Tag Archives: memory

The Times Correction of Jim Harrison’s “My Upper Peninsula” Falls Short In Three Ways

The Travel section of the November 29th edition of the New York Times featured an article by Jim Harrison about traveling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called “My Upper Peninsula.” It turns out Harrison’s Upper Peninsula is a place more fondly remembered than accurately observed, and the Times has had to make a number of corrections to his piece.

Probably the most egregious error in the original piece comes just a few paragraphs in, where Harrison explains to prospective travelers to the UP that “you can drink the water directly from Lake Superior,” as he himself used to do on his “long beach walks.” The water of Lake Superior is clean, he wrote in that first version, because “there is little or no industry, and all of the mines are closed.”

I was probably not the only person to send a letter to the editors reminding them that some UP mines are still open and that the Times itself had published a report, in May of 2012, on the new mining boom in the Upper Peninsula. My letter went on to say that the new sulfide mining (the mining of nickel and copper) along with new gold and uranium mining projects in the UP — and all around Lake Superior — pose a very serious risk to the big freshwater lake.

Just one project, the Polymet mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, will require water pollution treatment for a minimum of 500 years.

Last week, the Times published this correction:

Correction: December 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the state of mining in the Upper Peninsula; there are indeed some mines operating in the area — it is not true that all the mines are closed.

The passage about long beach walks now reads:

While camping I would study maps to try to figure out where I was other than within a cloud of mosquitoes and black flies, that irritating species that depends on clean water, of which there is a great deal in the U.P. There is little or no industry; therefore you could drink the water directly from Lake Superior — at least I always did on my long beach walks.

This new version tries to skirt the issue by consigning it to the past. Where Harrison originally wrote “you can drink,” now we are told “you could drink” the water. There is still “a great deal” of clean water in the UP, but this version takes refuge in “at least I always did,” to qualify the drinking. It could all have been a mistake.

But this correction doesn’t do the trick, for at least three reasons.

First, it doesn’t even come close to capturing what’s really going on these days. We still have no no reference to the Times original report on the boom. “It is not true that all the mines are closed” is a far cry from “many new mines are opening, and there is a mining and leasing boom” – which is a lot closer to the what the Times reported in 2012 and a lot closer to the facts: just look at the map of Lake Superior Mines, Mineral Exploration and Mineral Leasing published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The problem here is only compounded by a couple of sentences near the end of the Harrison piece, which the editors let stand: “It’s not easy to cheerlead for the Upper Peninsula now after the extractive logging and mining. That bleakness is now mostly overgrown by forests except for a few slag piles.” Overgrown? Simply put, the bleakness that Harrison buries in the past is coming back to the UP.

Second – and this is a curious oversight for the Travel section – the new mining is going to endanger, or at least dramatically change, UP tourism, which is in large part about unimpeded access to wilderness areas and especially the freshwater wilderness of Lake Superior. Though tourism has been a growing sector of the UP economy, on its own it’s hardly enough to sustain the region (or any region for that matter). Mining proponents are usually quick to point this out. Most are very careful to say that they “don’t go around tearing down the tourism industry,” as one UP labor leader put it to me. Some are openly scornful of the contribution tourism makes to the regional economy. All acknowledge, as Harrison himself acknowledges, a tension between extractive industry and tourism; and doesn’t that tension belong at the center of any article about traveling to the UP?

Third, the corrected paragraph now makes very little sense. The editors have chosen to omit Harrison’s earlier statements about the disappearance of mining and recognize, in their correction, “some mines operating” in the Upper Peninsula. The paragraph about long beach walks simply states that “there is little or no industry” in the UP. I am not sure what this is supposed to mean: I guess “some” is supposed to be the equivalent of “little” or “none,” or mining doesn’t count as an industry. Be that as it may, the larger omission here has to do with the industrialization the new mining has already brought – the drilling, clear cutting, haul roads, and mine construction already underway are just the start — and how that will add to mounting industrial pressures on the lake: for example, the plan put forward by Enbridge to build a network of oil pipelines carrying diluted bitumen across the Great Lakes region, and to transport crude oil by barge across Lake Superior.

I realize, of course, that none of these observations are likely to find a place in the Travel section. Readers go there to encounter a world where nature is picturesque, and history and culture are placed on quaint and colorful exhibition. Advertisers count on it. The Travel section presents an exotic world, in the most literal sense, a world outside ordinary lived experience, fully exteriorized, a fantasy of escape. I suppose readers should look elsewhere in the paper of record to correct that impression, and to see the world as it really is.

Moses Called The First Strike

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.

20130621-111459.jpg

Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.

20130621-111707.jpg

People’s History is Alive

Cross-posted from 1913 Massacre.
I love this tweet:

This is from the Twitter account of Voices of a People’s History.

I suspect it was posted partly in response to David Greenberg’s vituperative account of Howard Zinn’s life and work in The New Republic. Greenberg portrays Zinn as a deeply flawed, philandering charlatan, who didn’t keep pace with work in his own field, and kept “aloof from the intellectual ferment of the seminar rooms, journal offices, and conferences where radical history was being born.” As for Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History of the United States, Greenberg dismisses it as “a pretty lousy piece of work.”

Zinn has always had his detractors and defenders, and plenty of people have risen to his defense. (Clement Lime wrote one of the stronger responses to Greenberg, I think.) It’s interesting to think that our film might have a place in the conversation.

But that’s not what I like so much about this tweet. If there’s one thing we discovered about “people’s history” in the course of making our film, it’s that people’s history is alive. History lives and breathes in people; their memories, the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the photographs they cherish — all those things aren’t just artifacts or objects of study, even if historians say they are.

History is at work in everything people do — and in a place like Calumet, where past troubles were never really laid to rest, history can work in mysterious ways. People talk about the past in order to talk about the present; and if they do not want to talk about the past it will find a way to assert itself in the present. People may see in the past some faint image of ourselves and our lives, but more importantly we carry the past with us; it’s our constant companion. It comforts us and causes us pain; it can be a source of pride or shame, pleasure or remorse. It can entrap us and enrich us.

People’s history is alive not because there are historians who study it, but because, like it or not, deny it or embrace it, study it or try to forget it, it’s our story.

“The Resistance Was Eliminated”

My great uncle Giuseppe used to like to tell stories about life during the Second World War: brushes with death, visits he and his friend made to prostitutes in the Veneto, the way the Germans looked when they marched, and the measures people in the small towns of the Italian Campania took to cope during and after the war. When the Germans came through, people met the convoys in the streets and leaned out the windows, cheering and waving. Then when the Americans arrived a short while later, people met the convoys in the streets and leaned out the windows, cheering and waving American flags. The story was told to give the impression that Giuseppe and his townsmen were cunning, clever, furbi, that they knew how to survive and outsmart both their captors and putative liberators and that, in their hearts, they were having none of what either power had to offer. Maybe they saw both sides as occupiers, neither as legitimate.

I was reminded of these stories and the way Giuseppe used to tell them just the other day, when I came across this passage (from a 2005 interview with Noam Chomsky):

It’s worth remembering; when the US, Britain and Russia occupied Europe, the main thing they wanted to do was to destroy the resistance. So, one of their first tasks was to destroy the antifascist resistance. That’s the first chapter of the post-war period. Actually in the case of US and Britain, it started in 1943: when they moved into Italy from the south, the first thing they did was restore the old fascist order, and crush the partisans and the fascist resistance, which was a very strong thing. In Italy, the partisans had pretty much driven the Germans out of Northern Italy. When the American and British forces came in, they had to liberate Italy from its own people, from the partisans. And the partisans had what they called ‘communist’… But they weren’t particularly that, they were radical democratic; they had worker-controlled industry and radical democratic programs, which the US and Britain wouldn’t tolerate. So they destroyed them, and restored something like the traditional fascist order. And they did the same in Germany and in France.
What happened after the war was that something like the traditional order was restored: traditional conservative business-run order with some variation, and the resistance was eliminated. In history, the resistance was eliminated. Very few people know the history of the partisans. The new right that’s coming now is an extreme version of the real fascists coming back but the actual history of the liberation of Europe by its own people was mostly suppressed.

Bringing 1913 Massacre Back to Calumet

Cross posted from my blog at 1913massacre.com

I still haven’t managed to find out exactly what George Stoney said about bringing a documentary film back to the place where it was shot, but Deanna Kamiel was kind enough to share her notes on remarks Stoney made on the topic at the “Tribute to George Stoney” in October of 2008 at the IFC Center.

On that occasion, Stoney showed an excerpt from Uprising of ‘34, and talked about some of the responses that the film’s subjects – the people in the film – had when he showed it to them. “It is right as a filmmaker,” Kamiel reports Stoney as having said on that occasion, “that you should be able to bring your film back to your subject.”

“Right”: that word from Deanna’s notes intrigues me most. It puts the emphasis on the filmmakers’ relationship with the subject and the moral onus on the filmmaker. It’s less about truth-telling — whatever that means when talking about documentary film — than it is about respect. It seems almost to suggest that bringing a film back to the people it represents re-establishes some order (some “right relationship”) that filmmaking can too often disrupt. Films are not, in this way of thinking, a matter of “taking” someone’s picture, but instead of establishing a relationship in which you are able to bring the film back to them – giving back, not just taking. The film could be a gift, just a way of restoring the moving image to its subject.

So today we flew to the Upper Peninsula, to bring our film, 1913 Massacre, back to its subject – the town of Calumet, Michigan. We are showing the film tomorrow at the Calumet Theatre and then again on Saturday. Many of the people who appear in our film will be there. And I am wondering about how this exchange will work. I am not expecting anything like a sense of closure or resolution. I am not sure what to expect.

As we walked around the town today it felt so eerily familiar, and somehow both real and imagined, actual and remembered, a story and a place, filled with the sights and voices and the sounds that are in our film (the sign outside Bill’s Electrical squeaking as it sways, the wind coming off the lake that so often made recording sound difficult, the rumble of an old truck making its way down Fifth Street). It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that, for me at least, the place now feels a little haunted by the film we shot here.

I’m ready to admit that this might just be the confusion of our first day in town, and I’m wondering how we and, more importantly, 1913 Massacre will be received in the days to come. I suppose we will find out if we got it right, or at least if some people think we got some things right.

Updates on the Calumet screenings of 1913 Massacre here and here.