July–August 2018

Contents Related Letters

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Re: “‘There’s no plan B’: Chris Hedges on the collapse of America,” by Charles Foran and Chris Hedges

While I largely agree with Chris Hedges, he tends to overstate his case. He is correct that the decline of the American empire began with the military-industrial complex, about which president Eisenhower warned.

But the real decline began with corporate ascendency in the late 1970s and 80s. Recall stagflation. Back then, everyone blamed the government, but stagflation was also caused by corporate takeovers. When a company is taken over, production declines, and when huge amounts of money are borrowed, the money supply increases.

Where I disagree with Hedges is in the talk of fascism. Fascism is a structure in which the politicians maintain control with the support of the business community. What we now have is the multinational corporate structure in control with the support of politicians. As Karl Polanyi pointed out in The Great Transformation, the imposition of market economies in the early eighteenth century led to everything, including people, becoming commodities. With the corporate sector in control, workers, as commodities, were owned by the corporations, and thereby became serfs. What I see developing is not a form of fascism, but a new form of feudalism.

Bernie Koenig
London, Ontario

Re: “Anti-appropriation's capitalist logic,” by Andy Lamey

I enjoyed Andy Lamey’s very thoughtful critique of those who vehemently oppose “cultural appropriation.” While I understand his point about the inherent “capitalism” of the anti-appropriation position, I don’t think his argument applies in the case of indigenous people. In many cases, indigenous people have been dispossessed culturally as a result of their subjugation by imperialist states like Canada, whose robust “multiculturalism” policies now enact the logic of the neoliberal state through the supposed benevolence of “diversity.” In so doing, a mixing of cultures—such as the appropriation Lamey describes—helps ensure the state maintains a positive face (“We’re diverse!”) while erasing the ugly reality of its settler-colonial past and ongoing incursion into all aspects of indigenous lives.

The Irish political theorist Ronit Lentin has written very persuasively on this. There is nothing wrong with scholarship written by, for example, white people, on indigenous experience or history, as in Ilan Pappe’s watershed book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, or James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains. The problem arises when the state takes advantage of such appropriations to bury its continued oppression and paternalism.

Nyla Matuk
Toronto, Ontario

Professor Andy Lamey is unreservedly correct to maintain that opposition to alleged instances of “cultural appropriation” must not be based on the blinkered idea that “black and Indigenous stories can only be told when a black or Indigenous storyteller is available.” He rightly upbraids critics of Robert Lepage’s recent shows, SLĀV and Kanata, for protesting the colour-blind casting of mainly white singers and actors, just because the shows were supposedly made by the wrong people (racially speaking). He is correct: that is an ugly argument.

However, the matter is less straightforward than professor Lamey thinks. The real problem with SLĀV is not that it showcased first-class white performers singing primarily African-American spirituals, but that that offering—intended to demonstrate that many cultures (including the Slavic, from which the word slave descends) have suffered the evil of slavery—was disconnected from, or oblivious to, the realities of relative cultural power and disempowerment. White performers surely have the right to sing “Negro” spirituals, but their right to explore marginalized—“traditionally oppressed” (an Orwellian phrase, that)—people’s experiences must be assessed in light of their simultaneous power to displace the histories, narratives, and cultures of the dispossessed.

I’m sure that Lepage and the exemplary singer Betty Bonifassi wanted to condemn all experiences of slavery. Perhaps they also sought to gesture toward that great, progressive history of white Québécois francophones expressing solidarity with African Americans and (North) Africans opposing segregation, racism, and colonialism, which Québécois radicals viewed as allegorical to their 1960-1976 Quiet Revolution struggle against anglophone oppression. These goals are (were) laudable.

However, Lepage and Bonifassi missed an excellent opportunity to put onstage usually unheard and unseen African-Canadian or Afro-Québécois singers to join them in celebrating the extinction of slavery in colonial Canada and in Nouvelle-France (which had the largest number of proto-“Canadian” slaves—“black and Indigenous,” to use professor Lamey’s locution).

How different the headlines would have been had Lepage and company utilized their undoubted cultural power to put Montreal’s over-policed, overly jobless but very talented black youth on stage. Audiences would have been amazed—nay, mortified—by the high calibre of talent that is generally permitted to waste away precisely because such performers seldom win entrée to elite stages.

Lepage may also have desired to revisit and revise Jean Genet’s anti-slavery and anti-colonial play, Les nègres, clownerie (1959), which features thirteen black actors (five in white-face), who explore the dynamic of white imperialist oppression and “illegal” black resistance. However, the apparent disavowal of requisite context—socio-political and historical—resulted in SLĀV seeming like a white-face update of Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946).

The right—or rite—of representation of the “other” must always be weighed in the balance against the power to displace the other, for the latter measure is oppressive and executes a form of continued erasure, which is generally the fate of black people(s) in Canada. The pretense of representing the “other” has to take into account just who the other is, and what real means are available to them to represent their own “selfhood.” Otherwise, “universality” just becomes libertarian code for the ability of the comfortably empowered to subordinate all “other” experience to (white) supremacist notions of what experiences are important in human history and who is best qualified to represent them.

George Elliott Clarke
E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature, University of Toronto

Surely the last word on cultural appropriation came from Publius Terentius Afer in 165 BCE: Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.)


Robert A. Stairs
Peterborough, Ontario

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