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A Canadian-Style Apology to America

Sorry I sold you short. Obama has changed my views... a bit.

By Vanessa Richmond 12 Nov 2008 |

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Credit where it's due.

As a good Canadian, I have always found you, America, to represent everything to be wary of. You've always seemed overly big, bright and loud. You produced Donald Trump, George Bush and Britney Spears: all truly, madly, deeply, anti-Canuck. With some few exceptions, you come across as self-interested, self-absorbed and self-obsessed. I do know many sensitive, intelligent, moderate, well-informed Americans: my boyfriend is a dual American-Canadian citizen, as is one of my best friends, and my godmother is a full-blooded American. Still, while generalizations seem so, well, American, I'd like to humbly, Canadianly, submit a few in search of your approval or rebuke.

You, America, champion individualism, whatever the costs. We Canadians seem to see the costs, and instead prize humility, the common good, the group, at least on the surface, though, of course, we fail frequently and miserably in carrying those values out. In politics, you vote for the individual, we vote for the party. On the night of your vice-presidential debate, watched by electrified millions, with seemingly everything at stake, Palin and Biden played a cagey game of contrasting images and styles, our five prospective leaders gathered for a round table discussion and debated for a very long while the nuances of various carbon emissions policies.

You have celebrity rock stars, actors, founding fathers and presidents. Our hearts still beat for Terry Fox, a media-shy, self-deprecating, 22-year-old who ran across the country as part of the Marathon of Hope and tragically died trying. The guy who hosts our knock-off of American Idol is Ben Mulroney, son of a previous Canadian prime minister. Ben's a celebrity here, as part of the only group seemingly granted celebrity status (politicians' kids) if you can call it that. But even though his Posh-and-Becks-style wedding photos graced the cover of one Canadian tabloid, in the supermarket, all I heard in response were a few snickers as people left that magazine on the racks.

No glitz please, we're Canadian

By and large, we distrust politicians with flash, élan. Our leaders are the likes of Stephen Harper and Paul Martin. Sometimes, we resist charisma so strongly that we end up with a party leader like Stéphane Dion, who proved so wooden an egghead, that he couldn't sell much-needed, fairly common-sense environmental policies and all but disappeared off the ballot. Sure, Jean Chrétien had some feisty-little-guy charisma, but Bill Clinton, JFK or Barack Obama he's not. We had Trudeau, but in the end, his eccentric brilliance divided rather than inspired the nation.

We had a hit television show called Danger Bay (about a Vancouver Aquarium marine biologist who happened to solve crimes on the side, usually in his old jeep or motorboat); you have Law & Order, now in its 19th season with spinoffs. We had Degrassi High's very ordinary teens; you 90210's multi-millionaires. We had Due South's Mountie who solved crimes with his wolf-dog, Diefenbaker, you have CSI's glitzy, crime solving empire. You have Hollywood; we have North Vancouver.

We have universal health care, albeit with long waiting lists and deep cracks, but you have uninsured people dying on the streets.

Don't get me wrong, like Disneyland's lights, your glitz has always projected a powerful appeal to me. I devour your media daily with the appetite of a self-confessed addict. I occasionally fantasize about moving there so I can swim in the pop culture that so fascinates me.

But I've always tried to follow Seinfeld's advice about the safest way for a man to check out a woman's breasts in public. Paying attention to America is like looking at the sun, you look then you look away. I'm afraid of what would happen if I lingered too long, or if I moved there.

America through a new lens

For all your appeal, I have assumed there is something incorrigible, something recklessly self-indulgent forever stunting America's potential to live up to its own hype.

So it might seem surprising that I wish to issue an apology. America: last Wednesday, I saw you anew. I stood with other truly, proudly Canadian friends with tears in my eyes, as I applauded your new president. I felt my cynicism and wariness dissolve into hope and euphoria. I saw how individualism and charisma and mass media can really work, and hold an excitement that carefully considered moderation never can. Sure Obama is all about the "we," but that "we" wouldn't be dominating the popular imagination without him inspiring it.

While I'm usually wary of heroes and elitism, I must confess my admiration for the open, out of the closet, practicing intellectualism of your new leader. He has power to make real change, and evinces enough respect for others to do it well. The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof calls Obama's brains the second most remarkable thing about the election, after his history-making colour. "Smart and educated leadership is no panacea, but we've seen recently that the converse -- a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance -- doesn't get very far either."

It's been an exciting week.

But only a few hours after I turned off the TV, I began to ponder a deeply Canadian conundrum: for generations, we've defined ourselves as anti-American. How would we define ourselves now? In the U.S., people are asking if irony and satire can survive, whether Jon Stewart and Colbert can keep their edge. Canada produces many comedians who make Americans laugh because we have a history of seeing things from the outside, critically, humorously, unbelievingly. What would all of those soon-to-be-unemployed Canadians do? What would our role and identity in this new landscape be?

Let's see how it goes, eh?

And here's where my apology becomes a qualified one. I'm still reading Obama-mania news and opinion pieces voraciously, but already, the rosy glasses are losing their hue. I see Americans on YouTube and the evening news claiming Obama will change everything and instead I'm starting to feel apprehensive about the many, many challenges that lie ahead.

Of course, many Americans, and others, are exercising the same caution. In "Barack to Reality: Obama's victory didn't magically eliminate America's problems and enemies," Christopher Hitchens writes that Americans should be alert to a danger, "which is the cousinhood of euphoria and hysteria. Those who think that they have just voted to legalize Utopia (and I hardly exaggerate when I say this; have you been reading the moist and trusting comments of our commentariat?) are preparing for a disillusionment that I very much doubt they will blame on themselves."

Slate's Anne Applebaum agrees with another British journalist who gives the rest of the world "six months before it unites once again behind the banner of anti-Americanism," and knows foreigners' "condescending euphoria" will turn into "cynicism" soon enough. Still, she wants to hang on to that euphoria as long as she can.

When I hear that, I think, well, we'll see: it looks good, but it's best not to get too excited. It's the Canadian in me. Sorry about that.

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