My Top 10 Books of 2021

A little late, because I’ve been ill, but here are my top ten reads from 2021. These were not all published in 2021, to be clear, just books that I read and loved the most throughout 2021.

1. The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

The rest of this list is not ordered in any particular way, but I had to list this one first because it was hands down the best book I read last year, and one the best books I’ve read in my life. I won’t say more because I’ve written a whole post about it, but wow, it changed my life.

2. Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)

I almost didn’t include this one in the list because, in terms of plot line and style, it wasn’t a favourite for me. I just don’t really love magical realism (is this considered magical realism? Anyway, I don’t love fantastical elements in fiction). That said, the concept of the book is brilliant, Bulgakov’s writing is impeccable, and overall the story is incredibly engaging. In terms of literary merit, this book is definitely in my top five of the year. Bulgakov also managed to touch on so many deeply important and serious themes in such a lighthearted way, and despite my bias against fantastical elements I will be reading more of his work.

3. First Love (Ivan Turgenev)

Technically this is a novella, but this is my blog and I make the rules, so we’re including it. This was my first Turgenev, and definitely not my last. I picked this up because I was in a bit of a reading slump and wanted something short and easy to read. Turgenev’s punchy writing style certainly helped me get over my slump, but the story itself so subverted my expectations going into it – and I loved that. Being titled First Love, I was expecting something like a lighthearted romance (why would I expect that from a Russian author? Good question), and this was decidedly not that. This story explores so much more than romantic love – family, honour, coming of age, sacrifice… For such a short story, it packs a serious punch. It’s been a few months and I still think about it.

4. Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev)

I said it wasn’t my last Turgenev. I really loved Fathers and Sons, more than I did First Love, actually. In this novel Turgenev goes much deeper in his analysis of family relationships (particularly intergenerational), as well as friendships, and a sprinkle of romantic relationships for good measure. It’s one of the best, and certainly most moving, explorations of nihilism I’ve read yet. I felt deeply connected to so many characters, each of whom represented very different outlooks on life, which I feel is an achievement few authors can succeed in.

5. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gale Honeyman)

It’s not often I read a contemporary book I really enjoy, and this one surprised me. I was also surprised because I tend to be disappointed by books that are super hyped, but I felt like this one actually lived up to the hype (for lack of a better word). It explores trauma and mental health in a way I haven’t come across in other novels, and I really appreciated Honeyman’s take. Fair warning: Eleanor Oliphant is not fine, and you may not be either, while reading this.

6. Notes From Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Alright, we’re back to Dostoevsky. Notes From Underground is so psychologically insightful, it’s brilliant and revolting at the same time. This is a book (actually, another novella – sue me) I feel the need to read again, likely a few times. It made me question my existence, the society/world we live in, our ideals, my personal principles, the reasons for my actions. It’s not an easy read, but certainly a worthy one, in my opinion.

7. Blindness (Jose Saramago)

I wrote a lengthy post about this one too so I won’t ramble on about it but I think we can see I really appreciate books that offer insight into human psychology and behaviour.

8. Punching the Air (Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam)

This is a novel in verse based on the story of Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five. I couldn’t put this book down, as much as it tore my heart to read it. But while heartbreaking, it is also hopeful – which is incredibly inspiring to me. For a man who spent years of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit to be able to make beautiful, hopeful art of it – I simply don’t have the words for all the feelings this book stirred in me. I’m looking forward to reading his memoir Better, Not Bitter next.

9. The Wings of the Dove (Henry James)

I read this all the way back in January, and I have the memory of a goldfish, so I can’t really say much intelligible about it. I remember really enjoying it, though. Maybe I should start writing little notes to myself after every book I read. That might actually be a cool alternative to keeping a diary, if I can keep up with it (and manage to not make it feel like a lit review, I do enough of that…). I do remember thinking James gives us an interesting insight into social and class norms, and delicately explores the fragility of life and the power of love.

10. Nausea (Jean-Paul Sartre)
I found the first half of this pretty hard to get into, and I almost chalked it up to a ‘right book, wrong time’ situation and saved it for later. For some reason though I persisted, and in the end I was really glad I did. This is not a happy book, but many books that I read aren’t happy and they don’t have the same effect on my mood as this one. It’s obvious that Sartre does a great job at weaving heavy philosophical questions into a novel format, but I think what he really does well in addition to that is make the emotions of his main character palpable. If you don’t already spend too much time questioning your existence and you think that’s a worthwhile activity, read this one.

And there you have it: my favourite books of the year. Now, what should I read next?

“If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.”

Picture this: You’re backcountry camping, you know you’re in wild animals’ territory. It’s late, pitch black outside. You’re reading a dark, horrifying novel… and you hear sudden movement outside your tent. I almost had a stroke, to be honest. At least there was no growling this time.

So we went camping a couple weekends ago, and my book of choice for the trip was José Saramago’s Blindness. If you’re not familiar with it you may be thinking it’s a horror novel, based on what I’ve said so far. But no, it’s not even a thriller. I’d classify it as psychological fiction, maybe. This is not the kind of book that keeps you on the edge in suspense – it’s not that kind of terrifying. What Saramago does so exceptionally, though, is to reveal the darkness of the human heart – that which is most horrifying about the human condition.

[spoiler alert]

The premise is this: a city has been struck by an epidemic of blindness. Blind citizens are rounded up and quarantined in an abandoned asylum, which is closely guarded by the military. Without getting into too much plot detail, all systems of order and social cohesion quickly devolve into utter chaos both within the asylum and throughout the city – living hell, really. 

Saramago sublimely captures the intricacies of human emotion, the challenges of morality, the perseverance of life through the drudgery of existence. I found it interesting reading this whilst living through a pandemic because, though it was published over 20 years ago, I could see so many parallels between Saramago’s world and our current reality. In many ways the pandemic has revealed who we are, and what we care about. I came across a quote from Hannah Arendt recently, which I think aptly captures my feelings about this:

“The speechless horror at what man may do and what the world may become is in many ways related to the speechless wonder of gratitude from which the questions of philosophy spring.”

While COVID-19 has revealed within us base selfishness and disregard for the wellbeing of others, it has also revealed care, generosity, sacrifice, perseverance, love for one another.

One of the central questions I took from Saramago’s novel is: what makes life worth living? In the face of the most depraved conditions imaginable, what gives the human spirit motivation to go on? And one of the answers I think Saramago offers is: love. Seven characters form a group early in this novel, and they tacitly commit to taking care of one another through the epidemic. One particular scene in Blindness depicts an old woman, who has thus far survived on her own – she is fiercely independent, in fact. But once she encounters the group as a group – as individuals displaying commitment to each other’s wellbeing – she recognises the deep hollowness that is her life, and she allows herself to die. It’s when she realises the lack of love she has in her life, her complete isolation from others, that the woman decides her life is no longer worth living.

In his introduction to Allen Ginsber’g Howl, William Carlos Williams writes:

“[I]n spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith – and the art! to persist. […] We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels.”

The spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives. I quite like the way he phrased that. Love is essential, but Williams claims we also require art. I obviously agree, and I think Saramago would, too. Indeed, Saramago’s novel itself is a work of art, which illuminates the darkest parts of us and teaches us to appreciate the light. In his novel, a writer who has gone blind dedicates himself to writing a book about his experiences. The group of seven characters then reads this book (I should mention, only one character does not go blind – she’s the one reading out to the others). Those moments in the evenings, when they read the book together, give their lives interest and meaning. Through the art of literature they find themselves, and they understand the world: art gives them insight, it gives them sight.

To return to love, though: caring for one another is crucial. I think most of us have come to appreciate that fact, through the pandemic. We’ve come to appreciate a lot: the dangers of selfishness, the importance of community, the central role of institutions, the fragility of life. But a rather disturbing question, which Saramago challenges us with, is for how long these lessons will be remembered. At the very end of his novel, sight is suddenly regained by all the characters. The one character that never lost her sight says to her husband: “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind […] Blind people who can see, but do not see.” That line made me pause. How much are we willfully blind to? How much can we see now, that we will still see once the restrictions are lifted, quarantine is a concept of the past, and life is back to “normal”? Even in this transitioning stage to normality (in Ontario, at least) we are starting to see signs of forgetfulness, of blindness. Saramago urges us to remember:

“If you can see, look.
If you can look, observe.”

I mentioned earlier “the central role of institutions”. Are institutions really central? One may argue the group of seven individuals in Blindness take good care of one another, in spite of the absolute breakdown of all institutions, the superfluity of government. That’s true, but it’s also true that they’re surviving, not living, through the utmost depravity. I remember early last year, when COVID-19 became a serious concern in Canada, I left my local grocery store with very few provisions because most of the shelves were completely bare. I felt slightly worried by this, and I remember my dad reassured me that there’s nothing to worry about, people are panicking for no reason, we can rely on our government and on our institutions to take care of us. Now, I live in Canada, so that may not be true for everyone around the world. But as this example and Saramago’s novel illustrates (another, similar one that comes to mind is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies), we rely wholly on our entrenched systems and institutions for our very survival. Once these systems break down and we are left to our own devices, left to navigate human relationships and to decide for ourselves what just relationships look like, we may well find no justice at all. It’s a terrifying thought.

Yesterday I attended a performance of Blindness (if you’re in Toronto: the show runs until Oct 24, at the Princess of Wales Theatre – I highly recommend it if you can manage to get tickets). It was actually a “socially distanced sound installation” rather than a traditional play, which I thought was a very apt choice for a story about being blind. Honestly, it was extremely unsettling. Much of the time the theatre was so dark I couldn’t tell any difference between squeezing my eyes shut, and opening them as wide as possible (yes, I am a child and I did try that a couple times). The audio was delivered mostly through headphones, but the effect was surround sound (can you tell I know a lot about tech-y things lol), and I think the most disconcerting part of the experience was at times feeling like someone was whispering directly into my ear, or passing close behind, but not being able to see anything around me. And I know I’m not the only one, because when the lights flashed on after one of those moments, I saw the woman sitting in front of me glance over her shoulder, as if to make sure there was no one there.

I obviously cannot really imagine what it’s like to be blind, but I can imagine one is more vulnerable without sight. Sitting in the theatre, I was aware that my purse on the floor next to me, and my phone in my coat pocket hanging over my chair, were easily accessible (not that anyone could see enough in that darkness to actually pick them up) – similar, in a sense, to the very beginning of the novel Blindness, when someone helps a blind man get home, and then steals his car. I was reminded of the questions raised by Plato’s Ring of Gyges allegory; if others can’t witness our actions, what motivation do we have to behave justly? I believe Saramago’s invocation to look, to observe, would lead us to justice, to compassion, ultimately to a more peaceful world. Needless to say I walked out of the theatre feeling especially grateful for my eyesight, and acutely aware of Saramago’s challenge to really look at the world around me.

To Have Learned and Lost, or Never to Have Learned at All

Serendipity. First of all, I love that word. Second, I’ve been noticing it a lot more in my life recently. I won’t get into the law of attraction and all that (you’re welcome), but really, things seem to be aligning and I’m not complaining about it. On that note, I’ve had Italo Calvino on my “author TBR” for a couple months now, though I wasn’t sure where I wanted to start, with his work. It so happened that I met a friend recently without my glasses on, and I was feeling a bit disoriented. They recalled one of Calvino’s short stories, The Adventure of A Nearsighted Man, and once they’d described the plot line I knew I’d found my entry point. Coincidence? Maybe, but I like the word serendipity.

So, I read the story (duh). Actually, I read a few, from Calvino’s collection Difficult Loves. I expected to like it more than I did, to be honest, but I’m going to continue reading more of his work before making a definitive judgment as to whether I enjoy Calvino’s style or not. But I digress. The story is about Amilcare’s uncanny experience wearing glasses (as in, spectacles – think Harry Potter). In short, when he puts them on he can see clearly. However, others cannot recognise Amilcare when he is wearing his glasses. His life is thus: with the glasses, he can recognise others but they do not recognise him; without the glasses, others can recognise him but he cannot recognise others. Weird? Yes.

The glasses must represent something (so my analytic brain insists), but obviously Calvino doesn’t tell us outright what they symbolise. Here’s my best guess: life experience. Amilcare leaves his hometown and stays away for many years. Inevitably, the experiences he’s had in those years have changed him, he must have grown as a person. Calvino writes that Amilcare is bored without the glasses, that he is no longer interested by the things that once gave him pleasure in life. Isn’t that true of maturity? I was thinking of my interests as a child, and many of them bore me now that I’m in my twenties. That’s oversimplifying and probably a bad example, but my point is that as we grow as individuals, we discover who we are, and if we’re doing it right then the person we are today is not the same as the person we were a few years ago. And so, for Amilcare, his time away from home has meant he’s no longer recognisable as the person he was before he left.

Tragically, this sometimes means that we can no longer relate to people we love. When Amilcare returns to his hometown with his glasses on, he gets a fleeting glimpse of the woman he loved, but she doesn’t recognise him and he loses her. For him, this means his life is completely over. I’m not sure. To appropriate Tennyson’s words: is it better to have learned and lost, or never to have learned at all? Maybe Amilcare wouldn’t have lost his love, had he stayed in his hometown. But by leaving he learns about himself, he grows. One can stay comfortable, and stagnant, or one can challenge one’s self, expand, learn one’s place in this world and how one can make it better – and in so doing take the risk that one may lose something in the process.

This is not to say that loving someone means staying stagnant – I actually believe the opposite. If you’re with the right person, they will push you to grow in ways you may not have challenged yourself to on your own. And I don’t believe we should all necessarily leave our hometowns – it’s privileged to even consider that a possibility, let alone something people *should* do. What I am trying to say is that we all need to spend time alone, to invest in ourselves, to learn about ourselves. And as we continue undertaking that task, we will learn that we are constantly evolving.

Honestly, the more I write the more I think I’ve probably misunderstood Calvino’s intentions with this short story. But I think that’s a beautiful thing about literature: we can each read the same story, and leave with completely different impressions and interpretations. And maybe not all of those interpretations are going to reflect the intent of the author, but they do reflect what’s going on within us when we read. I can read the same story next year, and I’ll probably take away something different from it. I hope I will, I hope that’s a sign that I’ll have grown.

*P.S. I most certainly have misunderstood Calvino’s intent. In all honesty I read the story a couple weeks ago, and since then I’ve read two other novels, so I may not even be recounting his story accurately. Should I have reread it before posting this? Probably. But my opinions about self-discovery still hold, so I’m going to let it slide for myself. You may not, in which case you may yell at me about it in the comments. Ciao.

Responsibility to Love, in The Brothers Karamazov

“Love one another, Fathers,” said Father Zosima, as far as Alyosha could remember afterwards. “Love God’s people. Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth…. And the longer the monk lives in his seclusion, the more keenly he must recognize that. Else he would have had no reason to come here. When he realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men — and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man. For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Let me start by saying: if there’s a single novel I think everyone should read in their lifetime, it probably has to be The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve read some Dostoevsky before, and I was definitely enamoured, but this novel is just a category of its own. It’s the most masterfully crafted piece of literature I think I’ve ever read. But don’t take my word for it: read it!

Dosteovsky’s literary genius is indubitable. Yes, the writing itself is beautiful, and the character development is incredible. But what makes his books, especially this one, so special, is the deep engagement he undertakes with important philosophical questions. In The Brothers Karamazov, the idea of responsibility is central. In the quote above, the saintly character Father Zosima expresses the idea that we are all personally responsible for one another’s sins – or mistakes, if you prefer. The idea is expressed in various ways throughout the novel, and it kept striking me as odd, while I was reading. The idea is radical: we are responsible for others’ crimes, as if we ourselves committed them. Dostoevsky expresses it perhaps more strongly, in the following quote:

“There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”

The analytic side of my brain was having war with itself for the entire month I spent reading this book. I think my mistake was that I was trying to reconcile this radical idea of responsibility with a metaphysical understanding of causality. It doesn’t make any sense, from that angle. If my neighbour commits murder, and I wasn’t even present at the scene of the crime, how could I possibly be responsible for his action?

After finishing the novel, though, the idea of assumed individual guilt kept percolating in the back of my mind. That’s the beautiful thing about a novel like Dostoevsky’s: you don’t simply forget about it. This blog post is a messy attempt at making sense of the idea. (Fair warning: I don’t promise to make any sense of it at all. This is Dostoevsky. My brain doesn’t stand a chance. But anyway.)

My understanding of the argument is that perhaps the criminal would not have become a criminal, would not have committed the murder in the first place – and that I could have prevented the murder from taking place. My position as a fellow human being means that I am responsible for loving others. Father Zosima commands us to “Love God’s people” before he goes on to articulate the idea of shared guilt. What is the relevance of love, here? It is through love that we express care for one another, that we take care of one another. And if we all took care of one another, if we all paid attention to one another’s needs, we could intervene with love before one of us could commit a crime like murder. Plausibly, indeed, it is a lack of love that drives all crimes.

The idea of radical responsibility obviously goes against the extreme individualism that we so revere in the Western world. Being someone who grew up with another culture, though, I’d guess that it’d be received as a much less radical idea in other parts of the world (and perhaps also by Indigenous people in this part of the world). We are not isolated individuals: we are members of a shared community. And as a community, we share responsibility.

It’s a similar idea, I think, to the responsibility that comes with privilege: those of us who have it may very well not have created the conditions for their own privilege, but we are still responsible for being aware of it, for using it for good, and for doing our best to level the playing field. As a BIPOC-identifying woman, I have more privilege than an Indigenous person in Canada. I did not participate directly in settling on this land; I happened to be born on colonised soil. Yet, I think most of us would agree that I have some responsibility to claim, for settler colonialism. I continue to live on this land, and I continue to live with privilege over Indigenous peoples.

One of my high school friends took her life a few years after we’d graduated, and I remember feeling an immense sense of guilt, when I heard the news. Although she wasn’t a close friend of mine, I recognised that I could have been there for her more than I was, I could have made more of an effort to spend time with her, I could have tried to show her what a valuable human being she was. Unfortunately, I recognised this too late. But had I shared a deeper sense of community connection with her, while she was alive, perhaps she wouldn’t have taken her life. I think this is the sense of responsibility Dostoevsky is getting at. And maybe it’s impossible to love everyone, to care for everyone, as much as is necessary to prevent anything bad from ever happening. It’s certainly impossible for me to demonstrate that amount of love to over 7 billion people. But I think the point is that if we all loved those immediately surrounding us, that would be enough.

Our capacity for love is incredibly powerful . We must honour it.

Feeling grateful

It’s been a long time since I’ve written something, anything, for myself. I write a lot as a graduate student, granted, but non-academic writing was a love of mine that I feel I’ve completely neglected. For a while now I’ve had the urge to write, but I feel an immense block – and I’m not quite sure why. 

I think writing lists can help, somewhat, with getting back into the flow of writing, so here’s a list of a few things I’m feeling grateful for: 

  • Living in a safe city + country
  • Books (currently reading: The Brothers Karamazov)
  • Independent bookstores (if you’re in TO, I recommend A Different Booklist as it’s Black-owned)
  • My espresso machine 
  • My ability to walk
  • Being able to visit family
  • Zoom catch-ups and/or co-working sessions with friends
  • Increased vegan food options at restaurants + grocery stores
  • Essential workers
  • Summer camping trips

The list could go on endlessly, but I’ll pause here. I have found that keeping a gratitude journal is a very powerful way to start/end your day. I think especially living through this pandemic, it can be really easy to focus on all the negativity in the world, but finding something (even something as small as a good cup of coffee) that you feel grateful for everyday can really help with maintaining a healthy perspective.

Regret, Pride/Humility, Great Expectations

I finally read Dickens’s Great Expectations recently. I’m actually surprised I finished it this time, because I’ve started it several times in the past and just never gotten through to the end. Fun (read: embarrassing) fact: I am very easily scared. I usually read before bed, and whenever I’ve tried to read this book I would have nightmares (lol) so I would always give it up after a few days. This time, I decided to do most of my reading while having my morning coffee, so I wouldn’t fall asleep with Dickens’s imagery fresh in my mind. I wish I had done this long ago, because I would have saved myself many a restless night – plus it’s such an incredible novel I just wish I had read it sooner.

(spoiler alert)

I really enjoyed the book, partly out of appreciation for Dickens’s memorable characters, and partly because of his poignant portrayal of human behaviour. If you’ve read it you’ll recall the main character Pip neglects his father figure, Joe, and sincere friend Biddy, when he comes into money. Eventually, though, he comes to realise that Joe and Biddy are indeed worthy of the respect and love he once had for them. The details aren’t too important, but what struck me is that when Pip comes to this realisation, he continues to neglect those genuine relationships for a long time because he believes he is unworthy of Joe’s nor Biddy’s forgiveness.

I found this so frustrating as a reader, because Joe in particular was one of my favourite characters and I understood how much he would have appreciated Pip’s friendship and constancy throughout those years. By avoiding him, Pip prolongs Joe’s pain as well as his own.

I think a much more familiar trope is the character (or person) whose arrogance prevents them from apologising. But the idea that one would continue suffering the pain of distance from a person they love because of humility is frankly novel to me. If Pip had never returned to Joe because he feared Joe’s rejection, I would still have been frustrated but I would have understood him better.

I am still processing as I just finished the book today, but I just found this idea so interesting and saddening and I wonder if it’s common in real life. Might what is perceived as arrogance be instead someone’s feeling unworthy?

P.S. This blog is very much like my own journal, as I post so incredibly infrequently (lol my last post was over a year ago – go me). But if you are reading, I hope you are doing well and keeping safe during this time. Please take care of yourself. And if you got this far and have thoughts on Pip’s remorse, I’d love to chat.

Diversity Without Indigenous Rights?

Canada’s reputation for successful multiculturalism and peaceful diversity is often regarded as the voluntary consequence of a peaceful, diversity-welcoming people.  That is, public attitudes toward immigration in Canada are regarded internationally as highly positive.  However, as several authors have shown, Canadian attitudes toward immigration are not homogenously supportive; many Canadians oppose immigration, and a significant portion of Canadians only tolerate immigration insofar as newcomers to the country fulfill certain conditions – most notably, that they conform to Canadian culture.

A statement by James Bisset illustrates this point clearly.  He writes, “What guarantee do we have that diversity in itself is a desirable objective? At what point does diversity mutate into a form of colonisation?” (6).  Bisset expresses concern over the preservation of ‘Canadianness’ and the protection of Canadian identity against what he deems a threat of colonisation by a plurality of cultures and ethnicities.

It is interesting to consider that the origins of multicultural policies in Canada are rooted in the demands of white ethnic minorities for rights protection (Kymlicka 2004).  This indicates a major shift in the understanding of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” over the past several years.  The historical rootedness of multicultural policies in the protection of white ethnic groups suggests that the success of multiculturalism in Canada was not a deliberate outcome, foreseen by policymakers roughly fifty years ago.  Rather, the current state of diversity today is, to a great extent, an unexpected evolution from the protection of white groups; those same multicultural policies originally instated for the benefit of white immigrants came to be applied to other ethnic immigrant groups, over time.

Views like Bisset’s, as well as those of “conditional multiculturalists” express wariness about the extension of multicultural and pro-immigration policies to individuals of diverse cultural groups in Canada.  If we allow those individuals into our society, the society will inevitably change over time: the ethnic make-up, as well as the cultural practices within Canada will evolve as its population begins to reflect different cultures and ways of life.  Arguably, in an attempt to avoid so-called colonisation of Canada, Bisset and others (i.e. anti-multiculturalists and conditional multiculturalists) strive to preserve and protect white colonisation in Canada.  By rejecting the possibility of cultural malleability in our society, these individuals desire to maintain the culture and practices characteristic of “Canadian” life as developed by white European settlers.  The culture that they wish to carefully protect is the product of colonialism in Canada.

The resistance to cultural diversity expressed by such views suggests also a rejection of the cultural preservation of Indigenous peoples. The argument that we must heavily control immigration in order to avoid the tainting of Canadianness logically extends to the sentiment that we must also control the expression of Indigenous cultures in Canada.  Of course this desire has in the past manifested in the form of residential schools and a host of other racist policies pertaining to Indigenous peoples.  A fear of disrupting the colonial narrative and chosen culture continues into the present: we keep Indigenous people on reserves out of sight and out of mind (except when we want something from their land, e.g. oil pipelines), beyond the reach of basic human rights, deprived of basic human needs (e.g. access to clean water).

While the literature in this area is illuminating in regards to the origins and current practises of multiculturalism in Canada, and the role of policies and institutions in shaping public attitudes and the longevity of multiculturalism, what is missing from these accounts is a consideration of the place of Indigenous peoples in this debate.

Canadians’ concern with integrating others into a “Canadian” way of life is irresponsibly dismissive of the way of life of Indigenous peoples.  Arguably, if Canada is to truly honour multiculturalism and diversity, policymakers should involve Indigenous peoples in decision-making regarding multicultural policies and institutions.  Furthermore, and more fundamentally, the protection of rights we extend to immigrants should also, and perhaps primarily, be extended toward those whose land we have forcibly assumed as our own.  The global perspective of Canada as a successfully diverse nation fails to account for the continuous mistreatment of Indigenous people.

While it is commendable, from a humanitarian standpoint, to accept immigrants, and especially refugees, in high numbers, it is crucial to improve the success of diversity among those who already live in the country.  Indeed, Canada is extremely calculative when accepting immigrants and even refugees.  Canada is geographically positioned so that only those whom it legally accepts are able to enter the country.  Furthermore, Canada places significant weight on the potential for immigrants to work in the country when deliberating whether to admit a given applicant.  This focus on the economic gain to be had from immigration calls into question any humanitarian intentions.

The emphasis on economic benefit is, of course, benefit for the “Canadian” people, exclusive of Indigenous groups.  The calculations Canada makes in admitting immigrants does not account for the needs of Indigenous peoples.  The fact that we make admissions policies and decisions in part according to some calculation of gain is illuminating; our multiculturalism may be successful in the case of immigrants because we believe they will benefit our society and/or economy – thus, under the guise of humanitarianism, we grant rights protections to those immigrants.  However, ensuring rights protection for Indigenous peoples is not in the economic interest of the “Canadian” people; doing so would reap little benefit to our economy, though it would reflect a sincere commitment to human rights.

The blatant disregard for the interests of Indigenous peoples is the exemplification of persisting colonialism in Canada.  Given that Canada admits those immigrants whom it believes will contribute to the society in a positive way and integrate seamlessly – that is, arguably, assimilate – to the culture, it in fact largely admits those who accept and will perpetuate Canadian colonialism.

On ‘The Right to Have Rights’

Some rambles…

Several philosophers have argued that the phrase the right to have rights expresses two distinct notions of ‘right’. That is, the human right to be a member of a political community is qualitatively different from the various rights protected by that community, under a constitution and through institutions. This becomes clear when we consider the fact that different communities promise differing human rights. For example, the state of Canada protects the right to free healthcare whereas the United States of America does not; America offers the right to gun ownership whereas Canada does not. The right to belong to the political community of Canada, or the political community of America, is the qualitatively same right, applied in different contexts (countries). But the rights to healthcare, or to gun ownership, are rights of a different nature: these are rights legally protected by the constitution of each given state.

Serena Parekh calls the differing rights guaranteed by different states, “civic rights”. These are the rights of the citizen – or otherwise recognised member – of the political community. They are “the rights of man within a community”. The problem, then, which concerns Arendt, is that our thinking about human rights is reduced to a list of civic rights. Parekh argues that more essential than these civic rights is the fundamental human right to belong to a political community. The right to have rights includes the entitlement to civic rights (this is the meaning of the latter use of ‘right’ in the phrase) – but is not to be reduced to such rights. More significantly, however, the right to have rights represents the right to belong to a political community (this is the meaning of the former use of ‘right’). Indeed, the right to receive civic rights protections, such as healthcare or gun ownership, are only possible once the former right has been satisfied. The human right to be a member of a state is then arguably the necessary condition for the possibility of receiving civic rights. Parekh calls the prior right to belong fundamental. Stateless people, then, are fundamentally rightless because they are denied participation within human community.

Notably, stateless individuals, those unrecognized by any state as properly belonging as a member of the political community, may enjoy some civic ‘rights’. For example, some migrants to Canada may be afforded basic shelter. As Arendt aptly points out though, the privilege of such ‘rights’ is not in fact the entitlement of stateless human beings, but rather the instance of charity. The state does not owe any guarantee of housing to stateless people – they may offer housing in an act of goodwill (or political maneuver) but this is not a required fulfillment of right, and it may be revoked at any time. The enjoyment of civic rights is therefore not necessarily indicative of one’s position as a rights-holding member of a political community.

Werner Hamacher’s discussion of the two types of rights in Arendt’s thought helps illuminate Parekh’s discussion of the fundamental human rights. Hamacher calls civic rights “legally formed claims”. Both Parekh’s and Hamacher’s terms emphasize the legally enforced aspect to rights. Human rights as we ordinarily think of them (those rights to free association, to expression, and so on) are established and enforced by political state institutions. It is the legally enforced constitution of a given country, deliberated by its members, that serves to outline the human rights guaranteed for those living under that constitution. These are the rights given to individuals who have been accepted as belonging under that constitution; they are the rights of human beings who are more than mere beings, who are recognised members.

On the other hand, the “fundamental” human right to belong is not a claim to be made by reverting to legal means. Rather, that right to belong to a community makes possible the political system through which legal claims may be made. As such, this right to belong is a fore-right. The first right established by ‘the right to have rights’ is a fore-right to political inclusion – inclusion as a member within a political community. In the words of Hamacher, “politics is the procedure of inclusion”. Inclusion is a procedure, a process, because it is a continuous engagement, not a one-time transaction. Plausibly the promise of politics is a promise of a guarantee, into the future, of one’s inclusion in the political community, of the security of one’s civic/legal rights/claims. It seems that belonging to a community is a somewhat permanent guarantee (at least for a majority of citizens). Non-members are deprived of the promise of politics, thus they are deprived of the possibility of making legal rights claims, of receiving civic rights.

Hannah Arendt, the Stateless, and the Criminal

I once took a seminar course on Hannah Arendt… and I absolutely was not “there” for, basically, the entire semester. I didn’t do the readings, I didn’t participate in class discussion, and I certainly wasn’t paying attention to what anyone else said during any seminar. Funnily enough, Arendt is now an important thinker for me. I’m currently revisiting her major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, that was taught in that seminar. My copy is pretty beat up, which makes it look like I’m an intellectual who has carefully read this long, tortuous book many times over – but really I just purposely bent the book every week before class so it wouldn’t be obvious that I hadn’t cracked it open. Go me.

So I didn’t take Arendt seriously then, but I do think she is worth taking seriously. I’m interested in the question of refugee rights, and Arendt has certainly made invaluable contributions to this area. I recently read Chapter 9 of her Origins book and it seemed to me full of highly relevant, interesting arguments. In this chapter, Arendt explores the complexities involved in our conception of human rights. Specifically, she discusses the failure of this conception to protect the rights of stateless refugees. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) professed the supposedly inalienable rights of human beings. But as Arendt shows, these ‘inalienable’ human rights do not apply to stateless human beings. In what follows I will think through Arendt’s reasons for arriving at this conclusion; I’ll also consider the implications of her suggestion that the figure of the criminal is, from the point of view of human rights, in a preferable position to that of the stateless person.

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man is not an internationally binding legal agreement. Rather than a new legal order, the Rights of Man symbolised an ideological shift in thinking about human rights – as no longer derived from God, nor any longer dependent upon historical precedence, but as derived from man himself. In practice then, the constitution of each given country – as long as it was civilized enough – was [in theory] based upon and reflective of the rights set out in the Rights of Man. On the understanding of human rights as naturally derived from man, every person is entitled to human rights insofar as he is a human being. Moreover, there need not be any authority to put these rights into effect, since they are naturally derived. In fact, however, these so-called ‘inalienable’ human rights, “irreducible to and undeducible from other rights or laws” are only guaranteed insofar as they are manifested through law. Human rights lose all significance once a person is stripped of everything except the quality of being human. This paradox Arendt points out became clear in the aftermath of the Second World War, when millions of individuals showed up in Europe baring nothing but their naked humanity and a plea for human rights.

The conception of rights as derived naturally from human beings rests on an idea of the human being as such – without any other qualities attached to him. But this abstract, naked human being does not in fact exist in our world. As Arendt aptly observes, there is no uncivilized part on earth; our world is occupied in every place with people who live in some kind of social order. Human rights, then, are protected within these social orders; the structure of political communities ensures that individual rights are protected by their respective communities. The quality of being associated with a political community is therefore what guarantees one the protection of their human rights. Even in the case that a person lives outside the boundaries of their country, they remain protected by its laws. They are treated as human beings no matter where they are in the world, precisely because of their national affiliation to a single place.

The stateless person, an anomaly in this completely civilized “One World”, is stripped of such affiliation. World War II as well as contemporary global crises produced masses of refugees who became properly stateless: they no longer belong as citizens under any government. The stateless find themselves, therefore, outside that system which can guarantee their human rights. They can find no legal authority willing to guarantee their rights because there is no place for them under any enforced constitution.

In a system of nationally-bound human rights, the human being without national affiliation is perceived as “nothing but a man”. After all, “man is a political animal” as Aristotle famously stated. The loss of membership in a political community is therefore the loss of that characteristically human quality; it signifies the loss of that which makes one recognizable as man. As Arendt comments, “a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man”. This carries the important implication that membership in a nation-state guarantees one not only human rights, but the quality of being human in the first place. Being expelled from participation as a member of any state is therefore to be expelled from humanity. Indeed, stateless refugees appear as subhuman, as “aliens”; they find themselves outside of the organised structure of human civilization and, as Arendt describes it, are thrown back into in a sort of “state of nature”. The generality of their being, the nakedness of their humanity, ironically forces the stateless outside the recognised boundaries of human civilised life, and they are made inhuman.

The quality of being human, for Arendt, is visible in the rights to action and speech. These “characteristically human qualities” are manifest in one’s recognised participation in a political community. Participating as an equal member in a political community is what makes one’s actions and opinions meaningful. The right to live in such a framework – “a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions” – is what Arendt calls “the right to have rights”. The stateless person, it may be argued, retains these rights to speech and action. However, it is belonging that allows speech and action to, crucially, carry significance. Indeed, the stateless may act or speak in whatever way they wish – but neither the deeds nor the opinions of one who lives outside the structure of communities, and outside the pale of law, affects any consequences. “Their freedom of movement, if they have it at all, gives them no right to residence… and their freedom of opinion is a fool’s freedom, for nothing they think matters anyhow”. The stateless person is exempt from the opportunity to contribute, through action and speech, to a common community. In the legal system, members of nation states are treated according to the merits of their speech and action; for example, he who transgresses the law is penalized for his action – this may take the form of the loss of certain rights, such as freedom of movement. The stateless, on the other hand, are absolutely deprived of rights, not as punishment for their committing wrong acts, nor for their expressing unpopular ideas – they are deprived of rights on the basis of who they are.

The figure of the criminal in society escapes this meaningless existence outside the pale of law. For the criminal, there is legal jurisdiction. The criminal’s position in society is therefore preferable to that of the stateless individual’s – this is clear by the very fact that the criminal has a position in society, whereas the stateless refugee does not belong in any way, even as an outlaw. The stateless person, then, may gain legal status by deciding to commit a crime. In fact, the stateless person, by becoming a criminal, can gain human rights recognition, as I will discuss below.

The identity of the criminal, qua criminal, is established precisely as a result of his deeds. Notably, the criminal has an identity, whereas the stateless person is faceless, a naked, quality-stripped, general human being. Moreover, the criminal is granted a position of equality; he is treated equally with his fellow criminals. And as Arendt points out, the notion of equality is a social construction; equality is not found in the savage, state of nature. Rather, equality is a sign of civilized society, of a formed community. The criminal, then, rises out of the condition of savagery, and enters once again into the circle of recognised humanity. He is no longer just an abstract human being; the criminal retains that quality which makes it possible for others to perceive him as a human being. Despite his past, the criminal gains through his action and/or speech a position in society: he now belongs as a recognised member. The criminal’s fate is determined according to his own actions [against the law] and his own words [during his trial]. By virtue of his crime, he has gained the right to have rights.

By the very act of transgressing the law, the criminal gains the position of an equal member under the law. As someone who belongs, as a recognised member, he may now enjoy the protection of his human rights. The criminal retains the right to speak in trial, and he faces consequences accordingly. It is true that these consequences may actually entail the loss of certain rights, such as freedom of movement or the right to work. However, such a deprivation comes in direct consequence of the actions he commits; the criminal’s loss of rights is punishment for his actions and/or words. His deprivation of rights in fact signifies that the criminal is judged according to his words and actions – and this is the guarantee of the right to have rights. The criminal thus procures a respectable place in society. He is judged not according to who he is, but according to what he has done. The criminal is recognised as a human being, and therefore he is recognised as a bearer of human rights.

It seems that the Rights of Man are only inalienable rights of human beings insofar as one is recognised as a human being. The rights to meaningful and effective speech and action, which Arendt thinks are essential to man’s humanity, seem only so if they are what qualify one to be a recognised member of humanity. Plausibly, what Arendt’s understands to be this recognition of the human being amounts to the notion of personhood. On this understanding, the right to have rights is the right of persons. As previously discussed, the naked human being is merely a member of the human species, likened to an animal in a general category; as such, the human being is not entitled to human rights. To be recognised as a human being entails that one is no longer merely an inborn member of the species, but is now an equal member of an organised community. Furthermore, participation as an equal member of a political community implies that one is seen as an equal person under the law. Human rights guaranteed through the constitution of a given country are not granted to mere human beings, but are reserved for legal persons.

The criminal, as discussed above, is granted recognition: he is given the right to have rights, as an equal member of the community. The criminal thus possesses that quality of personhood – through his participation in a human community and through the fact of his position under the law – which guarantees him the protection of his human rights. To receive human rights, then, one must not only be human, but one must also be a person. What it takes to be recognised, to receive the status of personhood, is a question worth exploring further. It seems at least, however, that the stateless individual may gain personhood, and subsequent human rights recognition, by committing a crime.

Thoughts on Criticism

After a very long hiatus, at points during which I considered abandoning this blog forever, I’ve decided to come back to this space.  I’m not sure whether I’ll be posting very regularly, but I think it is valuable to maintain some sort of writing platform, as much to practise writing as to improve the structure of my thought processes.  With that said, I anticipate that I will post whatever seems meaningful to me, not necessarily limited to philosophy.

Speaking of philosophy though, I’m currently at an ethics conference in Colorado and it’s been an invaluable experience so far.  As a young graduate student I haven’t presented at very many conferences yet, but the ones I have been to have been very student-friendly, encouraging, and supportive.  This conference has a completely different vibe to it: very many of the presenters here are professors, and they set the bar pretty high.  In some ways this is intimidating, but in others it’s very motivating.

After my presentation this morning, my paper was basically ripped apart in a [somewhat?] gentle way by my commentator and the audience.  I’ve never faced that much push-back on my ideas in the past, and there were definitely moments when I thought that maybe my project isn’t as valuable as I think it is, maybe it really isn’t worthwhile to think about the issues that I’d raised in the way I was thinking about them – and, most tragically, maybe I’m not really cut out for academia if I can’t produce a convincing paper.  A few hours later, I still feel a little self-conscious about my brain and whatnot, but if I could play it out again I wouldn’t change anything about the experience.  Honest, tough criticism tends to teach you a lot more than friendly support.  Although my paper was heavily criticised, I learned so much from the questions and comments that people offered me.  If I end up revising my paper in light of those comments, it will become a much better quality essay.

But more than that, I’m learning that ironically, being criticised can truly help build your confidence.  Now that I’ve heard the other side(s) to my argument, I can work on developing exactly why I stand by my ideas – which makes for much stronger and better supported beliefs.  And I’m starting to think that perhaps convincing people shouldn’t be the main goal of philosophical discourse; the process of discourse itself, in which ideas are broken down and later solidified, is more important.