Friday, 25 July 2008

Depressing Thoughts Upon the Eternal Return of the Repressed

Frequently, an array of radically disassociated but nearly simultaneous events will fall upon one as a cluster and suggest a significance beyond itself. In my case, I returned from a trip to Brussels just in time to witness Canadian political and media officialdom clear its collective throat on Canada Day and demonstrate an excruciating inability to proclaim anything approaching the faintest affection for the nation of which they should be deliriously grateful to be the parasitic and frivolous elite, with Stephen Harper arguably outdoing them all by suggesting, vacuously, that Canadians are a worthy people only insofar as we live among a lot of deep lakes and big trees.

Then, less than a month later, I learned that the nation I had returned from and whose culture seemed so admirable had suffered the collapse of its government and appears to be in serious danger of dissolution thanks to the kind of petty linguistic, ideological and ethnic squabbles that have beset my own nation for over a century. "Here," I thought sadly as I read the news, "is yet another beautiful community--with so many latent reserves of sanity--being driven into the abyss by the suicidal poltroonery of a clique of highly motivated political misfits".

One of the things that has always helped blunt my outrage over the glee with which our partisan charlatans prick our national wounds is the assurance that ours is a unique agony, an aberration (fed perhaps by our uncomfortable proximity to a society that espouses hysteria as a national ethos) fated for ultimate and perhaps imminent resolution through Time's own inertial momentum. After all, is there not a "return to normal" after every national and international crisis--a fall back into status quo ante bellum? Europe went back to sleep after Waterloo; America went back to sleep after Appomattox; the world went back to sleep (though sinking into nightmare) after Nuremburg.

Accordingly, I saw no reason why Canadians should be denied the slumber so many others less worthy have enjoyed or why we should not be allowed to luxuriate, if only for awhile, in the inviolability of our Confederation. Events in Belgium suggest to me now that what seemed aberrant might be the rule--that there is something about prosperous, materially blessed, highly developed, bi-lingual and multi-ethnic societies that makes their elites want to destroy them.

Eerily, just as my thoughts were crawling through that darkness, I decided to rent Oberst Redl, István Szabó's brilliant film about the notorious Austro-Hungarian traitor; I had always wanted to see it and was finally inspired to do so after re-watching his (in my view inferior but better-known) Mephisto. While watching the movie, I recalled that A.J.P. Taylor's The Habsburg Monarchy lay buried beneath a pile of books on my bedside table, begun more than a year ago and tossed aside after a few chapters in favour of something else (which was, in turn, no doubt abandoned in favour of yet something else: I've more books than dust motes around me, and I'm a fickle and faithless reader). After watching the film and reading more of the book in my dark mood, I couldn't help but see Austria-Hungary's national doom and Redl's personal catastrophe as prototypes of the destiny we're inviting and that Belgium seems to have already embraced.

Talylor argues that Austria-Hungary was a rag-tag of mutually indifferent ethnicities among whom the aristocratic, military and managerial elite never bothered to nurture a sense of national belonging because the manipulation of ethnic hostility was, in itself, a crucial component of their ascendancy and because the empire was useful to its ascendant class mainly as an instrument of foreign policy and personal enrichment.

The hair shirt that the Austro-Hungarian Empire made for itself seems to me to fit Canada all too well: do ethnic, regional and linguistic enclaves not serve as the key pieces of our political chess game, used always for the basest, most destructive purposes? How much national authenticity does our governing class possess? Do they even claim to possess any such thing? Do the John Manleys, Tom D'Aquinos and Stephen Harpers bother to hide their view that Canada matters, if at all, only as an element in the properly diversified investment portfolios of North American millionaires, as a fiscal entity within an integrated continental market and as a small if not wholly negligible piece of the American military leviathan? I hear Canada described as many things by the vaudeville hacks who pass for leaders today; we're frequently called a "market", a "tax-base", a "partner" in the "Global War on Terror"; we are rarely called a "nation". The word is sometimes whispered; the brave among us say it aloud, but the word has otherwise fallen into near extinction. The question is not whether our elite wallows today in Austro-Hungarian cynicism: the facts of that case are clear. Now we merely need calculate how long it will take them to sink to full-blown Anschluss decadence.

Meanwhile, Szabó's Redl lives the consequences of Austria-Hungary's decrepitude. An "ethnic" (he's a Galician Jew), Redl longs for an identity that would keep him loyal to the empire and to the monarchy, but nothing about his community has the power to confer such a thing upon him. He finds himself becoming progressively detached from the artificial construct that he is preposterously asked to serve before being decisively turned against it when Russian counter-intelligence agents exploit his homosexuality through blackmail. Redl, become a double-agent through duress, convinces himself that he is not a traitor, that he owes the empire nothing because it is itself nothing, a fiction, an absurd mongrel miscellany without foundational purpose or mission. Redl is discovered and must die, but, for, him, his treason was worth it--it was a liberation: Redl had to repress both his ethnicity and his sexuality in order to thrive in the ranks of the imperial technocracy; by using (and thus acknowledging) both of those repressed loci, the Russians made the doomed man feel alive as he had never felt before.

I cannot help but see Redl in so many Canadians, especially in our military. What else was Rick Hillier but a redneck Redl? Hillier and, I fear, many of his soldiers were desperate for an identity, for a mission, for action that would give meaning to their vocations and shape to their lives. Canada's elite were, alone, either powerless or unwilling to do this. There was, though, another, much larger power that was only too delighted to activate those repressed urges, to exploit the sense of drift and anonymity that has been haunting our military and our society for years. Now, we are moving; we have objectives; we have a reason to exist. In being ignominiously co-opted by and subtended to the domestic priorities and geo-political projects of the United States, we at least have a virtual nationhood, a pretend nationhood, which undoubtedly seems immeasurably more vibrant than the pale sunset our own elites have been offering up as a national destiny for more than two decades.

It feels so damn good that, to most, it must barely seem like treason at all.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

The Baffled Hymn of the Republic

Obviously, I could not let Independence Day (or "Yank Wank", as I like to call it) pass by without some deflationary commentary, as I am particularly keen to retain the respect of my American readers, many of whom, I am sure, absolutely depend on Tory exotics like myself to provide a cheap (and feasible) alternative to time travel. I shall never let it be said that, in my duty to serve as the Internet's official voice of America in the 1760's and Canada in the 1960's, I was ever guilty of delinquency. Note well that I allowed the holiday to expire before posting (it is now July 6th): I allowed you to have your fun before being rude, which I think is terribly polite and Canadian of me.

By the way, I do have American readers. I am deeply incredulous, but Sitemeter's ISP data, like the leader of America's founding junta, cannot tell a lie. Now, their number is admittedly small--probably close to the number of Americans who like the French--and I am terribly suspicious that they are in fact NSA analysts selecting targets for "executive action" in advance of the inevitable U.S. invasion to "liberate" Alberta and take Canadian resources out of the hands of us godless, non-basketball-playing socialists.

Nevertheless, my earnest prayer is that the innocent members of my U.S. readership will be careful to keep their subversive enthusiasm a secret as deeply hidden as their back issues of the Utne Reader. Sadly, I haven't the slightest clue as to how they can spare themselves the ghastly ordeal of having the ghost of Jesse Helms burn a cross on their lawns.

Frankly, I've always wondered why America needs to set aside a day to celebrate its nationhood, since self-celebration appears to be an hourly-triggered instinct for them--an hourly requirement, in fact. America needs an Independence Day the way Canada needs a "The Grass is Green and the Sky is Blue Day", the way China needs a "Making Cheap Stuff For Foreigners Day" and the way Iran needs an "Anti-Semitism Day".

That said, I suppose there is some value in devoting twenty-four hours out of the year to a particularly deep meditation on the peerless nobility of refusing to pay taxes to the empire that had expended so much of its blood and treasure in crushing the French and Indians for you and then begging to pay taxes to a slave-owning oligarchy that seeks to create an empire by stealing land from Spaniards and Mexicans (while enslaving their formerly free blacks, of course) and invading its peace-loving northern neighbours. Nor can we deny the appeal of dragging out that old "Ayatollah Assahollah" T-shit and wearing it proudly while polishing off a case of Schlitz as you ride the "America Rules" float down some beautiful vista named after one of America's many freedom-loving heroes.

My ex post facto contribution to the festivities' weekend hangover has a Canadian connection. In the early 1980's, Canadian scholar and journalist Gwynne Dyer produced a brilliant documentary series called "War", which investigated the social, geo-political and psychological features of modern warfare. Scandalously, it has yet to see a DVD release (as have many fascinating NFB and CBC productions, such as Donald Brittain's masterful series on the Trudeau/Lévesque rivalry, "The Champions"), but much of it has been uploaded onto YouTube.

Of particular interest is the Oscar-nominated episode "Anybody's Son Will Do", which follows a group of young aspirant Marines through their basic training. Watch this clip of it, paying particular attention to the young Marine instructor at 3:42, who bellows, "There are far too many Iranians in the world today...We should go over there and flatten that country". Gosh, I wonder whose talking points he's been writing?

Finally, look at the helpful suggestion the United States Senate is passing on to the President. I really must stop thinking aloud; I'm clearly more influential than I want to be (see the last paragraph of last week's post for what was once merely macabre satire).

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Happy Canadas* Day!

* No, that's not a typographical error.

Sir Francis would like to take this moment to offer belated congratulations to his Québecois friends, whose national holiday has recently passed, and anticipatory congratulations to his Albertan friends, whose national holiday is shortly to come.

He must admit, though, to being puzzled by all this talk of "Canada", as if the year 2006 did not occur. He recalls that Parliament, under the leadership of Stephen Harper (and working from a script co-authored by Gilles Duceppe and Michael Ignatieff), decreed that Québec was a nation (languishing inside some allegedly "united" state called "Canada").

Having dragged us back to pre-Act-of-Union balkanisation at the behest of classically cracker-barrel provincialist panderers, the House really should have followed up with a motion decreeing that what had been called "Canada" since 1841 should now again be called "the Canadas", pursuant to ancient practice.

Despite that official oversight, I shall conform myself to the new reality and wish a happy Canadas Day to all of my Liberal/"Conservative"/NDP/BQ/Green/Marxist-Leninist/Marijuana Party/Family Coalition/Christian Heritage/Rhino Party friends, and a happy Canada Day (and an even happier "Dominion Day") to all those who, like me, know bloody well that the Fathers conceived of us as one nation and that the entity they conceived has been worthy of its real estate only when it has behaved as a nation.

Just for laughs, please read this account of Stephen Harper's remarks, delivered today on Parliament Hill. As usual, when required to deliver reasons for Canadian pride, Harper comes up preposterously, hilariously dry. We read this about his drivelling banalities:

Harper reminded the assembled that Canada is blessed with resources, a vast northern frontier and a diverse population that includes aboriginal people and immigrants from around the world. He said Canadians should be proud of their work to protect the environment and to help Afghanistan.
Thus, we should be proud of our landscape and demography--much as the people of Uzbekistan should presumably give themselves a collective Nobel Prize for their steppes and tribal diversity--and we should exult in having retreated from every multilateral environmental commitment we could run from and in having played a role in helping push Afghanistan to a point of failure even more catastrophic than its agonies during the Taliban era.

This is the best our head of government could do to celebrate a nation that has, through the toil of many generations, been made into one of the wonders of the world. I doubt if one can find in the chronicles of Canada Day speeches (if any such thing is kept) a feeble bleat of more sublimely pedestrian inanity.

Both Harper and Governor-General Michaëlle Jean appear to have made the recent apology over residential schools a key part of their speeches, giving Canadian pride a bold, new dimension: not only can we be proud of our lakes and trees, but we can also be proud that we feel sorry about our ancestors having done bad stuff.

Perhaps this mania will be contagious. Perhaps we shall, later this week, hear G. W. Bush declare how proud Americans should be that some of them feel rather awkward about their forbears having whipped, raped and worked to death so many black folk.

Ah, but "only in Canada", you say? Thank God.