Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Shameless Propaganda



I was looking forward to watching a pre-screaming of the new NFB documentary 'Shameless Propaganda'. But, then again, I'm a historian and I would say that.

My mother-in-law isn't. She had just arrived from England and had been up for about twenty hours, having flown across the Atlantic, driven a couple of hours down Hwy 401 and then endured several hours of entertaining the grandchildren. When I sat down on the couch, called up 'Shameless Propaganda' on my computer and started watching, she didn't just drift off to sleep: she started watching too.

Shameless Propaganda is a documentary about documentaries, though it's also about Canada. And it's about Canada at an interesting moment of transition, in the middle of the twentieth century, still largely rural, suffering from the depression, where many Canadians didn't have indoor toilets or electricity. Yet a good deal of this would change, or be about to change, in the midst of six long but fast-paced war years - a time in which the NFB set out to capture the story of the country, and to convince Canadians that they were a people and that they could and should fight a war together, and do it right.

The film does a much better job of getting this all down than I shall here. In fact, I'll likely want to use it to begin a course I teach on Canada since 1945. It would make an ideal beginning - a nice glimpse into the Canada in the making at mid-century.

We get a good sense of the NFB and its founder, the swashbuckling Jon Grierson, and his progressive vision for the country, a progressiveness that ultimately probably cost him his job. In fact, it would later cost the jobs for a number of those at the NFB as they got caught up in the postwar Red Scare, a topic which the film doesn't get to.

Ironically, this film about propaganda could actually be said to be propaganda of a kind itself. Certainly it has a distinctive moralizing perspective. Much of this is entirely appropriate - its critical stance on older films about aboriginal peoples and immigrants to Canada. But just as the film says that the propaganda films of the war were silent on some issues, so too Shameless Propaganda has its own silences - mostly of what might be called political correctness, things we no longer mention. So we're told (correctly) that many English Canadians were hostile towards French Catholics and so that a particular film about a French Catholic family in Quebec would have been an original sympathetic portrayal. We're meant to be sympathetic to the reasons why some Quebeckers would have resisted conscription. But we're not told about Quebec sympathies with fascist Catholic Italy or other similarly discomfiting stories. The audience here is seemingly contemporary English Canada and we are supposed to look back and shake our heads at earlier prejudice. It's correct as far as it goes, but in leaving out some details, it's easier to catch the moral but also easier to lose sight of the much more complex moral world of the Canada that was.

The filmmakers are generally better where the historiography is better - on Japanese Canadians for example. The picture that emerges is still moralizing but slightly more complex.

None of this takes away from what is essentially a great documentary. It's simply striking that the film itself follows the path of contemporary Canada and its academic history. Our own views and prejudices, our own moral crusades, show up here too. It's not shameless propaganda, but it is also not entirely the full story either.

Watch it yourself over on the NFB website


(Images: NFB)

Friday, 21 March 2014

Women in the Media - A Men's Issue



Steve Paikin put his foot in it. Recently, the TVO host of The Agenda penned a blogpost asking “Where, Oh Where, Are All The Female Guests?” bemoaning the continual problem that The Agenda’s producers have in finding women experts. If nothing else, the massive critical response to his post on twitter should ensure the show’s producers have enough names to match Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.”
Paikin explained that the current affairs show wants to attract “the best guest” and, because half the population is female, they want to “make sure half our guests are female too.” They don’t, and the blog post was half mea culpe, half cri de Coeur. Why was it so hard to get women for the show? He was asking for answers but, in the meantime, he offered a few explanations himself. This is where he got himself into trouble.
Paikin spoke of the fact that women are under-represented in many of male-dominated subject areas where the show is looking for experts – economics, foreign affairs, and the sciences. He spoke of how he has actually had a potential female guest say that she couldn’t appear because her “roots were showing.” Online, all of this drew comment from readers, and often serious criticism. One of Paikin’s explanations, though, stood out.
Paikin wrote that there “seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book.  No man will ever say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, I’m taking care of my kids.” The man will find someone to take care of his kids so he can appear on a TV show.  Women use that excuse on us all the time.”
He couldn’t have written something more apt to offend those who have given almost any thought to the question of who cares for children in our society and what impact this has on gender equality. That women’s childcare responsibilities could be explained away as somehow connected to women’s DNA is worthy of the kind of simplistic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus thinking that was so dominant in the 1950s and which frequently rears its head in the world of pop psychology. The organization of childcare is a social decision. It’s connected to how families organize themselves. Decisions about childcare not only affect men’s and women’s ability to be a guest on a TV show (nice to be sure, but unpaid) but their representation in boardrooms and in legislatures.
On a purely practical level it’s easy to sympathize with Paikin. The Agenda needs guests for shows today and tomorrow. Whatever the reason for women not pushing themselves forward (cultural/structural or biological), his problem remains: he doesn’t have enough female guests and he is committed to achieving gender parity.
Yet with gender, it’s the long-game that really counts. In this long-game, the language of DNA and the suggestion that women are “just like that”, that they simply take care of the children, and the idea that taking care of the children is an excuse (as opposed to a real labour that someone must do) is a serious impediment to the kind of equality that Paikin and all at The Agenda want to achieve.
I’ve taught gender history at university for a number of years and I almost always begin my classes by talking about a 1939 issue of Parents magazine. In an article titled “What Color For Your Baby?” the magazine advised parents to dress little boys in pink and little girls in blue. Invariably this blows my students’ minds. It shouldn’t. Many of the ideas we have about gender – ideas we assume are natural and fixed – are not.  
Not that you would know this from any trip to a children’s clothing or toy store where boys and girls items are more separated than blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. Yet just try convincing many people that there is nothing natural about the blue/pink divide and you’ll get an earful of comments like “it’s just the way it is.” When I tell people that I wrote a book on the history of masculinity, I get polite people telling me why boys and girls are the way they are. I can give as many examples of how ideas about gender have changed – from Victorian doctors thinking sports ruined women for childbirth to ideas that women shouldn’t vote because they weren’t sufficiently rational – and most will accept this as a shame.
The real crux comes when we talk about boys. Try suggesting that our ideas about what boys can and should be can also change and you run into a lot more trouble.
The major issue that Steve Paikin’s comments raise isn’t about women: it’s about men. Certainly it’s in women’s DNA to at least have the capacity to give birth to children. But once those children are born, it’s a social decision between men and women about who cares for them. When women say they don’t have time to appear on a TV show because they have to take care of the children, it’s not an excuse. It’s a socially sanctioned dilemma. We should all be concerned. And the people whose “excuses” most need to be questioned aren’t the women involved: it’s the fathers.



 Note: I've appeared on The Agenda and loved the experience. Glad to see that the show devoted a special episode to the matter that you can watch above.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

An opportunity for history teachers and bloggers

The history education network is again running their Teaching the Past blog contest. Here are the details:

Want to weigh in on a major controversy in history education in Canada? Be a part of THEN-HiER’s national Teaching the Past blog contest this March! THEN/HiER invites you to engage with a major issue in history education (for example, one of the Controversies from our website, or another issue) by blogging about it. Blogs will be judged by members of THEN/HiER’s Executive Board. First and second prize winners will choose from one of the following prizes:• A Parks Canada Family/Group “Discovery Pass”• A copy of Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse (2013) by Jocelyn Létourneau (in French)
• A copy of Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology (2014) edited by Kevin Kee
 The deadline to submit your post is March 31st. Please contact kate.zankowicz@gmail.com for details. Winners will be announced in April.More info:http://thenhier.ca/en/content/march-2014-teaching-past-blog-contest

Monday, 17 March 2014

Historical Thinking - Out With a Bang



The federal government's recent decision to axe funding for one of the great bright spots in history education in this country is a damn shame. And the good people over at Active History have decided to not let the program go out without a little more thought and discussion. They are starting a week-long series of posts on the whole project and the controversies it generates. The first post by Thomas Peace is up now.

You can see what the Historical Thinking project was by looking at their website. 

Even thought it is primarily geared to helping elementary and secondary teachers, I found myself over the last half-decade borrowing their ideas and concepts and plunking them down in my university courses. I would begin each class with a lecture inspired by their work - talking about what it is that historians do - how we think - what it is that historians bring to the study of not just the past but to everything.

Then, periodically, throughout the year I would go back to these ideas. Mid lecture I'd find myself saying: 'And this thing here - the reason I'm saying this is because of ...' and then I'd link back to one of the concepts we talked of at the outset of the class.

Much of the debate over the project and its cancellation pits the 'critical thinking' approach of the project against an older style of national narrative. We're expected to see this as an either/or choice of narrative history tied to the nation vs a critical thinking approach that asks us to take things apart.

Stark dichotomies are rarely accurate or helpful and such is the case here. Those who want to tell national stories (and I'm one of them) can't be dismissed as rabid reactionary nationalists and those who want to teach a skills-focused kind of history aren't all loosey-goosey latter-day hippies in the history classroom. I hate to be all middle-of-road compromise about this, but that's where I come down.

There's room in Canada's classrooms for lots of different kinds of history. Perhaps it's not too late to change the funding for the program for future years.




Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Michael Ignatieff - a lot like you and me


A lot of people are wrong about Michael Ignatieff. They talk about his arrogance, his sense of entitlement and blame it on his aristocratic lineage. He’s the closest thing to a Liberal Canadian pure laine as you can get – related not only to George Ignatieff and Russian aristocrats before that but to George Grant of Lament for a Nation fame, and to George Munro Grant before him.

If you’re looking for entitlement and arrogance, you can find it in Ignatieff’s literary political auto-postmortem Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Canadian Politics. The Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells, one of the country’s best observers of national politics, found plenty to chuckle at when Ignatieff recounted being torn up watching his father’s disappointment about not being chosen as Governor General: ‘It’s a classic Canadian story,’ Wells writes. ‘Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?’

Some have favourably reviewed Fire and Ashes, but it’s safe to say that in Canada many of those closest to the political scene saw what they wanted in Fire and Ashes: a confirmation of the Ignatieff they think they know.

The odd thing is that the book actually shows Michael Ignatieff to be one of the least arrogant leaders the Liberal party has ever had, a man looking for recognition, not demanding entitlement. Naïve? Partly, though inexperienced is probably the better term. Someone in need of better advisers? Definitely. But also honest. And, with all his pedigree dragging from his foot like a political ball and chain, Fire and Ashes actually shows Michael Ignatieff to be a lot more like many ordinary Canadians than most career politicians. But that’s just the point. That’s why he is no longer Liberal leader, and never was prime minister.

Fire and Ashes opens with Ignatieff recounting a visit from three ‘Men in Black’, his term for the three Liberal insiders from Toronto, who came to convince him to come back to Canada and be a contender for the leadership of the Liberal party whenever Paul Martin called it quits. I can’t think of a more honest political opening than the one here. He admits that he didn’t really know why he wanted to be in politics, why he said yes to them. Probably it was his ego, his sense of needing to live up to his family, to prove himself. All of these, he admits, are the wrong answers.

To even talk like this is not to be a good politician. It is to break the rules of essential dissemblance and dishonesty. He’s supposed to talk about service, and he does, eventually. But at this point in his life and at this point in the book, the answer is an honest one. If we’re honest with ourselves, it might be the kind of thing anyone would say (except the part about living up to one’s family). Ignatieff was an accomplished public intellectual and author. Few Canadians knew the kind of international success that he achieved. Yes, he lived outside the country for years. But so did Wayne Gretzky. Some kinds of success mean going abroad. If, after this kind of career, someone came to you and offered you the opportunity that these men offered Ignatieff, many would be tempted just like he was.

What followed, we know, was not success but the failure part of the title – the ashes. His timing couldn’t have been worse – not in getting into parliament, in trying for the leadership the first time, or in finally attaining the leadership. It didn’t help that he was new to the job, and learning slowly.

Ignatieff early reminisces about his romantic ideas of a Canada long lost – the Canada of his parents generation, when the Liberal party was the government party. ‘It never occurred to me,’ he writes, ‘when I returned home and entered politics, that their liberal world and the Canada they had made had long since vanished.’ (16) On this Ignatieff couldn’t be more wrong, on two fronts. In many ways Ignatieff is very much like a Pearson or a St Laurent, both men who achieved great success out of politics, and then were lured into it by political insiders, men in grey flannel suits perhaps. They were, in their own way, idealists, not very good politicians. But the Liberal party of this era was stuffed with men who could do the dirty work while the leader kept his nose in the air. Ignatieff writes fondly of Jack Pickersgill working in the 1950s to bring Hungarian refugees to Canada. This is an example of the Canada he is nostalgic for. But Jack Pickersgill couldn’t have been further from an idealistic liberal. He specialized in the kind of dirty dissembling tricks beneath the surface of a seemingly placid calm. As a civil servant, he had been known for his love of power, for ignoring the niceties of civil service discretion, and just doing what his political masters wanted him to do. The Liberal party of this era depended on bagmen who routinely hit up companies getting government contracts for donations to the party. It was the Liberal party tax of doing business for the government of Canada. The Canada of these years was big and small L liberal. The idealists existed in mutual symbiosis with the political hacks.

Moreover, the Canada of today is vastly more liberal (small l) than the Canada of Pearson or even Trudeau. This is what so angers the minority of Canadians who form the political base for the CPC. On a range of social issues, Canada has been transformed since that era, including during the Mulroney, Chretien and even the Harper years. The liberal progressive Canada is splintered and divided, it isn’t gone.

But perhaps that’s what the loss to Harper over Ignatieff’s years in Ottawa has done – made him see the world through the eyes of those who won the political battles. Certainly it is unfortunate to see in Fire and Ashes the way Ignatieff internalizes the attacks against him – about his not really being Canadian. In this book, as at the time, Ignatieff can dissect why the attacks work, but not how to combat them.

One of the best things about reading this book is the occasional sightings of Ignatieff the brilliant intellectual that emerge. They’re not there on every page (it’s almost as if the political life was a cocoon from which he is only partially emerging) but they shine nonetheless. His line on Stephane Dion’s leadership victory in 2006 is priceless. He calls Dion ‘a Quebecker whose many qualities included the fact that he was neither Bob [Rae] nor me.’ Viciously accurate. Or then there is his self-deprecating description of his fumbling statements about the war in Lebanon during his bid for the leadership:  ‘With a couple of ill-chosen sentences, I had managed the almost impossible feat of alienating Muslim, Jewish and Lebanese groups alike.’(76)


Watching Ignatieff during his time as Liberal leader was sometimes painful. It’s clear even he knew it. He writes of how ‘I had to unlearn being clever, being rhetorical, being fluent and start appreciating how much depends on making a connection, any connection, with the people listening to you.’ (56) Often this means dissembling, on not really being who you are, not telling the truth, putting forward a shadow of yourself. Some people are good at this. Ignatieff was not.

His rictus-like grin never managed to convince you that he was comfortable. And Fire and Ashes shows us that he wasn’t. If he had come at a different time, in a different era, he might have learned the tricks of the trade. After all, Harper has his own wacky grin. He’s far from a natural social animal. But timing is everything, and Ignatieff’s timing was bad.

Many critics lament the lack of insight in Fire and Ashes, what Ignatieff doesn’t tell us. They complain that we don’t get enough policy, not enough insight into the secrets of the game, the stories as they unfolded. And it’s true that the book does fall short on juicy details.

One thing that will last is Ignatieff’s assessment of Stephen Harper. Ignatieff calls Harper ‘a transactional opportunist with no fixed compass other than the pursuit of power…’ (106) ‘He conveys the impression of having fixed and steady convictions, when in fact he is prepared to jettison any policy when it suits him. It is a rare gift to combine the impression of conviction with total opportunism…’

Ignatieff is bitter. Who wouldn’t be? But his assessment of Harper is spot on. It actually matches up with what Paul Wells says in his new book on the Harper years, the best book yet to dissect this government and this prime minister. The main difference is that while Ignatieff is wistful and resentful, Wells is distant but admiring.

Close observers of politics like winners. They see what works, how power operates, how those at the top make it work for them. To talk of politics is to talk of strategy and technique.

Ignatieff was never quite able to get to this. Even in this book, he still holds back, intellectually understanding it, but not able, unlike someone like Wells, or someone like Peter Newman or a Bruce Hutchison from an earlier generation, to just admire the technique.

In that way, Michael Ignatieff is a lot like most Canadians – just not in a way that helped him to get elected. The fact is we don’t actually like politicians, but we seem to like bad ones even less.



Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Parliamentary Democracy Now


As Michael Chong's reform bill moves its away towards what looks like it will be a sad death, Christopher Moore gives us the most cogent explanation for why this is a bad thing.

Former Reform party whip Jay Hill was brought out at last weekend's Manning Conference of Conservative and conservative thinkers to take the bill down. The bill would allow MPs more power in removing the party leader without a leadership convention. It's the kind of thing allowed in other parliamentary countries (and arguably it actually is allowed even without Chong's bill). The counter argument is that this wouldn't be democratic. You would just have a few MPs deciding on a leader who has been voted in by thousands of party members.

My favourite bit of Moore's rebuttal is the way he shows how this argument fundamentally disavows the essence of parliamentary democracy:

It is the essence of parliamentary democracy, its defining principle, that the executive, the government, is accountable on a constant, daily basis, to the legislature.  And given the reality of political parties, that means that in a working parliamentary democracy, the government is accountable to the majority caucus. It's not "a few dozen people," Mr. Hill. It is the majority of the elected representatives of the Canadian people you dismiss.

And that, folks, is that. But read Moore's whole post here.


Thursday, 27 February 2014

Concentration Camp Administrator or Model Governor General?


The latest issue of the Dorchester Review has a short essay that could spark interesting debate. It all depends on how you want to remember John Buchan - Governor General, famous author and, as Ian McKay and Jamie Smift recently wrote, 'concentration camp administrator.'

An odd and unpleasant combination.

But not so fast. J William Galbraith takes issue there with the way that Swift and McKay have presented Buchan in their book Warrior Nation. Galbraith is the author of the recently published biography of Buchan (which focuses especially on his years in Canada as Governor General). He suggests that McKay and Swift are taking advantage of the postWWII meanings of the term concentration camp to make a swift, negative attack.

According to Galbraith, the camps in question were in South Africa during the Boer war. These were refugee camps where Boer women and children were kept after Kitchener's army swept through the area. They had, he reports, a pretty terrible record  of cramped space and high mortality rates. Sounds bad.

But Galbraith claims that Buchan was brought in to deal with the problem in 1901. Within a matter of months, morality rates were declining as Buchan's changes improved the camps. The camps were meant to win over the Boer families and the Boer commander Louis Botha admitted being thankful that they existed.

I confess to not at all being an expert on the South African war. But it makes for an interesting controversy, and a nice sign of genuine debates when someone picks up a historical figure to make a contemporary political point, and is called on it.