Friday, August 21, 2009

Nota Bene

A good friend of mine writes a regular column that appears in a number of publications in North America. A longtime former editor of the United Church Observer, his political views, and those of most of his readers, are resolutely left-wing in modern terms. I almost always comment on his columns, almost always disagree, and he, being an utterly honourable man, almost always publishes some sort of excerpt from my email as reader response in his next column. I must drive him mad, I'm afraid.

A couple of columns ago, I even floated the radical idea that Canada should feature its greatest artists, instead of dead politicians, on its banknotes. It is the duty of a government, I believe, to promote the national culture.

To be precise, here is what I wrote, as excerpted by my friend for the sake of other readers:

"It has long bothered me that Canada features politicians on our currency. I recall reading that no other country in the Commonwealth does -- and very few countries of any kind. My wallet right now is stuffed with bills from Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Croatia. All feature artists of some sort, except for [the goddess] Athena. None feature any politicians. It is the artists who represent, and indeed who form, a nation. Not having ours on our currency is advertising to the world the notion that we are uncultured. And, by God, we want to stay uncultured. Regardless of the cost.

I wonder if we would have the problems we do with regionalism and separatism if we were a bit more supportive of our common culture?"

Sound controversial? Perhaps to non-Canadians. I noted in my email that many Canadians seem openly hostile to the idea of a distinct Canadian culture.

And nothing could have so delightfully or so clearly demonstrated my point, that a large segment of Canadians are actively hostile to admitting Canada has, or even allowing Canada to develop its own distinct national culture, then the immediate response of other readers to my comments. My friend noted in print that my observation generated much more email than his own column that week. To think that, of all the things I have written in response to your columns over the years—all the controversial things, I might say-- _this_ suggestion, to put artists on the currency, was the one to spark a firestorm!

Only in Canada, surely! I would never have dared to make that one up.

I quote:

AG: "One comment about Steve Roney's comment on [putting] politicians on our money. Considering the near total ignorance that has been shown time after time on the subject of Canadian history by the Dominion Institute, I would say that anything that might make people think even a little bit about that history is a plus...”

So—our history consists only of politics, and not of any significant cultural events? And this is taken by Mr. G as self-evidently so...

Surely any European or Asian would be rolling on the floor already.

Beauty crieth in an attic and no man regardeth:
O God! O Montreal!
AG: “The politicians pictured on our money, like the politicians pictured on the US currency, are the major nation builders of our history.”

SR: Okay; It must be the right thing to do—the Americans do it. God forbid we should raise our sights any further. That would be so—uncolonial. That would be like … seeking our own culture. We must always look instead only to the motherland, even if our motherland might have shifted over the years since the Second War.

Of course, the American situation is different. Their currency portrays not politicians per se, but heads of state, who are indeed supposed to be national symbols, like our Queen. Ours portray political leaders.

AG: “And although one may question the monarchy, which is, perhaps over-represented in that the Queen's picture appears on all coinage as well as the most commonly used bill, I think that the concept of putting nation builders on the currency is a good one.”

SR: “Nation-builders”? Again, anyone in Europe or Asia or indeed not on Mars would surely find it funny to see politicians, and not artists, as “nation-builders.”

Note Oxford's definition of “nation”: “a large body of people united by common descent, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.”

If Canada is or is ever to be a nation, it is only in that second sense, of sharing a common culture. You could put all the politicians who had ever lived in one long line, and they would never produce one single nation. But even one true artist, a Dante, a Cervantes, a Shakespeare, a Homer, might. And has. Repeatedly.

Politicians merely react to, or exploit, or create the conditions for, the nation's existence.

RC, another reader, wrote back, regarding my original observation: “I take huge offense at this statement; I find it very elitist.'”

SR: Indeed. The very suggestion is offensive!

Let's see: who are the obvious choices to go on our currency? Who are the founding figures of Canadian culture? I'd suggest the obvious big four, more or less as already given elsewhere in this blog, are Lucy Maud Montgomery, Stephen Leacock, Robert W. Service, and Gabrielle Roy. Seriously, everything that has ever been written in Canada since by anyone who has not been simply passing through has echoed or even channelled one or more of these four.

Let's see how elite their backgrounds actually were.

Lucy Maude Montgomery: obviously, her subject matter was not some elite. Anne Shirley was an abandoned orphan raised by a farm family. Neither is her audience: any Canadian schoolgirl, and most of the schoolgirls of East Asia. Could you get less elitist than this?

Yes you could. Lucy Maud Montgomery's own life story inspired Anne's. Her own mother died in her infancy, and she was shipped across the country by a father in Saskatchewan to be raised on the Island by grandparents.

Stephen Leacock: his subject matter was the ordinary life of ordinary people in a typical small town. His only reference to any elite was to the local Knights of Pythias. His writing is accessible to any high school student—personally, I read everything by him I could find when I was still in primary school. And he himself was the third of eleven children of a failed farmer and hopeless alcoholic. Poverty forced him to leave school, but he gradually kept at it, eventually all the way to a professorship, by studying nights.

Yep, definitely born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like all his readers.

Robert W. Service? He arrived in Canada with a few dollars in his pocket and one change of clothes. He took the train as far west as he could get before the money ran out. He sought any work he could find, and nearly starved, before he finally landed a job as a bank clerk. He wrote his most famous poems, quite literally, from a log cabin. His subjects had similar life stories: desperately poor men who could not afford to marry, who died in lonely cabins seeking a fortune, and so forth. “The men who never fit in.”

Again, any high school student can read him with enjoyment; I devoured him whole in primary school. Just like Montgomery and Leacock, his characters are not elite, his readers are not elite, and he was not elite. That, indeed, summarizes Canadian literature in a sentence.

Gabrielle Roy is the poshest of the bunch: tenth of ten children of a Manitoba homesteading family. Her mother married at 19. Her first novel was about the life of working class St. Henri, one of the poorest parts of Montreal.

Something is clearly wrong with RC's concept of what Canadian art is. One suspects he has never paid it close company. Perhaps fearing contamination.

By contrast, the folks we currently do promote on our legal tender are definitely members of an elite. Never mind the Queen. WL Mackenzie King's father was a professor at Osgoode Hall, his grandfather mayor of Toronto. Wilfrid Laurier's father was also the local mayor, and justice of the peace, and his family proudly traced itself back through seven generations in Canada—four generations ago. Robert Borden was the direct descendant of the surveyor sent from Massachusetts to redivide the Acadian lands for apportionment to English-speaking settlers—the first English-speakers in Nova Scotia. His cousin was also a knight, and also a prominent politician.

Only Sir John A Macdonald truly came from humble roots; and only John A ever did anything worthy of the term “nation-building.” He at least produced the political framework of a nation.

RC's first suggestion is to replace these four with the sort of beaming portraits of muscular peasants and factory workers popular on the currency of dictatorships. This approach is popular with governments, of course, because, far from honouring some common man, it avoids honouring anyone, while implicitly scolding the average man for not working harder in the service of the government.

Saving this, he suggests another politician—merely a significantly less successful one. Tommy Douglas.

Right. It is not just that Tommy Douglas never became a PM of any prominence. He never even became PM. And it is not just that he never became prime minister. He never even made it as far as leader of the opposition, which is at least a semi-official post. For roughly half of his federal career, the best he could manage was leader of the fourth-largest party in the lower house of Parliament.


In 1965, he finally managed to make it to third place, sweeping past “Other.” He owed this to the collapse of the Social Credit Party. Pure luck, in other words.

This being so, it is a bit bizarre to consider him, in any real sense, “The Father of Canadian Medicare.” Good or bad, that distinction belongs to Lester B. Pearson, the person who actually introduced it. Oddly enough, it is not usually even cited as the most significant of Pearson's accomplishments. And, oddly enough, even with far more accomplishments than this, Pearson has never been though to rise to the stature of deserving a bank note. And, if not the organ grinder, why the monkey? Perhaps, if Pearson were one day judged worthy of inclusion on the currency, for this along with his other accomplishments, Douglas might be worth a bit of small print somewhere on the bill—if merely wanting something is a worthy distinction. And if we can believe nobody else wanted it.

And if we were really prepared to so honour someone who could also be referred to with some accuracy as “the father of Canadian eugenics.” A man whose first idea on how to deal with the poor was to sterilize them to ensure there were no more of them.

But even this would be odd, surely. If the government of Canada were really to announce to the world, through the issuance of such a banknote, that Canada's claim to nationhood consists merely in having a health administration generically similar to that of nearly every other developed country in the world—if any non-Canadian suggested such a thing, wouldn't it sound like a grave insult?

Which again demonstrates my original point: positive hostility to Canadian culture among many Canadians, most notably our “elites.”

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Canadian Literature's Big Three

There are three great founder-figures of English Canadian literature and the English-Canadian literary imagination, all of whom should feature on our banknotes. But, if the current cultural or political elite got to choose, I feel sure none of them would be.

They are:

Lucy Maude Montgomery
Stephen Leacock
Robert W. Service

Everything else ever written in English Canada since has been based on one or all of these.

I hope to God they are at least still taught in the schools.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Words to Ponder

"Liberals [sic] don't understand human nature. That's why they always turn out to be wrong about everything. They think the truth is a lie and lies are the truth. They fall for hoaxes and ignore the facts."

- Kathy Shaidle. Right or wrong, authentic voice of the Canadian working class.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Ancient Thracians are Still With Us

It is not that difficult, even withour DNA samples, to figure out the overall ethnic makeup of folks in and around the Classical world. Ancient sculpture was accurate enough to capture common ethnic features clearly. We can tell, by looking at ancient sculptures, that the inhabitants of South Italy today are very much the same ethnic group as the ancient Romans—Julius Caesar and Frank Sinatra look enough alike to be cousins.

We can also tell, from ancient Greek sculpture, that the ancient and the modern Greeks are the same people. Statues of Zeus look in profile very much, for example, like Spiro Agnew. You can tell the difference between a Greek and a Roman statue: it is the difference in appearance between the Greeks and the Italians today.

You can also see that the modern inhabitants of Egypt are the ancient inhabitants of Egypt--Nefertiti's profile is everywhere on the streets of Cairo.

From these examples, more broadly, I think we can hypothesize with some confidence that populations don't shift all that much. Languages, pottery styles, change far more readily than the actual ethnic makeup of the people. Otherwise, future archeologists might easily hypothesize from the distinctive pottery style of the Coke bottle that sometime around 1950, Americans killed everyone else and took over the planet.

Accordingly, we can actually plainly see that the people we now call “Bulgarians” are in fact largely the same ethnic group as the ancient people called “Thracians.”

Consider this ancient head from the Bulgarian Archeological Museum.

Surely that’s not a Greek head, or an Italian missing his greater corporeal part, but a Bulgarian.

How about this one, a Thracian king from the 4th century BC:

You tell me: if you saw that face drunk in an alley, would you think Greek? Italian? Or would you think Slav?

Here’s a golden death mask from an ancient Thracian tomb: fitted over the face of the corpse, it was presumably meant to preserve his facial features for eternity. Note the face will have been distorted by the attempt to flatten it for museum display. But what modern nationality do you see?

Yeah, I see a Slav too.

Not all the statues in the Sofia Museum look like "Slavs." But that is no surprise—Greeks and Romans certainly lived here too, from very early times. But the modern Bulgarians are not, ethnically, some distant tribe from the steppes who wandered here in historical times. The language did; not the people. They are essentially the direct descendants of the ancient Thracians.

THis is especially unsurprising considering the density of the Thracian population--Herodotus thought it was the most heavily populated nation in the world after India--much more populous than Hellas. This is a measure of the great fertility of the Thracian plain, far richer agriculturally than Greece.

Such a dense population is unlikely to just disappear. They are much more likely to assimilate anyone who might come along.