Author: Sean Graham

Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy

Originally posted at Activehistory.ca

Happy Independence Day to our American friends! In thinking about American historiography, one of my favourite things is to joke about how a new book on the Civil War seems to come out every ten minutes. And while that may be a little hyperbolic, it can be difficult to find new ground when reading up on the CIvil War. That’s why Paul Kahan’s new book The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant: Preserving the Civil War’s Legacy is so unique. While plenty is known about Grant’s military role during the Civil War, far less is known about his presidency, other than him being widely considered a poor president. In his farewell address to Congress, Grant went so far as to downplay his own administration’s accomplishments, thus starting a nearly 150 year trend of his presidency not receiving extensive attention by historians.

In this episode of the History Slam, Paul Kahan returns to the show to discuss the book. We talk about Grant the politician v. Grant the military man, Reconstruction in the South, and the racial divide in post-Civil War America. We also talk about the importance of foreign policy in the late 19th century, Grant’s attitude towards Native Americans, and how economics can derail political priorities.

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Breaching the Peace

Yesterday at Activehistory.ca, we posted the most recent episode of the History Slam. In the episode I talk with Sarah Cox about her new book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro. We talk about Site C and the Peace Valley, the ecological costs of dams, and the financial cost of this project. We also talk about the political motivation, colonial influence, and urban-rural tension that have shaped the project and the public’s perception of it. You can find the full post here.

History’s Future

Originally Posted at Activehistory.ca

For the past three days, historians from across the country have been gathered in Regina for the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. In the past, we have done recap episodes following Congress to highlight some of the trends that are shaping the profession. In essence, Congress has served as a spring cleaning of sorts, where we can get a fresh sense of history and its future.

While the podcast was unable to travel to Regina this year, I wanted to highlight some new trends in historical scholarship. Fortunately, Professor John Bonnett of Brock University was recently the keynote speaker at the University of Ottawa’s public history open house. In discussing the ‘animal turn’ in history, Professor Bonnett highlighted some of the opportunities presented to historians not only by this new approach, but also by digitization, big data, and VR.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Bonnett about history’s future. We talk about the animal turn, ascribing sentience to all living things, and the challenges this presents to the humanities. We also talk about how this challenges traditional historical methods, how historians can incorporate this into their work, and how students respond to these changing approaches. We finish the show by talking about big data and VR’s influence on history, how this will change the historical profession, and the difference between micro and macro histories. As an added bonus, we also answer the age-old question of why Harold Innis is so hard to read.

The Oslo Diaries

Earlier today at Activehistory.ca, we released the newest episode of the History Slam. In this episode, I talk with Daniel Sivan, one of the directors of The Oslo Diaries, a new documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during the 1990s. We talk about the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the motivation to make the film, and the use of re-creations. We also talk about the Oslo accords, de-humanization in conflict, and the region’s future prospects for peace. The film has its Canadian premiere on Tuesday as part of Hot Docs in Toronto. You can find the show times as well as the full post, which includes my review, here.

The Silence of Others

Originally Published at Activehistory.ca on April 26

The Silence of Others has its North American premiere on Friday April 27 at 6:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 in Toronto. It is also being shown on Saturday April 28 at 12:30pm at TIFF Bell LIghtbox 3. The directors and individuals featured in the film will be at both these showings and available for discussion and questions. There is a third showing on Saturday May 5 at 11:45am at Scotiabank Theatre, Cinema 3. A wide Canadian release is also planned.

On November 20, 1975, Francisco Franco died, ending his nearly 40 year rule of Spain. While his death marked the end of his dictatorship, it also started the long process of coming to terms with the violence and suppression that marked those years. To address this, the Spanish government passed an amnesty law in 1977. The law not only provided amnesty to those who had been imprisoned for political reasons, but also those who had been part of the ruling party.

As a result, those who had perpetrated violence, including murder, throughout the Franco years would never be brought to justice. The overarching motivation for the amnesty law was that the country needed to forget what happened in order to overcome the political and social divides forged over the previous 40 years. ‘Why rehash the past?’ people would ask. ‘Just forget about it and move on.’

For the victims and their families, however, simply forgetting and moving on was not an option. Those who had been tortured for their political views or had loved ones murdered by a repressive regime were subjected a new form of suppression. Not willing to accept this, however, a dedicated group started to challenge the law and in using universal justice, a court in Argentina decided to hear their stories.

The movement and the subsequent lawsuit is the subject of the new documentary The Silence of Others. Following survivors and family members of those murdered by the regime, it tells a powerful story. It follows the highs and lows of fighting a battle through the courts in a country where a sizable percentage of the population has no desire to litigate the past. The raw emotion of those profiled, however, highlights the need to understand and remember what happened.

While the film is about Spain, it contains many universal truths. Similar stories where marginalized individuals struggle for recognition and justice could be told in pretty much every country around the world. The Silence of Others, therefore, has a message that will resonate with audiences far beyond Spanish borders.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Almudena Carracedo, one of the film’s directors. We talk about the amnesty law in Spain, the concept of universal jurisdiction, and how they came to this story. We also talk about the challenge of telling this story, the choice of images, and capturing emotion on camera. We finish with a chat about social memory, memorialization, and following the story moving forward.

Studying and Interpreting the Bible

Originally posted April 4, 2018 at Activehistory.ca

In the world of history, so much of the work we do is based on interpretation. Whenever we walk into a museum, read a book, and visit a historic monument, we are consuming, at least a little, somebody else’s interpretation of what happened. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but rather something that should always be kept in mind when studying the past.

The same is true of religion. Various individuals have read the same religious texts and come to incredibly different interpretations. All one has to do is look at the Crusades as an example of how this can negatively influence a society. But at the same time, interpretation has led to positive developments for some religious organizations. Just like with any other historical study, therefore, it is essential to understand the context in which the texts were written and how that can shape our interpretation.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Rev. Canon Rob Park from St. George’s Anglican Church in Georgetown, Ontario. With Passover and Easter over the weekend, it seemed like the perfect time to talk about the way in which Priests are taught the Bible, the way in which personal experience shapes interpretation, and the differences between the gospels.

Use and Abuse of Patriotism in Sports

The 2018 Paralympic Games came to a close on Sunday, thus completing another Olympic cycle. The next major international sporting event comes this summer when Russia hosts the FIFA World Cup. And right now, March Madness, one of the most bet-upon sporting events on the calendar, has the NCAA in the spotlight.

What’s interesting about these events is that, during the competitions, the athletes are at the forefront of the media attention. The stories that emerged from Pyeongchang over the past month have been remarkable. From Scott Moir and Tessa VIrtue’s triumph to the gut-wrenching semi-final loss of the Canadian wheelchair curling team, these sporting events are wrought with emotion. From the elation of winning to the pain of losing, people from around the world wave their countries’ flags in support of their athletes – and in the NCAA case, people root for their alma mater.

All the while, companies capitalize on the emotional attachment to the events to try to sell us stuff. The Olympics, World Cup, and March Madness all feature targeted ads based off our patriotism (most professional and collegiate teams refer to themselves as ‘nations’) while at the same time highlighting the amazing performances of the athletes.

What gets left out, however, is the backdrop against which these events take place. The International Olympic Committee has been known to have executives made outlandish demands of host committees while at the same time demonstrating a remarkable level of disinterest in the host cities’ financial state, so much so that they are having difficulty finding places that want to host the Games. FIFA has had plenty of examples of corruption and bribery, particularly when it comes to the next two World Cups. As for the NCAA, the highest paid employee in 39 of the 50 states is a men’s basketball or football coach. The players, however, don’t get paid and, in a lot of cases, are subject to tougher restrictions on movement and outside financial opportunities than the adults who are, allegedly, teaching them about responsibility.

But these things don’t get the same attention or scrutiny as the games and results. I’ve often wondered if that’s because these sports so effectively capitalize on patriotism to draw us in. By doing so, we are not watching somebody else. Instead, we are included in the action, which is why so many people talk about how many medals ‘we’ won when referring to their home country. By creating an environment in which the audience has a vested interest, it becomes much easier, if not a necessity, to ignore the seedy underside of these events.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with co-host of the Game of Stones Podcast Scott Graham about the use and abuse of patriotism in sport. We talk about the negative side of international organizations, whether we can separate the events from the organizers, and if these systems are based on exploitation. We also debate the benefits of international sports and how to best consume these events.