In 1976 Soviet Union Grows Children to Eat

Well, not quite.  But that’s what a lot of North Americans would have believed about the ‘commies’ in the Soviet Union if they had been told by a reputable source like Rush Limbaugh (who was a DJ in the 70s, but you know what I mean) that this was God’s own truth.  I remember when I was in school I had the impression of the Soviet Union as a drab, grey place.  I mean, how could it be colourful…a bunch of communists lived there and communists abhor colour, we all know that.  The photograph below  is of the Soviet Union, a publication started by Maxim Gorky,  a Russian writer and journalist who wrote many novels, plays and poems.  He was jailed by the Tsars several times during the last days of the Empire.  He was always pro-Bolshevik except for some censorship issues during a short period of time  during his career.  He was born in 1868 and died in 1936.  He is a hero in Russia even today.  But this post is not about Gorky, it’s about the Soviet Union, the publication that attempted to dispel negative and distorted American views of life in the Soviet Union. This publication appeared in 19 languages and was distributed widely outside of the Soviet Union.

The children in the photograph, in their mid-thirties now, are colourfully dressed, probably off on some kind of field trip. I’m guessing they’re not destined for a meat processing plant either as many Americans would have half expected back then. Lots of colour in this photograph.  Kids seem to be having a good time.  They lived in a town called Togliotti on the Volga river where the Lada car was and is still built to some extent. The article about them is called: All About A Kindergarten.  The kindergarden in question sits among row after row of 5 or 6 storey massive apartment buildings designed to house the masses of workers while the ‘management’ of the Lada factory drove to work in his Mercedes and lived in his detached family home out in the suburbs.  No classes in the Soviet Union?  Not at all.  The Soviet Union was one big workers’ paradise where everyone was equal. One of the features of this edition of the magazine, which has no ads in it as one would expect, is about  the “Baky” oil rig which the magazine proudly holds up as an example of Soviet superiority in engineering and production.  Another feature is about Nikolai Andrianov, the Olympic gymnast who won 7 medals, 4 of them gold.  Adrianov is held up as a model for Soviet children much as Olympians are today.  He makes as good use of his leisure time as his training time the editors are proud to point out.   They never pass up a chance to hold up Soviet practices as superior to those in capitalist countries.  They write: “People in the socialist countries devote from two to six times as many hours to improving their general and specialized education as do people in the capitalist countries.”  Soviet Union is clearly a propaganda tool, but what should we expect?  Not all Soviet publications were so blatantly propagandistic, but this was this publication’s principle goal.  There is hardly any mention of politics in this issue except to report that there is some resistance in the West to more economic cooperation between European ‘capitalist’ and ‘socialist’ countries.  However, the reality was that there was a lot of cooperation during this ‘detente’ period between the Soviet state and ‘businesses’ and Western European countries.  It’s this ‘rapprochement’ that led a few years later to Peristroyka, the demise of the Berlin Wall and eventually, Valdimir Putin.  It wasn’t Ronald Reagan who engineered the end of the Berlin Wall, as many Americans believed at the time, it was the class system in the Soviet Union and the slow infiltration of ‘business’ in production and distribution (both domestic and foreign) that made a lie of the communist ideology.

Frank Mahovlich and the Hidden Failure of Our Churches

I’ll get to the title of this post in the next paragraph but for now let me just say that in my library I have copies of a number of magazines from the 1960s and 1970s.  I have several copies of Maclean’s dating from the early 60s. I also have several copies of a magazine called Soviet Union and I have a copy of Fortune Magazine, a much more substantial publication than the first two I mention above.  Soviet Union  is a publication founded by Maxim Gorky in 1930 originally called USSR in Construction, it was renamed in 1950.  Maclean’s was, in the early 60s, a domestic weekly current affairs magazine with fairly innocuous content, much as today. All the publications I address here are large format, about 34 X 26 centimeters.  The current Maclean’s is 27 X 20 centimeters.

In this post I write about the Maclean’s of February 25th, 1961. In the next post I write about Soviet Union and I’ll follow that with a post on Fortune.  All of these publications are essentially propagandistic although there would be vehement denials of this on the part of the publishers although I doubt if they care an iota about what I have to say about them.  For a current affairs magazine, Maclean’s addresses a range of topics as can be noted from a photograph of the front page:

Sports, religion and police work dominate this edition of the magazine.  Peter Gzowski writes an article called Viva Mahovlich!  In it he waxes poetic about the “Maple Leafs’ young star.”  I was 14 years old at the time and Frank Mahovlich was a young star on the Maple Leafs. He played against the best, such as Henri Richard and Bobby Hull.  I played very poorly  at a boarding school in Edmonton, one of a number of boys from  the west coast of British Columbia with very little experience with ice.  I would never qualify for Junior ‘B’, never mind the NHL.  Frank Mahovlich was a star before he joined the Maple Leafs.  The names in the NHL have changed, but I still can’t play hockey worth a shit.  But I’m not dead yet, which is more than I can say for lots of hockey players who played with Frank Mahovlich.

The religion part of this edition features a report by Ralph Allen who writes this about Christianity: “Against such other gigantic forces as communism, materialism and a thinly sheathed militarism, the Christian church is widely held to be the most hopeful protector of the human race, physically as well as spiritually.”  How’s that for objective journalism.  Whatever, this is just a year after the heady days of the defeat in Quebec of the Duplessis government by the Lesage Liberals with René Lévesque in the Cabinet.  This year marks the beginning of a huge transformation in Quebec politics and religion.  Bring on secular religion and bring on a much expanded French speaking provincial government bureaucracy and the beginnings of the CEGEP movement in higher education.

So, 1961 was the year I was 14 years old, the year Diefenbaker would march side by side with John Kennedy and the year Quebec turned church buildings  into gift shops.  The ads in the 1961 Maclean’s include ones for booze, big American cars and insurance…and there’s a Pepsi ad appealing to the young.  Nothing’s changed except the youth of then are the old farts of now.

Human Behavioural Biology

In my opinion, Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University is one of the most compelling lecturers I’ve ever encountered.  His course on Human Behavioural Biology addresses the links between neural functioning and behaviour.  His work on stress and depression are critically important as a point of departure for anyone involved in clinical work on these issues or for anyone suffering from stress or depression.  For years I used his National Geographic video called Stress in my Sociology classes to show how class distinctions affect even biological functions and can cause poor health and early death.  In this film he compares Olive baboons in Kenya to people working in the British bureaucracy in Whitehall.  He notes that the higher one is in the social structure in terms of power and prestige, the less one is stressed out and the less one shows the characteristic signs of stress like the use of medications and the loss of work productivity, often involving long absences from work on sick leave.  It’s happened to me. I twice took long periods of leave due to stress at work.  I know of what he speaks.  The feelings of frustration and impotence are extreme when we are faced with lots of responsibility and no or little authority.

Sapolsky’s entire course on Human Behavioural Biology is made availably by Stanford University on YouTube.  There’s probably 20 hours of lecture material here, but worth every minute of it.  Your TV could not be put to better use.  Enjoy!

What Sociology is For Me (in 1990). Yes, you can chuckle…

Alright, you’re allowed to chuckle a bit as you watch this video.  It’s me in 1990.  Yes, I still have a full head of hair, and it’s still brown. The quality of the video is very poor.  It’s probably 4th generation.  I won’t win any Academy Award for this performance, either.  We filmed this (Dan Moscrip, the Knowledge Network director and his crew) starting early in the morning on Granville Island and finishing twelve hours later at the Bloedel Conservatory.  I memorized my script as we went from venue to venue.  Probably my favourite venue was in Chinatown, shooting over the crowd.  This was all great fun.

So, maybe I didn’t win an Academy Award, but I still go along with the message I was trying to get across 22 years ago…with some minor adjustments I might make.  Now…have a look:

The Christian Idiom

I was raised Catholic, but it didn’t take me too long into my late adolescence to realize it wasn’t for me.  There was so much belief, blind faith and not a lot of evidence.  Isn’t that the point of religion, really?  When I was 17 or so I was told by a priest that I shouldn’t be reading a book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  I was still a practicing Catholic at the time, but I was stunned when this former physics teacher of mine at Collège St-Jean in Edmonton, told me that I wasn’t ‘intellectually prepared’ enough to read de Chardin. According to the Gaiamind website (

“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a visionary French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist, and philosopher, who spent the bulk of his life trying to integrate religious experience with natural science, most specifically Christian theology with theories of evolution. In this endeavor he became absolutely enthralled with the possibilities for humankind, which he saw as heading for an exciting convergence of systems, an “Omega point” where the coalescence of consciousness will lead us to a new state of peace and planetary unity. Long before ecology was fashionable, he saw this unity he saw as being based intrinsically upon the spirit of the Earth: ‘The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth.’ ”

Methinks my former physics professor was slightly disingenuous about his motives for telling me I wasn’t ‘intellectually prepared’ to read de Chardin.  Anyone still steeped in Catholic doctrine would have to reject de Chardin.  It’s easy to see that from the above quote.   de Chardin’s work contradicted the Catholic Magisterium and many of his books were censored by Rome. He basically rejected the whole Biblical account of creation in Genesis.   His Le Phénomène Humain published posthumously strayed far from the dogma of the Church.  So, fearing the loss of yet another young adherent to the Church, my Oblate physics teacher was really imploring me to avoid reading heresy.  But it was too late.  I was already on a road to greater intellectual curiosity.  I read works by ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz.  I read popularizations of anthropology such as Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative. I read The Origin of Species.  Later, at Simon Fraser University, I would quote Ardrey in an anthropology paper to be told that my professor that he was a charlatan. What can I say, I was a newbie.

In any case, my point here is that de Chardin opened my eyes to thinking about the world and the universe in very different ways from what is contained in Catholic doctrine.  Biblical accounts taken literally made no sense to me whatsoever.  I read the Bible over and over again and continued to be mystified by the language, the smiting of one’s enemies, and the gnashing of teeth.  It took me some time to realize that taken metaphorically, the Bible makes much more sense than it does literally.  de Chardin led the way in my awakening on this front.  I don’t subscribe to Biblical accounts of creation any more than de Chardin did and I can definitely relate to his view of the cosmos.

For de Chardin (and science, for that matter) there is ‘immortality’ in the universe in the sense that matter and energy are not lost, but are constantly ‘reconfiguring’ and ‘reconstituting’ themselves.  As the saying goes, we are the stuff of stars.  The matter that makes up my body has always existed and always will.  The particular configuration of matter that is me is transitory, but the matter that is me is eternal and immortal.  So, in a sense, I ‘believe’ in immortality.  Humans, however, aren’t generally satisfied with such an abstract idea of immortality.  No, we want something more tangible such as the soul upon which to hang our hopes of individual immortality.  We really want to be ‘ourselves’ eternally, as if our deaths never happened, cavorting and enjoying ourselves in heaven with our earthly companions and with God overseeing everything like a cosmic party host.  This is a picture of God as very human like and of humans as very god-like. For de Chardin, God has no specific connection with the human species.

For de Chardin, God is the universe, the Omega as he called it.  That is a far cry from the story of creation in the Bible, but if our denial of death is as profound a drive as Ernest Becker suggests, the fall from grace symbolized by the eating of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent split of humans into our symbolic and material selves whereby our symbolic selves are immortal and our material selves are mortal makes more sense.  Our bodies are our own worst enemies.  They die.  They betray us at every turn.  They are fundamentally evil.  It’s our symbolic side that is good, pure and immortal.  So the story of creation in the Bible is idiomatic.  It metaphorically concretizes the goodness of the power of the universe, the abstract power we cannot understand and from which all life emanates, and the badness of matter which at every turn bleeds and dies.  The interesting thing here is that people get caught up with the Bible’s literal explanations and don’t, as de Chardin did, see the story of the unfolding universe in the Genesis code.  How long we will need to bend to metaphor and idiom rather than face the reality of the universe full face is anyone’s guess.  More on this later.

Death Denial

If there’s a constant in human history, it’s death denial.  Ernest Becker, in the last book he published just before his death in 1974, The Denial of Death, explores and explains the pervasiveness of death denial in all cultures all over the globe.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in trying to come to grips with their own death, but also with the death of cultures, ways of life and all cultural artifacts.  According to Becker, individual death is a given, at least in the physical sense, but as human beings, we can’t accept that inevitability, so we devise sometimes very elaborate systems of death denial.  For Becker, cultures themselves are immortality projects designed to deny death.  The Christian idea of the soul is a great immortality project.  The body dies, the soul lives on forever.  Take that, death!  Life 1, Death 0.  So, Christians can live thinking that when they die, they live.  That’s comforting, I guess, if it’s possible to really believe that.  My sense is that doubt is hard to cast aside.  Is there really an afterlife?  After all, it’s just promises, no proof.  It’s also my sense that one way to assuage guilt over doubt is to affirm the death denying ideology of the soul more firmly than ever.  I’m not picking specifically on Christians here, everybody else does it too.  There are atheistic religions like Buddhism but they also have mechanisms that promise some form of immortality.

None of this is surprising.  In the simplest of biological terms, living organisms, particularly the sentient ones, ‘want’ to continue to live.  It’s a basic drive.  Becker’s book, Escape From Evil, published shortly after his death by his wife, Marie, and his publishers, expresses this beautifully in its first few pages.  We are driven to fight the two pillars of evil in life: disease and death.  Disease injures our potential to enjoy life, to revel in a good meal, an excellent glass of wine, or a particularly spectacular sunset.  Death takes away everything, all enjoyment, all time, all everything.  What greater evil can there be?  So we devise elaborate schemes to make us feel like none of this will ever happen to us?  Not to humans.  We are the chosen species.  We are not like other animals.  We are special under the sun.  And if anyone dares say otherwise, well, that’s most unfortunate for them.  They must be dealt with in the harshest of terms because if our death-denying ideologies are proven to be weak or just plain lies, then we die…forever.  Aboriginal cultures everywhere, when faced with the power of colonialism, abandoned their traditional practices and took on the beliefs of their captors and colonizers.  Why continue to put faith in an immortality-ideology that failed to protect them in their most trying moment?

Now, of course, the most powerful immortality-ideology is capital accumulation and wealth.  But we know that this kind of ideology, no matter how powerful cannot promise us immortality.  Still, there are many people today who live and die for ‘freedom’ to accumulate capital to get rich.  They are, in fact, willing to kill the very planet they occupy so that they might live forever.

This short post barely scratches the surface of the importance of Becker’s work.  I’ll come back to Becker over and over again in posts to come.


Death is necessary for life…

Try eating live things.  They don’t like it and usually put up a fight.  The fact is that we normally like to eat our food dead.  There are situations where we like to get close to the line between life and death, say when we boil lobster or crab alive, or when we go to a restaurant featuring live fish in large tanks and pick out our dinner as it swims by.  But by and large we like to be assured that our food is nicely and fully dead.  Vegetables are no problem.  We hardly consider them alive in the first place although they are of course.  Not everyone likes their veggies, but their dislike is generally not based on whether or not they are dead.  With animals, it’s another matter.

We ‘relate’ to animals, animate things, especially if they’re young, cute and cuddly.  When we in the West find out that some people in China and Korea eat young dogs, preferably St-Bernards, we find it hard not to gag or throw up.  We know that ‘veal’ really means baby cow but we try not to think about it. Lamb is the same, baby sheep.  So are weaner pigs, that is, pigs that have just been weaned.  We know killing happens.  We wouldn’t be able to eat steak, bacon, roasts or ham without the killing. It’s just not right to think about it or bring it up in polite conversation.  The fact is that humans slaughter millions if not billions of animals every year (for food or as ‘pests’), sometimes by specialists like in the West, but by lots of non-specialists in Africa and other ‘poor’ parts of the world too.  People all over the world realize that they like to eat their food dead and somebody has to do the dirty deed.  Now, isn’t that an interesting way of putting it: do the dirty deed?  Of course you’ve heard that.  To do a dirty deed…ultimately means killing someone or something. The reference to dirt we’ll come back to.  But for now, let’s face it.  Although we don’t like to admit it, death is really important to us.  But of course death is important to us not just in terms of the food we eat.

If things didn’t die, things couldn’t live. If people didn’t die, there would be standing room only on the planet in very short order.  We think there’s a lot of people on the planet now!  If people didn’t die, I’m not sure how they would be born, but that’s an issue for another post.  So our underlying unquestioned assumption that life is good and death is bad is patently ridiculous.  Not that we’ve ever shied away from espousing ridiculous ideas.  No, people need to die so others may live.  The problem is all about the quality of death and dying.  We know that we are born at one point, grow up, mature and then die, at least on a ‘normal’ trajectory.  There’s lots of variation in the length of time we live.  For instance, in some parts of Africa an individual is lucky to live to be 37 years of age.  Here in Canada we’re looking at a normal life span getting into the eighties.  In the ‘poor’ countries, many children die very young.  We think that’s a shame, really. But we don’t like to think about it too much.  We see the starving children in the OxFam or whatever commercials and cringe a little, but it’s not really our problem.  Distant death is barely death at all whether we are talking about time (as in death centuries ago) or space, (as in death in Somalia or Mali, far away in Africa).  We have some vague sense that many people die in Canada every year, but we don’t really know how many, nor are we particularly interested.  But death gets more interesting the closer it gets to us, especially so close that we just can’t deny it.

When my cousin’s daughter was murdered on Halloween night last year, I was shocked and angry.  She was just at high school graduation age.  Some very disturbed young man -who’s since been caught and faces first degree murder charges – killed her that night and she’ll never be coming home. Many other thousands of people died that same day all over the world, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that someone in the family met a very tragic, unnecessary death.  I didn’t know Taylor Van Diest personally.  She lived a long distance from where I live on Vancouver Island.  My uncle Denis (my father’s brother) moved his family (including Taylor’s mom) to the Okanagan Valley decades ago.  He’s since passed away.  That broke the tie that kept our families in close contact.  Since then we’ve had large family reunions, but I haven’t attended many of them.  Too busy working most of the time.  Families drift apart.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just the way it is in a world that encourages radical insularity and downplays family except for ideological purposes.  Still, when a family member meets such an untimely death, it hurts.  For the immediate family the pain must be almost unbearable and it doesn’t wane.  The passage of time does little to heal the still gaping wound that is the absence of Taylor.  But, like I said, death is only meaningful to us when it’s close and it’s importance to us is inversely proportional to it’s distance to us in time and space.  What I’ve found in my career is that there isn’t just one kind of death.  There are many kinds of death just as there are many kinds of life.  Taylor’s death is not the same kind of death as the death of the pig that made it possible for me to eat bacon this morning.  One seems senseless, the other necessary.  We are horrified by Taylor’s death, rightly so.  When my father-in-law lay dying at Burnaby General Hospital twenty-three years ago, I was struck by the traffic noise, the talk in the hallway, the realization that death matters little to most of us most of the time.  The world doesn’t stop every time a person dies even though we think it should when that person is close to us.  No, we are really little affected by death.  Our systems of death denial are very  strong indeed making it all the more horribly distressing when the experience of death is so personal that our usual systems of death denial no longer work and we have to face it unmediated by ideology.  The experience is soul destroying and extremely isolating.  The visceral reaction of most people in this situation is to reach for meaning anywhere it can be found.  No search for meaning is entirely satisfactory.  There is always a residual emptiness.

To finish this up, I want to just say that death is not the opposite of life.  Living and dying are one in the same thing.  Distinguishing between the two is the result of a feeble attempt on humanity’s part to deny death.  To be blunt about it, the moment we are conceived we are on a death trajectory. How can we live with that realization without effective ideologies of death denial?  More on that in the next post.

Texas Addendum 1

I learned something else in Texas, but also on the way there and back.  The other NIC faculty members that received awards and that are featured in this NIC  Press Release, are people who can be justly proud of their achievements.  I was honoured to stand among them during the Awards Ceremonies and to share meals and time with them when we weren’t involved in ‘official awards business.’  I worked (and travelled lately) with a bunch of dedicated, caring, hardworking and quirky people.  Quirkiness is a very positive character attribute in my mind.  To be quirky means to leave the rules of the game on the sidelines when it’s appropriate.  It means doing things tangentially sometimes or obliquely, avoiding the frontal, rulebook approach to practice and behaviour.  Rules are made to be broken as long as a greater ‘care’ is to be achieved.  I can say that many of my colleagues put students first.  If that makes them quirky, well, we need to celebrate that.  The NISOD celebration of excellence and the conference in Austin are a celebration of quirkiness.  I shared a room with 1200 other quirky people last week.  I’m happy to be counted among them.