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...myth or malice?


There’s a topic I keep wanting to delve into -- and, to be fair, probably have to limited extents in earlier essays. But I don’t think I’ve really tried to get knee deep in the topic (though I have a few rough drafts lying around). But it’s a topic that seems to be front and centre again due to various unrelated events, from the CBC crime-suspense series, The Border, to the current U.S. primaries as the two U.S. political parts seek to select candidates for the president’s chair.

And that topic is the whole notion of anti-Americanism in Canada and Canadian media, and contrasted with the concept of Canadian nationalism and Canadian pride (which I have touched on before).

So, first off -- anti-Americanism? Does it exist, is the label justified, and just what the heck is it.

Anti-Americanism is used as a criticism in Canada, the implication being that someone (or something) is unthinkingly critical of America, succumbing to a trendy but specious thinking, and basically, a bigot.

So, does it exist in Canada and -- more relevant to this website -- Canadian media and pop culture?

Yes and no.

Yes, and sometimes it can be awkward, uncomfortable and just plain offensive. But more because any time you try to simplify an issue, or paint an entire group with one colour, it reflects a simplistic, juvenile world view. Sometimes it’s just a little too convenient to blame straw Americans for evils that can be laid just as readily at Canadian feet.

As “Li‘l” Billy Shakespeare once wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the Stars & Stripes, but in ourselves.” (Or something like that).

But I think it reflects a feeling that as America, through its entertainment industry, largely defines the world’s views on issues and even of other nations, it’s basically tough enough to withstand a little sniping from the peanut gallery. Canadian filmmakers think they can get away with being -- occasionally -- rude in their depictions of America, because America is big enough to take it.

The vast majority of movies, books, and TV shows Canadians imbibe are American in origin, presenting an American-centric world view. Indeed, a large percentage of Canadian movies, books and TV series do the same, either pretending they are American, or at least, working hard to pretend they aren’t not American. So when you actually boil it down, the number of movies or TV shows that can be perceived as having an “anti-American” bias are almost infinitesimal. And maybe that’s why they can sometimes seem a bit blunt, and strident in their anti-Americanism -- because they feel that they’re a few lone voices shouting, unheard, in a wind tunnel of American propaganda.

Besides, American pop culture is full of questionable and derogatory depictions of non-American cultures, and we accept it either as “reality” or defend it as being “only” a movie. Consider the CBC’s new crime-suspense series, The Border, and it’s “anti-Americanism” -- now flip it around. Suppose it was a series about American heroes dealing with, say, Mexican, or European characters. Would anyone say “boo”? I doubt it. So surely sauce for the American goose is sauce for the Canadian gander.

Besides, there’s often a middle ground offered up by these supposedly “anti-American” projects. In The Border, the heroes are teamed with an American agent who’s ultimately one of the heroes who helps save the day, just as in Due South, the Mountie hero was paired with the good guy U.S. cop. Or in ReGenesis, though it can be explicit in its criticism of American policies, the cast of characters are meant to be multinational, including good guy Americans.

Which brings us to the next point about defining anti-Americanism. Just how the heck are we defining “America”?

That’s perhaps the most illuminating, and ultimately troubling, aspect of the whole “anti-American” label. Because a lot of these things so labelled have little if anything against the American people…but rather, are critical of American government policy and actions. These aren’t racist attacks on an ethnic group…but political criticisms of government policies and agendas. The first is bad…but surely the second is entirely legitimate in a free and democratic society.

And, indeed, to stick with The Border for a moment, the American agent is played by an American actress. That doesn’t mean that she agrees 100 percent with every aspect of the show -- but one can infer that she nonetheless is comfortable appearing in it. Nor is this an isolated example (the upcoming CBC mini-series, Trojan Horse, though I don’t think it has actually been seen by critics, nonetheless is being lumped in with the “anti-American” group…yet features American actor Tom Skerrit in its cast). So you have this strange situation where some Canadian critics are running to the defence of wounded American sensibilities, angrily denouncing these productions as anti-American…when (some) Americans themselves clearly don’t see it that way.

Talk about hubris, eh?

And that’s because, when talking about the whole anti-American debate, one can’t fully divorce it from the right-left political divide. I suspect many liberal Americans, even those of the small c-conservative persuasion, would be shocked to discover that American is perceived often as a conservative, right wing nation -- that those who lean left in Canada and Europe tend to be critical of the US, and those who lean right tend to be its biggest supporters.

As Denis McGrath pointed out in his blog, to criticize the Border as simply knee jerk anti-American is to completely ignore the context of the times when America, under the stewardship of President George W. Bush, has managed to violate or disregard almost every tenet of international law and protocol -- including the Geneva Convention. Yet to criticize Bush in Canadian media is to bring down the criticism from some quarters that you are some unthinking “anti-American”…despite the fact that Bush has lost the support of something like 70 percent of the American people. So, by that thinking, most Americans are “anti-American”.

Often the “anti-American” label is really just a disguise word for bitter right wing commentators to complain about a “left wing” bias. But it’s hard to complain about a left wing “bias” when what you’re really doing is complaining about the existing divergence between Canada and the US. Those who complain about “anti-Americanism” in the Canadian media are really just complaining about the fact that Canada itself seems to be slowly moving away from the U.S. in some social and political areas -- indeed, there may always have been a divide, it’s only recently that Canadians have felt bold enough to acknowledge and even embrace it.

After all, apparently in the U.S., the word “liberal” is seen as a negative, suspect and somewhat derogatory label. Where even Democrats are often quick to distance themselves from it. Yet in Canada, the Liberal Party is seen as Canada’s safe, middle-of-the-road political party. Consider, that in the last, say, 60 years or so, I believe the U.S. has had a Republican president in office for twice as many years as they’ve had a Democrat president…in the same time frame, Canada has had a Liberal government twice as many years as a Conservative government.

Which gets back to my earlier point about saying that America largely dominates the entertainment world, presenting an American-centric view of reality -- propaganda, if you will -- where American heroes are always right and American government policy is always the best policy (or, even if it’s imperfect, is still better than anyone else’s). As such, a few anti-American programs simply provide an alternate point-of-view -- at worse, they simply offer counter propaganda.

Perhaps most ludicrous is how, in some quarters, anything that seems critical of anything Americana is now seen as abhorrent and “anti-American”. In a recent essay, Robert Fulford denounces a producer, Peter Raymont, of The Border for saying his series was like the U.S. spy series 24, but with a conscience -- Fulford snidely citing that as an example of “CBC-sanctimonious”-ness. So now criticising an American pop TV show is enough to label you an “anti-American” bigot?

Besides, haven’t other people -- including Americans -- already said as much about 24? 24, the series where the heroes torture people so often, even the American military apparently asked them to stop (one American Brigadier-General was quoted as describing the series’ endorsement of torture as “disturbing”), and where even (some) fans of the show have argued protagonist Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) can only be viewed as a sociopath. To label the Border producer’s statement as an example of CBC-santimoniousness is to label the U.S. military as a CBC stooge!

(Ironically, if Fulford had held his vituperation till the second episode, he might have been mollified a bit, seeing the Canadian heroes team up with a U.S. agent and in which the nominally straight-laced, by-the-book Canadian hero colludes with the American to see a criminal is shipped off to the U.S. to be executed. A seeming endorsement of the U.S. justice system over the Canadian one. In fact, ironically, the pilot episode that so offended Fulford itself seemed to bend over backward to avoid being too critical of the U.S. That episode took as its story inspiration the Maher Arar case, wherein a Canadian citizen was arrested by U.S. authorities and shipped to Syrian to be tortured…yet in The Border episode, it is Canadian authorities who do the dirty deed.)

Perhaps most ironic is that the “anti-Americanism” inherent in these productions is often simply a matter of point of view. In that, often the characterization of the Americans -- aggressive, imperialistic, determined their way is the right way -- is actually how many Americans view themselves; how many Americans want to view themselves, as kind of global cowboys (Bush himself was once quoted as saying he’d rather be accused of acting impulsively, rather than not doing enough). In fact the clash between American and Canadian values in shows like The Border are probably exactly how an American TV show would depict them. The only difference would be in who emerges as the hero.

Does the anti-Americanism in some Canadian shows go too far? Yeah, probably. But more because it’s unsubtle and clumsy and cartoonish at times. But, as I said, it’s no worse than the way foreign nationals are often depicted in American movies and TV shows. And, as noted, even within the context of Canadian movies and TV and books, such depictions are far and away the minority…because so many Canadian entertainment productions are more interested in parroting the American line than in criticising it.

So how does this relate to Canadian pride and the current U.S. primaries to which I alluded at the beginning of this post? Well, it doesn’t…exactly. But I’ve run out of time, so we’ll leave that for next time. However, I will start the ball rolling by pointing to another comment in Robert Fulford’s editorial denouncing The Border. In it, Fulford observes that The Border is the sort of show that makes you “proud to be Canadian”.

And, apparently to him, that’s a bad thing.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Jan. 17, 2008

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