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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

From elite Prometheanism to free research

"Our time and energy are being sapped by bureaucrats and politicians. The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students." - Dr. Roy Schwitters, Head of the Superconducting Supercollider Project, in 1993. "The open science movement is gaining momentum...But the Neuro is bringing open science to a new level by making a commitment to share everything from brain imaging to tissue samples to the data associated with its experiments." - McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier, McGill News, Winter 2016/17. The early 1990s may now be recalled mainly for large political developments. In Canada, they were the climactic years of a decade of constitutional conflict, ending in negative outcomes of two referendums; in the U.S., the victory of Bill Clinton. But two other events would cast long shadows over the quarter century that followed. One was the large popular vote won in the 1992 presidential election by the unconventional third-party candidate, Ross Perot, a major factor in denying George H. W. Bush a second term. It was an early portent of the growing current of cultural and economic nationalism that has now culminated in the victory of Donald Trump, with signs of a similar direction arriving in Europe. The other, less-recalled but highly significant in its own way, was the 1993 cancellation by the U.S. Congress of the funding necessary to complete the building of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project in Waxahachie, Texas. The SSC was spearheaded by the Harvard physicist Roy Schwitters, co-winner of a 1976 Nobel Prize, experienced both in past large projects and lobbying in Washington. His 1,900 scientists and construction workers were building the SSC to learn more about the fundamental properties of matter, with what would have been the largest and most expensive scientific apparatus ever built. Everything about it was gargantuan. It… Read More

Men of power and their God-fearing appointees

The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason. - Thomas Becket, in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. 1945-65 was a good time for theatre. Two of the most memorable plays opened in 1960, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons in London, and Jean Anouilh's Becket, or the Honour of God, in New York. Both were also soon made into successful films. I saw the Anouilh play in New York, with Anthony Quinn playing King Henry II, Laurence Olivier playing Becket, and later saw the movie, with Richard Burton playing Henry, Peter O'Toole as Becket. The Bolt work I know only as a film, with Paul Scofield as an unforgettable Thomas More, clashing with Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and his Machiavellian courtier, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). I imagine I am one of many people who found both works a transforming personal experience. In both, the theatrical account strays far from what historians have learned about either of the English Kings or their sainted opponents. Anouilh even created much of the dramatic tension by making Becket a voice of the defeated English Saxons, Henry of the triumphant Normans, while the real Becket was actually another Norman. Both plays and films had many other examples of dramatic license, also true of other retellings of the two stories, like T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, first appearing in 1935, but frequently revived since. Like Shakespearean dramas, these 20th century works offered recastings of myths, above all of the clash between worldly rulers and uncompromising idealists, although the concluding murders were historically real, however raised in meaning by theatre. Stories of powerful men with plans they are determined to execute running afoul of their own chosen priests, or magistrates, even when these latter were… Read More

The Most Famous Spoiler of Canada Celebration

This April we will mark the 100th anniversary of the highly symbolic victory of the Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, and the 150th year of Confederation will come in July. But there will be some 50th and 25th anniversaries that resonate mainly or only in Quebec. Of 1967 and 1992, I retain strong recollections. In 1966-67, I was taking half a dozen history courses at Sir George Williams, to qualify for graduate studies at McGill. I had lived in Montreal some years earlier, but had grown up and taken previous undergraduate studies elsewhere, and was nearing thirty, so was almost a decade older than the mass of baby boomers arriving at all campuses in 1965-75. I had been reading history for many years, and scarcely encountered television until my twenties, so I often felt like a visitor from a disappearing older civilization. Montreal, especially on the francophone side, was full of the continent-wide youthful fevers. As elsewhere, much of these centred on opposition to the American war in Vietnam. But there was as much or more local noise coming from intensified and recently radicalized nationalism. Excitement had been stirred earlier, by the death of Duplessis, the reforming Papacy of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, and the state expansion and modernization launched by the Lesage Liberals in the first half of the decade, not much reversed by the last Union Nationale governments of Daniel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Bertrand in the second half. However, there was also good cheer in Montreal about the future of a united Canada. Montreal was Canada's largest and richest city, its business and financial head offices booming, and its population growing rapidly. Jean Drapeau, in youth himself a fiery right-wing Quebec nationalist, had proved an energetic and imaginative Mayor, and in co-operation with the Pearson… Read More

Advice from a 17th Century French Aristocrat for Public Figures of Our Times.

François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac, (1613-1680) was one of the finest writers of maxims. The carol 'Good King Wenceslas' is about a 10th century Bohemian monarch, now patron saint of Czechs; its melody is from 16th c. Finland, the English lyrics from 1853. For Christmas this year, the notion came to me that, with a few judicious adjustments, a dozen of the Duc's maxims could be sung to the melody of the carol, as good advice to some celebrated folk of our time.   Advice from a 17th Century French Aristocrat for Public Figures of Our Times.   Re-reading La Rochefoucauld, found us still his brothers; Had we no faults., be less pleased, finding fault in others. And take one on success eased, done in manner steady: Always pretend, when you can, you're success alrea-dy. Donald Trump   Judging speeches aimed at you, use this firm foundation: Sincerity is found in few, much dissimulation. Self-reflection seldom nails, how two things we sever: All admit their memory fails, but their judgement ne-ver. Hillary Clinton   Don't expect the world will bless, nor for it to hopes kill, Temper rules our happiness, just as much as fate will. Need to watch out what believed, when you're shaped by druthers; Simplest way to be deceived, think you out-think others. Bill Maher   When we're old and give advice, it's without elation: As we can't now practise vice, warn as consolation. While we can't still coolish be, nor an early riser, In old age more foolish we, also are much wi-ser. Conrad Black   Bad behaviour isn't nice, though it comes with cheap trick: Vice to virtue pays a price, hypo-crisy laid thick. While we pretend to be kind, schadenfreude we treasure, Friends' misfortune we don't find, causes our disple-asure.… Read More

Max Aitken and the limits of unidirectional power

The Canadian who did most to change the world in the first half of the 20th century did so as a a British tycoon. Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964), a small pixie in appearance, was a phenomenon of energy. Son of a Scottish clergyman, growing up in New Brunswick, he made his first fortune in Canada as a bold and adventurous company promoter and stockbroker, becoming a millionaire before he was thirty. He left permanently for Britain in 1910 and became a Commons MP less than a year later. He then set about becoming the richest and most politically influential of the British press barons. He built the Daily Express, from a circulation of 40,000 when he acquired it, into a giant, with hundreds of thousands of readers by the end of the 1920s; after 1945 it reached daily sales of almost 4 million, highest of any newspaper in the world. By then, he owned as well a large string of other newspapers and businesses, and maintained a dozen luxurious homes in England, France, Canada, and the U.S., famous as well for his many affairs and for the lively conversation of his dinner table. Aitken was both a whirlwind business expansionist and a writer of real talent. Near the end of his life, over eighty and dying of cancer, he still sometimes telephoned orders to his employees, barking “You gotta gotta say...” I knew some Daily Express reporters in London in the early 1960s; an otherwise irreverent crew, they all held "the Beaver" in awe. They recognized his astuteness about what readers wanted, and his own literary gifts. His many books included three brilliant ones about British politics in the First World War. He also hired other first-class writers, including Evelyn Waugh, who lampooned him in two of his… Read More
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