Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
I feel like I should plead guilty right up front. Yes, it’s true: I am one of the talking heads in the much-abused CBC history series The Story of Us. There are a few of us, and maybe at some point we will form a support group. I, for one, look forward to talking to Georges St-Pierre about the Battle of Quebec and to Colm Feore about … well, maybe we’ll talk about Glenn Gould instead.
By now everyone surely knows how reviled this attempt at popular Canadian history has become. In just two episodes it managed to arouse the ire of Acadians, Quebeckers, First Nations people, fans of Samuel Champlain and New Brunswickers. Andrew Coyne in the National Post offered his own complaint: The series, like the country generally, undersold the contributions of brave George Brown, founder of the newspaper you’re reading right now.
All true, all valid. I did not appear in the first two episodes, but then I did fleetingly in the third. I remain in a state of anxiety about how later ones might feature my face saying things that will, inevitably, exclude someone or other. You can’t say everything at once, alas, and anything you do say is bound to rub someone the wrong way.
I used to believe that this was par for the course in public discourse. You speak your piece; someone objects, with reason and wit; the dialogue moves on. But there seems to be a presumption now that you shouldn’t say anything if you can’t embrace the totality of the Canadian experience.
Except that, at the very same time, we are told that there is no such thing as the totality of the Canadian experience. Many people object to the very idea of something called The Story of Us, because, they say, there is no us. And yet, of course there is: That’s precisely what we’re arguing about, who “we” are.
Let me say, in mitigation of my participation in this series, a couple of things. First, when someone agrees to take part in a project like this, we usually have almost no idea what the finished product will look like. In this case, the template was borrowed from an existing production company, but all that meant was that the historical reconstructions looked entertaining and the CGI effects pretty good. I was told that a panel of distinguished historians would vet the material, and that the roster of commentators would include women and Indigenous people as well as middle-aged white guys like me.
All good. Of course, once the cameras start rolling, it’s an act of faith. You don’t know, as an interview subject, how your gab will be edited, how it will used in context, or even whether it will be used at all. It’s a blind walk on uneven terrain.
So why do it? I can’t speak for the other people who appear in the series, but I did it for a very simple reason: I think Canadian history matters. For years my spouse, who is American, has complained to me that there seems so little sense of history in this country compared to her home, where scarcely a week passes without some ponderous NPR show or PBS documentary, usually featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin, that explains America’s past. American history is a self-sustaining industry of total media production.
Not so here. And now you see why. It’s not that we’re shy, or self-deprecating, or modest. It’s because we’re crazy. If anyone attempts, any time, to articulate the history of this country, the resulting chorus of objection is twice as loud. The CBC, not surprisingly, is now limping along in apology mode. The Corp can’t win: Reviled on one side as politically correct official culture, it is dismissed on the other as exclusionary dominant discourse. The CBC is like the CPU player in a video game, the sadly inadequate default opponent of everyone.
This is the real story of us: We are the people who exult in not agreeing about anything, like those groups where every suggestion of a destination is shot down, with no alternatives offered. Maybe not the worst way to go, I suppose: Canadian history as contentious multivalent dialectic. And yes, go ahead and object to that “pretentious” phrase if you like. After all, in the current historical discourse, it’s your move. It always is. That’s Canada.Report Typo/Error
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