Monday, January 04, 2016

Reading list for next year?

Much more substantial than my own collection of good posts for the past year is Phil Paine's annotated list of books that inspired him this year. There is no point in duplicating his post; instead I will just include one fairly long excerpt and hope that you will look for the rest at his website. 

Lafontaine & Baldwin

… what does this have to do with rebel­lions in Canada? Well, the failed rebel­lions had a trans­form­ing impact on two young men who were both ardent demo­c­ra­tic reform­ers, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in Lower Canada, and Robert Bald­win in Upper Canada. Both men had come to the con­clu­sion that the rebel­lions led by fire­brands like Louis-Joseph Pap­ineau and William Lyon Macken­zie, which they had ini­tially sup­ported, had been more destruc­tive than pro­duc­tive of reform, and that a more ratio­nal strat­egy was required. Lafontaine still had faith in the demands made by the Patri­otes in the rebel­lion: demo­c­ra­tic gov­ern­ment by uni­ver­sal male suf­frage, with prop­erty qual­i­fi­ca­tions abol­ished; equal­ity of Eng­lish and French as legal and gov­ern­ing lan­guages; trial by jury in all crim­i­nal and most civil cases; abo­li­tion of the death penalty for all crimes except first degree mur­der; equal rights for all abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples “the same as any other cit­i­zen”; guar­an­tees of free­dom of speech and the press; free­dom of reli­gion and total sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State; abo­li­tion of seigneural tenure and rem­nant “feu­dal” prac­tices; a free mar­ket in land; pub­lic edu­ca­tion. It should be noted that these demands, made in 1837, went much fur­ther in the direc­tion of mod­ern democ­racy than any­thing con­tem­plated else­where. But the rebel­lions had only brought about a tri­umphant Con­ser­v­a­tive reac­tion, with mas­sive abuses of civil rights.
In 1841, the two colonies were con­sol­i­dated, after this was urged by the inves­ti­gat­ing emis­sary from Britain, Lord Durham. There would be an elected assem­bly for the new “United Canada”, but the inten­tion was to dilute the power of the French-speaking major­ity in Lower Canada, with a long-term goal of “assim­i­lat­ing” French Cana­di­ans into obliv­ion. While there were some con­sti­tional gains, the assem­bly hav­ing more power on money bills than before, there were obvi­ous losses. Lower Canada had actu­ally rejoiced in a degree of women’s suf­frage: women who met the prop­erty qual­i­fi­ca­tions had the vote, and these qual­i­fi­ca­tions were low enough that they applied to a sub­stan­tial num­ber of women. There was, in fact, noth­ing like it in any other place in the world. In one con­tem­po­rary doc­u­ment I ran across, it is casu­ally men­tioned to a vis­i­tor that “in our coun­try, women are the polit­i­cal equals of men.” This female suf­frage would be abol­ished by the new United Canada. In Upper Canada, the auto­cratic power of the Fam­ily Com­pact was strength­ened, and reform stymied. Lafontaine and Bald­win, both ardent democ­rats, looked upon the ash-heap left by the rebel­lions and tried to think out a strat­egy to bring the reform move­ment back to life.
 At this point, Lafontaine gave a speech in his home rid­ing of Ter­re­bonne, where he was run­ning for the new par­lia­ment. He told the crowd that the best strat­egy was not to boy­cott the new regime, as many advo­cated, but to embrace it, use all the polit­i­cal power they could muster, and win reforms step by step. Foil the plans to assim­i­late French Canada by becom­ing the colony’s most adept par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. Win through grit and deter­mi­na­tion what the rebels had failed to win with arms. Lafontaine would eas­ily have been elected to his rid­ing, but Con­ser­v­a­tive hooli­gans, beat­ing and intim­i­dat­ing vot­ers, kept him out of office.

News of these events reached Robert Bald­win in Upper Canada. The young man, whose equally young wife had just died of ill­ness, had with­drawn into a twi­light of grief. His father, also a life-long reformer, told him he must find a new strat­egy for reform, and pur­sue it, or wal­low use­lessly in self-pity. He sug­gested that Lafontaine’s speech held the key. The elder Bald­win resigned from his seat in the Assem­bly, forc­ing a bi-election in the rid­ing of New­mar­ket. Robert Bald­win wrote to Lafontaine, invit­ing him to come to Upper Canada and run as a Reform can­di­date in New­mar­ket. This was the first step in what turned out to be a life-long col­lab­o­ra­tion and inti­mate friend­ship. Bald­win was even­tu­ally to learn French, and send his daugh­ters to be edu­cated in Lower Cana­dian schools. Lafontaine, unwill­ingly child­less, lived with the Bald­wins in New­mar­ket and came to think of them as fam­ily. …
 Bald­win and Lafontaine are far more impor­tant char­ac­ters than Cana­dian his­tory books would indi­cate. In their writ­ings and cor­re­spon­dence, you see the emer­gence of a set of ideas that were unprece­dented. Cana­dian his­to­ri­ans are mostly inter­ested in the fact that their activism even­tu­ally led to the cre­ation of the Cana­dian Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867, but do not notice the pro­found orig­i­nal­ity of their polit­i­cal think­ing. At the time, most polit­i­cal reform and rad­i­cal­ism was built on the premises of roman­tic nation­al­ism. It was taken for granted that the nation was the nat­ural unit of pol­i­tics, and even where polit­i­cal move­ments envi­sioned demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance, this was seen as sec­ondary to the mys­ti­cism of the nation as a col­lec­tive agency. The “nation” embod­ied bio­log­i­cal descent, and required “unity” — con­for­mity of lan­guage, faith, and cus­tom. No Euro­pean intel­lec­tual of the period, that I can find, val­ued diver­sity or felt that it was a good thing to com­bine dif­fer­ent lan­guages, faiths, or eth­nic­i­ties into the same polity. It was seen as a defect that might have to be tol­er­ated, but not as some­thing of pos­i­tive value. Pro­mot­ers of empires con­sid­ered diver­sity the weak­ness of their realms. Pro­mot­ers of national inde­pen­dence envi­sioned their “lib­er­ated” states as cul­tur­ally uni­form units. Lafontaine and Bald­win had come to the oppo­site con­clu­sion, putting them into a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory from other reform­ers of the era. They explic­itly advo­cated a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, held together by a com­mit­ment to share a polit­i­cal com­mu­nity with­out con­for­mity. In their view, democ­racy and the rule of law formed an abstact frame­work of val­ues that could allow free­dom to pros­per with­out need­ing any of the tra­di­tional defin­ing fea­tures of nation­hood. As they saw it, and stated explic­itly, this diver­sity con­sti­tuted a strength, not a weak­ness, just as they had found in their per­sonal friend­ship. But this was not some­thing that any sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of intel­lec­tu­als were advo­cat­ing. … 
Europe would go on to more extreme and dis­as­trous man­i­fes­ta­tions of Uni­for­mi­tar­i­an­ism. The colo­nial empires of Britain, France, Spain, Por­tu­gal and Ger­many left no doubt that there was to be noth­ing equal about the eth­nic­i­ties, lan­guages and cus­toms within them. The United States strug­gled with a schiz­o­phrenic her­itage, the implied val­ues of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion in con­stant con­flict with the urge to cre­ate a uni­for­mi­tar­ian state, immi­grants under con­stant pres­sure to “melt” into con­for­mity. But in Canada, the ideas of Bald­win and Lafontaine became the main­stream shap­ing the country’s des­tiny. Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867 was clearly founded on them. … When inter­viewed while wel­com­ing Syr­ian refugees to Canada, a few weeks ago, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau pretty much stated them as if they were obvi­ous. But they are by no means obvi­ous to most of the world, or there would be no refugees to wel­come. So read­ing Lafontaine and Bald­win, see­ing these ideas being born, was emo­tion­ally, as well as intel­lec­tu­ally satisfying.
Image: Lafontaine and Baldwin

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