Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Adam Gopnik and Canadian history


At first I was entertained and amused at Adam Gopnik's "We Could Have Been Canada" in the New Yorker of May 15. The election of Donald Trump, maybe, has left Gopnik thinking that that whole American Revolution was a mistake, a surrender to extremism that continues to mark American life. Maybe things would be better, he reflects, if Americans had taken to the slower progressive amelioration that he associates with .... Canada. "We could have ended up with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near continent-wide Canada."

The essay is full of Gopnik's characteristic cleverness and erudition. And of course an argument that maybe Canada came out better is going to be pleasant reading for us Canadians, and students of say, Loyalism, and scholarly admirers of the parliamentary tradition, and....  It's becomes even better when furious American patriots declare him disloyal if not treasonous, as here at History News Network.)

But Gopnik's essay goes deeper than a single facile observation to the effect that sometimes moderation is no vice. A writer in Adam Gopnik's thrall once described to me what he liked about Goknik's nonfiction:  
He is just: take a text, take another text, take a third text, and then think about them, and then write with such clarity. He did one on the Mormons. Talk about a minefield, but he just danced among them, just to make sure we all understood how complicated this issue was and how fairly he was going to treat it.
Gopnik is surely layering texts in this piece. He devotes a couple of pages of the New Yorker's precious real estate to Justin du Rivage and Revolution against Empire, a recent Yale history Ph.D turned book (I'd never heard of) in which du Rivage argues there was, not a purely "American" revolution, but an international struggle of "authoritarian reformers" and radical whigs. The American revolutionaries, he argues, were a local variant of the radical whigs, but in many ways the "authoritarian reformers" built better outcomes in the long run.  Empires are not the only evil, Gopnik writes. He jokes that when the taxation of trade routes in the empire is the problem, a Senator Palpatine may be more useful than a Han Solo.)

While mulling over du Rivage's argument, Gopnik also notes Alan Taylor's recent Revolutions (okay, heard of that one), and its argument that, once removed from the protection of empire, the new United States became easy prey to, e.g., the Barbary Pirates, and had to develop the now familiar American militarization, in a way Canada did not.

He takes up Holger Hoogk's Scars of Independence (new to me), which is mostly about the sheer violence of the American Revolution. Gopnik draws the lesson: war creates atrocity, atrocity firms up hatred, hatred fuels extremism, fear leads to the dark side. He notes that John Wilkes was a British radical whig who became an American hero and the namesake of John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln. "Those who say, 'Thus always to tyrants,' can say it only when they shoot somebody," he observes.

Gopnik is willing to acknowledge contrary evidence, too, such as Jonathan Israel's case in The Expanding Blaze (unknown to me, but Gopnik says it is forthcoming, so...) that the American Revolution actually fuelled the movement to abolish slavery. But he is dubious. The authoritarian radicals building a more modern efficient empire abolished slavery much faster and more effectively than the heirs of the American Revolution did.

I'm left, not just with the boost to the Canada ego, or even with the skill and seeming ease with which Gopnik manoeuvres through a lot of big ideas. What also strikes me is all the big ideas he has to work with!  Big ideas that seem to flow endlessly from big, recent historical monographs of the American academic historical factories. Would that we had a few more Canadianists operating at a similar level! Gopnik may be admiring Canada and what he sees as its happy evolution from under the sway of the authoritarian radicals. (I can see the CHA papers already: they were racists, they were patriarchal, they were elites.)

But Gopnik is not citing any Canadian historians, any Canadian texts at all, as he leaps, as he dances.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Local blogger speaks out



Just to say, I'm speaking at 6.30 this evening at the Deer Park Public Library (Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto) on the subject of: Ten Events in Canadian Legal History Everyone should Know.  The topic is a little outside my wheelhouse, but it's been fun putting it together, and I for one am looking forward to it.

Rivers and Streams, Calder, Roncarelli, Oakes, the Persons Case, Gray (Who?),....  We got 'em all, and we will get to at least some of them, time permitting.

Image:  Daniel Rotzstain's Deer Park Library sketch from his admirable project to draw every public library in Toronto for the site allthelibraries.ca and the book All the Libraries Toronto, published by Dundurn. (I think we will be in the room on the second floor at the right.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Short history of everything


"History of the entire world, I guess" goes from a bit before the big bang (so much more than the entire world, therefore) to tomorrow, in less than twenty minutes. I was amused, and I get usually bored with three-minute Youtubes.

Canadians, Canada gets... about one blink of an eye, and an image of a beaver.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Michael Bliss 1941-2017 RIP



I was at a Canada's History event yesterday when someone told me Michael Bliss had died.

I telephoned Michael Bliss cold many years ago, wanting to interview him for a radio program I was making.  He instantly knew who I was, and had read my (then only) book -- not always my experience with professors! And he was quite willing to be interviewed.

When we wrapped up the interview some time later, he told me I ought to be writing for The Beaver. He was on an advisory board there. He introduced me to its editor Chris Dafoe -- and I've been writing for magazine, now Canada's History, ever since. (Many years later, I profiled Bliss himself there.)

He was not the most popular historian among his fellow academics, I suspect.  There was a driven coldness about him sometimes.  His political positions were not mainstream, and he often did not hide his scepticism about the state of the whole academic enterprise. That was not a problem for me, and we were good, if distant, friends more or less continuously. (I had not known he was ill.)

One little thing I found admirable. He retired from the university as soon as he turned 65, and he mostly retired from public commentary at the same time. He didn't have to, he just chose to -- which is why you have seen much less of him in the last decade.  Now I'm about the age he packed it in, this stays in my mind. I'll miss him.

Photo: Toronto Star  (The insecurities of a seemingly confident man: In his 2011 memoir Writing History a Professor's Life, he says he assumed -- a little gracelessly? -- that he was not the kind of person to whom they would ever give the Order of Canada, and then confesses his pleasure and gratitude when they did -- and later promoted him in the order)




Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book Notes, Ray, Russell & Heaman


Political histories past, present, and future, and worth a look:

Missed by me in early April, the Canada Prize of the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences was awarded to Arthur J. Ray, for last year's Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Unmaking of History, a global study of how colonial societies and indigenous societies have negotiated and litigated issues of territory, published by McGill-Queen's.From the blog of the Federation:
As a historian specializing in Aboriginal rights and history, Arthur J. Ray has often been called as an expert witness in court proceedings involving Aboriginal land claims.

After decades of research, and many appearances in court, Ray found himself wondering whether the adversarial legal arena was the best forum for settling Aboriginal rights issues. Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate these things instead?

In a new book that examines how native peoples’ rights are handled in five countries, Ray concludes that there’s no single, direct path to Aboriginal rights. What seems to work best, he says, is a mix of litigation and negotiation – tempered by an awareness on the part of everyone concerned that different groups can have very different perspectives on the same event.
Recently out from U of T Press, Peter Russell's Canadian Odyssey: A Country Built on Incomplete Conquests, (currently available with a substantial online discount).

Promised for June from McGill-Queen's:Tax, Order and Good Government, Elsbeth Heaman's big history of the politics of Canadian taxation

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

This month at Canada's History


Gotta say, the June-July issue of Canada's History, now beginning to reach subscribers, looks like a much stronger treatment of Canada at 150 than anything promised in the program of the Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting, soon to begin at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto.(draft program here) Livelier illustrations too!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Appropriation of voice ... not just for fiction writers


Much of the furor over appropriation of voice seems to be addressed to novelists.("Oh god, will they be forbidden to make up a story about something?")  Maybe it's just where my own interests lie, but it seems to me the issue is at least as important in non-fiction, and journalism, and yes, history.

The other day Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was "warning fly-in First Nations in Northern Ontario they must quickly agree on the construction of a road into their region."  Ontario has plans for a mega-zillion dollar mining development in that area, and Wynne was warning that if First Nations don't quickly say "Yes, ma'am, thank you, ma'am," the province would just go ahead unilaterally, dealing with specific reserve communities that are willing (under the duress of poverty and dispossession, no doubt) to give the province a free hand.

Appropriation of voice?  As I read the news reports on this story, I was struck by the ignorance and complacency coming, not just from the government, but from the news reporters. There probably was not a single indigenous reporter (at least for a major news outlet) at the press conferences on this topic.  And I'm struck by the ease with which those who write the news stories accept the government position that these Northern Ontario lands and resources belong entirely to Ontario, and any consideration being given to the First Nations there is strictly a matter of charity and do-gooderism.

The idea of reporting both sides just does not seem to occur.  The premier and the journalists covering her -- and the readers of most Canadian media -- simply do not hear the extremely well-founded case of the First Nations that they do hold title in that land and its resources, do have a right to veto the mining development if they choose, and certainly do have every right to influence the time-table for decisions about it. That voice has been appropriated by the ignorant complacency of the Canadian mainstream.

As historians, we mostly write about people who are dead.  It is part of the burden of historical practice to be aware that our subjects will never get a chance to call us out on the stupid and ignorant things we may say about them sometimes. But when I used to write quite a bit about New France, I used to say I felt pretty free to discuss francophone culture in Canada without claiming to be part of that culture. Because, you know, there were lots of terrific francophone historians of New France.  And they would be quite prepared to call me out on my ignorant stupidities (and might even be willing sometimes to be schooled by outsider perspectives of people like me)

It's more fraught to write about First Nations matters, because Canadian culture does still write about indigenous people as if they were a dead and voiceless culture. Every time you read a journalist defending his or her intellectual freedom to write stupid shit about things they don't understand (see the example above), you are getting a crash course in appropriation of voice.

There are and have been terrific mainstream historians and anthropologists writing sensitively and conscientiously about First Nations matters for quite a while. I don't want them to stop. But the number and range of indigenous writers finding publication and audience is still a problem. We would have been political discussion and better history if the balance were redressed.

Meanwhile, to hear leading voices in Canadian culture and journalism celebrating the imbalance --- as their sacred right! --  jeez.

Update, 18 May:  Daniel Francis reminds us he wrote the book 25 years ago about the writers who want to give each other prizes for cultural appropriation.  It's called The Imaginary Indian.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Historians and Voice


We are historians. Most of the people we write about are dead. No matter how unfairly we may treat them, or how completely we misunderstand them, or fit their precious lives into our own purposes, or trivialize their deepest concerns in favour of our own, they are not going to come back at us. It's the historian's responsibility to remember that.

For a long time historians could write about the indigenous peoples of North America as if they were dead. They were not going to come back at us. Mostly they did not have access to publication, and they were not going to be heard. That is changing.

Controversies about appropriation of voice, no matter how much they are reframed as free-speech issues by those unwilling to listen, are mostly about that. Who get to be heard, and how should one write of another cultures when that culture's own voice is barely audible?

The controversy flared recently around the Writers’ Union of Canada and its magazine Write. It lives, rather less publicly, in historical academia too. In a review of Kenneth Coates's #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada, Karen McCallum of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, UK, writes:
I don’t think he should have written the book. I think that the opportunity should have been given to an Indigenous scholar with background knowledge of the topic area. Had this happened, I think that the book would have been better– more analytically nuanced and more useful to scholars interested in the movement. I am concerned that Coates has taken up too much space in publishing this book.
She observes that publishers have brought out relatively little by indigenous writers about Idle No More, an entirely indigenous movement, and that in this case a mainstream publisher who wanted a book on the topic approached a non-indigenous author.

McCallum's position is not universally held, Angela Semple of the Ktunaxa First Nation, reviewing three related titles, respects Coates' work. She writes extensively about positionality in scholarship about indigenous matters, and on Idle No More she too prefers “inside” indigenous works, such as the anthology The Winter We Danced. But she finds Coates work both respectful and useful.
Ken Coates provides us with a perfect example of the kind of self-reflexivity that I would call responsible and respectful scholarship. At various times throughout his book ..., Coates identifies himself as non-Indigenous, for example: "As a non-Aboriginal man who watched from the sidelines and did not participate in any of the organized activities or demonstrations associated with Idle No More, I am, in many ways, far removed from the centre of the movement."
For Semple, "This is an important book for allies." 

This situation, where the authority to write depends on the willingness to listen, sounds like the future -- the present really, for those who listen.  The subject has been alive at The Writers' Union for a quarter century. It's going to take hold in academia too.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Historians in court


Chronicle of Higher Education's Neil Gluckman writes about historians and the amicus brief, in which historians, as "friends of the court," file briefs interpreting the historical background of issues in dispute.

There's a literature about the horrors of being an historical expert witness, as in Arthur Ray's Taking It To the Judge, about testifying in land and treaty cases involving First Nations.  In Canada, as I understand matters, historians as expert witnesses are most often retained by one side or the other. They can only be independent "friends of the court" if requested by a judge to advise.  In the United States, if I am understanding this correctly, historians have more freedom to put themselves foreward as independent intervenors in legal disputes.  Evidently it is historians who also have legal credentials (there seem to be more of those than you might think) who find the amicus role particularly appealing.

Gluckman notes that the rise of the legal theory called originalism (mostly, little more than Republican policy made into legal judgments) in the United States, some historians have grown more concerned about seeming to endorse the idea that past legal determinations must determine present-day ones. Historian-journalist Jill Lepore recently took up this issue in the New Yorker  But some historians think if they don't present good history, judges will go ahead with bad history anyway

Monday, May 08, 2017

Notes from all over


La politique americaine
(Image:  LGM)

1.  French and American politics, explained:

See, Marine Le Pen drew the support of dispossessed and marginalized French voters who had always thought themselves entitled to a share, and who concluded only Le Pen cared about their concerns. Everyone else was for Macron, and so Le Pen never had a winning coalition.

Donald Trump drew the support of dispossessed and marginalized American voters who had always thought themselves entitled to a share, and who concluded only Trump cared about their concerns. But Trump also drew the support of prosperous, privileged, established Americans, who knew Trump really cared about their concern. (See image above.) Now that was a winning coalition.

Oddity: The French polls closed at 8 pm local time. A split second later, a precise estimation of the results, complete with details on the turn-out and the number of blank and spoiled ballots, appeared on the TV screens.  Meanwhile the Americans still are not sure about all those hanging-chad votes in the presidential election sixteen years ago.

Meanwhile, Daniel Francis sorts out a little British Columbia political history.

2.  Malcolm Gladwell on the writing process:
As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think you can write a good book in two years.... Most of us can’t write books that quickly, and we need to be a little bit more tortoise-y and a little less hare-ish.
The problem is that the world wants you to be a hare. Your publisher says I want it now, you’re under pressure, you have a one-year sabbatical where you try to cram and finish, you’ve got a teaching load, etc.
But one thing that almost all of the professional writers I know do is write drafts and then put the book in a drawer for six months. Then they come back to it, turn themselves into tortoises, force themselves to slow down. That, in a sense, harms the system in that amount of output is lowered. But I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.
Gladwell is so fluently persuasive you need to say, hmm, is this true?  I've never put a manuscript in a drawer for six months. Course, I've not much had the luxury too, either.

Update, May 10:  Prolific writer and historian Allan Levine comments:
I whole-heartedly agree with the comments you posted by Malcolm Gladwell that most books, especially non-fiction books, require more than two years to produce and much more reflection and research. But only someone whose three books have sold an estimated six million (“The Tipping Point” sold about 2.5 million copies alone) can afford to reflect and be “more tortoise-y and a little less hare-ish!” The rest of us have to keep writing books. In Canada, especially, being a writer and a hare are usually synonymous.
3.  Christopher Dummitt's study of Mackenzie King, his oddities, and our reactions, reviewed in the new Literary Review of Canada by Charlotte Gray:
Dummitt, a professor of history at Trent University, has done more than indulge any voyeuristic tendencies in this lively book. Instead of asking what light King’s weirdness throws on Canada, he explores what Canadian reactions to the King story say about our expectations of political leaders. In other words, this is not just about King; it is about us. And although Dummitt is also making a sophisticated argument about the importance of narrative history, he has done it with punchy elegance rather than impenetrable jargon.
 
Follow @CmedMoore