Saturday, December 16, 2006

Review: The Age of Light, Soap, and Water

[Mariana Valverde. The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991.]

I still have a good year and change of hard slogging on my current project before I need to have something else to do with my time, and that's assuming I manage to sell it and the writing goes reasonably well. Still, "What next?" has floated through my brain on not a few occasions. One possibility is pursuing related work in a more formal academic context, but it is a possibility of which I remain wary -- some things I see and hear make me think it might be useful, but others make me think I'm just as well staying a free agent. There is all kinds of academic stuff I've read over the last few years that I have found interesting or useful for my purposes but that I would have no desire to spend my life producing -- because it is unanalytical, because it is esoteric, because it looks like writing it was deathly dull, because it is so inaccessible that only a handful of lefty book nerds like me would ever bother to read it, or for some other reason.

The Age of Light, Soap, and Water is none of those, and in fact it belongs to the much smaller category of kinds of material that I think I could engage in producing and feel like I was doing something interesting and useful. It looks at the social purity movement in late 19th and early 20th century Canada. This movement is an underexamined side of the religiously inflected social movements of that era, including the social gospel movement (which was one strand of thought and action that eventually fed into English Canadian social democracy) and the first wave of feminist movement. All of these movements were also tightly tied to the beginnings of social work, social planning, and sociology as disciplines and discourses. More interesting, perhaps, is how the book looks at these things. It is about synthesis rather than narrow focus or hidebound adherence to disciplinary boundaries. It embraces complexity rather than shying away and prefering the unimaginative refuge of simplistic completeness. It feels no need to ignore ideas and discourse and stick to "real" history with a narrow view of materialism, nor does it get lost in discourse determinism or purely intellectual history, but instead treats discourse analysis as one tool among many, and sees ideas and words as just one more materially produced facet of the social reality of the time. It does all of this and still manages to be short and easy to read. (What is more surprising is how hard it seems to be to find -- I have seen it referenced in at least three very different areas in the reading I have been doing over the last few years so it is not an unimportant book, but it is long out of print and even used copies seem hard to come by.)

A key idea presented in this book is that for the social gospel and feminist movements in early twentieth century Canada and for the process of Canadian state formation in the years under study, moral regulation was absolutely central. The social purity movement was not identical with the social gospel or with first wave feminism, but they were all highly interconnected and overlapping, both in outlook and in personnel. At times at the behest of the state but more often dragging the state along with it, the middle-class reformers of these movements were committed to responding to social issues such as urbanization, immigration, poverty, excessive alcohol consumption (often a proxy for male violence within the family, though this could seldom be directly named), prostitution, and other things with an open commitment to fostering the formation of a Canada that was not just white but Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, as well as morally pure. The reformers saw moral purity weaving through all of these issues, with sexual purity and racial purity and the strength of the nation all blending into each other in discussions of immigration, for example, or of prostitution. They pushed for the development of the scientific study of social problems and did not see this as at all inconsistent with interpreting everything through a lens that was all about personal purity, and communicating their ideas in a florid moralistic prose that is ridiculous to twenty-first century eyes. Other things that I have read about the reformers of this era have failed to really demonstrate the depth of the difference in how issues were constructed then and now.

I appreciated its complex characterization of puritanism not just as a caricature of stodgy old repressed preachers thundering "thou shalt not" but as containing a rich, positive (in the sense of being for certain things and not just against) vision for individual and nation, with the combination of some things modern lefty types might still agree with and many others which we would find to be deeply offensive. One overriding feature of the vision of righteousness that informed the reformers was the seamless integration of the provision of needed support and resources with the assumed right of the reformers to regulate, police (such as the deaconnesses who would lurk around city train stations to identify and waylay young women newly arrived in the city and prevent the slightest chance of them making decisions of which church matrons might disapprove) and punish (like the non-governmental reform organizations that not only helped immigrants but for a time had the power to deport immigrant women found guilty of "impure" behaviour in Canada) the poor, immigrants, women. Though it is often a bit less obvious just because there is no distance in time to make the contradictions stand out, this combination of a desire to help and an oppressive disregard for the agency of the helped is all too common today in a number of spheres. I'd be interested in seeing how the organization of this tendency, both socially and in discourse, has evolved over the years. Indeed, a broader question that would also be worth examining is the ways in which the oppressive side of the reform movements might have fed into the more modern movements that trace their lineage to them (and who usually only emphasize the good stuff).

I was particularly struck by some of the material on J.S. Woodsworth. He was a Methodist minister and a leading figure of the radical wing of the social gospel movement. Though overshadowed by Tommy Douglas in the current version of the mythology, he was a central parent of modern social democracy in Canada through his role as a leader in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the leader of the "ginger group" in Parliament in the '20s, and the founding leader of the Cooperative Commonwelath Federation, which later became the NDP. He also has a somewhat saintly reputation among some older pacifists because of his courageous stand in Parliament for the pacifist position during the debates about Canadian entry into World War II. When he is remembered, it is generally these things that are remembered. Yet he wrote that Asians and Blacks, as "essentially non-assimilable elements are clearly detrimental to our highest national development, and hence should be vigorously excluded."

Valverde writes that in Woodsworth's writing,

[t]he exclusion of non-whites is implicitly related to the exclusion of the non-moral. Woodsworth noted that Canadian immigration law already excluded criminals, beggars, and prostitutes, but he claimed that enforcement was not tough enough; he suggested employing Canadian immigration agents at European ports and having these agents investigate prospective immigrants to root out "paupers" and "prostitutes." He also suggests that in any case the law's provisions should be broadened, to include "persons of poor physique, persons mentallyh deficient, the hopelessly incapable, the morally depraved."

People of colour were assumed to be potentially if not actually depraved: this is the implicit premise behind Woodsworth's claim that blacks and Asians are non-assimilable. [References in original]


Many first-wave feminits expressed similar sentiments. It is important, as we construct histories and mythologies for our movements, that such contradictions not be erased. Exploring them, discovering complexity in our political ancestors, using their mix of liberatory and oppressive practices to learn our own history and as a way of probing our own flawed and complex attempts to change the world, are all essential.

Another resonance with modern debates on certain issues was the moral panic created at certain points around "white slavery." It was never actually shown in any convincing way to exist in a significant way, but it served as a powerful rhetorical focus for anxieties about sexuality, race, gender, and nation in the context of increasing numbers of young women seeking to exist in urban environments seen as inherently prone to promoting immorality. I couldn't help but think of some of the panic that the internet has aroused in certain circles -- it usually gets framed in terms of dangers of predation via this newish medium, which I'm sure does happen but which often gets supported by unreferenced and implausibly high statistics about the frequency of predatory behaviour. I think it often covers for conservative patriarchal fears about those they wish to control having enhanced access to information, options, avenues for self-expression, and other freedoms, and for many it also provides a way in which the danger can be named (even if it is exaggerated) without the risk of naming its basis in gendered relations of power, which might expose the complicity of many of those who raise the concern to begin with.

The potential connections between moral regulation as experienced a century ago and the ways that it is relevant today remain to be explored in detail. Valverde concludes (and remember she was writing this in 1991) by writing,

Moral reform is hence not a singular stage in the history of capital accumulation: if secular modernity had been as powerfully successful as both Marxist and liberal accounts would have it, advanced capitalist states would not at the end of the twentieth century be undertaking moral projects to strengthen the family, remove prostitutes from city streets, and build character in post-permissive schools. Neither is it an ideology explainable through its functional role in the capitalist system of class relations. Moral reform, like moral regulation generally, seeks to construct and organize both social relations and individual consciousness in such a way as to legitimize certain institutions and discourses -- the patriarchal nuclear family, racist immigration policies -- from the point of view of morality. Its relationship to production, or for that matter to the state, cannot be theorized a priori, for these relations shift with change sin social regulation generally. The fact that there have been such shifts -- for instance, in the reformulation of "the problem" of immigrants as an economic rather than sexual/health threat -- shows that moral regulation does not occupy a social space distinct from that occupied by "the economic" or "the social": it is a mode of regulating social and individual life generally, not pretagged moral issues. In the present day, the scope of moral reform has been narrowed, and only issues such as abortion (which was not, interestingly enough, a major concern of the social purity movement) are perceived as constitutive of the nation's moral character. An examination of social purity and philanthropic moral reform shows that practically every social issue was understood as moral in a not very distant historical period, which implies that all these issues can potentially reonceptualized as moral.


[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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