The Walrus

October 2006

by The Walrus Readers
Letters · From the October 2006 magazine
Share
Plant Life

Michael Posner’s article on ayahuasca (“Plants with Soul,” July/August) was insightful and well researched. I would point out, though, that what may have proven beneficial to shamans or enlightened individuals can become a fad — and a dangerous one at that — in the hands of people seeking a shortcut to enlightenment. Consciousness can be altered without the hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant side effects of psychotropic drugs. Other methods for dispelling the illusory nature of day-to-day reality are also available, and practitioners abound. Posner has convinced me that ayahuasca can accentuate consciousness, but nothing will convince me that this seed can germinate in a fallow field.

Ken Klonsky
Vancouver, BC


Michael Posner offers an interesting potted history of a US Supreme Court ruling, but overall he seems unaware of the extensive psychological and neurobiological research on psychotropic substances. This leads him to put forth indefensible mystical claims throughout his piece.

Posner’s main argument is a simplistic variant on the creationist case against evolution — specifically, the claim that the eye is too complex to have evolved through natural selection. He even rehashes the old saw about Darwinian theory being circular. But that is hardly a trump card; these rhetorical strategies have been challenged effectively by a number of authors, including the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

For millennia, low-technology social groups in the Amazon have undoubtedly discovered combination drug therapies by trial and error. Pharmaceutical companies use the same method, although they apply sophisticated algorithms and test hierarchies. I am inclined to see claims that native peoples have mystical forms of ecological knowledge, as distinct from traditionally acquired, quasi-scientific knowledge gained by observation and experience, as a higher form of unexamined racism. Unsubstantiated claims about alternative forms of knowledge are essentially political and should be addressed with that awareness. Scientific claims can be political too, but it helps when they are adequately substantiated.

When Posner complains that science is utterly dismissive of mystical notions about common psychological experiences and imagery, he is creating a straw man: science is merely a method that aims to produce more reliable beliefs. It can be practiced by anyone, whether in Ottawa or Iquitos. There is no reason to leap to so exotic and untestable an idea as spiritual communication with plants to understand the results, but that is precisely what Posner is determined to do.

“How could nature not be conscious if our own consciousness is produced by nature??” asks Posner. This appears to be an elementary logical error, since parts of systems do not necessarily possess the same properties as the whole. Maybe consciousness is an emergent property that only becomes possible and discernible at the systemic level of the brain? No one would disagree that this remains an interesting unresolved scientific and philosophical issue. But Posner presents his exposition as though it were a viable alternative to sound critical thinking, when in fact it belongs firmly in the realm of religion. He even manages an obligatory swipe at George W. Bush, as though any political administration in Washington, DC — Republican or Democrat — would not have appealed a lower-court decision that it saw as a potential threat to drug laws.

By the way, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 is an interesting law, and one I wasn’t previously aware of. What use might Christian fundamentalists make of this law in the future? The more interesting issue may be that the Bush administration could find itself arguing against the provisions of a law that probably finds favour, under different circumstances, with its own political base.

Byron Rogers
Ottawa, Ontario


Michael Posner responds:

Ken Klonsky is right to suggest that other means of reaching mind-altering states are readily available. However, it’s highly unlikely that ayahuasca would ever become a pleasure seeker’s fad. It’s too rigorous and exacting a discipline. Nothing in the extensive literature on ayahuasca indicates that regular users enter the experience with anything other than seriousness of purpose. With ayahuasca, I am told, there are no shortcuts to enlightenment.

In regard to Byron Rogers’ missive: To my knowledge, no one has effectively resolved the circularity problem I identified in Darwinian evolutionary theory. Furthermore, while pharmaceutical companies may use trial and error to test prospective drugs, the notion that Amazonian shamans discovered ayahuasca in this manner is hard to believe.

The racism, alas, works quite the other way, with Western society’s assumption that because indigenous peoples see the universe through a different cultural prism, their views are somehow inferior. Science is indeed “a method that aims to produce more reliable beliefs,” but certain fields of research are institutionally sanctioned and funded while others are not. The scientific community has shown minimal interest in investigating the knowledge claims of indigenous peoples.

“Maybe consciousness is an emergent property that only becomes possible and discernible at the systemic level of the brain,” writes Rogers. Maybe. The problem is that no one — not the neuroscientists or the phenomenologists — really knows much about human consciousness.


War and Peace and Gilmour

I was in a bookstore on a Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, in a blue funk, when I came upon David Gilmour’s beauty of a memoir (“My Life with Tolstoy,” July/August).

War and Peace was one of those books I’d always meant to read... sometime. I considered it a penance, like losing twenty pounds — something to be put off for another day. I got the impression Gilmour felt the same way initially but was hooked early on. He’d also expected to be bored and began reading the novel in place of a sedative. “I have a check mark beside the paragraph where, even in the rollercoaster grip of a white rum hangover, I began to pay acute attention,” he writes.

Gilmour goes on to describe “a reading experience of such transport, of such tenderness” that it blocked out everything else. I immediately bought the novel. From the first page, War and Peace has been everything Gilmour claimed. I’m only sorry it has taken me until my seventies to discover these characters. I’m on page 687 now and could probably finish the book tomorrow if I gave up reading passages aloud. “Stop!” said my partner, pointing to the door, as I started in with today’s update on the Rostovs, the Kuragins, Prince Bezukhov, and the Bolkonskys. Something else I learned from Gilmour’s memoir: a love of War and Peace can lose you friends.

Anne Burgess
Ottawa, Ontario


Johnston’s Smallwood

I laughed out loud at Wayne Johnston’s Imaginings (“It’s a Smallwood, After All,” July/August). There are still people in Newfoundland who think Joey Smallwood was the second coming of Jesus Christ and would love to see him resurrected in all his power and glory. This was brought home to me recently, when a former graduate-school acquaintance?—?now an internationally acclaimed scholar of Nazism and Soviet Communism who teaches at a major American university?—?was awarded an honorary degree by Memorial University.

In 1969, this scholar and I were studying history at Memorial. I was spending some time among a group of Liberal Reformers working to oust Smallwood and on one occasion voiced some criticism of the great man in my colleague’s presence. He attacked me as a reactionary who wanted to take Newfoundland back to the dark ages before Smallwood’s arrival as Newfoundland’s saviour! Much to my amazement, he still believes this nonsense, if quotes attributed to him recently in the local media are correct. Just goes to show that a man can be a learned scholar and still fail to see that Emperor Smallwood had no clothes!

Art Meaney
St. John’s, Newfoundland


Doomed Voyage

Helen Humphreys’ Field Note about an expedition to Greenland in 2000 on the Lyubov Orlova (“My Doomed Voyage,” July/August) refers to events that took place the following year. Humphreys writes that the ship was refused docking privileges because the company couldn’t afford the fees, and that the boat’s Russian owner ordered the ship south to Gibraltar, passengers and all.

I was one of twenty-seven passengers trapped alongside twelve travel-agency staff members when the Toronto-based tour company in charge of the ship filed for bankruptcy, forfeiting both goods and goodwill. One of the company’s lesser partners was a Russian businessman (not on board) who owned the ship itself and needed cash for docking fees and fuel to get both ship and crew home.

As we neared the Westmann Islands, our last scheduled visit before a planned docking at Reykjavik, Iceland, the businessman issued an ultimatum: either the passengers anted up $20,000 (US) within two hours, or the ship would sail to Santa Cruz. As there was no response, the Lyubov Orlova turned south. Our revised destination was Gibral-tar. We faced five days of hard sailing down the North Atlantic, and it was rumoured that upon arrival, we would be dumped into two or three Zodiacs (rubber motorboats used for “wet landings” when no dock is available). This would, however, have presented the Russian businessman with another loss, because each Zodiac is worth upward of $15,000.

Our ordeal was not life threatening, but it was genuine. We were prisoners, trapped by the icy North Atlantic. Some people were at risk, with necessary medication due to run out if they stayed away too long. The ship was fully stocked with delicious food and drink, enough for the cruise that was to follow ours — to Greenland, coincidentally, the same tour Humphreys had taken the year before. The Russian crew kept on making beds and serving food. We were allowed one phone or fax call each, at $17 (US) per minute, to try to plan for what looked to be a considerably longer trip than we had originally signed up for. People had to change their arrangements for extended care for elderly relatives, children, dogs, and plants.

My own plan had been to stop over for four days in Iceland to visit a cousin. When she phoned for arrival information, she was told only that the ship was on its way to Gibraltar and that I was on board. Her email to me, received on my return home, said, “How you will be able to solve your trouble is unforeseen to me.”

But someone did solve it. After negotiations, an investor with the Canadian tour company agreed to pay up. The Russian businessman would receive his money when he deposited us at the nearest port with an international airport — Dublin, as it turned out. Most of us spent a day in Dublin, sandwiched between two nights in a luxury hotel. The anxiety we suffered might not have been for our lives, but rather for the extra, unforeseen pinch on our pocketbooks. But we were alive, alive, oh!

Betty Jane Wylie
Toronto, Ontario


Confederate Grumblings

If Ken Alexander (“A Family Affair,” July/August) can call Jean Charest a “federalist,” he is vastly out of touch with Quebec. I invite Alexander to spend some time here with writers, artists, and even politicians. The fiscal imbalance may be as illusory as the tooth fairy — the result, as others have suggested, of the way we Quebecers choose to spend our money (on universal daycare, bloated public services, and the like). However, people here believe in it the way they believe in Jesus Christ (suddenly the crucifix above the seat of the president of the National Assembly takes on a new significance). It’s part of the political landscape. Calling the province “the bastard child of Confederation” might help Alexander work through a fit of pique, but it will surely do nothing to move a discussion forward or to bring this country together.

Beverly Akerman
Montreal, Quebec


Ken, Ken, Ken: “Harper has decided to side with she who bleats loudest” — So when Dick runs with Jane, he runs with she? Ugh, me Tarzan, you Jane. Just because who is nominative and the subject of bleats doesn’t mean that its antecedent must be nominative as well. You need an object with the preposition with, and so you want “with her who bleats loudest.” What’s next, “him and Harper voted against the bill??”

Richard Burgess
Ottawa, Ontario


Ken Alexander responds:

Beverly, I’m not certain that Quebecers believe in the fiscal imbalance as they do in Jesus Christ, but I will look into the matter. As to your other points, context, some say, is everything. The word federalist, as in “‘federalist’ Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest” was purposely put in quotation marks, and further on in “A Family Affair,” I describe Charest thus: “once a Tory, now a Liberal, once for Canada, now for ‘asymmetric federalism’ to the cliff-edge of separation.”

Further to context, having been born and raised in Montreal, visiting often, spending family vacations in the Eastern Townships, and most recently, hosting a literary evening for Quebec writers in Old Montreal has given me, perhaps, some insight into “the bastard child of Confederation?—?the one left out in 1982, and cranky ever since.”

Richard, Richard, Richard: You are right. Thank you. I was bleating up the wrong tree, going for lilt and rhythm, and setting aside the need, in this instance, for an objective pronoun.


Romanow’s Lessons

One logical conclusion that can be drawn from Roy Romanow’s essay (“A House Half Built,” June) is that we should not exchange a partially constructed Canadian house for a falling-down American shack. While Canada’s house certainly calls for renovations, the United States, despite its military and economic supremacy, has not bothered to finish work on its foundation. Much of the destruction and loss of life in New Orleans last year would not have occurred had there been enough “state” left in the United States to invest in repairing the levees. The rescue and reconstruction effort in New Orleans is now acknowledged to be a secondary disaster. The breaking of the levees and the ensuing chaos may have been blamed on individuals, but the fact is that the US government had long ago shed its responsibility to protect the lives and health of its citizens. Why would anything else be expected when tens of thousands of Americans die annually because their jobs do not pay enough, their safety net is almost non-existent, and debating universal health care is an idle sport instead of a serious policy concern? Rich Americans live in their gated “culture of contentment” while tax cuts to the affluent escalate. After all, there are still corporate fortunes being made in Iraq. Trading our imperfect Canadian history of shared destiny for an “everyone one for themselves” philosophy is a bad deal for Canadians.

Wayne Helgason
Executive Director
Social Planning Council of Winnipeg Winnipeg, Manitoba


The civility of a society should be judged by how it cares for the disadvantaged and the underprivileged. How a nation treats its poor, homeless, sick, and disabled is the clearest indication of how civilized it is. Building wheelchair ramps is not enough.

The equation of “less tax equals more money in your pocket” is little more than an advertisement, and like all good ads, it leaves out most of the fine print. The political advertisers who employ such slogans know their target audience very well: busy professionals, whether young or middle-aged, who don’t have the time or inclination to measure the effects such policies have on elderly citizens, nor to think about how the gradual erosion of institutions will affect them when they are no longer young and healthy. This fine print needs to be communicated in a very clear and concise manner.

Hisham Abdel-Rahman
Calgary, Alberta


Romanow’s timely essay warns that our great Canadian house is under threat of demolition. Considering the subversion of progressive public policies that we are seeing in the current political climate, this analogy could not be more apt. To bolster our foundations, we must challenge the wilful blindness of ideological extremists and the failure of the market to sufficiently remunerate labour or to efficiently produce and allocate social, educational, and health services. Let’s remember that the state is an economically necessary entity and that market failure is what led us to establish public services in the first place.

We can reverse the escalating trend of converting public wealth into private accumulation by re-establishing a progressive income tax system that effectively redistributes resources. We could also re-institute a basic level of goods and services to which every Canadian is entitled. Let’s use a cost-sharing approach to health care, social services, and post-secondary education so that federal reimbursements are tied to provincial expenditures targeted on our shared priorities. The rules for equalization should also be changed so that provinces only receive payments when they provide the social minimum to all of their citizens. After all, pan-Canadian equity of goods and services is the reason equalization was established to begin with. Canadians are looking for renovation, not demolition.

Sid Frankel
Associate Professor of Social Work
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Read On, Curious Mind