"In the relations between governors and governed there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the people, and every refusal to act axcites their contempt"
~John Reed, “Ten Days That Shook The World”
We are in the midst of a ten-day period that should rend our souls asunder with searing intensity and pierce our hearts with rape-like violation. A period that begins with a date held sacred to all those of conscience who engage in the struggle of mankind’s transcendent yearning for redemptive change. A period that ends with a date that challenges us to fulfill that struggle as we bear witness to mankind’s debased desertion of any of its noble aspirations.
January 17th was the 60th anniversary of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg. It was also the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 27th is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Wallenberg and King personified the dream of Isaiah that “Justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream…” until the world “…beats its swords into ploughshares and nation shall not make war against nation anymore.” Auschwitz raised the specter that this world, unlike Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, may rest forever brittle, and arid and stench-filled as the bloody vale of Babi Yar.
At this time, during this fortnight, in this land we should have witnessed some words-some acts-by our governors, and by the governed, that demonstrated some evidence that we retain even a residual fidelity to the notion of a just society built on the hopes of the ages. Instead we got silence…and worse.
Just weeks after our Prime Minister called the butcher of Lockerbie a “philosophical man with a sense of history” he was in China praising its “progress” on human rights. Ministers of the Crown refused to characterize the Tamil Tigers, who have carried out some 200 suicide bombings, as terrorists because we have to be “sensitive” to the fact that some 80% of Sri Lankans in Canada are of Tamil origin. And the Francophone media in Quebec went on a rampage bordering on anti-Semitic demagoguery in attacking the Charest government’s clearly misguided and inappropriate attempt to continue to raise funding to private parochial schools.
Will we never learn? Is this country condemned to nothing more than economic enterprise as hewers of wood and drawers of water ready to sell ourselves to the highest bidder? Are our political leaders going to continually pander to any group for votes without speaking truth to power? Can we never expect the intellectual and media elites of a society with arguably the most progressive political patrimony on this continent to conduct themselves with some restraint of consequence and stop descending to the low limitations of ethnic caricature and parish prejudice?
We are soon approaching another sad anniversary. May 8th will be the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. My father called me last year with a tear-strained croak in his voice. He said that this was both the happiest and saddest day of his life. He did not have to go into a long explanation. I understood his feelings and those of the many of his generation with whom I grew up.
On that day the survivors of the charnel house of Europe saw the beast brought to heel….and discovered the depth of destruction and devastation of everything they held dear. Still in army uniform, my father made his way to his hometown and came face to face with a shattered world. Physical ruin, unmarked graves and foreigners occupying the homes of friends and family and claiming they had lived there for decades.
How does one get over seeing strangers at your mother’s table with her crisp, white linen laid out before them? The feeling of despair that fills you has all the futility of a silent cry. The pain in one’s heart, the weight of the rock toppling Sisyphus from the mountaintop once again. Words fail. Human vocabulary approaches the realm of impotent expression. The heavens themselves seem to challenge us to rage.
All these sad dates stand as confirmation of the low circumstances of the era in which we still live. An era characterized by the failure of faith, the retreat of reason and the humiliation of hope. An era that, with rare exceptions, has been permeated with the odious odours of justice compromised by timidity, honour cheapened through expediency and promise mortgaged to avarice.
For the litmus test of mankind’s civility is not how we treat those who are many, or agreeable, or privileged, or quiescent. But how we treat those who are few, and different, and alienated, and stubborn. The world is still failing that test. And Canadians are complicit in that failure.
We can be a great and generous people, but we are mired in ungracious modernity and suffocating self-absorption filled with false pieties as excuses for inaction. We need to resolve to remedy the malignancies of hate, jealousy and greed with the compass of compassionate conscience and the courage of character to protect right from wrong. We must bring to an end our frivolous squabblings that are nothing more than promotions of petty self-interests.
As members of the family of man we must help bring an end to the spectacular and frequent failure of man. For in the dead of night we will forever be haunted by those failures as the thin, humid rivulets of sweat crawl over us like vermin.
Haunted by the mounds of ashes that once were one and half million smiling children playing in the streets of “civilized” Europe. Haunted by the bloated bodies floating in the Yangtze of Mao’s China. Haunted by the corpses frozen in the wastes of Stalin’s Gulag. Haunted by the betrayal of the free people of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Haunted by the killing fields of Cambodia. Haunted by the bodies rotting in the jungles of Rwanda and in the fetid marshes of the Balkans.
As we face today’s dire challenges we must all become Wallenbergs and Kings. Ready to assume individual responsibility. Each drawing strength from the sure knowledge that one person can make a difference. That we have a responsibility to follow Gandhi’s counsel and act quickly to arrest, “…the evil that staggers drunkenly from wrong to wrong in order to preserve its own immortality…”
For today, as before, the consequence of failure will be dire. Dire to the devastated of Darfur which many governments including, sadly, our own, refuse to call genocide even after our demonstrations and petitions. Dire to the millions dying of AIDS in Africa equal to the Tsunami deaths every week. Dire to the enslaved millions living under oppressive regimes providing cheap labor for Faustian alliances of state and industrial interests.
Laurier once said that Canada answers to a higher destiny. That destiny, and our national identity, was not forged from the compromises of public trust bred behind the closed doors of Parliamentary committees and corporate boardrooms. Nor by the prejudices of social orthodoxy that dominate focus groups.
This nation’s progress has always been predicated on a resolve to assure the survival of liberty over tyranny and the success of universality over particularity. It was our proudest boast.
Yet for too long, these past few decades, we have been ambivalent and apathetic toward the insolence and inaction of authority. We have perpetuated sins of silence with voices too often mute when confronted with the evils that men do. Wrapping ourselves in cloaks of charity will not absolve us of our complicity in impotent acquiescence to the daily torrent of state-sponsored deceptions and institutional betrayals.
We seem to react when it costs us nothing in terms of our personal “bottom lines”. We readily accept whatever manipulated mages and opinions flood us from television and magazines as reality. We eagerly digest political sound bites as quickly as any fast food. Our surrender has demonstrated nothing less than an abandonment of the possibilities of our own capacities.
Wallenberg, King and the generation of survivors refused to surrender. Their testaments are living ones to this day. Testaments to a world that sees wrongs and tries to right them; sees suffering and tries to heal it, sees injustice and tries to stop it. A world that rejects the cowardice of the fey and feckless that would have us acquiesce in our own self-abnegation.
Canadians never miss an opportunity to tell the world how caring and wonderful we are. In reality all we have done is build up what Churchill called a “…bodyguard of lies…” to protect our smug, self-satisfied, complacency. We like to think of ourselves as global humanitarians. We always claim convincing moral authority yet we never act with authentic moral legitimacy.
Paul Valéry once wrote that «La liberté est l'épreuve la plus dure que nous pouvons infliger sur un gens. Savoir comment être libre n'est pas donné à tous les hommes et toutes les nations également. » Today’s Canada has yet to pass this test. We are paralyzed by our lethargic apathy. And the reason we can’t shake it, is because we’re sitting on it.
If we do not keep faith with the memory and witness of these ten days; if we ever forget the imperative of redemptive rage; if we stop daring to care, then we will have betrayed the visionary hope embodied in the line of the Song of the Partisans that was shared at the mountaintop by all the Wallenbergs and Kings; the Mandelas and Kennedys; the Scharanskys and Walesas; that “Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho- Upon us yet will dawn the day we hold so dear”. And when the false prophets cry “Peace! Peace!” there will be none left, as the anti-Nazi German Pastor Martin Niemoller learned, to shout back “There is no peace!” And then we will have nothing more than the poignant plea of Chaim Nachman Bialik, “…bakshi rahamim allai…heaven have mercy on us…” to comfort us with our own redemption.
Pastor Niemoller’s inscription on a wall in Auschwitz