Friday, February 23, 2024

History of digital publishing: from podcasts to audiobooks?

The current Walrus has a profile of the indigenous Canadian broadcaster Connie Walker, who broke out with the very successful CBC podcast "Missing and Murdered," from 2016 and then moved to Spotify for a series called "Stolen," that earned both a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Broadcasting Award in 2023. Spotify subsequently told her she was being cancelled. As the story says, "Walker, whose success represented a beacon of hope for despairing journalists, was now a symbol of the profession’s alarming, inescapable collapse."

There has been a spate of stories about the cancellation of podcasts, particularly the complicated, deeply researched ones in which Walker made her reputation. The pennies that digital advertising brings in doesn't often cover the overheads of that kind of work, it seems, not when there are a million people trying to break into podcasting, some with off-the-top-of-the-head chatty content that makes Top-40 Radio seem like Shakespeare.  Maybe a great retrenchment in podcasting is on the horizon, at least for those that aren't subsidized or feature a celebrity.

Meanwhile, I've been listening to "Miracle and Wonder: Conversations With Paul Simon" by Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam, produced by Gladwell's podcasting enterprise Pushkin Industries. It's a podcast. Except it isn't. It's presented as and offered for sale as an audiobook instead. I can't help thinking that this may be Malcolm Gladwell observing the dismal economics of podcasting and seeing if audiobook publishing enables a different pricing regime more aligned with the real costs of production. Though since it seems that Spotify and Amazon already have some kind of monopoly control of audiobooks now (and everyone I know gets audiobooks free from the library app Libby), I'm not sure how that's going to work out. But "Miracle and Wonder" may be a sign or symptom of change working out in digital 'casting.

What started me on this post, however, was not thoughts on the evolving history of digital audio marketing. (That's just to justify putting this in a history blog, perhaps). It was how much I'm enjoying "Miracle and Wonder." 

Gladwell's team recorded thirty hours for a five hour audiobook, Paul Simon is fully engaged, and it all becomes a wonderful exploration of one musician and his music. There is a wonderful balance of music  -- old Simon recordings, new Simon live demonstrations, clips of music that inspired him, whatever --  all fitted into a structured conversation about the shape and meaning of Simon's career. It would be a waste of paper, almost, to print this audiobook -- the music is absolutely central to it. Gladwell gladwellizes elaborate theories from sociology texts and musicological theorists to interpret how Paul Simon got to be Paul Simon, but the deep-think dives actually work pretty well. And Simon hardly engages with those parts -- he's just talking and thinking and riffing on all the music in his head.

If you are a bit jaded with what you are finding in podcasts, or you have any interest at all in Paul Simon, take a listen. Malcolm Gladwell probably hopes you will purchase it here for US$14.99.  You have your own sources for audiobooks/podcasts.

These are the days of miracle and wonder.  Don't cry, baby, don't cry.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Book Notes: Ibbitson on Dief and Pearson

I’ve been reading John Ibbitson’s The Duel: Diefenbaker, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada.  It’s a puzzle.

On the one hand, a big, skillfully written, and handsomely published trade-market book on a consequential moment in 20th century Canadian politics might seem another blow to the Canadian-history-is-dead doomsayers. On the other, the still-dead crowd might point out that this lively, readable political biography by an award-winning, bestselling national journalist did not get the buzz and attention it might have been expected to generate. I haven't been reading much about it, and never saw much sign of it on the bestseller lists – not that they are such a great neighbourhood for a writer to be found in these days. And lack of attention is one of the doomsayers' key plaints. The Duel was featured on the Witness to Yesterday podcast last month: Ibbitson interviewed by Greg Marchildon)

And the book itself? “One purpose of this book has been to dispel the false narrative that the two Pearson governments accomplished much while the three Diefenbaker governments accomplished little,” Ibbitson declares. I’m not sure that purpose is fulfilled. Often enough, the case rests on Diefenbaker having initiated a study of some question that Pearson later turned into policy. Ibbitson wants to give Diefenbaker shared credit for medicare, for instance, on the grounds that while Pearson’s government implemented medicare, Dief made it possible by naming Emmett Hall to undertake the royal commission report that recommended it.

Ibbitson reports, “Diefenbaker had cannily appointed his friend Emmett Hall … knowing full well where the judge’s sympathies lay.” I’ve always heard Hall’s sympathies initially lay elsewhere, and that his endorsement of medicare shocked the conventional wisdom. Here as elsewhere, a little more evidence might help Ibbitson’s contrarian claims for Diefenbaker.

With my interest in our dreadful party leadership selection processes in Canada, I was particularly interested in anything new on how Dief came to win the Conservative Party leadership in 1956, and how he came to lose it in 1967. I recall interviewing John Courtney, the Saskatchewan political scientist, who described how Diefenbaker, long unpopular within his own party, spent his time as an MP travelling the country signing up new party members, so that when the leadership race began, no one else had any chance of amassing the lead in delegates Dief already had. 

This was a profound innovation: Dief was the first Canadian politician to seize party leadership -- against the established party powers -- by taking control of the membership lists. It's the way everyone has sought to claim leadership ever since, right down to the million-dollar vote-buying orgies of today’s political parties. Of all this, Ibbitson says simply, “He was the people’s choice.” Who have we heard that about recently?

Dief’s departure was equally consequential. He never really accepted that a party convention could remove him from leadership (though it did, in the end, with much consequent difficulty), but equally he did not accept the party caucus could remove him either. He did much to establish the understanding that loyalty runs in one direction only, and that retirement from political leadership in Canada must be left solely to the inclination of the leader himself (usually on election night). Ibbitson does not enlighten us on that one, either, though the question could surely be relevant to the story of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s looming choices.

The Duel is well-written, a nicely structured dual biography going back and forth between two well-described colourful and significant protagonists. Didn’t quite break new ground for me, I guess, but it deserves readers.

Comment From Helen Webberley (Melbourne, Australia)
The post needs a title. [Fixed, thanks.] I did not do any history courses after the WW1 and its aftermath, and I certainly know precious little about the 1950s.
And nothing whatsoever about Diefenbaker! But I think historians today
can learn a great deal about earlier crisis eras.

Comment From Jared Milne (Alberta)

I caught your review of John Ibbitson's book about Diefenbaker and Pearson.  ... I do think that Diefenbaker is one of our most underrated Prime Ministers.

My own ranking of our PMs puts Diefenbaker much higher on the list than most rankings do, because besides the most obvious positives of giving First Nations people the full voting rights that were 93 years overdue and nixing his predecessors' awful racist immigration quotas, he also did a lot of good bread-and-butter things like complete the Trans-Canada Highway, started the path to medicare by creating federal hospital insurance (which is a better support for Diefenbaker's claiming credit for a part in universal healthcare than anyone he appointed), and made Prairie Canadians feel like we really had a seat at the table with his agricultural reform and the National Oil Program.

Diefenbaker might not be one of the all-time greats, but I often don't think he gets enough credit for the things he did right.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Canadian Historical Review: An article to read

Birtle Residential School
Article of the week -- my week at least, as I may have been slow coming to it -- has to be “'Not a Shred of Evidence': Settler Colonial Networks of Concealment and the Birtle Indian Residential School" by Tyle Betke. It is in the most recent issue of the Canadian Historical Review (and likely available only to subscribers). It's about sex slavery, and death, and coverup, at a residential school in the early to mid twentieth century.  

It ought to put an end to the "until you prove every case and exhume every body, it's okay to assume it never happened" approach to the whole issue of abuse at residential schools.  Probably it will not.  

Since the link may not make the full text available, I'm copying part of one representative paragraph, concerning the experience of one family: 

Lazenby’s superiors within the DIA also helped cover up the truth by discrediting the girls and their family members. The father of the girls was known to the DIA. He was one of many Indigenous parents across Canada who advocated for the proper education and treatment of their children. He had sent multiple petitions and letters of complaints to the DIA Upon hearing the news of Currie’s charges, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott characterized the girl’s father as “a trouble maker.” Scott surmised that the father was causing trouble because of having “become embittered recently” when his other daughter died while running away from the school.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

"A benignity of temper" -- Love in 1798


 - From Russ Chamberlayne, who reports this comes from a New Brunswick newspaper of 1798.  Happy Valentine's Day, unless you are observing Ash Wednesday and abstaining from all such things for the next forty days.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

History of those lost to history

Can a dictionary of national biography include someone whose name is unknown, whose birthplace and deathplace are unknown, and of whom no actions or activities were ever recorded? There's no portrait either.

You wouldn't think so. It's certainly a bit of a stretch. But the Dictionary of Canadian Biography did it last week. It seems to break all the conventions of the biographical dictionary genre. 

But it works. Here's Harvey Amani Whitfield's biography of "Name Unrecorded."

Maybe there are some analogous cases. The DCB long ago published a biography of a ghost. That one worked too.

Friday, February 09, 2024

Book Notes: Friesen on Norquay

Here's one worth looking for, and not just for proof that Canadian history (including political history, including the history of nineteenth-century politicians) is hardly as dead as it is said to be.

Gerald Friesen's long-awaited biography of John Norquay, the first indigenous premier of Manitoba, is now in the University of Manitoba Press catalogue, and should be shipping in April. 

Friesen is the author of The Canadian Prairies: A History and other works. From having enjoyed cups of coffee with him intermittently over the years, I know he has been working on and talking about Norquay and this book for quite a while.   

Monday, February 05, 2024

History of leaders and parliaments

The Supreme Court of Canada recently held that Premier Doug Ford is entitled to keep secret the "mandate letters" he issues to his cabinet at the start of a new legislature.  I don't think I have strong views on this matter.  But political scientist Emmett Macfarlane does -- he has "reservations" about the SCC decision. 

"I have reservations" is the polite way legal people say judges are WRONG. I find I have reservations about Macfarlane's position on all this.

He points out that Justice Karakatsanis, who wrote the (unanimous) decision for the Court, reaches the conclusion:

that “the Premier’s deliberations cannot be artificially segmented from those of Cabinet. … the Letters reflect the views of the Premier on the importance of certain policy priorities, and mark the initiation of a fluid process of policy formulation within Cabinet”

.. and therefore they may become part of Cabinet's decision-making process and have some claim to confidentiality. I would have said the idea that the premier is part of Cabinet and not above it or immune to its views was close to being bedrock parliamentarianism. If a premier is CEO, and cabinet members and caucus members simply there to do his bidding, it follows that the government is absolutely unaccountable to anyone between elections.  Now obviously we have a situation approaching that in Canada, but one hopes that the Supreme Court would not declare it to be constitutionally necessary.

Macfarlane does just that, however:   

It is the Premier’s Office that sets the policy agenda....
He describes, approvingly, a situation where "staffers in the PMO/Premier's offices bring their bosses a public opinion poll and they [i.e., the premier] say “okay, we’re not doing that anymore, don’t worry, I’ll tell the cabinet next week.”  This, presumably, is what parliamentary government comes down to.

God knows, that sort of thing must happen in Canadian cabinets. But it's depressing that a leading political science professor argues cabinets, let alone caucuses, are entirely without power or agency -- or even the authority to debate policy, and that such is the right way and the real way, and it's high time the courts gave it their sanction.

In any real parliament, mandate letters would come from the caucus to the premier/prime minister and cabinet: "you hold office as long as we support you in office, and here is what we expect from you during that time." I see from the back pages of this blog I've suggested this before.  

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Historians in the court: professorial advice for the U.S. Supreme Court

The leading historians of the American Civil War, Reconstruction, and nineteenth century constitutional politics are turning up in droves to offer friendly advice to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case Trump v. Anderson. That's the one about Trump's eligibility or ineligibility to be a candidate for the presidency of the United States, in light of his role in an insurrection against it.  

Short version: were it up to the historians, the Trump would be toast. They make very strong arguments in two short readable briefs that the intent of the legislation at issue was very clearly to prevent people who do what Donald Trump did from being eligible to stand for the Presidency or any other elective office of the United States.

One brief comes from Jill Lepore, Drew Gilpin Faust, and David Blight. Based on her pieces in the New Yorker, I'm inclined to believe Lepore is right about just about everything all the time, but she's also a Harvard prof and director of the Amendments Project (which is relevant, Trump v Anderson being all about the meaning and intent of Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.  The other two have solid credentials too.

A second brief comes from twenty-five academic historians, notably James MacPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, first published in 1988 but still taken as an authoritative one-volume survey of Civil War history, and Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton prof and history of The History of White People.  I have not minutely scrutinized the two briefs to see if they have any substantive disagreements.  they look to be broadly in sync.

Law and history are different fields. A lot of historians called as expert witnesses have come out feeling pretty beaten up from the differences in what historians and lawyers think of as "evidence."  But since the issue here is the specific meaning of one particular statute from the 1860s, and since many of the current Supreme Court judges fixate on what the actual meaning and intention of the Constitutional framers was at the time, why should not the expert analysis of a lot of historians who are deeply informed about this exact question be relevant? 

Historians, including these ones, cannot help quoting what politicians said in legislatures about what the legislation in question means. (If you read Canadian constitutional history, you may be amazed how often what John A. Macdonald said in parliament about the BNA Act, 1867 has been treated as if it was the same as the BNA Act, 1867.) Judges like to observe that what matters is the words of the legislation itself, not what people said in trying to sell a bill to their fellows.  

Do the historians fall into this trap? A lot of Supreme Court clerks are probably madly pursuing this very question right now. The historians do quote a lot from the legislative debates, but they must be aware of the trap here and do not fall blindly into it. 

What standing do any of these profs -- presenting as amici curiae, friends of the court -- have to tell the judges what the law is? They do address that (and declare no party to the case assisted them in any way):

Amici’s interest in this appeal arises from the gravity of the case before the Court and the necessity of grounding any decision in a proper historical understanding of Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment. As eminent American historians with expertise in the relevant era, actors, and events, amici are well qualified to assist the Court by establishing the original intent, meaning, and public understanding of the Disqualification Clause. (The Lepore group)
We have professional interests in helping the Court reach its decision by appropriately analyzing probative historical evidence. (The McPherson group)

You can read 'em yourself (see links above). Will Supreme Court judges think like Ha'vid profs?

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Historical Wisdom

 "An orthodox history," as the great English medievalist F. W. Maitland wrote, "seems to me a contradiction in terms." 

                    Fritz Stern, Varieties of History (1956)

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Broadening of Canadian History

Cook by Barker Fairley
I haven't been willing to keep up with the stream of pieces from The Hub that go on accusing Canadian history of being dead. But Donald Wright of UNB has gone there for us with an effective response.  

It's not his own, mostly. He's sharing the wisdom of Ramsay Cook who, oddly, has himself been dead since 2016, but somehow still seems smarter than most of his colleagues. 

In 2009, Cook delivered the inaugural H. Sanford Riley Lecture in Canadian History at the University of Winnipeg, his alma mater when it was still United College. His title—“Who Broadened Canadian History?”—was an obvious riff on Who Killed Canadian History?, which in his words was “a polemical little tract.”

'Tseems Cook's talk from 2009 has not been published, but the argument Donald Wright draws from it in his own Hub essay gives the gist -- and is a substantial response in its own right.  Read the whole thing.

(When I first met Ramsay Cook, he struck me as someone who had been the smartest guy in the room most of his life -- and had learned to live with it. That is, very sharp, but comfortable and unpretentious about it. Maybe he still is.

(Fun fact: If you put G. Ramsay Cook  -- his usual signature -- into a search engine, you may have to wade through a lot of links to Gordon Ramsay, the television chef.)  

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