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Category: History Page 1 of 3

The March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Title: March, vols 1-3
Authors: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Illustrator: Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5 (the entire set)
How I got a copy: I purchased the slipcase set from Indigo

Today is John Lewis’s birthday. Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

There’s a perverse symmetry in that — that two leading figures of Civil Rights and African American liberation should have their lives bookended by this date.

John Lewis is still alive. Of the prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, he’s the only one left. He shook hands with JFK. He was colleagues with Martin Luther King Jr. He helped lead the march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. He’s been arrested, beaten, spat on, and denied vindications and liberties more times than I can count. He’s represented his congressional district in Georgia for 30 years. By any meaningful sense of the term, John Lewis is a living legend.

Which means that it’s a damn shame that I, as a Canadian, only recently heard about him in great detail when, last month, he announced that he would refuse to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration.

As a result, his books flew off the shelves. I followed suit and ordered a copy of his March trilogy, a series of graphic novels about his life. I spent the whole past weekend reading them, and only just finished them this evening.

The March trilogy details the life of John Lewis from his childhood on a sharecropping farm in Alabama through to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and 60s. He was an instrumental member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a child, he was committed to his schoolwork and his religious study, but also aware of the hypocrasies of the segregated school system in which he was taught.

When Martin Luther King Jr first came to his attention in 1955, he immediately saw the value of King’s form of social gospel, and learned more about non-violent activist techniques. He was an architect of them in his own right, helping to coordinate lunch counter sit-ins. As time progressed, his work with the SNCC led to him being considered one of the chief movers of the Civil Rights movement.

The March trilogy shuttles back and forth between Lewis’s memories of the past as an activist and the present day – said present day being January 20th, 2009, the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The series ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

In light of the struggles and violence that Civil Rights protesters faced, the fact that the US elected Barack Obama is a signal achievement. It’s amazing to think that it took just over 40 years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act for such a thing to occur, after years — centuries — of disenfranchisement.

When Obama started office in 2009, the Voting Rights Act still ensured that marginalized communities across the country had the right to vote. However, in 2013, key provisions of the act were struck down by the Supreme Court. Voting restrictions have popped up like mushrooms in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

As someone viewing all this from the outside — as someone who knew only the barest outlines of the Civil Rights movement — the brutality that Civil Rights protesters met with as they struggled to gain the unfettered ability to vote is astonishing. But it’s disheartening to realize that we haven’t really improved that much in the interim, despite advances in legislative protections.

We still need to be reminded daily that black lives matter, even though this should be a given in our society. Black people still face an increased risk of incarceration or death at the hand of police departments. Looking at how much further we have yet to go, despite the lifelong efforts of Lewis and his political descendants, it’s a shame to see how quickly such changes have been rolled back after it took years of monumental, bloody effort to ensure they ocurred in the first place.

It’s a privilege to be able to hold this set of books, a privilege that the lessons within are being presented to a new (perhaps more complacent?) generation in a format that is both compelling and easy to absorb. On a personal level, I found it really interesting to see the nitty, day-to-day work involved in organizing a protest, the calculation and strategy involved in doing test efforts to determine what actions would have the most impact. The March trilogy is essential as both a historical primer and as an introduction to the art of successful resistance.

The cover to the book "Tragedy in the Commons"

Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan

The cover to the book "Tragedy in the Commons"Title: Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy
Authors: Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan
Publisher: Random House Canada
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library (but this is worth owning)

A few weeks ago, fantasy writer Mishell Baker came to Canada on a birthday trip. Like many speculative-fiction-adjacent people in Toronto and Ottawa who knew about her visit, I looked forward to meeting her and giving her a taste of Canadian hospitality.

My particular brand of said hospitality involved showing her the Toronto Reference Library. It also involved bombarding her with information about Canada’s parliamentary system and how it differs from the presidential system set up in the US.

Once I finished my educational blitz, I realized with a bit of pride that I actually knew quite a bit about Canada’s political system. But I also recognized later on that given the challenges the world is facing right now, “quite a bit” isn’t the same as “enough.”

Well, if you want to understand Canadian politics, who better to ask than Members of Parliament? And if you want the gritty, painful details that current politicians won’t tell you, who better to ask than former Members of Parliament?

That’s the idea behind Tragedy in the Commons. In 2011, Samara Canada, a civil society non-profit focused on increasing democratic engagement in Canada, interviewed dozens of MPs who had either retired or been voted out of office. What they have to say about how Canada’s federal government works, for good or ill, is extremely eye-opening.

A number of issues cropped up repeatedly during these exit interviews. Some aren’t that surprising, like the idea that most of these former MPs entered politics with reluctance. Our culture values power while simultaneously shaming people for openly wanting it; many politicians reconcile this problem by claiming that they had to be dragged into politics against their will.

Other issues are more unexpected, like the fact that many MPs “freelance” by choosing a political topic to turn into their niche, like prisons, employment insurance, or railway safety. On its face, such a development makes sense, but it also leads to politicians being territorial when others show an interest in “their” turf.

However, what I found most startling — and depressing — about the anecdotes collected in Tragedy in the Commons was that when these MPs entered office, they were given little support to do their job effectively. In fact, in many cases it felt like party politics actively conspired to keep them from exerting any real power. (Ok, maybe it’s not that surprising, but seeing how petty the party leaders seem to be is somewhat dispiriting.)

For example, here are some things I didn’t know until now:

  • When MPs enter office, they get little on-the-job training. No one is there to “onboard” them with lessons about parliamentary procedures or advice on hiring staff and setting up a constituency office.
  • There is no official job description for an MP. Some throw themselves into constituency work, while others deal more with policy, but the result is that there are no agreed-upon metrics for evaluating an MP’s performance.
  • MPs have almost no choice about what committees they are assigned to, and party leaders do not take an MP’s prior expertise into account when filling committee spots. For example, the late MP Andy Scott had plenty of experience in literacy and skills training, but he was initially assigned to a health committee rather than one for human resources.

I know that we should be wary of treating government bureaucracy like a business, but this lack of accountability surrounding how MPs do their job sounds ridiculous. It’s a waste of human potential.

So Canadian politics is dysfunctional. What’s surprising about that?

Well, nothing. But isn’t our apathy the problem? Democracy crumbles when citizens feel disenfranchised. Look at what’s happening in the US. If the stories in Tragedy in the Commons make us indignant, shouldn’t we take advantage of this indignation and actually use it to make government better?

Of course. These stories have value.

The value of Tragedy in the Commons lies not only in the anecdotes related by these former MPs but also in the context the book provides on how Canada differs from other parliamentary democracies. For instance, Canada appears to be the only one where party leaders are chosen by party members (ie: regular citizens who pay membership dues out of pocket) rather than Members of Parliament. Paradoxically, the fact that a party leader isn’t chosen by their fellow politicians gives them more power because it makes them harder to depose.

This in particular was one of the big puzzle pieces that the book put into place for me. When Stephen Harper was PM, I heard so many anecdotes about how he had centralized more political power in the Prime Minister’s Office than nearly any PM before him. Tragedy in the Commons is valuable in that it actually defines what such centralization within party leadership has entailed, such as greater control over caucuses and the ability to sign party candidate nomination papers.

Put plainly, the way Canada’s political structure is set up, the Prime Minister has an awful lot of power. While Harper had autocratic tendencies, he doesn’t hold a candle to what Trump is doing. Which means that unless we implement more checks and balances in Canada’s political system, we’re pretty screwed in the event that we elect a Trump-like demagogue to power.

Based on what I’ve read of the MPs in Tragedy in the Commons, I hope we’re up to the task. Canadian politicians interviewed in the book stated a deep distaste for political theatre, and a willingness to work together and focus on policy. It’s up to us as citizens to hold current occupants of the House of Commons accountable to these problems and give them support when they attempt to resist party machinations.

The cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Gregory Hays

The cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory HaysTitle: Meditations
Author: Marcus Aurelius
Translator: Gregory Hays
Publisher: Random House, Modern Library Classics
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got a copy: I purchased it from Kobo

I need to admit something: the books I’ve been reading so far are not for pleasure. I’m not hoping to enjoy them and escape from the world for a bit.

I’m using them as armour and weapons.

Staying strong and being hopeful while fighting for change is a form of armour. Understanding history and trying to find patterns behind past political movements in order to know what to expect is a weapon.

So is learning equanimity and steadiness, the art of how not to let change throw you off-balance. And that’s why I just read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

The circumstances surrounding how the Meditations became public knowledge are happenstance. Marcus Aurelius originally wrote these notes as a form of solace and guidance while wearing the heavy mantle of Roman emperor; during his military campaigns and time at court, he wrote down his thoughts so that he could keep Stoic philosophy front and centre in his mind. They were not intended for public consumption, and the repetitive, disjointed nature of the passages within the book are ample proof.

How his writing reached the wider world is a mystery. But when it re-entered the historical record in the 10th century and was published more widely in the 16th century, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius became a seminal text for many political leaders due to its focus on living a life guided by self-restraint, justice, austerity and detachment.

I went with the Gregory Hays translation because some basic research online revealed it was one of the most readable and highly regarded versions. Looking back, I have to say it was an excellent choice.

I should note first off that the Hays version has an extensive introduction placing Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in context, with commentary on his childhood, education, and ascension to the throne, as well as on central concepts of Stoic thought. The introduction is probably about half as long as Meditations itself.

Throughout reading the book, I was struck by several things in particular.

One is that Stoicism’s focus on detachment, humility, and accepting the will of nature/logos has a strong similarity to Buddhist thought. Or at least, it bears a strong similarity given my extremely basic, extremely Western understanding of Buddhism. For example:

And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free — free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them — those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess — and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind — to prize it — will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well — embracing what they allot you and what they ordain. (Book 6, section 16)

From my extremely untutored perspective, this sounds very similar to the Buddhist conceit that desire (“those things you prize”) is the source of suffering (“you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you”).

On the other hand, Aurelius says quite often that the source of our unhappiness lies in our perceptions and willingness to believe that we’ve been wronged:

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. (Book 8, section 47)

This to me, sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing Stephen Covey talks about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — specifically the sections on proactivity vs reactivity.

Connecting those two books and authors may be valid, but it makes me feel skeevy somehow, because the contexts I associate with each of them are so different — the noble, long-dead philosopher king vs. the epitome of corporate self-help gurus.

Speaking of kings, one of the other things that I really had to come to terms with in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is that, to modern readers, Aurelius’s words are imbued with a high amount of unexamined privilege:

Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. (Book 8, section 16)

I mean, yes, it’s important to stay strong and try to withstand hardship. But, as a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius had resources available to mitigate the worst things that could happen to him: the most competent administrators, the best food, the highest quality medical care. So much of his advice focuses on agency and action, but, given the time and place in which he lived, he had an exceptional amount of latitude to exercise his agency in the first place.

Try telling an Indigenous protester at Standing Rock to accept destruction with tranquility and see how far that gets you. The people who do that with a straight face either don’t understand the risks involved or aren’t negatively affected by said destruction. In other words, they just wouldn’t care.

Despite these challenges reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, what I connected with most strongly was the sense that it was written primarily for private use. The thoughts within are intimate, personal. Aurelius’s thoughts are not polished, but the fact that he returns to the same ideas so often — justice, restraint, impermanence, mortality — is evidence of just how thoroughly they occupied his mind. In a way, it reminds me of my own existential scribblings from high school. And anyone who can remind me of that aspect of my teenage years without making cringe deserves to be read.

The cover to "Fascism: A Very Short Introduction" by Kevin Passmore

Facism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore

The cover to "Fascism: A Very Short Introduction" by Kevin PassmoreTitle: Fascism: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Kevin Passmore
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got a copy: Purchased from Kobo

I know I’ve probably said this before in other Books & Tea posts, but I’ve led a pretty happy, easy life. Family who love me. Solid middle-class upbringing. Good education. Relatively few hardships, except for the sudden death of my father as a teenager.

In other words, I got dealt a pretty good hand by fate. And that’s made me complacent. I’ve been the beneficiary of a political system designed to look after my interests by virtue of my being born white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class in Canada.

With the way things are going in the world, that kind of complacency is becoming increasingly dangerous. Which is why I decided to read Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore.

I keep on reading that the Trump administration is facist. But all my life, I’ve never really understood what that word meant — it always seemed like a shorthand for something bigger. I was hoping that Passmore’s book would help me get a grasp on what it actually means, and understand the expanded version of the shorthand explanation.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get as much out of this book as I hoped I would. The entire thesis can be summed up as this: fascism is so complex and took so many different forms in the first half of the 20th century that there is no simple, easy definition we can point to.

Very helpful, Mr. Passmore! A non-answer like that, throughout the entire book, was exactly what I needed in order to begin to come to grips with the times that we find ourselves living in right now. Knowing that this term is way too complex to pin down, even though everyone around me seems to have done so handily in the public discourse without your learned exposition to guide the way, makes me feel super well informed and prepared for the times ahead!

Before I let my bitterness go any further, I should say that part of my inability to appreciate this book stems from my general lack of knowledge about the politics and history of the early 20th century. Yes, I understand the big brushstrokes — WWI, WWII, the New Deal, etc — but the finer details of political movements are not something I’m familiar with. So all of the factions and regimes and betrayals and appeasements, the names and dates and locations, washed over me without leaving much impact.

will say that I found the second half of the book, which deals with fascism’s intersection with social issues like race, class, and gender to be far more interesting and approachable than the earlier parts getting into the names and dates and details.

However, I think my problem is that I really wasn’t looking for an academic treatise when I bought Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. I wasn’t looking for a painstaking deconstruction of Weberian vs non-Weberian modes of thought.

I really just wanted a dictionary/instruction manual. What is fascism? What are its most common traits? How do fascists gain power? Most importantly, what can be done to fight it?

These are questions I’m still struggling to answer. I think I’ll have to find less academic sources of information to guide me.

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

hope_in_the_dark_coverTitle: Hope in the Dark (3rd edition)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got a copy: The publisher gave the eBook version away for free in mid-November

When I saw Arrival last November, it floored me because its central message — that despite knowing how dark things can get, it’s still worth it to create something, even if that creation gets destroyed — was antithetical to my own emotional state at the time.

Specifically, I wrote this:

When I look at the world, at the mass die-offs of animals and the climate change tipping point, I ask myself this: is having a child irresponsible? Am I doing them a disservice by bringing them into a world so close to the edge through no fault of their own? What if they grow up and hate me for having been alive now, when things were good, and for my complacency in not working hard enough to make things better for them?

In the shadow of the election of Trump, these questions have intensified. What if I have a kid, and then a huge war starts? How can I protect them?

In Arrival, the protagonist knows the awful truth about her unborn child’s impending death, yet soldiers on anyway because that pain is commingled with love. And that hope has absolutely floored me, because I wonder if I am that brave.

I’m still not over that sense of fear. I still don’t have any answers. But Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is helpful — it shines a light and shows proof for some optimism.

The history and timing of Hope in the Dark‘s publication is a bit curious. It was first published in 2004 in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, re-issued within a few years of Obama’s entry into the White House, and then re-issued again in the spring of 2016.

Thus its initial publication traces out the timeline of an arc of hope — from despair over the meaninglessness of the Iraq War, to jubilation over the election of Obama, to eagerness for that positive change to continue.

Then Trump happened. Now, at a time when it’s so easy to despair, this book feels more necessary than when it was originally published.

Hope in the Dark traces the success of various activist causes over the past five decades, from nuclear disarmament to the rise of the Zapatista movement. Solnit’s argument is simple: hope, rather than being a luxury that activists can ill afford, is actually key towards the success of the progressive movement. Moreover, small, incrementalist victories are as important as big, media-friendly ones.

Hope is social glue. Disasters bring it out in force. Two of her key examples of this are based off of American catastrophes: Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. When the towers fell, people in New York and across the country scrambled to help, whether it involved actually digging through wreckage, pulling people up from off the ground to help them run away, or donating blood. When Katrina receded, people from across the country travelled to New Orleans to try and rescue people stranded on roofs, in houses, on the streets. What else is hope than the idea that you can help despite being in danger?

The mainstream perception of activism is that it has to go big or go home. I know that I’ve thought this — that the only acceptable victory is total victory, a complete vanquishment of evil. But small acts are just as valid. You may not be able to drain the entire city, but you can pull a child off a roof into a boat. You can donate blood. You can talk to a stranger and build a connection and make them feel less alone.

This realization is one that I still haven’t quite gotten through my skull. In the past two months, I’ve been in a near constant state of fear. I have done small things to try and allay that fear, but my actions haven’t been very systematic, as they haven’t been focused on one overarching goal. Instead, it feels like there’s a new, ever-more-urgent political issue demanding my attention every day. Sign this petition. Call that politician. Read About Situation X in the U.S. that is About to Get Royally Fucked Over and Signal Boost for the Cause, Even Though I’m Canadian and Can’t Do Anything About It Myself.

It gets exhausting, especially without a strategy. It feels like trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble — the ocean will always win.

Hope in the Dark, as well as Solnit’s writing online and her Facebook posts, which I now follow, are constant reminders that this effort isn’t pointless, even if it is small. We’re bailing out not the ocean, but a boat. Sure, the boat is huge, and it may be increasingly listing to one side, but it possible to right things if we’re capable and dedicated enough.

This is a hard lesson to remember. One of the things I do to overcome this is write down everything that I’ve done to advance some cause — every petition I’ve signed, every mailing list I’ve joined to stay on top of issues, every public consultation that I’ve contributed my thoughts to, every donation I’ve made, every politician I’ve called and left a voicemail for. Eventually, over time, the list gets longer. It gives me some solace, even if it’s temporary and it feels like there’s so much more left to do.

I haven’t written about the book much. I recognize that. But I believe that in documenting my own attempts to recognize the value of hope, I’m staying true to its message. Hope is not a form of foolishness or naiveté. Like bread and muscle and breath, it’s essential to our continued survival.

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