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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.