Wednesday, January 2, 2019


E pluribus unum
"Out of many, one" U.S. national motto, found on most U.S. currency

Hello Reader,
Got history?

Amusing idealism for assimilation: I once a read a letter by the founder of Boy Scouts, Lord Baden-Powell, referring to Northern Britain. A footnote explained that this was the term for Scotland, for some people, back then.

Amusing reverse assimilation: During elementary school in British Columbia everybody sang the Twelve Days of Christmas line: 
four collie birds, (three French hens)… from the Scottish word collie meaning black. 
(And we spelled Hallowe’en with an apostrophe, and we had a portrait of the queen in every classroom) 
Now we have assimilated the song into America: on the radio I hear “four calling birds” A collier, as you may know, is a ship or barge carrying coal. My dictionary says it also means a miner. Some folks say the original collie dogs were black.

As you know, the Americans don’t believe in hereditary titles: Sir John, a Canadian hero, was “of North America,” but not “an American.” Maybe you’ve heard of his equivalent, Alexander Hamilton. Here’s the opening song to the current stage musical, Hamilton:

How does a bastard, orphan, 
son of a whore and a Scotsman, 
dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence, 
impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Part of the American Dream was the concept of a national “melting pot” where you would feel shame at being “unAmerican,” a shame fuelling your motivation to be American, and you could even become, in the brave new world, something revolutionary, new, and exciting—a hero. Yes, don’t call Alexander Hamilton a “dirty traitor”—once the revolution succeeded, he became a Founding Father.

Canadians, perhaps as part of their heritage of colonialism, have never said “melting pot.” I remember my grade five teacher, Mr. Thompson, telling us about a father and son from merry old England, down in Washington State, being angrily just about thrown off the bus as they struggled to understand U.S. change for the fare box. Up in Canada, he told us, without a melting  pot, the pressure to fit in was not so intense.

“Hey buddy, got assimilation?” 
At the time of the U.S. revolution in 1776 there were better maps of New England than of the Scottish Highlands.—While earlier in that same century, the kilt and the bagpipes had been outlawed—By next century, by the time Canada had become a formal country, a “confederation” of provinces in 1867, the British maps were up-to-date. And then it was NOT an Englishman, but a Scotsman, Sir John A. MacDonald, who became Canada’s first prime minister. 

By the time Canada had its 100th birthday, in 1967, Scotland was vastly English speaking, as were vast reaches of Ireland. True story from my boyhood: An Irish shopkeeper asked two young schoolboys why they weren’t speaking Irish. The lads replied, “We thought that was only for in school.”

By the 20th century, in national times of strife, such as World War II, or the Falklands, the entire British Isles (except for the republic of Ireland) would instinctively act in unison, with the “Highland” units fighting as British units against tyranny.

In other words, as generations had passed, assimilation had succeeded. As with the coming of the industrial revolution, there had been groans, bruises and iniquity early on. In elementary school we had vinyl record players; sometimes there would be a still-picture film strip projected, we would advance a frame every time we heard a squeeze-horn beep. It was then that I heard Dirty Old Town, a song I would not hear again until the Pogues covered it, so many years later. 

We heard women and children, as historical characters, speaking about the horrors of the industrial revolution. And at the end an adult would tell the child that although there are dark times now, some day the industrial revolution would lead to a better, sunlit world…

You make a revolution by breaking bones, an omelette by breaking eggs, and assimilation by breaking hearts… Maybe there is no softer, easier way.

Comedian George Carlin, known for his cutting no-nonsense humour, was born and grew up in Little Ireland in New York City. Of course he was fond of his childhood “culture,” but, as he put it in his autobiography: I used to be Irish Catholic. Now I’m an American. You know—you GROW.

It was in 2014, three years before “Canada 150,” (national birthday) that I found myself in London England, reading newspapers, short days before folks in Scotland were having a Scottish-only referendum on national independence from Britain.  I wondered if it was to keep their sacred culture. (Maybe it was charming how they idealistically allowed children as young as age 16 to vote on this grave issue—maybe that was part of the Scottish culture. Maybe.)

I can imagine someone like Carlin joking about the letters to the editor posted from Scotland to London newspapers by people who were pro-independence. (I read them with interest) Carlin might ask: 
Did writers lament pre-teen kids not speaking Scottish in stores? 
Or teenage girls kneeling to play discs that weren’t of Scottish folk songs, but of the Fab Four from Liverpool? 
Or teenage boys preferring English blue jeans to kilts? 
No, no indeed. People told the editor about having scorn for “those rascals in Whitehall,” (parliament) and wanting a government closer to home. Carlin would sympathize with distrust of government. 

Sometimes, the ability to perceive tyranny is not always Common Sense: Hence the booklet of that name, by Tomas Paine, to convert colonists from hailing their leader to doing something new: making a revolution. It’s not always easy, but it is common sense to believe whatever your peers commonly believe, even when they agree to not knowing in advance whether assimilation will succeed or be worth the cost.  As they say with techno revolutions, industrial and digital, time will judge.

Canadians might not have been able to perceive their colonial legacy, not able to question their taken-for-granted belief in God and king and country and assimilation. Meanwhile, perhaps a few were frustrated that the rest of the English speaking world respected “American literature” and “English literature” but not Canadian literature. Such is colonialism. 

In Canada there was no revolution. If Canadians, on rare occasion, for their ancestors, use the term “Founding Fathers” one senses an embarrassment at applying this U. S. word to Canadians who are not in the same major league as the neighbouring Founders. Certainly in Canada the “Fathers of Confederation” never risked death by hanging as dirty traitors. In fact, the queen wanted the provincial colonies to assimilate with each other in 1867: “All the better to resist Yankee imperialism, my dear.” 

The United States civil war, remember, only ended in 1865, and it is a sad historical cliche that countries are sorely tempted to imperialize after victory. For example, North America only entered the history books after the Spanish forced out the last of the Moors in 1492. That’s when Queen Isabella did her thing.

A few hundred years after Isabella, a man, a mere mortal, a known heavy drinker, became Canada’s first ever prime minister: Sir John A. MacDonald. Call him the first Father of Confederation. About a century and a half later, in 2018, a statue of that man, outside the provincial parliament of British Columbia, would be deemed persona non grata. (person not pleasing) Removed. This action made the Canadian newspapers coast to coast. 

“Nations get the political leaders (and statues) they deserve.” (As my uncle said, when he dropped bombs on Berlin) 
Why is Sir John being reviled? Besides everything else, assimilation. He instigated Residential Schools, with infamous results. Children of various nations (tribes) were assimilated into the common language, true, but the effort was botched so badly …I will not take space here to explain, as right now experts are explaining better than I… so badly that first nation children would not even be taught to feel pride in their second nation. Not like, say, modern characters in Doctor Who, such as his medical student companion, who speaks proudly of “we British.”  

I think beliefs around assimilation have changed. Just as there has been, in my own lifetime, a change from citizenship requiring five years residency, voting age being 21, and capital punishment being legal and good. Now we believe in the right of homosexuals to exist, of children to be transexual, and, during my father’s lifetime, of women’s right to vote.

Since about the time Canadians wrote their own constitution, (I was already an adult) called a charter, there has been official belief NOT in assimilation of Indians but rather, that they will always be separate, in perpetuity, preferring to live and marry among their own kind, with membership officially based not on “race” but on bloodlines. This charter, when I was a young man, had led to a Canadian judge ruling that a person of aboriginal heritage can cross the international border out of loyalty to his tribal-nation, not Canada. 

As well, possibly to avoid a double standard for native and non-native, more probably to include Quebec, (There was a 1970’s government report on Bi-lingualism and Multi-culturalism) when I was still a boy, Canadians began believing in a “multicultural mosaic” in place of assimilation, something “better” than the U.S. melting pot. This meant separate cultural identities were OK provided, like pretty mosaic tiles in plaster, people were assimilated into a common bedrock of language and cultural identity. Times have sure changed: Our very latest prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has said that Canada does not have any common culture. To me he is a minority of one; I think future Canadians, and the next prime minister too, will not agree. Such is Canada. 

In the U.S., from what I’ve read, people have gone from confidently believing in a “melting pot” to less confidently believing in “pluralism.” Their shared plaster would be their constitution. And democracy, of course. And also—?… I will tell you what’s too hard to say with a straight face: “We believe in the values of the enlightenment.” I realize that such is Europe’s response to Islamic extremist asylum seekers, but over here that would be too nebulous for a regular person.

I suppose shared culture is like shared customs: As an anthropologist said, “Better illogical customs than no customs at all.”

I wonder what the next change will be, for the U.S. and Canada? “The pendulum swings as the pendulums do.”

Sean Crawford

Sidebar: While Canada has two official languages, English and French, it wasn't just the British who believed in assimilation. Today French is standard in France, but not until pressure: (from BBC-travel- The Language the French Forbade link)
Graham Robb, in his historical geography, The Discovery of Francenoted that despite three centuries of efforts to make standardised French the language of all of France, in 1863 in the south of the country more than half the population remained non-French speaking. In the Dordogne the numbers were even higher, where more than 90% of the population was still largely Occitan speaking.

But a little more than 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th Century, the central government launched an aggressive campaign to extinguish any language that was not the standardised French. Occitan was forbidden to be taught in schools, and any children who used their mother tongue were punished, a practice that infused deep shame in many people. Many older adults in the Dordogne still tell stories about being humiliated in school for speaking Occitan.

~I see I'm getting hits from Europe: I wrote Assimilation For Success, about Europe, archived December 2017, with a link(s) and footnote references to my related essays. Also see George Carlin and Diversity, archived October 2016.

~I wrote about Baden-Powell’s idealism and thrift in two essays archived in September 2018.

~The question for we of today, if being judgemental of John A. MacDonald, is binary: Did Sir John ignore the common sense of his peers, just like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today, to be a "minority of one," or are we of today ignorant of history?

~UPDATE: In the newspaper for Saturday Jan 5: The Manitoba Public Insurance agency, referring to the "truth and reconciliation"  (for residential schools) hearings, is considering disciplinary action against staff who initially approved a Star Trek fan's vanity license plate for his car (since revoked) His plate had a border "We are the Borg" and "Resistance is futile" The problem? The plate read ASIMIL8 ...  This news story documents that, regardless of what Sir John may have thought, Canadians no longer believe in assimilation for indigenous. .. although surely they used to, recently enough for the idea to now be hurtful. (Someday, time plus tragedy will equal comedy)

~Now that time has passed, my favorite act of assimilation was right after the civil war. I chuckle at Abraham Lincoln, on the White House lawn, ordering the band to play “the south’s” song, Dixie. To the horrified onlookers gasping, “Dixie?” Abe joked “It’s ours now, we captured it fairly” but what he meant was: There must be no divisions, the U.S. must now be assimilated, all together, for all time… In this effort, unlike certain countries where resentments linger like roadside plastic wrappers, the U.S. succeeded.

~As for pendulums, and a map of England, (link) here is a fun 1965 Roger Miller Youtube song, called England Swings.

~And here’s the Pogues singing Dirty Old Town.

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