Tuesday 29 October 2013

Canada - a tough sell

Are Canadian academics interested in Canada?

Obviously some are, but this seems to be a question worth asking. I have an essay coming out in next month's issue in the Dorchester Review about the diminishing importance of Canadian history in Canada's universities, especially the big research universities.

But it seems this isn't only about history.

Colin Coates, a historian from York University and current president of the Canadian Studies Network, drew my attention to a study of Canadian economics departments. It found the same thing. Fewer and fewer Canadian economists are publishing work on their own country.

Then there are the comments from those in English departments. They report the same phenomenon. Just read Thomas Hodd in the Globe from last week.

It seems 'there's something happenin here'...

Thursday 24 October 2013

Pundit or Scholar or Both?

Sometimes reviews can be better than books. I haven't yet read the essays in Nelson Wiseman's edited book The Public Intellectual in Canada but I know that Andrew Potter's review in the Literary Review of Canada is well worth a read.

And what he suggests in the review, is that the book itself is already out of date. Certainly the list of contributors suggests as much. Social media sites, especially twitter, are upsetting the way this world of media savvy intellectuals works.

My own recent experience, though, is that some things remain unchanged. Since the spring hoopla over Harper's history agenda I've had several conversations with producers interested in talking to me about being on radio or TV shows. In the end, most often haven't worked out. One thing remained constant: the people they chose were much more ideologically oppositional, taking one firm position, even if it wasn't as nuanced or reasonable as it could and really should have been. (ie Harper's history project is a monstrosity or Harper's history project is perfectly fine). Conflict works. But intellectuals ought to be good at nuance. It's hard to balance the two - and when you do, if you can see value in opposing views, trying to get to the truth of the matter, the media might not be interested.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

For love of a ... textbook?

I think I'm in love. Again. This time, though, it's with a textbook.

It shouldn't be possible. Nor is it seemly or respectable or, let's be honest, normal. But when I clicked through on the links, first from email, then to catalogue and to website, intrigued by this new textbook in Canadian history, I finally came to a sample chapter. That's when I fell in love.

For years now I have been hoping someone would write a beautiful, engaged, comprehensive, narrative history of Canada. And there it was. Easy and accessible, but engaging. Not broken up with excessive sidebars and moving from theme to theme to theme to sub-theme, not forgetting this old character - and 'oh, look at this article I've read recently' kind of textbook.

But I'm forgetting to say who it is. I'm not the jealous type, and textbooks are for sharing. Take a look yourself at Narrating a Nation.  It comes in pre and post confederation volumes, and the authors are Raymond Blake, Jeff Keshen, Norman Knowles and Barbara Messamore.

The sample chapter for the post-Confederation volume deals with the years of the Great War. And, wonder of wonders, it actually deals with the war, with the grimy reality, the mud-up view, as well as the many important domestic implications, and not even forgetting the Progressives and the 1919 hoopla.

The only funny bit that stuck out was this line about Mackenzie King, when they note how socially awkward and pudgy he was but then say that, no matter:

'King was a master political tactician with an astonishing ability to read the public mood, build coalitions, impress the right people, make the right friends, and demolish his enemies.' 

This is definitely cart-before-the-horse writing. Folks might have started saying this by the summer of 1940, or perhaps the most astute might have said it late in 1926. Not in 1919.

But who am I to complain? Every love affair has to have its little blemishes.

Oh, and no one (alas) paid me to write this!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

The Canadian Publishing Blues

At my neighbourhood Chapters Store on the weekend, looking for Susan Delacourt's new book Shopping for Votes. But where is the book? Not at the front of the store. Not on the 'New Arrivals' shelf. Not even on the 'In the News' section despite the fact that the book was all over the news last week.

It seems that Harbour Publishing (owners now of Douglas & McIntyre, who published the book) haven't paid the good folks at Indigo Chapters enough money for the book to show up near the front.

I did eventually find this important book in the back of the store under Canadian Political Science.

So far, it's well worth a read. The first chapter is actually a nice undergraduate lecture on the emergence of a consumer society in the postwar years - citing folks like Mona Gleason on psychology, Richard Harris and Valerie Korinek on suburbanization, Donica Belisle on department stores, and Russell Johnston on advertising. Though she, like me when I've written lectures on the topic, really has to search to fill in the many, many holes.

I do think, though, that Andrew Coyne had a good point in his critique of the book. The basic argument is that politicians have come to treat voters more as consumers than citizens. They just now want to give these people goods (policies, politicians) that the consumer/voter will buy. There is very little about convincing citizens about important issues or ideas. Coyne says that this has always been the case, only the techniques have improved.

I found myself thinking much the same thing. After all, that was always the line on Mackenzie King. He never led, he followed. He appeased. He caved in to the lowest common denominator - whether it was his illiberal Catholic supporters in Quebec, or the scions of industry from Montreal. Sounds a lot like Harper. King had 'instinct' and 'intuition' they said. Harper has marketing and polling companies to 'intuit' for him.

Coyne is a bit too dismissive, though. Delacourt is telling us an important story about the relations between politics and citizens. Even if the overall argument overlooks some continuities, the book is still essential reading.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Royal Proclamation: A Diversity of Views?

I'm looking forward to reading all of the essays published this week over at Active History's  commemoration of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Tom Peace's first essay lays out what the series will look like, and the first essays are already coming out.

I do wonder about one point, though. Peace says that Active History is giving a variety of views of the Proclamation. The summary of each sort of shows this. But I can't help but see one glaring absence - any interpretation that might differ from what Tom Flanagan has elsewhere called the 'aboriginal orthodoxy'. It seems from what we can see so far that all of the opinions come from within this perspective. Maybe when all of the essays are out, this will prove not to be the case. Maybe.