The Pandemic Has Changed Nothing

Time walks but change leaps. The current pandemic is not changing anything as much as it’s accelerating changes that were already in motion.

            Consider the primary engine of our capitalist society: our buying stuff. In 2010 we purchased 5% of our consumer goods online. Ten years later, just before the first big shut down, we were buying just 16% of consumer goods online. Then, in only two months, that figure leapt to 27%. By October, despite stores having been reopened since the summer, 70% of Canadians reported that they would be buying Christmas gifts online. When stores reopen after the final wave’s lockdown they had better have shifted to online sales because the slow creep toward shopping through our laptops rather than their front doors will have leapt forward to such a degree that it will not slip completely back.

            Companies that enjoyed a decade of change in just a few weeks had been around for a long while and growing slowly. Apple, for instance, had taken over 40 years to reach a valuation of one billion dollars. When the world locked up in March, Apple leapt to 2 billion in the next five months.

            Meanwhile, as American federal reserve chair Alan Greenspan once famously observed, “You can only see who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.”  Lots of companies had been bare and barely hanging on with massive debt and failing business models. The virus accelerated their demise. Companies that have declared bankruptcy since the pandemic arrived include J. Crew, JC Penney, Cirque du Soleil, Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Gold’s Gym, Briggs & Stratton, Reitmans, and that company that stole an afternoon of my life that I will never get back – Chuck E. Cheese. The world’s oldest multinational corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company, is teetering. They all could have survived longer, dog paddling away in their birthday suits, but the pandemic accelerated their drowning.

            The most consequential change that COVID accelerated has been our conception of the role of government. The one-two punch of the Depression and Second World War fundamentally altered how we perceived government’s role. The twin crises led the overwhelming majority of us to support the idea that government’s job was to balance the playing field to give us all a shot at fulfilling our potential. Its new mandate included keeping us all healthy, helping us when we became college and university students, new parents, unemployed, sick, or old. We believed we were all of the same community and that paying taxes was our shared responsibility.

            By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War, OPEC Oil crisis, and runaway inflation seemed to show that government was unable to fix all problems and was causing others. That notion, coupled with the fading memory of the Depression and WWII, led to a new concept of government. In 1981, president Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Britain’s Thatcher and Canada’s Mulroney rode the wave of anti-government sentiment. A generation saw governments’ reach shrink, publicly-owned assets sold, and programs dismantled. Taxes, we were now told, were not a way to take collective action and the price for living in a civilized society but robbery. They were cut because individual action was touted as more efficient that collective action and because less government revenue would “starve the beast” and force a further retrenchment of its power.

            But then the pandemic happened. All governments made mistakes as they learned more about the virus but all at least tried to do something. The shameful incompetence of the American government demonstrated the valiant, science-based efforts of others and the need for calm, experienced, honest and able leadership.

            Political leaders who maintained self-serving partisanship were laughed at, scorned, and when the people had a chance – most notably in the United States – sent packing.  Politicians who insisted on continuing to divide us through dangerous rhetoric appealing to the basest among us were rejected such as Mr. Sloan who was thrown from the Conservative Party and Alberta’s Mr. Kenney who has seen support plummet.

            September 11 and the 2008 Great Recession had been slowly swinging the pendulum back toward a belief in the positive power of government. The pandemic has accelerated that change so that we find ourselves today where we may have been a decade from now. Pity the politician who now fails to see that there is a new appetite for tackling big problems through bold government action. We all saw the world quickly clean itself from the skies of Mumbai to the canals of Venice and we are now ready to tackle the existential crisis of our generation and fight climate change. We are also now ready to fight the long festering embarrassments of income inequality and racial injustice. We are ready to debate, compromise, and move in collective action with our votes and tax dollars.

            The pandemic has put us into an age akin to the post-Depression, post-WWII era when we fought and survived together and due to the fight became steeled to fight together some more for what was right. Faith in government always swings to and fro and the change back toward a faith in government was coming. It’s now here. Let’s see if, together, we can do some good.

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An Old Image and New Inspiration

A photograph can change our mind. It can change a lot of minds.

Let’s consider an example. In January 1968, the United States had been actively engaged in the Vietnam War for three and a half years. (Canada was involved too but that story is for another day.) Polls at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam. Then came the Tet Offensive. In one day, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerillas captured all or most of every South Vietnamese city. In an action that took only five seconds, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, casually approached a Viet Cong suspect who was being held on the street. Loan fired his pistol into the suspect’s right temple, killing him instantly.

Photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment of the bullet’s impact. The photograph appeared on television and in newspapers around the world and across America. It changed minds. Subsequent polls indicated a significant uptick in Americans opposing the war. Within months, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term and all presidential candidates campaigned on ending the war.

Many other photographs have had similar effects. I am betting you can easily picture the lone protester standing before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the determined look on Terry Fox with the Trans-Canada Highway stretching forever behind him, and the red fireball of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. They touched our hearts and changed our minds. But there is one in particular that affected us then and that we need again to weave its magic.

On Christmas Eve in 1968, NASA astronaut William Anders peered out a small hatch window as his Apollo 8 spacecraft was beginning its fourth of ten orbits around the moon. He was gobsmacked. Grabbing his Hasselblad camera, Anders floated weightlessly to another window for a better view and snapped an image of the earth rising over the moon’s gray wasteland, reflecting sunlight in brilliant blue against the blackness of space.

(Photo: NASA)

NASA released the photograph on December 30. It was placed on a stamp and was seen in newspapers and magazines. The year had been horrendous. Americans had endured more of their children returning dead or damaged from a war in which fewer believed, a presidential election that had seen more of their children beaten by Chicago police, race riots that had set cities ablaze, and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. Canadians suffered widening generational, gender, and racial divisions, bombs killing innocents in Quebec, and domestic terrorists throwing rocks at their prime minister. Tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia and tear gas scattered protesters in Paris, London, and Berlin.

And then, for a moment, with that terrible year in which it looked like the centre would not hold nearly over, everyone paused before the power of the picture of the little blue ball in space. The earth hung there without the invisible borderlines for which so many lives had been sacrificed. For a moment, it looked like we were not divided by nationhood, race, gender, religion, or the many other social constructs invented to define us and others. It looked like we were one. The picture also spurred the nascent environment movement, informed by the revolutionary concept that we are one people on one planet. Anders said that like millions of others the photograph made him realize, “This is the only home we have and yet we are busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests.”

If the year 1968 was terrible, 2020 is worse. But in tragedy there is hope. Maybe the global pandemic urges us to recall what the photograph had to say so many years ago – we are all in this together. The vaccines are here but none of us will be safe until all of us are safe – all of us; everywhere. Perhaps the photograph asks us to consider that while each country must commit to combatting climate change that none will be successful until we all are successful. Further, as we emerge from our isolation and all the stores reopen, maybe the photograph will remind us that we make and buy too much unnecessary stuff because it eventually all ends up getting thrown away and there really is no away.

The pandemic, climate change, and rampant, empty consumerism remind us that mother nature is always the last at bat. And even scarier is that mother earth does not need saving. If we fall to another pandemic, ignore the changing climate, and succumb to shopping as a leisure activity to fill holes in our souls then the earth will be just fine. We, of course, will be gone – victims of our greed and stupidity; our refusal to read obvious signs; and our stubborn refusal to heed the potent message of William Anders’ photograph.

Let’s look at the picture again. Let’s really look at it this time. Hopefully, with so much at stake and a better future to be forged from the current madness we’ll not just see it but hear it.

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Hundred Days and Honeymoons

In the fifth century, a northern European marriage tradition encouraged newlyweds to enjoy a daily dose of mead, a fermented liquid honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Using the only calendar available, the sipping stopped when the moon returned to the wedding day’s phase – about a month. From this custom came the honeymoon.

The concept has grown. We experience honeymoons at work. The new person is allowed silly questions and rookie mistakes. New business leaders are similarly excused if questions reflect a genuine desire to understand and not veiled threats, and mistakes are forgiven if blame is accepted and apologies are quick. Often, however, honeymoons end when a business leader’s personality flair reveals a character flaw; intelligence becomes arrogance, or the pace and nature of change threatens profits or values.

Such is also the case in political leadership. Political honeymoons are Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fault. He became president in March 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Within 100 days of inauguration he presented, and Congress passed, 15 major bills. He began by closing and stabilizing banks and then quickly touched nearly every sector of America’s sputtering economy. Some New Deal legislation worked and some failed but within those frenetic 100 days confidence and investment were rekindled and lives and capitalism itself were saved. Soon, however, even FDR’s honeymoon ended. Critics appeared from the left and right and the Supreme Court overturned his most ambitious initiatives.

Every leader, whether in business or politics, is warned that a honeymoon is as real as it is transitory and so it must be as productive as possible. Since FDR, every newly elected political leader has also been measured according to his or her First 100 Days.

Few leaders have demonstrated those twin realities as clearly as Barack Obama in 2009 and Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Both were propelled to office by charm, charisma, and positive campaigns. Both undertook ambitious agendas supported by the public and enabled by their party’s legislative majorities. Then, inevitably, both saw popularity plummet as their 100 days involved more talk than achievement and performance that couldn’t match promise. Obama watched Republicans take the House of Representatives. In his next election, Trudeau formed a frail, two-seat minority government.

Justin Trudeau has yet to be sworn in but the clock is already ticking on his honeymoon. Like all honeymoons, it offers novelty and excitement. The United States has seen two father and son presidents – Adams and Bush – but this will be a Canadian first. Never have Canadians welcomed a new leader not through the lens of TV news or at the behest of newspaper endorsements but, rather, primarily through the citizenship levellers and engagement enablers of YouTube videos, tweets, selfies, and blogs. Not since Pierre Trudeau, have Canadians embraced a celebrity politician as they would a movie or rock star.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

(Photo: beaconnews.ca)

Our prime minister designate followed a masterful campaign with a positive election night speech, a fun meet and greet with surprised Montreal subway commuters, and an articulate, confident press conference. Even those who did not vote Liberal seem invigorated by his promise of change in policy and tone; shown most blatantly in his inviting premiers and opposition leaders to the climate conference in Paris. Much of the country, in fact, much of the world appears giddy with expectation. A Canadian journalist has, only partly in jest, asked the international media to stop ogling our prime minister.

The Liberal parliamentary majority could guarantee a productive 100 Days with actions and bills addressing the environment, murdered and missing indigenous women, tax reform, infrastructure spending, an end to Canadian military action in Syria and Iraq, and more. We should enjoy the ride but remember our history. The 100 Days will end and the honeymoon won’t last. Soon enough, Canadians will stop sipping their honey and Mr. Trudeau may not seem quite so sunny.

If you enjoyed this column please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com (This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Ottawa Citizen on October 29, 2015)

The Land of Water – Dear Canada

Dear Canada,

You are a land of water. It’s right there in your motto: A Mari Usque Ad Mare (From Sea to Sea). It’s from the Bible: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth”. In your case, of course, it should read from sea to sea to sea, because your rivers rush to die in not two oceans but three.

The Arctic Ocean is furthest from most Canadians and for decades it never crossed their minds. It was just as well. Its beauty is more than southerners can fathom. At the sight of a 360-degree horizon beneath a sky bigger than wonder itself, folks used to living in concrete, seeing the world through a windshield or screen, or whose vista ends at the backyard fence, would risk having their heads explode.

sunset arctic

Then came oil; black gold, Alaskan tea. The problem was not how to get the gunky goo out of the rock but how to ship it south through water with the irksome habit of turning to ice. The problem changed when the climate changed. The big melt came quicker than anyone expected, especially those who claimed there was no such thing as climate change but now rushed to exploit its effects. Your northern ocean was suddenly everyone’s friend. Men in silk ties beneath brand new parkas lined up with candy, flowers, and dewy-eyed concern for sovereignty.

The Pacific is Canada’s gateway to Asia. Back when Vancouver was nothing but a fort and a dream, people plied the vast blue water east from the East and helped shape your west. They came for the gold that created the province and then the railway jobs that built the nation. Then, sadly, came the disgrace of discriminatory laws and race riots and the shame of wartime internments. Sometimes apologies are not enough.

Pacific Ocean coastline, Morseby Island, British Columbia, Canada

The Pacific invites jealousy. The North Pacific Current flows through the Hawaiian Islands and turns to kiss the coast before sluicing on to California. It is the ocean, therefore, that offers TV pictures of Victoria daffodils to those suffering another 20 below Edmonton morning. But then, later, when folks at Portage and Main are swatting mosquitoes the size of Buicks, they try not to be smug when the radio reports rain in Vancouver. It’s said that British Columbians don’t age; they rust.

The Atlantic invited adventurous Europeans. They came for the fish, oil, and wood. Pines too straight and tall to be real became masts on British ships that built an empire. The oil was not drilled but was whale blubber boiled and barrelled. It was poured into lamps on sitting-room tables and poles along cobblestone streets. Canadian whales lit up Europe.

Then there were the fish. Cartier wrote of his men dangling buckets into the sea and seconds later withdrawing them to marvel at their flapping bounty. The fish brought rugged people to rough and tumble outports and little towns hugging the rocky coast. Men braved morning’s chill to beat dawn to their boats and then vanish into haunting mists. Everything from canning factories to shipyards depended on the fish and the fish never let them down. There was enough for everyone and forever. To believe something deeply enough and long enough is to erase the thin line between opinion and truth. Meanwhile, even Lunenburg’s mighty Bluenose, immortalized on the dime, when not beating all comers with its lightening speed and daring crew, was a fishing boat.

Like the men working Cape Breton coal mines, those on the tiny boats that disappeared each day into the ocean’s enormity traded risk for livelihood. Their fathers and grandfathers understood as well as them that at any moment, and without reason, the earth or ocean could shrug and swallow them whole. There are too many stones over empty graves.

Fisherman’s wives were as hearty and brave. They raised the kids who seemed to keep coming, and the kept the house, and watched laundry on the line flap hard and horizontal. They sang their party pieces with gusto around kitchen tables where hot fiddles and cold beer linked all in tears, fears, and dreams of better days.

And there was the woman, like so many before, who when the boat was late, put the kids to bed, pulled on a thin cardigan, and walked to the hill atop the town. Pulling the sweater tight around her waist she gazed out into the icy, purple world, out to the point where the sky melts to sea. Walking along the green, moss-covered silver stone she hummed the tune they sang together and loved so well. She was there the next night too, and the next, and the next after that. And then, finally, came a night when the sweater stayed on the hook.

hill top atlantic images

Yes, Canada, you are a land of water. Like all of nature’s magic, your oceans are powerful beyond measure. What we see is a fraction of what they are and more than our meager minds can comprehend. They teem with life and can snatch it away without comment, remorse, or judgement. Like you, the oceans were there long before we arrived and their waves will pound your shores long after we’re gone. And that reality, when allowed to rise to our consciousness for a startling moment, like a great blue off the bow, is a humbling reminder of our responsibility to you and each other.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

 This is the third of a series Dear Canada: Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you enjoyed this, please share it with others and consider checking out the first two at johnboyko.com

Bitter Green   by Gordon Lightfoot

Upon the Bitter Green she walked the hills above the town, echoed to her footsteps as soft as eiderdown
Waiting for her master to kiss away her tears, waiting through the years

Bitter Green they called her walking in the sun loving everyone that she met. Bitter Green they called her waiting in the sun, waiting for someone to take her home

Some say he was a sailor who died away at sea, some say he was a prisoner who never was set free
Lost upon the ocean he died there in the mist, dreaming of a kiss

But now the Bitter Green is gone the hills have turned to rust, there comes a weary stranger whose tears fall in the dust
Kneeling by the churchyard in the autumn mist, dreaming of a kiss