Of the People

Ranking at or near the top of any list of definitions of democracy is this one from Abraham Lincoln:  …government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The phrase was part of his dedicatory remarks at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, when twenty-five states of the Union were locked in a great civil war against eleven states that had seceded to form the Confederacy.  It was a short speech, ten sentences in length, forever after regarded as a plea for true equality for all people of the American nation.

One problem with the definition, however, is that it also aptly described the government of the enemy, which was elected in 1861—presumably of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Confederate states.


And complicating the case further, under both governments, almost without exception, only white males were deemed citizens with full voting rights.  Where was equality for all?

The lesson I take from this is that any definition of democracy is only as legitimate as the people who profess it.

No one anywhere ever said that democracy is a form of government imposed upon a people whose traditions run to the autocratic, totalitarian model, for that would betray the very notion espoused by Lincoln, that democracy is of the people—that is, arrived at through the exercise of their own free will.

Nevertheless, many nations have tried over hundreds of years to do that very thing, and many still do so today.  It rarely takes. Until those under the yoke of oppression decide of their own volition to rise up, to throw off that yoke, and to determine their own form of self-government—as it was with the signing of the Magna Carta—there will be no democracy for them.


Look at it this way.  If you tell me that your objective is to help me learn how to think for myself, and if together we are successful, what will happen when you realize that my independent thinking leads me to a different end-point than yours leads you on substantive issues?  Will you applaud, despite our contrarian viewpoints?  Or will you seek to correct me, to bring my thinking in line with yours?

If the latter, you will likely succeed if you are more powerful than I.  But by forcing me back into your own thinking, will you not have failed in your original objective?

Democracy is like that.  If it is truly of the people, it almost certainly will not look the same in every society claiming to embrace it—because people, despite our biological similarities, are shaped by our environment, our experiences, our learning, and our culture.  And those are distinct from place to place to place.


Even within one democracy—our own, for example, or that of the great republic of Lincoln—there are differences among the governed people.  Because majority rules in democratic elections, there will always be those happy with their government, and those in opposition.

Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat, wrote that, in every democracy, people get the government they deserve.  I suspect that is true, even more so today, given the woefully-low voter turnout in our elections.

He also wrote, …false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.  In our democracy, we can choose what we want to believe, and we are free to espouse it.  Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie.

Being intellectually lazy, many of us choose to accept, with no critical reflection, what we are told by our democratically-elected leaders.  Or, if we don’t like the sound of that, we opt for what we are told by those who democratically oppose our leaders.  A few of us choose neither, opting instead to believe what we hear from demagogues and the lunatic fringe.


And so, we find ourselves in a metaphorical darkness—facing each other in a circle of sorts, hunkered around the fire of our democracy—chanting our respective mantras back and forth, as if in a ritual war-dance, none of us listening to the other.  To those lurking in the dark, beyond the flickering light cast by the fire, our chants must sound like caterwauling—loud, nonsensical, and pointless.  And if those lurkers mean us harm, our brayings must also sound welcome.

In 1944, Winston Churchill said, …[the people] together decide what government, or…what form of government, they wish to have in their country.  When the people of any democracy, including our own, decide through their actions—through the exercise of their civic responsibilities, one of which is to become informed—the majority will rightfully have its way.

But we can also decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the government we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with.  In that case, we have no right to bewail the government we end up with.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to one simple truth.  If we are to get the government we deserve, we had better be sure we represent the sort of people we want to be choosing it.



From My Aging Eyes

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all


I was born before D-Day, before V-E Day, before V-J Day.  If you don’t recognize those occasions, you’re most likely younger than I.  World War II was the single biggest event in the lives of the generation before mine, and the year I entered the world, it was still raging on.

When I was born, I joined almost 2.5 billion other souls on the planet.  In North America, the average cost of a house like the one we eventually lived in was $3600, and the average annual wage was only $2000.  My future father-in-law, then a callow twenty-one-year-old, earned $800 that year, the first time he filed an income tax return.  A new car, for those who could afford one, cost about $900, and the gasoline to fuel it cost fifteen cents per gallon.  A bottle of Coca-Cola cost five cents.


Among the people born in the same year as I (and you’ll recognize their names more readily than mine) were Arthur Ashe, Robert de Niro, John Denver, Bobby Fischer, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, John Kerry, Billie Jean King, Peter Marsh, Jim Morrison, and Lech Walesa.  Seven of them are no longer with us.

Major world leaders included William Lyon Mackenzie King here in Canada, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt, Jan Christiaan Smuts, and Joseph Stalin—many of whom didn’t like each other at all.

Among the popular films my parents went to see in the year I was born were For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, Lassie Come Home, The Titanic, and the winner of the Academy Award, Mrs. Miniver.  Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller were music icons of the day, and Oklahoma opened on Broadway.


Some of the most popular books published that year included A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted. A. Lawson.  My favourite (which, of course, I was not able to read until six or seven years later) was Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara.

The New York Yankees won the World Series that year, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, and Count Fleet won the Kentucky Derby, but both the U.S. Open in golf and Wimbledon in tennis were cancelled because of the war.

Invention, spurred on by the wartime effort, saw the development of the aqualung, the Colossus computer used to decode the German Enigma encryption, the ever-popular Slinky toy, and silly putty.  The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, which cost almost two billion dollars, was well underway.

atom bomb3

Nachos were invented the year I was born, and remain popular to this day.  The ABC radio network began broadcasting that year, launched by the founder of the Life-Savers candy company.  The Philip Morris tobacco company unveiled an ad that, for the first time, acknowledged smokers’ cough, although they blamed it on other cigarette brands.  The chairman of IBM conceded that “…there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  And a Swiss chemist discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD—presumably on a trip.

I was born well before the following technological marvels we take for granted today became commonplace:  duct tape, television, Tupperware, credit cards, waterproof diapers, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cat litter, the Zamboni, crash-test dummies, aerosol paint, teleprompters, airbags, barcodes, heart-lung machines, WD-40, zipper storage bags, automatic sliding doors, radar guns, computers, hard disk drives, silicon chips, videotape, lasers, spandex, artificial turf, the Pill, LED’s, Buffalo wings, 8-track tapes,  CD’s, space travel, personal computers, the internet, and smartphones.

I was not, however, born before the Wright brothers first took flight (as my sons-in-law are wont to claim).


But hey, lest this looking-back convey the impression that I long for the good old days, whatever they were, let me assure you that such is far from the truth.  In fact, as I approach my seventy-fifth birthday, I look forward to the changes yet to come—just as I marvelled at those occurring during my life so far—and with the same boyish enthusiasm as ever.

As Dylan so memorably wrote and sang, the times they are a-changin’.  But somewhere inside this gnarly old man, there still resides the precocious boy who spawned him, surprised he has not changed.

closing in on my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

man and boy1

          Have a happy birthday, old man!


Who Said That?

For several years, I’ve had a brilliant idea for a word-game bouncing around in my head.  Given my general laissez-faire attitude in my retirement years, however, I’ve done nothing about it.

And that’s a shame, because the more I think about it, the more convinced I am it could be a sure-fire hit.  Like when the original Trivial Pursuit first burst upon the scene, or Scrabble, or Hangman, or Words with Friends, to name a few.


The game—in the multi-platform age we live in—can be marketed as a traditional board-game, or as a digital game adapted to computers and laptops.  It can feature competitive matches with others, or a self-play mode for those uncomfortable with universal play.  It can have different levels of skill to accommodate players with varying levels of language fluency.  It can have focused versions for different age-groups.  It can be issued in as many languages as the global market will bear.

But wait, there’s more!  So successful could it be that a television show might eventually be based upon it, like Jeopardy, for instance.  Featuring both celebrity and everyday contestants, all vying to claim supremacy, the TV version could reinvigorate the public’s interest in language and history, spurring us on, perhaps, to a new golden age of literacy.


The only reason I’m revealing my idea here is that I remain unlikely to pursue it by myself.  Too much work for one my age.

Actually, there is a second reason:  I’d love to entice someone to follow through on the project—partnering with me, of course, with copyright reserved to me; financing the start-up costs; doing the bulk of the work; but with all profits shared equally.

Sounds beguiling, don’t you think?

The game, as I envisage it, will be called Who Said That?  Playing in turn, each player will draw a card (if playing the board-game version), or click on a tab (in the digital version), to reveal an excerpt of a famous quotation; for example:

I don’t want to belong to any club…

If the player can successfully complete the expression, (s)he will receive the number of points ascribed to the difficulty of the quotation.  And, as a bonus, if the player can identify the person who first uttered the expression, (s)he will earn an additional two points, and may take a second turn before the next player plays.  If a particular quotation has no attributed author, Anonymous becomes an acceptable answer.

Because some quotations have been reported slightly differently, or translated from other languages, some latitude in the exactness of the answers may be allowed by players; the objective is to most accurately complete the expression.

The two answers in the aforementioned example are:

I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member; the speaker was Groucho Marx, an American actor, comedian, and television star.


Pretty simple concept, I think, but not so easy to navigate successfully.

Now, before deciding whether or not you wish to become an investor in this can’t-miss undertaking, you might want to try the game yourself.  Here are six questions of varying levels of difficulty, but all requiring high-school competency in language and history.  Answering all of them correctly, and identifying the speakers, will earn you thirty points.

  1. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day… 1 point
  2. Even if you’re on the right track… 3 points
  3. Never interrupt your enemy… 4 points
  4. If you are going through hell… 3 points
  5. Sometimes the questions are complicated… 2 points

And my favourite,

  1. The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas… 5 points

Try to answer these questions before checking the answers below.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

How many quotations could you accurately complete?  How many of the speakers could you identify?  And how many points were you able to earn?  Now, check the answers to find out:

  1. …teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.   Anonymous
  2. …you’ll get run over if you just sit there.   Will Rogers
  3. …when he is making a mistake.   Napoleon
  4. keep going.   Churchill
  5. and the answers are simple.   Dr. Seuss
  6. …in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.   F. Scott Fitzgerald

I could lie and claim I earned thirty points, but that would be unfair; after all, I framed the questions.  In truth, I might have earned seventeen points, had I been playing as you were.

If any of us were playing online, and after we had the correct answers revealed, we could quickly search the internet for more information on the speakers.  This game could be such a marvellous learning tool, as well as entertaining for all ages.  A sure-fire winner!


So, in conclusion, let me address the financing and partnership aspects of the project.  In order to avoid my having to peruse long lists of prospective investors, it would be best  (assuming you are interested) to send along a comprehensive financial disclosure statement to me at your earliest convenience.  Rest assured, it will be held in the strictest confidence….or, perhaps I should say privacy.

You know, I’m sure, that this is not a confidence game!

The Dark Continent

From early childhood I was fascinated by stories of Africa, peculiarly referred to as the dark continent.  As a young boy, I devoured the tales of Tarzan of the Apes, in both book and comic-book formats, and later through television and movies.  I fancied the entire continent covered in thick jungle, which I would effortlessly travel as Tarzan did, swinging on innumerable vines from tree to tree to tree.

The fact that I wasn’t strong enough to climb the rope-swing in my own backyard didn’t seem to intrude upon those dreams.

Later, as my interest in history grew, I moved on to stories of the intrepid, imperialistic adventurers who sought to colonize the continent for their respective European nations.  Men (they were always men) from Belgium, Britain, France, and Germany rushed to claim vast domains on behalf of king and country.  I imagined myself striding in the company of such worthies as Mungo Park, Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Cecil Rhodes, bringing glory and honour to the homeland.


In the space of little more than forty years, beginning in 1870, European control of Africa jumped from 10 percent of its landmass to 90 percent, a stunning demonstration of greed and expansionism.  The most avaricious nation was Britain, which controlled vast tracts, including the Nile valley and the Suez Canal after invading Egypt in 1882.

It didn’t occur to me back then that such heroic deeds resulted in enslavement of the indigenous peoples, and wholesale looting of the continent’s plentiful natural resources—gold, silver, diamonds, salt, petroleum, and cocoa beans among them.  In my callow innocence, I gave no thought to the consequences suffered by the conquered.

Eventually I graduated to a study of the more complex history of warfare in Africa, struggles between European empires fought on African soil.  The Dutch, French, and British, who fought initially against indigenous peoples to steal their land, found themselves inevitably clashing with each other over competing claims.  The most famous of such conflicts are, perhaps, the first and second Boer Wars fought by Dutch settlers against British imperialists in what is now South Africa, the tales of which captured my imagination completely.

No less a personage than Winston Churchill, then a young subaltern in the British army, first made a name for himself after a daring escape from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp.  In school, we learned to sing a stirring song, Marching to Pretoria, which was sung by British soldiers as they made their victorious way to the Boers’ capital city.  I think I was the only one of my classmates to have any inkling of its significance.

My understanding of Africa, therefore, was heavily influenced by a British bias; he who wins the wars writes the history, after all.

Never in my life, however, did I actually visit the dark continent.  Not until now, that is.  As I write this post, I’m sitting in a beautiful room in Aquavit, a delightful Bed & Breakfast overlooking the town of Plettenberg Bay in South Africa, with a view of the Indian Ocean to the left and smoky, blue mountains all around.  Our hosts, Linda and Ole, are not imperialistic plunderers from the past, but expat Americans who call this country home.


It is nothing like the Africa of my youthful ruminations.  The flora and fauna are different from what I’m familiar with, but they are different, too, from the jungle tangle I might have expected from my Tarzan reading.  On our journey by car along the byways of the southeastern coast, we have seen our share of animals not found in North America, of course—baboons, zebras, ostriches, an astonishing variety of antelope—and we shall see many more on an upcoming safari adventure.

Despite the warring history I once lapped up, we have found no enemies of any political persuasion or ethnic background; only a warm, hospitable people who wave and smile at every opportunity.  It has been easy during the three weeks we’ve been travelling here to learn to feel at home.

In the company of good friends, Evelyn and Larry, we have stood at the Cape of Good Hope with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our feet, and climbed high up on Cape Point, almost the southernmost tip of the country.  We have swum in the Indian Ocean and walked the sandy beaches it pounds with its endless surf.  We have ventured into several off-road places—Table Mountain near Capetown, which we conquered via cable-car; the De Hoop Nature Reserve, where we encountered penguins unique to South Africa; a remote farmhouse where we were treated to a delicious luncheon of salads, cheeses, breads, and wine, all home-grown and produced.  And we have boldly gone under the ground, into the renowned Cango Caves, where we were amazed by the subterranean beauty of the eerie caverns.


The English words to the national anthem truly sum up my impressions of this marvellous country, now that I have seen even a part of it:

Ringing out from our blue heavens, /From the depths of our sea, /Over our everlasting mountains, /Where the echoing crags resound!

Sounds the call to come together, /And united we shall stand, /Let us live and strive for freedom /In South Africa our land!

It has been the trip of a lifetime, and we have three weeks still to go.