Saturday, August 9, 2008

"The Bride's Second Greatest Disappointment"

Oscar Wilde's inimitable quip on Niagara Falls (as seen by my own lawfully wedded spouse in this photo) opens an array of reflections-- a bit more philosophical than those on my two previous Irish-language exercises) about my visit to the Great Humid North. By the way, that torrent you see behind Layne's doubled in the summer so as not to disappoint tourists. Who, five minutes there, leave anyhow if they cannot afford the Maid of the Mist (my wife declined) or the behind-the-falls tour. Maybe the duration of initial bliss derived from the sightseer's enchantment equates to that of, in a less premature age of consent, the time taken for consummation of one's devout wishes in one of the honeymoon suites. The whole craze for heart-shaped beds started due to Napoleon's younger brother taking his amour there around 1800.

Hotter and stickier than here, with traffic as bad and with a multicultural population as varied as my hometown's, Toronto presented a familiar setting. Urban, congested, and polyglot. Yet, the novelty of local subway stops, trolley lines, and especially throngs of pedestrians and bicyclists distinguished its streets from ours.

My wife's own snap, after I gave my paper at the Welsh Studies Conference at the U. of T., shows me in front of an historical landmark sign for the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies where I once wanted to enroll, twenty-five years ago. The fact that I'd need to master French and German in a year, keep my Latin at a level that would enable me to read the plaque here with Tridentine fluency, and that I'd have to pay lots of tuition as a foreigner, discouraged me. Not to mention the debt I'd incur for a doctorate even less lucrative than the one I eventually earned in medieval English lit. Still, when my paths crossed the PIMS, my nostalgic heart leapt at the curator or lexicographer I might have-- if funded by some patron-- evolved into after a stint at St. Michael's, near both the Northrop Frye Theatre and Marshall McLuhan Way.

This encouragement of such arcane institutions reminded me of the DIAS, the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, founded by De Valera. Only a mathematician turned Gaelic learner turned rebel turned politician could have conceived a place where particle physics and Old Irish could be pursued under the same roof. Ireland and Canada, I reflected more than once, share an enviable position in terms of culture and convenience. They enjoy the legacy of English-language academic merit enriched by vibrant minority influences and indigenous traditions from ancient languages. Their colonial histories certainly have differed regarding severity towards their "first nations," yet both boast today high standards of living, fewer poor people, less obsession with defense, an immigration system (at least in Canada) that prefers quality over quantity, a budget with diminished burdens of ruling the rest of the world, and the luxury of a stable system with higher taxes but more equitable care.

Yet, I wonder. Like the stereotypes that motivate northerly citizens to plaster maple leaves much more prominently than we do the Stars and Stripes (or so it seemed to my jaded eyes), or to my easterly cousins to ostentatiously spout Irish phrases when abroad so as not to be confused with their North Atlantic Big Brother(s), the U.S. takes on our neighbors' unwanted responsibility. We seem to be stuck with the check after Global Diversity Day's party. Our derided and disdained leviathan-- and to a lesser degree other powers in the E.U., NATO, or even Britannia herself-- helps keep the enemies at bay so the Irish and Canadians can enjoy a life with far more overstocked bookstores, racier ads at bus stops and in the local throwaway's "escort" ads, and better selections of local brews as opposed to monocultural Bud.

Or, so we're told in America. Do we, nagging parents, clean up the mess dumped by coddled siblings who've gone off to play? Must we, with ten times the population of Canada? (By the way, with a nation so committed admirably to recycling and conservation, how they can call for upping the numbers coming in from 220,000 to 400,000 annually appears foolhardy, considering the far higher rates of energy use that nearly anyone in an advanced society incurs. How can they balance their ecological destruction with their liberal admission policy? How do they reconcile demographic pressures with natural resources?)

Canada no longer worries. Niagara Falls, in the War of 1812 the bloody frontier contested by Canucks and Yanks, now's but a muggier Vegas. Would we all sleep safer if the U.S. turned less belligerent? Layne observed last night how Obama, already acting as if the next head of our state, negotiated a truce of sorts with Iraq's president, and how oil prices then dropped. She also, I must add, tried to find out about Obama's policy on affirmative action. The candidate's website makes you register before entering it. We declined the offer. This does not bode well for November's presumed trounce and the ascent of my exact contemporary to the White House-- which got the term after it was whitewashed to cover up the damage from the fire set by the British in that War of 1812! I only learned that in Canada.

So, is America doing the dirty work that keeps the other nations disdainfully snubbing their noses at us bloated Yanks? Or, as the ecumenical and subtly but insistently pacifist Mennonite museum at St. Jacob's encouraged us to consider, do we stir up our own peril by our blundering hubris? I reflected on the example of the persecuted non-conformist who, pursued by a Dutch constable who had fallen through the ice, turned back to rescue the official. That enforcer later hunted him down again, this time resulting in the freethinker's death sentence. All for his supposed capital crime against both Calvinist doctrine and Catholic dogma demanding adult baptism, when the person'd have enough sense to accept the creed as a logical grown-up rather than a squalling eight-day baby. You'd be burned at the stake for advocating what seems a commonsensical acceptance of what John the Baptist did for Jesus at the River Jordan. Who'd die for this assertion of simple practice today?

Similarly, with Ste. Marie's collision of well-intentioned Jesuits, converts who saw a better way with their new faith, and those Wendat who opposed the destruction of their beliefs, and all under the attack of epidemics, famine, and Iroquois in winters that reached forty below, how would we each hold to our cherished legends from childhood? Would we blame the "pagans" for the flu, as God's punishment for their stubborn idolatry? Do we ally with the Jesuits, who never got sick despite the ravages of the disease among those to whom they minister? Have idealistic missionaries themselves acted with wisdom or folly, caught up in a larger struggle between feuding tribes, against Dutch enemies of their own fatherland, amidst the rigors of a climate far harsher in New France than Normandy? The eloquent presentation at the mission challenged us both to consider, if silently, our own country's dilemma. You put up the palisades, you teach the children well, you share the meds. Yet it all comes crashing down thanks to guns, germs, and steel. (And beaver pelts for felt hats.)

Have our own national exertions towards global domination crippled us from sustaining a less combative stance? Do we get so mesmerized by a desert sky-god's thunderbolts as guiding our manifest destiny that we lose track of our own relative meaninglessness? Or, must we take on the policeman's role, charged with enforcing order despite our own naivete and our enemy's cunning? Can we let our guard down? Could we afford to let China, India, Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America fight it out? Do we have a more stable infrastructure than an E.U. and Britain that appear to be overwhelmed by revivalists of a seventh-century caliphate in many of their own post-Christian, corpulent, and clogged cities? Meanwhile, we are told we're getting dumber, lazier, and fatter by our own sloth.

Canada lets its peoples graze under a benevolent chef who blends a bilingual and now astonishingly diverse tossed salad of international flavors; America classifies us all and acts to affirm particular affinities at the expense of others to make up for past injustice; Europe lets its guard down to let in nearly anybody on laissez-faire principle after centuries of internecine and imperial slaughter. My own leanings have always lured me into the isolationist, non-interventionist camps, for environmental, economic, and perhaps psychological affinities. Outposts for scholars of Carolingian codices or quantum quarks flourish in civilized nations able to support with their higher taxes a less cruel, more commodious lifestyle.

Yet, we south of the 42nd Parallel find ourselves charged with massive debt, endless military incursions, and a culture celebrating consumption beyond even, I reckon, the wealth flowing into Ireland and Canada's caffeinated and cellphoning crowds of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. These prosperous outposts, freed from billions spent in purported defense, can send their idealistic youth, if so inspired, into secularized forms of the foreign missions. Rather than going to fight under their flag, they further goodwill by works of mercy. That is, sort of like the donnés who served in the 1640s as lay volunteers with the Jesuits at Ste. Marie-among-the Hurons. Our own boys and girls, by contrast, often for financial reasons, enter the military. Many of my best students have been veterans; I only wish we had other means to encourage self-reliance.

Tibet's transformation from warlords to a Buddhist kingdom of learning happened because the plateau was too high for the Manchu to conquer it and adapt to its altitude. Tibetans were able to negotiate a treaty with China, and for hundreds of years kept their enviable status. Yet, with global marches towards communism and capital, Tibet's defenses could no longer defend a spiritual hideaway from a greedy superpower. How can, then, a PIMS or DIAS or a lamasary thrive behind the protection of non-aggression? The Jesuit mission failed; the Mennonites constantly split into smaller sects; the Tibetans now are monitored by cameras as relentlessly as the 300,000 surveillance devices installed with Yankee hi-tech and Wall Street investment over in Beijing for the garish ceremony we tried to watch last night at Bird's Nest Stadium. The Chinese appear delighted to embrace wealth without democracy, contrary to our patriotic cant instilled in us for two centuries. Americans cannot, unless isolated in Shangri-La, escape the warlords. Canada and Ireland today harbor contempt for us, but can they find wisdom in their own Lhasas alone, without us manning the borders against whoever lurks beyond a Great Wall?

Yet, Roman legions or Chinese mandarins or American presidents, we learn from history, cannot build fortresses tall enough against the barbarians. Our third greatest disappointment: our failure to rise above our animal natures for aggression, goods, and power. Some of us have to keep others from killing still others. Buddhism encourages us to strive for this higher condition. Muslims and Christians, evangelize endlessly until they can bring down on us all the End Times. Post-Christians, as in Canada and perhaps soon Ireland, dismiss monotheistic missionizing. Yet, we all long for belief, even neo-atheists.

Can we escape our lower qualities, except as learned librarians, moral scientists, or vowed monastics? Those of us called to less elevated callings battle it out and rely on others to do what we will not do. The oil, the gadgets, the energy, the cheap labor: it all comes from somewhere far beyond these glass or concrete frontiers. Could we let ever our guard down in such consumerist palaces? Layne's loyal worker Lito has now two of his three daughters serving Uncle Sam.

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