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Rick Salutin

Freedom fighters, killer whales Add to ...

T he Spartacus of SeaWorld: Who knows, of course, if Tilikum the SeaWorld orca had a motive in killing his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and withholding her from rescuers. But an impulse to attribute humanish motives to animals is ancient and irresistible. I don't think we do it from egocentrism, but rather from fellow feeling and analogy. We are, after all, animals, too. We have an inner life, for which there's no external proof. Why shouldn't they?

But the motives attributed change with the times. A new book, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal, comes out this fall. From bestiality to politics, as it were. Writer Philip Hoare told Slate that orcas test for intelligence just below us, and above primates. They are a rare species, like us, that have sex for its own sake. Penned in tanks instead of roaming the oceans at play, what else can they do except, occasionally, lash out in - who knows what? - rage, frustration? Like Spartacus who led the doomed revolt of the slaves in ancient Rome.

Tilikum had been involved in the deaths of humans twice before. So was this some kind of statement, unlike the ducks who died mute in the tar sands? And stating what? For 20 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. Then he was released as a freedom fighter. He hadn't changed, not a bit, but the times had.

What typifies our era is the extension of dignity and humanity to "others" once deemed lesser. Racism is now officially frowned on. So is gender bias. Former colonials sit as equals at the United Nations. China and India are major forces. A lot of it is half-assed, but it's still a big change. So it might follow to attribute a certain dignity, respect and sense of self to other living creatures, as part of the temper of our times. We may never know if it truly applies - not because it's unknowable in principle but because our mental apparatus just isn't up to some kinds of knowledge and may never be.

Still, it makes you think. Of what? Of Moby Dick, and that appalling, tantalizing whiteness of the white whale, which rebuffs all mastery.

Embrace your stereotypes: The opening and closing Olympic shows were a lesson in what works and what doesn't in Canadian culture.

What doesn't is solemnity and sonority, as at the opening. I speak from experience. I once put two Canadian freedom fighters from the rebellion of 1837 on a gallows (in a play) to speak immortal lines before they swung ("We lost." "No. We haven't won yet."). But it came out like a vaudeville joke ("Sam, you made the pants too long." "Nah. Your legs are too short.") In Canadian culture, something funny always happens on the way to the gallows.

What works is self-deprecation and satire. Like the enormous floating moose and beaver, or the cutout hockey players from the table game with a kid as puck. And the interminable Mounties. The Americans must have been asking: How come they get to have a cop as their national symbol?

What also works is the return of the prodigals, who reveal to the rest of the world what we already knew: that they're from here. William Shatner, Neil Young, Michael J. Fox, Catherine O'Hara. No kidding, say the Americans, you'd never know. But it wouldn't work if they stayed, rather than just dropping by occasionally to bask in the success they've had elsewhere, a thought that may have occurred to Michael Ignatieff as he looked on.

One size fits all: My favourite moment in Wednesday's Throne Speech was the promise to erect a monument to the victims of communism. As a monument-liker, that would be fine with me - if it were twinned with a monument to the victims of capitalism, which makes as much sense. Or maybe they could both be united by the need to cut spending, resulting in a single National Victims Monument, come one, come all.

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