The Long View vs. The Immediate View in History

September 13, 2013 § 7 Comments

When I was doing my PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, I TA’d for one of my favourite profs there, Norman Ingram.  Norman is a French historian and in the Western Civ class I TA’d for him, he had what I still consider to be a brilliant assignment.  He had the students read and compare two books written about the Fall of France in June 1940 during the Second World War.  The first book was by eminent French historian, and member of the résistance (and Jew, which is how Bloch ended up being tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944, as the Allies were swiftly re-conquering France), Marc Bloch, the founder of the Annales School.  The second book was written in 1996 by an historian at the University of Winnipeg, Robert Young.

Strange Defeat was written by Bloch, a captain in the French Army, in the summer of 1940, immediately following the Fall of France.  It is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War was, obviously, written some 50+ years after the fact, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, other historical views, as well as archival sources.  It is dispassionate, though eminently readable.

The students were then asked to compare and contrast the two books, the immediate view versus the long view.

I think of Norman’s assignment often, both in my own teaching career, as a public historian, and, quite often, on Twitter.  When I worked for a now-defunct web magazine based in London, any time we published anything to do with the Bosnian Genocide, without fail, we would get attacked almost immediately by people arguing that there was no genocide, that the suggestion there was a genocide is just Western imperialism and further proof of a conspiracy against Serbia and the Serbian people.  It was almost like clockwork.

So, yesterday, when I posted this piece commenting on a New Yorker profile of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, I expected more of the same.  As you can see from the comments, my expectations were met.  I also got something a bit different, however. I was indeed assailed on Twitter, by a woman who says she’s from Bosnia, who seemed to be arguing that there was no genocide in Bosnia at all, and that she should know, because she was there.  Upon further argument, she was saying something slightly different, that there was a lot of killing going on in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 90s, involving Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians as both aggressors and victims.  That was certainly true.

However, it is indisputable that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide.  It is indisputable that the VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army, committed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as a whole in the 1992-95 period.  This has been established by countless experts in the field, it has been confirmed by the ICTY in The Hague.

As the argument carried on, I began to think back to Norman’s assignment, and to think about the difference between the immediate view of the spectator and the big picture view of the analyst.  I’m not convinced that it wasn’t clear that the VRS was engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide.  But I am convinced that whatever side of the ethnic divide one was on in Bosnia/Herzogovina in the period from 1992-95, it was something close to hell.  And so I am back pondering the difference in what we see based on where we’re standing (there is, of course, also the fact that metric tonnes of ink have been spilled in the past twenty years by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians about the events).  I reject the view that there was no genocide, but I do find myself wondering about what someone who was Bosnian Serb would have seen on the ground in that era.

When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, I talked to this guy, Dragan, a refugee from Sarajevo, at the local café.  He wouldn’t say what side of the divide he was from, just that he was Yugoslavia.  He was deeply traumatised by the war and genocide.  Vancouver had an international fireworks competition in those days, and we lived in the West End, where the fireworks were.  On those nights, if Dragan was at the café, he’d flinch, noticeably, with every loud noise from the fireworks.  I don’t know what he did in Sarajevo before he escaped in 1995, and I didn’t want to ask.  I don’t know if he was a perpetrator, a victim, or both.  But I often think of how he described the outbreak of war in his cosmopolitan Yugoslav city in 1992.  He said that, quite literally, neighbours of twenty or thirty years turned on each other, that families collapsed in spasms of violence if there was inter-ethnic mixing.  And, as Dragan noted, that was very common in a city like Sarajevo.  The entire world, he said, fell down, everything that had held up his universe collapsed.  He knew very bad things happened in his homeland.  I kind of suspected he might have played a role in his steadfast refusal to say anything, and the cold, steely glare that passed over his eyes when the subject came up, which was often, given he talked about home a lot.

And so, as I was arguing with my interlocutor on Twitter yesterday, I thought about Dragan and I thought about Norman’s assignment.  I thought about the chaos of war and the view on the ground as opposed to the view from the sky, the micro vs. the macro, and I thought how much they could vary.  I don’t have any real answers here, other than the obvious, but I did find the discussion and all it brought up for me rather interesting.

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.

The Historian’s Job

July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

Three times in the past three days I’ve been reminded of what it is that we historians do.  And let me be clear, by “historian,” I mean academically-trained holders of advanced degrees who study the past.  Yeah, call me pretentious or whatever.  I don’t care.  The first reminder I got was the now notorious interview of Reza Aslan by FoxNews concerning his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  In the interview, Aslan had to continuously remind the FoxNews host that he was a trained historian, not just some Muslim dude writing about the founder of Christianity.  Jesus Christ isn’t usually a topic I find interesting, but after hearing the NPR interview wherein Aslan actually got to discuss the book, I almost want to read it.  Almost.

The second reminder of what it is that an historian does came yesterday.  Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a conspiracy theorist.  I should’ve tuned out when he told me that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom many (including me) consider Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, was a communist.  Trudeau, you see, made Canada communist.  But, wait, there’s more!  The communist path was paved for Trudeau by his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, who was PM from 1963-8.  Pearson, this guy claimed, had been named by a Soviet spy before US Congress as having passed on secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War.  I have, believe it or not, seen this claim before, I have a vague recollection of having read something of it in connection to the Gouzenko Affair.  The author of whatever this piece was addressed the Pearson claim in a footnote and gave his sources.  As an historian does.  My interlocutor, however, did not consider this enough.  He dismissed this academic article as a MSM source (mainstream media) and biased, blah blah blah.  I found myself thinking of Aslan repeating ever-so-patiently noting what it is that makes him qualified to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ.  I thought, well, let’s see, I’ve read somewhere around 5,000 books and articles over the course of my career.  Maybe more, maybe a little less.  I am trained to critically assess an argument, its logic and its evidence.  As are all the rest of us academic, professional historians.  My interlocutor had offered up a Google search as his “proof” that Pearson and Trudeau were dirty commies.  But he dismissed my evidence as “nothing.”  Ah, wonderful, anti-intellectualiam.  Carry on then, good sir, and good luck with your alternate reality.

The third time I was reminded of the historians’ path came today when reading The Times Literary Supplement.  I allowed my subscription to lapse last fall.  I regret that.  I just renewed, and the first new issue came yesterday (note geek excitement here).  In it comes a review of Brian Levack’s new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern Worldby Peter Marshall.  I thought several things of this book and its review.  The first was it appears to have been a colossal miss in terms of Public History.  Levack is bedeviled (pun intended) by the fact that it is well nigh impossible to rationally explain possessions.  And yet, people continued to believe they happened.  I’m more interested in that cognitive dissonance, I must say.  Anyway.  Towards the end of the review, Marshall opines that “The folie de grandeur of historians is that we are conditioned to believe we can explain anything.”  Huh.  Not sure I agree with that.  Certainly, the rational, positivist bent of our training is given over to such pursuits.  And we tend to take on rational topics, things we can explain. Certainly, anything I’ve tackled in a research project from undergrad to now fits into this category. But there are some things that are harder to explain.  Like, for example, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Or a belief (or unbelief) in God.  Or, possessions, demons, and exorcisms.  Here, the historian is left with this cognitive dissonance, of attempting to conduct a rational discussion (and argument) about something that may not actually be rational.  Herein lies my interest in exactly that dissonance.  What is it that makes people persist in their beliefs? Even in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary (as in the case of, say, possessions)?  The very fact that the subject of discussion is not explainable is exactly what makes it so interesting.  So, in a sense, then, Marshall is incorrect, historians cannot explain anything.  Nor should we wish to.

The Terror of History

June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments

I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century.  It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course.  For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class.  In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester.  I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.

A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization.  Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago.  In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did.  According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight.  To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos.  Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error).  Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history.  We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion.  Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.

Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen.  When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this.  This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe.  But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering.  What we control is our response to that.

So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads.  Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it.  We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop.  My car emits pollution into the air.  Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe.  That’s how order is kept.  Uplifting, isn’t it?

So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class.  I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire.  I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution.  Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil.  Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies.  Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner.  So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China.  Or the British imperial system in Africa or India.  Or the Belgians in the Congo.  But this wasn’t an export of Europe.  Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century.  The list goes on and on.

How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do.  We find religion.  We despoil ourselves in debauchery.  We find joy in religion or debauchery.  Or we find it in flight.  Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic.  It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge.  In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic.  But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.

Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight.  Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history.  We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.

The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news.  But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news.  Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon.  If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb.  So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms.  And humans have always had them.  But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.

This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies.  The terror of that, the horror, the devastation.  All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities.  We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism.  Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related.  This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.

At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something.  Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.

Diaspora and Terrorism

April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Scholars studying diaspora and immigrant communities have noticed that there are some very general, very real trends amongst diasporic immigrant communities.  The first generation, the immigrants, arrive in their new home, but find themselves caught between two worlds, struggling to fit into the new home, whilst still maintaining very real and very strong ties to the homeland.  Their children, the second generation, are citizens of the new country by birth, and grow up in that host culture, and generally do not express a lot of interest in the culture of the homeland; they are fully integrated into the new homeland.  It’s their children, the third generation, that begins to cast an eye back to the old homeland, curious about where their grandparents are from and the culture their grandparents carried with them in the new land until they died.  These are trends that have existed in North America since the Irish began coming over here in the mid-19th century, and have been replicated time and again by pretty much every single group that has arrived in the United States and Canada in large numbers since.

Immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, of course, have greatly changed North American culture ever since the Irish.  Take, for example, the city I live in now: Boston.  Boston is the birthplace of the American independence movement in the 1770s, and was a tight-knit Anglo-Protestant city prior to the Irish arriving.  Boston was never the same after the Irish arrived in huge numbers in the mid-19th century.  And as the Irish infiltrated the city’s economy, culture, and politics, they left their mark.  This can still be seen today: at present Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are both attempting to gain the Democratic nomination for the special election to replace John Kerry in the US Senate.  Both Lynch and Markey are currently Congressmen.  Both are Irish Catholics, Markey’s from Malden and Lynch is from South Boston, aka: Southie.  He grew up in the same housing projects as Whitey Bulger.  The Irish still have their tentacles in the Democratic Party machinery in Boston today, 160-some odd years after they arrived.

Other cities are affected differently.  Take, for example, my hometown of Montréal.  Montréal has long been the recipient of immigrants, dating back to the Irish, who began arriving there in large numbers in the 1840s.  The Irish completely changed the city, adding an Anglophone group that was Catholic to an already divided city.  The Catholic Church was also massively changed in Montréal as the Irish muscled their way in.  Indeed, they are largely to thank for the fact that there is an English-language Catholic Church in the city today.  But Montréal is also being fundamentally changed by immigration from nations in the Francophonie in Africa and the Caribbean today. In the past decade or so, Montréal has undergone a fundamental cultural shift, as new French-speaking communities arrive.  The consequences for French Canadian nationalism and separatism should be obvious.

But this process of acculturation may be now speeding up.  Our cities have become faster, life is lived at a frenetic pace in our cities on this continent.  Last week, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200 more, some very seriously.  The bombs were planted by Tamerlan Tsarneav, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, who is 19.  The Tsarneav brothers are immigrants, they came to the United States from Dagestan just over a decade ago.  Tamerlan was here on a green card, whilst Dzhokhar became a citizen last year.  Their parents have both returned to Russia in recent years, leaving them here.  But they’ve been here a long time, Tamerlan was 14 or 15 when he arrived here, Dzhokhar was 8 or 9.  They were both Americanised, and their brand of terrorism, experts have concluded is of the ‘home-grown’ variety.

Yesterday in the Boston Globe, Farah Stockman commented on this growth in homegrown terrorism, citing forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who in 2008 predicted that terrorism in the West would increasingly be of this variety.  Of course, by 2008, we had already seen the writing on the walls.  On 7 July 2005, four terrorists detonated bombs during the morning commute in London.  All four were homegrown terrorists, two were the sons of immigrants, a third was an immigrant himself, but had grown up in England.  The bombing of Madrid’s transportation system in March 2004 was also of the homegrown variety.

This new generation of terrorists, the so-called 3rd wave, are younger than the Al Qaeda terrorists of the previous decade.  According to Stockman, the average Al Qaeda terrorist in the 90s and early 00s was in his 30s.  Today, the average age of these 3rd wavers is in his early 20s.  The 2nd wave were devoutly religious and had grown up in devoutly religious homes.  The 3rd wave grew up secular, as the brothers Tsarneav had.  So, why the turn to radicalism and terrorism, she asks:

For some, it was out of a warped romanticism for a homeland they barely knew; an act of rebellion against hardworking immigrant parents who brought them to the West for “a better life.” Others were US-born converts to Islam who found in terrorism a sense of camaraderie and purpose that had eluded them all their lives. A few became terrorists after years of gang-banging and drug dealing. It was an ideology that transformed their violent tendencies into something heroic. It made them feel they were on the side of the angels.

Sagemean concludes that for some of these young men, ‘terrorism is a fad.’  This is an interesting thought.  But if these young men are attracted, in part, by this romantic attachment to their parents’ homeland, or the homeland of their families, or to the religion that sustained their family generations ago, I’m not so sure that this is a fad.  Scholars looking at notions of diaspora note the attachment 3rd generation children and those beyond have to the mythical homeland.  Looking at my own community and what I study (the Irish), I would note that men and women whose families emigrated to North America 160 years ago remain curious and interested in the mythical homeland of Ireland.  Ireland draws them in, they’re curious about the history, the culture, and some even the language.  This becomes a life-long interest.

Maybe Sagemen is correct in that the violence of radicalism and terrorism is a fad of youth and some of these young men will eventually mellow out and choose to focus on aspects of their culture that do not lead to violence.  Certainly there are echoes of this in the Irish diaspora, where many young men (and some young women) have been attracted to the glory of the violence in the North.  This was certainly true when I was younger, before the establishment of peace following the Good Friday Accords in 1998.  Young Irish-American and Irish-Canadian men would hold romanticised images of the IRA and the resistance “back home”.  Most have long since grown out of this fascination with the IRA, of course.  (This did, however, inspire Bono  to go on a legendary rant during a performance of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” during the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, which was released on the DVD of Rattle & Hum).  

The Strange Anglo Fascination with Québécois Anti-Semitism

December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am a reader.  I read pretty much anything, fiction and non-fiction.  As I have argued for approximately forever, reading, and especially, literature, is what keeps me sane.  So I read.  It’s also the end of the semester, so what I read devolves in many ways from lofty literature to murder-mysteries.  I would argue, though, that a good murder-mystery is full of the basic questions of humanity, right down to the endless push/pull of good v. evil.  I came to this conclusion when someone once tried to convince me that Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment was, at the core, a murder-mystery.

So, it is that I came to find myself reading the third in John Farrow’s so-far excellent series of murder mysteries set in my home town, Montréal, and featuring the crusty old detective, Émile Cinq-Mars.  The third novel, however, centres around Cinq-Mars’ early career in the late 60s/early 70s.  And Farrow, who is really the esteemed Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, took the opportunity to write an epic, historical novel.  It’s also massively overambitious and falls under its own weight oftentimes in the first half of the book.  The novel opens on the night of the Richard Riot in Montréal, 17 March 1955, with the theft of the Cartier Dagger, a relic of Jacques Cartier’s arrival at Hochelaga in the 16th century.  The dagger, made of stone and gifted to Cartier by Donnacona, the chief of Stadacona, which is today’s Québec City, has been central to the development of Canada.  It has ended up in the hands of Samuel de Champlain, Étienne Brulé, Paul de Chomedy, sieur de Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeux, Médard Chouart des Groselliers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and so on.  But it has ended up in the hands of the Sun Life Assurance Company, the very simple of les maudits Anglais in mid-20th century Montréal.  Worse for the québécois, Sun Life has lent it to that mandarin of ‘les maudits anglais,” Clarence Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, and the man responsible for the lengthy suspension to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Clearly, Farrow subscribes to the theory that the Quiet Revolution really began in March 1955 (I do not agree with this one bit, thank you very much).

Farrow then takes us through the history of the dagger, from Cartier until it ends up in the hands of  Campbell, to its theft on St. Patrick’s Day 1955.  And from there, we move through the next sixteen years, through the Quiet Revolution, Trudeaumania, and the FLQ, as Cinq-Mars finally solves the mystery of the theft of the Cartier Dagger in 1971 (which was also the year that an unknown goalie came out of nowhere to backstop the Habs to the Stanley Cup).

All throughout the story, Farrow, in true Anglo-Montréal style, is obsessed with franco-québécois anti-semitism.  This is especially the case from the late 19th century onwards.  We are brought into the shadowy underworld of the Order of Jacques Cartier, a secret society hell-bent on defending French, Catholic Québec against les Anglais and the Jews.  Characters real and fictive are in the Order, including legendary Montréal Mayor Camillien Houde, and Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, and others.  And then there’s the Nazi on the run after the Second World War, Jacques Dugé de Bernonville.  We also meet Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his nemesis, René Levésque.

Outed as anti-semites are the usual characters: Maurice Duplessis, Abbé Lionel Groulx, Houde, Laurin, and, obviously, de Bernonville.  Also, Henri Bourassa and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.  And so on and so forth.  And, ok, fair enough, they WERE anti-semites (though I’m not sure you can call Bourassa and Lafontaine that).  Québec, and Montréal in particular, was the home of Adrien Arcand, the self-proclaimed fuhrer of Canada.  These are disgusting, dirty men.

But all throughout the novel, only French Canadian anti-semitism matters.  This reminds me of a listserv of policy wonks, academics, and journalists I’ve been a member of for a decade-and-a-half.  Years ago, we had one member who liked to rail against the sovereigntists in Québec, accusing them of being vile anti-semites (sometimes he was right).  But, whenever evidence of wider Canadian anti-semitism was pointed out, he dismissed it out of hand.  In his mind, only the French are anti-semites (to the point where he often pointed to the Affair Dreyfus in late 19th century France as proof the québécois are anti-semites to the core).

I am not suggesting that anti-semitism should not be called out for what it is: racism.  It must and should be.  But whenever we get this reactionary Anglophone obsession with Franco-québécois anti-semitism, I get uncomfortable.  This is a bad case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Anti-semitism has been prevalent in Canada since the get go, in both official languages.  The first Jew to be elected to public office in the entire British Empire was Ezekiel Hart, elected to the Lower Canadian legislature in 1807.  But he was ejected from the House almost immediately upon taking his seat because he was Jewish.  The objections to Hart taking his oath of office on the Jewish Bible (which was standard practice in the court system for Jews) were led the Attorney-General, Jonathan Sewell.  But the people of Trois-Rivières returned him to office nonetheless.  He was again refused his seat. Opposition came from both sides of the linguistic divide in Lower Canada, and you will surely note Sewell is not a French name.  Lower Canada, however, was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to emancipate Jews, in 1833.  The leader of the House, and the Parti patriote? Louis-Joseph Papineau.

At any rate, this isn’t a defence of the franco-québécois record on anti-semitism. It’s not good.  But it is to point out that Anglo Canada isn’t exactly pristine.  Irving Abella and and Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 makes that point clear.  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s immigration chief, Frederick Blair, made sure that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany weren’t allowed into Canada.  Jews had been coming to Canada since the late 19th century, and there, they met an anti-semitic response, whether it was Montréal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. Even one of our great Canadian heroes, Lester Bowles Pearson, Nobel Prize-winner for inventing UN Peacekeepers and Prime Minister from 1965-7, was an anti-semite, at least as a young man before the Second World War.

And anti-semitism has remained a problem in Canada ever since.  While anti-semitism is relatively rare in Canada, B’Nai Brith estimates that, in 2010, upwards of 475 incidents of anti-semitism happened in Toronto alone.

So clearly Canadian anti-semitism isn’t a uniquely franco-québécois matter.  Indeed, one of the few Anglos to feature in Farrow’s book, Sir Herbert Holt, was himself somewhat of an anti-semite himself.  And I am left feeling rather uncomfortable with this strange Anglo Québec fascination with the anti-semitism of francophone québécois, especially when it’s presented out of the context of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  This was a period of pretty much worldwide anti-semitism.  It was “in fashion,” so to speak, in the Euro-North American world, from actual pogroms in Russia to the Affaire Dreyfus, to the US and Canada refusing to accept refugees from Nazi Germany thirty years later.

On Irish Historiography, Revisionism, and the Troubles

August 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last month, at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Irish Studies at my alma-mater, Concordia University, I was witness to an interesting discussion about revisionism in Irish historiography.  The discussion centred around issues of identity in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In particular, the issue of binaries, in that one was either Protestant or Catholic and the twain never met.

I have long had problems with revisionist history (in the historiographical sense, let me be clear), in that it seeks to normalise, which means it plays down the unusual, the anachronisms, and so on.  In some ways, this is a good thing. In the case of Ireland, there is some good which has come out of revisionism, most notably, we are free to focus less on the stereotypical tragic history of a “famished land, who fortune could not save” (to quote the Pogues).  In short, Ireland is free to become (to borrow from revisionism in Québec historiography) “une nation comme les autres.”  Revisionism also leads us to post-structuralism and allows us to get past the binaries in many ways: Catholic v. Protestant, man v. woman, city v. rural, North v. South, Ireland v. England, etc. We can see the greys now, a process begun with the muddying of the playing field by the great revisionists of the 20th century: T.W. Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards, as well as the great troubadour of revisionism of our era: Roy Foster.

But, this becomes problematic when taken too far.  When we become too focussed on seeing past the binaries, to see all the ways Catholics and Protestants got along in Belfast, in Derry, and across the North, we run a new risk.  And that is to trivialise the Troubles.  The Troubles was, ultimately, a civil war between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. For the most part, we have long used “nationalist” and “Catholic” and “Protestant” and “unionist” as synonyms. And it is good to see across the lines, to see the attempts at peace-building and community-making in the midst of the terror and devastation of the Troubles. But if we push this impulse too far, then we are blind to the Troubles (or any other conflict that relies on binaries). There is a reason that those two sets of words were/are seen synonymously. It remains that over 3,500 people are dead, countless lives were torn asunder, and the two cities of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry, still bear the scars of the Troubles on their landscapes.

We, as historians can try all we like to see past the binaries here, but the simple fact remains that this binary was a pretty fundamental one, it resonated with people, it caused them to fight, sometimes to the death, for what they believed in. It caused them to engage in terrorism. It tore families and communities apart. We cannot lose sight of that.

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