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.