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Marilynne Robinson (on civilization)

May she keep on teaching and writing. Marilynne Robinson, photo from an article in The Guardian newspaper.

[3-minute read]

We hear it all the time. Human beings are naturally aggressive. We have always had wars, and we always will. Some of the more pessimistic among us – and listen, such people are not deranged; there are reasons aplenty to cast a stink-eye on our history  – go so far as to suggest that war is the natural condition of human societies, and that peace is an intermittent and temporary reprieve. This is nonsense.

Among many other reasons, it is foolish to think this way because, first, it is too easy, and second, it is too damned discouraging. Third, and most important, to consider warfare as our default mode is slippery and false because it allows us to excuse and even justify  (to ourselves, to our fellow foreign policy analysts, to our tough-on-crime cronies, to any of our partners-in-expediency) the use of brutal methods to address problems. Meanwhile, we routinely fall into the lazy assumption that human beings have hair-trigger predispositions towards violence or other anti-social qualities, yet most of us wouldn’t say this about the people that we actually know and interact with. (“People are AWFUL! Well, not my people, they’re mostly pretty great but, you know, those people out there…”)     

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What Do We Remember?

First I tweeted, then I thought.

Typical.

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except --

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except —

I retweeted sharp, moving, bitterly lovely and earnest images: helmet and bayonet, Canadian flag, grey beret-wearing veteran among poppies in remembrance of long-lost ever-youthful brothers in arms. It’s only natural: I’m touched by the loss of “my guys”. They’re mine because even though nearly all Canadian war dead fought under a different flag than the one I’ve lived my life under, they came from places I’ve been, or want to. I’ve recited the poems, sung the songs, seen the films. I used to have McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” by heart (the poppies blow), yes, and McGee’s “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings…”, and a long time ago I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars like I was in one.

(Well, I know. John Gillespie McGee was American, but his “High Flight” poem celebrated his epiphany as a soaring fighter pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was dead, at age 19, not long after he wrote how he “wheeled and soared and swung / High in the sunlit silence”. It was a training accident. He hadn’t even had the chance to fight for honour, freedom or anything.)

A British man named Laurence Binyon wrote “For the Fallen” as the Great War was swinging into high gear in the late summer of 1914.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower (on the price we pay for war)

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Was it politics-as-usual, war-by-other-means, or were his words the earnest thought of a man who really knew the price of war?

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) was the Supreme Allied Commander by the end of World War II, first military head of N.A.T.O., and then a landslide Republican winner of the 1952 U.S. Presidential election. He served two terms as President, during which the Cold War deepened and America prospered mightily. This quotation comes from his widely broadcast and historically notable 1953 “Chance for Peace” address, sometimes known as the “Cross of Iron” speech. Even Wikipedia notes the “debatable” sincerity of his words, and yet they are urgent and fine and no less true today.

He elaborated the purely economic price of the arms race like this:

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NINE-EIGHTEEN: Face to (Losing) Face in Asia

This morning in Dalian, there were no all-city sirens and alarm bells at 9:18. Yesterday, though, the Chinese loudly remembered what they consider perhaps their greatest national humiliation, an injury that they just won’t let go: the invasion of northeastern China by Japanese forces in 1931. They just call it “9-18”. It’s eighty-one years now, but if anything the memories are recently growing more bitter, as the obscure islands in the East China Sea — now, does Japan call it that? — that are claimed by both countries become a renewed source of hostility.

Diaoyu! Senkaku! Let’s call the whole thing off…

The People’s Republic of China says the Diaoyu Islands are theirs. (Actually, it says these islands belong to Taiwan, but that Taiwan belongs to mainland China, the PRC.) The Republic of China agrees, though it prefers the spelling Tiaoyu Islands. (It, however, also insists that it is a sovereign nation, so that’s a bit of a disagreement.) And although these tiny islands are quite close to Taiwan, Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands and says they are in charge,

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Muhammad Ali (more-than-a-boxer on war and justice)

Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war.

Muhammad Ali (65 in January), looking back on his career- and life-altering decision to refuse to go to Vietnam in 1967. Quoted in Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports on-line column.

Dyer Straights: A High School Confidential

If a remarkable speaker came to a school and nobody listened, did he actually say anything? (If a tree falls in the forest…) I do the odd suppy teaching gig, and I got thinking about an assembly held in a small-town high school of my intimate acquaintance.

It was the spring of ’02, I think. The principal had booked a speaker; not the usual “you-have-so-much-to-gain-from-getting-involved-so-hey-whaddaya-got-to-lose!” motivational banter from a caffeinated twenty-something with a degree and no job.  This was a lecture on Canada’s place in the world from a greying Gwynne Dyer: historian, writer and commentator on international affairs. (I’m still not sure what he was doing in the Home of the Blue Devils.) The staff had been poorly briefed, and the students didn’t know what was up, but it was a substitute for fourth period, so we trooped down to the auditorium at two o’clock. At least, those of us who hadn’t already escaped to Timmy’s or McD’s.

I was superbly biased: I’d read Dyer in newspapers, seen him on The National, and been wowed by his eight-part documentary film, War. (It made me want to teach history.) He’s a brilliant guy, rumpled and wryly funny, so I was looking forward to hearing him speak. (Yes, I often feel alone. How’d you know?) He spoke for 50 minutes, with two major points to make. He put our present world situation in perspective, apologizing for the role he plays in the media’s portrait of the world as a frighteningly violent and despairing place. (I don’t think he would retract the grimly but clearly optimistic tone he took that day, but his recent book IS Future: Tense — The Coming World Order? His biggest concern there was America’s singular quest to police the world, including this typically blunt Dyer-ism: “The United States needs to lose the war in Iraq as soon as possible. Even more urgently, the whole world needs the United States to lose the war in Iraq.”)

But back then, the end of the Cold War had him arguing the following, in spite of the threat of terrorism: “The world is in better shape than it has been in my entire lifetime” and “World War III has been cancelled!” He argued that the generation of high schoolers he was facing had great reason to be hopeful about the world they were inheriting. Second, he argued that “the single best thing Canadians have done” was the 1967 reworking of the Immigration Act. It has steadily transformed Canada from an inward-looking population descended from northern European settlers, he said, into “a representative sample of the human race”, the most diverse country on earth. Sure, there are problems, he explained, but not only does this diversity make us truly interesting, but it gives us a creative advantage in the global marketplace, and is the key to diluting French-English antagonism and preserving Canadian unity. Whew!  It was a big message for suburban white kids on a Thursday afternoon.

There were twin conclusions to the talk.  One was Dyer’s: “It’s a great country—take good care of it!” The other, after an odd delay — so that our guest could leave the room, I guess — was our vice-principal’s dressing-down of the students for their rudeness and lack of attention. Which message are they going to remember? I wonderedI was moving past my own reaction (impressed) to Dyer to consider what the rest of the crowd got from it. I picked out one red-headed Brain that I’d worked with in class and cross-country running. “Hey, Chris, Canada’s in the world — who knew?” I said, and he smiled. He’d obviously been tuned in; he separated himself from those around him by his unbroken attention and by laughing at Dyer’s subtle jokes. (Mentioning the sexual revolution of the 60s, he had deadpanned, “Pity you missed it”). Chris’s buddy Ryan admitted (well, confessed, actually) that he had understood most of Dyer’s talk, noting a bit sheepishly that “we always listen to CBC Radio and my dad always talks to me about this stuff”. These guys felt a little alone, too.

Most of the students I talked to had more to say about the V.P.’s 30 seconds than about Mr. Dyer’s hour. Pressed to comment on his address, comments ranged (but not too widely) from “It was boring/stupid” to a disgusted “He just stood there and talked” to a more self-examining “I tried to pay attention but I couldn’t follow it, so of course we’re gonna talk a bit…” I was amazed.  We hear all the time about kids and short attention spans and how information needs to be a jump-cutting jolt of entertainment to get through to them. I was facing them daily then, but I was still surprised by how many had surfed to another channel (if not another location altogether) before Dyer had finished his opening comments, or, in some cases, spoken at all. Perhaps I didn’t want to think about how little of my own chalk-stained raving had flown right past bland and pleasant faces…

Granted, we hadn’t been very well-prepared. Students who heard afterwards from a teacher that Mr. Dyer had been shot at several times in the course of his globe-trotting journalism, or spent time as a sailor, said “I wish they’d told me that before!” And we should have prepared the kids much better. It was an afternoon that made high school teaching feel, just fer a second there, like the ultimate tilt at a bored and impervious windmill. But thanks for coming out, Gwynne.

(Hey, my site seems to be working! A condensed version of this piece will appear shortly in my hometown weekly, The Grand River Sachem.)

Just Human Nature?

Have you ever noticed how gloomy we are in the way we talk about ourselves? About our species, I mean. Someone cheats – on his taxes, on her partner – and we shrug and mutter, “Well, it’s only human nature.” Over and over, we sing the same mournful refrain in response to signs of dishonesty, selfishness and aggression, most often evident among people that we don’t know.

I find this bizarre. I think we need to reclaim this phrase, and shout Now THAT’S human nature! whenever we catch people in acts like this: pushing a stranger’s car out of the snow; smiling at small children; preserving history or restoring spoiled habitats; singing the good old songs; standing against injustice; jumping into icy water or burning houses to save another. I don’t mean that lying and brutality don’t happen, only that they are not the default mode of the human system.

It reminds me of the view of history as one unrelieved tale of war, tragedy and competition. If this was true, how could we have cities and art and temples and enduring music? War destroys quickly, and this is the horror, but it is also the exception. If war and aggression were the rule, we’d have destroyed ourselves long ago. If it were otherwise, how could any of the cooperative projects and personal accomplishments of human beings remain? The King James Bible, Chartres Cathedral, Réal Madrid CF, the computer program on which I write: pick your favourite example of human enterprise and progress, and know that it required time and peace to be built.

And if our human nature is nothing but self-interest and negativity, how have we survived? (Just give us time, I hear some of you muttering. We’re working on it.) We can be beastly to each other, but we can also be angels. When we think of our friends, our family, the colleagues we know and respect, we don’t assume as some sort of default stance that they are “only out for themselves”, “naturally aggressive” or, God forbid, “born in sin”. Oh, we screw up. We are in constant need of education. Most of the time, though, most of us are just ordinary Janes and Jamals who are trying to be useful, wanting to enjoy the company of others and to leave some legacy of goodness behind. It’s only human nature, after all.

(And here’s Waldo! Ralph Waldo Emerson, that is, with his description of humans being at their best, the success that, in our heart of hearts, most of us want more than anything else:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.