“War is over—if you want it” . . . but do we?

“War is over—if you want it” . . . but do we?

I freely confess that John Lennon is not my favourite songwriter. His best work arose in his partnership with Paul McCartney and what followed was vastly inferior.

The all-too-popular “Happy Xmas” is a case in point. Borrowing (that’s what stealing is called when you grab something from the public domain) a tune from the old folksong “Stewball” (“Stewball was a race horse/and I wish he were mine”), Lennon wrote a few ungrammatical lyrics that sound as if he were badly stoned when he scribbled them down:

And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red one
Let’s stop all the fight

Nonetheless, every Yuletide dozens of artists cover this terrible song. And over and over we hear its subtitle repeated: “War is over/if you want it [to be].”

Why stop with war? one wants to ask. How about sexism, and racism, and every other form of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression?

Confronted by social unrest and injustice, our prime minister says he wants to “investigate how to fix it”—which is how starry-eyed liberals typically confront deeply rooted social problems.

But I’ve got a few progressive bones in my body, too. So I’ll tell him how each of these ills can be ended: Just stop it.

Okay, maybe we need more than that bit of sound advice. I’m a historian and thus a realist. So here in particular is how you abolish slavery: You pay off slaveowners and then make it illegal for anyone else to get into that evil game.

It wasn’t until 2015, in fact, that British taxpayers finally retired the loan required in 1833 to buy the freedom of slaves. Abolitionists back then commendably agonized over the idea of paying slaveowners to stop resisting abolition. But that’s what it took, so they swallowed hard and paid up.

The Americans took a different route to abolition. They fought a civil war instead, a massive conflict that cost them immeasurably in lives and property. The most reliable recent estimate guesses that three-quarters of a million soldiers died, which is more than the total of all of America’s war dead put together, except for those in World War II. And if the Brits stopped paying for their slavery regime in 2015, it’s evident that the Yanks are paying for it still in 2020.

What would it take now to lift out of poverty the black underclass remaining from centuries of racist policies in the United States?

What would it cost to liberate and empower First Nations here in Canada?

What would be the bill to provide speedy pathways to citizenship for Latinx and other hard-working illegal immigrants?

How much more would we have to pay for all the goods or services currently produced or performed at unjust wages by non-Whites or non-males here and abroad?

World War II was unimaginably expensive. But when it was over, the Allies didn’t make the mistake they had made after the previous one. Instead of issuing a punishing bill of reparations as at Versailles, they offered Germany and Japan financial help on a massive scale to repair not only their war-ravaged countries, but also their war-ravaged relationships.

The Marshall Plan helped European economies recover and established rapport that led to the NATO alliance against the communist threat. American forces also occupied and reformed Japanese political and economic life in the decade following World War II so extensively that Japan became one of America’s most important partners.

War is over—if you want it to be. And so is social injustice of every other kind as well. But you have to pay for it.

“That would wreck the economy!” comes the reply. “We can’t possibly afford it!”

It’s worth considering, however, what else we have already in fact afforded.

A BBC estimate put the cost of the Apollo space program at around $25 billion, equivalent to $175 billion today.

In 1991, the entire interstate highway system was estimated to cost roughly that amount: $130 billion.

By comparison, the annual American defense budget for 2019 was just under $700 billion.

Our American cousins have therefore managed to spend a lot on defense even as they also managed to fund some other pretty impressive projects. It’s amazing what the Americans can afford if they really want to.

Here in peace-loving Canada, enjoying life under the military canopy of our American neighbours, we still managed to budget $22 billion for defense last year. With one-tenth the population of the USA, we’re spending almost 1/3 the amount they are per capita.

Like middle-class people everywhere, it seems obvious that we Canadians also can afford at least our top priorities.

I’m neither an economist nor a sociologist. I’m not a politician and not a social worker. I couldn’t possibly estimate the cost of righting the various large-scale wrongs in Canada today. I certainly know enough not to claim that all social problems can be solved merely by throwing money at them.

What I am saying is that eventually, and probably soon, we’re going to face the challenge of putting our money where our mouths are. If we really want an end to all these problems we’re Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming about, we’re going to have face the fact that most big solutions have big price tags.

But we also need to acknowledge that, despite all the things we can imagine we’d like to buy for ourselves that we think we can’t afford, we can afford some big price tags for social betterment.

We’re going to need politicians who will directly take on these major issues, who will state a plan for getting there, and who will tell us the truth about how much it will cost.

And then we’re going to have to see whether we will swallow hard and pay up.

(Footnote: Mr. Trudeau, to his credit, declared that resolving aboriginal issues in Canada was his top priority and he certainly has spent more money in that direction. Alas, so many ethical and policy clouds have since enveloped his government that it’s hard to know where that project stands nowadays.)

War is over, yes—if we (really) want it to be. Do we (really) want to pay for it?

That’s a disquieting question. But here’s one that’s even more so:

Can we afford not to?

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