Worse is Always Possible

The Great Rift Valley in Kenya, where humans decided thousands of years ago that the grass was greener somewhere else...and so went on to fill the planet.

The Great Rift Valley in Kenya, where humans decided thousands of years ago that the grass was greener somewhere else (and the thorns not so sharp)…and so went on to fill the planet.

The immediate aftermath of the #Brexit referendum pushes me to think of John Donne’s poem, Meditation XVII from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), changing the first words to “no island is an island, entire of itself.”

It is a catastrophic mistake, but when people truly are given a choice, there is no assurance that they will make the right one. Circumstances have not been good in Britain lately, but the #Brexiteers don’t seem to have understood that things can always get worse.

Nor, in the wave of “me do it myself” sentiment that propelled them to a narrow victory, did they process the fact that leaving the European Union means the British are still subject to the same forces that have shaped their economy and society, but now with less influence over the decisions that are made.

It also means within five years at the outside that the clock will be rolled back even further to 1706, as Scotland and Northern Ireland (both of which strongly supported remaining in the EU) now have even better reasons to reduce the United Kingdom once again to the Kingdom of England (and Wales).

In economic, social, cultural and especially environmental terms, there are no islands anymore – at least none that can stand against the forces that life in the 21st century arrays against it. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) know this only too well, as they watch their coastline eroded by rising sea levels and more extreme storms, making their physical independence from the mainland a dangerous reality because of the effects of climate change.

The decision to leave the EU is troubling for many reasons. The nearly 30% of Britons who did not vote casts a question on the total numbers, but (in the aftermath, of course) one wonders whether a referendum was a good idea to start with. Clearly, the results were driven by ignorance and anger (witness the commentary throughout), but this is not markedly different from any recent election campaign.

Democracy itself is in trouble – fortune favours the demagogue who can reduce complexity to simple “us versus them” language, coloured by negative emotions and fueled by fear.

Things can always get worse – and that troubling thought should give Americans something to think about, as the rhetoric gets even nastier with the two presumptive nominees for President slinging whatever they can find at the other.

I can’t influence American politics any more than I could a British referendum, but whatever decisions are made, there are consequences for the rest of us. Entropy is a political as well as a physical reality; it takes more energy to hold something together than it does to take something apart.

Focus on the differences among us, at every level, and there are myriad reasons to fragment and separate and go our own ways. Whether or not any of those differences are significant becomes irrelevant to the emphasis that is placed upon them. The politics of unity will always be trumped by the politics of division, unless some stronger force holds the group together.

It would be nice if that stronger force was love – love of the other, love of the stranger, love of the world around us – but love always seems to be in shorter supply than anger, and fear more obvious than compassion.

Perhaps this is just appearance, an appearance driven by power and fueled by anxiety to manipulate us into conflicts that would not otherwise take place. Certainly there is much money to be made from fear and conflict – it is hard to sell assault rifles in a world ruled by peace and administered in love.

While the world always needs more love, these days it especially needs less carbon. The unifying force that may drive us together, rather than apart, is fear of what climate change will bring in the near future as global warming changes the landscape – and seascape, for islands of whatever size.

What will be called the failure of the European Union points to the flaws in a political and economic union, however rational, because it did not deal with the social, cultural and emotional dimensions of that union.

It means that efforts (like the Pan-African movement) to unify other regions will not even get off the ground. If European tribalism fatally undermined the EU, just imagine how much more powerful those sentiments would be in Africa – even assuming, for a second, that countries in Africa would ever be allowed a real chance for self-determination by past and present colonial powers.

We are not masters in our own house, none of us. In a climate-changing world, thrashing about in a tangle of international trade agreements, political and military alliances, compounded by differences in social, cultural and religious practices and institutions, there is no room for “me do it myself.”

Whatever we do, wherever we are, affects the lives of people elsewhere as well as in the future.

When the #Brexit tune is applauded by folks in the United States who have similar thoughts about leaving the United Nations (the only organization, however flawed, where everyone has a seat at the table), we should be worried.

For any number of reasons, things are going to get worse all around the only planet on which humans are able to live. Some things we can change – and must. Other things, we need to survive, somehow.

We will either find a way together, or not at all. There are no islands anymore, places in which to find refuge from what lies ahead. Independence – in a globalized society on a round Earth – is a dangerous illusion.

So, while we had no say in the outcome, #Brexit just made things more difficult for everyone.

That poem by John Donne? Modernized in language, when you hear the funeral bell ringing from the church steeple, don’t bothering asking for whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for you.

Where have all the readers gone?

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016...all of them in search of that rare and elusive Reader!

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016…all of them in search of that rare and elusive creature, The Reader!

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought.

Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort the school system spends on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about ¼ of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books anymore. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a nation of readers – at least not of more than 1000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Academics of course have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a post-literate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

Yet the irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – are at the centre of this passion for education. Yet here at home our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school (college or university) and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, “gender parity” was spelled “gender parody” instead!) Spell check doesn’t help if brain check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end!

Peter Denton’s sixth book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores everywhere in Fall 2016. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

A Century of Poppies…and Larks

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015 Photo: Peter Denton

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

“The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below”

The 100th anniversary this year in May of Lt. Col John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” has been marked by many. For all of its lines, the one that sticks in my head is not about torches or poppies, but about the larks, still bravely singing, that fly over the battlefield.

They are evidence of the tenacity and resilience of life, the continuity with the earth and the rhythms of nature, precisely at the time when the destructive powers of humanity are at their most devastating.

The guns pulverized the landscape, churning the soil so that the lime underneath made it inhospitable to other plants, while encouraging the poppies to flourish. Incoming or outgoing, the noise of artillery shattered thoughts as easily as eardrums. One withstood the barrage, survived the noise, waited for the space that followed the crump and crash of shells, knowing that the sounds of silence meant survival – for now.

It also could signal the start of an attack, as the barrage lifted, so one needed to rush out to the firestep to be sure, peering through the fog, the mist, the dusk or dawn, perhaps to see light glinting from the bayonets of a charging enemy.

In the midst of such muddy chaos, it was impossible to look beyond the moment, to think beyond the instinct for survival. Yet in the letters written home from the trenches, the sketches, the poems, some still did — preserving their own identity and humanity in the midst of an experience implacable about erasing both.

Where 1914 included the initial euphoria of those off to the grand adventure that would bring them home for Christmas, 1915 settled into the mud of Flanders. There was bitter and inconclusive fighting, Ypres, poison gas, the disaster at Gallipoli and the realization that no one would be going anywhere soon, except to the cemeteries that were already filled with more casualties than Europe had seen since the Napoleonic wars.

In that context, McCrae looked around at the poppies and then up to the sky, seeing and hearing the larks.

Remembrance Day ceremonies always move me. Where I attend, pomp and polish are usually missing, the printed program as stumbled with mistakes as the ceremony — and the delivery of words and messages as faltering as the veterans who march past.

But if the service is dusted off each year, along with the old blazers and racks of medals, much younger ones now join those old faces. Canada was at war in Afghanistan longer than in any other time in its history – those veterans walk among us, every day. They are at soccer practice and swimming lessons, waiting for ballet to wrap up or the instruments to be put away at the end of rehearsal. Their children have grown up worried whether about daddy or mummy will come home from the war. Their families continue to deal with the stresses back home of the effects of war on their own identity and humanity.

I don’t know how many of my Royal Military College students have been there and back, just that too many have. None were among the 158 fatalities, for which I am thankful, but I am sure that others have come home with physical and mental scars to mark their service to Canada and to the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So however garbled the local ceremony, however awkward the procession, my thoughts always rise above the event, like the larks in McCrae’s poem. Remembering what I have never experienced, imagining places I have never been, seeing people whom I have never met, it matters that I am there. It’s what keeping faith means.

At the end of the service, I always pin my poppy to the green artificial turf at the base of the white cross that serves as the portable memorial at the civic ceremony in Winnipeg. I remember when it first started to happen – how it took organizers by surprise – but it became more moving than the dignitaries laying their plastic wreathes. Ordinary people, tears in their eyes from thoughts and memories unshared, old and young, mark their own place in that remembrance.

By coincidence, I was in Ottawa for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and placed my poppy on it at the end of that ceremony, becoming part of a tradition that I expect will continue regardless of what else happens on the Hill.

It’s more than a sign of respect. It is a reminder that we need to live each day committed to the spirit of sacrifice, out of concern for others — caring about principles that will lead to a better world for everyone and not just for ourselves.

That kind of act, in the midst of whatever battles we are fighting, whatever the sound of the guns in our own lives, whatever dread comes upon us in the silence, is how we rise above the din of daily conflict that can otherwise overwhelm us.

Like the larks, still bravely singing, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are and where we are headed, because there is much more to life than what we find in Flanders’ muddy fields.

Peter Denton, Ph.D., is Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada, whose students he has been privileged to teach since 2003.