Reading Log – February 9th, 2021

I intended some time ago to begin a daily log of what I was reading, both to remind myself and to record some thoughts before I moved onto the next thing the following day. Today I took a break from reading for my candidacy paper to re-read material for a publication.

The paper I’m preparing is tentatively titled “The Regress of Nationalism” and is intended for Medjunarodne Studije/International Studies, a bilingual journal that publishes articles in English and Croatian. Back in November I gave a (virtual) talk at the State (In)Stability 2020 conference at Libertas International University called “Multiculturalism and the Regress of Nationalism”, which was an early version of the paper I’m writing. The speakers were invited to submit their papers afterward for a special edition of the associated journal.

Here is what I (re-)read today:

  • Moore, Margaret. “On National Self-Determination.” Nations and Nationalism: A Reader. Ed. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 221-236.

I agree with Moore that nations are best understood according to a subjective definition, but that might be all we agree on. She provides a strong argument for affording political sovereignty to nations, but I think it is misguided. In particular, I think it’s a mistake to identify the “people” who are owed self-government with a particular nation. In short, national identities are shifting, overlapping, and unstable. You can never design political boundaries that perfectly align with national boundaries, so there must be another basis for the state. In the paper I intend to argue the necessity of multicultural accommodation that can permit the multi-national coalition building required to ground a political state.

  • Trudeau, Pierre. “The New Treason of the Intellectuals.” Against the Current. Ed. Gerard Pelletier. Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1993. 151-181.

I first read the collection of Pierre Trudeau’s writings, Against the Current, during high-school. The critique of national self-determination he provides in “The New Treason of the Intellectuals” has always stuck with me as powerful. To briefly summarize, if the principle of national self-determination is consistently granted to national groups then each will find another minority nation within itself as soon as it achieves independence. The result is a regress with no stopping point at which a stable state can form. This is at the heart of the paper I’m working on. There is much more of value in this essay by Trudeau as well, particularly his optimistic proposal for what Canada could become.

Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician

Biographers have not been kind to Canada’s first female Prime Minister. To my knowledge there are three books which take Kim Campbell as their subject, and only two can be called biographies. Frank Davey’s small volume Reading “Kim” Right is less about the woman herself than perceptions of her in the 1993 election, and sexism in Canadian society. However, that curiosity is for another day.

reading kim right

Not quite a biography

The “Acknowledgements” at the outset of Kim Campbell allude to the fact this was a rushed effort to capitalize on Campbell’s rise to attention. Fife relates the he and his editor guessed in November 1992 that Brian Mulroney would step down, and they staked their hopes on Campbell replacing him. When Fife contacted Campbell shortly thereafter to secure her involvement in the biography she called his move “presumptuous” yet agreed – until one of her advisers later cut Fife off from the candidate.The two actual biographies on Kim Campbell are Murray Dobbins’ elusive The Politics of Kim Campbell, and today’s subject: Robert Fife’s Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician. All three of these books appeared in 1993, between the brief period of so-called “Campbellmania” and the 1993 election. Although I cannot yet speak to Dobbin’s book, more likely than not it suffers from the same drawback of Fife’s work: a lack of hindsight. In all but the most skilled hands, this is the inevitable pitfall of the timely political biography.

The speed at which the biography was produced shows. Fife is straightforward about how his sources were indirect. He did not have access to Campbell or her family, and was thus reliant on interviews conducted by other journalists. Although he approaches some political colleagues and acquaintances, the biography mostly collects together information about Campbell’s life which could already be found elsewhere at the time.

Nevertheless, it might be said Fife’s rudimentary biography is better than nothing. Though inartful it does trace her life from birth, through childhood, two marriages, provincial politics as a B.C. SoCred, the federal Mulroney cabinet, and her successful campaign for the P.C. leadership.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than several women in their servile places. Nothing more appalling than one who gets out of it,” {student John Kelsey} wrote. “[A man] must beat them into submission, showing no quarter, allowing no favour. And when he has subjugated one, he must start on another.”

What Campbell faced upon becoming Frosh President at UBC

Fife explicitly attempts to maintain his neutrality, although he clearly does not think highly of Campbell’s Ayn-Rand-worshiping first-husband. In the absence of a more intimate or scholarly biography, the book suffices to introduce Kim Campbell. While it remains to be seen whether Dobbin’s book is the better biography, there is reason to believe Fife’s is the more sympathetic.

In the absence of other scholarship Fife’s book is a resource for information on Campbell, and its limited access to its subject does lead to its one merit: it follows the political events as the average Canadian would. Events like the excitement over Campbell’s photo in Barbara Woodley’s photobook, or Jean Charest’s steady gains against her in the leadership race are documented at a distance, giving the reader the standpoint of the average Canadian.

kimcampbell

“Seriously, the notion that the bare shoulders of a 43-year-old 
woman are the source of some prurient comment or titillation, 
I mean, I suppose I should be complimented.” – Campbell

Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Some longer serving Prime Ministers have had to wait until a half-century after their deaths to receive a substantive biography. Poor Mackenzie Bowell of Belleville remains the only Prime Minister with no biographies whatsoever to his name. Yet Canadians should hope to receive a more complete treatment of the country’s first female Prime Minister in less time than that. Kim Campbell is still kicking around too; at the very least an update is in order.Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Next Time: depression era communism in the Canadian West…