The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Rex Murphy

Rex Murphy, Canada’s indefatigable slayer of straw men, has done it again.  In a column titled “Check Your Bigotry”, Murphy has taken on the “anti-racism movement” which Murphy warns is imposing the “bigotry” of the “White Privilege” label on unfortunate White students at our institutions of higher learning.  I’ll be honest, I left the ivory tower thirty years ago.  I don’t know what the situation is in the Groves of Academe these days.  Of course, its been almost half a century since Murphy left the halls of Oxford (without a degree).  I don’t think it out of line to mention that Murphy sculled his dory on the Thames with his chums on a bit of a free ride, tuition and living allowance courtesy of Rhodesia’s colonial founder’s blood diamond fortune.  Certainly, a Rhodes Scholarship is no mean achievement – the closest I ever got was reading the application form.  For a smart, hard-working boy from Carbonear, Newfoundland, a Rhodes Scholarship is a remarkable personal achievement.  I think it safe to say that if Murphy had been a smart, hard-working boy from Attawapiskat that Rhodes scholarship would be so remarkable as to be fiction. And women weren’t considered at all for the privilege of a Rhodes Scholarship until 1977, shortly before I didn’t even come close to getting one.

When Murphy went off to Oxford in 1968, he had already done some great work for his fellow students at Memorial University, convincing (bullying?) the provincial government not only into granting free tuition to undergraduates but also getting them government cash for room and board.  What a privilege it must have been to be a government paid student at Memorial!  And then Oxford for Murphy on the same sort of ticket!  An achievement and a privilege at the same time!

Now, in 1968, when Murphy packed his books and afro-pick for Oxford, someone else was working hard on their life goals down in Southern Africa where Cecil Rhodes made the fortune (and his own personal Rhodesia) which funded Murphy’s Oxford gravy train.  Nelson Mandela was breaking limestone  on Robbin Island in 1968.  Maybe Murphy’s right: that brown South African fellow, despite his lack of privilege, through his own efforts, later became President of his country and a symbol of freedom and hope for racial reconciliation and equality around the world.  White-skinned Murphy, on the other hand, didn’t manage to get an Oxford degree and now rents his barbed wit out to various outlets to help them increase their hit counts.  Surely, if White Privilege were a Thing, Murphy would be Prime Minister by now (ran three times for two parties and never won a seat) and Mandela would have come off that Island in a box.

I’m certain that Murphy is a bright guy.  I think he knows full well that Mandela rose to the heights in spite of the barriers put in front of him. And I’m also sure that Murphy knows deep down that he’s just a freelance scribbler in spite of the doors opened to him because he’s a White man in a society built by White men for the benefit of White men.

But Murphy writes:

To read the student newspapers of some campuses, it would seem the hearty days of the KKK are just a tick of the clock away from returning. They seem especially convinced that every white person is a bundle of unearned advantages, owns a place purely because of his/her skin colour, and wanders through life with a Free For Me Pass simply because daddy and mommy, and their daddy and mommy, were white.

It’s astonishing. Could there be a better definition of racism, a better example of a purely racist concept, than this, the holding that all a person does and is springs from the colour of his skin?

The entire notion is called “white privilege.”

Well, I don’t know which or how many campuses are the “some campuses” Murphy means. He never specifies.  Instead, he throws out a lot of straw loosely held together at the multiple “seems” and the straw man is there for us all to be horrified by. It even wears a nice Murphy-supplied name-tag.  If Murphy’s straw man really is bestriding the campuses of our nation, than it’s a bit of a problem – probably not more of a problem than the absurd continued existence of fraternities – but a problem.

I’m sure that as some point Murphy was taught that a description of a factual situation is neither racism nor bigotry.  Acknowledging that Western society has historically been constructed by white people for the benefit of White people is no more racist than to acknowledge that most of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa have more melanin in their skin than does pasty old Rex.  The difference between those two examples, however, is that one is a description of a social fact and the other is a description of a genetic fact.  And this is where Murphy plays his nastiest card, trying to twist the discussion of a social fact into some sort of genetic claim.  I can’t imagine anyone claims, as Murphy suggests they do, that White people are genetically privileged.  The claim – and the fact – is that due to historical facts the playing field remains uneven.  Murphy ignores that fact and tries to obfuscate it by shouting “Racism!”

But in these days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of British Columbia’s impending apology for its anti-Chinese history, in this centenary year of the Komagata Maru tragedy, and in the light of Murphy’s previous bilge spewing about Elsipotog, I don’t for a moment believe that Murphy is worried about rampant “political correctness” on the campuses of the nation. I suspect Murphy privately would acknowledge not only the social fact of White Privilege but is fully aware of how he has himself benefited from that Privilege.

No.  I suspect Murphy is just crassly playing the Old White Curmudgeon that his audience enjoys.  He’s found a hot button to push that will get outraged traffic to his column and advertising dollars into the coffers of those who pay him.

What I would have enjoyed from Murphy would have been a nuanced high road.  He could have said that to dwell on very real White Privilege at the individual level, denying the value of White individuals achievements, is not a state of affairs to be desired.  Whether that state of affairs exists anywhere apart from Murphy’s imagination I can’t say.  I would have enjoyed a strong statement of the importance of White individuals acknowledging to themselves that they started the race a little closer to the finish line than their neighbours of colour.  I would have liked Murphy to rant about it being more important to strive for an equal world by bringing advantage to the disadvantaged than by handicapping the privileged.

But that wouldn’t stir outrage on Twitter, would it?

Unlike Murphy, I (and many others) openly acknowledge my privilege. I have benefited from Colonialism.  It is easier to live life as a White male in the Western world (just as it is easier, by the way, to live as a Japanese male in Japan or an Arab man on the Arabian Peninsula.)  Being a member of the dominant social group in any society is a privileged position.  Saying so is not bigotry or racism. It is simply a fact.  If we truly are hoping to build a more equal society, we must acknowledge that the playing field is still not level, however well or badly individuals do at the game.

Yes, Mr. Murphy, your achievements are laudable.  The other closest I ever got to a Rhodes Scholarship was being accepted for a year of study at St. Andrews University in Scotland.  (I couldn’t afford to go as no money came along with that acceptance.) You worked hard to get your Rhodes Scholarship, maybe as hard as the nameless South African and Rhodesian Blacks who dug those diamonds out of the ground to pay your tuition.  I wonder how many of them even learned to read.  I wonder if any of them, if given the chance, could have stood up to Joey Smallwood and won free tuition and a living allowance for Memorial University students.  Is hard work really all that gets us up the ladder?  Did you, Mr. Murphy, really never get a hand up, a door opened, or a palm greased by the simple fact that you are a White man in a society built by and for White men?

Of course you did.

I wouldn’t demand that you publicly “check your privilege” Mr. Murphy.  But I must tell you that your public denial of your privilege is a remarkably ugly thing to watch.

Update, May 16, 2015: Yesterday, a year almost to the day after “Check Your Bigotry” appeared,  Rex Murphy published a “new” column titled “‘White Privilege’ on the march” in which the privileged Mr. Murphy again expounded on how modern society is a level playing field for all born or immigrating into it, and that suggesting otherwise is inherently racist.  I wonder: does Mr. Murphy have only a year’s worth of columns? Does he recycle them over and over on an annual basis, only changing the titles?  Or has his memory simply shortened so much that not only does he forget the blood money that gave him the privilege of dropping out of Oxford in the Sixties, but he now also forgets 2014?  I’ll be watching next May to see whether he once again attacks the existence of privilege.

Hasty notes on Elsipotog, Rex Murphy, and Hope

I love Canada.  I love Canadians.  I love Canada’s fairly recently developed culture of tolerance and multiculturalism.  I love that, as Chris Hadfield says,

Canada has solved the riddle of how to set up civilization better than just about any country on Earth. (Maclean’s Magazine, October 14, 2013, p. 14)

I love the fact that, as Melissa Fung quotes former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ron Hoffman,

Girls not being able to go to school, music not able to be played, women not being able to work. These [are] anathema to Canadians.
(The Walrus, October 2013, p. 104)

And I really love the fact that, as a general rule, in the words of Rex Murphy in the National Post

Most Canadians, genuinely, and in depth, wish better for their co-citizens, are not just open, but intensely eager to the right thing by them and with them — if only one or many right things can be seen and finally agreed upon.

But, I have a nagging problem with Canada and Canadians, and Mr. Murphy unwittingly highlighted it in his piece.  Most immediately troubling is that Murphy ignores the fact that when the RCMP launched its paramilitary action against Elsipogtog, meetings were ongoing in hopes that “one or many right things can be seen and finally agreed upon.”  At best, this was a demonstration of Canada’s hamfistedness.  At worst, it was simply bad faith.

Of deeper concern to me, however, is that Murphy, like too many Canadians, is quick to draw a bold line between “Now” and “the Canadian past,” and ” not to acknowledge that, further, not to act on the great benign difference between the two, is willful blindness and reckless distortion.”  Murphy is quick to condemn (and inflate) alleged molotov cocktails, shots and vehicle torchings, to ignore the present day reasons for such incidents, and to pretend that present government generosity when confronted with an emergency or crisis somehow negates the present day legacy of “the Canadian past”.  This is nothing other than denial of history, recent history as well as that old history of a generation or two ago.  A generation or two ago, aboriginal Canadians had their lives controlled by the Indian Agent.  A generation or two ago, Rex Murphy was a student at Oxford, tuition paid by the founder of White Rhodesia.  “The Canadian past” is uncomfortably close.

But, if I may mention, what I find most troubling, offensive and egregiously in error is Murphy’s dismissal of suggestions that Canada’s actions constitute “genocide”.  This umbrage taken is far more absurd than Turkish upset over laying the Armenian Genocide at the feet of present day Turkey.  At least Turks can claim their state is not the Ottoman Empire.  Today’s Russians can blame the vanished Soviet state for the Holdomor.  Even modern Germans can with some legitimacy claim that their state didn’t light the Holocaust.

But Canada is still the same state that vowed to kill the Indian in the Child.  Canada is still the state that was model to South African Apartheid.  And, as I’ve explained elsewhere, Canada’s actions in the Residential Schools are incontrovertibly acts of Genocide under International and Canadian law.

The fact that, like Murphy, most Canadians dismiss this crime is something I very much dislike about my country and its people.

Murphy talks about the high regard the majority of Canadians have for aboriginal peoples.  But, just a few days before the events in Elsipogtog to which Murphy responds, the Governor General, in the Speech from the Throne, referred to “our aboriginal people” while the Quebecois were simply “The Quebecois”. No paternalism. No Colonialism. No subtle reminder of 1759.  But the First People are verbally placed just a rhetorical step away from “Queen Victoria’s  Red Children”.  In the Speech from the Throne!

There is a duality in Canada’s and Canadians’ attitude to the original people of this land.  They have an honoured place as a sort of absent myth, but when they are actually met, face to face or in the news, they are drunks, bums, and ungrateful leeches.  The honour evaporates whether the aboriginal person encountered is a great artist, an urban working woman, or an actual down and out fellow at a soup kitchen (where most of the clients are White, by the way).  A White man lying in the gutter may be a damn drunk, a dirty panhandler, but he’s also “down on his luck”. A native man in the gutter, whether Metis, Inuk, Innu or First Nations, is “another drunk Indian.”

What Murphy points out most clearly to me, although he doesn’t seem to mean to, is that Canadians are very adept at holding two contradictory images of the aboriginal person, but they are unable to reconcile them.  If the native person they meet doesn’t fit (and accept with gratitude) the mythic image, or at least try, he’s an ungrateful pawn of the academic (probably Marxist) ethnic-victim game and probably drunk and ready to set fire to a police car.  Murphy seems unaware that there are huge numbers of urban, educated, employed, working class, ordinary tax-paying aboriginal and non-aboriginal supporters of Elsipogtog and Idle No More who really don’t want to see anyone hurt.  They just want their fellow Canadians, including you, Rex, to recognize that there are actual, real, legal issues here that cut to the complicated, ugly and beautiful heart of our nation.

Many, maybe most non-aboriginal Canadians haven’t a clue about their aboriginal brothers and sisters, about history or legality.  Do they need to? Really? Maybe not. But what they need to know is a person. An individual.

All white Canadians know a white Canadian they like or admire.  That one individual makes the countless White crooks, bums, television talking heads and politicians somehow tolerable.  White people have absolutely no problem accepting the existence of White people who commit the most heinous of crimes without deciding that White people are an irredeemable horde of genetically criminal miscreants.  But, somehow, it’s possible to suggest in polite company or even during an election campaign, that aboriginal people have a genetic addiction to drugs.  This bigotry comes from ignorance bread of a cultural apartheid.  Most non-aboriginal Canadians have an acculturated blindness to all actual native Canadians except the mythical ones and the down and out.

I find hope in the fact that it is possible to see the obscene, ignorant bigotry directed against aboriginal people, including Rex Murphy’s shameful condescension, and still realize that White people have good ideas, do good things, live fine helpful lives and make the world a better place.

Just like the people of Elsipotog.

I find hope in the fact that far more meeting, talking, teaching and learning is going on between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians than fighting.

My hope comes from the certainty that as they learn and lose their blinders, most people will come to realize that the vast majority of people around them, for all their flaws and errors, have their hearts in the right place.

Mr. Murphy, too.