Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Canada and cultural reflexivity

In his comments on my last post, app crit wondered about the differences between the US and Canada. He was asking specifically about the question of class, and I am not going to be able to answer to that in any real way here, but I do have a few thoughts on the subject, having just returned from a trip to visit friends in the US. They used to live in Brooklyn; this was my first visit to them now that they’ve moved to a town on the Hudson, about an hour north of the city. Spending time in this context gave me some perspective on the question of intra-continental differences.

On Saturday night we went to a parade and celebration that was quintessentially, shockingly Small-Town American. It was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the local volunteer fire department. The parade featured marching bands, firetrucks, and firefighters in ceremonial dress and formation. There were a lot of flags. I felt as if I’d just landed in a movie, so insanely perfect was the scene, with its backdrop of twee Main Street storefronts. Later there were fireworks – the first display the town has had in a decade, apparently. While the fireworks boomed and echoed, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA – the whole album – played in the background.

And I thought: this country loves to look at itself. It is consumed by and enamored of its own vision of itself. This is an astonishing – and almost enviable – cultural narcissism.

It occurs to me that this is one of the chief differences between Canada and the US. Canada looks at itself, too, of course – but always in relation, in comparison. That is, the better part of Canada’s identity, if it even makes sense to homogenize it – and it may well not do – is wrapped up in defining itself against the United States. What are we? We are everything the US is not. Even elements of the Canadian cultural imaginary that appear to be simple identifications – “Canada’s military engages in peacekeeping, not combat” – are, if you scratch at them just a little, also comments on difference-from.

This means that Canada engages in very little unencumbered self-regard. And this isn’t a good thing. It may not be quite as narcissistic, but it also means that it becomes easy to tell oneself fictions about a given state of affairs – i.e. the peacekeeping thing. As many have pointed out, this may be a story we tell to exonerate ourselves, to avoid an icky complicitity in the kinds of things we associate with the US, and it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds. On some levels, it’s just not really true, in historical or contemporary terms – Canadians fought in Korea, for example. They’re essentially in combat in Afghanistan these days, though the government keeps trying to say it ain’t so. And, uh, lest we forget, some of those “peace”keepers have engaged in some truly heinous crimes while on their missions – Shidane Arone, anyone?

This kind of refusal to engage with what “we” are, except in oppositional relation to what “they” are, leads to all sorts of passivity-inducing blindness. It’s all well and good to criticize the US government for the situation at Guantanamo Bay – and the Canadian media spends a good deal of time on this story – but what about when a parallel situation happens within this country’s very own borders? Five Muslim men have been jailed for between 3 ½ and 6 years without charges – on so-called “security certificates” – because they have been deemed threats to security. This story gets zero to minimal coverage, because we tell ourselves stories – rooted in an official, federal policy of multiculturalism – about being a culture of “tolerance” and human rights, in sharp contrast to our supposedly reactionary neighbours to the south.

All of this fosters a lack of recognition of cultural complexities – both of Canadians and Americans. Canadians don’t have to confront their own myth-making machinations until they get out of myopic North America. I remember that when I lived in France for the better part of a year, about five years ago, I was forced to think through my own national identity and its relationship to the US in a way I’d never had to before. I was surrounded by outrageous misrepresentations of the United States – practically a contemporary, US-directed version of Allied mythmaking about Germans bayoneting babies in the First World War. I found myself in conflicted position – I was both trying to defend the honour of the left-wing Americans I know and love against some ghastly homogenized vision of McUSA, and to distance myself from the culture, as a Canadian. It was pretty difficult to have it both ways, and I had to start examining my assumptions about both countries.

What I think is crucial to recognize now is that political culture is changeable, and that the current political regime in Canada – the Conservative government – would like to make some pretty drastic changes to the fabric of the country, and is not even terribly interested in preserving much of the mythology. Difference-from is on the wane, in this political climate, and, unless the government changes, and quickly, it will begin to be harder to imagine ourselves as benign do-gooders united in our opposition to the evil ways of the United States.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh, this is a great post. My husband is Canadian, and I'm quite sure that he would agree with every single word. You state it very well.

Flavia said...

A minor point, but it drives me CRAZY the way that people assume that "Born in the U.S.A" (the song, but also the album) is some kind of rah-rah, America, love-it-or-leave-it anthem. PEOPLE! The song is about being born in a dead-end town, being shipped off to Vietnam for no good reason, losing a buddy, and coming back to find that there aren't any jobs left back home. Listen to the lyrics. It's a fucking indictment of Regan's America.

Grr. It's so not a parade song.

Hilaire said...

Flavia, yes, I've also been confused by this! It sure shows the *limits* and blindness of narcissism, doesn't it?

Texter said...

Glad to "read" you back, even if it is hard to re-integrate after a nice vacation.

Interesting post. I haven't thought much about this, so my response is limited, but I'd recommend madkenyanwoman's most recent post on terror, canadian style...

again, welcome back.

MaggieMay said...

Great post, very thought-provoking. It's always been interesting to me how Americans on the Left (and I include myself here) try to position themselves against many/most things American. I think travel as cultural capital is a piece of that "defining against."

loren said...

maybe worth noting that several of Bruce Springsteen's more memorable earlier songs are about the suffocating smallness and emptiness of small-town life for (typically) young men. Limited prospects, modest means, and always at least the river's breadth away from the well-heeled folks who've made it in the city.

And my experiences in America and Canada tend to drive home for me the enormous local and regional diversity that our respective national myths fight to overcome.

I'm guessing you can still find towns on the Canadian shores of Huron or Superior where oldtimers might get teary over beers thinking of American families who lost loved ones on the lakes. And I'd say an urbane Boston resident has more in common with Torontonians than either have with most of rural Montana. Together, geography and class forge strong ties, something nationalists have always recognized and fought against.

So in spite of the flag-waving spectacle in small-town upstate NY and countless other small towns in America, I'm not sure US nationalism really does succeed at making Americans reflect on what they are, as a people. Their binding mythology is different, to be sure, but the power of local attachments is strong on both sides of the border: scratch a small town patriot in the US, and I suspect you'll find deep attachments to place, not flags and foreign policies. The same is true of Canada, I suspect.

And the French (well, the urban French): they tend to forget how recently their own nation was forged through active government policies, especially in rural education.

Hilaire said...

Thanks, Loren, for your very thoughtful comments. You know, as soon as I posted this, I regretted my own tendency to homogenize in this post...Who is this "we" that imagines itself this way, these ways? Who does it exclude? You are right to point to regional differences that temper or even counter national mythologies. And the question of cultural differences strikes me as important here, too - the people who do that hegemonic imagining of the they include new immigrants, for example?

I guess the question is of a dominant national imaginary. But I wonder if I, and some version of an academic/Left "we", invest too much in that, even as we attempt to poke at or dismantle it.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Just to respond to Flavia's point about Born in the USA: I was living in a teeny tiny rural town on 9/11, and the radio stations all exploded with patriotic music. And they kept playing "Born in the USA," leaving me yelling at the radio: "Don't you get that that's a CRITIQUE of the US??????" Grrrr....

loren said...

new kid on the hallway: "I was living in a teeny tiny rural town on 9/11, and the radio stations all exploded with patriotic music."

I was living in Boston at the time, and I remember being struck by the facct that, for several months afterward, the local WB affiliate and a couple of other stations kept showing the movie Starship Troopers. I found that pretty creepy, although the movie itself is pretty funny (as cautionary satire).

App Crit said...


My query into the differences between Canada and the US was, at least in my mind, limited to the academic cultures. What you've given here is so much more interesting. Thanks for putting your thought and keyboard to it.

Watching America during the 4th is fascinating; I never tire of it. Bastille Day is no less a spectacle, but not quite so sanctimonious. Of course, Guy Fawkes is just an excuse to burn things and lighten one's pockets to the delight of passing children.

The most peculiar thing about the 4th: I'm quite sure most celebrators don;t really know what they're celebrating, other than simply America itself. Fair enough, but ten days and a long flight later, I usually find the French celebrators have a fair bit more to say.

I visit Canada from the States often, usually once a month. From Parliament Hill to any Tim Hortons, there is a very different feel to the place that most Americans don't appreciate, or even try to.

Thanks for a good read, as ever.


Hilaire said...

I think you're right about France and Bastille Day, app crit. And I also think that Canada, on Canada Day - that is, the day of independence from Britain - is just as unreflexive as the US on Independence Day. I regret this. Although I have tortured, conflicted feelings about France, the reflexiveness of the French is one of the things I hold dear - when it doesn't lead to arrogance, but to questioning.

And yes, you're right - I don't think most Americans have any sense of this country's differences from their own...If they do sense difference, it's in that classic, ridiculous, exaggerated way. Ideas that we live in igloos, and all that.