Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Flags

Much brouhaha in the United States right now over the Confederate flag — more properly the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — and whether it should be flying over the statehouse in South Carolina, or anywhere for that matter. Walmart and Sears stopped selling them last week. In typically stale and unthinking reporting, successive journalists have described the debate as one that pits those who see the flag as a symbol of racism and oppression against those who see it as a symbol of history and heritage, as if it can’t be both.

Back when I taught American history I would sometimes get confronted by enormously self-assured students who told me that I had it wrong. The American Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights. They learned this in high school. In a sense, they were correct. The Civil War was indeed about states' rights, of which the only one worth going to war over was the right to own slaves. The Union did not go to war in 1861 to free slaves, but the South most assured did go to war in order to keep them. If the Confederacy had won the war the institution would not have died in 1865.  Having lost the war, however, the former Confederate states mobilized politically to replace slavery with legal forms of racial discrimination that endured for over a century, and whose social and political legacy remains deeply entrenched. 


The “Confederate flag” is a symbol of all that, and its opponents are right to insist that it belongs in a museum, not over a statehouse, or in Walmart, or on a bumper sticker.

But how selective our righteous indignation can be. I wonder how many flags aren't symbols of cruelty and oppression for some group of people, or even very large groups of people? Certainly not Old Glory. Or the Union Jack. Or Japan's flag. Or the Republic of China’s. Shall we count bodies of the innocent? In reverse order from the list above, we would start with about 40 million.  


Amazon is no longer selling the Confederate Flag, either. Whew. Wouldn’t want that symbol of oppression to fall into the wrong hands. Buy one of these instead. 


Addendum: shortly after I posted this column, South Carolina took down its Confederate flags from the state legislature. I approve but, remember: when they de-Stalinized the Soviet Union, the point wasn't to confront the past. It was to bury it.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dogfights


Saturday, October 28th was the second consecutive day of high winds, rain, and heavy cloud, dreadful weather that grounded much of the RFC on the Somme. Undaunted, 24 attempted two patrols that day. Returning from a solo OP that morning, Saundby, whose engine was giving him trouble, fought a west wind so strong he could barely make headway against it. Low on fuel, he landed at Morlancourt, home to No. 9 Squadron. After refueling and some repairs, he clawed his way the remaining twenty miles west to Bertangles, arriving late but intact, no doubt much to relief of his squadron mates.  The weather had hardly improved by 3 PM, when McKay and Knight alighted in the rain on a defensive patrol. High winds, dense cloud cover and what Knight described as intermittent “gales and storms” led another pilot to think them “impertinent” for flying at all. Worse still, McKay’s engine was acting up, and he had already returned to the aerodrome once with a dud engine to switch machines. Buffeted by wind, rain, and sleet, he had a horrid flight through frigid grey skies over a devastated grey landscape, nursing his engine, sputtering along at 7000 feet, 1500 below and behind Knight, unable to climb higher. Beneath them, the armies hunkered down in their waterlogged trenches, wearily and grimly bracing themselves for the denouement of the Somme battle. 

By 3:40 PM, McKay and Knight reached the town of Pozieres. In July and August twenty-three thousand Australians had been killed or wounded wresting the town and its adjacent ridge from the Germans in a series of violently contest assaults. Now it lay in shell-pocked ruins.  On the two Canadians pressed, flying through cloud and rain. Then, peering into the distance, McKay spotted a single German machine, well below them to the north. It was a tempting target, but experienced pilots knew that this sort of thing was often a trap, designed to lure reckless newcomers into formations of scouts lurking at high altitudes. Scanning the sky above, McKay saw them between the clouds: nearly an entire squadron at 10,000 feet. “Halberstadter and brown scouts,” he called them in the squadron record book, but they were in fact the new Albatros fighters, faster than the DH.2 and mounting twice its firepower. Knight had seen them, too. Probably both men had guessed their identity. This was 24’s arch-nemesis, Jagdstaffel Zwei, and after five minutes of pursuit, half a dozen of them, led by Oswald Boelcke himself, slipped to the side and came screaming down upon them. 

From Eddie: The Life and Times of A.E. McKay, Royal Flying Corps (in process)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Excerpts

On the 14th of March 1917, Eddie McKay departed 24 Squadron for the last time. The squadron’s aerodromes had been his home and its pilots his family for nine months. Now he was the last — the very last — of that ‘fellowship of famous knights’ who had stormed the skies above the Somme when the great battle began in July. He still languished as 2nd lieutenant, undecorated, with a solid but undistinguished four victories to his name, and the Boelcke story probably starting to become a bit threadbare in the mess. But he was alive. ‘Lithe’ Eddie McKay, ‘cool headed’ Eddie McKay, ‘quick and scrappy’ Eddie McKay, never happier than on the rugby pitch, boring in with heart alone against bigger men and bringing them down. He was alive. Gray, Wigglesworth, Evans, Mansfield, Gooderich, Langan Byrne, Crawford, Begg, Glew, Wilson, Holtom, Knight, and Lewis were not. And Hawker was not. McKay left. England and the Home Establishment beckoned.
    The next day, his replacement, nineteen year old 2nd lieutenant James Kenneth Ross of Crouch End, a comfortable middle class suburb in the north of London, arrived fresh from No. 6 Reserve Training Squadron to take his place in the roster of “A” Flight. He was dead in twenty days.


from The Life and Times of Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps (in process)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tennis

Hi,

I’m offering tennis lessons, at a big tennis facility. They cost $7271.93.  I know that sounds like a lot, but, consider the following. The average incoming tennis student, based on prior demonstrated skills in tennis, is awarded a $1,000 admission bursary. This brings the cost of a package down to $6300, on average. For that, you get fifteen hours of tennis lessons per week with at least five established professionals in the field, and it’s a twenty-six week package! That’s 390 hours of tennis lessons for $6300, which works out to $16/hour for instruction!

Still not convinced? Well – and you’re not going to believe this – the cost of your lessons is tax deductible! This reduces the functional cost of your tuition, I mean, tennis lessons,  by an average of 15%, or to about $5350, or about about $13.70 hour.  I'll say that again – $13.70 an hour!  That's about what Laser Tag costs!  (You can even take out low-interest loans to cover the cost of your lessons, and the interest you pay on them is tax deductible, reducing the interest rate with inflation to about 1%).

In addition, I forgot to mention the other services we offer. You have free weekly opportunities for one-on-one consultation with your tennis instructors – some of whom are world class tennis champions – in addition to a wide array of free skill-set and personal related counselling by professionals that you can consult without limit. And your tennis instructors almost always can offer tips by e-mail.

Did I mention the tennis library, which has tens of thousands of works about tennis you can check out, staff you can consult with, and where you can work to study up on your game for no additional charge? Or the tennis libraries’ thousands of digital databases you have 24/7 access to in order to improve your playing?

Did I mention our recreational facilities? The gym? The pool? The fitness classes? The dozens of non-tennis related clubs? The vast number of social activities you can go to in order to meet other tennis students? That we even hold concerts and plays and have an art gallery and lovely grounds to walk? Nearly all of these services are available at no extra charge, and they’re available to you when tennis lessons aren’t in session. We even throw in a free year-round bus pass! Finally, we can demonstrate statistically that people who have taken tennis lessons have higher lifetime earnings than people who haven’t.

What’s that? No, I’m afraid we can’t offer tennis lesson for free.  All those services cost money. I know it's a difficult concept.  But the fact is, we’re literally going bankrupt offering the lessons at their current rates. The way it’s looking right now, we probably won’t be able to offer them for much longer, so I’d grab the lessons now if you could.

One thing, though…some people still complain that their tennis lessons are far too expensive. And yet our records show that they only show up for half their lessons!  Maybe they shouldn’t have taken tennis lessons in the first place.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Walking

High-fives all around, humanity. You’re familiar, of course, with the terrible story of James Robertson, the Detroit man who walks over twenty miles a day to work at a job that pays $10.55 an hour. A crowdfunding effort has raised nearly $300,000 – that’s Robertson’s take-home pay for a decade, by the way –  to help him get to work.  And now he has a  “team of financial advisors" to help him out. Problem solved!  And here you crazy lefties thought that the problem was the economy we've chosen to have, and the cities we've chosen to design. Ha! Ha! 

In other news, a crowd-sourcing effort is underway to save a drowning polar bear whose ice flow has melted due to climate change. We'll alert you when the polar bear is saved and that problem is solved, too.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Addresses

My fellow Americans. I did not write these words. They were written for me by a team of professional speech-writers. They were tested before small focus groups ahead of time in order to determine their likely impact on the polls. The speech you are about to hear will be devoid of substantive content. Nothing that I will say will be surprising. Ninety percent of what I say could have been said by any of my predecessors in the past forty years. The speech will contain at least two dozen tiresome political cliches. I will pause for just a moment after delivering each of these so that members of Congress and others in attendance will know when to rise and applaud. You will notice that the Justices of the Supreme Court and the Joints Chiefs of Staff seldom will clap. This is their way of maintaining the ridiculous pretense that they are somehow apolitical, when in fact they are some of the most ideologically zealous people you will ever meet, and have been chosen in part precisely because of their ideological zealotry.

I will now insert a word of thanks to the brave men and women of our armed forces. Members of Congress, you will wish to be first on your feet to applaud for them. If you believe that it is not merely absurd but actually insidious and indeed even fascistic to valorize martial virtues over civilian ones, or if you think that it impedes badly needed argument about the conduct of America’s foreign and military policy, you should rise and applaud anyway. To do otherwise would be to commit an immediate act of political suicide, with implications not only for your own career but for your party.

In addition to offering a succession of banal statements written at approximately an eighth-grade reading level, I will also deploy a number of rhetorical cliches. These ring familiar to the ear, like a repetitious hit song, or the formula that drives your favourite Hollywood movies. They have been shown by the marketing and public relations firms that drive so much of our political culture to produce the most statistically favourable poll results. To that end, I will not and shall not just say “will not.”  I can not and will not just say “can not.”  I will also be referring to Americans as “folks” and will never say “taxpayers” without inserting “harding working” in front of it. I promise to make no literary references except to the Bible. My only historical references will be to the Founding Fathers, though I have been advised to downplay Thomas Jefferson.

I have invited guests today to hear the State of the Union Address. They are good people who have done good things for their communities. Some of them have saved peoples’ lives. You will be comforted to know that they have been carefully vetted to ensure that they haven’t done anything in the past that might embarrass me; they have also been selected in a precisely calculated manner so as ensure that their selection plays out favourably in terms of likely and probable voter support.

I wish to stress again that this speech will include no substantive content. For instance, I will not and shall not mention that we borrow money China in order to pay for ridiculously bloated armed forces that irrationally regard China as their greatest foe. And I can not and will not mention that a powerful lobby has somehow convinced millions of Americans that gun crime is unrelated to guns. Or that we alone do not use the metric system. Or that forty percent of you think the world is less than 10,000 years old and that this in turn explains why we are falling behind in scientific achievement relative to the rest of the world. 


Nonetheless, this content-free speech will be analyzed down to the last word by journalists, a very special breed of people paid to write and speak at great length on matters about which they have no professional expertise. They will judge the value of speech – and note once again, that it has none in particular – based on their pre-existing ideological predispositions. They will pay particular attention to the one or two times in this speech when I make a gracious remark about a member of Congress from another political party, like the guy sitting behind me. I can not – and shall not – reveal just how much I hate that guy’s guts. Instead, I will make a point about how great America is by observing that he came from humble origins. You may now applaud.  

Once again I’d like to thank the brave men and women of our armed forces for protecting our freedoms, even if it demonstrably true that our government in the conduct of its foreign and military policy has provided vital political, economic, and military aid to a litany of dictatorships while progressively encroaching on individual liberties at home. I’d also like to thank the hardworking taxpayers who make it possible for us to spend $1.5 trillion on a jet that we don't need and that doesn’t work while our urban infrastructure crumbles.

I do not believe in God but am required by poll evidence to conclude this speech by asking God to bless America, because despite the widely held view amongst the religious that their faith is under attack and in retreat, they constitute an overwhelming majority of the population.  So, God Bless the United States of America. He didn’t stop the Holocaust but maybe he’ll intervene on our behalf in this particular instance, and straighten out a health care system that costs two or three times as much per capita as ones that we deride as being "socialist."  Thank you and goodnight. Especially if you're one of the brave men and women of our armed forces.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

#JeSuisCharlie

Feeling more aggrieved than usual, your unbending author interrupts regularly scheduled programing to clear his throat in defense of civilization. 
---

Yes, I tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. Yes, I put the hashtag on Facebook. Yes, I even put it on the wipe board on my office door, which isn’t really my office door, hence the “even.”  #JeSuisCharlie is a small thing, but not meaningless, a gesture of solidarity with victims of religious fascism. As someone who makes his living in the world of thought and ideas and written expression, I found the murders at Charlie Hebdo particularly poignant even though far worse acts of violence against innocents were committed elsewhere in the world that week.  Boko Haram murdered several hundred people in the town of Baga around the same time as the Paris shootings, and despite what some people seem to think, I am not ignorant of the one if I care about the other. 

The very minute I saw the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, I knew that the backlash against it would begin with a couple of days or so. Sniping of the kind I just described was inevitable. Even before the Ice Bucket Challenge (remember that?) reached its zenith last summer people started saying, “Why all the attention about ALS? Don’t people know that heart disease kills more people?” And so on.  If you’re ever giving a eulogy, try that line of reasoning out. “Well, sure, this guy is dead. But, come on. A lot more people than him died this week. Don’t you people care about them? What kind of monsters are you?”  See how that goes over. 

So the backlash against #JeSuisCharlie has taken on a perfectly predictable form and has come from perfectly predictable people, including a number of journalists who make a living writing Op-Eds that wouldn’t make the cut for emergency backup columns on Measure of Doubt.  To those people, I say: just how stupid do you think I am?  Did I anywhere claim that posting #JeSuisCharlie is an act of bravery? That it constitutes a serious blow against religious fascism? That it mitigates the need for vigilance about freedom of expression in my own country? Does it mean that I am unaware or uncaring about other acts of violence, including some committed by the government of France in the past? Does it mean I am not aware of the complexities and nuances of the political, economic, and cultural conflicts that underpin the attacks? Does it mean any of those things about anyone who posted it?  To listen to and read many cranks you’d think so.

There’s another distressing side to this, too, even though it was equally predictable. You wouldn’t think you’d have to defend the idea that people ought not to be murdered for hurting the feelings of the kinds of people who murder people for hurting their feelings, but you do. There are hordes of people saying right now, “Well you poke the bear…” or “I’m against murder, but…” and so forth. We've been listening to that noise since The Satanic Verses pissed off people who never read it. So, here’s the thing. Am I committed to freedom of expression? Yes. Do I understand the nuances and complexities of the statement I just made? Yup, some of them. You can explain the rest to me if you feel the need. But will I post any of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons here? No. Why not? I already told you, and it’s not because I’m afraid of terrorists. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tourism

OK. I want to see places where I don’t already live. See the problem?  To listen to some people, you’d thing that being a tourist was some sort of inherent crime against humanity. How dare I not be a native Parisian? Where do I get off not having been born in Thailand? What was I thinking, choosing parents who didn’t live nearer to Venice? 

There’s a large body of literature that interrogates what it means to be a tourist and sometimes very cleverly distinguishes between the tourist (who comes as some sort of cultural imperialist, if I understand things correctly) and the traveller, who is respectful and discerning about what he encounters. Oh, please.  If I’m in Paris I’m going to tie on my bright white running shoes, grab my day pack, see the Mona Lisa, go up the Eiffel Tower, buy a fridge magnet of Notre Dame, and photograph the hell out of the place.  Then I’m going to damn well put those photographs on Facebook, that weird world where people ask to be your friends and then complain when you use it for what it’s intended for. By all means get snooty about that while you wallow in whatever hellhole you’re from.

I'm writing this from Portugal, where there are important archeological sites, medieval towns, cathedrals, museums, and galleries that would slide into total ruin and decrepitude if not for the massive stream of tourists whose spending supports these places or the local economies that support them. And around the world whole countries depend on tourism as the backbone of their economy. This comes at a price, of course, because the tourists change the places they’re visiting. In some cases, such as Paris’s famous Latin Quarter, there is very little left of what drew tourists in the first place, just shops selling junk gifts and restaurants selling junk food to tourists who can’t imagine anything worse than eating something they’ve never eaten before (the kind of people who will line up on a Friday to eat at East Side Mario’s.)  

And there really are tourists who are culturally ignorant and insensitive. They use their camera flashes in places where they’re asked not to and don’t even bother to learn to say “hello” “please” or “thank you” in the local language. Last year a perfectly nice evening we were having in a very good restaurant in Paris was very nearly ruined by four people at a nearby table. Why was the service so slow? Why didn’t the waiters speak English, after all we had done for them in the war? And they demanded to know of a lovely couple from New Zealand, sitting (thankfully, for they absorbed the brunt of this) between us and them, how New Zealanders could possibly get by without gun rights? How did they defend themselves? (At this point you can probably guess which country the four were from, and probably who they voted for in its last several elections.)  With good humour, one of the New Zealanders opined that he’d never considered the need to defend himself at all in New Zealand, there having been five homicides, three of them committed by sheep, the previous year.  Game, set, and match, I thought, but it was more of a moral victory than an actual one. The big hairs carried on. They really need to fix the roads – they’re so narrow! And the locals are so rude!  I ordered a second bottle of wine to dull the pain.

It’s also true that there are weird forms of tourism: “dark tourism” (visiting sites of murders, massacres, genocides, and the like), and “poverty tourism”, where people who are rich pay money to see “authentic” people who are not. But I’m not sure that what I’ve done is much different: I’ve led battlefield tours, and spent the day today photographing character-filled medieval neighbourhoods in Lisbon, behind whose walls and doors are people who are by Canadian standards really quite poor.  

So I’m not sure what it all means. But I do know this: in about three days our plane will land in Toronto and one of the first things I will see will be that most ubiquitous of Canadian restaurant chains, and weary travellers who will immediately queue for a coffee that’s so bad they have to double the sugar and milk just to drink it, and a little part of me will die. But it won't be the unapologetically elitist part.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Syllabi

Note: today's column is an actual syllabus that seems to have fallen through a crack between the universes. It comes from what appears to be a parallel dimension where lawyers and people who study pedagogy have not yet destroyed improved the education system.  I do not approve, of course, as indicated by my own ten page syllabi that leave absolutely nothing to chance. But my doppleganger in the parallel dimension seems to be somewhat more reckless than me. 



History 2000E:  History
______________

Professor or Dr. Graham Broad.  You may also call me Death, Destroyer of Worlds. 

Office Hours: When I’m in my office. Note that I am a professional historian. I’ve written books about it. Whole books. And I’ve read books about it. Lots of them. Come to see me. I can probably point you in the right direction. 

Office Phone: Phone currently is buried under books.

E-Mail:  No. 

Course Website: No. There are also no circus acts, no candy floss machines, foot massages, smoothies, or therapy pets. 
________________

Course Description:

In this course we will learn about history, including politics, war, religion, families, gender, childhood, ethnicity, migrations, art, literature, philosophy, music, drama, architecture, science, technology, the environment and geography, cuisine, and sports, and their relationship to the present.  Some people say that these things have “no value” in the “real world.” Those people are called ‘assholes.’ Avoid them.

Expectations and Outcomes: Oh, for God’s sake. What do you think they are? 

Grade Breakdown:  Learning: 100%

Required Books: There are a bunch of good books on this topic. Come see me in my office and I’ll recommend some.

Reading List: You give me one. I'll make suggestions. 

Description of Assignments: You’ll be required to read history, write about history, and talk about history – intelligently. 

Lectures: I will be giving lectures this year, though not that many. Show up or don’t. Whatever. I won’t be telling you entertaining stories about the past or giving you chronology that you easily could learn on your own. I will not be breaking the lecture into ten minute chunks like the pedagogists say, because my goal isn’t to make you dumber. I will not have a scroll of PowerPoint bullets on the screen behind me for you to transcribe because I don’t believe that the designers at Microsoft actually know or care about teaching or learning. I will not be making the same jokes I’ve made for the past five years or five decades, for that matter. I won’t be making learning “fun” at all, actually, because I’m not in the entertainment industry. Trust me when I say that this going to hurt quite a bit.

Policy on Attendance: There isn’t one. You’re allowed to fail. In fact, you don’t have to attend anything in life. If you want, you can lie in bed for weeks on end until you starve or die of dysentery. It's nice to have options. 

Late Policy: Punctuality is important, but If you need a bit of extra time to complete your assignments, just consult with me in advance and then do your best to get quality work done. But do not come to my office and lie to me.

Statement on Plagiarism. Ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky? 

Statement on the Use of Electronic Devices:  History lesson #1: incredible though it may seem, there was a time, long, long ago when it was considered not merely sensible but actually polite to listen to people who are talking to you. So, whatever. 

Student Code of Conduct: Don’t be a jerk. 

Essay Rubric. Um….seriously? You’ve made it to your fifteenth year of subsidized education and you need to be told what a good essay looks like? Read a book. I can recommend some. 

Frequently Asked Questions

I don’t like speaking in front of others, what should I do?  One option is to commit a terrible crime and be sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of your life. 

I'm not good at writing. Any tips?  Sue your high school teachers. Also, read books.

How will this help me get a job? I dunno. How will your job stop you from being the kind of person who voted for Hitler?

I have anxiety. How can that be accommodated? Outside my office you’ll see a thing that dispenses numbers. Please take one. Then hand one out to everyone on the planet. Make sure to hand them out in refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa especially. Explain to the people in them that you have a lot reading to do.  Then invent a time machine, travel back in time to 1939 and then to 1914, and hand them out to everyone your age in university.  Remember to tell them that you are under a lot of pressure

Do you even care? Of course I do. If I didn’t care, I would make things easier for you. 

Any final thoughts? Start reading – now. Write clearly and carefully. Consult with me often. In class, pick a side and argue persuasively for it, and then the next day argue for the other side. Change your mind when you’re proven wrong – that’s what it means to be ‘objective.’ Hold yourself and your classmates and your professors to the highest standards. Call them out when they make mistakes. Loathe cliches. Detest pointless bureaucracy. Know when you're being condescended to. Refuse to fill out student evaluations of teaching. Tell the guy playing video games in front of you to close his laptop because it’s distracting everyone. Drink beer and wine long into the night and fight about what you learned that day but be up and ready for class the next morning without fail, every single time. Make friends – and enemies. Go to a play and an art opening and see visiting speakers in other disciplines. Get lost in the library. 

Do anything but be boring. 









Monday, November 24, 2014

Templates

School sucks, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that the mere mention of teachers or schools in an on-line article brings out a torrent of spittle-spewing rage from the kinds of people who like to spew spittle ragefully and by the torrent on message boards. I’ve written elsewhere about how such people are the worst humanity has to offer and, boy, do they have a lot crabbin’ to do.

Measure of Doubt regards itself as an equal-opportunity public service and therefore has developed the following template for spittle-spewing reactionaries to use on Internet message boards following any article about teachers or schools in the hopes that it might save them time. They can then turn their attention to trolling about firefighters or public art or bicycles or those damn kids who keep getting on their lawn. Here it is:

——————

A Template for Spittle-Spewing Reactionaries to Use on Internet Message Boards Following Any Article About Teachers or Schools, by Measure of Doubt

The problem with education today is (my personal bugaboo here) which they didn't have (insert when you were in school) and also the (overpaid / coddled / lazy / uncaring)  (teachers / administrators/ parents) who have (abandoned all standards / given up caring ) and instead embraced (multiculturalism / political correctness / secularism / gay agenda / communism) because all they care about (is /are) (money / sick days / P.D. days) and indoctrinating youth into the ( Liberal Party / union / gay agenda / international communist conspiracy / ISIS ).  Whatever happened to (our values / common sense / plain old hard work)?  We need to bring back (three R’s / male teachers / basics / corporal punishment / fatal beatings / conscription) because the youth of today are (stupid / lazy / cowardly / fat / communists / atheists / terrorists / gay) who (can’t read / can’t write cursive / only take sex ed / only take square dancing) and this is the reason why we have (global warming hysteria / wind turbines / Kathleen Wynne / bicycle lanes / hip hop) (that/which/who/whom) is leading our (once great / formerly great) country that (our veterans /  brave men and women in uniform) (sacrificed / suffered for) to (hell / chaos / anarchy / collapse).  I would (call / e-mail / text / visit ) my (child’s teacher / school board head / city councillor / MP / MPP) if I (believed they weren’t part of the problem / knew who they are) and give (him/her/them) (a piece of my mind / something to think about / a knuckle sandwich). Anyone who is disagrees is probably (Kathleen Wynne / a foreigner / a communist / a hip hop artist / a bicycle commuter / gay).

For example:

“The problem with education today is the use of cell phones which they didn’t have in the 1890s when I went to school and also the overpaid teachers who have abandoned all standards and instead embraced multiculturalism because all they care about are sick days and indoctrinating youth into the gay agenda. Whatever happened to common sense? We need to bring back male teachers because the youth of today are communists who can’t write cursive and this is the reason why we have wind turbines that are leading our once great country that our veterans suffered for to hell. I would call my MP if I knew who they were and give them a knuckle sandwich. Anyone who disagrees is probably Kathleen Wynne.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Addendum

News this morning that the Legion in Kenora, Ontario, fired its chaplain because she criticized cuts to veterans' care during her Remembrance Day benediction. Good for them. The day is supposed to be about the simple act of remembering, not politics. In fact, next year I expect to see no politicians laying wreaths at my local cenotaph. Also, they better not breathe a word about "freedom" and "democracy" either, because those are political concepts. National anthem? Got to go, because it mentions "Canada", which is a political construct.  God Save the Queen? Please.  Oh, and no poppies, either. According to the Legion, the money raised from them goes to veteran's care, and we don't want to bring that up on Remembrance Day.  So make sure your next Remembrance Day bears no relationship to anything in the real world, especially if it happened in the past. Just do what you're supposed to, please: stand there and feel guilty because your generation hasn't had a world war, you bunch of entitled slackers.




Monday, November 10, 2014

Remembering

I don’t want to trust a seventeen year old memory very far, but I think it went something like this. I was watching a debate on CBC or CTV about Canada’s involvement in Kosovo. They assembled a panel: a journalist, somebody from a peace group, an RCAF veteran from the Legion (for some reason), and finally a political scientist, because in a debate it’s a good idea to have one person who might know what the hell is going on. I don’t recall much about the debate, but one thing is lodged in my memory. In rebuttal to the one panelist’s opposition to Canada’s participation in the air campaign, the veteran  said, “This young lady should go watch the first twenty minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan to learn what soldiers sacrifice for freedom.” 

This might seem like a non-sequitur and a particularly incoherent one at that, but au contraire. Have Canadians had any societal debate in the past century that hasn’t witnessed an effort by one side or another to imbue their position with the sanctified suffering of The Fallen? Back in the day, when I read actual newspapers (and worked for one) I used to keep a clip file. In it were examples of people deploying mawkish memories of our own “Greatest Generation(s)” into debates over everything from multiculturalism to same sex marriage to educational reform to indoor smoking bans, as if the worldview of the dead – and especially the war dead – were entitled to hold dominion over the living forever. And it happens in debates over history, too. We needn’t look far for examples of historians or historical institutions who have been bullied into silence by people that Paul Fussell called “the loony patriotic.” 

I’ve written before about my growing unease with Remembrance Day, and especially about the day’s tendency to blur the distinction between commemoration and historiography. Historiography is evidence based, skeptical, and provisional in its conclusions; commemoration is subjective and emotional. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t mind so much, if it were only for a single ceremony and for an hour. One doesn’t go to a funeral and expect to hear the unmitigated truth about the departed, after all.  But when have our circumstances ever been normal? Not since September 2001, to be sure, fourteen years in which we’ve seen the Western powers engaged in perpetual low-level war, turning the world upside down and killing – even if not intentionally – far greater numbers of innocent people than ever were killed on 9/11. 

“Oh, stop,” I’m told. “The day’s not about that. The day is simply about remembrance, not politics.”  Oh, please, I reply. What does that even mean? Remembering is not simple – not cognitively, not socially, not historically, and remembering for commemorative purposes complicates it still further. It is most decidedly not apolitical. Commemorate what? Those who fought for freedom? Tread lightly, friends, around so subjective a term: not many of those who went to war in 1914 or 1939 shared your conception of freedom. Victory, then? So am I to exclude the enemy, many of whom were, to quote Bertrand Russell, “fellow sufferers in the same tragedy as our own”?  Commemorate all combatants, then? But that would include perpetrators of hideous war crimes, and you’ll forgive me if I choose not to spare a moment to reflect on those who served that the Holocaust might continue. For starters. 

Okay. Maybe you need a moment to “just remember” (whatever that means) and you can cut through the cognitive dissonance. Maybe you don’t cringe when you hear “fought for our country” when you know damn well that sometimes they fought for our government; maybe you don’t clench your teeth when you hear “fought for our freedom” when you know that sometimes they categorically did not.  So, do what you need to on November 11th. Commemoration, like funerals, are about the living, after all, and the stories we tell ourselves so that we can carry on.  I’ll go, and reflect on victims of war and especially on those who died to defeat enemies for whom martial virtues were the only ones worth having. But I’ll also reflect that, too often, our own commemorations tread too close to that terrain, terrain where there is an implicit contempt for civilian life; terrain where there is no distinction between serving one’s country and serving one’s government; terrain where it is assumed that there is an inherent nobility in military service, regardless of the cause in which one served; terrain where, as C.P. Stacey put it in a different context, the golden haze of historical romance combines with the fog of war to reduce visibility to zero.

 “Support our troops” doesn’t mean support every stupid and immoral thing that our government wishes to do with them, and people who can’t understand the difference shouldn’t be allowed to play with soldiers.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Disengagement

A Parable.

Meet Jane Doe, a second year English and History major at a mid-sized university in Canada. Jane has just turned nineteen and is not sure what she wants to do when she graduates, but she’s thinking of becoming a teacher or maybe a lawyer. 

Like nearly every school in the country, Jane’s university boasts that it offers small classes and excellent teaching, but she went there because it’s in her home town and her high school average of 78 wasn’t strong enough to gain her entrance to a really first-tier university, where the entrance averages are now in the mid-to-high 80s.

Jane’s father works for a contracting firm and her mother is a secretary in a dental office. They had wanted her to major in business and economics, but at the end of her first year of university Jane’s overall average was 63 and was just 58 in Economics. She never was any good at math. This disqualified her from her school’s business program. After first year, she decided to major in English and History because she finished those classes with marks of 64 and 66 respectively, good enough to declare them as a major.  Jane’s sixteen-mark drop between Grade 12 and the end of 1st year university is fairly typical. A few of her friends from high school dropped out after first year, or were required to withdraw because they failed most of their courses. 

Jane lived at home first year but now rents a room in a house with three other female students. Her share of the rent is $400 per month, plus one-fifth of the heat and electricity bill. She also pays $35 per month for an Internet connection and $65 per month for the plan for her iPhone. She owns a used car that she makes payments on, and she also has to cover the cost of her gas and insurance. Her parents put $2,000 per year towards her tuition, leaving her with $4000 to pay on her own, plus another $750 for books. To pay for her education, Jane is taking out student loans and has two jobs, one at a clothing store in the mall on Saturdays and one evening per week, and the other, two nights per week or three when she can get it, in a downtown restaurant. She is looking for volunteer work at local schools to pad her resume in the hopes of getting into teacher’s college.

It is the Tuesday after the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. Tuesday is Jane’s “heavy” day, with three classes. She chose her courses that way so that she could have one day per week off to study, although she usually ends up taking a shift at work instead.  At 9:30 AM, Jane arrives for her first class, Canadian history, five minutes late. She has a coffee and a muffin she bought for breakfast on her drive in. Prof. Jones always begins class by playing music from the period they’re studying, so Jane knows she won’t miss anything. She sits near the back and opens her laptop and puts her iPhone down beside her. She sends two quick texts and updates her Facebook status.

When the music is done, Prof. Jones says, “I’ll explain that music to you later.” (He actually forgets to do so.) Prof. Jones begins the lecture with a few announcements. He reminds them to keep up in the textbook, because it's testable material for the mid-term, even if he didn't lecture about it in class. Jane started the year well, but is three weeks behind in textbook readings now. She bought the book used for half the cover price. It was in very good condition, with only a little bit of yellow highlighting in the first chapter.   Prof. Jones also announces that the History Club is bringing in a “very, very famous” historian to speak the following week. Jane heard from a friend that one History Club speaker last year was very boring and droned on and on. She writes down the details of the event — hoping Prof. Jones will see her doing this — but has no intention of going. (Jane is not alone in this: more than three hundred students will hear the announcement for the “very, very famous speaker.” Eighteen will attend the talk.)

Prof. Jones launches into his lecture, which is about New France. He uses PowerPoint slides and Youtube clips of historical re-enactments to liven things up.  Even so, Jane finds her attention wandering after about twenty minutes. She is tired and yawns. She worked late at the restaurant the night before, well past closing, and wasn’t home until after midnight.  Then she’d tried to work on an assignment which is overdue for her Human Sexuality course, a critical analysis of an old article by someone named Durkheim.  When Jane opened the article, she found that it was thirty-seven pages long. It was very boring. She read four or five pages (this took her twenty minutes: Jane usually checks e-mail, Facebook, and surfs the web while she’s reading) and she decided that since the assignment was only worth 5%, it could wait another day.

Jane looks around. There are about thirty people in the room, which is about half of the number actually enrolled in the class. A classmate in front of her is watching a replay of a hockey game on his laptop. He has one earbud in. Another is playing World of Warcraft. Other classmates are on Facebook or are texting. During the class, Jane herself receives and answers a dozen text messages, hiding the phone under the long row of tables. A friend from work is complaining about their boss.

In the very front row, eight rows down from Jane, a girl shoots her hand up to ask a question. People roll their eyes. Jane dislikes this girl. She only asks questions to make herself look smart.  Prof. Jones answers the question, speaking to that student alone. Everyone else’s attention begins to fade and chatter starts to rise in the room. After a couple of minutes Prof. Jones resumes lecturing after calling everyone to order. A minute later, though, somebody’s cell phone goes off.  “Sorry! Sorry!” a student cries out. There’s a disruption until she shuts the phone off, its ringtone clearly recognizable to the class.

Prof. Jones says, “No problem. Hey! I know that song! It’s “Toxic” by Britney Spears!” He sings a few bars in a broken voice. This gets a big laugh.

Jane likes Prof. Jones. He is young and full of energy, seems nice and doesn’t mark too hard. When the course is over, she will give him excellent teaching evaluation scores.

Just before class ends, forty-five minutes after it began, Prof. Jones reminds everyone that they have an essay due in two weeks. “Come to see me in my office,” he says. Someone asks where his office is and what his hours are. These are on the course syllabus but Jane makes a note of them anyway and closes her laptop.

Jane has an hour before next class so she heads for the Learning Commons, a new metal and glass building on campus. There are big windows, a coffee shop, flat screen TVs showing the news or “The View”, and plenty of lounge chairs. There are about forty or fifty students around, either standing in line for coffee or sitting with their laptops or phones, surfing the web and texting, or talking with friends. A few are reading. A small group of students is setting up a table. They’re selling tickets to an AIDs-awareness fashion show.

Jane passes by a bulletin board covered in notices for campus events, including the famous History Club speaker that Prof. Jones mentioned before. The title of the talk is "Towards a New Hermeneutics of Discourse Analysis in High Medieval Parish Registers." The Political Science club is planning a trip to see Parliament in session. There’s a pub crawl next Thursday to raise money for a student trip to El Salvador. Women’s self-defense classes are being held in the women’s residence. (In pen somebody has written, “this is sexist” on the poster.) The Justice program is bringing in a refugee from Syria to talk about his experience. The Student Writing Centre has drop-in hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Beside this, somebody put up an unauthorized flier for an Internet service that sells “Example Essays” written by graduate students. There are auditions for a student performance of Twelfth Night. Someone is selling textbooks, cheap.

Jane glances at all this without much interest, then sits and checks her e-mail, her Facebook page, and sends some texts. She has a reading she has to do for her next class. It’s a poem called “Religio Laici” by a writer named John Dryden. She flips through it in her Norton Anthology of English Literature. It’s very long. She puts her feet up and starts reading. Over the next fifteen minutes, she reads about a quarter of the poem, which is very boring, highlights a few passages, and sends three text messages and looks at some pictures from a friend’s party on Facebook, “liking” this and that.  Then a guy from her next class sits down across from her.
         “Did you do the reading?” he asks.
         “Most of it,” Jane says. “It was so long.”
         “I know, I was like, uggh. What the fuck? I didn’t think this class would be so boring.” He asks her if he can borrow her notes from the last class.
  
Another classmate shows up, with a coffee and a doughnut. She says that she found a summary of the poem on Wikipedia.  They talk for a bit about their other classes and professors. “I heard he’s tough,” Jane’s classmate says about Prof. Jones. 

They talk until class. Jane knows that the instructor, Prof. Gilbert, always covers the poem anyway and there isn’t much discussion so she doesn’t need to have it read.  Prof. Gilbert is one of the older professors in the college. He lectures from paper notes without PowerPoint. He drones on and on and tells jokes that nobody laughs at. A few minutes later, when they get to the classroom door, they find a note saying that Prof. Gilbert is away and that class is cancelled.  

Jane looks at the sign indifferently. If she’d known she would have skipped Jones’s class and slept in until 11. Behind her a student says, “He only does this because he has tenure and can get away with it.” Jane isn’t sure what ten-year is but reflects that this student usually doesn’t go to class anyway. (In fact, Prof. Gilbert had announced he wouldn’t be present the week before, but Jane and about half the class weren’t there that day, either.) 
 
Maybe now would be a good time to see Prof. Jones about her essay. It is due the following Friday but she hasn’t started. She has decided to write something about women in New France. She heads to Prof. Jones’s office. In the hall, there are professors milling about. She catches snippets of a heated conversation. They seem to be complaining about something to do with the school. When she gets to Prof. Jones’s office, Jane reads the sign next to the door:

Prof. R. Strong, English
Prof. M. Kuffert, Sociology
Prof. A. Jones, History
Prof. A. Xao, Business and Economics
Dr. D. Bryson, English (on Sabbatical Leave)

Jane knocks. There is no answer. A professor emerges from the office next door. “Do you know if Prof. Jones is around?” Jane asks her. The professor doesn’t seem to know who Jones is.  Jane explains that he teaches Canadian history. “Oh!” the professor says. “No, haven’t seen him.”

Jane sits on an old chair at the end of the hall and starts up her laptop.  The professors who were having the heated conversation up the hall retreat into an office and close the door.

Beside Jane is a bulletin board next to the office nearest to her. There are quotations and Far Side comics on it, and a poster for a conference that happened last year. There’s also a recent news story from the campus paper about Prof. Gilbert being inducted into something called the Royal Society of Canada. That reminds Jane.  She e-mails Prof. Gilbert asking if next week they’ll be doing this week’s readings, since class was cancelled, or moving on to next week’s readings. (Gilbert does not reply and Jane will decide for herself that she doesn’t need to do next week’s reading.)   

After twenty minutes of texting and surfing and waiting for Prof. Jones, Jane goes back to the Learning Commons, hoping some friends will be there. There aren’t, so she buys a coffee and cookie for four dollars and then decides to go to the library, maybe to get in some work on her essay. On the library computers, students are checking e-mail and Facebook and a few are printing essays. Jane sits in front of a library computer and logs on. Next to her, a group of three are gathered around a computer, watching a Youtube video of a dog and laughing.

Jane rarely goes to the library. In first year, she tried looking a book up but got intimidated by the rows and rows of shelves and gave up after a few minutes of trying to find it. She seldom goes looking anymore, relying on Google Books or her local public library instead. One time, she even went back to her old high school and got advice for a paper from her favourite high school teacher. The university library offers regular tours and workshops about using the library, but Jane has never taken one. She doesn’t ask the library staff for help because she doesn’t want to seem stupid. 

There is something new on the library webpage now, a search engine that says, “find articles.” Jane spends a few minutes with this, typing in keywords like “women” and “New France.”  She takes the first two articles that appear at random and prints them off. One of them, she will later be told, is a book review, but she won’t understand why that can’t be a source.

It is now nearly noon. Jane has a two hour American history class at 12:30. She buys a slice of pizza and a Diet Coke for seven dollars and sits with some friends in the nearest cafeteria, which is named “Rendezvous.” There are flat screen TV’s showing the news and sports. She talks with her friends about shows they’ve watched on Netflix and they complain about how many assignments they have do. One student complains about Prof. Jones. “Why does he talk about stuff if it’s not going to be on the final exam?” he asks.

At 12:20, Jane heads to her American history class.  In her usual spot near the back, two guys in baseball caps and sweats are sitting and talking hockey. They have almost never been in class. They smell like tobacco smoke and say “fuck” a lot. Jane sits away from them, but still at the back. Today there is a student presentation before the lecture. Jane has to do a presentation in three weeks. She is supposed to talk to Prof. Merrill about her topic, but hasn’t yet. Since Merrill hasn’t e-mailed her, Jane thinks that maybe it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t like doing presentations or participating in discussion because she doesn’t like speaking in front of other people.  Prof. Merrill distributes a form to all the students. As a way of ensuring that everyone is paying attention to the presenter, Prof. Merrill asks everyone to provide a letter grade and some feedback for each presenter.

A student Jane doesn't know gives a ten-minute presentation on a book called The Radicalism of the American Revolution. The student begins: “Okay, like, when I was reading this I was, like, this is so sick because, like...”  Nobody is really listening. People are fooling around on the Internet, texting, or playing games, even though they have a form to fill out. The two guys at the back are talking in low voices. Jane's attention wanders. She checks her e-mail and Facebook and  sends some texts.  When the presentation is over, there is some applause and Prof. Merrill asks, “Are there any questions?”  Nobody moves or says anything. “Any questions?” she asks again. “Okay, well, I guess you did such a good job that there are no questions.” Nobody laughs at this. After a second, Prof. Merrill asks a couple of questions of her own that the student answers in jumbles. When the questions are over, there is more applause. Jane gives the student an "A" and writes, "Great job! This was so interesting.” She sends the handout forward.

Now Merrill begins her own lecture. She announces that the topic of today’s lecture will be the Constitution of 1787.  “You have to know this,” she says. “Or nothing else in the course will make sense.” Jane writes that down. As Merrill lectures, a steady scroll of bulleted PowerPoint points summarizing her speaking points goes on behind her. When the course began, Jane took notes, but now she knows that the PowerPoint slides are on the Internet so she doesn’t really bother.  Now and then, Merrill  says, “And this is important” or “and I want you to know this” and Jane will type it on her laptop. “Sorry, what was that date?” a student asks. “Dates aren’t important - think big picture,” Merrill says. Jane wonders why she mentions dates at all, then. Merrill goes back to lecturing.

By the thirty minute mark in the lecture, Jane’s eyes begin to droop. She is very, very sleepy. The remainder of the lecture goes by in a sort of auditory blur. She snaps back to awareness when Merrill says, “OK, well.  I think that’s good enough for today.” She sounds a bit angry. Jane wonders what’s going on. They have only been in class for a little over an hour, total. People begin to pack up their bags and head for the door. Jane thinks that maybe she should ask Prof. Merrill about her presentation after all, but there’s a lineup to students in front of her already, including the one weird guy – Jane can never remember his name – who is always talking to Merrill about politics. Jane waits a few minutes and then heads out the door.  

It’s 2:15 PM. Jane drives home.  Two of her roommates are watching TV and smoking pot, which Jane has tried but doesn’t really like. They all sit and talk for over an hour. One of her room-mates is thinking of getting back together with her boyfriend. Another is failing most of her courses and is thinking about not coming back next year and “just working instead” or “maybe going to college for something.” Jane goes to her room. She opens her laptop and checks her e-mail. There’s a message from her Human Sexuality professor, who noticed that she didn’t hand in her critical analysis. Jane sends her an e-mail saying that she had computer problems and promises to bring it by during her office hours, tells the professor she is really enjoying the class and learning a lot and that she hopes she won’t lose any marks. 

 Jane has a wipe board above her bed. She has an essay due on Monday that she hasn’t started. She needs to finish that Human Sexuality paper. Tomorrow she is supposed to have read Henry IV, Part Two for her Shakespeare class, but there are no discussions in that class so she doesn’t do the readings. She'll get caught up before the midterm. Jane has a nap for half an hour then gets ready for work. She decides to get Subway for dinner at the mall before her shift.  Later that evening, at work, she gets a text from some friends. They’re going out to the bars. Did she want to meet them after work? Jane thinks about it. Tomorrow’s her light day: just one class and a tutorial. She’ll have plenty of time between them to get that Human Sexuality assignment done and go to the library to get books for Prof. Jones's essay. She says yes.

Jane’s day, her Tuesday, is much like any day she’ll experience in university.   Depending on the time of year, she spends no more than fifteen or twenty hours per week on all aspects of her school-work: attending class, reading, writing essays, and studying. If one were to take into consideration the number of hours she spends in partial attention to the matter at hand, the number of hours spent on actual schoolwork would be smaller still.  But her grades are usually decent and sometimes a little better. She finishes courses with C’s and B’s by producing work that, in a former age, would have been deemed utterly unsatisfactory. If some bold educational reformer (or a coalition of taxpayers) were really rigorously to test her, to demand that she write clearly, speak articulately, and demonstrate mastery over what she has been taught, they would find that Jane, mid-way through her 15th year of publicly-subsidized education,  hasn’t read much (in fact, she dislikes reading altogether), struggles to write clear sentences, gropes for vocabulary when she speaks in class (which is not very often) and doesn’t remember much about what she has been taught for very long. But her professors have learned, through a generation of accumulated experience, not to expect too much, and Jane rewards them by not demanding too much in return. She gets decent grades; professors get good teaching evaluations; politicians get another finished product, another tick on their vast statistical indices which prove that the system is working. And, indeed, the assembly line is very efficient. It keeps moving Jane and thousands of others like her along. Along the way they receive a small cultural deposit before emerging to great fanfare at the all-important moment of graduation.

So, there is Jane, thirty-four months later, coming off the assembly line. She is at commencement, graduating with a major in History and a minor in Sociology — she switched out of English after year two.  It’s a happy day, but there’s a slight tightness in her chest when she thinks about what she’s going to do next. She is twenty-one years old, and graduating with a B- average. She didn’t get into teacher’s college but thinks that maybe she might do a 5th year — what the students call a “Victory Lap” — to pull her marks up a bit, and then maybe re-apply for teacher’s college or perhaps try to get into grad school and “do” her Master’s Degree.  Maybe Prof. Jones would write her a letter of reference? 

The principal, who Jane has never seen before, gives a long and boring speech about how “proud the university community is of its graduates”, how the graduates have “learned how to think and reason and face the many challenges posed by the diverse and rapidly changing economy of today”, but also about the threats to “spirit of higher education” and “the essential mission of producing students who are ethical citizens.”  Jane remembers that in first year she had a philosophy lecture about the difference between morality and ethics. She can’t remember what it was.

Her attention drifts as the principal drones on and on.  A phone rings. It belongs to someone’s parent. The principal’s speech finally ends. A handful of students involved in students’ council begin a standing ovation. Everyone follows. Jane watches as a few of her friends cross the stage to get their degrees. She knows that a few of them are coming back. Others are going to teacher’s college. Her friend Rachel is going to teach English in South Korea. Rachel is graduating with a C+ average.

Jane's name is called. She crosses the stage in a rush, feeling very nervous. Professor Dearness, who Jane had for a course in third year, hoods her and gives her a hug. Jane is handed her degree or, rather, a paper representation of her degree. Her real one will arrive in the mail three weeks later, after she has paid her library fines.

Meet Jane Doe, B.A.  She has $44,000 in student debt, $7,000 more on her credit cards, a BA in History and Sociology, and a job at the mall. Out in the audience, Jane’s mother takes pictures and cries.