The West and the Rest and the Fate of the Environment

May 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

I just read a quick book review in Foreign Affairs of Charles Kenny’s new book, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West.  This comes on the heels of a spate of books in recent years about why it is that the West rules now, but why it won’t shortly.  The best of these books (at least amongst those I’ve read) is Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of HIstory and What They Reveal about the Future. The worst is my favourite village idiot, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, and not just because of his incredibly stupid device of the “killer apps” that the West downloaded first, but have since been downloaded by the rest, but because of Ferguson’s inability to hide his triumphalist ethno-centrism.  I also teach a lot of World History, so the topic interests me.

Kenny argues that, in contrast to Ferguson and others, that the rise of the Rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the West.  Moreover, Kenny also claims that the rise of the Rest isn’t due to any failure on the part of the US, but, rather, is a function of Washington’s global leadership.  And, unlike any other writer I’ve read on the matter, Kenny is also concerned about the possibilities for environmental degradation due to global economic advancement.  This is interesting, actually, making me think of Doug Saunder’s Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Re-Shaping Our World (I reviewed that here on this blog).  Saunders is also a triumphalist, arguing that urbanisation is a great boon to humankind, but he overlooks the environmental degradation from cities.

However.  Where Kenny falls down, at least according to this review (I do look forward to reading The Upside of Down), is that he expects the free market (along with education and innovation) to take care of that problem.  This is where I get suspicious, given that the free market has done very little for environmental degradation, and left to our own devices, we humans would destroy the environment without some kind of governmental intervention.  I don’t see why it would work any better in the developing world, frankly.

But, Kenny also redeems himself in his concluding argument wherein he favours the establishment of global rules and regulations to regulate global development and environmental damage.  Of course, I’m not sure how this squares with his faith in the free market, but I suppose I’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that.

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On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Pt. V

October 2, 2013 § 5 Comments

[I thought I was done with this series (parts I, II, III, and IV and the prequel) when I left Pointe-Saint-Charles last summer and moved to New England. Apparently not.]

In the mid-1980s in Vancouver, the BC provincial government built the SkyTrain, a new light-rail system connecting the western suburbs of New Westminster and Burnaby to the City of Vancouver.  SkyTrain caused a lot of disruption when it was built, as you might expect for a brand new system. When it finally opened, just in time for Expo ’86, people were excited.  Vancouver finally got rapid trasit!  But some people weren’t so happy, the people who lived along the line in New West, Burnaby, and East Vancouver (it’s worth noting the SkyTrain went primarily through working-class neighbourhoods).  I recall a news segment that investigated the claims of the noise.  In particular, I remember a glass of water on a counter next to an open window as the SkyTrain went by.  The water didn’t move.  At all.

Nonetheless, I can understand in the inconvenience of the SkyTrain for those whose day-to-day lives were affected by it.  They were there before SkyTrain, it moved into their neighbourhood.

But let us now consider Pointe-Saint-Charles.  The Pointe has been home to a train yard since the Grand Trunk Railway built its yards there in 1853.  For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s 160 years ago.  In other words, the trains have been in the Pointe for a long, long time.  And for much of its history, the trains were part and parcel of the experience of living in the Pointe.  There was a train yard there.  Life goes on.

But, as I’ve been noting in this series, the Pointe is undergoing redevelopment and gentrification.  And nowhere is this clearer than in that part of the southern part of the Pointe which, even a decade ago, was a pretty dodgy part of town.  Here, people have been snapping up cheap housing, both the 19th century stock and hideous new condos, and movingin.  The Pointe, ever-so-slowly has become a more happening place because of this gentrification and that closer to the north end of the neighbourhood, near the Canal and the Nordelec building (which is in the process of being condofied now).   In short, the yuppies (of whom I was obviously one when I lived there) are moving in.

For the most part, the process of gentrification has been more or less smooth in the Pointe, but, then again, I’m not one of the people being priced out of the neighbourhood.  But the tension that exists in Saint-Henri was lacking in the Pointe. But, there were subtle changes in the culture of the neighbourhood when I lived there.  This was seen most obviously to me in the case of the community garden at the end of our block.  A couple of years ago, the arrivistes took control of it and essentially pushed the old-timers out of the garden. Not cool.

So, today I was reading the news on CBC Montréal, and I came across this little gem.  Some of the yuppies who’ve moved into that southern part of the Pointe (taking advantage of cheap housing and pushing the poor out) are crying foul over the sound of the trains at all hours of the day.  Yup.  Imagine that! Trains! In a train yard!  One resident hears the trains and he gets afraid of what might happen.  Others complain sound like The Grinch, complaining about the noise, noise, noise!

Certainly, some of this is in response to the disaster in Lac Mégantic.  But, it is worth noting that in all my years in the sud-ouest, I cannot recall a single accident involving trains in Pointe-Saint-Charles or Saint-Henri.  Accidents between cars, bikes, and peoples, certainly.  But not trains.

So, these people want Canadian National to reduce the trains and the noise they make.  This is not unprecedented.  There is a condo building on rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri, right where the CN tracks go through Saint-Henri.  When it was first opened up, the people who bought in there respectfully asked that the Canadian National STOP running trains through their backyards.  That line, which is connected to the largely disused yards in the Pointe, remains one of the busiest train tracks in North America, used by CN and ViaRail between Montréal and Ottawa and Toronto.  I’m not making that up.

It would seem to me that one of the basic facts of living in a city is that there is noise.  And if you are on the market for a new condo, you would look at what’s around you in your new neighbourhood and consider the inconvenience of the noise factor, or other things that might upset you.  And, if you move into a condo near a train yard, you might want to consider the fact that it’s going to get loud occasionally. Trains are like that, they’re loud (I can hear the Commuter Rail train from my house here at all hours of the day and night, in fact, one is going by right now!).  It is asinine and selfish to move into a neighbourhood with a train yard in and then act surprised when there are trains that make lots of noise.  It is the height of idiocy, quite frankly.  If you don’t like the noise, then go live somewhere else.  It’s that simple.  And so, that is my solution for these fine people in the Pointe.  Sell.  Move elsewhere.

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.

Misogyny in Action

September 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

This article from a TV station in Texas is unconscionable.  A truck decal business in Waco, TX, created a decal for the tailgate of a pickup truck of a women tied up and looking like she’s been abducted.  I will not re-produce the image here, it doesn’t deserve it, but you can see it if you follow this link.  The decal is bad enough.  But the article on the TV station’s website is even worse.  After noting that the majority of the feedback for the decal has been negative, moron journalist Matt Howerton  says that the feedback leads to the question as to whether or not the decal is “‘Poor taste or good business?'”

I’m gobsmacked at how this question is even asked.  An image of a distressed women tied up and looking like she’s in the back of a pickup truck is never good business.  It’s beyond poor taste.

A few days ago that I know we live in a misogynist society, but sometimes it just hits me in the face how misogynist.  This is one of those moments.  By now, everyone in Canada has heard about the students during frosh week at St. Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia (my alma mater, I’m ashamed to admit) chanting about underage rape.  Seriously.  It’s not funny, it’s never funny.

Pretty much every single woman I know has been the victim of sexual assault at least once in her life.  And yet we as a society accept that, we even encourage it with idiocy like KWTX’s question about the truck decal.  This is a nothing less than a disgrace.

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.

Re-Manufacturing the War of 1812

April 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

Over at the National Council of Public History‘s (NCPH) blog, history@work (wherein public historians such as yours truly discuss issues related to history and the public and historical public memory), I have a new piece up on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s delusional history of the War of 1812, entitled Re-manufacturing 1812: Stephen Harper’s Glorious Vision of Canada’s Past.  From the title, you can probably guess my angle on Harper’s attempts to re-brand Canadian History through the War of 1812.  Quite frankly, I find it disturbing.  Let me know what you think.

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