Sunday, November 21, 2010

Slippery slope time - again

Feelings of frustration happen when circumstances block people’s ways to whatever goals they’d imagined. That many people should be living with mounting frustration at this time is not surprising, given the economic uncertainties. Prolonged frustration is like a cancer that eats away at the human spirit and when fed with a diet of bad news and very little prospect of change over time, it’s not surprising that frustration turns into rage. If frustration is the kitten, then rage is the tiger.

Frustration and rage can only live in a free-floating state for so long before they need to find some island on which to settle. In economically depressed, post WWI Germany, one island on which rage settled was Jewry, and we all know the end of that story. Once the cause of the frustration has been named and endorsed by a critical mass of others similarly frustrated, the running shoes are on and the stampede begins.

There’s plenty of frustration in the news these days. In North America (and to varying degrees, the rest of the world), a scary economic collapse in 2008 was bad enough, but followed by a period when little was heard except the good news of the recovery, the stagnation that turned out to be the fact pushed many people from frustration to rage. Demonstrations against government cuts to curb deficits got downright ugly in France and Greece particularly, and made us wonder if they were precursors to something really dangerous over here. 

Most of the media commentary on the economic situation here in Canada has been pretty cool and sane to this point. But there are signs that ideologues are working hard to point the rage of the masses toward certain targets. John Gormley is known for his right-wing views and in a recent column commenting on airport security, he couldn’t resist: Many of the people griping loudest about the imaging scanners and searches come from the new class of the special — those pampered, cherished, “ all about me” narcissists who continually star in their own movie and cling to the illusion that life really is all about them. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, November 19, 2010, p.3) The labelling is clearly evident here; it points people toward a target against whom their rage would appropriately be directed.

In the USA, right-wing radio and television, the Tea Party phenomenon and all that goes with that have been much more clear about which targets people ought to blame for their frustrations. It’s the philosophical liberals in the country, represented by a) the Democrats, b) people who tolerate abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage and c) Muslims and anyone whose name sounds kind of Islamic. The fact that this is still a pretty big pond only means that the rhetoric is still waiting to find a clear focus. In a diatribe circulated on email networks called “I’m 63 and I’m Tired,” former contender for the Republican presidential nomination and a former district attorney on CSI Miami, Robert A. Hall names some of the islands on which the vultures of rage are invited to land. Here’s a sampling:

I'm tired of being told I must lower my living standard to fight global warming, which no one is allowed to debate. My wife and I live in a two-bedroom apartment and carpool together five miles to our jobs. We also own a three-bedroom condo where our daughter and granddaughter live. Our carbon footprint is about 5% of Al Gore's, and if you're greener than Gore, you're green enough.

I'm tired of being told that drug addicts have a disease, and I must help support and treat them, and pay for the damage they do. Did a giant germ rush out of a dark alley, grab them, and stuff white powder up their noses while they tried to fight it off? I damn sure think druggies chose to take drugs. And I'm tired of harassment from cool people treating me like a freak when I tell them I never tried marijuana.

I'm tired of illegal aliens being called "undocumented workers," especially the ones who aren't working, but are living on welfare or crime. What's next? Calling drug dealers, "Undocumented Pharmacists"? And, no, I’m not against Hispanics. Most of them are Catholic, and it's been a few hundred years since Catholics wanted to kill me for my religion. I'm willing to fast track for citizenship any Hispanic person, who can speak English, doesn't have a criminal record and who is self-supporting without family on welfare, or who serves honorably for three years in our military.... Those are the citizens we need.

Again, the pond is still pretty big, and as much as Hall may protest that, for instance, he is “not against Hispanics,” just being mentioned in this vitriolic dissertation is signal enough for some people.

I guess there is such a thing as being angry at oneself, but we don’t readily raise our hands and admit that, “I’m sorry; I did it.” Seems to me the economic morass is a direct consequence of far too many people - right, left, gay, straight, liberal, conservative - giving basic greed free rein for too long.

Be wary of people who name an enemy that doesn’t include themselves; we’re on a slippery slope here, folks.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lest we forget . . .

Another Remembrance Day has come and gone, and we’ve dutifully watched the news clips of important people laying commercially-churned-out wreaths at the bases of cenotaphs around the country. For something like 95% plus of the population, that’s been our nod to the need to remember the death of young men and women who apparently swallowed “that old lie,” Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. (Poem by Wilfred Owen. Translation: It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.)

As it has done for centuries, “that old lie” pervades our culture like swamp algae, and those who recognize its perfidy are cowed into silence by the enormity of the alternative. Imagine elbowing through a phalanx of ramrod-stiff soldiers at the Ottawa Remembrance Day service, pushing your way to the base of the cenotaph and announcing through a bull horn that what is being done here is paying homage to a lie. It would be similar to “sharing” at a fundamentalist church funeral that heaven and hell are parts of an insidious myth.

Since Wilfred Owen wrote his poem as a reflection of an experience in WWI, there’s been a gradual shift away from the patriotic to a more esoteric object of affection worthy of death. It’s hard to convince the Canadian population that their sons and daughters are being put in harm’s way to defend their country, per se. Neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda was threatening Canada when our government decided to engage in the Afghanistan conflict. So our current crop of soldiers are said to be dying for things like “freedom,” or “democracy,” principles that reach beyond our borders to include all like-minded allies. This trend is probably traceable to the Korean War, where the lie was altered to make us believe that our soldiers were dying to defend democracy against the canker of communism.

If the lie were the truth, our soldiers should be coming back with stories of glory exuberantly told, stories about their accomplishments in support of the ideals under which they enlisted. Why do so many come back disillusioned and sick? I’m told that for every death in Afghanistan, there are numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in its various manifestations, not to mention amputations and other permanent physical harms. By and large, the media steer clear of the mothers who wail, “for what??” as they visit their children’s graves on Remembrance Day, but once in a while you hear from those with the courage to voice their deepest agonies, and they are of the “why?” and “for what?” variety, reflections of Owen’s torment over the sheer horror of the military solution viewed with eyes wide open.

Owen’s soldiers leave for the battle field “ardent for some desperate glory.” What vision of “desperate glory” entices our soldiers into uniform? One young soldier interviewed in a magazine some time ago said he was itching to “get over there to blow stuff up.” Others craved the camaraderie, the union with others in common purpose, the adventure, the newness offered in the military, and, oh yes, the defense of . . . what was it again? . . . democracy.

What I wished for this Remembrance Day was for more people with the courage to say what they know to be true: it is a lie and a folly. “To remember is to work for peace” read the button on the jacket of a friend in the Station before Remembrance Day. It was red, like the poppy, but in its small way it announced to the world that Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori is a tired, old lie.