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Andrew Coyne: instance of racism #1

Written by Sherwin, published on January 24, 2013

cropped image of Martin Luther King at the podium with poster in the background

This is my first argument toward the conclusion that journalist Andrew Coyne made claims that were racist. The remarks by Coyne, that I will focus on for today’s argument were in his January 7th article for Postmedia News.

This article was titled “Meeting with Harper won’t settle aboriginal people’s problems” and appears to have been last updated on January 8th at 8:54 AM ET.

There are a number of problems with this article. Just to be clear, on my view Andrew Coyne showed poor judgement in writing it and his editor showed poor judgement in publishing it. But not everyone will agree with me, so here is the first argument.1

Argument 1

Premise 1.1: Claiming that Aboriginal people are the cause of the problems that Aboriginal people have, is racist.
Premise 1.2: Andrew Coyne wrote that Aboriginal people are the cause of the problems that Aboriginal people have.
Conclusion 1: Andrew Coyne wrote something that is racist.

Evidence for premise 1.2

A central thesis of Coyne’s article is that Aboriginal people are responsible for their own situation. This is the opening paragraph of his article.

“If it does nothing else, the Idle No More movement of the past few weeks will have provided a valuable lesson in why so many aboriginal Canadians remain so chronically destitute — why progress has been so frustratingly elusive, and why it is likely to remain so.”

– Andrew Coyne, National Post columnist, Postmedia News 2

According to Coyne, so many Aboriginal Canadians remain chronically destitute and lack progress and will likely remain so, because, like the Idle No More movement, Aboriginal Canadians suffer from a variety of problems. According to Coyne, these problems include:

  • having a “vast and ill-defined agenda”
  • having “vague and shifting demands”
  • having too many “self-appointed spokespersons”
  • having “absolutist rhetoric”
  • dismissing “dissenting opinion as so much ‘racism'”
  • being too rigid; having a “rigid insistence on adhering to the same approaches that have signally failed to date”
  • being too focused on “treaty rights, land claims and reserves under communal property ownership”
  • being too fundamentalist, like Pam Palmater and Daniel Wilson
  • having a “traditional agenda of aboriginal activists”
  • being too focused on the “legal and political arena”
  • seeing “genocide” and a “murderous agenda” in places where there is none
  • having a traditional agenda that uses terminology that is stronger than “assimilation” and “termination”
  • being too focused on “abstract constitutional principles”
  • seeing racism where there is none
  • not caring enough about “the tools they need to participate in a modern, market-based economy”
  • not caring enough about education and property rights
  • thinking they’ve been weakened or betrayed by the “modernizers”: “this is at best weakness, at worst betrayal”
  • being too focused on “traditional ways of governing, learning, trading, sustaining and relating”
  • seeing co-operation with the federal government as a problem

These, according to Coyne, are the reasons that Aboriginal peoples remain “chronically destitute” and “lack progress.” Notice that all of these reasons are internal reasons. These are all problems that spring from within the same marginalized communities of people that Coyne is talking about. It is features within the marginalized group that are the cause of the problems faced by the marginalized group. Consider the second paragraph by Coyne.

“The movement, with its vast and ill-defined agenda, its vague and shifting demands, its many different self-appointed spokespersons, is open to any number of different interpretations. But the absolutist rhetoric, the dismissal of dissenting opinion as so much “racism,” and above all, the rigid insistence on adhering to the same approaches that have so signally failed to date, do not suggest a happy future for aboriginal relations.”

– Andrew Coyne, National Post columnist, Postmedia News

It’s worth noting that the underlying structure of Coyne’s article is essentially a series of strawman arguments. Coyne argues that Aboriginal people are divided into two “rival factions”. One faction is the modernizers – Coyne’s word. The other faction is the “traditional agenda.” This traditional agenda is among other things, fundamentalist. This fundamentalism is, Coyne elaborates, evident in the Idle No More movement. And the evidence for this is a few quotes by Palmater and Wilson. So Coyne’s strongly worded analysis of what is wrong with and what is good for Aboriginal communities rests essentially on his dismissal of a few quotes by two Indigenous thinkers, for which there are no citations, no hyperlinks and no context.

But my main point here is not that Coyne’s claims are thin, although that may become the basis of another argument. My main point here is that Andrew Coyne is arguing that Aboriginal people are the cause of the problems that Aboriginal communities have.

Evidence for premise 1.1

Many people will see the truth of premise 1.1. Some will not. It will be interesting to see if Andrew Coyne accepts premise 1.1.3

Essentially, blaming a marginalized group of people who have been the victims of colonial oppression, who continue to be grossly misrepresented in jails and within the penal system and who have suffered multiple generations of disaccumulation, within a majority culture that continues to perpetuate racism against it, is commonly understood to be racism. It’s also relevant if the speaker enjoys the privileges of the majority culture, and none of the oppressions. But it’s more relevant that the minority group Coyne is talking about faces multiple systemic injustices.

But perhaps it would be constructive to illustrate this by rewriting Andrew Coyne’s headline and the first two paragraphs. I’ll replace the term “Aboriginal Canadians” with “Jewish Canadians” and I’ll replace “Idle No More” with “Independent Jewish Voices” (which is a real activist group) and so on. Brace yourselves for the following passage:

Andrew Coyne: Meeting with Harper won’t settle Jewish people’s problems

Andrew Coyne | Jan 7, 2013 8:56 PM ET | Last Updated: Jan 8, 2013 8:54 AM ET

If it does nothing else, the Independent Jewish Voices movement of the past few weeks will have provided a valuable lesson in why so many Jewish Canadians remain so chronically destitute — why progress has been so frustratingly elusive, and why it is likely to remain so.

The movement, with its vast and ill-defined agenda, its vague and shifting demands, its many different self-appointed spokespersons, is open to any number of different interpretations. But the absolutist rhetoric, the dismissal of dissenting opinion as so much “racism,” and above all, the rigid insistence on adhering to the same approaches that have so signally failed to date, do not suggest a happy future for Jewish relations.

It’s sounds so different doesn’t it? I think it’s worth trying another substitution to further explore the problem. Let’s insert the terms “Chinese Canadians” and “Chinese relations” and Chinese Canadian National Council (another real advocacy group).

Andrew Coyne: Meeting with Harper won’t settle Chinese Canadians’ problems

Andrew Coyne | Jan 7, 2013 8:56 PM ET | Last Updated: Jan 8, 2013 8:54 AM ET

If it does nothing else, the Chinese Canadian National Council of the past few weeks will have provided a valuable lesson in why so many Chinese Canadians remain so chronically destitute — why progress has been so frustratingly elusive, and why it is likely to remain so.

The movement, with its vast and ill-defined agenda, its vague and shifting demands, its many different self-appointed spokespersons, is open to any number of different interpretations. But the absolutist rhetoric, the dismissal of dissenting opinion as so much “racism,” and above all, the rigid insistence on adhering to the same approaches that have so signally failed to date, do not suggest a happy future for Chinese Canadian relations.

By making these substitutions, I am not claiming that Aboriginal people are the same as Jewish Canadians or Chinese Canadians. And I’m not saying that the contexts are the same. But I am saying that many Canadians are far more aware of racist language when it’s targeted at other racialized or religious minorities. And Aboriginal people have legal and moral claims to the land and resources that run deeper than other racialized minority groups in Canada. Most Canadians would never consider blaming Chinese Canadians for structural racism, such as the head tax: but there is a long tradition of settlers in Canada blaming Indigenous peoples for the problems they face.

In summary, most people will see the obvious truth of premise 1.1. For those that don’t, let me know.

conclusion

Ergo, some things that Andrew Coyne wrote on January 7th for the National Post and Postmedia News, are racist.

A couple of small additional notes

I will make note here that this is not an argument saying that Andrew Coyne is a racist. This is one argument, saying that what he said was racist. I’ve got at least a couple of more arguments coming about this and the two other articles that Coyne has written about Aboriginal people.

Additionally, all of the arguments I will make are perpendicular to what Andrew Coyne’s intentions. That’s a way of saying that what Coyne intended doesn’t really play into my arguments. I’m not making any crucial claims about Coyne’s intentions. My arguments won’t rely on Coyne’s intentions; my arguments will only rely on the shared meanings of words for which Coyne and Postmedia News are responsible.

  1. On my view, the advertisers at the National Post, including the National Association of Petroleum Products, TD bank, Hyundai and Travel Yukon, should not risk their brands on National Post pages. Here is the article: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/01/07/andrew-coyne-idle-no-more-movement-is-a-dispute-between-rival-factions-in-the-aboriginal-community
  2. This opening sentence is also reflected in the teaser text: “The Idle No More movement will provide a valuable lesson in why so many aboriginal Canadians remain so chronically destitute”
  3. If not, that’s a serious problem for the National Post, and possibly journalism en masse, but I’ll take that point up later if need be.
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Archived comments

  1. […] Coyne on issues surrounding First Nations, Indigenous people, racism and privilege is really just par for the course. […]

  2. […] niceties as the rule of law…”. If you’re unsure about any of this, see my other articles in this […]

  3. […] Andrew Coyne: instance of racism #1 09.February.2013 […]

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for doing this. It’s very thorough. Have you seen this bill of rights?

  5. Sherwin says:

    I totally get that my comment was a little rankling – I was a little rankled myself when I wrote it and I was trying to reveal some of my feelings, beyond my reasons. I am challenged by your comments on a number of levels as well. It is possible that we have met an impasse.

    I will not pretend to be entirely disinterested, and I appreciate that you are not either. And I do appreciate your engagement – very much. In answer to your question, the prior claim you made, which I don’t want to hold you to, but which was informing my “relief” was your claim that you thought the article did not meet the threshold of racism – although that is still my interpretation of your stance, is that fair?

    I’m interested to hear you say that you’re not rejecting either of my premises. But neither are you accepting them. I’m all for refining the analysis, so I commit to re-reading your comments and to try to better understand them.

    At this moment though, I don’t seem able to get past your, well, partial apology for Coyne on the basis of his other actions and claims. I’m not interested in judging Coyne as a person. This is not an argument about Coyne. I don’t see how good or bad he is on the Mansbridge panel has anything to do with the argument I’ve set out. I’ve written my argument as way of articulating what is specifically racist about these specific things he wrote. I’m sure he’s written other things that aren’t racist (I hope lots). And I know that you know that. So why do you feel so compelled to raise the point that you appreciate other things that Coyne says or does?

    One thought that is occurring to me that may inform the way I write the next argument, is that no matter how explicit we make our premises, there are almost always tacit premises and implicit evidence that we use to judge the argument by. Some logicians are loathe to see it this way.

    But my point is this. I think it’s interesting that you are demonstrating how the premise (the general premise) could be more obvious: “It would be UNacceptable to say that these are the only reasons, and this is a more interesting problem.” I think I almost agree with this. This version of the premise would be a much easier test for racism. This would not, on my view, make the problem more interesting; it would make the problem more obvious. Which is to say that if Coyne wrote, specifically in this article, that the only problems that Aboriginal people have are caused by Aboriginal people, then I think that would be a really obvious case of racism. And then you and I wouldn’t be disagreeing.

    Put another way, it looks like we now have strong and weak versions of premise 1.1. The strong version is as I have written it, and the new weak version: premise 1.1.1: Claiming that Aboriginal people are the only cause of the problems that Aboriginal people have, is racist. I call this the weak version because this test will find fewer instances of racism.

    I agree with the weaker premise 1.1.1. I’m not sure if there is enough evidence to show that Coyne was doing this. He certainly didn’t use “all” or “only” or other words like this – journalists rarely do. On the other hand, he certainly didn’t imply or say anywhere in the article that he thought that there were other reasons that Aboriginal people have problems. You would think, given the stakes and the seriousness of the issue, if you believed this, you would make an extra effort to say so. But regardless of whether the criteria for 1.1.1 is met in this article, I still stand by 1.1 and I believe that the criteria for 1.1 was met.

    One more reflection on this. The difference between 1.1 and 1.1.1 is a matter of quantity. 1.1.1 is a universal qualification. And obviously, if someone says something small or insignificant as a criticism of Aboriginal people, I would be hesitant to say that it instantiates 1.1. And this gets back to Kevin’s question, above, can we ever criticize Aboriginal groups? And the answer is, well, yes.

    But the question for me is, was Coyne’s article saying something small about Aboriginal people? And the answer, to me, is a resounding no. Coyne’s strongly worded article was a theory of fundamentalism within Aboriginal communities and he accused members of the fundamentalist faction of having values and beliefs that he both poorly represented and simultaneously derided. Additionally, Coyne nowhere claimed that this faction of fundamentalists was small. Quite the reverse in fact. Coyne suggested that even the modernists, at times, were likely to uphold the values and beliefs of the traditional agenda. Even the name “traditional agenda” which he used to describe the ideology of the fundamentalists speaks to his view of the pervasiveness of this faction and their views. It is tantamount to saying essentially, that the cause of problems for Aboriginal people, is cultural.

    The thing is that in 2013, the racism that is written in newspapers will not be as obvious as the racism that was in print in 1950 – in the 50s they might have said “all” or “only.” The racism that is in print today will be more subtle than that. More subtle, but still real.

    Just out of curiousity, and I’ll understand if you run out of interest or time for this dialogue, have you found any of the writing in newspapers through December and January to be racist? I would be interested to know which articles you think are, if any.

  6. Richard says:

    How should I feel that you’re “relieved” that I’m disappointed that Coyne hasn’t called out the Harper government for its assorted actions and inactions relative to Aboriginal communities and individuals? What have I said elsewhere that means your default assumption about my position was undone by this comment, hence generating relief?

    Also, do you seriously expect the National Post to be a powerful advocate for Aboriginal interests, or indeed anything non-mainstream? It’s the National Post, for pete’s sake.

    To be clear, as well as actually serious again, I’m not rejecting your premise 1.2, or even 1.1 for that matter: I’m troubling them, and I’m suggesting that they’re insufficiently complicated.

    Premise 1.2: it’s perfectly acceptable to write an article about Aboriginal people that focuses exclusively on Aboriginal people, including discussing only those explanations for social change that are entirely internal to Aboriginal communities. It would be UNacceptable to say that these are the only reasons, and this is a more interesting problem.

    I take Coyne’s article here to be one statement among many that I’d see as his, including hypothetical ones that he hasn’t (yet?) written, and including his participating in CBC discussions (the Mansbridge panel, basically, which I rarely see but tend to appreciate). This is precisely why I’m quite disappointed in Coyne, because he NEEDS to write these articles rather than just to say interesting things on TV.

    My view of him, incidentally, and of this article, would change significantly if there was evidence that he sees no problem with the Harper government’s relations with Aboriginal communities and individuals.

    Premise 1.1: I don’t follow the distinction you’re making here. A society’s views of any group’s needs and demands will affect how it responds to those needs and demands. (Think MLK and Malcolm X, for example, just in movie stereotypes to make it simple.) Different approaches generate different responses, independent on the merit of what’s being sought or demanded.

    And OF COURSE it seems wrong that structural injustice continues to have such a powerful effect on Aboriginal individuals and communities. This rankled a little, like the sense of relieve you expressed earlier.

  7. Sherwin says:

    Hi Richard, I appreciate your comments. I think that your wrong you’re not quite right on both counts. Here’s why.

    Premise 1.2

    Even if I removed the ‘the’ in the quote you point out, this wouldn’t effect the actual wording of the premise. It seems to me that if you are rejecting premise 1.2, you need to explain why the headline is about Aboriginal people, why Coyne’s theory is about Aboriginal people, and why all of the causes and reasons listed are about Aboriginal people. In the absence of any provisos or qualifiers, this article joins the ranks of article written for two centuries by, mostly, white guys, explaining why Aboriginal people’s problems are caused by [edit] a significant portion of [/edit] Aboriginal people.

    I’m relieved that you’re disappointed. But I’m also troubled unsure what to think about the fact that you think it’s okay for a you are not outraged that a reporter for the national Post wrote in such strong, generalized and negative ways about Aboriginal people.

    Premise 1.1

    Your concern about premise 1.1 is more interesting. But maybe you’ve answered your own question. In both of the hypothetical examples you gave you couldn’t help but use terms that spoke to the complexity and diversity of the racialized groups. And in truth, Coyne wasn’t simply speaking about Idle No More. Coyne was saying that Idle No More tells us about the much larger picture of Aboriginal people; namely, that many of them are fundamentalists. To draw a more accurate parallel to your example, then, we would have to say that a national Jewish movement is symptomatic of a set of generalized problematic beliefs and values shared by Jewish people across the nation (not all Jewish people, mind you, because some are modernizers) which is the reason for the troubles faced by Jewish people in canada.

    Now I know that neither you, nor I, are actually saying that. But wouldn’t that sound messed up to you? And given the deep structural injustices faced by Aboriginal people in Canada as well as the fact that those structural injustices are not in their control, doesn’t that seem wrong to you?

    By the way, I think I have the argument down for my next article. Should be interesting.

  8. Richard says:

    Premise 1.2

    “My main point here is that Andrew Coyne is arguing that Aboriginal people are the cause of the problems that Aboriginal communities have.” My key difficulty with your argument, really, is the definite pronoun “the” before “cause”: overall, Coyne’s journalistic production doesn’t support this argument. Unquestionably, this article is less carefully phrased than it should have been, but its focus is on the relationship between Idle No More specifically (which is a complicated movement, no?) and Aboriginal communities generally AND specifically. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised were Coyne to write an article chastising the Harper government for its assorted actions and inaction compromising the health and viability of these same communities.

    Mind you, I’m still disappointed that Coyne continues NOT to have written just such an article.

    Premise 1.1

    The substitution isn’t convincing because, as you say, the contexts are different and the groups have different standing. But it’s not clear to me why, for example, it would be unacceptable to argue that public statements by the Canadian Islamic Congress are hurting the causes of individual Muslim-Canadians. It’s not clear to me why one couldn’t argue that activities by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs could have a negative PR effect on local campaigns by Jewish groups in different parts of the country. (Both of these are ENTIRELY HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIOS; I don’t know if anything they’re doing could or should have such an effect!)

  9. Sherwin says:

    I haven’t said that an organization that is from within a racialized community is beyond criticism.

    I don’t need to in order for my argument to work.

  10. Keith Silva says:

    I agree with some of your points. There’s well documented institutional racism against aboriginals in the judicial system. And dividing into two factions is an oversimplification.

    What’s troubling is the idea that if an organization is based within a marginalized racial community, then it’s beyond criticism.

    If Coyne is factually wrong, then it should be argued based on facts. “Here is another group that uses the same strategies as Idle No More, and they have been successful in establishing a better quality of life, so obviously Coyne is wrong”

    But it’s problematic to say that criticizing an organization or movement is off-limits because that’s racism.

  11. Sherwin says:

    Thanks for commenting, Keith. There are several reasons it’s different from that.

    Probably the most direct reason is that Canadians are not a racialized minority, or a racialized group. But even if Canadians were a racialized group, no one would even think to divide us into two factions. When I try to imagine this, it draws out what is so strange about Coyne doing that about a racialized minority. But additionally, if someone did this kind of analysis of a majority racialized group, I wouldn’t care so much, and it probably would be racism. Racism is understood as flowing down the social status hierarchy. Racism has to be understood within the flow of power. It’s not racist to say there are two kinds of white people. It is racist to say there are two kinds of Aboriginal people. (And just for the record, I’m not saying that Coyne claimed there are two kinds of Aboriginal people.)

    Another way of thinking about this is to first acknowledge that Aboriginal people endure structural racism from the state. Indigenous people are, for example, over represented in Canadian jails. Indigenous interests are not protected by policing (I’m thinking of the Missing Women Inquiry in Vancouver). Land claims remain ignored. In short, so many of our historic Canadian structural racisms, remain part of our present structural racisms. Canadian government reports acknowledge these structural problems. And the United Nations considers these human rights problems for Canada. And Amnesty International writes about Canadian failures in policy and practice with respect to Aboriginal communities. And most Canadians remain deeply ignorant about the complexity and depth of injustices to First Nations.

    So when a national journalist comes along and writes about Aboriginal communities, and develops a theory in which a faction within that community is the problem, it is very different from just arguing party politics. Over-simplifying as coyne does, in a context that is already troubled by multiple racisms, is the opposite of helpful.

    I include myself in my claim about generalized Canadian ignorance, by the way. I don’t really know that much about this stuff. I am starting to realize more and more that it’s my duty to educate myself.

  12. Keith Silva says:

    Isn’t Coyne’s criticism of one faction in the aboriginal community the same as someone saying, “The ideas of Conservative (or Liberal/Green/NDP) supporters are bad for Canada”