(Not) Commemorating the Irish Famine in Montreal

May 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

The Irish Famine was one of the great humanitarian disasters of the 19th century. A blight upon the potato crop, combined with British malfeasance, brought about a crisis that saw Ireland lose around 25% of its population between 1845 and 1852.  One million people died.  Another million emigrated.  This was the birth of the Irish diaspora as we know it today.

 

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Famine refugees in Ireland (woodcut)

Montreal is one of the great cities of the diaspora, even if most of the Irish world doesn’t know this.  Something like 40% of Quebecers have Irish heritage.  And the Irish have long been recognized as one of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city.  The flag of the Ville de Montréal features the flowers of each of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city: the French, English, Scots, and Irish, and a cross of St. George.  The landscape of the city is littered with remembrances of the Irish, from rue Shamrock by Marché Jean-Talon in the North End (where the old Shamrocks Lacrosse Club stadium was) to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) and rue Dublin in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

 

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The flag of the Ville de Montréal

During the Famine, the city was inundated with refugees.  Even with a quarantine station on Grosse-Île, up the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the sick and the dying still made it downriver to Montreal. They ended up in fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles, just across the Lachine Canal from Griffintown.  Upwards of 6,000 of them were dumped in a mass grave that went largely unmarked and forgotten until 1859, when a bunch of Irish construction workers, building the Victoria Bridge, unearthed them.  The workers erected a huge black rock to mark the grave.

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The Black Rock

Don Pidgeon was the long-time historian of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, until he died last year.  He liked to argue that the rock was the birth place of Irish Montreal.  It was largely due to him that the Black Rock has been preserved and cared for.  For as long as I can remember, the Irish community of Montreal sought to create a proper memorial park to commemorate the Famine dead.  The Black Rock currently sits on an island in the middle of Bridge St., the Montreal approach to the Victoria Bridge, near where Goose Village once stood.  During rush hour, Bridge St. is congested and car-heavy.  It is no way to commemorate the dead.

Montreal is the only major diaspora city that lacks a Famine Memorial.  This is shocking and so very typically Montreal in many ways.  Montreal exists as it does today in large part due to the inundation of the Irish in the early 19th century.  This is true both demographically, but also infrastructurally.   The Irish built the bulk of the city’s 19th century infrastructure: the Lachine Canal, the railways, Victoria Bridge, the buildings and factories, and their muscle dredged the Montreal harbour, expanding it for bigger and bigger cargo ships.  They were also a key constituency of the industrial working classes in the 19th century.  They were present at the beginnings of the Canadian industrial revolution in Griffintown, and they helped power the city into the industrial centre of Canada. The influx of Irish also meant that for a brief period in the second half of the 19th century, English-speaking people were the majority of the population in the city.  And while the Famine is not the means by which all the Montreal Irish got there, it is a central story to the Irish in Montreal.

This is true of both the Famine refugees, but also the Irish community that was already there.  St. Patrick’s Basilica opened its doors on 17 March 1847, at the very start of the worst year of the Famine, Black ’47.  But that the Irish could construct a big, handsome church on the side of Beaver Hall Hill in 1847 also signifies the depth of the roots of the Irish in Montreal.  Even as early as the 1820s, there was a firmly ensconced Irish population in the city.  But when the flood gates opened and the refugees began streaming in later that spring of 1847, the Montreal Irish got to work.  They donated large sums of money to the care of their brethren, they volunteered to work in the fever sheds, they helped the survivors set up in Montreal (it is worth noting that the same was true of the rest of the city’s population, whatever its ethnic background).

In short, the years of the Irish Famine were central to the development of Irish Montreal.  And perhaps more to the point, following the Famine, Irish emigration to Montreal (and Canada as a whole), dried up.  Thus, in many ways, the Irish of Montreal were able to integrate and assimilate into the wider city.  They shared a language with the economically dominant group, a religion with the numerically dominant.  And the growing stability of the population aided in this process.  In short, in some ways, the Irish experience was not as fraught in Montreal as it was in other diasporic locations, where nativism and anti-Irish sentiment held sway.

 

The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation kicked into gear last year, with its plan  to build a proper memorial.  The goal, according to the Foundation’s website, is to create a memorial park that would include playing fields for Irish sports, a theatre, and a museum on the site.  This park would be strategically located, and presumably would be connected to the Lachine Canal National Historic Site nearby, which is itself a heavily-used park.

The Foundation appears to have had all of its ducks lined up, with support from the Irish community, corporate Montreal, and the Mayor’s office.  The Irish Embassy in Ottawa was also supportive, willing to kick in some money (as it had with the Toronto Famine Memorial).

And then, a few weeks ago, the land that it proposed to acquire for the park was sold by the Canada Lands Company (a Crown corporation that deals with public land) to Hydro-Québec, which wants to build a sub-station there, ironically due to the massive redevelopment of Griffintown.  And while there is allegedly a clause in the sale requiring Hydro-Québec to build a monument to the Famine dead, that’s cold comfort.  Who is going to go look at a monument along a busy road next to an sub-station?

And so, at least for now, the dream of a proper memorial to the Famine refugees in Montreal is dead.  This year marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, but it is also the 160th anniversary of Black ’47.

I have a hard time believing that something like this would happen in any other city.  A project with community, corporate and political support got derailed by two Crown corporations.  I don’t quite understand how this could have come as a surprise, as in, how did the Foundation not know that Canada Lands was negotiation with Hydro-Québec?  Then again, this is Montreal, so that is also entirely within the realm of possibility.  And this entire affair is so typically Montreal.

Mis-Remembering the Patriotes

May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments

 

Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec.  The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year.  And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.

But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote.  The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec).  They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States.  They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.

From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec.  The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government.  They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor.  And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.

In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement.  I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837.  The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec.  The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day.  This is not, obviously, an actual translation.  The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population.  The results are more of the same.  And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?”  This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.

This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes.  And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background.  And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally.  I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists.  When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing.  I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.

Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec.  That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States.  Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West.  O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table.  Both were Irishmen.  Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832.  Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest).  The Griffintown Irish were radicals.  They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.

And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred.  They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement.  Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November.  This was the battle the Patriotes won.  Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized.  He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly.  Both Nelsons survived the rebellions.  Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.

Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city.  In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided.  It was class that cleaved the city.  Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals.  And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical.  Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals.  The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks.  It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.

It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes.  While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not.  They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions.  Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown.  Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.

Trump and the White Working Class

November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday.  How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question.  Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.

Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back.  The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years.  They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life.  Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday.  And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant.  They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts.  They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time.  And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money.  Got married, had kids, raised them.  Eventually, you retired.  Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company.  But that’s all gone.  Deindustrialization.  And free trade.

What happened when the jobs dried up?  People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages.  Alcoholism and addiction became more common.  Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers.  Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry.  But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills.  Then there’s health insurance and benefits.  With GE, those were all taken care of.  Waffle House doesn’t take care of them.  Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans.  But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things.  And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.

And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner).  Think about TV and the movies.  Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA.  Now?  Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous.  And besides, it’s set in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city.  America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore.  There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane.  Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA.  For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.

The United States has long been a deeply divided nation.  We like to think it’s North-South.  It’s not.  It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory?  No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class.  And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred)  And then Trumpism occurs.

Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back.  I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization.  My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988.  My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border.  And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone.  He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder.  And my mom was university-educated.  But. We lost.  And so many others.  Their anger is visceral.  Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.

But Trump cannot deliver on his promises.  If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s.  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back.  Automation, people.  The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation.  More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did.  He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.

So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again?  When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there.  But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more.  Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified.  Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader.  Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc.  I don’t feel optimistic either way.

The Dystopian Promise of Neo-Liberalism

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

I spent late last week laid up with the flu.  This means I read. A lot.  I don’t have the patience for TV when I’m sick, unless it’s hockey.  And since it’s late August, that didn’t happen.  While laid up, I finished Jonathan Lethem’s early career Amnesia Moon, and also ploughed through Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia.  On the surface, these two books don’t have anything in common.  The former is a novel set in a dystopic American future, whilst the latter is a polemic against austerity and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

But both point to a golden era past.  In the case of Amnesia Moon, obviously, given its  dystopic future setting.  And Hatherley is perplexed over the British right’s ability to control a public discourse of British history and memory.

In Amnesia Moon, the protagonist, a man named Chaos in some situations and Everett Moon in others, finds himself in Vacaville, which is actually a real place, about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco in North Central California.  In Vacaville, the residents are kept unstable by the central state: they are forced to move residences every Wednesday and Sunday.  The majority of the residents work mind-numbing jobs, including Chaos’ love interest, Edie.  The society is run by the gorgeous, who are featured on TV every night, parading about in an early version of reality TV.  The people of Vacaville love and worship them.  All of pop culture in Vacaville has been re-written to venerate the president and the ruling class.  But most insidious, everything in Vacaville, for all residents, is based on ‘luck,’ a state-sponsored system based on a test administered by bureaucrats.  Not surprisingly, those with the best luck are in the ruling classes.  And then everyone else is organized and assigned their place in society based on their luck.  Not surprisingly, our Edie has bad luck: her ex-husband has lost his mind, so she is a single mother with two children.  She is also kept in place by a desperate government official, Ian Cooley, who is in love with her.

Compare this to Hatherley’s view of the United Kingdom in 2016:

We find ourselves in an increasingly nightmarish situation where an entirely twenty-first century society — constantly wired up to smartphones and the internet, living via complicated systems of derivatives, credit and unstable property investments, inherently and deeply insecure — appears to console itself with the iconography of a completely different and highly unlikely era, to which it is linked solely through the liberal use of the ‘A’ [i.e.: austerity] word.

See the similarities?

Oh, Canada. :-(

August 26, 2016 § 5 Comments

Earlier this week, I wrote of some vile tweets about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the wake of the Tragically Hip’s final show in Kingston lat Saturday night. It turns out this was hardly the worst.

I read this article on The Walrus’ site last night.  This is disgusting.  There are people on Facebook blatantly calling for Trudeau’s assassination.  Others, riffing on the Conservative Party of Canada’s pathetic milk carton ad, have descended to hoping the Prime Minister dies in an avalanche like his younger brother, Michel did in British Columbia in 1998.

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I got into a discussion with an old friend on Facebook in the wake of Monday’s post.  He was of the opinion that this animus against Trudeau was really nothing new, recalling the Mulroney era.  I argued otherwise.  That this IS new, it is the Americanisation of our political discourse.

I also wonder where the hell the RCMP is in all of this? Should it not be investigating calls to assassinate the Prime Minister?

The Problem with France’s Burkini Ban UPDATED!

August 25, 2016 § 8 Comments

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So 16 towns and cities in France, all on the Mediterranean Coast, have banned the so-called burkini, a body-covering garment that allows devout Muslim women to enjoy the beach and summer weather.  France, of course, has been positively rocked by Islamist violence in the past 18 months or so.  So you had to expect a backlash.  But this is just downright stupid.

There is a historical context here (read this whole post before lambasting me, please).  French society believes in laïcité, a result of the French Revolution of 1789 and the declericisation of French society and culture in the aftermath.  To this end, French culture and the French state are both secularised. Religious symbols are not welcome in public, nor are the French all that comfortable with religious practice in public.  Now, this makes perfect sense to me, coming as I do from Quebec, which in the 1960s, during our Revolution tranquille, also underwent a process of declericisation.  Quebec adopted the French model of a secular state.

But, in Quebec as in France, not all secularism is equal.  Catholic symbols still exist all over France as a product of French history, to say nothing of the grand cathedrals and more humble churches that dot the landscape. But other religious symbols, they’re not quite as welcome, meric.

Nonetheless, it is in the context of this laïcité that the burkini ban arises.

But in practice, it is something else entirely.  This is racism.  This is ethnocentrism.  And this is stupid.  Just plain stupid. French Prime Minister Manuel Valis claims that the burkini is a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women.’ The mayor of Cannes claims that the burkini is the uniform of Muslim extremism.  It is neither.  And the burkini bans are not about ‘liberating’ Muslim women in France.  They are not about a lay, secular society.  They are designed to target and marginalize Muslim women for their basic existence in France.

In the New York Times this week, Asma T. Uddin notes the problem with these bans when it comes to the European Court of Human Rights and symbols of Islam.  Back in 2001, the Court found that a Swiss school teacher wearing a head scarf in the classroom was ‘coercive’ in that it would work to proselytize young Swiss children.  I kid you not.  And, as Uddin reports, since that 2001 decision, the Court has continually upheld European nations’ attempts to limit the rights of Muslims, especially Muslim women, when it comes to dress.

Then there was the shameful display of the police in Nice this week, which saw four armed policemen harass a middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach.  She was wearing a long-sleeved tunic and bathing in the sun.  The police, however, issued her a ticket for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’  Again, I kid you not.

Laïcité is supposed to be not just the separation of church and state, but also the equality of all French citizens.  Remember the national motto of the French republic: ‘liberté, éqalité, et fraternité.’  These are lofty goals.  But the attempts to ban the burkini and attack Muslim women for their attire is not the way one goes about attaining liberté, nor égalité nor fraternité.  Rather, it creates tiered culture, it creates one group of French who are apart from the rest.  It is discriminatory and childish. And let’s not get on the subject of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to run again, and promises to ensure that Muslim and Jewish students in the lycées eat pork.

I understand France’s concerns and fears. But attacking Islam is not the way to defeat terrorists who claim to be Muslim.  It only encourages them.  It is time for France to live up to its own mottos and goals.  And Western feminists (and pro-feminist men) need to speak up on this topic.

UPDATE!!!!!

News comes this evening that the Deputy Mayor of Nice, and President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, has threatened to sue people who share images of the police attempting to enforce the burkini ban on social media. I kid you not.  Christian Estrosi states that the images cause harm to the police (if that is true, that is not right, of course).

It is worth pointing out that it would be very difficult for Estrosi to find legal standing to launch a lawsuit, as French law allows citizens and media outlets to publish images and videos of the police and that, without a judicial order, French police cannot seize a photographer’s camera or phone.

 

Resuscitating Lyndon Baines Johnson

August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things.  But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book.  So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it.  It was pretty phenomenal.  I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both.  Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.

The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room.  He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare.  Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK.  Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives.  So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him.  But then he contracted lung cancer.  His time was almost up.  So, he got Epping involved.

After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson.  I’ll spare you the details.  But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.

But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland.  Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy.  The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.

Anyway.  Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.

I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president.  See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president.  This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam.  Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war.  And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.

But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster.  Domestically, he was a rather good president.  He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society.  LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States.  This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues.  We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas.  We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970.  Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society.  In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination.  It was a lofty goal.

LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.  In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.

Of course, the Great Society failed.  In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it.  It did cause massive change, but not enough.  In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society.  Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda.  And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.

Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé.  No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white.  I could go on.

King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened.  JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers.  And worse, the Great Society did not happen.  There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc.  JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.

Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair.  LBJ had ideas, at least.  And he was a visionary.

 

 

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