Canadian culture and our obsession about attention from the U.S.

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When Sally Field received her second Oscar as best actress, she burbled, or was perceived to: "You like me. You really like me." This became a trope. The Canadian equivalent, nation to nation, us to the U.S., is: "You're interested in us. You're really interested in us." We keep count: over three recent days, U.S. media reports on Rob Ford were mentioned 200 times in Canada and 700 times in the U.S. That's reports of reports, not the story itself. We want to know how often they mention their coverage of us. It's practically mystical.

I used to fantasize that one day Canadian national maturity would arrive and we'd stop obsessing over their attention. It won't happen. Its roots run too deep. In 1886, Canadian author and journalist Sara Jeannette Duncan, wrote about Canadians' fear of underachievement: "… and our American cousins with an indifferent wonder (a great turn of phrase for what's still there, as Americans gawk northward with zero interest in what it actually means for us, to them it's just another diversion) make the same interrogatory whereupon one of them (today that would be Matt Lauer, Nic Robertson, etc.) tarries in Montreal (the metropolis then as Toronto is now) for three days (insert three hours) ascertains, and prints in Harper's magazine (now CNN, etc.) that it is due to our arctic temperature!"

I should disclose that the first piece of journalism I ever published and was paid for was an article in Harper's, decades ago, explaining weird Canadian features like Quebec separatism and the military rule imposed countrywide by liberal/Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, for the benefit of indifferent but curious American readers. That's how I know it'll never end.

There was a simultaneous tremor this week in the world of CanCult proper when Canadian-born but otherwise New Zealandish novelist Eleanor Catton won the Governor General's prize (here, not there) after already copping the Booker. It was a "scandal" and an "embarrassing day for CanLit," wrote various patriots. All the worse coming just after Alice Munro, who not only lives here but writes almost exclusively about here, won the Nobel. Hold on, shouldn't that give us breathing room, allow us to relax a tad? Not at all. Like rich people who think about little except losing their money, any cultural success just tenses us up.

Since nothing will avail in the area of our self-doubt and need for external attention, let me turn to what Americans may be missing that could be useful to them. Of course they're possessive and like to point out, as Jay Leno did, that they already had Washington mayor Marion Barry. (Though in all humility, I must note that Barry remained a coherent human being; he never approached Rob Ford's near-demiurgic creativity in effortlessly generating daily chaos.)

But the real lesson for them has to do with the civility here with which both friends and foes -- but especially foes -- have dealt with Ford. The way Pam McConnell picked herself up at city council and tried to calm Rob after he ran her down; or Adam Vaughan's reluctant but sincere urging of the mayor to get help, though Vaughan is no softie and deplores the Fordian drama queen effect on our public life.

The U.S. press seems to register this but doesn't know what to do with it. "I noticed that," said MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell almost wistfully, then moved on. "This is the most annoyingly polite place on Earth," bawled Jessica Williams on The Daily Show. Could it be they're suffering from civility envy and don't want to face it since they know it's unthinkable in their own environment? I'm not saying we're secure in that trait but it's lasted longer than likely, especially under assault for years from the Stephen Harper hate machine and outlets like Sun TV.

I should also note they've sometimes showed us up. NBC's Today Show flake Matt Lauer did a far better interview with the Fords than Peter Mansbridge. Perhaps when Mansbridge was offered a job on CBS's morning show in 1988 and CBC made him anchor of The National to keep him here, they should have let him go. Then he could have returned and done a decent interview with Toronto's mayor.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Mark Blevis/flickr

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