Stupid Memes, Lies, and Ahistoricism

June 27, 2016 § 3 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.

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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

The Violence of the Misogynist Mind

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.

The Myth of the ‘Founding Fathers’

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.

Scary Ideas and Lazy Journalism

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.

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.

Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.

The International Museum of Folklore

February 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

In his Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History & Social Memory, Guy Beiner talks a lot about folklore in Connacht, the western-most Irish province.  This is where the failed 1798 French invasion took place, and Beiner attempts an archaeology of the folklore of the region in relation to the invasion and its relation to the wider 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

I’ve never really worked in the realm of folklore, but I’ve always been fascinated by it, dating back to my undergrad years, though my profs were all insistent that folklore did not belong in a history class. In grad school, I read Ian McKaye’s book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, which was about the collection of Scots and Irish folklore, especially in Cape Breton by Helen Creighton and others in the early decades of the 20th century, around the same time that folklorists were running all over Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and various other countries, collecting the folk stories of the region.

Beiner argues that

It is often claimed that modernization struck a deathblow to ‘traditional’ oral culture.  Yet, developments in communication and information technologies also provided new media for the transmission and documentation of folklore.

Beiner goes on to discuss all the ways in which modern technology has aided in the collection and dissemination of traditional cultures and folklores.  But he is clearly overlooking the fact that modernization DID work to kill traditional oral culture, a point made brilliantly by Angela Bourke in her The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story.  This point is made all the more clearly by Keith Basso in his Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Languages Among the Western Apache.  Most of the events described by Basso, in terms of his ethnographic amongst the Western Apache of Arizona, take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet his book was published in 1995.  In his epilogue, Basso notes the massive change that had come to the community of Cibecue in the fifteen years between his ethnographic work and the book, and what is clear is that modern technology and modern life was killing the traditional way of life for the Western Apache, and with that, traditional relations to the land and the ancestors, which came through in what could be called folklore.

Ireland was no different (nor was any other folk culture anywhere).  Modernization has worked to kill traditional oral culture.  And while the stories still exist, and we can sill read them and listen to story-tellers, the culture they describe no longer exists.  Folklore, through the very act of collection in the early 20th century, was made static and museumized.  It became something to be fetishized and studied, and ceased to be a living thing.

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