Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Review: The Great Depression

(The Great Depression by Pierre Berton. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991.)

This book is a paradoxical gem of small-l liberal Canadian writing. It is lively and vivid, and bounces you through its half-a-thousand pages with a master's touch, and it does not flinch from laying out plain some of the horrible things done by the Canadian state in the 1930s or from including humanizing portraits of rabble rousers, outcasts, and Communists.

The Canadian state's response to the Depression was pitiful when compared to that of the United States; instead of Roosevelt's vision of limited but real reform, most notables in Canada's two main political parties at the federal level tried very hard to do nothing and fought against making reforms at every step. The turn in the general direction of fascism (in different ways) by the premiers of Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta, shows that, our national delusions notwithstanding, when you scratch the liberal Canadian body politic hard enough it isn't that difficult to find fascists. For a number of years in the '30s the Communist Party was outlawed, at a time when the only other country with parliamentary institutions to have done so was Japan. Anti-semitism pervaded the Canadian establishment, and the Toronto police went out of their way to protect fascist gatherings while ceaselessly hounding the left. Though Berton does not make this connection himself, I think the sort of accessible historical truth-telling in this book is a good antidote for those who see our "freedom" and "democracy" as having something to do with men and women dying in Europe in the '40s but refuse to believe that men and women struggling in Canada at other times have much (I, personally, would include the word "more") to do with attaining those still partial, fragmentary, in-process ideals.

But for all the critical content, this book is still one more stone in the wall of national myth, one more tie binding Canadians to the myth of our liberal superiority and to the liberal-democratic state itself. It allows the smug superiority in which moderate left-liberal Canadians occasionally indulge to remain intact -- it shocks with how bad things really were, but its tastefully understated but still definite apportioning of approval (the odd conservative, "good" liberals, and social democrats, even if the last group is shown as sometimes being a bit starry-eyed and otherworldly in its idealism) and disapproval (most conservatives, "bad" liberals, Communists) sets the stage for implicit glorification of the post-WWII social democratic compromise and the associated "new" and "better" version of liberalism. Thus present-day smugness can remain intact. I would add, though, that within the constraints of the national mythology of Canada, that's not a bad project, especially at the time that Berton was writing. I'm depending on my own memory so I may have the timing off slightly, but I'm pretty sure it was published in the early stages of (or perhaps just before) the ramped-up neoliberal/neoconservative offensive against the limited version of the post-WWII social democratic compromise that got implemented in Canada. That was the beginning of the reembrace by mainstream Canadian politicians of the pre-WWII vision of what the state should be doing, or as near as they can get away with and still get elected. So even if the book leaves unchallenged some myths about said compromise, it does a pretty good job of showing that going back to what went before just should not be an option.

As well, though some exclusions in conventional approaches to history are tackled head-on, such as that of poor and working people, others are not. Some important bits and pieces of women's history in the decade are included, but it is not a narrative that is followed through the entire book. Aboriginal people and people of colour in Canada are hardly mentioned at all -- I think I remember one reference to Chinese Canadian families in one city having an even harder time getting "relief" (the word for welfare in those days) than poor white families, and that's about it.

And its reinforcement of the liberal-democratic myth that history is meaningfully separable on the basis of individual nation states -- that it really makes sense to consider the history of Canada more or less on its own -- naturalizes the existence of the liberal-democratic state. It also obscures the ugly genius of such states in being able to benefit from the misery of those outside their borders. In other words, through its economic ties to imperial countries (Great Britain, United States), Canada benefits from the 500-year project of sucking wealth from the rest of the world into European and Euro-American control without having to do much dirty work, and without having to confront the fact that it is part of such a system. A focus on a national understanding of history makes it easier to leave out such connections -- it draws both physical and metaphorical borders around what is labelled "Canada", so that suffering which benefits those inside and hurts those outside that label can more easily be omitted.

Anyway, I would still recommend reading this book. It is engaging, accessible, straightforward, and full of important facts and stories that you won't learn in school.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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