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The Writing on the Wall

The subterranean (and perhaps metaphorical) walls of our cities are teeming with the words of would-be prophets, but we’re being made oblivious by the meaningless. Peter Stockland warns that truth is getting jumbled—right under our noses.

6 minute read
The Writing on the Wall October 18, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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Given the media infatuation with cannabis legalization yesterday, it struck me as noteworthy that a key comparable went largely – entirely? – unnoticed. 

The nation’s massed bureaucracies, driven by inexorable political will, were able to put in place a dauntingly complex regulatory scheme to further the cause of ever-more varied legal intoxication. The heroic task of meeting the needs of stoners from sea to sea to sea was carried off in a blitzkrieg of about 15 months. 

All of which still leaves us, 150 years after Confederation, unable to ensure clean water for many of the country’s Indigenous reserves. Fifteen months for pot heads. And 1.5 centuries for First People. By our priorities, we shall know us.  

A priority worth considering is taking notice of such comparatives the next time someone utters the insufferably smug stop-think: “The world needs more Canada.” Closer to the truth might be that Canada needs more Canada, at least a Canada that puts its energies into making a reality of our infatuated ideal of ourselves. 


The absurd saga from south of the border involving Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry had its own quirky counterpart on this side of the line. Sen. Warren, for those who might have been otherwise occupied teaching their cat Persian or changing the oil on the kids’ piano, proudly announced the results of a DNA test showing that she might have somewhere around 1/1000 of a genetic squiggle indicating she has Indigenous heritage. 

It matters, we’re told, because President Trump once called her out – what else has the leader of the free world got to do with all the free time on his hands? – for her claims of having a forbearer who was some part Cherokee and some part Delaware. 

As the tale wagged its way north, prominent Indigenous voices in Canada decried Warren’s attempt to insinuate herself into the guarded realm of First Personhood when she is, visibly, patently, unequivocally, well, white. The collective message, chillier than winter’s first icy blast, on both social media and in response to journalistic prodding, was that mere DNA does not national identity make. Blood alone is not a free pass for belonging.

On its face, it seems a valid objection. In fact, it’s a wonderful example of the growing political habit of proving your case by cleverly arguing against what the other party didn’t say. It’s more than just the age-old straw man tactic. It’s saying, if you’ll forgive a tortured Wizard of Oz analogy, that the tin man is to be condemned for his failure to be a proper cowardly lion. 

As I understand it, Warren herself never claimed Indigenous membership. She said she has Indigenous ancestry, borne out by her DNA. The distinction isn’t just jesuitical. 

Recently, one of my relatives submitted to one these ancestry DNA tests. It shows our family has a small percentage of Jewish heritage. I’m extremely proud of that. Nothing could please me more than to trace my ancestry to the shtetl rabbi of whom, in my dreamier moments, I am convinced I’m the reincarnation. But I would never claim that makes me Jewish. 

Neither, as far as I can glean, did Warren claim such about her miniscule amount of Native blood. At worst, she made an admittedly dubious claim that she has greater empathy for Indigenous suffering because of her ancient ancestry. It is a vain and silly boast to say I have mystical capacities “in my heart” that permit me to understand you more perfectly. But it is not me saying I am you, or your family, or your tribe, or your nation, or your best friend Harry. 

Political activists might gleefully elide the distinction under the rubric of rhetorical gamesmanship. Journalists must not. In any society, there must be a body of people who insist that it is what is said – i.e. what is actually and truly said ­– that matters in a way the Elizabeth Warrens of the world never will. 

We are, as a culture, sunk in the horrible bog of behaving as if the truth is merely the last thing said until the next thing said comes along. It is not. True is true. And it requires vigilant distinction of meaning, even when what is meant arises from the absurd.


As I surfaced from the catacombs of Montreal’s metro system on Tuesday, an intriguing bit of impromptu festoonery made me stop and think.

“Animals are not food,” yelped some quasi-epileptic graffiti spray painted in the vivid red of splenetic righteousness.

By a perfect alignment of random peas on the cosmic plate, it happened to be International Food Day, and I had just been at city hall where Montreal’s mayor and a foyer full of dignitaries were celebrating civic efforts to lead both the country and the world in urban food production. Displays around the room provided fascinating synopses of how the raising, harvesting, transportation, and sale of victuals had shaped the geography and culture of Canada’s only real city from the 17th century onward. 

Even the substantial historical contribution of Montreal’s religious orders to the feeding of the populace was acknowledged. Such credit is, shall we say, rarely granted to anything that requires mentioning Holy Mother Church non-negatively. It was gratifying to see that she can still feed her sheep.

Yet here I was, moments later and a short distance away, being told by an anonymous nutritional gnostic authority that all I had learned was false testimony. In the revised catechism of meat and two veg, the meat part stands revealed as rank heresy. Animals are not, whatever we’ve been indoctrinated to believe, food.

Call me a free-thinking sceptic if you like, but I found this new dogma hard to swallow. It struck me that even Wee Mousie being chased by Fang the House Cat across the chill morning dew of a suburban lawn would intuit it was about to fulfill its ontological destiny as breakfast. Sacred salmon being scooped in bucket loads by the paws of spirit grizzlies roaming the shores of Gaia’s Elysian streams get the message: chow, fish. And with all due respect to the poet William Blake, shouldn’t the question that comes after his “little lamb, who made thee?” be “little lamb, who ate thee?” It certainly should be if Brother Coyote is in the wind or the Big Bad Wolf is retreating from the debacle at the Three Little Pigs.

So, let us assume that the sermon on the Mountain Street Metro stairs was just bad abridgement. Its longer message about animals not being food was cut short – cur-tailed, as it were – by the demands of time and the hot breath of beefy security guards. Extrapolate with me that the full intention was to say animals are not food for people. Alas, that saves nothing for the simple reason that it is demonstrably untrue.  

From the brontosaurus burgers of the Flintstone era to the contemporary consumption of Costco steaks the size of flying saucers, people have been known to eat and eat and eat animal meat. I know a hale and hearty young man in Ottawa who once ate 64 ounces of Texas beef in a single sitting, for which he was rewarded by having his picture put up on the restaurant wall along with the glaze-eyed mugs of earlier super protein over-achievers. He’s an ultra-marathon runner among carnivores but is hardly alone in that pursuit.

If it’s simply a matter of the existing reality that animals are, in fact, food for both animals and people, then the exhortation might have been meant prescriptively, even imperatively. Animals must not be food for people! 

Alas, this, too, flies directly in the face of a certain Mr. Charles Darwin, whose holy writ of 160 years ago teaches us that people are nothing but animals. You see the problem. If animals are food for other animals, and people are animals, how can animals not be food for people who are animals?

The easiest way out of these tangled entrails, of course, would be simply to dismiss the injunction as a silly and meaningless graffiti scrawl. But as the harmonic oracles Simon and Garfunkel long ago schooled us in “The Sounds of Silence”: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” What does it profit us to pick and choose our prophets as if we are preferring lamb chops over pork chops, that is as a matter of taste?

I believe the quasi-epileptic hand that scrawled on the subway wall is a prophetic voice, albeit once whose thinking is obviously as mangled as my last metaphor.  The thinking called forth is, already mother’s milk to at least the provisional wing of the vegetarian liberation army. Given the way our culture proceeds, before long vast numbers of the rest of us will be thinking along the same lines without even noticing how our thinking has changed, that what we’re thinking is illogical nonsense, or – wait for it – that it can’t logically be true.

In Animal Farm, George Orwell prophesized that “four legs good, two legs bad” would become the watch words for the totalitarianism of obliviousness. Mindful of Orwell, those of us who have listened this week to the meaningless media bleats around cannabis legalization know exactly what we are watching come to pass. 


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