Sunday, December 30, 2012

Facebook Argument: Aboriginal activism

Because I am some kind of exhibitionist, I've decided to start copy-pasting the delightful arguments/fights that I occasionally have with others about various 'important issues' on Facebook (and because FB's search function for your previous posts sucks, as in, they have no such function)

R (OP):
Christie Blatchford is many things, but I never thought of her as a racist. Not a 'this person is white and made a comment so I will just call them that so that the accusation will heftily speak the crime', but an honest-to-God, ribald, bigoted, racist. So whenever I refer to her, I will do so by saying "Noted racist, Christie Blatchford, today shat on humanity from on high by stating..." Because thats what you do when someone is a racist, you call them on it. Over and over and over again.
Natives have the same right as white people to be called stupid by newspaper columnists
(A bunch of clarification posts)

[Lorenzo], I really think you need to read the article. Replace the words 'First Nations' with Filipino, or Basque, or Uhyghur, or Black, and people would be calling for her head on a pike. Again, when it comes to the conversation about First Nation's in this country its A-OK to use explicitly racist language because of our nebulous and ill-informed understanding of 'money goin' to them' and other insane myths like 'they get free college' and 'they're just not working hard enough'.
I have read the article, and I agree with pretty much 90% of it. Her target is not Natives but Native activism in its present form (as represented by Chief Spence), which she denounces as ineffectual puffery because, in her view, it does nothing to actually address the significant problems that Natives continue to suffer under the present legal regime. Indian Act is broken? Aborginals are forced into dependency? She agrees with all that too!

I think people are failing to make a distinction between good intentions and effective advocacy. Chief Spence may mean well, but if her 'activism' only serves as an obstacle to the betterment of Aboriginal lives then others are free to criticize her in strong language. Because that's really all I see here: strong language. Yes, there was that one paragraph that made fun of common tropes associated with Native culture, but all forms of activism carry with them the risk that their most important symbols and ideas will become misused in a fit of sentimental frenzy, and that is specifically what Blatchford is denouncing.
So its okay for Blatchford to be a racist because she sees the Indian Act as a bad thing. Okay. Gotcha.
If Blatchford's article is 'racism' then criticism of Native activism is impossible without being racist
That's crap and you know it [Lorenzo]. Denigrating the customs of a culture, saying that a group of people give off offensive physical odors and that their cultural practices does not make them a nation and should be written off as such is racism, plain and simple. I've enjoyed our debates on many things Juan, but you're really showing that you're unwilling to accept that yes, sometimes people utilize racist language to denigrate others to make their argument seem more palpable to others. That makes you naive, and intellectually dishonest.

Again, go through this intellectual exercise by replacing 'First Nations' with 'Jewish' and 'tobacco offerings and smudging' with 'kosher meats' and 'menorah' and tell me that this would not result in Christie being brought up on hate speech charges and denounced by every sector of Canadian society.

"Denigrating the customs of a culture, saying that a group of people give off offensive physical odors and that their cultural practices does not make them a nation and should be written off as such is racism, plain and simple."

Except that she doesn'
t actually say all those things you say she said. Let me bring up what she actually said:

"... there is... a genuine question as to whether there’s enough of aboriginal culture that has survived to even dream of that lofty status, or if the culture isn’t irreparably damaged already. Smudging, drumming and the like do not a nation make."

OK, so she did make a mistake in lumping all Aboriginals together, since Crees are different from Algonquins, etc. But the point remains: isn't it one of the major arguments of pro-Native activists that Native culture has been, well, irreparably damaged by centuries of discrimination? I do not see how it is racist to point out uncomfortable truths. Native culture /has/ been severely damaged, what with the Indian Act, residential schools, etc. Of course, the real extent of what cultural elements survive has to discovered through other means, but to ask the very question is not 'racist' but, rather, part of the bleak task of surveying the damage that has been done to Aboriginal society.

Right, so I've given this a bit more thought.

Blatchford was probably a little insensitive when she made those comments about 'smudging and drumming', but I still believe that focusing, above all else, on the negativity that those phrases generate in
some is to totally miss the point of her article. The righteousness of your cause (and Aboriginal rights are as righteous a cause if any) does not absolve you from making dumb decisions in your activism, or from exploiting your own cultural symbols to generate emotions of sympathy in a manipulative fashion.

Let's take...oh, the pro-life movement, which often gets accused of emotional exploitation (because of the pictures of aborted babies) or 'only caring about babies before they are born'. Do those accusations sting me, a pro-lifer? Yes. Do I call them out of it and complain about how offended I am? No, because despite the strong language there are legitimate points behind those criticisms. There are legitimate points in Blatchford's article, too, and I'm afraid they've been lost in this dispute.

Heck, let's go further...

Let's go further and talk about, say, Filipinos under American occupation (as they were about a hundred years ago) ((Blognote: I'm Filipino)). The Filipino activists create posters showing crying women watching as big dumb Whitey takes always her beautiful forests. They stage protests that make liberal use of traditional Filipino dances. Soon, Mark Twain (who was pro-Filipino historically) writes an article denouncing the 'shrill sentimentality of the Filipinos, who act as if their hoppity dances and their precious jungle soil are their defining cultural traits'. I would be hurt, yes...for the first few moments. But then I would realize that he has a point, because we /have/ been using our 'hoppity dances' and our 'precious jungle soil' as tools to generate sympathy.
Emotional sensitivity is less important than rudely stating the facts.


See this is where you are doing a great job of lying to yourself and apologizing for racism Juan, which is really, really crappy. Reading your apologist screed for racists of old and present is not baffling, only depressing. You're cherry picking of all of the segments of the article save those which are explicitly racist and your refusal to quote them is a clear representation of your inability and/or tacit unwillingness to approach this issue on the battleground of reason. This makes three times in a row that you have ignored and been unwilling to engage in the very simple yet painfully difficult exercise I put before you. Your 'uncomfortable truths' angle is representative of most of the drivel I have to hear on a constant basis from people who have no understanding whatsoever of what has been going on in this country for the past fifty years, let alone the meat and potatoes genocide that we would all like to forget about. I expected more from someone that is so willing to champion 'moral' causes that fit in with your Christian orthodoxy. I am surprised that you can still call yourself one.

I do not apply different standards to different moral causes. They are plenty of folks who champion 'Christian orthodoxy' whom I find wholly disagreeable, but I have not been given a situation where I have had to denounce them, hence my supposed silence on that issue.
OK, let's break this down and look at the most objectionable parts of Blatchford's column, since that is what you desire.
"Now, of course, Chief Spence has parked herself on an island in the Ottawa River, is on Day 17 of a hunger strike, and all around her, the inevitable cycle of hideous puffery and horse manure that usually accompanies native protests swirls."
OK, so she says native protests are full of shit, basically. Admittedly, this is a highly insensitive thing to say, and if I had stopped reading the article there I would have come to the same conclusion as you about her 'racism'. But let's not forget the context here: she goes on to say that natives do have legitimate grievances, and that this has been going on for years and no one has done anything. In fact, I went on and on about how her whole point was that the current strategy of native protests was amounting to a bunch of nothing.
"Already, there is much talk of smudging ceremonies, tobacco offerings, the inherent aboriginal love for and superior understanding of the land, and treaties that were expected to be in place “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.”
Derisive, definitely. This is where your argument is strongest because she actually does target actual native practices in her crosshairs. Again, context: she is talking about how those things are being used by activists as tools for public relations, and not that those practices per se are bad.
I already talked about the next honker paragraph in my previous post above.
Now, here's a few questions I have for you, R.
Do you object to the actual point of this article, or merely those offensive things she says in those few paragraphs I (and you) have highlighted? Do you think that excluding those sections from her column would drastically improve her thesis?
Do you believe that native activism, as it is, should be something we support unconditionally? Does criticism of this activism imply criticism of natives themselves, or their beliefs and traditions, or even to question their value? Should native traditions not be criticized so freely, because of the delicate nature of the issue?

I (and Blatchford, and every other normal person) have never expressed anything but genuine concern over the issue of Aboriginal rights and the poverty and depredation of Natives (especially in Reserves). Everyone who has an adequate understanding of history knows the story of Aboriginals' plight, the loss of land and dignity, the destruction (more or less) of their culture and their way of life, their continual endurance (however frail) of systemic discrimination (whether intended or not). We know all this because of the efforts of activists to bring these issues to light; and yes, I do believe that pro-native activism has had positive results.
But just because Aboriginals are suffering doesn't mean they get to be certified as morally pure victims. To regard Natives as an unassailable, uncriticizable group by virtue of the real suffering they have endured is highly patronizing, akin to the views of those people who think that you can't criticize Israel because of the historical suffering of Jews. In fact, I don't really believe this is about 'racism' at all but about the hurt feelings that Blatchford's article generated by virtue of her daring to attack Natives for their tactics (and only certain Natives, at that). Bad tactics and bad advocacy are bad regardless of the group or the cause, as I have said at least three times now.
You know who's making a real difference in Aboriginal advocacy? Shawn Atleo. ((blognote: current head of the Assembly of First Nations)) And, of course, you never hear Blatchford complain about him very much.