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Howard Anglin: The past is not so very long ago

Commentary

It takes a lot to stop me in my tracks when I’m reading, but it happened last week in the middle of Terry Glavin’s Substack newsletter (go, subscribe). The occasion was an article about the Peel District School Board’s culling of classic literature following a review ordered by Ontario’s progressive government in the wake of “concerns about equity” back in 2019. Through a series of predictable follies, including a “diversity audit” of school libraries and the “weeding” of “dated” books, this order seems to have resulted in the removal of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from at least one school library.

The particular line that jolted me out of my passive reading mode was this: “If she were alive today Anne Frank would be 93.” Only 93? I mean, I know that the Second World War ended in 1945 and I can do the math but…only ninety-three? I probably see someone almost that old every day. There is a not unreasonable chance that, had she survived Bergen-Belsen, Anne Frank would still be alive today. The girl who filled her diary with romantic crushes, petty jealousies, and existential fears could easily be a sweet old lady in an Amsterdam nursing home right now.

It is always good to be reminded of how close the past is. Faulkner’s line that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is usually read as a statement specific to the American South, but it’s both more personal and more universal than that. The novel in which the line appears, Requiem for a Nun, is a tough read about race, rape, and suffering, and in context the line refers ambiguously to both a person and a place, one person’s life and the life of a people, memory, and history. It says that we can’t escape the past any more than we can escape our own past. Even when we forget it, it re-emerges like an atavistic gene.

Anne Frank’s age reminds us that the Holocaust happened within a single lifetime, within living memory, as the saying goes. That is, it exists within the memory of the living, though just barely. Very soon it will live only through new lives’ experiences of old memories, which is why initiatives like the World Memory Project are so important. And it’s not just the Holocaust. The older I get, the more recent so much of what I used to think of as distant history seems, especially when measured in human lifetimes. Translated this way, the foreshortening effect can be unnerving.

Think of an 85-year-old man, long-lived but not especially so. Someone you can still talk to. No doubt you know a few. That man you know lived through all of the Second World War, and he’s still here in the flesh. Go back just one more of his lifetime and you are already well before 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation. Go back three such lifetimes, and you are before the French and American Revolutions. Four lifetimes ago, you are before the Glorious Revolution. In only five lifetimes, you are back in the age of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Six, and you are before the Reformation. 

Stephen Fry has an anecdote about meeting the venerable British journalist Alistair Cooke that nicely captures this idea:

When the evening was over Alistair Cooke shook my hand goodbye and held it firmly, saying, ‘This hand you are shaking once shook the hand of Bertrand Russell.’

‘Wow!’ I said, duly impressed.

‘No, No,’ said Cooke, ‘It goes further than that. Bertrand Russell knew Robert Browning. Bertrand Russell’s aunt danced with Napoleon. That’s how close we all are to history. Just a few handshakes away. Never forget that.

The effect works with shorter timespans too. For someone my age, the attacks of 9/11 are so recent they feel, as we say, like yesterday. If I close my eyes, I can put myself right back there on the day (and not just because I was there). The twenty-two years dissolve in an instant. But at the time of 9/11, we were just three such instants from 1935: the year Hitler ordered the rebuilding of the Luftwaffe; the dust bowl year of the Great Depression; the year Alfred Dreyfus died. Just six such instants ago, six blinks of the eye, and we were fighting the Boer War.

Wars, in particular, echo down the generations. They have what economists call a long tail. As of 2019, the United States was still paying a pension to a dependent of a Civil War veteran—and pensions to more than 4,000 from the Spanish-American (1898) and Philippine-American (1899-1902) wars. When I was a boy, our neighbour, the spinster Miss Jones, was a Victorian who could remember the beginning of World War I. It’s likely that, as a boy, her father had a neighbour who similarly remembered the Battle of Waterloo. 

The advent of audio and film recording changed historical memory forever by making the past something we can experience not just vicariously but viscerally. YouTube is full of such time capsules: Civil War veterans performing the Rebel Yell; Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade; Brahms playing one of his Hungarian Dances. The sound quality is poor and distorted by crude technology, but it’s unmistakably the sound of living people. And if you close your eyes and widen your imagination, you can be there with them.

We have photographs of Anne Frank, of course, but unfortunately no recordings. Yet I still can’t get past the idea that she could still be alive today, or banish thoughts of all the unborn children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were snuffed out with her, but who otherwise would be walking our streets and bringing flowers to brighten her room at the nursing home. Nor should we banish such thoughts; it is good to remember. Or as Alistair Cooke reminded Stephen Fry, “Never forget.”

Rahim Mohamed: Longevity has not translated into global respect for Justin Trudeau

Commentary

In an iconic line from the 1974 neo-noir classic Chinatown, corrupt Los Angeles water commissioner Noah Cross quips to hardboiled private investigator Jake Gittes, “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and w—-s all get ‘respectable’ if they last long enough.”

After what is his eighth appearance as prime minister of Canada at the UN General Assembly, Justin Trudeau may well be asking what makes him the exception to this rule. 

Trudeau’s visit to the United Nations in New York came just a week removed from a disastrous showing at the G20 summit in Delhi. Trudeau’s rough weekend in the Indian capital saw him get a cold shoulder from his fellow world leaders; ending, humiliatingly, with a sharply worded (and very public) rebuke from the host nation’s leader. The chilly relations are especially explicable now, given we’ve learned that Trudeau confronted Prime Minister Narendra Modi with serious allegations of an extra-judicial, extra-territorial killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by Indian security services. Canada and India have each now expelled top diplomats.

And to add insult to injury, the prime minister and his entourage were forced to stick around India for an extra day last week when mechanical issues left the Canadian delegation’s plane stuck on the tarmac at a Delhi airport.  

The India fiasco comes on the heels of weeks of bad international press for Trudeau, much of which has excoriated him for allowing Canada to become a liability to the NATO defence alliance under his watch. (According to a recent U.S. intelligence leak, Trudeau has privately told NATO officials that Canada will “never” meet the alliance’s defence spending target of two percent of national GDP.)

Trudeau has also ruffled feathers, of late, with his penchant for moralizing on the world stage; for instance, calling out Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni for her government’s record on LGBT issues at this May’s G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Trudeau once again reached into his intersectional bag of tricks last weekend when asked what the Canadian delegation contributed to G20 summit-concluding communiqué; replying (with a straight face), “gender language (and) Indigenous reflection.” One could almost feel the groan this response elicited halfway across the world in Canada. 

Now the longest-tenured G7 head, and one of the world’s most seasoned leaders, Trudeau should, in theory, be a force to be reckoned with in the international arena—a domain that, historically, has been dominated by elder statesmen in the vein of Churchill, de Gaulle, Mandela, and King. However, far from settling into the role of éminence grise, Trudeau remains something akin to the Rodney Dangerfield of global politics: no matter what he does, he just can’t seem to “get no respect”. Case in point: Canada’s closest allies have so far fallen short of offering full-throated support on the India imbroglio.

So why hasn’t longevity translated into influence for the long-tenured Trudeau? 

One glaring issue with the Canadian premier’s foreign policy, throughout his eight years at the helm, has been a consistent gulf between words and actions. While rarely missing a chance to stand on a soapbox at this global summit or the other, Trudeau has noticeably lacked in follow-through. Setting aside Canada’s paltry defense spending, the Trudeau government has similarly underwhelmed in the humanitarian sphere, tacking a $1.3-billion (or 16 percent) cut to foreign aid to its latest federal budget.

“There is certainly a gap between rhetoric and reality,” said non-profit executive Kate Higgins in response to the budget cuts. 

The Trudeau government has also been accused of falling short of its commitments to help arm a besieged Ukraine, despite Canada being home to the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora behind Russia. Even more shameful was our abandonment of interpreters and other vulnerable helpers after our chaotic exit from Afghanistan two years ago. (The war-torn Afghanistan was the focal point of Canadian foreign policy for two decades, with Canada leaving its cultural imprint in the form of Tim Hortons and Hockey Night in Kandahar.) 

Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet are understandably focused on domestic matters right now as they look to reverse a cost-of-living crisis that has wreaked havoc on their poll numbers. They cannot, however, afford to neglect Canada’s increasing irrelevance in international affairs—especially at a time of global flux driven by an uptick in Russian and Chinese aggression. 

Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper was similarly focused on domestic matters but nevertheless carved out a successful niche in foreign policy by knowing where to pick his battles. Harper stayed laser-focused on economic relations during his time at the helm, inking a record number of trade deals with both developed and emerging economies. He also prudently banked his global political capital, channelling it into a successful (if unheralded) push to improve maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) outcomes in the Global South.

By contrast, Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy evinces no such focus and boasts no comparable marquee accomplishment. With his days in the big chair likely numbered, it may already be too late for him to salvage his global legacy. 

Justin Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister shows that experience doesn’t always equate to gravitas. He may continue to spit out all the right diplomatic buzzwords at global summits, but his fellow world leaders have long since tuned him out. Why, after all, should they care about what he has to say, given his long track record of overpromising and underdelivering in the international sphere? 

If Trudeau won’t learn from the example of his predecessor on global affairs, perhaps he’ll heed the foreign policy advice of one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: “Know your role and shut your mouth.”