Sometimes, living in Canada, it’s just very very hard to figure out what goes on south of our border. I’ve been feeling that way quite a lot lately and it’s truly mystifying … and distressing. True, I’m not an American although I’ve spent a part of my life living in the US and, since my sister and her family live in California, and Santa Fe, NM is one of my favorite places, I spend a lot of time south of the 49th parallel. So why am I spending so much time thinking about this? Because, in the end, I’m pretty sure there’s something I can learn by figuring out what’s going on in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And in that quest for understanding I want to pause and thank President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama for the light they’ve recently shed on this confusion and for how they’ve both helped me deepen my understanding of what life’s all about.On August 29th, 2009 Bill Clinton spoke at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition). The Ex – as we call it – has been around for a very long time and although some people think of it only as a place with rides and food that will definitely not make you healthy, and lots of noise and chaos, it’s much more than that. For example, both radio and television had their Canadian starts at The Ex; in 1938 – 14 years before television reached the homes of Canadians, an experimental demonstration was done and sound and pictures both travelled by wire from the Horticulture Building to the Automotive Building. In 1991, Canadians were able to experience virtual reality for the first time at the CNE. My memories of the Ex go back to my childhood. Every year, during the last two weeks of August, my mother and I would take the train from London, Ont to Toronto to visit with my Baubie and Aunt Golda, and my cousin David and I would go to the Ex. Our day would start by trying to finagle as much money as we could from our mothers; the trick was to get the money and head out before my Baubie got wind of what was going on because otherwise she’d pipe in with “What, you’re giving them $20 each! Why so much?” Having gotten over that hurdle we’d get on the streetcar and head to The Ex. $20 went a long way in those days. We’d spend most of our money on the rides. We’d spend no money at all on food; instead we’d line up over and over again in the Food Building where free samples of everything from Tiny Tom donuts to Campbell’s Tomato Soup would make up our lunch. I’d always keep a little money in my pocket to buy something for my mother. Do you remember the Chop-O-Matic? I loved standing and watching the demonstration … those perfectly cut french fries and carrot sticks were so terrific. Indeed, even this year when we went to The Ex I found myself seeking out the same kinds of demonstrations only this time I came home with an extendable duster (to get those dust bunnies out of the corners of the ceiling) and a Blue Sky bluetooth device for my car (we have a law about to go into place making it illegal to use hand-held cell phones in cars). One year I remember ending the day without a cent in our pockets and no way to get on the streetcar for the ride home. It was one of the first times that I realized that I had a “way with words” as I convinced the streetcar driver to let us on without dropping anything into the fare box. Anyhow, I digress. Back to what I learned at the CNE this year.
Being a public speaker myself I always enjoy listening to other people who are noted as good speakers; for me that’s an opportunity to not only learn something from the content of their speech but also from their speaking style. So, when I heard that Bill Clinton was coming to The Ex and that the tickets were only $40 (indeed, they didn’t sell so well so had I waited I could have paid a mere $5 on top of my CNE entrance fee … they had to work hard to fill the seats in the stadium). Clinton started by trying to explain to this Canadian crowd what was going on with the US protests against universal health care. Understand that this is really mystifying to me because I’ve grown up with socialized medicine – yup, there’s that word that’s evidently right up there with four-letter expletives for Americans; what that means to me is that when anyone in my family is sick we don’t have to think twice about getting the care that we need. Contrary to what I’ve seen on some incredibly misleading and annoying commercials on TV it’s a good system that we have. Is it perfect? Of course not; what is. But it does mean that nobody here has to go without medical care. Clinton pointed out three things that were contributing to the problem with getting a health care initiative off the ground in the US. First, health care is complex, and anything complex can easily be misrepresented. Second, health care is personal, and anything personal can be a source of fear. Third, there’s a certainty of loss for some (the insurance companies are clearly highly invested in making sure there’s no public health care option) and when you combine that with uncertainty of effect for others – since it’s new turf – well … the three things together explain at least some of what’s going on I suppose. Machiavelli said that: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” This is, I think, what I see happening around health care in the US. It’s also why it’s just so hard – on a broader scale – to change the way we care for each other, to move from self-centredness to social contract. Clinton also challenged us to look at three things that are global issues that need our attention.
- There’s too much inequality in our world. As long as I’m throwing out more food when I clean my fridge than other families have to eat in that same week … we will have problems. As long as some of us have access to education – and health care – while others do not … we will have problems.
- There’s too much instability in our world. You just have to think about the recent financial crisis and how quickly it spread from Wall Street to all streets to understand this. You just have to recognize how quickly the swine flu spread across the world to understand this.
- We have adopted an unsustainable way of living. Clearly we’re using resources at a rate that will eventually deplete them and/or cause major ecological damage.
And I guess this is where one of the big differences between Canada and the US kicks in. The Canadian parliament works under the principle of “peace, order and good government” based on the British North America Act which, in 1967, created the Canadian Confederation. Primacy, here, is given to the community. On the other hand, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, from the text of the American Declaration of Independence, focuses on the primary of the individual. Still, the preamble to the American Constitution talks about “forming a more perfect union” and so I’m not without hope that what I’m currently seeing happening south of the border is only an anomaly and that good sense – and good government – is on its way back. I’m certainly committed to doing whatever I can to make this happen.
Which brings me to President Obama. Ironically, the incredible speech he gave in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, has been called the “A More Perfect Union” speech. Just in case you’ve forgotten what he said that day, I’ve posted a link to it here.
For the past days all I’ve seen on US news shows is a furor about the speech President Obama gave to students across America – and likely across the world – a few days ago. Hard for me to understand this coming from a country where free speech is a central premise. There was screaming that it was going to be Marxist propoganda. I’m guessing that most of the people screaming – and rudeness has become all to unacceptable I think – didn’t know much about Marxism. One of the three main pillars of Marxism rests on the dialectical which, simply stated, means that a society’s history results from its internal conflicts between social classes and that society’s future derives from the developments that arise from those social conflicts. Strange, but I think that listening to the criticism of both this speech and the health care initiative is a demonstration that could be used to explain what Marxism’s all about. If the fear was that Obama would tell students that they need to find ways to work for each other and not just compete with each other … well, isn’t that a very good thing for a President to be saying? Then there were the cries that the speech would be “political”. Get a grip! He’s the President of the United States. Everything he does – or says – is political. Democracy is built on that. Maybe the noise is really just an indication of how pathetic and desperate “the right” has become; how fearful they are that the world is changing and that humanity is on the rise. Perhaps.
So what did Obama say to our children as they returned to school this year? He said that everyone has to take personal responsibility. Yes! He said that: “You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.” Yes, and yes again! He ended the speech by saying: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I want to thank both Clinton and Obama for reminding me of what’s important. I want to thank them both for their words of inspiration. Here I am in this absolutely privileged position. I could spend my days just going to the gym and indulging myself; I’ve spent some time doing just that and I’ve discovered that although it works well for some it just doesn’t seem to work so well for me. Or I could find a way to combine a slower, more gentle place with staying focused on what I can contribute … not just for myself but for others. It’s finding that balance that’s the real challenge. It’s figuring out how to keep myself motivated, even when I get frustrated and feel that I’m making no difference at all; it’s remembering, as Obama said, that I can’t let my failures define me. I think I’ll keep both of those speeches close at hand so that I can re-read them on days that I feel that I have nothing to contribute or just don’t know how to move forward.