As much as I regard the likes of Glen Beck and Sarah Palin with the haughty condescension of an anthropologist studying the most bloodthirsty of cannibals, I cannot help but feel that the Palins and Becks of the world dwell in a region where there are political treasures to be won. They, in short, seem to have something that I — that we, as Canadians — could use: the talent to harness fantasy to political ends.
Earlier this summer I was reading a Gazette article about Micheal Ignatieff’s hapless LiberalExpress bus tour stopping in Justin Trudeau’s riding of Papineau in Montreal. The most astute observation in the article was that the cameras at the event seemed to show little interest in Ignatieff and seemed magnetically drawn to the young Mr. Trudeau. A few weeks later, in a conversation over beers, my friend Manish lamented the tenure of Stephen Harper and noted his cleverness in quietly and implacably making the small changes in policy that were gradually stripping away everything that was progressive and egalitarian in Canadian culture. “What has to happen?” he asked. And I offered the only answer that seemed true to me: “Justin Trudeau,” I said, “has to happen.” We are waiting for an event, and, in this case, the event has a proper name.
I want to believe that in politics the best argument wins, that sooner or later the truth will triumph over lies (yes, I’m the one who still holds on to this notion), as much as I want to follow Aristotle in the assertion that things that are right and true are easier to argue for than things that are not, this belief strikes me more and more as a kind of droopy, sad-sack philosophy that belongs to another era, to, in fact, an era that never really existed. Politics today is the politics of fantasy. Period. People are moved by images of truth, not by the ugly, poor and grinding truth itself. We are moved to great acts by great emotions, not great thoughts. We vibrate to the music of stirring narrative, and, as with all music, the issue of whether it is true or not is simply irrelevant. Our reason is, and always has been, ancillary to our dreams.
And rather than lament this odd twist in the human soul, let us embrace it, and with it the intriguing young Justin Trudeau. Time and distance have erased the gradual disenchantment we underwent with the elder Trudeau. We remember now his elegance, his turns of phrase (”Just watch me,” “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”), his decisiveness. We remember a cosmopolitan perspective, an active and probing intellect, a talent for large thoughts and large metaphors. What remains of Pierre Trudeau is the image of a man whose sweeping style and personality made what is, in spite of its geography, a small country feel much larger. There was magic in Trudeau, a magic all too rare in Canadian politics. So much of this magic went to waste, but only because it did not have an historical moment great enough to conjure on.
How much of the previous paragraph is true? Some? All? None? What does it matter? If we are to be the people who bring home political treasures we will have to wrestle truths from fantasies.
What are the struggles, the very real and serious struggles for the future of Canada? To protect the environment? To maintain and rebuilt the institutions of equality and justice? To protect our economy from the predations of sociopathic money men? To harmonize a more and more diverse population? To ensure opportunity for the have-not provinces? To be a functioning national community in a more and more dysfunctional world? Yes, these and other challenges will confront us as a people, and in a world of enflamed passions, of racial mistrust, simmering resentments and violent despair, a managerial calm will not do. We face what is difficult and what is frightening, we prepare ourselves for the work of generations, not with the pale blandishments of reason, but with the passions of fantasy, with the image of a world so much better that we ache for it.
This passion is always embodied in a person, a leader. And the only man that history has prepared for this role in Canada is Justin Trudeau. We can hope that he has inherited a part of his father’s intellect, some of his talent for the theatrical, and a large dose of the arrogance that we loved in Trudeau however much we may have condemned it, as — polite Canadians — we were inevitably going to. What Justin Trudeau can bring to the political fray is the sense that a moribund liberal party has found, finally, its event. That after the attempts to create a new energy from the hearts of energyless men, after the maddening inability of the Liberal party to generate an image of the future that strikes us all as simply and convincingly good, there will be a figure, a voice, a face, that will attach the picture of our imagined beautiful future to a picture of our imagined beautiful past.
And this is the greatest power of political fantasy. The past is what it is, riddled, as always, with compromise, inertia, the pettiness of the everyday exercise of power. It may be incorrect, the burnished image we always offer up of this past. It may be factually inaccurate to see in Pierre Eliot Trudeau a leader of vision, a man of scope and reach. This, some might argue, is political fantasy at its worst. But the strange thing about such fantasy is that its worst is intimately bound up with its best. Perhaps fantasy cannot change the brute factual reality of the past, but it most certainly can change what will be the equally brute and inescapable reality of the future. If the image we possess of Pierre Trudeau is that of a man whose potential went largely unrealized, who had in reserve wisdom and decisiveness that, for a host of reasons, went unused, then why not see in his son the return to the scene of the very wisdom and energy we need today more than ever? If the son echoes the father, if — greatest of dreams — he strives to surpass the father, we should encourage and applaud such ambition. If he one day appears large to us, large with political purpose, large with hope, large in his expectations of us, then this power will become our truth, however much it may be couched in terms that are beautiful, poetic, dramatic, even fantastic.
Justin Trudeau’s moment is not yet here. He is still young, still flexing his political and intellectual muscle. I hope he will not fall victim to the modesty with which our culture seems sometimes cursed. He will assume leadership with a strong wind at his back, with an inheritance of political capital, with — most importantly — an aura of fragile but effective historical magic. He may not thank fate for having dropped him into this role, but we may still have reason to thank him if he assumes it will strength and purpose.
[ Alan Bourassa ]
As much as I regard the likes of Glen Beck and Sarah Palin with the haughty condescension of an anthropologist studying the most bloodthirsty of cannibals, I cannot help but feel that the Palins and Becks of the world dwell in a region where there are political treasures to be won. They, in short, seem to have something that I — that we, as Canadians — could use: the talent to harness fantasy to political ends.
Every four years my normal interest in soccer (which I will hereafter call “football,” thus indicating that I am a North American but not excessively proud of it, since the word “soccer” just catches in my throat) is elevated to a fever pitch when the World Cup rolls around. And every four years, like clockwork, we hear the predictions that football is about to come into its own in North America. The next decade, we were told in the eighties and nineties, is the decade when football will finally take hold. North Americans will develop the aficion that the world already embraces.
Of course, we are still waiting. It seems that there is something in football that fails to stir the North American imagination, some resistance we have to it as a meaningful activity. We embrace hockey, baseball, basketball, MMA, a whole range of sports. We can even get excited about bobsledding and decathalon every four years, but we hold back suspiciously from football, as if it is about to tell us something that we don’t want to know. It may be that the meaning of football is beyond us. We are not ready for its hard lessons.
Watching three games a day for the last week, something occurs to me, and becomes clearer and clearer to me: The “beautiful game” is ugly. Surely there is no sport in the history of mankind that features incompetence, banality, failure, duplicity and anguish as much as football.
Although it is true that every sport features moments of failure (the strikeout, the allowed goal, being knocked unconscious), it is also true that every moment of failure is accompanied by a more apparent and obvious moment of triumph that will be remembered more vividly than the failure. We remember and replay the punch that scores the knockout, the split-fingered fastball that completes the no-hitter, the slapshot that eludes the goalie. We celebrate and recall the triumphs, and understand the painful failure as a necessary by-product of that triumph. Failure, for North American sports fans, is never a thing in itself. In fact it is so rare to note spectacular moments of failure, that really historic moments of incompetence (like the hapless Bill Buckner’s World Series blunder at first base) become iconic, to be approached with eyes averted. North American sports are optimistic celebrations of skill. Hockey players glide with more-than-human speed and finesse, basketball players score points flying through the air, boxers can’t move without embodying power and strength.
But the texture of football — its essential background — is failure and banality. And, what is more, football celebrates this ugliness. I don’t deny the breathtaking skill required to play football at the world cup level, but the optics of the game render this skill all but invisible. Average sized and smallish men in baggy uniforms routinely miss a target that is, quite literally, larger than a garden shed. I have seen simple passes made under no pressure that fail to connect to a teammate ten feet away. I have seen, already in the last two weeks, goaltending blunders that would have lost a Canadian his citizenship. I have seen shots taken by the best players in the world that seemed perversely designed to miss the goal. I have seen the English team trot through a scoreless tie with Algeria like despondent llamas, and a French team whose plodding petulance will all but erase the memory of past world cup triumphs. Football players are capable of playing so badly that games — very much unlike even bad hockey, baseball, or basketball games — simply become distressing and saddening to watch. And far from turning away from all this awfulness, football broadcasts it. The camera will dwell on the anguish of a player who has just missed a shot into an open net. And the announcers, I have noticed this week, will not discuss a scoring play without adding “The defense really fell down on that one,” or, snidely, “Well, the goalkeeper has to do much better than that!”
And as if the missed shots, bobbled passes, scoreless ties, own-goals weren’t enough, the game becomes even uglier when we add in the ever-present fakery, diving, groans of anguish and Shakespearean death scenes that make footballers seem less like athletes and more like amateur thespians at an improv workshop. Football offers us officials so gullible they surely must moonlight as referees for professional wrestling, and features an offside rule so perverse and impossible to call that it not only guarantees that all action will stop the moment the game becomes exciting, but that many goals will be rabidly disputed and dissected for decades (see New Zealand’s goal against Italy) and will rankle with the losers and taint the pride of the victory. And this is not even to mention the gambling and sex abuse scandals, the temper tantrums and locker-room feuds. Football is truly a horrible game. Has no one has picked up on the irony of calling this slow, stumbling, bumbling mess “the beautiful game”?
And this is precisely what we miss in North America. Our games are finally about triumph. They accept defeat only as the poor cousin of victory. Everything is geared to the promise that we will break the bonds of the human condition and watch heroics (and make no mistake: our constant bleat that the innocence of sports and the glory of athletic heroes have been lost is the greatest indicator of how tightly we still hold to our childhood dreams).
But football is immersed in the very ugly and limiting conditions of everydayness. Unjust decisions, unfair play by opponents, days when the emotion necessary for victory just isn’t there. Skillful players make mostly unskillful plays. The vast majority of attacks sputter out weakly and come to nothing. There is falling and clutching, tangles and flying elbows, and always balls dribbling out of bounds. Whole teams run out of ideas. Energyless games end nil-nil. One begins to suspect that the average football fan must be sustained by a healthy dose of masochism.
But then there is the moment.
In Uruguay’s game against host team South Africa, Diego Forlan, barely in sight of goal, takes an unlikely shot, and it is as if the ball has left ordinary time, as if the moment the ball was struck the goal was assured and all we could do along with the players was to watch it happen. There is always a kind of agonizing stasis as the ball flies, and strangely, the harder the ball is struck, the more laser-like it is, the more it gives this impression that one is already watching the original moment in slow motion. Brazil’s Maicon scores a goal from an impossible angle against North Korea, and his shot seems to defy the laws of physics as it swerves into the goal. New Zealand’s young goalkeeper Mark Paston performs acrobatics against powerhouse Italy, flying horizontally across goal, attacking the ball with a balletic ferocity to win an almost miraculous draw for his country. There are moments when the great teams are on the attack and amid the chaotic swirl of bodies, the dogfight of defense and attack, we can perceive a delicate pattern emerge, the series of three and four and five lightning passes that cut through the madness and finish with the ball in the back of the net. It is fragile and easily missed, but it is what all football fans thrill to.
And this is perhaps what we fail to understand about this ugly beautiful game. It is only from the wreckage of the game, from its human limitations, its coarseness and its mundanity that the beauty can emerge. Football is not offered to us as an escape from the hard conditions of living, but as proof that it is from those conditions — let them be as petty, as grotesque, as cruel as they will — that the moments of beauty and perfection will emerge, as eternal as they are fleeting.
The recent debates on the burqa in France and Quebec point to a uniquely contemporary problem: the strange short-circuits we encounter today between the private and the public. I do not mean to be perversely provocative when I draw comparisons between the burqa debate and the popularity of more and more lurid kinds of reality television, but I do see a kind of underground connection that may clarify both our notions of privacy today and the disproportional anxiety that the burqa seems to cause to secular society, whether in Europe or North America.
We live today in a media culture in which the notion of privacy seems quaint and outdated. Teenage celebrities are sure to be at the center of sex-tape or sexting scandals; we are fascinated by people like Tiger Woods with unique and extraordinary talents, not for those remarkable talents, but for the banal sexual appetites (always for porn stars and cocktail waitresses, the poutine of the sexual world) that make them just like any of us. We assume that the only good conversations are confessional ones. And even those of us with some shred of decorum left are still not averse to posting private thoughts as our Facebook tag lines. This is not, however, a lament over the loss of some paradise of privacy and integrity. Back in the sixties, my farmer uncle in New Brunswick had a party-line telephone that he shared with six other households. I can vouch for the fact that people — even stolid maritime farm-folk — were gossip-mongers even before Big Brother and Entertainment Tonight hit the airwaves. No, rather I am mapping out the advent of a new form of communal life: what we might call the “public-private.”
We are all familiar with the “public-private.” It is that area of private emotional life (what used to be private life, at any rate) that is now fodder for prurient entertainment, the private dragged — or tossed — into the public sphere. The “public-private” is only interested in those aspects of private emotional life that are the most titillating, the most primitive, the most ridiculous. We want to know about adulteries, distasteful habits (a recent posting on Huffington Post discussed Jessica Simpson’s lack of dental hygiene), emotional blowups, domestic quarrels. In the realm of the “public-private” we care nothing for those aspects of emotional life that are more subtle: those moments of regret, the badly incorporated bits of grief that are the result of any life lived beyond infancy, the small centers of love and joy around which even the most despised life tries to orbit. We don’t want to know about those. We are even a bit embarrassed to encounter true privacy, true interiority. We will continue to be satisfied with the spectacles of lust and hypocrisy to which we have become accustomed.
This is why the public display of the Burqa is so disturbing. In the wearer of the burqa, we do not encounter the amusing “public-private,” but something far more disturbing: the “private public,” the woman who, appearing in public, nevertheless demands and enacts a deep privacy, a reserve that can only be destabilizing for those who encounter it, especially those for whom the concept of privacy has become a punch-line.
The first protest against the burqa, always ridiculous, is that it threatens public safety by hiding identity. Never mind that such laws always include exceptions for festive occasions (where the crowds present a ripe target for a masked terrorist). If the burqa represents a threat from radical Islam, is it not just the opposite of an attempt to hide identity, to slip unnoticed past the safety nets? Does it not represent, from a military standpoint, the exact opposite of camouflage? If the enemy is the one wearing the burqa, will we not see them coming a mile away?
Jean Francois Copé, in a recent interview with The Economist, reveals more truthfully the source of burqa-anxiety:
We consider in France…when we talk about brotherhood, fraternity, we need to know a little bit about the other one….When you meet someone on the street that you don’t know, the first thing is to shake hands and to smile. When you smile to someone and you cannot see if the other one answer to your smile because you cannot see his face, you just miss the first part of his identity and this is why we think that this is not consistent with the values of democracy, of liberty, of respect.
What Copé is describing here is the anxiety of encountering the face that insists on keeping itself to itself. It is the encounter with the “private public” self, with the person who insists on participating in all the necessary activities of public life without taking on the additional burden of doing so in a way that will reassure the most anxious of us that there is a “warm human self” under the veil. The wearing of the burqa is, indeed, an implicit rejection of the right we have accorded ourselves of entering uninvited into the emotional lives of others. Copé’s implicit assumption here is “How can I accord you any democratic rights if you do not reveal yourself to me?” as if the right to equality under the law depends upon emotional confession. Such a confession, crucial between lovers and friends, has never been a necessary condition for democracy. Indeed, when Robert Frost subtly disparages the New England wisdom that “good fences make good neighbours” he seems less wise today then he did when “Mending Wall” was first published. The walls that protect our privacy, that set a part of our lives aside for those we choose to let in, are in need of mending.
This is why, despite the tiny minority of Muslim women who wear the burqa (only 2000 of a million and a half adult Muslim women in France), the appearance of the burqa in public so scandalizes our sense of the normal. We can accept the vulgarity of the “public private” with its carnivalesque divorce trials and feuds between drug-addled celebrities. We are not disturbed by this form of public display. What does disturb us is the presence in our midst of a deep privacy, the “private public” self that will not play our game, and whose commitment to privacy in a world of voyeurs cannot but appear to us as at once an affront and profoundly enviable.
Multiculturalism depends upon the explicitly stated desire to be together. This desire is the public face of the multicultural ideal. It says “Let’s talk to each other. You tell me about your way of doing things and I’ll tell you about mine. I’ll eat your cooking and you eat mine. I’ll do a dance on your holiday and you light a candle on mine.” Without this public proclamation of good will (and the proclamation must be not only public but ongoing; it doesn’t count unless it is proclaimed as a regular part of our public discourse) there could be no understanding between cultures, races, language groups, religious beliefs. We all know this.
What we may not know is that there is another side to this open invitation into our lives. There is another proclamation, not so public, but enacted in public every day by every one of us. That proclamation is “Leave me alone.” Just as we cannot live together unless we are open to being together, we can also not live together if we don’t know when to back off. Another name for this knowledge is “tact.”
Last month I had a tactless encounter, one that we have all had and handled with varying degrees of diplomacy. My doorbell rang and when I answered the door I was met with two very unwelcome things: an icy breeze and a religious enthusiast who felt obliged to share with me the knowledge that I was not living correctly. I informed him that, thank you, but I have also thought about these issues, have taught the Bible and have come to my own conclusions and to my own philosophy. In other words, “Thanks, but I don’t want to talk to you.” He then proceeded to inform me (while I was politely trying to close the door and wish him better luck at the next house, and trying to bear the blast of cold air chasing all the expensive heat from my apartment) that he was not talking about a “philosophy” (a word that he pronounced with a definite sneer) but a “belief.” I countered with “I’ll tell you what I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in aggressive proselytizing.” The last word stunned him long enough for me to close the door.
In my imagined version of the conversation I say this: “You think I am living my life in an incorrect manner. I believe that you are delusional. I believe your assumption that you have access to the mind of God is arrogant and in direct contradiction to your purported humility. I believe that your arrogance is a step away from a dangerous aggression, and I think that you are wasting your life and doing more harm than good. So we both believe that the other is wrong. But here is the difference between you and me: I don’t knock on your door to inform you that I believe you are wrong. I respect your privacy and your right to have this delusional belief.”
This encounter has brought home to me the need for tact in a society where we all live together. When I say that we practice this skill every day, I mean that we navigate our lives in the close- packed urban world knowing when to give each other space. We understand when not to make eye contact, when to ignore behavior, when it is appropriate to have those small limited exchanges that make modern life more agreeable. Mostly, we understand how not to make ourselves burdensome to others. So, far from decrying the alienation that is a part of the modern world, we should see in it our salvation.
The hard truth of multiculturalism is that we only embrace the easy parts. It is no real moral challenge for me as an agnostic to light a candle at midnight and listen to the Greek Orthodox priest announce the resurrection of Christ. It is easy to like world music. It is more than easy to love Singapore Noodles. Food, music, holidays: if these were the whole of multiculturalism, it would not create such passion. The uncomfortable part of a multicultural society is when we believe that others are living not just differently, but incorrectly. I believe that your culture does not show women respect. You believe that my culture shows no respect for proper authority. I believe that you are a slave to tradition. You believe that I don’t really care about my family. We can’t wholeheartedly embrace those aspects of the other that clash with our own sense of right and wrong. So what are we to do?
We already know the answer: leave each other alone. We know we won’t convert each other, so we will just have to ignore those parts of each other’s cultures that we can’t agree with. As in any socially awkward situation we will practice diplomacy, look the other way. The paradox of multiculturalism is that it is only possible where there is a unifying belief to which any culture can subscribe. Finding such a belief is next to impossible if we are looking for some particular proposition that we can all agree to. It is, however, much easier when the statement that we agree to is “None of us will break the law, but I’ll do what I do, and you do what you do.” It is only when we demonstrate this tact to each other that we can ever hope to gain the trust that would allow us to ask questions of each other, challenge, debate. But we must learn to do so not by knocking on a closed door but by having the skill not to go where we are not invited.
One of the most profound yet mysterious claims of psychoanalysis is that “our desire is always the other’s desire.” Like many truths, this one flies in the face of common sense. “My desire,” I want to argue, “is my own. It involves me and only me. It is what is most private and intimate about me, and if I do not own my desires, I do not truly own myself.” And that statement would be true if I lived in the glorious isolation of the solipsist. But it is a position that falls apart the moment it is subjected to the test of real life. My desires are not my own. In some uncanny way, the desires of others — their dreams, their goals, their fantasies — lend texture and shape and color to my own.
This lesson came home to me a few years ago when I was showing a friend of mine from Japan around Montreal. I have come to the terms with the fact that I am constitutionally incapable of showing people this city without beaming with enthusiasm and pride every moment. We had just visited Notre-Dame Basilica and were walking east toward Place Jacques Cartier. I was pointing out the architectural highlights along the way and telling her that she was in for a treat when we got to the old port. She looked at me curiously, and with a teasing smile said “You act like it was you who built all of this!” I admit that, just for a moment, it slipped my mind that I hadn’t. Reflecting on her good-natured jab, it struck me as odd that this city, whose shape and mood reflects the work and plans and aspirations of thousands of people, many of whose bones are now dust, seems to me to be particularly mine, seems to belong to me in a way so undeniable that somewhere in my dream world I think that am magnanimously sharing this city with all of you who do me the compliment of living here. I think this is what Jacques Lacan meant when he said that our desire is always the desire of the other. We claim others’ desires as our own. The world that others built to suit their particular vision is the world that we know we would have built if the job had fallen to us. We desire and dream as we do because others desire and dream as they do. This insight offers, I think, an important perspective on immigration and what it can mean to say that we live “together.”
On the last day of the Olympics I sat anxiously with my brother, his girlfriend Maru, and her two sons Jorge and Juan Carlos as we waited for the Canada-USA hockey game to begin. Maru, her two sons and her daughter (also named Maru) are from Mexico and have lived in Canada for more than five years. They have availed themselves of all the educational opportunities that have been offered. They have learned French and English well enough to work with the public, and they continue to plan for better things. Maru is taking training under Canada’s Action Plan to return to the job market after a layoff, she is practicing her graphic arts, and Carlos is planning to study philosophy at Concordia. During the game, Maru was often too nervous to watch, so she sat in front of her computer screen finding the latest tally of Canadian Olympic medals. More than anyone in the room, she was intensely excited that Canada was one gold medal away from setting an Olympic record. She reminded me at least twice that this summer she would be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship, and her children soon after. She and her children were staking their claim to Canada. Carlos said “In Mexico we like to beat the Americans in soccer, but they usually beat us. So now, we are Canadian and we will definitely beat them in hockey!” All afternoon as the game unfolded, the talk kept coming back to Canada, the medal count, how well we had done, and it became clear to me that Maru and Jorge and Carlos talked about Canada in a way that I never would. It was a pride unmixed with cynicism. Their anticipation of citizenship was the anticipation of a great gift, a transformative gift. As they spoke I could almost see my internal image of Canada changing, from a place where I live to a place where others dream of living. And when Crosby scored the goal that will take its place alongside those of Paul Henderson and Mario Lemieux I don’t know whose whoops of delight were the loudest. But we all settled back together into that happy exhaustion of relief that follows a brush with overtime terror. They had just undergone a truly “Canadian” initiation.
Perhaps it was the momentousness of the Olympics, the feeling that our experience of ourselves as Canadians was being transformed by the gaze of the world. Perhaps it is just the joy of a hockey victory, something never to be underestimated in Canada. But I had the sense that day of how much our own lives are entwined with others. It is as if my experience of being Canadian — dulled and washed out from overuse — is renewed and refreshed by listening to those for whom the word “Canada” is the promise of a future. And, apart from all the practical economic and social arguments for why immigration is a boon to a country that invites new citizens, this one resonates most powerfully for me: our country is more our own when its meanings are not just for us, but for others. It is more our own when, viewing it through the eyes of new citizens, we see unguessed dimensions that have always been there, but invisible to us. It is more our own when it is our gift to others, and their joyful acceptance of it their gift to us.
A strange thing happens when you say the word “culture.” It is like a confession, the telling of a deep dark secret. The minute I defend my culture as a culture, I have already taken a step back from it. I say “my culture teaches that…,” and it can be a whole range of teachings: my culture teaches that my accomplishments do honor to my ancestors. My culture teaches that God is a father who watches over us. My culture teaches that learning is the highest value. The confession implicit in all of these statements is that my culture is just that: a culture. It is not the divinely ordained order of things. It is not the unquestionable product of nature. It is a culture, something that has been made by people over a period of time. And just as human work turns out new forms and ideals, so culture will always change and adapt.
When we are safely ensconced in a culture we pay little attention to it as a culture. There are times and places where the clash of cultures is kept to a minimum. My mother, for example, who grew up in a uniformly Scots-Irish Protestant part of New Brunswick in the 1930s, never faced serious issues of culture until she came to Montreal (and lived on the fringes of the Montreal jazz world in the late 40s, a fact that never ceases to delight me). When the tension between our culture and the outside world is at its weakest, we barely perceive our own culture as anything but the basic background of everydayness. We spend little time worrying about the rightness and wrongness of our way of life. We even, to some extent, feel a certain ironic distance toward it (perhaps the attitude of those who attended Catholic school towards nuns is a model of this experience). We might call this attitude “ironic culturalism.” When I live in the ironic mode I may claim that I don’t believe a certain thing (say, that Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden), but I comport myself as if I do because others believe it, and so I believe for their benefit. For example, parents don’t believe in Santa Clause but they behave as if they do in order not to disappoint the children. The irony is that when the children stop believing, it is the parents who feel the loss most acutely. In the same way, less literalist Christians will claim not to believe that the entire human race was corrupted by a bad choice of fruits or that a man literally returned from the dead, but they will still participate in rituals based on these imagined events, and may even admire Christians of an earlier generation for their simpler beliefs. The paradox is that the admiration for those who “really believed” is itself a powerful form of belief. So distance from a culture is not the death knell of that culture, but its life blood.
In contrast to ironic culturalism, we see these days what we can call “aggressive culturalism.” This is the stridently proclaimed dogma that my culture is not a culture like others, but the only correct way to live, the only true way in relation to which all other cultures are perversions. Such a stance is, of course, what we have come to expect from fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. So we have two possible reactions to modernity’s inevitable collision of cultures: aggression or ironic distance. But at this point something counter-intuitive happens. Although it seems like the aggressive defender of culture is the true traditionalist, the true protector of the past “as it really was,” and that the ironic culturalist (and at this point you may have guessed that I mean “multiculturalist”) is the representative of the corrupt modern world, the opposite is in fact true. The one who angrily proclaims his culture as the true and only way to live, who identifies himself completely as a member of that culture, leaving no room for distance, is the quintessentially modern subject. He falls victim to distinctively modern problems: the undermining of a single set of beliefs by the multiplicity of belief systems, the paranoia that comes from the sense of being invaded by “foreigners,” the vertigo brought on by new sources of criticism and new possibilities of self-criticism. The angry fundamentalist who wants to preserve his culture untainted and unchanged at all costs can, in fact, only exist in the modern world.
The multiculturalist, on the other hand, is forced to live in the ironic mode. He knows that his culture is not the only one in the world. He sees others behaving in reasonable and moral ways — ways as reasonable and moral as his own — without the benefit of his particular culture. He will continue to follow his own cultural rituals, beliefs and practices, but with a kind of minimal distance from them. He can live his culture, in other words, without the need for militant belief. And this is exactly what makes the multiculturalist a traditionalist. The sign that a culture — any culture — is alive and thriving is that its members do not fear that it is fragile and threatened. They understand it simply as the way they live, but they also understand (with the benefit of irony) the unspoken rules of their own culture, the rules that tell them when rules can be broken, where the limits of authority are, and how to live with the unbelief of others. We truly live a culture, in other words, not when we hold it in a death grip, but when we conduct ourselves with a certain flexibility, critical distance and affectionate cynicism. This is the stance of the true traditionalist, the one who knows that his culture will only thrive by evolving, by not desperately grasping at outmoded forms of living. The multiculturalist, therefore, is the real traditionalist, the one who can embrace his culture without being swallowed whole by it, the one who understands that his tradition is most alive when it is most energetically reaching into the unknown future. He understands what may be the most important lesson of modern culture: that to believe truly we must never believe excessively.
When my friend Karen adopted her daughter Jessica from Haiti she knew that she would face challenges. The problems adjusting to a new life, to a school where she was one of the only black children were to be expected. Jessica’s terrible insomnia made for many anxious nights for her mother, and a divorce tested the limits of Karen’s resilience. But through the years it was apparent that Jessica was growing up into an interesting person with a ribald sense of humor, and a sharp intuitive sense of people. However, it is one of the most intractable problems that Karen faces that has made me think about the difficulties of raising a child from Haiti in an almost all white environment and neighborhood: the problem of language. And I am not referring to what we Quebecers usually mean by “the problem of language” but rather something much closer to a universal human concern: how to give children the language to speak their experience. In any family this is a delicate issue. How do we speak to our children? How do we model for them the right words to make sense of their own lives? And how, as in the case of my friend, do we do so when the child’s experience is so much different from our own, where we may inhabit the same household, but where we live in very different worlds.
Over the years, Karen had noticed that her daughter resisted any talk of Haiti. She did not seem interested in knowing more about her origins and would say “I don’t want to talk about it” when Karen pressed her. The recent tragedy in Haiti brought this issue to a head because Karen honestly didn’t know how to speak to Jessica about her feelings. When she tried, she encountered the resistance she had grown so accustomed to. Finding common ground was always difficult because Jessica was acutely aware of the difference between her and her mother. “We’re not the same. We’re so different. We don’t even have the same last name,” she would tell her.
But, being a modern mother, she had been “friended” on Facebook by her daughter. Two things on Jessica’s Facebook page caught Karen’s eye. One was that she had, like many people, posted a request on her status that people send funds to Haiti. A common enough request, but perhaps one that held more meaning than meets the eye. She had also posted a link to a YouTube video, part of an Oprah Winfrey show in which a mixed race girl discusses her inability to fit in to either the white or the black peer groups in her school. In the video, the girl talks about her loneliness; and Oprah, true to form, comforts her by offering inspirational messages of support from mixed race celebrities. Jessica seemed very moved by the video, and it quickly became apparent why. Of course she didn’t identify with the black students in the video because, for her, the most important link was not with the students of the same race, the ones who looked like her. They were not facing the same struggle as Jessica because they had a group to call their own. The mixed race girl, like Jessica, found herself between worlds.
Jessica’s identification was not racial but emotional. Soon after seeing the video Karen was able to take a step in communicating with her daughter when she said “When you don’t want to talk to me, it makes me feel lonely like the girl in the video.” It was a small breakthrough, but Karen could see that Jessica had understood. Hearing this story makes me think of what challenges the adoptive parents of international children face. The child can’t simply model her language on the parent’s language. The words — “family,” “home,” “different,” “friends,” “black,” “white”– don’t mean the same things. But I think that children in these cases try to forge their own language with what is available to them. They will join the chorus asking help for Haiti, even when there may be far more at stake for them than they can say. They will insist “We are different” when a parent’s love wants to say “We are the same.” They will look for mirrors, even if what is being mirrored is not their face but their heart. My friend’s experience has opened up far more questions than I can answer. I would like to hear from those parents who have adopted children from around the world. How do you give them the language that they will use to shape their experience? How do you learn to read their sometimes enigmatic codes? How do you find, or create, a language between you?
I knew it wasn’t my imagination. For too long I lived away from Montreal, but since 2001 I have spent summers here, sitting on terrasses and drinking in life on the street. Over the years I could swear I’ve been hearing more English spoken downtown, on the Plateau, even in Outremont. Recently I stumbled on a Gazette article from last November (http://www.montrealgazette.com/health/anglo+revival/2204478/story.html) claiming a 5% increase in the Anglophone population in Quebec since 2001. The article features a young couple from New Zealand who were charmed enough by Montreal to make it their permanent home. Now what I am about to say is sheer speculation, but I am willing to wager that a significant number of Anglos coming to Quebec are part of a kind of reverse diaspora of those who could not finally overcome their longing for Montreal. My girlfriend and I are two of those who returned after finding life elsewhere wanting.
The idea of a wave of Anglo Quebecers returning to the roost pleases me, not just because it is always nice to be part of a movement, but because I think the reverse diaspora illustrates a previously unseen affinity between French and English speaking Quebecers. The philosopher Eric Santner has observed that we do not truly share in a way of life when we agree with its values and codes of conduct, “but, rather, when we are, as it were, haunted by its spirits.” Since I can remember, the constant undertone (and frequent keynote) of the language debate in Quebec is the sense of hauntedness by the possibility of a loss. French Quebecers experience their language — the great cultural treasure — as something threatened, something that always seems about to disappear. Another group of people who have experienced an equivalent loss are Quebec Anglophones who have left Montreal. A quick poll of ex-Montrealers in Toronto or Calgary would quickly reveal that the loss we suffer when we leave Quebec is obviously not a linguistic loss (since we end up in English-speaking provinces or in the United States) but a cultural loss, a loss of Quebec culture, in all its glorious impurity. When French Quebec feels haunted by an impending loss of their language, they are not anticipating a loss of a vocabulary and a set of grammatical rules, but of a way of life, a very specific way of being in the world. It has to do with how one finds happiness, the role that beauty plays in urban space, the way relationships supersede profit, the understanding that an ungraspable quality of elegance makes life worthwhile.
For Francophones, the French language stands in for all of these values. For Anglophones, Montreal stands in for the very same values. Francophone Quebecers fear the loss of this quality. Anglophone Quebecers who have fled west have actually experienced the loss of this quality. When we return — and my intuition is that we are returning — it will not be as a political threat to French Quebec, but as people who have lost the same treasure that Francophones fear losing. Having lost it, and found it again here waiting for us, we want to preserve it, protect it in partnership with Francophones, the only other people in Canada with whom we share this great cultural hauntedness.
I am about to offer a jaundiced vision of James Cameron’s Avatar, and I feel a bit like the guest who kicks the magician at a children’s party. I will certainly see Avatar again, if only to revel in the hallucinatory flora and fauna, the waterfalls tumbling from mid-air mountains, the leonine beauty of the Na’vi’s faces. I am more than excited by the possibilities of the technology that had to be invented to make this movie, technology so dazzling that had it been used to make a movie about talking squirrels colonizing Neptune I would have been equally impressed. In a strange way, the breathtaking CGI of Avatar serves the same purpose as the use of black and white in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: it is an index of the film’s moral seriousness. After all, if we are to narrate the moral fairy tale of how an edenic world is protected from evil, it is desirable that the audience be drawn as deeply into that world as possible, and it is the job of technology to draw the viewer in. It is the particular mode of this drawing-in that gives me a moment of hesitation. Like the film to which it is often compared — Dances with Wolves — Avatar is a film that stands and falls on its moral message about our relationship with the cultural “other,” the fellow being who irresistibly demands a kind of moral responsibility of me. In the case of Avatar, this moral responsibility extends beyond the Na’vi to mother nature herself, as threatened by the incursion of the human mechanisms of death and destruction as the beings who dwell in her embrace. Avatar, in short, offers a moral message about what is owed in way of respect, protection, even love to the racial and cultural other. The problem is that in order to present this racial and natural other as worthy of our love it must be eroticized to the nth degree. Nature in Avatar is a bright and irresistible candy store of desires. It is nature that you want to run your tongue over. Much the same can be said for the blue temptresses of the Na’vi. Outside of pornography I don’t remember ever having seen camera work that took such delight in the spectacle of perfect bodies. What Marlene Dietrich’s face was for Sternberg, Na’vi buttocks are for James Cameron. Don’t misunderstand me: I am in favor of eroticizing anything from sunsets to iphones to pudding. It becomes a problem when the imperatives of moral duty become entangled with the libidinal pleasures of erotic fantasy, because then the cultural and racial other (the immigrant, the aboriginal, the stranger) becomes worthy of my care and concern only insofar as he awakens my fantasy. The nature we want to save in Avatar is not the nature of viruses, dirt, and predation but a creamy, fruit-flavored, perfectly consumable product. In the same way, there is nothing of the Na’vi that might make us uncomfortable, that might challenge us to see beyond ourselves because the Na’vi are pure reflections of our own unattainable desires: taller, stronger, healthier, more beautiful. It is as if Cameron could not trust our ethics to awaken unless it was prodded by our lust. And is this not the challenge of any multiculturalism that aspires to ethical seriousness? It is not to the degree that the other dazzles me, makes my pulse beat faster, awakens in me desire and longing, that I should attempt to build a peaceable world with him, just as it is not only a tarted-up version of nature that deserves protection. The other whose presence disturbs my equilibrium, the stranger, the sojourner, calls for an ethical response that is decidedly not titillating. It is made up of small accommodations, legal debates, everyday decisions to thwart one’s own fearful hostility. This work is hard enough without also demanding of the other that he arouse my desires. As I said, I will certainly see Avatar again. However questionable, a thing of beauty is a thing of beauty quite apart from its truth value. Besides, with the pace of technological evolution, I’m sure by this summer Avatar will be old hat and we will all be dazzled by the adventures of the talking squirrels colonizing Neptune.
I returned to Montreal in 2008 after fifteen years away and my homecoming has made me think about the idea of having a place that I call home. I admire those modern day nomads who seem to be able to pull up roots and live anywhere, but I until recently I haven’t fully understood them because it seems that they have either learned to live without holding some true home in their heart — and I can’t believe such a thing — or they have learned to carry the possibility of home with them. And by this I do not mean that they carry bits and pieces of their home with them — the idea of the business man travelling with a picture of his children to put on his hotel night table — but that we carry with us the power of turning where we are into a kind of outpost of the home we love.
When I left Montreal in 1992 the first thing I did after landing in Tennessee and going to my hotel was to sit and weep at what I had lost. Later in 2001, when I went to Fredericton, I spent my first full night there sitting and smoking outside the closed up bus station downtown because it somehow felt like the closest place I could find to Montreal. But eventually I found a way to call Nashville and Fredericton home. And now that I have returned to my true place in the world I understand how. My memories, my images of what was beautiful and what made me happy had been created and fixed in me long before I left Montreal, and so I went to find the spirit of Montreal wherever I could, even if that spirit were only a fleeting moment. The farmer’s market in Fredericton is no Atwater Market, but the sense of community was there, the happy overproximity of people, the crowd from which a friendly face could always emerge. In Nashville there would be concerts in Riverfront Park, and on certain warm summer nights filled with music the turn-of-the century warehouse buildings along First Avenue would make me think of walking down Rue de la Commune in Old Montreal. I found myself recasting the world in the colours and shapes of Montreal: the way a streetlight illuminated a doorway, a storefront that reminded me of a depanneur in Outremont, a dash of architectural brio in a Nashville highrise at night. And sometimes, even in this city to which I longed to return, I find myself remembering my adopted cities and those moments of happiness. And now I understand those brave souls who leave their homes to start afresh. They too find the unexpected flashes of their old home in their new one. They find those moments, give them space, and in the end, give themselves, or give themselves back, a world.