Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A 'robo-call' to Mackenzie King

If you're going to have a scandal, it doesn't hurt to give it a title resembling an 80s movie about a cyborg cop.

That's one thing the current robo-call scandal has going for it.

What are we to make of the suggestions that Conservative party campaign workers attempted to mislead some opposition supporters into believing that their polling stations had changed? It would seem that the hope was that enough would be frustrated by their experience and not ultimately vote. If true, this is serious.

Aside from the truth or not of the allegations, there are some history lessons here for the way the issue is being talked about in the media.

I'm struck by how so much of the discussion on CBC's The Current this morning focused on the bizarre question of whether Harper knew about it or not - as if this is what the whole issue depends upon. It resembles so much the same kinds of questions that swirled around Mackenzie King in the Beauharnois scandal. In that case, King and the Liberals were acccused of taking bribes in the form of massive campaign contributions in exchange for giving a company (The Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company) the right to divert part of the St Lawrence river through one of its power generating stations.

As the scandal came to light, and retrospectively in the work of historians, the emphasis has been on whether or not King personally knew about any of the moneys that were given to the party. There was also the matter of one of the company executives paying for a holiday that King took to Bermuda.

Mackenzie King\
 (source: Library and Archives Canada, C-027645)

This kind of scandal goes along with other debates about money that was raised to support King - the large trust fund that was put together by the Salada Tea baron Philip Larkin and other wealthy businessmen to refurbish King's home after he became prime minister, and similar donations to King by his friend John D Rockefeller.

I've always found the search for what would seem to be the smoking gun - evidence that King himself knew about this and directly did something for such folk in response - to be a red herring. It's not at all surprising that King claimed not to know about these things - and claimed that he would never have been influenced by such considerations. Of course he would say that. And King could be incredibly self-deluding; he may even, as his official biographer H Blair Neatby thinks, have believed it.

But we shouldn't.

It is the same thing as advertising. Many will deny being influenced by ads. Yet companies pay for advertising because it works. The same goes for political influence and corruption. These wealthy individuals contributed to the Liberal party and to King's personal trustfunds because they thought there was something in it for them.

Which brings us back to Harper and the robo-call scandal.  Whether or not Harper 'knew' about it (ie can be shown via documentation that he knew) isn't the most important part of the story. If it is true that conservative campaign workers did try to subvert the results of the election, the whole ship ought to go down, including its captain. Unless Stephen Harper is going to be like that Italian cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino and abandon ship ahead of the passengers.

It's the climate of action that matters. Did the party accept folks into its fold who broke the law? Has Harper created a climate within the party that not only allows for, but even encourages, this kind of bullying, and potentially illegal behaviour?

The answer has to lean towards yes at this point. They certainly did so over the 'in-and-out' scandal, ultimately pleading guilty to overspending in the 2006 election but nonetheless continuously denying publicly that they had done anything wrong. It looks so far like the same tactics are being used here. Deny, deflect, change the conversation, and hope that no one cares.

We shall see what happens and if this time will be different...

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Ignatieff, Taking Liberties, and the Rights Revolution

This week in my Everyday History class I was lecturing to my students on the history of human rights in Canada. In particular I was giving a talk on the 'rights revolution' that occurred in Canada in the decades from the Second World War and leading up to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Ironically I was also supposed to be going to see what promises to be a great gathering of historians of human rights in this country at the 'Taking Liberties' workshop being hosted by the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. You can see the details here.
Alas, the mind is willing to go, but the body (or the bodies of my sick wife and children) are not.

It's too bad as I was particularly interested in seeing Michael Ignatieff give the keynote talk on the Thursday night. I would be intrigued to see him make the return back to academic life.

One of the most amazing things about the last few years in Canadian politics was watching a brilliant intellectual be manhandled and shoved into what appeared to be, for him, the pretty uncomfortable box of 'the poltician.'

But life does change people. It changed Ignatieff a good deal. All you have to do is compare recent events with his early book on the history of the rise of the penitentiary in England, A Just Measure of Pain.The book is a brilliant Marxist isnpired social history that, as I remember it, links the rise in all kinds of new punishments and penal reform in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the rise of industrial capitalism. It has been more than a decade since I read it. But it was a great book.

 And of course there is Ignatieff's little book, The Rights Revolution, that came out of his Massey lectures. It's not as tightly argued or well researched as the other, but it is a thoughtful evaluation of just what the rights revolution had done to Canada and how it could be improved upon. It would have been interesting to see what, if anything, he took from this if he got into office. But it was not to be.

It just goes to show you: politics and smarts don't always sleep in the same bed, let alone reside in the same head.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Ramsay Cook on fascism, Canadian style

I have just read an excellent review essay by Ramsay Cook in the December issue of the Literary Review of Canada (yes, as usual, I'm behind on reading even the things I enjoy reading). Cook is reviewing the book The Canadian Führer: The Life of Adrien Arcand by Jean-François Nadeau (and translated by three people amazingly!). Arcand was the journalist and pseudo politician who headed a fascist party in Canada in the 1930s, the Parti National Social Chrétien du Canada. He was, I suppose, Canada’s version of Oswald Mosley.

Cook does a delicate job of putting Arcand into his place in the politics and general milieu of Canada and Quebec in the first half of the twentieth century. People like Arcand took the general anti-semitism that was never far below the surface of Canadian life and drank it up like a mosquito squelches your blood in June.

But what’s most interesting in this review for me at the moment is the fascist desire for certainty. It’s the great love of the leader, le chef or the führer. Democracy was just a messy impediment for those who wanted to get things done – a noisy place of bickering and inefficiency. Wouldn’t it be better to simply have a great leader represent the people to themselves – to get things done?

In this at least, I am struck by all the minor hints of this in our current political discourse.

Just the other night listening to the radio, I hear someone suggesting that what Toronto city politics needs is political parties. It seems that some are upset by the fact that the mayor is being obstructed in his plans for the city – especially transit – by a bunch of city counsellors who think (and vote) for themselves and don’t answer to a party whip. Wouldn’t it be better, the man is suggesting, if we just elected the city mayor and city counsellors as we do provincially and federally (and in some cities), hoping for a majority and hence a de facto dictatorship in which the party that gets a majority of the seats can do pretty much whatever it wants for the duration.

The same sentiment was there in the last few federal elections, in the disgruntlement on the part of some with minority parliaments and the fact that things weren’t getting done. (Although really it just meant that compromises were being made in almost all areas of policy – and this was covered up by heated and vicious political attacks.)

And then there is the way the current Conservative government is shutting down parliamentary debate at every turn, invoking closure seemingly without even considering the options. There was a point in time (I’m thinking of the Pipe Line debate of 1956) when this kind of thing evoked national outrage. Now, it is merely humdrum.

We may not want a führer or generalissimo but the benign dictatorship of whoever gets the most seats sure seems fine to some Canadians. Historians aren’t good at predicting the future so I won’t say what this will lead to. But I can at least point to those in the past (ie read the review and the book on Arcand) where some rather unsavoury figures shared the kinds of belief that we now accept in fact (if not in principle).

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

History Makes You Funny

Poking my head up from under the train wreck which is a family of five with the flu, I'm looking for optimism. And it comes to me in an offhanded way in an email from the Quebec historian Jack Little. Jack's email reminds me that history just might make you funny.

Well, perhaps not Jack or me, but other people that we know. Here is my incontrovertible anecdotal evidence.

We can start with Jack's son Mark Little who is a very funny comedian and the son, obviously, of a historian. He's part of the troupe picnicface who have a show on the Comedy Network. And he's also a pretty good stand up if this youtube clip is anything to go by. (The whole thing is smart, especially the bit  partway through about the 'train to racism'.)

That's exhibit one.

The second bit of anecdotal evidence came last fall when I was watching a stand up comedian on the TV and I had the strangest feeling that I had seen the guy before. At the end of the bit, his name comes up - Charlie Demers - and I realize that this is the Charlie Demers who was doing his MA in Canadian history at Simon Fraser University when I was finishing my PhD.

Now Charlie is regularly on the CBC comedy program The Debaters and was a host of the CityNews show The List in Vancouver.

Well, that's it! Not impressive statistically. But it still seems somehow important that the only two professional comedians that I can claim any kind of personal knowledge of both have ties to Canadian history.

So Canadian history might be boring, but if only you talked to the historians' kids and the guys who left grad school to do something else - then it would be all laughs.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Canada Reads and the middle-brow CBC

Dave Bidini was in town last night, and I missed the chance to see him play – and more importantly to hear my friend Robyn Cunningham open for him. Check her out here.

Bidini seems to be everywhere lately, including having one of his books both feted and destroyed on the latest instalment of CBC’s Canada Reads. I listened to most of the debates over the books – non-fiction this year for the first time. And then I heard Jian Ghomeshi respond, when it was all over, to what were clearly some pretty critical reviews of the show. The critics were upset by the low-calibre of the discussion and the fact that the show was dominated by celebrities. Ghomeshi, unsurprisingly, defended the show’s credibility.

But in listening to this debate over the dumbing down of the CBC, I couldn’t help but have a sense of déjà vu. It’s a perennial question, as is the place of the CBC within the national media landscape.

One of the best books I’ve read on this is Len Kuffert’s A Great Duty: Canadian Responses to Modern Life and  Mass Culture, 1939-1967 (which you can buy here). Now, Kuffert’s book is about much more than the CBC but one of the great things he shows in this book is how the various debates about the intellectual and aesthetic level of the CBC ended up creating a middle-brow compromise. Vincent Massey, the figure head for those who wanted the CBC to be all opera all the time (or something like it) clearly wasn’t going to get his way. But there remained enough sense amongst critics, politicians and bureaucrats about the value of broadcasting (in terms not only of nationalism but of citizenship) that this middle-brow alternative won out.

Kuffert’s book isn’t new but it’s well worth a read.

At the very least it gives me slight pause  - but only slight - when I agree with the critics of Canada Reads that it really was too dumbed down this year.

But I won't go too far in sympathy. After all, why were most of the books either memoirs or about individuals (and if not an individual, then a Tiger!)? Don’t we have the ability to talk about issues? Margaret Macmillan’s book, 1919, was on the long list. I would have liked to listen to Alan Thicke stumble his way through that!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Mackenzie King, me and Allan Levine

My review of Allan Levine's new biography of Mackenzie King is in the Globe & Mail today.

It's always odd rereading one's published work, and there's only so much you can say in a short review. But Levine's book is worth a read - it's certainly worth more attention than it has been getting since it was published last autumn.

Many of the other reviews seem to think that he is being critical of King. By this I think they mean that he is pointing out all King's oddities. But King biographies, even the official volumes, have always been less than pleasant on King the 'man'. Levine is simply following form in guffawing at King's eccentricities - and he has even more material to work with now than others did in earlier years. But ultimately Levine tows the main Liberal, nationalist line in praising King as nation-builder and statesman.

I think I've been reading way too many King biographies because I am beginning to despair if anything new and interesting can truly be said of the man. It seems to me that if you took Frank Underhill's appreciative take on him published in Canadian Forum after King's death in 1950 ('He divided us least') with Frank Scott's great 1955 poem ('nothing by halves that could be done by quarters') that you would have King in a nutshell. All the rest is dressing...

Monday, 13 February 2012

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture

Daniel Rodger, The Age of Fracture

It’s pretty hard to ‘get’ the recent past. I mean ‘get’ in the sense of understanding how different kinds of things – the real messy, complexity of life – fit together. We tend to think of this as coming with hindsight, with careful thought and study, the passage of years, the gaining of insight about how things turned out that weren’t known at the time. Yet every once in a while someone does truly make sense of the recent past.

I was thinking of this recently when reading Age of Fracture by Daniel T Rodgers, the American cultural historian. Rodgers has written a brilliant book that makes sense of the period from the 1970s through to the 1990s in America. It’s hard to do. So many of the different ways of getting at the era are ideologically riven. Should we talk about the rise of neoliberalism? Or should we speak of the progressive attacks on racism, sexism and homophobia? Was it an era of the ‘Me-decade’ (the supposed selfish culture of the 1970s)  and its aftermath or did it see a conservative backlash against feminism and the rise of a family values conservatism?

Rodgers cuts right through this by talking about the last quarter of the 20th century as one in which there was a war of ideas. This was, as the title suggest, an age of fracture: ‘… conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.’ (3)

His line for the way ideas spread between one context and another – between economics departments and feminist organizations, boardrooms and policy conferences is to talk about the process whereby certain ideas like ‘choice’ and certain readings of ‘freedom’ came to take on new, privileged meaning as a ‘contagion of metaphors.’

I love this idea of metaphors as disease – a sticky, viral ickiness that spreads from mouth to mouth, brain to book to television show – unstoppable because of the sheer, incessant repetition and its seeming usefulness. It’s a nice description of ideas in embryo – in the midst of the excitement of their creation and enthusiasm, when cliché still seems fresh, on the way to, but not yet at, its ‘best before’ date.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Art and Nationalism

I was at the Peterborough Art Gallery yesterday and although I was only supposed to be there to drop off and pick up my kids from an art workshop I couldn't help but stop on my way in when I saw what looked to be some works by the Group of Seven.  Sure enough, there they were: a painting by Arthur Lismer. Another - a good one - from one of the Algoma trips, by Lawren Harris. I didn't know the AGP had any Group paintings, but what was more intriguing was the small wall exhibit in which they were showing.

The paintings had been collected by students at a local high school, PCVS, in the mid to late 1940s. I gather that they were something like gifts from graduating classes for the school. Someone at the school seems to have helped with collecting works of Canadian art. The little exhibition poster talked about it as being connected to the Canadian nationalism of the era.

You can say that again.

They ended up at the art gallery after a painting was stolen from the School Board offices around 1980 and it was decided that a safer home might be needed.

But all of this made me think about some of the debates which have surrounded the Groups' work and its connection to Canadian nationalism. Much has been made by some critics of the way the Group always tried to oversell the extent to which it faced adversity in establishing itself as a serious body of artists in its early years. They argue that this invented tale of adversity was just a part of the myth and that the Group was really very quickly enshrined in the midst of the bourgeois nationalism of the 1920s in Canada.

But here were a group of high school students buying actual paintings (not prints) in the 1940s, a period when the group should already have been well enshrined as national icons (and, indeed, within the world of Canadian art they were). It makes one wonder about the money involved. Were the students and their parents pretty rich? Perhaps, but unlikely. Or was the Canadian art market of the time (about which I have to confess little knowledge) simply so devalued that Group paintings could be bought by even a group of students in one small Ontario city. At the very least, it's worth thinking about financial limits to the Groups' popularity.

Certainly, the decision to buy their paintings was, though, about the postwar nationalism. The same period that saw the first Canadian citizen (none other than Mackenzie King) also saw the genuine rise of an indigenous English Canadian national identity that was much further removed from its British roots than that which had seen the creation and evolution of the Group itself.

The sad denouement to the story is that the high school, one of Canada's oldest, and right in the heart of the city's downtown, is now set to close in favour of an underused suburban alternative.

Perhaps the new school can be decorated with Thomas Kincaide prints. It would be a fitting symbol of the changing times.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Downton Abbey, Simon Schama and sex

This blog will be (it really will be) mostly about Canadian history but I can't not start with the bit of glossy British history as soap opera that has been most on my mind over the last few weeks: Downton Abbey. I got hooked almost immediately and tried to pace myself through the first season (only seven episodes - so not more than two evenings at TV addict speed). A few days ago, finally up to date on season two and therefore having to wait a whole week for a new episode, I found myself googling to see what others were saying about the show.

And there was Simon Schama, a historian whose work I admire a good deal (he's delicious on the terror of the French Revolution in his book Citizens). But Schama was not at all pleased with Downton Abbey. He bemoaned the 'unassuageable American craving for the British country house' and wondered why they were so keen to slobber up the snobbery and historical simplicity of the series.

Now, Schama is certainly on to something. The series is more than a little kind to those who live 'upstairs' in this stately home. Even I can't help but feel sympathy for the aristocratic dinosaurs who are about to lose their place to liberal democracy (but really just a newer kind of  capitalism). Why does every character in the show who says, oh so simplisticaly, 'the times are changing', always have to also be a conniving bugger who you'd like to push through a window?

But Schama is also making the easy historical mistake to assume that it is the class element that is itself to credit for the show's success. Yes Americans (and Canadians) seem to want to watch films and television that assume everyone is both more beautiful and a heck of a lot richer than they are.

But it's more what is timeless about the series that makes it work. It is romance in action - forbidden love, delayed desire, hope that rises, and then falls, and then rises, only to fall again, but not terribly, not finally, always leaving some hint that it might come again. And for this kind of romance to work, the piece almost certainly has to be historical. Whatever else the show gets wrong, what it gets right is its portrayal of the fact that sex and marriage were so much trickier before the 1960s.

After no-fault divorce and the humdrum acceptance of living commonlaw (or, heck, just sleeping over whenever and whereever) the romance genre had to change drastically. This is why modern romcom movies always need to do backflips with their plot to keep the two lovers apart from each other, to keep the suspense which isn't really suspense, in the air. It's because modern life makes it so easy to toss away one love (or really anything - commitment to family, community, you name it) to go after another. But in Downton Abbey the repression, and hence the romance, lingers.