Thursday, November 20, 2014


News this morning that the Legion in Kenora, Ontario, fired its chaplain because she criticized cuts to veterans' care during her Remembrance Day benediction. Good for them. The day is supposed to be about the simple act of remembering, not politics. In fact, next year I expect to see no politicians laying wreaths at my local cenotaph. Also, they better not breathe a word about "freedom" and "democracy" either, because those are political concepts. National anthem? Got to go, because it mentions "Canada", which is a political construct.  God Save the Queen? Please.  Oh, and no poppies, either. According to the Legion, the money raised from them goes to veteran's care, and we don't want to bring that up on Remembrance Day.  So make sure your next Remembrance Day bears no relationship to anything in the real world, especially if it happened in the past. Just do what you're supposed to, please: stand there and feel guilty because your generation hasn't had a world war, you bunch of entitled slackers.

Monday, November 10, 2014


I don’t want to trust a seventeen year old memory very far, but I think it went something like this. I was watching a debate on CBC or CTV about Canada’s involvement in Kosovo. They assembled a panel: a journalist, somebody from a peace group, an RCAF veteran from the Legion (for some reason), and finally a political scientist, because in a debate it’s a good idea to have one person who might know what the hell is going on. I don’t recall much about the debate, but one thing is lodged in my memory. In rebuttal to the one panelist’s opposition to Canada’s participation in the air campaign, the veteran  said, “This young lady should go watch the first twenty minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan to learn what soldiers sacrifice for freedom.” 

This might seem like a non-sequitur and a particularly incoherent one at that, but au contraire. Have Canadians had any societal debate in the past century that hasn’t witnessed an effort by one side or another to imbue their position with the sanctified suffering of The Fallen? Back in the day, when I read actual newspapers (and worked for one) I used to keep a clip file. In it were examples of people deploying mawkish memories of our own “Greatest Generation(s)” into debates over everything from multiculturalism to same sex marriage to educational reform to indoor smoking bans, as if the worldview of the dead – and especially the war dead – were entitled to hold dominion over the living forever. And it happens in debates over history, too. We needn’t look far for examples of historians or historical institutions who have been bullied into silence by people that Paul Fussell called “the loony patriotic.” 

I’ve written before about my growing unease with Remembrance Day, and especially about the day’s tendency to blur the distinction between commemoration and historiography. Historiography is evidence based, skeptical, and provisional in its conclusions; commemoration is subjective and emotional. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t mind so much, if it were only for a single ceremony and for an hour. One doesn’t go to a funeral and expect to hear the unmitigated truth about the departed, after all.  But when have our circumstances ever been normal? Not since September 2001, to be sure, fourteen years in which we’ve seen the Western powers engaged in perpetual low-level war, turning the world upside down and killing – even if not intentionally – far greater numbers of innocent people than ever were killed on 9/11. 

“Oh, stop,” I’m told. “The day’s not about that. The day is simply about remembrance, not politics.”  Oh, please, I reply. What does that even mean? Remembering is not simple – not cognitively, not socially, not historically, and remembering for commemorative purposes complicates it still further. It is most decidedly not apolitical. Commemorate what? Those who fought for freedom? Tread lightly, friends, around so subjective a term: not many of those who went to war in 1914 or 1939 shared your conception of freedom. Victory, then? So am I to exclude the enemy, many of whom were, to quote Bertrand Russell, “fellow sufferers in the same tragedy as our own”?  Commemorate all combatants, then? But that would include perpetrators of hideous war crimes, and you’ll forgive me if I choose not to spare a moment to reflect on those who served that the Holocaust might continue. For starters. 

Okay. Maybe you need a moment to “just remember” (whatever that means) and you can cut through the cognitive dissonance. Maybe you don’t cringe when you hear “fought for our country” when you know damn well that sometimes they fought for our government; maybe you don’t clench your teeth when you hear “fought for our freedom” when you know that sometimes they categorically did not.  So, do what you need to on November 11th. Commemoration, like funerals, are about the living, after all, and the stories we tell ourselves so that we can carry on.  I’ll go, and reflect on victims of war and especially on those who died to defeat enemies for whom martial virtues were the only ones worth having. But I’ll also reflect that, too often, our own commemorations tread too close to that terrain, terrain where there is an implicit contempt for civilian life; terrain where there is no distinction between serving one’s country and serving one’s government; terrain where it is assumed that there is an inherent nobility in military service, regardless of the cause in which one served; terrain where, as C.P. Stacey put it in a different context, the golden haze of historical romance combines with the fog of war to reduce visibility to zero.

 “Support our troops” doesn’t mean support every stupid and immoral thing that our government wishes to do with them, and people who can’t understand the difference shouldn’t be allowed to play with soldiers.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


A Parable.

Meet Jane Doe, a second year English and History major at a mid-sized university in Canada. Jane has just turned nineteen and is not sure what she wants to do when she graduates, but she’s thinking of becoming a teacher or maybe a lawyer. 

Like nearly every school in the country, Jane’s university boasts that it offers small classes and excellent teaching, but she went there because it’s in her home town and her high school average of 78 wasn’t strong enough to gain her entrance to a really first-tier university, where the entrance averages are now in the mid-to-high 80s.

Jane’s father works for a contracting firm and her mother is a secretary in a dental office. They had wanted her to major in business and economics, but at the end of her first year of university Jane’s overall average was 63 and was just 58 in Economics. She never was any good at math. This disqualified her from her school’s business program. After first year, she decided to major in English and History because she finished those classes with marks of 64 and 66 respectively, good enough to declare them as a major.  Jane’s sixteen-mark drop between Grade 12 and the end of 1st year university is fairly typical. A few of her friends from high school dropped out after first year, or were required to withdraw because they failed most of their courses. 

Jane lived at home first year but now rents a room in a house with three other female students. Her share of the rent is $400 per month, plus one-fifth of the heat and electricity bill. She also pays $35 per month for an Internet connection and $65 per month for the plan for her iPhone. She owns a used car that she makes payments on, and she also has to cover the cost of her gas and insurance. Her parents put $2,000 per year towards her tuition, leaving her with $4000 to pay on her own, plus another $750 for books. To pay for her education, Jane is taking out student loans and has two jobs, one at a clothing store in the mall on Saturdays and one evening per week, and the other, two nights per week or three when she can get it, in a downtown restaurant. She is looking for volunteer work at local schools to pad her resume in the hopes of getting into teacher’s college.

It is the Tuesday after the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. Tuesday is Jane’s “heavy” day, with three classes. She chose her courses that way so that she could have one day per week off to study, although she usually ends up taking a shift at work instead.  At 9:30 AM, Jane arrives for her first class, Canadian history, five minutes late. She has a coffee and a muffin she bought for breakfast on her drive in. Prof. Jones always begins class by playing music from the period they’re studying, so Jane knows she won’t miss anything. She sits near the back and opens her laptop and puts her iPhone down beside her. She sends two quick texts and updates her Facebook status.

When the music is done, Prof. Jones says, “I’ll explain that music to you later.” (He actually forgets to do so.) Prof. Jones begins the lecture with a few announcements. He reminds them to keep up in the textbook, because it's testable material for the mid-term, even if he didn't lecture about it in class. Jane started the year well, but is three weeks behind in textbook readings now. She bought the book used for half the cover price. It was in very good condition, with only a little bit of yellow highlighting in the first chapter.   Prof. Jones also announces that the History Club is bringing in a “very, very famous” historian to speak the following week. Jane heard from a friend that one History Club speaker last year was very boring and droned on and on. She writes down the details of the event — hoping Prof. Jones will see her doing this — but has no intention of going. (Jane is not alone in this: more than three hundred students will hear the announcement for the “very, very famous speaker.” Eighteen will attend the talk.)

Prof. Jones launches into his lecture, which is about New France. He uses PowerPoint slides and Youtube clips of historical re-enactments to liven things up.  Even so, Jane finds her attention wandering after about twenty minutes. She is tired and yawns. She worked late at the restaurant the night before, well past closing, and wasn’t home until after midnight.  Then she’d tried to work on an assignment which is overdue for her Human Sexuality course, a critical analysis of an old article by someone named Durkheim.  When Jane opened the article, she found that it was thirty-seven pages long. It was very boring. She read four or five pages (this took her twenty minutes: Jane usually checks e-mail, Facebook, and surfs the web while she’s reading) and she decided that since the assignment was only worth 5%, it could wait another day.

Jane looks around. There are about thirty people in the room, which is about half of the number actually enrolled in the class. A classmate in front of her is watching a replay of a hockey game on his laptop. He has one earbud in. Another is playing World of Warcraft. Other classmates are on Facebook or are texting. During the class, Jane herself receives and answers a dozen text messages, hiding the phone under the long row of tables. A friend from work is complaining about their boss.

In the very front row, eight rows down from Jane, a girl shoots her hand up to ask a question. People roll their eyes. Jane dislikes this girl. She only asks questions to make herself look smart.  Prof. Jones answers the question, speaking to that student alone. Everyone else’s attention begins to fade and chatter starts to rise in the room. After a couple of minutes Prof. Jones resumes lecturing after calling everyone to order. A minute later, though, somebody’s cell phone goes off.  “Sorry! Sorry!” a student cries out. There’s a disruption until she shuts the phone off, its ringtone clearly recognizable to the class.

Prof. Jones says, “No problem. Hey! I know that song! It’s “Toxic” by Britney Spears!” He sings a few bars in a broken voice. This gets a big laugh.

Jane likes Prof. Jones. He is young and full of energy, seems nice and doesn’t mark too hard. When the course is over, she will give him excellent teaching evaluation scores.

Just before class ends, forty-five minutes after it began, Prof. Jones reminds everyone that they have an essay due in two weeks. “Come to see me in my office,” he says. Someone asks where his office is and what his hours are. These are on the course syllabus but Jane makes a note of them anyway and closes her laptop.

Jane has an hour before next class so she heads for the Learning Commons, a new metal and glass building on campus. There are big windows, a coffee shop, flat screen TVs showing the news or “The View”, and plenty of lounge chairs. There are about forty or fifty students around, either standing in line for coffee or sitting with their laptops or phones, surfing the web and texting, or talking with friends. A few are reading. A small group of students is setting up a table. They’re selling tickets to an AIDs-awareness fashion show.

Jane passes by a bulletin board covered in notices for campus events, including the famous History Club speaker that Prof. Jones mentioned before. The title of the talk is "Towards a New Hermeneutics of Discourse Analysis in High Medieval Parish Registers." The Political Science club is planning a trip to see Parliament in session. There’s a pub crawl next Thursday to raise money for a student trip to El Salvador. Women’s self-defense classes are being held in the women’s residence. (In pen somebody has written, “this is sexist” on the poster.) The Justice program is bringing in a refugee from Syria to talk about his experience. The Student Writing Centre has drop-in hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Beside this, somebody put up an unauthorized flier for an Internet service that sells “Example Essays” written by graduate students. There are auditions for a student performance of Twelfth Night. Someone is selling textbooks, cheap.

Jane glances at all this without much interest, then sits and checks her e-mail, her Facebook page, and sends some texts. She has a reading she has to do for her next class. It’s a poem called “Religio Laici” by a writer named John Dryden. She flips through it in her Norton Anthology of English Literature. It’s very long. She puts her feet up and starts reading. Over the next fifteen minutes, she reads about a quarter of the poem, which is very boring, highlights a few passages, and sends three text messages and looks at some pictures from a friend’s party on Facebook, “liking” this and that.  Then a guy from her next class sits down across from her.
         “Did you do the reading?” he asks.
         “Most of it,” Jane says. “It was so long.”
         “I know, I was like, uggh. What the fuck? I didn’t think this class would be so boring.” He asks her if he can borrow her notes from the last class.
Another classmate shows up, with a coffee and a doughnut. She says that she found a summary of the poem on Wikipedia.  They talk for a bit about their other classes and professors. “I heard he’s tough,” Jane’s classmate says about Prof. Jones. 

They talk until class. Jane knows that the instructor, Prof. Gilbert, always covers the poem anyway and there isn’t much discussion so she doesn’t need to have it read.  Prof. Gilbert is one of the older professors in the college. He lectures from paper notes without PowerPoint. He drones on and on and tells jokes that nobody laughs at. A few minutes later, when they get to the classroom door, they find a note saying that Prof. Gilbert is away and that class is cancelled.  

Jane looks at the sign indifferently. If she’d known she would have skipped Jones’s class and slept in until 11. Behind her a student says, “He only does this because he has tenure and can get away with it.” Jane isn’t sure what ten-year is but reflects that this student usually doesn’t go to class anyway. (In fact, Prof. Gilbert had announced he wouldn’t be present the week before, but Jane and about half the class weren’t there that day, either.) 
Maybe now would be a good time to see Prof. Jones about her essay. It is due the following Friday but she hasn’t started. She has decided to write something about women in New France. She heads to Prof. Jones’s office. In the hall, there are professors milling about. She catches snippets of a heated conversation. They seem to be complaining about something to do with the school. When she gets to Prof. Jones’s office, Jane reads the sign next to the door:

Prof. R. Strong, English
Prof. M. Kuffert, Sociology
Prof. A. Jones, History
Prof. A. Xao, Business and Economics
Dr. D. Bryson, English (on Sabbatical Leave)

Jane knocks. There is no answer. A professor emerges from the office next door. “Do you know if Prof. Jones is around?” Jane asks her. The professor doesn’t seem to know who Jones is.  Jane explains that he teaches Canadian history. “Oh!” the professor says. “No, haven’t seen him.”

Jane sits on an old chair at the end of the hall and starts up her laptop.  The professors who were having the heated conversation up the hall retreat into an office and close the door.

Beside Jane is a bulletin board next to the office nearest to her. There are quotations and Far Side comics on it, and a poster for a conference that happened last year. There’s also a recent news story from the campus paper about Prof. Gilbert being inducted into something called the Royal Society of Canada. That reminds Jane.  She e-mails Prof. Gilbert asking if next week they’ll be doing this week’s readings, since class was cancelled, or moving on to next week’s readings. (Gilbert does not reply and Jane will decide for herself that she doesn’t need to do next week’s reading.)   

After twenty minutes of texting and surfing and waiting for Prof. Jones, Jane goes back to the Learning Commons, hoping some friends will be there. There aren’t, so she buys a coffee and cookie for four dollars and then decides to go to the library, maybe to get in some work on her essay. On the library computers, students are checking e-mail and Facebook and a few are printing essays. Jane sits in front of a library computer and logs on. Next to her, a group of three are gathered around a computer, watching a Youtube video of a dog and laughing.

Jane rarely goes to the library. In first year, she tried looking a book up but got intimidated by the rows and rows of shelves and gave up after a few minutes of trying to find it. She seldom goes looking anymore, relying on Google Books or her local public library instead. One time, she even went back to her old high school and got advice for a paper from her favourite high school teacher. The university library offers regular tours and workshops about using the library, but Jane has never taken one. She doesn’t ask the library staff for help because she doesn’t want to seem stupid. 

There is something new on the library webpage now, a search engine that says, “find articles.” Jane spends a few minutes with this, typing in keywords like “women” and “New France.”  She takes the first two articles that appear at random and prints them off. One of them, she will later be told, is a book review, but she won’t understand why that can’t be a source.

It is now nearly noon. Jane has a two hour American history class at 12:30. She buys a slice of pizza and a Diet Coke for seven dollars and sits with some friends in the nearest cafeteria, which is named “Rendezvous.” There are flat screen TV’s showing the news and sports. She talks with her friends about shows they’ve watched on Netflix and they complain about how many assignments they have do. One student complains about Prof. Jones. “Why does he talk about stuff if it’s not going to be on the final exam?” he asks.

At 12:20, Jane heads to her American history class.  In her usual spot near the back, two guys in baseball caps and sweats are sitting and talking hockey. They have almost never been in class. They smell like tobacco smoke and say “fuck” a lot. Jane sits away from them, but still at the back. Today there is a student presentation before the lecture. Jane has to do a presentation in three weeks. She is supposed to talk to Prof. Merrill about her topic, but hasn’t yet. Since Merrill hasn’t e-mailed her, Jane thinks that maybe it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t like doing presentations or participating in discussion because she doesn’t like speaking in front of other people.  Prof. Merrill distributes a form to all the students. As a way of ensuring that everyone is paying attention to the presenter, Prof. Merrill asks everyone to provide a letter grade and some feedback for each presenter.

A student Jane doesn't know gives a ten-minute presentation on a book called The Radicalism of the American Revolution. The student begins: “Okay, like, when I was reading this I was, like, this is so sick because, like...”  Nobody is really listening. People are fooling around on the Internet, texting, or playing games, even though they have a form to fill out. The two guys at the back are talking in low voices. Jane's attention wanders. She checks her e-mail and Facebook and  sends some texts.  When the presentation is over, there is some applause and Prof. Merrill asks, “Are there any questions?”  Nobody moves or says anything. “Any questions?” she asks again. “Okay, well, I guess you did such a good job that there are no questions.” Nobody laughs at this. After a second, Prof. Merrill asks a couple of questions of her own that the student answers in jumbles. When the questions are over, there is more applause. Jane gives the student an "A" and writes, "Great job! This was so interesting.” She sends the handout forward.

Now Merrill begins her own lecture. She announces that the topic of today’s lecture will be the Constitution of 1787.  “You have to know this,” she says. “Or nothing else in the course will make sense.” Jane writes that down. As Merrill lectures, a steady scroll of bulleted PowerPoint points summarizing her speaking points goes on behind her. When the course began, Jane took notes, but now she knows that the PowerPoint slides are on the Internet so she doesn’t really bother.  Now and then, Merrill  says, “And this is important” or “and I want you to know this” and Jane will type it on her laptop. “Sorry, what was that date?” a student asks. “Dates aren’t important - think big picture,” Merrill says. Jane wonders why she mentions dates at all, then. Merrill goes back to lecturing.

By the thirty minute mark in the lecture, Jane’s eyes begin to droop. She is very, very sleepy. The remainder of the lecture goes by in a sort of auditory blur. She snaps back to awareness when Merrill says, “OK, well.  I think that’s good enough for today.” She sounds a bit angry. Jane wonders what’s going on. They have only been in class for a little over an hour, total. People begin to pack up their bags and head for the door. Jane thinks that maybe she should ask Prof. Merrill about her presentation after all, but there’s a lineup to students in front of her already, including the one weird guy – Jane can never remember his name – who is always talking to Merrill about politics. Jane waits a few minutes and then heads out the door.  

It’s 2:15 PM. Jane drives home.  Two of her roommates are watching TV and smoking pot, which Jane has tried but doesn’t really like. They all sit and talk for over an hour. One of her room-mates is thinking of getting back together with her boyfriend. Another is failing most of her courses and is thinking about not coming back next year and “just working instead” or “maybe going to college for something.” Jane goes to her room. She opens her laptop and checks her e-mail. There’s a message from her Human Sexuality professor, who noticed that she didn’t hand in her critical analysis. Jane sends her an e-mail saying that she had computer problems and promises to bring it by during her office hours, tells the professor she is really enjoying the class and learning a lot and that she hopes she won’t lose any marks. 

 Jane has a wipe board above her bed. She has an essay due on Monday that she hasn’t started. She needs to finish that Human Sexuality paper. Tomorrow she is supposed to have read Henry IV, Part Two for her Shakespeare class, but there are no discussions in that class so she doesn’t do the readings. She'll get caught up before the midterm. Jane has a nap for half an hour then gets ready for work. She decides to get Subway for dinner at the mall before her shift.  Later that evening, at work, she gets a text from some friends. They’re going out to the bars. Did she want to meet them after work? Jane thinks about it. Tomorrow’s her light day: just one class and a tutorial. She’ll have plenty of time between them to get that Human Sexuality assignment done and go to the library to get books for Prof. Jones's essay. She says yes.

Jane’s day, her Tuesday, is much like any day she’ll experience in university.   Depending on the time of year, she spends no more than fifteen or twenty hours per week on all aspects of her school-work: attending class, reading, writing essays, and studying. If one were to take into consideration the number of hours she spends in partial attention to the matter at hand, the number of hours spent on actual schoolwork would be smaller still.  But her grades are usually decent and sometimes a little better. She finishes courses with C’s and B’s by producing work that, in a former age, would have been deemed utterly unsatisfactory. If some bold educational reformer (or a coalition of taxpayers) were really rigorously to test her, to demand that she write clearly, speak articulately, and demonstrate mastery over what she has been taught, they would find that Jane, mid-way through her 15th year of publicly-subsidized education,  hasn’t read much (in fact, she dislikes reading altogether), struggles to write clear sentences, gropes for vocabulary when she speaks in class (which is not very often) and doesn’t remember much about what she has been taught for very long. But her professors have learned, through a generation of accumulated experience, not to expect too much, and Jane rewards them by not demanding too much in return. She gets decent grades; professors get good teaching evaluations; politicians get another finished product, another tick on their vast statistical indices which prove that the system is working. And, indeed, the assembly line is very efficient. It keeps moving Jane and thousands of others like her along. Along the way they receive a small cultural deposit before emerging to great fanfare at the all-important moment of graduation.

So, there is Jane, thirty-four months later, coming off the assembly line. She is at commencement, graduating with a major in History and a minor in Sociology — she switched out of English after year two.  It’s a happy day, but there’s a slight tightness in her chest when she thinks about what she’s going to do next. She is twenty-one years old, and graduating with a B- average. She didn’t get into teacher’s college but thinks that maybe she might do a 5th year — what the students call a “Victory Lap” — to pull her marks up a bit, and then maybe re-apply for teacher’s college or perhaps try to get into grad school and “do” her Master’s Degree.  Maybe Prof. Jones would write her a letter of reference? 

The principal, who Jane has never seen before, gives a long and boring speech about how “proud the university community is of its graduates”, how the graduates have “learned how to think and reason and face the many challenges posed by the diverse and rapidly changing economy of today”, but also about the threats to “spirit of higher education” and “the essential mission of producing students who are ethical citizens.”  Jane remembers that in first year she had a philosophy lecture about the difference between morality and ethics. She can’t remember what it was.

Her attention drifts as the principal drones on and on.  A phone rings. It belongs to someone’s parent. The principal’s speech finally ends. A handful of students involved in students’ council begin a standing ovation. Everyone follows. Jane watches as a few of her friends cross the stage to get their degrees. She knows that a few of them are coming back. Others are going to teacher’s college. Her friend Rachel is going to teach English in South Korea. Rachel is graduating with a C+ average.

Jane's name is called. She crosses the stage in a rush, feeling very nervous. Professor Dearness, who Jane had for a course in third year, hoods her and gives her a hug. Jane is handed her degree or, rather, a paper representation of her degree. Her real one will arrive in the mail three weeks later, after she has paid her library fines.

Meet Jane Doe, B.A.  She has $44,000 in student debt, $7,000 more on her credit cards, a BA in History and Sociology, and a job at the mall. Out in the audience, Jane’s mother takes pictures and cries.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


Note: this is a heavily edited version of a column that first appeared on Measure of Doubt five years ago.

 "War is Not the Answer" says a poster on a bulletin board where I work. Well, it depends on the question, doesn't it? The problem in the 1930s was not that peaceful negotiation failed, it was that peaceful negotiation was attempted for far too long. Negotiation is not possible when confronted with an ideology that regards peace only as a pause in the preparation for war, and war as the desired outcome of politics, an instrument for imposing "racial purity" on a vast scale. Nazism could not be appeased, contained, or co-existed with: it could only be destroyed, and its destruction was, as the late Stephen Ambrose put it, "the supreme accomplishment of the first half of the 20th century." 

Seventy years ago today, a combined Anglo-Canadian-American force fought its way, inch by bloody inch, up the beaches of Normandy in what was probably the single most complex military operation in history: Overlord. In the following ten weeks, they would utterly destroy two German field armies in the Battle of Normandy, decisively proving that the Nazis and their subsequent admirers were wrong to believe that totalitarian societies are better at war than democracies. Sufficiently aroused, the power of free people and capitalist economies to wage war proved to be far greater than that of the dictatorships. While fighting in Normandy, the Allies simultaneously conducted vast campaigns on land, sea, and air on many fronts across two major theatres of war, while all the while supplying — crucially, as we now know — logistical support to the Red Army through the auspices of the Lend-Lease  program. As the civilians of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were to learn, the fury of democratic societies, aroused to what was for them the very unnatural state of war, was both awesome and terrible. Allied bombers had reduced nearly every major Germany city to rubble and ash before the Red Army — carried, incidentally, on American trucks — set foot on Germany soil, while the Japanese were to suffer the immolation of dozens of their towns and cities, acts of vengeance culminating in the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All those who fought and died in that terrible war deserve to be remembered, but historians have to remember them for what they actually did. This October will mark the 70th anniversary of a large-scale prisoner uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but no moral person will spend that day in somber commemoration of those Germans who gave their lives that the Holocaust go on. Their uniforms are not totems that protect them from moral scrutiny. Their sacrifice is rendered worthless by the hideousness of their cause. The fact that they may have thought they were in the right is of historical interest but morally irrelevant, because they were objectively wrong. If this raises uncomfortable questions about the commemoration of Allied soldiers who may also have been complicit in atrocities, so be it. Uncritical veneration belongs to the realm of evangelical religion, not history.  Some historians will reply that we cannot make moral judgments about the past in the first place. That being the case, I can only assume that such people are indifferent about the outcome of D-Day, and indeed about the whole Second World War. Axis victory or defeat, Holocaust or no, in fact every atrocity in the history of the world: all must be met with shrugging indifference. Who am I to judge? Just report what happened and move on: the historian as glorified clerical worker. But nobody really believes that, so their position is incoherent.

So it is with the position that "war is not the answer." War is a dreadful thing. But it is not always to be avoided nor at all costs, nor is it true that there are no winners in war or that nothing good ever comes from it. Pacifism is morally defensible only when it is a choice you make for yourself. The pacifist who allows himself to be beaten has made one kind of moral choice; if he allows someone else to be beaten, he has made another one entirely. Sometimes we must fight. The destruction of National Socialism and of Japanese militarism was necessary for the safety and survival of free societies throughout the world. For all their faults and foibles — and these are, as we all know, numerous — the liberal democracies were and are clearly better than the monstrous regimes they fought. Today, we are the healthiest, wealthiest, safest, and most culturally prosperous people in the history of the world, and in large measure because a previous generation had thrust upon them the dreadful duty to fight those who would have enslaved us all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


(Speaker Crackles) Uhhh...good morning, on behalf of myself and the flight crew I’d like to welcome you to day 1.6 trillion aboard planet Earth. Our current cruising speed relative to the sun is 100,000 kilometres per hour. We’re expecting a smooth flight today with occasional bumps along the way. Temperatures will reach a high of +44 celsius and a low of -62, and we’re currently experiencing periods of sun, rain, flurries, cloudiness, and periodic nighttime. Special welcome to passengers Broad and Hunter, celebrating the anniversary of their inaugural circumnavigation of the solar system today along with 20 million others. I’ll turn things over now to the flight attendants and thank you once again for flying planet Earth. 

(Pleasant Female Voice Begins) Welcome to planet Earth. At this time we would like to draw your attention to absence of emergency exits. Please refrain from destroying the biosphere. Ride bicycles, carpool, or take public transportation wherever practicable. Pick up after yourself. And please do not adjust the cabin temperature.

Passengers are reminded that killing one another, especially over matters of faith, is expressly prohibited. We ask that you be courteous to your fellow passengers at all times, even if they look different than you. A further reminder that all human passengers are born equal, regardless of sex or race, and that nonhuman species and should be treated respectfully as well. Local administrators are required to abide by these regulations.

For your comfort, food, shelter, and clothing are provided. First class passengers are encouraged to share with passengers in economy class.

Earth is pleased to offer a variety of recreational activities including art, literature, film, music, and sport, and encourages local administrators to extend public funding to such activities.

Employers are required to pay their employees decent wages and to provide safe working conditions. Employees should refrain from being smug, self-satisfied, passive-aggressive know-it-all jerks in department meetings.

Please do not play your headphones so loud that everyone else can hear your music, too. The same goes for music in your car or back yard. Avoid participating in sports-related rioting. Young human passengers are encouraged to keep their sticky fingers off of things that do not belong to them and to attempt to behave like rational people when in public. Teenagers are reminded that everything will work out okay and he/she wasn’t right for you anyway. 

If you choose to procreate, please avoid taking babies to weddings, funerals, nice restaurants, the opera, theatre, or the movies. 

Please do not date someone who has seen all of the Fast and Furious movies.

Passengers are asked to avoid texting while driving. In addition, do not text while on a date or while out with friends. Do not text when your teacher is talking to you. In fact, just put the goddamn phone away and have a look around because the world is pretty freaking fantastic if you’d bother to check it out for the six or seven seconds that you’ve reduced your attention span to. You’re the product of millions of years of accumulated adaptive advantages and this is what you do with your time? Why don’t you just move into your parents’ basement, learn Klingon, and play World of Warcraft for the rest of your life?



At this time, the flight crew would like to reiterate that persistent rumours of another world on standby after the completion of this trip are not verifiable and must therefore be treated with the utmost of suspicion. In consideration of other passengers, please desist from spreading such rumours.

For the comfort of your fellow passengers, a reminder that Earth is a smoke-free environment. For the convenience of passengers wishing to shorten the duration of their trip by approximately a decade, a smoking section is provided on the dark side of the moon.

Finally, would passengers Coulter, Ford, Palin, Putin, McCarthy, and O’Reilly please report to the shuttle bay for immediate deportation?

Thank you, and we hope you enjoy your flight on planet Earth.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Back in the day, I used to participate in message boards on AOL. We discussed history, politics, and whatnot. It was fun, you got to talk about your hobbies to people who actually cared, spar a bit over points of disagreement, and even occasionally become friends (or, indeed, enemies) of a sort with the other participants. Some list-serves – the kind that came to your e-mail box – followed. But my participation in such discussions fell off rapidly in graduate school, where there always seemed to be real people to argue with.

Nowadays, nearly every page on the Internet has a message board affixed to it, and some – like Facebook – are basically nothing but. Make no mistake: these boards do not exist in order to democratize the media or any of that nonsense. They exist to generate page views, information about viewership that can then be sold to potential advertisers. Over time, I found myself drawn to reading the comments in a "can’t look at it, can’t look away" sort of manner. Sometimes I even posted a comment of my own, and then felt like taking a shower afterwards. And so I decided to conduct an experiment. For about a year I partook in discussions on a variety of different pages. I posted, in all, six or seven hundred times (rarely more than twenty or thirty words at a time) and probably read ten times that number of posts. My intent: report my findings on Measure of Doubt when I eventually revived it.

I approached this with some rules. First, I’d use my real name, not a pseudonym. Second, I would never lie. Third, I would mainly respond by pointing out errors of fact and/or argumentative errors in the articles on which I was commenting and/or in the posts of others. Fourth, I would never resort to name calling or ad hominem of any kind. (Only once, near the end, did I break this rule. A poster suggested that he didn’t care if texting while driving endangered others – it’s a free country and he ought to be allowed to do it. I replied that we needn’t be worried in his case, as one needed friends in order to have anyone to send texts to in the first place. He replied, predictably, that he would be texting my mom. I said that, in that case, he ought to be careful, as texting on a flip-phone was hard enough, let alone while driving a late-model Datsun and when spelling isn’t your forte.  Ding, ding, ding: and the winnah by knockout...) Fifth, I decided that my natural tone would be ironic. The Rob Ford business gave me both motive and opportunity to really sharpen these skills, which had grown quite dull and rusty sheathed in their scabbard since about 2005. Sixth, when participating in a discussion that lasted more than three exchanges back-and-forth (and on some boards, like CNN, the messages poured in so fast – literally dozens would arrive every second on big stories – that no “discussion” was possible at all) I would always thank my interlocutor for chatting, no matter how badly it went.

After a few months of participating on various boards, I reached certain conclusions, some of which I believe, and some of which (marked with an *) other people believe. Here they are, in order.

1) Humanity is doomed. I have no words to describe how totally, viciously, and horrifically boned we are as a species. My odds-on favourite for possible outcomes at the moment is some sort of global nuclear holocaust resulting from environmental catastrophe, followed by the total collapse of civilization. The survivors on the political right will turn to cannibalism and burn the contents of our libraries and museums in a forlorn attempt to stave off freezing to death in the nuclear winter.  The survivors from the political left will say that civilization had it coming anyway and talk about the need for solidarity. Then they’ll get baked, try to (finally) make it past page five in Das Kapital, and plan for some sort of direct action tomorrow. 

2) People are horrible. They are ill-informed, irrational, bigoted, tribal, tasteless, tactless, petty, self-interested, self-absorbed, and just plain mean. No part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on stupid;  civility accrues nothing in your favour. My grandmother was right: people are garbage. Stay away from them.

3) No one works hard except for the person currently posting.* Everyone else is overpaid, underworked, and suckling at the bosom of the nanny state. Especially teachers. In addition, no one knows how to drive properly except for the person currently posting.

4) I have it on good authority that if it’s cold right now where you live, global warming is a hoax.

5) People who begin a sentence with a phrase such as “I’m not a racist, but...” are always racists. There are a lot of them.

6) Arguing with a Creationist about evolution is like arguing with a Big Mac about vegetarianism.  Too. Far. Gone.

7) Bush is Hitler.*

8) Obama is also Hitler.*

9) Stephen Harper is worse than Hitler.*

10) The only political leader ever who is not Hitler is Hitler. Mention Hitler anywhere and hordes will rush to his defense.

11) But they’re “not racist.” They just want "white pride."*

12) Countries that aren’t the United States are permitted to kill, torture, and generally knock about pretty much anybody they want. Everybody gets a free pass because of what the United States did in Vietnam, to the natives, and because of slavery. Slow clap.*

13) Things used to be great. But now we have lost our values because of either a) immigrants or b) big corporations. Or both.*

14) Jesus is coming back soon. We’re not kidding this time.*

15) There is a cure for cancer, but they aren’t telling you what it is.*

16) There is also a cure for obesity, and the person posting knows what it is.*

17) Everything everywhere has been cured but they don’t want you to know.*

18) Educated people don’t know anything about the “real world.” They “can’t see the forest for the trees.”*   People who make this argument often have difficulty distinguishing between “your” and “you’re” and “it’s” and “its”. 

19) Misogyny is real. For proof, read the message boards on IMDB where they discuss Sex and the City and Girls.

20) The moderators of any particular message board are trying to silence at least one of the people currently posting, usually because the person they’re trying to silence is the only one exposing their lies.*  Such statements are often accompanied by metaphors about emperors not having any clothes on.

21)  Nobody hates Star Trek more than Star Trek fans. The principal holds true for obsessive fans of everything from other science fiction franchises to sports teams.

22) Except for Ayn Rand fans. Ayn Rand fans are the most rabidly indoctrinated sociopaths in recent history, with the possible exception of parents who rioted to get Cabbage Patch dolls for their children. They are probably the same people, I suspect.

24) Humanity is doomed. Mainly because of Ayn Rand fans.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Your noble author contains multitudes, faithful readers, and so it came to pass that on the 23rd day of February in the Year of Lord 2014, he rose at his customary hour on Sunday, fed the felines, made coffee, and turned on the computer.  Heedless of the peril that he might start drinking Coors Light, calling other males “man” “bro” and “buddy” and giving them suspiciously long hugs punctuated by thumping yet strangely tender pats on the back, he watched the Olympic Gold Medal hockey game. It was the first hockey game he had ever watched from one end to the other. In commemoration of this momentous and never-to-be repeated event, he took notes on his reactions to the extraordinary spectacle of watching millionaires skate around for an hour. Well, half of them are millionaires. He isn’t so sure about the Swedes. Below is the unedited transcript:


7 AM. Coffee in hand (done right,  in a French press); cats are momentarily content. Computer is on. I am one of 4 million people live-streaming this on  Don Cherry, who ranked 8th on the list of Greatest Canadians a decade ago, is screaming at me. To quell the noise and incoherence I contemplate banging some pots and pans together while shrieking like Yoko Ono but the moment passes.

7:07 AM. They are playing. There is much analysis going on between the CBC Broadcasters. The Canadians need to play a tight defense. And a tight offense. I am a hockey neophyte and have trouble keeping up with their strategizing.

7:07:28.  Swedish player goes off the ice after less than thirty seconds. This must be some kind of hockey rule or something.

7:15 AM or thereabouts. Canadians score. I miss this as I was reboiling the kettle for more coffee (I have a problem, I admit.) CBC broadcasts crowds of Canadians in various places across the country, cheering like mad. The shots look staged, or at least highly performative. They do not replay the goal.

7:18. People are skating.

7:21 AM. Occurs to me that nobody is racist about Swedes.

7:22 AM. I minimize the viewer to the corner and check e-mail. Send a couple of replies to the usual morning dross. (“Dear Professor, I have been very sick and my dog died and my grandmother has been diagnosed with certain death and my girlfriend left me for Bill Clinton. Can I please get an extension on the essay that was due last month?”)

7:23 AM. I look at bicycles. Surly Long Haul Trucker or the venerable Trek 520? Do I want a Rohloff hub for my touring bike? Good for 100,000 KM they say.

7:26 AM. Paying more attention to the game for a bit. Men are skating around. Looking at the uniforms, I keep thinking “stop if you can” and “stop”.

7:27 AM. Intermission. This is called the “end of first period.” Ah.

7:28 AM. More Don Cherry. Shouting. Intolerable. Didn’t he support Rob Ford? Say something about pinkos on bicycles, too? Strange: as I understand it cycling is a core component of off-season training for many hockey players.

7:35 AM. Don Cherry says to Canadian kids that if they work hard they too can end up NHL players, just like their heroes. I check.  There are 5.6 million Canadians under the age of 14. There are 488 Canadians in the NHL.  Assuming the same percentages:  you’ve got one shot in 125,000.  So stop readin’ books you sissies and get out there and skate.

I lose track of time.

Second “period” begins. Men skate around. At one point, a bunch of them gather by the boards and there’s this cluster trying to get the puck. They hack at it like a bunch of guys trying to chop up a gopher emerging from a hole. Best metaphor I had for this.


Minimized viewer again. It plays in the corner while I surf the web. Twitter. Hilary Clinton’s tweet feed identifies her as “Wife, mother, U.S. Senator” in that order. They had a focus group for that, you know. They did - guaranteed. They had focus groups and ran small polls to determine the best order in which to put that. Senator, mom, wife? Wife, Senator, mom? Gotta please the family values types…

Hockey. People are skating. Icing call. I picture my mother calling me to the kitchen to lick the spatula when she’s finished a cake. Icing call.

Skating. I Facebook. A friend notes that Ikea doesn’t sell hockey sticks. Ten minutes too late I reply that hockey sticks are hard to assemble with an Allen key.

Penalty against a Canadian. Occurs to me that there are slight advantages to getting a penalty: you get to rest for a couple of minutes, and you have an awesome seat for the game.

Skating. Am joined by Amanda. Tea and more coffee.

Canadians score another. I feel mildly elated but am reminded of the immortal words of Han Solo: “Don’t get cocky, kid.” Always good advice.

Carey Price probably got made fun of in school for his name. Those people are sorry now, because they’re watching him play. And drinking Coors Light before 8 AM.

Is it checking or chequing? Which way do we spell it in Canada?

16:08 in second period. Champlain founded Quebec that year.




Some chequing.

Why is there no fighting? Is this hockey not as good because it doesn’t have fighting?  If I were a hockey player, I would use reasoned argument to solve problems on the ice. “Sorry about that ill-timed cheque, kind sir. It was my fault entirely. Can we discuss how to avoid such incidents in the future? Again, my most sincere apologies.”

Second period ends. Swedes are down by two. More analysis. Hockey analyst guy is very incisive. Actual quotation: “Swedes need to play a tough offensive game now. When you’re down by two, you can’t lay back and be defensive.” I find this very helpful. I would have thought that when you’re losing by two goals the key would have been defensive play.  Forgive me, I am new to the game.

Third period.

Skating. Skating. Skating. Play-by-play announcers could be making up names for all I know.

Puck goes over the glass. Do they show a fan catching it, holding it up in the air? No. Odd.


I check Sweden’s population. Just under 10 million. Could we take them in a war? Hard to say. They had conscription until recently. I consider how much I would have hated military life. Orders. Conformity. Shouting. Large groups of aggressive men. Green. I would have used reason argument with my senior drill instruction. “Sarge, I don’t respond well to the shouting. Maybe we could discuss this over coffee?”

Skating. I notice on Wikipedia that most Swedish military kit is home grown. How can they afford the R & D for such small procurement numbers? I need to look this up.

I like Saab automobiles. I had a Saab ball cap when I was a teenager. I wore it everywhere. It was part of my identity. Weird: I don’t drive.


When I was ten or eleven my parents sent me to a sports day camp for two weeks. The people who ran it were awful: mean, slovenly, foul-mouthed. And I was not good at sports, which pretty much was the equivalent of a tattoo on my forehead that said “please beat me up”, which the other boys did with enthusiasm, and the beatings were usually accompanied by all manner of homophobic epithets. Sports build character. It did in my case. I learned that coping with being bullied is an important life skill. Certainly it has been one of the keys to success in my chosen profession.



Oh my god.



I check the news from Syria, which nobody seems to care about anymore. Many dead. Upheaval. Also, Canada’s Senate scandal seems to have blown over. But Harper got a case of beer from Obama. Sam Adams. Not a bad choice.

I begin to make breakfast. Tex-Mex breakfast burritos.

Skating. Whistles. Canada gets a third goal. I feel bad for the Swedes now. They are nice and have a fine social welfare system. And Ikea. And write good crime novels. I thought Kenneth Branagh was good in the BBC version of Wallander. I check IMDB to see if it’s coming back for more. It is. Awesomeness. But so is Heroes.  Why?

Skating. Whistles. Swedes look sad. I feel bad for them. Is their king watching? I look up the king of Sweden, guess his name is either “Carl” or “Gustaf”.  Holy crap: he’s Carl Gustaf. There’s a picture of him. He’s an Honorary Admiral in the British Royal Navy. Weird. He also is a Knight with Collar of the Order of the Elephant in Denmark. This I have to check on Wikipedia.  It’s the highest order in Denmark. Nothing to do with actual elephants, which are not native to Denmark.

I watch hockey. Amanda is reading about Ukraine. This will end badly.

Skating. Three minutes remain.

Breakfast is about ready. Eggs got a bit browned on the bottom. We fold them into wraps with onions, mushrooms, peppers, avocado, and goat cheese. I wonder again if I could or should be vegetarian. Probably yes to both.

Skating. Countdown. Ten, nine, etc.

Canada wins. I feel a tiny twinge of national pride. And also that this is vengeance for all the poorly drilled holes and missing pieces from Ikea furniture over the years.

Mentally, I cross “watch a hockey game” off my bucket list. It comes just below “write a bucket list” and just above “get a colonoscopy”.

Much cheering across Canada on CBC. Looks staged again. In Russia, the players shake hands. Some replays. I see Sidney Crosby remove his helmet. I was hoping for female and flowing red hair, like Eowyn in Lord of the Rings when she reveals herself. “I am NO man!”  That would have been awesome.

Am pretty sure I see a Canadian player mouth, “Fuck, yeah.” Camera moves away from him rather quickly.

According to CBC, 15 million watched the game. I check: 13 million voted in the last federal election. Apples and oranges? I dunno. I’m just sayin’

Saturday, February 15, 2014


File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-08778-0001, Dresden, Tote nach Bombenangriff.jpg Note: this is a heavily revised version of an Op-Ed piece that originally appeared in the London Free Press in 2009.


"The aim of the combined bomber offensive should be unambiguously stated as the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany...the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport, and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale...are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories." 

- Arthur Harris, October 1943. 

February 13th to 15th is the anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, a horrific series of fire raids that killed 25,000 civilians and left much of that beautiful medieval city a smouldering ruin. With the exception of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no action by the Allies in the Second World War has generated so much moral condemnation. Ever since, critics have charged that the city was defenseless and of no military value. Neither of these claims is true, but even Winston Churchill conceded that the attack represented a serious “query” against the moral conduct of Allies.

Area bombing — usually described as the indiscriminate bombardment of cities rather than specifically war-related industries and military targets — was a tactic adopted by the RAF’s Bomber Command in 1941. It was an inevitable decision at the time, when the British were without major allies and confronted by a totalitarian enemy that had conquered much of Europe. Without the technology to hit military and industrial targets precisely, Bomber Command aimed at what it couldn’t miss – whole towns and cities. Civilians were made the deliberate object of attack, although contemporary authorities sometimes disguised this with such euphemisms as "dehousing" and "breaking morale" – euphemisms that modern historians are too often wont to take seriously. But at the time the meaning was clear: you break enemy moral by burning down their houses, with them in them. Or does anyone really suppose that Bomber Command thought the occupants would be out for the evening?

As its navigational and targeting abilities improved steadily over the course of 1943 and 1944, Bomber Command increasingly raided oil, transportation, and other such enemy assets, too, but in absolute terms the tonnage dropped in area raids continued to grow, peaking in February 1945. For months after there was any prospect of German victory, Bomber Command continued to reduce towns and cities to rubble and ash. Almost forgotten, to give just one example, is the February 23rd attack on the small town of Pforzheim, in which as many as 17,000 people – a third of town's population – were killed. And the town was raided eight more times after that.
Major anniversaries of this kind always stir up a brouhaha,  but the controversy over the strategic bombing offensive has been simmering away for decades now. Historians and military men of unimpeachable patriotic credentials have been raising serious questions about the campaign’s efficacy and morality ever since the first bomb fell. Today, most scholars agree that the Anglo-American bomber offensive forced the Germans to devote huge resources to air defense, destroyed the Luftwaffe,
cracked civilian morale, and dealt crippling blows to Hitler’s war industry.   

But were the attacks moral? This is a different question entirely. Historians tread lightly here, for they are wary travelers in the realm of moral philosophy. Some people would argue that historians have no business making moral judgments at all, but clearly this will not do. No one would deny us the right to condemn Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or the 9/11 terrorists. (And surely the only thing more chilling than a Holocaust denier would be someone who admits that it happened but refuses to say it was wrong.)  Nor should we submit to the temptation of moral relativism, for we cannot judge monsters by their own monstrous standards. By what standard can we judge, then? The philosophy ethics provides us with many possible answers, but historians do not read moral philosophers. What about judging by the moral standards of the time? Again, we must be cautious. There was no consensus about the morality of killing enemy civilians. Polls, including the Mass Observation reports in the UK, showed surprising levels of opposition to bombing civilians. Allied propaganda consistently downplayed the fact that it was happening and indeed had to: the same propaganda vehemently condemned the Germans for their inhumanity when they did it. Can we judge? Of course. How do we judge? There is no easy answer. But where the moral debate over the bombing of Dresden goes awry, in my opinion, is in focusing too much on the actions of the Allies, and not enough on the guilt of the enemy.

In about sixty days in the late spring and early summer of 1943, the Second World War turned decisively against the Germans. In May 1943, they effectively conceded defeat in the Battle of Atlantic by withdrawing their U-Boats from convoy routes. Then, in July, a succession of haymakers sent the Axis reeling: the German offensive against the Soviets at Kursk was repulsed with catastrophic losses; the Allies invaded Sicily and then Mussolini’s government fell; and a dreadful firestorm immolated Hamburg and perhaps 40,000 of its people following a heavy raid by Bomber Command. After the summer of 1943, and certainly no later the D-Day, a year later, it was no longer possible for any rational person to doubt what the eventual outcome of the war would be. The Nazis’ continued resistance was explicable only in light of their pathological addiction to redrawing the racial map of Europe through murder. Fighting on served no purpose except to continue the bloodletting for its own sake. Too often, we forget this, and instead chastise the Allies for their heavy handed prosecution of a war that the Nazis started in the first place and then refused to end. After the Holocaust itself, this is the worst of the atrocities that the Nazis committed: their refusal to surrender unconditionally, even long after it was clear that unconditional surrender would be eventual outcome anyway. How many millions died, in the final months of the war, to satiate the their insatiable bloodlust?

We cannot know, for certain. But we might add the dead at Dresden to their numbers. The thousands of German civilians who died by fire and asphyxiation at Dresden were victims not just of the remorseless logic of Allied area bombing, but also the death fetishism of a government which many of them had once cheered on to victory.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


In 1967, the year Sgt. Pepper came out, it killed two million people, more than were killed in the entire eighteen years of the Vietnam War.   

In 1948, the year it was founded, the World Health Organization estimated that smallpox was infecting fifty million people per year, and in some regions killing as many as a third of them, and leaving millions of survivors blind.

So smallpox killed more people in the twentieth century than the World Wars put together, two or three times over.

It had been with us since the beginning of civilization and perhaps longer. It made no distinction for rank or social station. It killed Ramses V, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.  It may have killed Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor. It nearly killed Elizabeth I of England, fourteen hundred years later. It did kill Tsar Peter II of Russia in 1730, and the Emperor Komei of Japan in 1867, and the Emperor T’ung Chih of China in 1875. Abraham Lincoln contracted an unusually mild case after giving his famous Gettysburg Address. He survived, but not before passing it on to a White House servant, who did not.

The infected suffered fever, damage to their internal organs, and above all the hideous eruptions – the pox – that covered the body and burst. For hundreds of generations, millions were powerless before it. They prayed and died; died wondering why their gods had abandoned them and were punishing them.  When Europeans introduced it to the New World at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century it tore through the indigenous people. Thousands of years of isolation from the rest of the human race had left them without so much as a shred of resistance to it; it shattered their social cohesion at exactly the historical moment when they needed it most to resist the invaders. They prayed and they died.

It killed and it killed, for ten thousand years or more. And then it was gone. Two million people in 1967. None at all ten years later, and not a single solitary human being since. Not one. It had been in decline in parts of the world for nearly two centuries, but had persisted in spite of progress for a long time, mainly because people – who are by nature not rational – superstitiously and irrationally feared the cure more than the disease. But in the end reason triumphed. And how was this ancient scourge, this killer among killers, this dread disease that the Aztecs called the Great Fire, finally overcome?

Not with prayer. Not by strengthening our immune system in "natural" ways with herbs or homeopathy. Not with chiropractics or chi kung.

No, they wiped it out, eradicated it from the face of the Earth, the good old-fashioned way.

With vaccination.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Last term during a break in my historical theory and methods course a student hit me with a question that set me back on my heels a bit. It was a doozy: “Professor Broad, do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?”

I was slightly irritated by the imprecision of the question, like that time a pollster on the phone asked me if I believed that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. Yes. I believe that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. So there I am in a poll somewhere, recorded as one of the weirdos who think that Bush planned the whole thing, when in fact I doubt very much that the former President had the intellectual acuity to plan a BBQ.

“Do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?” My response was that I believed that one Yeshua of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, executed by the Romans, whose immediate followers established a rather significant sect within Judaism, certainly existed. I braced myself for what I knew was coming. “But as a historian do you believe He was God?”  My initial inclination was to throw myself out the window. But I considered that, actually, it was a perfectly fair question and deserving of a fair answer. I said that I considered the evidence insufficient to establish the validity of that hypothesis, but observed that this wasn’t necessarily my belief “as an historian”, because I know better historians, more accomplished and smarter than me, who think otherwise. I did, however, observe that modern history is an empirical discipline: we deal in what’s probable, and that miracles are highly improbable by definition: if people went around resurrecting all the time there wouldn’t be any particular reason to get all excited about it. And so I felt that history, as a profession, might be mute where such things are concerned, for the same reason that the field of geography doesn’t have much to say about musical appreciation.

I had the feeling that the student felt this was a cop-out, but it really wasn’t intended to be. In the historio-critical tradition that is the dominant mode of investigating and understanding scripture in academe, and indeed in most mainline protestant and Catholic seminaries these days, scripture is understood as a testament of faith and theology, never intended – not even by its anonymous authors – to be understood as “history” in the way we understand history today.

But there’s a problem. There are indeed some denominations that regard scripture as a literal and inerrant account of the past. And polls show that, in the United States in particular, such people aren’t a small minority. There are tens of millions who think like that, although polls also show that such people usually know very little about what’s actually in scripture. But to such people, let me pose a question of my own, in the form of an extended observation.

For Christians, the Ascension is an important milestone in the life of Jesus, the moment when He, in the presence of His apostles, was taken up into Heaven.

I’ll leave aside the fact that I remain mute on whether or not this actually occurred as an historical event (i.e.: an historical event in the way that, say, Lincoln delivered a speech at Gettysburg) because I don’t understand what “Ascension” means. I literally have no idea what is meant by “taken up into Heaven” so I can hardly be expected to decide whether or not it actually happened. But I do want to point out something interesting.

The Ascension is described in the Acts of the Apostles and in two of the four canonical Gospels. It’s in Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:50-53.

Well, sort of.  Today there is a virtual consensus of scholars in the field of exegesis that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were later additions to the original and rather dark ending of Mark in verse 8, where the “Three Marys” open Jesus’ tomb, find it empty, and run away afraid. Some scholars therefore regard 9-20, with its accounts of the resurrected Jesus and His Ascension to be “inauthentic”, and you can find Bibles where it is relegated to a footnote. As for Luke 24:50-53, have a look at the photo, top left. What don’t you notice? Ascension. I own three Bibles, which is pretty good for a guy like me. And my Revised Standard Version King James doesn’t mention the Ascension in 50-53, although it includes the following footnote: “Other ancient authorities add and was carried up into Heaven” after verse 51. By contrast, my Oxford Annotated RSV includes the phrase but with an opposite footnote: “Other ancient authorities omit and was carried up into Heaven.”

Now, look. There are some atheists out there who make great sport out of this sort of thing, but I have little patience for those kinds of narrow strawman attacks. But I do have a question for those of you who regard the Bible as literally true and inerrant: which Bible?