Entries from July 2007

Happy Victories Day

David Frum July 28th, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

About this time of the year, almost every year, the Toronto papers fill up with complaints against naming a holiday in honour of John Graves Simcoe. The founder of the city that became Toronto (readers will be reminded) was an elitist and an imperialist. Why should he be honoured on the first Monday in August?

These complaints will trigger counter-resentments in the rest of the province, and the rest of Canada. Don’t those self-centred Torontonians realize that the Simcoe holiday stops at Steeles Avenue? In Ottawa, the first Monday in August is named for Colonel By. Elsewhere in the province, it carries no name at all, just the generic “Civic Holiday.”

In the rest of Canada, the first weekend in August goes by other names, just as generic: B.C. Day, Heritage Day in Alberta, New Brunswick Day and so on. Why not call it “Holiday Day” and be done with it?

Or better yet, why not give the day a real name to honour a true national achievement? Not just “heritage” generically, but the actual heritage of the actual Canadian people? Might there be something big and important that Canadians as a people did in early August that deserves celebration now and forever?

You’ve probably already guessed that I have an answer in mind.

Of all the experiences of the Canadian nation, none was more terrible and decisive than Canadian participation in the two great wars of the 20th century. This one small country mobilized more than 600,000 men in the First World War, one million in the Second. Almost 110,000 Canadians gave their lives; a quarter of a million suffered wounds. They won victories on land and sea — and by useful coincidence, perhaps the most important of those victories was won in the first week of August.

By the spring of 1918, Germany seemed to have won the war. Russia had surrendered. The full might of the German army could be concentrated against the Western allies. On March 21, the Germans launched a fearsome offensive, pushing through the British and French armies, reaching toward Paris. They came to a halt barely 75 miles from the capital.

Now the Allies hit back. And the troops chosen to lead the great counterattack were the three divisions of Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps and the two divisions of the Australian Corps.

In the early morning of Aug. 8, 1918, the Canadians and Australians, massed just south of the River Somme, east of the city of Amiens, launched themselves at the German lines. For the first time on the western front, German troops broke and ran. The Canadians and Australians took thousands of prisoners. In a war where Allied gains had till then been measured in yards, they took eight miles in a single day. From Amiens till the Armistice, the advance never stopped. The German commander, Erich Ludendorff, later called Aug. 8, 1918, “the black day of the German army.”

Almost as soon as the war ended, the work of remembrance and commemoration began. Canadian cities and towns built cenotaphs and monuments. Schools held special assemblies. The date, November 11, was set aside as a special date of remembrance. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

Even now, decades later, we still feel the pain of the human loss of those great conflicts. If anything, Canadians today emphasize loss even more than did Canadians in the immediate aftermath of war. See for example the CBC’s April, 2007, film The Great War. The Canadians who lived through those wars understood the stakes as well as the suffering; they experienced victory as well as loss. By slighting their triumphs, we abridge and impoverish our remembrance of their sacrifices.

Today, Canadians are waging another costly fight. The losses in Afghanistan do not begin to compare to those in Canada’s European wars, but they are painful enough: 66 fatalities to date. Yet recruiting has reached record heights, up 40% in 2007 over recruitment in 2006.

It is past time to honour these forces as fighters, and not just as casualties. Let’s replace Civic Holiday with genuine civic spirit, and dedicate the first Monday in August to Canada’s military victories past and present. We could call it “Amiens Day” — to prod Canadians to ask and discover what “Amiens” was and what their ancestors did there. Or, if that name seems to slight Vimy and Juno Beach and Kapyong and Panjwaii, perhaps simply, “Canadian Victories Day.”

At the very least, such a renaming will give newspaper columnists something better to write about than John Graves Simcoe’s derelictions of contemporary political correctness. At best, it will renew and preserve the memory of accomplishments Canadians once promised themselves never to forget.

Burying Our Heads In Radioactive Sand

David Frum July 21st, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Truly, human beings can get used to anything. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who became a naturalized British citizen, contracts a horrible lingering illness after taking tea in a London hotel with three former KGB agents.

Just before Litvinenko’s death on Nov. 23, 2006, doctors identify the cause of his sickness: He has been poisoned by a deadly radioactive material, polonium 210. Traces of polonium are found on the dying man’s teacup, on the aircraft the KGB men took to London and in a number of other locations through which they passed, including their hotel rooms. Almost all the world’s supply of polonium is manufactured in one Russian nuclear reactor. This looks a lot like murder. But murder by whom?

On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Vladimir Putin of responsibility for his death.

Russian officials have scornfully rejected the accusation. They fix the blame for the death of this one Putin enemy on other Putin enemies: the exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky, perhaps, or else former executives of the confiscated Yukos Oil Company.

The British were not impressed. They have requested the extradition of the man who organized the fatal tea party in London, former KGB agent turned multimillionaire businessman Andrei Lugovoi. The Russians have refused. They say: Give your information to us, and we’ll file charges if we think warranted.

The British were not impressed with this offer. Over the past six years, Vladimir Putin’s political opponents have developed a nasty habit of meeting violent deaths. In no case have charges ever been filed.

(In one semi-exception to the rule, charges were filed against the alleged killers of American journalist Paul Klebnikov–they were promptly acquitted.)

As for sharing information with the Russians, that does not appeal to British authorities either. It’s widely thought that Litvinenko’s killers chose polonium as their weapon because they did not realize how sensitive Western tracing technology has become. They assumed that the minute quantities of polonium necessary to kill would be too tiny to detect. Now the Russians are demanding that the British detail the techniques they used to track the polonium back to Russia. Um, sure.

The standoff over extradition has escalated. On July 16, the British expelled four Russian “diplomats” (read: intelligence officers) to protest the Russian refusal. On July 19, the Russians retaliated by expelling four British officials. What happens now?

The Russians are urging the British to let bygones be bygones. The day after the Russian expulsions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condescendingly explained that the troubles between Russia and the United Kingdom should be attributed to the “inexperience” of prime minister Gordon Brown. Back in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hopes that the UK-Russian relationship would soon improve. And there is no shortage of Westerners ready to second the Russian view. International Herald Tribune columnist Serge Schmemann, for example, just this week urged Western leaders to “discard . . . Cold War stereotypes and start treating Russia as a potentially constructive partner.”

Well, there’s a thought. Russia as a constructive partner–if only we can just somehow disregard the evidence that the Russian government murdered a British citizen in the British capital with a radiological weapon.

That might seem a heavy challenge. And yet it is a challenge to which Western governments seem more than equal, and perhaps understandably so. If the Russian government really did do what it seems to have done, then the world faces a very grave and frightening problem. This is not Syria we are talking about, some dusty Middle Eastern pariah state. It is a member of the G8, a veto-wielder at the Security Council, a leading supplier of oil and gas . . . and on the evidence of the Litvinenko case, it is also a Mafia regime that uses murder as a political tool–and will recklessly expose untold numbers of Londoners to deadly radiation in the process.

If we acknowledged that terrible reality, we would have to do something about it. Since we have no idea what to do, we refuse to acknowledge reality. Worse: We chide those who do acknowledge Russia as dangerous provocateurs and Russophobes, trapped in Cold War stereotypes. But it is not a “stereotype” that Russian government probably ordered the killing of Alexander Litvinenko. Nor is a “stereotype” that Russia is shielding the probable killers. Those are conclusions based on the weight of evidence.

But evidence is the very last thing that most of us want to confront these days, whether about Russia or about Iran or about Islamic terrorism. We are sunk in a mood of denial, in which the only accusations that can get a hearing are accusations against George W. Bush and the United States of America.

The denialists call themselves realists. It’s a strange kind of “realism” that bases itself on fantasies.

Paying For French “Efficiency”

David Frum July 14th, 2007 at 12:00 am 1 Comment

It’s 2:15 on a French afternoon, and I am as usual at this time of day sitting in a cafe waiting to pay the bill for lunch. And waiting. And waiting. When you hear talk of the slowness of French meals, you may imagine haughty waiters languidly presenting an elegant meal. I am sure that happens too. But as it happens, I am not anywhere elegant. I am sitting in a very unremarkable seafood restaurant by the harbour in Dieppe.

There is nothing languid about the scene here. The patronne is racing about like a demon, taking orders, slapping down plates of fish, planting bottles of wine on the table with a thump.

She has to move fast. There are almost 30 tables in this place, and she has only one assistant. The two of them do everything that must be done in the front room. They clear tables, they bus dishes and, if you look at the mirror at the right angle, you can see them scraping plates and placing them in a dishwashing machine. At the moment when I decide I want a cheque, the assistant is at the back polishing newly washed glasses.

Why only two? The minimum wage in France is €8.50. Another €4.25 in payroll tax is applied on top of that wage, for a total minimum cost of hiring of €12.75, or more than $18.35 Canadian.

The law forbids employees to work more than 35 hours per week. Period. No overtime; it’s just flatly forbidden. French law guarantees generous mandatory holidays of up to six weeks. Firing employees is extraordinarily difficult, so you have to assume that anyone you hire will stay hired until he or she tires of the job.

Understandably, then, French small businesses shave their staffs to the absolute bare minimum and work them at frenzied speed.

You might call this a form of efficiency. (Efficient for the restaurant, that is, not for me; I’d rather be touring the sights.) But it is a very strange form of efficiency for a country struggling against some of the severest unemployment in the developed world.

Per hours worked, the French rank among the most productive people on Earth: 7% more productive than Americans, for example. But the devil lies in the phrase “per hours worked.”

Almost 10% of France’s work force lacks jobs. France’s economy is not in recession; in fact, it is thriving. High unemployment has become normal here; not since the 1980s has France seen an unemployment rate south of 8%.

And remember, the unemployment concept counts only those persons who seek work. Those who retire early, or who qualify as disabled, or remain in school until age 30 do not count as “unemployed” in the job statistics. Only in life. The truest picture of French society comes from counting those in work: Altogether, 51% of French adults work, as opposed to 62% of American adults.

And those French who do work do not work very much: While working Americans work an average of more than 1,800 hours per year, working French people put in slightly more than 1,500, more than their supposedly workaholic German counterparts, but less than the Swedes or Italians.

Some left-wing economists suggest that this low work effort reflects a laudable French preference for leisure over sordid commerce.

But that harried patronne in Dieppe did not seem to be enjoying much leisure. If it cost less to hire a worker, maybe she would have hired somebody to help her clear the dishes. Then she would have had time to wander over during lunch and ask me whether I would have liked a second glass of wine. But she was too busy, so the wine remained unpoured and the five euros she might have earned remain in my pocket.

Well, maybe I could afford to do without the extra wine. Can France afford to keep missing economic opportunities? The gross domestic product of the 60 million people of France now roughly equals that earned by the 35 million people of California (using purchasing power parity valuations for the dollar and the euro). Over time, little differences compound into big ones. The Democratic economist Robert Shapiro calculates that, if present trends persist, the average European will see his standard of living decline to about half that of the average American by 2025.

France’s new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, has vowed to address these problems. He proposes to adjust the 35-hour maximum and has famously called on the French to “go back to work.” Outsiders can easily misunderstand those words. The French are not lazy.

Those who work, work hard. But too many of them are legislated out of work by the laws meant to help them. It is those laws that must change if France is to thrive again–and if I am ever to get my cheque.

A Tour Of France’s Historic Gas Stations

David Frum July 7th, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

PARIS -Every parent knows the joke about the two categories of travel: first class and with children. This summer, my wife and I are testing the limits of that second category by travelling to France with, count ‘em, five children: our three, a nephew and my elder daughter’s best friend, ranging in age from 16 to 5. When my wife and I enter the subway with this brood, we feel like one of those familles nombreuses on which French law confers such lavish benefits.

We rented an apartment in Paris to house our big pack, undaunted by our rather mixed record with European apartments in years past. Two summers ago, we found what seemed a miraculous apartment in Venice, advertised as huge, well located, with a view of the Grand Canal from a roof garden. And such a good price!

The roof “garden” turned out to be a terrace reached by a broken, swaying, stairway. Once arrived in the open air, a few clay pots filled with dead plants and a low rusty iron fence were all that separated one’s child from a 70-foot drop onto the paving stones below. True, the child would have had an excellent canal view all the way down.

Dark and gloomy enough to begin with, the apartment had been filled with paintings of beheadings, flayings, disembowelments and other scenes of early Christian martyrdom. As art, the pictures possessed little enough merit, but they certainly succeeded in terrifying the children. We might have saved our money and rented a one-bedroom: All three children ended up sleeping on the floor of our room every night.

This time, though, we got lucky: a 17th-century coach house at the back of what was once a hospital for the incurably ill near the old abbey of St. Germain des Pres. A window overlooks a baroque courtyard; massive beams overhang the kitchen. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen, even though early hopes that we could economize by cooking our own meals have been disappointed: In this neighbourhood, the groceries cost more than cafe meals almost anywhere else.

The children appreciate my efforts at economy almost as much as they enjoy my attempts to pound culture into their South Park-infatuated heads.

Of course, there are two sides to every story. They argue that they would show more enthusiasm for my cultural excursions if my idea of culture were some-thing more interesting than taking them to a gas station underneath a highway bridge and telling them about all the fascinating things that might have been seen at this spot had you visited 1,500 years before.

I hate to admit it, but they may have a point. My favourite tourist sights are those where you can see the present layered upon the past. On Wednesday, for example, I went to visit the chapel built over the spot where the French revolutionaries had dumped the guillotined bodies of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, along with 3,000 other victims of the Terror. (The chapel is situated just a few blocks northwest of the Paris Opera.)

On the chapel front has been carved a dedication by Louis XVI’s brothers, restored to power by Waterloo. Just below the dedication, you can see the shadows of more lettering, faintly spelling out Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite: A post-Restoration government had attached the motto of the republic in bronze underneath the royalist dedication — and then some still later government had taken them off again. It’s almost too perfectly symbolic: The past can be effaced, but not erased.

The effacement continues. It was strange enough to visit Europe a decade ago and use money that almost always carried the faces of artists and writers rather than political leaders. In France as everywhere else in Europe, there was little consensus on who should be regarded as a hero and who as a villain. De Gaulle? No. Charlemagne? No. Robespierre? Certainly not! Nobody, however, objected to Rene Descartes — so there he was.

But even Descartes goes too far for unified Europe. If Descartes, why not Immanuel Kant? What about Leonardo da Vinci? And did not the smaller countries of Europe also produce great artists, scientists and discovers? Is Copernicus chopped liver? Rembrandt? Vasco da Gama?

So the designers of the euro settled for architectural images: doors, windows, bridges, etc. Pretty empty.

My own theory was that the currency should celebrate the only people who would be recognized as heroes by all Europeans: George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and the other U.S. liberators and reconstructors of Europe.

I’ve tested the idea on probably 200 Europeans over the years, and the reaction has been unanimous: Nobody liked it.

Maybe I can test it on the kids the next time I see a McDonald’s on what used to be a Roman bath.