Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
|Reviews||Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation
Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008
Let me be blunt. This is the most difficult book review that I have had to compose over some fifteen years as the principal book reviewer for The College Quarterly. One of the reasons is the name of the publisher. McGill-Queen’s University Press is generally expected to produce volumes of high scholarship. Like every university press, it is thought to maintain (or to try to maintain) the highest standards of academic quality, integrity and (where possible) intellectual standards of scholarship rather than raw polemics. Those standards have been seriously tested with the publication of this volume.
I do not wish to imply that university presses nor any publishing houses should shun controversy. The University of Chicago, for example, is well known for producing many a volume that is philosophically tilted to the conservative end of the political spectrum, while the University of Minnesota has a large collection of books of a more radical persuasion on its lists. This is not to say that either one exclusively veers to the right or the left; it only implies that both (and many others as well) are not shy of legitimate debate.
This is as it should be, for institutions of postsecondary education do not fulfill their social purpose if they submit to the specious argument that teachers and writers ought to stick, like Dickens’ schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind, to “the facts.” The notion of a dispassionate, an objective or, worse, a “balanced” education is a myth and a moral conceit, mainly put forward by those emotionally or occupationally invested in the status quo. Academic progress and, in rare but important cases “revolutions,” depends on dissent, disagreement, the open competition of ideas and at least temporary dialectical resolutions of theoretical and empirical contests as thesis confronts antithesis and is general settled in at least a temporary synthesis.
As Thomas Kuhn instructed my generation in his remarkable book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), even the “hard” sciences are regularly shaken by paradigm-shifting innovations, contested descriptions and explanations and wholesale theoretical shake-ups. The same goes for the “professions” of architecture, business administration, law, medicine and the clergy. It is, however, in the humanities and social sciences that intellectual and political squabbles are most likely to be noticed.
Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard’s book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, is a currently up-to-the-minute example of fractious factional discord in social studies. It is not only hotly debated in the academy, but in the popular press as well. Its principal theme is that the condition of aboriginal peoples in Canada is appalling (which is not news) and that much of the blame should fall on the First Nations themselves, ably abetted by liberal White hypocrites (which is). Widdowson and Howard will get little argument for saying that poverty, drug addiction, crime and violence seem endemic in many Native communities. When, however, they attribute these social ills mainly to the corruption, nepotism and self-serving parasitism of Native institutions, they strike out in a rather unconventional and uncertain path. When they then add that the tribulations of the First Nations peoples are harmed by the culture of professional do-gooders and paid consultants who take to the courts to defend aboriginal rights, they begin to get bogged down. Accusing legal and political advocates of Native rights of capitalizing on a kind of get-rich-and-famous scheme, while remaining indifferent to the material plight of those they purport to defend strikes many as exaggerated at best and mendaciously fanciful at worst.
What applies to legal and political confrontations, according to Widdowson and Howard, also applies to seemingly more benign initiatives intended. So, even successful efforts are made to better the education of the First Nations and Inuit people, they remain withering in their critique. They are especially scornful in their denunciation of programs intended to rescue native languages. They denounce such projects as useless to anyone interested in joining modern Canadian society. They mock the mythologies of native religions and indigenous “medicine.” They are particularly contemptuous of efforts to achieve native self-government, believing that it merely enables local tyrants.
An enduring theme of the book is that many native people are condemned to suffer “third world” conditions despite the billions of dollars that have been spent in what seems to be the futile attempt to provide at least the opportunity for modernity and prosperity to these unfortunate citizens. Widdowson and Howard believe that they know better how to explain persistent problems. The answer does not lie, they readily concede, in the inferior genes of the native peoples. They are not racists, at least not in such a conventional and discredited way. Instead, they point to a list of miscreants and to a set of ideological beliefs that have left aboriginal Canadians doubly oppressed.
Canadian Indians and Inuit were doubtlessly exploited by colonialism and demoralized by “internal colonialism” before and after Canadian confederation. Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, however, insists that the current oppressors are precisely those liberal leeches who make a fine living as advocates for native peoples and the alleged native aristocracy which siphons off a good portion of government money to enrich itself while leaving others in distress.
Acting as an ideological smoke-screen for such iniquity, they add, is a romanticized view of traditional societies which perpetrate a number of dreamy fictions about native culture. There is nothing essentially noble, they say, about pre-contact Indian societies which practiced warfare, slavery and torture while grubbing out a subsistence living through scavenging, gathering and hunting. Native spirituality and environmental sensitivities, they claim, are comforting myths, but are hardly based on evidence. The most politically incorrect of their various allegations are those which insist that native culture is best left to perish, that blending aboriginal healing with modern medicine is preposterous, that acquiescing in the traditional belief that the different races were created separately on different continents disqualifies any aboriginal person from a serious study of either anthropology or zoology, and thatmost offensively, perhapsthe infamous residential schools were ultimately “positive” and “necessary” in order to disseminate the skills and attitudes necessary for success in the modern world. On their own, they state at the outset, Native peoples lack the knowledge and values to survive in contemporary society and their “undisciplined work habits, tribal forms of political identification, animistic beliefs and difficulties in developing abstract reason” enable their real oppressorswhite lawyers and native leadersto keep them segregated when, in reality, their only hope is to abandon their traditional ways and engage in modernity.
It may be noted that I have not mentioned the Métis. Widdowson and Howard hold them up as exemplars of the proper strategy for full participation in the larger society. As native author and education Gerald Taiaiake Alfred puts it: “Widdowson and Howard see the dissolution of indigenous culture and the assimilation of indigenous people into the ‘whitestream’ as the best thing that could possibly happen in Canada. They hold up the Métis, in contrast to First Nations and Inuit, as having principled leadership,” and because of their being assimilated, “it is with them that hope for real change lies.” It goes without saying that the foregoing analysis is something of a firebomb. Any claim that it raises important questions (irrespective of the answers) is apt to be seen through distinctively ideological lenses.
It is, for example, unsurprising that organs of white hegemony are delighted with Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry. Jonathan Kay, the National Post columnist called it “the most important Canadian policy book I’ve read in the last decade. Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail saw it as a springboard to construct a narrative of aboriginal peoples being arrested in their evolutionary development. It feeds into every racist stereotype imaginable and may have cooked up a few of its own. Right-wing reviewers are also thrilled with the authors’ expressed philosophy. They are self-proclaimed Marxists, apparently of the Troskyist hue. Their analysis is based on a fairly orthodox structuralist approach which is quick to dismiss what is sometimes inelegantly called “indigeneity” as nostalgia for a past that never was, and a distinctly unprogressive tendency. The organs of domination, of course, quickly dismiss Widdowson and Howard’s obsolete ideology, but they have grand time seeking to stimulate a quarrel between Marxists and knee-jerk liberals over who legitimately controls the left.
Unfortunately, the left seems to buy into this. Accusations of disingenuousness crowd the commentaries about Widdowson and Howard. They are, it is claimed, nothing more than disgruntled academics who tried for years to get a spot at the public trough, doing precisely what they accuse the tribe of white lawyers, consultants and advocates of doing. They are now engaged in a form of pay-back, which situates them on the side of the villainous Fraser Institute and racists of all stripes and streams. What is more, the book is contemptuously written off as a “shoddy piece of trash posing as serious analysis and pretending to respectability,” and its authors are dismissed people who must “get up in the morning and eat a dog’s breakfast of outmoded communist ideology and rotten anthropological theories washed down with strong racial prejudices inherited from their own unexamined colonial upbringings, all of which would turn anyone else’s stomach.” And, to add insult to insult (with or without injury), they are said to be covert Stalinists.
Now, this would all be great fun, were it not so serious. To me, the book recollected my early readings of Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958) and of Oscar Lewis’ The Children of Sanchez (1961), which constituted my first encounter with the so-called “culture of poverty theory.” Taken together, these two volumes set up the possibility of “blaming the victim.”
Widdowson and Howard may have hit upon some important issues. Surely an analysis of the power structure of native societies is currently in order (just as a critical assessment of the power structure of the dominant society is always in order). Likewise a solid critique of traditional values is legitimate (just as a solid critique of post-Enlightenment values seldom goes astray). I cannot comment on whether Widdowson and Howard wrote their tome out of personal pique and professional resentment. I can, however, lament that their work does not measure up to the intellectual standards required to give life to worthwhile debate. It is not so much an impassioned essay into murky territory where hard thinking and thoughtful reflection are invited. It lacks the kind of overall theoretical and historical framework that would make better sense of the authors’ claims. It is even more a screed than a sustained polemic, and as such makes it difficult to overlook what seems to be an almost preternatural bias.
This is a shame, for there may be much to be learned from a more serious study of the relationship between dependency and social dysfunction. This book does not provide it. As Kathy Buddle, a (non-Native cultural anthropologist) describes it, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry is a recklessly drawn and misleading map through very treacherous political terrain,” a “painfully inept political rant,” and an argument “so fatally flawed as to defy serious treatment.”
Controversy and informed argument arguably serve as the life-blood of an excellent liberal education and is the precondition for intelligent social policy. They are certainly at the heart of the precious notion of academic freedom. It is therefore incumbent upon controversialists to put their best arguments forward. It is in no one’s interest to advance an idea that is, as Wolfgang Pauli said of a certain theory in physics, “so bad it’s not even wrong.” Widdowson and Howard do not sink quite to that level. They are most often demonstrably wrong. No doubt Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry’s notoriety is such that McGill-Queen’s may have made a handsome profit. More’s the pity.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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