February 25, 2005

Two Words: Read Maus

Wow. You must read "Maus", a graphic novel by comic artist Art Spiegelman.

Maus is an incredible two-part graphic novel detailing the experiences of Spiegelman's father Vladek and mother Anja, as they survived the Nazi death camps during World War 2.

The story introduces us to Art, his wife Francois, and Art's father Vladek and current wife, Mila. Art gets his father to recount his many terrifying and harrowing near-death experiences for the purposes of creating his graphic novel, and as they spend time together sharing the memories, we experience the ups and downs of their relationship, and the ironies and sometimes contradictory values of Vladek.

Even after years of beautiful and intensely personal contributions by absolute masters like Will Eisner, it possible that Maus brought a new level of esteem to the graphic novel genre, earning Speigelman a Pulitzer Prize and inspiring a host of related and celebratory works by other artists.

Maus is more than a story about the holocaust (although it is superb in that regard anyway). It is an absolute work of personal art, and a careful yet natural examination of how the holocaust affected a man and woman and their offspring, and of the importance of documenting, preserving and understanding their experiences so that new holocausts may be avoided.

More about "Maus" and it's creator, Art Spiegelman:


February 24, 2005

Fewer Street People in Yaletown?, Part 2

This is a continuation of a previous post...

It's funny - since before Christmas I have been quite worried about where all the street people have seemingly disappeared to. I haven't seen this one guy in particular - I'll call him Michael, but for the life of me, I cannot recall his name.

I wondered if he had (A) gotten really sick, or died (B) found some kind of regular housing or (C) been chased away from Yaletown by the cops and the so-called "Safe Streets" by-law.

The answer (at least in Michael's case) was much simpler: he had suffered some severe frostbite on his right foot (almost lost it!) and so had been in hospital for weeks recovering. When I saw him yesterday (the first time since Christmas), he was in a new-looking wheelchair and had a big bandage on his right foot, but otherwise looked quite a lot healthier than before.

It was good to see him back on his feet, er, wheels.

February 12, 2005

Has Vancouver's anti-panhandling bylaw had some effect?

I don't know what caused it, but I haven't been asked for change from someone on the street since before Christmas. The black guy that I always see at Stadium Station is gone, and the litte meek guy with the marks on his face hasn't been around for months either.

I began to wonder if the cops were cracking down on panhandlers again - if Mayencourt's anti-panhandling bylaw was making a difference, and causing these guys to get hassled or swept off to other parts of the city. Or maybe, I wondered, did they find some new housing or a safe place to hang out and get some food, medical help or something? I really didn't have a clue, but the spare change has been piling up in my jacket pocket with nobody to give it to.

Luckily, I saw the little meek guy on Friday night as I walked home towards Stadium Station. I said hi to him, and asked how he was doing. He said something about being on some new meds, as I gave him a large fistful of spare change. He said thanks and I rushed off, feeling a bit relieved.

February 09, 2005

An Ego of Death, and the Death of an Ego.

I have been haunted by the images given me by Romeo Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The images Mr. Dallaire depicts of mutilated, dismembered bodies laying at the side of every road and polluting every river have left me chilled and sick at heart.

I began to wonder about inhumanity, depersonalization and the transformation of one person into a psychotic killing machine, and the transformation of another person into an inert lump of dead material.

Here are my brief (and slightly disjointed) thoughts, from two opposing though related points of view...

The Ego of the Attacker

What level of manipulation, desperation, and disassociation is required to turn one person against another in such a systematic, programmed method of eradication? What part of the human psyche finds the spilling of blood or the dismembering of a living being to be acceptable? What kind of frenzied, pack of vultures mentality permits this or encourages it?

Must the ego of the attacker turn it's victim into a faceless, soulless target in order to destroy it? What psychology and other factors lie behind a genocide?

The Ego of the Victim

How does a victim of fear, pain, rape, torture, and murder cope with the last few moments? How does the human mind comprehend the reality of becoming disassociated from the physical body? How does the mind process the shock and horror, the bewilderment of being killed - of being literally made into disparate pieces laying by the side of a dirt road?

In one moment, we have a whole being - a person, with a past, present and future - a mind full of memories and a body that has been formed and grown from experiences in the world. In the next moment, we have something which is perhaps not a "being" anymore - just a body, or a collection of parts or material.

Does the ego of the victim recede further inward as external parts are removed or as functions fail? How does one's identity disappear during death? When is a person no longer a person? Is there a point at which human rights cease to apply for that dying being? Where is the line between alive and dead, and what are the ethical issues?

Through propaganda, hatred, depersonalization and systematic butchery, 800,000 men, women and children were reduced to food for wild dogs and vultures over the course of 100 days. Dallaire reminds the world that after World War II, many said "Never again." How did we forget?

Here's an article on the web site of the American TV show "FrontLine", which deals with the state of Rwanda today.

February 08, 2005

Shaking Hands with the Devil

Shake Hand with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.I have just finished reading Lt. General Romeo Dallaire's excellent book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. This is Mr. Dallaire's tragic and awe-inspiring first-hand account of his experiences inside the Rwandan genocide.

Mr. Dallaire was the leader of the UN peace keeping force in Rwanda during the early 1990s, and although trained as a soldier specializing in Cold War-era peace keeping methods, he admits that he felt unprepared to come face to face with the brutal inhumanity of Rwanda. From his descriptions, Rwanda became a society intent on destroying itself from the inside, one person at a time.

Mr. Dallaire tells his story with an effective, natural voice - sometimes speaking as a professional military tactician, dealing with resource and people security, mobility and planning and deployment amidst a seeming myriad of conflicting requirements from outside parties. In this role, he is like Sisyphus, pushing an enormous rock up an increasingly steep incline, while third parties increase the burden or try to trip him up. The other voice that cries out from behind the professional burdens and dense bureaucratic and political fog is that of a human being who cannot tolerate the suffering, displacement, manipulation and murder of other human beings - the Rwandan people, who suffered originally as exploited subjects of racist, colonial Belgium, and later as subjects of an institutionalized racism and classicism that pitted them against each other.

The conflict was initially seen to be between two Rwandan classes: The Hutus and the Tutsis. The labels had originally been applied by the Belgian colonial government. It was a way to divide and conquer the populace by create divisions that could be exploited to allow a minority (the white colonists, and those labeled as Tutsi) to maintain control over the majority (anyone labelled Hutu).

During Dallaire's tour of duty, there were seen to be two sides battling in Rwanda: vestiges of the Belgian-Tutsi regime which had held power, known as the Rwandan Government Force (RGF), and the Hutu, rebel force known as the Rwandan People's Front (RPF).

Dallaire found himself in the middle of these two belligerent parties, under-funded and under-equipped by the UN (well below the level which he had originally requested). He soon witnessed the lies, brainwashing and desperation which would be key contributors in driving the population to begin killing itself in the streets.

In the end, Dallaire suffered as he bore witness the the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan people over the course of 100 days, while the international community did it's best to avoid involvement or responsibility.

To me, Romeo Dallaire exemplifies a standard of dedication, discipline, and humanitarian activism to which every peace-keeping soldier should aspire.

Learning about his experiences, and the difficulties inherent in international peace-keeping (as opposed to the "war on terrorism" which has primarily been a war of conquest) has reminded me of how my father and my brother have spoken with pride or a sense of justification about Canada's continuing role in the UN peace keeping efforts. I learned that Canada's Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson originally created the UN peace keeping force, and I learned how the blue berets or blue helmets are closely associated with Canada, and vice-versa.

As a Canadian, I'm very proud of this role (or at least our intention to perform it, even if our resources or government funding don't always allow us to perform as effectively as possible).