I was slightly shocked to see the above tweet very recently, accusing Mark Simpson, author of Anti Gay of being a gay ‘uncle Tom’. I was partly surprised, because AG was published a long time ago, back in 1996. Whilst Simpson did get a lot of stick at the time, and some wonderful monikers such as ‘the gay Anti Christ’, all that is in the past. Even Simpson himself rarely mentions that book anymore.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the title of an 1852 novel (and I thought 1996 was a long time ago!) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is famously an anti-slavery tract, and has been cited as influential in the achievements of the abolition movement. I have not read the book, but all the literary criticism of it I’ve seen is quick to emphasise how complex the narrative and its politics are. ‘Uncle Tom’ is a black slave who does not resist the power of his masters, but he is not judged or mocked for this by the author. None of the characters are simplistic.
Since then, identity politics seem to have become particularly crass, and the term ‘Uncle Tom’ is used simply to mean a ‘traitor’ to your own. So Simpson is a gay ‘uncle Tom’ who has let down his gay brethren. I, too, have been called an Uncle Tom in relation to feminism. This thread at the Feministe blog shows just how much I have been cast as a turncoat in relation to the ‘sisterhood’ (click on image to enlarge):
Apart from it being used to put down anyone who does not toe the politically correct line, I find the Uncle Tom phrase particularly grim from the perspective of its relation to racial politics and black people’s civil rights. There are lots of examples of especially white middle class gay men I find, comparing their ‘plight’ to that of black people. And finding themselves to be more worthy victims! Patrick Strudwick, Peter Tatchell and here Paul Burston are all guilty of this ‘oppression olympics’ I think:
Even Camille Paglia, who is supposed to have quite a sophisticated and irreverent approach to identity and politics, has fallen into the lazy and mean Uncle Tom habit. She said this of Foucault a few years ago:
‘When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about “power,” never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, “The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz” (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, “Collaboration was not the exception but the rule.” I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents’ generations in Nazi France.’
Well Foucault is dead. He can’t stand up for himself against such accusations. Foucault’s Daughter can. He was a child during the occupation and had no responsibility for it, or for bringing it to a close. His work on ‘power’ continues to this day to be useful to people opposing oppressive regimes. He has nothing to be ashamed of.
Neither does Mark Simpson.And neither do I!