Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Political Sentimeter

Nellie McClung

The Toronto Star recently introduced us to its 'political Sentimeter'. It's part high-tech political personality test, and part buzz-feed quiz. The test is fascinating and you can take it here to see where you yourself fit.

They asked me and a few other historians/political scientists to offer some historical examples of the different political types. You can see our suggestions here.

My main take-away from this was a reconfirmation of just how much our political landscape has changed since the 1960s. A number of contemporary political types just don't readily translate into Canadian political history. Look at the test, for example, and try to place a first wave feminist like Nellie McClung.

Partly this has to do with the way in which so-called family values and religion were more common-sensical even to many on the left. Also important is the radical liberalization of the political spectrum, including the way in which libertarian ideas have spread across both the right and the left in complex ways. Something to think about.

Or just another fun internet quiz. You choose.

Friday, 17 October 2014

How should we teach history?

On 31 October, before you head out to 'trick or treat' or to dress up as ghoul for dancing fun, why not come to what looks to be an interesting event at the University of Toronto?

Stéphane Lévesque will be giving a talk on history as a verb. Then there will be a roundtable discussion in which I'll say a few things (though I don't know what they'll be. come to find out).

Here's the poster I've been sent:

Friday, 12 September 2014

Canadian Political History Conference

In a few weeks, a large number of political historians in Canada will be gathered at Université de Québec à Montréal to talk about their research. It's a diverse bunch of topics and historians, kind of gathered under the rubric of political activism and citizen intervention.

See the whole program here.

I have the very unhistorian like title 'What democratic reformers can learn from Freud's 20th century.'

My own contribution is slotted in the very last session of the conference on Saturday afternoon.  The only consolation for this horrid spot is that I have great company.

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.