Monday, August 31, 2009

The Last Brother

Much has been written about Ted Kennedy since he died a week ago. There is little I can add -- except some personal impressions. Three weeks ago, my wife, our son and I stood at the Kennedy grave site in Arlington, Virginia. My mind went back to November 22, 1963, when I was as old as the son who stood beside me. I was surprised at how vivid the memory was, and how I ached at the unfairness of things.

For me -- and, I suspect, for many of my generation -- the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King marked the end of innocence. We had chased each other between our houses, firing cap pistols in the pursuit of justice. Justice -- and its triumph -- were certain. The death of those three men forced us to confront the power of the gun and the darkness of the human heart. The world was never the same again.

From then on, I was never surprised by disappointment. When Teddy drove off that bridge in Chappaquiddick, I was more disappointed than angry. When the story hit the media of the night Kennedy and his nephew spent before the latter was tried for rape, I was again more disappointed than angry. I concluded that the burdens Kennedy had borne had finally broken him.

However, he did not disappear. In the Senate he continued to thunder about unfairness -- not his own -- but the unfairness endured by those less privileged than himself. And, like Irish politicians of old, he continued to look after the folks. I'm convinced that duty is in the DNA of the Irish. There have been too many widows and orphans to allow it to atrophy.

I was particularly struck by what Kennedy wrote to one of the widows of September 11th -- a passage President Obama used in his eulogy: "As you know so well, the passage of time never really heals the tragic memory of such a great loss, but we carry on, because we have to, because our loved ones would want us to, and because there is still light to guide us in the world from the love they gave us."

I probably will not return to Washington in the years that are left to me. But if I did, I would visit Arlington again. I'm sure I would still feel the ache of injustice. But I believe that I would also feel something else. I would leave with the faith that -- as Martin Luther King said -- "unearned suffering is redemptive;" and -- as Edward Kennedy said -- "the dream still lives."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cheap Shot Artists

On August 20th, in Macleans, Peter C. Newman profiled Daniel Veniez, a man he described as "an activist who has laboured in several vineyards -- but without ever finding his long term Camelot." As a young Liberal, Veniez worked for John Turner; but he became disillusioned when Turner traded his fiscal conservatism for what Veniez perceived as left wing nationalism. He then supported Brian Mulroney and the Meech Lake Accord. But he left, disillusioned again, after the Charlottetown debacle.

He then quit politics to become the president of a pulp and paper company. But when Stephen Harper came on the scene, he entered the game again and was appointed by the Conservatives to run Ridley Terminals, in Prince Rupert, for the princely sum of $12,500 a year. But when he insisted that all customers pay the same rate, the multinationals -- who enjoyed preferential rates -- complained to the Harper government. Veniez was fired.

Veniez again discovered that his faith had been misplaced. "The Conservative Party and its leader are permanently angry." he says. "That's an ingrained part of who they are and what they represent. On a visceral level, they remain a protest party and have turned themselves into a protest government. They manage by negatives and are genetically incapable of inspiring hope or thinking big. They attack, assassinate character, tell lies, lower the bar on public discourse, and engage in tactical and divisive wedge politics and government. The tone, strategy and culture for this government are established by Harper, a cheap shot artist and cynic of the highest order."

Some might conclude that Veniez is a fair weather friend. Others might suggest that it has taken him an inordinate amount of time to cotton on to the fact that all politicians have feet of clay. But, watching what congressman Barney Frank has labelled the "vile contemptible nonsense" that is being served up by loud and angry American conservatives, still others might conclude that the fault is within the DNA of modern conservatism.

As Frank Rich noted in Sunday's New York Times, what is behind the "permanent anger" of modern conservatism is "panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change." Our era is a lot like the 1960's, when the American sociologist Daniel Bell sought to explain the appeal of conservative groups like the John Birch Society. "What the right as a whole fears," Bell wrote, "is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the incomprehensibility of a world -- now overwhelmingly technical and complex -- that has changed so drastically within a lifetime."

The root of conservative anger is fear; and fear is the enemy of clear thinking. Thus, with a few exceptions, the best these people can manage is a series of cheap shots -- like the attack ads and the pooping puffins the Harper government is famous for. Unfortunately, at this point, both the Liberals and the New Democrats have little new to offer. Until they recognize, like Franklin Roosevelt, that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance," things will not change. And Mr Veniez will remain disillusioned.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mr. Roosevelt

During our recent trip to Washington, we stopped to pay our respects to Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln. Each resides in his own temple: one, a man who helped build the machinery of democracy; the other, the man who gave the most succinct definition of it. This was the third time I have stood inside the Lincoln Memorial and read The Gettysburg Address, which is chiseled into one of the monument's walls. Its simple, direct and powerful prose always moves me.

But on this visit, even more than the Gettysburg Address, I was struck by other words on another wall -- part of a monument which did not exist the last time we were in Washington. The new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a sprawling complex. A bronze statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair -- his Scottish terrier Fala at his side -- is the centerpiece of the memorial. But in addition to the statue, there are several walls -- some with waterfalls cascading over them. On the rest are chiseled passages from Roosevelt's speeches, of which there were many. One wall -- and one passage -- haunts me.

In 1936 -- during a speech in Chautauqua, New York -- Roosevelt remembered his days as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration. After the United States entered the war in 1917, Roosevelt -- before the onset of polio -- made a tour of the front lines. What he saw he never forgot: " I have seen war." he said in Chautauqua. "I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line, the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war."

It was ironic that we began our visit at Arlington Cemetery and ended it at Gettysburg. In between we visited the Vietnam Memorial, where we encountered a veteran -- cane in hand --who claimed he lost the index finger on his right hand during an attack which killed 27 of his fellow infantrymen. Roosevelt had seen too many men like him; and what Roosevelt saw led him to work for international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, which could prevent what he had seen. For, as he also said, "Unless the peace that follows recognizes that the whole world is one neighbourhood, and does justice to the whole human race, the germs of another world war will remain as a constant threat to mankind."

His vision went far beyond his own country and his fellow citizens. He saw himself as a citizen of the world. If Lincoln was the greatest American president, then surely Roosevelt ranks a very close second.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Party of Lincoln?

From north of the 49th parallel, the debate over health care in the United States looks more and more insane. That's not to say that establishing a national medicare system is easy. When Tommy Douglas introduced medicare to Saskatchewan in 1962, the province's doctors -- with the support of the North American medical establishment -- went on strike. The strike lasted almost a month, while the province imported doctors from Britain, the United States and other provinces. But what the opponents of medicare discovered was that the plan was immensely popular -- so popular that it served as the model for the national plan which now serves all Canadian provinces.

There will always be powerful interests to oppose any national medical insurance plan. At the moment, though, it would appear that, in the United States -- in Yeats' phrase -- "the worst are full of passionate intensity." Sarah Palin claims that, "my baby with Down [sic] Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." This from the Republican candidate for vice president of the United States?

John Boehner, the Republican House Leader claims that the plan now being crafted would make it illegal for health care workers " to provide anything less than abortion on demand." And the last week has seen the spectacle of the people's representatives being shouted down at a time honoured American political institution, the town hall meeting. The goal is not to have a public debate. It is to shut down public debate. In effect, the strategy is to defeat a plan, which is still being developed, by adopting a scorched earth policy.

Next week we are travelling with our youngest son to Washington. We've only been there once before -- eighteen years ago -- with our two older sons. But you can't go to Washington without walking down the National Mall and paying Mr. Lincoln a visit. Lincoln has been a hero of mine since I was eight years old -- when my parents, in a trip to Kentucky, took us to the log cabin where he was born. Later, of course, I discovered The Gettysburg Address. But as I have grown older, I have become convinced that Lincoln's finest speech was the one he delivered at his second inaugural. The best lines Lincoln ever wrote are the last lines of that speech:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and among all nations.

Compare those lines to Sarah Palin's or John Boehner's and you see what has become of the Republican Party. The members of that party are fond of saying that they need to return to first principles. What they really need to do is to return to their first president. His spirit lives on in the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, it does not animate the modern Republican Party.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wither the WASP?

Over the last couple of weeks, we have witnessed a strange spectacle. Despite the state of Hawaii's verification that Barack Obama was born there, people like Lou Dobbs and Liz Cheney have joined a gaggle of conspiracy theorists, who continue to question the veracity of the president's birth certificate: Barack Obama, they insist, was born in Kenya; and, therefore, he has no legitimate right to the presidency.

As Bill Maher pointed out in The Los Angeles Times, we've seen this movie before: "This flap might be a deluded right wing obsession that is a total waste of time, but so was Whitewater . . . [and] more recently we had the Swiftboat allegations against John Kerry. . ."

How does one explain this kind of zaniness? "That reaction," Frank Rich wrote in Sunday's New York Times, "is an example of how the inexorable transformation of America into a white-minority country in some 30 years -- by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate -- is causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments."

Those establishments have been White, Anglo Saxon and Protestant; but they have been under siege for some time. There was the surge of immigration, beginning in the 1840's, first with the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews from Eastern Europe. They may have been white or Semitic; but Anglo Saxon and Protestant? In the twentieth century, there have been waves of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, all answering the call at the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

For over two centuries, the "wretched refuse" have arrived and risen to prosperity -- but there were certain barriers they were supposed to respect. Now that they outnumber those who originally occupied positions of power, the "quality" are getting anxious, even a little paranoid. That was never more apparent than when such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor -- President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court -- "a racist."

From time immemorial, minorities have forged political alliances to advance their agendas. But the people who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Obama's birth certificate refuse to recognize their growing minority status. They can't beat them; and they won't join them. As Mark Twain observed, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."