Friday, September 22, 2017

Parliaments and PR

At the Canada page of a professorial blog called The Conversation, political scientist David MacDonald presents a lot of dubious information about Canada, about New Zealand, and about parliamentary democracy. Near the start:
All Westminster systems are, by default, based on a prime ministerial dictatorship, and we as voters are beholden to their version of noblesse oblige.
Well, no.  Working parliamentary democracies make leaders and prime ministers constantly accountable to the people's elected representatives, the MPs. It's only when MPs abdicate that responsibility to parties and leaders that accountability can break down. In other words, Professor MacDonald universalizes a (fixable) Canadian problem into a rigid and misleading universal definition.

MacDonald's aim, oddly, is to promote an electoral reform that would exacerbate the friendly dictator problem He recommends New Zealand's proportional representation system, MMP, under which you have one vote you exercise for yourself and one you give to a political party -- so it can appoint its loyalists to Parliament.

Who's afraid of taxation history?

David Tough wraps up Active History's "Income Tax History" week with an essay about "boring history." He explores the virtues of working through boredom, boredom as tool of the market economy, and David Foster Wallace on boredom. He's too polite to say so, but one suspects the "someones" who mock his field as boring --
People who suggest that my work must be boring intend to insult my taste, but they really insult my craft.
 -- may include a lot of his fellow scholars. After all, he declares himself a "political historian" (All the income tax essays this week have been highly political). And political history has been unfashionable in the academy for quite a while. As I think I was trying to grasp a week or so ago, "Boring!" is a way to celebrating one's one ignorance.
The boredom that people evince when they sense they’re in danger of encountering tax history is the boredom of disgust, not surfeit.... [T]hey want you to never start talking about it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Prize Watch: No historians in the Weston running

The Writers' Trust has announced the shortlist for the Weston Nonfiction prize, and it's not a strong year for historians, let's say.

Nominee are Ivan Coyote for Tomboy Survival Guide (Arsenal Pulp Press), Kyo Maclear for Birds Art Life (Doubleday Canada), James Maskalyk for Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine (Doubleday Canada), Carol Off for All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others (Random House Canada), and Tanya Talaga for Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press).

Strong this year are memoir (Coyote on a gender-fluid upbringing, Maclear on, well, what the title says, and Maskalyk on medical practice) and journalism (Off on her relations with an Afghan family, Talaga on the troubling deaths of indigenous youth in Thunder Bay).  I can think of at least a couple of big strong history titles with literary grace and cultural heft that might have been worthy of consideration, but that's for another prize-giving, I guess  I've read none of the Weston noms, but it testifies to interesting nonfiction writing going on.  Winner November 14th.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Great Depression, 144 years ago yesterday

In Canadian history, there's this thing called the crash of 1873 -- an economic depression that started elsewhere but created conditions in which the Canadian economy stagnated for five years, the Pacific railway project languished, and the new Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie was doomed to a single term.

In a lot of Canadian history, it's a kind of random intervention, like a hurricane or a drought, mentioned for its local impact but rarely explained or analyzed. So the summary explanation of its causes and consequences at Lawyers, Guns, and Money is a worth-reading.

Monday, September 18, 2017

History of income tax again

Who says anniversaries don't matter?  The centenary of the introduction of federal income tax in Canada seems to be disproving that. Today Active History launches a five-part series on income tax history with a lively piece by David Tough arguing, more or less, that everything you know about income tax is wrong.
It wasn’t a temporary tax, and no, it wasn’t introduced to pay for the First World War...
More to the point, income taxation wasn’t brought in by an overzealous government using the war as a pretext for a money grab.
Tough's book on the subject is promised for 2018. This year we already have E.A Heaman's Tax, Order and Good Government, on pre-income tax public revenues in Canada, and Shirley Tillotson's Give and Takeon income tax 1917-1967. All three scholars insist on a fundamentally political analysis of income (and other) taxes.  Tough emphasizes the farmer and labour insistance on "conscripting wealth" through income tax, and Tillotson considers the two-way relationship that developed between taxation and representation.

Both the history of taxation and the political history of the country look to being usefully reshaped by this scholarly flurry of responses to the anniversary.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Parliamentary notes from Australia and New Zealand

Australia is presently in the midst of a "postal survey" on whether Australia should allow same-sex marriage. All the usual horribleness that attends referendums (on anything) is coming out, even though the government found itself unable to have a binding referendum and the multi-million dollar survey is only "advisory." Parliament will still be able to do whatever it wants.

Most of the commentary I've seen from Australian sources seems to be mostly making cases for the  "Yes" or for the "No." The notion that it is crazy to put fundamental rights to a popular vote does not seem to have very much traction there.

It is evidence, I think, of how much the Charter has influenced perceptions in Canada. Because of the Charter, same sex marriage here was a rights question, determined by the courts, not by a popular vote. It could be argued, I think, that, even without a rights charter, the right to marry in Canada could have been put to the courts on a traditional common-law basis, requiring an interpretation of the meaning of the marriage clauses of the constitution.  But surely there would be a powerful kickback, politically as well as legally, if a government proposed a referendum on whether or not some minority should have rights or not. (I know, B.C. more or less tried that on aboriginal rights in the early 2000s -- but there was protest, and aboriginal rights law was going to prevail anyway.)

Long suffering followers of this blog will know I'm a parliamentary guy; I wish our legislatures worked better and did more. But on rights questions, I'm glad Canadians have rights, not referendums. In Australia, which does not have an equivalent of our Charter, marriage rights seem to be accepted as being a political question rather than one to be litigated.  Court challenges changed the process for the survey, but could not prevent it. The fundamental question about putting rights to a vote just doesn't get raised much, the coverage I've seen suggests. Polls suggest there is popular support for marriage equality, apparently, but it's hard to predict who will actually vote in a voluntary, non-binding postal survey. A fair amount of populist and Christianist nastiness seems to be emerging as the voting period continues.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, a new leader for the opposition Labour Party has transformed that country's politics, suddenly giving Labour a shot at winning the current election after years out of power.

The new leader, young and female, was selected just weeks ago by the Labour Party parliamentary caucus -- it took about an hour. She's not the kind of candidate who usually prevails in Canadian-type leadership contests.  But it seems the party caucus members, with their seats at stake, had a clear idea of who the party needed and made the right choice at precisely the right moment.

It really ought to make Canadians wonder about the limitless stupidity of these endless vote-buying leaderpaloozas that have recently kept first the Conservatives and now the NDP pretty much out of political contention for more than a year, that cost fortunes, that are of dubious legitimacy -- and generally pick the wrong person at the wrong time, anyway. Canadians are as much in a bubble about leadership processes as the Australians are about about the politicization of fundamental rights.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

History of Canadian art... since time immemorial

A special show in conjunction with the opening of the National Gallery of Canada's new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, from Time Immemorial to 1867, just ended in Ottawa. But the newly reorganized permanent exhibition remains.  I'm kinda loving that "salon" presentation, with scores of works mixed together against a colorful wall. (The Art Gallery of Ontario's 19th century Canadian collection uses a similar presentation).

I recently came across an account by the American science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson of a visit to a conference in Ottawa in the 1980s, during which he took in the National Gallery,
[I] went to the Europe floor and was really unimpressed. I was in the elevator leaving the building, thinking Poor Canada, so culturally deprived, they have even managed to acquire five bad van Goghs, maybe the five worst van Goghs of all -- when the elevator doors opened on the Canadian floor, revealing several giant canvases of the Group of Seven. I got out there and had one of the most visually stunning hours of my life.  I learned that Canada does not need van Goghs. 
And that was before the "new" National Gallery opened in 1988. I've had an experience like that with the National Gallery's Canadian spaces too -- some pretty terrific stuff there. This exhibit in which indigenous art is made central, women artists get their due, there is more photographic art, and new ideas in layout and presentation are attempted, sounds even better.

Hmm, who is gonna send a writer to Ottawa sometime soon?  

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why Canadian journalism is so boring

Some years ago the organization called PWAC, the Periodical Writers of Canada, changed its name to the Professional Writers of Canada. PWAC still had members, and they still needed advocacy and services.  It was just that few of them wrote for periodicals anymore. There were barely any periodical left, and the Canadian ones that survived paid such trivial fees that it was hardly worth any professional's time. Most of PWAC's members did technical writing, or manuals, or speechwriting, or other specialty work. (The decline of payment for periodical writing is acute in Canada, but it's a global phenomena. Judith Timson lamenting the recent murder of international freelance journalist Kim Wall, who was apparently killed by a source she was profiling, notes in passing that Wall's typical fee might have been $350.)

The Walrus, more or less Canada's leading general-interest magazine these days, has just published a review of Kathleen Winter's new novel, Lost in September, which is either about James Wolfe or about some modern characters obsessed with him. But the point is not Winter's novel, the point is what this review it has published says about consequences of the vanishing of the professional periodical writer in Canada.

The reviewer starts by emphasizing her ignorance of James Wolfe and his doings, and goes on to demonstrate an equivalent lack of knowledge of the Canadian historical novel. Nationally and internationally known works by Margaret Atwood, Douglas Glover, Wayne Johnston, Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje, Audrey Thomas, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaege, Moyez Vassangi, Richard Wagamese, and many more have made the novel reflecting on Canadian history one of the major genres of Canadian fiction. Even complaints -- Russell Smith's come to mind -- about the fictional community's over-reliance on the historical novel in recent decades give evidence of its centrality.

But this reviewer doesn't engage with Canadian literature any more than with Canadian history. She declares that "Canadians aren't convinced that we are exceptional. We aren't romantics. We don't have many capital H heroes." She speculates only jealously or greed would start anyone working on a novel in which James Wolfe or anyone else connected to Canada would figure. After all, case closed,  "Canadian history is boring.  It just doesn't live in the way the histories of other countries do."

There's the Walrus problem.  Since we don't support professional periodical writers and critics any more, it has to rely on what it can get from writers like this one, described as a "Los Angeles based critic and journalist."  And journalists who don't know anything about Canadian history and Canadian literature -- and given the prevailing rates, cannot afford to acquire any knowledge -- end up regurgitating for us the most boring trope of Canadian journalism, the endlessly recycled one we read and hear in every periodical and newpaper and radio program ever:  "We don't know anything about Canadian history, and we don't need to, even to write about it, because, hey, it's boring anyway."

Read it and snore.  And carry on.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Me talk history

  • Wednesday afternoon, September 27, at Osgoode Hall in downtown Toronto, I'll be part of a Law Society of Upper Canada Canada 150 discussion "highlighting the role of lawyers in making the constitution and in the development of the inclusive society we are committed to building," along with historians and lawyers Eric Adams, Mary Eberts, Hamar Foster, Philip Girard, Constance Backhouse, Laurel Sefton McDowell, Jim Phillips, The Hon Robert Sharpe, and Barrington Walker. Registration details are here. (It's a ticketed event, but no charge, and will also be webcast).

  • Wednesday evening, October 18, (Update: "No, no,no, that's Thursday the 19th."  "Ooops, right. Sheesh. Thanks AW!") with the sponsorship of the North York Historical Society and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, I will be presenting "William McDougall: Dreams and Disappointments of a Confederation-Era Politician" at the North York Civic Centre, 5100 Yonge Street. This is another no-charge ticketed event, with details and ticketing via Eventbrite.

  • On a yet to be confirmed Thursday in November, I will be presenting this year's W.L. Morton Lecture in Canadian History at Trent University in Peterborough: "A Living Tree: Canada's Constitution at 150". Details to come closer to the date.
I'm also addressing the AGM of the Ontario Genealogical Society later in November, but we'll get to that. I'd be happy to see friends of this blog at all or any of these.  

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

History of the Ken Burns Effect

You know that technique you see in every historical documentary, with the camera slowly panning across a historical photograph (or painting) to create the illusion of movement? Is that just something that would obviously be used, or was it invented, something with a first example to be cited?  

In "Dawson City: Frozen Time," the recent documentary based on the cache of silent movies found there in the 1970s -- it's playing this month at Hot Docs in Toronto, and no doubt elsewhere too --the claim is made that the original use of the pan-and-zoom technique with still photographs was by National Film Board of Canada stalwarts Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter, in the Oscar-nominated 1957 documentary City of Gold, written and presented by Pierre Berton.

It seemed somehow implausible that something that seems so obvious actually had to be invented.  But the current New Yorker has a profile of the American documentarian Ken Burns, who made the technique his own in his hugely influential Civil War series for PBS in 1990. -- to such an extent that the method is now named for him.  Burns specifically credits "City of Gold" for showing him the possibilities.
He recalled two documentaries that had inspired him. One, a portrait of Gertrude Stein, by Perry Miller Adato, from 1970, used actors, reading quotations, alongside a narrator. The other was “City of Gold,” a Canadian short from 1957: the camera moved across archival photographs of the Klondike gold rush of the eighteen-nineties, and transitioned, almost imperceptibly, to near-motionless contemporary footage. On his first viewing, Burns said to himself, “Oh, I know where to go with that.” He spent much of his twenties and thirties in photography archives, with a camera pointed at photos attached, with magnets, to an easel. (He could pan and tilt, but zooms were too unsteady. These had to be done by a specialist, expensively, at an animation table, frame by frame.) Burns wasn’t alone in treating photographs this way—one thinks of the opening titles for “Cheers”—but the technique came to be associated with his work, and was later named for him. In 2002, Steve Jobs invited Burns to visit Apple, and demonstrated a new iMovie feature that engineers were calling the Ken Burns Effect. Jobs asked if Apple could keep the name, and Burns agreed, as long as the company supplied equipment to some nonprofit groups and to his own office. The two men became friends.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

History of literary historicism

Without knowing much about the school of literary criticism known as "New Historicism," I always kinda liked the idea that it stood for understanding literary works, not as pure eternal works standing free of time and context, but as being embedded in a time and place. How could a historian not like that, even though it was clear that New Historicism had large literary-critical ambitions and its aspiration was never to kowtow to us historians by reducing literary criticism into a subfield of history.

When I read Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World some years ago, I thought it was what New Historicism should be aiming for: a literary scholar steeped in Shakespeare's plays reading deeply into the evidence of Shakespeare's times and what they suggested about the man, and then thinking about the plays in the context of both man and times. It worked for me, and that it was enormously conjectural and speculative about Shakespeare's biography did not much bother me: the author was a literary scholar, not a historian. It seemed okay to me that students of literature should let their imaginations run free, even though (history being as complex as it is) it was most unlikely that any large proportion of his historical and biographical conjectures would be precisely correct should the evidence to test them ever come to light. The author's evident passion for his subject, and for literature, and for writing and thinking vigorously and well about literature -- they all kind of disarmed me.

All this is by was of introduction to a review of Stephen Greenblatt in a conservative American magazine called New Criterion. The whole essay can be read simply as a fine example as the review article as furious diatribe. Bruce Bawer does not just disagree with Greenblatt. Actually, he holds him responsible for:the long, slow destruction of the serious study of literature in the American academy.
Few people, if any, have played as significant a role in this process as he has—and few have profited from it as much, either professionally or financially.
Bawer blames him for the  existence, no less, of the whole field of Cultural Studies:
The typical practitioner of Cultural Studies combines a breathtaking cultural and historical illiteracy with a tendency to lean on pseudo-radical tropes about Western imperialism and so forth. In sum, it’s an intellectual and scholarly disaster. And its spiritual father is Stephen Greenblatt.
Bawer says Greenblatt's new book, about Adam and Eve in literature, feels:
like a gratuitous contrivance, a mishmash of second- and third-hand material that doesn’t seem to add up to anything particularly coherent or compelling.  ,,, [It will] affirm yet again his position at the forefront of the very institution, the academic humanities, for whose ongoing demise no one on the planet is more responsible than he.
There is way too much personal abuse in the review, which denounces Greenblatt as a cynic, a fraud, and a willing liar who will write anything just for the money, That strikes me as absurd as well as nasty. Surely any serious reader can see that Greenblatt loves his subject and writes for the pure pleasure of it. And any serious observer of modern academic culture knows that as longtime holder of an endowed chair at Harvard, he would hardly need the money anyway.

I do rather agree, however, with the contention that Greenblatt's speculations constantly go way beyond what the evidence will sustain. Maybe it's just that I don't think of him as a historian, and therefore don't mind that much, in the same way that I don't expect historical movies or historical novels to meet historical standards.
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