What Ought We Remember, What Ought We Forget?

tangential wandering

As I have grown older, I’ve become increasingly ambivalent about Remembrance Day. That is not to say I take issue with setting aside a day to remember and contemplate those who risked everything in the name of what they thought was right. Quite the contrary: we should take more than fifteen minutes every year to engage in the sort of remembrance and contemplation that Remembrance Day ostensibly exists for.

But Remembrance Day as it is observed today has little to do with such contemplation. There is no room for questions about whether what our progenitors fought and died for was indeed right and just—that is now plainly assumed. And so Remembrance Day has become nothing more than a time for uttering platitudes soaked in ardent nationalism and blind veneration of military force.

I witnessed one of these unabashed displays in Kingston last week (although ceremonies similar in tone and substance took place nationwide). The Master of Ceremonies was an elderly gentleman with a gruff and guttural voice, and a central part of his program was his loose recitation of a poem often attributed to Charles M. Province. That poem extols the primacy of the soldier thusly: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, that has given us freedom of the press; it is the soldier, not the poet, that has given us freedom of speech; it is the soldier, not the campus organizer, that has given us freedom to protest; it is the solider, not the lawyer, that has given us the right to a fair trial.” After this reading came that of the bishop, who admonished us to pray for the men who died so that we may live, and who died in the name of some sort of holy “truth and righteousness.” We were to pray for men who took life, and who in turn had theirs taken, all with God on their side.

I found this disappointing, but hardly surprising. Yet it was profoundly disquieting that these statements were put forth to a crowd that included several elementary schoolchildren. I couldn’t help but think that these children would grow up actually believing that all our freedoms were won at gunpoint; that the actions of journalists and poets and protesters and lawyers are deservedly secondary to the actions of soldiers; and that it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.

When the moment of silence came, my thoughts turned to the men, many of them younger than me, who served in the First World War. I thought of how they had been duped by their leaders, tricked into going off to fight for freedom only to be slaughtered in the mud of some foreign land. Few Canadians had the courage or the decency to warn these men that they were dying for nothing; those few that did find their honest voice were met with a swift and severe “patriotic” backlash. To question whether the war was just had risen to the level of heresy and slander—and I can scarcely imagine it being much different a century later.

Perhaps my discomfort is best summed up in the book Warrior Nation, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. It is worth reading at length, but I think one of its major themes can be paraphrased thusly: When we make every soldier into a hero, we make all of their actions heroic, and the result is that we find ourselves unable to debate the merits both of past wars and of sending our armies into combat again.

Thinking back to the schoolchildren: we hope they will become tomorrow’s active participants in democracy. But by consistently telling them that freedom is always born out of violent conflict, and by giving them such a peremptorily one-sided picture of how war, nation, and freedom are intertwined, we do them a significant disservice. We make democratic participation more difficult and less likely for them. And in consistently feeding the same lines to adults, we essentially do the same, for we circumscribe the important discussions we ought to now be having.

I leave you with the ever-poignant words of Bob Dylan:

The First World War, boys,

It came and it went.

The reason for fighting,

I never did get.

But I learned to accept it,

Accept it with pride.

For you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.

But now we’ve got weapons,

Of chemical dust.

If fire them we’re forced to,

Then fire them we must.

One push of the button,

And a shot the world wide.

And you never ask questions when God’s on your side.

So now as I’m leaving,

I’m weary as hell.

The confusion I’m feeling,

Ain’t no tongue can tell.

The words fill my head,

and they fall to the floor:

That if God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war. 

 

Part II

tangential wandering

I have scribbled little since May turned to June. But tonight I set out to jot one thought that promised to persist indefatigably in my gray matter until I gave it some release. I did as much, with some aid from my Jamaican rum. Six swigs later, this other thought arrived on the scene.  And so a paucity turned to a surfeit. Is there any doubt as to what the writer’s elixir is?

Sweeping generalizations make me hesitant, even a bit queasy. History tends to show that the road from absolutism to cataclysm is a veritable straight burn. Still, I seem to have stumbled upon a simplistic theory about why writers are most congenial with the bottle.

Surely it starts with the tendency for them to be both creative and troubled persons. Drink seems to assuage the pain as it amplifies the creativity. To write is to escape an oppressive reality in which the writer neither fits neatly nor rejects tout court—a reality that the writer  inveighs against as he simultaneously seeks to comprehend it, exist within it, even gain some qualified yet seamless entry into it.

And thus it starts: the alcoholic writer finds himself at odds with the society into which he has been so unceremoniously deposited. He recognizes the essential humanity that underlies it, but he is certain that he has arrived far too soon or, more likely, far too late. Drink is his escape, his ersatz time machine. Through drink he can move forwards, backwards, to anywhere but here.

Drink also seems to obliterate that pesky, omnipresent “writer’s block”. In sobriety he seems an insufficient conduit for any worthwhile idea; if such an idea must be expressed, he thinks, then surely it will be the accredited wordsmiths that shoulder the burden. But in the throes of drink, the moronic scribbler becomes a fount of knowledge; the only challenge he now faces is transcribing his thoughts as quickly as the words spring forth from his suddenly boundless mind.

And so the question of “Why do so many great writers drink themselves to death?” becomes instead “Why does any writer drink to excess?” The answer: Infinity. In drink there is unlimited inspiration; inhibitions fall away as pen meets paper in an almost cathartic event. Intoxication becomes the bailiwick of the mind that prefers the ledger to the larynx.

And if this is the experience of any mediocre writer—if liquor unleashes the entire reserve of a mind full of things to say, the same mind that self-censors for fear of inadequacy much of the time—then it is no wonder that great writers meet their demise in this very liquid liberation. The effusive thrill that strong drink brings is perhaps even more addictive than the drink itself. Yet if he gets hooked on the former, he is all but doomed to get hooked on the latter.

Traditional Wandering

tangential wandering, travel & adventure

Sheet lightening in the dull grey sky above. Empty streets below, their eery calm interrupted by the occasional errant cab or rambling streetcar. On the sidewalks, the detritus of the club seeks chargrilled horse testicles mixed with filler and served on a bun for $3.99.

I like to walk a major city well past the last call; the drunkards have slinked off into the shadows, the mob rests its collective head. Everything that seems to define a city—its bustle, congestion, traffic, cacophony, and sudorific heat blanket—all melts away in the wee hours.

The traffic lights carry on with their act in a perfunctory manner. A single motorist and an odd couple of pedestrians oblige. A cyclist glides by in a carefree way that would be unthinkable and suicidal during the rush hour. The gargantuan buildings are stoic, uninspiring, illuminated by wasteful electric light and the backdrop of the sheets.

This languid state serves as a reminder that every city, no matter its outward affectations—ersatz or otherwise—is only and always animated by the people that move throughout it. How they choose to do so is key, and it is the single (potential) greatest driver of change in any urban centre.

For one evanescent moment I had a strange feeling: I had reclaimed these streets, streets I never felt I had owned but was suddenly entitled to possess. I now walked with, a certain aplomb, down one of my favourites.  It was only a few blocks along Queen West towards the art gallery, where I resolved to head north and ruminate on the point(lessness) of the putative art within. This illusion and plan were shattered in short order. I had hardly made it halfway.

To my right, the northwest, the police were unfurling their ubiquitous yellow tape. Their vehicles vouchsafed the severity of the scene: forensics, SIU. Here was no petty theft, no freshman busted with an open Smirnoff.

I waited for some cars to pass and then queried across the way: “Did someone get shot?’ And, more pertinently, “Is it safe to walk here?” as I gestured westward.

“No,” came a prompt and terse reply.

“Which way is safe to walk?”

The lead officer took little time to ponder this before pointing to whence I came. “East.”

“Thanks guys.”

“Have a good night.”

“You too.” As my night had not involved dead bodies, a fact that seemed unlikely to change in the near future, I immediately figured this was a useless sentiment to have reciprocated.

And off I went, eastward and upward. I have certain conceptions of the state—some parts Marx, others Chomsky—and the concomitant role of the police within that state. Suffice it to say that neither are glowing. Yet these were all swept away by a man under a bulletproof vest with a loaded sidearm telling me I might find safety elsewhere. I listened, I deferred, and I complied. Now I get to write.

I passed the silent masonry of the provincial legislature. Now it sits empty, but when it comes to life it is full of so-called lawmakers—surely, ironically, criminals all.

I hear birdsong, a certain sign of incipient morning, a bridge from surreal night to beguiling dawn. Sirens destroy this peaceful reprieve; I see the flashing lights that go with them speed by, off to some other foolish Saturday night catastrophe.

It is an electric, uncomfortable hour. And I am of it: a minor character, an observer and occasional participant, in this perplexing serenity that forebodes chaos, a scene scarcely witnessed by those who call this godforsaken concrete sprawl home.

 

Three Thoughts Intertwined

revolution

It is trite to say that the Western world has seen an exponential technological development since the middle of the nineteenth century; and it is no great insight to say that our intellectual development has not kept pace with the technological one. What strikes me as interesting is just how stagnant some of our thought has been during the last century-and-a-half.

Take for example the Leap Manifesto in Canada or Senator Sanders and his movement in the United States. The finer points of these phenomena may seem modern, sprinkled as they are with invectives against climate change and big banks. However, on closer inspection, the discourse as a whole is vintage socialist utopianism: an erudite if simplified diagnosis of our social ills and a conception of what type of society would be preferable, but no ascertainable roadmap from the former to the latter. This is pure William Morris.

The response to such necessary if imperfect “thinking otherwise” is equally well-worn. It usually strikes a condescending, puerile tone. It is usually something like, “These lefties would have us all dancing on sunshine and moonbeams,” followed by blithe denigration of the intellect of those “lefties,” and capped by some paean to the so-called real world that the left fails to live in. in other words, an out-of-hand rejection that refuses to even engage with the ideas proffered.

This pattern is especially poignant when the issue of fossil fuels arises. In such instances, one side invariably calls for the scaling back and cessation of fossil-fuel use while the other side retorts that doing so will render “our way of life” unsustainable. The greater issue here is that we make scant inquiry into what proponents of uninhibited fossil-fuel use mean when they invoke “our way of life.” It seems to me that they (or at least those in the Western world) are primarily arguing that limiting our use of fossil fuels will mean the demise of consumer culture. They are asking how will they power their cars, or light their homes and cottages and ski chalets, or have access to a robust selection of mass-produced goods.

By invoking “our way of life,” this crowd is proceeding upon a distinctly neoliberal worldview that demands an incessant production and consumption of goods. This crowd insists on the perpetuation of the modern capitalist system, which requires planned obsolescence and manufactured want for the surfeit of products so that economic growth may continue interminably.

For this crowd, “our way of life” is consumerism, and mass-produce goods in need of constant replacement are the necessaries of that life. Thus when that way of life and those things that sustain it are threatened by any ideas—elimination of fossil fuels being chief among them—the response is vicious and unrelenting. Such ideas cannot be allowed to gain traction, and so they are ridiculed and rejected out of hand. This both complements and supplements the fact that many have spent whole lifetimes being inured to see this as the only desirable way of life. We have been indoctrinated, propagandized, miseducated, and duped into believing that fable by those who stand to gain immeasurable wealth and power from its perpetuation.

As a result, the imaginations of many have atrophied and critical intellects have stagnated. This is distressing, for the neoliberal assumptions that consumerism wrests on need to be articulated and examined by those in favour of eliminating fossil-fuel use and other progressive reforms—and “our way of life” cannot be spared an incisive challenge. When those opposed say these ideas threaten “our way of life” the response should be that they do indeed: the ideology of consumerism and perpetual economic growth are in need of a rebuke. When those opposed say eliminating fossil fuels will not solve our problems the response should be that they are correct: our problems will only be solved when society and its priorities, now so heavily reliant on those fuels, are reordered from the bottom up.

One final thing should be said, though it may come across as pettifogging at this point. Those in the West have long acknowledged that theirs is a consumerist society, that the ethos of their society is consumerism, that the idolatry of material things has transmogrified into something of a religion and way of life. Yet ‘consumerism’ strikes me as not entirely accurate to describe “our way of life.”

The plain meaning and Dictionary definition of ‘consume’ or ‘consumption’ denotes that the thing being consumed is being used. The consumerist society certainly does use up raw materials, natural resources, and labour to produce the goods it relies on. Yet I would contend those goods are hardly used or exhausted. In nearly every home—from those of the poorest families to the richest—sit rooms and boxes full of idle goods that are neither being used nor disposed of, the inevitable detritus of a society saturated with trumpery.

In that sense, our society better fits the secondary Dictionary definition of ‘consumerism’: emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods. For good measure, the Dictionary adds that this use of the term is frequently depreciative, which it surely is. So-called consumerists societies are perhaps most concerned with acquiring new, modish products and in turn each member of that society is determined to appear au courant by myriad acquisitions. Actual use of the items acquired is often short-lived and irrelevant. Thus it seems it is more appropriate to call the Western world a consumptive-acquisitive society in the most wasteful sense of those words.

We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?

tangential wandering

Monday started as it so often does: blearily, begrudgingly, sitting on the toilet mindlessly browsing websites. I noticed one American museum had posted about the rendition of The Little Drummer Boy done by David Bowie and Bing Crosby; more than three weeks after Christmas seemed a little late for that. An acquaintance had posted a full quote from Mr. Bowie on her account; I remember seeing something about a new album on another site and scrolled past, figuring that was the connection. By the third post it occurred to me what was going on – Bowie died last night, and now he’s buried in the rocks, and everybody will talk about how badly they were shocked.

Upon this realization I made haste, heading for an actual news site to confirm what I already new with certitude. Several articles relating to the passing of David Bowie were splashed across across the homepage of The Guardian. And so here we are, in a world without David Bowie.

The first thing I felt the need to do was partake in some anticipatory commiseration with my cousin, a late-twenties bohemian and a genuine Bowie lover for many of those years. The subject of the email sent was that “I heard the news today, oh boy,” the line from Young Americans that riffs on the famous Beatles line. Still processing what I had just learned, I typed a laconic message of disbelief and sadness: “What a shitty way to start a shitty day.”

In the hours and days subsequent there was reason to reflect on a couple themes. The first was the spread of this sort of news, the passing of a major celebrity in the 21st century. For me, such news always reveals itself when skimming the content of that scourge of our age, so-called “social” media – addictive as (I’m told) heroine but with none of the benefits.

The cycle for me is familiar. Out of the quotidian uselessness of these sites, which one becomes accustomed to breezing by, comes the realization of death. Then there is the dash to the news sites for facts. Then there is the deluge of remembrances, retellings, and other comments made on news networks and social networks alike. Genuine fans pour their hearts out while casual fans take pause to learn a little bit more about the departed. This exact cycle plays out several times a year; while the words for this piece were still in my head the passing of Alan Rickman became known and the whole apparatus reset itself.

For those who have grown up in a world saturated by digital media, celebrity death presented through the twenty-four-hour news cycle may very well be all they know. This thought takes me back to the summer of 2009 and the passing of Michael Jackson. I mention this only because the last celebrity death I can readily recall learning of before digital news became most prominent.

It was one of those rare moments that indelibly stamps itself on the mind. I will not soon forget the details: I was in a cab on my way back to the hotel from the Museum of American history in Washington, D.C. when the news came in over the wire. It was an unexpected development delivered in the blunt, dispassionate manner that characterizes all radio news. For better or worse, Jackson had been a part of cultural consciousness for some five decades. Whether one loved the man or hated him, or was plainly indifferent mattered little to whether you knew of him. Thus it was unsurprising that his death would be an earthshaking cultural event in itself. But what sticks in my mind even more than the initial revelation was a scene I encountered the next day. In Washington, the immediate neighbour of the Canadian Embassy is a multi-storey museum of news – the aptly-named Newseum. Parallel to the entrance is a row of display stands that daily show the front pages of newspapers from each of the fifty states. On most days this presumably illustrates the diversity of news matters by locality, but on this day only one piece of news mattered. Michael Jackson graced the cover of every single paper displayed (South Carolina being the lone exception, its people preoccupied with the sexual exploits of their then-Governor.)

But I digress. The point is that news of celebrity death circulates and reaches people at a more rapid pace and in a much different way than it did just five or six years ago – when smartphones were still in their infancy and the Internet was only starting to obliterate 20th-century media. I reserve comment on whether this particular change is good or bad, saying only that it is noticeably different.

My second reflection had to do with music and musicians as markers in our personal timelines. We all have certain songs and artists that take us back to a specific moment, day, year, or some sort of time period upon hearing them. For me, David Bowie – two songs in particular – is fittingly intertwined with my final year of undergraduate study. Fittingly, because Bowie is best known for his constantly transitory personas underlined by an enduring raffishness, while this period for me seemed the final act of a transition – from an unassured and circumspect character to the jaunty and outspoken creature now before you.

Prior to November of 2013 I had known of Bowie only as a name within the catalogue of classic rockers, the androgynous figure responsible for tunes like Ziggy Stardust and Under Pressure. Upon seeing the “David Bowie Is” exhibition during its stop in Toronto I realized he was much more than some ‘70s musician – he was an artist in every sense of the word.  From the quote at the entrance (“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”) to the main exhibit, it was evident that the man was a genius. The breadth and the brilliance of his work took me totally by surprise.

Most shows that use an audio guide demand that you punch in numbers and stand listening to some monotony as you observe the works. But not this one – this was a multimedia spectacular. You put on a headset that changed what you heard as you moved around the room. The main exhibit was resplendent with costumes, art, film clips and music videos, handwritten lyrics, and myriad other artefacts. This room was reached by ascending stairs reached after the“early life” portion of the exhibit, the Making of Bowie, so to speak. But the last of these rooms before the stairs was no gallery of old photos and trumpery. This was the Starman Room, an alcove dedicated to his iconic performance of that song on Top of the Pops. Inside it you were treated to that performance on loop as you took in the magnificent costume that went with it. The inescapable catchiness of the melody and jovial theatrics on the screen made an instant fan out of me.

From that point, Starman and Life on Mars? became the soundtrack to the remainder of my time at university. Both were well-suited to late-night solitary strolls to and from the library, the former being a cosmic anthem best enjoyed alone beneath a dark and mysterious sky, and the latter giving me particular delight as it mentioned “Now the workers have struck for fame/’cause Lenin’s on sale again” – what with my being deeply immersed in Marxist ideas at the time. I also used the quote on artist intent as the mainspring for an essay, which became a minute forum for unabashedly agreeing with its accuracy, and was by all accounts well received.

One final note, patently obvious but still useful as a reminder. Prior to the departure of the Starman I had a handful of Bowie songs in my library – ten or fifteen at the most. Upon his death it made perfect sense to add to that collection. If you have ten or fifteen songs from an artist they will tend to be the more popular ones that you will have heard too many times to count, and, in occasional cases, too many times to continue listening. But if you really do enjoy these tracks then you are certain to find deeper cuts on the albums they come from, tracks that you will take even greater joy in, that will speak to you more clearly – that will affect you in ways the newer, more soulless stuff never will.

Doing the Wave

tangential wandering

To be perfectly clear, I am not referring to the wave that sometimes happens at a baseball game or other sporting event. In no way do I intend to encourage that bizarre ritual, which, as far as I can tell, serves but two purposes. The first is to distract and obstruct those of us who wish to actually take in the on-field events – in other words, it undermines the entire reason for the majority’s attendance. The second is to give the drunken frat boys who undertake to commence this disruption a fleeting sense of joy and accomplishment in their otherwise-pointless lives. This particular wave should be abolished.

The wave I refer to is instead a salutary salutation. It is one some may find to be strange, trite, or childish. It is of course the stranger-to-stranger wave, a greeting that takes place almost exclusively between people in transit, but may be found in other circumstances such as parades. It is exchanged especially often between the people within and without the myriad tour buses, boats, and occasional amphibious tour vehicle that traverse cities the world over.

It is likely something people feel either negatively or indifferent about. I recall being on various touring vehicles during my younger, more familial travel years and refusing to take part in any such exchange. “Why,” I wondered, “are these people waving at the bus?” It seemed a rather odd thing for total strangers to do, and I never paid it much thought beyond that single observation.

I was given a moment to ruminate on the matter further during one of my daily commutes in this ersatz city that is officially my hometown. As my subway train pulled out of the station, I noticed five or six people, younger and older members of a family, seated on the opposite platform – and they were all waving unmistakeably at my subway car. For a moment, I found this act as odd as I had previously, and perhaps even more so, for it occurred in the most unremarkable of locations.

Apparently I was in a more reflective mood than I had ever been while on one of those tour buses, for it occurred to me that what they were doing was not at all odd, but was instead a profoundly human act. It occurred to me that this small gesture happens so constantly and in so many global locales that it would be impossible to estimate how many of these waves are exchanged. Given that frequency, I wondered if those participating ever give it much thought (they almost certainly give it less thought than I was.) It would be unsurprising to me if a person, asked to reason why they were waving at some vehicle or returning such a wave, would have some pause and some difficulty answering. For most, it is purely reflexive.

But this salutation between strangers begs the question of why – why offer this benign and fleeting greeting to people you do not and likely will not ever know? My best guess is that it is a subtle, even unconscious acknowledgment of a shared experience and a shared humanity. It may be so many tourists sharing in their exploration of an urban centre, or a mix of residents and tourists sharing the city itself during myriad journeys throughout it, or it may even be as simple as people sharing another day with each other during which the sun has opted to shine upon them.

Of course this greeting does not occur only in the city centre. Boaters in cottage country scarcely pass each other without exchanging a half-wave, a sort of relaxed salute; the same thing will sometimes occur on deserted country roads. I do not doubt that, if one is looking for it, this wave will make its appearance in all sorts of other contexts.

That said, in all circumstances it carries the same meaning. It is an affirmation that we are all on this strange ride together, and a reminder to act accordingly.