Dr. Dawg

"Canada" Day, 2021

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Like many, a majority, of my fellow citizens, I have celebrated Canada Day in the past, as a brief glance at my blogs on July 1 will attest. I celebrated this land—soaringly beautiful, one that mere imagination could never rival. As a white immigrant, I was showered with opportunities, of which I took full advantage. I loved the possibilities that the country seems to present, even on the political plane.

The strange thing is that I was aware for many years of our colonial history, the residential schools, the torture and killing and vile medical experimentation that went on in them. I read Dr. Peter Bryce’s devastating pamphlet years ago. I knew about John A. Macdonald’s genocidal policies against the Plains First Nations, his use of deliberate starvation, complete with sadistic Indian agents.

And do we think this sort of thing stopped there? In fact, through a mixture of racist malevolence, indifference and incompetence, some Inuit were starving to death in the late 1950s (“‘The saddest time of my life’: relocating the Ahiarmiut from Ennadai Lake (1950-1958).” Polar Record, 2010. 46 (237): 113-135).

Yet I celebrated with the rest of us. Flag. BBQ. Downtown Ottawa. Fireworks.

As an activist and a leftist, I joined in the national somnambulism of Canada Day. I put the privilege of this older, white, financially secure man on display. Year after year.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis must be beside themselves at this point. Having borne their imposed, sordid history as part of their cultures from first contact, many remain in dispiriting poverty. Too many First Nations live in dilapidated reserve villages in remote areas to which they were shunted so that prime land could be distributed to settlers; they still can’t drink the water on many of them, despite the relatively low cost of fixing this problem. Unbelievably, fantastically, the Liberal government is currently fighting a court battle for the right to discriminate against First Nations children—defying our newly-awakened Parliament.

Meanwhile, Inuit kids commit suicide at nine times the national average. Many suffer from deafness, arising from ear infections caused by stuffy, overheated, overcrowded European-style housing, into which the Inuit population was dragooned in the 1950s.

We’ve known all this for years. And the indigenous peoples know that we’ve known.

But somehow the “discovery” of children’s unmarked graves in Kamloops (local First Nations people had always been well aware of them) managed to make our incomplete, ignoble history of racism and colonization burst into the popular consciousness. This was a “discovery” entirely analogous to the “discovery” of the Americas itself.

First Nations are not, and have never been, a “people without history,” to use Eric Wolf’s phrase. Rather, it is we, the beneficiaries of colonial privilege, who possess an incomplete, romantic concept of “Canada,” riddled with lacunae and triumphalist statuary and self-serving inventions of every kind.

But there are times we simply can’t look away. The atrocity that was the residential school system had been safely tucked into a past that we could pretend to abhor, while the work of settler oppression quietly continued. But past met present in an ugly cataclysm a few short weeks ago. Real graves of real sick, tortured and abused children are not historical abstractions. Something immovable and concrete was put in our way. And hundreds, perhaps thousands more graves remain to be located, colouring Canada’s future as well.

We can mourn, we can refuse to celebrate. But how do we move forward? Our indigenous cohabitants need more than white guilt, remorse and self-pity. How much has come of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action? How much longer will our government, under strict obligations set out in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and subsequent nation-to-nation treaties, keep resisting its legal and moral obligations to the first peoples?

This question may remain semi-rhetorical. Canadian politics being what it is, there is a distinct possibility that the current shock and outrage will be allowed to fade. We can’t let that happen, but how do we ensure that it won’t?

Today I am no longer standing on a solid ground of comfortable history. I’m in freefall. I feel vertigo, and the nausea that accompanies it. I don’t know what “Canada” is any more, or how it can be reimagined and rebuilt.

I know I am not alone. But, like many others, I am listening more than I ever have before to what the first peoples are saying. And I’m putting my old, white shoulder to the wheel.

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The Cour de cassation, France’s supreme court, has ruled that Canadian citizen Hassan Diab must stand trial for the heinous 1980 bombing of a synagogue in Paris. This was despite a lower court ruling—after Diab had spent three years in pre-trial detention—that there was no evidence to hold him. But an appeal court, after soliciting information that proved even more damaging to France’s non-existent case against him (handwriting evidence), ruled that he should stand trial anyway.

Now the highest court in France, ignoring the spectacular intervention of France’s avocat général, who urged the court to quash the appeal court decision based on serious flaws in its ruling, has upheld that travesty of justice. It even ordered that Diab pay money to the lawyers of third-party intervenors who had been screaming for his head.

I don’t want to review the flaws in the case in detail—that’s done every time Diab’s name comes up in the media these days. Let’s just boil it down: There were no credible witnesses. The bomber’s handwriting found at the time wasn’t his. The bomber’s fingerprints and a palm print weren’t his. And he happened to be in Beirut at the time of the bombing.

But none of this matters. Diab’s innocence is irrelevant. It’s important to underscore that point.

An atrocity was committed in 1980, and a sacrifice of expiation must be made. Diab, of Arab extraction, is a suitable choice for this ritual, conducted by high priests in judicial robes. He’s an Other, an outsider, a pharmakos, a target by virtue of his ethnicity.

Frances punishes those outsiders. The handful of women who wear niqab are generally forbidden to leave their homes. Pro-Palestinian rallies are prohibited by the state. People seeking justice for Palestinians by urging a boycott of Israeli goods were jailed, until the European Court of Human Rights stepped in.

Innocence no longer matters to those who lost friends and loved ones in the bombing, nor to the noisy lobbyists who see in every Arab an anti-Israel terrorist. Somebody has to pay, it really doesn’t matter who. And France is happy to provide a body for the immolation.

The bottom line? Canada must not collaborate. Our fellow-citizen must not be extradited to face kangaroo justice in the highly politicized French court system. Our Prime Minister has already said that what happened to Diab should never have occurred. If he meant it, the least we can expect is that he will prevent it from happening again.

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Dr. Dawg

May Day: Nostalgia and hope

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The Internationale in Te Reo Māori, followed by the Latin version (it is a classic, after all) and then the voiceless Chinese version, which makes ironic sense.

Happy May Day, everyone. Solidarity forever!

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Dr. Dawg

Dreyfus v.2.0

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A French appeal court has ruled—in the face of all evidence, including some that it solicited itself—that Dr. Hassan Diab, currently a lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa, must stand trial in France for the deadly bombing of a synagogue on Paris’ rue Copernic in 1980. By doing so, it has brought the French judicial system into further disrepute. The question is whether Canada will still play along.

The case was always sketchy, as admitted by the judge who first ordered him extradited to France nearly a decade ago. Indeed, it was, to be blunt, a put-up job from the very beginning. Evidence melted away upon inspection, and the so-called “smoking gun”—handwriting analysis by a tyro who had a whopping 21 hours of training since 1993 in her field of “expertise”—was shredded by three internationally-renowned handwriting experts, and now by two more experts selected by the French court of appeal itself.

Exculpatory evidence—fingerprints, a palm print—was concealed by our Department of Justice, which, astonishingly, appears to have been perfectly legal, if you believe the Liberal-commissioned whitewash issued after he returned to Canada. He was flung out of our country, a modern-day pharmakos, and bundled off to France, where, we were all smoothly assured, he would shortly be tried. But he sat in a French maximum-security prison, in near-solitary confinement, for three and a half years, with no trial in sight, and was finally released for lack of evidence. The French examining magistrates who set him free had independently found witnesses and documents confirming that Diab was in Beirut at the time of the bombing.

Now, with no evidence at all to back its decision, the French appeal court wants to prolong the agony, for obviously political reasons. Fingerprints, allegedly those of the bomber, did not match Diab’s. The palm print found on the car rented by the bomber didn’t match either. Witness testimony was confused and conflicting. The key handwriting “evidence” has been completely discredited. On top of all that, he has a solid alibi. There is simply nothing left.

In France, the families of the dead and the surviving victims continue, quite rightly, to cry out for justice and for closure, but at this point it seems to matter little to them, or to the French judicial system, whether the accused bomber is guilty or innocent. It should matter to Canada, though. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already stated that what happened to Hassan Diab should never have happened. Now let him formally tell France that it won’t happen again. And, closer to home, let him strike an independent public inquiry into how this utter travesty of justice happened in the first place.

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Dr. Dawg

Merry Christmas

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…to those who share my tradition. To everyone: happy holidays, and may the New Year be an improvement over this one.

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Dr. Dawg

That letter

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We’ve all seen it; we’ve all read it; some have nodded; some have shaken their heads. Never mind that it was dishonestly constructed. Never mind that some of the signatories have tried their hand at cancelling views they didn’t like. That letter is a thing, even if “cancel culture” isn’t, and let the debate continue here.

This could be either a very long piece or a short one. I have chosen the latter, because some pretty wise heads have already explored this issue in some depth.

Propositions and questions:

  • If “cancel culture” can be said to exist, it is far more prevalent on the Right than on the Left. (Here I am not referring to the countless on-the-ground “cancellations” of free assembly and of the actual lives of individuals by militarized and racist police forces.)

  • The evidence that free speech is being squelched at universities is wildly overblown.

  • The signatories of this letter, overwhelmingly privileged and white, with more cultural and social capital than most of us could dream of, aim it solely at the Left. Why is that?

  • What does this letter add to the current agonizing struggles against racism, sexism and heterosexism? Or does it undermine those struggles? Is it helpful to wag fingers at those actually fighting for their lives, admonishing them to use their indoor voices?

  • The letter is virtue-signalling at its most irritating, demonstrating the very thing it criticizes: “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

  • The best that the letter signatories can do is muster up a few anecdotes, but anyone can do that to advance any position. Meanwhile, the Right wants to kill us, and by “us” I include a lot of the aforementioned signatories.

Comments encouraged.

UPDATE: Irony is dead.

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Since at least the 1605 publication of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, scientific curiosity has been regarded as a positive emotion. But there are obvious downsides. While “curiosity-driven research” or “pure science” may sound abstract and detached from the so-called real world, it tends to find application down the road. It’s what led to the atomic bomb, grotesque wartime medical experiments, and, closer to home, horrific nutritional tests in residential schools.

Whether positively or negatively directed, curiosity is inextricably bound up in the social and even the political. The field of genetics is a clear case in point.

I review two books for the Literary Review of Canada on what may appear to be distinct topics: racism and CRISPR gene-splicing technology. But those subjects merge: speaking historically, racism and eugenics are inseparable ideologies, and CRISPR, whatever its therapeutic promise, has opened up a gateway to a genetic dystopia of inequality and selective breeding.

Comments are welcome, as always.

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Dr. Dawg

A note on statues

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May we finally lay to rest the notion that statues have anything to do with history? Despite the disingenuous squawking about “erasing” it, the current spate of statue-removal does nothing of the kind.

Statues are not pages from a history book; they are statements of triumphalism. If they merely commemorated history, they would not invariably be given a positive gloss: they do not simply speak, but affirm.

Like a distributed pantheon, these representations in parks and squares mimic immortality. After the flesh has crumbled to dust, they press forward into the future, oblivious of tempora or mores. If anything, they are ahistorical, pretending to exist outside time, their creators attempting to deny the very dimension that makes history possible.

But, as Ozymandias reminds us, this is futile. Statues are very much in this world and in this time, and even if their physical substance doesn’t erode, their significance may change. Statues of Lenin were hauled down by their hundreds in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, for example, and statues of the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein were toppled all over Iraq. (As an aside, I didn’t hear any of the Usual Suspects whinging on about the “erasure of history” then.)

In the eddying current of events, meanings are unstable. The first Prime Minister of Canada may have built that railroad (with assistance, one supposes), but he was also a génocidaire who was criticized even in his day for his racism. The statue of Samuel de Champlain in Ottawa’s Nepean Point once included a kneeling, apparently subservient, First Nations scout—that portion of the monument was moved, with little or no opposition. Confederate generals fought for the noble institution of slavery, and for the breakup of the country that now hosts innumerable monuments to them, and even names military bases after them. The fellow in the photo, above, was Edward Colston, an English slave-trader who hailed from Bristol. (A furious local Conservative lauded Colston as a “hero.”)

Pull ‘em down, I say. Damnatio memoriae. Re-name streets, while you’re at it, and those US bases. Make your statement, of the word or of the deed, to counter the triumphalist cheers crystallized in these appalling memorials. You’re not erasing history. You’re making it.

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Dr. Dawg

The high art of 'Tiger King'

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The recent Netflix series is not everyone’s jug of hooch, but Tiger King is a a serious work of art—a brilliant inverted comédie de moeurs that refracts America in the Age of Trump. Once you step back from its visceral entanglements, if you can, it rewards the critical gaze.

The grotesque is hardly new in art. From Goya to Kafka, from Francis Bacon to Shakespeare, this figure, not wholly evil, excites both revulsion and empathy at once. Joe Exotic is just such a recrudescence of a trope that appears throughout art and literature, from ancient Greece and Rome to the present day. Helpfully, however, he didn’t have to be invented: he is a genuine objet trouvé, lying in wait for his audience.

The Tiger King is, to use the current term, a mash-up: distinct and dissonant threads of American culture are here assembled in one individual. Joe is not so much a person as a human collage. You really couldn’t make this guy up without a meth assist: a gay, polygamous redneck with a collection of big cats, a man prone to bloviating self-love and fits of rage, and one with a less-than-reverent attitude to the rule of law. (He ran for President of the United States in 2016. Don’t laugh.)

The risible phrase “based on a true story” should, however, be kept in mind. “True story” is a contradiction in terms in the first place, and this is at one more remove, reminding us of Plato’s dark view of art as a lie about a lie. But that’s what narrative is, of necessity: facts are selected, bent or fabricated to fit a tragi-comic tale.

Only in present-day America could such a narrative be constructed, yet it has a kind of mythic resonance about it. Joe is a classic bouffon, the quintessential odd-looking outsider, surrounded by his gang of lesser characters: toothless, armless, or lowlife grifters looking to score. He’s doomed—we know this instinctively—because jesters do not become kings. Their performance is always edgy and defensive; they know where the real power lies, and part of their attraction, I suspect, is the inevitability of their subjugation should they step over the line. The Lord of Misrule has a very short reign, one that serves to reinforce, in a kind of participatory theatre, the order that it mocks. And Joe’s ignominious end is the conclusion we are waiting for.

Tiger King is, therefore, a morality play, but within those narrative bounds it’s a subtle one. This is no stylized war of good versus evil. Those of us who watch this thing to the end do—admit it—empathize with the protagonist to some degree, especially when his chief antagonist is the annoying, sanctimonious and overly-cute Carole Baskin. Their skirmishes are often funny as hell, other times not so much, but Joe gives as good as he gets until the inevitable forces fell him, and there are moments when we (or at least some of us) find ourselves cheering him on.

A word about the animals. No cruelty is depicted in the series: on the contrary, we see Joe nuzzling with his tigers as though they were house cats. They look well-fed enough, too, dining on their expired Walmart meat—which also fed his staff. But for those who oppose zoos on principle, and object to using animals for human entertainment, there’s plenty of reason to switch off the TV after a few minutes.

For those others who can swallow the premise, though, Tiger King offers the possibility of a full-on engagement with modern-day myth. But be warned: like all myth, Tiger King is—to borrow the words of the series’ full title—chock full of murder, mayhem and madness.

[Acknowledgements to my friend Terry Rudden, who encouraged me to expand on a couple of remarks I made on Facebook. —DD]

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Dr. Dawg

WHO's on first

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Suddenly the World Health Organization has become everybody’s favourite target. Australia and our own Liberal leaders have joined in the pile-on. Prime Minister Trudeau sounded sensible enough a few days ago, but the Liberals have apparently caved at least to some degree to the tantrum-prone toddler in the White House.

From the margins to the mainstream, as the saying goes. Right-wing conspiracy theories about the global Covid-19 disease have abounded for weeks: it’s the gummint, or globalism, or non-whites, or (in its more fantastic versions) germ warfare, microwave radiation, a plot to inject us with microchips, und so weiter. Armed militias in the US are facing the virus with an array of heavy weaponry, as The Donald urges them to overthrow state governments that have locked their precincts down. The WHO is seen as part of the problem, and the “very stable genius” in the White House has just cut off funding to it in the midst of a global pandemic. Now, in more moderate language, our government is falling into line with the anti-WHO scapegoating, hindsight bringing everything into the usual sharp focus.

The WHO is a UN agency, and it is only as good as its information. Those two facts need to be underlined. China behaved from the beginning in its usual heavy-handed fashion, first disappearing medical personnel and journalists who spoke up about the dangers of the new virus, then locking the stable once the horse had departed, and finally dealing with that by building a larger stable around the horse. To be blunt, we can’t believe a word China says regarding their numbers of deaths and infections. But that was what WHO has been having to work with from the beginning.

Looking back, we now know that the WHO’s prudential caution, and the information that it had at its disposal, led it into errors of omission. It initially underestimated the lethality and virulence of Covid-19—but so did nearly everyone else. Ontario premier Doug Ford, before stepping up responsibly when the full dimensions of the crisis became apparent, was telling people to go enjoy March break. Trump was suggesting that the 15 then-identified cases would dwindle to zero.

How long ago all of that that seems now.

The attacks on WHO at this moment seem misplaced at best, disingenuous and irresponsible at worst. Take the Taiwan red herring, for example. Taiwan is not a member state of the UN: China is. As a UN agency, WHO deals with member states. It is not its role to get involved in arguments about the One China policy, or any other political disputes. Yet it is being excoriated for staying away from this sensitive issue: there have even been demands that WHO admit Taiwan as a member, and a senior Canadian WHO advisor has been sharply attacked for avoiding questions about it.

That’s latter-day Cold War foolishness, no matter how exemplary Taiwan’s approach to the pandemic has been. Dealing state-to-state with Taiwan would be like giving Quebec a seat at the WHO table in addition to Canada’s. Imagine how the Usual Suspects, joining this time with the Liberals, would react to that. Obviously, intelligent arguments could be made either way, in a vacuum: but it’s not up to the WHO to make them here, now, in this world of Realpolitik.

In addition, everyone has been learning as we go on, week after week. Naturally, positions have changed as more knowledge is acquired, on the wearing of masks, for example, or restrictions on cross-border travellers. The WHO, as noted, relies upon the information available to it, and its handling of the pandemic has evolved as more information arrived. To criticize it for not having had all of the answers in January is fatuous and dishonest. We still don’t have those answers in mid-April.

Finally, the WHO needs its teams on the ground, and their effectiveness is entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the host states. If that involves a little bowing and scraping, or at least a refusal to denounce the host governments, so what? Had this virus originated in the US, would it have moved things forward for the WHO to publicly castigate Donald Trump, however justifiable that might have been? The point is to get things done, under imperfect conditions. And, while hampered, the WHO is doing just that. Let them work.

[Note: Reader Peggy Mason has a first-rate piece on all this at the Ceasefire blog.]

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