Dr. Dawg

Canoe-dling: Margaret Wente doesn't get it, Ch.371

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Canoe thrusts.jpg

Ouch! Defensive much? Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente has just been called a racist—not, it must be said, for the first time. And she’s on a bit of a tear.

Three Canada Days ago, Wente (a naturalized American) wrote a column citing Pierre Berton’s definition of a “Canadian,” namely, “someone who knows how to make love in a canoe.” She admitted to having tried this on, and wondered if “today’s immigrants” would attempt the feat.

Three geographers of some international repute have just published a book called *Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada (UBC Press). Here is what they have to say about Wente’s lighthearted confessional quipping:

The implication is that somehow Canada might become less Canadian unless measures are taken to ensure that immigrants are taught the j-stroke. Against a backdrop of imagined wilderness, it [the love-in-a-canoe comment] privileges the universality of Canadian canoe culture, marginalizes dark-skinned bodies as peripheral to national origins, and positions white heterosexual procreation in a canoe as the highest achievement of national identity.

Truth to tell, I laughed out loud when I read that. In the context in which Wente places it, it sounds so damned earnest. But is it wrong?

The main point about racism that some folks seem to miss is that it is not merely a moral term of disapproval, but a descriptive one. It is possible to express racism without intending to do so. Given our socialization, it’s likely impossible to avoid.

Take a second look at what the professors are actually saying. They aren’t calling Wente a KKK sympathizer. They’re simply pointing to assumptions and implications in what she (and Pierre Berton) wrote. Are they incorrect? Does Berton make his claim, however facetiously, or not? Where do those images come from, and what do they exclude? Does Wente implicitly agree, and strongly imply—by making direct contrasting reference to today’s immigrants and raising the notion of patriotism—that she is of a different breed, or not?

This doesn’t make either of them evil. It makes them people of certain backgrounds who look at the world more or less unselfconsciously through one lens instead of another. It’s worth unpacking that worldview, just as one might want to examine more closely the use of the signifier “naturalized,” above, in reference to Wente.

Part of the problem is, of course, that it’s easy to juxtapose academic writing with her own breezy style of journalism to the disadvantage of the former. Virtually any selection from the academy, in whatever discipline, will appear ponderous, dull and opaque in comparison. This sort of thing is always good for a cheap laugh.

And cheap it is. Parading her astonishing ignorance of the field of human geography is just another example of rube warfare, the sort of thing we see on the Right all the time—what Keats called “standing aloof in giant ignorance.” It’s inverse snobbery: “look at those dumb intelleckshuls with their fancy words ‘n’ all.” One can imagine these folks sitting at a lecture by Einstein and snickering about “curved space.”

When Wente inevitably gets around to arguing from authority, she’s plain sloppy. She cites the authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, who seem, it is true, to hold a jaundiced view of postmodernism, but almost en passant. The book that Wente cites is really about the academic industry and the deterioration of teaching. Here’s a review of their book in the Wall Street Journal; here’s another from the New York Times. Who could disagree with the thrust of their critique? There seems to be little or nothing here criticizing the use of technical terms that one should actually take the trouble to master, as is the case in any other field.

The puff, fluff and guff of Canadian journamalism on parade once again. But unlike the not always unjustly maligned academy, it’s apparently no worse than it was sixty years ago, when Adlai Stevenson is reputed to have observed, “An editor is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff.” Are we getting our money’s worth?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on October 22, 2011 2:26 PM.

The CBC and Pierre Karl Péladeau's thin skin was the previous entry in this blog.

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