Sunday, May 23, 2004

Labels, Their Limitations, and My Blog Title

The first venue in which I was regularly published was the McMaster Sillhouette, the student newspaper at the university I attended. The first few items were book reviews, but after that I wrote regular op/ed pieces for a couple of years. As with all writing done more than a handful of years ago, when I go back and look through them, it is always a mix of, "Oh my, I can't believe I signed my name to that," and, "Wow. That's actually pretty good." Though I think my knowledge base has expanded considerably since then, and my analysis has become at least a little more sophisticated, those articles were produced when I was first exploring in a substantive way the fit between my values and the broader world, and so the underlying themes reflect the me of today as well.

I write this because one of the articles I wrote at the time expressed my dislike for the left/right spectrum as a metaphor for describing worldview. Since I nicked and modified Mark Twain's title for my blog, I have been wrestling with unease from the very same sources that prompted that article.

The title of this blog is, in effect, a label; and more than a label, it is a claiming of identity. Identity is complex, and truly capturing it in text is an enteprise for a poem or a novel, not for headlines or clever catch-phrases. By choosing this title, I am emphasizing certain aspects of who I am for public consumption. Put another way, I am using words to take certain pieces of me and link them to narratives and structures in the broader world, and saying, "This matters to me."

In the title of this blog, I have selected three aspects of me to so emphasize.

One is that I have moved to and am now a resident of the United States; moreover, I have indicated this in a way that expresses some disapproval of the current leader of this particular state, or perhaps of its system of government. Given the sorts of things I will probably be writing about, and the fact that The Move was the occasion for starting this blog, including this facet of identity in the title is both relevant and trivial. Place matters, and I'm sure my location will permeate what I write. Moreover, the way I have chosen to indicate place also reflects my initial standpoint with respect to it. (And if Kerry wins, it will be easy enough to change "George" to "John".)

Another aspect that the title emphasizes is that I am, in fact, Canadian. This is factually true, but is not something I generally choose to emphasize. There is a certain inevitability that this would take up a more visible place in my life upon the occasion of no longer living in Canada -- that which is framed by contrast is easier to see. I also do not wish to deny this particular piece of identity, because growing up in the particular social, cultural, economic, and political environment connected to the label "Canada" cannot help but have shaped me. At the same time, I am not exactly proud of this link. Yes, being connected to a collective of other human beings is meaningful, but the connection between myself and most of the other 30 million or so Canadians feels arbitrary, forced, tenuous. If I am going to claim connection that is so widespread and abstract, why not claim it with all 6 billion of my fellow humans?

The label "Canadian" also implies connection not only to a nation of people, but to the state that, to a great extent, defines that nation. I most definitely do not wish to be seen as exhibiting any pride because of my connection to the Canadian state. Yes, in contrast to the U.S. there are a few small niches that have been carved out for the benefit of the citizens of the country -- a somewhat better social welfare system and socialized medicare, though both have been weakened and both face continuing asssaults, and a greater recognition of the rights of people to love those of the same gender -- but the Canadian state is still a state. It was founded on the genocide of the Aboriginal peoples of the northern section of Turtle Island, and it remains complicit in doing what it can to complete the theft of Aboriginal land and the destruction of Aboriginal culture. While Canadians often exhibit a certain smug, liberal superiority that we do not get our hands dirty with the blood of others as exuberantly as our southern neighbours, the truth is that Canada (the state and its elites, and to varying lesser degrees many of the rest of us as well) has always benefited from and been complicit in the imperial adventures of Britain and, now, the United States. Our relative unimportance allows us to remain aloof from the worst offences, and choose when and where to get our hands dirty, and the very wealth we derive from imperialism gives us the space to be liberal about it all. Even during Vietnam, which Pierre Trudeau kept our soldiers out of, no country on earth other than the United States (and possibly Japan) benefited more economically from the slaughter of millions in Southeast Asia (via the Canadian war industry).

I could go on at great length about the complicity and active participation by the Canadian economy and state in environmental destruction, oppression at home and abroad, and all sorts of other unpleasant things, but I think the above adequately makes my point: I am not embracing the term "Canadian" out of any desire to be a cheerleader for the state to which it is connected. However, the society that is also connected to that word has shaped me, and if my new location is important to what I will be writing in this space, then so is the place from which I originate.

The final label is the characterization of my politics in the title. It is (can you have any doubt after the rant two paragraphs up?) accurate. However, though I feel less discomfort with such political labels than I did when I wrote that op/ed piece seven or eight years ago, I retain my basic wariness. Political labels tend to shut down dialogue -- people often assume they know what they mean to those who claim them when they do not, and put those people in a slot instead of listening. This is particularly troubling because political labels, especially the left/right spectrum, tend to obscure complexity. The attitudes to race and gender issues, to process, to violence, to hierarchy, and to lots of other things vary dramatically within the overarching term "left". It is very easy for political labels to alienate people to whom they are unfamiliar or even (often for personally understandable if socially distressing reasons) threatening.

Finally, I also am wary of political labels because I feel that excessive attachment to them feeds a tendency to identify our politics and ethics with words rather than actions. It is very easy to claim a label, to say, "I believe X is right and Y is wrong." It is very easy to say, "I am anti-racist" or "I support the working class." However, you can have all the analysis and all the good intentions in the world, and it is what you do with them that matters. The importance of ethics and politics is material, not rhetorical, and I think it is crucial, in this society that treats political analysis/action as at best an intellectual exercise and at worst an enterprise of branding and manipulation, not to do anything that encourages the substitution of labels for practice.

Yet my blog has a title, and the title is what you see above. Obviously, we need labels, and pieces of published work generally benefit from titles. There is no profound reason why I have stuck with this one: I like the play on the Twain title; my title is not inaccurate; and though it portrays only a small number of the many facets of me, its more important function is to prepare the reader for what they are about to read, and I think it probably gives a good idea of the standpoint from which the material is coming. I could change "Canadian" to "Hamiltonian," but that would confuse those who do not know Hamilton. I could change "Lefty" to "Progressive" or "Radical" or "Activist" or "Writer" or "Writer/Activist," but I think that would hurt the rhythm of the phrase.

I will stick with what I have, because it is adequate and, at heart, it really does not matter that much.

1 comment:

Alexander said...

i agree with you about the political groups thing. I think it is stupid to be part of a group. everyone's opinions are slightly different, and it only limits yourself and everyone else to be republican, or democratic, or whatever you claim to be.

thanks for listening, and great blog.