Posts Tagged ‘history’

I rarely admire conservatives. However, in reading 19th Century English history, I grudgingly make an exception for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington. His dry wit and clear-sightedness make him unusual among people of any political opinion.

That’s not to say that he would have been an easy person to spend time around. As both a general and a politician, he liked praise, was physically vain, and always conscious of his class superiority. A contemporary description said that he was socially condescending to his intellectual equals, and intellectually condescending to his social equals, which must have made him a hard man to know or tolerate at times.

All the same, anyone with his sense of humor is hard for me to dislike altogether. Although his most well-known quote is probably, “Publish and be damned!”(to a writer who threatened to publish an account of his involvement with the famous courtesan Harriet Wilson), many of his quotes show a sardonic turn of mind.

Because of the way he dominated English public life in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is hard to be sure what he actually said and what was attributed to him. Probably, he did not explain that he was English despite being born in Ireland by remarking that being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse, but I would like to think that he did. Probably, the same is true of his comment on some troops newly arrived in Spain: “I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me.”

However, he did comment on the first reform parliament, which brought in the first middle-class MPs with a snobbish, “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life,” and, when some French soldiers accidentally turned their backs on him at a diplomatic event, shrug off the unintentional insult with, “I have seen their backs before.” Since the apocryphal remarks have the same sort of sting, he could very well have said them, too.

Probably my favorite Wellington quote occurred when Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of George IV, reappeared in England for his coronation after years of scandalous behavior throughout Europe. Although Caroline was a stranger to personal hygiene and had many other unsavory habits, the Whigs championed her as a way of embarrassing the equally unpleasant Prince Regent. A group of Whig supporters stopped Wellington’s carriage in the streets and demanded that he acclaim Caroline as Queen.

“Very well, gentleman,” Wellington is reported to have said, “Since you would have it so, God Save Queen Caroline – and may all your wives be like her.”

But as enjoyable as such quotations are, what really makes Wellington remarkable was his pragmatism. Unlike most Conservatives – or people of any ideology, for that matter – he rarely seems to have mistaken his political convictions for reality when the two conflicted. He may have been a chauvinist who believed in the superiority of the English, but he could work with the sepoys of India or the Portuguese when he had to. Similarly, the Spanish guerrillas were hardly fighting the kind of war he had learned, but he was sensible enough to know that he needed them. And if he described his troops in the Peninsular War as “the scum of the earth,” he also immediately added, “it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are” and took care to keep them supplied and not to waste their lives in long sieges or battles where they were vastly outnumbered.

The same attitude is seen in his later political career. As a conservative cabinet minister and prime minister, Wellington was not a supporter of Catholic emancipation or parliamentary reforms. Yet he introduced Catholic emancipation, and, for a while considered leading a government to bring in reform because he realized that some action was inevitable. True, he granted the minimum of reform that was necessary to defuse the issues, but where other Tories stood on principle and refused any change whatsoever, Wellington knew some action was necessary.

For all his class prejudice and conceit, there is a kind of honesty in everything Wellington did. When he learned that Napoleon had outmaneuvered him in the Waterloo campaign, his first response was, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God” – no attempt at denial or excuses, but perhaps a reluctant respect for his opponent. And, after the battle, in which tens of thousands were killed on both sides, he admitted that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” and, reflecting upon the loss of both friends and common soldiers, remarked, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

Unlike Napoleon, Wellington never talked about glory, never wasted energy or lives in grandiose plans, and was only rarely wrong in his estimation of a martial or political situation. He would have been an easy man to dislike, but, I suspect, also one who was impossible not to respect.

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For the past three Wednesday evenings, I’ve attended George Macdonald’s lectures on Haida villages at the Bill Reid Gallery. It was time well-spent, and I only regret that the lectures stopped with three. Nobody is boring when talking about an area of expertise, and Macdonald, Director of the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Haida Monumental Art, was certainly in his element. Just as importantly, he combined knowledge with an informal and lively manner, which made for an absorbing scholarly trio of evenings.

Macdonald divided his subject matter into the southern villages centering on Skidegate, the central villages around Masset, and the northern or Kaigani villages of southern Alaska. Unsurprisingly, the second lecture was the most popular, with many Haida living in Vancouver coming out for it, including artists like Gwaai Edenshaw and Dorothy Grant, but the third was also popular, perhaps because the arbitrary border has resulted in few Canadians knowing much about the Kaigani villages. And the entire series was attended by a core of regulars, including me.

The first surprise in the lecture is how much photographic evidence exists from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because much of this evidence is not available to the general public, many people, I suspect, are like me and believe that it is very limited. However, Macdonald speaks in terms of thousands of photos (and I’m not sure that he didn’t talk of tens of thousands), to say nothing of sketches by anthropologists and navy officers, and works of art like Emily Carr’s. In fact, so much of this evidence exists that pieces can be cross-correlated, and the distinctive style of individual – if often anonymous – artists can be detected. Macdonald showed perhaps a few hundred slides of this evidence, but his lectures were enough to suggest the surprising wealth of material.

Another source of evidence is family tradition. In many Haida villages, memory or written records have preserved the names of many of the houses, as well as some of their history. For instance, at the third lecture, Dorothy Grant told her grandfather’s story of how his village was abandoned for a centralized, missionary-run new village of running water and electricity. During the burning of possessions that the missionaries insisted upon, her grandfather saved only the contents of the bentwood box in his hands.

Nearly four hours of lecture and audience participation is almost impossible to summarize. However, other topics in Macdonald’s lectures included the patterns of resettlement in the south as European diseases forced the survivors to regroup and, in many cases, regroup again; the use of palisades and hilltops during wars between lineages; the names and appearances of some of the great chiefs and carvers of a hundred and forty years ago; the question of whether Albert Edward Edenshaw was trying to bypass matrilineal inheritance by bestowing property on his son, and the characteristic designs of the graves of shamans. In many cases, too, the villages were illustrated by sketch maps or aerial photos.

Equally fascinating were Macdonald’s own stories of his experiences as an archaeologist in the field. They ranged from the careless destruction of one pole that survived into modern times in Prince Rupert, and the danger of bears while exploring villages. Macdonald also revealed in passing some of the professional issues and puzzles in the study of villages.

This was the first lecture series from the Bill Reid Gallery. The gallery is an ideal place for a small crowd, even if the monumental Mythic Messengers and the smell of cedar from Jim Hart’s work on his tribute pole to Bill Reid sometimes became distractions. But, on the whole, if it is an example of what these organizations plan to offer in the future, then future events deserve to be crowded. Like any good lectures, Macdonald’s have pushed back the boundaries of my ignorance a little while tantalizing me to find out more.

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“I have led a good life, careful and artistic,

I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic” 

– Utah Phillips

When I was younger, I worried that I would become more conservative as I got older. However, thanks to the main trauma in my life, that hasn’t happened. Instead, I continue to hold similar views to those I developed in my teens, but in a different way – less singlemindedly, and more skeptically.

I consider my social and political positions open to revision at any given time. However, here’s how my world view looks as I serve my time as a curmudgeon-in-training:

  • Having people in authority over others is the easiest and quickest way to organize society, but generally lapses into an abuse of power. Finding alternative power structures is difficult, but creative – as well as an absolute necessity for personal quality of life and for alleviating long-term social problems. Meanwhile, questioning and minimizing authority is the best way to prevent abuse of power. Sometimes, though, the only short-term relief available is throwing out those in power and replacing them with new ones. Eventually, though, we have to do throw out the new ones, too.
  • What everybody knows or does is always worth questioning. Rather than observing or making an effort to understand the situation around them, most people rely on explanatory principles to make sense of the world. For instance, they say that all men watch sports and all women love to shop without ever examining these assumptions. While you may not get answers by questioning common assumptions, you will always get a better rounded view of the issues by going beyond the explanatory principles.
  • Fashion is a pseudo-culture. A culture is supposed to sustain daily life by giving people a set of values and community. Consumerism promises to deliver these same benefits, but, because it depends upon frequent changes and abrupt reversals of preferences, what it actually creates is a deep sense of insecurity – the exact opposite of culture. Fashion is to culture as junk food is to nourishment.
  • Sloppy thinking is everywhere. One of the most common fallacies is an appeal to authority, although where once we used to consult religion to settle arguments, we now use biology (never mind if we misrepresent or misunderstand the biology, or over-apply it). In North America, the either/or fallacy – the insistence that everything is one thing or another, and never anything in between – is almost as common, leading to over-simplification and distortion of just about every public issue you can name. Often, either/or thinking reduces issues, not to questions of rights or wrong, but a choice of half-truths, neither of which is very satisfactory.
  • To get more of the truth, find the untold stories. Official explanations and histories – including the canons of art — always leave out some events and people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes in unconscious self-justification. What the official versions leave out is sometimes lost, but, despite Orwell’s fears in Nineteen Eighty-Four, some fragments of the unofficial versions survive. These remnants often explain the inexplicable in the official versions, or give new insights entirely. For example, aside from the social changes, one of the most valuable contributions of feminism’s second wave was the rediscovery of previously overlooked writers such as Aphra Behn.
  • As Utah Phillips said, a long memory is the most radical notion in history. Consumerism and the egos of those in power encourage a foreshortened version of the present, in which it is cut off from everything that has gone before. It is true that history never repeats itself, but, as a source of parallels, analogies, and causation, the past is still one of the best ways to understand the present.
  • Most of the time, the average person gets lost in everyday concerns and ignores the larger ones, including those that might give them more control of their lives. For instances, in our culture, it is generally true that you would get more people out to a rally to resist talk of closing the stores on Sunday than to get a large corporation to reduce its pollution. Although exceptions to this trend exist, they are brief and rare.
  • Holding these thoughts is necessary for thinking clearly about society, but can be unhealthy. You need to remember that people can oppose you and still be the kind you would like to meet socially, if you are honest. You also need to avoid excessive cynicism, or, even worse, a negative identity, in which you define yourself solely in terms of your opposition to certain issues and people. Don’t forget, too, that, despite all the difficulties described her, art and clear thinking still manage to emerge. For instance, although marked as just another consumer product, the popular music and the science fiction of the 1960s are still cultural high points. Similarly, the consumer-driven rise of the popular computer led to the existence of the free software community, in which people are trying to think clearly and gain control of their work and lives.

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