Sunday, July 13, 2008

Should Canada Try to Be a Country?

After thirty years of immigration and multiculturalism, Canada is not the country it was. The question: is it a country at all?

It is an excellent place to be a citizen. People whose families immigrated here a generation or two ago have had the advantage of an excellent educational system and a prosperous, tolerant society. When they work abroad, they benefit from their exposure to a wide range of cultures thanks to Canada’s cosmopolitanism. When they work at home, they are able to take advantage of their inside knowledge of their parents’ culture. Second and third generation Canadians are at home here – and with their easy mobility, they are Canada’s eyes and ears abroad. Canada is a brilliant base for a glittering international career – ask Adrienne Clarkson or Irshad Manji. And make no mistake: these Canadians are deeply attached to Canada and its values. (It seems superfluous to say this about a former Governor-General – one of the best we have ever had.) Since they embody the best of Canadian values it would make very little sense if they did not.

Let it be clear then that I have no sympathy with rants about how foreigners are diluting our values. Tom Kent, a former principal secretary to Lester Pearson, issued just such a rant recently in the Globe and Mail. I thought it came very ill from an expatriate Brit, who came here in the days where a moderately good job in Blighty gave you immediate entree to the very top jobs in Canada. And the right to expatiate publicly on how the miserable brown and yellow people who followed you have no real attachment to the country, and are only diluting homegrown culture.

My question has nothing to do with “foreign” values, or foreign ways, and whether they have a place in Canada. It has to do rather with the cumulativity of cultural discourse. In a country, people talk to each other. They build on each other. In Canada, people seem to engage only in global conversations. These conversations leave no residue here: as brilliant as many Canadians are, and as much as they have contributed to English-speaking civilization, nobody here picks up their work and makes out of it a national discourse. This is perhaps why the most brilliant Canadians – Glenn Gould, Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant – leave nothing behind.

David Armstrong tells a compelling tale about Australian philosophy in his wonderful little piece “Black Swans”. He starts by recounting precisely the same kind of sneer about Australia that all the colonies have had to cope with – including the India of my youth. In 1958, one L. Sturch wrote in an Oxford magazine:

It is a mistake to think that the name "Australia" has the same logical grammar as "France", "Switzerland", "Siberia", "Rutlandshire", or "North Dakota". It is no more like such names than "Utopia", "Erewhon", or "Ruritania" are. . . "Australia" is not a real place; . . . the word "Australia" is not a name. (There is a certain heaviness to this: could Sturch have been a satirizing Australian, I wonder.)

Armstrong counters with a great story: how John Anderson in Sydney, George Paul in Melbourne, Jack Smart, Ullin Place, and Charlie Martin in Adelaide – all foreigners – began a tradition so robust that there is now such a thing as “Australian philosophy”. Philosophy – or at least philosophy in the tradition that comes to us from Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein – is as international a discipline as physics. Germans and Croats argue with Hungarians and Canadians, about the same questions, using the same dialectical tools. Yet, there is in this discipline an Australian style -- virtually no other country can say that. Armstrong himself is one of the great proponents. And today you see something recognizably Australian in the topic-wise extremely diverse writings of Frank Jackson, Kim Sterelny, Michael Smith, and David Chalmers (as well as immigrants such as Philip Pettit and Graham Priest). If you read Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, you’ll find evidence of the same sort of thing in other intellectual fields. (I venture to say that much the same is true of Australian wine-making -- happily, there is some evidence of an emerging Canadian culture in this field, at least in British Columbia.)

What about Canada? In philosophy, it has had the same opportunities. Some pretty good philosophers have grown up here. Bas van Fraassen, David Gauthier, Ian Hacking, Charles Taylor, and Patty and Paul Churchland are among the most influential philosophers alive today – and Gerry Cohen, David Braybrooke, Barry Stroud, Tom Hurka, Ted Honderich, and Brad Inwood are not far behind. We have had our share of inspirational foreigners: including Jonathan Bennett, Mario Bunge, Terry Penelhum, Kai Nielson, (the same) Charlie Martin, Michael Ruse, and Ronnie DeSousa. Yet there is no such thing as Canadian philosophy. Why not? Partly because there is in Canada no particular ferment around these figures – all of whom are challenging, controversial, and deserving of discussion. Canadians just don’t think it’s cool to get excited about local intellectual controversies: they would rather participate in discussions without boundaries. The figures I have mentioned are just as much discussed outside Canada as they are here: when they leave the scene, they, like Gould, Davies, and Gallant, will vanish without leaving a mark on Canadian discourse.

Countries that have a culture pull up their citizens. A talented philosopher in Australia benefits by participating in the philosophical culture of that country – you do not have to agree with somebody to be excited by their ideas. David Armstrong in Australia did not agree with John Anderson or George Paul, and Kim Sterelny in turn does not have much time for how Armstrong did philosophy. Yet, one thinks of these people as belonging to a powerful and coherent tradition, and deriving some of their influence by so belonging.

Canada is not on a path to developing the same kinds of incubators. I would even question whether there is such a thing as Canadian literature -- there are great Canadian writers, but after Robertson Davies and Alice Munro, they haven't much written about Canada. Australia progressed from colony to country; Canada has chosen the more modern vision of a state that is not a country. Doubtless, that has virtues too.

Is there any harm in starting a little country within our global community? Maybe I could (should?) make a modest start by writing a combative book about Ian Hacking.

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