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.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

September 25, 2015 § 7 Comments

Alexander Pope once opined that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”  We can see multiple examples of this almost daily.  But, it was truly brought home to me on Twitter last weekend.  Against my better judgement, I got into a discussion that became an argument over discrimination against the Irish in Canada.  My interlocutor was dead set on presenting the thesis that the Irish were the lowest of the low well into the 20th century and the infamous NINA (No Irish Need Apply) signs were ubiquitous across our fair Dominion.  To back up her argument, she cited her grandparents, who reported seeing the NINA signs when they arrived (I’m not sure when they arrived, but she was roughly my mother’s age, a Baby Boomer, so I would hazard her grandparents arrived in the 1920s), a random page from a House of Commons debate where then-Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald denigrated the Irish in 1889, and a screen cap from an historical newspaper aggregator that reported some 30,000 NINA mentions in Canada.  But the time frame was not clear.

This kind of logic would not pass a freshman course.  In short, she cherry-picked her evidence to back up her thesis.  Now, I know a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to the Irish in Canada, a result of a Master’s thesis and a PhD dissertation (and forthcoming book) about the Irish in Quebec, from the 1840s to the 21st century.  I have read nearly every book on the Irish in Canada (and North America as a whole) as part of the process leading to the MA and PhD.  Her basic thesis, that the Irish were discriminated against is not wrong.  But this argument is largely limited to the 19th century, and more than that, to the middle decades of the 19th century.  Certainly, discrimination continued to plague the Irish in Canada beyond, say, 1880, but, by then, the Irish were also successfully integrating into Canadian society, through accommodations from the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture, through accommodations made by the Irish themselves, and by the Irish forcing themselves into the Canadian body politic.  As the 19th century drew to a close, the Irish had infiltrated the corridors of power in Canada, both politically and economically.  But this does not mean that all discrimination went away.

First, she essentialized my argument, claiming that I said that NO discrimination occurred after 1900, as if the turning of the century was some magic boundary.  And then she produced this cherry picked evidence, which I countered with the larger argument, pointing to both individual and cultural successes.  She claimed that Toronto was different than Montreal.  That is correct.  But, I countered with information on the plight of the Irish in Toronto.  No luck.  She was convinced she was right.  I didn’t go so far as to get pedantic and explain how history is made/written/produced, but when I rejected her argument, she accused me of calling her grandparents liars.  At this point, I cut my losses and muted her on Twitter.

All I could do was shake my head and ponder why and how so many people are so resistant to logic and reason. It’s not like I’m innocent of this, either.  Recently, an argument broke out on the Facebook wall of one of my friends about the level of integration of Anglophones in franco-québécois culture.  All three of us arguing were ex-pat Montrealers, all three of us Anglos.  All three of us have PhDs, in other words, we should’ve known better.  Instead, we devolved into anecdotal evidence, personal stories, and ignored the meta-data all three of us are very familiar with on the matter.  So while we did not, like my interlocutor on Twitter, devolve into cherry-picking our evidence, we still engaged in #logicfail.

My point in telling this second story is to point out we all do this.  But there is great danger in this.  It leads to an American populace that thinks that Ben Carson is right when he says that the President cannot be Muslim because Islam is incompatible with the Constitution.  And still greater ills.

Why Tom Cotton is Wrong about LGBT Rights

April 6, 2015 § 6 Comments

Last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) had a very clear message to LGBT folk in the United States: “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay.” This comes as Cotton’s defence of the now amended Defence of Religious Freedom Act passed by the Indiana legislature the week before.

So this is what is has come to.  A senator of this country is telling a group of its citizens that they’re lucky they don’t live in Iran.  In other words, shut up.  For Senator Cotton the United States should not strive to be leader of human rights in this world.  In his mind, the country should just forget the statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.”  Nope.  We should just forget what the State Department says on its webpage:

The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure the peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.

None of this matters to Senator Cotton.  And this is very sad.  Politics in this country is a blood sport, at least symbolically.  Whenever people throw up their arms and express frustration at the current impasse between Democrats and Republicans, I like to gently remind them it’s never really been any different here, dating back to the first fights in Congress between the Federalists and the Republicans (not, of course, the same party as that today, which dates from the 1850s).  On the one side, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in a strong federal government; the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred a smaller national government and favoured personal liberty, free from government interference.

Nonetheless, there was a general belief in the right of Americans to dignity and a protection of their human rights (unless, of course, one was African American).  But we’ve already fought this fight.  In the 1960s, Americans sought a “Great Society,” one which provided care for its dispossessed and one that sought to protect its vulnerable citizens.  Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) perhaps summed up how human rights work, including in this country:

Human rights are not a privilege granted by the few, they are a liberty entitled to all, and human rights, by definition, include the rights of all humans, those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, or the shadows of life.

Cotton clearly has this equation backwards, he seeks to refuse basic rights to LGBT people in this country.  It is not just that Cotton’s greatest ambition in terms of equality is to ensure American LGBT people are treated at least as well as the 75th ranked country on the 2013 Human Rights Index (the US, for reference, is ranked 5th).  That is not good enough and violates everything that this country is supposed to stand for.  And it does not represent the country that the vast majority of Americans hope for.

Tom Cotton should be deeply ashamed of himself.

The Problem with Being Canadian

March 20, 2015 § 7 Comments

Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes.  A brilliant mind, and a great writer, he was rare for an historian.  An Englishman, he lived in New York and taught at New York University.  The Guardian called him the ‘greatest mind in New York,’ which I always took as a play on the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York.”  Judt died of ALS in July 2010 at the age of 62, and I feel like we were robbed.  I am currently reading his last work of non-fiction, Ill Fares the Land (a collaboration with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published in 2012).

In Ill Fares the Land, Judt takes on the growing meanness of our society and culture, on both sides of the Atlantic.  He argues that we have lost our way in the blind pursuit of money and profit, signalling the 1980s as the period where Western culture shifted from one of trust and compassion for our fellow human beings to this individualistic focus on money.  He criticizes us for having lost our way, for descending back into 19th century laissez-faire beliefs.

In one section, however, he focuses on the consensus that arose in Western society after the Second World War, when collectively we decided that we did not wish to experience the 1914-45 period ever again, and Europeans and North Americans began to build better societies, with a social safety net, seeking to eradicate the gross inequality of the 19th century, which led to the rise of dictatorships of both the left and the right in the 1920s and 30s.

Judt notes that trust is necessary to the proper functioning of society.  And he is right.  Trust is essential at all levels of society,and it is essential for the proper functioning of the capitalist system.  Indeed, this was the trust violated in the 1980s, and again in the lead-up to the 2008 Recession: economic actors essentially got greedy and corrupt and brought us down with them.  At any rate, Judt looks at what makes for a trusting society and, not surprisingly, he looks approvingly at the Scandinavian and Northern European countries.  These are places where income inequality is almost (note, I said almost) non-existant, where education is free or close to it, and there is a common, collective belief in the common good, broadly defined.

What makes these societies work?  What causes the trust to exist?  Judt notes that Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are remarkably homogenous societies, in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc.  (He also notes that Scandinavians are not so excited about the influx of impoverished refugees and immigrants in recent years, to be fair.)  He then focuses on his two primary countries: The United States and the United Kingdom.

In the period of consensus from 1945 to the 1970s, both the US and the UK were a lot more homogenous than they are now.  Both were majoritarian white, Anglo-Protestant nations, though with sizeable Catholic minorities.  But, Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, of course.  Today, however, both the US and the UK are larger, much more diverse nations.  And so trust has broken down.

As a good Canadian, I was practically yelling “CANADA!” at this point of the book.  To be fair to Judt, he DOES notice The Great White North.  Frankly, it’s hard not to.  It’s this big country just to the north of New York state.  He writes:

The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.

But then he dismisses the Canadian crossover case because it’s not conducive to his argument.  He immediately goes onto return to his arguments pertaining to the US and the UK.  This makes no sense.  Canada is a fine comparative point to both the US and the UK.  It is geographically large, it has a sizeable population, it is incredibly diverse (more diverse, in fact, than either the US and the UK), and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers).  And yet, “trust and its accompanying institutions” are deeply-embedded in the country, as our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (who is otherwise hell-bent on tearing down the Canada most Canadians want), has learned.

Judt’s myopia regarding Canada is nothing new, frankly.  It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook the country.  But that does not make it any less infuriating.

I am reminded of Trainspotting, and the rant of the central character, Mark Renton, on why it sucks being Scottish.

Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.

On Black History Month

February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments

It is Black History Month.  Specialized history months exist for a reason.  They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history.  Take, for example, a typical US History survey course.  Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today.  In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress.  Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture.  Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.

But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men.  Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter.  Then they share centre-stage with the colonists.  Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion.  Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters.  Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.  As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery.  But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery.  Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves.  Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s.  And that’s it.  Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history.  Hence, Black History Month.

The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism.  The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively.  We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day.  Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history.  As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it.  Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy.  For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.

I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February).  The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents.  Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black.  He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.

Racism is very real.  And it is historic.  It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence.  It comes in more peaceable ways, too.  It is subtle, it is silent.  But it’s still very real.  Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States.  But this was inherited from the British.  The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit.  British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade.  In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee.  And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.

Why?  Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution.  I would suggest it was a failed revolution.  Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed.  And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners.  Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person.  The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War.  And today, we live in an era of  backlash against the Civl Rights Era.

All of this, though, is due to the weight of history.  On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later.  The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations.  Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society.  And this is not a uniquely American problem.  Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.

For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us.  And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month.  And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.

The International Museum of Folklore

February 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

In his Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History & Social Memory, Guy Beiner talks a lot about folklore in Connacht, the western-most Irish province.  This is where the failed 1798 French invasion took place, and Beiner attempts an archaeology of the folklore of the region in relation to the invasion and its relation to the wider 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

I’ve never really worked in the realm of folklore, but I’ve always been fascinated by it, dating back to my undergrad years, though my profs were all insistent that folklore did not belong in a history class. In grad school, I read Ian McKaye’s book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, which was about the collection of Scots and Irish folklore, especially in Cape Breton by Helen Creighton and others in the early decades of the 20th century, around the same time that folklorists were running all over Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and various other countries, collecting the folk stories of the region.

Beiner argues that

It is often claimed that modernization struck a deathblow to ‘traditional’ oral culture.  Yet, developments in communication and information technologies also provided new media for the transmission and documentation of folklore.

Beiner goes on to discuss all the ways in which modern technology has aided in the collection and dissemination of traditional cultures and folklores.  But he is clearly overlooking the fact that modernization DID work to kill traditional oral culture, a point made brilliantly by Angela Bourke in her The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story.  This point is made all the more clearly by Keith Basso in his Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Languages Among the Western Apache.  Most of the events described by Basso, in terms of his ethnographic amongst the Western Apache of Arizona, take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet his book was published in 1995.  In his epilogue, Basso notes the massive change that had come to the community of Cibecue in the fifteen years between his ethnographic work and the book, and what is clear is that modern technology and modern life was killing the traditional way of life for the Western Apache, and with that, traditional relations to the land and the ancestors, which came through in what could be called folklore.

Ireland was no different (nor was any other folk culture anywhere).  Modernization has worked to kill traditional oral culture.  And while the stories still exist, and we can sill read them and listen to story-tellers, the culture they describe no longer exists.  Folklore, through the very act of collection in the early 20th century, was made static and museumized.  It became something to be fetishized and studied, and ceased to be a living thing.

On the New Racist Discourse in America

November 4, 2014 § 78 Comments

[Note: Comments have become out of control on this blog post, including some downright racist terminology that I have not allowed to be posted, as well as a few that include veiled, and occasionally direct, threats against me.]

So Ben Stein thinks that Obama is the most racist president in the history of this great republic.  He thinks so because allegedly Obama “is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans,” and is using the ‘race card’ to convince all African Americans to vote for the Democratic Party.  Ben Stein is wrong.

Obama is not the racist one, but Stein is tapping into a new discourse of racist ideology arising from the right in this country.  In this discourse, anyone who mentions race as an issue in contemporary American life risks being called a racist.  Anyone who points out racial inequality is at risk of being branded racist.  In the mindset of those who trumpet this new discourse, we’re all equal, no matter our ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or racial background.  And any attempt to point out inequality is therefore racist/sexist/homophobic, etc, by definition.

But what this discursive technique does is to deny the experiences of women and minorities in our society.  It says to those who have experiences different than white men that their experiences are invalid.  In short, this new racist discourse is meant to work as shorthand for racist viewpoints.  Thus, by claiming Obama is racist, Stein is both diverting attention from his own racism, and engaging in that very racism he blames on Obama.

More often than not, this discursive technique comes hand-in-hand with declarations of what is in the best interests of African Americans.  And in this sense, we return to the paternal racism of slave owners in the pre-Civil War era.  I’m not saying that Ben Stein = slave plantation owner.  I’m saying the tricks of technique here are very similar.  Last spring, we saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops up in Vermont.  Towards the end of the show, Rhiannon Giddens, the frontwoman of the band, told us of her own explorations of American history, and a book she read on slave narratives in the post-Civil War era.  One story in particular struck her, and she wrote the song “Julie” about it.

In the story, the mistress of the plantation is shocked at the fact that Julie, the former slave woman would have a will of her own.  She thought that she knew best for Julie, as did slave owners in general in a paternalist racist system.

And every time a white man or woman purports to know what’s best for African Americans, or any other minority, they’re engaging in this kind of paternalistic racism, which appears to be part and parcel of this new racist discourse from certain sectors of the political right in the United States.

Writing Deindustrialisation

September 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about.  Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative article in The Boston Globe last weekend.  In an article about Sahro Hussan, a young Somali-American, and Muslim, woman who has created a business of avant-garde fashions for Muslim women, in Lewiston, ME, Linda Matchan, The Globe‘s reporter, writes:

Lewiston was one of the largest textile producers in New England, rolling out millions of yards in cotton fabrics every year.  In time, though, the industry struggled to compete with Southern states where production costs were lower.  Lewiston went into decline.

While there is nothing factually wrong with Matchan’s description of what happened in Lewiston (or any other industrial town across the northern portion of North America), note how any responsibility for what happened is removed from the equation.  Matchan makes it sound like this was just an entirely natural process.

Deindustrialisation wasn’t a natural process, it didn’t just happen.  The reason why the mills in Lewiston (or Lowell, Laurence, Lynn, or anywhere else) struggled wasn’t some random event.  It happened because the corporations that owned those mills decided that they were not producing enough value for share-owners.  So these corporations pulled out of places like Lewiston and moved down South.  Why?  Because production costs were too great in the North, the workers made too much (they were often unionised), and there was too much regulation of the workplace for the corporations’ preferences.  So, they were induced to pull out and move down South where workplace regulation was minimal, where workers weren’t unionised, and the corporations could make great profits.  The governments down South actively worked with these corporations to bring them South, mostly through these unregulated workplaces and tax incentives.  As a friend of mine notes, this is how the South won the Civil War.  But the South’s victory was shortlived, as soon, the corporations realised they could make even more money for their shareholders by moving overseas.

So.  Long and short, deindustrialisation wasn’t just some random process, it was a cold, calculated manoeuvre by the corporations that owned these mills, in conjunction with cynical state and local governments in the South.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Stunning ‘Oops’ Moment

August 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

Malcolm Gladwell was on the BBC recently picking his Desert Island Discs.  For the most part, it’s hard to argue with Gladwell’s choices, given his age and his Canadianness.  I’m about a decade younger than him, and his choices look like the selections of someone’s cool older brother c. 1989, there’s BIlly Bragg, and Gillian Welch. Brian Eno’s there, so is Marvin Gaye.  Gaye actually appears twice, with Gladwell choosing the classic deep cut, ‘Piece of Clay.’  But he also picked Gaye’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, which was allegedly the reference point for Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 45-minute version on The Simpsons.  But, none of this really matters so much as Gladwell’s sheer, utter ignorance in introducing The Star Spangled Banner.

He claims that the American national anthem is an ‘insight into the heart of the American soul.’ Why?  Because ‘[t]hey’re blowing stuff up. This is their national anthem, it’s about rockets and bombs.’

Gladwell is referring to the first verse of the song:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

See?  There’s the red glare of the rockets, bombs bursting in the air?  All that nasty stuff, this deep insight into “the heart of the American soul.”  Except.  Gladwell is so wrong it’s embarrassing.  The Star Spangled Banner is about the British attempting to level Baltimore the night of 13-14 September 1814 during the War of 1812.  The author of this song was a lawyer named Frances Scott Key, who was stuck on a British frigate that night, watching the British attempt to reduce Baltimore’s defences to rubble.  He was there because he had negotiated a prisoner swap with the British.  The next morning, he was shocked to see Old Glory in the ‘dawn’s early light.’  Somehow, Fort McHenry survived the night and the flag still flew.

Scott was so overcome with emotion, he wrote The Star Spangled Banner almost on the spot.  He set the lyrics to a common British drinking song that every American knew.  Understand the irony: The Star Spangled Banner arose from the War of 1812, when the enemy was the British.  It also had three more verses that, thankfully, have long since been forgotten.

There are many problems with The Star Spangled Banner.  The major one is that anthem singers in the United States think that they must stretch their vocal chords to the breaking point (or quite often beyond) in singing the song.  Interestingly, when the campaign to make the song the official American national anthem picked up steam in the era around the First World War (it finally happened in 1931), newspaper editors complained the song was ‘unsingable.’

But this is all beside the point of Gladwell’s stunning mis-step here, as he descends down into stupid, knee-jerk anti-Americanness.  He should know better.

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