In my line of work, it’s good to stay humble. After all, the insights I had today are destined to line somebody’s cat-litter box tomorrow. The online world makes my precious prose seem even less important. If it’s not on newsprint, it's not even worth peeing on.
But once in a while, people really care. Sometimes, my work lives on in a way I could never have imagined.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a light-hearted column for Canada Day. I described how I’d come to Canada at an early age and gradually embraced the values of my adopted land. I quoted that grand old icon Pierre Berton, who (perhaps apocryphally) declared that “a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe,” and I confessed that, inspired by his words, I, too, had once tried this hazardous and uncomfortable feat. Whimsically, I wondered whether any of today’s immigrants would choose to express their patriotism as I had.
It wasn’t my best work. But I never dreamed it would live on in infamy.
My feeble effort at weekend humour is now Exhibit No. 1 in a scholarly new book called Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada (published by UBC Press). According to the introduction, my column is insidiously racist. “The implication is that somehow Canada might become less Canadian unless measures are taken to ensure that immigrants are taught the j-stroke,” the authors warn. “Against a backdrop of imagined wilderness, it [the love-in-a-canoe comment]privileges the universality of Canadian canoe culture, marginalizes dark-skinned bodies as peripheral to national origins, and positions white heterosexual procreation in a canoe as the highest achievement of national identity.”
Yikes! I felt like a black fly being blasted with a bazooka.
I should warn you that this book, which lists for $85, is hard going. It’s written in impenetrable academese that’s laced with phrases such as “white normativity,” “performative ties” and “hegemonic social relations.” On top of that, the people responsible for this weighty tome are not critical-race theorists. They are geographers, and quite distinguished ones.
Like most people, I was under the impression that geographers studied rocks and trees and ethnic groups and the kinds of things you read about in National Geographic. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Back in the 1970s, geographers had a crisis of identity. They were terrified they were becoming irrelevant. And so they embraced the same fashionable academics who were busy hijacking the rest of the humanities. In their view, the entire edifice of Western civilization has been constructed by privileged white men for the purpose of exploiting and oppressing everyone else.
Feminists have swept through geography like the avenging Furies. The stated mission of feminist geography is to disrupt “the masculinism of contemporary geographical discourses.” (Translation: White male explorers are bad.) Queer geography is also hot. Geographers who aspire to make tenure are busy churning out research papers with titles such as Style Matters: Explorations of Bodies, Whiteness and Identity in Rock Climbing.
The three professors who edited Rethinking the Great White North are all from Queen’s University. One, Laura Cameron, is a Canada Research Chair. Another, Audrey Kobayashi, is the new chair of the Association of American Geographers. It’s safe to say they’re not fans of Pierre Berton, who mythologized Canada in the heroic way they despise. Unfortunately, they weren’t available to talk to me in time for deadline, so I didn’t have a chance to swap wilderness tips or ask them for other examples of how nature is used as a social construct to maintain hegemonic social relations across a number of epistemological sites. (Their words, not mine.)
Why am I hurting your head with all this? Because you deserve to know what you’re getting for your money. You are paying the salaries of these scholars. You are paying for the books they publish, the conferences they hold and the knowledge they’re imparting to your children. You are subsidizing their students’ tuition. I leave it to you to decide whether you’re getting your money’s worth.
Two respected American academics believe you’re not. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus maintain that too many universities – especially the large, prestigious ones – have abandoned the task of delivering a solid undergraduate education in the liberal arts. Instead, they’ve allowed professors to turn the curriculum into their personal playgrounds. “The more you rely on lingo – ‘regressive discourses,’ ‘performativity’– the less you have to really think,” Prof. Hacker told The Atlantic.
In their book Higher Education?, Prof. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus describe how the liberal arts have been radically altered, both in format and function. “Catalogue labels are still recognizable: psychology, comparative literature, English and the like,” they wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “But what is being taught is no longer attuned to undergraduates looking for a broader and deeper understanding of the world.”
I wonder what the Chinese or Indians would make of so much academic time and brains devoted to feminist geography and the like. Please forgive me if this sounds racist. But I imagine they’d think we’re nuts.