Dr. Dawg

"Barbaric cultural practices"

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That would be from Jason Kenney’s Canadian citizenship guide, in the news once again.

Kenney counts as a hero a pro-Nazi Roman Catholic official who presided over the extermination of Jews and Serbs in Croatia during World War II. “Hitler is an envoy of God,” declared Aloysius Stepanic, later promoted to Cardinal and since beatified by Pope John Paul II. Kenney has a picture of him on his desk.

A Croatian barbaric cultural practice? Was the Holocaust a German barbaric cultural practice? I wouldn’t say so.

As a student of anthropology, I’ve learned to be wary of the notion of “culture,” some unchanging essence that defines both a group of people and each member of that group.* No group is ever homogeneous, and the lifeways of people change continually.

Was it “German culture” to exterminate the Jews, Roma and countless others, many of them citizens of Germany? A little self-contradictory, it seems to me, not to mention simplistic, pace Daniel Goldhagen, whose arguments don’t impress me.

Was it “Croatian culture” to establish a concentration camp for children and poison them by putting lye in their food?

Is it “Hungarian culture” to launch pogroms against the Roma today?

We aren’t talking about whole groups of people. We are talking about practices that are already illegal in Canada, and which are opposed by members of the very (unnamed) groups being targeted by Jason Kenney. Should he have included “extermination camps,” “genocide” and “pogroms” on his list of “cultural practices,” and wag his finger at immigrants from Germany and various Eastern European nations?

The use of the term “barbaric” is also open to question. Once it simply meant a non-Greek. Then it came to mean a lesser people, and in anthropology it used to refer to an alleged stage of human development that predates “civilization”—the latter notion, with its “their present is our past” baggage, now thankfully abandoned. Finally it became a handy popular synonym for “cruel and brutal.”

It was the latter usage, I believe (but with more than a smattering of the one just before it, in my opinion) that found its way into the Canadian citizenship guide. But if this is the case, the list of examples provided is tendentious. I agree that all of them are inarguably cruel and brutal. But so are various unmentioned violent manifestations of racism that are prevalent closer to home—by which I mean, in Western nations. One can just feel the Great White Father subtext in Kenney’s guide.

Some issues are simply not reducible to sound-bites. Justin Trudeau was right, if a little confused, but he’ll pay the price for being so, and he’s already trying to walk it back.

Politics, at least as it’s presently practised in Canada, is not a space for fine distinctions and long explanations. The yahoos will always outnumber and out-comment the thinkers for whom, infuriatingly, nothing is simple. Phrases like “political correctness” will be used as bludgeons to silence the purveyors of nuance. People like Trudeau will be accused of trying to hide, or even of condoning, practises of which most Canadians disapprove.

Another political point will be scored. But who, precisely, is better off for it?

* Dan Gardner suggests that I’m being overly dismissive of the word. I should perhaps have said “too often taken as some unchanging essence,” but it’s hard to think of an example of the use of the word “culture” (in the sense of a culture) shorn of its essentialist implications.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on March 15, 2011 5:40 PM.

Stacy Bonds case: Ottawa police officer charged was the previous entry in this blog.

His Honour, Mr. Justice Robert Dewar [updated] is the next entry in this blog.

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