Connecting Communities: Reflections Transcript

You don't have to study a great deal of history to notice that humans aren't always very good at connecting. They try hard; they also often fail.

How does history help us try to do better?

As I said in the conclusion of my book about taxes it seems to me that the problem at all times is how do we get along with each other. Right, how do we do this? It is hard. What can history teach us about that?

Is that too loud? I feel like I'm getting a double echo here. Is that better or worse? No? Okay.

There are both historical and personal avenues to answering those sorts of questions.

Historically, this question of connecting communities I think is actually pretty recent, surprisingly recent.

And may be seen to some degree as a product of the technologies that the early moderns thought was very typical of early modern history and what distinguished them from all other forms of history. Three things in particular, they would have said and I'm teaching this stuff, which is why it's in my head.

Firstly, the compass. The compass. And I've got an image. The compass. This is not a compass. This is Champlain, of course, astrolabe. The compass let people sail beyond the coast. They could go across oceans in new ways. Very important. Beginning of a modern transport revolution which we still see going on, of course, to this day.

The second: the printing press. The printing press: absolutely crucial in transforming communications amongst people. You no longer had to actually travel to understand other people. Of course, there was word circulated before but the printing press really revolutionized media and of course that continues to happen in all sorts of versions of the internet, etc.

Third, the gun, gunpowder. And this is of course Champlain meeting the Mohawk, the Haudenosaunee for the first time, and he did not stop to shake hands, he started firing.

Connecting communities of course isn't just pleasurable and mutual flourishing. There's also violent predation. Gunpowder of course is one of the most important mechanisms for pushing, forcing people together, forcing them apart. It created much more centralized and authoritarian forms of government and so too, to no small degree, did the compass and the printing press.

Connecting of communities can be done on terms of mutual flourishing or mutual predation.

The ethics of connecting people is not something history can teach you. History can teach you, you know, what happened and why, but it won't make you want to connect with other people in conditions of mutual flourishing.

For that you need something else, right? And that something else can come to you in a million different directions. It can come to you from philosophy, from religion, from your  daily experience. Everybody has their own path to that position just as everybody has their own path to history and I think history educators know that, all different ways into these questions and problems to think about how we get along.

Once you've decided that that is something to think hard about then, history is continually showing you, you know, what works, what doesn't, what was successful, what was a failed attempt to get along, how we prevent predation.

I've always loved history myself. My interest in this question of communities and how they behave really took a deep step forward when I went to do my PhD at the University of Toronto. I went to Massey College, a graduate college, and I think I thought it was gonna be like Plato's Academy.

I thought it was going to be a wonderful meeting of minds and perfect humanism, etc. It wasn't like that. It was really, you know, people actually don't get along very well, even when they try sometimes.

And there was an awful lot of unhappiness and awful lot of even callousness, sometimes cruelty, okay. And there was heartbreak, there was death. It was a really difficult experience.

And I started to realize I didn't really understand very well what people owed one another. It's not that I hadn't thought about it, but I hadn't thought deeply enough. And I started to worry and think about this a lot more and I started to systematically, you know, examine how and why we think about what people owe one another, how they behave, when are they cruel, when are they kind,  what determines these sorts of things.

I read my way through all sorts of stuff. I was busy doing an dissertation on exhibitions and this is my book and that's my supervisor Michael Bliss who died a year and a half ago or so and that's the University of Toronto library.

At the library, there was a woman who worked there. She wasn't a professor, she wasn't a student, she was like me. She'd watched Schindler's List and had been fascinated. Why had she not understood this? And she and I were both reading our way through all sorts of questions to do with this ethics, Nazi Germany, all sorts of things.

I've read a lot of political theory. It was a good education. I learnt from political theory that the people are essentially good. The people do not conspire against themselves. Public opinion remains the best protection against cruelty, tyranny and violence.

But I also learned from history that people can be badly led astray sometimes. They can be persuaded to inflict terrible cruelties on one another, sometimes because they think they're being kind, sometimes because they think that's the rules, that's the way life teaches us to be, that's the way history requires us to be.

The rules are said to be what determined John A Macdonald to suppress a Metis and an Indigenous uprising in 1885, the Metis uprising against bad surveying and to execute Louis Riel amongst others, when everyone around him urged clemency.

The rules caused countless cruelties to so called paupers, the people who, you  know, seemed to be unwilling to work, on the grounds that political economic logic meant that they were undeserving.

Those same rules determine people to be very cruel to different kinds of immigrants for example. Sometimes because they were seeing to be too greedy, sometimes because they were seen to be too needy.

And I would point the attention to a previous winner of this prize famous book great book by James Daschuk on the terrible cruelties that occurred on the prairies under the name of "civilization."

There were cruelties to people who were considered sexually dangerous to marriage. All sorts of ways in which Canadian history seems to be full of stories of cruelty, very troubling stories, there as everywhere else.

All histories have these problems. What do we do with these stories? How do we see Canadians as good, as the good people, rather than as a morally failing nation?

We still have to trust a public opinion to govern us because whenever you decide you're gonna govern somebody against their opinion, you immediately license cruelty against them.

That's again one of the things you learn from history and politics. And the answer is, of course, we have to dig a little deeper. We always have to dig a little deeper to figure out what is going on at any time and place.

Where was there pushback? How did it occur? On what terms were people contesting the rules, so to speak, the kindness, the cruelty?

All my work speaks to these questions.

It's in my study of exhibitions, that PhD that became my first book. You have to think of exhibitions, and this is Canada at the World's Fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace. You can see there, there were always debates about how  prominently to put the canoes and the beautiful Indigenous workings.

You have to think of exhibitions as kind of like a book, a non-word way of describing the world with objects rather than words. Because it was a new and nonverbal mode of communicating, people could do an end run around the things that could only be set in words, that you know had to be said in Parliament or in books and things like that.

And exhibitions became a way that women put forward images of themselves in their work and it became a way that Indigenous people put forward images of themselves and their work.

And this is from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Government officials hated what was going on. They hated this amplification of "primitive" backwards culture, as they saw it, but ordinary people continually responded very enthusiastically to these displays.

Hospitals are another place where that calculation of cruelty and kindness occurs, of course. My next book was a history of St. Mary's Hospital in Paddington, in London England. And it let me examine what scientific knowledge could do to ease those calculations of kindness and cruelty.

Bernard Shaw wrote "The Doctor's Dilemma" about St. Mary's. He wrote it about...

The top is, those two men at the lab. The top one is Alexander Fleming, he discovered penicillin. He did so in the lab of Almroth Wright. Almroth Wright claimed he could cure with vaccines, he had therapeutic vaccines, but he said they're so time-consuming and expensive to make we can't treat everybody.

And Bernard Shaw said "oh my gosh. how do you decide? That must be really interesting." And he wrote a play about the doctor who immediately uses that power to of course seduce people. You know, I'm not gonna treat your husband unless, you know. So again, these sorts of stories.

Being able to heal people is a really big deal but it is expensive and the state had to reorganize itself to make it happen. As indeed happened in England, the study of St. Mary's and of course in Canada, which was the study in my next two books.

Those two books and this one is "A Short History of the State in Canada." The other one is the tax book, which I was invited to write by my friend Shirley Tillotson, who wrote volume two. So if you don't want to go read early tax history, you can go read late tax history. She's much more interesting.

These two books on taxes and the state look at how Canadians have made deliberate decisions about what people need and what they deserve and how to organize it. There were debates about who gets money, why and how it gets transferred between regions, between identities, between classes. And quite apart from the question of how you spent money, the question of how you collected money was also very wired with these questions of kindness/cruelty.

One big takeaway for me was that systems that don't actively repudiate cruelty effectively enable it.

So in something like the Chinese head tax in British Columbia, for example, you have both the system that really is designed to be systematically cruel and that also enables enormous cruelty by people on the ground, very bad behaviour if they think they can get away with targeting marginalized people and of course this is exactly the same thing as so many other cases like the residential schools system is abusive and so are individual practitioners within it.

But history also throws up examples of mutual flourishing and I recently taught in…

That's images of the tax office: the rich, the poor. The rich man less happy with his tax bill than supposedly the working man and in the background I think you see a woman you know begging at the tax office for some kind of relief and there's a lot of letters from widows begging tax relief.

I recently taught a book called "A Place in the Sun" by Sean Mills, which is about Haitians in Quebec. And it's an account of how Haitians reshaped Canadian experiences. Thousands of Haitian immigrants were caught in a change of rules that suddenly made them illegal immigrants.

What are Quebecers gonna do? Are they gonna vote to legalize them? Are they gonna vote to deport them? Right? And there's a huge debate that goes on. This was a crucial moral choice for Quebecers. Kindness or cruelty? What were the rules?  Were they political economy? Were they humanitarianism? Were they identity stories?

Mills goes beyond. The previous accounts of this had focused on the federalism question, you know, provincial versus federal rights. Mills goes beyond that. He says, you know the most important thing that happened here is that the Haitians spoke up for themselves and Quebecers listened and legalized and kind of sorted it out.

And it's a very powerful episode, a very powerful story that he tells about you know a real moral moment of decision for Quebec.

And he sets it up beautifully in the way really good writers set things up and I'm reminded of Robert Bolt in "A Man For All Seasons." You know you create these moral moments and historians have been doing this right back to Herodotus. This is the way that we create meaning when we create these moments of choice and insist on their importance.

And I would just note here, there's beside Sean Mills book, there's another great historian of the Caribbean experience in Montreal and he talks about Montreal as a Caribbean island and one of the heroes of Sean Mills book is Danny Laferrière, who is here getting an honorary degree at McGill University, that was a few months ago and I'm invisibly behind him on the podium. Historians like to be invisible.

History brings people together because people bring people together. And we simply tell their and our stories. That's what the  scholarly historians do, that's what the popular historians do, that's what the kids do, it's what we all do every time.

And we're doing it all day long, we're doing it every time we make a decision. Right?  About what to do, how to be cruel, how to be kind. We're drawing on our experience, whether it's personal or collective. Every time we decide how much to tip someone. Every time we get into a debate. 

We're having a big debate in Quebec right now: should women who wear veils be allowed on city buses, right? I mean this is a debate and it's a very serious debate. Everybody thinks they're doing the right thing for the women. A lot of these kinds of choices have been depersonalized.

We use the state to help us make them so as to reduce elements of personal domination. The depersonalization can sometimes reduce the urgency of other people's needs. It can also tend towards a domino theory. Well, if I give this person money, then that person and that person.

And you know each entitlement becomes itself a question of the rules. What do people get? It's always these kinds of questions and sometimes there's enormous fights about, you know, this is a money matter.  But the connection to the state also makes for broader and more public conversations that tend continually towards rearticulation of first principles of connectedness.

How communities connect is and must be a vibrant ethical principle continually replenished by our experiences and our written histories. And it has to be, I think and this might be something one could argue about, has to be grounded in a firm faith in ordinary people.

We have to believe that most people most of the time strive to do good and not evil and that they're pretty good judges when the facts are put before them.

I'm very powerfully influenced by something that was written two years ago by a Venezuelan scholar Andres Miguel Rondon, who argues if you want to avoid populist authoritarianism, avoid the belief that the nation is completely divided around, you know completely polarized.

He said, "the worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that your country is divided between racists and liberals. If you remind the moderates in the middle, the swing voters, that they share common purposes of fairness, self-realization, shared well-being, then you are more likely to actually build up and get enacted those kinds of public purposes."

History describes but it also creates moments, projections of how we move forward together for a shared understanding and it's wonderful to see so many people thinking about identity, their own identity and putting it forward and then we have to think how we negotiate those identities. None of them give us a warrant, an explanation as to how we connect them together.

That is the question. I think it is the question that we have to think about all the time. We have to understand, I think, that we are all makers of meaning together and the best meanings are the most inclusive ones.

And that's something I'm sure I can prove with evidence, but that's another day.