Archive for the ‘metahistory’ Category

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Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.

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Links: Revolts.co.uk

23 February 2010

Along with my periodic book reviews, I’ve decided to start posting brief recommendations of various Web sites and blogs I consult on at least a semi-regular basis.

I first came across Revolts.co.uk several years ago, when I was working on research into the delicate powerplay involved in the timing of renewing British oil sanctions on Rhodesia. After coming across information on how initial vote over Rhodesian oil sanctions in 1965 had caused a terrible three-way split in the Conservative Party, I became more interested in looking at backbench dissent and rebellion, and parliamentary voting behavior in general. It was wonderful to come across Revolts.co.uk and explore other instances of backbench rebellion frequency, size, and structure — and all in a way that saved me the trouble of poring over Hansard myself.

The site was in hiatus for a time, owing to a loss of research funding, but I was pleased to read in a recent Lords of the Blog post that Revolts.co.uk is back online and looking at voting patterns once again. So it’s now on my links list to remind myself to check it every so often and see what new developments have been posted. If the forthcoming General Election ends in a hung parliament, or very near to one, the site could prove very useful indeed.

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A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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Commentary: Hansard, the Abridged Edition?

12 October 2009

Lord Solely’s recent Lords of the Blog post on potential reforms included a suggestion of creating a specially edited version of Hansard that might have a broader public appeal: ‘With good editing and with pictures it might sell in the shops and provide people with an alternative to the gossipy and trivial news coverage of Parliament in some of the newspapers.

Without reproducing my own comment verbatim, I can safely say that even though I’m about as close to a target demographic as any publisher might wish for this sort of edited version of Hansard, I doubt that I would buy it. Much as I love Hansard as an institution (and would gladly work as a Hansard reporter or editor, if given the chance), I can’t see much of a market for this kind of publication.

What I would love to see, however, is a series of professionally edited Hansard debates on key pieces of historic legislation. The editions would contain the texts of the debates in both the Commons and the Lords, with an editor’s introduction and conclusion, appropriate scholarly footnotes and references for further reading, a dramatis personae of the key figures in the debate, and perhaps the odd photograph or illustration (such as topical political cartoons). Pick six fairly well-known or noteworthy acts to start with — say, the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts (a two-part set), the 1944 Education Act, the 1958 Life Peerages Act, the 1967 Abortion Act, and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act — and have that be the first series. All of these acts fall well within the 30-Year Rule, so most of the relevant papers would be available at Kew and in various other archives for consultation. Ideally, the volumes would be edited and written to be well suited for A Level and undergraduate study, or just for the general reading public interested in contemporary history.

I haven’t seen anything of this nature available for sale, but I would absolutely be interested in buying it (or contributing to it, for that matter!) if some enterprising publisher wanted to take a chance on it.

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Commentary: Bagehot on the ‘history wars’

5 October 2009

A recent article from the Economist‘s Bagehot on the history wars among British politicians prompted me to ponder the use of history as a stick with which to beat one’s political opponents.

It’s hard to disagree that hearkening back to past failures is, as Bagehot puts it, ‘a comforting kind of displacement activity….less a way of understanding the future than avoiding it‘. Watching Prime Minister’s Question Time during the Blair years was rather like playing a drinking game, preparing a shot glass in anticipation of the first mention of ‘the shambles we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government’ or some iteration on that phrase. At some point around 1999 (possibly even earlier), the phrase lost whatever meaning it might have had, and became an almost expected part of Question Time regardless of who was facing the Prime Minister on the Opposition benches. Good for at least one shot in the PMQs drinking game, if nothing else.

I suspect that much of the impetus for the ‘history wars’ comes from New Labour’s own attempts to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays suggests. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour without much to stand on except its current record, and the Tories aren’t much better when it comes to facing down the demons of the Thatcher and Major years, especially on questions related to Europe. History does make a very good stick for beating one’s opponents, but more often than not it ends up being like the magic cudgel in the Brothers Grimm fairytale that will spring out of its sack and start hitting anyone in sight, indiscriminately, until the right command is found to stop it. At the moment, it seems, no one’s figured out how to make it stop.

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The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

23 June 2009

I seem to be on a roll with the Canto imprint reviews, though I think this is the last of the ones in my current queue.

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

Traditions, to coin a simile, are rather like onions: if you make a deliberate effort to keep peeling away their numerous layers, you will be left with very little by the time you finish. Fortunately, most people are not overly concerned with peeling away the layers of traditions as long as those traditions seem relatively plausible or promote a favourable history or worldview. As a result, one common means of rapidly strengthening a shaky claim to legitimacy or solidifying a sense of group identity is to actively promote ‘traditions’ that have been developed or invented in the quite recent past. On occasion, these traditions develop into something quite different than their original inventors expected. In The Invention of Tradition, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and postcolonial African historian Terence Ranger have brought together a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve, and what societies can gain by taking a closer look at the origins of the traditions they cherish so highly.

The contributions in this volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century Welsh nationalist movement, explode the myths of the supposedly ancient origins of certain traditions such as tartan kilts and eisteddfods. Both authors link the Welsh and Scottish traditions with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing how groups of enthusiastic and enterprising individuals all but invented certain ceremonies and trappings out of whole cloth — quite literally, in the case of kilts. Other articles focus more on the process through which certain traditions were invented, describing how cross-cultural misunderstandings about existing traditions (such as the durbar gatherings held by India’s Mughal rulers) led to the creation of entirely new ceremonies designed to provide a sense of continuity between the old ruling classes and the new colonial ruling classes. The books also includes contributions on the effects of invented traditions, such as David Cannadine’s essay describing changing public attitudes towards the British monarchy in response to invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony and the sale of commemorative objects for royal weddings, births, and jubilees. There is quite a lot to ponder in these essays, and the authors provide plenty of sources for further exploration and follow-up.

The Invention of Tradition, for all its depth, is an undeniably Anglo-centric book. With the exception of Eric Hobsbawm’s contribution on the invention of national traditions in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe, all of the essays focus on either domestic (Scotland, Wales) or colonial (India, Africa) traditions of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say whether the book would have been ‘improved’ with a little more variety in its subject matter, or whether the more narrow focus is preferable because it allows the different essays to overlap and reinforce each other. Regardless, the collected essays in The Invention of Tradition provide an informative and thought-provoking assessment of how traditions are made and perpetuated, and how they often take on lives of their own.

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The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left by David Crystal

21 October 2008

I have read the Lynne Truss book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but even though I often agreed with the points she made I found her general tone to be rather obnoxious and off-putting. I enjoyed the following book far more.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left by David Crystal

David Crystal is no stranger to the peculiarities of the English language. He has written or collaborated on several books about the history and development of English as a language, including the very comprehensive The Stories of English and the 2005 Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. And as someone who has spent quite a bit of time pondering the English language and charting its evolution, he is both intrigued and deeply disappointed by the popularity of books such as Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which its author touts as the ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to punctuation. As he remarks, ‘Zero tolerance? That is the language of crime prevention and political extremism. Are we really comfortable with the recommendation that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?‘ To try to understand the origins of this recent trend in linguistic intolerance, Crystal decided to look into the history of the fight over English usage, the battles that pit the self-proclaimed defenders of ‘proper English’ against those who (for one reason or another) were not exactly prepared to impale themselves upon an upturned semi-colon. The product of that study is The Fight for English, a book that turns an understanding and occasionally sympathetic but nonetheless critical eye on the idea of linguistic fundamentalism.

As Crystal relates, the fight for English is by no means a thing of the recent past; it is almost as old as the language itself. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, are peppered with instances of educated people mocking the speech of the uneducated, and vice versa, with both sides claiming that the other has no real understanding of how English works. Over the centuries, various waves of invasion and the steady rise in cross-Channel trade continually brought new words into the English language and sparked arguments over whether these words were proper additions to the language. Revisions in spelling conventions, often carried out by those who wanted to make English words more closely resemble their ancient origins (as in the silent ‘b’ in ‘debt’, to match the Latin debitum), ran into resistance from those who preferred to spell words as they were commonly pronounced — often with regional dialect variations. As a result, the English language was already a confusing jumble by the time the printing press arrived in England, and the rise of print culture, the expansion of literacy, and the sheer amount of printed material produced prompted further calls for standardisation. Various language authorities, including John Hart in the mid-sixteenth century and Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, pleaded with fellow members of the literary elite to follow particular ‘accepted’ spelling and punctuation styles. Grammar books, mostly based on the Latin grammars that were beaten into English schoolboys’ heads, sought to enforce some sort of order and regularity on a frequently irregular language. As English spread across the Atlantic Ocean, new variations in spelling and punctuation sprang up that continue to cause confusion to this day. And still the language debates continue, with periodic squabbles over comma usage and the best location for quotation marks at the end of sentences…up to the present day, when educators bemoan the rise of netspeak and self-identified language authorities (like Lynne Truss) can find a lucrative audience for their zero-tolerance guides.

Crystal’s linguistic history is lucid, fast-paced, and entertaining, but toward the end of the book The Fight for English starts to dissolve into a rambling authorial attempt to defend himself against the ‘pedants’ who criticise him for having too much of an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards the English language for their liking. One can readily agree that the zero-tolerance mindset is often counterproductive — the very phrase ‘grammar Nazi’ is proof of that, if nothing else. It also tends to breed the sort of tiresome Internet flamewars involving scathing critiques of the original poster’s spelling or grammar in lieu of an actual rebuttal to what the poster wrote. (Is there a Godwin’s Law for grammar Nazis?) Yet it is equally true that attention to the finer points of English grammar, spelling, and punctuation improves the clarity and readability of ideas, reducing ambiguity and suggesting that the writer has taken the time and effort to write well. Arguing over these standards forces us to continuously evaluate the English language and to be conscious of how it is changing — in short, to be more self-critical and aware of what our words and our usage standards convey to others. If, as Crystal claims, the language fundamentalists are useful because they define one end of the tolerance spectrum, then they are also useful because they keep the debate going on some level. At the risk of making an overly Orwellian metaphor, the fight for English will only be truly won when we all use Newspeak — and most any kind of debate would be preferable to that alternative.