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Howard Anglin: Is smoking cool again?

Commentary

The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is April.

“To what purpose, April, do you return again?” So begins what must be the most dyspeptic poem ever written about the arrival of spring. 

I find it impossible to separate Edna St. Vincent Millay from her old house at 75 ½ Bedford St in Greenwich Village, which I used to pass almost daily when I lived a few streets over. Who wouldn’t wonder fondly about someone who lived in such a perfect little doll’s townhouse? Millay seems to be one of those giants of an age who is destined to be an asterisk to posterity, with fewer poems included in each successive edition of anthologies of American literature. Her eccentric name and equally eccentric life have probably earned her a longer academic afterlife than many of her peers (be honest, when was the last time you read Margaret Widdemer or Lady Speyer?), but I hope at least a few people still actually read her poems. 

The poem ends:

“April 

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” 

Readers will note that for this diary entry I have followed the month’s example, minus the flowers. 

* * *

Speaking of spring poetry, Browning must have been unusually homesick in Northern Italy when he wrote “Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there,” because I was in Milan and Lake Como this month and I can assure you it never once occurred to me to wish myself anywhere else. If I had one complaint, it was the same one I have every time I travel to anywhere beautiful these days: the aural vandalism of canned music. In every bar, cafe, or park concession stand one is assaulted by vacuous pop music. It is the soundtrack to our modern lives. 

We have the same problem in North America, of course, where it is almost impossible to find music-free urban spaces, but a blaring dance-hall remix is even more jarring on a Florentine piazza or in a Milanese park. I’ve tried to ask managers why they broadcast such violative noise, but they just shrug as though I’d asked why the sun shines. I doubt they even notice it’s on. Would anyone notice if they turned it off? I doubt it, considering half the patrons are lost in their own private headphone worlds. And on the rare and blessed occasions when the music stops, I’ve never once seen people remark on it, let alone complain. If I could impose one simple rule on the modern world it would be this: unless there’s a dance floor, turn off the tinned music.

* * *

Sticking with the subject of old-world habits, is smoking making a comeback? Before leaving for Italy, I attended a soirée honouring a currently controversial author hosted by a rebelliously erudite young couple. To say their Oxford home was exquisitely appointed doesn’t begin to do it or them justice—you’ll get a sense of what I mean when I say that the small first-floor living room displayed a painting by each of the major pre-Raphaelites (“except Millais, Millais is downstairs”). What was unusual—even more unusual, that is, than the genuinely fearless conversation—was that it was the first gathering in a private home I can remember in at least two decades at which people smoked indoors. The hosts, as well as several of the guests, were just lighting up, unapologetically, like it was 1975. 

While I’ve never been a smoker, and haven’t the faintest desire to take it up, I must say it gave the evening a delightfully retro feel. And while I am sure the decline of smoking is on the whole a Good Thing, I was strangely glad to see it. As a friend who is an ex-smoker wrote afterwards: 

Smoking made everything more fun. People were sexier and skinnier when they smoked, too. I’ve always thought that smoking had tremendous social utility as well due to nicotine’s power to aid in concentration and focus. Can you imagine the Apollo program quants, those evil, sinister white men with the crew cuts and the white shirts and the skinny black ties, getting our boys to the moon without chain smoking?  (I’m sure the “Hidden Figures” ladies smoked too—everyone smoked!)

I can’t disagree. And apparently I’m not alone: the New York Post reports that coffin nails are the new taboo-flouting trend of New York’s Gen Z It crowd, though from the photos I’d say cigarettes are the least of their problems.

* * *

I recently reviewed Michael Bonner’s new book for this site. As with any review, I could only include a small fraction of what I wanted to say. One thing I cut was a digressive riposte to Bonner’s passing deprecation of the Baroque (on pages 126 and 138). I wholly agree that the worst excesses of the rococo are as inhuman in their own way as Brutalism is, well, brutal, but all that says is that the bad examples of a style are bad. I felt this way about the fussy façade of Milan’s Cathedral, where the flamboyant gothic overwhelms the senses by sheer size rather than taste. Unsurprisingly, Mark Twain (who was usually wrong about things, but cleverly so) loved it, but both Ruskin and Wilde, who were rather more familiar with the distinction between excellence and excess, did not. 

At its best, the Baroque is a virtuosic duet between nature and artifice. Creation may be intrinsically ordered, but it can also be dazzlingly ostentatious, and the Baroque is a joyous human homage to the God who adorns the symmetry of creation with cresting waves and floral profusion. At the Pinocateca di Brera, a short walk from the cathedral, I could say with assurance that I would not wish one paint stroke less of Rubens’s art in this world. You simply cannot be cold about Caravaggio. As for the candyfloss excesses of a Fragonard, Boucher, or Watteau, while I wouldn’t want them in my home, they’d be an happily effulgent “eff you” hung on the walls of an antiseptic modern office building. 

* * *

Tying together two themes of this month’s diary, I’ll end on an Anglo-Italian note. An uncommonly persistent stomach bug meant I had to turn down an invitation to an event in London with the new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Despite being subjected to the kind of ominous hysteria that the Western press reserve for politicians who dare to be openly patriotic or religious, signora Meloni cruised to victory last year and is even more popular today than when she was elected. Whether she remains so will depend on her convincing other European leaders to take seriously the problem of illegal migration. And it really is a problem. More than 100,000 illegal migrants arrived in Italy last year, and if the tottering Tunisian regime falls, the number this year could be closer to a million, with more to follow every year, indefinitely.

The daily arrival of so-called “small boats” on the south coast of England also happens to be one of the biggest issues in British politics as well, which is why Meloni was in town to enlist the support of U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Last year at least 45,000 illegal migrants arrived in the U.K., almost all from France, which is a little more than the number who crossed into Canada at Roxham Road in 2022. Like those crossing the Canadian border (in both directions, note), the Channel crossers are all coming from safe Western countries. Of course, most aren’t facing persecution in their own countries either, just dysfunctional politics, which is not grounds for asylum. Sunak knows that his migration problem is downstream of Italy’s, so he has good reason to back Meloni’s resolve. So far, at least, that is what he has done, while the progressive press wails. Let them wail. 

J.L. Granatstein: When mythmaking meets reality: Canada is no longer a peacekeeping nation

Commentary

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised at a peacekeeping conference in Paris that Canada would create a contingent of 600 peacekeepers ready for prompt deployment. By the next year that commitment had been pared down to 200 troops, and this April, while maintaining the pledge, Ottawa said its troops would not be ready until 2026. The initial offer had come while Trudeau was campaigning—unsuccessfully—for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Apparently, much like many campaign pledges, this one would be delayed and diminished, if not completely scrapped.

Still, peacekeeping continues to hold a special place in the mythology that Canada is a moral superpower—Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize for his role during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Canada’s record of serving on every peacekeeping operation for decades, and the 1988 Nobel Prize for peacekeepers that Canadians believed was really meant for their servicemen and women. The Canadian public loves peacekeeping, seeing it as a tribute to the nation’s unbiased fairmindedness and something that continues to differentiate us from the warlike and aggressive Americans.

But that mythology distorted some facts. Peacekeeping was never neutral in many instances. For instance, Ottawa deployed troops to Congo in 1960 to help keep the Communists out; at American urging it put troops in Cyprus for three decades to keep Greece and Turkey from fighting a war that would have devastated NATO’s southern flank; and American aircraft and equipment were necessary to get Canadian peacekeepers to the Iran-Iraq border in 1988.

Nonetheless, at its peak in the 1990s Canada had thousands of soldiers on peacekeeping and peace enforcement duties, the latter of which were more akin to combat than to keeping peace. Even the Canadian Armed Forces’ long commitment to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was viewed by many Canadians, despite all the evidence and the casualties, as peacekeeping.

Today, with the CAF facing shortfalls in personnel and with its equipment becoming increasingly obsolescent, many Canadians still believe that their country is a major player in UN peace operations. This is flatly incorrect. At the beginning of 2023, Canada had only 58 personnel on UN peacekeeping duties. In contrast, there are 700 soldiers in Latvia as part of a NATO effort to deter Russia from attacking the Baltic states. That Latvian effort, projected to increase in numbers, has severely strained the Army, which is short of infantry, gunners, and armoured crews.

The Trudeau government appears to have little interest in defence, despite its efforts in the Baltics. Moscow’s war against Ukraine saw Canada (rightly) ship much of its stockpiled ammunition and equipment to Kyiv and plans to acquire replacements will take years to materialize. Nor does China’s increasing aggressiveness seem to have registered on the government, though Ottawa did say it would increase deployments of the Navy’s frigates in the Indo-Pacific from two to three a year!

The 2023 budget, like those of previous years, gave almost no indication of more funding to rebuild the military, and the large procurement projects—F35 fighters for the RCAF and new combat vessels for the RCN—have been in the works for years, with inflation increasing costs to such an extent that few expect the original numbers of aircraft and ships to be acquired.

What this means for peacekeeping is clear. The Canadian Armed Forces is for all practical purposes unable to find even 200 trained personnel for a rapid deployment peace operation. And since deployments are usually limited to six months or at most a year, 200 more soldiers at home need to be training to go overseas. Once those deployed return to Canada, they need time to regroup and recover. In effect, 200 soldiers require 400 to 600 men and women in Canada to be involved in training, preparation, and recuperation. That is now beyond the Army’s capabilities.

If Trudeau’s original pledge of 600 troops for rapid response remained in effect, that would likely make the Latvian commitment impossible. Only more recruits for the CAF can fix this situation, and the government’s indifference to the military, the succession of sex abuse scandals, and the obsolescence of the force’s equipment have reduced recruitment to a trickle.

Thus Canadian peacekeeping is dead. That matters because peacekeeping did have useful effects in helping warring states to cease fighting. It mattered for the Canadian psyche, and it was relatively inexpensive for the government. But more seriously, the Canadian Armed Forces are near death. The public doesn’t seem to care, and the Trudeau government, much like most of its predecessors over the last thirty years, believes that only social programs and health care matter.

It’s not as if the world is at peace, and if a major war with China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran occurs, Canada will surely pay the price for its neglect of the military with the lives of its citizens.