“When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
— John Maynard Keynes (Or maybe Paul Samuelson. Or Winston Churchill)
My mother had this clever habit, once her four children were grown, of ordering books for each of us to later — sometimes much later — be sent as Christmas gifts. It gave her a chance to read each book, decide if it was the kind of thing each of us might like and, on occasion, just keep it for herself.
One of the pre-read gifts she got for me was “A.A. Milne: His Life,” by Ann Thwate, a detailed biography of the man I well knew as the author of the stories and poems about Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. Which, as child, I had thoroughly memorized.
I trusted my mother to do a good job of pre-screening these books and I told her straight out that if the book about Milne amounted to “Winnie Dearest” (like the horrid childhood described by the adopted daughter of movie star Joan Crawford in the book “Mommie Dearest”) I’d just as soon not know.
It wasn’t that. Though there was an unexpected amount of sadness in Milne’s life, including estrangement from both his wife and his son, the latter resenting that his life had been made into a caricature that he didn’t live down until well into adulthood.
Much of Milne’s melancholy can probably be attributed to what we would now call PTSD. He served in the British Army in World War I and saw and suffered horrible things in the trenches. Even though he spent a later part of the war in a secret intelligence unit writing pro-war propaganda, the experience turned him into one of what then was a growing number of pacifists, opposed to war in all cases.
In 1934, he wrote a book about it, “Peace With Honour.” It laid out Milne’s argument that the Great War, like most wars, was a giant, bloody scrimmage, pointless on all sides, of people seeking power, wealth and prestige that they didn’t deserve and almost certainly would not be able to keep.
By 1940, everything had changed. Milne, like other thinkers that included The New Yorker’s E.B. White, saw the rise of Hitler’s Germany and came to believe that, even if pacifists were generally right, this was different. The Nazis were a new level of evil that had to be opposed. Even if it meant war.
So Milne wrote another book, “War With Honour.” There he described the threat to world peace as something very different.
“In fighting Hitler,” he wrote, “we are truly fighting the Devil, the Anti-Christ.”
By then, though, Milne was seen as just the author of “Winnie-the-Pooh” and wasn’t being taken very seriously by anyone.
Today, many serious Americans want to be principled pacifists, of a sort. It’s not just real war they want to avoid, it is also domestic strife, which they would like to replace with a growing respect for, and practice of, “civility.”
But, like Milne and the other World War I pacifists who changed their view as World War II approached, one may wonder today if civility is just surrender.
We are not living in a world where the difference between Democrats and Republicans is a couple of percentage points of corporate tax rate or a year or two of Social Security eligibility. With the national GOP firmly in the grasp of its fascist wing, encouraging and empowering thugs and murders from Russia and Korea to Saudi Arabia and Charlottesville, inviting people who differ with you on points of political ideology to tea is not going to cut it.
Violence is never the answer. But some real action, from large marches to voter registration drives to a blizzard of well-placed lawsuits, is necessary.
Nazis and white supremacists and members of the White House staff are not just marching in the streets but demanding action and, sometimes making actual policy that, while not fully deserving of the he’s-like-Hitler label, are closer to that attitude than we might like to admit.
We have a president who attained and clings to power on a platform of racism and xenophobia and continues to dominate a once-great political party whose members cower before him and his “base.” We have bare-faced voter suppression in North Dakota and Georgia. We have concentration camps for children whose parents have been deported without them. Regimes around the world have journalists murdered and subvert our elections without any fear of retribution or even a harsh diplomatic note.
There’s a oft-shared meme out there on Facebook or something that has hijacked Milne’s beloved characters to make a point for our time. It is a drawing of Pooh and his friend Piglet.
“What day is today,” asked Pooh.
“It’s the day we burn the motherf------ patriarchy to the ground,” squealed Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.
Better advice, of course, is Michelle Obama’s line: "When they go low, we go high."
But know that, to get out of this hole we’re in, we’re going to have to go very high indeed.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Tribune, recommends that after you read “Winnie-the-Pooh” to your children you introduce them to “Animal Farm.” email@example.com