Thursday, September 18, 2014

Abstractions, Trickling Down

As I write this, 16 year olds in Scotland are voting on whether to separate from Britain. I will not, with an over-simple sound bite, address the issue of adolescents voting. But I will write something essay length, starting with a metaphor:

If “Reaganomics,” the president’s “trickle down” theory, is that as the rich get “more” the rest of us will get “some” then “everyday life-enomics” is where the experts work through “more” abstract knowledge and ideals so that “some” facts and concepts trickle down, sometimes as oversimplified sound bites and slogans. “A citizen’s duty is to be informed—” yes, I know …I could do better at learning thinks.

Sixteen year olds voting? At their age, I would guess, all they have to go on is what has trickled down to them. At least they went to school in Britain: Schools seem to be worse in the U.S. I have read that in America, “where you can’t underestimate the stupidity of the public” during all referendums and elections any issues, ideals or ideas must be communicated using mere sound bites: “Too explain is to lose.” In Canada, where surprise one-month elections are called, a serving Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, said, “An election is no time to discuss issues.” Of course, a cynic would say Campbell’s Yankee cousins couldn’t discuss issues between elections, either.

Still, 16 year olds voting? I forget, mercifully, whether I still “knew it all” by that age. I suppose idealistic teenagers typically have a black and white view of the world until the dust of the streets greys them.

While mentioning young Scottish voters in passing, a Canadian shrugged and said, “I guess if they’re old enough to fight they’re old enough to vote.” I remember enlisting at age 17. I soon found myself with the eye of a frog and a curious double vision: Above the water line, a clear lookout for fearsome herons. Below: a serene yellow pond-scape. My military middle-aged superiors would make decisions that had me looking up  red eyed with rage—and then my frog eye would click in and I would realize: One day I too would be middle aged, and then I would be in perfect calm agreement with them.

I think street smarts and coping skills are gained at the personal level—either you learn or you don’t—while at the social level, “life-enomics,” a minority works to allow our society as a whole to grow. And so I depend on trickle-down.

I think the biggest abstractions, like democracy, age of enlightenment and rights of the common man required years and years of thinking and writing by lots and lots of people, albeit a minority in each generation. By now sound bites and summaries have trickled down so that, say, human rights seem obvious. Yet, compared to the past, or the Arab world of today—3,000 princes in Saudi Arabia alone—human rights are very enlightened indeed. I don’t travel much, so I guess I can thank the war on terror for broadening my mind regarding Arabs. Broadening all of us, I guess.

It was one of the thinkers whom I have quoted on my blog, Neil Postman, who pointed out that literacy, for adults, teaches one to challenge each sentence upon arriving at the “full stop,” or period. It follows, I think, that Arabs may not reach “enlightenment” using fibre optics and screens; they may well need a class of folks who think with a pen. Hard for them to manage to think,  I realize, when their schools, or madrases, teach them to only memorize and recite, within a kingdom or a theocracy.

As for enlightenment, recently I have heard that “In modern times, no two democracies have ever gone to war against each other.” Now, there’s a comforting line to give to any angst-filled teenager. Back in university, I remember lots of joking talk about angst, although I don’t remember anyone ever confessing, “I have angst.” Back when I was an active optimistic teen soldier, serving “the body politic,” it was obvious to me the “body” included philosophers and deep readers: such folks would be part of committing us to war. Among my buddies was a feeling of an unspoken contract with society: “I will do what you say (fight your war) but you must know what you are doing.” We could be a  fighting part of the body without being old enough to vote. Meanwhile, citizens felt responsibility to grab on to what ever trickled down.

During Canada’s peace keeping, call it peace making, in the former Yugoslavia, writer Gwynne Dyer spoke to Canadian university students of voting age, that is to say, citizens. I was present. While saying he is not against us defending Muslims by bombing Serbians, he would remind us “ten per cent of the bombs dropped were Canadian.” We gasped. He continued, “How does it feel to be a member of an aggressor nation?” We gasped again. Later I reasoned it out for a speech to the university toastmasters club. If it’s OK to use force to defend Muslims, then the guilt is collective. Certainly when the Serbians see the planes come over they don’t blame the liberal party, or the air force. They curse “the Canadians.” When the voting members of the “body politic” choose war, then, as my parents well remember, it is underage girls who roll bandages while underage boys haul scrap iron off to be recycled, while other boys who are  underage go off to enlist. In our national family, we citizens better know what we are doing.

The implication, during peace and war, is right in my face: Young sailor boys, air crew and soldiers are innocent. Many of them are too young and "literacy challenged" to read anything, even trickle down writings, while some are even too young to vote. If servicemen are innocent then the guilt is not merely with society as a whole, but especially with folks over 21, those having had a few years to think things through. If all of us, in our everyday lives, work to enable some of us to fight, then the guilt is mostly with us. And specifically? With me and you.

Sean Crawford
September 18, 2014



  1. You enlisted at age 17? Wow! It sounds like you've had an interesting interesting path.

    This topic (thinking about soldier/war) made me think of my Grandfather today. He was awarded his RAF wings in 1936. He piloted a Bristol Blenheim Bomber Mark V1 and he commanded a squadron. One of the other leaders in the same squadron (a best friend to my Grandfather) was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery and courage.

    Hats off to you for enlisting/serving and thank you for making me think about and appreciate my dear Grandfather.

  2. Anonymous, thank you for sharing.

    When I was in central London there were various military statues for various wars.

    I was reminded of how in Argentina, during the military Junta rule, when the upper class all wanted to have law degrees, not be engineers to help develop their country, they regarded Britain as a place where the upper class, even royalty, get involved in the armed forces. When Argentine soldiers in the Falklands heard that Britain had entered the Falklands War, they knew right away they had lost… So much for democracies being weak and decadent.

    I am struck by how your grandfather's generation (My father's) were cheery, optimistic and willing to train hard. Practically all my aunts and uncles served—some were too young. Dad wouldn't let my mother serve in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps but her younger sister did.

    As a young man I tried to lead a romantic life—blame the poet in me—but now I feel the guy beside me on the jet: He ran a cryogenics company and the three other guys in his lab had all done things like be on history-making climbs, set a record for jumping out of a balloon, and—I forget what the third man did. My seat mate told me with a laugh he felt very plain by comparison. …Today I lead a plain life too.

  3. I always find it interesting to chat to people on a plane (sometimes I like my peace and quiet though). When I learn about people's careers or experiences, I sometimes think "Why didn't I think of doing that? Did someone ever mention that career in school? Was I sleeping that day? Did the teacher lose me at hello?". The last time I travelled, I sat beside a woman around my age (an Oil and Gas Engineer in Calgary) who had travelled to Tibet and done some hiking in the Himalayas. Her stories were fascinating. That was a good plane ride. Cheers!