Trashing ‘Coolies’

Shiraz Dossa takes on Neil Bissoondath's Selling Illusions
By Shiraz Dossa

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Selling Illusions:
The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada

by Neil Bissoondath
Toronto Penguin 1994

Settling in other lands is intrinsically hard, it tears up migrants invisible and ineffable ways that the uncultivated eye of the prosaic observer can rarely discern. For the first generation living in the interstices of a settled national community it is unnerving and intimidating, even when the host populace is uniformly welcoming. If the migrants were escaping from economic harassment, racial hatred, civil war or escalating instability, or if they are older and wiser, their level of anxiety remains high.

Young Turks with adventure in their blood have a much easier time, particularly if they moved to "make it" to be successful in the market place of the North. But the older ones usually have rougher rides on the cultural highways and byways of their new nations, for they carry with them memories of their toxic histories, their experiences in turmoil and humiliation. Uprooted by fate and superior power, they exude anxiety and fear even as they are eased by their hosts into an appreciation of their legal rights and of the opportunities that lie before them.

Few among this pioneering generation of third worlders, the majority among migrants, can or do slip into the mainstream. Fringe, marginal life is the historical destiny for most migrants in this category in Canada: their minds and bodies were shaped and disciplined in culturally different, colonial settings in the South. To fail to grasp this diffuse sense of worry and estrangement in the hearts and minds of the newcomers is to miss one of the most crucial things about them: it reveals abysmal ignorance about the puissance and authority of the past, about the invasive efficiency of colonial culture and history.

Neil Bissoondath misses nearly all of this, not because he is malicious or unfamiliar with the migrant condition, nor for that matter because he is a highbrow who scorns the migrant smells and voices on the streets of Montreal or Toronto. Far from it, there is little in his book, Selling Illusions, that could be read as the product of a classically trained and informed mind. His pose of detachment has everything to do with his biting contempt for the culture of his home land and his cloying embrace of the liberal mythology: absolute freedom; pure imagination; full personal growth; and unlimited liberty to make and remake oneself. These and other myths appear with such regularity in journalistic and scholarly discourse that they have acquired the status of common sense.

To challenge this ideology of "common sense" this anthology of entrenched, mystical fables is tantamount to committing treason. It is deemed to be as unthinkable and as deluded as to claim that there is such as thing as a rational, dispassionate, practicing Muslim. In the liberal universe, no such creature is conceivable intellectually or morally. Bissoondath's slant on third world migrants is identically confident: their histories and cultures, Caribbean in particular, are barren, vacant, execrable, their pasts are best forgotten and consciously elided, they have virtually nothing to contribute to the culture and the conversation of the modern world.

According to Bissoondath, multiculturalism is a huge mistake because it takes seriously the unattractive and unworthy practices of myriad tabasco cultures. As a legally sanctioned Canadian policy, it is even more culpable because it says to immigrants: "Officially. Legally…you do not have to change. Here, you could—indeed it was your duty to—remain what you are…you do not have to adjust to the society, the society was obligated to accommodate itself to you."

In a word, this constitutional doctrine authorises us to construct our ethnic tenements, wallow among our own kind, and Canada will finance and help us flourish even if it kills her. Bissoondath has no doubts that multicultural Canada will be the death of the real Canada.

None of this is literally or even metaphorically true. Multiculturalism was invented neither to eviscerate Canada nor to weaken its cultural foundations to such a degree that it would collapse into the conquering arms of third world immigrants. In practice multiculturalism as led to nothing of this sort, even though it has produced, in the form of equity legislation consistent with the Charter's (of Human Rights and Freedoms) commitment to equalise opportunity and lessen discrimination, a number of casualties in the process. Young white males in particular have paid a price in the public and private job market. To notice and lament this consequence is necessary but to depict multiculturalism as the cause of the dissolution of Canada is to display the kind of ignorance that may well be beyond remedy.

To live—in fact to survive, to work or do business, to be entertained, go to school or university, to encounter and deal with the law, to communicate in the public realm—requires immersion and acquiescence by immigrants in liberal culture, liberal law, languages, market rules and the meaning and logic of individual rights. Not only is there no "duty" to remain "as you were" it would be logically impossible to do so even if it was desired. Relocating in one way or another radically changes migrants.

The idea that Canada has or intends to supplant her rule of law or her standards in education or in other departments of Canadian culture specifically for immigrants is patent nonsense. If there is a trend towards relaxation of the meritocratic principle in education, jobs and social policies generally, and there is, the impetus has come from community activists and their persistent claims to accommodate single white mothers, lesbians, gays and other disadvantaged groups on feminist terms. Black and brown immigrants (some of them), assimilated into this cluster of marginals, have gained from the less stringent policies, but they were not, and were not intended to be, the primary beneficiaries. Multiculturalism has at best allowed a paltry minority of immigrants to piggyback on this policy.

VS Naipaul's malevolent dismissal of third world "bush'" societies is never too far beneath the surface in his nephew, Neil Bissoondath's fevered views. Trinidad serves, in this plagiarised recycling of his Uncle's wisdom, as the exemplary third world culture: hot, torpid, reeking of stifling communalism, hostile to free thought, jealous of individual success and neuroticly drawn to ethnic ghettos. What Bissoondath finds far more troubling, though, is the tendency of these cultures to overrun and sap the inner vitality and liberties of clean democracies like Canada. Multiculturalism is the insidious wedge that has legitimised the third world assault on Canada.

Bissoondath is blithely oblivious to the fact that his take on multiculturalism is substantively identical to that of Preston Manning's Reformers and William Gairdner, and a slew of Mein Kampfers who make up the lethal periphery of the racist fraternity. His liberal attacks on their positions and those of his radical critics (nicely exposing his "liberal" hypocrisy), fail to obscure the basic postulates he shares with the Right. His "reasons" may be different, but the enabling cultural assumptions and political values, the legitimating ideological framework, are essentially the same. For them all, third world immigrants are a problem because of the cultures they come from and the values they bring with them. Multiculturalism is fueling the fires of division, hatred and destruction.

[According to Bissoondath, multiculturalism] authorises us to construct our ethnic tenements, wallow among our own kind, and Canada will finance and help us flourish even if it kills her. Bissoondath is blithely oblivious to the fact that his take-on multiculturalism is substantively identical to that of Preston Manning's Reformers and William Gairdner, and a slew of Mein Kampfers who make up the lethal periphery of the racist fraternity.

Selling Illusions is unabashedly in tune with the pop psychological verities of the times in its focus on the personal and the intimate as the basis of reality and analysis. Bissoondath starts off anecdotally detailing a clutch of his private emotions, feelings and hopes as he arrives in Canada, he records his disappointment with his fellow Trinidadians, resolves to expand his horizons, pairs up with a French-Canadian woman, fathers a daughter, learns to relish the snow, publishes a couple of books and makes himself at home in Montréal and Québec.

Having made it by sheer effort and will (no concessions to fate, chance, fortune or Uncle Naipaul), Bissoondath realises that he has become a Canadian without any help from the State. In his bones and flesh, he feels the pride of Tarzan: independent, successful, recognized—and a writer to boot. As he surveys the landscape, he sees too many third world Janes, still trapped in their ethnic skins, begging the bureaucrats to make Canada congenial to their hot tempers, communal values and carnivals. The white political elite, eager for ethnic votes and a little guilty over their part in the colonization of native lands, joins with these Janes in articulating and entrenching a new ethic in constitutional law— equal respect for all cultures.

Bissoondath is embarrassed by this new, post-colonial Canada: it reminds him too much of the Trinidad and the Trinidadians he despises; it provides a legal warrant forthem to invade the public space; it allows them to be who and what they are by birth and history and it makes a mockery of his Canadian dream which does not include a niche for Trinidad or Trinidadians.

Selling Illusions is his candid riposte to the multiculturalists who have so thoughtlessly violated his snowy vision and liberal aspirations. To 'grow,' to 'evolve,' to be 'free' is to grow beyond, to be free of Trinidad and the humidity of the third world. VS Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul accomplished this distancing with celebrated acumen, Bissoondath is the next standard bearer in this civilizational struggle to keep the 'coolies' at bay.

In this book, Bissoondath parlays his sense of betrayal into an intemperate assault on the proclivities and passions of the multiculturalists. In his view, multiculturalism is the benighted vessel that shelters a profusion of contemporary ethnic evils: female circumcision; racial separation; cultural divisiveness; reverse racism; dependence on the state; censorship; the endless parade of victims; political correctness in the academy; muffling of free speech; growth; evolution; and progress. If his assertions seem bizarre and a little mad, it is because they are indeed a little outlandish.

Finding new homelands, living in novel cultural spaces, settling into the new channels of life—these are traumatic and confounding events, in the precise sense, in particular for third world migrants whose old homelands have become hellish. The desire to find a place, to attach oneself to new ideas and liberties, to visualize a new fulfilling life, is innately human and rehearsed in the writings of numerous transplanted citizens: Edward Said and George Steiner instantly come to mind. Bissoondath's sense of trauma or even betrayal is not by any means a historical first. These attitudes are par for the course, especially in this century of upheaval and displacement.

But Bissoondath's foray into this terrain is unusually troubling because it is so intellectually thin and so obviously pretentious. Audacity and arrogance are permitted to those who can sustain their bold claims, not to those who wilt and die page after page by their own words, by their own formulations that neither heaven or hell can rescue from their fatuous tedium. For instance, multiculturalism may cross paths with the discourse of victimology and political correctness in the hands of the less thoughtful, but it is not intrinsically allied to their ideological analysis and agenda: the latter discourse stems from the triumph of vulgarised Freudian psychotherapy in the intellectual and moral life of the modern West.

Selling Illusions offers neither sustained analysis nor a plausible argument: it is a gossamer, threadbare screed, unclouded by compelling research or adequate knowledge. For a man whose profession is writing, Bissoondath writes very badly. His preferred idiomatic form is incapable of yielding insight, his literary style is early K-Mart: plastic, unsubtle, shallow, hyperbolic, Harlequinish in its penchant for caricature and over statement. His book is full of the kind of sentences that suggest both literary and intellectual limitations:

"Too often in this country…we are suspicious of debate…"

"Canadians were struggling with self-definition… The soul of the country seems to be up for grabs. Ethical decisions must be made…"

"How much to follow, how much to lead?"

"Laws in a democratic society are engendered by events…"

"Nowhere have I felt myself a stranger…"

"The brain is a remarkable instrument…"

"Personal knowledge and sensitivities are media for growth."

"I am no longer a Trinidadian. I have not been a Trinidadian for many years."

A world in which brains are instruments, all laws follow events, personal knowledge is a medium, the past can be severed from memory, is not a world informed by reason, erudition or common sense. Far too often, what Bissoondath says in his peculiar way is either unintelligible or trite.

As the US philosopher Richard Rorty has recently remarked, multiculturalism,"…started out as one more attempt to get white middle-class males to behave better to people they enjoy shoving around: black and brown people, women, poor people, recent immigrants, homosexuals. It hoped to encourage these groups to take pride in themselves, rather than accepting the derogatory descriptions which the white males had invented."

In Canada, multiculturalism is principally driven by the same humanist impulse.

Bissoondath's assertions notwithstanding, multiculturalism is about outlawing irrational prejudice in liberal societies, it is about keeping liberalism honest and fair, it is about making liberals and liberalism live up to their professed ideals of equal rights, respect, autonomy and dignity for all citizens. Multiculturalism is not about supplanting the core cultural and political values of white liberal societies; its aim is to lay the foundation for the eventual acceptance of its third world immigrants as full citizens.

For many immigrants, multiculturalism supplies a cluster of symbolic anchors, familiar themes from the past, mirrors in which they can see a bit of their old selves as they are willy-nilly refashioned and remoulded by the very act of living in Canada. To be Canadian is to be a legally recognized member of our state, to be a citizen with rights and obligations. Howthis political status is articulated culturally, how it is represented in the public arena, liberalism leaves to individuals and groups to resolve as they see fit within their own geographical, socially relevant locales across Canada. Multiculturalism has merely added an array of distinct cultural flavours to this mix of spatial and value pluralism that sustains all versions of liberalism.

In an essay written in 1943 on the problems and dilemmas faced by immigrants and refugees, German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, commenting on the behaviour of a certain Mr. Cohn, noted that, "…he certainly had beaten all records. He is that ideal immigrant who always, and in every country into which a terrible fate has driven him, promptly sees and loves the native mountains." Arendts's point is that the temptation to do as Cohn does is immensely powerful among the despised and displaced in this world, but it is undignified and degrading because it thrives on contempt for one's cultural and spiritual origins.

Bissoondath has much of Mr. Cohn in him, even though he was not driven to come to Canada by a terrible fate. Like Cohn, he reveals an unctuous eagerness to be accepted by the host society and to quickly dispense with his past attachments. Yet Cohn's compromises are more understandable: he was, after all, fleeing a legally sanctioned order for the murder of all Jews, his life was on the line. For Bissoondath much less is at stake. He was substantially free to choose, and his choice in Selling Illusions is to invent a deadly image of multiculturism—an image that serves as the perfect foil for his counter-image of a snowy Canada with mountains in full view and undefiled with the smelly clothes, bodies and ideas of Trinidadian and other 'coolies'.

There is little in Selling Illusions that could be read as the product of a classically trained and informed mind. His pose of detachment has everything to do with his biting contempt for the culture of his home land and his cloying embrace of the liberal mythology.

Bissoondath knows what Canadianism is all about and he has little sympathy for the legions of ethnic hold outs who espouse the scourge of our fair land: the cult of Multiculturalism. Manning (no pun intended) the outposts of multiculturalism, these 'coolies' and their cohorts refuse to bury their pasts, they are divisive and destructive, their affiliations and attachments alienate white Canadians and sabotage national unity. His description of his encounter with a citizenship judge succinctly captures both Bissoondath's cliched ignorance and insolence:

"He was a man of dignity and a certain friendly charm, but there was a problem: his Italian accent was so heavy one could hardly begin to guess at the pearls of wisdom he was trying to transmit to us…This man was supposed to be swearing us in. For all we knew, he might have been simply swearing."

Funny accents, incomprehensible speech, lack of attention to protocol at public functions, very colourful attire—these sentiments are the common coin of literally hundreds of commentaries and opinions on the odd ways of those less gifted in their command of the languages and manners of the 'civilized.' In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow, describing the blacks he sees on the shores of the Congo river, voices both his despair and cultural pride when he says, "The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell?" Bissoondath's last sentence in this passage tactlessly reproduces Conrad's imperial impatience and contempt for the other. This arrogance of attitude and language is as odious now as it was in Marlow's narrative.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Neil Bissoondath
Neil Bissoondath contributed to Rungh Volume 1 Number 4, and Volume 3 Number 2.
Shiraz Dossa
Shiraz Dossa is a Professor of Political Science at St. Francis Xavier University (Nova Scotia).
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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