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).  

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On Humanity and Empathy: Boston and Rehtaeh Parsons

April 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Monday’s terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon was a little too close to home for my tastes.  A few of my students were there, near the finish line.  A couple had left by the time the bombs went off, a couple had not.  They were unhurt, as they were far enough away from the bombs.  I know Boylston Street well.  A few days before the Marathon, I was there; I had dinner in the Irish pub in the Lenox Hotel, which is across the street from where the second bomb went off.  In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where those two bombs were.

Like most Canadians and Americans, for me terrorism happens in the abstract.  It’s a news report on TV, it’s on our Twitter timelines, it’s pictures in a newspaper.  Sometimes, it’s a movie.  But we don’t experience it personally, and this is still true even after 9/11.  I have not experienced terrorism personally, and yet, I have never been as close to a terrorism attack as I was on Monday.  Not surprisingly, I feel unsettled.

But I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the responses to the bombs on Boylston Street.  Aside from those on Twitter declaring this to be a “false flag” attack (in other words, a deliberate attack by the US government on its people), which is stupid to start with, there have also been those who have been declaring that this happens all the time in Kabul or Baghdad or Aleppo.  That is very true, it does happen everyday in those places.  Indeed, for far too many people around the world, terrorism is a daily fact of life.  That is wrong.  No one should live in terror.  But by simply declaring that this happens all the time elsewhere, you are also saying that what happened in Boston doesn’t matter.  And that is a response that lacks basic humanity.

This has been a week where I’ve been reminded too often about our lack of humanity.  The inhumanity of the bombers, of the conspiracy theorists, and those who say this doesn’t matter because it happens all the time elsewhere.

News also broke this week about disgusting, inhumane behaviour surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Halifax.  There, “friends, family, and supporters” (to quote the CBC) have taken to putting up posters in the neighbourhood around Parsons’ mother’s house supporting the boys who sexually assaulted her, declaring that the truth will come out.  I’m sure those boys are living in a world of guilt and shame right now, as they should.  But to continue to terrorise a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, and then teased, mocked, and bullied for two years until she took her life is inhumane.  It is inhumane that those boys assaulted Rehteah in the first place. It is inhumane that her classmates harassed, mocked, and bullied her for two years for being a victim.

There has been plenty of positive, especially in response to the Boston bombings.  As I write this, President Obama is at a memorial service in Boston for the victims of the bombing.  There are plenty of stories of the humanity of the response of the runners of the marathon, the bystanders, and the first responders. #BostonStrong is a trending hashtag on Twitter. Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers will be donating $500 for every dropped pass and touchdown to a Boston charity, and New England Patriots receiver will donate  $100 for every reception and $200 for every dropped pass this season.  Last night’s ceremony at the TD Garden before the Bruins game was intense.  And so on and so forth.  This is all very heartening.  It shows that we are humane, that we can treat each other with empathy and sympathy and dignity.

But it doesn’t erase those who lack humanity.  I had a Twitter discussion last night about this.  About how this kind of inhumanity seems to be everywhere.  This morning, I was talking to two students about this inhumanity and how it just makes us depressed and wanting to cry.  I wish I could say that this is a new phenomenon in society.  But it’s not.  This is one of the (dis)advantages to being an historian.  We have the long view of history, quite obviously.  We have always been a vengeful, inhumane lot.  We’ve used torture since we could walk on our hind legs.  The Romans’ favourite past-time was gladiator fighting, where two men fought to the death.  Public executions were big deals, social outings.  All to watch a man (and occasionally a woman) die.  What is different now is the Internet allows people to express their inhumanity so much easier and so much quicker, and to gain further exposure in so doing.  And that is just unfortunate.

Why We Need Feminism

December 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week was the 23rd anniversary of the Montréal Massacre.  On 6 December 1989, a deranged man wandered into the École Polytechnique de Montréal, the engineering school of the Université de Montréal.  After clearing the men from a classroom, he opened fire.  He killed six women and injured three more before leaving the classroom and wandering the halls, where he wounded three more before he made a failed attempt to enter a locked classroom, wounding another woman in the hallway, before killing a support worker in her office.  Upon reaching the cafeteria, he continued shooting.  By the time he turned the gun on himself twenty minutes later, he had killed fourteen women, as well as wounding another thirteen, as well as one man.

I was 16 at the time, still in high school, at the other end of the country, in Vancouver.  I remember coming home from school and being glued to the TV that night, shocked, amazed, dismayed, and depressed this could happen.  Not that it could happen in Canada.  Of course it could.  But that it could happen.  Period.  This deranged man shot and killed these women because he hated feminists.  To this day, 23 years and 5 days later, I refuse to utter his name.

But I know his name. It’s seared into my memory.  This is true for pretty much all Canadians old enough to be cognisant of the massacre in 1989.  But we don’t necessarily know the dead women’s names.  There are:

  • Geneviève Bergeron, 21, civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan, 23, mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau, 23, mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault, 22, mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward, 21, chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick, 29, materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière, 25, budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
  • Maryse Leclair, 23, materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay, 22, mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier, 28, mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard, 21, materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault, 23, mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte, 20, materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, 31, nursing student

Each year, as we get further and further away from 6 December, we forget the importance of the event just a little bit more.  And each year we get further and further away from 6 December, we lose the shock and dismay we felt that day.

That same week, there was a meme on Twitter, We Need Feminism because.  One of the images that came through my timeline struck me.

542999_200584493411003_2052673512_nHer words say it all.  And so I thought back to my frosh week in 1991 at Carleton University in Ottawa.  We were taught that “No Means No.” Full stop. Period. No does not mean “maybe later,” or “not now,” or “maybe.”  It means “NO.”  Very simple.  That phrase was beaten into our heads, not even two full years since the Massacre.

But reading the words in this image, I realised I haven’t heard the phrase “No Means No” in a long time.  At least a decade.  And I spend a lot of time on university campuses.  In fact, I have been on a college or university campus every academic year since my first year undergrad in 1991-2 every year except two in the late 90s.

And now, apparently young women are taught to avoid being raped.  Men are not taught not to rape.  One would think that teaching “No Means No” would have benefited the women at Amherst College who were raped. One would think that all young women on all university campuses would benefit.  As would all young men.  “No means no” taught us to respect words.  And we all, men and women, need that respect.

Certainly, I would much prefer to live in a world where sexual assault and rape did not occur.  But I don’t see that happening, unfortunately.  But I would also much prefer it if universities did their part and taught young men and women that No means no.  That simple.  Three little words.

And for that reason, we need feminism.

Arrival Cities: The Book

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011.  So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.

Doug Saunders.  Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010.  ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.

Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall.  The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us.  And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.

Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for  The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities.  I did not get it.  While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish.  And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.

Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised.  Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.

More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create.  The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents.  The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy.  This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.

The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism.  In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.

Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book.  He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.

In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris.  He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.

Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters.  In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two.  In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world.  This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States.  Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.

But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines.  Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul.  Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home.  The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city.  They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers.  The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down.  By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years).  Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus.  However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.

In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities.  He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents.  In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so.  This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh.  Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus.  But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation.  And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:

What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition.  When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].

What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto.  In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis.  I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.

On Regulating Economies v. Free Market Economies

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am reading a fascinating book right now, as I plan for my courses next semester, David J. Bodenhamer’s The Revolutionary Constitutionan history of the US Constitution. Bodenhamer does a brilliant job, I think, of tracing the history of the US Constitution and its uses in American history, politics, law, culture, and life.

One thing that is continually striking me is the on-going public argument in the United States and elsewhere between regulated v. free market economies.  Maybe this is just the echo of the US election in my head.  Or it could also be a reflection of all the info I have inhaled since the economy went kaputski in 2008.  When FDR was elected in 1933, he sought to expand the state, based on Keynesian economies, to attempt to get the United States out of the Depression.  FDR felt that free market economics were what got the United States into the mess of the Depression in the first place.  And this has long been clear to me as an historian, but it is put in stark relief in Bodenhamer’s new book.

Fast forward to the present day.  The recession of 2008 and beyond was caused, to a large degree, by unregulated economies.  And yet, the right continues to argue that the free market will right all wrongs. Turns out we didn’t learn from the Depression.  We let it all happen again in the 1990s and early 2000s.  And this isn’t simply a right/left argument, either, as plenty on the left fell into this trap in the past two decades.

The problem with the free market economy is simple.  Bodenhamer writes:

In recent years a conservative attack on this New Deal constitutionalism has emerged among scholars who asserted the superiority of a private market and sought to apply a cost-benefit analysis to public regulation.  According to proponents of the so-called law and economics school, all people voluntarily make rational decisions to further their self-interest.

The problem is that people do not make rational decisions economically-speaking.  If people did, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown would never have happened.  If people did, I wouldn’t insist on drinking a latté in the morning instead of a cheaper coffee when my budget requires restructuring.  If people did, we wouldn’t be carrying around crippling amounts of debt.  The entire Enlightenment ideal of the rational behaviour of human beings has clearly been debunked.  Ideally, we act rationally in matters of economics, politics, and so on. But clearly, in reality, we do not.  If we did, the working-classes would always vote for the Democrats in the States and the NDP in Canada and Labour in England.  But they don’t.  They usually vote Republican and Conservative in Canada and England.  That is not in their rational self-interest.

Indeed, as Canada’s Prime Minister, of whom I am no fan, likes to crow: Canada survived the meltdown to a large degree due to the strict regulation of Canada’s banking industry.

So why we continue to have this argument baffles me. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that believing in the rational behaviour of the free market is, in fact, a completely irrational position and actually serves to de-bunk the arguments of these free market fantastists.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

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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