Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Canada and the Cold War

[Reg Whitaker and Steve Hewitt. Canada and the Cold War. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, Ltd., Publishers, 2003.]

It has been very hard for me to avoid hyperbole as I write about this book. It is, in many ways, quite an unremarkable book, with some basic useful information and perhaps a few elements of form worth examining if you are interested in writing accessible history. It may not even really deserve a review, let alone a rant. But its liberal nationalist politics, while almost invisible given that a great proportion of the writing about Canadian history targeted at non-specialists comes from a similar place, are very troubling.

The book's focus, the Cold War, is not something covered quite as exhaustively in Canadian historical writing as it has been for some other countries, so that is kind of interesting. I bought the book at least five years ago when I was trying to find particular kinds of history from that era, but I ended up not reading it then -- I think partly because it became evident from flipping through it after it arrived in the mail that the book just didn't have what I needed and partly because my plans for my own work shifted around that time. If read critically -- an important caveat, with more detail below -- it is a potentially useful resource from which one can extract some decent basic information about certain aspects of the Cold War era in Canada.

It is also mildly interesting for how it is written. I think it might be intended as a text book for high school or early undergraduate students. It engages with history through stories focusing on a particular person, event, or theme, each of which is no longer than a few pages. Its writing is fairly simple. It also has plenty of archival photographs. None of these things are wildly innovative, but they are still useful examples of particular choices in the writing of history.

My urge to rant against this book comes from the way that its liberal nationalist approach to history results in unhelpful and inaccurate ways of understanding the past and the present, and therefore of preparing readers to think about the future. The reason that I want to be restrained, though, is to avoid erasing nuance. Liberal nationalist history infuriates me, but it is not the same as, say, the bigoted ignoramuses on the Texas Board of Education who decided to introduce various lies and distortions at semi-random in their history curriculum in the service of their crude white Christian nationalist vision. Liberal nationalism, like liberal-democratic thought as a whole, tends to be more sophisticated, to follow rules, and to allow for a certain amount of self-criticism of the nation in question. In fact, within certain bounds, some of the the critical material in Canada and the Cold War is quite useful -- it doesn't contextualize them all that well, but at least it talks about various ways in which the Canadian national security state ruined the lives of ordinary people, for instance, and has a section on Dr. Ewen Cameron's horrific 'depatterning' experiments at McGill University that fed into CIA torture techniques. Even that limited space to be self-critical can be important.

However, with all respect due to nuance, sophistication, and limited but real self-criticism, liberal nationalist history is still pretty destructive in its own right.

It is a time-honoured liberal-demoratic tradition to espouse universalism while defining underlying rules such that the impact of whatever practice or discourse is at hand becomes partial and unfair -- declare all people as equal, for instance, and then define people with dark skins and/or ovaries as not really "people" or claim they are as equal as their supposedly inherently limited capacities allow, to give a couple of classic examples. This book sets out to tell fair and honest history, I'm sure, yet it incorporates into its practices a number of features which mean that the result is anything but.

One key way in which this happens is that the book takes a key feature of the social and rhetorical organization of the Cold War period and instead of treating it with rigorous skepticism and critical analysis, it gives it some minimal criticism in passing and largely accepts it as the basic framework for organizing its narratives. This key feature is the intense polarization of that era between East and West, Russkies and Yanks, Communists and capitalists. In telling the history of that era, and despite a few moments of being shallowly critical of the polarization, this book largely accepts it as the basis for its storytelling. I mean, you can imagine a way to tell these stories that is critical of all and sundry, that take as its baseline the real suffering and struggles of real people and an eye for justice, that treats every institution, every hierarchy, every piece of received wisdom with a critical eye. You can imagine a way of telling histories that happened in the midst of that polarization that acknowledge polarization's power and significance while refusing to be trapped by it. This book does not do that. Instead, it largely accepts that polarization as a frame for understanding the era.

One of the ways it does this is by applying different kinds of analysis to the two sides. Problems with the capitalist side are treated as isolated problems with specific people, policies, or practices, while problems with the Communist side are treated as signs of systemic flaws. It assumes that understanding the conflict in terms of capitalist "good guys" (a few of whom sometimes go too far) and Communist "bad guys" (trapped by an inescapable and evil system) is a reasonable way to approach the era, with no real effort to examine how any of this was socially produced on either side. Capitalist social relations are ignored and the social relations understood as "Communist" in this book are subjected to crude caricature, rather than paying rigorous attention to both. Even worse than painting a picture of the Communist side that is almost completely useless for understanding the violence and oppression in that sphere and the various forms of resistance to it, it largely erases the immense amount of suffering organized into the world by capitalism and the various ways ordinary people resist that.

Even when it is directly relevant, the social and historical context of the capitalist side is ignored. For instance, it talks about lives ruined by Canadian and U.S. state witch hunts for Commies and queers, but treats this as an unfortunate exception to the standards of fairness supposedly inherent to liberal jurisprudence rather than exploring the ways in which this is no accident but a feature that has always been part of liberal-democratic legal systems, from colonization to concentration camps to national security certificates and the Canadian implementation of the 1267 Regime today. It similarly describes the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War as an example of "excesses" in the context of war rather than as one of many indications of the ways which white supremacy has shaped Canadian settler institutions throughout their history.

It completely ignores colonization and the ways in which capital has preyed on the mostly non-white peoples of the world over several centuries. There is some reference to struggles to decolonize, but only in passing and only in reference to proxy struggles between the superpowers. This means that readers have inadequate context to understand why there was massive popular support for things like the Cuban Revolution -- the book describes Batista as "pro-American" but doesn't talk about how corrupt and awful he was, for instance. And it leaves intact the definitive frame for the era as the polarized struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, when it would be just as useful to examine Canada's role in the great drama of decolonization struggles that marked the same years. And, of course, even though the book includes a chapter on the 1980s, and the onslaught of neoliberalism that began in the late '70s is very relevant both to the conventional Cold War frame (given that it is about unshackled capitalism triumphant) and the decolonization frame (given that it is about reimposing Western dominance on the rest of the world), it is not mentioned.

A particularly egregious example of double standards being smuggled into the text is the presence of a section on Ukrainian Canadians and their relationship to the oppression of Ukrainians in the Soviet Union, but the almost complete absence of any discussion of indigenous peoples in Canada in that era apart from a one-sentence aside about "Red Power" organizing. The other side's mistreatment of entire peoples is admissable because it is commonly recognized and it can be framed as being about the Cold War. Our genocidal mistreatment of entire peoples is not mentioned. I can only guess at the reasons, but I would speculate that it is because in mainstream, liberal nationalist history the crimes of official enemies get categorized and understood differently than our own crimes -- that is, ours are often not understood as crimes at all. And even when they are, well, it can be dismissed as not being relevant to a text on Canada and the Cold War, so it is easy enough not to talk about it.

Add to all of this the book's active propagation of many of the myths of the good liberal Canada -- Canada as moderating influence on the United States, Canada as welcoming, Canada and its "peacekeeping" as purely benevolent exercise rather than as colonial activity, all that stuff. Liberal and left nationalism in Canada are built on exactly the sort of examples, particularly comparisons with the United States, that fill this book, notwithstanding the fact that the book occasionally (though gently) complicates the picture a little bit. The bulwark of smugness these examples inflate is a tremendous barrier to getting Canadians, including those with liberal and leftish sensibilities, to think critically in any consistent way about their own country. And that, it seems to me, is tremendously politically destructive. In the context of this book, it defuses a lot of what could be useful about the actual (if limited) critical content about Canada and the Cold War that it contains.

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

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