The Shameful Power of Lies

I refuse to believe that the truth no longer matters. I refuse to believe that the truth is simply what I choose to believe. I’m loath to admit it, but a clear-eyed look at world politics today and examples from the past suggests I’m wrong. Too many lies have been casually accepted as truth and too many lies have sparked monumentally consequential change.

A young George Washington never cut down a cherry tree or confessed with the line we all know: “I cannot tell a lie.” Biographer Mason Locke Weems made no mention of the tale in the first five editions of The Life of George Washington but the incident suddenly appeared in the sixth. Weems made it up. Similarly, there was no gift-horse, filled with soldiers, with which the Greeks duped the Trojans. Nero did not play the violin as Rome burned. When leaving the room, Galileo did not mumble, “But it does move.” Newton’s work on gravitation was not inspired by a falling apple. Benjamin Franklin never flew a kite in a lightning storm. I could go on.

Lies such as these have been repeated as fact by so many and for so long that they’ve become accepted as true. Joseph Goebbels would understand. As Hitler’s propaganda minister, he said a lie becomes truth when forcefully presented and repeated. Donald Trump certainly understands.

Politico.com studied Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches and determined that, on average, he lied once every five minutes and sometimes twice in a single, rambling, non-sequitur littered sentence. He lied about having seen thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attack. He lied about MSNBC distorting his views by editing his statement on abortion. He repeatedly lied about America’s crime rate being higher than ever, about GDP growth being zero for the previous two quarters, and about the United States having the world’s highest corporate taxes. All the lies were shown to be lies but it didn’t seem to matter. Mr. Trump won the presidency. He continues to lie. He recently said there are 96 million unemployed Americans but that counts retired folks and kids in school.

Do the lies that inform so much of what we think we know about our past and Mr. Trump’s successfully lying his way to the White House prove that we don’t care about the truth? We should. Because sometimes lies bring about changes that are enormously consequential. Consider two examples.

President Truman said he approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan to save the lives of American soldiers who were preparing to invade the island. With each subsequent interview, Truman’s estimate of the number of men saved went up. He couldn’t quantify it because his justification was a lie. Truman had been advised by the scientists who created the bomb that its use would be immoral. A number of generals and military advisors, including future president General Dwight D. Eisenhower, said it was unnecessary. Japan was on the verge of collapse. All its major cities had been incinerated. The Soviet Union had declared war and was moving on Japan. Japanese leaders were preparing to surrender and Truman knew it.

But the bomb was not really about Japan. Truman agreed with Secretary of State John Foster  Dulles and other advisors that the bomb had to be dropped to brandish its power, especially to the Soviet Union, which they had decided to turn from ally to enemy. They had to demonstrate that America would dominate the post-war world. And so the bombs fell. Months before, Japanese leaders had offered to stop fighting with the condition that Emperor Hirohito stay in place but the Americans refused with their insistence on unconditional surrender. With the atomic bombs suitably displayed, Truman accepted the surrender terms that had been unacceptable before. Hirohito remained. The war ended. But Truman’s lie unnecessarily murdered 150,000 people in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki with hundreds of thousands suffering life-altering wounds and horrifying birth defects.

While Truman’s lie involved the end of a war, other lies have started them. The Iraq War was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t. In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson unrestricted power to wage war in Vietnam after an attack on the American destroyer USS Maddox. But the attack didn’t really happen. The lies are disturbing but sadly, tragically, not rare.

At 9:40 in the evening, on February 15, 1898, a tremendous explosion sent a fire ball into sky above Havana’s harbour. The American battleship Maine, which had been anchored there as an expression of American power, had exploded. The ship was destroyed. Its burning, shredded hulk sank, and 266 Americans lost their lives.

Cubans had been rebelling against their Spanish colonial masters in a low-level guerilla war. Thousands of Cuban refugees had been working from new homes in Florida and New York to entice America to intervene on their behalf. After all, they argued, the Monroe Doctrine said that the United States considered the western hemisphere its back yard and would take action to keep countries stable and Europe out.

Powerful newspaper owners had joined their fight. The New York Journal’s William Randolph Hearst and the New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer were in a circulation war and both saw a Cuban war as their ticket to victory. They both had reporters in Cuba before the explosion writing articles that urged President William McKinley to take military action. Two days after the Maine explosion, Hurst’s Journal ran the headline: “Destruction of the warship Maine was the work of the enemy.” The next day, an article quoted unnamed naval men as believing that a Spanish mine had caused the explosion. Hurst offered $50,000 to anyone who turned in those responsible for the mine. Readership soared.

Thousands of Americans wrote to their president demanding a war of revenge with Spain. Militia groups formed and volunteered to leave immediately. Men yelled “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain!” as they swamped recruitment offices. Congressmen joined the jingoist parade, declaring that American honour had to be respected. A March 28 Naval Court of Inquiry moved with lightning speed to conclude that the Maine had indeed been downed by a mine. President McKinley was suspicious of the evidence but the mounting political pressure was enormous. He acquiesced. In April, the United States declared war on Spain.

The war lasted only ten weeks. The most famous battle was the taking of San Juan Hill by the Rough Riders, a rag tag group of cowboys, college students, and ex-convicts organized by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had quit his post to join the fight. The war was won when the American navy destroyed Spain’s Atlantic fleet in the Philippine’s Manila Bay. About 2,000 Americans died in the war, all but 385 of disease. About 60,000 Spanish and Cuban soldiers and civilians died. America’s victory led to the Paris Treaty which gave Cuba its independence and ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States.

The war’s second phase began when Filipino nationalists insisted on independence rather than trading one colonial master for another. When rebuffed, they shouldered rifles. The fighting lasted three years and took the lives another 4,200 Americans and over 20,000 Filipino combatants. The war also saw about 200,000 civilians die from war-related famine, violence, and disease.

The Maine attack and wars that followed entered American civic understanding alongside Washington’s hatchet and Franklin’s kite. They were true because they were believed to be true. But the truth is stubborn.

In its rush to not really investigate but simply confirm the mining of the Maine, the US Naval Court of Inquiry had refused to hear from a number of experts. Included among them was Navy ordnance professional Philip R. Alger. He told the Washington Star that the explosion’s power and ship’s wreckage suggested that the blast had originated with a fire in the Maine’s engine room that ignited its magazine, the room where ammunition and gun powder was stored. In fact, another naval inquiry had reported only a month before that designers of ships such as the Maine had put magazines too close to coal-fired engine rooms. This was alarming because coal bunker fires were a regular problem on naval ships at the time and it had been found that those carrying bituminous coal, like the Maine, were far more likely to suffer spontaneous engine room fires than those carrying anthracite coal. Those salivating for war knew all this but ignored it as they silenced Alger.

In 1974, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover initiated an inquiry into the Maine’s sinking. American, Spanish, and Cuban records were scoured and experts on ship explosions were interviewed. The study concluded that “without a doubt” the Maine had been sunk by a spontaneous combustion fire in her engine room that ignited the magazine. The Spanish had nothing to do with it. Wars had been fought in Cuba and the Philippines, thousands had died, the Spanish empire had shrunk, the American empire grew, and Roosevelt’s political career took flight, all because of a lie. It was a lie the American media helped create and then exploit and that the American people were too willing to believe.

Today, in the revered Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac from Washington, lay the remains of over 14,000 American veterans. On a hilltop near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, towers a gleaming white mast. It’s the Maine’s mast. In 1915 it was salvaged and erected atop a large concrete base resembling a ship’s turret. The mast throws a shadow over the respected dead laying nearby while serving as a monument to the power of lies.

power-of-lies-memorial

Maine Memorial (Photo Arlington National Cemetery)

Lies led to the dropping of the world’s worst weapons, were cynically employed to elect a president and used to start unnecessary wars. Lies ended lives and changed the world. It is said that we live in a post-truth era. No. No! We can’t afford that luxury, that embarrassment, that threat. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s dangerous. Ask those resting in American military cemeteries laid there by lies or the ghosts haunting Cuba, the Philippines, Japan, Iraq, and Vietnam. Ask Joseph Goebbels.

The media has an awesome responsibility as the citizens’ eyes, ears, and conscience. It must question and say no to power and not be its poodle. Rewriting press releases is not journalism. The media cannot, as Hearst did, and as Fox and others do, report lies or fashion lies of their own for ratings, clicks, and sales while making us dumber and less safe. We must join the media in robbing lies of their power by calling them what they are and calling out those who either don’t speak the truth, don’t seem to care, or don’t know the difference. We deserve the truth. We can handle the truth. We must demand it.

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10 War Words We Use Today

We are people of peace who use words of war. We can’t help it. They have entered the vernacular so completely that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Consider the following ten and listen for them as you go through your day.

  1. Deadline

American Civil War battles sometimes resulted in the gathering of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners. It was seldom possible to quickly transfer them to camps or arrange prisoner swaps so they had to walk along with victorious army. At night or during rest stops, guards would draw a line in the dirt around prisoners and warn them that if they stepped over that line they would be shot. It was the deadline.

  1. Chatting

Soldiers in First World War trenches found, among other hardships, that their hair and uniforms were infested with lice. They would sit across from each other and use fingernails or cigarettes to remove the lice and their eggs – chats – from their mate’s hair and clothing. While doing the deed they would talk and soon, soldiers referred to anytime they made small talk as chatting.

I Was There: The Great War Interviews

(Photo: http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

  1. Heard It Through the Grapevine

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. It was a code that could click messages through wires at a speed that was a 19th century marvel. At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, both sides strung wires from city to city and to the front lines. The wires reminded folks of hanging grapevines and so when asked where one had heard a particular bit of news it became common to respond, “I heard it through the grapevine.”

  1. Sniper

In the late 19th century, British soldiers seeking to amuse themselves with proof of marksmanship took birds as their targets. The most difficult to hit was the small and quick moving Snipe. Those able to accomplish the feat became known as snipers. The name stuck when in the First World War Germans began using telescope-sighted rifles to shoot individuals in enemy trenches. Soon, all armies used, and called them variants of, snipers.

  1. Bikini

In the first year of the Cold War, in 1946, the American military needed a remote spot to test atomic bombs. A group of Pacific Islands was deemed perfect and so 167 native people were moved from their homes. The women were wearing skimpy clothing that exposed their midriffs as they were removed from Bikini Island. The bikini bathing suite went on sale shortly afterwards.

  1. Lock, Stock, and Barrel

A 19th century Civil War musket had three parts: a lock, a stock, and a metal barrel. Each part was useless without the other one but deadly when working well together. Thus, when a person put everything into an action he was said to be doing it “lock, stock and barrel.”

  1. Beer

There is evidence that all ancient cultures made and enjoyed beer. However, it was not until Roman soldiers began moving north and drinking a home-made brew in what would later become Germany that the name was invented. They called the hearty ales and lagers by the Latin word for drink – biber. When Romans conquered the southern part of England they found English folks drinking the same grog and they Anglicized it to beer.

  1. Cardigan

During the Crimean War, an English military leader named James Thomas Burdenell carefully drilled his men so that they were unbeatable in battle. Their prowess led to their being called the Light Brigade. In their famous charge, he courageously led them from the front. That day, like many in which the morning dawned chilly, he wore a gift from his wife over his uniform, a knitted, buttoned sweater. Burdenell, his men, and his sweater became famous. He was the 7th Earl of Cardigan.

  1. Champion

Medieval knights trained in contests held on a large field which, in Latin, was called a campus. The contest winners were deemed the campion. For reasons unknown, English spellers simply added a letter to make it champion.

  1. D-Day

The expression came from a First World War way of explaining operations without revealing the time or day of an impending attack. The practice remained common in the Second World War. The first field order mentioning the Second World War amphibious landing at Normandy, consequently, stated that the allies would attack at “H-Hour on D-Day.” The D, rather redundantly, stands for Day. So D-Day, used now for many of our deadlines, recall that is another war word, really means Day-Day.

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Percy, Poppies, and a Pledge

He wasn’t a movie star. He wasn’t a famous athlete or the latest singer whose catchy ditty momentarily captured a spot in the charts and teens’ hearts. And yet, there it was. At Lakefield College School, tucked in the woods by the lake about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa and, in the 1940s, also halfway between 19th century British elitism and 20th century Canadian ruggedness, a boy took a knife in hand. In the windowsill of the little library he carved the name Percy Nelles.

The other boys, and at that point the school was all boys, understood. Nelles awed. He inspired. Nelles had been one of them but now belonged to the world. Teachers turned a blind eye to the vandalism for they understood too. And so as they passed the window each day the boys glanced down, some whispered the name, and in silent reverence many drew fingers over the defiant tribute.

Nelles had been a Lakefield student when the school was young but the values upon which it would thrive were already firmly established. He was a skilled cricket player and an enthusiastic member of its army cadet corps. Upon graduation in 1908, he joined the Fisheries Protection Service. With the creation of the Canadian Navy in 1910, Nelles became a midshipman in HMCS Niobe. Promotions came quickly. He enjoyed service in many ships and during the First World War at the navy’s Nova Scotia Head Quarters as flag lieutenant and director of the Naval Service.

Peacetime saw the navy shrink but his career flourish. Nelles was captain or commander in a number of ships and served at the Imperial Defence College. In 1934 he became Canada’s chief of naval staff – the first Canadian-born and trained to do so. Four years later, with Hitler’s mad ambitions about to plunge the world back into war, Nelles was promoted to rear admiral.

Nelles had not forgotten his old school. He played an instrumental role in an initiative that in 1939 saw the Canadian Navy officially recognize the newly formed Lakefield Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC) St. George – Canada’s only school-based sea cadet corps. Boys were divided into four platoons and a band. In crisp blue uniforms they trained for a half hour or more each day, learning skills needed to become naval officers. For five years they also enjoyed sessions on Georgian Bay’s Beausoleil Island. They knew that Nelles had helped establish the Sea Cadet Camp facilities and its fun but rigorous program.

Meanwhile, Nelles was reassigned to Britain where, as the senior Canadian flag officer overseas and head of the Canadian Naval Mission, he oversaw the Canadian Navy’s preparations for the June 1944 D-Day invasion of France. He coordinated 110 ships, 10,000 sailors, and 15 air force squadrons for the successful landing of 14,000 Canadians on the heavily fortified Juno beach. D-Day was the turning point in the war that reminded all that evil is sometimes incarnate in a man or movement. Evil’s enemy can sometimes be a kid from a Saskatchewan farm, or Calgary street corner, or even a little school in Lakefield.

Percy, Poppies and a Pledge

(Photo: http://www.navy-marine.forces.gc.ca)

The library is gone now. The space became a classroom, then staff room, and is now a slick new Admissions office. But the windowsill is still there and so may also be the boy’s carving that was so simple and yet represented so much.

It is the same simplicity represented by the little poppies we wear each November. They express our devotion to those who offered their full measure of devotion for causes perhaps forgotten but in support of values that endure. They proclaim our insistence that the sacrifice and service of those who died, of those who returned whole or broken, and of those still in uniform, shall not be forgotten. Our remembering is as simple as the little felt poppy, or the windowsill carving, but as complex as citizenship itself.

For a few days each year we are asked to transcend our lives’ minutia and the exhortations of some politicians and all corporations and become more than voters, taxpayers, and consumers. We become citizens. And as citizens we bear the burden of remembrance.

To remember all who served is overwhelming and so this year I will offer respect for all by remembering one. This year I will remember Percy Nelles. In my moment of silence on the 11th at 11, I will curse war but revere the warrior. I will hate the hypocrisy, greed, and stupidity of wars of choice but honour the value of service-above-self.

But even this is too easy. Perhaps his memory is better honoured not by a forgotten carving or soon discarded poppy. Maybe this year we can summon the courage to act as Nelles did, as they all did, and let the values that inspired their service more fully inform our lives. These are the values, the essence of informed, engaged citizenship, that we saw on vivid display in Canada’s recent election. We see it every day in the acts of selfless volunteers. We see it in those whose courage and convictions broaden the circle of community. We see it through actions that demonstrate not just tolerance but acceptance and by acts and attitudes that show a willingness to trust a little more and take a little less.

Engaged citizenship is hard. It is a hell of a lot harder than wearing a poppy for a few days or standing silent for a minute a year. But let us compare the challenges of engaged, values-based citizenship to the difficulties and sacrifices of those for whom we don poppies.

Rear Admiral Nelles, this year, I pledge to do my best.

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A Man of Many Nations at the Intersection of Time

He stood at the intersection of time, a man of many nations, and a man whose leadership lessons resonate through the ages. His name was Thayendanegea but we know him better as Joseph Brant.

Thayendanegea was born the son of a Mohawk chief in present day Ohio in the 1740s when his people where still seen by the French, British, and American colonists as allies and trading partners. However, those days were ending. The Seven Years War, called the French Indian War in the United States, was a world war. It swept across the Atlantic and saw aboriginal nations choose between the French and British. Thayendanegea was in the thick of it all.

His family had moved to what is now upper New York state. Powerful and wealthy British diplomat William Johnson had married his sister Molly. Johnson had taken note of Thayendanegea’s intellect and leadership qualities. After assuming the English name Joseph Brant, he enrolled in a Connecticut school where he perfected English and learned Latin, Mathematics, History, and more.

With growing talk of war, Johnson arranged for Brant to join the British army. At age 15, he fought in the 1758 expedition that ended with the horrific Battle of Carillon. He was promoted to captain after leading men at the 1759 Battle of Fort Niagara. In 1760, he led Mohawk men in the 1760 siege of Montreal that saw the city fall to British and Mohawk forces and, with that defeat, the French empire leave North America.

Brant was one of 181 Native American soldiers honoured with Britain’s Silver Medal. Britain had won but demanded that its American colonists help pay for the war with a series of taxes and that they remain east of a line drawn to protect Native land. As tensions grew, Brant was again that the center of it all.

He had become an influential leader in the six-member Iroquois League, formed to present a united aboriginal front. With growing violence demonstrating that the British and colonists were headed for war, the League convened in August 1775. The League was broken. Four of the six nations decided to back Britain, including the Mohawks, now led by Chief Joseph Brant.

With the revolutionary war causing more intrusions into Mohawk land and Britain asking for more aboriginal help, in 1777 Brant and Johnson’s successor Guy Johnson traveled to London. Brant met with political leaders, members of the artistic and academic community, and twice with King George III. He spoke articulately and in his perfect English of the advantage to Britain of a full alliance with the Mohawk nation. He left with the promise that his efforts in the war would be rewarded with protection and land grants.

Joseph Brant

(Photo: http://www.nativecanadian.ca)

Brant was good to his word. He rallied a substantial force of Mohawk soldiers and for the next two years led them in a number of operations and battles. He and his men fought with the British at Fort Oswego, at the Siege of Fort Stanwix, and the Battle of Oriskany. The war became vicious with both sides destroying livestock, poisoning wells, burning farms, homes and towns, and slaughtering civilians. In November 1778, Brant led 300 Mohawks on a raid along with 150 British Rangers led by Captain Walter Butler that resulted 30 civilian deaths in Cherry Valley. General George Washington reacted by ordering an expedition that resulted in the destruction of over 40 Iroquois villages and the murder of countless women, children, and old people.

Brant gathered his people and soldiers and, after consultation with British generals, moved in April 1781 to Fort Detroit. He was victorious in a number of battles against American troops but conditions grew harsh, British provisions stopped, and on the Atlantic coast, Britain suffered its final defeats.

With the Revolutionary War’s conclusion, Brant and his Mohawk people were left without land, economy, or friends. The 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix saw the new American government take control of what had been aboriginal land. Meanwhile, newspapers branded a number of Native leaders who had fought with the British as war criminals. Brant was personally cursed as a monster with actions he and his men had taken exaggerated while similar actions by American armies were swept from official accounts and popular memory.

Brant returned to England where he again met with King George III. He was promised a personal pension with vague pledges of land. With a new American war against aboriginal people spilling more blood and more burning towns, Brant met with Quebec Governor Lord Dorchester and then with President Washington. Despite his efforts he could not negotiate an end to the American – Indian war or secure land for his people. The 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers led to a number of aboriginal nations signing a treaty that ceded scraps of land for a tenuous peace. Like Shawnee war leader Tecumseh, Brant refused to surrender and sign.

Brant gave up on the Americans. He dealt with the British and, with the assistance of Upper Canada Governor John Graves Simcoe, secured a large land grant along the Grand River that flowed north from Lake Erie in what is now Ontario. Brant moved the remnants of his Six Nations people to the fertile valley and together they developed the area while affording protection against a possible American invasion across the border at Niagara. Roads and towns were built and farms thrived.

Brant bought an additional 3,500 acres from the Mississauga nation at the western tip of Lake Ontario at Burlington Bay. He built a fine house on a cliff that afforded him a stunning vista over the lake. He lived in peace and until his death in November 1807.

Today, memory of Brant has been washed from America but Ontario has the city of Brantford, Burlington’s main street is Brant Street and its hospital is Joseph Brant Memorial. He is remembered as a diplomat, military leader, and a fierce defender of the dignity and rights of his people. The Iroquois confederation he helped form is remembered as an inspiration not only for Tecumseh but also for American and, later, Canadian leaders who admired its democratic nature and federal political structure. Brant and his struggles should be recalled when those living along the Grand River and elsewhere in Canada and the United States are reminded from time to time that their homes may well rest on Native land.

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Love Letter to Canada on her Birthday

Dear Canada,

Birthdays are great. The friends, family, and food are marvelous as another marker is placed on the road to wisdom and understanding; the destination we seek and hope to recognize upon arrival. Of course, the fewer candles on the cake increase the chances of bouncy castles and donkey-pinning and the normally banned junk-food.

Your birthday is always special. What’s not to love about fireworks, music, and a day off in the middle of summer? For some reason we attach special significance to anniversaries ending in fives and zeroes so your biggest birthday bash was in 1967. The Centennial parks, fountains, buildings, and bridges from coast to coast are testament to your 100th birthday having been celebrated everywhere. The biggest bash was in Montreal. Expo ’67 invited the world and the world came. Magnificent national pavilions wove facts and myths in what other countries chose to display of themselves and how we cheered ourselves.

Dear Canada on her Birthday

(Photo: nmmc-co.com)

Your most powerful myth is your birthday itself. You became an independent state on July 1, 1867. But your independence was an act of the British parliament. Britain still controlled your constitution. A British committee could over rule your Supreme Court. A British company controlled what is now northern Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and the North West Territories. Britain still negotiated and co-signed treaties and trade deals. So you were independent but only like a teenager who moves out but only as far as Mom’s basement.

For a long while, we pouted and slammed doors from time to time but didn’t do much about it. After all, we still considered ourselves British. Our census form had nowhere to proclaim we were Canadian. We carried British passports. We voted for Sir John A. and his slogan: “A British subject I was born and a British subject I will die.”

It all changed when a European family spat led cousins with big navies and bigger egos and more pride than brains to trip the world into war. We called it the Great War because not until the next phase in what became a decades long European civil war would we begin to number them. Britain was in and all we could yell up the stairs was “Ready Aye Ready”. Boys who had never traveled more than fifty miles from home were stirred by a pull of patriotism, a yearning for adventure, and the hope that girls really do love a man in uniform. They were soon on trains to Val Cartier, Quebec, and then aboard crowded ships to Britain and then, the front.

They had no idea what they were in for. Picture digging a hole in your yard and living there for a year. Eat there, sleep there, and relieve yourself there, day after day and season after season. Watch for rats the size of spaniels, killing coughs, lice, maggot-infested food, and after standing for days in the open sewer, toes fall away when sodden boots were finally removed. It was a war against conditions and, too often, stupid officers more than the enemy.

Dear Canada on her Birthday.

(Photo: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca)

After years of using Canadians as shock-troop cannon fodder, our four divisions were joined and told to capture a ridge that the French and British had found impossible to take. We dug and planned. We ignored the British way and told every man his job. And men the boys had indeed become. Many still bore pimples but too much boredom punctuated by terror and too many trips on leave for bad booze and horizontal recreation made them older than their ages; older than anyone deserved to be. On Easter Sunday, a barrage that shook the earth and shattered the sky announced the attack and the Canadians soon had Vimy Ridge..

Back home, for the first time, we had not an allied, not even a British, but a Canadian victory. For the first time, Canadians considered themselves Canadians. When the war finally ended, Britain said it would take care of the peace. With a pat on the head we were to go back downstairs and wait quietly. No. Too many of our children, sent to kill their children, had died. Too many were home but broken. We had earned a place at the grown-up’s table. It took a while but we increasingly considered ourselves Canadian and one but one by one the vestiges of colonialism fell away, forgotten like other childish things.

So while a person’s birthday is easy to peg, a country’s is more a decision than fact. Perhaps, Canada, your birthday is really April 12, 1917; the day we made it to the top of that damned hill. But is it better to plant our patriotism at a Charlottetown conference table, in the British House of Commons, or on a blood-spattered Belgian ridge? Or is according too much significance to the tragic blunder of a crazy war affording too much recognition to the boneheads who started it, the profiteers who exploited it, and mankind’s predilection to slaughter rather than build?

Perhaps it’s better to stick with July 1, 1867. I guess, like Jimmy Stewart was told in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when facts get in the way of the legend, print the legend. So this July, let’s enjoy the day off and with the sun’s surrender, let’s ooh and ahh at the fireworks. But this year, with these thoughts in mind, let’s offer ourselves a dare. Let’s see if any of us now can watch the colourful explosions over the park or lake and not think of the sky over Vimy.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is a few days late to stick with my Monday posting schedule but hopefully still invites consideration. If you enjoyed it, please send it along to others through Facebook or your social media of choice.

The Year of Whispered Warnings

In Manhattan’s Times Square, over half a million revelers cheered as the twelve-hundred-pound illuminated silver ball perched high above them began its flirtatiously slow, seventy-foot descent marking the final seconds of 1957. When it finally it came, there were screams, kisses, toasts, and Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne. Few noted that the ball had flickered off before the bottom and that the 1958 sign had sparked on a trifle too early. The glitch reflected warnings offered by the year just passed about many things that were no longer as they had been.

The Economy. After the Second World War there were more than enough new jobs for skilled and unskilled workers. Luck, timing, progressive governments, hard work, unionized labour, and the burgeoning manufacturing sector had helped create a thriving, urban middle class and economy that had never been so good for so long.

In 1957, however, growth fell from a decade of 6% per year to an anaemic 1%. Paramount among its causes was that Europe and Asia had rebuilt and needed less of our stuff. Our monetary policy was being clumsily adjusted to meet the new reality. The good times that many had come to believe would never end were ending. A recession was only months away.

Popular Culture. In 1957, for only the second year, rock ‘n’ roll gave voice to the young or young at heart who, perhaps unconsciously, rejected the white, Christian, male attitudes that reflected post-Depression and post-war cravings for calm, safety, and stability. Elvis Presley was rock ‘n’ roll’s most popular star. His concerts were always sold out and one Presley record or another was atop Billboard’s 1957 charts for 25 weeks. He epitomized everything that rock ‘n’ roll offered and threatened: a heterosexual in a gold lamé suit, a poor kid in a Cadillac, a white man singing black, and a mama’s boy who suggested all that mamas warned their daughters about.

The Year of Wispered Warnings

Elvis in Toronto, 1957

The flip side of rock ‘n’ roll was the Beat movement. The existential yearning at Beat’s core was expressed in Jack Kerouac’s scorching novel On The Road, published in September 1957. It followed Sal and Dean’s futile search for meaning in an America they found suffering from the emptiness of middle class consumerism.

Beat met rock ‘n’ roll in July 1957 when, at a Liverpool church fête, sixteen-year-old John Lennon met fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney. The name of the band they formed – the Beatles – was a pun that poked fun at their music while nodding to the Beats.

When times get tougher, pop culture always gets fluffier. When rebellions begin the grown ups fight back. Presley’s January 1957 TV performance showed him from the waist up to spare audiences the outrage of his gyrations. October saw the premiere of Leave It To Beaver. It joined similar TV fare legitimizing values that so many of the white, urban, middle class had internalized and assumed to be natural and perennial. They could be excused for not noticing so many of their children reading Kerouac, listening to Elvis, and that not everyone thought like Ward Cleaver or them.

Race. For decades, Jim Crow’s unwritten rules separated Black and White in American and Canadian cities and towns. In January 1957, Martin Luther King became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It drew legitimacy from the Bible, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, and its non-violent tactics from Mahatma Ghandi. In September, inspired by Dr. King’s message, nine African American children attempted to enter Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. They were stopped by a screaming white mob. President Eisenhower sent federal troops. Every morning, armed paratroopers escorted the kids to class. Eisenhower introduced the first federal civil rights legislation in 82 years.

The Year of Whispered Warnings.

One of Little Rock Nine wading through racists to go to school.

While slavery is America’s original sin, Canada’s is her treatment of aboriginal people. In 1957, the government and churches continued to ignore the protests of aboriginal parents by dispatching police and priests to steal their children. Native kids were forced into Residential Schools where many were beaten, sexually abused, and subjected to quasi-scientific experiments while taught to reject their heritage and themselves. Six thousand children would eventually die at the schools.

In June 1957, Canadians elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He championed civil rights and cultural diversity within a unified Canada. He would enact legislation granting Native adults the right to vote and then a Bill of Rights declaring all citizens equal under the law.

Gender. Girls were taught in school and indoctrinated through movies, television, and advertising that their only responsible option and reasonable ambition was to marry and raise children. In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy participated in a debate at Hart House, the University of Toronto’s academic and cultural hub. He was escorted past twenty young women protesting that only men were allowed in Hart House. When asked his opinion, Kennedy said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

However, also in 1957, Betty Friedan was asked to undertake a survey among her Smith College classmates who were preparing for their 15th reunion. She found complaints of having a family but not happiness and household gadgets but not fulfillment. Friedan identified the problem without a name and was inspired to dig deeper. Her research became The Feminine Mystique. The book would unleash the second and most powerful wave of the women’s movement.

In June 1957, Prime Minister Diefenbaker appointed Ellen Fairclough to his cabinet. She was first woman to enjoy such a position.

Cold War. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Every orbital beep was a braggart’s boast; Soviet scientists had bested Americans who, for two years, had been working on their own satellite. Sputnik threatened that nuclear weapons could be delivered not just by bombers that could be shot down but also by rockets against which there was no defense.

Air raid siren tests pierced quiet afternoons. Emergency network drills interrupting television shows. People were taught to fear reds under their beds and over their heads. From now on, wars would have us all on the front line.

Some years are portentous for what occurred and others for the warnings they whispered. The Times Square New Year’s Eve glitches were metaphors for 1957’s cautioning us that change was coming and a great deal that had been perceived as right or permanent were neither. In many ways, we continue to rewrite the rules and retest the assumptions that 1957 told us no longer applied.

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The Ancient Understanding of Water

Dear Canada,

The intrepid explorers who left Quebec’s relative comfort for God and gold did not scar the land. They didn’t bang and clang along in wagons breaking trees and cutting tracks. No, they slipped through in canoes, in silence, leaving not a trace of their passing.

Voyageur_canoe

It’s perhaps this collective memory, this ancient understanding down deep in our souls that urges us to water. We are born of water. Many of us are baptized with water. Water is our playground where we seek sanctuary and salvation in splashing and skiing and paddling and floating. Blessed is the contentment of long, gentle afternoons in hypnotic contemplation of sparkling waves. We bob at dusk in little tin boats with smelly worms and silly hats and silently wish that a splashing bass will not spoil the tranquility. We work fifty weeks to afford a clean and tidy house and then leave it for two to paddle a canoe and haul it over treacherous rocks and roots, and all to live from a sack, sleep on rocks, and eat food we’d send back in the dingiest diner. And we love it all, because we’re on water.

The Atlantic was your welcome mat and the St. Lawrence your doorway. It invited us in. It was your superhighway to your inland seas – the mighty Great Lakes. Settlements grew to towns and then cities along their shores. Without the lakes there would be no Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and the rest.

The lakes are a line. We’re here and the Americans are over there. They always coveted more and once they crossed the lakes to get it. As blood-soaked armies showed neither mercy nor shame, battleship artillery boomed. It drowned out the cries of the poor drowning men. We burned their capital. They returned the favour and burned ours, but we beat them in the end; we beat them 18 to 12. We then agreed to ban the guns on the lakes and try, one more time, to live a hard and bitter peace.

Another war’s end, a couple of wars later, offered its own kind of boom – prosperity and babies. The navy sold out at garage sale prices and shipping companies soon had plenty to ship in their ships. Supply could not meet demand to fill new houses in new neighbourhoods with new stuff. Europe was still bleeding and Canadian wheat, iron, and wood steamed through the lakes to help with the healing.

The big freighters lumbered like slow-moving monsters. They chugged from plants and mills and lake to great lake and on up the St. Lawrence to the sea. Their choking smoke, like the belching factory stacks, were a sign of good times. The depression and war were over and we yearned for order. There was an old man on parliament hill and a young Elvis on TV, well, from the waist up anyway, and the smoke stacks meant there were jobs for everyone. For most of us, it was a Leave it to Beaver world and folks along the lakes were lulled in their beds each night by the freighters’ mournful horns echoing over still and foggy water.

Edmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald

But just like life was not so serene everywhere, the ships were romantic only to those elsewhere. Life was tough and the men tougher. Ships were too often floating sweatshops. Company men and the politicians they bought winked and nodded as captains ignored the imaginary border drawn somewhere on the waves and rival union goons broke skulls and laws.

There were moments of calm amid the chaos. Peaceful nights on watch with no shore in sight allowed a man to imagine himself at sea. The lake’s gentle roll offered time to recall what drew him to that life in the first place. Then, sudden gales could whip up mountainous waves and transform freighters big as towns to bathtub toys. Everyone knew their jobs but when the running lights and radio went out as another wave crashed over the deck there was nothing to do but pray. Like in a battlefield foxhole, there are no atheists aboard freighters locked in the cold embrace of a Superior storm.

The Great Lakes’ beds are rusting, ramshackle naval museums and holy unmarked graves. Canada, your lakes and the rivers both mighty and small are the blood in your veins. Their waves are the rhythm of your soul.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is one of a collection entitled Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you liked it, please share it through social media and see some of the others at johnboyko.com

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald               © Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early