History Slam Episode Eighty-Three: Disaster Citizenship

By Sean Graham

Disaster CitizenshipIn June 1914, the town of Salem, Massachusetts was the site of a massive fire that destroyed over 1,300 buildings. Three and a half years later in Halifax, a fire aboard the SS Mont-Blanc caused an explosion that killed approximately 2,000 people and injured 9,000 others. These two events may seem completely separate in both time and location, but comparing the responses to the disasters sheds an interesting light on the nature of relief efforts and the connections between people living in the United States and Canada.

In the case of Salem, which was home to a sizable francophone community, there wasn’t much coverage of the fire in Quebec. The Halifax explosion, on the other hand, received plenty of attention in Boston, where residents had significant ties to Nova Scotia. The way in which each disaster was met, both locally and abroad, presents not only a unique opportunity for transnational history, but also serves as a fascinating comparison of how citizens respond to disasters.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jacob Remes about his new book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. We talk about doing trans-national research, North America diaspora, and responses to disasters.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Two: Historically Inspired Baby Names

By Sean Graham

hello-my-name-isI am not a parent. Nor am I close to becoming a parent. That being said, one of the things that strikes me as a major challenge of early parenthood – perhaps the first challenge after a child is born – is picking a name. The challenges of finding the right name has long been a sitcom staple. And while it may seem easy to pick a name that doesn’t rhyme with a female body part, I would be overwhelmed by the options available. I can stand in the cereal aisle for 20 minutes trying to decide what to get, so the prospect of picking a name seems really intimidating.

Yet, every day people are able to name their kids. Over the past five years, I’ve had a bunch of friends who have gone through the process of naming their newborn children. The consensus seems to be that naming is easier than it seems from the outside – that while there can be and often is lots of discussion beforehand, the right name tends to be clear when the time comes.

The reasons for picking a name can vary greatly, from liking the one a name sounds to honouring a departed family member to concluding that a newborn ‘looks’ like a certain name. Less common, however, is naming your kids after prominent historical figures. While it does happen on occasion, it can be challenging to find a name that is both inspired by someone from history and also fits in the 21st century. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-One: The Bank War

Yesterday, Jonathan McQuarrie wrote about the smash Broadway show Hamilton. Even before the show, when most people thought about the establishment of the financial system in the United States, Hamilton was likely the first person to come to mind. President Andrew Jackson, probably wasn’t top of mind, while Nicolas Biddle remains a largely unknown figure. That’s why Paul Kahan’s new book The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicolas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance is so interesting.

The book traces the battle between Jackson and Biddle through the 1830s as the President tried to dismantle the national bank while Biddle fought to preserve the institution. Ultimately, Jackson prevailed, a result that had major implications for the American economy through the 19th century.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Paul Kahan about the book. We talk about the challenges of writing popular history, the history of America’s financial structure, and the role of personalities in early American history.

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History Slam Episode Eighty: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter

By Sean Graham

Yamin“Before I had my two children, I had a miscarriage.” This is how Alicia Yamin starts her new book Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter. By introducing the book in such a personal manner, Yamin, the Policy Director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, prepares the reader for what is to follow. In interweaving personal stories, Yamin demonstrates how health should be situated as a human right and, in doing so, represents a major turning point in the struggle for dignity.

The great challenge in studying broad concepts in matters with very real world ramifications is that the writing can feel distant and cold. To alleviate this concern, Yamin incorporates case studies from her vast experience working in the field. By humanizing these seemingly abstract issues, Yamin is not only able to hook the reader but also establishes a narrative voice that guides the reader through the book.

At its best, Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity attacks the preconceptions and assumptions that have inhibited the implementation of a human rights framework for health. For instance, in the introduction Yamin cites the too-often-used phrase “there but the grace of God go I” in discussing a general apathy towards the issues on the part of those in privileged positions. By casting the inequalities in health and healthcare to divine providence, the real-world human decisions that have fostered and expanded inequality are easily dismissed or ignored. As a result, too many people unnecessarily suffer from indignity without intervention.

These inequalities are often the result of discrimination based on race, gender, and poverty – issues that are beyond the control of those that don’t  have access to health. Many of Yamin’s examples are related to maternal health and mortality. From the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse perpetrated by the men in her life to losing multiple children to AIDS and malnourishment, Yamin outlines how one particular woman had been denied agency throughout her life for no other reason than she lived in an impoverished region. The decisions that led to that poverty were well beyond her control – often made on the other side of the world – and yet we too often believe the myth that we all reap what we sow.

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History Slam Episode Seventy-Nine: Open Access

By Sean Graham

Open AccessThere are certain universal experiences that go along with being involved in academics, one of which is explaining the publishing model of academic journals. This is particularly difficult for grad students, who, upon their first publication, are confronted by family members wondering how much they got paid. It’s a well meaning question, but it’s a bit of a downer to have to explain how academic publishing works and that, as today’s guest aptly puts it, it’s a gift culture. The work is done in the pursuit of knowledge with the primary goal not being monetary gain, but rather having the information available for public consumption.

Recently, that final point has increasingly been scrutinized by the Open Access movement, which is explored by Peter Suber in this openly accessible book. More and more scholars are moving away from journals with paid subscriptions in favour of open access publications. Sometimes that’s not possible, however, which is why some institutions are requiring their faculty to put copies of their publications in open access repositories in their libraries.

At Harvard University the push towards open access has been led by the Office for Scholarly Communication, which has been able to get each school to agree to participate in its open access repository. Through Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH), publications by Harvard faculty are freely available to anyone. The site has been quite successful since its launch, recently surpassing 7 million downloads. They also maintain an Open Access Directory, which includes listings of open access materials and different funding models for open access journals.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Eight: Disaster Drawn

By Sean Graham

Disaster DrawnAs anyone who has ever done archival research knows, there are moments where things can get incredibly dull. To get over this, we all try to find little things that keep us going. When I was in the midst of reading every issue of the Moose Jaw Times between 1931 and 1934, for example, I very much enjoyed following the daily exploits of Little Orphan Annie. Most days nothing noteworthy happened – in fact, some strips were simply announcing that she was changing locations – but it all worked together as a serial and, every couple weeks, something exciting happened that made you glad you had followed the story all the way through. When compared to today, where people binge television programs, the long-term connection and slow unfolding of story lines over the course of weeks and months seems to have been lost.

One place where binge consumption isn’t as prominent, however, is comics. Just as it took Annie a couple weeks to resolve a problem, comic strips today still evolve at a slower pace than other forms of entertainment. There are plenty of daily comic strips that still operate as a serial, serialized comic books release a new issue every few months, and even graphic novels, while not always serialized, have a tendency to allow stories to unfold at a slower pace.

Because of this, comics have distinguished themselves as a form of popular culture. Through their unique ability to tell stories, they have often been able to illicit strong emotional reactions from readers. And while there are plenty of examples of comics being subversive, they have not received the same attention from censors or law makers as film, television, and music, meaning that through the twentieth century they were able to operate in a less regulated environment and regularly presented narratives that may not have made it into mainstream popular culture. This is particularly true of depictions of war, which is the subject of Hillary Chute’s new book Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Seven: Prime Minister’s Row

By Sean Graham

Laurier Ave E in Ottawa

Google Map of Laurier Ave E in Ottawa

Before I moved to Ottawa, my only experience with the city was a brief research trip, during which I heard about the nation’s capital radius rule. The rule holds that if you’re standing on Parliament Hill you can walk 15 blocks in any direction and still feel like you are in a national capital. That radius includes the Supreme Court, Library and Archives Canada, several museums, a variety of embassies, high commissions, and consulates, and the core of the city’s ‘business district.’ Once you wander outside that radius, however, Ottawa feels like any other town in this country, with its mix of suburban housing, strange traffic patterns, and chain restaurants.

When I first got to Ottawa in 2009, I lived inside that radius and rarely left – mostly because every time I ventured further afield, I was reminded that the radius was a pretty accurate description. More recently, however, the city has undergone a bit of a revitalization that, in my opinion, has either expanded the radius or made it an obsolete concept. The completion of Lansdowne Park, the construction of light rail, and the redevelopment of Lebreton Flatts are a couple examples of Ottawa’s newly found penchant for growth. There is work to be done, of course, as Tim Harper in the Toronto Star recently asked “Why is our Nation’s Capital so drab?

In addition to the major projects spearheaded by the municipal government, there are plenty of grassroots groups working on improving the city’s cultural reputation. One of these is Prime Minister’s Row, a group which is conducting research on the many historical figures that lived on Laurier Avenue East in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood. Their goal is to take advantage of the city’s built heritage to create Ottawa’s first street museum. By including both cultural and political figures in their research, the group hopes to attract a diverse audience to a part of the city that isn’t on the radar of many tourists.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Six: Continental Cup of Curling

By Sean Graham

20160115_001610This past weekend at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, curlers from around the world competed in the Continental Cup. Four Canadian teams and two American teams made up Team North America while Team World consisted of teams representing Norway, Sweden, China, Japan, Switzerland, and Scotland. In one of the most exciting finishes in the event’s history, Team North America won, clinching the victory during the final end of the final game.

Last year, we did an episode on curling in Canada and how the sport has achieved its status as part of Canadian society and culture. In this episode of the History Slam, we follow up on that episode by exploring curling’s international presence and some of the key issues facing the sport. To do so, I traveled to Las Vegas and had the opportunity to talk to some of the players about representing their countries, the addition of mixed doubles to the Olympics, and the regulation of new technology and sweeping methods.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Five: Paper Cadavers

By Sean Graham

Paper CadaversBetween 1960 and 1996, the Guatemalan Civil War pitted the government against leftist rebel groups. Both during and after the war, there were accusations that government forces committed human rights violations against civilians. The government denied these allegations and claimed that there was no documentation to substantiate any of the claims. That was until a cache of documents from the National Police was found in an abandoned headquarters in 2005. That launched a massive effort to preserve and archive the documents. Despite official efforts to destroy the material and threats of physical violence, a group of volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure that it was possible to figure out what happened during the war.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Kirsten Weld of Harvard University about her book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatamala. We chat about the uncovering of the archives, the process of reclaiming the material, and the contested nature of building memory.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Four: SHARIAsource

By Sean Graham

On November 16, parts of Harvard University were closed for a few hours following a bomb threat. Access to Harvard Yard was restricted while police searched several buildings. It was an interesting experience – the helicopter circling above was certainly unique – particularly in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris. Despite the fact that, at the time, there was no information about who made the threat or why, message boards were full of epithets referring to this being the product of a Muslim plot. (I don’t know why I still read the occasional message board)

Occurrences of Islamophobia have been well documented recently, with one of the prime claims being that Muslims want to impose Sharia Law in North America. Sean Hannity, for one, is obsessed with Sharia Law. What you find, though, is that a lot of these claims are inaccurate, based on extreme examples, or oversimplified. While this is partly the result of the sound bite media environment, it also speaks to the challenge of finding thorough, well rounded, and accessible English language material on Sharia.

To help counter this, the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School is launching SHARIAsource, a new website devoted to providing accurate and accessible information about Sharia Law. In working with scholars and practitioners around the world, the editors are hoping to provide a space to provide information, engage in debate, and serve as an outlet for primary sources.
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