Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part I

June 8, 2010

After waiting a few weeks to see how it would all shake out, I remain quite pleased with the outcome of the British election. The David Cameron-/Nick Clegg-led coalition seems to be functioning both effectively and efficiently, having presented its main aims while in office in the May 25th Queen’s Speech and managed to find a way to compromise on hot-button election issues like Europe and voting reform – at least for now. While coalitions in general are often seen as failures-in-waiting, or awkward combinations of strange bedfellows who can’t stand each other for long, such a future is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

There are a few encouraging themes and trends that have come out of this election and subsequent government, and a few I wanted to highlight as potential cause for concern. I’ll start in today’s post with what I see as the positives:

  • The coalition narrows focus.

No government can accomplish everything. Past governments – and, more importantly, voters – seemed to understand this. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s Speech from the Throne after he took office in 1896, for example, was about half a page long, and discussed the forthcoming compromise to the Manitoba Schools Question (regarding whether English and French/Catholicism would both be taught in schools in the province), and a minor tariff.  Student council presidents set out longer and more ambitious plans today.

Yet a large part of the trouble with modern elections is that they are never really fought over one issue, but many. The British one, for example, had several major themes, including the fiscal deficit, immigration, Britain’s supposed “broken society,” irresponsible MPs, and the ever-present concern over education funding and support for the NHS. Political parties want to be everything to their voters, even when those things are contradictory.  And they inevitably disappoint when they are unable to radically change society as they say they set out to do.

But it seems that this government has a natural focus, given that its main players had to agree upon key priorities before they even took office together. In the British political Venn diagram, there are many ideological areas in which the Tories and Lib Dems overlap, particularly when it comes to the best way to deal with the current financial situation. It’s refreshing to see that, in the areas in which they don’t agree, they are staying relatively silent – for now. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this narrowing of focus will result in a more efficient government that can overcome the stereotypes of bureaucracy and actually achieve the major reforms that are necessary.

  • There is a new emphasis on commonalities over differences.

I’ve never really believed that political parties line up neatly on a spectrum, especially if we take an international view. (Try explaining to a devout American Democrat, for example, why it would in many ways be ideologically analogous to vote Tory in Canada. Impossible task.) Each country has its own quirks, and the plurality of special interest groups masquerading as national political parties in modern elections makes a two-dimensional continuum an especially outdated concept.

Canada, for example, has intense regionalism which colours all party politics, so that a moderate might as likely vote Liberal in British Columbia as Conservative in Ontario, all the while believing in essentially the same basic tenets of sensible fiscal policy and social freedom. But a moderate in Quebec will often vote for the Bloc Quebecois, because that party is able to take a popular stand that makes sense to a broad base of people and distinguish itself from the other main parties on a single issue (namely, separation).

I abhor this explosion of single-issue politics, as it creates an artificial divide between ideological positions that are actually quite similar. In the American context, for example, this hair-splitting has reached an almost farcical level, with the rest of the world looking on in disbelief as two parties that are both far to the ideological right of the rest of the world bicker over to what extent the Bible can be taken literally or which ignorant, nativist bigot can more legitimately be styled a “conservative.” These of course are the burning questions that affect our world in 2010, no?

In Britain, the political “spectrum” can more easily be conceived of as a triangle. Labour under Tony Blair moved quite far toward the right, and David Cameron, a self-styled Blair follower, brought the Tories out of the still-unpopular Thatcher/Major territory and planted himself some distance to the left of his predecessors. The Lib Dems float about in the middle of the two, but somehow the three have not landed on top of each other on a political continuum. They all have different opinions about Europe, nuclear deterrence, and education, for example, and they never completely agree.

But with the coalition comes the promise of some kind of appreciation that there are many basic beliefs that the Tories and Lib Dems hold in common, and that their supporters do too. Hopefully this will set the example that in politics, as in life, people who have differences of opinion can still work together effectively keeping in mind the things they do agree on.

  • This is an opportunity for the post-election mudslinging to happen behind closed doors.

Hopefully Labour’s defeat, and Cameron and Clegg’s exemplary harmonious relationship, will teach its MPs that the public airing of dirty laundry about a leader – no matter how Scottish and growly and supposedly unable to run the country – will get you nowhere. Electoral mutiny is unacceptable and unwise in a first-past-the-post system that gives equal weight to a vote for a local MP or national leader. M. Bernier, you might be wise to take note of this as well.

What do you make of the new government? Are you as hopeful as I am about the prospect of government actually achieving something? Will this coalition pave the way for future amicable multi-party cabinets? And could other democracies learn something from Britain?

Stay tuned – Part II comes tomorrow.


The Educated Class and Its Discontents

April 13, 2010

In a Special Report on Germany in the Economist recently, the traditional German system of education, while excellent at producing great engineers and skilled trade workers, came under criticism for its rigidity and unfairness. In Germany, ten-year-olds are marked out for either a career of manual labour (skilled or otherwise), white-collar work, or the bureaucratic/professional work that comes after university, and sent to separate schools accordingly. Ten is too young, its critics argue, to give a child a direction for life, which will become difficult to change later on with guild-like labour markets that prohibit entry into professions without the right qualifications. And many complain that Germany does not have equality of opportunity. Family background is more likely to determine test scores and social status in life in Germany than it is in any other country.

With any talk of equality of opportunity, it comes up again, that old aspirational myth of moving between classes, the Horatio Alger or perhaps Will Hunting story of a genius saved from poverty by good education, mentoring or his own perseverance to rise to a different class. Because it is about class. Germans (and the writers of the Economist) are not concerned as much about eventual income distribution, which is quite fair, as they are about having the opportunity to do something else: move up the social ladder.

Focusing on class seems to be a very Old Europe thing. Only in Europe do we see that holdover of a very, very privileged elite (or aristocracy) that has old family wealth, and a poor or working class that never really seems to shrink outside of meddling with statistics, and isn’t going to because those within it have a sense of pride in being working class. A recent article on class and politics in Britian in the Economist seems to describe the six established statistical class divisions as essentially fixed. David Cameron must appeal to the same middle-class voters as Margaret Thatcher, who appreciated their aspirations to “improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth.” Hardly a rapid rise to the upper echelons of power – really just a desire to keep up with what is expected from being “middle class.”

In fact, it seems the most common way of achieving a material increase in living standards is immigration. The quality of life is much higher in “New World” countries like Canada and Australia because the basic cost of living is less, while health care and education are still available at the same high standard, or higher. It’s hard not to notice that eight out of 10 cities ranked “most liveable” by the Economist last year were in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

And there is more opportunity for movement between classes in the New World (a term I’ll keep using despite the fact that it makes me sound like Columbus, because I can’t think of a better one), not least because there is less emphasis on “class” in general as something that matters, at least explicitly. The class system of North America has less of a focus on income and history and more on the combination of these with other factors, such as education. My theory is that because New World societies were formed based on merit, and evolved with much less distinction based on income or family wealth (since most everyone was a poor immigrant upon arrival), education and occupation became the primary means of separating out the kind of people with whom one should associate.

The North American system is thus designed to provide more equality of opportunity. In theory, all have the same access to education, even, in some ways, up to the university level. It is a noble goal, and higher education is certainly more accessible in Commonwealth and countries and the US than in continental Europe, as this 2005 study ranking university enrollment in developed countries shows.

But the result of our comparatively open and well-attended university system has been a generation or two of liberal arts or natural science graduates who spend ten years flailing around the entry-level job market before eventually settling into corporate middle management in a completely unrelated field somewhere, making essentially they same money they would have had they been pre-classified at age ten as they do in Germany. Most look back fondly on the days they spent at university, but more for the social connections they made than the time spent reading Cicero. And we, as a society, have trouble finding enough people to sell us mortgages or build our houses, because there aren’t really university programs that teach those skills. Universities have become training grounds for the “middle class” as a whole – including the low end of white collar work – instead of training grounds for occupations where they actually provide valuable preparation, that is, the “upper middle class” work of medicine, law, academia and the like.

If nothing else, we North Americans are certainly losing efficiency with all of this finding ourselves that comes after attaining our university qualifications. We’ve also created a society in which having a B.A. means you’re under-qualified for many jobs – either in experience, or because everyone else applying also has an M.A. or the college-level diploma which is all that’s really required to do the job. It isn’t going to change, though, because we value two things too highly: our “right” to attend school (especially university) for as long as we want to, and the class position that doing so will get us.

True, recently there has been a real push by the government and colleges to recognize skilled labour and professional work as viable career options for high school graduates to consider, and one often hears flippant comments about the world needing more plumbers and electricians, who “actually make a fair bit of money.” (Reality check: this website puts a plumber’s average hourly wage at $24 in Toronto, which over a year works out to about $47 000. This is around what your average white collar worker earns, at least at first, and a plumber doesn’t carry the same student loan debt.)

But while the logic of matching skills to actual jobs may have (almost) caught up, the overall effect on what class one will end up in has not. Doctors and lawyers are still far more likely to associate with white collar workers who have attended university than electricians who earn the same amount, because education and occupation are still important class signifiers.

What would it take to change these biases? And would changing the biases reverse the trend toward hiring managers requiring ever-more degrees when hiring someone to answer telephones and make photocopies? Is there a happy medium between the German and North American systems, where there is still mobility between classes, and still equality of opportunity, but more cultural acceptance that skilled trades and professional work is a respectable way to earn a living? I’m not sure – but for all that, I would still struggle to recommend that anybody give up learning about politics or history or biology and instead learn about practical data models in order to secure a job. We are fortunate to have the privilege of being able to buy those three or four (or more) years of time to learn. I would advise anybody who asked to enjoy it while it lasts, because there’s plenty of time for uninspiring desk work later, if they so choose.


Toward a Hierarchy of National Needs

April 6, 2010

My last post was about how we use our own bodies as the lens and language through which we describe the world, based on a hypermasculine focus on physicality that is in many ways a holdover from the later Victorian period. In this one I’d like to explore how we tend to anthromorphize nations as well, and consider what this means for a “national hierarchy of needs.” 

Humans feel national consciousness so deeply that in some cases the nation becomes an extension of ourselves. Gandhi once famously said of the post-independence partition of India and Pakistan that “before partitioning India, [his] body [would] have to be cut into two pieces.” The Economist recently described the German Federal Republic as a “matronly 60” and unification approaching a “post-adolescent 20.” And the “body politic” is a familiar concept to all of us. 

But what about national needs? I’m sure many of you are familiar with the hierarchy of individual human needs first articulated by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943: 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

 Maslow’s hierarchy charts the progression of human needs from basic physiological survival – breathing, eating, etc. – to the highest-order need of self-actualization, which involves acceptance of oneself as is, being all that one is capable of becoming, and living with internally-motivated purpose. 

What does this look like when applied to whole nations? Because this kind of thing keeps me up at night, I created a conceptual model of what might be included in a national hierarchy of needs: 

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

 The Hierarchy: Definitions

Like Maslow’s personal needs hierarchy, the national one assumes that lower-level needs must be met before progressing to the next level. And like Maslow’s pyramid, the upward progression through the different kinds of needs is one from physical security/territorial necessities to more psychological or social ones. In both, the apex represents the fulfillment of potential and is the optimal state.

The most basic national need is territorial integrity, through a defined physical space, and both de facto and de jure independence. It seems obvious that physical borders have a huge impact on the populations therein: they shift people’s movements into school districts, tax codes and trade permits, as well as, on a more general level, forcing them to go through particular national channels to conduct their daily business. They represent official languages and religions, laws and norms, war and peace. We often term nations that do not have this need satisfied “failed states”: failed, perhaps, because they cannot sustain any higher level without it. 

Next is a free government, and by that I really mean a functioning representative democracy. I debated whether or not to put democracy here, as there are certainly many examples of states in history and in the present day that seem to function on higher levels in some ways without fully democratic government. But I do think that in order to secure the kind of economic and cultural freedom of the higher levels that democracy is a must. The government must have fair laws enshrined in a constitution that are not easy to meddle with (there goes Italy, I suppose), and civil rights. Perhaps the majority of nations today haven’t passed this stage, especially without universal adult suffrage. 

The third need I identified is a free economy, because a nation that is unable to sustain its independence without bailouts from international organizations, or one that is subject to a “colonial economy” where natural resources are exported and manufactured elsewhere can never really fulfil the higher-order needs that come next. (Let’s not get into the fact that many modern nations weren’t able to choose their borders and/or natural resource allocations and whether or not this is fair. It isn’t.) 

The fourth is a thriving public sphere. Really this is the nation’s view of itself, through its political discussions, art, literature, and history. It is at this level that individuals really start to use the nation as a cultural touch point for identity, as I wrote about in an earlier post. This is where national pride comes from. An appropriate term for this is “imagined communities.” I have borrowed here from Benedict Anderson’s landmark book by the same name, which explores how nations are formed by citizens who “imagine” national political communities. These communities exist at a higher level than one-on-one interaction and as such are in the mind, which makes them a powerful force. I also wrote here of the concept of “loyal opposition,” which, from the British tradition, means a party or individual can disagree with the policies or ideas of the governing party but still respect the authority by which it is in power – an essential trait of a functioning democracy. Implicit in this is respect for the opinions/culture of others (which I sometimes fear is being lost in many political debates today). 

The highest-order national need, which occupies the same place as “self-actualization” on Maslow’s pyramid, is that of global leadership. At this point, a nation achieves the pinnacle of influence. It will probably exert extensive “hard power” through international organizations for the betterment of other nations (i.e. the United Nations or NATO). But more importantly, it will have soft power in the form of a defined image outside of its borders which other individuals and nations respect. An example that sums this concept up perfectly is the “American Dream,” the idea that, in the United States, one can achieve anything with hard work and determination. Soft power like this is a powerful force – much more so than armies or multinational corporations. As The Economist put it in a recent article, “the greatest strength of America is that people want to live there.” 

Inconsistencies Within the Model 

As with the personal model, progression through the needs is not always linear or complete. Nations may exist on several levels simultaneously (as people do), or may to fulfill higher-order needs without yet having satisfied lower-level ones. Would nineteenth-century Britain, which in many ways could be seen to have positive global influence and a set of national ideals, be considered a global leader? Certainly – yet this despite not having attained universal adult suffrage, or even peaceful relations with its neighbours. 

Another obvious contradiction that springs to mind is a colonial state, which may have a thriving public sphere, entrenched civil rights, or international influence without having the basic needs of independence, its own elected government, or an independent economy. India in the 1930s and 1940s is a good example of this, certainly in that it had an active public sphere, well-established art and literature, and global sympathy to its cause — while still under the yoke of the British Empire and held back by its own anachronistic caste system and bitter history of conflict. (Perhaps this is why they did not remain under the yoke much longer?) 

One might also point to “nations” that are not independent political entities, like Quebec, which have a defined culture separate from the rest of Canada. Interestingly, Gilles Duceppe, leader of the federal secessionist Bloc Quebecois, recently used his own corporal metaphor in referring to his party as a young twenty years old, a “nice age…Especially when compared to the Liberal and Conservative parties, which are 143 years old… When you’re 20, you have the energy to fight against the system, which in our case is the federal system.” But in response to Duceppe’s incendiary claim that Quebec separatists are akin to French Resistance fighters in WWII (!), I would hold up a federally united Canada as an example of a self-actualized nation of imagined communities, at the top of the pyramid. Canada is strong and unique because of unity among its differences, linguistic, cultural, historical – whatever. It is the peaceful acceptance of dissenting and disparate views within (and without) that allows a nation to have such global influence. This is what separates Canada from, say, Iraq, and why it is one of the most common destinations for immigrants. 

But what do you think? Does the model make sense to you? Have I missed anything out? Is anything in the wrong place, in your opinion? Do you believe Canada and the United States are “self-actualized” nations? If not, why not?


Upon This Rock I Will Build My Condominium

March 28, 2010

It’s been a very wordy, theory-laden week with all of this talk of progress and history, so I thought I’d end the week with something light: a post about religion. Kidding! Not actually religion, per se, but the visual effects of religion in our cities: churches.

Churches are such a common part of the cityscape that I doubt many of us even notice them. And yet it’s hard not to notice that as more and more condos go up (especially here in Toronto where it seems every spot of vacant or ‘underutilized’ land has been co-opted for another residential building) they are the last bastions of low-level architecture. They strike a stark, and beautiful, contrast to the glass and concrete boxes around them. They are often stunning buildings with the appropriate amount of age-grime to make me really interested. And they are a common visual reminder of the place that religion used to hold in this city, and country generally. There is a church on almost every corner (indeed, there are almost as many as there are Tim Hortons), but they do not reflect the city as it is today. Most are Anglican, but with only about 7% of the city population followers of that church (and more arriving every day with a different religion entirely, or none at all), many sit empty most of the time.

Bloor Street in Toronto. I know there's a church in there somewhere...

Quite frankly, it seems miraculous to me that more churches aren’t torn down. Why aren’t they? Is it that there is a great public attachment to historic places of worship, even if they are barely frequented anymore? Toronto is not so hesitant to tear down other older buildings to make way for the new. Or are churches still relevant in some way? And will they continue to be? I’ve certainly never seen a new one being built, so they must be accommodating the changing needs of the city as is.

Ah, yes. There it is!

Churches have actually adapted fairly well, if one considers that they are not only there to shepherd the flock toward redemption/holiness, but also to serve as the space in which communities come together. Some have continued to have services during the week for the few who still attend them, though many only host them now on Sundays. One Lutheran church near me offers services in German, Latvian and Korean in an attempt to bolster its numbers, but the majority of activities attempt to build communities in other ways. Many now offer ESL training, yoga classes, day care, or basketball during the week, which certainly serves the second purpose well. And why not have your next corporate meeting in the chapel? Others now rent out the space to corporations that aren’t squeamish about the religious overtones and not concerned about strict objectivity or the separation of work and religion. (And who, after all, wouldn’t want to look at a crucifix during their next meeting about vendor selection? Would really liven things up.)

A break-out room at St. Paul’s on Bloor, the largest Anglican church in the diocese. Personally I require fancy windows at all my corporate meetings.

Many churches have also turned to innovative architecture and development partnerships to preserve their land. Consider the Church of the Redeemer, which has been all but eaten by a Four Seasons Hotel. Why not just build your building around a church? Redeemer has also adapted in other ways: it now hosts rock concerts as part of nuit blanche, as well as opening its doors to everyone the church would normally exclude. Very open-minded.

The Church of the Redeemer has managed to cling on to its space at one of Toronto's busiest corners...for now.

The spire of the Cathedral of St. James, Toronto’s oldest congregation, was once the dominant feature on the skyline, but now shares air space (and has sold some of its land to) the new and appropriately-titled Sp!re condominiums next door.

The Cathedral of St. James in the 1930s.

And today, with the Sp!re condos sharing the skyline.

Other churches have been converted directly into condos themselves, like the Victoria Lofts in the west end of the city, on what was once the West Toronto Presbyterian Church.

Site of the Victoria Lofts

It makes me wonder how much of a building’s purpose is tied up in its structure. Will churches always be churches in the popular imagination, even after many have been divided up into apartments, or rented out as generic corporate meeting rooms? What effect will this divvying up of public, communal space into private compartments have on city dwellers?

And how will churches adapt in future? Will they remain religious strongholds, or will their presence largely fade to one of historical significance? I suspect many of these questions will  be answered as Toronto, and Canada more broadly, decides what kind of identity it wants to have – as a nominally and historically Christian city/country, or a new “multicultural” one. In the meantime, consider a steeple for your next condo purchase – I hear they get great nighttime city views.


On the Persistence of Nations

March 16, 2010

I write a lot about nations, and using the nation as a category of analysis and categorization. This may seem dated, and certainly, after two or three decades of every history Ph.D. student and her dog writing dissertations about nationalism, it is no longer edgy or groundbreaking to do so. However, it is a conscious choice.  I maintain that the nation is the most powerful and relevant way in which we talk about ourselves today. This is not the case historically – it makes much more sense to talk about localities (like Athens, or Yorkshire) or civilizations and empires (like the Holy Roman one, or the Mayans) up until about the nineteenth century. Then, the idea of nations really gained global currency. And nations are still the dominant political, spatial and rhetorical organization of our world.

The world system of nations is the product of European modernity and is by no means natural. Nations were created first by European conquering powers in order to divide and differentiate peoples and create their histories. This was, of course, largely for the benefit of the conquering powers, who would use these fictional narratives to portray the colonized nations as inferior, and “behind” them on the continuum of progress. When colonized peoples became independent, they recreated and retold their historical narratives in a positive light, but kept the “nation” as the lens through which they told them, which reinforced the idea of nations as a category of analysis. Perhaps this was because the idea of “nations” escaped much of the hierarchical nature of empires and presumed an equality, or at least, commensurability, at the international level. But that was half a century ago, and there are no more empires left (at least not empires that dare speak their names).

So why do we – and I – still speak of nations?

Here are a few reasons:

Nations still aggregate power at the right level.

For all the talk of thinking globally and acting locally, or living in a post-bureaucratic age, the majority of policy is still created at the national level. Or, at the very least, the funding for policy initiatives comes from national governments, and is collected through national taxes. Voters pay more attention to electing national leaders than provincial, municipal, or supranational ones. Charlemagne blogs in The Economist this week that “national governments enjoy more legitimacy than any bit of the EU machine, if only because voters know more or less who they are voting for at national ballots,” and that EU leaders must note this as they attempt to change policy or bypass democratically elected governments in favour of appointed ones.

National governments have an advantage over regional or municipal ones, moreover, because only they can see the whole picture of which region or initiative should take priority and act accordingly (think: Canada’s equalization payments, or how the FBI prioritizes cases). And they have the means and vision to ensure policies are sustained over the long term.

National government is one of the few distribution channels to which we all pay (at least some kind of) attention.

Throughout history, people got their information from a few key places: family and friend networks, local lords or landowners, churches, and later, newspapers, radios and televisions. And the information they got was largely the same because it all originated from the same top-down power structures. Today, this is not the case: the proliferation of media and interpersonal connections we can all access through technology means we are no longer giving audience or authority to the same places. National and even local newspapers are dying in favour of blogs, and at the same time people can access the local news in Mongolia more easily than ever before. People don’t read the same three or four key magazines or watch the same television shows, so their opinions are more divergent.

But governments, and especially national governments, remain one of the few things all citizens have in common. It is difficult, for example, to be a functioning member of society and an ardent anarchist. National government continues to be the level at which disparate views band together into a few coherent, politically supported parties. And people still watch the Throne Speech and the State of the Union, and still pay attention when national leaders speak.

Corporations – for all that they are multinational in scope – must respect national laws and boundaries.

The customer is always right, but don’t think the customer is the individual – it’s the nation. Consider the fuss Google kicked up in January of this year when it refused to keep censoring its search results in China (which I wrote about in this post), an example of the lengths national governments can go to in order to block access to information. That was only the most prominent example, however; Google also censors results that are considered “locally objectionable” in other areas, including Thailand . And now even more national governments are seeking to regulate access to technology along national lines: Australia wants Google to censor all YouTube videos that are listed as “Refuse Classification” by the Australian Ratings Board, Pakistan blocks access to “offensive” YouTube videos wholesale, and Iran has done away with Gmail in favour of its own national email service.

Corporations must also consider national laws and norms when selling and marketing their products. Screening this hilariously early-1990s Coke commercial would probably be illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, and moreover, the marketing strategy would be completely different anyway because Coca-Cola is one of those products that is understood entirely differently in different nations. In the US, Canada, and most of Europe, it is just an amazingly good-tasting drink to slake one’s thirst, in some cases even a replacement for water (note that this is not actually healthy and that I do not advocate this). In much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, though, it is a dessert beverage, a treat, and a symbol of conspicuous consumption.  A bottle of Coke can cost as much as a whole meal in many of these countries, and marketing it as a common quantity would ruin its prestige. Understanding national differences is key to any corporation’s success.

Which leads me to perhaps the most important point in favour of nations:

The nation remains more of a cultural touch point for individual identity than any other level.

One need look no further than the recent Olympics to see the outpouring of pride demonstrated at the national level. National sports teams garner more cultural support than any local team. We wear national flags, sing national anthems, and study national histories and politics. The idea of the nation contains cultural capital because it is based on a romanticized notion of unity among difference. It presumes an underlying ethnographic, religious, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity, and relies upon the psychological power that comes from being different from nearby “others.” This is why minority groups seek to break off and form their own nations (i.e. Quebec, Catalonia, Scotland) instead of localities or other entities. There is cachet in nationhood.

Many of our heroes are national. We identify with what we consider to be the fundamental tenets underlying our national philosophy: Canada is socially progressive and liberal, and has a fairly extensive welfare state – and yet we are moderate, and enjoy the relatively conservative (small ‘c’) merits of order and good government. We value peace, and work toward it both inside and outside our borders. These are all national traits. Americans are exceptional, the product of a unique set of historical chances and opportunities capitalized upon by an enterprising and fiercely individualist population. Individual rights are prized above all. These are broad ideas that a whole nation can get behind — and yet are distinctive enough to set a nation apart.

Naturally, there is room for multiple identities – even conflicting ones – for each of us. And no doubt there will be a time in the near future when the world can more logically be divided into regions, or metropoles, or supranational unions. But for now I will leave you with the lyrics to one of the most stirring hymns ever written (that, admittedly, is my opinion), still played all over the world and especially in the Commonwealth:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Can you think of another category of identity that inspires this kind of loyalty? (And does it have a flag?)


Who Will Fight For Thee? An Ode to Sewer Grates

March 12, 2010

This country is falling apart – really. At least, that’s what Margaret Wente claimed last month in an article about Canada’s ancient infrastructure, the physical underlay that allows us to live in a modern city, such as water mains, and bridges, and roads.

The trouble is, nobody wants to stand up and fight for the sewer systems and corroded pipes by shelling out the estimated $33-billion needed to upgrade them in the next two decades. Why not? Wente claims that it is a symptom of our country’s progressive “demosclerosis,” that is, a government’s propensity to, in a democracy, hand out cash to those special interest groups that agitate for money the loudest instead of the more silent but necessary projects like infrastructure that represent no gains in political capital.

Perhaps. But I suspect that it has more to do with our overall lack of emphasis today on the physical aspects of nation-building, in favour of the intangible ones. When Canadians are asked about what makes their country great, and modern, and progressive, most talk about health care, or civil liberties, or multiculturalism. Few comment on our excellent bridges or highways, or public buildings.

Improving the solidity of the built environment used to be a key element of national and imperial pride, two hundred years ago. Improvements in infrastructure are one of the few positive things that are generally associated with imperialism (though, of course, there are ways that one could quibble with the claim that they were beneficial in the long run). Good planning and solid civil engineering were considered the hallmarks of modernity and progress – and were appropriately celebrated.

Consider the London Sewage System. When it was built in the 1860s and 1870s, under the far-sighted direction of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, it was (rightly) lauded as a triumph of engineering and public health. It was an extensive project, constructed for the then-largest metropolitan area in the world, and it led to a reduction in cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks that had plagued the city for years. Bazalgette himself was knighted and there stands to this day a memorial to his genius on the Victoria Embankment.

There are Canadian examples also: the Prince Edward Viaduct was a celebrated work of art when it opened in 1918, and of course, one needs look no further than the stunning architecture of the Ontario Provincial Legislature, opened in 1860, or Union Station, built 1914-1920, to see the kind of pride that was placed in public buildings in this country as well.

I can’t think of any sewer engineers who’ve been knighted recently. (If you can, by all means, send them over.) And most public buildings constructed today lack the opulence and grandeur of their predecessors. Today, functional utilitarianism and beauty don’t seem to be compatible, and the emphasis rests on the former. Consider the Victorian Abbey Mills pumping (sewer) station near London:

Abbey Mills Pumping Station

And its modern equivalent:

New sewer station

Also consider another celebrated imperial building, the Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Victoria) Terminus in Mumbai. It was built during the British Raj, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and still stands as a glorious example of functional beauty:

Victoria Terminus

Now consider Shanghai’s main railway station, built in 1987:

Shanghi Railway Station

It is all evidence that physical infrastructure today is little more than that – it does not represent national prowess so much as an uninteresting feature of daily life. In fact, as Wente points out, things like water mains or electrical grids are really only ever noticed when they cease to function as they should. And no wonder: they are ugly, or uninteresting, and certainly not celebrated. Quite the opposite: I’ll admit that I too find the endless reconstruction of Bloor Street a pain – and I don’t even have to drive through it.

The root cause, I believe, is a change in how we speak of ourselves as a nation, and what we consider to be important. These days nation-building in the developed world is associated with ideals: democracy, equality of opportunity, or winning many Olympic gold medals, for example. It isn’t really building at all.

Is it that these things are no longer new and shiny (literally) and revolutionary enough to be worth our notice? Are we “beyond” physical infrastructure and public buildings as markers of progress? Is there some national hierarchy of needs (similar to Maslow’s personal one) that puts basic infrastructure at the bottom and higher-level ideas at the top of the pyramid? Or is it that we consider freedom and democracy and health care so basic, so integral to our idea of ourselves as a nation, that these examples are what populate our speeches?

I wonder. For now I’m going to be thankful that my internet connection is fast enough that I can upload this post before heading out onto our barely functional, disastrously ugly subway to go for dinner. And along the way I’m going to make a point of noticing the sewer grates, and feel proud to be Canadian.

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What’s Your National Brand?

March 6, 2010

Countries attempt to brand elements of their history, geography, and produce in order to “sell” them to tourists and buyers – think champagne, parmesan cheese, and America’s National Parks, to give just a few examples. It is advertising on a large scale, and the different brands combine to form a larger idea of what each country represents. But how do countries communicate their existential selves in short, catchy words and logos – brands – when people hold conflicting ideas about what they really are at the core?

Branding is, in essence, an attempt to distil very complex ideas and feelings into a simplified name or image. It is powerful when it succeeds because humans need heuristics, that is, ways to make optimal decisions easily based on mental shortcuts and approximations, and successful brands are among the most reliable heuristics. This is why advertisers don’t sell products or services but feelings: early Listerine ads promoted fitting in by not succumbing to the horrors of halitosis; Absolut Vodka ads (by virtue of their relatively early association with the gay community) signified open-mindedness, style, class, and wealth; the ubiquitous Coca-Cola Christmas ads signify all the joy and anticipation and childish delight of the holidays in a neat, 30-second spot (I dare you to watch the linked ad and not feel gleeful). Brands are so simple and powerful that even three-year-olds can identify their favourites and what they represent.

In the history of producers and consumers, branding is a remarkably modern concept, dating back to the late nineteenth century. In the days before urbanization and the growth of communities, supply chains were no longer than neighbour-to-neighbour. Consumers knew the producers and could make their own decisions about what to purchase. As soon as more steps were introduced into the supply chain, consumers lacked this direct knowledge of the products and had to rely on the expertise of those selling the products – the retailers. Before brands, small-time retailers were immensely powerful, and not always objective, but consumers had to trust them. With brands, manufacturers sought to shift the balance of power by reaching the consumers directly, through advertising and the promise of consistency in the product. Consumers could bypass the retailers, and even influence their businesses, by demanding specific products from specific producers.

Major world events are rare and powerful opportunities for countries to bypass international “retailers” (travel agents, government investment boards, mainstream media) and reach potential consumers directly. In particular, sporting events, with their viewership in the billions, represent a major branding opportunity for a whole nation. I’m going to stay within the Commonwealth and talk about two upcoming (and one recently passed) major sporting events that exemplify this idea: the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. What are the national branding strategies associated with these events and what do they signify?

Making a profit and developing the local infrastructure is always the ostensible rationale behind hosting major events such as these. Getting tourists and investors to notice a nation is (hopefully) a great recipe for future profit. And obviously, being sporting events, a large part of the brand idea is centred around the sporting prowess of the host. Much has been made of Canada’s desire to Own the Podium, and how success in sport will spell an enduring run of national pride. First among the UK’s 2012 Olympic “Legacy Promises” is to “make the UK a world-leading sporting nation.” And South Africa is no doubt hoping for a miraculous home win in the vein of their 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph (I’ve thought for months now that Invictus is just a very expensive morale booster and marketing campaign for the South African football team). But the really interesting part of the brand images is everything else these nations are attempting to associate with their brand at perhaps the world’s most visible advertising campaign. And because brands must be simple ideas that represent more complex ones, the focus really narrows to what the host nations consider to be most important to their international reputations at this moment. What do organizers want people to think when they see a maple leaf, or a Union Jack, or funky African font? Their brand images are revealing.

Modern Canada, to those not living here, is all about beer, hockey, and politeness. Historically, it is about Pierre Trudeau and lumberjacks. (This cartoon sums up the stereotypes quite amusingly.) Surely, as the Economist suggests, Canada would use the event to attempt to re-brand itself as a “modern, youthful sporting power.” Perhaps that is so – though I believe Canada has always been seen as fairly modern and youthful internationally, so this is no great stretch. Yet the extra-sport, extra-developmental goals of Vancouver 2010 were all about uniting Canada as a nation – of many languages, regions, ethnic groups, and historical conflicts, one. They were to be Canada’s Games. This is a surprisingly insular goal, considering only those fairly well acquainted with our history and politics would consider Canada a truly fractured nation. Perhaps Canada’s diversity (and consequently potentially confusing contradictions) meant organizers had to subsume the whole nation – in all its natural beauty and dynamism and multiethnic glory – into one idea. On that score, I think they succeeded, as we do seem to be more unified (at least for the moment). And if tourists and investors believe that all of Canada (and not just British Columbia) is “super, natural”, I’m sure nobody will complain.

It may be harder for Britain, given that so many have already formed an idea of the country from its long historical and cultural global dominance. Yet the stated goals for London 2012, apart from the obvious sporting- and infrastructure-related ones, are surprisingly modest. They mainly involve inspiring young people to “take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity,” and showing that Britain is a “creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business.” Terrible grammar aside, these aims seem to have a theme of regeneration, which reflects the general undercurrent in the media that Britain is on the decline. Inspire the youth of today? Check. Attract new, wealthy residents and investors? Check. Attempt to stem the floodgates of brainpower and cultural capital that burst when we lost the Empire? Check. Unlike Canada’s stated goals – to show people what we are – Britain’s goals are to show people what they could be again someday. (No wonder their coverage of Canada’s Olympics was so bitterly critical.) And judging from the logo, the future of Britain is bright…pink.

South Africa is facing an even tougher challenge, as it prepares to host this year’s FIFA World Cup (currently 95 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 3 seconds away, not that I’m counting). It is the first on African soil, and South Africa is aiming to re-brand not only itself, but the whole continent of Africa as modern, safe, and open for business. The main media page for the event contains an article on safety preparations. This would have been unheard of for Germany 2006. The fact that the World Cup organizers had to confirm that it would proceed despite the fatal attacks on several members of Togo’s soccer team over one thousand miles away in Angola signifies that South Africa is representing the whole of Africa, and that the pressure is on. The main branding idea seems to be “surprise,” as in “the whole world will be surprised by what we have to offer.” Again, a chance for re-invention. My personal hope is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by England surviving past the quarterfinals for a change.

The Vancouver Olympics were a great success, not only for our athletes, but for our image. I’m excited to see how the World Cup and London 2012 Olympics brands evolve while the world’s eyes are watching.

What do you think? Do these national brands sum up Canada, Britain or South Africa to you? What would you add or change about them? And do you think England has any chance of making the finals?

Further Reading:


Social Classes, Storied Lives, and History Writing

February 28, 2010

I’m going to stray a bit from strict history into the personal today, and ask about the inevitability of storied lives that originate in storied beginnings.

This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing several candidates for full scholarships to the University of Toronto. It is the most inspiring activity I participate in all year. The criteria for the award are originality, creativity, leadership in various activities in school and the community, breadth of interest and intellectual curiosity. The students – all in their final year of high school – are delightful: bright, motivated, and full of ideas and energy. One can’t help but be excited by their futures, whether they win the scholarship and come to Toronto or not. Just interviewing them is humbling.

Reading over their applications, I am struck by another similarity that binds them: the majority are from private or specialized high schools that excel at producing legions of talented young people just like these. Of course, this is not to take anything away from the clearly exceptional students I meet every year – but I can’t help but wonder at the opportunities presented to every student in these schools: newspapers and art reviews in four languages, classics clubs, near-professional yearbook facilities, annual plays, musicals, and shows, Reach for the Top teams, Model United Nations, biodiversity labs, expensive and exclusive sports, IB programs, AP courses – and any number of others you’ve probably never even heard of. And they all have the benefit of funding, teacher support, and a legacy of (in some cases) decades of school tradition behind them. It’s no wonder students succeed.

I won’t go into questions of whether it is “fair” that some students are given these opportunities and some are not, because of course it isn’t fair. I also won’t speculate about whether it is possible to be greatly successful from humble upbringings, because that too is an obvious answer, as many before have proved.  But I do often wonder the effect schools like these have on the futures of the students who attend them.

Now, I adored my high school – the teachers were admirably talented and dedicated, and the classes and activity selection was above-average for a public school – but we didn’t have windows in a lot of our classrooms. Our auditorium doubled as a cafeteria, fondly dubbed the “cafetorium” (try producing a Shakespearean production with meatball smells and spirited games of Euchre going on in the background). And I’d never heard of Model UN until I got to university. It isn’t a school that will ever be famous in its own right for having educated some of Canada’s greatest scholars or politicians; it’s just an average suburban high school.

I wonder, how much more likely is sustained success in life amongst those who attend these exclusive schools? How much less likely is it for one of my peers? Here is where I define “sustained success” as achievement, and notability, and expertise. Prime Ministers, writers, public intellectuals, leaders of organizations. Let’s talk for a minute about one of my favourite Canadian historical figures, George R. Parkin, tireless promoter of imperial unity and designer of my favourite map ever . He went to Oxford, was the first administrator of the Rhodes Scholarships, and served as headmaster of Upper Canada College (one of those storied schools I’m talking about). Parkin’s daughter married Vincent Massey, who would become the first Canadian-born Governor General, and who was himself from the storied Massey Ferguson family (of tractor fame). Another of Parkin’s daughters married George Grant, renowned Canadian historian of the 1950s (and also a UCC grad). Parkin’s great-grandson is Michael Ignatieff, who is current and controversial enough to need no explanation.

Aside from showing how delightfully incestuous early nineteenth-century, upper-class Canadian society was, it also shows the near-inevitability of some of these individuals becoming notable. (And here is where I veer off into Whig history, never to be seen again outside of grand, teleological narratives with bad sourcing.) With parents, networks, and educational experiences like they had, how could they not be? Even today, though it is subtle and often disguised, the class divide in Canada is alive and well. And in Canada, it is propagated and advanced by educational institutions.

I truly believe Canada is more of a “land of opportunity” than other countries: these schools, for example, encourage diversity of background and even offer scholarships to those whose parents can’t afford the steep tuition.  Some other storied institutions (I’m looking at you, UofT) are inclusive by virtue of size alone. But how can we even think of parity among students in first year university when some arrive in first-year history knowing only the vague contours of major wars and great figures, and others have in-depth knowledge of realpolitik that would rival that of a Master’s student? How does one address that as an educator?

Arriving in Toronto was an experience for me, as I was pushed into networks that included all classes and backgrounds.  I feel as though I have the benefit of a relatively objective view of them, coming from such an average educational upbringing. I wonder if historians who grew up within history – the storied walls of UCC, or Cambridge, or a home in Rosedale that has appeared in several books on Toronto history – look at things differently. Does it make them more empathetic, or less? Do they have biases that I don’t? Do I have biases they don’t? How does it affect how we each see and explain the world?

Ongoing questions all. For now I’ll focus on my delightful students – perhaps I’ll ask them what they think.

How about you? How do you think your background shapes the way you see things? What impact did your education have on your current success? Do you think the class system in Canada is as restrictive as in other countries? Post your thoughts below!


New Orientations in Canadian Nationalism – And Tim Hortons!

February 24, 2010

My Honourary Olympics post on Canadian Nationalism got a fair bit of traffic and some thoughtful comments last week, which I suspect can be attributed to the fact that we are quite an introspective nation and going through a very introspective time. Canadians love to talk about what makes us unique, how we differ from other countries (especially, ahem, our neighbours to the south), and how we differ from what other people think we are. Are we friendly? Polite? Clean? Aggressive? Neurotic? Arrogant? White? Black? All of the above, I think – and happily so.

Timothy Egan, writing for his blog in the New York Times, very accurately captures our diversity – but seems unaware that we already know all about it. You’ve probably already read the following quote from his post somewhere around the web. It reduces our introspection to insecure hand-wringing:

Why the lack of self-esteem? Canada — snap out of it! You’re gorgeous, baby, you’re sophisticated, you live well. No need for an apology.

Typical American brashness (see? two can play this stereotyping game!). As though we all understand and explain our national cultures the same way. I much prefer this one, from Judith Timson of The Globe & Mail:

We are already who we are, a magnificent blend of urban and rural, of flying canoes and Chinese grocery stores, of heart-stopping scenery and mind-blowing talent, all of it confirming on a daily basis there is no Canadian identity crisis, only an identity crisis industry.

It’s so true. We are a blend. Not a melting pot, or a salad, though. Perhaps a high-quality vinaigrette, one that has clearly identifiable parts to it that sometimes separate, but that but generally mixes well together. This is what makes it so hard to talk about a Canadian “type,” as I did last week. Historically, there was, in the official literature and thinking about Canada, a definite “colonial type” – rugged and masculine, white, and very British in orientation. The old Canadian colonial type is clearly present in this hilarious ad by HBC. But then the officials doing the thinking changed, and the way Canadians started to think and talk about ourselves changed too.

Particularly in the years after World War II, improvements in communications technology and the advent of air travel further reduced the conceptual distance between geographical spaces, and made the world appear to shrink as never before.  The number of (overt) supporters of imperialism dwindled, both in the British Empire and around the world. This shift was reflected in Canadian historiography, in which imperialism was often categorized as the opposite of nationalism, and a losing allegiance. Canada’s relationship with Britain has consequently received less attention than a historical narrative which seeks to recover (or perhaps invent) a pluralistic and multicultural history more in accordance with present-day Canadian national values. To emphasize British influence in the past is to deny the influence of French, Aboriginal, or other immigrant groups to Canada, now a highly politically-charged issue.

Instead, historians have increasingly focused on Canada’s relationship with the United States, portraying Canada as a diplomatic intermediary of sorts between America and Britain. (This can perhaps be read as an attempt to grant Canada political capital in the post-World War II world by emphasizing the arbitrary role Canada played in events like the Suez Crisis and the lead-up to the Vietnam War. But that’s another story entirely.)  The predominant narrative of the past 60 years has emphasized the inevitability of the Canada-U.S. relationship in the history of both countries – and the links between Canada and the countries where so many of its citizens were born.

There is another ad that is making me sit up and take notice this Olympic season. It’s for Tim Hortons, which perhaps has an even greater claim on speaking for Canadian identity than HBC. It chronicles a “true story” of the “new” Canada, with new, multicultural immigrants and strong families – not a bunch of rugged, white, English fellows struggling against the driving snow.  In fact, I don’t think there’s a white person in the entire video. Check it out here to see what I mean. We’re also seeing Canadian Tire commercials in which kids know how to skate – of course! like all Canadian children! – but their (presumably immigrant) parents don’t. It’s a completely different image, and probably one that speaks to many more Canadians who have bought into and propagated the new national narrative of multiculturalism. And sells more terrible coffee and snow shovels, probably.

The British press has been slamming Canada right, left, and centre for not living up to the world’s expectations of our national character. The irony is that the new Canada doesn’t really care what Britain has to say. Now, if it comes from the US? That’s a whole different story.

What do you think? Is the new Canadian “type” more accurate than the old one? Do you think Canada has tried to blur/erase its past connections with Britain in favour of multiculturalism? Or ties to the US? And which commercial wins: HBC’s or Timmy Hos’?


In Honour of the Winter Olympics, A Special Post on Canadian Nationalism

February 15, 2010

I get very excited when the topics I write major papers on appear in glorious technicolour on TV commercials. (Shockingly, this doesn’t happen all that often.) So I can’t help but write about the new Hudson’s Bay Company advertisement that is currently airing to foster a sense of national pride and sell $10 red mittens.

(You can also watch the video here, if you haven’t already seen it 800 times between biathlon and speed skating heats.)

The commercial is, in essence, a glossily-packaged 60-second breakdown of the major historical arguments for a Canadian national identity, as separate from an imperial one as a colony of the British Empire. Canadian nationalism always was very different from that in other parts of the Empire. In the “ruled” colonies (India, the rest of Africa, etc.), nationalism was often a much stronger and easily identifiable sentiment because the definition of nationalism usually presumes underlying ethnographic, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity and distinction from empire. Easily identified differences like these make the articulation of a national idea anti-imperial and pro-national, two separate ideas that work very well together.

In the settlement colonies (Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc.), however, imperialism was usually a more subtle and nuanced affair because it wasn’t anti-imperial. In fact, Canadian nationalism is an unstable category of analysis, because many Canadians were in fact highly supportive of British imperialism. Exploiting foreign countries for resources? Check. Advancing a pure British race in new lands? Check. Hyper-masculine militarism? But of course – isn’t this the whole idea of the Olympics in the first place? Because long before the idea of cooperation between nations, sport was all about training for war, and proving that your soldiers were younger, stronger, and fitter than the next country’s. (Especially Germany. Everyone was always on the look-out for Germany. And with good reason – when East and West Germany’s totals are added in, they’ve won more medals in the Winter Olympics than any other country – by far.)

Therefore, since Canadians were, by and large, so supportive of imperial ideals, they needed to find some area of divergence from Britain. They found it in the land. It was the cold, harsh, bracing land that allowed Britannia’s children in Canada to take imperialism and advance it further than could ever happen in Britain alone. Canada’s nationalist argument was thus never anti-imperial; it was superimperial. The basis for differentiation was spatial.

I could write about this *at length* (in fact, I already have), but I will restrain myself and instead point out the supporting evidence that can so amusingly be found in the video linked to above.

“We arrived 340 years ago, to a land of rock, ice, and snow…”

I love the rugged, masculine “colonial” types that emerge from this boat (did they row from Britain? Across the Atlantic?) and immediately start running off to colonize people and, presumably, claim the land for themselves. Emigration was always promoted as a way to tame the wilderness and regain one’s sense of masculinity that had been lost in rainy, effeminate Britain. See how successful we were? Now we snowboard!

Note also, at the 0:14 second mark, the reinforcement of gender roles with the women doing laundry. How proper!

“…We didn’t just survive the elements. Together, we thrived in them.”

I love this too. See how we’ve tamed Mother Nature with our hyper-masculinism! See how we’ve bonded together, as a nation, to thrive in those elements! See what moral clarity and racial purity we have! (Note the vast quantities of snow, of course. And Caucasian people everywhere. It’s all very white.)

“We were made for this.”

Made for pioneering and exploring and skiing and running and rowing from Britain, of course. Against all of this, these Olympic Games are nothing! Hear our nifty fiddle music! See our toned bodies and hip clothing! (bonus points to HBC for so seamlessly blending their corporate history with Canadian national history. That may just be worthy of a whole separate post sometime.)

Hey, it worked. Canada is an independent nation, and we’ve also won almost six times as many Winter Olympics Medals as Britain. Go figure. Must be the red mittens. Now, if only we could figure out how to get those Olympic cauldron torches to work…

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