Governmental Power

February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Historians tend to take the long view of everything.  We tend not to be make rash judgements of the world.  We are just trained not to.  And so, of late, I have been thinking of the longue durée of government and society.  One of the truisms of history is that the government really has no bearing on the lives of the majority of any given state.  Kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and prime ministers have come and gone and for the overwhelming majority of society, life carried on.

Sometimes the government’s policies came home, such as when a village’s young men marched off to war.  Or a particularly oppressive government came to power and instituted surveillance.  But even then, whether in medieval France or Ancient China, or Nazi Germany, for most people, the sun still came up, the fields still got tended, the factories still produced.

But all the while, something arose from Enlightenment thought.  And this was the idea of the rationalization of government.  By this, I mean the standardization of government and the state, and its attempts to impose itself in the lives of its citizens/subjects.  Quite often, the growth of the state was met with resistance.  In the early 1850s in rural Quebec, the guerre des éteignoirs broke out against the attempts of the Canadian government to impose a standardized, compulsory education on the children of the country.  To call it a ‘war’ is a misnomer, it was a collection of violent acts of resistance.  Still, it was a very dogged resistance.  Yet, it was ultimately fruitless.  State-sponsored education had arrived.

The mid-19th century was a period of massive state growth in Canada and the United States.  Both nations got the idea from the British, where the growth of the state and government surveillance may have staved off the spread of the French Revolution to the British Isles.  In the United States, of course, this process was both interrupted and sped up by the Civil War, as the federal state grew exponentially during the conflict, and has only continued to grow since.

This mid-19th century state building occurred through the imposition of the state into communities, through the construction of courthouses, post offices, and the like.  And the buildings followed a standardized form, designed by the same architects.  The Catholic Church had already figured out the value of standard design by this point, the state was a bit of a latecomer.  But the effects were the same.  Newly designed and constructed courthouses brought the state into a community.  The uniformity of the buildings from one town to a next reinforced the impartial eye of the state.  Back at the centre, the state also underwent tremendous growth, as new departments were created and new bureaucrats appointed to oversee this growth.

The process of the expanding state picked up from there, to the point now where it is nigh-on impossible to escape it.  It is in our wallets in the form of our driver’s licenses and our Social Insurance/National Insurance/Social Security cards (to use the Canadian/British/American terms).  It is on our cars as license plates and in the dashboard as registrations.  It knows where we live.  It knows where we work.  It knows how much we work and how much we make.  It knows intimate details of our lives.

You can see the effects of this and the various periods of state growth in any mid-size town to large city.  For example, post offices tend to look the same, built either in the late 19th century or the mid-20th.  Courthouses follow a similar plan, whether built in the late 19th century, the early 20th, or the late 20th, though they follow different plans based on era.

For example, Government Center in Boston is a massive neo-brutalist construction in the centre of downtown.  Government Center houses Boston’s city hall, federal courts, state courts, and government offices at all three levels (city, state, federal).  The building style is familiar.

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Government Center, Boston

The same sort of neo-brutalism exists very far away from Boston, in a different country.  Winnipeg, Manitoba’s city hall is also a neo-brutalist construction.  And this architectural style is repeated for government buildings (and university campuses) in nearly every city I can think of in North America.  The style is immediately recognizable as the state, whether it’s Winnipeg’s City Hall or the campus of the University of Massachusetts — Amherst.  We see this style of architecture and we instantly know its purpose.

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City Hall, Winnipeg

These buildings are designed to be immovable and permanent, to show us the permanence of the state, and the implied power behind it.  These are overwhelming buildings.  Standing in Government Center, Boston, or Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, is an exercise of feeling one’s insignificance in the face of the state.  When I went for my interview to receive my Green Card at Government Center, I thought about this, how insignificant my individual power was in the face of the state.  Whether we think about this implicitly or explicitly, it is there.  And that is the point (just as Edwardian era bank buildings make their point)

So we are left to believe that the state is unmoving and immovable.  And so it is.  But, something else has happened in the wake of this massive growth of the state, as it has invaded our wallets, our dashboards, and more.  The power of the state has continued to grow, its presence in our lives in inescapable.

And thus, now, when government changes hands through the democratic process and a new one takes control, whether it is in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, or Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, or Washington, DC, or Ottawa, there is a very real possibility that it will change the lives of the people of that state/province/nation.  Major governmental policy shifts on everything from foreign affairs to net neutrality to consumer protection laws to immigration laws impacts nearly everyone.

And this is something to think about as we enter the era of the Trump Administration in the US.

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Gentrification: Plus ça change

September 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’m reading a book that is, for the lack of a better term, a biography of the Kremlin.  I am at the part where the Kremlin, and Moscow itself, gets rebuilt after Napoléon’s attempt at conquering Russia.  Moscow had been, until it was torched during the French occupation, a haphazard city; visitors complained it was Medieval and dirty. And it smelled.  And not just visitors from Paris and Florence, but from St. Petersburg, too.

In the aftermath, Moscow was rebuilt along Western European lines, in a rational manner.  And the city gentrified, the Kremlin especially:

This was definitely a landscape that belonged to the rich and the educated, to noblemen and ladies of the better sort.  It is through the artists’ eyes that we glimpse the well-dressed crowds: the gentlemen with their top hats and shiny canes, the ladies in their bonnets, gloves, and crinolines.  They could be leading citizens of any European state, and there is little sense of Russia (let alone romantic Muscovy) in their world.

Leaving aside the fact that there were no citizens of any European state in 1814, this sounds remarkably familiar.  This is the same critique I have written many times about Griffintown and Montreal: as Montreal gentrifies, it is becoming much like any other major North American city.

But it is also true of gentrification in general.  There is a part on the North Shore of Chattanooga, Tennessee, I really like.  It finally dawned on me that it is because it reminds of me Vancouver architecturally, culturally, aesthetically, and in the ways in which the water (in this case the Tennessee River, not False Creek) is used by the redevelopment of this historically downtrodden neighbourhood.  But.  I could also be dropped into pretty much any North American city and see similarities: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville.  These are all cities (amongst others) where I have seen the same tendencies.

And, obviously, one aspect of gentrification is the cleansing of the city of danger and vice.  Just like Moscow was cleaned up in the aftermath of 1812.

The Dystopian Promise of Neo-Liberalism

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

See the similarities?

Resuscitating Lyndon Baines Johnson

August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Clint Eastwood and Political Correctness

August 5, 2016 § 22 Comments

I have to admit, I like Clint Eastwood, the artist.  He’s the star of one of my favourite films of all-time, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly.  And he’s made some mighty fine films of his own.  He’s also a complex man.  He claims to be libertarian, but he’s supported both Democrat and Republican politicians.  He’s called for gun control since the early 1970s.  He was also a progressive mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, at least on environmental issues.  And he’s long been an advocate of environmental controls.  And, clearly, since he’s been mayor of his little resort town, he clearly isn’t opposed to government at all costs, nor is he opposed to using government power for the common good.

But, in recent years, he’s become a bit of a loose cannon.  His speech at the 2012 Republican Conference, the so-called “Empty Chair” routine, was unforgettable.  But this week, he was in the news again, complaining about the “pussy generation.”  See, Ol’ Clint is tired of political correctness:

[Trump]’s onto something because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.

We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.

My response? So what? First, Clint Eastwood loves to come off as a tough guy when he’s going off on a tangent like this.  Clint Eastwood ain’t no tough guy, he plays them in movies. That’s a big difference.  Second, Clint Eastwood is 86 years old.  When he was growing up, Jim Crow and segregation existed in the US.  Is that what he wants to return to? I presume not.

As for “political correctness,” you know what?  I’m sick of this one too.  Creating an environment in the world where people feel comfortable, where we are all respected and treated fairly is not a bad thing.  It’s easy for a multi-millionaire 86-year old white man to complain about the things that weren’t called racist 80 years ago.  What discrimination has Clint Eastwood faced in his life?

And this is the thing, the people who complain about “political correctness” tend to be white and middle class, and quite often male.  In other words, they tend to be people who don’t know what it feels like to be the target of discrimination or hate speech, or, worse.  It’s easy for them to claim there is no discrimination, no racism in society.  They’re not targeted by it.  It’s easy for Eastwood to complain about the “pussy generation.”

In short, you cannot complain about “political correctness,” or claim there is no such things as racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia if you are of the dominant group in society.

More to the point, a long time ago, a great man once noted that the mark of a democracy was how it treated its minorities.  And that is most certainly true.  That great man, by the way, was former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the father of current PM, Justin “Hotty Pants” Trudeau).

 

Stupid Memes, Lies, and Ahistoricism

June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments

There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision.  This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know.  And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.

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I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people.  OK, then.

But this is where history does matter.  The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.”  Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly.  There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly.  Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.

And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies.  The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.

The two situations are not analogous. At all.  In other words, this is just another stupid meme.  #FAIL

The Myth of the ‘Founding Fathers’

November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers.  In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling.  Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.

The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable.  Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too).  The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country.  And they all agreed on things.

Reality is far from this.  The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are.  Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not.  Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population.  And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%.  The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.

The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe.  The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other.  Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought.  In other words, the Constitution was a compromise.  The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.

Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814.  But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country.  In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.

It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time.  Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless.  You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race.  It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.

But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements.  The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central.  I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives.  Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.

Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs.  So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.

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