Disrobing the Politics of Cultural Difference
September 6, 2010 5:38 PM   Subscribe

Here, the intellectual and political dispute centers around federal policy regarding First Nations in Canada, a debate that’s been controversially re-ignited by the book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. Among the book’s core arguments: the assertion that on-going “native problems” have a “cultural basis.”

That was too much for mediaINDIGENA‘s Niigonwedom Sinclair, who penned a review highly critical of Disrobing. That prompted a rebuttal by one of Disrobing‘s co-authors, Dr. Frances Widdowson. In it, she criticized Sinclair’s citation of Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann subsequently responded. Last week, Widdowson counter-responded.

Now, University of Manitoba sociology professor Dr. Christopher Powell shares his extended critique of Widdowson’s most recent post and related comments.
posted by Devils Rancher (10 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have been following this, though have not read the book. Widdowson's criticisms of Mann are so laughably off-base and ignorant that I can't see reading anything else she has written. Mann does a fine job of taking her down in his rebuttal. Widdowson's newest piece is half back-peddling ("My discussion of Mann, unfortunately, was not based on an in-depth examination of his work, or the evidence that Mann used to support his assertions.") and half more of the same.

To be sure, Mann is a journalist and not a scientist, but he is a good journalist who does a fine job presenting the work of solid scientists.
posted by LarryC at 6:19 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a white person I would like to say, OMG STOP WHINING WHITE PEOPLE PLEASE. Which is not a calm, reasoned, post, but surrounded as I am every day by racist rednecks who think that everything that's gone wrong in their life is a result of Mexicans having anchor/terror babies in the ER for free, and Native Americans getting tax breaks on their casinos, I just can't take any more.

Sorry for the GRAR. Carry on.
posted by emjaybee at 7:03 PM on September 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

You know, I could grant him a point about the "Aboriginal Industry" failing to address the roots of the issue, and even that they benefit the leadership and not the people. And the point about non-indigineous lawyers and other stakeholders hijacking the process is probably a decent one. But that doesn't lead to the conclusion that getting rid of Native self-government is the solution. Especially when the recommendation of "comprehensive government provision of health, education, and housing" - is presented as the replacement, and not, say, a needed enhancement or a human right.

Mann's critique is an interesting one, and maybe a touch too dramatic, but it seems to me that the point she is getting at is in regards to that conclusion. And the uncomfortable dynamic of colonization, racism, and smug superiority it seems to imply.
posted by lunit at 7:04 PM on September 6, 2010

I met Niigon at a conference a few years ago--he's a really cool guy. I first read about this conflict from stuff he's posted on Facebook, of all places.

Anyway, a lot of the theoretical basis of my research (I'm a rhetorician) comes from indigenous visual rhetorical traditions and intellectual traditions, so yeah, try and tell me Native people didn't have a complex culture and many different systems of government...
posted by Tesseractive at 8:17 PM on September 6, 2010

As a white person I would like to say, OMG STOP WHINING WHITE PEOPLE PLEASE.
Did you post this in the thread you meant to?
posted by planet at 9:32 PM on September 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Goodness. From the title I expected the book to be about how many "traditional" activities--dances, artwork, costumes--that are produced and performed for tourists are in fact invented or distorted. That would be a commonplace observation.

I didn't expect the kind of Eurocentric cultural evolutionism that Sinclair details. McGill-Queen's UP should be embarrassed, if not ashamed of itself.

To me, as an anthropologist, the money quote is from Powell:
"[T]he best that can be said of Widdowson’s use of social science is that she is reasserting an outdated theory and dismissing evidence which does not match this theory."
posted by col_pogo at 6:47 AM on September 7, 2010

I thought the charges of "Social Darwinism" were pretty well-founded, myself. The whole trope of "This culture must be superior due to the simple fact that it conquered..." Ugh.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:00 AM on September 7, 2010

Powell's critique is persuasive in many respects, but I'm not sure what to make of his criticism of Widdowson based on her embrace of what he characterizes as a "teleological conception of evolution." According to Powell, A properly scientific, non-teleological conception of evolution says that societies differ from each other and that they change (evolve) over time in response to changing circumstances. But it cannot rank them as better or worse.

But Powell invites his readers to engage in their own teleological analysis when he writes The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania cultivated their ecosystem’s resources sustainably for 12,000 years, while industrial food production produced a situation of global food insecurity in under 200. Which society is the more advanced? This doesn't seem to be consistent with his claim that a properly scientific analysis cannot rank societies as better or worse.
posted by layceepee at 7:53 AM on September 7, 2010

This doesn't seem to be consistent with his claim that a properly scientific analysis cannot rank societies as better or worse.

I don't think it's a value judgement. The question is, what, in this case, makes a society "advanced?" Is it technology, or is it the evolved ability of a society to rationally and intelligently foresee the consequences of environmental change and adjust its behaviour accordingly.

"Primitive" peoples are often considered child-like, but with our -- that is, "advanced" society's -- powerful toys, we've acted like spoiled children and soiled the sandbox. Leaving aside the possibility that aboriginal peoples simply didn't have the means to do the same kind of damage, they did (do), at least, seem to have had the very grown-up ability to predict what the consequences of mismanagement would be.
posted by klanawa at 9:09 AM on September 7, 2010

I don't disagree that reasoning about societies in terms "advancedness" is probably not the most intelligent or nuanced approach. But it does not impress me, as an outsider, if the level of discourse about a real issue of practical interest has been allowed to devolve into lengthy, pseudo-philosophical nitpickery, entirely focusing on the misuse of a single word or bad concept.
posted by polymodus at 9:48 AM on September 7, 2010

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