The freedom to wallow incessantly in inspirational memes and gratitude lists, not to mention the peaks and valleys of our course material, came from war. It’s sad, and true, and easy to forget. Yet, it doesn’t take a history major to know that a real fascist regime in Ottawa probably would not deign to fund our social science inquiries at AU. (Let us remind any anti-university peers of this fact, if we dare.) But you don’t have to take my word for it.
80 years ago, the “metropolis” (sic) of Winnipeg conducted an “If Day”. What if the NAZIS took over Canada? Recalling that no conqueror ever portrays itself as a pack of heathen savages brimming with lies and injustice, If Day told some factual truths about a muzzled media and loss of civil rights expected if a NAZI regime took hold in Ottawa. Residents were warned that freedom of the press would be “abolished” and “all food will be commandeered by the invaders” (online). Meanwhile, hardworking families and farmers would find “all property looted and, perhaps, paid for by worthless paper promises”. The solution? Viewers were implored to purchase war bonds to support the Allied cause. The goal was to “scare them or shock them” into purchasing Victory Bonds (2). Of course, if the unthinkable happened, these Victory Bonds would be worthless, too, but it was an investment worth making. 40 million dollars were raised, an astronomic number in a time when a nickel bought you a hamburger.
Starting at 6am with sirens (If Day was no cute charade or Santa Claus parade for Winnipegers) citizens were even warned that they might lose access to the utilities allowing them to heat their homes in winter. (2). The chill was on. Lockdown curfews were imposed, reminiscent of what we’ve all lived through with the plague and what would happen if a present-day If Day mimicked a Chinese regime imposing martial law on its citizens. Providing a sense of danger was key to the war, yet the more personal nature of life and conflict is something we all live with. Thankfully, a pacific sense of life pervades our society but that can potentially be threatened. The enemy, per se, may not be so far away and not in the form of some stereotyped crotchety curmudgeon.
In our True North strong and free (the song says so, it must be true?) we hear a core campaign slogan by the current Leader of The Loyal Opposition that he will make us the freest country in the world. Shackles shattered by government bondage and handouts to scalawags, we’d all be more Canadian than ever before, right?
Unlike the bravery of so many who enlisted in the tragic Great War of 1914-1918, freedom nowadays is part rhetoric and part territorial pissing. Cultural urine laced with tribal righteousness always has an odour of nastiness to it; there’s even a bumper sticker that reads, “My Karma ran over your Dogma” … as if eye for an eye isn’t the ultimate ideology of retribution.
At the best of times, valour and righteousness can be finicky bedfellows; soldiers may not always believe in their cause, for instance. Ukraine is the example of today, yet the valour of any soldier in this face of impending death is unquestionable. We place our poppies and leave our wreaths not for politicians and demagogues, but for real men and women who were living once and now are not. In culture wars, meanwhile, hard historical facts are reducible to pissant arguments maybe started by one too many bong hits or one too few moments of silence. It’s in these kneejerk disputes and intolerance of divergent views that we may actually see freedom under more threat than ever. Guns and bombs are awful but when we can’t say what we think in a given moment that’s when the freedoms our brave predecessors fought for are really lost. The mainstream British Channel 4 TV station released a poll of 1500 typical UK youngsters under the age of 25. Generation Z they call them, And guess what they found with Generation Z? Rebellious free love and righteous openness to anything from imbibing psychedelic substances to cohabitation with capuchin monkeys, as typified past counter culture chaos, tends to be far from their realm. Libertarians these young TikTokkers are not, it seems. These, shall we say, Zed-heads are:
“less tolerant of the views of others than their parents and grandparents – surely a novelty. A quarter of Gen Z say they “have very little tolerance for people with beliefs that they disagree with”. They don’t believe in unrestrained free speech, with nearly half agreeing that ‘some people deserve to be cancelled’. There is an obvious paradox between this intolerance and their genuinely stated desires for everyone to have their rights and freedoms defended” (online).
Illiberal to the max, the youth might be alright but they sure don’t sound alright with those who disagree with them. Maybe Remembrance Day can teach them something about right and wrong, valour and service. Freedom is easy when you agree, but it matters most when you don’t; those who died in war did so so we could avoid being trampled by those who would enforce their will on us all and create uniformity of feeling, thought, and destiny. To attend a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph is something to do every year and the moment of silence, largely unheard of in our livestreamed wifi world, that alone might change a few hearts. Last year, many of us attended despite those who shrieked you’re not allowed. Outdoors and socially distanced, our freedoms held the day, and the planes did their flyover.
I don’t pretend to understand war as an experience, but we can all, if we try, relate to death in combat. In war people die because of animosity, the arguments become too real. This isn’t, dude where’s my car or hun’ where’s my cell phone and a dispute ensues. These warriors were real nurses, soldiers, chaplains, and children who all had their lives literally and metaphysically crushed to smithereens. Today in Ukraine is another of those possible moments where escalation could bring the war crashing down on a cell phone tower near you. Imagine, in fact, a moment of mandatory silence provided by a temporary shut off of cell service to a whole nation on November 11th? Pretty authoritarian, right? And therein lies the crux. Youngsters in the Channel 4 study seem to take their truths and certainties almost too seriously; so seriously, in fact, that they’d like to force them on others. Like the rumor mill in the high school smoke pit (oops, dating myself!), the desire to first trash one another’s reputation and then ghost them completely (ah, back with the 21st century linguistic times!), has always been there. But cancel culture only has a few modern antecedents; the 1950s anti-communist witch hunt blacklist of Hollywood celebrities was one example, the 1960s Ontario fruit machine firing of gay government workers was another. Never, surely, were the youth at the front of this reputation-burning march. Thing is, akin to book burning, this mindset is the sort of inflammatory thinking that leads to wars. And, if ever the phrase lest we forget means something, its on November 11th. If we aren’t careful, we can end up in a war simply by being too righteous, too certain, and there’s a reason why the first Remembrance Day began with the key slogan never again.
Those on the front lines, brave beyond compare saw the iniquity and suffering of war and saw, too, that it can never be worth it when peace is a possibility. Even if we don’t enroll in an AU history elective, we can all recall high school history where the brief interlude between the two world wars taught a horrific lesson: that those who refuse to learn form the past, as George Santayana famously said, are condemned to repeat it.