Jargon and Power: Why “Touching Base” Equals Linguistic Imperialism

April 26, 2010

I’ve always thought that jargon was just another way to measure inclusivity. Newcomers to the corporate scene are often barraged with inscrutable acronyms, and people who want to “touch base” and “connect” in order to decide on “actionable next steps.” Other favourites of mine are the ever-present “deck,” otherwise known as a PowerPoint presentation in which one expands five sentences into thirty slides with swirling slide transitions, and the “ask” [n.], which, from what I’ve been able to discern, is a way to cut down on the syllables required to say “request.” Efficiency indeed.

In academia, it’s even worse. It seems that no book or article can be taken seriously until the author has proven his or her credentials by name-checking every obscure phrase that has been written on a subject. This practice serves only to repeat ad nauseam the same tired debates over and over with little new beyond increasing specialization, which I’ve attacked at length before.

Considering how pernicious it is to the Plain Language Movement, however, there is shockingly little popular or academic treatment of the subject of jargon. Perhaps it is because, as New Left academic Peter Ives says in his fantastic 1997 article “In defense of jargon,” “jargon is only jargon for those who don’t use it.” Maybe we like to be inscrutable because it makes us feel more intelligent. Or maybe the world is changing so quickly these days, we need something familiar to hold onto, and clichéd language represents a security blanket of sorts.

The ways in which jargon has evolved seem to support this theory. In “‘As Per Your Request’: A History of Business Jargon,” Kitty Locker writes that jargon has eras, identifying the pre-1880s, 1880s-1950s, and post-1950s as distinct periods in business communication. (Given that the article appears in a relatively obscure academic journal and was published in 1987, it obviously doesn’t touch the Internet age, and so I imagine the author would have to add another for the post-1990s period for all of the tech speak we use now.) But if we think that the 1880s-1950s (when jargon use was at its peak, apparently) saw the rise of corporate America, and with that an emphasis on professionalism and specialization, we can see the early roots of corporate-style conformity. And today there is just as much human need for conformity, but more arenas from which to choose one’s allegiance: corporate, social, technological, generational, geographical, etc.

Locker argues that corporate jargon and ‘stock phrases’ came about primarily because new employees tended to copy old correspondence, either in style or in actual phraseology. Often letters doubled as legal documents, and so the terminology had to be fairly set. Then, from the 1920s onward, American firms were interested in improving business communication, with big companies often having a person or department who monitored it and tried to get everyone to use the same words and phrases. (O, that I could have the job of whipping corporate employees’ communications into shape! Alas, cost cutting.)

Today, I suspect jargon use comes less from official processes than by the subtle attempts to reinforce unofficial corporate/academic norms and hierarchies with new employees. Using jargon – in the form of acronyms, company-specific words, or highly technical language – creates a sense of inclusivity among workers, which is exactly why, if senior executives/group leaders ever thought about it, they would have a vested interest in keeping it around.  It is a badge of honour even today for new recruits to master the new group’s/company’s lingo.

Interestingly, Locker points out that companies have had little success in eliminating jargon even when they have tried. A bank in the 1960s tried to freshen up its letters by taking out the standard greetings and salutations, and received numerous complaints from customers who were having trouble recognizing the letters for what they were. As she amusingly quotes, “the value the reader places on the distinctiveness of a business letter can easily be overestimated.” (Indeed.) And it is a daring academic who braves the censure of his or her peers by not mentioning what Foucault thought about the issue, or how “post-x” something is. (One might wonder if s/he even had an advanced degree.) It seems that there is comfort in the conventionality of jargon for both user and receiver.

I wonder if this emphasis on conventionality spreads beyond the walls of corporations and academia. Familiarity and belonging are powerful emotions, after all, and it takes a lot more effort to be fresh and original than to retreat into the comfort of clichéd words and phrases. It is often easier to be anonymous than to be articulate.

Jargon may also have more sinister undertones. Peter Ives argues that most of the jargon we use today (he was writing in 1997) originated in the right-wing military/political/business elite. It seems that we are endorsing a pro-capitalist, individualist language, because the section of society that uses such words also happens to have the means to diffuse their particular linguistic preferences more broadly.

By this logic, even our exhortations to “speak plainly” in language that is “accessible” can be read as elitist, because, as Ives asks, who gets to determine what “accessible” is? Democracy? If so, Chinese would be most accessible. Instead, we assume that “plain English” wins out, and enforce that presumption upon everyone else. Such is the stuff of linguistic imperialism.

It seems language is inextricably tied to power structures, existing hierarchies, and even imperialism. So next time someone asks you to “touch base” later, consider that by deciding just to “talk” instead, you’re standing up for the little guy.


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?


Shuffling Off Our Mortal Coils – Or Making Them Our Centres?

April 5, 2010

These days we seem obsessed with our bodies: thinning them out, bulking them up, getting them into “shape,” perfecting their curves and improving their features, and generally doing all we can to modify or preserve our outer encasements. My body is my temple, as the saying goes.  And I will worship it with margarine and Red Bull.

The body today is seen as the beginning of life: we must treat it well in order to function well in other areas of existence. We must get a good breakfast with plenty of protein and fat (but only good fats!) to fire up our metabolism for the day. We are advised to consume more carbohydrates to get our brains in gear. Running will help us sleep better. Sleeping better will help us live longer. Living longer will give us more time to watch what we eat.

I don’t disagree with any of the above advice, but I do wonder when our mortal coils became separate entities from our minds. In The Republic, Socrates notes that both music and gymnastic education contribute mostly toward forming the whole person (note that to him, music was more important). Physical activity, moreover, was meant mainly to avoid illness. Socrates points out (as is explored in this article) that the soul comes first, and produces a good body, and that a healthy intellect results in a healthy body. The mind is the primary concern, and the instigator of physicality.

Perhaps the corporal obsession comes from our modern need for control. We don’t feel it anymore over our minds. We sense that life is one big game of Survivor with people out to outwit, outplay, and outlast us: advertisers trying to con us into buying more products we don’t need, politicians lying about what they’ll do if they are elected, even subliminal messages that influence how we think without our knowledge. But we can slim and sculpt and swap out bits of our physical exteriors that we don’t like. As Olivia Newton John would say, let’s get physical.

Or perhaps it goes back further, to the late nineteenth-century fixation upon masculinity that took root in Western culture and never quite left. In the logic of British imperialism, for example, “masculine” traits like aggression, control, competition and power were all inherent qualities of a successful imperial people, in contrast to the primitive effeminacy and weakness that characterized the “lesser races” they sought to civilize. This hypermasculinity found its expression in an overt and growing militarism, spurred on by the imperialist canon of Robert Baden Powell and Rudyard Kipling, among others.  Men delighted in proving themselves in war, perhaps an outlet of barbarism in their cloistered, prim, restrictive society.

In this period, Teddy Roosevelt (my personal favourite president) advocated a “strenuous life” of strife and toil, as individuals and as a nation (in the form of imperialism), in order to “ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.” [Come to think of it, he may have been one of the founders of our modern bias toward action that I wrote about in an earlier post.] Individual strength, ruggedness, and power would lead to national victories, particularly in the imperialistic wars that were coming, in Europe and around the world.

And they prepared for war with sport, and play. It’s no coincidence that the Olympics were revived in the middle of all of this imperial scrambling, in 1896. Though we have since created a story about how the games are rooted in friendly international competition, they were no doubt seen by many then as a proxy for battle. (Some modern commentaries on the national medal counts make this apparent even today.) And though Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys launched a century of camping, orienteering, and general outdoorsy skills being taught to young men in Boy Scouts (hilariously anachronistic title notwithstanding), its origins were in a survival manual Baden-Powell had written for his fellow army men camped in India. It was adopted largely as preparation for future imperial warfare.

Even today, we worship those whose bodies are their primary known attributes much more than those whose minds are – at least with our money. Consider how many more people know who David Beckham is than, say, Tom Standage, or how many more watch America’s Next Top Model than the Reach for the Top provincial finals.

Corporal strength, power, even perfection, has become the ideal we seek and worship, and often the lens and language through which we describe the world. My next post will discuss how this applies to nations, but for now I’ll leave you with two images:

The heroes of their day…

…and of ours.

What do you think? Has the hypermasculine focus on physicality of the high imperial age stayed with us to the present day, or do we have a new ideal now? Do you think corporality is the primary way through which we understand and describe the world? Do you use your mind to serve your body, or vice versa?


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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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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