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By Mark Anderson
The most common individual and communal forms of resistance to, or rejection of the suffocating grip of history is through some form of religious experience, either mystic rapture or communal feeling translated into millennial dreams or utopian fantasies.
—Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History, p. 61
When the Spanish arrived in 1519 in what would become Mexico they were armed to the teeth and ready to rumble. After all, they had been sent by God to bring Christianity to the pagans. The imperial effort was, of course, culturally bound; and their behavior and their interpretation of their behavior was thus circumscribed. Before hostilities could erupt the would-be conquerors, soldiers and priests were required to read a document to the Indigenous peoples with whom they came in contact. It was known as the requerimiento (requirement) and basically it stated that so long as the Natives embraced Roman Catholicism and rule by Hapsburg Spain, then they were all going to get along just fine, that is, according to Spanish aims and desires. If not, however, the Spanish would violently coerce Natives into some variety of submission.
The results were predictable. History is clear on this point. People do not enjoy having another religion, and the culture from which it oozes, forced upon them. So the Spanish invaded and Indios fought back. The fact that the requirement was read aloud (actually, this was a technicality; it was often simply whispered into long beards or otherwise uttered quietly out of earshot) in Latin or Spanish made no matter. The Spanish were acting out in the best, earnestly noble, most Christian way they could. And despite the many horrors of the conquest, the Spanish were generally, by all accounts, largely a pious group, in part made so from seven hundred years of fighting North African Muslims (Moors) who had much earlier overrun the Iberian Peninsula in the name of, you guessed it, God. That war is known as the Reconquista (reconquest of Iberia by Roman Catholics), a religiously-inspired conflagration that lasted centuries. Ironically, though the Spanish ultimately expelled the last of the Moors in 1492 (the same year as Columbus’s famous first voyage), the requirement itself was borne from a kind of transcultural sharing between Spaniard and Moor, Christian and Muslim. Further, long story short, the conditioning effects of the Reconquista in turn helped hurtle Spain at the Americas.
Would deep equality have improved or informed or prevented those centuries troubled by conflict wrought by expansive and aggressive proselytizers?
What deep equality?
The Moors and the Spanish alike were doing the work of God, as they understood it. God trumps deep equality (sorry) every time, unless, say, deep equality is imparted god-like powers. Nah, that is too near blasphemy. Let us secularize it and call it--call them both, religion (take your pick) and deep equality, and whence they came—in the parlance of our day: isms.
My point is not that deep equality is thus unattractive—and I understand it vaguely, because it is inchoate, shapeless, as the desire to embrace niceness and promote love. What’s not to like about that? Yet deep equality is ineluctably bound culturally in much the same way and for precisely the same reasons as Spanish and Moorish behaviors were constrained by the limits of their own cultural imaginations. But why pick only on them? Assimilationist policies in Canada and the United States, two deeply Protestant countries, were built upon the popular idea, “kill the Indian to save the man.” Hence reservations, residential schools, the pass system, etc. Ad nauseum. Deep equality lies in the eye of the beholder. Or does it?
Perhaps deep equality could have spared the many thousands who suffered at the hands of the good Christian pedophiles and bullies who too often acted with impunity in the residential schools? Herein lies the problem. The question puts the cart before the horse. That “good” people committed unspeakable acts of depredation against innocent children only occurs to us in hindsight, and only in part because we develop a new appreciation of the good and the bad—preying on children was considered wrong in the nineteenth century, too. The ground keeps shifting and the clock keeps ticking. It is called history, the stuff that happened, and it has a history of its own.
That said, I am attracted to deep equality because I think that it is better to live a society that aspires to niceness. But I also like it purely for selfish reasons because, like the Popeye the Sailor Man, I am what I am: washed over by liberal guilt, plagued by existential doubt, rendered indignant by intolerance, overwhelmed by having read too many books, pushed around by Freud, tickled by Foucault, made giddy by Marx, purified by Benedict Anderson, stalked by Jesus, rebooted by the birth of my children, waylaid by ADHD, and wishing, desperately wishing, wide-eyed like Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”
But it seems as if we cannot. It appears as if we are in our way just like the Moors or the Spaniards or the good-hearted pedagogical bigots who kidnapped Aboriginal children to save them from themselves, products of our isms. Culture is a menu that, by definition, limits your options. But, of course, menus change all the time. It seems to me that deep equality is just another special of the day.
I do not like deep equality because, without reflexivity, it embraces teleological notions that suggest history has a direction and that the direction is improving and even potentially measurable. I do not like deep equality because it implies that the nation itself is not ideological, when in fact that is nearly all it is. I do not like deep equality because it seems to presume that capitalism counts for nothing and, worse, that it summarily ignores the relationship between the co-dependent emergence of the nation state with capitalism. I do not like deep equality because it implies that the law exists in some sort of vacuum (“especially given our constitutional commitment to multiculturalism”—hello!). I do not like deep equality because I cannot reconcile it with female circumcision, tax law, corporal discipline aimed at children, laws that punish jaywalking, honor killings, prostitution, cats stuck in trees, beard-growing contests, cancer, obnoxious radio DJs, stale beer, bad breath, line cutters, Walmart, mullets, and because I remember that what happened to Patty Hearst also happens sometimes to academics. Let’s face it, some things are better than others.
The novelist Jenny Turner writes: “The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfillment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline.” Something similar, I think, has happened in recent years with the Canadian pastime with improving equality in several guises. As with feminism, it happens not coincidentally, as the country, deeply racist and colonialist in the fabric of its creation and being, faces the dire economic prospects of an increasingly less fecund settler population. Hence massive non-white immigration. Hence the need for multiculturalism to shake out the lingering racist cobwebs. Of course, in part multiculturalism was wrought by the good heartedness of kind people, but mostly it occurs as a reaction to neoliberal national policies that aim to grow the economy: white Canada, like white Europe, does not make enough babies, ergo non-white immigration and predictably, then, the call for ever more super-duper equality. Even the contemporary incarnation of the Conservative Party, the core of which was built upon the immigration-bashing Reform Party, has seen the light (and the votes).
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