Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lying Vs Discomfort

Three middle paragraphs of the original introduction went:
...Science fiction and fantasy can shine a light on oppression versus democracy. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four showed an established regime; his fantasy Animal Farm showed how a regime starts up. After Adolf Hitler was lawfully and legally put into power, he did not need to Nazify Germany overnight, not when time was on his side. Every dictator knows: A conscience is malleable.
Does a sex trade worker, being urged to do act C, still remember how once she never thought she would do act B? Does a businessman who smokes marijuana, being tempted with cocaine, still recall how once he had felt wrong doing marijuana? Pimps, dealers and dictators: They all know.
In David Gerrold's Chtorr War series the narrator, as a high school kid, learns to say no to a dictator's very first attempt at transgression. The defense against oppression, as my feminist friends would say, begins with an awareness, for both the political and the personal.

Lying Vs Discomfort

Today I observed human nature.

Also today I learned that to walk from the Tim Hortons coffee shop doorway, out in the town of Lake Chestermere, into my own doorway, just inside the city limits, takes ten minutes driving at the posted legal speed. As I pulled out onto the 1A I could see that a long ways ahead of me was a white cube van behind a bunch (key term) of cars.

Today I observed two cars pass me. One took illegal advantage of a turning lane at the edge of the town; one crossed a solid white line into the emergency shoulder lane. Both were, utterly predictably, still behind the white van, merely two seconds in front of me, when we all crossed the city limits. Did I mention that highway 1A is two lane? With lots of oncoming traffic?


These two drivers were obviously kidding themselves that by passing me illegally they would "get to the city faster." I suppose their self-lying stemmed from stressors like grandiosity, impatience or entitlement. To be free of lying, to myself and others, means having a determination to be self disciplined enough to face reality, to be honest, even when it means temporarily feeling uncomfortable. (Sarcasm: Some find it just too uncomfortable to face the agony of enduring less than ten minutes of "only" doing a swift 100 kph speed limit.) 

For example, suppose I let my girlfriend down in some way, such as by being late. Do I bite the bullet and admit why I goofed? Or do I make up a lie, "traffic was bad," and continue to tell lies week in and week out? And what happens to my character over the space of a year if I fail to build up my tolerance for the truth, and for the discomfort of honesty? At some level my wimpish character will show to others: I'll end up attracting the girlfriend I deserve.

A lack of backbone explains so much in life. Suppose I wanted to sell stolen goods, or marijuana, out of the trunk of my car in the parking lot of a roadhouse? I would do well to have a radar gun set up down the road: I would have a far better "sales success rate" selling only to those who break the speed limit. Such individuals would be more likely, statistically, to wimp out and rationalize, "Everybody does it" or "I need my dope."


"So, you claim to "need" dope, eh?" Attend a few "open (to the public) AA meetings" and you will find middle aged people who "need" alcohol not only for the discomfort of everyday life but even for fun stuff. They "have to drink," for example, before they even arrive at a party. They had found as teens that parties were not only joyful but also anxious. So they drank in advance. Back then the rest of us were anxious too. We'd overcompensate, we'd laugh a bit too loud, but in time we toughened up; we moved on to being cool. Those no-longer-young alcoholics never lost their crutch. 

There is a reason why the age limit for using legal substances is set as high as adulthood: People deserve a chance, before they take that first substance, to gain a little discomfort tolerance and a few coping skills... (I will never forget watching a man let his fresh hot supper get cold because his marijuana was more important to him. I was the cook.)

Today, observing those two drivers, I understand a little more why sometimes certain recovering alcoholics are advised by their sponsors to "practice rigorous honesty." If I do so too, then I must look in my kitchen mirror and admit there is at least one honest man in the world. (Bang goes my excuse to be paranoid and manipulate others) It follows that not everyone lies (or speeds). If I rationalize "everyone does," so I too can take the easy way out, then I will never know that life can be any different. I will never get to know the fine people who, in addition to their discomfort, have the serenity of being self-disciplined.

...I'll try not to kid myself until next week. That's when I take the 1A, driving at the legal speed, out the other side of the city going 45 minutes out to Cochran. Once I get there surely I can somehow justify eating way too much flavored ice cream!

"... Now if you want to be free, then get this: freedom is not about being comfortable. It's about seizing and using opportunities—and using them responsibly. Freedom is not comfort. It's commitment. Commitment is the willingness to be uncomfortable. The two are not incompatible, but there are damn few free men on welfare.
The free man, class, doesn't just survive—he challenges!"

A schoolteacher for Global Ethics in David Gerrold's Chtorr War series, book one, A Matter For Men, page 30

Sean Crawford

prudishly licking an ice cream,

all over, with my tongue, 2008

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Are Yankees Stupid?

What would I say if a European friend asked me about my neighbors to the south, asking, “Are Yankees really that stupid?” I’d be honest. I’d reply “Well, just last year a responsible high up Washington official said publicly that some of the terrorists of 9/11 had crossed the border from Canada into the U.S.” Of course, that was not a responsible thing for her to say since it was 100 per cent false. I don’t remember whether she apologized.

I’d refer my friend to that new passport law, that law bitterly opposed by congressmen of the border states, that law whereby North American farmers and townsfolk would still be able to cross county lines and state lines for free, but would now be stopped at the 49th parallel unless they had a big expensive passport. And then I would relate how, only one month before the new law was to come into effect, two former U.S. presidents were doing the “rubber chicken thing” in Toronto. And when a journalist asked these two “Mr. Presidents” what they thought of compulsory passports for the world’s longest undefended border, both men said… they didn’t know anything about it. The scandal made the front pages all over Canada. I don’t remember whether any congressmen were asked for their reaction.

In fairness, if I was a former president, depressurizing after the stress of holding office, then I too might stop reading newspapers and instead get all my news from the six o’clock infotainment, but of course this excuse can’t be applied to that Washington official who, by the way, was the head of Homeland Security. Perhaps the crux, then, is not that Yankees are “stupid” so much as irresponsible. Declaring war on terror without being committed to learning basic information verges on something far more serious than mere stupidity. Perhaps, even though as individuals Americans don’t like losers, as a group they are just not committed to winning. (There is no try to win; you either do or do not.)

In fairness, I must say that Canadians, being equally North American, are equally prone to irresponsibility. In Afghanistan, for example, according to my memory, the Canadian counter-insurgency effort is, supposedly, to deny aide and comfort to Taliban recruiters, by winning the people’s hearts and minds and nourishing a strong democracy. Supposedly this is to be done by building schools, wells, bridges and so forth. The Canadian armed forces are to be merely support troops, a mere sideshow, assisting this main focus by keeping Canadians safe to do their development efforts. Otherwise the Taliban will dig up their rifles and rush back in again when the Canadians leave. Yet somehow, or so it seems to me, every reporter who goes overseas reports solely on the armed forces. Of course I believe the army is glorious, and of course I have a “support the troops” ribbon on my car, but that doesn’t mean I take my eye off the ball: the development efforts.

What if General Patton had closed his eyes after Pearl Harbor? What if, instead of making an effort to develop a big army as quickly as possible, he had frozen all such development for six months? The Canadians in Afghanistan, I regret to say, after their initial success, had a six-month period where the development workers didn’t leave their compound because they weren’t safe. This does not trouble me nearly as much as how it was so long after the six months were over that the news finally leaked out. That’s not good enough. If the journalists, and the government, didn’t care enough to notice for six months, then the Canadian public obviously doesn’t care either: That’s not glorious, that’s not a noble tragedy, that’s just small and petty.

It is not possible merely to wish benevolent government on a nation whose history, both recent and of old, has been a field of war invasion and lawlessness. So, our troops remained deployed to (a) guarantee a measure of security while Afghanistan citizens went about the first steps to democracy and the extension of basic rights, (b) assist in building the essential elements-schools, a justice system, infrastructure, roads-that any society must have, and (c) offer humanitarian assistance where possible.
Rex Murphy, Canada and Other Matters of Opinion, p.139

I live on the Canadian prairie. As in Afghanistan the grass is dry and yellow. Many of the surrounding farms have Quonset huts for barns, those long half cylinders from World War II, made of arching corrugated steel bolted together. In the next town, Cochrane, is a pre-war barn that’s shaped like a Quonset hut, but the structure is made of brick. Whatever works. Another (infra) structure easy to bolt together is a WWII style Bailey bridge, like something out of a giant’s mechano set.

I remember as a boy, driving with my father, when one day Dad stopped the car to show me a Bailey bridge, a sturdy bridge like something out of a war movie, explaining to me how amazingly fast they can be extended over the river. Now I’m as old as Dad was then, while every day I drive past a well that is something out of a cowboy movie, a well with rotating vanes on a tower. These wells are common here on the plains.

Now ask me, as a fine Canadian citizen, “What do the schools, bridges and wells we are building over in Afghanistan look like?” My answer is: “I. Don’t. Know.” Yes, you may call me petty. Just don’t call me a Yankee.

Here in Calgary, if any European asks me in amazement, “Is there something in the drinking water that makes Yankees have a low I.Q.?” then I can only reply, “I can’t judge intelligence, not when Calgary has the highest per capita ownership of library cards in Canada.” The first thing I noticed, when I settled here, is how the Coles Bookstore downtown, besides having sections for standard categories like cooking or self-help, also had an entire section for oil and gas. How brainy. We are such a progressive city; I think we’ve elected the first Muslim mayor west of Toronto.

In fairness to U.S. citizens, their issue is probably not stupidity, and not exactly irresponsibility, but something else, something that occurred to me just recently as I was writing my essay Knowing Nam (February 2011). I have come to realize: In the U.S., the average man or woman in the street, judging by their behavior, wants “plausible deniability.” However, it’s hard to have deniability if your peers are actively seeking information; it’s very hard if your downtown bookstore, in addition to the standard “for males only” war and history sections, has, as well, a war on terror section that includes books by civilian females. Thoughtful, engaged females. Unfortunately, those are mighty big “ifs.”

Are there such sections? If I’m too stubborn to fork out for a passport that would cost me three night’s accommodation at my usual cheap Edmonton hotel then I’m not going to drive down into Montana to see for myself.

By this point I can imagine some U.S. reader sputtering indignantly, “Drinking water! (sputter) plausible denia—(sputter)… Are you crazy? Listen, Americans are really smart and really responsible—so there!”

At which I can only reply, as gently as I can, “All of my readers are responsible. And you, dear reader, may well prove me wrong. Go ahead: do the “citizen thing.” Go to your downtown library, or bookstore, and ask them to include a war on terror section. Tell them how your fellow citizens want to seek out new information, new concepts, and boldly put their actions where their commitment is… I am sorry to say I think you will fail… Then you may write a comment here to tell the rest of us what happened.”

Sean Crawford
In driving distance of stupidity
April 2011
~This essay was inspired by the elation and gloom of reading A Woman Among Warlords by Malalai Joya, a young idealistic Member of Parliament in Afghanistan.

~I think my last word on this war, after several essays at the intersection of citizenship and war, is Pick Your Wartimes Well, archived September 2013.

Someone cares about development. According to the Calgary Sun, July 5, 2011, page 10, Kandahar's provincial governor, Br. Toryalai Wisa, "took part in an international conference in Montreal, only to find: "The Canadians were not aware of what is (happening) here.... The only news the Canadians were getting was just explosions, death, killings, assasinations."
On that visit, he said no one seemed aware of the schools the Canadians have built and refurbished, roads paved or the irrigation and dam projects military engineers have created."

Memory Upgrade- At first Canada sent 1,000 armed representatives, under Prime Minister Chretien. It was under PM Paul Martin that Canada opened... "a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base (compound?) in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar city. A  modest initial deployment in November was followed a few months later by about 2,000... (troops). The daunting second assignment was to lead an open-ended new combat mission across a province notoriously regarded as the most dangerous in the country." Calgary Herald June 4, 2011 p A15, by Matthew Fisher, Counting the Cost of Combat.

~Matt Fisher again, Nov 30, 2013 p A2: The mission began with a small combat deployment switched to a larger mostly peacekeeping role in Kabul  from 2003 to 2005 and returned to Kandahar with a large task force  for combat operations between 2006 and 2011 when the Candadians transitioned to a training role...

A Final Word- I like the final paragraph of Michael Den Tandt's book review, as published in the National Post p. A6 Sept 23, 2013, of Graeme Smith's The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. 
Tandt writes: ...Despite its very bleak tone, and its scathing assault on Western hubris, the author's empathy—for ordinary Afghans, and for ordinary Canadian soldiers—shines through The ironies are palpable throughout, and elevate this beyond the level of a combat memoir, to something more timeless and sad. It was former chief of  defence staff Rick Hillier who  declared in 2005 that success in Afghanistan would be a 20-year project. He may have been right. Eleven years in, we will never know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hate or See

I've been lucky.

I often forget that many women don't know the world of men.

I was brutally reminded when a woman wrote in the "letters to the editor" part of the newspaper to say how she didn't want to see our soldiers doing their route marches in their field gear on our city streets. She hated those guys. I responded: "Eewww!"

I've been lucky... to be from an extended family where nearly all of us have done military service. Also lucky in that two of my brothers have done ranch work at cousin Betty Jean's, three of them have been in air cadets and four of them have worked in a remote mining camp. Between them they have been in at least five unions. Naturally, I can't expect the average woman to have relatives who have stayed in bunkhouses. Nor can I expect a lady who has led a sheltered life to go down to mingle at her local pub.


That lady simply won't get to meet the men who may briefly lose a bit of their polish by going off to do bush surveying like my roommate, do forestry like my sister, or ocean fishing like my neighbor. And if she doesn't know, or like, any of those guys, then maybe she'll never like soldiers either.

I've been so lucky... to be a bookworm with plenty of imagination: hence I can walk in another person's shoes. I mingle easily, I have to: As a writer it's my job to get to know people. One night I enjoyed drinking beer with a university football player. Call him Sean. He confided that he had failed to measure up to the muddy hardworking roughnecks at a wellhead. In fact, he quit. Later Sean redeemed himself, in his eyes and mine, by being the hardest worker on his roofing tar crew. It's a hot dirty job but Sean was always the first up the ladder. One day his boss whispered to him: "You are at the top of the list to be rehired next summer."

Among men, I suppose, a "wimp" is someone who, whether on the field of football, the fields of Mars, or the field of life, doesn't try hard enough to measure up.

Do girls wonder whether they will measure up, or are such worries only for boys? I don't suppose girls read war memoirs, or see war movies, or listen to their uncle's talk of surviving... but boys do, and they wonder. During WWII General Patton made a point of reassuring each incoming bunch of troops that they would do fine. He would add: "You will stop being afraid the first time you wipe off the blood from the man next to you. Then you'll just get angry." Patton had to speak plain and true because, in his time and place, the stakes were so high.

Of course soldiers in peacetime don't hate, any more than football players do. Players will aggressively train to compete against a generic team; soldiers will train to fight a faceless abstraction, "the enemy."


I can understand a sheltered lady in white gloves being too busy to use her library card, too busy to become determined to "do whatever it takes" to understand men, let alone to understand soldiers. And that's OK. But to actively, openly, hate the sight of them the way that letter writer does? Eewww!

Hatred is a problem in this world. I can understand that housewives in other nations might be lazy and "wimp out" by not making enough effort to conceal their hatreds from their children... Some may even actively teach their children to hate... But if they do? Those submissive dutiful Arab mothers who plant seeds of hatred will harvest a bitter fruit. Children of Shiites and Sunnis will end up attacking Islam and blowing up each other's temples. That ain't good.

Approximately 350 mosques were attacked by terrorists in 2006 according to the U.S. government's e-journal.

For me, it's a truism that if you relax your standards to let in hated for any group, no matter how badly they deserve it, then you end up hating another group too. And then yet another. Show me someone who hates a visible minority and I will show you someone who hates an invisible minority. (such as gays, Jews or persons with disabilities)

I don't hate folks if I get to know them enough to really see them.

Occasionally I have seen a bunch of soldiers shambling along the road in their rumpled field gear. I notice the tail end Charlie wearing a big orange triangle to alert traffic. I wonder if he is embarrassed: Can you spell target? (Incidentally, my sister says her army cadets have written upon their triangle with a felt pen: Hit Me First)

Although I've been watching Stargate SG-1 for ten seasons now, I don't expect our boys to carry the futuristic European weapons from that show: I see plain old army rifles. And, in place of television's tailored clothing, I see them wearing outfits in the army's two sizes: too big and too small. No one is Hollywood handsome. Instead I see the homely interesting faces of our guys from weathered fishing villages and dusty prairie towns. I see our boys doing a man's job for the first time in their lives. I wish them well.

Sean Crawford
Middle-aged now, in a quiet home
Spring 2008

~For a chilling look at how hatred can be misused in peacetime to get people to go to war, see War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, filed under Current Affairs, by correspondent Chris Hedges. The author makes no attempt to de-glorify peacetime soldiers, and he respects the professionalism of democratic regular troops.
Hedges gives a fresh look at the horror, a look that is in a class by itself: He looks not only at the beasts with bayonets but at the whole nation: He sees what happens to the civilians and their culture during wartime. This book is a "keeper."

~For a perspective on how hatred is morally dangerous see my essay Hatred and Canadian Muslims, archived in October 2012.