On the Holocaust
I agree with what Rabbi Emil Fackenheim told young Rick (“The Autobiography of an Idea,” Rick Salutin, December): the Holocaust was a unique historical event “because it was evil for evil’s sake.” Why do people have difficulty accepting that?
As an idea simpliciter, the genocidal aspect of the Holocaust might not make it unique; there is nothing new about wanting to annihilate an entire race. According to Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who spoke at the 2007 McGill University Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide, mammals usually kill for a reason: to gain territory and power.
But the Holocaust was different. There was nothing substantive to be gained by murdering the Jews. Instead, the worldwide acceptance of anti-Semitism and beliefs about racial purity and superiority proved fertile ground for Germany’s initial plan to expel the Jews to evolve into a full-fledged state effort for a “final solution,” no matter what the cost. And, of course, such self-destructiveness could occur again if the conditions were right.
Salutin suggests that the Holocaust took on greater and greater centrality during the post-war era, but awareness is not the same as understanding—people became aware of it and then lost in their attempt to understand it. For that reason, there was a tendency to downplay its enormity. Some diluted its uniqueness by linking it to other atrocities; for others, it gradually became less distinct as the term Holocaust was misused. This was a phenomenon observed not only among non-Jews but increasingly among Jews as well.
Criticism of the Holocaust’s becoming “the new normal” is well placed; the Holocaust should not be blindly used as the necessary imprimatur for dealing with national and international issues. However, this does not mean it should be placed on some kind of intellectual pedestal, to be looked at only occasionally. Nor does it mean that the Holocaust’s centrality to human or world affairs is wrong. And certainly the centrality of its impact upon Israel and Israeli policies should not be dismissed.
What we need is an educational format that draws out the lessons of the Holocaust, focusing attention on the circumstances that preceded it and the consequences that flowed from it, in a manner that doesn’t diminish its uniqueness.
This is no easy task. Emil Fackenheim is an example of a survivor who could make people understand. But most survivors were unlike him. Their personal tragedies were suppressed, not discussed; earning a living in a new land, and trying to acculturate to new customs and languages (often with no relatives to help) took precedence over rehashing the nightmares of the past. The Holocaust was central to their lives, but it was not analyzed in terms of its impact.
The challenge that we face, as the survivors die, is to teach in the absence of the teachers who taught Rick Salutin and me.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies
Tempest Hits Shores
So Port Elgin has finally made a big-time publication (“Thinking Outside the Big Box,” December). I am neither an “aging local”nor a “weekend blow-in,” rather someone who chose to retire from Toronto to Southampton, the smaller, less “soulless” town between Port Elgin and the reserve (the trio of communities is officially known as Saugeen Shores, which sounds like the title of a bad painting). I think I’m qualified to say that Ken Alexander’s editorial was right on, with a few exceptions. Coffee Time is not “down from” the proposed Wal-Mart (it’s farther north), and as far as I know the Sunday New York Times is not and never has been available here. Nitpicking? Perhaps. I spent years as a copy editor, so I can’t help it.
However, a point of perhaps greater significance: since the Walrus piece was published, Saugeen First Nation women have spoken out after apparently being stereotyped in the Friends of Saugeen Shores campaign as inclined to prostitution and vulnerable to assault — a stereotype Alexander reinforces. These women are justifiably furious at being used without their permission to promote someone else’s agenda. Whoever thought that up has ruined any chance we had of keeping Wal-Mart out.
The rape of the landscape and small-town values is what we ought to be concerned about. Alexander is correct that the pro-development town council is blind to the probability that small shops that have been around for generations will disappear. What used to be, and still is to some extent, an idyllic place is beginning to look like any other suburban mall.
The Friends of Saugeen Shores have never referred to the activities of First Nations women in the area in a derogatory fashion — not when we presented our case to the Ontario Municipal Board hearings, and not in speaking to The Walrus.
One of our expert witnesses at the omb hearings, Valencia Root-Anoquot of Saugeen First Nation, testified about the extra risks in terms of personal safety First Nations women face, having farther to travel with fewer safe transportation options. It is a terrible fact that in Canada, First Nations women are six times more likely to have a violent crime committed against them than are non-native women.
At one point during the hearing, Mary Eberts, lead counsel for the Native Women’s Association of Canada since 1991 and our expert witness on the constitutional and legal position of First Nations women, corrected Wal-Mart lawyer Dennis Wood when he tried to insinuate that the above statistics mainly represented sex trade workers. Eberts told him that if he thought she was going to agree that there were sex trade workers in Port Elgin and that these were the only women who would be at risk, then he was wrong.
We are suing the Shoreline Beacon and 98 the Beach radio, because we believe they knowingly spread malicious and incorrect information about what was said at the omb hearing and about the broader intentions of the Friends of Saugeen Shores. We never would have expected The Walrus to help spread this misinformation, even if it was inadvertent.
Friends of Saugeen Shores
Port Elgin, ON
I collaborated with Drs. Alexander, Hadaway, and Beyerstein on Rat Park, the now thirty-year-old research that challenged Skinner box results undergirding the popular belief that “drugs cause addiction as surely as lightning causes thunder” (“The Rat Trap,” December). Typically, the hungry rat in a Skinner box presses a lever to get food. This stimulates its “pleasure centres,” brain structures at least 250 million years old. Injecting a tiny dose of morphine near these pleasure centres will also cause a rat to press a lever to get more. Sounds like an easy explanation of morphine addiction.
The problem is that humans have complex responses to even simple stimuli. We all know how satisfying it is to have a big glass of water on a hot day, or a good meal when you’re hungry. But would you like twenty pieces of chocolate cake after the meal? How about a glass of cold water when it’s freezing outside? Perhaps half a bottle of whisky before your driving test? Why not?
In the real world, a piece of chocolate cake is only rewarding if you want it. In fact, it can be aversive if you wanted the crème brûlée instead, or if you think that your date, who is on a diet, will suffer while she watches you eat it. In humans, pleasure critically depends upon one’s circumstances, and it takes many surprising forms. People are pursuing pleasure when they line up and pay to be scared half to death on a roller coaster.
Most people don’t actually like morphine. It’s often a challenge to get patients with chronic pain to take enough of it for long enough to control their symptoms and get better. Patients with no substance abuse history who become addicted to morphine are so rare that they are nearly impossible to find. Even people with a history of heroin addiction tend to use insufficient pain medication. They gave up the drug because they don’t want it anymore.
Morphine probably stimulates the pleasure centres no matter what state people are in, but other parts of the brain seem to modify or even block its signals, depending upon myriad circumstances that are difficult to control in the lab. Rat Park changed just one variable (social housing), and the whole morphine-brain-pleasure model fell apart.
Perhaps we should have been able to predict the poor reception our research has received. Rat Park created new problems for brain researchers, which apparently blocked stimulation of their pleasure centres.
Dr. Robert B. Coambs
Health Promotion Research
Good Will Hunting
In “Unlimited Editions” (December), Timothy Taylor describes John Meier’s frustrations as he gathers information for a bibliography of the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. Last spring, I grew similarly frustrated while fact-checking a question about Roderick Haig-Brown, the namesake of one of British Columbia’s annual literary awards. Had he received the Governor General’s Award for best juvenile fiction in 1948 for his adventure story Saltwater Summer? The list of prizewinners on the GG website starts with the 1949 winner, and a call to the reference librarian at the Canada Council for the Arts only complicated the puzzle.
Further inquiries here in Vancouver put me on to John Meier. He confessed that early on in his project he had identified the cumulative Canada Council list as incomplete and unreliable. But he recalled seeing something in correspondence from the years prior to 1948 about the establishment of a Governor General’s Award for juvenile fiction, which he was able to confirm with secondary sources. Based on that information, I was able to determine that Haig-Brown had indeed won the first GG for best juvenile fiction. Meier’s huge recall and tenacious research was invaluable to me. I have no doubt he will assemble more missing pieces for a fuller picture of Canada’s literary history.
West Coast Book Prize Society
The picture of the Queen on the cover of the December issue is worth more than a thousand words. Not only is it a beautiful likeness; it is irreverent. I wonder, after fifty-six years in the limelight, is Her Majesty thinking, “I ought to hand the whole bloody nonsense over to Charles”? Or did she suddenly remember that she forgot to tell the butler to open the door to the sunroom?
If I were the Queen, or even a monarchist, I would be upset with the ugly photo you placed on the cover of your December issue. Since I’m neither, I got a smile out of knowing the poor lady has so many family irritations. I’m sure my fellow Québécois who were lucky enough to see this beautiful magazine were also tickled.
Cobble Hill, BC
“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.”Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 101–19 Duncan Street, Toronto, ON m5h 3h1. Letters may be edited for length, clarity, and accuracy, and may be published in any medium