Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Museum of Slavery

Black History Month is officially over, but this New York Times Magazine story on the first (!) museum in the United States devoted to slavery is not time-limited. Other restored plantations in its Louisiana neighbourhood emphasize the genteel life of the Big House, but the white lawyer who has restored Whitney Plantation has gone in another direction:
As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one. “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said. “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Sunday at the Aga Khan Museum

We went recently to fulfil the promise I made around Christmas: to see the "Lost Dhow" exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

The dhow in question is a 8th 9th century CE shipwreck that was recently excavated near the Belitung Islands in the strait between Sumatra and Borneo. The ship, an Arabic dhow more than a Chinese junk, was trading between China and Arabia, and while the ship itself is mostly gone, the non-perishable cargo is both amazing and amazingly well preserved, particularly the ceramics. Barely two centuries after the death of Muhammed and the rise of the Islamic powers, pottery centres in central China were producing wares decorated with Arabic motifs, confident they could ship and sell them profitably across such an extended route. The Maritime Silk Route, they call it now, and the Belitung wreck is the best existing evidence of it -- though all the silk that would have been in the cargo has vanished without trace.

The whole thing is elegantly and seriously presented in this cooperation between the Aga Khan Museum and the museum in Singapore that has the other 99% of the materials salvaged -- but what they sent us is pretty terrific.  Having started my historical career on the Atlantic trade routes of an eighteenth century cod-trading port, I found all this trade history right up my alley. Go see this if you can.

The greater revelation was the rest of the Aga Khan Museum.  The subject of the Museum is Muslim- and Muslim-related arts and civilizations.  And if the job of a museum is to present with care and passion things and places you don't otherwise know much about, then the Aga Khan is the best museum in Toronto by a country mile right now. I really don't know my Abbasids from my Umayyads, but I now know a hell of a lot more about the astonishing range and richness of Islamic arts and cultures from across a huge sweep of the planet.  Eye popping stuff in every case and vitrine.

The dhow is leaving in April, the museum is permanent. Good building too,  Fumihiko Maki refers skillfully throughout to Arabic and Islamic architecture, but it is also a good space for, you know, presenting museum exhibits -- things that were not so much a priority in the recent renovations at Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Given how much of our image of Islam is shaped these days by propaganda, the museum is doing good service -- something the donor no doubt had in mind.

Is it ethical to join a political party?

How many memberships would you like to buy, sir?
On Sunday The Good Wife  episode was "Dark Money": how American politics is corrupted by shadowy billionaires who buy up political campaigns on the crudest motives. The rich old guy played by Ed Asner likes Alicia's legs, thinks the other guy acts too gay. ("Mr Grant!" you expect Juliana Margulies to exclaim).

Meanwhile in Ontario, the Conservative Party is holding a leadership "race." The media have been treating Christine Elliott, lawyer, political veteran, widow of Jim Flaherty -- someone they have actually met and seen in action -- as the dominant candidate. Then an obscure Ottawa MP of tea-partyish opinions announces -- after the sale of memberships has closed -- that he has 40,000 memberships committed to him. Elliott, after years of work, is thought to have 25,000 or so.

One anonymous Conservative observes, "In the past four PC leadership contests — in 1990, 2002, 2004 and 2009 — the winning candidate sold the most memberships."  Um, yes.  Another says  “It’s definitely an insurgency.”  

That's one word for it, I guess. We have elaborate statutory regulations on how much parties can spend on elections, who they can take money from, how much anyone can give, how much of a tax subsidy is involved, and so on.  But within the political parties themselves? The press has no information on who holds these memberships, or who paid for them. Dark money.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Prime Minister lived long, prospered, may have been Vulcan

Apparently, while we were working away, the cool kids were having fun turning Wilfrid Laurier's portrait on the five dollar bill into Mr. Spock.

'Course that is the old five, and it's more complicated on the new plasticky one.But Leonard Nimoy lives on, it seems.

Update March 3:  'Course Merna Forster could tell you the Bank of Canada could avoid all this by putting some women on the bills.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Could the federal government pass its own citizenship test?

History of aboriginal schooling

The media had a striking story this week about how aboriginal kids do in school when they get the kind of educational support used in mainstream schools. Louise Brown in The Star writes of "an astounding turnaround" at a couple of Ontario reserve schools where a test project was implemented over several years. Joseph Friesen in The Globe reports
The year before it began, only 13 per cent of students achieved the provincial standard on grade three reading tests, and only 33 per cent met the standard on writing tests. By 2014, just less than 70 per cent of the school’s students met the reading standard, very close to the provincial average, and more than 90 per cent met the writing benchmark, significantly higher than the Ontario average.
Before the kids got the education they deserved, 45% of them were deemed to have special learning needs. With proper teaching available, that proportion fell to 19%. Funding for the project came through an NGO, the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative.

Good news: the catastrophe in aboriginal education seems fixable with standard, familiar tools.  Bad news: all it takes is money. Because hell will freeze over before either the feds or the provinces fund reserve schools adequately, given their lack of voting clout and the general public's lack of interest or actual hostility to giving "charity" to "Indians."

So like everything else, it comes back to land and treaties. When the First Nations secure control of their economic base, they will able to address the educational crisis (and gradually, most of the other crises too)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Who from where gets hired to teach history? Updated

Slate has published news of an academic study on the steeply hierarchical nature of scholarly hirings, particularly in history:
just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in these three fields. Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.
That is, the graduates of Ivy league schools can and do teach everywhere, but the graduates of less prestigious schools will rarely ever move "up" to teach higher on the prestige ladder. If they teach at all, that is.

One would like a lot more granularity -- is that what they say? -- regarding the "US and Canada" thrown into that quotation. A lot of Canadian graduates look to be hired at Canadian universities, and I would have assumed the hierarchy is less clearly established here, where nearly all universities depend almost completely on public funding and do not have the vast financial advantage of the great American private universities.

I don't doubt the Harvard grad has a huge advantage over the grad from Generic Midwestern State, but not so many Harvard grads apply in Canada, I would guess. Among Canadian universities hiring young historians, does a (let's say) McGill history grad inevitably crowd out the graduate of (fill in your local provincial university here) ?

Anecdote in lieu of data:  Doing legal history, I once interviewed a very successful female litigator and judge.  She grew up poor and lefty in a big US city, came to Canada with a draft-dodger boyfriend, and went to an Ontario law school because it was cheap and local. She then articled with a high-prestige, big-money Bay Street litigation team. Being a woman there was a much greater obstacle than being a nobody from an average Canadian law school, she argued, but she went on to a stellar career, along with colleagues from similarly obscure backgrounds and law degrees from average Canadian schools. She might have gone to law school in the US, she insisted, but she would have had no access to the Ivy League schools from which all prominent US law firms draw their talent -- who become the new generation of leading American lawyers. She thought it was different here.

Does hierarchical hiring on the Slate pattern apply in Canadian history and the humanities?  I genuinely wonder. Anybody researching this?

Update, March 3:  From a well-placed friend of the blog who requests anonymity comes a comment, not so much on hirings in general, but on hirings for historians and particularly historians of Canada:
For Canadianists, I think that through the whole period from say 1995 to now it would be unlikely that the university name alone would place you higher or lower in consideration. Rather, your hireability would turn on the the quality of your work and the personal reputation of your supervisor. 
I think there is an assumption that when you are studying Canadian history it makes sense to be at a Canadian university. If you are studying another subject, however, the unstated assumption is that the best students are probably those who went to university outside of Canada: especially to top tier US schools (not just the Ivies for history, also Michigan, Wisconsin, parts of the UC system) or UK schools (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, London).

Marketing history

Yesterday this cover won Canada's History a Canadian covers award, from the people who stock news stand magazine racks -- and keep a close tally of which covers make copies fly off the stands.

Probably not something the Canadian Historical Review has to worry about too much, but there may be some kind of heavy-metal hunger out there in the news stand browsing public.  Worked for CH, anyway.

Monday, February 23, 2015

New look Canada's History

Canadian Magazines blog takes note of the redesign coming at Canada's History with the forthcoming April-May issue.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Starting to understand World War I -- and maybe III

The centenary of the First World War inspired several big histories of the origins of the war, of which the most acclaimed seems to have been Christopher Clark's 2013 The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, though Margaret Macmillan's more closely focused The War that Ended Peace also drew much attention.  More slowly, however, another book seems to be staking its claim as the really important new interpretation on the origins of the war.

Planning Armageddon by Nicolas Lambert, from Harvard University Press, was published in 2012, and the implications of its analysis have taken awhile to settle into the minds of readers, it would seem. As I understand it, Lambert argues that British did have a strategy in the years before 1914 for a quick victory in the event of a European war, and that the strategy focused neither on Dreadnaught battleships nor on sending an army to the continent. One reviewer declares that Lambert “essentially has rewritten our understanding of what produced the Great War.”

Lambert argues the master plan was economic, more specifically financial. Britain by the early 1900s was facing stiff competition in manufacturing and economic output generally, but it still overwhelmingly controlled the financial and fiscal underpinnings of world trade. Lambert demonstrates that Britain had a comprehensive plan to hit the financing of German trade and economic activity so hard and so fast that Germany would quickly become unwilling or unable to continue pursuing a continental war.  Furthermore, Britain engaged this plan in the first week of August 1914.

Okay, it doesn't seem to have worked.  Germany was not deterred or destroyed. The war continued. Indeed, Lambert argues that it was the rapid falling apart of the "weaponisation of trade" strategy that obliged Britain to send an expeditionary force into Belgium and northern France instead... with the results everyone knows.

The economic warfare project fell apart, argues Lambert, because as soon as Britain began to apply it, large sections of the financial community, in the United States, in Britain itself, and throughout the British-led world trading network, began to scream and kick about the damage they too were suffering from it. Britain's economic sabotage of German finances and trade was making life difficult for bankers, financiers, and debtors on the Allied side of the line. And they screamed so loudly that the British government capitulated. It agreed to rely instead on traditional military efforts, substituting a traditional naval blockage of Germany for its more sophisticated financial sabotage plan, and turning to the dreadnaughts and the expeditionary force instead. With world-historical results.

The Planning Armageddon thesis sounds profound in itself. A hundred years later, maybe historians are starting to understand what they were thinking ("What were they thinking!"). But -- contemporary relevance -- it sems it is current diplomats and strategists who are really thinking hard about the book's message.

What is the west's plan to deter President Putin from his military adventurism?  Targeted fiscal and economic sanctions.  What would be the west's plan in the event of a confrontation with China?  Same thing, you can readily guess. Much of global strategy today depends on deploying the (million times more elaborate) tools of financial and fiscal sabotage to deter rival powers from starting or continuing military action.  How's that going to work out this time?

Coincidentally (there are no coincidences), there's a column today about how the Harper government talks very tough about sanctions to deter Russia's invasion of Ukraine.  But Canadian sanctions on the Putin regime have mysteriously omitted key elements of the Russian energy sector, ones that have invested heavily in the Alberta energy sector. Apparently sanctions there might have uncomfortable repercussions in the Calgary oil patch. The Lambert thesis about the domestic obstacles to the effective weaponisation of international finance seems to be working out in real time.

Key readings, if you are not up for reading the whole of Planning Armageddon:  This David Warsh column at Economic Principals, particularly the second half, when he gets to the Lambert book. But even more, look at the comprehensive review essay and roundtable discussion at H-Diplo, which is impressively scary.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

History of public broadcasting, history of culture

What's the special sauce for great public broadcasting?   Kate Taylor observes that in a geographically-small space and (mostly) one language, the BBC gets 8 time the funding the CBC does

Still fighting the American Revolution

Gordon S. Wood
To the extent that I follow the ever-vigorous field of American colonial history, I've been aware of Gordon S. Wood as the author of major works on the founding of the American republic and, maybe more, as a prolific and thoughtful reviewer of American history titles in liberal journals such as the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.

So there seemed to be something more going on when I found Wood (age 81) writing for the very conservative Weekly Standard a review of a new work by his mentor Bernard Bailyn (age 92 -- these guys do go on producing forever) that is also an attack on just about everybody else among Americanist historians -- and issued in a very "kids today!" tone of voice.

Turns out there is a lot of history to this historiographical spat.  As an intellectual historian focussing on the ideas and philosophies of the American Founders, Wood has always been looked at askance by historians who emphasize class conflict, slavery, aboriginals, women, and the whole social history project, and who doubt or criticize Wood for his alleged lack of interest in such issues. Add to that the fact that Wood turned years ago from new academic research to successful trade-market generalist works (sometimes derided, apparently, as "Founders Chic"), and you can see motives for younger Americanists to start to criticize.

So even as Wood wrote books like The Radicalism of the American Republic and reviews like a very positive one of Annette Gordon-Reed's very unworshipful analysis of Thomas Jefferson's intimate relations with his slave Sally Hemings, he was also beginning to be defined as a rather traditional celebrator of the great and exceptional American Republic. The American history blog The Junto laid a lot of this out a couple of years ago.

Now, praising a book of essays on historiography by Bailyn, Wood comes back at his critics in a review pointedly titled "History in Context":
It’s as if academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing.  
It has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.   
As a contribution to a debate among scholars, it could seem like a point worth discussion. Published in the Weekly Standard, surrounded by promos for paleo-conservative seminars and how-to-kill-Obamacare strategizing, it sound more like a new front culture war. Bridges are burning.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Media History of Camp X

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.  And the truth is so precious, it needs to be guarded by a bodyguard of lies. And...

Anyway, tonight CBC-TV launches a new drama series, X Company, with the press duly repeating all the usual announcements about Canadians' lamentable ignorance of all the great stories from our history that historians have kept from us, but which will now be revealed by these groundbreaking filmmakers
The real history lesson behind X Company will be telling Canadians that this spy camp existed. “It’s a national treasure,” says Morgenstern, “and our best kept secret.”
'Course, most of the secret that has been kept from us is legend. There was a Camp X east of Toronto, at which some North American intelligence officers did some preliminary training between 1941 and 1943. But most of the Camp X legend is drawn from the largely fictional A Man Called Intrepid, in which pretty much everything that happened during the Second World War was attributed to the secret heroics of a Canadian-born British liaison officer in New York, William Stephenson.

The Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Camp X notes the popular account and calmly says of it: "Most of this is untrue." Realistic appraisals of Camp X are available, as in Camp X: SOE and the American Connection (1986) by historian David Stafford,  But promotion and press reports on the television series suggest Stafford's sober account is not going to set the tone, not when all this great stuff is around, and it's such fun to diss the moronic historians who have never told us.

So expect the usual: a fictional drama attended by loud statements about how important it is for Canadians to know their history.

The CBC says
CBC's new drama series, X Company, may do for a secret Canadian spy training camp what the Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game did for Britain's code breaking centre Bletchley Park  
Now that sounds about right.  The Imitation Game ain't exactly a documentary, either.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Canadian Consplains Harper for Australians

Accountability... it'll get you in trouble every time, Tony!
Ben Ettinger, a Canadian in Canberra, "explains" to Auz readers why Tony Abbott is in big trouble. See, he is inflexible while Stephen Harper has held on to his base.

Ettinger might have mentioned that Stephen Harper has never faced a caucus leadership review as Abbott just did, because Canadian prime ministers cannot be reviewed.  Because parliamentary democracy.

Government of Canada war on Canadian Studies continues

She's gone
Independent board members and staff of the Foundation for Canadian Studies (UK), a British charitable foundation with a substantial endowment, have resigned en masse in response to a Canadian government coup.

Among those resigning are Margaret MacMillan, Steve Hewitt (security and intelligence scholar at U Birmingham), Susan Hodgetts (social sciences, U Ulster, scholar of Canadian foreign policy and editorial board member of the British Journal of Canadian Studies), and Diana Carney, (spouse of Bank of England governor Mark Carney, international development scholar, and advisor to the think tank Canada 2020).

Their replacements are to be civil servants from the Canadian High Commission in London, whose first move has been to remove another board member, scholar Rachel Killick. MacMillan writes:
It is also increasingly clear to me that the high commission intends effectively to take the foundation over and use its funds for the promotion of Canada’s interests as defined by it.

The government of Canada has already defunded Canadian Studies programs worldwide along with Parks Canada, the Archival Development Program, the Historical Thinking Project, along with most other independent and arm's-length historical programs that had public funding. Increasingly all direction for publicly funded projects in Canadian history and Canadian studies comes directly from the prime minister's office, with research objectives set by political criteria.

Update, February 16:  Steve Hewitt, one of the directors who is out, speaks out here at Active History
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