A Chat With Frances Widdowson, Heretic.
On diversitocracy as a reactionary function of multinational capitalism, the "serious revolutionary possibilities" foreclosed by wokeism, and other saucy ideas.
Rational Space Disputations. But Few Disagreements.
Our conversation kicks off with a discussion of my exhausting Year of The Graves reconstruction for the National Post and what was, among other things, a state-incited national psychotic episode of church burnings, riots, statue-topplings and imbecility that played out across Canada in 2021 (see also When White People Lose Their Minds).
We get into the weird, federally-endorsed high fashion for what Widdowson calls transactivist indoctination. And the grotesque authoritarian turn “the left” has taken in recent years across the Anglosphere, especially in Canada. And the dangerously open invitation “identity politics” offers to white nationalism and related sociopathologies. Stuff like that.
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All this is immediately relevant to the bottom dropping out of public support for the Trudeau Liberals, and about whether Poilievre’s Conservatives are capable of seizing the moment in an honest, useful and productive way. In my Post and Ottawa Citizen column last week I expressed some doubts about that: Voters need more than snappy slogans from the Conservatives.
I expanded on those doubts in my last newsletter, None of them are a good option?, noting Poilievre’s reference to $644,000 in permits, fees and other government costs added onto the price of “any given home” in Vancouver - which isn’t actually true. And the bit about the “NIMBYs” holding up an 11-tower, 6,000-unit development in Vancouver’s Kitsilano Point neighbourhood because “they thought it was too dense and didn’t have adequate parking,” which wasn’t even close to being true.
But that’s the Poilievre “narrative,” so there we are.
A word or two about thoughtcrime
First up, a word about the absurd canard of “residential schools denialism.” This is cultural crimethink of a type associated with a loosely-connected group of dissenters, rogue academics and contrarians whose transgression is mostly just refusing to actively affirm any iteration of the prevailing “narrative” that pertains to residential schools, especially the “mass graves” and “genocide” angles.
The canard has been flung at me and heaped upon Widdowson. It’s a dishonest, purposely ill-defined concoction that quite a few Liberals and senior members of the Liberal nomenklatura say should be criminalized outright, in law.
For deeper background on this sinister development, here’s a Real Story newsletter from June, particularly under the headings You may know what we allow you to know, You will believe what we tell you to believe, and The “violence” of asking: Is this actually true?
Just to be clear: I have declined to be recruited into the so-called “denialist” camp, among whom are perfectly reputable historians and researchers and academics, Widdowson foremost among them.
Some are displeased with me for my concession that cultural genocide is not an unreasonable way to describe aspects of the residential schools policy. Fair play to them. Some are upset with me for focusing on the news media’s complicity with the Prime Minister’s Office in all this, declining to bang on about Indigenous leaders who fed the “narrative” about an archipelago of secret burial sites containing the bones of murdered children across Canada. As I told Widdowson, I suppose Indigenous people must watch CBC News and read the Toronto Star, too.
There are some among this crowd who are merely controversialists who do not deserve the time of day. Such is life.
Why this matters, politically-speaking
It matters because this whole damn drama is about the truth, the ongoing enfeeblement of the mass media, and maintream journalism’s calamitous incapacity to patrol the distinctions a functioning liberal democracy necessarily draws between what we can say we know and what we can only believe.
Eight years of the Trudeau Liberals have sunk this country into a morass much deeper than the Conservatives have so far dared describe. And Poilievre isn’t coming clean with Canadians about just how “radical” his own interventions would have to be, just to cope with the generational catastrophe in housing and the precarious standards of living in Canada.
This is to say nothing of the huge portions of the federal budget that a Conservative government would have to devote to such necessities as re-restablishing Canada’s military capacity, just to pretend to be a serious member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Fire the Gatekeepers! Build Build Build! Scrap the Carbon Tax!
This just won’t cut it, which was the point of my column last week, and I see Chris Selley takes a similar line to my own this week, in his column: Vanquishing Trudeau should be a means to an end, not the end itself.
I’ll have some more along these lines below the paywall today that may come as a surprise to subscribers who lean Conservative. It’s about aspects of objective reality that the Poilievristes will continue to ignore only at their peril. Unless something blows up, Canadians don’t vote until 2025, and two years is an eternity.
I’m not worried about the Conservatives fumbling the ball here. I’ve got no skin in the game. But what’s worth worrying about is something more disturbing than a Trudeau government propped up by the NDP again until at least 2029. It’s the prospect of a Conservative government that can’t deliver even a semblance of the promise Poilievre is holding out to millions of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque who have already given up on any hope of a better life for themselves or for their children.
The Morbid Symptoms Are Everywhere.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. - Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1930.
Astute subscribers may recall that line from previous newsletters.
It has been convenient to comprehend the essay from which that passage derives as the celebrated Italian Marxist’s warnings about the emergence of fascism in the inter-war years. It’s more accurately understood in the context of the “ultraleft” turn the Stalinist Comintern had taken at the time.
This is directly relevant to the current moment, and relevant to an understanding of what Frances Widdowson has to say about where the “liberal left” has gone in recent years.
For some years now I’ve considered Frances to be one of Canada’s sharpest thinkers on matters related to Crown-Indigenous relations, among other things. And we’ve been meaning to have a public conversation for quite a while, so that’s what we’ve done.
In the broad sweep of the “denialist” camp, Frances stands out for her gravitas, her intellectual heft and moral integrity. She describes her general standpoint as that of “a historical materialist coming out of the Marxist tradition.” I suspect this is the main reason why she is so hysterically loathed in the post-truth, “postmodern” petit-bourgeois activist circles that now occupy all the places where the genuinely progressive left used to be.
It drives them crazy. Frances can’t be dismissed as racist or “right wing.” She can talk circles around her loudest adversaries. She knows exactly what they’re doing and she relies on their own terms to deconstruct and dismantle their own lines of argument. She’s very much like the late Christopher Hitchens in that way.
Frances is the co-author with Albert Howard of the oddly incendiary Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, and it was that book, published 15 years ago, that brought her work to my attention. I say oddly incendiary because while there was much in their analysis that I found a bit too sweeping, their mere articulation of a standpoint that had been commonplace even among “militant” Indigenous leaders caused Frances to be traduced as a trafficker in hate speech.
It occurred to me back then that something new was happening that was slightly insane. I’d first noticed it in the “anti-war” movement, which was nothing of the kind. In any case, the reaction to Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry proved to be a harbinger of the totalitarian tenor of the times to come. “Cancel culture” and all that.
More recently her work includes Indigenizing the University: Diverse Perspectives, and Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency Last year (we couldn’t discuss this because the case is in arbitration) Frances was fired by Mount Royal University after more than 6,000 signatures were appended to a petition condemning her for her commentary on the “Black Lives Matter” phenomenon. She had also allowed quite modestly that residential schools afforded Indigenous children an education otherwise unavailable to them at the time.
"I was generally criticizing 'woke' ideas," Frances said when she was fired. "Basically, identity politics that has become totalitarian, and is imposing itself on the university, and preventing people from openly discussing ideas." By firing her, Mount Royal University obligingly proved her point.
Earlier this year the University of Lethbridge caved to pressure and cancelled a lecture Frances had been invited to give there, similarly proving the point she intended to make in her lecture that “totalitarian identity politics” was exerting an unseemly influence on free inquiry and the acquisition of actual knowledge in the universities. During an attempt at an informal lecture on campus, this is what happened: Hundreds of protesters drown out speaker Frances Widdowson at University of Lethbridge.
I have a passing familiarity with this sort of thing myself, described here: When narrative replaces facts: The furor over my 'The year of graves' feature illustrated perfectly what the piece was about.
Frances and two others are now suing the University of Lethbridge and I very much hope they win.
In this Gramscian “interregnum,” Poilievre is winning the workers
Here’s how Frances describes the implications of the retreat of the “left” from its historic role as the champion of the working class into a petit-bourgeois auxiliary of the corporate establishment animated by luxury beliefs and the fashionable grievance mongering of race-and-gender identity silos. Consider it a warning:
“People are going to get swept into various kinds of right-wing movements if there’s not a kind of left-wing leadership saying, ‘hey, the problem is economic here.’ The problem is that the economic system is failing and that means you are not going to be able to have what you need to survive, and have what you need to look after your family, and all these kinds of fundamental concerns that the left should be speaking to people about.
“That’s what we need the left to be doing. But because the left has been completely taken over by postmodernism, it’s not able to do that.”
In Canada, what passes for the “left” is the New Democratic Party, which has settled into the role of propping up Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which is what passes for “liberal” in this country. Unless you count the Back-to-the-70s economic formulae Jagmeet Singh occasionally proposes while wearing his bespoke, meticulously-tailored suits and his ridiculously expensive Rolex watches, there is no “left” left.
And so it has fallen to Poilievre’s Conservatives, of all people, to take up the old banner of the workers. Poilievre has been speaking in the language of common speech, about those things that matter to ordinary Canadians, and it’s working. But a certain kind of “narrative” is emerging. And it’s bullshit. This is dangerous.
You’ll need a paying subscription to get the rest of this, I’m afraid. It’ll be worth it.