Wednesday, June 20, 2012

June 20: The forgotten summer heat of 1814

Not sure what today's column will be about or, as I write, even what the title will be. But I am struck by two items on the editorial page. the cartoon and Norbert's column.

An editorial cartoon has two components, a good artist - and one with a knowledge of the subject. Terry Mosher is probably the best in Canada in those respects.

De Adder is a good artist - but his insight is, at best, ordinary. Today's cartoon shows President al-Assad sweeping the bodies of his victims under the rug. Cute. The problem with it is that it implies that al-Assad is the one behind most of the violence in Syria. But, in fact, nobody knows who is behind it.

The story spread in the western world is that al-Assad is the villain, and that the people fighting him are those who want democracy. That story is essential to build an excuse for invading Syria. But it does have weak points. One is that very few of the rebels appear to have any interest in democracy. Some are ardent Islamists who want Syria to be a rigid, Islamic state like Saudi Arabia. Some are mercenaries imported and paid for by the west and Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

And nobody knows which side has been responsible for widely reported atrocities. Western meda usually claim it's the government side. But that's because most western media, like Reuters, have been taking their news from the rebels.

In short, there is nothing clever about de Adder's cartoon. It is simply a mindless repetition of western propaganda.

Normally, an editor normally has to approve such a cartoon. (Terry Mosher has a great collection of the ones he wasn't allowed to publish.) Of course, that also means that such an editor is supposed to know what's going on in the world. And it means he is supposed to dump propaganda and go for the truth. None of those conditions applies in the Irving press.

Then we come to Norbert's column on the War of 1812 when the US invaded Canada, and was beaten back. He bemoans the lack of popular knowledge of Canadian history, and complains of the boredom of it at the public school level. Quite true. Then he raises the story of how "we" marched all the way to Washington to burn the White House.

Gee, Norbert - talk about ignorance of the war. We did not march all the way to Washington. Any such march would have destroyed the whole strategy of our side by stirring up the coastal states which were lukewarm about the war. As well, most of the British troops might well have deserted on the way - anything to get out of the misery of army life. The attack on Washington came by sea.

Nor was it all fought by the British. That naval war on the Great Lakes was fought largely by Newfoundlanders. Many of the "British" regiments were fencibles, locals who enlisted to fight within their home region. In the War of 1812,that meant men from the Atlantic colonies and Canada. These fought their way to some quite magnificent victories, often against superior odds.

A francophone regiment drove off a much bigger American force near Montreal. It was led by a man named de Salaberry who had entered military service about the age of 12, and who was commanding troops in action while still in his mid-teens.

Norbert's bemoaning  that there was no general history of the CPR until 103 years after it was built indicates 1.a shaky knowledge of when it was built and 2. an ignorance of the fact that there were very few Canadian historians until well into the 20th century.

That's his prelude to moaning about the lack of even a TV documentary about the war of 1812. If he were to check google, he might get a surprise. One of the best documentaries on it is by Brian McKenna of Gala films though, perhaps, Norbert may be turned off by the fact it is distributed by one of those awful public organization, The National Film Board of Canada.

(Trust me on this one, Norbert. I've known KcKenna for many years; and I was a historical advisor for the documentary. Care to debate it with me?)

It's true that Canadian history is pretty dull in the schools. That's because if a teacher were to tell the truth about it (which would make it interesting), the Norbert's of this world would loudly demand he or she be fired. (Remember how the papers and the government of this province led the chaseof   a school principal out of town when the local yahoos got mad at him for not playing O Canada every morning?)

When McKenna did a quite truthful documentary on Canada in World War Two (The Valour and the Horror) the Legion took up a rabid campaign against him, And the Canadian Senate produced a committee of louts and ignoramuses to conduct a witch hunt. I appeared before that committee to file a statement of what louts they were - and I presume it still exists in some Senate record. I hope so.

Norbert wonders why our academic historians don't produce a popular history of that war. Well, there are well over a hundred and fifty books and articles about that war though, admittedly, relatively few could be are popular books by academics.

That's because academics usually write for status and prestige. We encourage that by encouraging the academic snobbery of our universities as a sign of their quality. Consequently, they look on popular writing - or anything that somebody might actually read - as a sign of mental defectiveness.

Then Norbert says our own Stephen Harper is leading the way again in setting up a celebration of the war of 1812. (And he ends that sentence, quite improperly, with an exclamation mark.) As a matter of fact, Harper isn't doing anything useful - except to him. This is purely a political game designed to pull in tourists, and to score points with that core of Harper supporters that wants to emphasize the attachment to Britain (by now, largely fictitious) and cover Canada with Union Jacks and pictures of the Queen. Canadians are not likely to learn much about their history for all the thirty million it will cost them.

There are at least two, well-reported stories in the TandT. Both are in Section C, p.1.  The first is on the touring shale gas consultation. The other deals with the determination of the medical profession to keep its right of free speech despite government efforts to muzzle it and (though not mentioned) the Irving press ignoring it when it speaks about shale gas.

Alec Bruce's column is more subtle than usual. But stay with it. Think about it. It makes eminent sense.

I can't resist closing with two, sriking moments I had in doing that documentary the War of 1812.

I walked along a country road heading north toward Niagara Falls. It was the road followed by American invaders on their way to what is now the Canadian city of Niagara Falls. I was just inside the municipal limits of what is now Chippawa, Ontario. To my left was a great field surrounded on three sides by forest, just as it had been in summer of 1814. I turned left to walk along the unmarked trail that the American soldiers had lined up on.

Ahead of me was the forest where native warriors waited in ambush for anyAmericans trying to outflank the British force which had stood no more than a hundred feet to my right. Survivors on both sides wrote of how, throughout the battle, they could hear the screams of the dying in the forest.

In the earth below my feet was the great pit of bones of the dead, buried in haste for fear of what the heat could do. The wounded, far a greater number, we not much better off than the dead. With the bodies were heaps of severed arms and legs.  Lead shot carrying dirty clothes into a body created deadly infection. Usually, the only medical help possible was amputation, without sedative.

The only marker for the battle was a small one by the road. That Battle of Chippawa has long been forgotten, even in Chippawa. When Candian news media celebrated the director of The Titanic, his hometown was referred to as Chippawa, the place where nothing had ever happened before the birth of James Cameron. (I'm not even sure he was born there. His official birthplace is in northern Ontario.) Not long before my visit, the municipal council almost approved a suburban development on the site. It was stopped only after a protest by American veterans' organizations.

The Americans won that one, and pushed on to Lundy's Lane (now a part of Niagara Falls.) This time it would be a British victory, though a costly one for both sides. At one end of the battlefield is a church (with a graveyard that contains the body of Laura Secord). But the battle dead are not in the churchyard.

As I left the church to walk down the hill that had been the battle site, I crossed the church parking lot. The weather on the battle day was as hot as it had been at Chippawa. So the hundreds of dead had been carried up to this spot, stacked along with cordwood, and set alight. There is no marker.

Anyway, Norbert, be polite to the National Film Board; and I'm sure they'll let you see the documentary.










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