Neil Bissoondath’s book, Selling Illusions, offers an unusual argument for a Canadian book, particularly since a non-white immigrant writes it. Selling Illusions opposes Canada’s official, sacred cow policy of multiculturalism. Generally speaking, Bissoondath’s book is a well-written treatise that discusses a potentially dry subject in clear, jargon-free prose. Nevertheless, his arguments suffer from some surprising weaknesses, borne largely from his inability to empathize with the very people he, ironically, accuses of ignorance and lack of empathy.
I found his analysis and critique of multiculturalism effective. Briefly stated, Bissoondath believes we need to focus more on what makes us the same rather than what makes us different. He argues that the federal government’s policy of multiculturalism is one of the main reasons for our current focus on difference rather than unity. Pierre Trudeau’s 1971 Multiculturalism Act, for example, is devoid of what Canadian society actually is. In fact, it also discourages the articulation of a common discourse: “Multiculturalism has made us fearful of defining acceptable boundaries” (p. 143). It fails to deliver on one of its most important goals, that of going beyond tolerance and into what Michael Ignatieff calls “recognition”. Multiculturalism has “preached tolerance rather than encouraging acceptance; and it is leading is into a divisiveness so entrenched that we face a future of multiple solitudes with no central notion to bind us” (p. 192). The implication of his argument is clear. It is important for a country, even a country like Canada, to emphasize what its citizens hold in common. It is important for Canadians to ask themselves what those values actually are. And it must be acceptable to draw lines in the proverbial sand, beyond which tolerance becomes self-defeating.
Ethnicity, however, is not the basis for a common national narrative. Bissoondath is an unbridled cosmopolitan. He believes that ethnicity is – or should be – relatively unimportant. Racial definitions of homogeneity are old-fashioned and will not work in Canada. He believes that we need a new definition of social cohesion based on shared social norms, not skin colour: “Culture, in its essentials, is about human values, and human values are exclusive to no race” (p. 71). He feels no deeply bound allegiance to his own ethnic heritage, and prefers to affiliate with those who share his social and intellectual values. He argues that “I feel greater affinity for the work of Timothy Mo – a British novelist born of an English mother and a Chinese father- than I do for that of Salman Rushdie, with whom I share an ethnicity… Ethnically, Mo and I share nothing, but imaginatively we share much” (p. 105). If Canada is to flourish, it must find ways of identifying the values that Bissoondath holds, a non-ethnic set of principles and beliefs that allow Canadians to develop a unifying “civic nationalism”.
My major problems with Bissoondath’s argument are that his cosmopolitanism is, I believe, overly optimistic, and that he accepts such significant exceptions that he degrades the force of his own logic. I personally agree that History must not be an anchor on the present, but I think he’s wrong to conclude that “shared ethnicity guarantees neither fellowship of feeling nor congruity of interest” (p. 132). Are we willing to give up our ethnic identities so easily? I don’t believe so. My reading of history simply doesn’t reflect Bissoondath’s argument. In times of strife, ethnicity is usually the single major shorthand that’s used to determine common values and loyalty. And in the absence of other, more deeply felt sentiments, I don’t think we can logically argue ethnicity out of our value system. Indeed, cosmopolitanism is historically one of the first victims of the breakdown in social order; its very existence assumes that ethnic differences have been overcome or minimized. So if strife and chaos leads us back to ethnicity, cosmopolitanism is more a tenuous historical circumstance than a unifying force. Bissoondath goes on to say that all his professional success “has come, in great part, through the refusal to brood over the loss of one language and its cultural baggage and a willingness to fully embrace another” (p. 81). This kind of cosmopolitanism seems unrelenting and uncompromising. And when he argues that “ethnicity’s true value [is] as one of the many elements that inform the way the individual views the world” (p. 212), I think he’s simply naïve. Ethnicity is very real. Even those of us who are skeptical of ethnicity can’t will it away. The second major problem I have with the book is Bissoondath’s rather uneven application of his own argument. Bissoondath tries to avoid insulting “Old Canada” and those who wish to keep Christian and European values at the core of our national vision. But eventually he can’t help himself. Those who support the old Reform Party are “ignorant”. For anybody blocking his cosmopolitan vision of the future, Bissoondath has neither tolerance nor recognition. On the other hand, Quebec’s attempt to preserve its own culture is lauded: “It is obvious to anyone with a nodding acquaintance of Quebec that it is different. It has obligations… and if you have special obligations, then you need special powers to fulfill those obligations” (p. 198). Yet those who are opposed to giving group rights to Quebec, because it damages national unity, suffer from a “colonial mentality”.
Bissoondath therefore prefers some forms of unity, but clearly not others. I wonder if most Canadians share his particular definition of the “middle way”.