On the Radio: Boston College’s Belfast Project

June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here is the podcast (you want to click on the 29 May show) of my appearance on CKUT’s O Stories show last Thursday.  The show is an hour long, the first half of the show is en français and is, in part, a discussion about the Québécois chanteur Fred Pellerin.  The Anglo half of the show begins, well, half-way through.  The second half hour is myself and my good friend, film-maker G. Scott MacLeod.  For the first bit, we talk about his excellent work on Griffintown.  And then I discuss Boston College’s Belfast Project with host (and friend) Elena Razlagova.  Happy listening.

A Response to Nicholas Kristof

February 17, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read with some bemusement Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academia in yesterday’s New York Times.  Kristof complains that professors have cloistered themselves up in some ivory tower and disdain the real world.  He says that the academy exists on a publish or perish mentality and that it encourages conformity. Perhaps due to limited space in a newspaper column, Kristof comes off sounding petulant and occasionally stuck on stereotypes of the academy that are at least twenty years out of date.

He also uses a broad-stroke brush to critique a very large, diverse institution.  But I did find his argument that academics are out of touch with reality interesting, in that it reflects an argument I saw on Facebook last week about the massive bloat on university campuses of non-academic staff, which has apparently reached a 2:1 ratio on public and 2.5:1 ratio on private campuses in the United States.  In this argument, which largely pitted professors against non-academic staff, the latter repeated this shibboleth that academics are unable to engage with the real world.

However, he does provide a jumping off point.

The academy does operate in a publish or perish paradigm, and academics who spend their time engaging with the public, rather than publishing in peer-reviewed journals, do get punished.  And it does encourage conformity, in terms of theory, models, and interpretation.  He is correct to note that “This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.”

Back in 1998, Canada’s crusty old historian, Jack Granatstein (in)famously published Who Killed Canadian History? wherein he lambasted the left for having created microstudies, feminism, and various other things that left us with histories of something Granatstein called “housekeeper’s knee”, which he dismissed pithily with a petulant “Who cares?” Granatstein, perhaps intentionally, engaged in rhetoric and anti-intellectualism in this little gem, essentially dismissing all who disagreed with him as irrelevant, as if he was the sole judge, jury, and executioner of what was a viable topic of study in Canadian history.

In the 1960s, “history from below” developed, primarily in England, around the work of brilliant minds such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and the husband-and-wife team of E.P. and Dorothy Thompson.  They wanted to know how the common person dealt with history and change.  Taking their cue, historians in the US and Canada began to conduct similar studies of the working-classes and rural communities, but with far less interesting results than the English New Left, largely because the English historians wrote well, and did not get bogged down in statistics and turgid prose.  Nonetheless, these studies in Canada and the US were essential to the development of the field.

But the real problem is that the likes of Kristof and Granatstein hearken back to a glory day in the academy that never existed.  Kristof complains that academics write horribly, and seem to go out of their way to not engage.  Many do. Because, quite simply, the academy has always worked that way.  The great works of Canadian history that Granatstein refers to are horridly boring, I used to read them when I had insomnia to put myself to sleep.  Kritof cites stats that claim that academics in the social sciences were more engaged in public debate in the 1930s and 40s than today.  That may be true, but the readership of academic journals in the 1930s and 40s was just as limited as it is today.  Hundreds of academic monographs get published to almost complete indifference, that is true today and was just as true in this supposed heyday.  The academy has always been removed from the world, as it must indeed be to some degree to escape the noise of the world.

Nonetheless, there is some truth in Kristof’s complaint.  But, he also undoes his argument by noting that historians, public policy wonks, and economists, amongst others, are very much engaged in public discussions.   About economics, he says:

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

This comes after a critique of academia for having failed to predict the Arab Spring.  I found this juxtaposition curious.  The 2008 economic meltdown was missed by the massive majority of economists.  And the ones who were sounding the alarm were just as ignored as those academics who foresaw something like the Arab Spring.

And so this brings me to my greatest critique of Nichols Kristof’s argument.  Academics can yell and scream and tilt at windmills all we want.  But without help, we are largely left standing by ourselves.   The only way for our ideas to spread into the mainstream of society is with the help of the likes of Kristof: journalists.  When I still lived in Montréal, I found myself fielding calls from the media with some frequency on a variety of topics from Griffintown to Irish history to the Montréal Canadiens.  Journalists found me, at first, through Concordia University, where I did my PhD, and then because they had contacts and colleagues who knew me.  Never once was I found through this blog (readership tended to spike after I made an appearance in the media) or through my publications.  Kristof also takes academics to task for not using Twitter and other social media for communicating with the world. Guess how many times a journalist has asked me a question on Twitter?  And this is despite the fact that several journalists follow me.  In other words, without journalists seeking me out, I had no platform upon which to speak.

Kristof ends his column with what sounds like a desperate appeal:

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

But in so doing, he is being disingenuous and shifting the blame entirely to academics and removing the role of journalists in this discussion about the relative accessibility or non-accessibility of academics.  Kristof is right to call on the academy to make greater engagement with the mainstream, but he is incorrect in assuming that without the help of journalists it will just happen spontaneously.

The Death of the Artist

December 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman spends some time discussing the consequences of the lost imagination, for both the individual and society as a whole.  What struck me is her discussion of what existed on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s in terms of culture and art.  It also got me thinking about my own experiences in the punk scenes of Montréal, and Vancouver in the early 1990s, and the creativity of the artists in those scenes.  Schulman also pointed out that the artists in New York City, like the ones I knew in Canada, lived in poverty, scraping to get by, sometimes begging, borrowing, and/or stealing, or even turning tricks, in order to make rent.  We also threw rent parties, where our friends would all give us a few bucks to help us cover the rent for the month.

I used to sit amongst these scenes pondering individuality.  What initially attracted me to the punk scenes was that: individuality.  Growing up in suburbia, I felt an intense pressure to conform, and punk offered me a way out.  But, from the inside of the scene, I began to grow somewhat disenchanted, in that we all looked the same, the bands all sounded the same.  Sort of, anyway.  In 1994, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, released their epic album, Live Through This, which ended with the dystopian punk song, “Olympia.” Yes, there was once a time when Courtney Love was a musician, and not the butt of a joke.  Love sang:

When I went to school in Olympia
Everyone’s the same
And so are you in Olympia
Everyone is the same
We look the same, we talk the same, yeah
We even fuck the same
When I went to school in Olympia!

And that was kind of it, but we were also so far out of the mainstream it didn’t matter.  We may have been the same, but we were different than everyone else.  I have a feeling it wasn’t that different in New York City in the 1980s.  Schulman’s friends, mostly gay artists, stood out from society due to their vocation and their sexuality.  We stood out due to our fashion and our aesthetic.

But now, it’s 20-30 years later.  What was then the fringe is now the mainstream. Hell, for that matter the various Fringe Festivals in North America and Western Europe are mainstream.  Punk exploded into the suburbs around the time I was down and out on the Eastside of Vancouver.  As Schulman notes, being gay has gone mainstream (though she has a blistering critique of this, and I would note that LGBT people remain essentialised and discriminated against in the mainstream of society).

Our society has become corporate and cookie cutter.  This isn’t s surprise to anyone reading this blog, I’m sure.  Schulman blames this on the rise of lifestyle magazines.  These magazines sell a lifestyle and a design ethos.  We shop at Crate & Barrel or Ikea or Anthropologie for our home furnishings.  When I look at all the urban hipsters in whatever city I am in, whether it’s Montréal or Portland or Seattle or Vancouver or Denver of Indianapolis or Boston or Pittsburgh, they all look the same.  They wear the same ironic glasses, the same ironic clothes, and adopt the same ironic poses.  And their older counterparts are pretty much the same, the women in yoga wear and the men in North Face wear.

Schulman bemoans the younger artists she meets who are corporatised and, as a result, larger uncreative, or their creativity is sucked up by a corporate mindset.  I wish I could disagree with her.  But I can’t.  As a culture, we’ve lost our creativity in so many ways because we can’t really escape the corporate world.  So it turns out I still have a little punk in me.  Who knew?

Shameless

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.

Irish Slums

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.

MacDonald writes:

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.

The New Yorker and Serbian Aggression: Re-Writing History

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.

Rolling Stone and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

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.

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