December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year. The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago. It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan. The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy. Frank is a drunk asshole. There’s no other way to put it. His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left. The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona. There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained). Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids. The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank. Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.
I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father. But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America. It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston. The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side. Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.
As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers. I find myself torn every time I watch it.
On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun. No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs. But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing. There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.
When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor. And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed. To a degree. It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on. Scams tended to be smaller scale. Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain. Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white. It was complicated.
And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show. Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes. But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated. Their lives aren’t all of one or the other. They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes. Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house. In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.). In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours. They are, essentially, fully human.
Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes. Poor people are lazy. Poor people are scammers. Poor people are dishonest. Poor people are victims. Poor people need help. And so on and so on. In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more. In fact, the poor are just like you and me. And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.
And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in. MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie. He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype. In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.
December 5, 2013 § 4 Comments
Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island. He was the keynote speaker. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s. I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family. But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification. He was eloquent and fierce at the same time. He is, of course, an ageing punk. He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.
I finally got around to reading All Souls last week. I’m glad I did. I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence. One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs. And another brother falsely accused of murder. It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point. I know how the story ends, obviously.
It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston. The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974. And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence. But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate). And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).
But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie. I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up. Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods. And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.
I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place. All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project. Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories. Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh. Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it. And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.
This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:
Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie. Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns. Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.
The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty. Doyle Driedger didn’t. But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do. It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do. Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.
But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them. There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back. I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood. Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.
I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not. But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times), I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism. But there is something about this view of Irish slums.
September 12, 2013 § 5 Comments
I like reading The New Yorker. It’s generally a pretty good general interest magazine and I appreciate its particular slant and humour. But sometimes I read things that are profoundly stupid. Like in the 2 September issue, in a profile of the Serbian tennis player (and world #1), Novak Djokovic. Djokovic grew up during a difficult time in the former Yugoslavia, as it disintegrated. And he grew up during a difficult time for Serbia, while it was committing genocide. So, when the author of this piece, Lauren Collins, casually mentions that NATO began bombing Belgrade, without any context, I was left gobsmacked. Belgrade was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War, during which the Kosovars fought for their independence from the remaining rump of Yugoslavia, which was really just Bosnia.
Serbian troops, with their wonderful record of genocide in Bosnia/Herzogovina (in conjunction, of course, with Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army) were suspected of committing genocide, or at least engaging in genocidal massacres, against the Kosovars. Hence, NATO, as it had done in 1995 during the Bosnian genocide, stepped in. In the end, it turns out that Serbia wasn’t exactly committing genocide in Kosovo, merely “”a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments” (to quote from the BBC), the Serbian army sought to remove, not eradicate the Kosovars.
Whether NATO was right or wrong to drop bombs on Belgrade, Serbia has a history of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity. There’s a reason former Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison in The Hague whilst on trial for war crimes and former Serbian general Ratko Mladic is presently on trial in The Hague.
Clearly Collins is trying to engender a sympathetic audience for Djokovic, who, as an 11-year old boy had nothing to do with Serbian genocides, and it is largely an entertaining article. Nonetheless, she is guilty of a gross misappropriation of history in describing the bombing of Belgrade in an entirely passive voice: “When he was eleven, NATO began bombing Belgrade…”, she then goes on to explain the young Djokovic’s means of survival. She goes onto write “In the aftermath of the war, as sanctions crippled Serbia’s economy, Djokovic’s family struggled to support Djokovic’s ambition [to be the world No. 1 tennis player].” Again, this is a tragedy for the Djokovics, but there are very real reasons why Serbia was hit with economic sanctions by NATO and its allies, and that’s genocide.
The New Yorker and its editors, as well as Lauren Collins, should know better. It’s that simple.
July 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
Rolling Stone’s new issue is causing a tumult here in Boston. The cover image is one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber. In the picture, he looks like a loveable kid, laid back, like your little brother. Not a terrorist. I suppose this was Rolling Stone‘s purpose. The article, by Janet Reitman, is an excellent attempt to figure out what went so wrong with Tsarnaev, and how a laid-back, captain of the wrestling team, because a murderer and terrorist. In other words, there is massive cognitive dissonance between the image and the article.
I find the image distasteful. I find it alarming. And I find it jarring. I don’t like it. Yesterday, CVS decided not to sell the image in its Boston-area outlets out of respect to the victims. Other local merchants have agreed and are not selling this issue. I re-tweeted the CVS one, thinking that this was the right decision.
Today, I’m not so sure. In part, because I had a long argument with with @lostinhistory (Better known as Jason Warren, purveyor of a very fine blog) on Twitter last night and this morning. This was NOT an argument about the article itself, which I think everyone in and around Boston should read. It was entirely about the image. Jason noted RS’s long history of provocative images with its mudracking journalism.
He cited the (in)famous Charles Manson cover of 15 June 1970.
But his larger point is that the article itself would hopefully spur greater discussion about what it was that made Tsarneav become a terrorist, and if the image helps further that goal, then that’s good. I disagreed. Vehemently. I re-read the article today. As I read, I found that the article remained as insightful as it was yesterday and that perhaps Warren had a point, the image is and may be provocative (and note how I have not reproduced it here), but the article should be required reading. It is chilling at times, especially when Reitman is talking with Tsarnaev’s high school friends in Cambridge; they had no clue. None. And given Tsarnaev’s public image, I’m not surprised. What’s so chilling is he managed to create this private life, very far removed from his public one of a happy stoner, and no one had any clue.
April 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
Monday’s terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon was a little too close to home for my tastes. A few of my students were there, near the finish line. A couple had left by the time the bombs went off, a couple had not. They were unhurt, as they were far enough away from the bombs. I know Boylston Street well. A few days before the Marathon, I was there; I had dinner in the Irish pub in the Lenox Hotel, which is across the street from where the second bomb went off. In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where those two bombs were.
Like most Canadians and Americans, for me terrorism happens in the abstract. It’s a news report on TV, it’s on our Twitter timelines, it’s pictures in a newspaper. Sometimes, it’s a movie. But we don’t experience it personally, and this is still true even after 9/11. I have not experienced terrorism personally, and yet, I have never been as close to a terrorism attack as I was on Monday. Not surprisingly, I feel unsettled.
But I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the responses to the bombs on Boylston Street. Aside from those on Twitter declaring this to be a “false flag” attack (in other words, a deliberate attack by the US government on its people), which is stupid to start with, there have also been those who have been declaring that this happens all the time in Kabul or Baghdad or Aleppo. That is very true, it does happen everyday in those places. Indeed, for far too many people around the world, terrorism is a daily fact of life. That is wrong. No one should live in terror. But by simply declaring that this happens all the time elsewhere, you are also saying that what happened in Boston doesn’t matter. And that is a response that lacks basic humanity.
This has been a week where I’ve been reminded too often about our lack of humanity. The inhumanity of the bombers, of the conspiracy theorists, and those who say this doesn’t matter because it happens all the time elsewhere.
News also broke this week about disgusting, inhumane behaviour surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Halifax. There, “friends, family, and supporters” (to quote the CBC) have taken to putting up posters in the neighbourhood around Parsons’ mother’s house supporting the boys who sexually assaulted her, declaring that the truth will come out. I’m sure those boys are living in a world of guilt and shame right now, as they should. But to continue to terrorise a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, and then teased, mocked, and bullied for two years until she took her life is inhumane. It is inhumane that those boys assaulted Rehteah in the first place. It is inhumane that her classmates harassed, mocked, and bullied her for two years for being a victim.
There has been plenty of positive, especially in response to the Boston bombings. As I write this, President Obama is at a memorial service in Boston for the victims of the bombing. There are plenty of stories of the humanity of the response of the runners of the marathon, the bystanders, and the first responders. #BostonStrong is a trending hashtag on Twitter. Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers will be donating $500 for every dropped pass and touchdown to a Boston charity, and New England Patriots receiver will donate $100 for every reception and $200 for every dropped pass this season. Last night’s ceremony at the TD Garden before the Bruins game was intense. And so on and so forth. This is all very heartening. It shows that we are humane, that we can treat each other with empathy and sympathy and dignity.
But it doesn’t erase those who lack humanity. I had a Twitter discussion last night about this. About how this kind of inhumanity seems to be everywhere. This morning, I was talking to two students about this inhumanity and how it just makes us depressed and wanting to cry. I wish I could say that this is a new phenomenon in society. But it’s not. This is one of the (dis)advantages to being an historian. We have the long view of history, quite obviously. We have always been a vengeful, inhumane lot. We’ve used torture since we could walk on our hind legs. The Romans’ favourite past-time was gladiator fighting, where two men fought to the death. Public executions were big deals, social outings. All to watch a man (and occasionally a woman) die. What is different now is the Internet allows people to express their inhumanity so much easier and so much quicker, and to gain further exposure in so doing. And that is just unfortunate.
February 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
While laid up sick this week, I finally got to see “We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen,” about the iconic punk band, the Minutemen. The Minutemen came to an untimely end on 22 December 1985 when frontman and guitarist, D Boon, was killed in a car accident just outside Tucson, Arizona, as he and his girlfriend made their way to visit her family for Christmas. The other two members of the Minutemen, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley, were devastated, of course. To this day, everything Watt produces is dedicated to D boon’s memory.
I first got into the Minutemen a few years later, around 1990 or so when I got my hands on fIREHOSE’s 1989 album, fROMOHIO. This was the band that Watt and Hurley formed in the aftermath of D. Boon’s death with Ed Crawford. I was drawn to the mixture of Crawford’s jazzy guitar, combined with Watt’s amazing bass sounds. But, what attracted me the most was Hurley’s drumming. I honestly don’t think there’s another drummer I’ve ever heard that touched Hurley, except for maybe Jimmy Chamberlin in the Smashing Pumpkins. But as I obsessed about fIREHOSE, I was directed towards the Minutemen by one of the guys who worked at the old Track Records on Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver.
The Minutemen blew my mind. D. Boon’s was already legendary. Vancouver had been central to the development of North American punk in the late 70s, and the city’s biggest band, DOA, had shared several bills with the Minutemen down in California. Track Records even had a Minutemen poster on the wall. I quickly became obsessed with the Minutemen’s 1984 double album, Double Nickels on the Dime. I loved Watt’s explanation of how this title came about; it was a response to Sammy Hagar’s complaint that he couldn’t drive 55. Apparently ‘double nickels” means 55mph, the speed limit in those days.
Every time I listen to the Minutemen these days, I just get incredibly sad. D Boon has been dead for longer than he was alive by this point, he was 27 when he died 28 years ago. Watt has aged, he still makes incredible music. But, simply put, and as trite as it sounds, D Boon never got a chance to age. His music always had a sneer in it, but what I loved most was always his political bent. He was a good working class boy (as were Hurley and Watt), and the politics of the working classes pervade his music. I was always drawn to this as a working class kid myself. In fact, this is what drew me to punk in the first place, it was a working-class movement. D Boon sang about how the working classes got screwed, his music reflected his own values of hard work, something instilled in him by his mother, who had died young herself, in 1978. More than that, D Boon was articulate, he didn’t look like a dumb punk trying to find big words when he spoke, he sounded like a smart working class dude. I liked that most about him. Too many other working class punks sounded like stupid mooks when they spoke (I’m looking at you, Hank Rollins).
But the Minutemen weren’t just anger. Their music was smart, a mixture of punk, funk and jazz, anchored by the incredible skill of Hurley. This jazz and funk influence (especially through Watt’s bass) added a level of fun and bounce to the music that other punks lacked. And Watt and D Boon were also just as influenced by The Who and Credence as anything else. These influences made them probably the most musically and technically proficient punk band of the era. They also mellowed as they got older, as both D Boon and Watt grew into their talent. This is what makes Double Nickel so sad for me (to say nothing of Three Way Tie (For Last), their last album, which came out a week or two before D Boon died). The Minutemen were evolving away from punk, they still sounded so unlike anything else out there. They weren’t becoming a basic rock band, they were far too smart for that.
Watt carries this spirit on in everything he does. His bass guitar was instrumental to the Minutemen’s sound. This is precisely what makes it all so sad, I always imagine what Watt would sound like if he and D Boon and George Hurley were still making music together. The Rolling Stone review of Three Way Tie (For Last) prophecies that “You can bet that in ten years there’ll be groups who sound like the Minutemen — maybe they’ll even cover their songs.” In 1996, no one sounded like the Minutemen. In 2006, no one sounded like the Minutemen. And in 2016, no one will sound like the Minutemen. They were a unique, one of a kind band.
This last clip comes from an interview the Minutemen did in the early fall 1985, just a few months before D Boon checked out.
May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it. Enjoy.]
Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.
I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names. It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.
Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.
As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.
April 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
Last October, as the Expos should have been winning the World Series, I wrote a piece at the National Council on Public History‘s blog, Off the Wall, about the strange marketing after life of Nos Amours. This provoked a steady stream of comments, both on that site and into my inbox, as well, to a lesser degree, here at Spatialities. One of my readers, Sarah, pointed out Montréal rapper Magnum .357′s track “Expos Fitted.
It seems that rap has emerged as a key component to remembering our long gone baseball team here in Montréal. Aside from Mag .357, Anakkin Slayd, who is more famous right now for his viral hit, “MTL Stand UP”, also wrote a song about the Expos, “Remember”.