(I initially wrote this “Counterpoint” column about a year ago. Since then Russia has become embroiled in the Syrian civil war, largely in support of the country’s brutal dictatorship. Though it claims to be targeting terrorists, Russian jets are said to be targeting other opponents of the Assad regime other than the so-called Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL. As I write this a negotiated truce deal involving the U.S., Russia, and others, appears to be falling apart as the war rages on, with many thousands of Syrian civilians dying, or desperately fleeing the country. Meanwhile, there are growing sings the conflict could escalate into something much bigger, even a “world war.”)
I wasn’t born yesterday. On the contrary I’m having to face the reality of not just growing old, but actually being there, every time I look in the mirror and see less and less hair on the top of my head, and a lot more laugh lines on an increasingly less familiar face.
It’s a bit of a shock really because it just doesn’t reflect the way I feel inside, which is still young at heart – a boy really, if I dare say that, for fear of revealing too much. But there you have it, like I used to joke with my girls, until they were tired of hearing it to the point of rolling their eyes, “I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow.”
It’s true though: many dreams have come and gone. And yet, though tired, I dream on, despite the passage of more than enough time, as if anything is still possible. And so, I am still hopeful.
Suddenly I am reminded of the wise man who years ago told us over coffee, after signalling his intention to say something important, with the usual, “I tell you something, boys,” and then this particular time went on to say, “the man who invented time was a fool.”
I wonder what the well-travelled, mysterious, and no doubt long-gone Dan would say now in his deep, rather mysterious European accent, about the changes wrought in the world with the passage of more than 50 years of time, and especially now, about the state of global affairs. I doubt anything would surprise him, though even he might occasionally raise his eyebrows from time to time over the sheer weight of world-changing events, the decline and fall of late 20th Century empires, and the dangerous time in which we now live as a new world order, or lack of order, emerges.
He might shake his head ruefully, and even smile that mysterious, knowing smile of his, about the tragic imperfections of the human race.
And yet, he believed profoundly in the human potential for greatness. “I tell you something, boys,” he said one night in the dim light of the downtown Toronto cafe’s outdoor patio, “you can change history; you can create your own destiny.”
It was the spring of 1962. The Cuban missile crisis was still six months away. The Cold War between the two world “superpowers” and the ever-present – or so it seemed – threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was always in the air, though fortunately, not in actuality.
But the missile crisis brought the world to the brink. The Soviet Union was helping the new Communist government of Cuba get established. Then, high-altitude American spy planes discovered what proved to be Soviet missile sites being set up, within striking distance of the U.S. President John F. Kennedy set up a blockade of further Soviet shipments of military hardware to Cuba. As Soviet ships approached the American warships it wasn’t clear until virtually the last minute if a shooting war might break out, leading to the catastrophe of nuclear war.
Somebody had to blink, and it turned out to be Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Born of peasant stock, Khrushchev had the common sense as well as the intelligence to do the right thing. It was arguably his moment of greatness. Meanwhile, Kennedy faced down the war hawks who foolishly called even for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Both men deserve credit for effectively saving the world.
There are some striking similarities between the current crisis in The Ukraine and the Cuban missile crisis, especially if U.S. President Obama sends lethal weapons to Ukraine, to counter the military help the pro-Russian rebels are getting from Russia, if a political solution to the crisis isn’t worked out.
Putin should start telling the truth about Russia’s role in the crisis. Meanwhile, there are hawks in high places in the Russian government, who have openly, and shockingly, talked about Russia’s nuclear might, and ability to turn America into “radioactive dust.” That’s crazy talk.
If somebody has to blink it may have to be Obama. Hawkish Americans will have all the more reason to vilify him for being weak. But history would ultimately thank him.
The crisis in The Ukraine should not be distracting the world from the far greater issue of how to keep the world from descending into a new dark age of chaos, and criminal terrorism. The leading and/or most influential countries shouldn’t let their territorial tribal rivalries distract them. They need to be united to meet the threat of criminal terrorism effectively.
There are lessons to be learned from history, and from elders. And this is one elder why says the world is in greater peril now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.
We are very much in need of all the human energy for greatness, individually and collectively, we can muster to create a new and better future for the world.
Dan might think that’s a pretty vain, naive idea. Like I said, he didn’t have a high opinion of the collective intelligence of the human race. Events seem to be proving him right, one might say.
But if he were here today I would tell him, in all honesty I think of myself as a pretty ordinary person. I also think if we get together and focus our spiritual and mental energies and work together for good, ordinary people can do amazing things, like change the world for the better.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2015.