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    Glen Pearson

    Photo credit: Maclean's

    Remembrance Day Redux

    Posted on November 14, 2019

    I had to speak for a Remembrance Day service this past weekend and it prompted memories of how my father, wounded during the Second World War and enduring a lengthy convalescence, said virtually nothing about his experiences to his family.??What I learned of his activities came from when he was with his war buddies following the conflict.??For them it was permissible to talk through the horrors and the good times, but for the rest of us – nothing.??I have heard that same story repeated countless times from other families concerning their returning loved ones.

    It’s a bit easier to understand that behaviour now that I’ve gotten older.??Part of that comes from reading the poems he wrote for the Calgary Herald during the war.??They are indeed painful to read and beautiful in their poignancy.??The pathos in his thoughts is as real as anything I have read.??His ideals were dashed.??He stopped mentioning God partway through the conflict.????He wrote of how the romantic moon and warlike Mars were ever at odds with one another.??Wondering if the conflict he was enduring was really creating the effect he had hoped for was a common theme he returned to again and again.??He wanted to go home.

    And yet he remained, just like millions of others.??And it is that remaining that was the source of his silence, I believe, after he returned home.??By staying in a never-ending macabre kind of humanity, he learned that it could only be endured by suppressing it, hiding it deep in a soul that was already battle hardened and barren.??Over time, his poems, still infused with a sense of fighting for the right, nevertheless reveal a man who had lost his place in it all and who questioned if he was, in fact, making the difference he had hoped he might.??A war that was lasting six years felt like an eternity and, like anyone digging in for a long hard passage, he lowered his expectations and soldiered on.

    But the cost for that consistency was enormous.??

    He went to war as a young man with a remarkable sense of humour and returned as a man saddened by all he saw.??Human morality was really something soldiers, sailors and airmen couldn’t afford to think about because their lives were being turned upside-down.??Ideas of right and wrong, enemies and allies, evil and good, righteous and sound – these were for those back home to be consoled with.??Stripped of ideals, war had become something more akin to animal survival than human triumph.

    And yet those serving did have one thing that transcended everything else – each other.???It is vital to remember that the average age of a Canadian soldier in the Second World War was 18 or 19, once the officer ranks were taken out of the total.??They needed one another more than anything else and to each other they vowed their fealty.??

    What we gave these youthful recruits were guns and bullets, planes and ships, bombs and grenades – resources hardly conducive to the high schools they had just left.??Surely their recruiters must have known that teenagers were never going to come out of the conflict the same way they entered it.??Those lucky enough to survive came home as seasoned warriors, but their youth was gone and in the place of humanity was a kind of haunting.?

    We now know that what each of them carried was PTSD.??They had trouble connecting to peace following their return because the war was destined to leave them forever troubled.??They arrived back in Canada, serenaded and lauded, but for the veterans themselves the sentiments of Siegfried Sasoon, in his?Suicide in the Trenches,??became their bitter gruel:

    You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
    Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
    Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
    The hell where youth and laughter go.

    Haunted teenagers are really what Remembrance Day is about.??Some 700,000 Canadian soldiers under the age of 21 served in World War Two.??Too many died.??Too many were maimed.??And we are learning that too many took their own lives after they returned.??No wonder it was easier for the returnees to rebuild their lives in a kind of respectful silence.??They earned it and we must seek to understand it.

    Remember our Future

    Posted on November 11, 2019

    Remembrance Day in Canada has always been something of a Rite of Passage.??Seeping into our collective DNA over the decades, it is observed by millions of Canadians, from children to the oldest veterans.

    Over time, it has become a national observance most associated with older age.??Largely, that is because the wars with the greatest losses occurred either a century or 70 or so years ago.??The fatalities were enormous, the cost horrific, and the effects on the Canadian psyche enduring.

    The reality is, however, was that participation in these world conflicts was actually about youth.??Some 700,000 Canadians under the age of 21 served in uniform in World War Two, with even more in World War One.??Stories are replete concerning 13-year-olds, lying about their age, attempting to enlist, with a few actually succeeding because of their size.??Hundreds of others, understanding they couldn’t make it to the front, nevertheless joined the Merchant Navy and made their own mark on the conflict.

    There are thousands of letters stored in memory boxes, file folders, and archives across the country that celebrated the birthdays of those turning 17, 18 and 19 while in serving in Europe.

    In a Canadian war cemetery in France lies a monument to the youngest Canadian soldier to die at Normandy.??He was only 16 when he was killed.

    It is hard to imagine people so young serving in such drastic and frequently tragic circumstances.??They were provided airplanes, ships, tanks, guns, bayonets, bombs and bullets to carry the war against the Axis forces.??They likely volunteered for conflict for what they perceived was the glory of battle, only to discover its macabre realities.??The average age of these Canadian combatants was 19, once the numbers of officers are taken out of the mix.

    In other words, teenagers are largely what Remembrance Day is about.??We are dedicated to never forgetting them, yet barely understand the horrors that must have plagued their young minds in global conflict.??

    And we mustn’t forget those who came home wounded in mind and body – 172,000 in the First World War and 55,000 in the Second.??Even the young who remained at home felt the effects of the battles across the ocean.??They filled in on the farms and factories, and the minimum age for driving was reduced to 14 so that they could take part in the domestic efforts to support the wars.

    One of the great hidden secrets of these conflicts has only begun to emerge in recent years, as we discover that thousands took their own lives after returning home.??What we now know as PTSD plagued their post-war days and nights and it all eventually became too much.

    It was to the young that Canada entrusted its future in time of conflict and it is becoming time to do so again – not so much for armed combat, but to fight for a better environment, the struggle against racism, prejudice, gender discrimination, violence and a new kind of politics.??The peace most recently secured following the closure of the Second World War is in danger of tearing at the seams and it will be the young generations to whom a better future will now be entrusted – not the politicians, economic barons, or the status quo.??If we once believed they were necessary for war, then it stands to reason that we must turn to them again to secure a more equitable peace.??Their young forebears fought and died for that right and their modern counterparts must now take up that torch.?

    One young 19 year-old Canadian soldier laying dying on a battlefield in France in 1944, with a friend from his Saskatchewan regiment watching over him, provided his final thoughts, and they are pure:

    “It looks like I won’t make it this time, Will. Tell my mother and father than I love them – my sister Elizabeth too. Tell them I’m sorry I won’t be home to help with the harvest. This isn’t how we thought this war would be, is it Will? Maybe people won’t even know that I am gone. I hope they do, Will. I hope they do.”

    We will remember him and the millions of others who perished in pursuit of a better humanity. Their sacrifice secured our future.

    Image credit: Stanford Review

    Rebuilding our Political Humanity

    Posted on November 8, 2019

    So many elections.??So much hype.??Politics everywhere, all the time – inescapable.??In all of this our political representatives and citizens have grown apart – kind of like a partnership that somehow grew distant and fell into suspicion.

    With the dust of this recent federal election now settled, we must sit down together and discern how we have arrived at the state where our politics is alienating us and our citizenship reflects that reality as opposed to transcending it.

    For many, perhaps most, politicians aren’t really people anymore but advertisers of a certain political spectrum that seems more important than the delivery of effective democracy itself.??We don’t really know them and instead become more familiar with their image on television, or in social and traditional media, and as indivisible from their political parties.??We have come to accept them as members of tribes as opposed to sincere individuals, which most politicians are, who entered the public domain to actually make it better.

    It is likely that the vast majority of voters will never meet politicians in real life, unless they attend rallies or have certain needs that only the politician can ameliorate.??Other than that, they don’t exist except during manic election seasons or as appendages of the party.??This irks us, since even when we find a political aspirant that we really like, we can’t just vote for her, or him, but must opt for the party they represent as well.??Parties aren’t a bad thing, per se,??but they remain organizations that exists for their own sake and purposes, making it difficult for a politician to separate themselves from that association.??As a result, it’s a hard thing for us to be familiar with politicians anymore, since it’s almost impossible to imagine them as decent people outside of their political environment.

    That’s the politician; what about the voter???That’s just it: the voter is only seen for their political potential as well.??When it’s all said and done, this person matters to the system simply because once in a while they enter a little cardboard booth, pick up a pencil, make a mark, and then head back to their daily lives.??They come to matter because they have the power to select, but not the potential to partner.

    Inevitably it seems, voters become this kind of faceless group that appears occasionally in things like polls or the rare demonstration.??They are something to be processed when required, but other than that kept docile by the offering of certain perks.

    It has all become a sad state of affairs, for it means that the true essence of decision-making – debate, ideas, interaction, emotion, compromise – is rarely achieved by these two groups that actually require one another for legitimacy.??Politicians are reticent to depart from the party line, whereas citizens are increasingly inclined to do the opposite.??Democracy requires both, thus our political environment is in decline.

    Put plainly: citizens and their representatives, while normally human beings desiring to be truly human, accountable, taking responsibility for their actions and opinions, are becoming steadily depersonalized and distant from one another – a chasm only further deepened and widened by the false promises of “social” media.??It all seems to become assembly line civilization – interchangeable parts, marketing, bottom line, deadening.

    For a world becoming alienating and infuriatingly difficult to alter, it seems that the only real hope is the ripping away of the fa?ade and the reconnection with other human beings, so that we might deliberate together.??We need an update and retooled version of the Renaissance – that time when creativity thrived, people awoke to their personal and collective potential, and the exploring of the possible.??It would mean that community, and how we carry it, becomes something we create, not fight over.??

    History reminds us that our humanity is often rescued when we are in danger of losing it.??Politician and citizen alike must rediscover one another in dark and foreboding environment and create a “new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln would put it.??The best time to do that isn’t during an election, but following it.??This is the opportunity our political leaders now face, since a diverse electoral outcome provides us with only two choices: collaborate or splinter again.??It is also the time when citizens can attempt to get past the incomplete choices of selecting one party over others and, instead, building communities for all.

    Photo credit: Unsplash

    Shooting the Message

    Posted on November 1, 2019

    My city of London, Ontario has now joined hundreds of others in officially declaring a climate change emergency.??Acknowledging and formalizing the crisis is an important beginning but it’s hardly the most effective component of truly tackling our environmental challenge.??You see this type of thing all the time coming out of city halls, provincial capitals and national parliaments – all full of well-meaning intentions but devoid of political reality.

    The reason for it is simple: declarations are one thing; effective policy implementation is quite another.??Once political ideologies and special interests get involved, the slicing and dicing of any meaningful initiative usually rips the heart out of what was initially designed.??This political phenomenon has likely affected the issue of the climate more than any other in recent years.

    To put it plainly: politics has drowned out the issue, proving far more powerful than vital attempts to tackle our environmental emergency.??Declaring a climate crisis can virtually be the first step in undermining it, since political interests can undermine such efforts long after public attention fades.

    One would think that the preferred option for climate action would circle around scientific evidence, but we learned years ago that even when 95% of scientists and researchers concur on the seriousness of the issue, it never proves sufficient enough to drive any serious change.??That’s because politics itself has made the issue of climate change a partisan issue that is virtually impossible to counter.

    We know what this looks like.??The Left views the Right as Neanderthal in their approach, labelling them as science deniers.??The Right counters by noting that the Left are merely attempting to force a progressive ideology that’s more determined to undermine their opponents that to truly fix the planet.??Additionally, they perceive progressives as “pro-government” social engineers who feel that taxes are the only way out of any problem.??The distrust at this level is deep and dysfunctional.??It’s more about psychology than principle or fiction over facts.

    As a result, “climate change” has become a politically loaded term that identifies the Left, just as “deniers” brackets the Right.??We would like to believe that verified research isn’t political, but at a separate level, like law, that everything must be weighed against.????But in a world where everything is political, even something that provides ample proof of itself every day – massive hurricanes, vast flooding, raging forest fires, etc. – falls suspect to being something of political design, as if people are simply making it up in order to force their own agenda.??The only way to fight it and enforce the opposite is to deny it because it’s not about the environment at all but a political agenda that threatens to wipe out everything in its wake.

    In such a world, everything becomes a caricature, like something from Shakespeare’s pen.??There are plots, fascinating characters, tragedy and flawed humanity, but in the end its ultimate purpose is drama – the kind people can observe and then walk away from.

    The problem is, naturally enough, that no one escapes a ravaged planet.??It is about reality and the end becomes increasingly clear with each passing cataclysm.??Somehow, we have come to think of climate change, or its denial, as a character in dramas written by those across the political spectrum.??It’s trotted out each time someone wants to keep the carbon-based way of life or who wishes to propose a progressive agenda under the guise of environmental apocalypse.

    It has now become an easy thing to see climate change as merely a political narrative, a tool, a ploy, to deploy to prove the Left or Right’s agenda.???Much of what is said might be true, but that is not its purpose.??It is a powerful and persuasive pawn in a vast political game that is more about money and ideology that something that is presently ruining our world.??One can no longer talk of climate change without thinking of these greater designs.

    The reality is, of course, that we are the players, moving around the stage and playing our manufactured parts, when climate change itself is the true reality – real life.??We continue to spout our rehearsed lines even as the theatre burns down around us.??Climate change is too big a container, too vast a science, to house our puny efforts at politics or public policy.??It is the greatest issue of our age and we have chosen to handle it like some kind of political platform.

    Just this week, we learned the scientists admitted they were wrong about climate change.??It’s actually far more serious than they once believed.??New satellite-based predictions now reveal that three times as many people will be devastated by sea level rise in just 30 years than was initially believed – 300 million altogether.??And it’s not just in some far away developing country that the effect will be felt.??In Britain alone, 3.5 million people are about to be put at risk by serious flooding.??But that is now the land of Brexit, of make believe, of political drama.??The environmental dangers will be recruited in a political folly to act as fodder for agendas from the Left or Right.

    We have foolishly chosen to shoot the message instead of heeding it and instead becomes fascinated by climate change’s many messengers, for good or ill.??Only when we confess that it transcends our politics and our lifestyles will we find a way ahead through an increasingly dangerous landscape.

    Photo credit: Harvard Business Review

    When the Image is All That’s Left

    Posted on October 26, 2019

    “In reality, the rise of mass media as the dominant venue for democratic dialogue has helped to complete the alienation of citizens from political realities and from one another. At first thought, this statement would appear to be untrue. Are today’s citizens not more aware of public affairs than their forefathers? While the answer must certainly be “yes,” it fails to cover the entire story.

    “The essential fact is not necessarily one of education or knowledge but of apathy and de-sensitivity.???Citizens today are literally inundated with messages – a massive influx of facts and fiction that leaves them wondering what is true and what’s not, what is real and what is fanciful. The result? People have been reduced to the role of sullen spectators, perplexed and lost in a vast array of images. Yeats was perhaps more correct than he realized when he penned: ‘The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream”.

    I came across these words I had written in a book about citizenship back in 1998 – with the Internet in its infancy and Facebook, Twitter, Netflix weren’t even yet a dream.??I worried back then how citizens, unmoored from their institutions and slowly migrating to isolated lives in their homes and on television, could lose their capacity to maintain the remarkable cultural hegemony that been built following World War Two and with the development of the middle-class.??

    It is true that television and other technologies communicate with people through vivid images. Initially, this was an invigorating prospect for its early developers. Even Marshall McLuhan, with his instinctive comprehension of the limitations of media, concluded that watching television would require active participation on the part of the viewer. We have now come to understand that the name of the game is passivity – people’s minds tuning out at the same time they are tuning in.

    In?The Third Wave,?Alvin Toffler spoke of how average “citizens in the past acquired certain??images??primarily through the institutions of their day – the family, church, political establishment, etc.??He then adroitly described the massive change that the modem media has brought upon society:

    The child no longer received imagery from nature or people alone but from newspapers, mass magazines, radio, and, later on, from television. For the most part, church, state, home, and school continued to speak in unison, reinforcing one another. But now the mass media themselves became a giant loudspeaker. And their power was used across regional, ethnic, tribal, and linguistic lines to standardize the images flowing in society’ s mindstream.

    Toffler classifies this as part of the “second wave” of societal development. He goes on explain that it is being rapidly replaced by the technological innovations of the “third wave,” in which the pressures on the modern mind become staggering because of the media’s sheer monopoly of the communication venue. His conclusion? “We find it impossible to cope.” He correctly assumes that this modern array of images will not only accelerate the information flow flooding into our brains but will consequently “transform the deep structure of information on which our daily actions depend.” This is all the more significant when one realizes he penned these words in 1980.

    Nietzche?profoundly observed??that “understanding stops action.” He was only partly correct because there are a good number of intelligent people who have been spurned to action by their new-found knowledge. But the sight of millions of citizens hooked into the modern media and yet rarely involved with political realities would seem to lend a certain credence to Nietzche’s claim.

    Knowledge is meant to provide individuals and groups with a greater respect for the complexities of life, and the rapid development of modern civilization is living testimony to that fact. But the dominance of modern life by today’s media in increasingly creating a citizenry accustomed to much the same images and forms of communication.??In past ages, individuals and groups out of necessity had to do much of the creating; the family, church, school, etc., providing the arena where people put their own thoughts and visions on display. Today it is all accomplished for us in living colour and stereo sound, leaving us with little else to do but watch and listen.

    We are thus being provided with a multitude of images which are most often empty of substance and therefore become stereotypical. Even accounting for a variance of tastes, we all basically watch the same television programs, attend the same movies and listen to the same songs. We are a society fast on its way to becoming bland, and the more media outlets there are, the faster we seem to be getting there.

    A nation that watches the same television programs but from the privacy of their own homes is in reality a fragmented nation.??Such a form of communication is a weak, and sometimes pathetic, substitute for genuine dialogue, where the media simply facilitates the communication link rather than supplementing it with its own agenda. The debate about media and its influence must come from the people themselves, ordinary citizens who are able to envision a more robust democracy than what presently exists. If the people don’t bring about that debate, the likelihood is that it won’t be brought about at all.