Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry

The National Post has been running excerpts from Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. The last one appears today.

I look for reviews of the book on Amazon. One reader suggests that Widdowson and Howard “get up in the morning and eat a dog’s breakfast of outmoded communist ideology and rotten anthropological theories washed down with strong racial prejudices inherited from their own unexamined colonial upbringings.” Another puts the matter more simply: “This book is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is but another ignorant screed by so-called experts. When in fact it is but drivel.”

And so it goes. I begin to get a sense of what the atmosphere must have been like at that Canadian Political Science Association meeting last spring at which Widdowson read her paper on the “aboriginal industry.” The session started as an orderly academic meeting we’re told, and ended in angry tears.

In 2004, Tom Flanagan’s First Nations, Second Thoughts got the same kind of reception. The editor of McGill-Queen’s University Press tells me that he has drawers-full of angry letters about Flanagan. Here’s what Joyce Green said about Flanagan (the same Green who features in the accounts of last spring’s CPSA meeting): “These aren’t second thoughts … They’re the same old first thoughts that the colonizers came with from Europe. It’s a celebration of the original arguments that supported the subordination of indigenous peoples.” (My source for Green’s comment is an article by Marci McDonald in The Walrus of October, 2004.)

It’s a central part of Widdowson and Howard’s argument to show that anthropologists, lawyers, bureaucrats, aboriginal leaders – the “aboriginal industry,” in short – attempt to preserve aboriginal culture in unchanging form because doing so yields concrete benefits in the form of government funding. The “industry” rejects books like Disrobing in an effort to preserve its livelihood. But Widdowson and Howard don’t argue that greed is the sole motif. They believe a disinterested Romantic vision at work. See the February 4th excerpt in the Post. The teaser reads: “Alienated by the Industrial Revolution, eighteenth-century Europeans romanticized primitive hunter-gatherers as Noble Savages. The cult they created persists to this day.”

What we’re looking at in the vituperative reaction to Disrobing and First Nations, Second Thoughts, is the centuries-old quarrel between Liberals and Romantics. We’re looking at a deep and largely unacknowledged cleavage in Canadians’ political thinking. Widdowson and Howard in Disrobing, and Flanagan in First Nations, are heirs of the seventeenth-century Liberal Enlightenment. They are arguing that everyone, regardless of race, origin, creed, is equally entitled to the benefits of participation in the economy and the political life of Western nations. In brief, they make the case for allowing members of the First Nations to assimilate to the broader Canadian society.

The critics adhere to the Romanticism of the eighteenth-century Counter Enlightenment. Though they sometimes contend that there are no universal norms by which cultures can be compared or ranked, just as often they suggest that pre-modern ways of living are superior to the modern. They seldom address the crucial fact that their ideas about “special rights,” diversity and multiculturalism cannot be reconciled with the central tenet of the Enlightenment, the argument for equal freedom.

12 Responses to “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry”

  1. 1 Oonae February 9, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    The forces of political correctness are strong, and to stand up against them is to find oneself in bed with a host of misogynists, xenophobes, and etc. Still, we have to stand firm and not be intimidated.

  2. 2 Patrick Ross February 26, 2009 at 1:16 am

    I think what we’re really seeing here is something of a conflict between a call for pragmatism and a dogma of liberal guilt.

    When most Canadians think about aboriginals, the first thing they think about is all the horrible things that have been done to them. It’s only natural. Not only have we been taught about these things all of our lives, but these things were, indeed, horrible.

    It utterly offends this dogma of liberal guilt to suggest that the myth of the noble savage — and the phrasing of this certainly is offensive on many levels, even if it does accurately reflect the stereotype — is just that, a myth, and that assimilation in one form or another is destined to be part of the future of aboriginal peoples.

    It’s only a matter of whether they assimilate to Canadian society, or assimilate into the reality of the modern world. One thing is for certain: very few — if any — aboriginals are likely to be living the traditional aboriginal lifestyle as we imagine it.

  3. 3 Troy January 24, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    A good and interesting analysis. What came to mind for me in your discussion of Romanticism was Postmodernism, that hateful term the authors refer to in the book, and what I like to call ‘intellectual cannibalism’. After so many years in university I have little stomach left for those hyper-sensitive, pseudo-leftist musings–so detached from the world they work so hard to cut the floor from.

    I also agree with Patrick on the division between pragmatism and ‘liberal guilt’ as well. Wrongs were done. But they were done to different people, those remaining live with their legacy, and they deserve to be put on a path toward a better life, through practical solutions. Still, the passions involved infect the discourse with the kind of bonemeal that only feeds the grandiose delusions of the Romantic. As the authors allude to, this sense of collective guilt works as a buttress against more rational discussion.

    The fanaticism with ‘preserving’ culture is an interesting one. As the authors argue, what this really does is lock contemporary aboriginals in the past, shutting them out from the modern world. This is not an argument against preserving the aspects of one’s heritage, only a caveat. After all, cultures change, they have to. ‘Western culture’ has changed as well (if it hadn’t, wouldn’t we still be sending aboriginals to residential schools?) Conversely, if hunting seal or Bowhead whales remains a coveted aspect of culture, what do we do when the animals face extinction? Labelling someone a ‘racist’ for pointing out these problems (as the authors have done) is irresponsible.

    • 4 Troy January 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      Correction on my last point, the authors have been labelled racist, they haven’t done the labelling.

      Thanks much

      • 5 Kevin November 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm

        Having been exposed to years of the same (frustratingly misguided) postmodern musings in university myself, I’d be eager to share a conversation and hear about your experiences, Troy. I now feel disappointed — almost cheated — by those academics that could have been more open about their unspoken biases (and what political outcomes those biases naturally lead to). We need more balance in the academy when presenting differing viewpoints. In some programs there is literally no orthodoxy left anymore. My email

  4. 6 Nishinkwe July 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    This blog and the responses are based on a false dichotomy. The controversy around this book is not an argument between Liberals and Romantics (which, of course, completely excludes First Nations people themselves from having a voice in the debate). In large part it’s about the authors’ rehashing outdated and discredited theories and applying them to First Nations communities of today. It’s lousy scholarship.

    p.s. @Patrick Ross: “aboriginals are likely to be living the traditional aboriginal lifestyle as we imagine it” – that’s exactly it, the stereotypical “Aboriginal” of your White imagination has everything to do with Widdowson and Howard and little to do with the reality of First Nations.

  5. 7 Troy July 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Nishinkwe, why would debate between liberal / romantics around this issue exclude Aboriginals? Are there no Aboriginal people who adhere to either perspective, or who are allowed to? I don’t undertsand your point that this excludes aboriginal people’s from having a voice, I don’t think it does at all. it is only one way of framing the discussion, and it seems like a good one.

    However, if the problem surrounding the book is one of lousy scholarship then fine, some one should take up the task of showing how this is so.

    • 8 Kevin November 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      Sorry my email didn’t show for my first posting. 22waterford at gmail is my address. I take a conservative view politically, and am interested in continuing this conversation about the postmodern impact on the academy, particularly with respect to aboriginal issues.

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