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July 13, 2016


Oh dear, Beth! The responses to your gentle, thoughtful, nuanced essay make me so sad about literacy. Yes, The Gazette was clearly at fault for positioning your essay -- by the photograph and the title -- as tendentious, as controversial. But the readers jump to conclusions based on the very large chips on their shoulders, presuming yours must be equally burdened. They completely miss the deep, long-held affection that colours your descriptions of American countryside, of kind-faced postal workers, of certain undeniable efficiencies perhaps, of your memory of a type of border agent you knew well and regret the loss of. . .

And they assume the most superficial and selfish and ill-founded motivations for not only your attitude as they (mis)understand it from the essay, but also for the actions they predict you will take should ill health or other bad luck strike. It's inconceivable that some of us might honestly trade "the best" health care for our few privileged selves for good-enough health care for all. The assumption that noble principles would quickly be abandoned at the first crisis makes me despair. It's discouraging enough to see so many Americans writing it this defensively, but to read Canadians piling on as well underlines your point that we may not know what we had until it's gone (apologies to Joni)

Sheesh, Beth, I can scarcely figure out how to reply to the comments in the Gazette. I guess you were asking too much of them to showcase your piece as framed by you--reflective, gentle, the warning that comes from personal experience and out of practiced skill in observing and reflecting reality in all its nuances.. This Either/Or mentality that is infecting the US has obviously strong resonance here among the Gazette readers (not exactly literati, eh?) also. The tribal need for identity by taking sides. And I am doing it myself by joining with you in the glorious tribe of border crossers who can rejoice in seeing things as relative, experiencing more than one way of living in the world. My profound sympathies.

What a misunderstanding! And people who are so quick to comment, proud of their snappy, judgmental retort, with the conversation taking turns that have very little to do with the original piece or its intention...It's terrible, and yet quite fascinating. I wish they could also read the post above. Not that it would change much, but still...

I'm not going to read the comments (know I would be terrifically upset) and am mournful that you drew illogical, unfounded attacks. I emigrated to the US from Canada in 1971 (at 22) and had some sense of what I was choosing, but Canada was even better in terms of social consciousness and collective values than I anticipated. I've always been purely grateful to Canada for accepting me, the young woman who was going to be my roommate was refused.

As my Texan nephew said to me recently, "I have elected representatives pledged to ensure I can buy an assault rifle but they can't get me single-payer health care."

So I had to go there. A huge amount of misinformation floating about, and plenty of prejudice. Just cross the street, Beth. As my mother used to say, "People, honestly!"

Honestly, I think the only people who ever write comments to news articles have nothing better to do than troll. On the rare times I read comments anymore on an article I enjoyed, I come away disheartened and vowing never to read comments again. I thought it was a lovely article, and in the context of the sad incidents in the news lately completely understandable.

I slipped into the comments on a FB post my nephew "liked" recently, a simple expression of sorrow from Mitt Romney over one of the recent killings, nothing more (my nephew tends to the conservative). The ignorance and racism in the comments was shocking (not from my nephew, btw). I guess it's important to know about the blindspots or ignorance if not outright racism out there and not have my head in the sand, but I will still try to avoid peaking under the rock to read comments in the future. Hats off to those who patiently responded to the commenters trying to enlighten them.

On the other hand, there are some bright spots. I heard a nice interview with the 3 smart women who founded Black Lives Matter on NPR today. Smart, determined, clear-eyed, persevering, optimistic that things are changing. Admirable.

I will confess that I didn’t find the Gazette comments as troublesome as I’d feared they’d be. Comments are sometimes mind-bendingly awful beyond belief. In this case they were just lame; the knee-jerk reactions of cursory reads.

And you are correct that a newspaper isn’t a very good venue for such pieces. Sadly, too many people read for information only. By that I mean they see the purpose of reading as being for the robotic accumulation of facts, with no consideration for nuance or tone or for the enlightenment that can be achieved when you sink into another person’s point of view. Such people read to have their biases confirmed or to find a can to kick.

Those are also the people who are most inclined to comment, it seems.

On the positive side, I think it is a safe bet that many people (dozens? hundreds? thousand?) read your article with a wider view, and I’m sure many of them were moved by it. But we don’t hear from them. Think of them as the silent undercurrent.

Update: I made the mistake of looking at the comments again. I retract my opening sentence from my first comment.

I find that the homicide/100,000 rate for the UK is 1.0 and yet you would not think it was so low if you regularly watched UK TV news. Nor if you tried to read between the lines of those who used "immigration" as the basis for bringing about Brexit (Britain's exit from the European Union). I realised this in-depth coverage of murders is, in fact, something of a luxury. Because the rate is low we can afford to mention all murders even if we run the risk of creating a comparatively false impression to the general public.

This must sound smug but it isn't intended to be. My memories go back a good deal further than yours. Throughout my childhood and teens the idea of police carrying guns was abhorrent, a night-stick was reckoned to be sufficient. On the rare occasions a hand-gun was thought necessary a police officer would have to "sign out" the gun at the police station. As a result, when I now see a policeman carrying a machine gun at an airport or a crowded venue in central London I still feel this is somehow wrong.

I've only visited Canada two or three times but my brief visits were informed by the fact that I'd lived in the USA for six years. The most obvious - and immediate - difference is, of course, bilingualism and I found the signage pleasantly diverting, as if I were experiencing some sort of geographical slippage. But the more I saw the more important that extra language became. I'm not talking Euro-snob here. I'm not - God forbid - pretending that French has in any way elevated the Canadians. To some extent it could have been any other language since there is nothing more pervasive in our everyday lives than speech. I became convinced (with all the typical false confidence of a drop-in tourist) the extra language had had a profound - if vaguely defined - influence, a cultural awareness if you like, that had inevitably taken Canada towards different destinations. Fifty years ago or more this had made Canada (vs. the USA) seem "old -fashioned"; these days the label would be different.

When, several years ago, Canada's top pediatrician (who happened to be a Brit) was denied a permanent post because he refused to learn French (said he was too busy) the tendency in the UK was to say Canada was cutting off its nose to spite its face. To me this seemed a misguided interpretation; Canada was concerned with something far deeper than the destiny of a single doctor.

A Canadian friend says this linguistic rigour is now on the wane. I hope not. As a detached (very detached) spectator I feel that the result will be a loss of national identity and that Canada will succumb to the powerful forces south of the border. And with it, conceivably, Canada's attitude towards guns.

Your examples of small town living in Vermont quite frankly shocked me. I would have have been petrified. England is a mess and very dull but it's still safe in that respect.

@ Roderick Robinson: I wonder what parts of Canada you visited? A visitor would be hard-pressed to see bilingual signs outside of Quebec (where both Beth and I live), aside from federal government facilities.

There are pockets of French-speaking communities in other provinces, and quite a bit of French in New Brunswick. Ottawa, the nation's capitol, is quite bilingual because it's the seat of the federal government, but Ontario-like the other provinces excepting Quebec- does not legislate French usage.

I agree with you about the benefits of bilingualism, and F/E bilingualism is not the standard throughout the country. Outside Quebec, Canadian can complete his or her education without being able to understand or speak a word of French.

Duchesse: I should have added this was some time ago. My most significant visit (linguistically) was a working trip to Montreal over twenty-five year ago; alas, old age seems to telescope time. (A more recent visit, to the ski-resort Panorama - nearest international airport Calgary - offered very little in the way of French signage.)

I speak French moderately well having owned a small house in Loire-Atlantique for a decade or so (now sold). With a late afternoon to kill in Montreal I decided to do a DUKW tour simply because I was old enough to know what these vehicles do, and was duly gratified when it descended a ramp to provide a water-level view of the city. However I should have been forewarned when I first heard a native pronounce the city's name - Morn-ray-al. Hubris got its own reward and I didn't understand a single phrase of the spoken commentary. Even so, the fact that French seemed to be the default language cheered me immensely on behalf of Canada.

The article about the French-refusenik pediatrician I mention must have appeared within the last ten years in The Guardian, the sort of left-leaning UK newspaper Donald Trump would hate. Again, it seemed to suggest that Canada had principles about its culture and was prepared to endure a certain amount of pain to maintain them.

I'm sure what you say is true and I find this saddening in a year that will surely be remembered for acutely depressing news. And that's not a purely Euro-centric view. I am, of course, Francophile, and sympathise with France's doomed attempts to protect its language, having realised many years ago that the UK is merely a pawn in the gradual anglicisation of Western languages. I take some wry comfort in remembering that part of my job, during six years spent in the US, was to improve the written English of many of the country's academics and that at least a dozen of them (one of them Phi Beta Kappa at Princeton) wrote me gracious letters thanking me for this. Little good it did.

What you are saying here is remarkable, Beth, and now I am going to look at your article and the comments. As you say, it's hard to see the differences at first, and I don't think I quite "get it" myself. I just spent a few days in Vancouver and, as you say, people there have their worries and complaints, but these strike me as trivial compared to what we're up against in the U.S.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.