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The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney

Although people sometimes misquote Winston Churchill as having said that we can judge the level of civilization in a society by the way it treats its prisoners, it was actually Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” What Churchill, in fact, said is that a society’s attitude to its prisoners, that is, its “criminals,” is the measure of “the stored up strength of a nation.”

If you put stock in what Dostoyevsky believed about prisons being a reflection of a society’s level of civilization, then we have a serious problem here in Canada. For those interested in learning what life is actually like behind bars (at least what it’s like in Canada), you should give The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney a read. Jason Demers, the book’s editor and an assistant professor at the University of Regina, has done an exceptional job of putting together a book about a Canadian man who spent more than three decades in several prisons across the country. Per the publisher’s description of the book:

“Rik McWhinney spent thirty-four years and four months in Canada’s federal penitentiaries–sixteen of those in solitary confinement. His incarceration began in the 1970s, as a system-wide war was raging over the implementation of penal reforms…The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney collects his poetry, essays, grievance forms, letters, and interviews to provide readers with insight into the everyday life of incarcerated individuals, amplifying the lives and voices of a demographic that society would rather ignore. McWhinney relays the horrors of solitary confinement and provides a vivid account of the violence and psychological turmoil that he endured while incarcerated.”

While The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney is not for the faint-of-heart reader, it is nonetheless important reading and will certainly teach you a thing or two about a thing or two. For, as the great Barbara Tuchman once wrote, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”


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Quote of the Day

Image result for eisenhower

Unless they’re out of a novel by writers like Leo Tolstoy or Norman Mailer, or from the herculean efforts of scholars like Barbara Tuchman or Margaret MacMillan, military commanders aren’t often known for their mellifluous oratory skills. Nor, for the most part, are they known for their prose.

That made Dwight D. Eisenhower all the more unique. He remains one of only a handful of five-star American generals and was supreme commander of Allied Forces on D-Day for the largest seaborne invasion in history.

In freaking history!

As if that weren’t enough, he went la de dah into the White House and served two terms as president.

No bigs. Just a walk in the park.

Ike was so much more than just the sum total of his accolades and battlefield victories, though. He was a gifted speaker, respected as much by his servicemen as he was by statesmen around the world.

Now, on the eve of the second presidential debate, I feel that General Eisenhower not only had his finger on the pulse of society at the time, but was far more prescient than perhaps we give him credit for today.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

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Must-Read WW I Novels

Ouch! According to a list compiled by dictionary.com on must-read fiction about World War I, I am a dullard and a fathead. Of the seven books included on the list, I’ve read but two of them. The books are as follows: The Return of the Soldier (Rebecca West), Three Soldiers (John Dos Passos), Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo), A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway), Good-bye to All That (Robert Graves), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Siegfried Sassoon), and All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque).

For those who enjoy non-fiction books on the subject more, I’d definitely recommend the all-time classic, The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman), and Paris 1919 (Margaret MacMillan).


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