10.27.2008

globe and mail readers respond to margaret wente

There are a lot of letters in today's Globe and Mail about Margaret Wente's recent column, and they're all from one side. It's safe to assume that if the newspaper had received even one letter in support of Wente's bigotry, they would have run it. G&M readers are not shy to express unpopular or antiquated opinions, nor does it seem the newspaper is reluctant to print them.

Wente's column here, my post about it, with reader comments, is here. Today's letters:
While there is much that is objectionable in Margaret Wente's crudely provocative and blandly Eurocentric piece, as an indigenous Canadian I must commend her candour in going public with some sensitive, and indeed sensational, family lore: "We robbed and mistreated aboriginal people for a very long time..." Kudos to Ms. Wente for shining a brave light on the dark underbelly of a troubling family history.

Greg Pruden, Winnipeg

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I would suggest that Margaret Wente avail herself of the views of several experts in addition to Frances Widdowson before declaring "the truth is different" about aboriginal culture. She might want to expand her horizons by reading Charles Mann's 1491, which says aboriginal civilization in the New World was more advanced than previously thought.

One only has to look at the civilizations of the Mayan, Aztec and Inca to appreciate that one cannot make simplistic opinions such as the one put forth by Dick Pound regarding aboriginal peoples.

Nor should journalists make simplistic declarations of what is the truth while citing the views of one so-called expert.

Joel Weinstein, Toronto

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Margaret Wente claims that what Dick Pound said about native peoples was accurate. Mr. Pound has since apologized, making the point that his understanding of the term "sauvage" was deficient. Perhaps he recalled that 400 years ago, judicial torture, burning at the stake and inhumane warfare were widespread in "civilized" Europe. His apology was heartfelt and should be accepted.

However, Ms. Wente says his remarks were accurate and quotes at length from a book by Frances Widdowson in a general anti-native rant. Imagine the impact such views have on the self-esteem of native youth trying to make a go of it today.

James Bartleman, Perth, ON

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In arguing that European culture was more sophisticated and developed than North American indigenous cultures, Margaret Wente reveals just how unsophisticated and undeveloped her own ideas are. Alongside advances in technical capacities, European culture has introduced the world to nuclear arms, the Holocaust, countless wars of conquest, environmental destruction and an ever greater unequal distribution of wealth.

Perhaps Ms. Wente could gain some insight by engaging the "savages" that are only too knowledgeable of the "sophistication" of European culture.

Doug Nesbitt, Ottawa

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As a physician who has worked in first nation communities in Saskatchewan and Ontario, I have seen the inhumane conditions that persist, including a lack of clean water, exposure to pollutants and crushing poverty. These predictable outcomes were the result of such enlightened European ideas as forced conversion, the sale of alcohol, residential schools and the reserve system.

Andrew Pinto, MD, Ancaster, ON

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Margaret Wente believes that Canada's indigenous cultures were less evolved than our industrialized Western society - you know, the one that has produced global warming, nuclear bombs, mass extinctions and MTV's The Hills. More complex, perhaps. But superior?

Dave Patterson, Parksville, BC

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In dismissing the claim that first nation people were more ecologically minded than Europeans, Frances Widdowson says, "It's hard to damage the environment with a stone axe." Exactly. That is the point.

Devin McCarthy, Halifax

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Margaret Wente's use of Frances Widdowson's work to defend Dick Pound's description of natives 400 years ago as "savages" heaps insult upon injury. Throughout Canadian history, aboriginal peoples have been at pains to remind governments and citizens that they were self-sufficient and self-governing societies before the Europeans arrived, whose status as autonomous peoples, and as military and commercial powers, was recognized, and with whom treaties were entered into by the British.

Ms. Widdowson's work has been roundly criticized by other scholars in relying on a long-discredited theory of evolutionary stages of development through which every society must pass in the long march of "progress." This kind of thinking underpinned Canadian Indian policy from the mid-19th century and led to such disastrous policies as residential schools in attempts to "civilize" and assimilate Mr. Pound's savages.

Such Eurocentric theories, cloaked in the language of science and rationalism, have been rightly rejected by indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world in their struggles for life and land - indeed for their very survival - in the face of modern forms of colonialism.

Janet Conway, Canada Research Chair in Social Justice, Brock University
St. Catharines, ON

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Margaret Wente argues that North American natives were in fact savages because "they had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies." Yes, but the problem is these are all measures derived from our own cultural practices. The "savage" argument essentially rests on measuring a different culture according to our own image, whilst claiming, without foundation, this measure to be universally valid.

This is exactly the same argument that for centuries has justified the use of power against native peoples.

Bjorn Ekeberg, Ottawa

By coincidence, the book mentioned above, 1491, by Charles Mann, is on my shelf waiting to be read. I've been planning on reading it if I finish this prison-journalism book. (It's very good, I just don't set aside enough time to read.)

14 comments:

James said...

In dismissing the claim that first nation people were more ecologically minded than Europeans, Frances Widdowson says, "It's hard to damage the environment with a stone axe." Exactly. That is the point.

Oh, it's not so hard, as anyone who's read Collapse realizes. You just have to put your mind to it -- something humans of all stripes are very good at.

L-girl said...

Oh, it's not so hard, as anyone who's read Collapse realizes. You just have to put your mind to it -- something humans of all stripes are very good at.

I was thinking the same thing, of course. Aboriginal people in various parts of the world did enormous amounts of ecological damage, spending the capital when they thought they were spending the interest.

Imaginging all aboriginal people to be peace-loving stewards of the earth is just a different kind of stereotyping. The kind that imagines all women are nuturing and cooperative.

James said...

Imaginging all aboriginal people to be peace-loving stewards of the earth is just a different kind of stereotyping.

And, of course, the name for that particular stereotype is "The Noble Savage"...

L-girl said...

And, of course, the name for that particular stereotype is "The Noble Savage"...

And we come full circle.

redsock said...

The Globe & Mail likely does not give a damn whether Wente is an idiot or whether she promotes racist ideas.

She generates website clicks and the volume of letters the paper receives shows that she's likely one of their most-read columnists.

L-girl said...

She generates website clicks and the volume of letters the paper receives shows that she's likely one of their most-read columnists.

That's what it's all about. But if there were any letters agreeing with her spew, the paper would have run those.

Potato Head said...

1491 is indeed a great work; I was recommending it to a guest just last night. I'd put down your other book now and read it first in fact.

However, do be prepared for some challenges to progressive orthodoxy as well. The most obvious is the myth of the indigenous people who live in harmony with nature. 1491 shatters that idea, and describes the backlash against researchers who challenged that orthodoxy.

It surprised me to learn, for example, that the Amazon is now understood to be basically a largely overgrown garden, not a vast unspoiled natural landscape. One of the reasons for early settlers awed reaction to the "edenic" American landscape was that the wide-open vistas had been cleared and replanted by now-dead indigenous people wiped out by early contact with smallpox-ridden explorers.

Acknowledging their massive intervention in the environment, of course, takes nothing away from the awesome sophistication of indigenous societies dating back well before what we popularly misunderstand to be the dawn of civilization. It just makes them all too human.

L-girl said...

I'd put down your other book now and read it first in fact.

That's amusing. I'm very interested in what I'm reading now, and quite enjoying it. 1491 will be there when I'm ready.

However, do be prepared for some challenges to progressive orthodoxy as well. The most obvious is the myth of the indigenous people who live in harmony with nature. 1491 shatters that idea, and describes the backlash against researchers who challenged that orthodoxy.

I don't think that's progressive orthodoxy. It's a cultural myth and stereotype, but not especially progressive.

If you read the comments above, you'll see that it's not one I subscribe to.

Thanks for your thoughts, I do look forward to the book.

Dr.Dawg said...

When I saw the name Frances Widdowson, I sighed and stopped reading. Widdowson is an assimilationist crank who uses forty-year-old anthropological notions to buttress fourth-rate ideas. To say that she's not well regarded in academic circles would be an understatement.

impudent strumpet said...

Is that THE James Bartleman?

L-girl said...

Is that THE James Bartleman?

I guess so!?

James said...

This seems appropriate here...

deang said...

Too much to say about comparisons between indigenous American cultures and European ones for a short post, but I look forward to your reaction to Charles Mann's 1491. I know you, like me, have an overwhelming reading list, but I would also recommend David Stannard's American Holocaust if you haven't already read it. Or even if you have; I've reread my copy several times over the years. It's a lot like Howard Zinn's Columbus chapter in People's History but extended over two continents.

L-girl said...

Dean, I haven't read American Holocaust, and somehow it fell off my list. So thanks for reminding me of it.