Hysterical use of 'historic' blinds us to the real past

OK, this is weird. The battle of Vimy Ridge is almost as long ago now, at 90 years, as Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 was when Vimy was fought. It’s almost like we’re part of history and should try hard to remember why it matters. A century may seem unimaginably long to people who thought The Sopranos would never end. But Wednesday’s Citizen reported the passing of Cécile Desrivieres Dubé this March 24th in Montreal at age 107. Born Nov. 22, 1899, she was already a young woman when Vimy was fought and middle-aged in 1936 when the monument was dedicated; married in 1919, she was widowed in 1953.

It only takes one more centenarian to get us from Ms. Dubé’s youth to the Napoleonic Wars and another to the Glorious Revolution that ousted James II. Yet 1689’s Cécile Dubé might as a child have watched the Spanish Armada drift burning down the English channel. And a woman who was old when Elizabeth I memorably rallied her sailors for that battle was alive when Richard III lost crown and head at Bosworth Field.

That just five long lives can take us back before Columbus helps underline that history is a living thing, not some particularly tedious version of Trivial Pursuit or a quaint but irrelevant swirl of Pharaohs, galleons and Maid Marian. We live in the shadow of deeds past and the light of past examples.

Or rather we once did. Francois VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac, 1613-80, soldier, wit, intriguer and author, who my editor reminds me in avuncular fashion (“Listen up, you dolt ...”) is now also forgotten, suggests that famous villains like Tiberius or Nero do more to keep us from vice than famous heroes to encourage virtue. Indeed, he asks, how many braggarts did Alexander’s courage create? How much treason Caesar’s glory? How many importunate philosophers did Diogenes encourage, Cicero babblers, Pomponius Atticus lazy men, Marius and Sylla the vengeful, Lucullus the voluptuous, Alcibiades and Antony libertines, Cato the opinionated?

Nowadays none, I dare say. All this might as well be Amenhotep III (18th dynasty pharaoh c. 1391-1353 BC, father of Akhenaton) to modern progressively educated youth who don’t know if Nero was a man or a horse. Or jurists: In 2002 a Canadian court accepted an affidavit calling gay marriage a venerable institution because Nero and Elagabalus did it. Whoa, cool, Nero like married a guy. Party like it was 59 A.D.

In these forgetful times newspapers have a deplorable habit of calling things “historic” that aren’t even interesting. A search through my files revealed journalists recently applying the term to Shippagan, N.B., the Chateau Laurier, and the 2004 first ministers meeting on health before Andrew Coyne finished me off by using it on the Quebec elections of 1960, 1970 and 1976.

Politicians are far worse. Even those who don’t think “historic” means “historical” or just “old” toss the term about exactly as if they had no idea what history is or why we should care. Like Ernie Eves’s finance minister Janet Ecker using it on the 2003 Ontario budget, Ontario’s Minister of Health Promotion Jim Watson on the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, Toronto Mayor David Miller on the City of Toronto Act, and then-ambassador to the United Nations Allan Rock on the year 2005 for the UN.

If this keeps up we’re going to run out of marble. But by mislabelling trivia in this fashion we miss the truly historic, the long trends that define eras and the great events that shape them. We could miss the coming of a new Dark Ages because we’re glued to YouTube or wondering if Keith Richards really snorted his father’s ashes mixed with cocaine.

We also cheat ourselves of a grand adventure. When we no longer care enough to remember our story, we are unlikely to bestir ourselves to take a part in it worth even a small, shabby, monument. I ask you: A century hence, on what will Canadians gaze back as they now do on Vimy? A statue of Allan Rock?

It is generally safe to praise Vimy, at least in English Canada, as the place where we “became a nation”; it’s hard to get in trouble favouring that. But behind the photo ops, Vimy, and the equally PR-friendly Juno Beach, represent moments when many Canadians knew, and proved they knew, that for all its undoubted flaws our way of life is worth dying for. It matters. As it matters that back when England expected every man to do his duty, they did it. We who forget that will not be remembered.

So meditate on the restored Vimy Memorial. Then let’s build a big statue of the Iron Duke right on Parliament Hill.

Waterloo. It’s closer than you think.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]