A meditation on Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

I don’t often review books on this blog. That’s because I seldom read fiction and my reading of non-fiction runs to extreme esoterica, sociological monographs and art books few of which inspire me to produce reviews. Too much explaining to do. Too much I have to leave unsaid or to the reader’s initiative. 

Upon the urging of my widely read Carolyn spouse, I relented and read a novel, Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, published this year by Coach House Books. It won the Giller Prize and Carolyn said to me: “Read it, I want to discuss it with you.” Well, that’s not the first time she’s said that, but for some reason I relented this time, partly because she said the book was about death, a long time scholarly interest of mine. It’s not a long book either, another reason why I decided to read it. 

That said, I can’t say that this is a review of the book. It’s more of a meditation on it.

The book’s premise is simple enough. Hermes and Apollo, both gods in the ancient Greek panoply of gods find themselves in a bar in Toronto when at some point Hermes muses: “I wonder what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.” Thereupon, Apollo responds with: “I’ll wager a year’s servitude that animals, any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.” 

Sometime later they encounter fifteen dogs in a kennel at the back of an animal clinic nearby. They had found the subjects for their experiment. I’m not going to go into any detail describing the chains of events that constitute this novel, but you can see where this might lead. Dogs don’t have the vocal apparatus to speak human language, but they can, given human intelligence, develop a language of their own which they do in this case. 

One major issue is that physiologically these dogs are still dogs and they still have dog wants and needs as well as dog perceptions of things. Now, with human intelligence, complications inevitably arise. Deaths ensue. Let’s not forget that one of the primary distinctions in this novel is between mortals (dogs and humans) and immortals (Hermes, Apollo and Zeus). Us planetary beings are all mortal, something we have in common. Dogs and humans die. We all do. We all must. Moreover, dogs and humans often have reasons to kill. The dog/humans in this novel are no exception to this rule. 

Here we have a mix of dog/human politics as if human politics weren’t complicated enough. Dog politics are generally straightforward based on brute strength, physical size and cleverness when it comes to intra-pack politics and no mercy when it comes to extra-pack relations. Not much different than human politics, it seems. 

Much of the book is taken up with discussions about morality, mortality and making it through the day in hostile, and sometimes friendly but constricting, environments. Fifteen Dogs is full of the unexpected yet explainable. It does not shy away from visceral descriptions of death but it also revels in the more uplifting connections we make between ourselves as humans as well as those between humans and dogs. I’ve loved all of our dogs as family members. I can certainly relate to this book on that level, but I can also find basic truths in Alexis’ musings on the inevitability of mortality and what it means to live well and die well.

I recommend this book to you all. It’s a  quick read and one that could give rise to great book club conversation. 

One question I have: how would this book read if the gods in question were not so mythical? What if there was only one god in question, the Christian god? How would that change the colour, tone and texture of the book? How would it change the book? 

Want to be safe? Maybe we need to let Syrians in and keep Americans out.

I didn’t really want to do this, but I can’t help myself. When I see people advocating shutting down our borders to Syrian refugees I see red. 

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, there are many historical precedents for receiving refugees and if you want to ‘google’ it, check out how many immigrants, many of them refugees, were brought to Canada from 1896 to 1914. Millions. Not 25,000. Millions! In 1913 and 14, 400,000 or so each year. These people came here from all over Europe, many escaping the tension just before the 1st World War. Many settled in the West. The immigration minister of the time, Clifford Sifton recognized the need for people to come to this country to build it. He gave them land and tools. I’m convinced the paltry number of Syrian refugees we plan on taking in will also enrich this country but we also need to help them. They have been completely impoverished and devastated. Of course not all of them are angels, but neither are all of us.

But closing our borders? Well I could argue that closing our borders to Americans would probably be much more logical than blocking 
Syrians. Why, all Americans have guns don’t you know, murders happen all the time in the US, mass murders are frequent. There’s no way of assuring ourselves that Americans we let in aren’t murderers or child rapers at the least. Our security and safety are in jeopardy! If we’re going to close our borders, we should start with Americans. 

But, you know, Canada has its own murderers and high order miscreants. Women are not safe in this country especially in their own homes. We have our own people ‘terrorizing’ us. We live a few doors down from a ‘legal’  marijuana grow op. Recently I was talking to a young man living on an adjacent property and he decided to move his young family away because the jerk running the grow-op had threatened him telling him to stay away from the grow-op because he has a gun, you know. Gee, Mexico could very well prevent Canadians from coming down because you never know if one of them might be another Paul Bernardo!

Boy, we have all kinds or reasons to be afraid for our safety. Just have to drive the Malahat to be clear on that or live in some of our neighbourhoods such as the Downtown East Side or be homeless. We don’t need hypothetical reasons for being fearful like the fear of Syrian refugees, most of them highly traumatized children and their mothers. 

Of course some people specialize in hatred and fear. Chicken Little is alive and well. ‘The sky is falling.” We don’t need to heed their baseless and ridiculous arguments. 

We live in one of the safest countries in the world and it will stay that way with or without Syrian refugees. We can make it so, but not by being bowed by fear.

Carry on, Justin!

Don’t get me started on Syrian refugee refuseniks!

For the moment I will allow  that this is a democratic country and people have a right to their opinions no matter how ‘out there’ they might be.

Yes, I understand  that the current federal government was elected with less than a 40% majority and yes, I know that the Conservatives would take a very different approach to the issue of refugees.

Yes, I’ve had a look at what it takes to become a refugee to Canada from Syria and I’m sure that all those women and children are potential ‘terrorists’ but let me tell you that if my neighbourhood was bombed to smithereens like many in Aleppo as shown in this SANA image, I would be looking to get my ass out of there pronto. And if I didn’t get a helping hand to get out of there and resettle instead of rotting in a camp somewhere in Jordan or Turkey, I might just consider a career with ISIS.

Put yourself in the shoes of the average Syrian and you may get a little sympathy for what they’re going through. If you believe that they’re all terrorists, there is nothing for me to say to you.

Yes, the odd miscreant may slip  through the immigration dragnet and come to Canada to later rob a grocery store, but that’s to be expected of any population. We have our own homegrown miscreants of course, quite a few of them, and they’re not all petty crooks and jail fodder. I’m confident the Syrian refugees will not add at all to the quota of miscreants we already have.

Most refugees don’t want to be refugees. They would much rather go back to their homes. But just look at the photo above and tell me what there is  to return to.

So, please stop with the fear-mongering. Stephen Harper is gone and we don’t have to be afraid anymore of Muslims under our beds waiting to slit our throats as soon as we fall asleep or some terrorist suicide bomber blowing herself up in downtown Cumberland. We never did have to be afraid of those things.

Make no mistake, there’s no 100% guarantee of your safety. There never has been and  there never will be. One thing for certain is that women in this country are in more danger in their own homes via domestic violence than they will ever be at the hands of a Syrian refugee.

One thing though, if Syrian president Assad should ever apply for refugee status, we need to deny it. We already have enough assholes here.

 

The power of what we think is true or: Marx was a dumbass, everybody knows that! With a commentary by Paul Whyte, political scientist and former colleague.

-This is a blog post which appeared here on November 17th, 2015. A former colleague at NIC, political scientist Paul Whyte, wrote a response to the post below but for some technical reason was unable to leave a commentary. I respect his knowledge of Marx and his capacities as a teacher so I’ve decided to repost my November 17th post with his comments in tow. 

Please read his comment if nothing else. They follow my post. 

 

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything.

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things.

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another.

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation.

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin.

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter.

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven.

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around.

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago.

Paul Whyte’s comment:

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.

I too taught – actually alongside you for close to 30 years! Our disciplines were different [mine were Political Science and Introductory (Western) Philosophy] but shared a common past and crisscrossed each others field of expertise. We were, and still are, passionate about knowledge and driven to explore and share with others, primarily students and colleagues while working, but quite frankly anyone who so much as feigned an interest in the things that captivated us. I write also -surprise, surprise! [cheap seque to invite you to check out my new blog site at paulswhyte.com]. Whether our individual efforts prove to be in vain is really for others to judge and regardless of the answer, we/I must admit we were driven to it and not for any accounting of the number of ‘conversions’ we made [and not even for the fame and fortune!].

   “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” K.Marx

It is true to acknowledge the existence of a dominant ideology within society, but freedom of thought arises from the critical analysis of those underlying oftentimes philosophical thoughts and values, questioning their truth especially within a historical framework. History is littered with ‘dominant’ ideologies that were transformed and/or deposed. It may also be true for example as you state “that there is no absolute truth” but that itself is a historically contingent claim. Our inability [to date] to assert ‘an absolute truth’ does not necessarily negate its existence, but simply denotes only our present limitations to human knowledge.

The trajectories of our academic careers are remarkably similar. My early exposure to the writings of Marx, limited like every other English-speaking student/scholar of our generation by the sheer lack of translations of much of his work into English (now it is all available) was nevertheless profound and revelatory. My appetite became voracious leading me to graduate schools in the UK and a lengthy dissertation on Marx’s theory of revolution and the SDF in late 19th c. British politics.

I concur wholeheartedly with your statement about the gains that accrue from a lifelong practice of reading and research. The list of authors whose paths I have crossed now seems legion. Has my earlier career’s affection, and more importantly, affiliation to the Marxist viewpoint wavered – yes many times; altered – not fundamentally; been abandoned – never. Marx’s detailed and nuanced historical materialist conception, particularly as applied to industrial capitalism, seems more accurate today (as you say) in the expansion of globalization and the widening income inequality gap.

I likewise see Marx as an optimist about the unfolding of human history. The class struggle is at the very core of his theory and ‘projections’ about its “inevitable” disappearance [in a future communist society] still strike me as essentially correct. Where I think I depart from you, and many others as well, is in the hope or assertion that such a transformation can ultimately be achieved by peaceful and democratic means. Greater “participatory democracy” might be an advance on the current situation, but I am reminded of the earlier hope placed in the trade union movement to significantly change the overall conditions of the many in a capitalist economy, and we both know how that has turned out.

You are right to state that peoples’ material interests are foundational, and consequentially that their ideas are forged within the context of their particular class affiliation. Most are blinded/hoodwinked from this truism by a dominant ideological lens, representing as Marx said

  “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling    material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” [German Ideology]

This creates for our time promotion of the merits of possessive individualism and the fruits of capitalist accumulation. 

Take courage and write/speak on because as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary troubadours [Bruce Cockburn] said so eloquently, “but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”.

Refugees are us.

It’s interesting how opinions are so polarized over the issue of accepting refugees into Canada. Not surprising, just interesting. Generally the more conservative among us are overwhelmingly dead set against accepting refugees and sometimes even legitimate immigrants. They fear that their cherished institutions will be undermined and  that their neighbourhoods will become unsafe or at least unwelcoming because of all ‘those people’ speaking a foreign language, wearing different clothes and putting up weird ‘churches’. The more liberal among us see the value of accepting refugees often arguing that refugees tend to enrich their chosen country and not endanger it. No matter what political stripe you paint yourself with, there is no doubt that accepting refugees is always a challenge. 

From a liberal perspective, Canada has a very spotty record when it comes to refugees and conservatives often have a blind spot when it comes to the history of migrations into this country. There have been a number of more or less major refugee/migrant movements into this country over the centuries, others that required people to leave Canada and some that required movement within the country but still qualify as refugee crises in my opinion. 

One of the first was the internal refugee crisis perpetrated by the French colonial government pre-1763 in this part of the world when they created refugee camps for indigenous people, forcing them out of the Québec forests and into camps that were eventually called reservations and bribing them to adopt Christianity. 

In the mid-18th Century, the British forced many thousands of Acadians into exile to Louisiana eventually creating the Cajun culture there. Of course Louisiana was a French colony at the time and probably welcomed their brothers and sisters from the north. Nevertheless, the Acadians were refugees. 

The United Empire Loyalists during the war of independence in the United States in the late 18th Century were essentially refugees from the conflict down south. Many Ontarians today are the descendants of the Loyalists. They may want to forget that they are descendants of refugees. 

The Irish famine in the mid-19th Century created a huge refugee problem for the colony that was eventually to become 
Canada. The Irish were thought to be crude and illiterate and entirely unacceptable as future residents of Canada. The Americans looked on with horror at the influx of Irish refugees into the U.S. citing their crudity, their brutishness and their loose sexual mores. Many of the descendants of the Irish refugee/migrants of that time are now fully integrated into Québec society, many speaking only French. In Boston, the Irish came to have a lot of influence, many becoming police officers. Still, a dangerous, unsightly lot by all accounts. 

Before the advent of the 20th Century, indigenous people all over North America were forced into refugee camps and marched all over the place to ensure that they would be out of the way of settlement and the exploitation of resources. 

In my next post I tackle Canada’s shameful record in the 20th Century with regard to the acceptance of refugees and migrants from Asia and Europe. It seems we react out of fear of people we don’t know and with whom we don’t share language and culture. Instead of seeing the power and potential of population diversity we have often reacted with anger and fear at the influx of ‘strangers.’  However, the truth is that many of us are the descendants of refugees, whether we know it or not, like it or not.

Craziness in Paris – A long term view.

I left off my last post writing that I would consider what we could do about incidents like the one  that shook Paris to the core on November 13th,

Pundits and commentators all over television and the web are suggesting possibilities for putting an end to extremist violence from bombing Syria to hell, killing all Muslims, getting more spiritual and following the word of God, thinking positive thoughts, getting at the Saudis for funding the Islamic State, and that’s only for starters. These kinds of events bring out the most outrageous ideas in us. Most ideas about doing away with extremist violence are fear-based to be sure, and they invariably target ‘the other’ and hardly ever involve changing our own ideas or behaviours.

Frankly, I don’t think that there is currently any way of stopping extremist violence regardless of where it arises and who the perpetrators might be.

The violence that was unleashed in Paris last Friday was an expression of deep-seated contradictions and conditions in our very own social relations, relations that are now evident all over the world. In our rush to secure our continued prosperity we accept that our governments need to protect the institutions and organizations we’ve come to recognize as the underpinnings of  our prosperity, that is business and private accumulation of wealth. This has been true for centuries. There is no need to recite the litany of violence and carnage that litters our history. The underlying conditions that accounted for the slaughter of French Protestants and peasant riots in the 16th Century have not materially changed. Before the rise to dominance of capitalist productive relations in Europe the wane of the social relations around what we call the Middle Ages produced disruption and dislocations unprecedented previously, especially when combined with the terrible consequences of the Black Death in the middle of the 15th Century. Actually, the Jews were considered responsible for the plague in some quarters and ‘large groups of them were massacred.’* Eventually people were torn away from the land they had occupied for centuries and forced into labour in cities, a process that escalated tremendously after the mid-18th Century. No, mass murder and destruction in human society are not new. Ironically, as Ernest Becker points out in Escape from Evil, most murderous rampages in history were perpetrated by people with the intention of eliminating evil, that is whatever they considered might hinder the prosperity and health they determine is their birthright.

In the absence of rational and reasonable explanations for ‘natural’ disasters or man-made ones like the recent massacres in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and elsewhere, people generally resort to fantasy or fantastical explanation. The veracity of claims of blame is a victim of the fear and loathing of ‘the other’, those sub-human beasts who dare to threaten our prosperity although with our economic imperialism, colonialism and the need for capital accumulation, we have felt perfectly justified in threatening theirs. Can we really believe that the population of Africa welcomed European conquerers during the partitioning of  the African continent between 1873 and 1896 among European powers determined to make business safe for exploitation wherever it chooses to extract raw materials or exploit cheap labour? Can we not see the connection between our colonialist exploitation of peoples all over the world and their sometimes violent opposition to said exploitation? When and how do people think the countries of the Middie East were created and by whom?

I don’t know what motivated the gunmen and bombers who chose to terrorize Paris last Friday.  One explanation I cannot accept is that they were mad or insane although I wouldn’t deny that in some cases there may have been elements of madness in their actions. Madness, according to many theorists among them Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, is socially constructed and is a label attached to people in certain contexts and situations where they ‘fail’ to conform to social norms like dissidents in the Soviet Union for instance.

I’m afraid that our individualistic explanations just don’t cut it when it comes to violence. What we are faced with in acts like those that occurred in Paris is the institutionalized acceptance of violence embedded in every aspect of our culture and social relations. We should not be surprised when we are faced with this kind of terror. In fact, I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

No, I see no end to the murderous rampages that we experienced in Paris this past Friday, at least not until we completely revolutionize our social relations, especially those that create poverty and diminish people because of who they are, what they look like or believe or what ‘resources’ they may be sitting on. People will not be convinced by rational argument, either. They will react irrationally to any threat they perceive to themselves, their families, countries and the value systems that encompass them all. They define evil as anyone and anything that is ‘other’.

The only hope I have is that we may eventually come to think of evil as corporate concentration, environmental degradation and the impoverishment of vast numbers of people on this planet. I’m not holding my breath.

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*This quote is from Norbert Elias’ book What is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University), page 26

Craziness in Paris on Friday, November 13th, 2015

It’s difficult not to fall prey to the anger that tends to envelop us when we hear of the kinds of atrocities that an apparently well-coordinated number of gunmen and suicide bombers managed to pull off in Paris yesterday. Indeed, we should feel anger. Lots of people happily going about their lives on a Fall Friday evening in Paris had their lives shattered by bullets and shrapnel. So many people died. Their families will never recover from the trauma. 

There is no excusing the actions of the perpetrators of the violence that shocked Paris yesterday. Their actions were impossibly harsh and barbaric. 

Some people find easy and ready explanations for why the men involved in this massacre did what they did. These explanations generally are based on the conclusion that only madmen could do such a thing. That makes it possible to consider such  actions idiosyncratic and not rooted in the very fabric of what it means to be human. 

That’s not how I explain this kind of disturbing behaviour. These men were not mad. In fact they were willing to put their lives on the line to achieve their own personal sense of immortality but also to secure the immortality of their social and cultural values and institutions, call them Muslim or Arab or whatever, it matters little. Their main  goal was to help rid the planet of what they consider the evil of the West. The evil that is the biggest threat to their world. And it is, of course.

Anyone understanding the history of the Middle East, especially during the last few centuries of colonialism and economic imperialism, cannot but conclude that the region has been overrun by European powers for their own aggrandizement producing massive dislocation and displacement of the local people. 

Whenever people are trampled upon for the sake of capital accumulation and corporate power there is bound to be disaffection and anger. Push back is going to happen. Some people who don’t have the ‘moral brakes’ that most of us have will push back hard as they did in Paris yesterday. We should not be surprised by that, but reacting as we  have historically to such atrocities has not worked to bring the peace most of us crave. Is there anything to be done?

To be continued…