Noam Chomsky, Ron Dart, Flick Harrison, and me
Date: Sunday, June 27 2004
Ron Dart has a column on this site about Noam Chomsky and me. Flick Harrison doesn’t like it and says so in a comment at the end of Dart’s column. Harrison, who also writes a column for Vive le Canada. doesn’t like what he thinks Dart says about Chomsky, though he thinks I (who also write a column for Vive le Canada) am okay.
Complicated. A little. Does it matter? Maybe. Maybe it matters a lot if the disagreement is about how Canadians rate themselves and how they rate U.S. people. Maybe it matters if it’s about whether Canadians have a right to be different from U.S. people, and whether they denigrate themselves – put themselves down, and whether they lionize and idolize U.S. people out of proportion.
Flick Harrison is concerned that Canadians don’t underestimate Noam Chomsky’s importance – and that’s good. But he may read Ron Dart wrongly about Chomsky. Harrison has some great insights. In his feature film “Sex, Drugs, Love, Marx” he does something more powerful than the more famous film “Corporation”. “Corporation” talks about the evils of Corporate Capitalism. Flick Harrison shows how Corporate Capitalism destroys personality and destroys caring human relations, something I haven’t seen in any other film.
I don’t want to rake over the dying coals of the Ron Dart/ Flick Harrison difference. But I do want to discuss the flames that frequently shoot into the air whenever someone says: “Yes there are Canadians; yes they have an identity; and, YES, it isn’t U.S. identity.”
Dart grants Chomsky a lot of importance. He doesn’t put Chomsky down. But he does ask (a) if Chomsky’s anarchist approach is best for Canada, (b) if Chomsky ever thinks of resistance to the U.S. empire from the point of view of Canadians, and (c) if he doesn’t, do Canadians tend to over-lionize Chomsky sometimes to the extent of ignoring their own critics of the U.S. empire who write from a Canadian perspective?
Being a great big country with a multicultural population, we ask ourselves all kinds of questions. The questions Dart asks about Chomsky have to be asked, have to be listened to, and thought about. He isn’t a crackpot for asking them.
It’s true that Chomsky is anti-state. Fair enough. Any sane person in the U.S. has to be anti-state. The U.S. state is a disaster. It should be dissolved and restarted. It is founded upon slavery, racism, and a policy of the extermination of the Native Peoples. The U.S. state, moreover, has continued as a murderous, war-making, war crimes ridden, expansionist, oppressive, racist, imperial force. When (in the film documentary about Chomsky called Manuafacturing Consent) Chomsky says the U.S. is the best country in the world to live in, I choke. I ask myself why he would say that.
The reasons to be anti-state in Canada are very, very much less commanding than in the U.S.A. The Canadian state is not founded upon slavery. And though it has been stupid, hurtful, oppressive, discriminatory, and racist towards them, it has never had a state policy of extermination of the Native Peoples. Some will HOWL that we “are just the same or worse”. Sorry. The facts don’t bear that out.
To put it very simply, the U.S. dumped the legality of the 1763 Royal Proclamation which demanded the Native Peoples be treated according to rules and as negotiating partners. The U.S. then set about exterminating them. U.S. law now says the Indians are the leftovers of conquest. Period.
In Canada the Royal Proclamation is still living law, which is why treaty and land rights negotiations seem endless. The Native Peoples are not, in Canada, the leftovers of conquest, but real, empowered, negotiating entities.
In addition – often bumbling, often sell-out, often comprador with the U.S.A. – the Canadian state has not been a murderous, war-making, war crimes ridden, expansionist, oppressive, imperial force.
The Canadian state has even sometimes stood between the people and Capitalism. For instance, Capitalism despises universal medicare, but we still (clinging on) have it. The Canadian state has sometimes stood between the people and U.S. imperialism. For instance, the robot-radical-Right U.S. government wanted Canadians as killing-buddies in the Iraq War. The Canadian state said “No”.
Out of such scraps of self-respect, accidents of history, choices made in our time and before it, some Canadians fashion a desire to keep Canada going and to improve it. Some even say they like Canada, that they distinctly prefer the Canadian state – set in a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature and a political leader who has (a) to make his cabinet from ELECTED Canadians and (b) has to sit in Question Period every day in Parliament.
They say they prefer that to the U.S. state, set in a republican constitutional structure where the political leader (a) doesn’t use ANY elected people for his cabinet (b) and never, ever sits among the elected representatives of the country to be questioned about his actions and policies, but who visits them once a year to give a speech. (That’s what the British king did in the olden days, visited parliament to try to get some money out of it.)
It would be possible for some Canadians to call their preference “Nationalism”. But I’m not sure why that condition, in the circumstances, would be a basis for jibes and perhaps even unkind insinuations.
The reason I say that is because Flick Harrision writes (answering Ron Dart) “…the most remedial postmodern questions could deflate Nationalism. Who is Canada? Where is Canadian? If you have a perfect answer to these questions, as judged by 8 random passersby, I’ll eat my hat. Does a passport make you Canadian? Saying “eh” (as they do in North Dakota)? Are Bob and Doug MacKenzie more Canadian than Tom Green? Is L.A the third largest Canadian city?”
Maybe Flick Harrison can explain what he’s saying there. Canadians who rest at ease in the fact that this is their country (even while often very critical of its governments) have no more nor less trouble saying who they are and what “their” country is than people from any other country. So why the fuss? As to the old, tired question about passports, I guess its really saying “because you get a formal document of belonging as a citizen of Canada, does it mean anything?” It doesn’t seem to, usually.
But ask Maher Arar. Ask the Canadian jailed and apparently beaten in Saudi Arabia. They both had a bad time but, finally, their Canadian passports MEANT. So, yes, the Canadian passport does mean something. It means – at its best – that the best values of Canada can be invoked when ugly things are being done to Canadians abroad. That matters. Which means, too – I guess, the Canadian passport doesn’t “make you Canadian”, but it does confirm that being Canadian has some admirable qualities attached to it.
What, though, does Flick Harrison mean in the whole passage? Why did he write it? Does he mean Ron Dart shouldn’t say Noam Chomsky is a U.S. writer and thinker? For myself, I think Chomsky is as U.S. as Agent Orange, as the Atom Bomb. STOP. I’m not saying he IS Agent Orange and the Atom Bomb. He hates them, and he does so in his wonderful U.S. way.
That connects to Flick Harrison’s hint that to try to “separate Canadian progressivism” from “the strong Chomsky critique of Imperialism [is] revealing the dark side of nationalism: selfish and needy, rejecting the other, and elevating ‘self’”. He doesn’t annoy me when he writes that. But he’s wrong. I, for one, think Chomsky’s done great work, has alerted many, many people to the brutality of U.S. imperialism. But his lessons – as I’ve suggested – are most relevant to the superpower of which he is a citizen. Applied flat out elsewhere (to Canada, or Venezuela, or Cuba, or South Africa, or Argentina, for instance) they can be dangerous.
If you are anti-state in Venezuela, you want to destroy Hugo Chavez; in Cuba, you want to destroy Fidel Castro; in Canada, you (usually) want to destroy the caring system that has given us the name of a caring people. So being anti-state may be okay – even necessary – in the U.S.A., but it’s a dangerous “universal” position.
Which brings me to the final point. Flick Harrison ends by “supposing” Ron Dart “thinks” something. (It’s always pretty dangerous to “suppose” someone thinks things.) What he “supposes” is that Ron Dart thinks Stephen Harper “isn’t Canadian”.
I know the argument well. I once wrote an article on Mordecai Richler saying he was a sell-out in lots of ways, that he adopted the U.S. anarchist-individualist anti-hero as his own. An angry critic wrote that I’d said Richler wasn’t Canadian. My article clearly said: “Mordecai Richler is the Canadian writer who….” Flick Harrison says (more supposing) Ron Dart might also “brand [Stephen Harper] a traitor and thus discount his real Canadian identity….”
Harrison goes on to “suppose” more: he says Harper might be called a traitor “to construct an imaginary barrier around your [Ron Dart’s] definition of a Canadian.”
I can’t speak for Ron Dart. But I have no trouble calling Stephen Harper a Canadian who wants to sell out, a Canadian who wants to destroy good Canadian institutions, practices, and customs. In 1891 John A. Macdonald called Edward Farrer and the Liberal platform of integration with the U.S.A. “veiled treason”.
By writing what I have written I ‘m not calling Stephen Harper a traitor “ to construct an imaginary barrier around my definition of a Canadian”. Harper is a sell out Canadian, a Canadian sell out. There are lots of them: Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, Gordon Campbell, Ralph Klein – real sell out Canadians. I happen to think they are practicing “veiled” and “not-so-veiled treason”. They are CANADIANS doing it.
That’s an irony in Flick Harrison’s attack on Ron Dart’s column. He seems to insist that people like Stephen Harper (with his yankee capitalist values) have a “real Canadian identity”. But when Ron Dart suggests there is a Canadian way (that is not U.S.), Harrison goes all jelly and says no eight passersby can agree about Canadian identity. To underscore the point, Harrison makes fun of the idea of Canadian identity. So when it suits Harrison, there isn’t a real Canadian identity; and then when it suits Harrison, there is.
I guess I conclude that the question of Canadian identity sets a lot of Canadians on fire. And with some of them if you say that even good U.S. people are significantly (and not always beneficially) different from Canadians, they want to say there is no such thing as “Canadian” to be different from. But when the heat’s off that question, they admit there is such a thing as “Canadian” for sure, and Look! There’s one right there in “his real Canadian identity”- Stephen Harper.
I conclude, too, that in a tangle with someone like well-meaning, Red Tory Ron Dart, it’s dangerous to cite only one person as having “real Canadian identity”, especially if that one person is Stephen Harper. By doing that Flick Harrison could be “revealing the dark side of anti-nationalism: selfish and needy, rejecting the “other”, and elevating “self””.