“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.

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