Christmas Controversies 3.0

A commentary on the Christmas controversies of 2017

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I realize it has been a while since I’ve published a post and I’ll tell you more about that in another post, but the Christmas season is fast approaching so it seems only appropriate that this post be about Christmas. Every year at this time of year, I am curious about what controversies will erupt regarding Christmas. I’ve learned this year, like previous years, there are many.

In October, while speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., Donald Trump claimed that political correctness has gotten in the way of celebrating the holiday. He told the crowd that “we’re saying Merry Christmas again” now that he’s president. At the Christian public policy conference, he said “We’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word Christmas because it’s not politically correct.”  (see Trump: ‘We’re saying merry Christmas again’). I can’t say as I’ve experienced that as most people still say “Merry Christmas” in my community.

Every year we hear about this storm.  Essentially, the issue is about political correctness and whether people should say to one another Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. To me there is nothing to debate. Just let common sense prevail, but it seems common sense is not so common. It is really about basic etiquette. If you know someone is a Christian who is celebrating Christmas you should say to them ‘Merry Christmas.’ Likewise, say ‘Happy Hanukkah’ to a person you know is Jewish. Similarly, say a happy Diwali to your Hindu friends. Diwali is the autumn Hindu festival of lights celebrated every year.  During the month of Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, say “Ramadan Mubarak” which means “Happy Ramadan”. If you don’t know a person’s faith, say what feels right; either Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. Being that Canada (and the U.S.) is primarily a Christian country, no one should be offended. If I were in Israel, I would not be offended if someone wished me a “Happy Hanukkah”. Why would a non-Christian be offended when being wished a Merry Christmas in a Christian country?

In fact, The Guardian’s article, Don’t cancel Christmas on behalf of Muslims like me – I love it by Remona Aly, a Muslim, says, “Trying to avoid offending the sensibilities of other religions by watering down Christmas traditions merely fuels the myths of Islamic intolerance.”  The article also says, “there are non-Christians who won’t feel comfortable with saying, “Happy Christmas”, or with being in a nativity play, and that’s totally fair enough and up to them. They shouldn’t be treated like weirdos, nor should they be labelled with that grating word, “intolerant”. So there you have it. I doubt a non-Christian would be offended in a Christian country that celebrates Christian festivals. Why would they?

ABC News article, Upside down Christmas tree trend sparks controversy online, describes a trend whereby Christmas trees are literally turned upside down and decorated. So why would this be controversial? It seems some on social media say this fad is disrespectful to Christmas traditions. Well, traditions can and do change. Now, to be honest, I don’t believe this fad will catch on, but if someone thinks it is cool, then why knock it. Everyone is free to celebrate how they wish so long as it is not injuring someone else.

I’m curious. Where did this idea of decorating a tree for Christmas come from? No one can say for certain, but Country Living’s article, Where Did the Tradition of the Christmas Tree Come From?, says in 1771 “while Christmas trees were appearing in Germany years earlier, the trend really caught on after writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Strasbourg, near the German border, and included the concept in his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther”. That same article says that the 1820s was the first record of German settlers in Pennsylvania decorating evergreen trees in America.  It is interesting to note that as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

According to History.com,

“The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colours and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition”.

Now I say to you, traditions regarding the decorating of the Christmas tree have evolved over the years, and they continue to today. No reason to get offended, folks!

Now for the final controversy that I’ll address. It seems for three years in a row now, Starbucks has been immersed in a Christmas controversy over its Holiday cups. This year is no different. According to the New York Times article, Starbucks Is Criticized for Its Holiday Cups. Yes, Again, some people feel that Starbucks is promoting homosexuality.  The interlinked hands on the 2017 Starbucks holiday cups have some suggesting a “gay agenda.” Are people just looking for something to attack Starbucks about?

On November 1st the Holiday cup was introduced with an online video. It featured a diverse cast of Starbucks customers, including a pair of cartoon women who were shown holding hands. The nature of cartoon women’s relationship was not specified, but some viewers saw them as a sign of inclusion of gay and transgender customers. My reaction to that is gay and transgender customers should be included. Why would a business exclude a potential customer? More importantly, I would like to remind people what Christmas is about.

I think the late Dale Evans. an actress and singer, said it best when she said, “Christmas, my child, is love in action” or the late Bob Hope, an actor, comedian and singer, who said, “My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others”.  Christmas is the time Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. This is the same child that grew up to give a new commandment, according to Christian scripture. In the Book of John, chapter 15, verse 12, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. He didn’t say love only those you approve of. In fact, in Luke 6.27 Jesus says, “But I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Jesus’ message was to love everyone. No exceptions!

Since Christmas is a Christian holiday, I’ll define love using Christian scripture. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, it says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. This says love is kind and love does not insist on its own way. It seems to me excluding gay and transgender people stems from arrogance and insisting on its own way.  This is not love; in essence, going against the spirit of Christmas.

Dr, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, once said,

“There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt…”

If this is true, why do people fear the LTGB community? It is time to stop fearing one another and get back to the true meaning of Christmas; a message of love, acceptance, and inclusion. Perhaps this is what Starbucks is endeavouring to tell the world; that Christmas is about loving and accepting one another.

The Importance of Remembering

A Commentary on the victims of war.

Once again, the November 11th Remembrance Day is upon us. It is the day of the year that marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, veterans.

Allied military cemetery in Normandy, France

Since visiting Vimy Ridge and the Normandy Beaches in France two years ago, my wife and I have a stronger appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Visiting both WWI and WWII military commentaries was truly a humbling experience. What struck us both was the age of many of the soldiers, some as young as 17 years old. We now attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies with much more gratitude and appreciation for all soldiers.

Remembrance Day is an important day and it is imperative that we remember the soldiers who have lost their lives or put their lives on the line to protect the rights of its citizens. But what about the countless civilians that lost their lives during times of war or worse, through genocide. Article II of United Nation’s 1948 Genocide Convention describes genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Countless numbers of people have lost their lives as a result of genocide or because of bombing runs or merciless killing because they were considered enemies. Shouldn’t they be remembered too?

I would like to believe that one of the reasons the world went to war in 1939 (WWII) was because the Nazis were exterminating not only the Jews from continental Europe, but millions of others it deemed “undesirable.” By the end of the war in 1945, some eleven million people—over half of them Jews—had died, either through mass extermination, deportation, starvation or overwork in his prison camps. However, much of the world ignored or denied that the Nazis were doing this.  There is little doubt in my mind that it was a genocide that occurred.

Also during WWII, the Rape of Nanking took place. We seldom hear about this event as most schools in the West focus on the fascist Nazis. The Rape of Nanking began on December of 1937 when the Japanese Imperial Army marched into China’s capital city of Nanking and proceeded to murder 300,000 out of the 600,000 civilians and soldiers in the city. The shocking violence consisting of citywide burnings, stabbings, drownings, rapes, and thefts which continued for about six weeks. The Japanese troops are most notorious for raping over 20,000 women, most of whom were murdered thereafter so they could never bear witness. Clearly this was a genocide.

Then there was Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953. Stalin ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign. It has been estimated that between 1934 and 1939, one million party members were arrested and executed. During the same period, it is thought that 10 million were sent to the gulags (system of forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union) with many of them dying either in transit or as a result of the terrible living conditions they had to endure.  This certainly was a genocide.

Bones of victims at a memorial to the Rwandan genocide By DFID.

Many of us older people remember the Rwandan Genocide which began on April 6, 1994. This was when groups of ethnic Hutus, using mainly machetes, began a campaign of terror and bloodshed the Central African country of Rwanda. For about 100 days, the Hutu militias followed a premeditated attempt to exterminate the country’s ethnic Tutsi population. The killings ended after armed Tutsi rebels, invading from neighboring countries, managed to defeat the Hutus and halt the genocide in July 1994. By then, over one-tenth of the population, an estimated 800,000 persons, had been killed. At least the history books label this event as a genocide.

There are many, many other genocides that have occurred in history. Those listed above are but a sampling. Shouldn’t the innocent victims of genocide as well as civilian casualties— referred to as “collateral damage” by the military, be remembered? Many of these victims were children.  Now I’m not suggesting this be done on Remembrance Day, but perhaps there could be another day set aside as a holiday to remember civilian victims of war and of genocide. Perhaps this day could be called Victims of War Day or Victims of Genocide Day. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Diane Samuels, a British author and playwright, said, “How can I pretend that nothing happened?”  Sometimes I feel like that is what is happening. We pretend that these genocides or civilian deaths did not happen because we focus solely on our soldiers.

But perhaps Aldous Huxley, an English writer, novelist, philosopher, said it best when he said,

“The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.”

We need to pay more homage and respect for those who innocently have lost their lives in conflicts that were not of their own making. They deserve that respect and honour.

A Mass Shooting? Not Again!

One Canadian’s view on its gun obsessed neighbour.

Yet again, the world watched in horror as another gun slaughter took place in the United.States. October 1, 2017, was the deadliest shooting in modern US history with 58 dead and just under 500 people injured. The 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, previously was the deadliest with 49 killed. This latest bloodbath happened in Las Vegas, Nevada, where sixty-four-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on 22,000 concertgoers from his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Paddock had no serious criminal history and killed himself with a self-inflicted wound before officers could reach him. Investigators are unable to find a motive for the killing spree.

What I find interesting, as many on Twitter have pointed out, is that the current resident of the White House did not use the words “terror” or “terrorist” during his remarks about the shooting, whereas he used those terms when referring to previous mass shootings. According to Merriam-Webster, an act of terror is “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”  Granted, we don’t know what the political aim of the shooter was but by definition it  sure sounds like an act of terror to me. I have to wonder if the president refrained from using the word “terrorist” because the shooter was white.

According to the article, Gun Violence by the Numbers, data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that on an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns and for every one person killed with guns, two more are injured. It is shocking to me that America’s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other high-income countries.

The CBS article, How U.S. gun deaths compare to other countries, reports that in 2010 the U.S. had a firearm homicide rate of 3.6 deaths per 100 000 people, the highest of all countries listed. Interestingly, the United Kingdom has a rate of zero as does Norway, Japan and the Republic of Korea or better known as South Korea. My country, Canada, has a rate of 0.5 deaths per 100 000 which is still too high in my view. One statistic that stands out for me is “even though it [the United States] has half the population of the other 22 [high-income] nations combined, the United States accounted for 82 percent of all gun deaths.”

According to CNN’s article on Mass Shootings, which used statistics from the Gun Violence Archive,  defining, a “mass shooting” as any incident in which a gunman shoots or kills four or more people in the same general time and location, reported that in the U.S. there have been 273 mass shootings so far in 2017  (January 1 to October 3, 2017). That averages to 7.5 mass shootings a week. It seems America, or maybe even the world, has become immune to these mass shootings since we only seem to hear about the big ones. Let’s compare that to Canada. According to Wikipedia’s chart of Massacres in Canada, Canada has had 23 mass killings since 1967, the most recent being the Quebec City mosque shooting on January 29, 2017, where a single gunman killed 6 people and wounded 18 others in Quebec City, Quebec. The difference between the two countries is astounding! I am so thankful to be living in Canada.

I’m dumbfounded! It seems so obvious to me what America needs to do. There ARE solutions, America! Let’s look at the Australian example.

CNN’s article, What the UK and Australia did differently after mass shootings, reports that Australian Prime Minister John Howard was six weeks into his new job when the Port Arthur massacre occurred. That incident occurred in 1996, where 28-year-old Martin Bryant went on a killing spree ending in the deaths of 35 people in  the town of Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia.

PM Howard led the effort against a loud gun lobby and resistant state governments to push through a federal gun amnesty, in which the government compensated gun owners for the weapons they turned in. He also directed changes to gun laws that included lengthy background and identification checks for would-be gun buyers, and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

That same article discusses the United Kingdom’s experience.  Also in 1996, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton used legally owned handguns to kill 16 children aged 5 and 6 as well as a teacher before taking his own life. This massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, provoked public outrage and backing to ban handguns. After a public inquiry, the Conservative government banned all handguns in England, Scotland and Wales, with the exception of .22 caliber single-shot weapons, The Labour government elected afterwards added .22 caliber guns to the ban as well.

You might wonder why the United States does not follow the example of the UK and Australian. A PBS article titled, Obama to Gun Owners, provides President Obama’s explanation. If you listen to the news video, Obama compares the effort to implement gun safety measures to the effort to create more automobile laws, in which during the late 20th century, there were an excess of car deaths and accidents. Therefore, governments made it priority to make stricter driving laws to be able to drive. People need a license to drive, but people don’t need a license to buy a gun which is the problem, according to President Obama.

President Obama explains in the video that even suspected ISIL or ISIS, sympathizers who are banned from flying in the United States are able to buy guns, because the National Rifle Association (NRA) uses its power and wealth to lobby members of Congress. It is because of the NRA that stricter gun laws are so difficult to get passed in the United States.

So, the question is: Will stricter gun laws be implemented in the U. S. after the Las Vegas massacre?  Since no change occurred with the countless other gun massacres of the past, I doubt anything will change.

According to the National Safety Council located in the U.S. your chance of dying by a firearm in the U.S.  is 1 in 370. The chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is far less, 1 in 114.

According to Politifact:

“Last year [2012], handguns killed 48 people in Japan, 8 in Great Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 21 in Sweden, 42 in West Germany and 10,728 in the United States.”

These statistics ‘blow my mind’. That is 10 670 more gun related deaths then in Canada. I am so grateful to live in a country that has tight gun control laws. They could be tighter still in my view. I just don’t understand how a country where the chances of being killed with bullets is 1 in 370 refuses to change. I’m mystified! If the current president really wants to make America great again, he could start by making America safe again and introduce stricter gun controls.

Do We Really Want to Erase History?

A commentary on how to handle controversial historical figures.

It seems there is a call for us North Americans to take another look at our history. That is a good thing. As a retired Social Studies and history teacher, I emphasized to my students that history is NOT fact since it is past events that have been interpreted by historians. In other words, historians analyze past events whereby they use diaries, archeological artifacts, and so on, to determine what happened. This is not without their biases and beliefs, or as Napoléon Bonaparte once allegedly said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” History is a historian’s interpretation of the past.

In  the United States many people are calling for long-standing monuments that honour confederate generals to be removed. A similar debate is also developing in Canada involving the country’s first prime minister (PM), Sir. John A MacDonald. Canada’s first PM was one of our more colourful politicians as he was a notorious drinker. It is well documented that MacDonald was a regular binge drinker.

I first heard of the controversial issue of removing statues of U.S. Confederate generals in April of this year when I watched a news report of New Orleans removing a monument during the dark. Numerous statues in various U.S. cities have been removed since. So why are they being removed?

General Robert E. Lee located in Charlottesville, Virginia

The Currents, CBC Radio program, addressed the issue of U.S. Confederate statues represent ‘image of America as a white society’. The article quotes Eric Foner, the author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner argues what many Confederate statues actually represent is “this image of America as a white society. That’s why people object to them, not because of a lack of interest in heritage or legacy.” Foner says, He goes on to say, “These statues actually don’t have a lot to do with the Civil War …They were put up mostly to be part of the legitimacy of white supremacy, of the Jim Crow system in the South, long after slavery.” The Jim Crow system was a system of racial segregation in the southern U.S. Foner explains that many of the statues were erected in the 1890s when the rights of black people were severely reduced.

What is the debate in Canada about?  For those who don’t know Canadian history, Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the founders of the Dominion of Canada and during his terms as prime minister (1867-1873 and 1878-1891) he had a transcontinental railway built. The controversy regarding him comes from the fact that during that time, the federal government approved the first residential schools in Canada.

Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first PM

The Global News’ article, The controversy over Sir John A. Macdonald, explains that the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO), one of the teacher’s unions, is lobbying to remove MacDonald’s name from schools across the province. The union claims using Macdonald’s name creates an unsafe environment for kids to learn and work in because of what it calls Macdonald’s role as the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.”

James Daschuk, an assistant professor of history at the University of Regina and author of Clearing the Plains says. “It wasn’t just with Indigenous people. In 1885, Macdonald told the House of Commons that Canada should take away the vote from people of Chinese origin on the grounds that they were a different race than Europeans.”

It isn’t just about Sir. John A MacDonald. In July, CBC reported in its article, Statue of Edward Cornwallis, that the city of Halifax in Nova Scotia will make a decision on the fate of the city’s controversial statue of Edward Cornwallis, a military officer who founded Halifax for the British in 1749. It was Cornwallis that issued the so-called scalping proclamation, offering a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person.

So where do we draw the line? Do we stop at prime ministers? Fathers of Confederation? The Ottawa Citizen’s article, Where will it stop? refers to Michel Prévost, president of la Société d’histoire de l’Outaouais and a University of Ottawa archivist.  He says some people have lobbied for the removal of Mackenzie King’s statue from Parliament Hill for Canada’s decision in June 1939 to deny entry to more than 900 Jewish refugees who had fled Germany. Already barred from docking in Cuba and the United States, their ship, the MS St. Louis, returned to Europe, where more than 250 of them subsequently died in the Holocaust.

Prévost also explains that a Father of Confederation, Hector-Louis Langevin, would have his name stripped from the Wellington Avenue building that both bears his name and houses the prime minister’s office. Langevin was one of the original designers of the residential school system.

Preston Manning, one of our conservative Canadian politician on CBC Radio’s, The Sunday Edition said,

“I think there are unsavory aspects to populism. And I think one need to deplore those, but I think one needs to focus more on the root causes of that alienation, rather that fixating on just the negative eccentricities of it.”

Most often I disagree with Manning’s views, but I agree with this one. We are fixating on the negative. It is shameful to remove those names and statues of important figures in Canadian and American history. This is not the answer. Having said that, it is important to recognize the atrocities that these people have done. We mustn’t forget that Sir John A MacDonald was the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.” or wanted to take away the vote from Chinese people. Or, that Confederate statues represent an image of America as strictly a white society. As a retired teacher, the teacher in me says these could be some teachable moments. Instead of removing the names of these historical figures from buildings and streets, or taking down statues; instead we should be using them to educate people about both their achievements and the horrific things those historical figures did.

Debate about our histories is healthy! We should re-evaluate our history. Some historians agree with me. Don Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, (see Historians Warn) says.

“I find it very exciting and refreshing that Americans are revisiting their history and questioning just why we honor some people, some events, and not others. It is a healthy reminder that history, as the search for understanding of the past, must always challenge public history as monuments and hero worship in the public sphere.”

Perhaps people are over reacting. Instead of removing all of these controversial statues of historical figures, erasing history so to speak, let’s relocate them to museums where people can be educated on both the positive and negative aspects our history. Good or bad, these people are still a part of our histories. Perhaps a plaque could be associated with each historical figure explaining the good achieved by the figure, as well as explaining the atrocities they are associated with that historical character. These people were only following the belief system of their time period. They didn’t know any different. When I taught history, I emphasized the importance of practicing historical empathy.  Historical empathy is the understanding of why people in history did what they did, as opposed to simply knowing what they did.  Instead of attempting to erase the dark periods of our histories, we need to practice historical empathy and acknowledge them. We should attempt to understand why these horrific things happened in our past so that they might not happen again. Maybe then healing can occur.