Last time (“For those who came in late…” as the Phantom would begin) we began a decidedly biased look at the whole notion of anti-Americanism in Canadian film and TV. And though there was more I intended to say, and wanted to say, for now we must move on. So we continue by looking at the other side of the equation -- Canadian pride and nationalism. (And yeah, I’ve touched on it before, but it’s such a rich topic, there are a few more drops we can wring out of that dish cloth).
It could be argued that some -- not all -- but some of the complaints of “anti-Americanism” in Canadian film and TV stem, ironically, from a deep rooted anti-Canadianism on the part of certain pundits in Canada. Anything that trumpets Canada or Canadian values -- particularly at the expense of American ones -- is seen as the product of some feverishly deranged, wholly irrational individual. The CBC’s current espionage/thriller, The Border, has become the latest lightning road for such arguments, eliciting denunciations from Robert Fulford and the conservative-leaning National Post to TV writer/producer Jim Henshaw.
The foundation of their thinking (in my wholly biased and unobjective view) is, basically, America is the greatest country in the world. QED, anything that is not American is inferior, and anyone who disagrees is a nut.
Arguing for a moment that America is not the greatest country in the world -- simply because no country is THE greatest, as different countries have different strengths and weaknesses in their laws and cultures -- where does this belief come from? Well, part of me is inclined to say it’s because such pundits grew up in a vacuum tube of American culture -- they saw it in their books, their movies, their music -- and they imbibed it wholeheartedly. And while some people grow up, eventually recognizing, for instance, that their heroes have feet of clay…these others stubbornly refuse to grow up, clinging desperately to their childhood idolatry as a psychological security blanket. They grew up awash in a sea of pro-American propaganda and they just aren’t prepared to face a world where they have to think for themselves, so they cling to that security blanket long after it’s become tattered and ragged.
As such, the grass remains eternally greener on the American side of the fence. American achievements are always that much more profound. American heroes that much more heroic.
I like and admire America -- but I’ve long since shaken off the blinders of hero worship that I may once have had. As a kid, I think one of my first awakenings to the fact that America put its pants on one leg at a time was in the sports field. During the cold war, it was an accepted truism that in sports tournaments the Soviets always skewed their votes to favour their sports figures. Watching figure skating -- the only sport I watched much, because my mother was into it -- you couldn’t help but notice that, sure enough, the USSR judges invariably gave the USSR skaters higher marks than the other judges. Yet what I also noticed was that the U.S. judges always seemed to give higher marks than the other judges…to the U.S. skaters -- but no one ever seemed to comment on that.
The fact that the U.S. judges seemed (at least to me) to be doing this was, ironically, less troubling than the fact that no one else seemed to comment on it. It was accepted that the U.S.S.R. was biased in their judging…but it was apparently unthinkable to suggest the U.S. judges might be too -- even though you just had to look at the score board to, at least, have a suspicion of it.
I was thinking about this reading a bit of the (Canadian) coverage of the U.S. primaries. Of particular significance is the race for the Democratic leadership, in which the front runners are a black man and a woman. Significant? Yes. Momentous? Possibly. Welcome news? Certainly.
But in Canada it has gone beyond simply saying isn’t this a great thing, and good for ‘em. It has quickly led to Canadian commentators explaining why America is the greatest country in the world…and why Canada isn’t. Which is the irony. Those quick to label things as “anti-American” snidely point out that people can’t say something good about Canada without running down the US -- yet the reverse is readily true as well. When these commentators detect the whiff of “anti-Americanism”, it isn’t just enough for them to say, hey, lay off the USA -- but they immediately launch into a tirade about why, in fact, the US is superior to Canada.
Does Canada have a ways to go in establishing a just society where everyone is equal and racism is a spectre of antiquity. Emphatically -- yes! But, seriously, how demonstrative of U.S. superiority is the current situation? Consider: the U.S. has not elected a black president or a woman. The democrats have not even offered one or the other as a candidate. They’re still just thinking about it. But according to pundits, it’s a done deal and the world will never be the same.
So even if it happens -- what does it mean?
Well, if the Americans do elect a woman president…all it will mean is that the U.S. has finally joined most of the rest of democratic world in having a female leader. Canada had one (albeit briefly) in 1993. India had one wa-ay back in the 1970s. England, Germany, New Zealand, Pakistan…etc. America is arriving rather late to the party.
Even if Americans do elect a black president, I’m not sure it’s quite as vindicating as pundits claim. Given that Barack Obama is the only black man in the running, and one of only may three or four in the history of the United States to even be among the potential nominees, I’d say there’s still a ways to go. I think it will be significant…when it stops being significant (if you understand my meaning).
Still, as the self-loathing Canadian commentators have pointed out, Canada isn’t even close -- but then, prior to Obama’s arrival on the scene as a “fresh” face out of nowhere, neither were the Americans. But what was interesting was when I read an article lamenting that Canada was nowhere near electing a black man…and I thought it was funny, because they seemed to be specifically focusing on “black”…as opposed to “minority”. Which seems a tad parochial. There are scores of minority groups in both Canada and the U.S. Surely the significance is not whether a specific minority makes it to the top, so much as that any minority makes it. Again, not that Canada has anything to brag about, per se, but that seems to be defining society in purely American terms, which popularly has defined the racial divide as almost exclusively black-white (this despite the fact that Latinos are actually a larger minority than blacks in the U.S….but no one is holding their breaths for the first Latino U.S. president).
Ironically, if you redefine -- or broaden -- your concept of minority, other pictures emerge. For example, some French-Canadians have argued a parallel with black Americans (Quebec nationalists once defining themselves as “White N-----s of North America”) -- and Canada had its first French-Canadian prime minister in 1896! Or consider Dr. David Suzuki, whose family was shamefully interned during World War II, yet went on to become one of Canada’s most recognizable and respected figures -- even landing in the top five of a national poll of “Greatest Canadians”. One wonders, are there any Japanese-Americans who would be voted into the top ranks of a poll of Greatest Americans?
And doing a tit for tat, schoolyard challenge -- “my moral superiority could beat up your moral superiority” -- could go on endlessly. When John Kennedy was elected president, it was seen as ground breaking that Americans had elected a Catholic president -- something I’m not sure they’ve done since. Yet throughout Canada’s history, Protestant and Catholic prime ministers have been elected with nary a shudder through the national soul. Canada has had openly gay politicians vie for their parties nominations -- I’m guessing in America, they wouldn’t even be considered a legitimate contender.
Heck, in America, it was apparently considered a radical, progressive policy when they brought in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the U.S. military -- which said that you would still be kicked out of the army if you were gay, but at least no one would be actively trying to “out” you as long as you kept it secret. Whereas in Canada…gay soldiers can marry each other.
So, what’s my point? Am I indulging in mean-spirited anti-Americanism? No. I’m just demonstrating what I stated earlier -- no country has a lock on “greatness”. Yet Canadians are constantly bombarded by Canadian commentators quick to latch onto any American advancement, no matter how tenuous, to “prove” that the U.S. is superior to Canada, and Canadians should just shut up.
In Canada, there are a lot rows still be hoed, bridges to be built, wrongs to be righted. It’s foolish and ignorant to say there aren’t. But there are also a lot of things to be proud of, accomplishments to be recognized. And not just in recent years, but throughout Canadian history -- slaves were freed, Nazis were fought, universal health care was adopted, same sex marriage was recognized. And saying it’s so doesn’t make you a rabid anti-American, or a myopic, foolish Canadian nationalist. It just means that you recognize you don’t have to always apologize for your country.
As far back as the 1800s, charismatic politician, D’arcy McGee, who had lived in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada, cited Canada as the more welcoming, inclusive society -- a hundred and some years before Pierre Trudeau introduced multiculturalism. If McGee -- who ironically was assassinated -- could see the potential, and the uniqueness, in Canada, then why is it so hard for the rest of us?
What does all this have to do with a Canadian film and TV site? Well, because for all the criticisms levelled at The Border and other productions, the notion of Canadian pride, or Canadian self-confidence, remains a rarity in Canadian film and TV, where filmmakers often see it as a point of honour when they go through an entire script without identifying the location as being in any way Canadian!
Yet, nonetheless, they expect to be heralded as “cultural” champions -- but champions of an invisible culture. A culture that dares not speak its name, to borrow a phrase.
In this and my previous essay, I’ve perhaps made the unusual connection of suggesting American pop culture acts as a kind of propaganda agent for American values -- not always deliberately, I’m sure. Often American movies and books and TV shows present a view of America that is less the America that is, and more the America they want it to be. If Barack Obama does get elected president (which is still a couple of ifs away), one wonders how much his victory will owe to the fact that Hollywood has been paving the way for the concept over the last decade or so, giving us various movies and TV shows with black presidents? After all, when Morgan Freeman entered the oval office in Deep Impact or Dennis Haysbert in 24, the reality was no black man had ever been president, or vice-president, or had ever been a nominee, nor even been a serious contender for a party’s nomination. It was wholly and undeniably fiction. And now it just may -- may -- not be fiction anymore.
Yet would any Canadian filmmaker do a movie casting a non-white actor as prime minister? I doubt it. And that’s because few Canadian movies actually admit they’re Canadian enough that they would have a role for the prime minister. And those that do are rarely interested -- as American movies are -- in taking a leap of faith in their country.
Maybe instead of expending so much ink raging against an anti-Americanism in Canadian pop culture, commentators would be better to lament the lingeringly pervasive anti-Canadiansm that seems to fuel the creative visions of so many artists and filmmakers in this country.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
Jan. 30, 2008
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