Archive for July, 2008

Stratford Report

This may be the year to take a teenager with you. The young crowd at Hamlet
were whistling and clapping before the lights dimmed, before an actor had
appeared, before a word had been spoken. They knew who was playing Hamlet
(Ben Carlson) and they were prepared. He’s not your usual contemplative,
dithering hero.

Another for the teens: Romeo and Juliet. There’s a daddy with dreadlocks. A
Magical Creeping Crypt. (It must have cost a bomb.) The sword fight
(Romeo/Tybalt) is the best I’ve seen and the play within a play (“the
mousetrap”) is fast, noisy, frightening, breathtaking. Special musical
effects at the end.

If your preference is to hear Shakespeare’s poetry beautifully spoken,
there’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Oh, those wonderful women, wearing gorgeous
gowns, sitting in bare fields under a high sky – so wise, speaking “words of
wisdom,” and hatching such mischief. Come to think of it, LLL may be the
play for people on this list since it’s about the difficulty of managing a
personal life while hitting the books.

For the poetry again: Simon Callow’s recitation of the sonnets (about 75 of
them) with story and commentary.

And All’s Well That Ends Well. Perfect, a perfect production with a
wonderful Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic). And here’s the puzzle. Helena’s the
most masterful woman in the Shakespeare oeuvre, so intelligent, with all the
gifts (including the political gifts; she knows how to lie; she knows when
to lie), educated in the sciences and in the arcane arts. Beautiful, of
course. Admired, loved. She dominates the action from beginning to end. And
she is completely successful in her endeavours. And yet! Do we – you and I,
watching, fascinated – do we like her? As I write this I hear Allan Bloom
lecturing on Emma Bovary to Politics 101 at the University of Toronto. (I
was a T.A.) He’d say: “Did you like Emma Bovary? Did you like her?”

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Booklist: Sharansky

Natan Sharansky with Shira Wolsky Weiss, Defending Identity, Its
Indispensible Role in Protecting Democracy
(2008).

Sharansky is famous for arguing that the desire for freedom is universal,
latent in the hearts of the populace even in the blackest despotisms. To
bring down tyrants and defeat terror, the West must act unflinchingly to
support democratic movements in the world’s “difficult places” (The Case for
Democracy, the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror
(2004).

Now he’s exploring the idea that “identity” makes as strong a claim on the
human heart.

So what does he mean by “identity?” Is he thinking of the individual’s
attachment to family, religious denomination, and ethnic origin? Or is he
thinking of national identity?

Are he and Weiss saying that the desire for freedom and democracy comprises
the “identity” of the nations of the West?

Well, this is one to read!

On this blog I’m in a bit of trouble about “identity.” Alastair Sweeney, a
regular commentator, and the author of George-Etienne Cartier, A Biography
(M & S, 1976), is uneasy about my suggestion that the Fathers of
Confederation broach the idea of identity. I say that they expected the
new nation to have the identity associated with the universal desire for
freedom and democracy, as those desires find expression in parliamentary
government and British common law. I haven’t proved my case, says Alastair.

Dominion Institute Does It Again

According to the Dominion Institute Canadians have a strong national
identity and they know it.

Rudyard Griffiths reports in the National Post (July 14): the Institute’s
recent study discovered “that whether you are a man or a woman, young or
old, from Trois-Rivières or Tuktoyaktuk, the top 10 things that you think
define Canada typically will have six or more items that are also on the
lists of each of your fellow 32 million Canucks.” Good news, eh? Well, yes.

What “items?”  To list a few that figured prominently in the top-10 lists
from coast to coast to coast: the Maple Leaf, the Canadarm, the beaver, the
federal Parliament, and Canada Day.

Griffiths concludes, “We are not as we have been endlessly told, a disparate
nation of regions, ethnic groups or linguistic communities. We are people
that enjoy, and benefit from a set of widely shared understandings about the
fundamentals of our identity … It is high time that we cast off the
erroneous belief that Canadians are incapable of sustaining a strong
national identity grounded in common symbols, heroes, places and events.”

One of the most interesting findings is that the top-10 lists of immigrants
were very like those of the broader public.

But do immigrants come to this country to consort with beavers, rake maple
laves, watch fire works? Beavers, leaves, technical accomplishments,
Parliament: are these “items” what make this a country that people are
lining up to get into?

Do we have troops in Afghanistan to defend the beavers, trees, and
politicians? Of course I’m glad to see that Parliament is showing up on the
lists. But just what about Parliament was in respondents’ minds?

What the heck is it that makes this a country to be proud of? On this
subject the Dominion Institute has nothing to say.

Diversions in the Post

Retired persons do the cryptic crosswords. Here’s an anagram for the lawyers
on the list. There’s wealth in the law. And one for the political
scientists: Parliaments conduce to paternalism. (Not!) And think about
straighten / shattering!

In our house we don’t always finish the weekday puzzles. We know who
composes them. Brits with evilly intelligent minds. They must be my age or
older. They’re familiar with British law and parliamentary government. They
love the opera, they stopped reading novels after H.G. Wells, and they
expect you to know the Greek alphabet backwards and forwards. If they write
“school,” you fill in Eton.

We always get the weekend cryptics, set by Henry and Emily. They’re
Canadians. “Presumably of the first water.” Answer: Lake Superior. They too
love the opera. They recently informed us that rewarding arch mixes up to
make Richard Wagner. Invalid ovation makes Antonio Vivaldi. I ask
Sam Ajzenstat whether that’s God’s judgement. Can’t be Him, he says, because
Vivaldi’s the rewarding arch and Wagner enjoys invalid ovations. (But Sam
loves Wagner’s music.)

Only one of us does the sudokos. They’re a solitary pursuit in any case.
Requiring concentration. Cryptics go better with two people, the paper
passing back and forth and lots of chit chat.

And then there are the pix! A major diversion. In the National Post the
front-page news photo is a story in itself. And always beautifully composed.
(So says the woman who did her undergraduate degree in art and archaeology).

This morning (7/8/08): A well-muscled man in military costume is running
from a scene of destruction, carrying on his back a grey-haired elder in a
short white robe and sandals. It’s an Afghan officer rescuing an
unidentified “injured man” from a car bombing. It could be Aeneus carrying
Anchises out of burning Troy.

Everything old is new again. How surprised I was in the fall of 2005 to see
on the Post’s front page armoured horses in battle. The scene was familiar
from a dozen classical paintings, a dozen movies. The horses’ eyes rolling,
ears back. Crouching figures scrambling to get out from under the hooves.
Men leaning from the saddle to attack, arms crooked, weapons raised.

It was the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. We were seeing the Israeli army
beating off Israeli resisters. Looking closer you could see that the horses’
armour was light translucent plastic. The attackers were using rods, not
swords.

Aboriginal Identity and the Apology

The courts in Canada spend considerable energy searching old treaties and
laws affecting Indians and other aboriginal peoples, some going back to the
era of French and British rule in North America in the seventeenth century.
They consider oral traditions from before the arrival of Europeans. Their
objective is come up with a “list” of features that defined the First
Nations “from of old,” “from time immemorial.” The result is often very
satisfactory for bands that want to extend their fishing, hunting, and
logging privileges. But we know that there are proud members of particular
bands who think that living a traditional life is too confining. They want
to redefine their community and nation in ways that will honour tradition
and history but also free them to participate fully in the politics, the
economy, and the life of the arts and sciences in North America. And why
not?

A scholar like Jeremy Webber (Reimagining Canada, 1994) would say that what
defines aboriginal peoples today is not so much the tradition as the
discussion about tradition. A band is defined by its on-going dialogue about
retaining, or redefining, or discarding aspects of the old ways. Its identity
includes disagreements about recourse to the courts and a variety of
opinions about particular judicial decisions.

To ask “who are we?” suffices, or very nearly suffices to give a definition
to the “we.” Well! Could be. Webber might be right; it’s fun to play around
with his ideas.

One problem is that the “we” is constantly interacting with outsiders. A
people seeking to define itself asks to be let alone, or just as often, more
often, demands “recognition” in law and material rewards. The literature on
demand for recognition is huge; Canadians excel in this field; we are
constantly turning out books on the subject, often good ones. Charles Taylor
comes powerfully to mind, and with him the long history of the idea in
European thought from Rousseau to Hegel.

At any rate there can be no definition of the First Nations without
considering how the rest of Canada sees them. And I will bold1y say that
non-aboriginals have seen the original peoples in two ways. (Blogging
encourages outrageous generalizations; goodbye academic wish and wash.) To
illustrate the first view I’ll cite the Anglican Bishop of the Artic,
Christopher Williams, who argues that the residential schools were necessary
and helpful (National Post, May 19, 2001).“Without them the government would
be guilty of the same sins as the architects of apartheid in South Africa
… If the people had been left on the land living their old precarious way
of life, feast and famine, they would have been bypassed by the twentieth
century and all the great blessings they and we now enjoy. What was the
alternative? Would it not have been abuse to deny the Inuit and Indian
people a place in that modern lifestyle we all enjoy as Canadians?”

In a good and necessary speech, Mr. Harper apologized for the sufferings
endured by children in those schools. I will say only that the establishment
of the schools in no way implied that the youngsters in them were not the
equals of Europeans in natural ability, dignity, and entitlement. The
schools embodied the Enlightenment perspective that there are no superior
“races.”

The second attitude prevails today. It is Romantic, in the line of thought
that originated in Europe in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. It
admires the particular over the universal, what is original over what is
progressive. It left us, for one thing, with that marvellous phrase, the
“noble savage.”  The Romantic cast of mind rejects Bishop Williams’ argument
because it assumes that North America’s first peoples want the same kind of
things that “southern white Canadians” want, and because it does not see
that the way of life followed by southern white Canadians is cripplingly
deficient and inferior to the aboriginal way.

A perfect description of the Romantic view is found in Michael S.
Whittington’s article, “Canada’s North in the Eighties,” in Michael S.
Whittington and Glen Williams eds., Canadian Politics in the 1980s, a
collection of essays intended for university students at the introductory
level. The book was widely used; it shaped the thinking of a generation.

From the 1981 edition: “Indians and Inuit placed a far higher value on the
collectivity, or upon the community.” “The sharing ethic and the replacement
of the liberal notion of private ownership with the shared inherent right of
individuals to use a resource are nowhere more prominent than in the native
concept of the land.” “The native peoples feel a mystic ‘oneness’ with the
land.” “An extension of the ‘sharing’ ethic described above, when transposed
into the political context – the right of all members of a community to
express their views and to have an influence on the decisions that affect
them – is an ancient and deeply rooted political value.” “Native leadership
is functional because the choice of leader in any given situation depends
upon who is best suited to lead in that particular circumstance.” “The
natives use the resources of the land but they do not permanently alienate
any of its wealth.”

My students loved this chapter. They admired the aboriginals it describes
and they gratefully absorbed the central thesis, that there is something
profoundly less admirable about the “southern white Canadian” way of doing
politics. (“Southern white Canadian” is Whittington’s phrase.)

Do we owe the First Nations an apology for attributing to them this Romantic
straitjacket of a political culture? We fitted them up as noble savages. Do
we owe our students of the 1980s and 1990s an apology?

Further reading on Romantic political and cultural thought in North America:
an oldy-but-goldy! Morton and Lucia White, eds, The Intellectual Versus the
City
(Mentor, 1962). It offers descriptions of Franklin, Crevecoeur,
Jefferson, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James,
William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, William James, Jane Addams, John Dewey
Frank Lloyd Wright among others on “why our cities have been the traditional
object of prejudice, fear and distrust.”

There’s nothing about Canadian cities. Pity, eh? But as I’ve said so often
Canada seldom figures on the world map of ideas.