Earlier this month, I wrote in this space about Ken Dryden, his new book and his feelings about how politics, and especially the political media, are ill-suited to have the kind of conversation he wants about Canada. Since then, Dryden has launched his book and there's been a small flurry of stories about it, including another story by me.
Dryden, in a Facebook post today, hasn't changed his mind about the political media. He says that the coverage of his book has so far been among the "lows" he's encountered since the launch. Fair enough. We should be able to take criticism, given that we dole it out often enough. What slightly rankles, however, is the suggestion that those who cover politics haven't done the kind of thinking he's done. That, I would argue, is unfair (and a wee bit condescending.)
Ever since I interviewed him and talked with him about his book, I've been trying to remember a piece I wrote more than a decade ago -- when I was still at The Globe and Mail -- about the Canadian identity. It's the kind of thing, I think, that Dryden would agree with, though I'm less of a fan of his Canada-needs-to-win approach. (as you'll see below).
I had a great editor at the Globe, Sarah Murdoch, who ran the piece to coincide with Canada Day, 1998. I'm cutting and pasting it here, if only to demonstrate to Mr. Dryden that we political reporters aren't all dunces who've spent our careers trash talking the country. I think I still stand by the argument. Read it (and Dryden's book, when you get a chance) and see what you think.
The Globe and Mail
LOOK at those Americans, indulging today in their annual celebration of national identity. Now that's a country with personality -- it's brash, it's bold and it's confident.
And here we sit in Canada, another July 1 come and gone, with the sinking sense that our national identity looks a little, well, weak by comparison. Viewed from the patriotic hullabaloo of the July 4 celebrations in the world's most powerful nation, the Canada Day festivities up north must seem a bit lame.
But wait a minute -- there we go again, slipping into American character to judge our own. Is there anything more quintessentially Canadian? We are the world's reigning experts at imagining how other people think and feel, even about us. We can put ourselves in somebody else's shoes at the drop of a maple leaf.
That's no small personality feat. In fact, it's right up there on the personality-development scale. It goes well beyond tolerance or "embrace of diversity," the quality the national-spirit boosters proclaim. Canadians are exemplars of empathy -- what the psychologists define as the ability to feel what other people feel.
Empathy is the powerful heart of imagination, creativity and aversion to violence.
It's not easily translated into a beer commercial or a heritage moment, but what if we started to define our national character on the basis of our unique empathy?
In all the perpetual searching for the Canadian identity, we've concentrated endlessly on the lower personality traits: awareness of self; assertiveness; egocentrism. Wave a flag, brag about your famous compatriots, call yourself The Great White North. Still, Canadians beat themselves up because they're not seen as bold or braggarts by the rest of the world.
Yet we are world leaders in slipping out of our own skin to understand, comment on and intervene in other cultures. A lot of Canadians, in fact, have marketed this skill rather deftly in their own and the national interest. Canadian journalists, for instance, have slid into some of the top positions in American television networks: Peter Jennings at ABC; Morley Safer at CBS; Robert MacNeil at PBS. Canadian comedians, such as John Candy, Martin Short and Norm Macdonald, have done such apersuasive imitation of Americans that the audience forgets that the jokes are coming from someone who's laughing at them, not with them.
It's no coincidence that we've excelled at American professions that require a sophisticated blend of total immersion and wry distance. You can only do that if you've developed the skills of empathy. Remember the all-star famine-relief songs of the 1980s? The U.S. version was We are the World. The Canadian, empathetic version? Tears are Not Enough.
Farther abroad, how can we forget that Canadians are pioneers in peacekeeping and masters of diplomacy and negotiation? Just last week, Canada's contribution to an international human-rights debate was a report card on the rest of the world. Diplomacy, peacekeeping and international observance are also skills that rest on empathy -- Canadians don't just understand or tolerate other cultures at a distance; they're capable of imagining what it's like to be them.
The training ground, of course, is here at home, where the national dramas all revolve around appeals to empathy. We have to try to imagine ourselves as Quebeckers, as aboriginal people, as frustrated Westerners. We have to put ourselves in the worn-out shoes of unemployed fishermen. And, in this immigrant country, we have to remember what it is like to be a stranger in a new place.
Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and religious and political pluralism are all part of the complicated mix that we call Canadian society. They function with tolerance, but they flourish on empathy. People talk about Canada being an act of will. It may be more correct to say it's an act of willingness. To be Canadian means to be willing to shrug off your own identity so you can imagine what it's like to be someone else.
That's a skill that only the empathetic can handle. It's also -- and here's where a few knuckles will go white -- a decidedly feminine skill. Sorry, guys, but Canada's personality is showing characteristics that are typically associated with womanhood. Its expertise in empathy; its preference to resolve matters through negotiation rather than confrontation; its tendency to decide tough issues in their own context rather than by applying abstract concepts.
Women can tell you it's hard to get those abilities taken seriously. Women will also say that they are constantly gauging their success by what others say about them; it's not what you do, it's what you're perceived to do. Doesn't that sound like our Canadian tendency to recognize our talent only when the U.S. or some other nation does so? Or that tired, old cheer by Prime Minister Jean Chretien? "The United Nations says we're the best country in the world!"
Don't worry. If the world has decided that we're the best, we'll know it. After all, we know what people think of us -- better than we know ourselves.