Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders. The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts. The American civil war's General Sherman once said that "war is hell", but unfortunately today's politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good...Still, this year I shall wear the poppy as I have done for many years. I wear it because I am from that last generation who remember a war that encompassed the entire world... But most importantly, I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe...However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy. Harry Leslie Smith, The Guardian, 8-11-2013
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. -- John McCrae, Colonel, Royal Canadian Army
My Orange County Systems Administrator friend Conrad is currently sitting in a waiting room with his laptop, waiting for his Vietnam Vet friend Bob to leave the MRI and was wondering what happens when you do a MRI on someone whose body is full of shrapnel. The responses on Facebook including my own were basically "nothing good" and best wishes to Bob. Conrad also sent a link to this piece with the comment that "This has heart." It does, heart and mind and guts and sinew...
The British experience in the last 13 years is almost as miserable as our own, and in some ways, more so. My intellectual hero Jerry Harvey wrote an article "Organizations as Phrog Farms" once pointing out that it's better to be raped than seduced because if seduced, you are equally at fault, you conspired against yourself. If raped, you're innocent. Well that is probably insensitive, but there's a lot of truth to the observation as part of organizational dynamics if nothing else. And, in a case that models Plato's Republic to a certain extent, by looking at the organization, we look at ourselves as well as the larger world. The whole Iraq-Afghanistan-BombIran meme of the past 13 years has been a case of governments seducing nation states into being Phrog Farms. The first step in shedding the frog skin is to say loudly that THIS IS WRONG AND I AM NOT GOING TO BE PART OF IT ANYMORE.
In his article, Harvey points out that we have a choice, we can become Phrogs or refuse to go along. Most of us, at one time or another, are Phrogs. (It's called Phrog as opposed to Frog because Phrogs don't want to know that they are frogs. Read the article. You may laugh a lot, and you might cry when you contemplate your fate.) Harvey points out through a number of hypotheses that all organizations exist to do two things -- make stuff and turn people into Phfrogs. As you become more the company man, the organization man, the party man, the "my country is never wrong so my country right or wrong" patriot, the unthinking apparatchik of left or right, you become more of a Phrog. Ultimately, at your apotheosis of Phrogdom, you vocabulary shrinks to one word -- Ribbit. Doesn't mean anything so communication is a problem but it makes acquiescence universal. (Hooah, Hoorah and Hurrah can all be misused this way, but tone helps interpreting these.)
Harry Leslie Smith is 91 years old. He lived through his teens during the Great Depression which in working class England was worse than here, served with the the RAF in WWII and has worked for causes of economic, social and political justice since. He's still going at it, in the way that certain breeds of intellectual activists and autodidacts have demonstrated over the centuries. Eric Hoffer, Daniel Berrigan and Lord Russell all come to mind here as do Socrates and Thomas More. Anyway, he left Britain, moved to Canada, had a very successful business career and then returned to Britain to write, think, reflect and probably be a total pain in the ass to the comfortable and unafflicted. More power to him, and to the people who are like him...and, those of us struggling to escape the Phrog farms. Or, learn to speak Phrog, follow Fox News and the View and the TV Guide.
I disagree with a lot of my colleagues here about a lot of things, but we all tend to be actively working at not being Phrogs. Harry Lewis Smith is frankly my newest hero...no Phrog he, but a guy who understands.
Don't sell out those left behind, don't sell out those fighting against organizational, political or national stupidity. When confronted with stupidity, and the last 13 years of it have been rife with it, don't fail to call the question. Or, let me hear you say RIBBIT.
As Harry says so well and thus gets the last word:
For many of you 1914 probably seems like a long time ago but I'll be 91 next year, so it feels recent. Today, we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda. We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom. But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second. Next year, I won't wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life.