Friday, February 16, 2018

History of head of state elections in South Africa


President Ramaphosa
I was delighted to observe the richly deserved removal from office of South African President Jacob Zuma, but a little puzzled by how the presidency seemed to be completely in the gift of the African National Congress party, as if he were merely a party executive and not the President of the nation and people of South Africa.

South Africa has a particular variant of parliamentary democracy, in which the national legislature elects a president from among its own members.  The president thereupon must resign from the legislature and becomes an executive president, with both real and ceremonial powers. It's the election of president directly by the legislature that gives the majority party the freedom to name and remove presidents without much regard to opposition parties or the will of the population.  The apartheid struggle, and the ANC's large majorities since, have conditioned it to blur party, state, and nation, in this and other matters.

I take note mostly because when Canada transitions to a republic, a key choice to be made will be how to select a governor general, and what powers that office will hold. There are lots of cautionary examples around the world. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

History of El Historiador



My Spanish is limited. I had never realized that the Spanish word for historian is historiador, historiadora.  I liked the term immediately for its echoes of toreador and luchador. That historical work is and should be a struggle -- and with faintly heroic overtones -- seems true to my life.

In Havana Vieja, the Office of the Historiador is everywhere. For about forty years, the City Historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, has also been the principal entrepreneur in preserving, restoring, and putting to productive use the built environment of the district.

The City Historian's holding company owns many of the buildings in the old city. It generates revenue from rents and tourism businesses, and recycles it into more of the preservation activities that are evident throughout the area.  Last week that all seemed a heroic achievement to me. The staff of the Historiador even sweeps the streets -- as the logo at right shows -- and hey, getting rid of the trash is also a good historical activity.

Update, Feb 16:  Russ Chamberlayne draws our attention to Bennett Freeman's article "History of the Present: Havana," in the journal Places, which explores (amid much more) President Batista's plan, just before the revolution ended all his plans for Cuba, to rase Havana Vieja to build a new financial district.  It's worth noting, perhaps more than Freeman does, that Havana's decayed urban fabric is not a consequence of Castro's rule alone, but was already well advanced in the Batista years, as any reader of Our Man in Havana will recall.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Blog hiatus



Blogging has been a little intermittent in January, for rather boring reasons.  It's about to get slower.  The blogger is going south for a couple of weeks and expects not to blog at all or very little.

Back in mid-February.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

History of political leadership again



Patrick Brown had an undistinguished tenure as federal MP, but his success in raising funds and selling memberships allowed him to become Ontario leader of the Conservative Party in one of those vote-buying orgies called leadership conventions. Now that he has been brought down by allegations of sexual harassment, the buzz seems to be that nobody actually liked him much anyway and the party might do better with someone else leading it in the June 2018 election.

But the extra-parliamentary party executive has decided to go ahead with another leadership convention, against the will of the caucus of MPPs -- you know, the elected and accountable representatives of the people. Who will buy the most votes this time? 

A rare glimmer of wisdom has come from one backroom Conservative, Thom Bennett of Ottawa:  
“I am at a total loss as to what the thinking could be that our executive would tell our elected MPPs — those soldiers who are putting their name in front of the electorate time after time — to screw off, we run this party,” Bennett wrote.
“The executive knows why they overruled our elected representatives — and it has nothing to do with letting the members have a say in the new party leadership."
In Britain, meanwhile, where pressure grows on Prime Minister Theresa May, senior MPs are said to have told her she has three months to improve her performance or be removed. There the procedure is clear and simple:
A formal vote of no confidence in May would be held if Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, receives letters from 48 MPs demanding a contest. He alone knows how many letters have been submitted, but Tories said this week that more had been dispatched in the wake of this month’s chaotic reshuffle, which left many MPs confused and frustrated.
Leader accountable to the caucus, caucus accountable to the voters. And caucus members actually know the candidates (in or out of caucus) and have some expert judgment on who might make a good leader. With their seats and careers on the line all the time, they have some incentive to do a good job. (Few of them supported Patrick Brown in his leadership run in 2015.)

Update, January 29:  Paul Wells dismisses armchair theorists
Armchair political theorists sometimes lament the fact that Canadian political parties lack a formal mechanism for replacing their leaders through a simple vote of their parliamentary caucus. Caucuses used to pick and depose leaders just like that, on short notice and with no appeal to the broader party membership.,,,
On Wednesday night, observers were quick to note there is no such mechanism, either formal or traditional, in the Ontario PC constitution for deposing a leader who doesn’t want to go. I believe we’ll soon be reminded no formal mechanism is needed. Politics is the art of the possible: leading a caucus that will not have you is not possible.
It's not clear who Wells is referring to, as almost no Canadian experts or commentators have ever supported caucus control of leadership selection and removal. (Peter Aucoin did halfheartedly; Andrew Coyne used to  Update: Dale Smith does!). Outside this blog, support for keeping leaders independent of caucus has always been virtually unanimous.

Wells has put out of his mind such minor figures as Jean Chr├ętien, staying on as prime minister when his caucus was united behind Paul Martin, and Brian Mulroney, unable to accept his time was over until it was much too late for his party to rebuild and forcing all his MPs to lose their own seats for his convenient.

But the political orthodoxy is with Wells, and with the Ontario Tory apparatchik who said:
"This is a democracy, and we must all have a say in who we vote as our leader."
But it is not democracy when the electorate is self-selected and purchases its votes. And it is not accountability when the electorate that chooses the leader dissolves as soon as the vote is taken.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

History of histories we'll never read


Chris Raible recently shared a link to this Guardian story arguing that historians need to step up and explain things to the rest of the world:
Social scientists find themselves publicly confronting the social dynamics and technological disruptions that have led to our changing politics and society.
But historians are almost entirely absent from this conversation [...] This irrelevance is largely self-inflicted. Too many historians still think that engaging with the public means they’re compromising the integrity of the discipline.
I guess, yeah, maybe.

I was struck recently by the wide press coverage of Sharon Bala's first novel The Boat People, a drawn-from-the-headlines imagining of the experience of those who occasionally arrive off Canadian shores in some rusty ship crowded with escaped migrants of some disfavoured refugee community.  What really struck me was how much reviewers and interviewees wanted the novel to be reportage, to be history, want it to explain what was going on.  In this Sunday Edition radio interview, Bala had to insist, no, she had written a novel; it would have been too hard to write nonfiction on this subject.

But wouldn't it be good if some historian of immigration would do that hard work, and write a researched and contextualized account built around the Sun Sea passengers and their encounter with Canada?  It started me imagining all the other books we don't have, books between history and journalism, between research and narrative, on subjects of historical importance and public interest.

In the current Canada's History, I regret in passing the thinness of the historical literature on thirty years of free trade and NAFTA. And it has often occurred to me that there is still no substantial readable historical analysis of the October Crisis of 1970. And I cannot think of one big accessible history of Alberta's oil and what has done to and for Canada since the Leduc find of 1947.  Even the big social/cultural history topics -- history of medicare, history of feminism, history of treaties and indigenous dispossession -- where there actually is quite a bit of good solid scholarship available, have not been spinning off trade market books capable of starting the kind of buzz that Bala's novel seemed to ignite recently.

I'm not blaming anyone; I haven't written these books either! The conventions of academic career building and the economic realities of trade market publishing in Canada both work against anyone being encouraged to write them.  But there is room, you know, there is room. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book Notes: Johnson on the Canadian Republic


David Johnson is a professor of political science at Cape Breton University and not the former governor general of Canada (who has a "t" in his surname).  So Johnson-no-t's book Battle Royal: Monarchists v Republicans and the Crown of Canada just out from Dundurn Press, is not quite as controversial at it might have been.

According to the jacket blurbs, Canada has "a strong republican movement" and "an equally vibrant monarchist movement," and Johnson promises a dispassionate analysis that he intends to be helpful to all.

Pub date is Feb 13, but ther's a launch in Sydney today that includes a monarchist vs republican debate and local CBC liver coverage.  Thought control centre of the universe, indeed!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

This month at Canada's History


Gettin' topical in the February-March Canada's History. The possible death of NAFTA provoked my column "Passing the Bucks."  Based on a reading of Smart Globalization and a conversation with one of its editor-contributors, Dimitry Anastakis (Andrew Smith being the other), the column considers whether the era of "hyperglobalization" we have seen in recent decades may be collapsing under its own weight.

A spectacular cover (I'd show it, but it ain't up at the website yet), "Vinland Vikings: the Mysterious Norse Settlement Found," leads to a sober and persuasive essay about Norse visits to the Gulf of St. Lawrence region, contributed by Birgitta Wallace, the fruit of a lifetime's scholarship on the subject. Plus Second World War letters, praise for Saskatoon, polio in the Arctic.

And much more, including (why have a blog if you cannot plug your friends once in a while?) an enthusiastic review of Anne McDonald's Miss Confederation, and a curious back page photograph submitted by Hamar Foster.

There's a strong excerpt from a book I had been meaning to take note of here, Cecilia Morgan's Travellers Through Empire, which follows indigenous Canadians who visited Britain between 1770 and 1914

If you subscribed like you outta, it might have been in your mailbox today.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Cursive, you're history


Went last week to hear City of Toronto Archivist Carol Radford-Grant give the Howland Lecture for the York Historical Society on the subject of archives and the digital realm.

It seemed no big news that the city archives has 12,000 Twitter followers. Doesn't everybody have thousands of Twitter followers? But Radford-Grant pointed out that is more people than visit the archives -- a beautiful modern, accessible facility on Spadina Road below Casa Loma -- in a year.

And keep that quill pen sharp, too.
Even more striking was her evidence of how archives are responding to that kind of user data. The city's digitization efforts emphasize picture and map collections, because the online appetite for images is huge. Mere text documents, well, they don't have the same kind of takeup. Inevitably their place in the archival hierarchy at a public institution has to decline.  The handfuls of researchers who come in to spend long stretches of time working through collections of serial documents are no longer the key clients of archives, let us say.

And handwritten documents? It seems there is a calamity falling there that I had been largely unaware of. For one thing, handwritten docs largely resist optical character recognition software. They can be scanned, but not made machine-searchable -- so they are losers in the online universe. And increasingly, archives are finding that users just are not willing to look at handwritten sources  -- that is, practically the whole documentary record of anything before the twentieth century. A growing number of us rarely read or write cursive text now, and apparently the will and ability to do so is declining fast. Even Grandma now sends her notes to the kids by Facebook or text message, Radford-Grant observed.

And so archival attention and budgeting go elsewhere, to where the audience has gone. To stave off the death of the handwritten document altogether, some archives are launching crowd-sourced volunteer projects to have cursive-text documents individually transcribed into word-processed versions. Whaaa...?

I'm working up a column for Canada's History on some of the amazing things digitization is doing to and for historical practice. I ain't trying to be luddite about this. But I started his career using a hand-crank microfilm like the one above to read documents handwritten in 18th century French. When Radford-Grant showed a picture of one of her archives's few remaining microfilm readers and described the horrors of using one, and the audience burst out in laughter at the sheer archaic horror of it, I felt distinctly out of step with the world.

However.  There are still people who learn Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Linear B of clay tablets, Someone will master cursive if they have to, I guess.

Update, January 17:  Alan McCullough recalls:
I used a Recordak reader like the one pictured when I joined the PAC in 1968. I learned that, on slow afternoons, I could put my head against the overhead frame and doze, reasonably unobserved.

While crowd sourcing the ‘translation’ of cursive documents seems unlikely, it is not impossible. The crowd sourced “Automated Genealogy” indexed most of the Canadian census well before the project was taken up by one of the commercial genealogy companies.

Digitization of newspapers, with search functions, is one of the most significant changes. Over the past decade I have been researching, sporadically, the history of canoe clubs in Ottawa. Although I researched microfilm copies of newspapers before digitization, it was always very time consuming and rather hit or miss. Since digitization, with searchable functions, my research has been much more extensive. I realize some of the dangers of relying almost solely on newspapers, but, in the era I was interested in – 1880-1950 - they were almost the only source of detailed information.
Meanwhile, at Unwritten Histories, Stephanie Pettigrew devotes a long and detailed guest post to the pleasures and perils of paleography, that is, the science of reading old handwriting. And she kindly includes a linkback to this post of mine.

Update, February 14:  Frank Rockland alerts us to an Atlas Obscura profile of someone who has made a business of reading the handwriting no one else can.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Peter Russell on Incomplete Conquests


If you are in Toronto and interested:  Peter Russell, the author of last year's constitutional history (and constitutional proposal) Canada's Odyssey: A Country Built on Incomplete Conquests, is speaking on next Friday evening, January 12, 19th at the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church community hall in North Toronto .Free admission, all welcome, it says here.

Update, Jan 12: Sorry, was in such a hurry to post this in time that I failed to notice it's next week.  Thanks to Allan Williams for the correction.

Nobody loves you when you are 203


For a couple of years before 2015, the John A. Macdonald birthday parties on January 11 were lively events. (Unless he was actually born January 10, which remains a possibility.) They were history nerdfests more than Macdonald hagiographies, with a certain amount of political contestation encouraged.
By the 199th in 2014, it was getting a little too "official" and worshipful for my taste, and we passed on the 200th.

Now any kind of Macdonald commemoration would be intensely controversial. Indeed the bicentenary attention may have helped provoked the reassessment -- another sign of the consequences of anniversaries on historical memory. Even the pub located in Macdonald's old office building in Kingston has changed its name.  The 203rd does not seem to be prominent in the Canadian calendar today

This year the commemoration has apparently shifted from Canada to Highclere Castle in Britain, where they seem to be promoting the legend that the Canadian constitution was written there!
Highclere Castle was at the very centre of the discussions surrounding the British North American Bill and its drafting.
They must have an odd notion of what went on at aristocratic country house parties in the mid 19th centuries.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

History of Fire and Fury





Book promotion is generally one of those businesses where no one knows anything, but I'm loving the promotional gimmick the University of Toronto historian Randell Hansen has found for his 2008 study of the allied bombing of Europe during the Second World War. He titled it Fire and Fury, and then waited ten years for an American journalist to publish a lurid account of the Trump White House with the same title.  Both books are going like gangbusters, apparently.

Somehow I guess even Hansen's nomination for a nonfiction GG did not produce sales like this.

Notes on the history of inequality and minimum wages


American babies are 76 per cent more likely to die before they turn a year old than babies in other rich countries, and American children who survive infancy are 57 per cent more likely to die before adulthood, according to a sobering new study published in the journal Health Affairs.
American teens aged 15 to 19 are 82 times more likely than teens in other rich countries to die of a gun homicide.
You have to say, the Republican agenda is working.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, how is it that the operators of Tim Hortons franchises have a union -- the Great White North Franchisors Association -- to negotiate with the boss, but the workers cannot seem to have a union to negotiate with the franchisors?

And if markets are supposed to work, how is it the franchise system establishes that the boss gets to set the prices while the franchisors have to pay the (rising) wage costs?  Is the role of retail franchising in creating poverty a bug in the system, or more of a feature?

The $15 minimum wage, coming into force in Alberta and Ontario but bidding to be a national trend, has provoked furious criticism among business lobby organizations.  But economic analysis seems to be conclusive that increasing working people's incomes to meet a living wage is good for the economy, increases retail activity, stimulates business, etc.  The business groups seem so transparently dependent either on scare anecdotes or on the kinds of "studies" in which the press releases have been drafted before the research is commissioned, that the protests of the lobbyists seem to do more to reduce business credibility than to shift policy. In Ontario, at least, Kathleen Wynne seems to be building her re-election program on wrong footing these critics.


 
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