Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Story Behind The (Margaret Wente) Story

Margaret Wente's now infamous October 25th column, What Dick Pound said was really dumb - and also true, appears to have based almost entirely on the research of Marxist scholars Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, whose views are discussed briefly in this National Post profile from Saturday, November 1st. These two have been around for awhile, and in fact are given credit for instigating a debate over the usefulness of employing indigenous "traditional knowledge" in policy making for Nunavit and the NWT. This is how they got their start:

Northern organizations, governments, and governments-in-waiting have been formally and informally attempting to incorporate “traditional knowledge” into policy deliberations for some time. A public debate about this practice began in fall 1996, when Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard published criticisms of the Government of the Northwest territories’ (GNWT) Traditional Knowledge Policy and of the requirement that traditional knowledge be incorporated into environmental assessments. Widdowson was at the time a contract employee of the Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development (Howard and Widdowson, 1996). As the controversy developed, she was suspended for one week as punishment for her public criticism of government policy.

In the Canadian parliamentary tradition, public servants do not have the right to publicly disagree with the policies they are hired to implement. Employees who find themselves in fundamental disagreement with the decisions of elected officials have two options: they may work from within to bring about a change of policy; or, failing this, they must resign. As private citizens, they may—and should—criticize government policy freely. Widdowson should have resigned before speaking publicly, but at least her action stimulated public discussion of some very important questions (GNWT, 1993; Howard and Widdowson, 1996; Berkes and Henley, 1997; Howard and Widdowson, 1997; Laghi,1997; Stevenson, 1997).

Now, I won't go too deeply into a critique of their thinking (I'm hardly qualified), other than to point out a couple of things. Firstly, as I suspected, Widdowson and Howard employ some variant of the theories of Lewis H. Morgan. But this stuff is science from a 100 years ago, long since discarded:

Ms. Widdowson's work has been roundly criticized by other scholars in relying on a long-discredited theory of evolutionary stages of development through which every society must pass in the long march of "progress."

Secondly, even the National Post story notes that their version of Marxism is "outmoded", and in fact these two points go together. Morgan's theories of cultural evolution lingered on in Marxist circles long after they had been superseded in the broader anthropological community.

A quick glance at their views on traditional knowledge is interesting in light of Wente's story, however.

On one side of the debate are its instigators (Howard and Widdowson, 1996, 1997), who have argued that TEK is unscientific and should not be made a mandatory part of environmental impact assessments because it is spiritually based. Their argument is twofold. First, they object to the mandatory inclusion of TEK in impact assessments because they consider that it implies "the imposition of religion" upon Canadian citizens (Howard and Widdowson, 1996: 34). Second, and more importantly with regards to the present argument, they suggest that TEK is unscientific, since "spiritualism is obviously inconsistent with scientific methodology". They conclude, therefore, that TEK "hinders rather than enhances the ability of governments to more fully understand ecological processes", since there is no way in which "spiritually based knowledge claims can be challenged or verified" (Howard and Widdowson, 1996: 34).

Well, this seems a profoundly blinkered attitude. If there is no way that traditional knowledge can be "verified", then this suggests that, for example, Inuit societies have managed to survive in the arctic through mere luck, and that the gradual adaption of the dog-sled and igloo was not the result of innovation, trial and error, but instead just happened.

And this is surely implausible.

It should also be pointed out (and has been, but I can no longer locate the source document), that every culture possesses traditional knowledge of the environment it has grown up in. If we were to attempt to develop policy for rural Saskatchewan, it would be entirely uncontroversial to consult with local farmers re the climate and wild-life around them. Why does the same thing become controversial when the knowledge we are trying to get at is partially embedded in native myths and stories?


Dr.Dawg said...

I don't know how you flunked your anthropology course, BCL, because you've nailed the basics with this post.

Hearing that these folks consider themselves "Marxists" got my attention. Unilineal cultural evolution is a myth, but in crude outline one finds it in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State--a treatise based upon Morgan, who was really the only game in town at the time.

There was a period during which Marx and Engels supported colonialism as a gift to "primitive" peoples. The British Rule in India is an example of Marx's thinking in this respect. After 1860, however, he became more pessimistic. Widdowson and Howard are stuck in that earlier Marxian period.

The National Post profile is an interesting read. Supposedly, according to Widdowson and Howard, TEK is silly superstition--wolves creating caribou, for example. But they do! The culling of the herds by wolves ensure that there will not be overpopulation and then mass starvation. It's a natural process with which ecologists are very familiar indeed.

As you indicate, the land-skills of the Inuit are extraordinary. On what looks like a featureless plain of snow-covered tundra, an Inuk can find traps he buried there two decades earlier.

The simplistic ignorance of these two seems to have no end. "Primitive" languages of aboriginals cannot absorb scientific concepts? Tell that to the Maori, continually creating new words (usually not phonetic equivalents) to incorporate the very latest in scientific advances. Language, no more than culture, is frozen in time--except to essentialist vandals like Widdowson and Howard.

These guys are due for a thorough, proper fisking. I wish I had the time.

Dr.Dawg said...

Forgot a good Maori link:

Ti-Guy said...

What of carnival of vain mediocrities. The unreconstructed Trots, the reconstructed Trots (The Neocons) and the The National Post all colluding to offer the rest of us a smorgasbord of discredited ideology, revisionist history and bad science to tell the rest of us how the world works, or worked, or will work or should work all the while concealing the fact that they are entirely clueless.

I'll repost this interview with Adam Curtis just because I've found it one of the freshest examinations about media and knowledge I've read in a long time, particularly his point about the tendency of intellectual elites to connect dots in ways that lead us into weird fantasies about how the World works.

It's probably a waste of time to pick at the scholarship of people like Widdowson and Howard, since they've no doubt connected all the dots in some reasonable fashion...enough to persuade people like Margaret Wente, in any case. And therein lies the problem.

Unknown said...

Hey Ti-guy, thanks for pointing to that interview. Fascinating. I'll have to find The Trap, now. (I've seen Power of Nightmares, and I'd make it required viewing for every Grade 12 class in the country. Heck, the world.)

I'm going to have to re-read it a few times, there's so much there. Heh. Some of it resonated, too... "So that's where that's coming from!" - kind of thing.

Ti-Guy said...

You're welcome. I hope a few...*urg*, it. ;)

Unknown said...

I can only get page 1 of the interview ti. Tried the audio but the quality is poor.

BCL, the real Margaret Wente "story" is her column and the peculiar reaction it elicited from the left

This repressing reflex is standard fare concerning native issues as we saw with the residential school issue where only the officially propagated viewpoint was allowed.

And as we saw on residential schools, reporters are so intimidated that their role becomes one of simply regurgitating official talking points.

I thought diversity was a hallmark of the left, but the mob-like mentality concerning Wente gives one cause for concern.

Ti-Guy said...

I can only get page 1 of the interview ti...

Trying using both hands with the keyboard.

Unknown said...

Nope, that's two computers it doesn't work on ti.

Ti-Guy said...

Try this link.

Unknown said...

Considering a previous post where you were incapable of doing a simple copy and paste ti, I didn't think you would be the one making funny.

Ti-Guy said...

I was jerking you around then, as well.

Heh. Rube!

Niles said...

Go, Wente. Nothing like dissing the rural pez from the sniffy urban towers.

Gathered TEK is fantastic stuff for anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. The more of it that's recorded, the more complete a picture of an area is built out of what has mainly been an anecdotal oral history of the locals up to this generation. So what if the informal language used is poetic rather than prosaic? The university trained sorts can sift the dry stuff from the traditions, but if it's not gathered before the storyholders die, good luck with getting something from nothing.

TEK has identified indigenous plant usage for nutrition and pharmacology, water flow, migration paths, changes in climate patterns; the lists go on. Demands that companies and governments doing business on traditional land put out resources to record TEK is a win-win situation for the heritage of everyone. We need more of it, not less. Trouble is, far too often, gathering TEK is seen as a cost, not a value. It's frou-frou elitest humanities stuff.

Which is pretty much the entire gripe behind all the concern trolls when it comes to Canada's dealings with aboriginal peoples. Their tax dollars could be put to better use instead of 'wealth redistribution' to the ungrateful. Not a lot of 'white privilege' dog whistling there. Much

Ti-Guy said...

You wonder if Wente has ever really ventured out into the bush and had someone explain to her all the stuff she could eat if she ever found herself lost. I'm a white person, I learned that stuff from my parents, who learned it from their parents, and so one can say exactly know where that knowledge comes from...but it came from somehwere.

Unknown said...

Good post niles, but I don't see where Wente dissed aboriginal people. That Canada's First Nations people showed remarkable skills surviving off the land for thousands of years in extremely adverse conditions is beyond dispute.

A clash of cultures and opinions will inevitably result in different interpretations regarding both cultures even when both refer to the same facts.

But, the Wente issue remains why large portions of the left demonstrate powerfully anti-democratic tendencies when a person ventures an opinion outside of what the left believes acceptable. That the free flow of ideas is at times a repulsive concept to the left is the most disturbing element in this story.

Ti-Guy said...

Good post niles, but I don't see where Wente dissed aboriginal people..

Ah...vintage Paul S. Check out his Desmogblog comments...tyrannical ignorance at its best.

Oh well. Keeps him from microwaving stray cats, I guess.

Holly Stick said...

Guess what! McGill-Queen's U Press is bringing out Widdowson and Howard's book, with a fulsome review quote:

""Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry does an excellent job of pointing out logical inconsistencies in the Aboriginal political movement - a matter of great practical as well as academic importance." Tom Flanagan, author of First Nations? Second Thoughts"

Guess whose book MQUP is also bringing out in its second edition! I wonder if it has a fulsome review quote by Widdowson and Howard.

I also wonder if Flanagan has removed the racist remark which was pointed out to him while he was in court pretending to be an expert witness; and I wonder if he has altered the dishonest footnotes that did not give proper credit to the sources from which he got his information; and the other dishonest footnotes which do not distinguish between academic writings and newspaper articles.

Ti-Guy said...

I just find it hilarious that Tom "Old Man Smell" Flanagan is substantially in agreement with unreconstructed Communists.

Heh, heh.