Over the next few weeks I’m reading all the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing (not including my own), and writing up my reactions — mainly to promote conversation. Today we have John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback: How Aboriginals are Reclaiming Power and Influence.
I must admit that I have always struggled with John Ralston Saul’s books. I own several. My biggest problem is that I never know what the hell he’s talking about. It could be him, or it could be me, but something tells me it’s him. I’m constantly getting pulled up short. He’ll be writing along, and he’ll say something like “you know how whenever you do blah-blah, someone will come up to you and say blah-blah,” and I’ll be like, “um, er, no actually, that never happens to me.” It’s always like that.
Reading Saul reminds me of the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where a transporter malfunction leaves Geordi and Ensign Ro “out of phase” with everyone else on the ship. They inhabit the same world as everyone else, but they cannot interact with it. I feel like that with Saul, like he is out of phase with our world. Like he inhabits a world that contains all the same books as the world that we live in (Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.) but in his phase-shifted state they say something completely different from what they say in our world. Or where history unfolds in the same way, but it means something totally different to him.
The Comeback has helped me to put my finger on part of the problem, which is that Saul never really explains himself, or what he’s talking about. This is an issue that I’m actually quite self-conscious about, because I have the opposite vice. For example, whenever anyone brings up the topic of “mansplaining,” I get really quiet and try to look inconspicuous. The reason is that I’m an inveterate mansplainer. I just love explaining things. I pride myself on being able to explain things better than anyone else. This is perhaps excusable, given that I get paid to explain things for a living. But I also write books out of a burning desire to explain things. So unfortunately it’s become a habit that’s a bit difficult to turn off.
In any case, Saul has exactly the opposite problem. At the end of the book, which is all about “the comeback” of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, I ultimately don’t know what he’s talking about. Most importantly, I don’t know what this supposed aboriginal “comeback” consists in. Population increase? Cultural renewal? Economic development? Intellectual renaissance? All of the above? He mentions each, but doesn’t really connect them in any way, or present any data, save for population levels. But is the high birth rate a good thing? Often it is a symptom of marginalization and economic underdevelopment. So what is the comeback? I still don’t know – because at no point does Saul ever explain clearly what it consists in.
Reading his book often feels like walking in during the middle of a dinner party, somewhere deep in the Toronto Annex, where a gentleman at the head of the table is holding forth on some topic and gathering up a head of steam. What he produces is a series of declarations, like this:
Imagine! We have imposed on Aboriginal people a method of calculation that defines their rights and place in society. And that calculation is based on the worst form of European racism, which assumes there is virtue in the purity of blood lineage. This method was formalized in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the empires were busy justifying their growing power on the basis of Darwinian racial superiority. This required a measurement of race. Blood was a pseudo-scientific characteristic useful in the creation of a racial pecking order. And it could be applied to all peoples with the certainty that science – being European – would put the Europeans on top. What was absolutely clear in this Darwinesque theory was that interracial marriages produced a dilution of blood. A watering down of purity, and therefore of such things as nobility of character and intelligence. How fortunate that modern science could be invoked in support of the British, French, German, American and Italian empires. Better still, progress and a racial pecking order and blood purity could be linked. Imperial officials, succeeded by Canadian officials, could apply all this to the administration of Indian affairs. Science comforting power! A wonderful coincidence. No! No! There is no lucky accident here. It is destiny. Wonderful, disinterested, Darwinian destiny!
But it doesn’t stop there. This is grand theory. Global. All-inclusive. It encompasses the natural superiority of men over women. Long after 1982, when equal rights for women were given constitutional status in the Charter of Rights and specifically for Aboriginal women in the amended constitution itself, the patriarchal truth of the Indian Act is still being picked away at. The status of men versus the status of women is only one part of this. Rights on- and off-reserve. Marrying non-Aboriginals and losing status because of watered-down blood. And on and on. (48-49)
Reading The Comeback is sort of like listening to a Rick Mercer rant that goes on for several hours. The writing style doesn’t help. Saul has picked up a slight tick – which previously I had associated only with text-messaging – of using sentence fragments interspersed with gratuitous periods to convey emphasis. Like. This. Of course people are free to write however they like. The problem with this style, however, is that it accentuates the sense that the book is a collection of assertions rather than of arguments.
Notice also how mysterious Saul can be. Consider the second paragraph quoted above. He is obviously thinking something – something to do with gender – but he simply doesn’t tell us what it is. Whatever is in his mind just doesn’t make it out onto the paper. And so we are left having to guess. Part of the problem is that 5 of the 10 ‘sentences’ that make up the paragraph are actually sentence fragments, and so do not succeed in expressing a thought. But he also assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. For example, I’m guessing that when he says “Marrying non-Aboriginals and losing status because of watered-down blood” he is referring to a provision of the Indian Act in Canada that prevailed until the 1985 amendments (although that is not entirely clear, since he doesn’t say anything about that provision applying only to women). In any case, 1985 may seem like only yesterday to Saul, but 1985 was actually 30 years ago. This means that most people under the age of 40, who are not intensely preoccupied with Aboriginal affairs, will have no memory of the events and no idea what he is talking about. Normally a writer would try to explain a bit what happened, in order to make the point (whatever that point is).
Finally, and this has to do with the “phase-shifted” issue again, Saul sometimes writes things that on first pass you think you must have mis-read, or mis-understood. For example, when I got to the end of the following paragraph I simply could not believe that it said what it appeared to say, so I had to go back and re-read it. He is lodging the usual complaints about the right-wing view that “corporate taxes are bad. Debt is bad. Public initiatives are costly and fail. The market must be left to its own devices,” etc. He then comes up with the following:
The core of this ideology is the marginalization of the public good in favour of Hobbesian self-interest: fear the other, look after yourself. More punishment, more prison, more individualism without rules to ensure fairness. Canadians have never really bought into this elite consensus. We have stubbornly held on to the main institutions of the public good, even as the elites chip away at them. They can only chip and try to bury time bombs in vast pieces of legislation, because they know we will vote against anything overt (156-157).
The first three sentences are fine, but then suddenly one gets the disorienting sensation of being in the parallel universe again, where Saul is part of the “we” who have been valiantly resisting “the elites” who have been chipping away at the public good. This confuses me. Saul and I both live in Toronto, and were both writing books sometime in 2013, during the mayoralty of Rob Ford, which was governed by the imperative to cut public services in order to finance tax cuts. And yet when Saul looked out his window, apparently what he saw was (1) an “elite consensus” in favour of these tax cuts, (2) being stolidly opposed by ordinary Canadians, a group that (3) counts him among its members. The world that I live in is rather different. First of all, it is one in which John Ralston Saul is definitely a member of the “elite” (cv here – note the part about how he is both a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France). Second, the entire “elite,” including not just the latte-sipping set but the Toronto Board of Trade and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, were calling for tax increases. And third, it was the Tim Hortons crowd – or better yet, the Steak Queen crowd – who were supporting Ford and clamouring for tax cuts.
When someone offers such a wild misreading of ordinary Canadian politics (suggesting that there is an “elite consensus” in favour of “more punishment, more prison, more individualism without rules”) it is difficult to have much confidence in the claims that he makes about Aboriginal affairs. At very least one would want more robust documentation than this book provides.
As for the specifics of Aboriginal issues, there are so many points on which I disagree with Saul that I wouldn’t know where to start. The central disagreement, however, can be easily expressed. When I look at the situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, I see a set of extremely complex issues, involving very difficult tradeoffs, in pretty much every policy area: economic development, culture & language, education, even criminal justice. Saul, by contrast, sees simple problems, with simple solutions and no tradeoffs (indeed, he even has a chapter called “Easy Things To Do,” leading one to expect an offsetting chapter called “Hard Things To Do,” except the latter never comes) . This sangfroid arises out of his core philosophical conviction, which one can find expressed as far back as Voltaire’s Bastards.
Fundamentally, Saul remains a proponent of the view, which gained widespread currency in the 1960s, that all of the major pathologies of Western civilization can be traced back to a specifically Western form of rationality. These pathologies can therefore be eliminated, all in one shot, just by getting rid of this Western form of rationality and replacing it with some other (one that is more holistic, attuned to nature, feminine, or whatever). Early articulation of this idea, in the wake of the Second World War, set off a hunt for the “other” of Western reason, which various people at various times have claimed to find in different places: in aesthetics rather than science, in the body rather than the mind, in women rather than men, and above all, in non-Western cultures rather than the West. Saul, rolling along in this well-worn rut, claims to find this “other” in Aboriginal cultures. To get the general flavour of this, consider these passages from Leroy Little Bear, which Saul cites with approval:
All of the above leads one to articulate Aboriginal philosophy as being holistic and cyclical or repetitive, generalist, process-oriented, and firmly grounded in a particular place… In contrast to Aboriginal value systems, one can summarize the value system of Western Europeans as being linear and singular, static and objective. The Western European concept of time is a good example of linearity… The linearity manifests itself in terms of social organization that is hierarchical in terms of both structure and power… Singularity manifests itself in the thinking process of Western Europeans in concepts such as one true god, one true answer, and one right way. This singularity results in a social structure consisting of specialists… (227-8)
For anyone who has followed the trajectory of critical theory post-Second World War, this all sounds depressingly familiar (and not distinctively Aboriginal). I’ve spent a lot of time arguing against this whole way of thinking (in The Rebel Sell and Enlightenment 2.0), so I’m not going to get into the details here. I would however like to point out that, once the problem is framed in these terms, it basically closes down any possibility of critical discussion or debate. From this perspective, anyone who criticizes, or even raises any doubts, is simply manifesting his or her residual adherence to Western ways of thinking (insisting on arguments becomes “being linear,” pointing out contradictions becomes looking for “one right answer,” and so on). Of course, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop people from framing things this way. To me, the real question is just whether it is productive. After all, people on the left have been playing exactly this same card for over 50 years, and seriously, where has it gotten us?
One of the complaints that I’ve heard about my own book is that it unfairly targets conservatives, painting them as anti-rationalist. My response has been to say that, if I had published the book in 1968, it would have been absolutely clear that the Left was more anti-rationalist than the Right, and so I would have been more critical of the Left. However, with the rise of “common sense” conservatism, it is clear that the ideological polarity of anti-rationalism has shifted to the Right, and so my book, being published in 2014, winds up being more critical of conservatives. Anyhow, if anyone happens not to believe me, about what things were like in 1968, all they need to do is read Saul’s work, to get a taste of genuinely old-school left-wing anti-rationalism.