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.

Stephen Harper’s War on Canada

January 30, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last weekend, the Toronto Star published a scathing article, looking at how Canada’s elected government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has muzzled, shut down, and otherwise sullied government branches.  Harper has silenced scientists working for Environment Canada and Health Canada, all in an attempt to keep them from publicising the harm caused by the Tarsands in Alberta.

Then there’s Harper’s war against the Library and Archives Canada.  This is the national archives and library of the country.  In other words, it’s kind of important.  Rather than fund it properly, ensure that Canadians have access to their national history, Harper has cut funding, shut down branches, and done everything it can to prevent us from knowing the history that his government spends too much time blaming us for not knowing.  This is unacceptable, and downright terrifying.

Mark Bourrie, the author of the article notes that: “In 2008–2009, Library and Archives Canada spent $385,461 on historic documents. In 2011–2012 it spent nothing. In Washington, the Library of Congress’s acquisition budget was between $18 million and $19 million annually from 2009 to 2012.”  Think about that.  In 2008-09, LAC’s acquisition budget was .02% of that of the Library of Congress.  In 2011-12, it was 0%.  This is a national disgrace.

During Daniel Caron’s reign of error at the the LAC, he and his management team came up with a code of conduct for employees:

Caron and his management team came up with a code of conduct banning librarians and archivists from setting foot in classrooms, attending conferences and speaking at public meetings, whether on the institution’s time or their own. The 23 pages of rules, called “Library and Archives Canada’s Code of Conduct: Values and Ethics,” came into effect in January 2013. Employees could get special dispensation from their bosses, but the fine print of the gag order made it unlikely that permission would be granted. The rules called public speaking, whether to university students, genealogy groups, historians and even other archivists and librarians, “high risk” activities that could create conflicts of interest or “other risks to LAC.” The code stressed federal employees’ “duty of loyalty” not to history or to Library and Archives Canada, but rather to the “duly elected government.” Employees breaking the code could find themselves reported to LAC managers by colleagues who turned them in on what James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called a “snitch line.”

“As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities,” the code said. It reminded librarians and archivists, many of whom do not consider themselves public menaces, that they must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted). They were warned not to fall into the trap of social media. And LAC employees were warned that teaching a class or speaking at a conference put them at special risk, since “such activities have been identified as high risk to Library and Archives Canada and to the employee with regard to conflict of interest, conflict of duties and duty of loyalty.”

This is appalling.  I cannot think of a universe where giving a pubic talk is “high risk.”  Especially for an archivist.  How is it high risk? University students might learn how to use the archives?  Various publics may learn how to look for their ancestors?  And the very fact that Harper has farmed out aspects of LAC’s geneaology department to is criminal, and nothing short of that.

Then there’s the part about “loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials.”  Um, no.  Civil servants DO have a loyalty to the Government.  It’s part of their job.  But a loyalty to the elected officials.  No.  Wrong.  The loyalty of civil servants in Canada is to Canadians, the taxpayers and citizens.  We have a right to know whether or not the tarsands are harming our environment.  We have a right to be able to go to the LAC to discover our history.

Harper’s war on brains, as The Star terms is, is unacceptable, wrong, and dangerous.  The way to build a healthy nation is through an educated populace.  But Harper clearly does not want this.  He wants Canadians to be poorly-educated, to not have the essential information they need to make decisions on matters of public policy.  Stephen Harper needs to be stopped.  The Government of Canada needs to recover its moral compass.  The government should serve Canadians, not see them as contemptuous and a nuisance to the government.

Harper’s behaviour is nothing short of undemocratic and un-Canadian.

Auschwitz and Newtown, CT: Sites of Atrocity and Remembrance

January 29, 2015 § 7 Comments

Monday was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Survivors gathered there to recall their horrific experiences, and we continued to draw lessons from the Holocaust. Auschwitz, a collection of concentration and death camps, has become a tourist site.  Upwards of 1.5 million people a year visit, and over 30 million have visited since it was opened as a tourist site in 1947.  Most who go do so to draw on the lessons to be learned, to ponder the evil of Hitler’s plans to eradicate the Jews and Roma from the face of the Earth.  Some who go are survivors, other are their siblings, children, grand-children. Others seek answers from the dead, they seek to understand the Holocaust. People also go just to say they went.  And some people go to take horrible selfies.  Auschwitz as a site of atrocity and remembrance continues to hold a powerful grip on Western society.  It is one of the very few words that crosses linguistic boundaries and is instantly recognisable for anyone who hears it as a site of horrific acts.

Each time I hear the word “Auschwitz,” I think of Ann Frank, who was amongst the last ‘shipment’ of prisoners to the camp, before she was processed and sent on to Bergen-Belsen.  I also think of Viktor Frankl, who was also shipped there and then sent on to Dachau.  I feel the same slightly nauseous feeling that is connected to the word for me.  Each time I’ve typed the word in this post, my stomach has turned bit.

Far away from Auschwitz in Poland stands the Lanza family home in Newtown, Connecticut.  A week ago yesterday, the town council voted to tear down the home of shooter of the infamous Sandy Hook Massacre.  Neighbours had been demanding town council tear down the house, as it was a painful reminder of the massacre.  The house has stood empty since the morning of the massacre, when Lanza killed his mother, Nancy, before heading to the school.  Nancy’s other son, Ryan, sold it.  The bank that purchased it then turned the building and property to the town.  Everything in the house was incinerated, to avoid macabre tourists looking for keepsakes. Not that this kept tourists from visiting the property.

The house will be torn down this spring and, at least, for the time being, remain an open lot.  A proposal exists to create a fund so that any proceeds from a future development of the property will accrue to the victims.  The town also demolished the school in 2013, with plans to build a new one on the same spot.

I find the difference in response to these two sites of atrocity interesting. Clearly, there are huge differences between Auschwitz and the home of a perpetrator of a mass shooting.  Auschwitz was built for purpose, the Lanza home was not, nor was Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The Holocaust tore nations asunder, Hitler’s goal was the destruction of Europe’s Jews.  The Sandy Hook Massacre tore a town asunder.

The massacre took place in a small New England town.  The shooter was neighbour to the children he killed.  The families of the victims still live in the neighbourhood.  The school bus stop had to be moved because its location near the home was frightening for the children.  Residents of the neighbourhood spoke to town council of being unable to move on because they pass it multiple times a day.

I find all of this interesting for the simple fact that sites of atrocity, the remembrance of places of evil, and our public histories of them interest me.  How do we deal with atrocity? How do we deal with sites of horror?  Auschwitz is now a park, of sorts, to serve as to educate and preserve.  The Lanza family home will be torn down.  On university campuses, where shootings have taken place, the buildings, even the classrooms are still used.  Tuol-Seng Genocide Museum in Cambodia exists on the site, and using the buildings, that was once a high school, but became S-21, a prison during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. The house where the Charlie Manson and his ‘family’ murdered Sharon Tate and her family in 1969 has since been demolished.  But not until 1994.  The last person to live in the house was Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.  He recorded two of his own albums, as well as Marilyn Manson’s début album, there.  When he moved out, however, he said he couldn’t handle the history of the place.

So that is what I am pondering. How do we handle those histories?  We do not do so consistently, obviously. Some sites of evil are preserved as memorials to the victims, as at Auschwitz and Tuol Seng.  Others continue their initial usages, such as the classrooms. Others are eradicated.  But, while some would suggest that the actions of the council of Newtown to destroy both the school and the home of the shooter are calculated acts of forgetting, I’m not so sure.  Tearing down the buildings will simply remove them from the landscape. They won’t remove memory of the atrocity from the people of Newtown any time soon.

Memory and the Screaming Trees.

January 26, 2015 § 4 Comments

Memory works in odd ways. So this course on space, place, landscape & memory.  Last Thursday, in addition to that article on Western Mass, we read Doreen Massey’s article “Places and Their Pasts,” from way ‘back in 1995.  And, this got me thinking.  About music.  I’m currently in a hard rock phase, where everything I’m listening to has loud, very loud guitars.  And inevitably, when I am in one of these phases, I come back to the Screaming Trees’ 1992 album, “Sweet Oblivion.”  My favourite Trees’ song, “Nearly Lost You” is on this album.  But, the album as a whole is one of my favourites of all-time.  I first bought it on cassette tape, back when it came out in the fall of 1992.  I bought it at the Record Runner, a legendary record store on Rideau Street in Ottawa, that closed in January 2006, after 31 years in business due to gentrification and condofication.  When I moved back to Vancouver the following spring, 1993, my best friend, Mike, had the album on CD.

We spent a lot of time driving around the Vancouver region that summer and fall, in his 1982 Mercury Lynx, which I had dubbed the Mikemobile. Mike had a Sony Discman, which he plugged into the cassette player of his car to listen to CDs.  It was incredibly moody and jumped when the car hit bumps.  Nonetheless, “Sweet Oblivion” was in constant rotation that year.  There is, however, a difference between the cassette and CD (and now, digital) versions of the album, however.  Track 6, “For Celebrations Past” was not on the cassette version.  I listened to the cassette version of the album a lot, but I’ve listened to the CD and digital versions of the album even more.  I’ve listened to this album hundreds of times, and I’d estimate at least 80% of those plays are either the CD or digital version.  And yet, every time I hear “For Celebrations Past,” it feels like a rude interlude into a classic album of my youth, even though I like this song, too.

I find it interesting that my initial memories of this album trump the memories of the version of the album I’ve heard many more times over the years.  I’m not sure what to make of this, really.  My memories of Ottawa in 1992-3 are not all that happy, though there was the diversion of Montreal and the Habs’ last Stanley Cup victory, but by the time Guy Carbonneau lifted Lord Stanley’s mug that spring, I was back in Vancouver.  So it is bizarre, I think that, my initial memories of the album trump the happier ones, back in Vancouver.  And yet, listening to the album, as I did last night, doesn’t transport me back the sub-Arctic cold of Ottawa anymore than it puts me back in the passenger seat of the Mikemobile.  Unlike a lot of the music of the early 90s, it’s not evocative of that time and place.  Maybe because I’ve continued to listen to the album in the years since.    Yet, for me, the proper version of the album lacks “For Celebrations Past” and goes straight from the organs and guitars of “Butterfly” into the vicious punk-inflected “The Secret Kind.”

On Public History in Canada

January 20, 2015 § 1 Comment

This is shameless self-promotion which is, of course, what this site is for.  I had this post published on the NCPH’s (National Council on Public History) History@Work blog today.  In it, I discuss the difficulties in being a Public History practitioner in Canada.  I imagine this will ruffle some feathers, but I can live with this.  It arises out of a series of discussions I had with two men named Nick, Nick Sacco and Nick Johnson, both of whom were at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis at that time, at the NCPH’s conference last spring in Monterey, California.  The Nicks are both pubic historians of non-American topics, and I am, of course, a Canadian who does Public History (though I am obviously now based in the States).  Nick Sacco’s piece was published in August, wherein he looks at the role of the NCPH in international Public History.

Bad Fashion and the Importance of History

September 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

kent-state-shirt-625Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversy, having a long history of doing stupid things the-young-hipster-shopping-mecca-urban-outfitters-offends-parents-yet-again-with-t-shirts-that-seemand offering up offensive products to tasteless and tactless hipsters.  A sample of the company’s idiocy sees anti-Semitic t-shirts and accessories, racist board games, and the like.  But this week, we got an offensive sweatshirt.  Urban Outfitters began selling a “vintage” Kent State University sweatshirt (at $120, a price only a clueless hipster would spend) that looked like it was spattered with blood, complete with what looked like bullet holes.  This, of course, recalled the 1970 Kent State shootings, when four students were killed and nineteen injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed protesters.  Almost immediately, the company was besieged with howls of protest, calling this move insensitive, at best (do a Twitter search for some more colourful responses).  It then responded with a typical corporate nothing-speak empty apology:

If you click on the link in that tweet, you can read the end of this empty apology, which talks about sun-faded vintage clothing and discolourisation and “how saddened” the company was by public perception.  Given the company’s history of provocation and offensive behaviour, I see nothing sincere here.

ikyo9YeJkiIQIt’s been a bad stretch for clothing makers, last month, Spanish clothing retail giant Zara tried selling a children’s pyjama that recalled the uniform Jewish prisoners were forced to wear in concentration and death camps during the Holocaust.  Faced with a similar storm of protest on Twitter and elsewhere, Zara withdrew the item and issued a similarly empty corporate apology. In its version of the gormless apology, Zara said this pyjama shirt was meant to recall the star sheriffs wore in the American West. Sure.  Right.

I won’t even get into the downright daftness of hipsters wearing aboriginal headdresses.  That’s an entire dissertation on stupidity, cultural appropriation, and a how-to guide on offensiveness. (There is, however, a Tumblr devoted to mocking hipsters in headdresses).
But all of this idiocy reinforces the importance of history and the impact a little bit of historical knowledge can have on the world.  Someone in my Facebook feed today suggested that fashion companies simply hire someone to be an historian-minded vettter, to ensure plain, outright stupidity like this doesn’t happen.  But the very fact that these two items of clothing actually got to market displays an epic failure of corporate oversight.  In order for something to get from design to retail to production means that both items went through many checks, were seen by many eyes.  And no one thought, “Hey, this is a bad idea.”  Or, no one cared.  Certainly, one can come to that conclusion vis-à-vis Urban Outfitters, given the serial nature of its offensiveness and lack of good corporate citizenship.

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.

On the Radio: Boston College’s Belfast Project

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

radio_mainTomorrow, Thursday 29 May,  I’ll be appearing on CKUT, McGill University Campus Radio’s programme on Oral History, O Stories.  The show will be hosted by my old friend, Elena Razlagova, a professor of Public History at Concordia University.  I will be talking about Boston College’s Belfast Project, and the fallout therefrom.  So tune in around 2pm tomorrow, I’ll be on around 2.30.  You can tune in the old fashioned way, on your radio at 90.3 fm, or on CKUT’s website.

Griffintown: Keegan House Saved. Really?

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Montreal is a strange place.  The city basically works in completely counter-intuitive ways.  Last week, the Comité consultatif d’urbanisme (CCU) of the arrondissement sud-ouest of the Ville de Montréal denied permission to developer, Maitre-Carré, to tear down the oldest building in Griffintown, a grotty old house that stands at 175, rue de la Montagne.  The Keegan House, as it is now known, was built sometime between 1825 and 1835, on Murray Street, a block over from its present state.  It was moved to what was then McCord Street in 1865, around the same time that the handsome row of townhouses was constructed up the block.

When Maitre Carré’s plans were first made public, I was apprehensive, but also thought that perhaps the developer deserved our benefit of the doubt, insofar as it had, at least, made some nod to heritage in Griff when Hugo Girard-Beauchamp, the company’s president, bought the Horse Palace and has at least nodded to the idea of maintaining the Palace as a working stable going forward (whether this will happen in practice is a whole different kettle of fish).  Indeed, as my friend, G. Scott MacLeod, a film-maker interested in Griff, said, Maitre-Carré is the only developer that has at least acknowledged the history and heritage of the neighbourhood.  Indeed, other condo developers, most notably Devimco and Préval have been more interested in stuffing ugly, neo-brutalist blocks of condos down on the Griffintown landscape, completely destroying the streetscape (such as it existed) and dwarfing the original buildings.

Having said all that, at this point anyway (because one never knows in Montreal), this is an optimistic sign.  Anne-Marie Sigouin, the city councillor for Saint-Paul/Émard, and the chair of the CCU, said (according to The Gazette) “We have sent the architects back to the drawing board.  We want to send a clear message on heritage protection.”  This is rather surprising, since the CCU and the Ville de Montréal as a whole have not demonstrated much in the way of leadership up to now in Griff.

Slave Narratives and the Carolina Chocolate Drops

March 31, 2014 § 6 Comments

Last night, we were up in Woodstock, VT, to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Durham, North Carolina.  The band is comprised of three African-Americans and fronted by Rhiannon Giddens, who is of mixed white, black, and aboriginal descent, they play a mixture of traditional and modern folk/roots instruments.  They’ve revived a number of songs from the slave era in the Deep South, most of which, according to Giddens, were set down in the 1850s, just before the onset of the Civil War.  Most of these, however, come without lyrics, for perhaps obvious reasons.  The band were incredibly talkative on the stage last night, which created an incredible community vibe inside this small theatre in small-town Vermont.  Both Giddens and band mate Hubby Jenkins kept up a running monologue with the crowd, telling us about their songs, how they came to perform them, write them, play them, their traditional instruments, and so on.

Before one song, Giddens told us about her explorations of American history, specifically African-American history, and about a book she read that collated slave narratives, and analysed them collectively, as opposed to the usual individuated approach to slave narratives.  However, Giddens also noted one story that stuck out for her, about a slave woman named Julie at the tail end of the Civil War, as the Union Army was coming over the crest of the hill towards the plantation that Julie lived on.  Julie is standing with her Mistress, watching them approach in the song, “Julie.”

This video was shot last night, by someone sitting close by us, though I don’t know who shot it, I didn’t see it happening.  This is one powerful song, and it got me thinking.  I’m teaching the Civil War right now in my US History class, and as I cast about for sources I am intrigued by slavery apologists, then and now, who argue that the slaves were happy.  But even more striking are the stories about slave owners who were shocked to their core when the war ended and their slaves took their leave quickly, looking to explore their freedom.

It seems that the slave owners had really convinced themselves that they and their slaves were “friends” and that their slaves loved them.  That arrogance seems astounding to me in the early 21st century.  But this song last night powerfully brought the story right back around.

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