Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on “Through the looking glass: Canadian identity and the War of 1812”

For this Thursday’s class, I read the Sjolander article “Through the Looking Glass: Canadian Identity and the War of 1812.” To start with, the article was not at all what I was expecting. Based on the title, I thought the article would be about how an emerging Canadian identity led to or affected the War of 1812, or I thought the article would be about how the War of 1812 created or fostered a sense of Canadian identity during and immediately after the war’s conclusion.

Instead, Sjolander made an argument about how the modern-day Canadian conservative party used the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812 to foster a new nationalistic Canadian “warrior identity” to push back agianst the Liberal party’s “peacekeeping identity” and brand of liberal internationalism. Specifically, Sjolander argues that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada presented the War of 1812 as a unifying event in Canadian history in which, to quote Harper, “Aboriginal peoples, local and volunteer militias, and English and French-speaking regiments fight together to save Canada from American invasion.”

Wow. As Sjolander elucidates, this statement has all the elements of nationalistic identity reconstruction. There are people from diverse backgrounds (French Canadian! English Canadian! Aboriginal!) coming together (Unity!) to fight against a common enemy (Americans!). After all, if the First Nations can fight alongside the colonial English Canadians as well and French Canadians to defeat the Americans after those three groups long history of conflict, then Canada must truly be a unified place. Sarcasm aside, there are notable tones of colonialism and imperialism present in Harper’s remarks because they both imply and explicitly state (to a degree) that the only reason these groups were fighting was for Canada. Realistically, however, each of these groups were fighting against the Americans for their own distinct reason, and perhaps more importantly, each of these groups did not benefit equally from the muddy victory of the Americans. As we discussed in class, the First Nations clearly got the short end of the stick when it came to the War of 1812, and Harper’s remarks erase this history and perpetuate a system of native erasure to promote a nationalistic identity.

Now, this explains the core “what” of Sjolander’s article, but it does not explain the core “why” of her article. To understand why the Canadian Conservative party would use the War of 1812 to recast the Canadian national identity, we must understand the issue through both a domestic and an international lens. Domestically, Sjolander argues, the value in creating a nationalistic Canadian identity by presenting Aboriginal peoples and English and Francophone Canadians as unified “Canadians” during the War of 1812 is that it removes the responsibility from the Canadian government to grapple with its complicated past while simultaneously presenting its current domestic agenda as a noble cause for all Canadian people. In other (non-academic) words, it creates domestic Sheeple making it easier for the party in control to effect its agenda. Internationally, this rhetoric perpetuates Canadian values around the world because it presents them as just and noble – implying that the rest of the world such follow and implement these values too. Additionally, on an international level, Sjolander argues that celebrating the bicentennial of a Canadian war on moralistic grounds (e.g. defeating the invading Americans as a unified Canada) has the effect of justifying Canada’s current or future involvement in war because it shows that Canadians were “born out of war.”

Ultimately, Sjolander’s article is multifaceted, nuanced, complicated, and hard to encapsulate in the span of a blog post, but, at its core, it demonstrates how people of all political affiliations engage in “identity politics” to achieve their goals.

References:

Sjolander, Claire Turenne. “Through the looking glass: Canadian identity and the War of 1812.” International Journal 69, no. 2 (2014): 152+. Academic OneFile (accessed September 29, 2017). http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=viva_vpi&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA372250364&sid=summon&asid=21cdc2f3d7fc0640eb53c77b8f4fdd46.

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Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on Blue Monday

For this week’s class I ready the chapter of Never Done by Susan Strasser called “Blue Monday.” Strasser begins the chapter with a detailed description of the laundry process during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. For this post, I am going to focus more on the social argument of Strasser’s article as opposed to the economic side of her argument.

To start with, I was very impressed with the amount of labor that went into washing clothes in the ‘olden days’ since I’ve never thought about what life was like without washing machines. Seriously, these women had to:

  • Soak the clothes the night before (usually Sunday going into Monday)
  • Drain the clothes
  • Pour hot suds on the most soiled of clothes
  • Scrub each article of clothing against a washboard individually
  • Wring them out
  • Cover soiled spots with more spots
  • Boil the clothes
  • Rinse
  • Rub dirty spots again with soap again
  • Rinse
  • Wring
  • Hang out to dry
Boiling the clothes

And then they had to repeat this entire process over again with the next load, and, don’t forget, they were scrubbing each article of clothing individually.

Me after reading the section on the old clothe washing process

Surely, then, the advent of the washing machine infinitely improved the lives of twentieth century women. After all, they would spend less time washing the clothes each week which would allow them to spend more time doing leisure activities and consuming the technologies of the twentieth century. Right?

Well, Strasser argues that the picture isn’t so clear. For one, she argues that although women would spend less time on labor each time they washed the clothes, they were expected to wash the clothes more often since the process was easier. This trend coincided with evolving twentieth century values around sanitation (which Strasser addressed in her chapter on indoor plumbing) which added a sort of compounding effect, and ultimately laundry went from being a once a week ordeal with less clothes to a more frequent ordeal with more clothes. I really appreciate and understand Strasser’s argument in this situation, and, based on class conversation, it seems to be an argument she makes throughout the book. However, it’s moments like this I wish there were some form of quantitative data about how much time women spent on laundry before and after the advent of the laundry machine because I think this would add an interesting dimension to either “side’s” argument. This is not to say that data which showed women did spend less time on laundry after the advent of washing machine would invalidate Strasser’s argument; in fact, it could strengthen it. Regardless, it would certainly make the conversation more interesting.

The second portion of Strasser’s social argument focuses on what women lost when the process of laundry became easier: Socialization. See, since laundry was such a time and labor intensive process, women in communities would do it together. Sometimes, this involved each person doing an assigned task – sort of like an assembly line – but other times it just involved a group of women doing their families laundry in the same area. Inevitably, this led to talking and friend making and community building and solidarity. However, when it was no longer necessary to band together to complete laundry, this socialization was lost. It’s hard to understate the importance of socialization among human beings, and especially among women, so I think this might be the most important and yet most underappreciated aspect of Strasser’s argument.

Ultimately, I found the social parts of Strasser’s argument to be nuanced and to have applications to many conversations we hold today about cell phones and social media (which we discussed in class!).

References: Strasser, Susan. Never Done. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Word Count: 612

Reflections on Revisionism feature Connections to GLMA 2017

For this Thursday’s class I read Christian Conger’s article, “How Revisionist History Works.” Since I am absent from class attending the annual GLMA conference, I thought I would connect the commentary in Conger’s article to one of the lectures I attended at the conference, so that I may apply the lessons from class to my experiences outside of it.

Yesterday, I attended a lecture given by Harlan Pruden – a two-spirit activist and scholar and member of the First Nation Cree – in which he discussed two-spirit history and its connections to LGBTQ+ health. According to Conger, one way to practice revisionism is to use a “social or theoretical perspective to re-examine the past through different lenses,” and this is exactly what Harland did: He looked at the historical and modern constructions of gender through a Native lens to better understand the interrelations between gender, sex, sexuality, and healthcare. Harlan argued that in Western frameworks, we look at gender and sexuality in a linear fashion (e.g. an individual is gay, straight, or somewhere in between, or a man, women, or somewhere in between). In a native framework, however, gender and sexuality exist in a circular fashion, and Harlan argues that it is necessary to understand the history of colonization through a native lens to understand the circular nature of gender and sexuality. In most native tribes, there are four genders: Male, female, what we could consider a male assigned individual who perform female gender tasks, and vice versa. These “extra” genders were named by the French as Bardache – a word which essentially means the receptive male partner in anal sex. Today, however, we know these people as two-spirit.

Natives did not look at these individuals as “male assigned” or “female assigned” and thus it was normal for male warriors to court a “male assigned” two-spirit individual or for a female gatherer to court a “female assigned” two-spirit individual. These couples were not viewed as “gay” or “lesbian” by other Natives, as we would, but as a normal, valued, and healthy part of Native societies. In a Western framework, where we predominantly erase the history of natives, it is impossible to understand this conception of gender and sexuality and its power; however, using a revisionist lens gives that power back to us as non-Native scholars and to Natives who are trying to reclaim their culture.

Harlan also spoke of historical trauma which is a cross-generational perpetuation of systemic violence that results in individual and community emotional and psychological damage. For native Americans / aboriginal peoples this takes the form of loss of land, loss of language, and loss of customs, just to name a few. For Black people in the United States, this takes the form of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. For Japanese people, this takes the form of internment camps; Chinese people the form of West coast labor camps; queer and trans people the form of sodomy laws, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, marriage inequality, and bathroom bills. I bring up historical trauma because it is difficult if not impossible to understand and believe in without using revisionist lenses, and we as historians either contribute to or fight against this systemic violence with our readings and writings of history.

Ultimately, revisionism is powerful because it gives agency to marginalized individuals and groups to tell the history of their culture, and this reclamation promotes unity, activism, and community.  Revisionism is dangerous, however, because it can give that same power of agency to the oppressor to erase those they find lesser.

References

“How Revisionist History Works.” 2009. January 7. http://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/revisionist-history.htm.

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Reflections on “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” by James Davidson

For Tuesday’s class, I read the article “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” by James West Davidson. In this article, Davidson examines the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan through three theoretical frameworks:

  1. Rational actor model
  2. Organizational process model
  3. Bureaucratic politics model

In this blog post, I will attempt to explain the theory behind each of these models, and provide illustrative examples for each.

According to Davidson, the rational actor model “treats the actions of governments and large organizations as the actions of individuals” (314). Common examples of rational actor theory in scholarship about the decision to drop the bomb are statements like ‘Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb’ or ‘Truman dropped the atomic bomb.’ The strengths of the rational actor model lie in that it does an excellent job of describing major events or decisions brought about by individuals, and subsequently stringing these decisions into a narrative. The weakness of the rational actor model is that this narrative is often over simplifies narratives. For example, the decision to drop the atomic bomb involved many military and civilian committees who made recommendations and decisions about how, when, where, and even why to drop the bomb. In addition, the rational actor model assumes that individuals make decisions based on logic only and does not leave any room for the irrationality of human emotion.

If the rational actor model were to be the ticking hands of a clock, Davidson likens the organizational process model to the “gears, springs, and levers” that make the clock tick (323). According to Davis, the organizational process model treats the actions of government “not as centralized acts and choices, but as the actions of bureaucracies functioning in relatively predictable patterns” (324). Davidson uses the military’s standard operating procedures as a paradigmatic example of predictable patterns. In addition, he argues that the strength of the rational actor model is that it allows for historians to understand the complexities and interrelations of governmental processes. In reference to the atomic bomb, this explains why the development of the bomb came slowly (committees to decide whether it was necessary, military security procedures, committees to decide whether to use the bomb and, if so, on who, etc.). I would argue that this same strength of the organizational process model can also be its drawback: If historians get too caught up in the intricacies of bureaucracy (akin to going down the rabbit hole), they might never make an argument about the event.

Finally, the bureaucratic politics model takes into account that “[p]owerful individuals or groups can often override the standard procedures of organizations as well as the carefully thought-out choices of rational actors” (327). Davidson argues that the death of President Roosevelt and the subsequent presidency of President Truman provides an excellent example for how bureaucracies and the well-thought-out decisions of individuals can be shifted by the politics of a particularly influential individual. To explain, President Truman had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project. As a result, for several months, Secretary Stimson found that he had great influence over President Truman’s thought and decisions regarding atomic bombs (328).

In his conclusion, Davidson argues that historians must use each of the three models to thoroughly understand the decision to drop the atomic bomb, and I personally agree with this argument. Ultimately, Davidson does an excellent job of explaining the three models and providing examples and analysis for each of the three. I will say that sometimes I found myself going back and rereading several passages the make sure I understand the theory behind each model before I delved into the specific examples, but this may be more the product of me sitting in a noisy airport and airplane than of his writing. Once I did so, however, I felt like I could apply each of these models/frameworks to novel situations. Finally, on a personal note, I found the opening pages of Davidson’s article to be a beautifully written narrative describing the testing of the atomic bomb, the decision to drop the atomic bombs, and the bombings themselves, and I would highly recommend reading them.

References

Davidson, James West, and Mark H Lytle. 2017. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. McGraw-Hill. Accessed September 13.

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Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on the “Facts” Surrounding the Decision to Drop the Atomic Bombs

For this Thursday’s conversation, I was responsible for finding and presenting the basic “facts” of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To do so, I turned to every-historian’s-favorite-source, Wikipedia, because I knew it would give me a good starting point for this information as well as be (mostly) devoid of commentary on the decision to use the bombs.

Dr Strangelove

According to Wikipedia, on July 25th, 1945, President Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. The United States had originally identified four potential targets for where to drop the atomic bomb, and on August 6th and August 9th, the United States dropped Little Boy and Fat Man from the Enola Gay and Bockscar onto the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombing at Hiroshima killed a approximately 80,000 individuals instantly; the bombing at Nagasaki killed approximately 70,000 individuals instantly; approximately 190,000 individuals died from secondary effect of the bomb later on. The August 9th bombing quickly brought about the surrender of Japan.  Although the Wikipedia entry goes into greater detail about the preparations for the bombings, the bombings themselves, and the aftermath of the bombings, I found this level of information sufficient for creating a framework to discuss the decision to drop the atomic bombs. Ultimately, I found Wikipedia to be a good source for establishing a timeline of the events that preceded and followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For me, the most interesting part of the Wikipedia entry was that even within its analysis free entry, the page still largely presented the very standard American argument/justification (one might call it the Stimson argument) for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan – that it ultimately saved American and Japanese lives. The entry references a report commissioned by Secretary of War Stimson that estimated a land invasion of Japan would result in upwards of 800,000 deaths for the Allies and upwards of 10 million deaths for the Japanese. While these numbers may or may not have been accurate, the narrative that the United States dropped the atomic bombs to save lives is exactly the narrative that revisionists historians push back against, and this presentation of the atomic-bombs-saved-lives narrative speaks to what one might call a American-centric version of events. Ultimately, this narrative on the Wikipedia page relates to our conversation from Tuesday about objectivity, basic facts/truths, postmodernism, etc. For example, the page references two predictions for how many casualties/fatalities would be suffered by both sides if the United States were to have carried out a land invasion of Japan. Although the numbers are not congruous, they are still presented in absolute sense (e.g. Had the US not dropped the bombs, this many lives would have been lost) which makes it difficult for average readers of the page to think critically what other factors might have gone into the decision to drop the bombs. Finally, I should acknowledge that the very bottom of the Wikipedia entry briefly details different schools of thought about why the decision to drop the bombs was made. However, the point of my analysis is that all presentations of historical information have some bias inherent in them, and it is our job as consumers and writers of history to be critical and transparent about the ways in which these biases manifest themselves in narratives or our writings.

Works Cited

“Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Wikipedia.” 2017. Accessed September 8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki.

 

Word Count: 560

Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on “An Introduction to Richard Evans’ In Defence of History”

Through examining the work of German historian Sir Richard Evans, Macat History Analysis explores whether it is possible to write a true account of the past. In 1997, Sir Richard Evans published the book In Defence of History in which he pushed back against the postmodernist idea that it is impossible to write an objective account of the past. Per­ postmodernist theory, “all accounts of the past are constructs” because we (historians) have no way of knowing how sources were created or how our readers will interpret our writing. Ultimately, postmodernists argue, history can only be a study of texts – not of objective truths.

Me after listening to the part about Nazis

According to the video, Sir Richard Evans argued against this idea in two ways: First, he argued that since postmodernists view all histories as equally valid, then they must accept the viewpoint/history of a holocaust denier and a concentration camp survivor as equal. Furthermore, Sir Richard Evans argues that postmodernists arguments are inherently fallacious because they believe their version of history is more valid than a historian who believes it is possible to write an objective account of the past. This belief conflicts with their argument that all writings of history are equally valid.

I thought this video did an excellent job of succinctly describing the viewpoints of Sir Richard Evans and postmodernists. Obviously, there are many nuances to each of their viewpoints that were lost when their entire books or ideologies were distilled into the video; however, I feel as though I could start an intelligent conversation based on what I learned in the video (which is often my personal metric for whether or not an educational YouTube video did its job well).

Finally, I found this video interesting because it touches on many of the debates that are currently going on the field of journalism: Is it possible to write an objective account of the news? Should journalists give all viewpoints equal credence in the name of objectivity? Is it better for journalists to claim objectivity or to openly claim their biases? For sure, journalists and non-journalists alike have been heavily debating questions like these for decades; however, since President Trump started his campaign in 2015 and eventually came into office, these debates have had an increased vigor. (Or perhaps that’s my construction of history based on my personal experiences. Ooooh, postmodernism). Columns like “This week should put the nail in the coffin for ‘both sides’ journalism” argue that there is such a thing as truth-telling and objectivity in telling the news, and that journalists should stop pretending that “both sides” have an equally valid claim. Personally, I believe that there is such a thing as truth and objectivity in history and the news. I also believe, however, that there is room for viewing history/the news through constructions/ideologies/lenses so long as basic truths remain in place (easier said than done, I know). Ultimately, I found this video to be an excellent example of how we can apply lessons from this class to “real world” situations or our future careers.

Sources

“An Introduction to Richard Evans’s In Defence of History – A Macat History Analysis.” YouTube. October 29, 2015. Accessed September 04, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WU59ZX4QyFk.

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