Appeared in North Shore News – November 12, 2010
Each of us is parented, nurtured, pounded, coddled, bullied, taught, shaped, beaten, rewarded, encouraged, stretched, punished, fantasized and immersed by and into the times we live through when young.
The Second World War — the “last ‘good’ war” — will never quit me (b. 1934). As perhaps the Great War never deserted my Winnipeg-born father (b. 1905), who not once mentioned what prejudice he might have experienced as a boy, or that the family clipped the name “Lautenslager” some time early in the last century (his father had left Vienna in the 1890s) and my mother invented a fictional ethnicity for her children, revealed only when we were well into adulthood.
We know less — nothing — about how war influenced the childhood of her own father, George George (b. 1856). His mother died in a later childbirth. His father handed his children over to another family and vanished to serve and die in the American Civil War (1861-65). Or not. American war records are silent. Myth is the gossip of the past. But the shadow of war beyond his years must have shaped George George, this child of a century and a half ago.
His name — more fiction. Our Alberta cousins, Charles and Ann Bird, found the family name was Georg and they were Germans. My maternal grandmother injected English into our blood. No, none of us ever had to suppress a compulsion to win India or invade Poland.
The alert reader will realize that the above, fattened by one family’s unreliable story, is about the present, not the past. Wise persons have said in various ways that the past is never behind us — always beside us. The war I absorbed, as only a child can, stands over my shoulder as I write. And breathe.
Living in this safe country of ours, for me the war was grippingly romantic, and our soldiers, every one, heroes. Good and evil indivisible. This led to a life both narrowly judgmental (some would say) and deeply disappointing (I would say).
For when the heroes returned triumphantly bearing the sword that slew the dragon, surely mankind would dwell forever in peace, prosperity and progress. Of course there’d be toil, bills payable, toothache, garbage still to be taken out on Tuesday mornings, and let’s not forget childbirth. But for two generations cruelly squashed by two wars and a depression, these would be trifles — adequate food on the table and a safe bed luxuries enough.
The wars hugely reshaped the map but not the human being. He was still there, clever, ambitious, a builder, a destroyer, tribe-loyal, sincere when necessary, unscrupulous when necessary, a hero in domesticity’s trenches, a thief if he gambled on not being caught out.
I’m shamed of my naivety. For years I actually thought that peace would provide plenty, and plenty would satisfy mankind. Material progress would make life easier and all would be grateful for the inventiveness of the great creators. Wealth would, could, never be equally distributed, but fairly enough. And time off for innocent pleasures. Or why else did our youth shed blood in six years of war against undoubted — no question at all — monstrous tyrannies?
Wrong. Materialism demands feeding by more materialism. Last year’s adult toys must be scrapped for this year’s gotta-have-it. Democracy bets that a free, or freer, people will choose good conduct over bad. Half the time it wins — but the house never losses. The democracies are far less democratic than their self-advertisement, as the various scandals of politicians, police and business show, but a crude best experiment.
All stereotypes fail. It’s surprising that so many of the wealthy, though some are scoundrels of highest degree, are generous benefactors; less surprising that many of the poor — rich by historical standards — are so grubbily selfish, not to be romanticized or condescended to. Idealists determined to destroy this society for something better are easily manipulated by the cynical, as the Cold War amply proved.
The dullness and passivity of the 1950s have reached legendary status. Wrong. For better or worse (be careful of what you wish for?), Canadians in the 1950s pressed for change in entrenched institutions, nourishing the progressive liberalization familiar today.
Did we want more sexual freedom? More liberal divorce? Relief from oppressive liquor laws that puritanically made drinking in public a sin best hidden behind shaded windows, with different entrances and sections for “ladies and escorts”? We did. (Oh, and once inside the pub, a six-ounce draft of beer cost 10 cents.)
But what about the post-war battering of ancient prejudices — racism and sexism above all? Progress, surely.
Agreed, broadly. But much racism and sexism is flipped — new racism, new sexism for old. Despising white male Europeans is on the rise. Most Volcanovian activists are solely interested in getting a leg-up for Volcanovians. The vicious sexism and man-hatred of some feminists, acquiesced in by many more, were obvious, but silenced by so-called political correctness, the pseudonym for causes seized by the media and driven at bottom by money, more consumers, not idealism.
As for security — there’s a growth industry. The wise among our forebears understood human nature far better than our present cultural icons. Dr. Johnson would grasp instantly the threat to freedom posed by anonymous Internet hate-dispensers and graffiti morons, who played an evil role in harassing Premier Gordon Campbell and vandalizing the home of Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin. Democracy is too good for them.
The individual life remains private, existential, too busy for much reflection on the great questions. Millions can live with the mystery of death more hard-headedly than the mystery of arthritis.
Sparky Anderson, who died recently — and who could have predicted his outstanding future when Unca Billy and I saw him play second base for the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs in the old Fleet Street stadium in 1962? — once observed: “Babe Ruth is in the cemetery, and the game goes on.” What philosopher put it better? What more is there to say?
© Trevor Lautens, 2010