May 29, 2003

Dead? or Canadian?...

When I was in graduate school (in the US, where I have remained), I remember someone telling me (a Canadian) about the "Dead? or Canadian?" game. The idea, as I recall, was to name some public, or formerly public figure, often from the entertainment field, and ask "Is he or she dead? or Canadian? (or perhaps both?)" Since I've never played, I am only speculating here, but I would imagine that the idea would be to name someone whose name now carried a certain odor? a has-been, perhaps? or maybe someone now considered unspeakably dull or embarrassingly cheesey, or what have you?

Anyway, I was reminded of this game when I came across the following news item (I call it "news" because so much news is now infotainment) about Bob Hope's 100th birthday. Bob Hope is not Canadian, of course. But neither, it turns out, is he dead. I honestly thought he was...Go figure.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 29, 2003 02:22 AM

My dissertation director was a Canadian and an expert in eighteenth century studies. He taught at a university in California, and indeed much of his academic career had been spent in the US. Nevertheless, he seemed to attract many Canadian students, and he seemed to be surrounded by a little Canada wherever he went. This was my introduction to the fact that Canadians are different. They don't just say "eh" or "about" as if it had an umlaut; they have seriously differing cultural perspectives.

Professor X seriously believed the American Revolution was a dispute that had gotten out of control over the justifiable taxation of the colonies to pay for the protection the UK gave them during the so-called French and Indian War (actually the War of Spanish Succession). All claims for self-evident truths were by definition insincere, since some Americans were slaveholders. Period.

I tolerated these views, and even to some extent agreed with them due to my youth. As I've matured, I've realized what a limited perspective he had on the period as a result of national prejudices -- he clearly was not in a position to evaluate the writings of figures like Edmund Burke in an objective way, or indeed to consider the intellectual impact of thinkers like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams on world history. In the end, he was at best a second-rater as a result.

So dead or Canadian, to me, is more than just a joke. Maybe there's something to it.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 03:27 AM

Hey, it's not a joke to me either...I'm a Canadian! :)

Certainly, many Canadians have a perspective on American history that can be described as "limited" by "national prejudices." But I think the reverse is also the case. And I don't believe Americans are in any better position to evaluate the writings of Burke than are Canadians.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 29, 2003 03:36 AM

Yet Bob Hope could've so easily been Canadian, as an English emigre and a detached self-aware sort of comic....

If I was still writing science fiction, it would be a story I'd try to write. You can see why I stopped writing science fiction.

Posted by: Ray at May 29, 2003 04:05 AM

Canadian views on the Revolution have a particular flavour because so much of our national ethos (or mythos, perhaps) was shaped by those 'losers' in the revolution who settled here afterwards. Our perspective may be different but it is no less legitimate, I would think.

Posted by: Dr_Funk at May 29, 2003 04:26 AM

Sacvan Bercovitch, perhaps the most influential LIVING scholar of American literature, is . . . [wait for it] . . . Canadian!

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at May 29, 2003 02:09 PM

Mr Bruce clearly has a chip on his shoulder.

A few things: "The French and Indian War" is a legitimate name for the conflict to which he is referring, especially from a North American perspective. I personally like the name because it reminds me that American Indians were key players on both sides of this conflict. "The Seven Years' War is also legitimate, although misleading, since the war lasted slightly more than six years in North America and nine in Europe.

Now, Mr Bruce's comments on the Revolution. His Canadian professor pointed out an important and very much alive stream of thought in the historoigraphy of the American Revolution. The French and Indian War left Great Britain (not yet the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) 133,000,000 pounds sterling in debt. Since quite a bit of this money went towards financing the conquest of Canada (thus rendering the colonies permanently safe from French invasion from the North and West) the British government assumed, I think fairly, that the colonies should help pay the debt. The Stamp Act was one way to do this. Colonists, on the other hand, really did not understand how the British government worked and how representation was conceived of in the mother country. Reading the early legal treatises of John Adams gives one a powerful dose of just how badly the colonists misunderstood how Parliament represented the Commons as a class, not as people from certain geographical areas across broad class boundaries. This "misunderstanding" has long been worked on by historians since Charles MacLean Andrews and Lawrence Henry Gipson, although Fred Anderson proposed a version of this thesis in 1999.

Lastly, our "Founding Fathers" well recognized the tension between slave-holding and the liberty they espoused. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all addressed it directly at some time in their lives. Indeed, I believe along with Joe Ellis that the great failure of the Constitutional Convention was its inability to address the issue head on.

So Mr Bruce, give your Canadian professor some credit. Sounds to me like he knew his stuff.

Posted by: Rebecca Goetz at May 29, 2003 02:31 PM

On the other hand, I have someplace a college text on UK history from the 1940s that makes a point I haven't seen elsewhere (not an academic specialist, so be patient): The American Revolution, in this view, was part of a long civil war in the Anglosphere that included the Cromwell revolution, as well as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, as well as the various struggles over the succession following King William, as well as the poorly resolved internal struggles of the mid-eighteenth century in the UK. These developments included the continuing religious conflicts that in many ways reflected and assisted the development of ideas of representative government.

The result was that colonial culture in the pre-US colonies had made significant evolutions from the mother country, and these evolutions were significant enough that Toqueville spent many hundreds of pages enumerating and examining them -- not least significant, the absence of primogeniture in the colonies. Such developments, with the overlay of clearly inspired but fully deliberate political planning by Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and others, resulted in what was clearly an advance in social organization, a point that Toqueville saw but is now out of favor. There is in fact a compelling case to be made for American exceptionalism. In this context, a particular sum of war debt is as nothing.

It's worth pointing out that early in the revolutionary process, Franklin was sent to Quebec in an attempt to get Canada to join the revolution but made absolutely no progress. Over the years, when I've reflected on it, insofar as one accepts a case for American exceptionalism, Canada may offer an example of a certain phlegmatic non-exceptional approach to the same issues. A 1970s history of Canada I read argues, somewhat incredibly, that Canada's national purpose is to serve as a contrast to, and brake on, the United States (a view that I think more than a few Canadians in fact accept). But doesn't this in turn provide an explanation for the resonance of the "dead or Canadian" joke?

We don't need to be Freudians to see that "patholigies" of everyday life do manifest themselves in jokes and offhand remarks -- is there in fact something like this at the basis of that joke? Are there chips on shoulders implicit on both sides here -- and is that worth examination?

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 04:27 PM

Canadians pronounce "about" with an "ah-oo" dipthong. Americans use and "ah-oh" dipthong.

When Canadians imitate Americans, or Americans imitate Canadians, they use monopthongs: "Aboat" and "Aboot" respectively. I grew up near the border and happen to use the Canadian form. I'm always glad to help people on this question.

My brother, now a naturalized Canadian, heard the "Canadian or dead?" game on the radio in Texas.

Recent pictures of Bob Hope aren't enough to convince anyone that he's alive.

Posted by: zizka at May 29, 2003 04:39 PM

All these comments about "Canada" should be understood as being about English Canada. People in Quebec are not as interested in splitting hairs about English vowel pronunciation in mid-contintental North America, or interpretations of the American Revolution. (Montreal English is closer to what they speak in Brooklyn or the New Orleans dialect described in _A Confederacy of Dunces_.) As for the Revolution, it's obvious that the Revolution was/is a defining moment for both the US and Canada. Canada is the part of British N. America that didn't join in, and in that sense, it's almost as important to English Canadian identity as it is for the Americans. Francophones are more apt to see it as six of one, half a dozen of the other.

I'm sure the people in Newfoundland, native Americans on both sides of the border, Hawai'ians and others have different perspectives as well.

Posted by: guy at May 30, 2003 02:40 AM

As I remember, Aaron Burr tried to recruit the Quebequois during the war of 1812. Seems to have been a hard-luck guy, except when killing Hamilton.

Posted by: zizka at May 30, 2003 04:57 AM