Friday, July 03, 2020

Histories of technology: the rape kit and the New York Times

An extraordinary piece of reportage by the New York Times technology writer Pagan Kennedy:  how the rape kit was invented, and who got credit, and how it came to be used.

I took out a digital subscription to the Times when the pandemic started, feeling that we were gonna want all the news we could get, and not feeling too confident these days in either CBC News or the rapidly dwindling Canadian newspapers.

The rape kit story is about how technology is never neutral. The Times these days is a tech story in itself.  I read the Times on a computer screen or an iPad, and the way that newspaper is using digital technology to expand far beyond the possibilities of the printed page has been a revelation.  This story -- with images and graphics going way beyond a mere photo at the top of the column is an example.  But the Times can also do graphs that grow and move through time, with images of where Covid is and has been that no print medium can match.  Or close analysis of events through video clips in ways that do not exist either on TV or in print.  Mind you, it probably does not work half as well on a phone, either.

These innovations suggest "newspapers" have a future, even if the best parts of the future ain't goin to be available on "paper."  Sadly, the Times seems to be the only paper, old media or new media, really taking advantage of the technological opportunity to make a newspaper a whole new form of information medium. Maybe it's the only one that can
afford to -- which means once again tech seems mostly to concentrate power and influence in fewer hands, not more.

The July 3 holiday you might have missed

Between Canada Day and American Independence Day, did you know about the July third events? It's... the 150th anniversary of the birth of R.B. Bennett.  In Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, they are making a day of it for the ex-prime minister, suitably distanced.

Have a drink. (He was mostly tee-total.)

Image:  Mr Bennett holds a cabinet meeting by Arch Dale.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Pandemic in the streets: history of Covid-19, history of Vancouver

This beautiful 5 minute film from the National Film Board is a document of what the pandemic and lockdown did to our communities this spring. It's also a moving tribute to the beauties of a momentarily unpeopled Vancouver.  Enjoy.

Friday, June 26, 2020

History of Trudeaus on hostage negotiation

This morning, the Globe and Mail editorialists, the Toronto Star editorialists, and all the opinion writers at the National Post take the same editorial position: they stand with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau against the 19 politicians, jurists, ambassadors, and journalists who urge surrendering to China on the "two Michaels" issue.

Some years ago, journalist and historian Andrew Cohen noted Pierre Trudeau's position on dealing with hostage takers: 
In Beyond Reason, her memoir, Margaret Trudeau recalls a harrowing conversation with her new husband in March 1971. If she or a baby of theirs were kidnapped, he warned, there would be no deal.
Pierre: “Do you understand that?”
Margaret: “No, I don’t. I can’t. You mean you would let them kill me, rather than agree to terms?”
Pierre: “Yes. Yes. I would.”
He explained that as prime minister, he had to put the country first. He could not give in to fanatics: “Once you do that, you’re lost.”
Justin Trudeau was not yet born, but on this he seems to have imbibed his father's principles early. 

Sympathy to Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig, and their families, but the Trudeaus are right on this one. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Is Lionel-Groulx going down?

Lionel Groulx must be the only historian in Canada to have a subway station named after him. I've never heard any suggestions that Toronto might one day have a Creighton station, or an Innis, or a Berton....

Now there is a petition circulating in Montreal to change the name of the Lionel-Groulx metro station to honour Oscar Peterson -- and through him the cultural diversity of the Petite-Bourgogne neighbourhood.  It is noted that Groulx, who also has a college and a major historical prize named from him, indulged in anti-semitic clich├ęs, but the cultural diversity argument seems to be top of mind.

  I see this was also a live issue a dozen years ago -- and we covered it then too.  There's a website that explores Montreal history by Metro station name, if you are interested.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

History of the Trump presidency

(I know, this is the one site you can rely on not to have American political commentary ad nauseum. Bear with me: this will not become a habit)

One of the hallmarks of the Trump presidency has been the extraordinary loyalty of the 40-45% of the American electorate that has been the Trump "base."  You know: "I could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue, and...."

When John Bolton's memoir was all over the news recently, I was thinking, Okay, it is nice to have more evidence that the ship is sinking. But the rats are still rats.

On the other hand, the failure of the president's Tulsa rally last weekend -- which seemed a perfect opportunity for the base to perform its unconditional loyalty -- does make it seem a larger phenomenon may be at hand.  Even the base may want out.

Apparently in Ponzi schemes, there are always some investors who understand the whole thing is crooked and a fraud, but who are confident that they can get in and cash out before the inevitable collapse catches the real suckers. Tulsa seemed like those people running for the exits.

Even before the pandemic, I had been thinking the Democratic Party only needed one campaign slogan this year: "The Republicans: they want you to die." Below the headline of each ad, one example would follow in smaller print: the healthcare example, or the inequality example, or the climate change example, or the race example, or the policing and incarceration example. And now of course, the Covid example.

Where they are now, the ads wouldn't even need to include examples. The slogan explains itself. Hashtag #therepublicanstheywantyoutodie

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

History of Pride without the Parade

But ArQuives goes on
In Toronto at the end of June, you don't have to be gay to be part of Pride -- it's just around. Except this year, without the big parade and the other events the media usually cover, it just ain't, not to anything like its usual.

So here's a moment to salute ArQuives (formerly the Canadian Lesbian Gay Archives) in Toronto. Its website is a testimony to all it has collected and compiled since 1973, and this article reports on on what it is doing these days, and particularly how it has grown beyond its male white gay roots, transphobia, and racial bias.
Just as with similar LGBTQ archives elsewhere in Canada and in the U.S, the stories of white, cisgender gay men and lesbians were overwhelmingly dominant, with trans and queer Black, Indigenous and people of colour histories barely accounted for. [....]

Many of these archives were founded by white gay activists in the early ’70s and, as much as the reckoning was already underway, there is a new-found urgency to current efforts to continue to acknowledge their contributions, while also directly grappling with the problematic challenges posed by their legacies.
Elsewhere in the archival community, the current issue of Archivaria features historian Elspeth Brown's analysis of the evolution of LGBTQ2+ archival work. Plus an essay on  "the archives as community classroom," focussed on Montreal's Negro Community Centre collection and how it became a centre for Montreal's black community from 1927 to 1992. And more

Image: from ArQuives 

Monday, June 22, 2020

History of politics as mob rule

The Conservative party leadership campaign (yeah, that's still on) now faces a request for criminal investigation of one of the leading campaigns. Timely note: one of the charges concerns the stealing of access to Zoom meetings

It's striking how unsurprising this news seems.  The wild-west atmosphere of Canadian leadership contests lends itself to corruption.
  • New rules and processes conjured up by interested parties for each new race. 
  • The buying and selling of votes ("memberships"), a corrupt act in most other kinds of politics, being the basis of the whole contest. 
  • The central roles of  professional "organizers," for whom the rewards of being associated with a winning contest are substantial.
The whole thing is a kind of mob rule, where whichever faction can round up the largest mob, by any means necessary, wins.  It's nice to see one of these things condemned to meaningless and obscurity by the pandemic. But dull as it may be, one of the factions will reap the spoils in the end.  And all the talk of criminal investigations will be swept under the rug.

Friday, June 19, 2020

History: Still not dead yet

American Civil War veterans -- all gone now too

Many of this spring's commemorations of the end of the Second World War and of the D-Day landings were sharply curtailed by the pandemic. It was a shock to hear for the first time of a near-total absence of actual veterans at the observances that did take place. And then Vera Lynn died too. 

Now the terrible Covid-related
 mortality among the elderly survivors from the 1940s, is being equated with the death of ... history itself. Noting the Covid death of one-time Italian partisan Gildo Negri, a NYT reporter quoted one of Negri's colleague [emphasis added]:
The memory is vanishing, and the coronavirus is accelerating this process,” said Rita Magnani, who worked with Mr. Negri, at the local chapter of the National Association of Italian Partisans. “We are losing the people who can tell us in first person what happened. And it’s a shame, because when we lose the historical memory we lose ourselves.”
The Times reporter himself seems to believe that the disease, by killing history itself, is doing the work of neo-fascists.
The virus... has also created an opportunity for rising political forces who seek to recast the history of the last century in order to play a greater role in remaking the present one.
But it's not the deaths of elderly veterans or the Covid epidemic that is spurring neo-right activity. Indeed, there is surely much more Holocaust awareness and anti-fascist activity now than there was in, say, the placid 1950s. 

What is strange here is the odd presumption that when the eyewitnesses die, the history and meaning of the events they witnessed will die with them.

It is sad to see the pandemic hastening the end of the generation that experienced the Second World War and survived the Holocaust. But that is not the vanishing of the history of those times. Because, you know, there are historians. And libraries, and an unimaginably vast trove of evidence of all kinds, and oral histories of practically every veteran and survivor who got within range of a microphone or camera. 

Generations pass away.  History will continue.

Update, same day: Daniel Lee points out that the historical testimony most at risk of being lost is that of "ordinary Nazis," millions of whom were never called to account for, or even asked about, their experiences and activities 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

History of Russell Township: honour to scholars

The better Russell
It has been shown that Peter Russell, the early colonial administrator of Upper Canada and namesake for Russell Township, Ontario, held unacceptable views on slavery. Now there is a search on for another Russell to name the township after.  Et voila, courtesy of William Phillips's letter to the Toronto Star, one I'd vote for:
The Peter Russell that Russell Township should rename itself after is distinguished Canadian author Peter H. Russell, born in 1932 in Toronto.
Russell, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a Rhodes Scholar, who was a member of the federal task force on Comprehensive Land Claims; president of the Canadian Political Science Association, and chair of the research advisory committee for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
He is the author of several books, including “Two Cheers for Minority Government: The Evolution of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy;” “Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?;” and “Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English Settler Colonialism.”
Russell Township could do no better than renaming itself in honour of this outstanding Canadian.

Honours and naming practices are important. But when names like Dundas and Russell and Vaughan were being applied all over Ontario (and Canada: Queen Charlotte, Prince Rupert...), it had little or nothing to do with any particular views they held or did not hold. They were all just generic members of the British ruling classes at a time when colonizers required a nearly endless supply of place name inspirations. Which seems to justify a certain lack of seriousness in discussing the whole matter.

I note there used to be a Moore Township in southwestern Ontario, but it was amalgamated out of existence in 2001. Sic transit gloria mundi. No ancestor of mine was intended.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

History of Killer Tech


The website Gizmodo ("We come from the future") recently asked a bunch of historians of technology (Aww, someone cared what historians think) what technological innovation has "accidentally" caused the most deaths

Their answers range from the slave ship to the mechanical cigarette roller, but most of the historians respond, more or less, "Well, it's complicated." The way they do it suggests that historians always say that because it's mostly always true. The answers are longish, and hard to tally or quantify, but well worth browsing.

An excerpt from a vote for the railroad by the American scholar Blair Stein, with a Canadian example:
In Canada, the “numbered treaties” system of the 1870s extinguished Indigenous claims to the land so the state could build the Canadian Pacific Railway, laying the groundwork for 150 years of fatal structural inequalities. To some historical actors at the time, these deaths may have been “accidents,” inadvertent casualties in the name of technological progress and nation-building. They also may not have been seen as directly caused by rail, but rather an oblique consequence of it. But railroads were part of the machine of empire.
Hat tip to the ever lively Lawyers, Guns, & Money
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