Individual evil and the goodness of the masses

Here’s another excerpt from Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. It constitutes a kind of case study of the grieving process — i.e., Bobby’s grief after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

The excerpt also offers an insight into human beings at their best:

I think often of Bobby’s grief over the loss of Jack. It veered close to being a tragedy within the tragedy. […]

He delayed returning to his duties as attorney general; he found it difficult to concentrate on anything or do substantive work. Hope seemed to have died within him, and there followed months of unrelenting melancholia. He went through the motions of everyday life, but he carried the burden of his grief with him always. […]

In mid-January 1964, while Bobby was still attorney general and before he made up his mind to resign and run for the Senate from New York, President Johnson asked him to visit the Far East to negotiate a cease-fire between Indonesia and Malaysia. He was to meet in Japan with Sukarno, the enlightened but volatile Indonesian president […].

Bobby’s official mission was to act as peacemaker; but Johnson also hoped that the assignment would lift his spirits.

Johnson, so often perceived by Bobby as an adversary, had on this occasion performed a valuable act of compassion. In Japan, Bobby and Ethel witnessed a tumultuous outpouring of friendship from the people, who wanted to show their respect and love for John Kennedy through Bobby’s presence.

I believe that the reception restored his faith that life was worth living after all.

(pp. 210-11)

I have grieved the loss of both a brother and a sister. I can relate to Bobby’s inability to concentrate, his loss of motivation, and that melancholia which spirals downward, at intervals, into darkest despair.

I learned to ride the tiger:  to let it carry me where it would; to be patient with myself when I would break down in tears for very little provocation; to wait out the process until it had exhausted itself, like Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping George Foreman.

If there is any antidote for grief, it is the mere passage of time. That plus the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.

At Gethsemane, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. In the grieving process, the flesh proves surprisingly strong:  bodily functions persist even while the spirit is utterly impotent. One day, you discover the unsuspected truth of that facile saying, “Life goes on.” Then your spirit may revive:  you may return, by stages, to the ordinary business of living — partly in spite of yourself.

One morning I woke up and I knew
     You were really gone
A new day, a new way, and new eyes
     To see the dawn.
Go your way, I’ll go mine and
     Carry on.

The sky is clearing and the night
     Has cried enough
The sun, he come, the world
     to soften up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but
     To carry on.

(Stephen Stills, “Carry On”)

I don’t know about the “rejoice, rejoice” part, but the rest of that line is true — “We have no choice but to carry on.”

There’s another lesson to be found in the story of Bobby Kennedy’s recovery from grief. It has to do with human nature:  that unseemly amalgam of terrible evil and inspiring goodness.

Language wars

Ilona has an ongoing, good-natured conflict with a friend, Bob. Bob thinks the best English is English as it was spoken in the past. This messy business of language evolving with the passing generations doesn’t sit well with him.

Ilona is not above a little mockery:

So when in time would you draw the line and say “Ha! The language was PERFECT then, and that’s how we should speak it henceforth forevermore”? Mid-thirteeth century? Elizabethan (that would be Shakespeare’s era)? 18th-century? When was the language entirely perfect, and everything since then has been downhill?

Language is a great example of tradition and transformation in action. Re tradition:  think about etymology for a moment. For example, here’s Webster’s etymology of the word “gist”:

ME giste < OFr, abode, point at issue < from gesir, to lie < L jacere, to lie; sense infl. by Anglo-Fr legal phrase l’action gist, lit., the action lies.

This is a word with a long tradition behind it:  derived from a Middle English word, which was derived from the Old French, which was derived from the Latin, under the influence of an Anglo-French legal phrase. Word usage is traditional.

Re transformation:  language does evolve as the decades succeed one another. And in the past century, as technological breakthroughs have revolutionized human society, language has changed rapidly to keep pace.

As language changes, there is a risk that we will cease to understand one another. Consider this classic scene from Airplane!:  the flight attendant doesn’t speak jive, but Beaver Cleaver’s mother offers to interpret.


The adaptability of English is one of its strengths. Even so, Bob is hardly alone in his perception that the language is degenerating all around him. Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post, explains how Tim Horton’s (a donut shop which is iconic in Canada) lost its apostrophe:

Early on, his coffee shops used an apostrophe in their name; dedicated punctuation fans claim that even now, in Hamilton, you can find original Horton’s with the apostrophe still proudly in place. These deserve designation as national heritage sites, remnants of a finer, more thoughtful and better punctuated Canada.

Like many traditions, the Horton apostrophe was a victim (so goes the accepted story) of Quebec nationalism. When Quebec decided that commercial signs should eliminate their possessive apostrophes, in the French manner, most companies hurried to comply.

[…] For the sake of efficiency and consistency [Tim Horton’s] decided to have all their outlets carry precisely the same logo, the one required in Quebec. Sea to sea, most Tim outlets meekly surrendered their apostrophes. The tragic result is that young English-speaking Canadians eat their Timbits and sip their double-double beneath signage that defies ancient tradition.

It was Fulford’s use of the word “tradition” that inspired this post.

I agree with Fulford:  careful attention to punctuation, including the use of apostrophes, is falling into disuse. As Fulford writes,

This is a defeat for clear expression. The purpose of punctuation is to clarify the written word. Without it, we are less able to understand each other.

Similarly, I can be a stickler for the precise use of words.

Still — on the whole, I agree with Ilona. English would be impoverished if we were to confine ourselves to words from the 16th century. Consider words like introvert and extrovert:  they enable us to think about ourselves in ways that otherwise, we could not. Or a word like black hole:  not only does it describe a fascinating phenomenon of the physical word, it has also developed a metaphorical usage. For example, depression as a psychic black hole.

Language evolves. That’s a good thing:  ye language curmudgeons of the world, deal with it!

Yesterday, I fed a pigeon

Ottawa’s mayor, Larry O’Brien, made local headlines a year or so ago. He advised Ottawa residents, “Don’t feed the pigeons.”

Ottawa Mayor Larry O'BrienBut he didn’t mean “pigeons”, he meant “panhandlers”. And he didn’t mean “Don’t feed them”; he meant, “Don’t give them your spare change.”

The Mayor is currently on trial for influence-peddling. He’s kind of admitting that he did the deed. But his lawyer argued, this week, that it shouldn’t constitute a crime when one politician buys off another politician:

“Some people would interpret this as some type of admission by Mr. O’Brien of what had occurred,” said Paciocco [the Mayor’s defence lawyer]. “Our position isn’t that it’s okay — our position is that it’s not criminal,” said Paciocco, saying it’s more suited to “ethical standards.”

That information isn’t directly relevant to my post. I merely mention it in passing, to give you a flavour of the Mayor’s ethical standards.

Anyway:  according to the Mayor, panhandlers are like pigeons:  if you give them your nickels and dimes today, you’ll encourage them to continue shitting on the sidewalks tomorrow. Or something like that.

Yesterday, I fed a pigeon. I did it in Winnipeg.

I had passed several panhandlers earlier in the day, ignoring their entreaties, per Mayor O’Brien’s advice.

(Or maybe it’s OK to feed the pigeons in other cities. Maybe I would be encouraging all the panhandlers to move to Manitoba? I must email the Mayor’s office to seek guidance for future trips to other provinces.)

Toward the end of the day, I was looking for a taxi to take me to the airport. A First Nations woman addressed me:  “Excuse me sir. Can you spare any change?”

I considered her request. A pocketful of spare change is a nuisance when you’re passing through security at the airport. I stopped and looked at her.

She jumped up and clapped her hands together like an excited toddler. (I’m not demeaning her — I’m just reporting what she did.) Her eyes lit up. “You’re the first person who’s stopped!”, she exclaimed.

I have to admit, her enthusiasm made me feel sort of warm inside. She was only a pigeon, I reminded myself; but she was performing a passable imitation of an actual human being.


I reached into my pocket. I figured I had three dollars or so in change — I remembered having a loonie and a toonie.

I looked down and, to my surprise, I was holding six or seven dollars in my hand. Change adds up rather quickly when you’re out of town, making frequent small purchases. But I had already resolved to give her the whole wad, so I passed it over.

Her eyes grew big. Her mouth formed a big “O” of delight. Then she leaped forward and threw her arms around me.

“This is amazing! You really were the first person who stopped,” she repeated.

I felt all warm inside again. If all pigeons were like this one, Mayor O’Brien would have to send tanks into the streets to stop people from feeding them. It was just such a rewarding experience!

But I must admit, my conscience troubled me afterward. Maybe it was that woman’s very first day as a panhandler. Everyone else was doing the right thing:  not feeding the pigeon; not encouraging her to think that this was an easy way to get by.

So maybe I was the first person who ever gave her money. Now she’ll be out there again tomorrow, doing you-know-what on the sidewalk.

I apologize, Mr. Mayor. I should save my spare change. One day it would amount to a large sum of money; I could give it to a political opponent, when I wanted to buy him off.

I could have gotten something in return for my investment — I mean, other than a warm feeling inside.

Sir:  society would be much better off if everyone just followed your example.

The End of Tolerance?

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son:

One of the fascinating recurring realizations I’ve had throughout my university career is that culturally, we’ve lost an understanding of what it means to be tolerant. The word, one of the most overused ones in our society, is amusingly twisted in the face of true tolerance. And one recent example demonstrates it perfectly: The recent controversy over Miss California in the Miss USA pageant.

Consider the following video:

Without entering into the foray of whether the sentiment about gay marriage is right or wrong, I think this video is interesting because of what it shows about our culture beyond the specific values. It brings up questions like: What does it mean to be tolerant? What role do Truth, faith, and opinions have in politics? Is it possible to be the “perfect Miss USA?


The economic cloud’s silver lining

4.4 million Americans have lost their jobs since the recession started in December 2007. The American economy has shed at least 650,000 jobs in each of the past three months. According to the New York Times, that’s the worst three-month decline in percentage terms since 1975.

Ouch! — there’s a whole lot o’ hurtin’ going on out there.

“These jobs aren’t coming back,” said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. “A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses.”

Certain questions immediately spring to mind:

Why would any student choose York University?

Teachers at York University have been on strike since Nov. 6. That’s 81 days and counting that students have been denied the education they paid for.

OK, strikes are sometimes justified. But York University experiences more strikes than your average institution of higher education:

York University has a history of faculty/TA strikes. In 1997, there was a faculty strike by YUFA that lasted seven weeks. At the time, this was the second longest strike in Canadian University history. Key issues in the strike included retirement, funding, and institutional governance. In 2001, TAs and contract faculty went on strike for 11 weeks, when the university broke its own record.

York has now broken its own record again. (News media have inaccurately described this strike as the longest strike at a university in Canadian history. In fact, it’s the third longest, according to

I was briefly a student at York in 1981-82, and I remember that classes were disrupted by a strike then. Chris, a commenter at, says, “I went to York from 1981-1986 and 4 of those” were strike years.

If memory serves, there was another strike sometime between 1987-1991. Add those strikes to the ones mentioned by Wikipedia, in 1997 and 2001. Now factor in the current strike, and it’s safe to conclude that the faculty at York University don’t give a shit about providing students with an education.

The provincial government has introduced legislation to order the York faculty back to work. I don’t agree with that decision:  I don’t regard a university as an essential public service.

(Here in Ottawa, we’re enduring a transit strike that has continued for a month and a half, with no end in sight. I think OC Transpo provides an essential public service and, in this case, drivers should be legislated back to work. The whole city has been disrupted, and a transit strike hits the working poor hardest of all. People in low-paying jobs may have no choice but to walk to work, no matter how long the walk, or they’ll be fired. And yet the government fails to act.)

In future, students should think twice about enrolling at York. Look at the history, guys and gals:  you stand a very good chance of having classes disrupted by a strike at some point in a four-year program. Maybe for as long as three months.

A university is not an essential public service, and teachers shouldn’t be legislated back to work. But students should enroll elsewhere:  let York University suffer the consequences of its appalling labour relations record.

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