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J.D.M. Stewart: Remembering Canada’s heroes

Commentary

The First World War ended on November 11, 1918. It was a conflict that not only presented opportunities for heroes to rise to the occasion but also left behind a cultural legacy that forms a significant part of our identity and collective experience as Canadians to this day. In honour of that, here is a small sampling of people and artifacts from a war that still resonates. 

Sir Arthur Currie was the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Corps during the Great War, as well as one of the key operational leaders and thinkers behind the success in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where Currie commanded the 2nd division. “He was no Napoleon,” wrote historian Jack Granatstein in his 2003 book Waging War and Keeping the Peace, “but he was the best soldier Canada ever produced. The Canadian Corps under his command became the finest, most professional formation this nation has ever put in the field.” 

Currie led troops into battle at Passchendaele in 1917 and in Canada’s Hundred Days the following year. His soldiers were always at the top of his mind. After the war, he served as principal of McGill University from 1920 to 1930. Thousands of Canadians and foreign dignitaries attended Arthur Currie’s 1933 funeral in Montreal. Despite the huge respect shown to him then and the contribution he made to the country, old “Guts and Gaiters”, as he was known, has never appeared on a postage stamp in this country. It’s time for Canada Post to change that. 

F.O. Loft was one of Canada’s most important Indigenous activists. He was born in 1861 on the Six Nations reserve in Upper Canada (now Ontario). His Mohawk name, Onondeyoh, means “beautiful mountain.” Loft was a survivor of this country’s residential schools, attending the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, which he abhorred. “[I] was hungry all the time and didn’t get enough to eat,” he recalled. 

Despite the racism he faced in Canada, he felt compelled to contribute to the country’s war effort and worked actively to recruit First Nations soldiers to the cause. In 1917, he lied about his age in order to be eligible for overseas service, saying he was 45 instead of 56. As Lieutenant, he served mostly with the Canadian Forestry Corps in France. Upon his return to Canada in 1918, he continued his fight for Indigenous rights, particularly for education, and founded the League of Indians in Canada. “As peaceable and law-abiding citizens in the past, and even in the late war, we have performed dutiful service to our King, Country and Empire,” Loft said. “And we have the right to claim and demand more justice and fair play as recompense.” His service and advocacy are an example to all. 

Charles Yale Harrison wrote Generals Die In Bed in 1930, a year after another war classic, All Quiet on the Western Front. Both novels tell the story of the First World War from the perspective of soldiers at the sharp end. Harrison was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Montreal where he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917. He later saw action in the Battle of Amiens, the beginning of the Hundred Days offensive. The book was controversial at the time of its publishing. Its portrayal of the war is brutal, honest, and unvarnished. I’ve taught the novel to Canadian history students for nearly two decades: “It helps me to feel connected to a war that would otherwise feel foreign,” one student told me. 

“We have learned who our enemies are—the lice, some of our officers, and Death,” wrote Harrison. “Of the first two we speak continually, the last we rarely refer to.” Generals Die In Bed remains an important part of the country’s cultural tapestry. 

“We have learned who our enemies are—the lice, some of our officers, and Death.”

Speaking of cultural tapestry, the war art that emerged from the destruction in the battlefields of France and Belgium constitutes some of this country’s inestimable treasures. Fred Varley, who would become a member of the Group of Seven formed after the war in 1920, was one of approximately 120 artists supported by the Canadian War Memorials Fund. His most haunting piece from this period is For What? The artwork exudes tragedy, exhaustion, and futility, making it a superb provocation about the meaning of war. I routinely use this painting as a wrap to my teaching unit on the Great War. 

In the Virtual Museum of Canada’s 2017 exhibit featuring 150 works of art for each year of the country’s history since Confederation, Varley’s painting was chosen to represent 1918. “For What? is a profound humanistic reflection that evokes the horrors and enormous human cost of the war to end all wars.”

Eleanor Thompson is not a name that will be well known by Canadians, but she is an appropriate representative of the contribution to the First World War made by nursing sisters. More than 2800 women served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps tending to wounded soldiers, many of whom had ghastly injuries. While nurses did not serve at the front, they worked close to it and were exposed to dangers such as enemy shelling. In a 1918 air raid, the Germans struck No. 3 Stationary Hospital in Doullens, France, killing 32 and wounding 17. Nursing sisters Eden Pringle, Agnes Macpherson, and Dorothy Baldwin were killed. 

Ms. Thompson was buried under debris. She continued in her duties attending to soldiers but later suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. Thompson and six other nursing sisters were awarded the Military Medal for their bravery. 

Remembrance Day reminds us of the sacrifice made by many and the deep way that the war has contributed to who we are as Canadians. 

Sean Speer: What elite commentary gets wrong about J.D. Vance

Commentary

One of the highest-profile candidates in the United States’ 2022 mid-term elections is Ohio Republican senate candidate J.D. Vance, who came to prominence in 2016 due to his best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which detailed his life growing up in working-class conditions in Appalachia. 

The book, which was a massive commercial success, including an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey and a subsequent Netflix film adaptation directed by Ron Howard, brought mainstream expression to the socio-economic conditions in the American rustbelt that contributed to Donald Trump’s shocking election in 2016. 

At a moment when the elite commentariat was searching for answers, Vance provided a first-person window into a world that they didn’t know or understand. He was instantly shot into superstardom. 

His mix of personal trauma, military experience, and a Yale degree made him a powerful voice for those Americans suffering from the consequences of de-industrialization, family breakdown, and the opioid crisis. He spoke about these issues with a unique combination of empathy, nuance, and personal connection. Vance’s story was fundamentally a meritocratic one (and in turn resonant with elite voices): he succeeded based on a combination of his intellect and initiative and in spite of his household and broader community failings. 

Although his politics were broadly conservative, his temperament was moderate, his ideas were balanced, and he was explicitly anti-Trump. He was widely accepted in elite circles from the Aspen Ideas Festival to the New York Times’ editorial page

Back in those halcyon days of early 2016, one had the sense that Vance represented just about America’s best hope at bridging the country’s political divide. He had Red State sensibilities and Blue State credentials. He projected a unique ideological and political amalgam (including a message of personal responsibility on one hand and a view that government ought to better support disadvantaged families on the other hand) that might appeal to both Democrats and Republicans in a swing state like Ohio. 

The intervening time has dashed these hopes. American political polarization has only worsened and Vance has categorically chosen a side. No longer an author selling books, and now an aspiring politician competing in a hotly-contested Republican primary race, Vance’s moderation has been replaced by a much harder-edge and uncompromising conservative populism. His inflammatory Twitter posts stand in stark contrast to some of the ideas in his book or accompanying interviews, op-eds, and speeches. 

He’s argued, for instance, in favour of nationalizing the Ford Foundation for its left-wing philanthropic activities, reiterated the famous Richard Nixon quote about how “professors are the enemy” and since come to apologize for his pointed 2016 critiques of Trump. He has in short drifted from a National Review conservative to a Newsmax conservative. 

These changes in Vance’s politics have been noticed by many of the same progressive commentators who were initially interested in him and his book. There have been a series of recent articles and columns in the Globe and Mail, New York Times, and The Atlantic documenting the “shocking transformation” and so-called “moral collapse of J.D. Vance.”

A common assumption across these different commentaries is that the change in Vance’s politics is fundamentally performative: he’s disingenuously trying to replicate the adversarial tone, messages, and topics that vaulted Trump to the presidency for his own political ends. As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein explained in a July 2021 podcast episode: 

“[Vance is a] kind of genteel, thoughtful guy, a venture capitalist for Peter Thiel. [He] writes this book about actual cultural failings in Appalachian white communities and how a lot of it is an individual responsibility collapse. And as he’s become more ambitious in Republican Party politics, he has just turned himself into the weirdest, most awkward, most visible way into this copy of sort of Don Trump Jr… this constant owning the libs and super conflictual on Twitter… [H]e’s a smart guy and he’s reading the electorate. And he has decided, it seems to me, that they want something very different than what he was.”

There’s no doubt that there’s something to this line of thinking. Vance and other Republican office-seekers have clearly assumed some of Trump’s political characteristics including his inherent combativeness. They are indeed reading the Republican electorate and seeing that there’s obvious upside for conservative politicians who take the fight to progressivism and what has come to be described as “owning the libs.”

The so-called “culture war” doesn’t feel like a war at all. It’s a one-sided shellacking. 

The problem with this analysis, though, is that it’s incomplete. By assuming that Vance’s harder-line politics are wholly insincere, these left-wing commentators ignore the extent to which it may be a response to the leftward shift occurring in progressive politics. In particular, they fail to see how the mix of issues and impulses that sometimes gets described as “identity politics” has come to dominate left-wing politics and increasingly mainstream institutions (including large companies, newsrooms, and universities) and in turn contributed to a hardened conservative response. 

Polling shows that in the United States, for instance, the Democratic party has moved more to the left than the Republican party has moved to the right over the past quarter-century or so. That trend only seems more pronounced in the current moment of complicated pronouns, half-mast flags, and the mainstreaming of academic jargon about race, privilege, and sexuality. 

As we’ve seen in a series of recent cases—from Microsoft ads in which staff self-identify their gender, race, and appearance, to the brief yet still notable inclusion of anti-racism text in Ontario’s math curriculum—these issues are no longer merely isolated to the fringes of left-wing politics. They have, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed last week, “permeated the language of many important institutions, from professional guilds and major foundations to elite private schools and corporate human resource departments.”

These developments, it seems to me, are not an insignificant factor in understanding the growing reactionary politics on the right. The pace of cultural and social change is unrelenting, and conservatives have come to feel like mainstream culture and the institutions that dictate and transmit these progressive ideas are increasingly hostile to their own ideas and perspectives. The so-called “culture war” doesn’t feel like a war at all. It’s a one-sided shellacking. 

As the National Post’s Colby Cosh warned in a prescient 2016 column:

“The ‘social conservative’ side of these arguments gains no peace and receives no mercy when it loses, or even when it surrenders. Every new stage in the liberal jihad is a fresh opportunity for progressives to intimidate and castigate the hopelessly backward; the language and tactics used against those on the wrong side of the line grow ever more contemptuous and supercilious, not less.” 

One can certainly think that Vance’s political trajectory is regrettable and wrong. His populist positioning has undoubtedly led him in a reactionary direction. He recently told a conservative audience that “if our enemies are using guns and bazookas, we damn well better fight back with more than wet noodles.” This is a message rooted in what political scientists call “affective polarization”—a politics of zero-sum opposition rather than positive-sum aspiration. Polarization on one side, in other words, necessarily begets more polarization on the other.

It may help him to galvanize core Republican voters, but it will almost certainly constrain Vance’s ability to build a broad-based consensus around his priorities. His brief foray into elected politics has already significantly narrowed his appeal and it’s hard to see a scenario where he’s able to recover it. Social media and the internet are permanent after all. 

There’s also a case that Vance’s political strategy underestimates the broad appeal of the core messages of Hillbilly Elegy, which were about social mobility, personal initiative, and the role of civil society, broadly defined, to help those who are striving for a different and better life. In an alternate universe, it would be instructive to run a parallel campaign that tests the hypothesis that a 2016 version of Vance could actually find a large audience of support among core Republicans as well as swing voters.  

But the key point is that it’s not enough to attribute these changes to Vance’s politics to mere political opportunism. That’s a necessary yet insufficient explanation. There’s something deeper going on here. Progressives who lament the loss of another “genteel” conservative ought to ask themselves whether their own uncompromising politics have played a role. 

Reactionary conservative politics has to be, by definition, in reaction to something. That’s the part that Vance’s critics fail to reckon with. They should.