Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

What is a 'debate that isn't a debate'? Is this some kind of zen koan?

The phrase has come up in reference to the recent instalment of 'History Wars' north, and in particular in response to Tom Peace's recent post 'History Wars: The Terms of Debate'. Peace is responding to  Terry Glavin's column that took on the familiar, but ever prickly, topic of how well professional historians tell the story of Canada to Canadians. The piece quoted both Jack Granatstein and me, and was given the provocative title (a play on my words), 'Stephen Harper is right not to trust the history establishment.'  Provocative stuff.

Or maybe not.

Adele Perry replies that this is a 'debate that isn't a debate'. Sean Kheraj talks about the 'so-called' history wars. Other historians on twitter talked about being glad that Peace had finally set things straight. As if to say: 'Yes, this is what we ought to be talking about. These are the real terms of the debate.'

Peace's reply has much in it that is laudable. It is lamentable -  indeed, it is shameful - that Library and Archives Canada  has faced the kinds of cuts it has over the years. It is a disgrace that LAC is pretending to go about a process of modernization, while what is really happening is that it is reneging on its duty to collect historical documents and papers and to serve as the central national repository for archival information across the nation. If these are the terms of the debate, then I guess there really isn't a debate. I can't imagine any historian disagreeing. Certainly not me. And not even the much maligned Jack Granatstein.

But perhaps these aren't the only terms of debate.

This isn't the place to extensively rehash many of the ideas I put forward in my 'After Inclusiveness' article published in Contesting Clio's Craft . There, I talked about the way historians write, the art of history, the kinds of questions we ask, the way we analyze material, and the subjects we do and don't tend to write about and to teach. I joined a pretty big and longstanding conversation about how historians can talk to the broader public, and what the situation looks like now (or back in 2009 anyway).

Peace is right when he says that much of what is published today is pretty diverse. In part, this was always the case. People continued to publish on many topics, but they did so in more and more isolated silos, and in the midst of a profession that increasingly gave its laurels to a certain kind of history - and in particular to a certain kind of politicized history.

That is where we might have something of a debate on our hands.

I won't profess to know why LAC is being cut back and why the government is funding certain kinds of memorial projects such as the War of 1812 and the coming celebration of the Great War. I imagine there are quite a range of reasons - related to wider government cutbacks, and to the lobbying of various figures and institutions within and near government. Someone might some day write the insider account of the Harper government and history. My guess (and it's only a guess, based on hearsay) is that they'll find out that Harper himself had little to do with it.

But I would say that for quite some time, a large chunk of the profession has talked pretty openly and proudly and defiantly about the role of the historian as activist - or has perhaps too quietly sat by and listened while others talked in this way. It doesn't help when folks like Perry talk about the 'particular obligation' of historians to support movements like #IdleNoMore. I haven't seen anything by a single Canadian historian disagreeing. This is but one example amongst many.

Can we really be surprised if a Conservative government decides it doesn't want to fund institutions that it likely sees as enabling leftwing activists? Can we really make claims about the importance of historical research to the nation, when few historians have anything good to say about that nation?  I don't think so.

Does this mean history isn't or shouldn't be political? Does this mean historians shouldn't have political views or adopt a complacent view of contemporary or past politics? Of course not.

But it is naive to think the voice of the profession can be seen to lean in a certain direction (accurately or not) and nothing will happen.

Now my own sense is that many, many great Canadian historians have a more complicated sense of their professional role. But it might be good to trumpet this a little more.

To end on a positive note, I can't think of any better example of the profession at its best than the recent  book Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America by Andrew Parnaby, Gregory Kealey and Reg Whitaker. Here is a deeply political book that is also scholarly; a book that is carefully judgmental; a book that is written by scholars with political commitments but which also manages to be much, much more than this.

I sure hope we can have wide-ranging debates in Canadian history, along wide terms. The sound of one hand clapping is great for meditation. But for scholarly exchange? Not so much.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Past is Present. No, really, it is!

Imagine being the child of a veteran of the American civil war. Now, imagine that you're still alive in 2013. Hard to do? Yep, I'd think so. And yet it seems to be true.

See this story at The Gawker for details.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

If we ask, will they come...?

Are Canadian historians temptresses, bent on luring innocent, vulnerable archivists to their doom?

If we ask an archivist from Library and Archives Canada to come to the Canadian Historical Association annual meeting, would they come? For if they did, wouldn't it be a 'high risk' activity? Maybe we'd be asking them to out themselves in public - putting the GOVERNMENT OF CANADA (all caps please) in jeopardy. They would be like homosexuals in a modern day bookish Cold War security scare - blackmail able because we knew their dirty secrets.

If you think I'm being crazy (and I am, and I'm not) then take a look at the news about a new code of personal conduct being pushed at Library and Archives Canada. It suggests that librarians and archivists who go to such things as conferences would be participating in 'high risk' activity. 

See a good story by Margaret Munro in the Post here.

And Aaron Wherry puts it into the context of wider government communications craziness on his blog here.

The Fifties in Canada

Not sure how I missed this the first time around, but I've just come across this great documentary series on the Fifties in Canada. Of course, part of the answer of why I missed it might be that it was on CPAC - not exactly a television station that usually gets folks talking. Too bad really.

But I've just watched a great episode called 'One Canada' on the lead-up to Diefenbaker's Bill of  Rights in 1960, putting it in the context of the anti-semitism of Canadian society in the era.

It's a bit simplistically done: how much would it have been to put this also in the context of American civil rights demands, for example? Surely, the international context was fundamental.

And the focus almost entirely on anti-semitism doesn't get it quite right. See this great CBC show from 1954 on Dresden Ontario and the battle over whether African Canadians there could get served at the local soda shop and get jobs anywhere in town.

But, overall, the series on the decade looks great, and reminds us, yet again, about what a complex figure was John G Diefenbaker.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The death of Paul Rose - FLQ terrorist

I see from Le Devoir today that Paul Rose has died. Rose was a member of the 'Chenier' cell of the FLQ and was one of those convicted of the murder of Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte.

So far the stories about this are only quite brief. What can we make of the different photos chosen, I wonder?

Here are the images from La Presse and Le Devoir:

And here is the picture on the English language CBC:

Les deux solitudes....

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

David Wilson Rocks!

Or, well, he Irish-traditional-musics... if we can make that a verb, and have it sound sort of as good as 'he rocks'. Kind of.

That's right: I'm talking about the historian David A Wilson, the professor of Irish history at the University of Toronto and the author of, most recently, the two volume biography of Thomas D'Arcy McGee.

Wilson writes splendid prose, and he's a gifted historian. I had heard, though, that there was a musician behind all of this. It was no secret. To publicize the McGee biography he had toured with a band, performing music, and doing a show all about this complicated Irish-Canadian father of confederation. I just hadn't witnessed it personally.

Last night, I witnessed the man in action when he came to Peterborough - speaking and playing on Irish music. An excellent show/performance/talk all around.

He also read from a book that I can best describe as an even better version of a Bill Bryson travelogue. Check out the very, very funny Ireland, a Bicycle, and a Tin Whistle.

I'll stop gushing now.


Monday, 11 March 2013

Stand Together - Still

To re-watch a documentary is, after several years, really to watch it all over again. 

It is like when you re-read a book, years later. You are both relearning what the book or the documentary tells you, and noticing how you feel about it 'this' time. 

I've been doing a good deal of this late rereading books (making my way through Robertson Davies' oeuvre at the moment) and then this morning I showed one of my classes the great Nancy Nicol documentary, Stand Together from 2002.

It recounts the gay rights struggle in Ontario from the 60s up to the 1980s. The central driving force of the film is the struggle to include sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code. We learn a good deal more, with important tangents from side to side, and great cameos from different people of the era. This push for legislation is the struggle of the film, what keeps it moving forward.

What a good film it still is. As far as I know it's not available online, but you can see a trailer here

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Unfinished Business of Feminism

Looking for a good documentary to watch tonight? Or tomorrow? I see that the NFB, in honour of international women's day is streaming, for free, their great documentary Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism. 

It makes for fascinating watching - hearing Mulroney talk about universal child care....

Watch it here.