Category Archives: History

Fill the Space

Last week, one of my dear friends and fellow historians sent around a link to a column by David Perry, about how without us always noticing it, medieval history has frequently been appropriated by white supremacists as part of their world view. It’s a really good piece, and you can read it here.  (Here is a great bibliography of further reading along similar lines, if you would like.)

I’m not going to try to expand on Perry’s thoughts about history (because I don’t really think that I can) but his column did get me to thinking about the imaginary worlds we create. I often read comments to the effect of ‘Leave the politics out of your writing, I just want a good story’ directed at authors. Is it a fair criticism? Should artists provide politically-neutral entertainment for our audiences? Or do we instead have an obligation to use our platform (of whatever size it may be) to promote the values and causes we think are important?

I actually want to hit pause on the question of whether it would be desirable to write fiction that was free of political messages, and consider whether it’s even possible. I don’t think that it is. Certainly everything that I write has a large part of me in it, which includes the values I hold dear and all the assumptions and biases that are a part of me. When I create my heroes and villains, I doubt I could avoid putting my own consideration of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are into the mix. Whatever kind of imaginary world I’m creating will always be at least partly refracted through the prism of how I see the world around me: what I like, what I don’t like, what pleases me and what bothers me.

So I think that even if I tried to write a story that was entirely apolitical, I would probably fail. My ideas are in there, in the weave of every tale I spin, and I don’t think it could be any other way.

Even if it were possible to write a story that was somehow free, or even apparently free, of ideology, it would almost certainly be a dangerous idea. Our imaginary worlds can be the blank space that gets filled with dangerous, harmful messages just as easily as the worlds of the past can be. An imagined past, present, or future that carries no expressions of tolerance, diversity, and equality all too easily becomes an expression against those ideas. Perry mentions how we already know this happens with tales like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at times. I think the argument that it is the writer’s duty to counteract the use of art to spread hate is as strong as the one placing that duty upon the historian, and the teacher.

Some people suggest that artists have a special obligation to be political in this particular moment in which we find ourselves, to boost the ideas we cherish against what seems to be an increasingly negative tide. I’m not sure whether that’s true or it isn’t, but I think the idea of the writer as apolitical is a false one, unachievable and undesirable. In the end, we must write what we believe. Anything else will ring false, and we do a disservice to our values if we try to silence them. I trust my audience can consider my ideas for themselves, and take them or leave them as they choose.

Finally, to my teaching, at least briefly. From when I started teaching I tried very hard to deliberately leave my politics and my beliefs out of it. For one thing, I didn’t (and don’t) believe that what I think about any particular issue is of any particular interest or import, but it was more than that. I wanted my students to reach their own conclusions, and I felt that I was there to teach history, not to teach them what to think about history. Recently, and at least in part because of other historians like Perry, I’m reconsidering. Probably my politics were already there, just as they are in my writing, in what I chose to put in my lectures and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what examples from the past to bring into the light. Somewhat amusingly to me as I write this, that was more or less the point of my PhD dissertation – that history is never neutral. I’ll never insist that my students agree with anything that I suggest to them, but I do think it’s probably my job to make sure they hear a particular side of the story.

That blank space unto which harmful views can be projected isn’t desirable in the classroom any more than it is in the world of fiction, and it’s space that will be filled if we don’t put something there.

We may as well make sure that space is occupied by something marvelous rather than something ghastly.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Statues

Along with many other things, people have been thinking a lot about history in the last week or so. My own background is as a historian, so I’m going to engage a bit with that for this week’s blog. Specifically, there’s been a lot of ink being spilled over statues, and (even more specifically) whether statues of Confederate generals and politicians should be taken down.

For just a second, I’d like to try to think about this issue in a vacuum. It’s been suggested that taking down memorial statues (presumably of whatever sort) ‘erases history’, and therefore shouldn’t be done, otherwise we (as a society) will forget our past and (presumably) whatever lessons we should have learned from it.

To a historian, the idea of ‘erasing history’ is of course instantly an alarming one, but this idea that our history, and our understanding of it, comes mostly from public memorial statues is both interesting and, I have to say, highly dubious. There are (I think) no statues of Adolf Hitler up anywhere, but you certainly couldn’t argue that he’s been in any way erased from history, or that people have forgotten about the crimes of his regime. (Yes, obviously his ideas have supporters, but I don’t think that has much to do with a lack of statuary)

That’s because our history is not only preserved (or, I would argue, even mostly preserved) in statues and public memorials. History is preserved in documents and the work of historians, in our works of art and recordings, in the memory of people. I cannot imagine anyone, interested in a period of history, first going out to see what statues were there depicting figures from that period. In part at least that’s because we recognize, perhaps without realizing it, that statues don’t really depict the past, but someone’s idea of the past, and then only of a particular piece of the past. The impression we get is filtered through the vision of the artist who created the piece, the person or group who commissioned it, and whoever made the decision to put the memorial there at all. We know that these things don’t appear without an act of will on someone’s part, and that they are not chosen based on ideas of historical objectivity. The things we make statues to are someone’s favourites.

Public memorials are interesting objects. I think primarily they speak to the part of history that we want to talk about, which is very often our first impulse of how to ‘do history’ – to tell the story we want to tell, about the things we’re happy to talk about. This is the old idea of history as told by victors. We don’t put up statues of our villains, but of our heroes. Even when we do memorialize loss of life, it is either because we valourize it (sacrifice in support of ideals we admire) or because we are (as a society) happy to talk about our regret for that time or those events.

Our public memorials are (I hope obviously) not history in it’s entirety (we’ve got books for that, among other things) but the version of history that the powerful parts of society were, at some point, eager to express. They are what society, or at least a powerful and influential part of society, wanted to hold up to be seen.

This brings us to those Confederate statues, mostly put up not immediately following the war, but in the Jim Crow era of the South. They would not have been thought of, then, as some cautionary tale about division or civil war, or loss of life. They were part of an attempt to re-establish white supremacy in the American South, to put leaders of the Confederacy on public display and thereby assert: these are our heroes. I think it’s clear that this is both a statement of intent and a statement of power; ‘we can do this, and no-one will stop us.’

In advocating for the statues’ removal, then, we’re not advocating for ‘erasing history’, but for dismantling a specific political agenda from about 100 years ago, one which (one presumes) we’re no longer in favour of. It’s also not really hard, or shouldn’t be hard, to empathize with black Americans who see these statues, raised for men who fought a war to keep their ancestors in chains, and find their continued presence in their communities hurtful.

Removing them causes no harm, except to an ideology that we should be happy to see extinguished, and can only help many people. This should not be a difficult decision. I should say that we have many similar decisions to make here in Canada; the name of Langevin was recently taken off a building on Parliament Hill due to the role of Hector Louis Langevin in the residential schools program, and the statue of Cornwallis that caused some controversy in Halifax recently should also come down.

People object that this means ‘forgetting’ history, or being ashamed of it. It means neither of those things, and in fact to me it means the opposite. It means actively remembering what happened in our past, recognizing that we have changed and progressed as a society, and making symbolic change that reflects that. It’s actively recognizing our past, admitting it, admitting the truth about it, and then doing something about it. It isn’t refusing to discuss something or trying to hide it, it’s openly saying ‘yes, this is what we were or what happened’ and marking the fact that we aren’t that, anymore.

Most Canadians, I suspect, would not have known who Hector Louis Langevin was prior to his name coming off that Parliamentary building. Perhaps, in the choice being made to take it off, and the explanation as to why, a few more do now. Sometimes, a removal in fact leads to greater remembrance.

Symbolic actions are not the most significant kind of action we can take. In Canada, there’s a lot that needs to be done to help our First Nations communities on a practical level that goes far beyond taking down some dedications. But if there is one thing I have learned as a historian, it is that we love symbols. Symbolic actions can be some of the most powerful ones we take.

It’s past time for a lot of these things to happen.

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Books in Stories

The last couple days, I’ve been thinking about books.

(What a surprise, they said)

What I mean is, I’ve been thinking about books as objects, what those objects mean, and why they end up being in the story (rather than the story being in them) so often. This is largely because we’re finishing the programming for Can*Con 2017 (and, brief aside: I’m super excited about what we’re gonna have for you this fall, so you should really check it out) and one of the things I’ve been trying to do is get a panel on these kinds of ideas written up right so it can be on the list. I’ve been struggling to come up with the right way to sell the idea, so I’m sort of hoping that by writing this I can work through my ideas a bit and either save the panel for this year or at least be ready to make a better case for it next time around.

So, books. Obviously I appreciate them because I like to read, but I think my background as a historian is part of this too. Books, through the centuries, have had their uses, appearance, audiences, and status change tremendously. (And I say that really knowing only about the differences in European culture from the Romans forward. There’s tons out there I have no idea about.) They’ve gone from being the elitest of objects, costing a fortune to create and kept in the vault with other treasures, to being so disposable we abandon them, partly-read, in airport terminals.

It’s a misconception that books were ever just for religious subjects, and I’m not even sure it’s fair to say that the number of things we write books about has increased over the centuries; there were always works of fiction, works of science, volumes of history and all the rest of it. It is certainly true that the distribution of these various genres has shifted, a lot, and there’s also been a huge shift in who writes the books.

All of this is fascinating (to me anyway) but before I shift fully into Teacher Mode I guess I should also stop and acknowledge that none of it exactly explains why we have a lot of stories that feature books as important parts of the plot. I think it’s relatively easy to understand why, if you consider the book as an object as it was in the past, they would end up as vibrant parts of stories. They took months of labour and substantial expense to create. They were often accessed by a very limited number of people: in addition to Charlemagne keeping his books in his treasure vault, Domesday book was kept in a special chest with three different locks and the keys kept by three different people, so that no one person could ever access it alone. The city records I studied for my PhD dissertation were kept in an archive that, far from being open to all readers, kept out all but the carefully approved inner circle of government from consulting the books on the city’s history, and compilations of its law.

It isn’t hard to imagine why objects like that could become potent parts of a story, these elevated, exclusive, objects that held so many answers and so much information. Of course we must add to this that most people wouldn’t have been able to read the books even if they were allowed to access them, and the intrigue grows: a source of information and power that only a select few can comprehend. Our stereotypical magical tome is pretty close. And don’t forget, they were also frequently beautiful objects of visual art, intended to impress and delight a reader visually as well as through the text (or just someone who saw the book being used), and (can’t emphasize this enough) due to all this labour, impressively expensive.

(I would love to read a story about a quest for a book in a fantasy setting, not because it was magic or had the key to destroying the necromancer, but because it was worth a fortune)

The thing is that books have always also been intimate objects, as well as being these somewhat removed, elite objects. In the Middle Ages many people had special devotional volumes called Books of Hours that they would carry around with them throughout the day, to focus and inspire prayer, provide inspiration, and also impress people with your flashy l’il book. It’s hard to think of a more personal object than a book created specifically for one person, that they then carried with them all day every day.

(I am also probably about the billionth person to want to take the name ‘Book of Hours’ and twist it into a book that somehow controls time, or contains time)

Now, of course book ownership was an elite past-time at this point, but among book enthusiasts, they traded their books back and forth (sometimes with amusing marginal notes about the content), gave them as gifts and left them as bequests. There’s even a book that contains poems written in many different hands – it appears that when the family entertained visitors, they might write a favourite verse into this book, creating a volume that both collects poetry and serves as a memorial of friendship. (It’s kind of especially cool that analysts believe most of the hands are female) So books could be intensely personal objects, ways of forging and maintaining connections between people, at the same time as being Mysterious Tomes to many.

That aspect rarely comes across in fiction, and I think it would be cool to see more of it.

So I guess I think it’s easy to understand why books of the past were powerful symbols of knowledge and power (often restricted knowledge and power) and – as with a lot of things that are powerful and hard to understand – also potentially dangerous, and then show up in that role in a lot of fiction. It’s also true that (of course) there really were books on arcane lore and alchemy and spells and things so it’s not like the idea was invented for fiction.

Has the book, in its current, disposable form, lost this potency as a symbol? I know it hasn’t for me. I still love books, I love the physical act of reading and having a printed volume in my hand. I love the way a shelf of books looks, and one of the first things I will do in someone’s house (and this is probably not a great thing to admit) is to check out their bookshelf and see what’s on it. You can learn a surprising amount, or at least I think I can. So books-as-objects continue to have power to me, beyond their content, even though the symbolism is generally one of relaxation, comfort and rather more benevolent knowledge.

However, just as people who were literate were a minority in the past, I suspect people who continue to love books are a shrinking minority today, with the proliferation of electronic media, both e-books and reading on the internet. Perhaps that means that books, which were briefly (in a historical sense) ubiquitous and commonplace in Western society, are on a journey back to being unusual curiosities, and perhaps returning to the symbolic territory they used to occupy.

That’s quite rambly, and I think I’ll stop it here for this week.

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Vimy

It is one hundred years since the battle of Vimy Ridge, much celebrated here in Canada. Today in particular there will be commemorations and a great deal said and written about it all. Since I studied history, teach it, and write about it from time to time, I feel as though I should have something to say as well, although it’s a more difficult question for me than it appears to be for some.

I think there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the reasons why the First World War was fought, and about Canada’s involvement in it in particular. The loss of life was such that the numbers sometimes fail to make an impression; they’re just too big to make sense. Vimy Ridge was a typically bloody engagement; the assaulting forces lost 3,598 soldiers killed and 7,004 more wounded, in three days fighting. Bloodshed on that scale demands an answer: was it necessary, was the cause just and right, and I think it is a very difficult answer to give. If we look for a ‘just war’ it is hard to make World War One fit that mould, but Canada was asked to fight, and Canadians were asked to fight, and so they went and fought as they were asked to do. By all accounts they did it well.

Vimy was the first battle where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a formation. As a result it is labelled by some the time when Canada ‘became a nation’, although this seems to me deeply problematic, not least for its dismissal of the thousands of years worth of people who lived in this place we call home up until that point. Significant politically and militarily the battle may perhaps have been, but there was surely a nation, and nations, here before that. The military, and military history, has often been an interest of mine, but still I am uncomfortable with the idea that our nation, or any nation, is defined by its battles. I like to think that Canada has different roots than that. In any case there was already a Canada that the men who ended up on Vimy Ridge felt strongly enough about to go off to war, so I wonder whether they would have agreed that there was no nation until after that battle.

However that all may be, the battle has been much mythologized in Canada, and like most myths a healthy dose of fiction is added to the story. Vimy becomes, it seems, more glorious the further we get away from the bloody quagmired truth of the battlefield which far too many would never leave. However we may embroider the events of those days, the military historians tell us that the Canadian success was part of an overall strategy that failed, that the 10,000 lives and more shattered taking the ridge did not lead to a stunning breakthrough, and the war ground remorselessly on. Does that make the courage and sacrifice of the men who went and fought the slightest bit less? I feel it does not, and yet in taking the battle and making it part of our national myth I suppose we insist upon more gilded version.

The main thing I am left with regarding Vimy, and World War One in general, is that these young men went where their country asked them to go and went into the worst kind of peril as a result of that. They did the job they were asked to do and, in the case of Vimy Ridge, did it successfully and well. We can, then and more recently, question the motives of the men who asked those things of them, but not, I think, the response. They made that choice for many reasons, as soldiers I suppose always do, and even if I wonder whether they needed to go and fight, when their country asked something of them their answer was ‘yes’ and that is an answer I will always honour deeply.

It seems to me important for leaders today to remember that there are men and women who, when their country asks them to do something, will go and give their heart’s blood trying to do it. If the cause be just, then both the decision and the results may be a thing that we can look upon and know that it was necessary and right. Even if we cannot take satisfaction in it, exactly, we can know that it was important and that our young people did what needed to be done. But our leaders must not ask these things of them lightly because if history is any guide, when the country asks those young people to go into danger on its behalf there will always be a courageous number who will answer ‘yes’ and we cannot take that answer unless we are absolutely certain of its dire necessity. It is too tragic to contemplate that sacrifice if it is not absolutely unavoidable.

One hundred years ago, young Canadians made their assault on Vimy Ridge. They fought well, they did what was asked of them, and all too many spilled their blood because of it.

We shall remember them.

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