also where the Anglo population of Quebec has become concentrated.
When Bill 101 was passed by the Parti québécois government of René Levésque in 1977, there was a mass panic on the part of Anglophones, and they streamed out of Montreal and Quebec, primarily going up the 401 highway to Toronto. My family was part of this. But we ultimately carried on further, to the West Coast, ultimately settling in Vancouver. At one point in the 1980s, apparently Toronto was more like Anglo Montreal than Montreal.
Meanwhile, back in the metropole, nasty linguistic battles dominated the late 1980s. This included actual violence on the streets. But there were also a series of court decisions, many of which struck down key sections of Bill 101. This, in turn, emboldened a bunch of bigots within the larger Anglo community, who complained of everything, from claiming Quebec wasn’t a democracy to, amongst some of the more whacked out ones, that the Anglos were the victim of ethnocide (I wish I was kidding).
But, in the 30 years since, much has changed in Montreal. The city settled into an equilibrium. And I would posit that was due to the economy. Montreal experienced a generation-long economic downturn from the 1970s to the 1990s. In the mid-90s, after the Second Referendum on Quebec sovereignty failed in 1995 (the first was in 1980), the economy picked up. New construction popped up everywhere around the city centre, cranes came to dominate the skyline. And then it seeped out into the neighbourhoods. By the late 90s/early 2000s, Montreal was the fastest growing city in Canada. It has since long since slowed down, and Montreal had a lot of ground to catch up on, in relation to Canada’s other two major cities, Toronto and Vancouver. But the economic recovery did a lot to stifle not just separatism, but also the more radical Anglo response.
Last week, the Montreal Gazette published an editorial on the 40th anniversary of Bill 101. It was a shocker, as the newspaper was central to the more paranoid Anglo point-of-view, even as late as the mid-2000s. But, perhaps I should not have been surprised, as it was written by eminent Montreal lawyer, Julius Grey. He is one of the rare Montrealers respected on all sides. At any rate, Grey (who was also the lawyer in some of the cases that led to sections of Bill 101 being invalidated), celebrates the success of the Charte de la langue française. It has, argues Grey correctly, led to a situation where, in Montreal, both French and English are thriving. He also notes that there is much more integration now in Montreal than was the case in the 1970s, from intermarriage to social interaction, and economic equality between French and English. Moreover, immigrants have by-and-large learned French and integrated, to a greater or lesser degree, into francophone culture. Many immigrants have also learned English.
But the interesting part of Grey’s argument is this:
On the English side, dubious assertions of discrimination abound. It is important for all citizens to be treated equally, but often the problem lies in the mastering of French. The English minority has become far more bilingual than before, but many overestimate their proficiency in French, and particularly when it comes to grammar and written French. By contrast, francophones tend to underestimate their English.
In other words, speaking French is an essential to life in Montreal. And Anglos, I think, are more prone to over-estimating their French-language skills for the simple fact that it’s common knowledge one needs to speak the language.
Grey goes onto make an excellent suggestion:
These difficulties could be eased by the creation of a new school system, accessible to all Quebecers, functioning two-thirds in French and one-third in English. Some English and French schools would exist for those who do not wish to or cannot study in both languages, although most parents would probably prefer the bilingual schools.
However, this would never fly. The one-third English does not bely the demographics of the city (let alone the province, and I really don’t see the point of learning English in Trois-Pistoles). The urban area of Montreal is around 4 million (the population of Quebec as a whole is around 8.2 million). There are a shade under 600,000 Anglos in the Montreal region, largely centred in the West Island and southern and western off-island suburbs. That means Anglos are around 15% of the population of Montreal. The idea that Montreal is bilingual is given lie by these numbers.
Nonetheless, there is merit to this argument of an English-language curriculum in Quebec’s public schools (including in Trois-Pistoles). Like it or not, English is the lingua franca of the wider world, and global commerce tends to be conducted in that language. There is also the fact of the wide and vast English-language culture that exists around the globe. One of the things I enjoy about my own partial literacy in French (one that has certainly been damaged by not living in Montreal anymore) is the access to francophone culture, not just from Montreal and Quebec, but the wider francopohonie).
For any group of people or individual, there is a lot to be learned from bilingualism (or, multi-linguality). In Montreal (and Quebec as a whole), it could ensure that the city’s economic recovery in the past two decades continues. Along with this economic recovery has been a cultural renaissance in the city, in terms of music, film, literature, and visual arts. It is a wonderful thing to see Montreal’s recovery. And I want it to continue.
June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments
There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision. This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know. And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.
I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people. OK, then.
But this is where history does matter. The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.” Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly. There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly. Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.
And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies. The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.
The two situations are not analogous. At all. In other words, this is just another stupid meme. #FAIL
February 4, 2016 § 2 Comments
Yesterday, one of my alma maters, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, sent out a video from Facilities about #NationalSweaterDay, which is a Canadian initiative to turn down the heat in the winter, to remind consumers about environmental responsibility (and the cost of heating). The video itself is several years old, but it was circulated again.
To my eyes, this is horrible. A female professor is named “Pinkums” and is addressed as “Miss.” I know from conversation with my female colleagues that they have a real struggle to be addressed as Doctor, or Professor. Oddly I, as a white man, do not. And, frankly, this video is degrading.
News of the video became widely known through the blog of Elise Chenier, a professor at SFU. I was appalled when I came across this and tweeted my shock and dismay at SFU. No university should engage in this. Ever. To the credit of the university, it apologized almost immediately. And the video had long been pulled from circulation. According to the CBC:
SFU vice-president for external relations Joanne Curry later released a statement addressing some of Chenier’s concerns. In the statement, Curry agrees the videos were “inappropriate, sexist, and not in keeping with our equity commitments.”
“As the video was produced by an external vendor, I had not seen it. When I did watch it, I immediately agreed with the feedback we had received,” the statement read.
“We took steps to remove the video as quickly as possible and have followed up with the group who produced and distributed the video to ensure it will no longer be used.”
Note, however, that Curry immediately passes by buck, noting that it was made by an external vendor. But, the university did the right thing, as Chenier notes.
Today, I awoke to find my Twitter feed aflame with trolls. Interestingly, all but two were men. The two women both noted they were “anti-feminist” in their bios. Getting trolled on Twitter is nothing new. It has happened before, it will happen again. I have received all kinds of hate on Twitter, including death threats. But today’s trolling was interesting in the sense that the men, all of whom were white, who attacked me descended into homophobia from the get go. Some hoped I got raped, others told me to perform sexual acts on other men. One threatened to rape me. And then there was the garden variety name-calling.
I spent a good amount of time blocking and reporting people today, thinking that this happens everyday to feminists on Twitter. I can only imagine the abuse Chenier is getting right now. There was #Gamergate. Or what about when women suggested that a woman’s face be put on paper money in the UK? This happens every, single, fucking day to women who are threatened with rape and death for calling out patriarchy and male privilege. And we let that happen. Every single one of us. Right-thinking men, in particular. We need to find a way to fix this, we need to figure out a way to marginalize these kinds of men, or the likes of Roosh V. This is not ok.
MLK noted that the problem African Americans in his time faced wasn’t actually an African American problem. It was a white problem. Hence, he worked to raise white consciousness. To convince white people they were the problem and had it in their power to fix racism. By no means have we succeeded, but we have made a lot of progress.
Misogyny and sexism, similarly, is a male problem. But, it seems that sexism and misogyny is considered acceptable for some men. When people are offended by things like the SFU video, they respond with banal statements like “Can’t you take a joke?” Yes, I can. But this isn’t funny. This is the basic laddish response. But then there’s the anger, the violent, misogynist, threatening anger.
Male anger needs to be curbed.
But as much as I want this kind of thing stopped, I still struggle with the basic question of why some men act like this? Is it simply about power? Is it because they feel marginalized? Why do some men feel the need to respond to feminism with vile, disgusting language? And in some of these men, I think it goes beyond words and there is a danger in their threats and fits.
Sadly, I fully expect more trolling in response to this post. The trolling will continue on Twitter. And there will be some nasty comments left on this blog.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers. In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling. Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.
The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable. Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too). The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country. And they all agreed on things.
Reality is far from this. The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are. Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not. Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population. And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%. The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.
The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe. The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other. Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought. In other words, the Constitution was a compromise. The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.
Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814. But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country. In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.
It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time. Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless. You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race. It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.
But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements. The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central. I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives. Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.
Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs. So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.
April 3, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week, the New York Times published another in a depressing series of articles in the print media about how colleges and universities are allegedly catering to sensitive-little flower millennials, who cannot handle big ideas that challenge their deeply-held beliefs, and how, instead, they seek to create ‘safe spaces’ all across campus, where they won’t come into contact with big, scary ideas. I can never get through one of these articles without seething. See, I am a professor. That means I work and teach on a university campus. I come into daily contact with these millennials. And I’ve come to despise generational stereotypes about them, as much as I despised the stereotypes applied to my generation twenty years ago. The stereotypes are largely similar: apathetic, self-centred, self-obssessed, etc. And, just as they were a ridiculous accusation against Gen X, the same is true of millennials.
The larger problem with these kinds of articles is that they are written by journalists looking for sensation, and supported by their editors looking for clickbait (hey, look, Ma! I used the term ‘clickbait’ in successive posts). These articles are drive-by smearings of academe (not that there aren’t a lot of problems within the system, but journalists aren’t interested in them, because they don’t generate headlines), written without bothering to understand how the academy works, how ideas are exchanged, and how we professors work to challenge and destabilize commonly-held beliefs, even if we agree with them ourselves.
Take, for example, the story of a course at Arizona State University called “US Race Theory and The Problem of Whiteness.” FoxNews host Elizabeth Hasselbeck attacked the course, after talking to a student at ASU. The problem was that the student Hasselbeck talked to wasn’t enrolled in the class, and she herself never bothered to talk to the professor. No, instead, Hasselbeck instead ranted about the problems with this kind of course, in predictable fashion. This led the professor of the course to doxxed and to receive death threats.
But back to the Times article. I was going to write a strongly-worded riposte to it here, but my wife beat me to it. So, instead, I point you, gentle reader, over to Margo’s blog, as she says what I wanted to say in a much better fashion.
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.