Emotions, symbols and animal nature in the Vancouver riots

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Someone I watched game seven with said, after the rioting began in Vancouver, that they should send out Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9 (without skates) Boston defenceman, to quiet them down. The way the Philistines -- the ones in the Bible -- sent Goliath, alone, to confront the massed Israelite armies and challenge anyone to take him on, one on one. Eventually David stepped up, with his slingshot, and the rest is history, or myth.

Of course it matters what the rioting was about. I looked at first for signs that it was small-scale, planned and perhaps politically motivated, like the action in Toronto at the G20. But no, it was widespread and lasted hours. There were lots of Canucks sweaters and agitated young guys.

It was hard to read, unlike hockey's Ur-riot, in Montreal in 1956, when fans sacked St. Catherine St. after NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell banned Rocket Richard at the end of the season. I'm sure there was youthful testosterone involved there too, but it had a clear political content: a covert expression of the ancient English-French conflict.

True, that wasn't the only possible interpretation of the Montreal riot. I was a kid then and I recall my dad saying the riot proved they were all "animals" in Quebec. What's interesting is my dad could be quite an animal himself, though always in the privacy of our apartment, abusing his family and busting things up. His riots were domestic but frequent. I see Tralee Pearce in the Globe found a psychologist who said that crowds provide cover for the release of rage, but so does your home. The same feelings can appear in multiple contexts. It's always tricky to try to understand what's actually happening.

Humans are emotional beings, but you can also think of us as symbolic. We invest our lives with meanings beyond the immediate. Sports is part of that. Feelings about teams often reflect stuff like the state of the economy. In hard times, people prefer to think about how their team is doing, especially when they're winning. Then they lose and wham, it's double devastation. Plus, for many people, the hard times endure. As a Toronto band sang in the recession of the early 1990s, "Hard times ain't nothing new/ On Eastern Avenue."

You can try to focus on real satisfactions in your actual life; or disperse the symbols to areas that may be going better than your team. But that only works to a point. We remain prey to our feelings and the symbols that embody them.

This applies in politics too, where people often vote less in terms of concrete issues like health or child care than symbolic satisfactions like punishing evil and arrogance. Supposedly cagey winners, like Rob Ford, Stephen Harper or Barack Obama, are often just the innocent beneficiaries of those deeper needs.

Political philosopher Leo Strauss, who lived through Hitler's rise, concluded that most people are and always will be basically emotional and for their own good must be manipulated by their betters through religion and deceit. Honesty was not possible or desirable for the majority. He's strongly influenced governments like those of Stephen Harper and George W. Bush.

By contrast, Pierre Trudeau, the most philosophical of our prime ministers, made "Reason over Passion" his personal motto. Yet he belted his wife Margaret when she stepped out one night with the Rolling Stones and she wore the black eye in public. The great Toronto artist Joyce Wieland embroidered one of her lovely quilts with the words, Reason over Passion. Get it? Bedtime?

So think of Trudeau's words as a wish, a goal or even a prayer. It can be done but people will always -- as in Vancouver -- have to deal with their passions, emotions, symbols and animal nature. I don't mean to put animals down, since we don't know much about their inner lives. But at least we can say we aren't angels who, if they existed, would be all joy, harmony and absence of rage.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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