Friday, August 16, 2019

Ged Martin at H-Can


H-Canada, which in the primordial internet once facilitated lively historical discussion, is now mostly just notifications of conferences and publications. But I was grateful recently to be reminded by it of "Martinalia," a section of the website of the (somewhat) retired Professor Ged Martin, noted historian of most of the British empire and particularly Canada. Martinalia is where Martin posts a very diverse range of his writing that never quite got published elsewhere

H-Can's reference is to his historiographical essay on A.R.M. Lower's and Northrop Frye's blinkered (or blinded) visions of a Canada in which French Canada barely registers at all.  This "marginalia" would be a major article for many scholars.  But there is a good deal else in Martinalia, all of which testifies to Martin's careful scholarship and to the global reach of his interests. I might have thought I was the only student of confederation to have dug out a recent edition of Lord Carnarvon's diaries for its confederation material. Martin, however, has read it all where I only dipped, and amassed a truly terrifying list of its errors and shortcomings.
  

Thursday, August 15, 2019

History of ethics in politics


This tries to be a history blog, not a current events commentary. With regard to the Ethics Commissioner report of yesterday, I just want to say:

The unusual thing about this whole SNC-Lavalin contretemps is not that the prime minister and PMO attempted to apply inappropriate pressure upon a minister attempting to do her job.  It's that the minister resisted and pushed back -- the rarest event in Canadian politics, and one not at all encouraged by our political culture. One imagines all the cabinet ministers (of all parties, in all provinces as well as Ottawa) who, when inappropriately pressured by the boss, have said, "Yes, sir, how high?"  And thereby averted a scandal -- or rather prevented us from being scandalized by hearing of it.

The remarkable part of last winter's committee hearings on this matter was seeing the prime minister, the staff advisor, and the head of the civil service all saying (not in so many words, but quite clearly) the same thing: that when the prime minister's office applies presssure, it is never inappropriate. The elected politician, the hired gun, and the apolitical public servant are all steeped in the conventional wisdom of Canadian politics:  a prime ministers and party leaders are a leader, not accountable to those who follow them.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Smith on whiny MPs


Gotta say I kinda love this blast of contempt from Ottawa journalist Dale Smith at self-pitying MPs whining about being bullied by the PMO.  Sure they are, but as he says, it's only because they lie down for it -- until they retire and start working on their self-justifying memoirs.
They don’t have to take the orders from the PMO if they think it’s humiliating or degrading. They don’t have to ask the questions prepared for them by PMO for QP – they can ask their own. The key is that they need their fellow backbenchers to back them up, and behave similarly. If you think the prime minister is going to throw a tantrum and threaten to not sign the nominations of his whole backbench, well, you’d be mistaken. They have this power.
That last italicized sentence is the key. In a parliamentary democracy, prime ministerial (and party-leader) autocracy is an entirely fixable problem, one that can be remedied anytime MPs throw off their learned helplessness. 

I do wish Smith would extent his rant to all the political scientists who share and shore up the political journalists in supporting and enabling leadership autocracy.  What is in it for all of them?

Friday, August 09, 2019

Milligan on digital history reviewed


This month's Literary Review of Canada has a long review (only available to subscribers) by librarian Lisa Betel of Ian Milligan's History in the Age of Abundance: How the Web is Transforming Historical ResearchI profiled Milligan and his work on digital history in Canada's History magazine in April and June of 2018, and it's good to see the full book now in print. 

Betel notes the sheer immensity of data that digital media make available for historical study, and the problems of managing such abundance:
Few if any schools are currently equipping future historians with teh technical skills to run database queries and understand the metadata, and Milligan advocates for a curriculum that includes such instruction.
She notes the ethical (notably privacy) issues -- though I'm not convinced they differ fundamentally from those faced any anyone who writes contemporary history. She also notes that the need for sampling and quantifying in coping with masses of data, noting Milligan's observation that "people are obscured... but still read into the historical record"  -- again, not an unknown problem in quantitative social history, but now perhaps reaching a new scale.  She, and maybe Milligan, comes out rather optimistic:
Milligan believes ... emerging technology will allow us to deal with large data sets, preserve the anonymity of individuals, and still incorporate their perspectives into the record."   
 Also in the current LRC, former Harper cabinet minister Chris Alexander reviews Roy McLaren's Mackenzie King in the Age of Dictators, taking some pleasure in the feet of clay of a Liberal prime minister blind to the perils of fascism. David Breault, reviewing Helaina Gaspard's Canada's Official Languages, notes how in the post-Confederation era, patronage allowed powerful francophone cabinet ministers to stock the senior civil service with fellow francophones, whereas the establishment of the non-partisan Civil Service Commission based its practice on English-Canadian norms, so francophone representation in the public service dropped dramatically.  And more, as they say.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

History in the summer in the city



Toronto had a beautiful August long weekend:  warm but breezy, with none of the all-too-familiar heat/humidity nexus we see too often.  Turned out to be more historical than I expected it to be, lazy as my expectations were.

Saturday we went strolling along the deep green valley of the Humber River, as part of the Walking the 6 West program organized by a consortium of local historical societies.  We just walked along the river for a few kilometres total, and here and there along the way we encountered arts companies performing some brief original presentation -- music, theatre, recitation, singing -- inspired by some or other aspect of the local history: from a dance in honour of long-gone Chinese market gardeners to a playlet about the integration of Syrian refugees nearby.  Hundreds turned out.

Monday we happened to be at Fort York, rather aimless except for a wish to be out in the city, where we encountered a pretty large crowd being entertained by military marching, cannon fire, and Lt-Gov John Graves Simcoe proclaiming.  (In Toronto the holiday is Simcoe Day.)  Fort York is both a pleasant oasis in the city and a reminder to me whenever I'm nearby of how brilliantly it has integrated itself into a densely populated urban neighbourhood.

I know we go on about how Canadians don't know their history.  Actually we are immersed in it way more than we can see.

Update, August 7:  Helen Webberley comments:
There is no need to insist that history is only valid if it is written in text and placed in a gloomy library.

Grad school: cattle pens or open-range


Russ Chamberlayne responds to John Herd Thompson's comparison of American and Canadian graduate school methods as either feeding pens or open range:
I got an MA in American studies ("American Civilization," don't you know) at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in the '70s, and it was very much what Prof. Thompson called a Canadian-style experience. The Am Civ department was quite small, and [...]

I had no mind for the academic courses I had to take, and a grinding writer's block all through the generation of a thesis. Fending for myself was (and is) very much my style, and for better or for worse, the department let me do that. Managed to avoid winter kill, though, and the only wolf I encountered, a nasty thesis advisor I had initially, gave way to a benignly neglectful prof who waited out my completion of the program.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

John Herd Thompson 1946-2019 RIP


John Herd Thompson, a prolific historian of Canada and Canadian-American relations, who seemed to know and be admired by everyone in the Canadian historical community at one time, died recently at 72.  Obituary is here.

I did not know him well, but I interviewed him a number of times, and the interviews tended to turn into conversations.  When he was teaching at McGill, he became one of the founders of the Heritage Minutes, one of a few historians trusted to advise on the minutes. Patrick Watson, their impresario, called him "a real burr in my side who became a good friend." Thompson once described for me the essential challenge of being a historian working with film makers. The director planned an outdoor setting for one Minute.  John explained there was excellent documentation -- it took place indoors, and they even knew what the room looked like. "John," said the director genially, "it was three hundred years ago. No one is going to know!"

John taught at several Canadian universities and also at Duke University in North Carolina.  I can't remember why, but he once began to explain to me the difference between graduate-school education in the United States and Canada. In the United States, he said, it's an industrial process like the beef-cattle industry: highly scheduled, carefully managed, "and it's true they all come out a bit the same, but they do slice well." In Canada, by comparison, "we just set 'em loose on the open range and let them fend for themselves. It's not very efficient. Winter gets some of them, wolves get some. But some of them come through."

I don't think I wrote down his actual words, but I've never forgotten them. Is this true?  It kinda rings true for me, but I don't work with grad schools much. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Summer Blogging: Borealia on Acadia


Even amid the longterm decline or relative decline of blogging as a cultural and intellectual force, summer has tended to be the doldrums for history blogging in general.

A lively exception is currently being created by Borealia's series on Acadian history, where a whole lot of  research is being reported, mostly in advance of formal scholarly publications that may eventually appear.  Kudos to Anne Marie Lane Jonah, Elizabeth Mancke, Stephanie Pettigrew and the others engaged in these original and interdisciplinary collaborations.  I'm still reading them, and there may be more to come.

Update, August 7:  Should note that Acadiensis and Unwritten Histories are also participating in this project

Image:  by Parks Canada/Dusan Kadlic, reproduced from AML Jonah's essay.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Ancient ecological history: rabbits to Britain


From Britain's History Today, a remarkable essay on the changes wrought to Britain's flora and fauna by the incursion of the Romans.
To the occupying Romans, Britain’s food left much to be desired.... The Romans set about expanding the cuisine to suit their tastes, introducing at least 50 new species of plant foods, most originating in the Mediterranean Basin. These included fruits, such as peach, pear, fig, mulberry, sour cherry, plum, damson, date and pomegranate, along with almond, pine nut, sweet chestnut and walnut. They brought vegetables, from cultivated leek and lettuce, to cucumber, rape and possibly turnip, and new varieties of cabbage, carrot, parsnip and asparagus, in addition to the varieties which already grew wild in Britain. Black pepper, coriander, dill, parsley, anise and black cumin brought new seasonings and the oil-rich seeds sesame, hemp and black mustard were also among the arrivals.
Do you get the impression that everything good about Britain comes from the Continent -- and always has?

What the last day of the Tour de France can look like

Once, for his birthday, he picked me up in his jet from Montreal and flew me to Paris.

Just the two of us. We shopped, we dined, and we went to the Crazy Horse. ...
Next day was the final day of the Tour de France, where for the last two laps we had the unbelievable treat of being in the little red Renault that is the lead car, a seat usually reserved for presidents but on this day filled with three very excited men: me, Robin, and Michael J. Fox. It was the most exciting thing I have done with my pants on. The lead riders were eight yards behind us sprinting up the Champs Élysées. We couldn't believe we were that close. We screamed and yelled like ten-year-olds. It was the best seat for any sport ever. As we passed the Louvre and headed down into the tunnel, a hundred riders were pedaling hard behind us for the final bell. As we climbed out of the little red Renault totally exhilarated, Michael J. Fox said, 'We will always have Paris.'
Eric Idle, describing an excursion with Robin Williams, from his recent memoir Always Look on the Bright Side of Life; A Sortabiography. Thanks to Russ Chamberlayne for the quotation.

For the rest of us, well, there is Sportsnet.

I was kinda hoping for one of the French contenders to ride into Paris in yellow this year.  But on the last day in the Alps Thibaut Pinot succumbed to a horrible muscle tear that had him riding hopelessly on in tears for a while.  Then, as widely expected, the miracle lead of unexpected new hope Julien Alaphilippe came to an end in the final mountain stages from a whole series of well-constructed attacks by the strongest teams.

I'm not thrilled to see superteam Ineos (the former Sky) stand one-two on the podium, but it's good to see Egon Bernal, one of the Colombian super-climbers who have come to the tour in recent years, become the first Colombian champion at the age of just 22.  (For North American sports fans, it is striking how many of cycling's superstars do not speak English.)  These guys, born and raised at high altitude, climb like birds.

And props to Canada's new star Michael Woods, who ends something like 35th, and was a standout rider for Team EF throughout his first Tour appearance, and can now be ranked among the top twenty or so climbers in the world, with room to grow.  Also to Hugo Houle, also completing his first tour.

Best tour in years, according to some commentators. Highly competitive up to the last day, for sure.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The referendum threat


I don't know anything of Jesse Tumblin, professor of history at Boston College, but what he says about to what caused Britain's current crisis and the dangerous folly of referring almost anything to referendum makes more sense than almost anything else coming out of Brexit commentary.
[Referendums] invert the accountability of representative democracy by holding voters themselves responsible for the misinformation, deception and manipulation of those elected to lead them. Instead of delivering effective policy and renewed unity, referendums leave voters confused and alienated from one another and their governments. What they reveal most clearly is that the elected representatives who authorize them would prefer not to do their jobs.
This scepticism about referendum politics is something John Ralston Saul has been arguing for years, but it seems to have almost vanished in contemporary political analysis.

I don't follow Tumblin on devolution of power to Scotland and Wales -- a good and useful step even though it has encouraged nationalist spasms that could be managed -- though indeed more referendums on the question are indeed likely to be divisive and manipulative.

All that Tumblin might have added is some attention to the even more fraudulent process by which Boris Johnson became prime minister. The Brits are still quite new to the Canadian-style of selecting party leaders by mass competitive vote-buying. So now it is being observed that barely 0.2 percent (a self-selected 0.2 percent) voted in the "election" that made Johnson prime minister.  In Canada we take those kinds of outcomes for granted, and often call them "democratic."

But in the same way as referendums, mass party leadership votes undermine the legitimacy and function of responsible, accountable parliamentary government. And Canada is the prime evidence for that.

Addenda:  There is a new book by Toronto progressive social activist and political organizer Dave Meslin, who wishes all the best things for Toronto and Canadian democracy -- and seems to proceed to fall into every trap of participatory democracy that Tumblin is warning about.  I haven't finished Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up. On first glance it seems both terrifically well-intended and terrifyingly dangerous.  More to come, I hope.

Hat tip to History News Network, which picked up the Washington Post op-ed

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Tour Stage 18 -- Woods up front


Woods on a rare flat stretch in today's Tour
Today launched what one commentator called three "terrible" days in the Alps. Today the tour climbed three passes in succession, each at elevations of over 2000 metres. Canadian Michael Woods was in the breakaway throughout, distanced by only a handful of the top riders on the last climb and coming in a very respectable seventh overall on the day.

Wpods reminds me more and more of his Canadian predecessor on the same team (then Garmin, now EF), Ryder Hesjedal.  Like Hesjedal he seems to be a doggedly steady climber, able to ride with anyone on the longest steepest hills, but mostly without the power of sudden accelerations that would take him away from the last handful and on to a stage win or overall high placements.   Today a breakaway was permitted to get away, and Woods with it.  In the two remaining mountain stages, however, he's more likely to be supporting his team leader Rigoberto Uran, still placed 9th overall and looking to improve his standing with one or two big days.

Still, good to have a contender to root for.  I'm hoping for several more years of Woods Tours.
 
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