Thieves, too. So said the late Mordecai Richler.
My friend and I were in the dark at the back at the Bovine Sex Club on Queen West, waiting to see the Minneapolis punk band Off With Their Heads. My friend had just told me the story of how, years ago, he organized a debate at the University of Toronto between Richler and a brilliant feminist academic. The topic: cultural appropriation.
Richler had insisted that the academic go first. He even suggested she get more time than him.
The assembled students were all on her side, my friend said. When she finally finished, Richler – perhaps the greatest novelist and writer this country has produced – all but shrugged.
Cultural appropriation, he said, wasn’t just defensible. It was, he said, absolutely necessary. To write great stories, Richler said, writers must adapt and adopt cultures – the language and the idiom, the symbols, the stories and the words – that aren’t theirs.
In this way, Richler said, all the best novelists are thieves. They are liars, he said.
The students erupted in wild applause, said my friend, himself a former National Post columnist with a liberal pedigree. Richler walked out to a near-ovation, off to go drinking.
My friend was relating the Richler tale on the very afternoon another friend, Steve Ladurantaye, was in the news because of cultural appropriation. His employer, the CBC, had removed him as managing editor of The National.
His sin: to joke, in a tweet of a half-dozen words, that he would make a donation to a fictional Cultural Appropriation Prize that other prominent Canadian journalists had conjured up. His tweet was in jest but the response was anything but laughable. Almost immediately, a tsunami of rage descended on the writers, prompting deletions, apologies, retractions, demotions and resignations across the Canadian media demimonde.
Ladurantaye – who, among other things, signed up plenty of minority and indigenous writers for the CBC’s new opinion space – was out.
Columnists aren’t supposed to write about things in which they’re personally involved. But after kicking off this column with the Richler story – one about culture and one I plainly appropriated – what the hell. So here are five points to consider:
- Ladurantaye is a close friend. We’re even in a geriatric punk band together and we’re going into the studio this week. Not a few of our songs attack racists and bigots.
- As a lawyer and a consultant, I’ve worked under four prime ministers on First Nations files in six provinces. My firm has represented dozens of First Nations, from the Yukon to Ontario. The work I’ve done, however varied, is always about just one thing: theft. Theft of First Nations land. Theft of their way of life. Theft of their economic independence. Theft of their sovereignty. W.P. Kinsella’s banal little novels – no relation, I assure you – never once came up.
- I have a novel of my own coming out in the fall. It’s called X: Recipe for Hate and it’s about teenagers, racism and punk rock. One of the main characters is a young Miqmaq woman, conjured up entirely by my imagination. In the book, which I hope will horrify some, I unreservedly appropriate things about her indigenous culture. Should I have sought someone’s permission to do that? Or should I have not even written about her? Those are rhetorical questions, believe me.
- I’m father to a beautiful, sweet and perfect indigenous daughter, a proud citizen of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She adores Steve, just like the rest of us do. Sitting at our kitchen table, under two Kwakiutl totem poles, my daughter has never had any problem with Steve. He would not have been sitting at our table if she had. She, like me, thinks he’s a good, decent and tolerant man.
- The Cultural Appropriation Prize – which, make no mistake, was stupid, insensitive and condescending – resulted in hundreds of news stories, from coast to coast. Meanwhile, outside the velvet confines of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood and CBC headquarters, my wife and I and a few others have been labouring to persuade Canada Post to stop delivering an actual neo-Nazi newspaper to Toronto-area mailboxes, and to shut it down. The hate rag, called Your Ward News, regularly features tributes to Adolf Hitler, promotes Holocaust denial, calls blacks the n-word and defames every minority on Earth.
But do you think that we can get just one of the presently-offended multitude to help us oppose it? Do you think we can get one of them to write an op-ed or a letter to the editor, opposing the delivery of neo-Nazi material to people’s doors? Do you think we could get just one of them to consider, just for a moment, that the promotion of actual anti-Semitism and race hate merits their attention?
Not on your life. In the deepest Annex, or down in the conference rooms at CBC, cultural appropriation is more important than, you know, any of that stuff. Holocaust denial? Nazism? Real racism? To them, those things aren’t as important.
Mordecai Richler, wherever he is, is laughing his ass off.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.