Some longer thoughts on #GlobeEditorial, and the proper use of history

So a bunch of important stuff was happening today–the Mayor of Toronto continues to defend himself in court, Israel and Gaza are at war (again and again, respectively) but many of us on Twitter were having a merry old time with the Globe and Mail’s Editorial Board, which penned an editorial that quickly became its own punchline, about the videogame Assassin’s Creed 3. After a bit of intro about the game’s origin from Ubisoft Montreal, and the scandal that Ubisoft (gasp!) got government funding, we get to this:

But Canadian youth ought to know enough to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Assassin’s Creed III is set in 1765, and promotional material describes how, as “a Native American assassin, (you) eliminate your enemies with guns, bows, tomahawks, and more!” To suggest indigenous peoples rallied to the side of the colonists in their fight for freedom grotesquely twists the facts.

Who, precisely, is suggesting that the videogame depicts indigenous people rallying to support the Americans? By my understanding (here I’ll note that I haven’t yet played the game) the game depicts one person, with their own motives, helping the Americans in the context of a larger, peudo-mystical conflict. It’s more than a little silly for us to be arguing over the details of this, really, but then we get to the Globe’s point:

A contributing factor to the American Revolution was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which established the important precedent that indigenous peoples had certain rights to the lands they occupied. The Declaration of Independence, in contrast, complains that King George III sided with “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.”

Whose side would the “Native American assassin” really have been on? Think about it.

The War of 1812, in some respects a sequel to the Revolutionary War, offers some insight.

Wait, what?

“First Nations fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the British in this important conflict,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said last month…

Hang on a second. We’re talking about the motivations of First Nations during the 1770s, not 1812. The written word wasn’t invented in the interim, so why not actually address the history and scholarship of First Nations and their relationship with the American Revolution itself?

Well because history is more complicated than bizarre chest-thumping, that’s why. Plenty of First Nations fought for the Americans–notably the Oneida and the Tuscarora, though they probably came to regret it.

It’s true that by 1812 many First Nations had changed their minds about the Americans (shockingly, the Americans didn’t keep their word with their onetime allies) but many fought for the Americans because then, as now, we can’t see the future. It’s as incoherent as saying that World War II explained why the United Kingdom obviously wouldn’t sign a treaty with Japan in 1902. (Spoiler: they did.)

This is important, because as surprising as it may seem, First Nations societies have pursued their own interests as best as they could for the centuries since European settlement began. For some leaders, that meant backing the Crown in 1775 and after. But not for all. And as clear as it may seem to the Globe and Mail editorial board, there’s no obviously right answer to the question “would you rather have your society systematically dismantled by the Crown or the Republic?”

In an apparent attempt to instruct us all on the importance of historical accuracy, the Globe’s editorial board has cited events in 1812 as motivations for people in 1775, all in the service of a dubious assertion of facts. In a broadside against “ameriphilia”, they’ve actually removed complexity from their reader’s understanding.

Oh, and they’ve treated First Nations peoples as a monolithic corporate whole instead of recognizing the divisions within a diverse community.

Then, with a plea for us to remember the Loyalists who left the young Republic and settled Upper Canada (because Anglo whites were victims too!) the Globe finishes with:

Assassin’s Creed III is just a video game. But given the dearth of history instruction in our schools, it might be the only place that Canadian young people are learning about the Revolutionary War. At very least, they need to be equipped to separate the Ameriphilia from the facts.

But even if the Globe can’t make the argument coherently, let’s talk about this: One of my favourite games in university was Call of Duty. In it, you sometimes play a Soviet soldier, first at Stalingrad, then at Kursk, and finally in the great westward movements hurling the German Army out of Eastern Europe. Is a game required, as you blast your way through the ruins of Berlin, to note that this wasn’t exactly a victory for Poland, who wouldn’t see those Soviet soldiers leave for decades?

The standard adopted by the Globe would seem to be, “yes”. (Actually, the standard set by the Globe would seem to be that we have to remove the complexity from real history, perhaps removing facts like the Poles who fought for the Soviets.) I don’t think the answer is clear-cut at all. This whole argument is an example of how difficult it actually is to do this: whose story do you tell? How do you weight the complexity of real history? There’s no reason to think that, even if they tried, Ubisoft would be terribly good at weighing these choices.

(One of the only half-decent examples of this I can point to is in LA Noire, where in a flashback your character explains that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because of the US oil embargo. But it’s notable because it’s rare.)

This isn’t license to distort history–a game in which Polish Jews welcomed their German benefactors would obviously be beyond the pale. But just as obviously nothing in these games rises to that level. If there’s no reason to think that videogames are particularly good at teaching history (nobody, surely, argued that they were) it’s a good thing that we’re living in a time when it’s phenomenally easy to find facts. People who can’t be bothered to do a Google search are being deceived by their own sloth, not their Playstations.

In the end it’s tempting to say we shouldn’t have wasted our tweets arguing about a videogame, but it was so much fun after all.

On “shakedowns”

Matt Elliott on the Fords’ bizarre war against Sec 37 funds:

But the mayor and his brother also argued that maybe section 37 funds could continue to exist, but that any money raised shouldn’t be used in the local communities. “Pool it all together, and divide it by the 44 councillors,” they said.

If anything, that view, which has been trumpeted by budget chief Mike Del Grande for a couple of years now, feels more like a shakedown than the current arrangement. As it is, funds raised from developers go straight to nearby community interests, where there’s a measurable impact. Under the scheme favoured—maybe—by Del Grande and the Fords, any money raised would presumably just go into general revenues where it’d be lost in the weeds of Toronto’s operating and capital budgets.

Matt is a pretty level-headed kind of guy so he’s being polite here, but we should be clear about the facts: Del Grande and the Fords know that the development pressure this city faces will overwhelmingly not be in their wards. (This City PDF, on page 4, points out that about 40% of new residential units and non-residential gross floor area occur either in the downtown or Yonge-Eglinton areas. I’d be shocked if over half of all development weren’t happening between Eglinton and the lake, and between the two rivers.)

So when the Mayor and Budget Chief say they want to pool the money, they’ve got a soundbite that has a veneer of fairness that dissolves under any kind of scrutiny. Their demand, in short, is the privilege of keeping density and development at a distance from their communities while benefiting at the expense of those who can’t–or indeed, those who might welcome density and the S. 37 money it brings. (If such people exist in this city.)

There’s a word for telling people who live downtown to open their wallets and hand it over. You might almost call it a shakedown.

This is before we even get to the inconvenient fact that the Ontario Municipal Board (the final authority in these matters) takes a dim view of S. 37 funds being used far afield from the intended community. According to Patrick J. Devine (PDF), OMB decisions in the last decade set the precedent that a “real and demonstrable” connection to the development in question. So pooling S. 37 funds may not even be legal, much less fair.

There’s a fair argument that the city could use a different policy on S. 37 funds, but any changes to the city’s policies is likely to be marginal: provincial law also all but forbids a standardized system of S. 37 collection (this according to previous interviews with city staff) since it would then be an illegal tax under the City of Toronto Act. So S. 37 deals have to be local, ad-hoc affairs unless the province steps in to change the law.

That might be a good thing: I’m a fan of David Schleicher’s “tax increment local transfers” as one replacement, but local control is still central to Schleicher’s idea. So Toronto’s suburbs wouldn’t get to keep out intensification and reap the rewards. In any case, it’s not what’s on offer. Nor, I assume, is the Mayor going to propose a simpler “scrap the S. 37 bylaw and just increase taxes”, because he remains Rob Ford last I checked.

So what we’re left with is basically suburban grievance, legal illiteracy, and a lack of any constructive suggestion for how to improve things. The status quo in the Ford years.