Month: January 2016

Sounding Brass and the Silent Majority

Received a note a few days ago asking me if I ever wondered what happened to that obnoxious comic strip child Dennis the Menace when he grew up. Below the illustrated Dennis was a colour photo of Donald Trump arms outstretched, hands palms up, mouth wide-open.

Good for an immediate laugh in agreement — and an even more immediate question as to why I could find anything at all funny in a man whose voice has become “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal” with dark threats disguised as love of country.

On January 24 the British newspaper The Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Janet Daley urging readers “to take heart” because “the silent majority (always) trumps the mobocracy….though it is definitely dispiriting, ‘he-who-shouts-loudest’ (in) politics will always come unstuck where it matters – in the privacy of the voting booth.”

Ms Daley is clear that her judgment is based on recent political posturing in the UK. She admits that “over in the US the problem is rather different: there really are two American electorates who despise each other. Trump has unleashed the triumphal fury of the one to the despair of the other. This is a national identity crisis that is being carelessly whipped up by incoherent noise.” She concedes the US climate is dangerous that “however absurd …belligerent mouthing off may be, so long as it creates enough of a din, you will become the central fact around which everything must revolve – even if your position is politically so confused as to be unidentifiable. Noise wins, even when it makes no sense.”

But, she insists at the end of the day while the bellicose rhetoric might “succeed in steam-rolling the impressionable few…The vast numbers who think their own thought and come to their own conclusions are not daunted.”

I wish I could believe her – that the silent majority will arise in the United States and show Trump as but “a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more… a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury ,signifying nothing.”

I wish I could believe, but in my short walk on planet earth I have seen too many silent majorities fall under the spell of Pied Pipers; have seen local and provincial elections won on unfulfilled promises and unsustained fears; have been witness to entire nations of basically sensible citizens following leaders full of sound and fury to inevitable national doom.

I fear for our good friends south of the 49th – and for our world – if Donald Trump continues what is so far an unbelievable – but successful to this point – campaign for the Presidency of the United States.

The recent knowledge that North Korea President Kim Jong-un now has an H-bomb at his disposal is frightening. The thought that Donald Trump could one day control the White House red button – and has indicated that he wouldn’t hesitate to use it – is terrifying.

 

“A Man’s a Man for a’that”

Half the world, maybe more than half, will celebrate one of the most popular birthdays in history tomorrow – tomorrow in my part of the world being Monday, January 25. On that day in 1759 Scotland welcomed to the world Robert “Rabbie” Burns, first born son of William Burnes and Agnes Broun, far from prosperous famers in Alloway, Ayrshire calling a two room cottage home.

That the first of their seven children would one day be proclaimed “The Bard” of Scotland – with the “e” dropped from his surname – would be beyond comprehension; the thought that 257 years later their son’s birthday would be celebrated in almost every country in the world, beyond the wildest dreams young parents have for their first born.

And as hardworking, devoted Christians, there would never be even an inkling of thought that their son would weaves into a life of literary brilliance a record of promiscuity second to none. It is something celebrants should think about as they lift glasses of usquabae to toast a man they know by name only – and can’t understand when he speaks to them in poetry or prose.

Together at the end of their Burns’ Night celebration most will join hands and sing over and over again the chorus of Auld lang syne,my jo/ For auld lang syne/ We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,/ For auld lang syne , without understanding the chorus is only that; a fragment of a poem written about  the treasure of true friendship.

That will be long after they’ve giggled their way through a reading of the Address to a Haggis which, if read honestly by a native Scot will require translation for those less fortunate. Without an interpreter how else could a Burn’s Night celebrant appreciate the server of the Haggis as “his spindle shank a guid whip-lash, His nieve a nit…..Scotland wants nae skinking ware that jaubs in luggies?” Determined readers can put Google to work to find out why “Scotland wants nae skinking ware that jaubs in luggies”.

While checking they could also get Google to cough-up a few lines of Burn’s bawdy verse in which the young fellow – he died in July, 1796 aged 37 – waxed beyond bawdy when describing a few, just a few, of his many amorous affairs with seemingly willing maids and matrons. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that publishers spelled out the rhyming words first recorded by blank space, then for decades as the first and last letters of words we all know but are still reluctant to record. And it’s a given that they’re never mentioned at a standard mixed company Burn’s Night dinner.

A pity, really, because to understand the power and the beauty of Burns poetry we need to know the full man. And, not all of his “bawdy verse” is bawdy and classed as lewd by some. But not by me. What is lewd or bawdy about “his doxy lay within his arms/ Wi’ usquabae and blanket warm”, from the poem Soldier Laddie? Or his outspoken condemnation of wars and hate with: “In wars at home I’ll spend my blood/ Life giving wars of Venus./ The deities that I adore/ Are social peace and plenty,/I’m better pleased to make one more/ Than be the death of twenty.”

So, if you’re heading for a Burns’ night tomorrow – or ever – take note of these following words from The Burns Encyclopedia to more fully understand the whole-man memory you are honouring:

“Because he has preserved so much of the richness of Scotland’s past, and because he possessed the gift of stating the commonplaces of life in a way which makes them significantly memorable, Burns has been all but idolized in Scotland. Much of the idolatry is foolish in the extreme, and is bestowed on him by people totally unable to appreciate the fine qualities of his work, or, indeed, literature of any kind, but who see him either as a sort of emotionally charged national symbol, or an excuse for a good annual ‘binge’. Burns nights, held round about 25th January all over the world, are notable perhaps only occasionally for the wisdom of the speeches or the abilities of the performers: but they help to keep interest in Burns, and indeed, the Scots tongue alive.”

He was a philanderer with a record that can hardly be admired. But he gave the world more than he took from it. And there were times when he spoke for all of us:”Why am I loth to leave this earthly scene? Have I so found it full of pleasing charms? Some drops of joy with draughts of ill between/ Some gleams of sunshine ‘mid renewing storms.”

And if you are intend to be a celebrant go easy on the usquabae – especially if it’s single malt.

 

 

Dreams and Nightmares

A fine speech by USA President Barak Obama a few days ago, a speech full of hope and the promise to continue pursuit of the elusive goal of gun control; a health care program stable and approved by Republicans as well as Democrats; a university education “affordable to all;” and a stepping up of the research to find a cure for cancer to match the enthusiasm of the decades old successful USA mission to land a man on the moon.

Mixed in with those and other messages of hope was an unusual – for President Obama – few minutes of American bragging and a disturbing undertone of the American Eagle preparing for another war. Most news outlets ignored what sounded to me like a call to arms preferring to glow with the comfort promises. So mark these following words with a tremble of concern. They are not mine. They are verbatim from the President of the United States of America.The (applause) is as officially noted.

“As I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. (Applause.)Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. (Applause.) No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us. (Applause.)

“……. I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and certainly not because of diminished American strength. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.

“The Middle East is going through a transformation…. Economic headwinds are blowing in from a Chinese economy that is in significant transition. Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria — client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit. And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality. It is up to us, the United States of America, to help remake that system…

“Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. (Applause.) Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.

“But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. (Applause.)That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions. (Applause.) We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed. (Applause.),

“And that’s exactly what we’re doing. For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons. We’re training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.

“If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote! (Applause)”

And if Congress takes that vote, Obama’s pursuit of happiness and comfort for his nation could, quick as a flash from a smart H-bomb, be buried in the wreckage of   Planet Earth.

People Strong Enough and Well Informed

 

Any New Year resolutions yet unbroken? It’s a serious question because with only 10-days gone in 2016 the rolling thunder and consequences of continuing economic woes, plus news that rogue nation North Korea acquired for Christmas wrapped hydrogen bomb, have combined to make champagne supported resolutions to drink less and exercise more, fragile and inconsequential.

Recession, faltering economies and never ending wars and rumours of wars are hardly new; neither is the daily fanning of their threatening flames by media which, in all its forms, revels in disaster – and fear.

It is said that today “the people” often behave like legendary Lemmings who, while far from suicidal, tend to mass-migrate from time to time following their leaders into hazards with huge fatalities an inevitable result. It is an unfortunate truth we “the people” when badly led do indeed trend that way.

A few days ago I was reminded of the words of Herman Goering, one of the Nazi monsters who led an entire nation to its Lemming-like destruction. Goering, who committed suicide shortly after his trial at Nuremberg, a trial during which he was asked how “the people” of Germany felt about World War Two. It’s worth, considering the world’s immediate past and ever present troubles, reading his response – carefully:

“Why of course people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifist for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” 

Couldn’t happen here? We would never respond so blindly to wild rhetoric from politicians or the happy regurgitation of that rhetoric by media. Our leaders may dwell on our fears and try to scare us to death with tales of pending disasters when they should be calmly and consistently educating us in ways to avoid them or how to handle them when they prove inevitable, but we would never blindly follow them over the edge of the cliff.

It would help if political leaders softened the rhetoric and opted for calmly stated truths rather than party survival platitudes, promises and pretty photos. In times of trouble – and we are in them – we need calm, confident voices. We need assurances not jingoistic flag waving. We need – politicians, press and “the people” – to remember what leaders like USA President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in one of his famous radio “fireside chats” in 1938 as the world watched Europe swarming like Lemmings toward destruction. He calmed his fearful nation with the assurance: “The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over its government.”

Time, I think, for Canadians to embrace the simple promise “to protect” from governments, federal, provincial and local. A pledge “to inform” from media which today prefers entertainment to information; and for “the people” to demand the education it needs to be well enough informed “to maintain its sovereign control.”

And to never forget how easy Goering said it was, with the aid of a Lemming-like media, to go astray.