Thursday, January 30, 2014

Banners Over Wall Street

“…Forever let us hold our banners high, high, high…”
Opening theme to the Mickey Mouse Club show

“…Long may your proud banners gloriously wave...”
Scotland the Brave, an unofficial national anthem

(The Wall Street occupiers had) No banner to prevent the legion on the street from slowly fading, dimming, dwindling away with a whimper.
Sean Crawford

This morning as I was driving I heard two radio announcers, Mookie and Billy Jo, musing about who would carry the banner for our country at the Sochi Olympics. They said it was a great honor to carry the flag; therefore, they said, the flag bearer would be a great athlete, someone with a good shot at a medal.

As I drove I mused about banners without blood, and effective citizens.

Historically, banners have meant life or death. In ancient Rome, for example, every legion carried a standard with a golden eagle on top. In battle the eagle was held high as a symbol the legion was still a cohesive force, something larger than the individual soldiers involved. The comrades protected each other with their almost overlapping shields, sweating and bleeding, groaning and cursing, struggling for victory. With the banner high, courage was high. If the banner was lost, meaning: if mutual confidence in each other was lost, then the troops would falter, break formation and run for their lonely lives. Homer compared it to sheep being chased and slaughtered by a lion. The casualty ratio of victor to vanquished was always very lopsided.

A legion was a small society, and like any society it unconsciously adjusted: If the goal was success in battle, and if the job of holding up the banner was important, then “holding the banner high” would absolutely be seen as a great honor. For the US civil war it has become a clichĂ©: During the confusion of swirling battle a freckle-faced boy holding the banner is shot—the banner being a prime target—then another idealist rushes to proudly hold the banner high. There is a terrible beauty to boy after boy being shot down, as they hold up the flag to protect the men they marched among. “Rally around the flag, boys.”

There will never be enough money to pay anyone to hold the flag, or to pay troops to go walking through the valley of death. All we can do, as a healthy society, one in which all of us support some of to go off to carry out our wishes, is to honor our armed representatives with a parade before they leave, and give them a heroes’ welcome when they come home, those who survive. …Or put it this way, as this is how armies in non-healthy non-democracies are behaving right now: Darth Vader might pay his men to slay, he can never pay them enough to offer themselves up to be slain.

We civilians have our banners too. In Britain the stylized royal L, for the pound; in America the initials US, superimposed on each other, for the dollar: These are the banners of confident currency. Today, as you know, each dollar is merely a concept, no longer backed by a piece of solid gold: Having gone off the gold standard, the US is relying on the public’s confidence the dollar is good, even as the exchange rate keeps fluctuating. We daren’t lose our confidence lest we set the lion loose.  

For example: Picture late 1929, near Christmas, and two adjacent competing banks. The first bank is very sound; the other, Jimmy Stewart’s, doesn’t keep enough reserves in the vault. As for the second bank, the word gets out, or rumors start, and people run to line up to get all their money out while they still can. Regrettably, the investors who panic “the first-est and the most-est,” like the very first soldiers to break and flee, are the ones who avoid the lion. When the bank goes bankrupt, the rest are sadly out of luck.

The story doesn’t end there: Since panic is unreasonable, investors don’t reason out how the adjacent bank is safe—they panic there too. A bank with ample reserves for bad investments can’t possibly contain enough reserves to handle a bank run—how could it? This sort of panic, after the November 1929 Wall Street Crash had pulled the world down, was a significant part of the Great Depression. Today the government insists on deposit insurance and stands ready to help. If only nonbanks, “financial institutions,” such as Goldman and Sachs, had been subject to such “pesky government regulation.” Apparently, “enough insurance” does not mean a gold bit for every dollar, it means “enough to keep people from panicking.”

Could some modern day Goldfinger take aim at the banner in order to rake in his profits? Yes! The machinations of one George Soros, an American entrepreneur, only 16 years before the Wall Street Meltdown, is described in The Return of Depression Economics and the Crises of 2008 by Nobel prize (for economics) winner Paul Krugman, on page 123:
 “The first stage had to be low profile… established credit lines … to borrow about $15 billion worth of British pounds and to convert that sum into dollars at will. Then, once the fund was … long in dollars and short in pounds, the attack had to turn noisy: Soros would be as ostentatious as possible about short-selling the pound, give interviews to financial newspapers declaring his belief that the pound would soon be devalued, and so on. If all went well, this would generate a run on the pound by other investors, a run that would force the British government to give in and devalue it.
It worked. Soros’s high-profile assault on the pound began in August. Within weeks Britain had spent nearly $50 billion in the foreign exchange markets to defend the pound, to no avail… Soros not only made roughly a billion dollars in quick capital gains but also established himself as perhaps the most famous speculator of all time.”
 Luckily, I’m living in Canada—Praise the Lord. When Wall Street melted down, pulling the world into a recession, Canada had enough government regulation to be the only G-8 nation not affected. Not to say Canada is without villains. As I drove along this morning I thought about how a banner can rally public focus against villainy.

Attend a cocktail party, get a circle of Canadians focused on talking about their national airline, and then listen to the contemptuous awful stories about their only airline—But Canada once had two national airlines: a loser, where the public voted with their feet, and a winner. The bad one was in the red, the good one in the black. Then the federal government changed the rules, just this once, for only six months, allowing just a six-month window for a hostile legal takeover: The losing airline … was not bought out… no, they took over the winning one! The scandal of the bad airline immediately deleting the seniority of pilots from the good airline made the front page. I remember an old pilot finding himself with less seniority than his son.

Right away there was a comedy skit on the CBC where Rick Mercer kept hitting a flip chart with a pointer, sarcastically pointing out the whole dreary affair. Did the masses rise up? Did even one politician have the leadership ability of George Soros to put the pressure on, giving us hope and confidence by holding the banner high, with frequent press interviews, saying he would not let go until there was some action… giving people a banner to focus on and rally around… Nope. Not that I recall.

Our parliament might know how to legislate, but apparently not one politician would exercise the managerial skills of a competent corporate executive. The issue could not, as they say, “get traction.” The infamous six-month window could not become, in terms of social confidence, an issue for the rest of us to rally around to fight about. Instead, for those months we Canadians were lonely sheep, helpless before the lion. At the time, all I could do was think weakly, “The fix is in.” When I flew earlier this month I refused to patronize the big glamorous airline, using instead a no frills airline, even if this meant no in-flight free meal.

As I see it, as an individual I pick my battles; as a society we pick our banners. Obviously, then, President Obama can’t fix every government department all at once, but if he wants us to have even a snowball’s hope for reforming the NSA and Homeland Security then he better get a grip on his banner, and make a public priority of those two.  Meanwhile, naturally, all of our mistakes in our everyday life, or in our government, should be addressed. “Never pass a fault” as we said in my old regiment. Still, for any situation where the government is actively, consciously resisting even admitting to having a problem, let alone dealing with it, a banner is needed.

By “banner” I imagine a constant ongoing thing, such as announcements to the media regarding progress in researching a scandal, or progress in organizing activities, or in achieving change.

An absence of this banner concept, I guess, explains the void known as the Occupy Wall Street movement. As I recall, the only news, week after week, was that the bodies hadn’t left. No one in the movement was using his library card for ongoing research to probe Wall Street; no one was revealing things about Wall Street to the rest of us. The occupiers had no gatherings or leadership conferences to share knowledge or make tactical plans or generate energy. Folks who might have been natural allies, such as economist Paul Krugman, with ideas of what reforms to prioritize, were never encouraged to rally around the flag.

There was no banner to prevent the legion on the street from slowly fading, dimming, dwindling away with a whimper. If only a lion like George Soros, after being given legitimacy in the movement, could have held up a banner for his fellow occupiers, complete with press interviews. But no, it was easier for the big sensitive egos in the movement to “idealistically” keep things leaderless… and a failure.

Of course we can’t raise a banner for everything; we have to choose one focus… just as on a weekend soccer field with the Boys’nGirls Club, even if we have many extra players on the field, we can’t respond by playing with two soccer balls. …

Nor can we go to war with two widely separated banners; we can’t “punch with both hands at once.” But we did: Such madness is partly why ex-President Ford was reportedly furious with President Bush for fighting two wars: As one senior civil servant put it, “In theory we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, in practice we can’t.”

In my car today I mused, and later I thought some more… I think the concept of banners is as useful as a proverb: ancient, time-tested and practical.

Sean Crawford
Once an eagle
Calgary, Canada
January 2014

~Update, May 2014: Today I see that a Russian was on my site. Last month the Russians must have reasoned that by using "masked troops without insignia" in Eastern Ukraine the USA would be mystified enough not to raise a banner confidently and firmly for Europe to rally around. The Russians reasoned correctly.

~The Canadian Olympic flag bearer is Hayley Wickenheiser on the women’s hockey team.

~Reference: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crises of 2008, Paul Krugman, W.W. Norton and Company, New York London, 2009

~I wrote three essays covering three categories of Wall Street Occupiers found here in my hometown, archived in December 2011.  

Sidebar: A NATO general noted the role of the soldier is not to slay, but to be slain… 
The concept of “banners” for fighting, even in this age of machine warfare, explains a lot.
In popular culture, for example, it explains the movie Young Guns where Brian Keith’s two-gun character, like an old bull, could defeat the entire brat pack. The young men shared no mutual confidence, and their “leader” had no legitimacy or support.

It’s why the Iraqi police, faced with a few insurgents, would scatter like chickens before a fox. The police wouldn’t hold together "to be slain" under the banner of a government that lacked legitimacy in their eyes. I don’t think their training was the issue.

It explains South Vietnam. The people of that republic, rightly or wrongly, regarded their government as being corrupt and their leader as being “an American puppet.” They must have thought, “What’s the use?” Hence their army fell like dominos before the invasion of the north, although, in fairness, the northern army was not guerrillas in black pajamas: They invaded “with more tanks and trucks than the Wehrmacht going into France.” However, the South Vietnamese could not, man for man, outfight simple guerrillas either. Hence the bitter joke the G.I.s direct at a news reporter in Stanly Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: (from memory) “Want to buy some South Vietnamese rifles? Never been fired, and only dropped once.”

The US conscripted guys at age 19, while the Vietnamese, despite the alleged urgency of the war, and despite urging by the US, wouldn’t conscript until age 21.

The theory of banners explains why American boys, raised on junk food and pampered in cities, complete with air conditioning, can nevertheless fight as well as lean people raised in harsh third world countryside… And who can forget the young baby boomers at the end of Kubrick’s movie, still retaining their boyish idealism, advancing to the tune of the Mickey Mouse club?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Few Get Involved

Recently on one of my favorite essay-blogs, by Scott Berkun, someone lamented that “appearances are deceiving,” that the blogospere was not full of thoughtful commenters; instead, the “involved” folks like the ones going onto Berkun’s site were an insignificant minority. People liked my reply:
“If only a minority are involved in life, then I want to be part of that minority.”

This I decided back in high school. At the time, admission to university required certain “academic program” courses, such as algebra and a second language, French.

I coped OK with French for my first year, no doubt because we were on the semester system. The next year I managed to pass too. And the next fall—I failed. Now what? I guess it bothered me that my big peer group, the smart academic students around me, could walk along their academic road leaving me behind. Never mind—I would try French again in the winter semester, along with the other half of the academic students in my grade.  Then, before Christmas, Lady Fortune smiled on us: Surprise! The university announced there would no longer be a second language requirement. Jubilation!

When the winter semester arrived, my golden academic peers totally avoided French—I forget whether this surprised me. For my grade, the school offered only two sections, each filled by only six students. I know, because I was one of them. Call me stubborn!

This time around, to my amazement, I really enjoyed taking French. (I earned a C) As you may recall, young teens, academic and otherwise, are known to talk of feeling bored, trapped and oppressed in their “jail.” They pout, with shoulders drooping, saying, “I hafta (have to) take this.” As I see it: Even if they take a classic about Macbeth and three witches, or Harry Potter and magic, they will complain gloomily, “We hafta take Harry Potter” and for years afterwards they’ll be unable to read him or Macbeth with any pleasure. Furthermore, some of the younger teens will be vandals, supposedly “for kicks” but actually from frustration.

So there I was, with a few kids of high morale, none of us grimacing to say, “I haftta.” How wonderful. Some of the boys and girls in my lively French class, in both sections, went in for track and field. Me too; I have such nice memories.

Meanwhile, at lunch hour, my default was to hang around with a dozen smart academic types who sat and talked of trivial stuff all lunch. I noticed they never joined any clubs, no, not even the audio-visual club. (By the way, this was almost before silicon chips: Next year, in math class, one of us had a slide rule, and only three or four of us had calculators—including me, using my brother’s calculator, as I was desperate to pass… no punch-card style personal-sized computers were anywhere on the horizon, not even as rumors.)

And back in French class, to echo Shakespeare and his Battle of Agincourt, “we happy few, we band of keeners,” were being treated by our French teachers as willing and responsible young adults, being led in the direction we already wanted to go, and not treated as kids needing to be pushed… I decided I really respect volunteers. No wonder my favorite writer and political party member, Robert A. Heinlein, in his book about getting involved in politics, advises: When your party offers you wages, for the work you are already doing as a volunteer, just say no. (To keep their respect and credibility)

Speaking of Agincourt and soldiers, during Vietnam the National Guard was manned by a lot of people who were—“I hafta join”—avoiding conscription, aka Universal Military Training, aka “the draft.” For their training, back then, it could take months, according to a US Marine Corps major I talked with, to bring the group’s standards up. The older man and I would probably never have met over an easy beer—rather, we talked because in the dead of night I volunteered to walk with him at great length when his wife was having a baby—oh, the military secrets I was privy to that night! (I had clearance) I’m sure the National Guard of today is much better.

Meanwhile, I knew well the Canadian reservists. (I was one) They have always struck me as being bright eyed and bushy tailed because they are volunteers, albeit being paid a small salary: If their motivation ever drops below a certain threshold they drop out. As you might imagine, in a time when the city leisure catalogue covers everything from Acting to Zen Archery, when arcades and Gameboys abound, that’s when only a precious few will volunteer to dig a trench in the rain. As compensation, I’m sure, when they sing songs over beer in the warm dry evening, they must find each other’s company quite worthwhile—not a single wimp in the bunch.

Years after high school I entered university. Once again I learned to seek out the involved minority because I found that for many of my fellow students—I couldn’t truly call them my peers—the campus was a glorified high school, something they “have to” attend “to get a good job.”


Partly because—forgetting about we precious few—standards were lowered for expanded enrollment: My campus had to add a fourth year “at the bottom, not the top, as a (glorified) high school make up year,” according to the V-P Academic. (The province next door still has some three-year degrees, like in Britain) In fact, unlike back in my day, high school graduates now have to take a test of basic English before starting. (Sigh!) I guess if they can’t avoid glaring errors in English grammar then no wonder the university thought they should be sheltered from trying to conjugate French verbs.

On my brave new campus... I found only a “precious few” young scholars getting involved in campus activities and eagerly discussing typical student topics like “the meaning of life, the universe and everything.”

Why? Partly because of human nature. Most students, for their odyssey of education, would choose not to be crewmembers straining at the oars in the brisk wind with an interesting view… but instead to be passengers in the dusky musty below-decks. It’s as if they were clones of their non-university peers, except they got to carry textbooks. These students would suddenly discover their school spirit late on Friday and cram like sardinus idiotus into the bar. Meanwhile, the Student Union had arranged for a temporary liquor license up in a nice lounge for a few hours on Friday afternoon. But unless students purveyed the student newspaper, radio or TV, or noticed a discrete sign in the stairwell up past the bar, they wouldn’t know about the Friday lounge. Result? In the lounge gathered the minority who got involved. While the huge campus contained anonymous multitudes, here I knew all the precious faces. No clones and no sardines.

Today as a middle-aged man I notice how, to quote the creator of the International Outward Bound schools, educator Kurt Hahn, “human nature in very prevalent.” It’s queer: The city puts out it’s activities catalogue, as does the volunteer center; newspapers and magazines are full of articles on things to do and the joy of doing them; at community centers, party headquarters and public libraries there are big inviting signs, beckoning people to get involved. Few answer the summons. As for signs, I remember how the average student would walk past numerous bulletin boards all day without ever stopping to read one.

This week I chuckled over a poster on the Vancouver sky train: A skinny guy with a goofy grin wearing a hockey jersey is holding up a brown ceramic Stanley Cup. The caption: Last winter he was gifted with lessons in pottery—Now he is gifting the whole team!

Every year I read magazine articles about people enjoying meaningful activities that teach people about themselves and life, but I suppose, at the end of the day, the majority aren’t motivated to get any further life experience. “OK, live and let live,” I say. Most people genuinely don’t want to, say, get “character training” through recreation, or “develop their leadership.” Good news, then: In the grown up world, there will always be a spot on the team.

On the Internet, most people will find it easier to click and skim than to stop and read, or to think and comment. Hence a post by Scott may have 20,000 readers (by RSS) but only 2 comments.

As for the motivated minority, maybe they are gifted with different glands and temperament, maybe as children they had issues, and… maybe they were tempered in the fire by failing French.

Meanwhile, the popular media shows a scenario of the “jet set,” the “beautiful people,” those “never caught in the fire,” as being people never doing anything more detailed than, say, skiing down a hill. They go out to beaches, nightclubs and parties and then—apparently—more parties and nightclubs. I can’t imagine Paris Hilton dutifully attending a weekly meeting for, say, scrapbooking or for tending community gardens.

Of course, the media could be wrong about the jet set, just as I was wrong back in high school to imagine most college students would get involved. As someone said on Scott’s blog: Appearances are deceiving.

Sean Crawford
Attending a weekly group or two,
~As for the Internet, I proposed that nerds don’t necessarily get involved in reading the Internet, or even books, in my June 2013 essay, Others, Nerds and Readers.

~I archived an essay of involvement, focusing specifically on university, back in June 2010, Of Students, Alumni and Couches.

~Robert A. Heinlein’s book, where he was careful to never reveal the name of his own party, is called Take Back Your Government.

~My favorite web essayist, Paul Graham, wouldn’t conform back in high school, not if conforming meant striving to be popular. Paul Graham writes of being smart in high school in his essay, Why Nerds are Unpopular.

~ Like last week, again I have an excuse to link to the history teachers: Here is Amy Burvall explaining the Battle of Agincourt to the tune of “As Tears Go By” by Marianne Faithful. And speaking of students on an odyssey, here she sings of Odysseus to the tune of “Across the Universe” by the Beatles.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Troy, the Iliad and Music

My Oxford dictionary has no Lincoln or Churchill, but it does have Hector and Achilles.

I sensed, I felt, I knew a bit of song was profound—but I didn’t understand why my subconscious had dredged it up. It was a line in French, from an English rock song I barely knew. All morning, as I shaved with an old badger brush and then as I moved about collecting my gear for the day, the line kept recurring in my head: an angelic lady’s voice, echoing like a cathedral choir, with long notes rising up a scale, “…Les yeux sans visage…” Sometimes I’d hear Billy Idol singing down the next line, in translation, “Eyes without a face.”  As I kept hearing the choir lady, I kept feeling like I was looking straight up at the stars out on the prairie. I didn’t understand—Why was that line in my head?

Driving past farms into the sunrise I thought about a movie on DVD I’d seen last night, Troy, “inspired by Homer’s Iliad,” starring Peter O’toole, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Sean Bean and the heartthrob Orlando Bloom as young Paris. I had watched Troy because last weekend while on the road I’d finished an audio book, translated from Greek poem to English prose, of the Iliad. I still felt awe, and such a connection to the people of the ages… I parked at a lakeside cafĂ©. As I sipped my first coffee, staring over the lake and musing, still I heard the angelic choir singer. As I sipped my second coffee I quietly thought, “Eureka.” I knew why I was so moved. And I knew why the film Troy, with all those famous actors, had missed the target.

Of course an epic like the Iliad can’t be fitted into a two-hour movie; still, at least the creators of Troy tried, not “fitting in” but being “inspired by.” But they tried too hard to be original which meant, unfortunately, they decided to be cynical.

Les yeux sans visage…” In the Trojan War the Bronze Age warriors wear helmets with nose guards and cheek plates. All that shows is their chin and their eyes: Sons and husbands, hot blooded and afraid. The singing, then, is most appropriate: sorrow, pity and a hint of something transcendent.

Classics can teach us. In my youth, on TV shows in black and white, we watched as brave cops and robbers intently kept on firing away at each other. Today, on color TV, we see the “New York’s finest” shooting only briefly then ducking back as their nerve fails them. Why the change? I think some scriptwriters must have read the Iliad, for that is how the heroes of old met their fate: as fearful as they were glorious.

A favorite scene for me is where Hector is back in the city of Troy, briefly home visiting his wife and baby, not knowing how long he has left on earth. In the Iliad he lingers with his family, not huggable but fully armored, wearing his helmet. Too bad in Troy he’s sans helmet, sans armor. As Homer tell us, the baby looks up at the sight of his father’s unnatural horsehair crest and starts crying. There’s a war on: no time to make the baby laugh, or to make better memories of what may be the dad’s last visit. Hector returns to war. The field of battle is the plain between the walls of Troy and the wooden wall of the Greeks along the shore. Behind their great ditch and palisade the Greeks have planted their huts and worn footpaths while all this time their black ships, drawn up onto the sand, loom over their thoughts.

How could Hector and Ajax and Odysseus (Ulysses) and all the others bring themselves to fight? They surely knew war is not glorious: The Iliad is filled with detailed scenes of gore, scenes far too indecent to depict today: They knew. In Hollywood’s entertaining Troy the Greeks and Trojans say the walls of Troy are impregnable—not so in the Iliad. In Homer’s tragedy the Trojans tell each other, just as Hector tells his wife, they are almost surely doomed: the towers of Ilium will burn. Yet they still have a slight chance of not losing: They have to try—this is their fate. The Trojans and the Greeks, clashing on the field between the city and the sea, manage to do something no wild beast would ever do: stand in line for various battles, day after day, hour after hour as blood streams down darkening the sand. The Iliad doesn’t even begin until after the Greek ships have already been beached for seven years. How could they ever cope with returning again and again to the battlefield?

To me the answer is symbolized by their helmets. Like how we protect our horses from fear by having their eyes blinkered with black squares, like how the helmets might shelter the warriors from physically seeing things out the corners of their eyes, just so did the men protect themselves by not knowing what they knew… even as they struggled over straggly grass on darkened sand.

Both Greeks and Trojans spoke the same language, knew each other’s names, honored the same gods. Yet they would meet in battle. For them, perhaps it was for the best how the helmets obscured their enemy’s humanity, while hiding from their own brothers their fear-filled faces. "Les yeux sans visage."

We educated citizens of today, only because it’s peacetime, can safely know of war. In cities across our fair land our knowledgeable citizen-soldiers, at this time of year, in each city armory, have propped up on the counters of each battalion orderly room nice Christmas cards from fellow reservists in armories far away, reservists they may never meet in person. As John Donne put it: No man is an island …, all are part of the mainland; and if a clod be washed away by the sea, is not Europe the lesser? … Reservists understand why Hector will never abandon his dear city. At the same time his countrymen will not negotiate to give up fair Helen, now the wife of Paris—this is their tragic flaw.

People haven’t changed; I’m sure the sages of classical times agree with our modern experts: To have a life we need to transcend ourselves, to see some bigger picture beyond our own little lives. In the night of winter solstice atheists and devout alike will appreciate angelic choirs.

But men who live in a hard bubble will end up with hard hearts.

Just as we of today easily refer to intangibles that transcends us all, such as “democracy,” in order to rebuke and guide each other, without feeling self-conscious, so too would the people of Homer’s society easily refer to their intangible gods. “… Who can oppose the gods? ... My friends, it must have been madness from Zeus that made me so obstinate—I beg you all to forgive me.” A hero would not be surprised to meet a god.

There is a silent night scene in the Iliad where old King Priam sets out alone under the stars with a cart. He is hoping against hope, determined to somehow retrieve his son’s body from the tent of Achilles. He meets a cheerful respectful youth who offers to help. They talk. The lad says he can help the old man to cross the field, and can get the king through the gate at the ditch and palisade, and knows where the tent of Achilles is, and in fact he is a servant of Achilles and can get the old man in to see the warrior. Old King Priam isn’t fooled by the smiling lad: He knows full well he is talking to a god.

In Hollywood’s version Achilles looks up as the king simply enters his tent, asking, “How did you get here?” and Priam answers that as king he knows the land. They talk. Homer lingers over this scene, telling of a humbled old father, in mortal danger from young Achilles’s smoking volcanic temper, making eye contact and earnest conversation with the man who slew his son… Troy spends much less time.

In the world of Troy a prominent sorrowing choir would be out of place, for that world does not show us at our best—nothing is transcendent. With only two hours to tell the tale, Troy depicts a cold godless realm, a realm where the Greek royalty are ignoble and petty, cynical and selfish, caring nothing for the men they command. They might as well be corrupt generals in the army of South Vietnam. And therein lies the problem, for the classic definition of tragedy is a noble figure with a flaw. An ignoble person can’t be tragic, only small and sad. Like how when a mafia godfather dies, and at his funeral a long line of criminals walk past the casket, but good citizens are only dimly interested, their hearts untouched. To them nothing grand has happened, only something small.

I wonder what the rich Hollywood producers were thinking? The poor blind poet Homer would recite his poem in the marketplace amidst his Greek community. He cared for all, for Greek and Trojan alike, even for those characters who would, in Hollywood, be seen as “spear carriers” with anonymous walk-on parts. Homer nobly dignifies their deaths by taking his time, as he depicts each Greek and Trojan’s fall, telling us who they are, whence they came, who loves them, and what is their story. Only then does he describe a man’s soul rushing down to Hades. He shows noble citizen-soldiers, from many green valleys and islands, having volunteered to go fight to bring back fair Helen, she of  “the face that launched a thousand ships,” just as other citizens have left their families and farms to gather at Troy to defend Helen and the towers of Ilium.
Helen, safe in the palace, sometimes says, “Bitch that I am.” Not quite of noble character, no, but by facing up to her responsibility for the war she too approaches tragedy.

The proud people of the Iliad have noble leaders worthy of them; everyone tries to be worthy of the gods who see all. Not so in the movie Troy: Citizens there are treated by their leaders as mere “soldiers,” as bodies to be piled up at the wall and wasted for their leader’s private gain.

This morning, as a free man, I drove my car to a lakeside to muse. With the cold fresh air of sunrise it was a nice day to be alive; I found I could not draw a cynical breath while I was touched with transcendence.

I feel for the men of both sides, those frightened yet brave fathers, sons and citizens, walking across the field to meet their fate. … "Les yeux sans visage."

Sean Crawford
On the fields of Alberta
Where once young men gathered from all over the Commonwealth,
Training to be airmen against fascism

~My Oxford dictionary has no Lincoln or Churchill, but it does have Hector and Achilles.

~While Hollywood uses the Trojan horse to have a tidy ending—Troy burns like Atlanta—Homer saw things differently. His Iliad begins with the war in progress, and ends with the war still going strong.

~As a young man, the only Hollywood war movie I ever found without “Yankee B.S.” was 12 O’clock High. (The book was written by two veterans after the war, the movie came out in 1949)
Because of this, you may imagine my excitement when as part of my college class in Outstanding Lives—(We studied three people: Simone Weil, Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Merton)—I read Ms. Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force written during the Third Reich: She points out that, unless you know history, you cannot tell which side wrote the Iliad… so humble, so even handed, with no glory, and no hubris. We have yet to regain the clarity of the Greeks.

Here is the link to my textbook by Simone Weil, the slimmest textbook I ever bought, with translations of quotes from Homer by novelist and essayist Mary McCarthy. It might be easiest, for your first read, to go from quote to quote. I probably read the work all in one sitting myself, but I was a student then, and young.

~ Using Billy Idol’s tune, here is a gory music video, “We Call It the Crusades.” The singer is Amy Burval, the history teacher I wrote of last month in Activists and Music Videos. And here she sings a tasteful video, using “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, called “Trojan War.”

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Words, Guys and Unisex

“The most important thing for a human being to know, from infancy onward, is whether he is welcome or unwelcome, whether he is being loved and cherished and protected or hated and feared; and the give-and-take of speech, with all its modulation of color and tone, provides these essential clues.”
Lewis Mumford, The Miracle of Language

 I could pepper this essay with many “words” in quotation marks, but—how tedious for us both. And then if I read aloud my arms would get very tired from making scare quotes. So no quote marks today. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt; let’s imagine for any given word the quotes are there, as needed.

Words, Guys and Unisex
In the beginning was the word. I will never forget reading about a very young girl trying to figure out a little box she was holding. It had a drawer she could open, if only she knew how. She thought by first sliding her jaw open and shut, and then she opened the drawer. I read this in The Developing Child by Helen Bee. I knew at the time that we adults, privileged to think more abstractly than children, thought by sliding words around. Words enabled thought and words were thought. This was around 1980, when we were saying women deserved equal rights, yet women were subtly seen as unequal and undeserving. I kept blinking in surprise as I read the textbook, because Ms. Bee subtly used she as a generic term for child, instead of he. I looked and saw our words could be better. I figured my blinking was my problem, not Ms. Bee’s: She had the right to use words this way.

Besides, best not to complain: Being the only male in my child psychology class, and being fresh from the army base across the airstrip, I figured I had a lot to learn. One of my classmates told me about her little boy looking at the textbook cover, which showed children on a fancy playground, complete with slide. Her child looked up at her and said: “What if there was a button on the corner of the cover that you could press, and then—all the children would start moving, and going down the slide.” Such imagination! Yes, and as students and parents, what new world for our dear children were we imagining?

We knew darn well we had the right to imagine: Having survived the 1960’s, and the kitchen “consciousness raising groups” of the 1970’s, we knew society was not glued in place, but ever changing itself, like partly dismantling plastic red (Or lego) blocks and then happily rearranging.

Words are blocks. Some words are more concrete: mother, father. Other blocks are more abstract: person, parent. We wanted gateway words; we wanted our little girls to pass through to be letter carriers, firefighters and police constables without feeling like de-sexed monsters who had turned into mailmen, firemen and policemen. And as we were naming our hopes for our children, the debates around imagining equality were heated and crazy, just like how today our US cousins are imagining that allowing homosexuals to join the army will mean brawny men wearing dresses on parade, and soldiers digging their trenches with limp wrists. Crazy.

For both individuals and groups, if a goal is true and good and beautiful, and if it is not already accomplished, then there are obstacles. Sometimes the people who oppose noble goals, besides having crazy imaginations, will obstruct by appealing to laziness or saying, “don’t go so fast!” Martin Luther King answered these people when he said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy…” (Letter from Birmingham jail)

As it happens, the cart of progress can slow, stop or even reverse. A handy thought-word is pendulum; my despair is mollified when I remember such inevitable word-blocks as reactionary, counterrevolution, and the comforting phrase “one step back for two steps forward.”

It was exactly one year after my child psychology class that my college teacher Chuck Killingsworth, a Vietnam veteran, standing before my recreation class, was fishing for the word sexism, and none of us could supply it for him. (OK, I could, but I was keeping a low profile just then) He couldn’t remember it himself, either. How queer. There I was, a shorthaired veteran among longhaired students who couldn’t come up with the word sexism. They did not require that word-tool for their lives; they were not working through the issues. How sad: There had been a time when our side of the generation gap was going to be liberated from the old, un-new, un-improved generation. Not now. I looked at the students, and I knew: Their long hair was not political but cosmetic, less for building a brave new world than for a fashion statement. Short hair started coming back, with gay men being first. As the pendulum swung.

Before 1990 I remember a university classmate, Pauline, making a face as I was talking to her. She said, “Don’t use that word.” Lesbian. She preferred a nice new word, free of stigma: gay. She had been in the gay students society. Because the initials embarrassed the graduate students society, the name had just been changed. Now she was in GLASS, for gay and lesbian academics, students and staff. But make no mistake: gay was still a gender-neutral term. Gays had fought against the police, and won their legal freedom of assembly in 1969. After that, after being allowed to meet each other in broad daylight, they could see for themselves society was mistaken, that they could in fact have strong wrists and strong self-esteem.

Later came an organization where straight parents could meet and work through their issues and hear for themselves, from each other, that no, they didn’t cause it, they couldn’t cure it, and their gay children could be strong, noble, good church-going citizens. But that was later, after the 1969 struggle.

The year 2,000 A.D. was to be the year the future arrived. I remember, in that year, Professor Susan Cran teaching our business-and-rehabilitation class where I was probably the only male. One day she was fishing for a reply from any student, anyone, and when we couldn’t reply said to us in exasperation, “Guys! ... Come on, guys…” And later that day, in the student union building, I was exiting the Women’s Collective and Resource Centre as one woman asked two other women, “Are you guys going to the concert tonight?” Her word choice was quite unremarkable to us: As gays was unisex, so was guys.

Meanwhile, well before the new millennium, David Gerrold was writing his masterpiece about an ecological infestation, The Chtorr War series. The young viewpoint hero took things like space habitats and a moon base for granted. What fascinated me was when he would mention two soldiers in the background and, just two paragraphs later, mention one of them again, this time saying she. He hadn’t thought to mention the two soldiers were women because his generation took it for granted that soldiering had been decoupled from gender. How… how science fiction-y.

As we time travel into the future, at a breathless velocity of one second per second, new words are appearing and old ones are being lost. A few months ago I was waiting at a store counter beside two high school girls. Presumably these girls knew the words Miss, Mrs. and Mr. I heard them asking each other how to pronounce Ms. and asking what the word meant. I did not enlighten them. Next day I told this to a university graduate friend. She said she didn’t know either, adding, “I think it means a woman is divorced.” Well.

I can remember when we joked that co-eds—meaning co-educational, meaning female students—were on campus to proudly “get their Mrs. Degree”—meaning: get a husband. At the same time, other women, equally happy to get married, thought it was not society’s business to know whether they were married or not. Hence Ms. And from their efforts in the 1970’s, today at hiring interviews employers are no longer legally allowed to ask whether you are married or a tiny bit pregnant. (Not until after you are hired)  Back in 1980, while co-ed was being printed in Reader’s Digest, and few in Canada were saying co-ed, back then no one—including me—ever asked, “Why aren’t men proud to have initials before their name to say whether they are married?” I guess with our plastic word-blocks we had built a world we took for granted.

It’s like how during my boyhood we saw nothing wrong with stage plays like Guys and Dolls (1950) or with saying “guys and gals.” Few dreamed that we would move closer to an equal future, closer to words like Ms. and to having guys as a unisex term. As a boy, between drawing spaceships with little retro rockets by the nose cone, I would do the arithmetic to figure out how old I would be in the year two thousand. Old! It was around that time we had to retro built a word: acoustic guitar. At first there was no such term: The wooden ones were re-named after the electric ones came out. Words can also be retro vanished: Our US Negro cousins are now our Black cousins, while Negro, with a capital N, has retro vanished as a proper noun. (Presumably from being too close to the slang term nigger) And so I can write with a straight face, “In 1950 Buddy Holly carried his acoustic guitar past a Black priest.” (Just don’t use such anachronistic dialogue for time traveling secret agents, not if they are trying to pass for locals) As the pendulum swings.

Of course I respect biology: I have enjoyed referring to a respected woman over age thirty as a girl, when she was my potential girl friend; my child psychology peers in 1980 had enjoyed referring to boys they knew and gorgeous guys in a student club. Of course it’s nice to titillate ourselves. But still, sometimes, female adults are women and groups of adults are guys.

The last time I flew across the Rockies I declined taking a jet liner in favor of a smaller turbo-prop: It flew lower with better scenery. I sat at the very front, for the best view, and next to me on a little fold down seat was a nice good-looking flight attendant. I quite enjoyed our conversation. I did not call the man a flight steward, nor did I call his colleague a flight stewardess. Instead I went in for the unisex term. If I’d had a not-yet-published edition of O Magazine, then I could have asked the flight attendant what he thought of a letter somebody mailed in. I’m not saying the writer wanted to return to the days of Guys and Dolls, but she had managed to retro vanish the unisex term guys. Writing to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, she said firmly she didn’t appreciate a waiter addressing her table with, “What are you guys having?” because, she explained, she’s not a guy.

I do not believe she wanted female soldiers to have color coded uniforms and dig trenches with limp wrists, but I neither do I believe she was thinking through exactly what brave new world, and what brave army, she wanted her nieces to serve in. If my own niece, Darelynne, wearing her tattoo of a Guardian Angel with an M-16, is going to fight for my freedom, then I won’t put obstacles in Darelynne's way. No separate-but-equal uniforms. Meanwhile, as America is engaged in the war on terror, let’s try to set, for the terror-exporting states, a good example of human equality.

My US readers, from their time in Iraq, may recall how the rest of the world felt disturbed to read about nation building there. In exasperation they asked Americans: “Why not do state building?” To English-speaking folks offshore, a nation is a group within a state, such as the nations of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds within Iraq. As a North American, I can understand why the Americans still misuse English this way. They don’t get it because from stirring their traditional melting pot, with hot pressure to blend in, they have prevented separate nations from congealing. In contrast, up in Canada, even as they want to separate from the rest of Canada, a group within the province of Quebec are calling themselves nationalists. In an essay, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said we have to guess which meaning is intended, state or sub-state, when we hear nation. He said we go by context.

Just as I expect people to use context, for continent or republic, when I say “Here in America…” Hint to US cousins: When driving across the international border to Canada, a crude Charles Bronson (Death Wish, the movie) would say “I’m American” while the polite secret agent Matt Helm (Death of a Citizen, the novel) would say, “US citizen,” reminding his partner, “It’s their continent too.”

For my part, for the past decade and three years, while engaged in conceiving essays about liberty, the context for writing has been during war time, and therefore I have always been ready to digress into facing the war that is now before us. It is fitting to act on words like war and citizen. And nation. My alternative? To mentally secede, saying, “This war belongs to our government, to Our Dear Leader, not to the rest of us.” Of course, if I say that, then government by the people has already perished from the earth.

In a New York City accent: “I’m just saying.”

My niece, now home on Christmas leave, is a fully-fledged soldier—Not like in my dad’s war: not merely part of the woman’s auxiliary army corps. You may call me a dreamer, but I think Darelynne will be the first soldier in our family to make Sargent-Major. And I’m not the only one. My sister, Captain Crawford, has dreams too. 

Meanwhile I’m praying and hoping and wishing that in the context of gorgeous guys, guys is male, and in the context of most guys believe in peace, guys is unisex.

Sean Crawford
Civilian on the outside,
Citizen between the ears,
North of the 49th parallel
January 2014

Lewis Mumford: “…So essential is language to man’s humanness, so deep a source is it of his own creativity, that it is by no means an accident in our time that those who have tried to degrade man and enslave him have first debased and misused language, arbitrarily turning meanings inside out. Civilization itself, from the most primitive stage onward, moves toward the continuous creation of a common social heritage, transcending all the peculiarities of race and environment and historic accident, shared over ever wider reaches of space and time…”
Excerpt from The Miracle of Language in The Conduct of Life, copyright1951, 1979, by Lewis Mumford, Harcourt Brace Janovich, Inc.

~As the pendulum swings, I suppose Ms. has faded partly because there is less stigma to being unmarried: Nurses find it practical to say partner instead of spouse, and nobody says living-in-sin. And nobody makes a noun by accenting the third syllable in divorce, either.

~A new term is we, as in “Guess what? Michael and I—we’re pregnant!”

~Bias in word or thought blinds us for seeing the future… Killingsworth told us how, back from Nam, he did a thesis paper at university about Vietnam, saying we could win. His academic advisor had to tell him that, according to Killingsworth's own research, the war was unwinnable. It was otherwise a well-done paper, right up until the conclusion.

~Much of what makes the Chtorr Wars future feel like science fiction is the incredible lack of hubris among most people in the chain of command. This healthy lack is partly because the Chtorran plagues removed so many people, (only 76 congressmen survived) and partly because the US had lost a conflict back when the hero was a boy, and then had to sign the Moscow treaty—signing it in Moscow, not at a halfway point. … Sic transit hubris. …Sometimes you can’t see hubris from the inside: If you are a US citizen reading this, and you can gain the confidence of a Canadian, try to get him to tell you what “Yankee B.S.” is.

~Speaking of ego and equal rights: In the Chtorr War series the viewpoint hero, a competent army officer, gets a girlfriend who is taller, older, more common-sense-functional, of higher rank, on track to making general, and more sexually experienced/assertive… Outside of science fiction, can you imagine that in any thrilling novel today?

I think the reason the hero is OK with his life partner being higher is not merely because this is in the future, but because he does not see life as a hierarchy; I think, rather, he semi-consciously has a binary view, collapsing hierarchy to a question of territory: some people, in the hero’s territory, are committed to goals, not excuses, and hence have become competent. Others, outside his territory, have failed to accept the challenge of becoming committed to getting results. Such a pity.

~For my next essay, I’ll go back to putting individual words in quotation marks. (You’re welcome)