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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.

The Prodigal Daughter and Her Predecessors

The Weekly Standard, an American conservative periodical, has a contributing editor named Jonathan Last. His favourite topic is demography; he has written a book on What To Expect When No One Is Expecting. However, he ranges over many topics and likes to cite a Christian conservative writer, Ted Dreher, whose own most recent book is about Dante's Divine Comedy. Last and Dreher have both recently discovered and praised a long essay, Everything is Problematic published anonymously last November in, of all places, The McGill Daily. It is the cri de coeur of a young gay female, about to graduate from McGill, about her gradual disillusionment with radical identity politics. She begins with her first high school gay liberation protests in an unfriendly small town, goes on to describe her following three years at McGill of ardent absorption in a battery of noisy and sometimes violent groups, and concludes with her eventual despairing departure from the lot. She insists that she remains fond of the other young people she met through these adventures; also that she remains a 'social democrat', favouring a guaranteed annual wage. But she also completely rejects Marxism-Leninism and anarchism, and also concludes that the extremist politics she once endorsed had 'taken a dark path'. She has ended her career as a shouting protester, sign-bearing marcher, classroom occupier, and even physical battler with security guards and police, coming to realize that they had brought her into 'the darkest period of [her] life'. She now saw four radical follies as highly damaging to her own life and those of others: dogmatism, fanatically rejecting all individuals not holding 'correct' positions; groupthink, incubating irrational extremism; a 'crusader' mentality, taking the supposed urgent necessity of helping the oppressed as justifying all kinds of foolishness; and 'anti-intellectualism'. On this last, she does not… Read More

Iroquois ghosts and the shades of Montreal past

Standard Life did not join the Montreal head office exodus of 1975-85. But then, it was not a true head office, 100% owned by a parent firm in Scotland. The real Montreal head office insurers joined the financial industry flight to Toronto. By the 1990s, the one Canadian giant insurer located here was an arm of Power Corporation. Meanwhile, as Toronto became the new Canadian business and financial centre, Dominique d'Alessandro was turning the once-sleepy Manufacturers' Life into Manulife, a new Canadian giant, with over half a trillion dollars in assets, over double the size of post-Montreal Sun Life, and about ten times the size of Standard Life. At the start of this year, Manulife bought out Standard for $4 billion. At the same time, the now combined entity proposed a big new Montreal project, a 27-storey office tower, reserving eleven floors for their Quebec staff. It would be raised on a vacant lot between Metcalfe and Mansfield streets as '900 deMaisonneuve Ouest'. The financing is by the real estate arm of the Caisse de Dépot, known as Ivanhoé Cambridge. Ivanhoé, with the accent aigu, was a 'francized' proper noun coined about 1990, but the improving hand of the Caisse was not applied to the later-absorbed 'Cambridge'. At the moment, the project has been stalled. Robert Galbraith, a freelance photographer, discovered that workers on the site were finding some ancient Iroquois relics, which he thought might be of the original Hochelaga settlement once reported by Jacques Cartier. Galbraith sounded his alarm to both the Caisse and the provincial culture ministry. However, while the relics may be part of the two-acre archaeological site studied by McGill Principal William Dawson in the 19th century, it is unlikely to be Cartier's Hochelaga, that had surprisingly vanished when he returned on a later voyage.… Read More

American Sniper – Bridging the real and the imaginary

Martha Nussbaum is an eminent scholar of classical literature and philosophy. Her fame extends beyond academia; she has influenced discussions of public educational policy, and more general current cultural attitudes. For over two decades, she has weighed in on public disputes about feminism, abortion law, and affirmative action. She frequently draws on her own re-interpretation of classical texts while acting as an advocate of contemporary liberalism. Her own views exemplify 'the personal as the political': she acknowledges that she reacted strongly against the outlook of her father, a wealthy Southerner and a highly racist WASP, who strongly disapproved of her marriage to a Jew and conversion to Judaism. She has ardently defended religious toleration, especially for Muslims in modern America. She has also championed liberal education, again drawing on her views of the wisdom of the Greeks. From them, she admires above all the invention of cosmopolitanism, most associated with the Athenian cynic, Diogenes. Her most celebrated and debated essay, Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism, held that public education worldwide should actively encourage "allegiance to the community of human beings in the entire world". It was published in a book, For Love of Country? (Beacon, 2002), with fifteen responding essays, polite but critical, including one by McGill's Charles Taylor. The contributors, with the single exception of Gertrude Himmelfarb, were all liberal or leftish academics, and were nearly all in respectful disagreement. They defended, if rather uneasily, a `reasonable patriotism`, to be distinguished – as they thought Nussbaum failed to do - from ethnocentricity and chauvinism. Clint Eastwood is by now a cultural phenomenon in his own right, of a very different kind from both Nussbaum and most of her polite critics. Clint Eastwood is by now a cultural phenomenon in his own right, of a very different kind from both Nussbaum and… Read More

Alan Turing & the triumphs of British wartime science

The current wave of public interest in Alan Turing and the code-breakers of Bletchley Hall, caused by the film, The Imitation Game, revives for me an ancient sorrow, a memory of how history is written and re-written. In early 1973, I was just about to leave England after two years of Ph.D. research on the British scientific elite in World War II. I had read all available government and private papers, all the relevant published memoirs and monographs that had already appeared, and interviewed a dozen surviving scientists. I had used up my fellowship money, and was leaving with my wife and children for a cegep teaching job in Montreal. But then, an elderly wartime intelligence officer published The Ultra Secret, the first book revealing the code-breaking done at Bletchley Hall. It would be followed over the next decade by more scholarly accounts, culminating in the fine 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma. It would later be followed by several TV documentaries, novels, and stage plays. But Turing's wartime achievements were as astonishing news to me in 1973 as they still are being to younger moviegoers now. I knew a great deal about the Cambridge environment that formed Turing and his scientific contemporaries, and knew his name as a computer pioneer. But I had not learned of the very existence of Bletchley Hall in all the months I had spent reading and talking to nuclear physicists, radar designers, and operational researchers. Most of them, I realized, had known as little of it as I did. While I was one of many aspiring historians taking advantage of a recent British government decision to open previously secret World War II files, I knew this access had not been completely open. In particular, I had found that files on chemical… Read More

Social Tedium – A Christmas Carol

[Sing to the air 'The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring', with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan.]     From Apple new wonders still spring, tra-la, replacing last year's as old hat; We grapple again with their bling, tra-la, though feeling like brains in a vat; Yes, feeling like brains in a vat. Which leads us at times to gloomily wonder if what Jobs hath wrought was a terrible blunder.   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   The friends found on Facebook we ring, tra-la, are not souls we really divine; But to them we're bound and we bring, tra-la, our i-phones along as we dine, Yes, our i-phones along as we dine. We're ready all times to answer their call, but unfriend some friends for no reason at all;   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra--la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   We Twitter our Tweets without cease, tra-la, and so all our memories drown; And litter the streets with the grease, tra-la, of accidents caused by eyes down. Yes, of accidents caused by eyes down. A Tweet may look sweet, but the aftertaste's bitter; best lift up our eyes and miss the odd Twitter;   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra--la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   Now Instagrams offer more news, tra-la, and viral new hashtags galore; Busy webcams take numerous views, tra-la, of cuddly cat gags by the score; Yes, of cuddly cat gags by the score. A banquet of sights in the palm of our hand, from models in tights to the latest boy band;   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra--la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   The selfie's becoming a drug, tra-la, now rivalling pot and cocaine; Smug and snug as a bug in a rug, tra-la, we've found a new way to be vain. Yes, found a new way to be vain. We're still bound to guess that the rage for the selfie may… Read More
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