Mistakes of the fathers: a new chapter

by Margret Kopala

Published by The Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, January 17, 1993

Daniel helped bring in the groceries the other night. It was something of a milestone, a kind of rite of passage. No threats, no prodding, no bribing. He saw it was a big job and that his mother shouldn’t have to do it by herself. It’s been like that lately. He’s more sensitive and even protective at times. In the evenings, after the cut and thrust of street hockey, tackle football, hide and seek and admonishments about the pants he should be wearing to play these games, a quiet time settles in. Some tv, some snacks, some conversation. The day’s events, what he has and hasn’t liked in school.

When he is around his dad, he goofs off unmercifully. At mealtimes I feel like I am dealing with two children, not one child and one adult. The boom is lowered as necessary but the verbal and physical sparring are unmistakable. Nightly, at our kitchen table, the oedipal imperative flourishes.

As the Jesuit said, though, "Give me the boy for seven years, and I will give you the man." Now, at the age of eight, Daniel is bright, responsible, testing himself, seeking his place in the world. So far so good. On the home front, at least, things are developing as they should.

Looking elsewhere I am less certain.

Another rite of passage is underway, this time throughout major parts of the world. Like that between Daniel and his father, it is generational and largely, though not exclusively, male. It’s been brewing in Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reorganization of its member states. Then, the Maastricht referendum results started challenging the Common Market vision that rose out of the ashes of the Second World War and that sees increased trade and efficient production as the key to a prosperous and stable Europe. It gathered speed in Canada whose constitutional agonies culminated in the wholesale rejection of the vision promoted by the country’s political, business and media elite. And now, Bill Clinton - a man some 20 years younger than George Bush - is about to be inaugurated as president of the United States of America.

Clearly, the generational changeover has begun, promising to inform political and other issues through the remaining years of the 20th century.

But for all the magnitude of these harbingers of change, nowhere has the phenomenon been crystallized with such pristine timeliness than here in Canada and our debate on The Valour and the Horror. It, more than anything else, has made me think deeply about the change that is upon us. The brothers McKenna, whose controversial television documentary exposes the mistakes, stupidities and costs to civilian life of the Second World War, spar with aging senators and veterans who stand tall for the one thing they got essentially right.

The challenge by one generation to the other is unmistakable. Though there have been a few gains for improving televisual literacy and understanding of the (still) neophyte documentary genre, neither side in this debate has won, nor should it have won. Rather, like many of our generation, the McKennas are testing themselves, seeking their place and what will constitute their mark in the world. Senators and veterans will criticize but, inevitably, the younger generation must be allowed to learn from the mistakes of its fathers.

The question is ... will it?

The generation that made love not war, that chose self-fulfilment over self-sacrifice or duty, that chose freedom of expression over respect (and, often, good taste), the generation that also became Rhodes scholars, Harvard graduates, feminists and environmentalists, advocates for black, gay and other minority rights, is beginning its ascent to Westminster, Capitol and Parliament Hills. It might be easy if the enemy was some psychotic racist with a genius for playing on his people’s worst fears like Hitler did. George Bush’s last gasp, the Gulf War, invoked those simpler times.

Today, the enemy is more pernicious. Today, it is the danger of ecological holocaust, genetic mutation and compromised immune systems. It is economies predicated on housing starts and automobile sales, both depending on non-renewable or polluting resources. It is built-in obsolescence and the humiliation to workers of performing meaningless work. It is a throw-away culture, of both things and people. It is consumption and the fact that without it, people don’t have jobs.

It is the kind of itinerancy - born of transnational, cross country and social and economic mobility - that denies the civilizing effects of rootedness in land, home or community. It is being too soft and too lazy to compete; it is expectations that are too high and results that are too low. It is what one-time British prime minister Ted Heath has called the "unacceptable face of capitalism" and what his successor Margaret Thatcher has called "wet liberalism". It is yet another socialist experiment shooting itself in the foot or worse. It is worldwide hunger and poverty.

It is the deep, psychic knowledge that an old order is dying and the deeper psychic fear our country, Canada, may disappear with it.

It is the race wars, class wars, ethnic and religious wars and it is the gender wars.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In truth, the enemy looms everywhere. This legacy may be attributable to the pre-Second World War generation but for the generation cocooning in its luxurious byproducts and availing itself of historically unparalleled entitlements, Pogo’s dictum that "the enemy is us" seems just as apt. Hard decision must soon be taken - about the economy, the environment and, here in Canada, about national unity. When that happens, will this generation know when to fight and when to forgive? Will all the education in the world produce the wisdom of Solomon? Or even the wisdom of ‘Bomber’ Harris? The courage of Leonard Cheshire and ‘Smokey’ Smith? How then, will we measure the cost to civilian life and who will do what needs to be done?

Some would say it is a mother’s lot to bear witness as generations of men, sons of sons of sons, match skills, play games and relive old battles in preparation for battles yet to come. Admittedly, there’s comfort in the archetypal pattern that permits few generations to fare worse than others. And there’s a new factor this time. Women are increasingly making their presence felt. Oxford-educated Benazir Bhutto knocks persistently at the doors of power in Pakistan while Japan is about to acquire a Harvard educated empress. Princess Diana may inadvertently topple the British monarchy, even as Winnie Mandela seems to be challenging her estranged husband for influence and possibly power of the African National Congress. Hillary Clinton won’t be baking cookies in the White House. Audrey McLaughlin, Sheila Copps, Kim Campbell and Barbara McDougall invite speculation about Canada acquiring its first woman prime minister.

But beyond the media spotlight, women everywhere are becoming equals within established patriarchal structures and, with our superior interpersonal skills and capacity for consensual, non-hierarchical approaches to problems and issues, we are establishing new structures of our own.

It remains to be seen what impact we will have but as I observe the dynamics between my son and his father magnified on a national and global scale, note the absence of women’s voices in the debate on The Valour and the Horror, and see the task that lies ahead, I wonder what the results will possibly be.

Margret Kopala

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