I have been too busy to blog this week, but I couldn’t resist this story. You may ask what a royal tour has to do with criminal justice reform. Very little, I expect, although I am clever enough to come up with something if I had a mind to.
I am blogging about Kate and William’s royal tour because it pleases me.
For one thing, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne a few years before I was born and, though I am 58 years old, she has been the only British monarch I have known. When you grow up singing "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen(to the tune of My Country ‘Tis of Thee) it gets into your bones (whether you like it or not).
This lovely photographic essay from the Washington Post shows the royal couple taking in a little calf roping at the Calgary Stampede and attending the Dene Games in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. I was born in Calgary in 1953 and the Bean family moved to Yellowknife three years later. I remember my dad taking my sister and I to the Calgary Stampede during a summer vacation when I was a little kid. He wouldn’t spring for cowboy boots, but I did get a cowboy hat, and I wore it to bed that night.
I remember William’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, creating quite a stir a generation ago when he was presented with the inevitable cowboy hat during a visit to Calgary. “Thank you very much," said the Prince. “I think I have six or seven of these now. Perhaps I’ll use this one for a planter.”
That didn’t go down well in Cow Town.
There is another story about Prince Phillip dining at Calgary’s glorious Palicer Hotel back in the mid fifties (when he was about the age William is now). According to legend, a hotel waitress, while removing Phillip’s dinner plate, whispered, “Keep your fork, Prince, we’re havin’ pie.”
I don’t get back to Canada much these days. My parents are both long dead and my sister, Carol, spends half the year in Texas. But everyone needs a sense of home, and places like Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife are about as close as I can get. A return visit to Yellowknife after almost fifty years is high on my bucket list.
Last year, while in Calgary for the funeral of my aunt, Iris Garner, I stopped by the old home of the now defunct Baptist Leadership Training School, an institution I attended in 1971. It had been fully forty years since I last walked to the nearby park overlooking the gorgeous Bow River valley. The view of the river hadn’t changed a bit, but I hardly resembled the callow youth who once looked out over the scene. I have rarely felt more orphaned and adrift.
So I guess, in the end, these rambling thoughts do relate to this blog’s primary theme. Everybody needs a sense of place, everybody needs to belong to a people. Friends of Justice works in the American South, a region occupied by rooted people with a strong sense of belonging. What happens when a proud people is made synonymous with bigotry and hate? Issues of culpability aside, how deep does the fear, loss and resentment go?
The spirit and spirituality of mass incarceration is a plant native to the southland that has been nourished for decades by the deepest kind of alienation and outrage. People felt as if the glorious narrative that had given them a sense of people and place had been desecrated. The sense of loss was palpable. This is why Ronald Reagan launched his election campaign in 1980 in Neshoba County, the place where, 16 years earlier, three civil rights leaders had been murdered. Reagan was opposed to the civil rights movement, but he was hardly a son of the South. His advisers knew, however, that a rich deposit of racial resentment was waiting to be mined in places like Neshoba County. People had lost their story and they desperately wanted it back. Reagan promised to deliver. The promise was kept.
I understand these emotions. I grew up in one country and I live in another. Calgary, Alberta and Fort Worth Texas have a lot in common, but I never really feel at home in Texas. Nor would I feel at home if I returned to my native Canada. Like Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”
When Tea Partiers say they want their country back they are longing for an old, old story. They want to feel part of an exceptional, virtuous and boot-leather-tough nation where everyone shares the same values and pursues the same goals. That kind of America never existed in reality; but it lives in memory nonetheless. The nation people want to regain exists in the form of narrative mythology, and this story about restoring a noble, resolute and unified America is the most potent force in contemporary politics.
Prince William praised Canada’s “extraordinary potential” and the nation’s values of “freedom and compassion” at the end of a nine-day tour of the country with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge. “Canada is not just a great union of provinces and territories, it is a great union of peoples from many different backgrounds who have come together to make this a model — and a magnet — for those who value freedom, enterprise, tolerance and compassion,” he said today in Calgary.
I’m not sure Canada, or any other country, deserves such high praise. The prince was being complimentary. But don’t we want to live in that kind of country? When we tap into that desire, the movement to end mass incarceration will begin.