White Supremacy at Western, Cultural Chauvinism at Ottawa: Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Over the past week or so, we’ve seen some frankly bizarre things coming out of Canadian Universities. I’m talking, of course, of the rash of “White Student Unions” opening en masse throughout Canada and to a much greater extent in the States, and the banning of a <free> yoga class, for students with disabilities, at the University of Ottawa. The two look dissimilar on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see that they’re sourced from the same ugly place.
The student union shenanigans came to my attention by way of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario – or as it calls itself now, “Western” (West of what, you may ask? It’s a mystery to me, situated as it is in decidedly the East of the country). It didn’t take long before the truth came to light, that this was a semi-elaborate hoax by a number of people via the more vile sections of the Internet. Initially, I didn’t think it worth writing on. With the second situation, though, it became worthwhile to at least highlight their mutual basis.
My initial reaction to news of the White Student Union – similar, I assumed, to the original example coming out of Maryland – was one of disappointment, and a bit of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a deeply racist place, and somewhere like Western, with an incredible amount of privilege in stark contrast to the city it dominates (a city that is statistically above the national average, by every metric, when it comes to poverty), breeds a very particular kind of racism. But Canada’s history, and, flowing from that, its race relations are different than the United States’. We don’t have nearly as much organised white supremacy, certainly none so forthright as the KKK or an equivalent. While we certainly have our fare share of racial animus, particularly in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, racists in Canada seem much more secure in their societally-structured superiority than their American cousins. Content to continue their oppression behind the veil of the dominant culture, they are less strident, less vitriolic. So, why, all the sudden, this decidedly American turn? What threat did they feel that drove them out into the light?
Of course, the fact that this whole thing seemed so weird showed it up for what it was – a hoax. My feelings on this are mixed. First, and mostly, I’m glad that it is a hoax, as it’s not especially good to have an organised hate group with free reign on a campus, let alone a society. Make no mistake, White Student Unions are hate groups, and it’s only a fool or provocateur that says otherwise. My second, lesser, reaction is one of regret – while, as I said, it’s not beneficial for these groups to be able to present their misinformation under the assumed imprimatur of a University, it would at least be useful to know who they are, and to have their existence underlined in the eyes of the public. It’s too easy for groups like this to remain in the background, out of sight, and for the rest of society to carry on in ignorance. If this were a legitimate front, at least it couldn’t be ignored, swept away like a bogey-man. At least then Canadian society would be forced to look in the mirror and reckon with its reflection.
Before wrapping up the first issue, I’ll turn to the second. Seemingly on grounds of cultural appropriation, a free yoga class has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa. This has come to light only in the last week or so, as it has been under discussion since September, the start of the semester. The ridiculousness of this has been picked up internationally, it’s so preposterous. It’s been a while since I read anything in-depth on Indian culture or history and I’m hesitant to tread without the requisite research, but as others have pointed out, the appropriation of Yoga in particular is a pretty absurd target for moral outrage. Yoga, as we know it today, was developed specifically for export and cultural miscegenation centuries ago. To turn around now and blame white practitioners for its uptake? It’s this kind of bleeding-heart, shoot-from-the-hip, ill-educated foolishness that deserves mockery of all and sundry.
This calls to mind the recent flare-up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where kimonos were provided during a Monet exhibition for visitor photo-ops. People, mostly uni-aged students, protested this as racist appropriation. In a turn of the surreal, a counter-demo was held, mostly comprised of elderly Japanese immigrants, in defence of the kimono use. Hilarity ensued. Once again, the group protesting was incredibly ill-informed on the subject they were inveighing over. Kimonos, much like the practice of Yoga, were and continue to the reserve of the upper echelon of their respective societies. Throughout their history, the vast majority of Japanese people were unlikely to see a kimono in their lives, let alone wear one. All those mystics and swamis that so typify the Orientalist conception of India? A slice of a strata in a horribly oppressive caste system. Find me the suicidally debt-burdened farmer in Uttar Pradesh that opens his day with a salute to the sun, and I’ll let you have your little (mis)appropriation lockout.
To wrap up, I’ll try to show how, while ostensibly distinct, the two originate from the same place. Both of these events, very clearly, come by way of Identity politics. The White Student Union in Maryland was initiated using the same rhetoric and motivations as other sectarian student groups. The difference being, rather glaringly, that the majority of American society is a White Student Union, whereas minority groups to a degree require and benefit from clear delineations of intent and representation. The recent hoax, the mushrooming of fake White Student Unions, served a dual purpose – both to stir up anger and distress within the progressive portion of society, and to disseminate the ideas of white supremacy. The yoga class debacle too comes from Identity politics, which often sees the policing of dialogue, of space, and of conduct to the point of choking all discourse. This, and the kimono case, are just single passages in an incredibly tawdry book. Racism needs to be opposed, and past wrongs redressed, but to do this by way of cultural chauvinism or dilettantish victim pageantry is a gross misstep.
Identity politics, whether employed by white racists or misguided social justice warriors, even multiculturalism itself, they are products of divisive, obscurantist ideology. Writing in the wake of Zizek’s racist remarks on the Euro migrant crisis, Sam Kriss sums up the failings of multiculturalism:
“Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism…any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory.”
As Kriss says, multiculturalism flattens out the terrain of relations. Abstracting from the realities, the complex, contradictory, nuanced facts that make up individuals, multiculturalism instead looks at people, every person, as no more than a token carrier of their larger culture, itself divined by some mystical, spurious process. It should be little wonder that Canada is split into so many little enclaves, gated communities and self-imposed ghettos following this dogma. Merkel was right – the experiment of multiculturalism has utterly failed. She was wrong about the reasons, though. It was always doomed to failure.
Adolph Reed Jr. goes further than Kriss, arguing against any of the alternate options provided above. Reed has expounded on this multiple times, arguing that Identity politics is nothing more than Neoliberalism. Picking out the hypocrises involved in the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the castigation of Rachel Dolezal, Reed writes
“…race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.”
Reed goes on to point out that the society that shifted ever so slightly, where the infamous 1% that own and direct the wealth of our world, when changed to reflect the “racial” and “gender” makeup of the greater body politic, would have to be found just by the arguments of the Identitarians. The obvious error of this underscores the failings of the position, the failure to both aim at the goals they espouse and the failure of the strategy to get them there.
At the end of it all, there are very few things that are fixed in our lives, really fundamentally stable, I mean. So much of what we are – our race, our gender, our culture, to a degree, even our sex – is socially determined. What cuts across all of those, though, is class and the power relations that determine it. All those that live and struggle under the banner of the progressive, we’re nominally on the same side. It’s time we start acting like it. We can’t let stupid, misinformed, impassioned bullshit, puerile Identitarian nonsense, continue to divide us. We have too much to lose.
If you’re actually interested in change, in winning the fight, stop and think for a minute about your tactics. Are they really aimed at victory, or are they just there to carve up your pile of the shit-heap, making you feel good in your safe corner of the midden?
Posted on November 25, 2015, in Maunderings and tagged Adolph Reed Jr., Canada, Fascism, Identity Politics, Multiculturalism, Neoliberalism, Race Relations, Racism, the Left, University of Ottawa, Western, White Supremacy. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.