Occupation, resistance and the roots of national character

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Canadians obsess, non-neurotically in my view, about the influence of the U.S. on our reality. We're less aware of the American sense of Canada's impact there. In particular, they've often shown a kind of Canuckophilia. Left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore's 1995 Canadian Bacon was a love letter. He'd have clearly welcomed annexation -- though he's since been dismayed by the Harper era. The Rob Ford fascination in the U.S. isn't just another wacko mayor story; it's because he's Canadian. It has a man-bites-dog, Canadian-isn't-nice element.

Now add, via two recent books, the vicious world of Wall Street to settings in which Canadians function as exemplars for Americans. Michael Lewis's Flash Boys focuses on Brad Katsuyama. RBC, i.e., Royal Bank of Canada, sent him down to help establish them on Wall St. He says he met more offensive people in a year than he had in his entire life. His team tagged themselves "RBC nice."

When Katsuyama concluded the stock exchanges were rigged, he decided to set up a new, fair one, despite rancorous opposition. Lewis says his "willingness to throw open a window on the American financial world, and to show people what it has become, still takes my breath away." When they went on U.S. talk shows about the book, Katsuyama held his own nicely, you might say, but you could see Lewis, who knows the game, having his back.

Lewis, of Moneyball etc., is a classic U.S. liberal. Matt Taibbi is in the gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson tradition. But in The Divide, he marvels, much like Lewis, at the equanimity of Canadian financier Prem Watsa, under savage personal attack from the most barbaric hedge fund sharks in the U.S., because a company he bought didn't fail as they had bet it would. These seasoned business journalists are almost gaga at the capacity of "the Canadians" not to collapse or, far more likely, go over to the dark side under pressure from unhinged Americans.

It's interesting that both their "heroes" have Asian roots. Watsa was born in Hyderabad; Katsuyama in Markham. Neither author makes anything of it. It's as if tolerant inclusiveness is a given within that Canadian niceness. It makes you wonder about national characters. It's at least thinkable that if either had grown up in New York, they'd behave differently. To the extent that national character exists, what accounts for it? Of course, we can only speculate.

What, for instance, hardened the hearts of Israelis to the point that there's only minuscule revulsion at mass civilian deaths in Gaza? There used to be huge protests. Perhaps it's the effects of a half-century of occupation: generations of Israeli teens ordering around Palestinians of all ages and absorbing the lessons. The U.S. has occupied foreign societies everywhere militarily. I used to marvel at how unaffected young Americans were by spending time abroad -- normally a transformative experience. But maybe they were affected, only differently. It led them to assume their superiority, their right to rule and their need to conquer.

It works in reverse too, on the occupied (or occupees). Nothing stiffens national pride like living under the heel of others. When Pierre Trudeau sent the army into Montreal in 1970, kids there said, "Voilà les soldats d'Ottawa," which translates as from Ottawa, not of Ottawa. Protests and concerts used the phrase: "Québec, térritoire occupée." Separatist feeling soared and the first PQ government was elected. But as Quebec reoccupied its own space linguistically and in other ways, the intensity diminished, as we saw in the last election. You could see the same effect in Scotland's referendum TV debate this week. There's insufficient anger to stoke a massive Yes vote. They may not be occupied enough to win.

I wonder obsessively myself about Stephen Harper's efforts to reshape the Canadian character. I think he thought it was all due to media influence, but he's won that battle. He was endorsed by every paper in the country except the Star last election. Yet attitudes persist. He can still legislate massive changes, and does, but has he despaired of deeper, attitudinal change? We'll never know of course, unless we could administer a truth serum or eavesdrop on his dreams. Do you think he talks to his therapist about it?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/flickr

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