People don’t learn from economic hardship because looking back is too painful. They quietly put away memories of the last recession, the cold fear of missing a mortgage payment, the layoff, and then suddenly it’s back.
Interest rates rise and the mortgage leaps. Your child’s going to university and tuition is ruinous. There are precarious low-paying no-benefits jobs on offer, but little else. Did we not learn from the past? The economic pain caused by ill-conceived austerity politics is so regular, it is practically seasonal. “The earth turns over, our side feels the cold,” wrote Auden.
Economic campaigner and Guardian writer Harry Leslie Smith, 92, has felt the cold many times in his long life. A Brit who emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, he has written a marvellous biographical handbook, Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down, and What We Can Do to Save It.
He writes: “I managed to survive the Great Depression, the Second World War, Britain’s postwar austerity, the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, the threat of nuclear terror during the Cold War and this perpetual, self-renewing self-fulfilling war on terror ... Nothing ever bloody changes, it seems, except the styles of clothes we wear.”
He’s right. Generations don’t learn from each other. Iraq is Vietnam all over again. Housing bubbles pop and pop. Terrorism has been a constant in the West since the 19th century. Tuition is a weapon. Racism is a trap.
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What makes Smith different is that he was lucky enough to reach the age of 92 with mental clarity, writing talent and a huge affection for those who suffer as he did when he was young. Smith has life information.
The level of poverty Smith grew up in was so extreme it seems almost pornographic, but it is back. Smith’s family home was a dank warren. He huddled with his little sister for warmth on a stinking straw mattress thick with insects watching his older sister die of tuberculosis at age 4.
When his father lost his job, his mother had to throw him out, with grim sorrow, and find another husband lest her children starve to death. At age 7, Smith began work. Unschooled, he was rescued by the Second World War — we rarely consider how war economies help the working classes — which employed, fed and clothed those lucky enough to survive.
He was rescued again by Britain’s postwar revolution: free health care, new housing, adult education. Canada offered another helping hand. Smith emigrated here with his loving wife, got a sales job, lived in a leafy suburb called Scarborough, and raised three sons.
Yes, there have been sorrows. But basically, Smith came from nothing, where he was intended to remain, and built health and happiness from advances in civilization. Governments worked to build equality. Children got a good start.
And then he saw history do a backflip in the 1980s. He wonders how people will land. A smooth slide into the water? A bellyflop? A broken spine?
It isn’t just that Reagan and Thatcher began to destroy a more civilized version of capitalism, it’s that they cut the legs off the social ladder. Suffering isn’t quite so terrible if there are ways of escape: minimum wage laws, public libraries, free schools and daycare, affordable tuition.
These things, or hopes for them, are vanishing because people aren’t paying attention. They’re acquiescing in their own destruction.
Smith has seen it all. He saw union power misused in Britain, paving a path for Thatcherism. He saw hard-right media turn the poor into a laughingstock. Look at us watching reality shows, mocking the poor, the fat, the hoarders and their pathetic cheap goods filling storage units.
He watched Britain sell off public utilities — Ontario is planning to do the same — while failing to prepare for the extreme temperatures and flooding of climate change. He saw the world as unready for Hitler as it is for government surveillance and totalitarianism in the West. He saw a public made stupid.
What entrances me about Smith is his reason for writing this small hummingbird of a book. As he says, he has beaten the odds by reaching 92 and he will in the next few years fall off his twig, buy the farm, pop off, meet his maker, join that Norwegian Blue. He will die.
People with long lives often seem to be the most cheerful. Smith has a life force that crowds out what haunts the rest of us: envy, regret, status anxiety, bitterness.
He wants you to learn what he did. He wants you to notice the world. Listen. Consider history. Read. Be skeptical. Be generous. A better world is possible. Consider voting.