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Why Should Americans Care? (or Can Rick Mercer Get Anymore Desperate?)

Talking to Americans is a one hour TV special which aired Sunday, April 1st, 2001 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It is apparently spun off from a popular segment of the comedy series, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. In the special, comedian Rick Mercer, in the guise of a newsman, wanders the streets of real cities in the United States of America and asks real Americans to give their thoughts on current Canadian issues...issues Mercer has fabricated. Questions range from asking Americans what they think of Toronto's annual polar bear hunt to the recent legalization (in Canada) of insulin. The point is to watch guileless Americans give sincere, thoughtful answers, ignorant of the absurdity of the questions -- like that there are no polar bears in the big T.O. (except in zoos) or that insulin has always been legal (Canadians invented the darn thing)! The point is to laugh at them. To laugh at their ignorance, to feel smugly superior, for Canadians to feel good about themselves by putting down someone else.

And therein lies the rub.

The joke about Talking to Americans is not that the Americans know so little about Canadians...it's that Canadians care so darn much. And care they do -- aparently Talking to Americans was watched by almost 3 million people in Canada (to put that in perspective, most English language Canadian-made TV series don't even get 1 million viewers). Yet the only reason Canadians are shocked that Americans are ignorant of them is because so many Canadians (particularly those in the entertainment and media industries) are obsessive, even fetishistic, in their interest in the United States. Instead of seeing their American fixation as unhealthy, many Canadians see American ignorance as an amusing geek show -- they're appalled that most Americans can live their lives, happily, contentedly, knowing very little about Canada.

How can that be? Canadians ask in horror. Like a stalker who can't believe the object of his affection doesn't love him, many Canadians are shocked that most Americans don't give Canada any great thought at all. Don't get me wrong, I can take umbrage at the short shrift Canada receives in America and, indeed, globally, and I'll probably cover that in a later column. Most Canadians have heard stories reflecting American ignorance. Some stories are amusing (eg: tourists arriving in the middle of a sweltering summer with snow skies, wondering where the snow is) some more unsettling (eg: American bigots arriving in what they believed to be a "white" nation, and shocked to discover Canada is as multi-racial as the United States).

But there are things to get incensed about, and there are reasons to, but I'm not sure Talking to Americans really addresses them.

Besides, would we be as shocked if the same questions and answers were put to Americans -- or even Canadians -- concerning Mexico or France? The cry that invariably follows is that Canada is the United States' biggest trading partner. To which one can only answer: so? I mean, really, so what? What does that have to do with most Americans' everyday lives? If I go to any store, I'll find a zillion things that are manufactured in China -- but what do I know about China? Go ahead, ask me. A Chinese Rick Mercer would doubtless have a field day with me. And probably with you, too.

Besides, it's well known that Canadians are woefully ignorant of their own country -- a side effect of being so obsessed with all things American. One wonders if Mercer would really get responses all that different if he were to pose the same questions about Canada...to Canadians themselves. Now there's a topic for satire.

Besides, in the case of Talking to Americans, the pedestrians have no reason to doubt Mercer's sincerity. Talking to Americans is arguably less a satire of Americans than it is a telling comment on the power of the media. A reporter approaches you, asks a seeming serious question, and even if you thought there was something a bit funny about what he was saying, anyone's inclination is to assume he must know what he's talking about. After all, he's a reporter. Why would he lie? Talking to Americans, instead of being an opportunity to poke fun at the United States, should be a time to reflect soberly on how much, Americans, Canadians, and people everywhere, take things on faith everytime we pick up a newspaper or watch a news show.

Perhaps "Talking to Americans" should be renamed "Listening to the Media".

That's all for now.
The Masked Movie Critic

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