In Defence Of… Uncle Toms

Posted: March 11, 2012 in Identity, Racism, Uncategorized, Writing
Tags: , , ,

Tweet from Callum TH calling M Simpson an ‘uncle Tom’.

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 StrudwickPeter Tatchell  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.

  1. OMG!

    I read that thread on Feministe and FELL OUT when I read this comment from you:

    —-I can give an example of a date I went on where it turned out the guy held and expressed some racist beliefs. I ‘shut down’ debate and changed the subject, got drunk, fucked him and let him drive me home the next day. And never saw him again.

    I don’t know what that says about me, racism or gender relations. I can’t hang a theory on that event. —–

    That’s such a particularly human description of life, unmediated by ideology, not confined by jargon, that, well, it just makes me love you!

  2. redpesto says:

    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!

    As I’ve mentioned over at Graunwatch at some point simply everybody gets to use black people/civil rights/racism as their reference point…except black people. If gays and feminists want to use a different term, I’d suggest ‘Quisling’, even if there’s a touch of Godwin’s Law in there. (This isn’t to endorse criticism of either you or Simpson – more a suggestion that the continued appropriation of black history and experience is more than a little tiresome.)

    • Ginkgo says:

      The CRM is short-hand in the US for “righteous cause to help oppressed people”. It’s like using WWII as the “good war”.

      People have difficulty with the concept of analogy. Someone draws a comparison and then someone else jumps in thinking to make themselves look rigorous by pointing out points odf difference, and just showing instead that they are rigid instead of rigorous. Maybe in an age of machine-made cookie-cutter everything people expect situations to be exact copies too.

      There are points of similarity between racial and class oppression. The two are not congruent. There are points of simialrity between homphobia and racism; the two are not congruent.

      Second thing: This Uncle Tom business is objectfiying. it is based on the premise that individuals owe solidarity to some group that someone else gets to draw the boundaries of whether or not that solidarity is in the individual’s interests, as he sees them, or not. Oh yes, and the “vanguard party’s” arrogation of the authority to decide what is and isn’t in the individual’s best interest is a claim of ownership, which is objectifying also.

    • well Paglia was calling Foucault a ‘Quisling’ but I still think that is unfair even/especially on the literal level!

  3. Lawrence says:

    I think this stems from the bogus view of power relations which suggests that oppression is the same for every one. You can have different levels of oppression (black women are more oppressed then white women ect) but the nature of oppression stays the same. This completely validates the use of this sort of analogy because the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is always the same, it is just the strength of the oppression which changes. It also allows you to cash in on worse ‘oppressions’ even though they are completely qualitatively different from your situation, which is lovely.

    This binary definition of oppression needs to be smashed. It is transhistorical rubbish and responsible in part for the death of empathy and the denigration of difference in groups which are supposed to trade in empathy and celebrate difference. And wanky hyperbole on my part.

    • sometimes wanky hyperbole is necessary!

      Very good points. Yes the end of empathy was noted by one of the authors in Anti Gay, saying that identity politics is what has done for it. I’ll dig the quote out.

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