44. THE AMYGDALA FACTOR: OUR CIVIC DUTY TO GIVE NO LEGAL OR POLITICAL EFFECTS TO RACE-THINKING

Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer guided by instinct, scarcely human in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. – Theodore Dreiser1

Since we’re not built for reason, Heath writes, rational thought requires social “scaffolding” to prop it up…Language frames our thoughts, schools make us sit still, and the state puts a wedge between us and instincts like tribalism and personal vengeance. Where it comes to thinking reasonably, he argues, we’re almost entirely dependent on our environment.-Ivor Tossell.2

The eradication of social evils was only part of the moral process of taming the passions with the help of art, science and industry- an unceasing battle of mind with animal instincts3

Through painful trial and error, the Western world has developed a form of polity – liberal democracy – which, though patently imperfect, confers upon ordinary people a degree of freedom, respect and security of expectations unmatched in any other political system. Do we really want to jeopardize this accomplishment by embarking upon the troubled waters of racial and ethnic politics? – Tom Flanagan 4

The question for me, over the course of my Presidency, has always been, how do I strengthen the better angels of our nature? And how do we tamp down our tribal impulses?- Barack Obama5

Power and greed, and corruptible seed, seem to be all that there is. – Bob Dylan6

History, self-reflection, common sense and the daily news all teach us that racism and ethnic chauvinism have been common to all human cultures at all times, including the present.

It’s been a constant fact of human life, wretched though it may be. It’s not some disease that can be cured or eradicated at a weekend anti-racism seminar. It’s a damnable part of our human character that at best can only be acknowledged, carefully watched and monitored, and its negative manifestations constantly and vigilantly guarded against.

As Erna Paris, in From Tolerance to Tyranny (above) wrote:

…(it is useful) to acknowledge that the urge to distinguish ourselves- to discriminate in other words-on behalf of the self, the family, the tribe, the religion or the nation is a human characteristic that cannot be wished away with liberal good wishes or happy fantasies of linear progress… To acknowledge what may  be true psychologically is not to condone violence; it is to stop pretending that behaviour we abhor is less than human, and to concede that people and societies will never be perfectible. To deny that ethnic and cultural difference will always exist in varying degrees in mixed societies seems far more certain to invite danger.

Theodore Dalrymple wrote (above) that some political and social arrangements nurture all the excellences of which human nature is capable, while others stunt and deform it. In other words, as that quote applies to this essay, some civic “arrangements” heighten race consciousness, which is very bad, while others, creating more of that “social scaffolding” referred to above,  which encourages rational behavior, lessen and minimize it.

The arrangements comprised of the Indian Act and all its manifestations, and now Haida Nation and Tsilhcot’in and all of their manifestations and sequelae, all so counter to the general Canadian zeitgeist, are increasing negative, exclusionary race consciousness in Canada.

I believe that it’s the civic duty of Canadians, especially our elites, “to create circumstances in which human nature can best fulfil itself”7-to promote social, political and legal arrangements that lessen race consciousness – that appeal to our higher and better instincts as expressed by our liberal values – that, as part of our constant need to vigilantly guard against giving any civic expression to our baser tendenciesfight anything that appeals to or gives expression to them.

And so I argue against the permanent presence of the Indian Act, reserves and race-based rights and entitlements – against Haida Nation  and Tsilhcot’in and UNDRIP  and the permanent, psychologically baser sense of racial apartness they represent.

These new arrangements being foisted on Canadians emanate from exclusionary race-thinking, and as such, are retrograde and stunting to the human spirit. They contain no social scaffolding upon which to build social relations based on forward-looking, racially inclusive, universalist, aspirational rational thought.

The degree to which a country can be regarded as truly civilized is marked by the extent to which it tries, through its institutions, behaviors and modes of speech to render the darker and more dangerous side of our genetic hardwiring – of our human nature – a civic non-issue, or at least tries to cause it to be channeled only positively.

Canada was doing a pretty good job on that account until recently. We were one of the best countries in the world on that score – maybe the best.

But now, as I argue, epitomized by Haida Nation, Tsilhcot’in and the execrable Daniels,  the last with its civically unhealthy (to put it charitably) and completely unscientific focus on so-called “Indian blood”, we’re seriously falling down on that job.

Our elites are dismantling that old liberal, humanist social scaffolding that for so long served us so well. It’s hard to feel that our excellences are being nurtured any more. There’s a lot of dangerous and unhealthy emotion being churned up by this jurisprudence, and by the extreme form of race-based politics  emanating from it, and by the illiberal and balkanizing behavior in which our elites are engaging  in consequence of it.

Canadians -on the whole so tolerant and decent – generally committed to an all-embracing pluralism- to an acceptance of ethno-cultural differences, but married to an ideal of universal equality 8– are being unfairly pushed to the limits of their toleration. Moderate, progressive, rational thinking, that presumes and promotes our essential equality and common humanity, is being ignored and marginalized, thus dangerously leaving the field open to extremists- thus dangerously encouraging others to overly-focus on their race, and to, “reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, start seeing themselves also as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” 9This dangerously perpetuates a politics based on difference, rather than on the vast majority of things we have in common.

This failure on the part of American media and political elites  helped give rise to the repellent Donald Trump (whose rise epitomizes Tony Judt’s dictum: “History records that there is nothing so powerful as a fantasy whose time has come.”10) We have to do everything to avoid this happening in Canada!

As Erna Paris wrote above, that  humans have a racist side to their makeup, which should never be forgotten, overlooked, downgraded or minimized, is indisputable. Professor Wilson writes in The Social Conquest of Earth:

To form Groups, drawing visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups- these are among the absolute universals of human nature and hence of culture…People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own, and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous…In its power and universality, the tendency to form groups and then favour in-group members has the earmarks of instinct.

Martin Luther:

All of us, in our flesh and in the affairs of daily life, are subject to the devil and are guests in a world in which he is a master and a god. That is why the bread we eat, the clothes we wear, even the air, everything by which we live is under his power. 11

Man is not perfectable! Remember the now-unfashionable doctrine of original sin?  There was and always will be an underlying social, biological and genetic truth to it. As George Orwell said, “It’s possible that man’s major problems will never be solved.” 12 Problems like tribalism, religious, ethnic and racial divisions, and all the rest of the problems of “the other.” Our elites and our greatest political theorists used to understand this and make it a working assumption. Not any more.

(Hence the title of Marilynne Robinson’s herein oft-cited collection of essays, The Death of Adam, who symbolizes the now seemingly passé belief that mortals are born inherently imperfect, and that no one, despite all the social engineering thrown at her, can be made perfect.)

Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist Papers,13 one of Western civilization’s greatest handbooks and instruction manuals on how to create a government structure that would best preserve individual freedom and guard against the dangerous, Hobbesian baseness of our human nature,  wrote that “men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.”

Edmund Burke, in Reflections, described Great Britain’s long-standing laws, institutions, values and traditions as being essential “to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason.”

The historian Robert Conquest wrote:

Reliance on reason alone is irrational. It neglects the instinctual or deep-set elements of the real human being.14

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe warned that while man created moral ways of living, his “inscrutable passions remain”:

Of suns and worlds I’ve nothing much to say.

I only see the way that humans struggle.

The little god of the world remains unchanged,

As flighty as the day he was born.

Could he do a little better? Well, he might.

If only you’d not given him the spark of heavenly light.

He calls it reason, employs it without cease

To be the beastliest of beasts.15

Now, to our present elites, seemingly innocent naïfs all- seemingly “culturally clueless” (See Margaret Wente, note 5, An Issue of Freedom of Speech, above)-possessing no sense of  tragic realism- man is apparently just a misguided angel and anything not nice about him can and should be socially engineered out of him. Good luck with that!

It’s a  groundless, dangerous and irresponsible counterculture-type notion that, with just the right amount of funding, education, alteration of social circumstances and “raised consciousness,” we can eradicate all traces of the more beastly, irrational aspects of our human nature, like race consciousness. We can’t.

As Professor Wilson writes:

The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.

Our laws, while requiring us to be the best that we can be and to reach further and higher than we can grasp, in order to have purchase with the populace, and be respected, must all the while cast a wary eye on and take into consideration our most human and flawed nature. Those laws and the aforesaid arrangements manifested by them should not depart too far from the settled notions, ideals and psychological capabilities of the Canadian people- should not forget that our liberal ideals are best advanced behind the bulwark of a deeply conservative understanding of history and human psychology.16

I think Haida Nation, Tsilhcot’in  and their legal progeny,  present and future, and UNDRIP, all fail on this account. They go too far. They go too much against the grain of human nature. They excite “the sympathies that lay deeper than all theories.”17They threaten to push the situation beyond the bounds of our collective capacity for restraint. They wrongly choose the pursuit of abstract absolutes over preserving the lesser evil of an essentially well-functioning status quo.

David Brooke, in The Road to Character, above, on this need for moderation and restraint on the part of our elites, personified by the competent and responsible Barack Obama- (his mob-baiting, frightening and dangerous antithesis being now-President Donald Trump)- re-stated Edmund Burke, in modern form, as follows:

The moderate does not admire abstract schemes but understands that it is necessary to legislate along the grain of human nature…The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. He realizes that he, like the people he leads, is likely to be sometimes selfish, narrow-minded, and self-deceiving. Therefore he prefers arrangements that are slow and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual and incremental to change that is radical and sudden.

Our elites, knowing (or deemed to know) our human nature, and then failing to vigilantly guard against its negative manifestations, by letting expressions of the worst of that nature – race-based laws, race-based thinking – remain a permanent and increasing part of our society – by letting the worst of that human nature leak further into the ways we organize ourselves socially, politically and legally, are acting  irresponsibly and in a manner dispiriting to ordinary Canadians (who are obviously far more idealistic than our leaders).

There’s been a failure of moral leadership on the part of our elites. It’s making Canada, to the extent that we are giving in to and allowing further into our civic space manifestations of that darker hardwiring that is a part of all of us, a less civilized polity than it used to be.

Our elites need to be better aware of the amygdala factor.

Professor Wilson writes about the amygdala, the human brain’s “centre of fear and anger” – a source of the “hard-wired propensity to downgrade other-group members.” Discussing it in terms of American black-white relations he writes:

When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdalas, the brain’s centre of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.  When, on the other hand, appropriate contexts were added – say, the approaching black was a doctor and the white his patient – two other sites of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, the cingulated cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex, lit up, silencing input through the amygdala. The different parts of the brain have evolved by group selection to create groupishness. They mediate the hard-wired propensity to downgrade other-group members, or else in opposition, to subdue its immediate, autonomic effects.

Thus, Haida Nation’s and Tsilhcot’in’s  vaunted, purported “reconciliation” of the Indian and non-Indian peoples of Canada is rendered virtually impossible, when the underlying legal and political basis for it is one that increasingly focuses on the emotional triggers of racial differences and racial apartness

This just increases and makes louder the input through the “collective amygdala” of Canadians, and makes more difficult the cortex-based “mediation” of our hard-wired propensity to engage in anxious race-thinking,  thus causing increased fear, resentment, anger and a sense of divisiveness on everyone’s part.

The present and ever-expanding Haida Nation-based status quo and the harmful conduct it is creating – the cynical, danegeld shakedowns of the consult and accommodate industry; the aloof, alienating exercise of great power over the rest of Canadians, but without any accompanying, discernible sense of responsibility; unpoliced and unpunished civil disruptions; continuing and unjustified accusations of genocide and racism (even after a formal apology for aspects of it was formally given by Canadians); aggressive and unchallenged “warrior” and “nation to nation” talk, and now, with Tsilhcot’in, large parts of Canada to be legitimately claimed and declared as non-Crown, quasi-independent race-based Indian lands far greater in size and scope than the mere retrograde reserves we already have – to name only a few examples – all of which are so negative and inflammatory, and which so engage and light up our collective, Canadian amygdala – this all needs to be moved away from.

The vast majority of interactions between non-elite Indians and ordinary Canadians are positive and racially indifferent. This needs to be emphasized and become a greater part of the Canadian narrative.

The best and most inspiring examples of these interactions: the Gambler, homesteader John Hall in desperate times sharing his potato crop with Obidgewong Chief Bill Shabidon and his granddaughters, Willard Hall’s Indian friends sitting at his death bed patting his face and smoothing his hair (see The Manitoulin Treaty, above) – these examples need to be extolled as ideal Canadian behavior and attitudes to emulate.

New policies must be adopted de-emphasizing race as the controlling  factor, and putting new focus on racial harmony, thus creating Joseph Heath’s social scaffolding and Professor Wilson’s  appropriate contexts in which to permit those higher-directed brain cortexes referred to by him – those “higher learning centres” i.e. our reason, our idealism, our liberal values – the better angels of our nature – to light up, predominate, challenge and defeat the devil- our instinctive “Dark Side” – so as to better silence input through our collective amygdala – so as to better “mediate” our beast within, and relegate him to the deep, back recesses of the dark cave of Canada’s collective psyche.

Canadians want to be led to this Promised Land of racial unity, where those better angels dwell.

Mexico has a much worse record than Canada of early colonial mistreatment of its indigenous peoples. But they never instituted a reserve system for their indigenous populations, and by the early 1800’s, when Mexico achieved its political independence from Spain, its indigenous and black African slave populations, (the latter of which were mostly freed by this time),  having previously been the objects of basically assimilationist policies,  were considered, at least in formal legal terms, equal members of Mexican society.

Although  certainly economically exploited and subject to racial prejudice, both Native Mexicans and Afro-Mexicans were clearly within rather than outside society when Mexico became independent. Finally , due to racial mixing, most Mexicans were culturally Hispanic but biologically the  heirs of Spanish, African and Native American ancestors. For these reasons many Mexican politicians were from the start committed to building a government that would govern and represent people of all races. 18

Canada, unlike Mexico, looking back and looking at the mess of civic dysfunction and racial inequality in our present situation, clearly got off on the wrong historical foot by creating the reserve system.

Clearly, the absence of a reserve system in Mexico’s history enables present-day Mexicans, attempting to better move forwards together, to define themselves as a new “cosmic race”, extolled as the mestizaje, (clearly the Spanish equivalent of the French-Canadian metis), by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz,19 the positive, creative, life-renewing intermingling of the indigenista and Europeans resulting from the complete integration of their European and indigenous peoples into a country of “futurity and newness.”

To the the extent humanly possible they have achieved Champlain’s unfulfilled dream for Canada –“our sons will marry your daughters and henceforth we shall be one people”.  (Introduction, above).

This is what ordinary Canadians want. We want Champlain’s dream fulfilled in Canada. We want to undo the mistakes of our past and move forward, everyone as equals.

But it seems that our elites,  by almost willfully ignoring human nature here, or at least by pushing us so recklessly against the grain of it – by refusing or neglecting to maintain and strengthen our traditional, liberal, humanist social scaffolding -by refusing to exhort us to listen to the voices of our better angels and act accordingly- are bound and determined to thwart us from even starting on that hopeful journey.

Maybe Canadians, Indian and non-Indian, just need to elect leaders with a more positive, inclusive, happy, disposition and outlook- but with such an outlook neatly and inwardly counterbalanced by that necessary sense of tragic realism possessed by all the great leaders of the past. The ones we have,  especially the Indian leaders, with their excessive self-righteousness, sanctimony and accusatory finger-pointing, seem so glum and grim on this issue. They have no positive, inclusive outward mien. No “better angels” talk from them. The glass is always half-empty. They’re a real downer to listen to.

Our non-Indian leaders, so rote and reverential towards the false orthodoxy, so lacking in feistiness and cultural confidence,  let themselves get eaten for lunch by all this.

Maybe we should only elect leaders- secret Machiavellians-  who outwardly embody hope, happiness, inclusiveness and enchantment rather than the perpetual art of discontent- or the perpetual, unctuous, humorless toleration of it- leaders who have known the uplands of the human spirit and who can and want to lead us there.

In his autobiography the Scottish novelist and former Member of Parliament John Buchan wrote that he was “brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy, and I have never learned the art of discontent.” He added, “It seems to me that those who loudly proclaim their disenchantment with life have never really been enchanted by it.”

(From Peter Wehner, Seeking Presidency-No Experience Necessary20 an opinion piece on the then American Republican Presidential candidates almost universal, ridiculous  doomsday wailings over America’s situation at home and abroad, all apparently the fault of Barrack Obama; a moral man who had a clear sense of tragic realism, a clear understanding of a true, responsible, competent leader’s duty to, to the extent possible, suppress the amygdala factor, and a classic and classy practitioner of old-fashioned “respectability politics”)

  1. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Little, Brown and Company, 1968
  2. Is it Time for a Renaissance of Reason? The Globe and Mail, 26 April 2014.
  3. Aileen M. Kelly, The Discovery of Chance, above
  4. First Nations? Second Thoughts, above
  5. David Remnick, It Happened Here, A president confronts an election that changes everything -and imperils his legacy, The New Yorker, November 28, 2016
  6. From Blind Willie McTell, abrilliant, beautiful song  by America’s latter-20th century George Gershwin- musical Picasso, that allows the listener to feel the profound tragedy of the American  Black/slavery experience.
  7. From Gandhi, The Years That Changed The World, 1914-1918, Random House Canada, 1918
  8. Concept and phraseology again, from Erna Paris, From Tolerance to Tyranny, above
  9. From Mark Lilla, The End of Identity Liberalism, The New York Times, November 18, 2016
  10. From Goodbye to All That? Leszek Kolakowski and the Marxist Legacy, inReappraisals, above.
  11. Quoted in Milosz, A Biography, (Czeslaw Milosz), Andrzej Franaszek, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017
  12. Quoted in Erna Paris’, From Tyranny to Tolerance, above
  13. The Federalist Papers. The New American Library,1961
  14. FromReflections On a Ravaged Century, above.
  15. From Rudiger Safranksi, Goethe, Life as a Work of Art, above, italics added.
  16. The italicized idea from Samuel Huntington, quoted and explained by Robert Kaplan in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, above
  17. From George Eliot’s historical novel of late 15th century Florence, Romola.
  18. Peter Guardino, The Dead March, A History of the Mexican-American War, Harvard University Press, 2017
  19. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Grove Press Inc. 1961.
  20. The New York Times, October 10th, 2015

By: Peter Best