My American friend Lane wondered why Canada turned out so different than the United States. While conducting some research for a Canadian Studies class I teach, I came across the following paragraph explaining why Canada followed the direction it did (despite forces pushing it in other directions):
“What was revolutionary in Canada was not so much the arrival of democracy at its conception. Democracy arrived as a broad program of social, political, economic, and administrative policies consciously and intellectually designed to bring together opposing religions, languages and races. What was radical was the idea that a fair democracy could be based not on a definition of race as an expression of a nation state, but on what today we would call diversity; fairness was the key to diversity and diversity to fairness. The second revolutionary fact was that the Canadian movement was based on the rigorous use of political restraint, precisely the opposite of reform and revolutionary movements in Europe (1848) and the United States (1776-1783). Third, the reform movement here would manage to hold on to power while the others collapsed” (Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin by John Raulston Saul (p.5-6)).
Canada’s English elite in 1848 genuinely believed in the importance of a race-based authoritarian form of government (dominated by the English minority); however, two leaders emerged–Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (a Quebec politician) and Robert Baldwin (from Ontario)–who challenged the notion we had to live in two solitudes or warring tribes by bringing French and English together; these two men faced considerable pressure to give into the temptation to use violence to advance their political vision for the country; nevertheless, they had the courage and foresight to support, unequivocally, a principle of fairness where all of Canada’s stakeholders (relative to the 1840s) were given equal security under the law; and they created a country (and political process) where people were willing to make decisions based on one another’s opinions and well-being instead of one’s origins or tribe.
LaFontaine and Baldwin are my heros. The world needs more of Canada.
Btw, LaFontaine was Canada’s first prime minister (pre-Confederation).
Martin Luther King Jr. observed he’d (and the civil rights movement) placed too much hope in white people, in that, after some freedoms had been won and initial progress made they abandoned African Americans. King argued white people were more concerned about stability than justice.
I’m a white dude. I also consider(ed) myself a moderate. I contemplated King’s words and I wonder: am I part of the problem? By wanting to just introduce piece-meal reform of the existing system, am I actually getting in the way of something better?
I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. I definitely wouldn’t prefer living under some sort of communist system; I’ll take class systems and freedom of mobility over that every time. But I’m not exactly in favor of an economic system that pools so much wealth into so few hands that it actually contributes to political instability and human suffering.
So, what exactly do we replace capitalism with? Capitalism lite? I like Hedges because he identifies the symptoms of what’s wrong. But, man, where are the people who can genuinely articulate what we can replace the extant system with? And what would prevent that system from simply being dominated by some sort of elite eventually?
I just want people to be free, happy and secure. What political system allows us to achieve that? Democracy and the rule of law are definitely great steps towards this. Hmmm. Maybe reforming the existing system, meaningfully, can achieve some semblance of a more equitable, just society?
There are a lot of websites and videos online illustrating how terrible Europeans were with respect to establishing their overseas colonies or how poorly minorities have been treated in the former colonies of Canada and the United States. These sources are often used in primary, secondary and university classrooms. These ideas have their place in an accurate retelling of Canada’s and every other Western nation’s history.
I wonder though: how effectively is this information being presented? Is it taught in a nuanced way where students emerge with an appreciation for the overall ethical and historical significance of these events? Or is it taught in such a way as to push people towards fascism, towards obstructionism, or to reinforce an ideology like progressivism? Regrettably, the way these things are taught sometimes has unintended consequences.
The unstated premise of “white people have enjoyed unearned privilege and power” could be “white people are the enemy of progress.” I accept, historically speaking, that because of that power white people have inflicted–intentionally and unintentionally–a lot of pain and repression on people of color and other marginalized peoples. Also, I totally support the justice aims of everyone being secure in their person and equal under the law; however, the villianizing of white people will no more establish a culture of tolerance, or a more equitable and sympathetic society, than the repression of marginalized peoples could.
I am white (and a male) but I most certainly did not establish the reserve or residential school system. I never held the opinion that women could not do anything a man could do. I have always argued in favour of Canada possessing a progressive tax regime where the nation’s most vulnerable have access to healthcare or unemployment insurance. My being the prototypical “white male” has nothing to do with the values I hold; a sense of justice isn’t limited by or an expression of genetics.
So, I think it would be great if schools taught the facts–that yes Canada has some sordid periods of history–but avoid teaching this collective white guilt nonsense.
To illustrate: when I learned about Catholic repression of Lutherans during the 15th century when I was in my grade 10 history class, I automatically sided with the Lutherans and came to detest Catholicism. This is because I had no larger context to operate under. I had a knee jerk reaction (typical of emotion rather than reason at work). I just saw injustice in the most immediate sense and failed to see a larger picture (mainly because my history teacher was substandard). Over time I came to see the issue in a more nuanced way and that I did not have to practice self hatred (I was a Catholic) in order to feel fraternity with Protestants.
I have since studied race relations at the university level and had professors tell me only white people are capable of being racist or repressing others. I challenged that notion in class by appealing to racial/ethnic differences being the cause of genocides in Rwanda and Turkey in the 20th century; and I pointed to the fact that the Chinese have an unflattering term used in reference to white people that translates to ‘garbage’ and that during the 1930s and 40s Japan taught master race theory to its people. My professors largely ignored me (one literally telling me to just be quiet).
So it seems I had crappy professors and teachers at every level: myopic intellectuals fixated on the moment or present need, incapable of seeing a larger picture.
If we are realistic we accept the fact any individual can not only experience racism but also be a racist. Schools that teach a limited narrative, that refuse to build an appropriate overall context are inadvertently teaching young white people not only to hold a greater sense of civil responsibility to others but also, potentially, to feel a sense of “white guilt.” This is counter-productive; and while this might appease the emotional requirements for revenge held by some of the more emotionally charged folks out there, it results in the creation of a self defeating fiction.
Effective teaching would not result in this happening. If you go into teaching, please do not do this.
Gormley’s article (see link above) is a satirical piece pressing home the point that people need to chill with all the engineering of society through language. For example, there are people who want to change the New Testament so it doesn’t say “Jesus sits at the right hand of the father” because it alienates left handed people. These social justice warriors are well-intentioned people but they:
1). Mistake their own sense of personal indignancy as the standard by which all others should measure what is socially acceptable or unacceptable. The identity wing of the political left definitely shares some behaviors and attitudes consistent with ‘benevolent’ authoritarian regimes.
2). They assume that nuances or any semblance of tradition cannot continue to exist because it reflects white male patriarchy.
I confess I understand what they want to achieve but their activity makes me fearful because good people are afraid to disagree with them since no one wants to appear to be bigoted or prejudiced; whereas if I disagree with them I might, in fact, be reasonable and justified in doing so.
Belief in the “supernatural ” belongs to a “bygone era” (along with the belief in ghosts or that ideas exist outside of mind.) The very act of entertaining the existence of ghosts reflects the continued influence of pre-scientific, mythological thinking on the present; and despite the privileged position reason, logic and science currently occupy, Western culture appears incapable of entirely shedding its ancient skin, e.g. we still call our galaxy the Milky Way even though no one believes in the existence of the goddess Hera; while continuing to entertain the idea of mind-body dualism despite advances in neuroscience which quite satisfactorily describe consciousness—“ideas” if you will—as an emergent quality born out of the complex physical workings of the human brain. There is still a minority of neuroscientists who entertain the notion consciousness implies that the sum of the brain’s parts alone do not satisfactorily explain consciousness; nevertheless, this is a minority position and the neuroscience community appears to have made peace with the fact a physical explanation agrees with observation. Or to invoke Ockham’s Razor the mechanistic explanation definitely makes far fewer assumptions than the idealist explanation does.
So, no brain? No ideas. Yet, an argument can be made ideas potentially exist, i.e. ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ do not exist “out there” as in some sort of Platonic form; however, it is quite reasonable to suppose—and I’ve heard various philosophers and scientists seriously consider this hypothesis—that once an appropriate mechanism evolves (like the brain, for example) consciousness and then ideas inevitably follow. So, in a sense, ideas exist independent of mind as something potential rather than actual; they just need a host in the same sense a bow needs an archer to pull the string.
Why do people continue to entertain beliefs in things like soul, spirit, idealism, mind-body dualism though? There are a combination of factors but I would appeal first and foremost to Thomas Paine’s explanation, i.e. the long habit of thinking a thing true gives it the superficial appearance of being right.
People have thought these things exist or are true for so long the culture has literally succumbed to a sort of organic or inherited “argument from antiquity”. The reason you appear to even entertain idealism (and by extension mind-body dualism) is Western culture–to which you belong–was shaped considerably by Hellenistic thought. From the Greeks we inherited some useful ways of looking at the world and some not so useful. For example, from the rationalist Thales we inherit the idea that we can explain what happens in the natural world (like a volcano erupting or lightning striking) by appealing to natural causes (or mechanisms) rather explaining these things by saying Hephaestus or Zeus are angry. We also inherited the assumption that souls, spirit and mind exist independent of the body. Plato, as I mentioned previously, even went so far as to claim, as you’ve entertained, ideas exist “out there” objectively and that the so-called “mind’s eye” perceived them. The problem with idealism, souls, gods, mind-eyes, etc. is there’s no reason (no evidence) to suppose any of it reflects the way the world actually works. Gods, etc. were all constructed from common sense deductions—based on the assumptions of the time—that offered a pseudo-scientific explanation satisfying the ancient Greeks. Nobody told the inheritors of Greeks (us), however, that not only could we drop belief in gods but also assumptions about souls and objective ideas, as well.
The study of history is sometimes just a straight-forward re-telling of events; yet, no matter how straight-forward we think a historical narrative is we still have to be willing to think critically about what we are reading, discussing or thinking. In order to think critically about history, we need to make a few assumptions about our knowledge:
- Our knowledge is always incomplete. No historical narrative includes every single important or necessary detail.
- We often think we know more than we actually do. Frequently we believe we know something but the confidence we have isn’t supported by the available evidence.
- We are what we think about. The thoughts we have and the values we hold are a reflection of the experiences we have had and the ones we have not had.
We are going to investigate three important aspects (or problems) related to the study of history: the first is the problem of omission; the second is the problem of anachronism; and the third is the creation and interpretation of historical models.
The Problem of Omission
When we omit (leave out) people or events from history—whether intentional or not—we change the impression people have of what happened. Obviously, just because we leave out an action does not change the fact that action occurred. History, in this sense, is an objective thing. Yet, when history is written down it becomes a subjective thing. Thus, the quality or trustworthiness of a historical narrative depends to a great degree upon the values, assumptions and abilities of the individual historian. The role women played during both the medieval and Renaissance periods is frequently ignored. Historians of either period tended to focus on the accomplishments of men like kings, merchants, bankers, popes and knights. By omitting the actions of women in history the false impression that they did nothing or were unimportant is created. The achievements and contributions of various minorities has definitely been either understated or ignored altogether by most historians until relatively recently.
The Problem of Anachronism
The problem of omission largely creates unintended errors when it comes to historical interpretation. Anachronism, on the other hand, either reflects the historical writer’s ignorance or a particular subject or a deliberate attempt to deceive. An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency where two things, e.g. a technology, an idea, material, plant or animal, etc. from two different time periods are presented as though they existed at the same time. For example, there are some people who believe dinosaurs and human beings lived at the same time. Some people go so far as to say humans actually placed saddles on velociraptors and rode dinosaurs like they were horses. The fact is there is no evidence of either human/dinosaur (they are separated by approximately 65 million years of history). Also, the saddle was not actually invented until around 365 CE by Sarmations. Anachronisms do not typically affect general histories so much as make primary sources or documents untrustworthy that historians use to construct those narratives.
Model Dependent Realism
We are natural born story tellers: we have developed some interesting ways of interpreting what we see and experience. In 1700 BCE the Babylonians saw what they believed to be divine displeasure whenever eclipses occurred. For this reason Babylonian priests conducted elaborate rituals to appease their gods Tiamat and Abzu. Comets have always evoked fear and superstition. Their occasional appearance disturbingly challenged the notion of an unalterable and divinely ordered universe. The ancients deduced comets were there for a reason: they were harbingers of disaster, indications of divine wrath—foretelling the deaths of princes, the fall of kingdoms. We no longer look at eclipses as some sort of sign of divine displeasure. We have a different model or way of understanding cosmic events. Specifically, we are scientific now in our thinking explaining things now not by appealing to the will of the gods but to material forces and causes like gravity.
In terms of history, the model medieval historians came up with was dividing time up into a period of darkness (all the time before Jesus’ birth) and a time of light (all the time after Jesus’ resurrection). Renaissance historians divided time up into three distinct time periods, e.g. the ancient world, the dark ages (or Middle Ages) and the Renaissance (or their present) in the 15th century. Interestingly, the people who lived during the Renaissance period did not actually use this word. Instead, the term Renaissance was applied by French 19th century historians to describe a period of cultural renewal that took place in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries. Models are not really a problem, only that, it is important to be aware of the role they play in both our interpretation and telling of history. Specifically, we could create, and we have created, many equally valid models to interpret the meaning and significance of history.
 If something is objective it is completely independent of belief; it is something that stands on its own merit and cannot be erased through either unbelief or ignorance.
 If something is subjective the truth of that thing is at least in part dependent upon belief, assumptions or it is subject to interpretation.
 The situation has largely been rectified with the present’s greater emphasis placed upon describing the role of sociological forces as opposed to focusing mainly upon political histories or the deeds of “Great Men”.