A profound thought from George W. Bush: The Bush government is trying to rebut mass American anxiety about the occupation of Iraq by addressing local media outlets directly and bypassing the overly critical national media (an amusing thought in itself, but heck, everything’s relative). So the President has been telling supper-hour anchors that the major media fail to report the way hospitals are opening there, schools function and society is beginning to develop. In effect: Life goes on, and good things happen despite the death and mayhem caused by malcontents.

I wonder what he thinks the Second World War was like, especially in occupied Europe. Life does go on, and people seek and find satisfaction in awful conditions. War is rarely unceasing and omnipresent, even if war movies make it seem so. It’s remarkable how rarely in those films, you see quiet, sunny days in which combatants sit around and try to enjoy life, or notice ordinary life continuing around them. In his book, Warriors, on that war, writer Glenn Gray described many such moments. They were striking.

Even during the invasion last spring, surely normal events unfolded in most of Iraq much of the time. And in the years under Saddam’s hideous tyranny, people also managed to go to school, marry, picnic and so forth.

This generic resilience justifies neither war nor tyranny, it’s just the nature of human beings. In fact, humans are characterized by an ability to pursue satisfaction in the face of stress, great or small, in crisis or chronic. That ability amounts to proof of mental health, and there’s no real alternative, because we each get only one turn (see below, on William Steig), so we can’t postpone efforts at satisfaction till stress has been dealt out of the picture. You could define human existence by the capacity to seek happiness under conditions of more or less continual pressure.

Celebrity deaths: The attention garnered through obits by the death of John Ritter, of Three’s Company, made me wonder: Will this happen when Chrissie dies? And Janet? What about the bartender at the Regal Beagle, and the Ropers, who got their own spinoff? John Ritter was hailed a genius of physical comedy, as if doing physical comedy is equivalent to mastering it. But Don Knotts (Mr. Roper) really was in that long tradition.

Everything about obits changes with TV. Newsworthy obits used to centre on public figures like scientists, politicians and, maybe, authors. But they were not comparable to personal losses, because most people did not feel they knew the deceased. The nature of pop culture in a TV age means the public feels intimately connected to the famous, and has a need to mourn them, more in the way they would a family member than a distant legend. So Gordon Jump of WKRP dies, and time is required to get over it; after all, we spent many hours in his loopy presence. Now, think of all the series actors, anchors, even authors whom one knows as much through their TV presence as through the books they wrote. We will be spending far more time, as each generation comes and goes, mourning the passings.

As for me, I’m still lamenting the death, at 95, of cartoonist and writer William Steig. He drew thousands of New Yorker cartoons, then in his sixties turned to wondrous kids’ books. His The Real Thief is, says children’s librarian Joanne Schwartz, Dostoevsky for kids, and she’s right; maybe it’s better. In Dominic, a perfect bildungsroman about a young dog who goes into the world seeking his fortune with great verve, he wrote, “Two hours ago, Bartholomew Badger was still alive. But now he was gone. There was no Bartholomew Badger; there was only a memory. His turn was over. Dominic’s turn was still at the beginning. There were many who hadn’t yet even begun to exist, but there they would be, some time in the future . . . It would be their turn, and then Dominic’s turn would be over . . . this kind of thinking made Dominic feel more religious than usual. He fell asleep under the vast dome of quivering stars . . .”

Happy is the man (or dog) who writes his own best obituary.

Reduce the right: Count me against this merger. It will siphon off everything interesting on both sides: democratic populism from the Alliance and traditional conservatism from the PCs, inserting something new, called right wing. Picture Mike Harris at its head: an autocrat and a destroyer. And for what — dreams of seizing power from the Liberals? That counts as Faustian. You give up exactly those things that defined who you were, for a questionable shot at success. Ask the Chrétien Liberals, who embraced every significant policy of the Mulroney conservatives, losing track of whoever they once were. But give this to the Liberals: They didn’t sell their souls in order to win power; they only did so after being elected. Not for Faustian reasons in other words, but for no good reasons at all.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.