Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Sept. 13, 2016 "Canadian shakin'": I cut out this article by John Semley in the Globe and Mail on May. 30, 2015:
Recently, desirous of some Big Ideas, I began reading The Idea of Europe, George Steiner’s essay on, well, the idea of Europe. In it, Steiner – once called “the polymath’s polymath,” and what a distinction – takes a stab at establishing a cohesive, binding notion of Europe and Europeanism in the early 21st century, in the face of looming superpowers effectively laying waste to a millennia of European imperialism, hegemony and philosophical-intellectual roost-ruling.
“It is vital,” he writes, “that Europe reaffirm certain convictions and audacities of soul which the Americanization of the planet – with all its benefits and generosities – has obscured.”
Steiner locates all kinds of axioms of contemporary, and historical, Europeanism: the primacy of the coffee house intellectual life, a shared debt to the intellectual and cultural traditions of Ancient Greece and Judaism, the walkability of the cities, and so on. But in the passage quoted above, the whole holistic Idea of Europe is defined negatively, in antagonism to the “Americanization of the planet.” Whatever Europe is at the dawning of the new millennium, it’s for sure not American.
It’s a line we’ve grown accustomed to in Canada. Granted, we share something of Europe’s tension between economic and political unity and social particularity (the whole “cultural mosaic thing”). But, most of all, we share this anxiety re: Americanization. Maybe this is why Canadians are often told to wear those dumb maple leaf patches on their knapsacks when they travel abroad, in Europe and elsewhere. To be not-American is a show of solidarity, pretty much everywhere in the world except America.
But what if our anxiety about the sleeping giant to the south isn’t just a broad cultural neurosis? In War Plan Red, Kevin Lippert indexes the multiple instances in which Canada’s concern about American colonization was more acute, more literal. The book looks at multiple instances in which the United States has idly schemed, and actually endeavoured, to move its military north, right into our own personal home and native land. Lippert also looks at cases of Canadians eyeballing an invasion of America, as when Brigadier-General James (Buster) Brown surveyed a number of border states to see if they were ripe for annexation, hoping to push back against the United States’s “baleful influence on Canada.”
The threat of America invading Canada has served a number of flights of fictional fancy, be it in books (the North American super-union of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which sees most of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico amalgamated into a European Union-style confederacy) or films (Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon and the South Park movie come to mind). There’s a certain ludicrousness inherent in the idea – and not just because, strictly as a military scuffle, the whole thing would seemed wildly lopsided, like when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. It just seems silly. Why invade poor ol’ Canada?
As War Plan Red points out, the more common question from America’s perspective has been, “Well, why not?” With a comically light touch (verging on flippancy), Lippert runs through plenty of examples of American-Canadian hostilities: notorious warmongering Kentucky politician Henry Clay calling for an invasion of British North America, the Pork and Beans War of 1838-39 (where militias were rallied to square off over the territorial borders of New Brunswick), and an 1859 incident where a skirmish almost erupted after an American shot a pig belonging to a Hudson’s Bay Company merchant (no shots were fired, save for the one that felled the swine).
About a third of the text is given over to a reproduction of the titular War Plan Red, a detailed plan for a full-scale U.S. invasion of Canada dating back to 1935, along with Defence Scheme No. 1, Lieutenant-Colonel Buster Brown’s crudely sketched blueprint for a counterattack against the U.S. With classic Canadian passive-aggressiveness, Defence Scheme No. 1 was actually an offensive plot, framed as a counteroffensive. (Hilariously, Brown assumed that Japan and Mexico would swiftly rush to aid a Canadian assault on the United States.)
Beyond being funny, if a little harrowing, in that stranger-than-fiction way, War Plan Red comes around to arguing that a merging of Canada and America (halfway-parasitic, halfway-symbiotic) has already occurred. As Lippert notes, the formation of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) following the Second World War constituted a “de facto absorption of Canada into the American military-industrial complex.” The commingling of Canadian and American commerce and culture constituted other prongs in this silent invasion, yoking the two nations together even as they have “slipped quietly into peace.”
It’s the sort of thing that may kick-start another Canadian identity crisis. But then again, the Idea of Canada has rarely been resolved, with the question of what, exactly, it means to be Canadian seeming tantalizingly, frustratingly, unresolved. War Plan Red significantly undermines that common, anxious notion that to be Canadian is simply to be not-American. When WikiLeaks revealed a 2005 document detailing a “North American Initiative” to further entwine the Canadian and American economies (warning of restrictive Canadian regulatory measures), it seemed as if a different kind of War Plan Red was still on the table.
Why, after all, should that “Americanization of the planet” George Steiner warns about not extend to its neighbour to the north? Why is it so ludicrous to assume that some day, whether by full-scale military invasion or economic/culture commingling, we Canadians find ourselves paved into that great, sprawling Denny’s parking lot known as the United States of America?
"I'm not a fan of grownups telling youngsters that they 'should' read this or that Great book": I cut out this article by Neal Stephenson in the Globe and Mail on May. 30, 2015:
An award-winning writer best known for his works of speculative fiction, Neal Stephenson’s most recent books are Reamde, Anathem and the Baroque Cycle – Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World. Stephenson, who lives in Seattle, just published Seveneves, which follows the descendants of the survivors of an apocalyptic event on Earth as they return to their ancestral home 5,000 years later.
Why did you write your new book?
My new book is an idea that was banging around inside of my head for seven or eight years. Every so often I would feed it a little love. Finally it grew big and strong enough to kick its way out.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
My favourite questions are the ones where the questioner has become so involved in the fictional world of the book that they have actually joined in on the creative process. They usually start with words like “Did it occur to you that…” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if …” Frequently, I don’t know the answers to such questions, which is part of what makes them interesting.
Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through, and why?
“Lived through” is a pretty important part of that question, since it implies I would survive the dangers of tetanus, plague, fire, predatory beasts and random violence that would be part and parcel of any journey into the past. My answer may not strike you as terribly original, but I would like to have seen Rome at its peak. Not necessarily Rome itself. I’d settle for an outlying city that was part of the empire. It was, in many ways, an odious culture, but extremely good at getting things done and I’d like to have a better understanding of how that worked.
What scares you as a writer, and why?
I am worried that trends in the publishing industry may lead to a situation in which writing is no longer even remotely viable as a livelihood, except for a few lucky people. You could say that this has already been true for a while, but it seems to be getting more so.
What’s a book every 10-year-old should read, and why?
Whatever’s near to hand, fun to read, and as much of a guilty pleasure as possible. I’m not a fan of grownups telling youngsters that they “should” read this or that Great Book. Better to get in the habit of reading – you can find great books later just by following your nose.
Small Press Books: Here's a couple of reviews by Jade Colbert in the Globe and Mail on May. 30, 2015:
A Free Man
By Michel Basilières, ECW, 216 pages, $18.95
Michel Basilières’s long-awaited sophomore novel – 12 years after Black Bird was published to wide acclaim – sadly does not live up to expectations. It combines two of the author’s literary interests, sci-fi and Beat writing, which sounds fun. Here’s the problem: Stories of drug-fuelled spiritual awakening and robot-propelled time travel can both be exhilarating, but they can also be boring, each in their own way. A Free Man opens with Basilières finding at his door Skid Roe, an old friend with a crazy story about chasing a girl way out of his league and then meeting a robot from the future. Basilières is chewing an interesting problem: Skid faces constraints at every turn, so does he really have free will? The novel unfortunately gets mired in tedium: an uncompelling story of unrequited horniness with tacked-on futurism bogged down by the physics of time travel. Great premise, flawed execution.
The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin Jr.
By Debra Komar, Goose Lane, 288 pages, $19.95
This is a book about a murder, but more importantly it’s an indictment of corporate misrule and a history of the fur trade (and therefore this country) like you probably haven’t read. Forensic anthropologist Debra Komar’s third book in a series on historic crimes in Canada opens the file on the murder of John McLoughlin Jr, who was shot dead by one of his own men one night in April, 1842. McLoughlin was the chief trader at Fort Stikine, a remote outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, where the “honourable company” sent the known criminals in its employ. By the evening of McLoughlin’s murder, it had devolved into a cesspool of paranoia, violence and conspiracy. HBC, fearful of public opinion, held a private investigation to cover up any scandal – the murderer was never tried. Thoroughly researched and in dramatic, evocative prose, Komar gives McLoughlin and HBC the trial they so justly deserved.