Meet Konrad Yakabuski. Konrad has an awful beef against all the pesky non-white people ganging up on white people who claim non-white ancestry and make big bank and get critical acclaim by writing books about non-white people, from the viewpoint of non-white people, while claiming non-white ancestry to somehow justify the problematic parts of their works. Konrad apparently thinks that the best way to rapprochement between whites and non-whites here in Canada is just to let the whites go on saying and doing and pretending to be whatever they like, while the non-whites go on swallowing it, uncomplaining, same as it ever was. And that anyone who challenges this narrative is just being “politically correct” and a crank and a lyncher of noble white savages.
But we’re getting a wee bit ahead of ourselves here. Let’s take Konrad’s, er, points on one at a time, shall we?
When I returned to Canada in 2013, after a few years in the United States, I felt a bit like a stranger in my native country. Maybe it was the flat accents of the CBC anchors, or the barren British homeliness of downtown Toronto in January, but I suddenly felt more than a little foreign.
Oh dear. Already off to an inauspicious start, aren’t we. Alienated from our home and native land, criticizing the “flat accents” that are actually in high demand in US media precisely because they’re clear, unadorned, and not specific to any given place or ethnicity. And criticizing Toronto, too, which has braved all manner of inconveniences gamely and stood in for New York, Chicago, and any number of other US cities on movie sets. What point exactly are we trying to make here? Other than that by being among the Yanks for just a little too long, one becomes a little too much like the worst of them, and starts seeing things as they are not? Because TO hasn’t been exclusively British for literally decades now. In fact, as its indigenous-derived name broadly hints, it never was.
As a journalist, belonging has never been my main aspiration in life. Real journalists typically take pride in shunning all labels, attachments, causes and collectivisms.
Note the irony here of “shunning labels”, etc. — all while calling oneself a “journalist”. Uh, Konrad — that’s a label.
The further ironies of “shunning…attachments, causes and collectivisms” will soon become apparent. Bear with me while I slog through a few more turgid paragraphs before we get to it, though.
Our identities are never fixed, but subject to constant redefinition.
Behold, a Grand and Sweeping Statement™! I suppose this is meant to be the nut of the nut graf. That’s journo-speak for getting to the fucking point. Now, what IS the point?
In 2013, the Canadian part of my identity needed some refreshment and refinement. I found both in Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, a haunting story of blood and belonging set amid the 17th-century Iroquois Wars.
As a Catholic boy with insistent parents, I was taught about the Canadian Martyrs, was educated by Jesuits and made pilgrimages to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Ontario. No one ever reads the same novel in the same way and, for me, The Orenda prompted a reconnection with my own and my country’s history amid the aboriginal awakening that was just then transforming our collective identity.
That awakening, while a necessary condition for reconciliation between native and non-native Canadians, also contributed to the rise of a less productive form of identity politics among some aboriginal leaders. It was only a matter of time before the latter came back to bite Mr. Boyden.
I think some translation is in order here. Sounds to me like what Konrad is trying to say, in his stilted and roundabout manner, is that thanks to Idle No More and other movements like it, he was feeling a bit of Catholic guilt at what the white Catholic missionaries did to the “Indians” when they first set foot on indigenous land. And that he needed some reassurance and justification to prove that the missionaries were not so terribly wrong. That the “natives” were not noble, but merely savages. And that the “civilizing” influence of white man was badly needed to straighten these truly, madly, deeply dirty savages out and turn them into nice godly white people, culturally speaking.
And for that purpose, The Orenda (which I too have read, and found problematic) came at just the right time for him. Because this novel, ostensibly from the indigenous point of view by an ostensibly (part) indigenous Canadian man, doesn’t lose much time delving deep into the savagery of the ignoble savages, who were killing and torturing each other before the white man came along and convinced them to kill and torture each other a bit more, this time for white man’s God and white man’s capitalism. And for a guilty-feeling white Catholic man, who would like to hang onto his white conservatism and Catholicism as his only anchors in an unsettling world that doesn’t revolve around his color, gender and ideals, that sort of thing is like balm to a chapped soul. So of course, he’s going to defend the not-so-indigenous author of that not-so-indigenous novel against his critics, indigenous and not…
The Orenda was taken to task for depicting the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, as excessively violent. By the standards of historical fiction, Mr. Boyden arguably took fewer literary liberties than most authors of this genre. But by writing about the wars among First Nations, rather than their oppression by French or British colonizers, he chose a politically incorrect plot twist for the Idle No More crowd.
Whoop! There we go. I was wondering when the spectre of Political Correctness™ was going to pop up. A bit late, but no less unwelcome for all that. We couldn’t have a conservative think-piece without it, because that’s how they pre-emptively slap down their critics, who would only point out how full of horseshit conservative think-piece-writers are. (See what I mean by seeking a balm for a chapped white Catholic man’s soul?)
Of course, Konrad is forgetting something: The “Idle No More Crowd”, as he calls them, ARE indigenous, and Joseph Boyden is not. And they’ve been dealing with being portrayed as heartless, mindless, godless savages for about 400 years now. One can’t really blame them for being just a wee bit exasperated at yet another white guy throwing occasional wet squibs of “nobility” and magical realism on top of the old bonfire of savaging-the-“savages”. Hell, I’m white — 100% German, in fact — and I’m exasperated, too. Frankly, that fraudster Karl May did a better job with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand!
This did not stop Mr. Boyden from becoming, in the words of one critic, a “darling of non-native Canada.” The Orenda’s critical and popular success – it won the 2014 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition – irritated, to no end, many of the practitioners of aboriginal identity politics in Canadian academe and the arts. To them, Mr. Boyden’s personal journey, which led him to rediscover and reclaim in adulthood his own aboriginal heritage, was as made-up as his fiction.
Oh, those evil indigenous peoples! How DARE they criticize, however politely, a white man’s novel which portrays them in an ugly light? And how dare they question the “indigenous” identity of a man who in fact has none, but has repeatedly and proudly gone on record claiming to be indigenous in order to justify that ugly light in his novel? Best be quick and smear those people as “practitioners of aboriginal identity politics in Canadian academe and the arts”, the better to obscure the hundreds of years of legitimate hurt, anger and outrage they’re feeling about having their history, their culture, and their very lives yanked out from under them yet again…along with, of course, this land which was once theirs (and still is, by rights).
Were they just envious of his glitterati success or did they have a legitimate beef?
Oh gee, Konrad, I dunno. You tell me. After all, you’re the Christian white man…and your word clearly counts for ever so much more than any of theirs.
Growing up in comfortably white, upper-middle-class Willowdale, Ont., Mr. Boyden had an at-best tenuous connection to the native Canadian experience and its shared traumas. That didn’t make him much different from Barack Obama, who, unlike the vast majority of African-Americans, is not a descendant of slaves and was raised by a white mother and grandparents in comfortable Hawaii. Despite the colour of his skin, Mr. Obama was not born, experientially speaking, an African-American. He became one.
Oh lord. Are we REALLY comparing this white guy who wrote a book about the natives to whom he doesn’t belong, to a black guy who became a president? REALLY? Well, then, let’s be thorough about it and say this: Barack Obama never pretended to be descended from slaves. That puts him well ahead of Joseph Boyden on that level.
And if you’re going to grandly throw about phrases such as “experientially speaking”, you should know that Barack Obama has, in fact, experienced the EXACT same racism as every other black American, only through an amplifier and a huge bank of loudspeakers. He’s been called a nigger, he’s been told to “go back to Africa where you came from”, etc. This by whites who have not the fuckingest idea of the irony of their position, but who take a great deal of pride in being Politically Incorrect™. Whites who are just a wee bit less polite about their racism than, say, Konrad Yakabuski.
Can Joseph Boyden honestly claim to have been the victim of anti-indigenous racism? No more so than he can claim to be part indigenous in the first place. And THAT is the whole point. He’s a white man, with no claim to victimhood, propping up the racists’ world-view with with his fiction. Don’t think they haven’t seized on it. After all, he IS their literary darling!
No one can deny that Mr. Boyden embraced the aboriginal experience with humility and sincerity. His only sin was showing too much enthusiasm for a native heritage he may or may not have exaggerated. But he was merely reconstructing, as many of us do, his own personal identity from fragments from the past that he may have previously neglected or under-appreciated. He never sought special privileges that the state or individual band councils confer on First Nations members.
No, of course not. He only leveraged his imaginary wisps of First Nations DNA against all the critics who rightly took issue with The Orenda and its portrayal of the indigenous as a bunch of warring savages in dire need of some Christian civilizing and edjumacatin’ in those residential schools that did so much damage that the fallout is still falling NOW. What could anyone possibly have against THAT? I mean, it’s only what white people have done for centuries here in Canada to justify themselves and silence their indigenous critics, after all…
Mr. Boyden, articulate and successful, put on too kind a face for the angry mob of identity politics.
Uff. Methinks you do protest too much, Konrad. The man knows the jig is up, and that what he did is not defensible. Why are YOU defending him? Oh…yeah, now I remember:
In the age of Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, grievance is the glue that keeps groups such as these together. What’s demanded is endless reparation, not reconciliation. Anyone who promotes the latter rather than the former is a traitor to the group and its cause.
Better dip that broad brush a little deeper in the tar barrel, Konrad, you might miss a spot. Now lash out, quickly!
In the United States, this kind of identity politics has reduced the Democratic Party to a confederation of aggrieved minorities that a reluctant Hillary Clinton was constrained to pander to – not convincingly enough for the thousands of African-Americans who stayed home on Nov. 8, but enough to lead petrified working-class whites to form a bloc behind Donald Trump.
And here we go again with the bad invocations of US politics, and blaming the blacks and Latin-Americans for failing to elect Hillary, even though they turned out in record numbers to help her win the popular vote! Guess Konrad isn’t aware of the huge effort to disenfranchise those same “aggrieved minorities” on the part of the current president-elect and his men, either. That would severely undermine his thesis that “identity politics went too far”, or whatever the currently fashionable rot in Politically Incorrect™ circles might be. It certainly undermines his claim to be a journalist, since, if he were a real one worth his salt, like Greg Palast or Amy Goodman, he’d have made a note of that and not sat down to write this smug, idiotic stinkpiece, which runs counter to journalism’s oft-stated (and seldom practiced) tradition of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. This is all about kicking those who are already down, and Joseph Boyden is not one of those. He’s been high on the totem pole, if you’ll pardon the indigenous metaphor, from the beginning.
And if you’re going to talk about bad identity politics, Konrad, you’d be well advised to start with your own, because white men are the reason that Donald Fucking Drumpf got “elected”. (Note the quotes, there for a reason.) You want to talk “confederation of aggrieved minorities”? These white guys think they’re already a minority (they’re not), and that’s why they’re “aggrieved” (again, note the quotes) and felt they had, out of “political incorrectness”, natch, to elect another smug, dumb, racist white mook like themselves. Only this one’s a rich one who got that way by ripping others off, and seeing it all as his fair due for being so fucking smart.
Is this narrative sounding familiar yet? It should. This is what the Black Lives Matter and Idle No More movements are fighting against: Stupid white men perpetuating the myth of their own “natural” superiority, the better to go on ripping off black and indigenous people, never to mention Latin-Americans. And women of all colors.
And because that rip-off is ongoing, so too must the struggle against it be. This is not a mere claim for “constant reparations” in the form of appeasement and white-man’s-guilt. This is about settling accounts that are centuries-old. It is about one set of people telling their hard truth, and another set accepting it, and both groups using it as their common basis for future relations. Appeasement and guilt will not do here. Honesty is what’s demanded, justice is what’s demanded, and nothing is happening.
So what is happening? The defence of a white man who has engaged, in micro, in the same old white man’s shit that’s been happening, in macro, for centuries. And this is how Yakabuski grandly closes it all out:
It would be a tragedy if the reconciliation all Canadians seek with First Nations were allowed to be hijacked by the kind of identity politics, and its reactionary counterpart, that have overtaken other Western democracies. Mr. Boyden’s lynching should set off alarm bells in this regard.
Nice dodge there, Konrad, but how about NO? “Reconciliation”, if that’s what you call glossing over all the racist hate and pretending that the ground has always been level, has been tried. It hasn’t worked. It’s also been tried in the form of white men taking on bogus indigenous identities — remember Grey Owl? Only that hasn’t worked, either.
And anyhow, a work of fiction that slyly justifies the evils of history, however eloquently and with whatever sincerity and appearance of nuance, isn’t going to achieve reconciliation between non-fictional parties. At best, it might spur a dialogue leading to other necessary processes, but the dialogue itself has to be honest. It has to be carried on by honest people, not sneak-thieves and liars. And what you wrote here, like what Boyden has written and claimed, is disingenuous, to say the least. In short: YOU’RE NOT HELPING.
Nobody’s saying that Joseph Boyden can’t write whatever what he wants, about whomever he wants, with whatever intention he has. All that’s being asked, in all modesty, is that he not do it under a claim to being someone he isn’t. Farley Mowat, for instance, wrote a great deal about indigenous people, often from their points of view even, but he never claimed to be one of them. Nor did he prop up white man’s need to be smug and comforted; he took satirical jabs at it whenever, wherever and however he could. And he managed to change a lot more minds with his books than The Orenda ever will.
There’s a lesson in there, for those who have the wit to read.