Dr.Dawg

When the subaltern speaks

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Yusra Khogali, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Toronto, has been in the news recently for calling Prime Minister a “white supremacist terrorist.” She’s had a few other interesting things to say as well in the recent past. She asks Allah to prevent her from committing violence. She refers to whites as genetically defective. She’s really angry. And, from what I know second-hand about racism and misogyny, I don’t blame her.

We can argue about the strategic usefulness of deploying inflammatory public rhetoric, shorn of context and explanation, that divides and excludes—I do, as a former union leader who knows what draws people in and what doesn’t—but that isn’t the issue. Khogali is expressing the anger of the oppressed, she has a right to do it, and she is accountable only to the people in her movement. White folks calling for her removal as a leader rather make her point. They would prefer that oppressed people remain polite and respectful and use their indoor voices at all times: otherwise these outside commentators feel uncomfortable. But put up their discomfort against the everyday racism, the personal and institutional violence, that is a Black person’s life experience, and there is simply no contest.

Besides, the content of her most recent remark bears a little attention. As others have noted, you can indeed argue her case against Trudeau. White supremacy is not just the ideology of Nazis. Terrorism is more than shooting up a mosque or a nightclub. Trudeau’s refusal to accede to a court ruling and two compliance orders by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal continues to victimize First Nations children simply for being First Nations. His sale of arms to the Saudis, not to mention the training that the Canadian military throws in, is certainly terrorizing a lot of civilians in Yemen at present, as well as enabling the House of Saud’s bloody rule at home.

Discomfort is the point at which we privileged white folks can either move forward or stay in place. Confronting and reflecting upon our own socialized attitudes is not infrequently unpleasant. This isn’t a moral matter: we aren’t necessarily “guilty” of anything. Most of us simply sleepwalk in our privilege. But when we’re called on it, we should be willing to learn.

Well, here is what I have learned, for what it’s worth. Khogali’s remarks take place in a context of oppression, and they should be interpreted in that manner. She’s not just another talking head on a reassuring TV panel show: she’s a pissed-off Black activist, every atom of whose being is engaged in resistance. Must we expect that she follow polite rules of discourse established by the very society that oppresses her? Very little real-world resistance is drawing-room. A lot of it can be raw and ugly. And the white liberal response is too often to wag a finger. They liked Martin Luther King for his non-violent resistance; Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, not so much.

But here is what King himself had to say about them:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. ~Letter from a Birmingham Jail

When I read Khogali’s commentary, I’m not surprised or offended. Asking Allah to help her check her rage is hardly worth the ink spilled by affronted pundits attacking that Tweeted prayer. As for the alleged genetic defectiveness of white people, I have no reason to believe that she is not entirely sincere about that amalgam of pseudo-science and mysticism, but I can’t help being struck by its ironic effectiveness. She is holding up a cracked mirror to hundreds of years of white pseudo-science about “race” and Blacks in particular, and just look at the shock and outrage she’s been causing among the chattering classes. Three or so remarks! Imagine the emotions they might have caused to well up in us were the historical tables turned.

None of this is to say that anything goes, particularly if one is attempting to build a mass movement, but, rather, that we should try to understand how what we might regard as rhetorical excesses are generated by the very system that is now clutching its pearls. Can the subaltern speak? You betcha. And we won’t always like what we hear—but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

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Mandos

I said it first

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An Oklahoma legislator recently made a stir when he bluntly explained his thinking behind yet another abortion restriction:

Ultimately, he said, his intent was to let men have a say. “I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all of these types of decisions,” he said. “I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant,” he explained. “So that’s where I’m at. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
(Emphasis mine.) Let the record show that I said it before he did:
In an alternate universe where sentient, human-like intelligences only reproduce asexually, the concept of mammalian reproduction would be the subject of lurid and imaginative horror novels (which might possibly be similar to our romance novels or, I guess, pornography). Particularly disconcerting would be the concept of “male” and even worse, the idea of “sperm”.

(Later from comments) It has cells. That take over other cells. To make another version of It, by hijacking the cells and internal budding chamber of a member of a similar species.

But I suppose it’s nice for the anti-abortion lobby to say it so plainly: that women are hosts for an alien parasite and must be prevented, for the sake of the injector of the organism, from choosing to cease to be hosts.

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Dr.Dawg

Straight talk on C-23

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Political deep integration continues apace. The Liberal government is in the process of passing an extraordinary piece of legislation, C-23, which effectively cedes Canadian sovereignty to US border officials. Under this Bill, expected to pass shortly, Canadians can be held for interrogation by US border guards at airports, even if we decide we’ve had enough hostile questioning about our religion, political views, social media habits, or mode of dress, and decide to stay in Canada after all. If we try to get up and leave at that point, or decide we don’t want to answer more questions, we will be breaking Canadian law, and liable for arrest, conviction and imprisonment. Meanwhile, Canadian border officials in American airports will now have the right to prevent Canadian permanent residents from boarding an aircraft.

At a stroke, what we assumed were basic civic rights are being whisked away by the Trudeau government. American authorities will be able to detain Canadian citizens on Canadian soil, and the Liberals are making it a crime for us to refuse to cooperate. And just as American green card-holders are being harassed and blocked at US airports, so Canada is now following suit against its own permanent residents, who—until now—had the unfettered right to enter Canada.

Pre-clearance has, of course, been a convenient way of entering the US. Better to be refused here than have to pay your way back from there. But this new law will apply, as noted, even to Canadians who change their minds about traveling to the US after getting a taste of the Orange Era from a sneering and hostile American immigration official. It’s worth reiterating: you won’t just be able to walk away. You will remain under American authority, in Canada, and if you resist or refuse to answer an American interrogator’s questions, you can be prosecuted—by Canada.

This may seem to some like small potatoes. Most Canadians don’t fly to the US. Most who do are unlikely to be harassed at the border. But it is wrong, I think, to dismiss this move so easily. Giving Americans the right to detain Canadians on our own land, and subjecting the latter to prosecution if we fail to comply, is a significant break from the past. Does anyone believe that US pressure will stop there, and that more concessions won’t be made?

Trudeau’s grinning performance in Washington, strong handshake and all, was really a gesture of obeisance. It was a dutiful visit to the court of the mad king. He will sound tough on trade issues for domestic consumption, and try to recover his shining mantle after his dismal performance of late, but he is what he is: little more than a satrap, not the leader of a sovereign nation. Just watch him.

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Dr.Dawg

On originalism

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The Donald’s pick to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States is Neil Gorsuch. He is a constitutional originalist.

That means he interprets the US Constitution according to its original meaning. I haven’t gone deeply enough into the man’s beliefs to determine whether he is among the minority of originalists who look for the drafters’ intent, or, instead, is a textualist who goes by the original plain-language meaning of the Constitution as understood at the time it was written.

Both propositions, of course, are a nonsense.

On the question of intent, reading the minds of dead men is a form of divination, nothing more. And recourse to the debates at the time doesn’t help: all that does is attempt to conflate the alleged intentions of a lot more dead men. “Intent” is, in any case, impossible to determine. Must we go back to the New Critics, or at least to Roland Barthes, to explode that notion? Put simply, even if an author expresses an intent, that expression is a series of signifiers that merely point to other signifiers. What did the author mean by their expression of intent? And what, in turn, does the new explanation mean? That way, madness lies. And it only gets worse when the text is a collective enterprise.

So, what about plain-language “original” meaning? What does “original” signify? Even more dead men (and women) must be enlisted, in an impossible quest. Meaning shifts continually: the relation between signifier and signified is ever-changing, and is continually contested. One determines a meaning of any text from context, which itself is never fixed. There is no such thing as “original” meaning.

Let’s bring this down to earth. The Constitution proscribes “cruel and unusual punishment” (Eighth Amendment) and “unreasonable searches and seizures” (Fourth Amendment). Rights not explicit in the Constitution are protected by the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

What did the Framers mean by “cruel and unusual?” How do we determine what they meant by “unreasonable?” What “rights” (unnamed) are protected in the Constitution? What did that reference to other “retained” rights mean at the time?

Originalism is the new bibliomancy. A magic means of getting to a preordained legal conclusion.

A lawyer on Facebook told me he had never heard of Ferdinand de Saussure. No surprise there. But perhaps an introductory course in semiotics would be good for law students whose certainties about textual meaning have so perverted the course of American legal hermeneutics.

[Disclaimer: I am not by any stretch of the imagination a US Constitutional scholar, or even a lawyer, although I know a thing or two about textual theory. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious. If so, the lawyers who visit this place are invited to clarify and explain. —DD]

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Dr.Dawg

WYSIWYG politics

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Until very recently, electoral politics has been a contest of facades, rhetorical and visual simulacra competing with other ones. Somewhere underneath it all, real flesh-and-blood people are strait-jacketed in talking-points and boilerplate, forming over them like a full-body mask. This is such a commonplace that no one questions it. We expect it. Even those of us who like to get at the root of things—literally, radicals—find ourselves quite at home in this discursive world of the anodyne, the commonplace, the glib and thoughtless formulation. We, too, share in the babbled, incoherent language of somnambulists, and speak it too often ourselves.

I am not here merely recapitulating Orwell, whose essay “Politics and the English Language” should be required weekly reading for anyone commenting upon current events, let alone entering what we laughingly call public life. The latter is neither public (what is made public is only a series of reassuring signifiers) nor, it must be said, alive. When one listened during the US Presidential election to the ultimate machine candidate, Hillary Clinton, the word “undead” came to mind: not one original thought was enunciated, not a single unique phrasing. She opened her mouth and the system spoke. She was just an echoing shell, amplifying the political commonplaces of the day; rising, in the immortal words of Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley in 1968, to ever higher and higher platitudes.

There is more than a bad use of language here, disguising a laziness of thinking. There is a bad style, and worse, a bad culture. The language is used deliberately and strategically, not out of sloppiness. Politics has only one audience: the trick has been to say things that cause as few as possible of the snoozers in the cheap seats to come fully awake.

But last Fall, the snoozers were becoming wakeful all on their own. For some, the system was causing palpable harm. For many others, the system had no discernible effect, pro or con, and the seats in the audience had become hard and uncomfortable. It was impossible to connect abstract policy pronouncements with their own lived daily lives. The largely empty ritual of elections had lost any mana it might have once possessed as a periodic reaffirmation of American democracy.

Enter Bernie Sanders, and enter Donald Trump.

Neither man traded in evasive, ambiguous abstractions. They spoke as though they shared the same world as their audiences. They said what they meant. Their frankness was fresh and to many, jarring. Both, as it turned out, attracted surprising support—surprising to the dominant political culture, at least. They raised issues in flesh and blood fashion, speaking to a collective sense of loss. Their solutions were, of course, diametrically opposed, but it was not the substance of their critiques of business as usual that their audiences were after. It was their lack of careful parsing, of cultivated ambiguity, of being all things to all people. It was their language that seemed to go to the heart of things that jolted their listeners awake.

I don’t want to pursue the Sanders-Trump parallelism too far, obviously, although there is, it must be said, an odd commingling of world-views in some respects. Who was the anti-war candidate? The anti-free trade candidate? Who spoke directly to a wide swathe of bruised and battered citizens? The Democratic machine ensured that Sanders, with his mega-crowds of eager listeners and followers, would be shut out of the game by any means necessary. The Republican machine, for its part, was simply unready and unable to withstand the flood. The time of raw authenticity had come. A Sanders-Trump contest would arguably have been a victory for Sanders, a plain-speaker of substance versus a gaseous windbag, but Americans were denied that choice. We know the result.

It didn’t matter a whit that Trump is a crude and oafish bullshitter who doesn’t say what he thinks, because he actually thinks very little. Language for him is the gauze wrapping of his hyper-narcissism. But his voters, like cutters who injure themselves deliberately so that they can actually feel something, cast their ballots in defiance: in Michael Moore’s words, it was the largest “F*ck You” in human history, not to the Democrats, but to the smarmy political culture of the day. Instead of the politics of interpretation, nuance, image, razzle-dazzle and inevitable disappointment, the US electorate opted for What You See Is What You Get.

This is why it’s so pointless to express daily outrage about the behaviour and shambolic public utterances of this oik: it’s precisely because of that sort of thing that he won the election. Where the china shop is out of reach, root for the f*cking bull.

The first week of the bull’s Year Zero has targeted a lot of people for injury, but offered succour to none. His words and those of his spokespeople are becoming wilder and sillier. As one might have confidently predicted, signs of rising resistance are now everywhere visible. No President in history has been inaugurated with such a low standing in the polls, and it continues to sink. His inaugural crowds were relatively small, dwarfed by the Women’s March. “Sanctuary cities” are point-blank refusing to implement his racist policies.

For better or worse, millions of American voters are no longer asleep. Machine politics-as-usual has been torpedoed. We’re in new, frontier political territory, offering both danger and opportunity to all sides. Let’s see what Week Two brings.


[Note to commenters: the URL keeps flipping to a non-existent one. Please paste in “http://drdawgsblawg.ca/2017/01/wysiwyg-politics.shtml#disqus_thread” when you get that “404,” and then fire away. —DD]

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Dr.Dawg

Res ipsa loquitur

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Obama, it seems, is not a credit to his race.

But by this logic, if we survive the next four years, we will not see a white President again. Ever. So there’s that.

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Balbulican

Slouching Toward Washington

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the white house2.jpgA quick quiz for those of you who still doubt that we have entered the End Times and that the Trumpocalypse looms. Quick, who said the following:

“Barack Obama was a principled and able president who governed in relatively peaceful times. Who knows when we’ll be able to say that again? No wonder I feel so nostalgic for 2009. Our giddy expectation for hope and change may have been naive - but it sure beats the feeling I am having in the pit of my stomach now. We’re poised at the top of a roller coaster with a crazed 12-year-old in control, and we’re about to head full-tilt down the slope. All we can do is hang on tight.”

Warren Kinsella? Naomi Klein? Rick Salutin? John Baglow?

Nope.

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Dr.Dawg

Getting a grip

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In just a few days, a spoiled child prone to tantrums will have his finger on the nuclear button. As Commander-in-Chief, he gets to call that shot. It cannot be countermanded, unless there is a mutiny.

Just about anything one says about Donald Trump’s vulgar, oafish personality is eminently believable, including the latest unverified revelations. The “golden showers” business is good for a few snickers and guffaws, but the worst thing about the unsubstantiated intelligence briefing now making the rounds of cyberspace is how deeply implicated the President-elect may be in the Great Russian game plan. From “he’s a Manchurian candidate” to “anti-Russia hysteria reminiscent of the Cold War,” commentators and counter-commentators are speculating at the top of their lungs. Imagine conversations like this happening even five years ago.

I can no longer summon up the slightest sense of shock, let alone what seems to be increasingly pointless outrage. The whole world is being trolled. Where is a safe space when we need one?

And the Left is vanishing up its own fundament as I write this.

I’m getting trashed more by “progressives” these days than by right-wingers. The latter, thankfully, have given up on me. Perhaps I should be flattered that my erstwhile comrades still think I’m worth the trouble. Sneering contempt is, after all, a form of engagement. I’m not whining about this, by the way: I can and do give as good as I get, although it hardly seems fair in some instances. Admittedly, I have shown less patience of late with obscure points of doctrine. Dried-out husks of dogma are rolling about like tumbleweeds, but there seems to be a complete inability to discuss ideas. The very notion, in fact, appears to cause deep offence. Better to read, endlessly, off the tablets of the day, while wagging a finger.

What to do about Trump? Not much at the moment, and there’s the rub. What propelled him to the presidency? All we get is “Wuzn’t me.” Maybe, you know, we should build a movement. But wait—still having trouble with “allyship?” Let’s strike a committee and have a conference and denounce people.

Maybe we can go after some poor working-class schlub at Wilfred Laurier who dared utter the word “slave.” The cafe he ran has re-opened, with more vegan and gluten-free options. Yum.

Or we could run a campaign to clean up Halloween. Sombreros are out. Or we could censure the “Merry Christmas” bigots. Or lecture people on what they should and shouldn’t write about. Or put trigger warnings on damned near everything. A very partial list of topics requiring one of those TWs:

[M]isogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including “stupid” or “dumb”), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD.”

As Spock would say, deadpan, “Fascinating.” He was a person of few words.

We may be facing 1933 all over again, this time with nukes. Don’t look now—trigger warning!—but fascism is rising out of a shallow grave, prematurely buried as it turns out, and he’s pissed. What to do, what to do. I know: let’s ban applause.

The saving grace of a Trump presidency—if he doesn’t get us all killed—might be to restore a sense of perspective to the Left. Once we were a world-historical movement. Capitalists trembled in their top hats. Then we began the lengthy process of eating ourselves alive without anesthetic. The struggle continues.

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Dr.Dawg

Ageism

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Disclosure: I’m now a septuagenarian. Sounds better in Latin.

The odd thing is, I don’t feel it. Not a bit. So when I first encountered ageism, I went into denial. Or laughed as though it was a joke.

But it isn’t. Ours is one of the few human societies in which the default position for age is disrespect. You have to earn your stripes all over again. You either become invisible, or are too often shrugged off with amused or not-so-amused contempt.

The odd thing is that this attitude extends across the political spectrum. Expect no mercy from “progressives” on this score. One recently referred to the plethora of “old, white newspaper columnists.” Well, white, sure, that bespeaks a relatively privileged subject-position, and is worth noting in a country with a growing indigenous (1 million+) and visible minority (5 million+) population. The punditocracy is far from inclusive in this respect, yet more of those voices need to be heard. They should be part of the national conversation—and especially so when they are the topic of that conversation. This is hardly even worth debating.

But “old,” used as a pejorative, really needs to be, er, retired. It’s even used by old people to refer to other old people in that manner. Terry Glavin, who qualified last year for CPP, once did that to me.

So I objected to the aforesaid progressive’s use of the word. They almost inevitably doubled down. Called me a “man-baby,” somewhat paradoxically. It reminded me of the days when women began to object to being called “girls.” It’s an endearment, quoth the backlash bros. It’s just a word. Besides, don’t they call each other that? (Or am I mixing this up with the bizarre debates over the n-word?) When does a girl become a woman? When does a person of years become “old?”

Person of years. I like that.

People seem eager to help out. Doors are held open for me. Folks heading in my metaphorical direction smile at me. I apparently qualify for “senior’s discounts,” but never ask for them. “Senior?” Hell, naw.

So the Big Dismissal can’t be universally true. Donald Trump is my age. (Well, he has six months on me.) Voters seemed to ignore his years, wrinkles, fake hair, fake skin, and paunch. Not to mention his crude sexual voracity. They’re no doubt buying up all that cheap hawker’s merchandise from the Trump Store—the latest is a pair of inaugural lapel pins, by the way. Before that, it was beer mugs and MAGA hat Christmas tree ornaments. Somehow he still runs with the cool kids.

So maybe there’s hope. Yet, encountering casual ageism still stings. The contents of a column are what should count, not the age of the writer. “Old” doesn’t mean out of touch, or unable to think, or un-engaged, or living off the avails of idées fixes. There is no such thing as “age privilege” in our intersectional analyses. Age actually de-privileges. Boomer wealth, an accumulation usually based upon a lifetime of work and inheritance, gets inherited in turn. And most boomers aren’t wealthy at all. Many are living below the poverty line, with no means of working themselves over it.

Those of us lucky enough to have pensions are receiving investment returns on a lifetime of forced savings. Young folks lucky enough to have jobs aren’t keeping us afloat, despite the resentment-feeding fairy tales. (Health care costs, on the other hand, are indeed unequally distributed: another strong argument for immigration. But even the young will make use of universal healthcare someday, they should live so long.)

Does this work in reverse? Of course. Humans like to generalize. The phrase “before you were born” gives one a smug sense of satisfaction. We become irritated watching so many young people fall into the same ideological prisons and semantic traps that we did ourselves. The same mistakes, fueled with too much self-confidence and impetuousness, keep getting made. There doesn’t seem to be a damned thing we can do about it except shake our canes in frustration. By the time they learn, and get the same guff from their own kids, we’ll be in the ground. Ashes and dust, unable to enjoy even the minor satisfaction of an “I told you so.” That would make a good headstone comment, though. Social media snark by other means.

Until then, they’re welcome on my lawn. Just keep the noise down a little, OK?

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Dr.Dawg

Joseph Boyden and the identity trap

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He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. ~George Orwell, “On Shooting An Elephant”


Much has already been said on the Boyden scandal, more than likely too much. I would be foolhardy indeed to attempt to recapitulate the eloquence of indigenous writers and scholars like Hayden King, and will not make any such attempt here. Instead, as a white, relatively comfortable Canadian, I’d like to come at the issue tangentially: in particular, regarding the question of identity itself.

A friend strongly rooted in her Jewish identity once challenged me, in a manner similar to the indigenous “where are you from” gambit. She was puzzled that I didn’t seem to have a clearly marked identity of my own. I was uncharacteristically speechless. I have dwelt on that question ever since. I had, and still have, no fully satisfactory answer for her. I remain amazed that other people I know—but not all other people—seem so clear on the matter.

The identity field seems impossibly strewn and complex to me. I have a name, and a family, and citizenship in a country that is founded upon civic engagement—not, thankfully, on blood or ethnicity. I have specific interests that keep me working and involved. I’m male, and I’m white, and I share in colonial privilege too, but questioning all of those privileges is also part of what I am. So, then, who am I? I dunno. What community claims me? Ditto. To what community am I accountable? Ditto.

Indeed, what is a community? Again, I have little idea: the way the term is thrown around these days, a lot gets erased. There is talk of an indigenous community, for example, but in fact there are a great many, and none of them is monolithic.

Perhaps because of privilege, both my identity and my community, whatever they happen to be, are more amorphous. There is less call to define, to include and exclude, to identify markers, to band together. Nevertheless, the same social processes have been at work. I did not get here by myself.

But back to Boyden. It is clear that, in many eyes, a grievous wrong has been committed: a writer, claiming an indigenous connection by ancestry, has done well in the CanLit realm, been showered with acclaim, has won prizes, awards and grants reserved for indigenous people, and made political interventions in the slow process of reconciliation between First Peoples and the rest of Canada. Most of that work remains to be done, and it is no doubt confounded by self-appointed spokespeople who are accountable to no one, and whose claims to a shared indigenous heritage, in the present instance, are now in considerable doubt. The reaction has been completely understandable.

We have heard very little of substance from Boyden himself, the erstwhile culture-bearer of the indigenous peoples. His Facebook statement seems defensive, and is far from illuminating. But here we need to step cautiously. Judging from an ill-fated interview three years ago, he reacts badly to personal questions, even if he was perhaps understandably provoked on that occasion by the superficiality of the interviewer. Retreating now under withering fire, he may well have been properly exposed as a fraud, and perhaps relative silence is all that is left to him.

But if he does not possess an “authentic” indigenous identity, who is he? Or, as Hayden King reiterates, “where is he from?”

Identity is not related to blood, unless one accepts the discredited Nazi notion of Blutsgefuhl—“blood (racial) consciousness”—or the colonial masters’ invidious “blood quantum” measure. Instead, it derives from the social, in which individuals find themselves immersed at birth. It’s a complex construct, a web of personal interactions, social scripts, and the internal stories one tells about oneself. Identities also seem to take hard form under duress: the most salient aspect of the identities of racialized minorities is the fact of their oppression, giving rise to defiant expressions of identity that too often seem, in dialectical fashion, to valorize the categories into which the dominant power structure has placed them.

“Identity” at its most fundamental implies connection, in a world that reinforces only the most superficial relations (e.g., social media “friends” and “followers” and what-not). It is a cry for community, for the social as opposed to the atomistic individual. And it is here that the Boyden case invites deeper interrogation.

The suspicions that have surfaced about him may well be entirely well-founded. That is, that he constructed an identity in order to reap material and cultural rewards. But consider this: we all to a greater or lesser degree construct ourselves, confabulating who we are. We fill in the gaps to make coherent internal narratives. We drop some discordant elements, we keep others, and we imagine still more. We discover ourselves, in others and in the world, in our real and in our imagined connections. By immersing himself in indigenous lore, tradition and history, Boyden may well have fashioned a mask. But I am tantalized by the possibility, however faint, that he became the very mask that he donned.

ADDENDUM: And here’s Andrea Smith.

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