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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.

Tribal fantasies and the terror of individual uniqueness

When I was about nine years old, an old Scottish lady I knew told me, only half in jest, that “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who are Scots, and those who are not.” I later asked my mother, a model of sceptical common sense, what she thought of this pronouncement, and she responded, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who do not.” This exchange launched a lifelong fascination with the way people make generalizations and use collective groupings. I observed, for example, a tendency among many people to attribute qualities to other individuals or groups that revealed more about themselves than about those they were attempting to describe. I later also concluded that academic studies in history, philosophy, and literature are not so much beneficial for the specific knowledge that they imperfectly impart, but can, if well-taught, at least partially free us from the array of prejudices with which we enter adult existence. Conversely, what I think is wrong with many college and university courses today is that they instead reinforce bad received ideas, often refined to new levels of self-deception and social confusion. A fine demonstration of this latter is offered by Matt Labash, in an article, 'Among the Palefaces', in the current Weekly Standard Magazine. It is a spoof, but the laughter has an echo that is grim. He begins:   'As a lifelong white person – or Person without Color, for the more sensitively inclined – I have nothing against white people. I mean...I'm all too aware of the dubious and disheartening white-people statistics. Nearly all Prius owners, Vineyard Vines wearers, and girls named 'Addison' are white. Almost 8 out of 10 Canadians are white.… Read More

My life as a Flea

It has been a quarter of a century since the Quebec 1989 election, held on September 25 of that year. As usual, it carried lots of theatrical freight. Robert Bourassa's Liberals won, taking almost two-thirds of Legislature seats. Brian Mulroney`s 1987 Meech Lake Constitutional Accord, strongly supported by Bourassa, required unanimous provincial consent to be ratified by June of 1990, and was already in serious trouble in Manitoba and Newfoundland; it had also been savagely attacked by Pierre Trudeau, retired but still influential. However, almost a year was still available before the clock ran out, and this produced much sound and fury, both in the nine months of its death agonies and in the five years that followed. The election was also memorable for me personally, as I was one of four anglo protest Equality Party Members elected to the Legislature, led by the young architect, Robert Libman. Mainly because Robert is now hoping to win the federal Mount Royal seat for the Conservatives, the 1989 revolt he led has drawn some media attention. Robert himself contributed a Gazette op-ed to mark the anniversary, and he was interviewed by CTV and CJAD. So was I... I could do little more than restate the obvious: we came, we saw, we did not conquer. Both of us could boast a few real accomplishments in defending individual rights and anglo interests; not negligible, but not profound. Both the Bourassa Liberals and the Parizeau-led PQ, like rival warship fleets, were somewhat stunned by the arrival of our little unexpected gunboat, Our greatest impact was on the election day itself, a loud shot across their bows, and a sort of plebiscite from the anglo community, enraged by Bourassa's constant concessions to nationalist sentiment, and above all by his rejection of the December 1988 Canadian Supreme… Read More

A Lion in Winter

Quebec political debate was enlivened at the end of August by yet another TVA television interview with Lucien Bouchard. For a man who has been declaring his resolve for many years not to be a “belle-mère” nuisance, he has certainly displayed a frequent flair for dropping large bricks on the toes of the PQ, both its political leaders and its notorious membership, who can less be described as rank-and-file than as a fractious assemblage of the permanently discontented. Both the PQ grand fromages and the roaring multitude began loathing him from the time he set about being an effective Premier of a badly-divided Quebec, and he has by now come to fully reciprocate their dislike. Each time he has bobbed up over the last decade, the reporting English-language media have largely concentrated on recapitulating the story of this bitter division, also frequently assuming that it can be explained by his own mercurial temperament, and chequered history of multiple past party associations. But this has been somewhat unfair, as has the accusation, more often seen in the francophone media, that his career has only been that of an 'opportunist', this latter cry made more loudly since he became a legal adviser and advocate for the oil and gas interests hoping to overcome the strong environmentalist resistance to 'fracking' development in Quebec. He admits that he has found these attacks painful. He has portrayed his two most controversial and surprising changes as forced upon him, encounters of principle with circumstance. In this, he is not so different from his former friend Brian Mulroney explaining himself in his memoirs, and neither of them is entirely convincing, although both have some good arguments. His explosive departure from Mulroney's Conservative Government in May of 1990 enraged Mulroney enough when Bouchard, then Québec lieutenant and Minister… Read More

Dream Factories

In the 1964 summer of the Presidential election contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, a surprising event happened in a California race for the U. S. Senate. Pierre Salinger, the former Press Secretary of the recently-assassinated John Kennedy, was defeated by the Republican candidate, George Murphy. Murphy was until then known as a Broadway song-and-dance man who had starred in a few Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. His film career fading by the 1950s, he had switched to working for the business side of the industry, and had become active in California Republican politics. Campaigning for the Senate, he had drawn most attention, in a debate about a 'Bracero' Program', which brought in temporary Mexican labourers, mainly for crop-picking. Maintaining that Mexicans were genetically fitted for this work, as they were 'built closer to the ground', and found it 'easier to stoop'. What really brought him lasting attention, however, was that he was the butt of 'George Murphy', one of the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer. Lehrer was an Ivy League mathematics professor who composed and sang savage ditties, accompanying himself at the piano, and adding a running patter. LP records of the songs were at the height of their popularity in the early 1960s, especially on university campuses. 'George 'Murphy' offered mock enthusiasm: 'Oh, gee it's great! /At last we've got a Senator who can really sing and dance'./We can't expect America to win against its foes/ With no one in the Senate who can really tap his toes./ He skewered the comments about the Mexicans: 'Should Americans pick crops? George says, “No”,/ 'Cause no one but a Mexican would stoop so low.”' Lehrer also slipped in a brief jibe about Ronald Reagan, who was then well into his own more significant political career, becoming Governor… Read More

Splendid unoriginal amateurism

Over 30,000 books have been written about the First World War, with a new flood now arriving to mark the War's centenary. A shortlist of the most acclaimed ones would still number in the hundreds. Niall Ferguson launched his popular reputation with The Pity of War (1999). John Keegan reinforced his more modest fame less adventurously with The First World War (1998). Many of these books have been reworked doctoral theses, hence requiring demonstrations of 'originality', and academic publishers have often demanded this even from established scholars. In the 1960s, the German historian Friz Fischer caused some agonizing in his own country by documenting a case that the War had been above all the deliberate creation of elite groups in Hohenzollern Germany, their hegemonic ambitions being even larger than those of Hitler. Later scholarship punched some holes in his thesis. Ferguson, who had learned from A. J. P. Taylor how much impact can be gained from a highly provocative thesis, applied 'counterfactual' speculation, arguing that Britain might not have entered the War in August 1914, leading to a relatively quick German victory, and a world left much better off in consequence. David Stevenson got admiring reviews for his 1914-1918 in 2005; other still newer histories have come from Christopher Clark and the prolific military historian Max Hastings. The most common substantial change in almost all of the more recent accounts has been greater attention to the experience of ordinary soldiers and homefront civilians. But from the 1960s to the present, the larger anglosphere reading public has preferred one historian of the War above all others, the American Barbara Tuchman, and now seems to have found a similar successor in the Canadian, Margaret MacMillan. Tuchman's The Guns of August (1962) is probably the largest single combined critical and popular success of… Read More
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