Brian M. Foster

Razing National Libraries for Two Centuries: 1812 and 2012

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2012 at 8:00 pm

In April of 1814, with Napoleon Bonaparte defeated and exiled, Britain’s Tory government (led by Prime Minister Robert B. Jenkins) turned its full attention to a war it had been fighting against the United States of America in the New World for the previous two years.

This war — the war of 1812 — took a turn for the worse that spring.

The British sent 20 warships (some from the maritime colony of Nova Scotia) up the Chesapeake Bay to Washington, D.C., then a young and sparsely populated capitol city. President Madison’s administration hadn’t taken the threat of invasion seriously; thus, when British forces marched on the city at 8:00pm on August 24 1814, they met almost no local resistance. After searching in vain for someone to parley with on terms of surrender, they put the torch to the fledgling city.

After burning down the White House, the British turned to the buildings housing the War and State offices, the treasury, a local newspaper and—perhaps most symbolically—the Capitol building. In burning down the Capitol building, not only did they lay waste to the house of elected assembly, they also burned the Library of Congress, and with it the records of Congress and related research materials.

After destroying all these records of the American government, the British turned their attention to the Patent Office. But there they were met by an English-born Federalist, Dr. William Thornton, who had designed the Capitol building and, then serving as Superintendent of Patents, watched it burn from the steps of his new office.

When the British arrived there, Thornton stood in the torrential rain and famously pled with the plundering hoard of British to spare his office. It was a “model of the arts…useful to all mankind,” he said. To burn it “would be as barbarous as formerly to burn the Alexandrian Library, for which the Turks have been ever since condemned by all enlightened nations.” The British spared the patent archive and moved on to torch the Navy Dock Yards.

In all of his jingoistic enthusiastic trumpeting about the War of 1812, Stephen Harper probably hasn’t had time to reflect on the irony of this part of the historical record vis-à-vis his other governing prerogatives; irony, because he has, for all intents and purposes, thrown a lit match at the keepers of our government, heritage and related records, and no appeal to enlightenment or charge of barbarism seem capable of compelling him to move on.

About a week ago, news broke of cuts to Library and Archives Canada (LAC), as well as the system of local archives connected through various federal funding initiatives centralized in LAC. The news was met by the standard groans of discontent and calls for opposition, but these largely quieted down by week’s end.

This is about par for the course in what the Times Colonist called the “Harperization of Canada”: enough small cuts to enough departments, and you keep opposition scrambling, divided, and weary, as they try to fight on a multitude of fronts. That’s just good strategy. No department is being spared the knife, but they’re staying well away from any nerves. Still, they are going deep enough to gut.

The Harper Government is eliminating 10 percent of the LAC budget, 20 percent of its staff, crippling LAC collection programs, and eliminating the 1.7 million dollar National Archive Development Program, which has funded over 800 local archives for 26 years. This comes after severe cuts to Parks Canada’s budget, eliminating almost 640 jobs, and cuts to the CBC, which has been digitizing its own archives and making great documentaries, will no doubt be affected.

As a graduate about to finish his studies, I’ve seen radical changes in funding for history and the other social sciences through SSHRC; money has been shifted increasingly towards research and development targeted directly at business programs, and away from scientist-driven Research and Development.

But the real kicker? As Eric Sager of the University of Victoria has noted, all of these cuts are happening as the federal government pours money (over 28 million!!!) into the commemoration of the War of 1812.[1]

I guess it’s appropriate that we’re essentially razing the Canadian heritage system on the anniversary of the War; Harper is, after all, continuing a long tory tradition of razing the past to create a brave new future. Yet it’s not very conservative – and at least the tories of 1814 could be appealed to on the basis of civility.

And now a video for learnin! (Not so sure about the Tornado bit, seems a bit too providential)

[1] Eric Sager, “Harperizing Canada’s history and heritage,” Times Colonist, 11 May 2012


Web 2.0 and the Study of International Relations: The Invisible College

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm

This is a great youtube talk by Dr. Charli Carpenter at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Three things stand out that warrant some further comment.

First, it’s great to see academics reaching out through new media tools. This is an academic product that deserves more credit from tenure committees and colleagues than it will undoubtedly get.

Second, Carpenter opens with a call for the closer study the historical and sociological effects of professional scholarly organizations as international or transnational political agents. The idea that academics construct the world through the act of observing it, as Carpenter argues, is integral to understanding how we frame the world, why we study the problems that we do, and how we imagine the world around us might change.

Finally, and related to the last point, her look at how web 2.0 is “reconstituting” us as observers and agents is important. In fact, this is why I posted it this video at all.

Dr. Carpenter makes the interesting observation that 2.0 mediums like Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook are changing the way we work, and also that they’re posing questions about how we ought to work.

But I want to focus in more specifically on her observation that these new technologies are flattening the terrain on which we gather knowledge and disseminate it outward. I am not as optimistic about the flattening role these tools might play in redefining standards and norms of both access to academic work, and the sites and sources we turn to for raw information.

There can be little doubt that geographical divisions are disappearing or at least fading with social media. We’ve witnessed, for example, the way Western activists, scholars and journalism outlets picked up on the Arab Spring. More recently, the Trayvon Martin case showed how de-localized attention can spur or at least help to spur local action.

But, as most subaltern historians and historians of marginalized sub-populations will attest, technologies only flatten terrain inasmuch as access to them and tolerance of serious difference exists at a more cultural level. For example, Twitter is a mostly spaceless community. But it is still, nonetheless, a highly striated and compartmentalized space that actually carries over many of the class, race and cultural divisions that exist in a particular location.

Anyone who uses it knows that the hashtag is a staple tool that allows you to reach beyond your base of followers and join in on conversations you might otherwise have no toehold into.

BUT, and this is a serious qualification, hashtags and the content of tweets are culturally located, and are only expressions of our non-electronic socio-economic, political, and cultural surroundings. Say, for instance, I want to talk about Toronto politics. There is a hastage for that: #TOpoli. For Canadian politics, it’s #cdnpoli.

Far from dissolving surrounding geopolitical borders, hashtags actually help reinforce them by placing our tweets in localized and territorialized conversations. These have the potential to be observed outside of and reach beyond the local, but so does a newspaper. Even Twitter’s top tweets of the year are organized by nation-state.  This points to the fact that we are still prisoners – low-security, maybe – of our cultural and socio-political surroundings. Hashtag streams, like tumblr pages and your Facebook or g+ circles, rarely cross cultural and language borders.

No doubt, some of my readers will think this assessment is unfair and argue that we all have the potential to cross into and explore other spheres, if we exercise some initative and learn a second language, or if we come to care about another place or cause. That matters. But that option is itself a privilege that comes from education and, that word again, access, that only a certain proportion of people will ever be able to reach for.

Suffice it to say that we must be careful not to see these new technologies as cosmopolitan. They may well be meant to create a sense of de-territorialization or spacelessness. But even in our moments of far-reaching worldliness, we are still anchored to our surroundings. That includes our own ideas about the way that world works and the proper political, social and economic order of it.

Yet what we read onto these technologies – a marker of the hope we invest in them to liberate or flatten the world – is often a, if not more revealing than what it is they’re actually doing.

The Tangled Charity-State Web We Weave

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm

The Set-up

People seldom think about the messy relationship between the mostly not-for-profit industries of public history or heritage – museums, tourism and the like – and changing political power in the state, as governing parties and thus governing interests shift. Many of us still deeply believe that the past is a thing which we can observe with some objectivity, and that we can therefore avoid politicizing the past.

But a story released today by the Ottawa Citizen/Post Media helps pull any lingering wool from our eyes, making it difficult to maintain the perception that non-state institutions can tango with the state without ending up in bed.

In summary,  Historica-Dominion (HD) is a historical charity that receives millions from the federal government each year (to the tune of about $6.5 million). As a charity, they are legally obligated to avoid any partisan political activity. But as it turns out, after the Stephen Harper Conservatives won the last federal election, the ties between HD and the Conservative Party got a little thicker. As the Citizen story outlines, the connections are curious. If you want to read the story rather than this synopsis, skip to the amazing video below.

1)  The sitting top executive in HD is a lawyer named Michael A. Levine. Levine is an entertainment industry lawyer. He also has a long history of tight relationships with the sitting federal government, be it Liberal or Conservative, and of working to promote the various cultural products of Canada’s political elite. The Entertainment guru is presently shopping out Stephen Harper’s book on Hockey (a riveting read, no doubt) to potential publishers.

2) Since before Levine took the top job at HD, the charity has been using the controversial call centre known as Responsive Marketing Group (RMG) for telephone fundraising. RMG, now infamous because of its alleged connections to the Robocall controversy,  is a call bank that works with an American based outreach targeting group called Target Outreach. HD says their contract with RMG uses Target Outreach’s services. The problem is, according to their own mission statement, Target outreach deals “exclusively with right-of-centre campaigns to develop fundraising and voter contact strategies that target your message to the right audience.” (Tthat’s a sweet double entendre at the end, right?)

3) The Harper Government has made it a key plank in their budget to crack down on registered charities engaged in overt political causes. This measure is aimed quite squarely at environmental groups, some of which have been working with NGOs and charities in the US, to try and stop the pipeline projects that would run from the Alberta bitumen fields (aka, the oilsands or tarsands) to either BC’s coast or through the American mid-west via the Keystone pipeline. The problem is, NGO and charity networks are a tangled mess. More ahead.

4) Finally – my favorite – HD has also created videos promoting the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This event is, to put it mildly, very dear to the Conservative Government, which is working to promote events through state apparatuses and through their own party machinery. Who doesn’t love the smell of musket flint on Canada Day morning?

The Tangled Web

Most Canadian readers already know about the Historica Dominion institute, even if they don’t realize it. If you’re reading in Canada, you’ve surely seen the “Canadian Heritage Moment” adds. Here’s one for the uninitiated:

Yeah. So if you were wondering, Canada got its name when a bunch of guys from Europe, who spoke English while their lips spoke French, pretended to understand a First Nation envoy, interpreting the word village to mean the whole nation–which was wayyyyyyyy far from even existing at that point. It’s so honest, it makes you pause.

Anyway. Reaction to this story has been mixed. Some have seen the growing ties between the CPC and cultural charities like the HD as proof that the Conservatives are hypocritical about politics in the non-state arena, and that they are using state money to push these organizations towards a more right-wing politics. Others are calling this story a conspiratorial hit job, tarring the CPC with anything that might stick.

I think that both of these readings miss the key point, which the journalist who broke the story hints at, but ultimately can’t or won’t get into.

The most important point to take away from this story is that the state has an often subtle, but very real relationship with non-governmental institutions. So HD, while it is not basically concerned with governing, per se, helps create the cultural foundations and narratives that we use to make sense of history. HD has always been concerned with building a national narrative, connecting the history of Canada’s vast territory and sparse population to its history of fur trapping, forestry and it apparently intimate connection to the wilderness. HD is a cultural apparatus that has continued to curry favor with governments because it literally animates the otherwise dry political business of building a cohesive national identity.

For this reason, it should come as no surprise that HD is making videos on the War of 1812. Nor should it be a surprise that the top board member of HD is shilling the PM’s book on hockey. And it really shouldn’t be a startling revelation that, given the piss-poor funding by the state for charities (particularly historical ones) that HD has used aggressive targeted outreach to gather its funds.

What this small story exposes is that the state matters when it comes to cultural production; it will use its force to ensure that culture reflects the values of the governing administration.

With this in mind, it is perhaps advisable that next time someone tells you Canadian culture has shifted to the right or left, you should take these assertions with a grain of salt.

Perhaps the next Canadian Heritage Moment could memorialize the brief period in which we believed in the impermeability of the state-society divide. That, or something romantic about soldiers playing hockey in the oil sands, drinking Tim Hortons coffee and listening to Nickelback. Given the present administration, I’m guessing it’ll be the latter.