Saturday, April 28, 2012

History in Harper's House

There are two important reasons, I feel, to have at least a basic familiarity with history. The first is the ability to avoid pitfalls by recognizing past mistakes and learning from them; the second, which doesn't come up quite so often but remains important, is being able to recognize when other people are trying to reinforce a bad argument with some claimed historical precedence. Whether it was through political calculation or sheer ignorance, the other day a reminder of the importance of that second reason was brought to the floor of the House of Commons, and from there to the country as a whole. As someone who actually holds a degree in history, it's something I care a bit about.

It started as an ordinary back and forth about Afghanistan, with NDP beard-in-chief Thomas Mulcair pressing the government about whether it had any intention to keep Canadian military forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the current projected end of the mission there - thirteen years after the initial invasion, and I thought the Soviets were in there for a long time! In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a calm, collected answer, justifying the faith Canadians have put in him and his majority govsnerk -- sorry, I couldn't keep that up. Here's what he actually answered Mulcair with.

"The leader of the NDP, in 1939," Harper said, "did not even want to support war against Hitler."

There's only one small problem with that, if you consider summoning Hitler's ghost for political points to not be a "problem" - the NDP, in 1939, did not exist. What did exist was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which would eventually disband and unify with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party, sure - but in 1961.

You may have heard about this via the deluge of #HarperHistory tweets that followed after news of this made its way out to the world. "The NDP refused to come to the aid of men when Mordor invaded Gondor... The NDP didn't support the creation of the Magna Carta... The NDP cut down the last tree on Easter Island." The #HarperHistory hashtag continues to trend in Vancouver twenty-four hours after I first encountered it, though it seems to have fallen off the radar in the rest of the country in favor of Justin Bieber getting his twenty-one-millionth follower - because news, yanno? It's not the first time the Conservatives' antics have launched a satiric hashtag to mock them - shades of #TellVicEverything from a couple months back - and there are certainly going to be more before the Cons are turfed from power, because it's essentially the only opportunity the people have to make their voices heard under a majority government.

The NDP wants to correct the grammar on this war memorial plaque. I mean, who uses "liveth" anymore? #HarperHistory

I'd hoped I wouldn't have to live under a government that summoned the ghost of Adolf Hitler for cheap political points. What is Harper trying to say here? That if Canada doesn't stay the course, a charismatic dictator will rise to power in Afghanistan and attempt to build the Fourth Reich through conquest and bloodshed? The fact of the matter is that J. S. Woodworth, the CCF leader in question, was a committed pacifist and thus essentially alone in the House of Commons in his opposition to Canada's entry into the Second World War.

The biggest problem here is that this criticism of the NDP through the actions of its predecessors is being done through a modern lens. The subconscious thought process is probably something like, "Hitler was an evil man. Hitler wanted to conquer the world and killed millions of Jews and was the greatest monster in history. What sort of person would not want to stand fast against him?" If the NDP had been retroactively criticizing Canada's participation in the Second World War, this line of attack may have had some foundation. But it wasn't.

To use present-day knowledge in our assessment of history is, essentially, cheating. If you wanted to be honest about Woodworth's motives, put yourself in his place in early September, 1939. It's twenty-one years after the end of one of the most devastating wars in history, a war that saw 67,000 Canadians die and another 150,000 wounded, a war that churned up countries and beggared nations and killed millions over muddy patches of a European quagmire. In 1939, Hitler's Final Solution had not even been agreed upon by the Nazi hierarchy - where the camps existed they were for the imprisonment of the Jewish population, not their annihilation - and while there were severely anti-Semitic laws in Germany, Canada was not particularly fond of Jewish people either; witness the voyage of the MS St. Louis and its nine hundred and seventy-three Jewish refugees, which Canada refused to allow sail into Halifax, or the sort of cultural antisemitism that gave rise to people like Adrien Arcand and reinforced restrictions on Jewish immigration.

In 1939, to Canadian eyes - particularly a pacifist Canadian's eyes - what was Hitler? Just another manifestation of German militarism and expansionism, a latter-day Kaiser Wilhelm II or Otto von Bismarck, who would no doubt grind Europe back into the dirt it had spent two decades getting out of. Until Hitler's attack on Poland, when the last line had been crossed and alliances brought the United Kingdom and France into the war, Canada had no dog in the fight. At the time it was an ordinary war; it wasn't until the 1940s that evidence of what the genocide being engineered by the Nazis filtered back to the Allies.

This trap is an easy one to fall into, that of criticizing historical figures for actions they took based on information they did not have, but dammit I expect better of our government than this. It's the fact that this majority government evidences its lack of understanding or respect for history, or for that matter Godwin's Law, that particularly irritates me.

Look on the bright side, though - back in 1917, it was the Conservative government of Robert Borden that brought in the income tax as a "temporary measure" to pay for the war. If the NDP can be attacked for the actions of its forebears, the Conservatives can certainly be attacked for their own.

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