(Found this in my drafts folder in January 2018; it is unfinished, but I’ve lost the thread of my thought, so I am back-posting it now)
On Canada Day, post-Brexit and pre-US Presidential Vote, I was feeling the Canadian smugness, not going to lie. Something about having spent almost a year now with a government that seems a lot saner and less deliberately apocalyptic than the last has put part of my brain at a dangerous ease, and I slipped more readily into the national myth than I have for years. Isn’t it a nice feeling, to be Canadian? Isn’t it nice that we’re just so nice?
We’ve been telling ourselves that for decades, now. Even last year this time, when anxiety over the Harper Government was at its height, a lot of the criticism could be boiled down to a concern that we had become, as a country, not very nice. We love this myth. The world loves this myth.
I read through Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending earlier this week, and though the book (which publishes a series of lectures that Kermode gave in 1965) is a bit dated and not about Canadian cultural identity per se, his delineation between fiction and myth has stuck with me, especially when I consider it in context of national literature.
Kermode writes that fictions (and here he is talking about literary fictions) “are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent.”
In other words, in order for the story of Canada as a nation of the Nice to be spread and perpetuated, people need to agree to it. Considering the strong drive towards literary nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, in trying to find that elusive essence of Canadian identity as expressed in our literature so that we could compete with The Great American Novel or the British tradition, I’m not surprised that everyone did end up agreeing on something – I’m just disappointed that pop culture has interpreted what they agreed on to be the general Nicety of the populace. Perhaps when compared with the USA (whose right to self-govern was won through revolution blood & fire) or with Britain & France (several centuries of blood and fire, you say?), Canada seems less given to violence, but to characterize every citizen as Nice? Perhaps if one is a descendant of British settlers or American loyalists, of the upper-middle class, and fortunate enough to be a heterosexual dude.
Kermode warns that fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive – that is, whenever “Canadians are Nice” is parroted to children without qualifiers, who then grow up believing this to be a fundamental truth, leading a generation to yearn for a mythic past, when Canadians were, in fact, Nice. Not like now.
The outcry against Black Lives Matter Toronto’s interruption of Pride Toronto last week filled my Facebook dash. Almost all of the posted articles I browsed through were supportive of BLMT’s actions – but the comments on those articles were not. The Niceness Myth had been violated by BLMT’s actions, on several levels.
Level one was that the group had the audacity to hold up a parade. They were marching as guests of honour, and halted the parade to make a statement, and refused to move until Pride authority acquiesced to their demands. Which, to me, seemed reasonable and fitting with the spirit of Pride. However, a lot of the criticism seems to be focusing itself around the fact that what they did was “disrespectful.” “Rude,” even. Heavens, we aren’t Americans, you know. We don’t have American problems like racism and police violence. (Check the comments on this article for some non-ironic iterations of this attitude; xenophobia’s alive and well up here.)
Level two was that they reminded people that Toronto Pride has its roots in protesting police violence against the LGBT community – it seems that a lot of Canadians don’t like to think about the fact that we weren’t, historically, very nice. Nor the fact that even now, there are some not-nice things going on that might be worthy of protest. It disturbs our nostalgia, goes against the conditional assent to not talk about those nasty sorts of things. Much easier and more enjoyable (and nicer) to be celebrating. Nice day. Nice party. Nice people. Let’s all just keep calm here now.
“Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time…fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now.” (Kermode)