Black Ribbon Award

Month: November, 2016

THE YEAR TODAY

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[smooth jazz]

This is The Year Today, a tri-weekly discussion forum where man and idea are made one, with your host Ronald J.R. Brentwood.

Ronald Brentwood: Good evening and welcome to The Year Today, I’m your host Ronald J.R. Brentwood … PhD. Chris R. Morgan is an up-and-coming young voice of today. By trade he is a writer of nonfiction, by guild of cultural criticism. His approaches to his genre and discipline are refreshingly, if also peculiarly, multifaceted. He never seems to stay in one place for very long, making for a small but uncommonly diverse following of regular readers. One such reader, a personal friend, admitted to me that she often had no idea what Mr. Morgan was saying, but was compelled nonetheless by the way he said it. Mr. Morgan’s essays are elegant … but scintillating; firm … but fair. And ever since he was mangled to death in a freak wheat harvester accident earlier this year, interest in his work has had quite an uptick, having been retweeted this one time by Jeet Heer. So it is an immense privilege to have the lower half of his corpse with us to illuminate upon his mind and methods. Mr. Morgan, it’s a pleasure.

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: I certainly can, thank you! So Chris, if it’s all right with you I’d like to get right into the meat of things. Of ideas, that is. Because I think you’re that rare kind of person who really cherishes that. Who gets past the noise and strikes at the heart of things with missile-like precision. So tell me, Chris … how do you do that while remaining engaged with the temper of the times?

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Or am I misreading you already? Sorry.

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: That is an interesting distinction. And playing off that, to what extent do you and do you not feel a part of this intellectual climate? And more to the point, are intellectuals as public as they once were, why or why not?

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Right. Then perhaps I should clarify. Do you see the state of the realm of ideas, that is to say, the realm of order, the economy of thought, the polity of discourse, the congress of the dialectic, as one of supreme health or supreme sickness? And if it is the latter, how can the ailment be reversed?

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: That is a scathing indictment, indeed. But I worry you’re missing the forest for the trees here. You’re talking about a fractured culture as if it were a positive, if not something to celebrate. That doesn’t leave much room for standards.

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: So if I’m following you, the trend is … no, I’m sorry, the purpose is to move away from inquiry?

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: And toward censorship?

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Personal censorship?

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Ah, fascinating. I must say I never quite considered the “cultural wasteland” of Falangist Spain quite in the vortex through which you put it.

Chris Morgan: [ankle detaches]

Ronald Brentwood: [laughs] I defer to the expert on that. But your point is interesting. It reminds me, if I may, of my own work, particularly my book Baked Panopticon, which sought a synthesis of the principles of Jeremy Bentham as applied to The Great British Bake Off. I think you’ll find—

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Well, the Millsian schematics of Celebrity Big Brother seem kind of rote within the context I seek to explore. But—

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Chris, I didn’t mean to impl—

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: No, no. Certainly not. I did not mean to infer that you could not follow the logic of Carol Vorderman’s embodiment of the Kantian transcendence.

Chris Morgan: [foot falls off]

Ronald Brentwood: Let us then agree to disagree. I want to circle back to you earlier allusion of Elena Ferrante and Scott Walker. How do her novels and his music, in your—

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Ah ha.

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Ah ha. You meant the Governor? Fascinating!

Chris Morgan:

Ronald Brentwood: Well it is a shame that book will never see publication. But speaking of politics, if you don’t mind I’d like to get your particular read on these current events.

Chris Morgan: [legs come uncrossed]

Ronald Brentwood: Of course, of course. Now, if I read your work correctly, and I admit you don’t make it easy you are not particularly keen on our soon-to-be-President.

Chris Morgan: [slumps to right side]

Ronald Brentwood: Yet, at the same time, you have erred on the side of restraint, even full on skepticism, of our—and by “our” I mean fellow intellectuals and activists—ability to encourage and embody the spirit of resistance in these fraught times. Care to clarify?

Chris Morgan: [slowly rotates 180 degrees, backside facing the host]

Ronald Brentwood: Is the moral life possible? And if so, what political movement, if any, is the best guardian of it?

Chris Morgan: [slides forward]

Ronald Brentwood: If there is a critique of your work, I wonder if it is not that it almost mourns the liberal status quo without truly opening your heart and mind to any real alternative.

Chris Morgan: [thuds flat on the studio floor, chair knocks over]

Ronald Brentwood: Well, that is fair. I do hope that your work is read more keenly going forward. Mr. Morgan this has been a truly stimulating exchange that I won’t forget any time soon.

Well, that is all we have for this show, thank you again. Please join us for our next episode when Sam Kriss reads from his forthcoming collection of Curtis Yarvin and hellfire-engulfed ghost of Lord Macaulay slash fiction. Until then, I’m Ronald J.R. Brentwood, PhD. Good night.

[Escape (The Piña Colada Song)]

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MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED CHRISTMAS SPECIAL

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6:56 PM—elevator muzak

Uninvited Guest 2: Are you sure we’re allowed in?

Uninvited Guest 1: We’re not disallowed.

Uninvited Guest 2: What does that mean?

Uninvited Guest 1: It’s an office party; it’s not the fucking Forbidden Palace.

Uninvited Guest 2: What?

Uninvited Guest 1: It’s not a fucking Mormon temple.

Uninvited Guest 2: Okay.

Uninvited Guest 1: It’s an office.

Uninvited Guest 2: What’s it called again?

Uninvited Guest 1: Annex Holdings, Inc.

Uninvited Guest 2: What’s that?

Uninvited Guest 1: It’s a tech startup.

Uninvited Guest 2: It doesn’t sound like a tech startup.

Uninvited Guest 1: Will you trust me, dude?

Uninvited Guest 2: I think we’re early.

Uninvited Guest 1: Relax. This is a new era. Being early for parties is the classy thing.

Uninvited Guest 2: Where did you hear that?

Uninvited Guest 1: Around. (pause) xoJane. Ah, here we are.

Receptionist: Oh, I’m sorry we’re closed for busin—

Uninvited Guest 1: Oh we’re expected, thanks.

Receptionist: Excu—

Uninvited Guest 2: Uhm … merry Christmas.

***

7:02 PM—“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”

Uninvited Guest 1: It’s not quite what I thought it would be.

Uninvited Guest 2: Are you sure this is the right place?

Uninvited Guest 1: Where else could it be?

Uninvited Guest 2: We could have just walked into an entirely different Christmas party.

Uninvited Guest 1: Nope there she is. Hey, Karen!

Karen: Uhm … hey.

Uninvited Guest 1: This place gave us quite a surprise.

Karen: Yeah. (pause) What are you doing here?

Uninvited Guest 1: Well, you remember when we were at Gregory’s last weekend?

Karen: Yeah.

Uninvited Guest 1: And you said you couldn’t see that screening of All That Heaven Allows at the Film Forum because you had this?

Karen: Yes.

Uninvited Guest 1: Well I decided to come and visit. To see your world.

Karen: I don’t consider thi—

Uninvited Guest 1: And I brought my friend.

Uninvited Guest 2: Hi. Merry Christmas.

Karen: Hi. (pause) Look, I don’t think you should—

Rod: Hey, Karen, who are these guys?

Karen: Rod … this is a … friend of mine from a previous job.

Rod: And how do you do? I’m Rod.

Uninvited Guest 1: Just fine.

Rod: And who are you?

Uninvited Guest 1: This is a friend of mine from a previous job.

Rod: Well put ‘er there, you two. Welcome to the Annex Holdings annual holiday festivities. Do you guys want elf hats? Santa hats are for closers.

Karen: Uh, they were just on their way—

Rod: Nonsense, the night is young. The eggnog’s already spiked.

Karen: It’s supposed to be spiked.

Rod: Not with Drano, though. You come with me, sir.

Uninvited Guest 2: Sure.

Rod: We got these things called Moscow Mules. Fuck if I know what goes in them but they come in nice cups, which we don’t have admittedly, and everyone in this city just shy of grad school pounds it like Gatorade.

***

7:28 PM—“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”

Babs: Cataracts?

Arnold: No.

Dave: Scoliosis?

Arnold: I don’t see it.

Reggie: Corpuscles fucking everywhere.

Arnold: No.

Langdon: Nocturnal emissions?

Reggie: Still?

Langdon: Don’t judge.

Arnold: Actually …

Dave: Wait … what about blackhead removal?

Arnold: Can you prove it isn’t preexisting?

Dave: My skin had a youthful glow until my divorce.

Arnold: Which one?

Dave: Oh fuck off.

Babs: What about the kid?

Uninvited Guest 2: Me?

Arnold: Wanna test your luck with health plan limitations?

Uninvited Guest 2: Oh no, I’m fine. But relatedly, I keep getting hernias confused with hemorrhoids.

(pause)

Reggie: What about paternal prepartum depression?

Arnold: Ah, yes.

Reggie: Hot damn! Living to see New Year’s here we come!

***

7:46 PM—“Frosty the Snowman”

Uninvited Guest 1: Ah, hello, I’m looking for my frie—

Kyle: Why do you tremble at me alone?

Uninvited Guest 1: Excuse me?

Kyle: Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled …

Uninvited Guest 1: There are no children here.

Kyle: … only for my lampshade?

Uninvited Guest 1: Yes, that’s very funny.

Kyle: What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful?

Uninvited Guest 1: But seriously, my friend, have you—

Kyle: Then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a lampshade!

Uninvited Guest 1: This place only has overhead fluorescent lights.

Kyle: I brought this in from home.

Uninvited Guest 1: Oh fun!

Kyle: Seasons greetings, young man.

***

8:15 PM—“Santa Baby”

Laura: Partied out already?

Uninvited Guest 2: Oh, not really it’s just … I don’t know anyone here.

Laura: Are you new?

Uninvited Guest 2: No … actually I don’t work here at all.

Laura: A stowaway! From what great height did you fall to end up here?

Uninvited Guest 2: Huh?

Laura: What do you do?

Uninvited Guest 2: I’m a freelancer.

Laura: Freelance what?

Uninvited Guest 2: Freelance copyediting, freelance space-filling, freelance coffee making. Freelance whatever.

Laura: So what do you say your job is to people you actually want to look useful to? Like dates or your grandparents?

Uninvited Guest 2: That is what I tell them.

Laura: Brave man.

Uninvited Guest 2: No, I mean I’m actually a caretaker for a place on West 10th Street.

Laura: Not 14 West 10th Street?

Uninvited Guest 2: Yep.

Laura: No way. Is it true what they say? About the deaths? About the hauntings? Have you seen anything?

Uninvited Guest 2: It’s plenty haunted. By cats.

Laura: Oh God.

Uninvited Guest 2: I count about 20 of them. 25 maybe.

Laura: When I was interning, I’d earn some extra cash working for this renters advocacy group. I’d pose as a relative of a recently dead shut-in and I’d squat in their apartment to keep it rent-controlled.

Uninvited Guest 2: I once answered an ad in Craigslist for party clowns.

Laura: Nice.

Uninvited Guest 2: I can see why they didn’t specify the party.

Laura: Oh goodness.

Uninvited Guest 2: Yeah.

Laura: I mean, I was also a digger on Hart Island.

Uninvited Guest 2: Wait what?

Laura: Bulldozer operation is listed under Special Skills in my résumé.

***

8:41 PM—“Last Christmas”

Uninvited Guest 1: Ah, there you are!

Karen: Yep. Here I am.

Uninvited Guest 1: Interesting place of work you have here.

Karen: I wouldn’t call it that, per se.

Uninvited Guest 1: Well I remember it seeming a little different. From what you told me. More ergonomic chairs. More ping pong tables and inspiration boards. More wellness dens.

Karen: Well, okay, maybe our conversations were more … aspirational than properly truthful.

Uninvited Guest 1: Like, do you even still do graphic design?

Karen: Of course.

Uninvited Guest 1: Really?

Karen: I do annual reports. (pause) I do stationary. (longer pause) Bathroom signs. I design bathroom signs.

Uninvited Guest 1: Seriously?

Karen: Oh you’re one to talk. What have you been doing since the firm laid us off? “Freelancing?”

Uninvited Guest 1: Unlike you I’ve been doing stationary. High-end stationary, as a matter of fact. Look at this business card.

Karen: This is your own business card.

Uninvited Guest 1: And that’s a proof so actually I’m going to need that back. Things are a little tied up with the printer. It’s very political.

Karen: Listen. I didn’t want to do this here but … I think you and I need to go back and … take stock in what our standards are.

Uninvited Guest 1: Are you saying I have low standards?

Karen: No, no I’m say—

Uninvited Guest 1: Because I don’t think you know what I’m capable of.

Karen: No, this is coming out wrong, I think.

Uninvited Guest 1: I can out-decline you any day of the week.

Karen: What?

Uninvited Guest 1: I can decline you under the table.

Karen: Oh fuck off.

Uninvited Guest 1: Oh hell yes. It is on now.

***

9:06 PM—“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”

The Boss: Okay people, gather round, gather round. (pause) I just wanted to wish all of you a merry Christmas or a happy holidays or whatever is appropriate in this context. I also wanted to thank you for your dedication and drive this year. It’s been rough on all of us, for sure, but thanks to everyone we’ve beaten our fourth quarter profit estimates by six percentage points. Give yourselves a hand, people.

Everyone: (applauds, cheers) Here, here!

The Boss: Now, I gather you all got your envelopes from under your chairs? I apologize for the elaborate antics but I’m sure my giddiness is a little bit justified.

Everyone: (laughs)

The Boss: And I’m sure the suspense is killing you. So without further adieu, please open up your envelopes and see your holiday bonuses.

Everyone: (cheers)

Trevor: Uhm …

The Boss: What? What is it, Trevor?

Trevor: These are credit card receipts from Club 21.

Laura: And they look like they’ve been loogied on.

The Boss: An astute observation, Laura. (long pause) Look, what are we? A business, right? And a business by its very nature is profitable. It doesn’t really matter by what measure so long as it’s profitable. By what logic am I supposed to give you extra money for doing exactly what I hired you for at the rate at which we mutually agreed to pay you? Think, people. You’re human beings, you’re not parasites. (laughs)

Everyone: (laughs)

The Boss: I am actually very serious here. (pause) But keep laughing. Laughter is good for morale. I read it on Business Insider. Now who’s ready for white elephant?

***

10:03 PM—“Wonderful Christmas Time”

Jacob: Hey, what’s wrong?

Karen: Nothing, I just want to get out of here.

Jacob: Some people from my office are meeting at Slattery’s. I was thinking of swinging by but … you don’t evidently feel up for that.

Karen: Sorry.

The Boss: Ah, Karen, so glad I caught you before you left.

Karen: Oh, yes, sir. Merry Christmas.

The Boss: Yes, yes; merry Christmas and all that. So I’ve been meaning to talk to you.

Karen: Okay.

The Boss: I met this gentlemen you invited to our party. Ah, there he is.

Uninvited Guest 1: Sup?

Karen: Oh no, sir, it’s all a big misunderstanding, he’s not—

The Boss: Well, we got to talking for a bit. He spoke very highly of you.

Karen: He did?

The Boss: Yes, he told me that you’re a talented, ambitious designer who’s being unduly limited by your current duties.

Karen: Well, I mean, if he says so …

The Boss: He does. He said you were meant for great things and should be granted the quickest access to them.

Jacob: That’s not bad, I told you things were going to turn around, Karen.

The Boss: And turn around they will, as this gentleman has offered to assume your duties at half the salary.

Karen: What?

The Boss: So that you may spread your wings across this great city. As a freelancer.

Karen: Wait. No, no, no, no.

The Boss: Goodbye, Karen. I wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Karen: Wait … sir … we’ve made so much money this year. Surely you can have two bathroom sign designers.

The Boss: I suppose we could, but this allows me to finally get people to shut up about the Keurig machine everyone’s been bothering me about.

Uninvited Guest 1: It’s a Christmas miracle!

The Boss: Indeed, it’s not often I get to make everyone happy.

***

10:27 PM—elevator muzak

Uninvited Guest 2: That wasn’t bad, actually.

Uninvited Guest 1: What did you end up getting in white elephant?

Uninvited Guest 2: American Gigolo on VHS.

Uninvited Guest 1: I think that was playing in Manitoba’s last time I was there.

AGAINST AUTHORITY

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In a year that was full of debates at varying degrees of bitterness, detachment, resignation, and sorrow, perhaps the most irritating—if only because its very basis only served to exemplify its participants’ high literacy—was trying to pinpoint which novelist’s work best complemented this year’s events and temper. Conservatives seemed to argue for Tom Wolfe, liberals for Philip Roth, feminists for Margaret Atwood. I tried to make a case for Anne Rice and people just stopped taking me seriously at that point, which would be entirely fair if all of us hadn’t been equally wrong.

If we don’t know of W.W. Jacobs’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” we at least know the basic lore* it popularized, of a luckless protagonist receiving a charmed object that grants wishes but for a steep price. Jacobs’s married couple wishes for $200 and it comes, in the form of compensation when their son is killed in a work accident. They wish their weeks-buried son back to life, and get that as well, in the most literal sense. And so on and so forth. It turns out to be a fitting assessment for events that defy easy rationalization or acceptance. Donald Trump’s election seemed all but obstructed by his own mercurial impulses and incompetence, giving his mandate-light victory an air of the supernatural. Someone, maybe more than one person, had a debt on their hands that we are all paying down.

What else sensibly explains the unforeseen downfall of Hillary Clinton? She who was ready, and we for her, to take the reins from her former rival and boss to not only perpetuate his vision, but to improve upon it with her vast wealth of governmental qualifications. There was no conversation to be had about it with anybody, not out of intolerance, mind you, but as a matter of simple logic. This was all very sensible and simple; this was not a grand game of chess but a puzzle. Everything was going to fall into place and the Grandma Moses landscape we made together was going to be enjoyed for all as autumn trudged into winter. On the surface it would take a markedly malignant thinking to counteract that kind of certainty.

Hillary Clinton is competent, intelligent, and savvy. She may be stiff among her lessers and cunning when she tries to reach them but she is serious, both with a vision to implement and the practical know-how of implementing it. She had won elections, gained appointments, and with the powers inherent in those earnings used her personal prowess to put decisions into action. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate for President in recent memory. She was qualified in the same way that James Madison was qualified, that John Quincy Adams was qualified, that James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson were all able and qualified. She was a part of an American political tradition, not a particularly hallowed one, but one that had its roots, which voters proceeded to cut.

“Authoritarian” must rank as one of the most frequently used terms of 2016 after “dumpster fire.” Critics trying desperately to foretell the kind of hardened governance that would be imposed from a White House in which Donald Trump had taken residence lobbed it against him without relent. An ironic use, certainly, as following a stricter definition, Donald Trump isn’t much of an authority in anything; certainly not in government, just barely in business, maybe, if nothing else, in marketing. Political scientists could spend the whole of their tenures parsing the reasons for which certain voters went for Trump, what remains foremost, however, is that they took essentially a blind chance on an open-ended model. Authoritative governance—that is, one infused with the knowledge and resources for managing power—seems a tempting alternative compared to the possibilities of chaotic, irrational, paranoid, indifferent, or corrupt governance. But the semantics game had been played, and this precarious amateurism has won anyway.

That the ascendance of Trumpian amateurism is a worthy price for neutralizing Clintonian technocracy is not at all evident. But even so unsubtle a situation as this one still has a subtle silver lining that as many people as possible should heed. Provided there will be an option to do so.

Authoritative government, one of expertise, meritocracy, and girded networks, leaves little in the way of broader participation. One who doesn’t know the right things does not get very far. If you don’t know, then vote for the people who clearly do. Amateurism throws that concept into the incinerator. Peter Thiel, in joining the Trump transition team, assuming he is still on it as of this writing, claims Trump’s presidency will be “inclusive.” I have no idea what that means to him, but the very nature of Trump’s candidacy makes it true. The democratic process does not end with a single private act, a ceding of trust in one person’s judgment. We are all now able to be judges, to be participants, not to lack salient knowledge but to impart a broader range of thinking. People who have been long left out of the epicenter for whatever reason can reenter, people never seeking it to begin with find themselves thrust into it. This pattern, of course, has been going on for years since the ascendance of the internet, but the internet served as a kind of shell that election 2016 has broken. This is not to say that this situation is wholly optimistic, it is by no means assured that this will not entrench insanity. But the once predominant bulwark for sanity, our technocracy, is vulnerable, and the onus is now elsewhere, it is, rightly or wrongly, on us.

In Jacobs’s story, the possessor of the monkey’s paw has three wishes. One can only speculate as to what further fallout from further wishes in this very supernatural year could produce. I will not venture to suggest anything, but there is an ironic outcome I have in mind, if that does any good. An outcome perhaps that shows our new amateur political actors a way past the idea of central power and of singular greatness, and into a verdant oasis of humble small scale cooperation between concrete individuals who one could meet as equals, hear their pleas, and toss aside the old political baggage to forge new coalitions. This, like everything else, could foreseeably not come to fruition, but for my own sanity I can’t help but leave this hope in a lockbox in my mental palace. If one were a rather savvy wishmaker, consider yourself challenged.

*This was angle was admittedly inspired by the comment of a friend on Facebook.

OUR FRIENDS IN THE GREAT WHITE NORTH

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I can tell you the exact moment when The Daily Show had lost me. It was seven years ago when correspondent Jason Jones travelled to Arizona State University. His aim was to mock the school that denied the nascent President Obama an honorary degree for an apparent lack of achievement. The stunt on ASU’s part looked as patently stupid then as it looks now, and Jones needn’t have broken a sweat lamenting the apparent shame of being snubbed by what he called “the Harvard of date rape.” But a comedic meal so rich in calories was still insufficient for Jones’s appetite. He needed a side dish, a gravy-soaked humor biscuit, which came in the form of Kim Campbell, whom Arizona State honored for her service as Prime Minister of Jones’s native Canada for five months. For the minute she was given, the game Campbell defended herself. “I was the first woman Prime Minister of Canada, I was the first woman to be Defense Minister of a NATO country,” she insisted over audience laughter. But Jones was unmoved, and his point was made.

The Daily Show’s humor tends to work under the assumption that few if any of its viewers will inquire about its subjects beyond the context in which the show frames them. This seems to have served the show well in this case. Jones’s summary of Campbell serving 142 days as Prime Minister before being “voted out of office” is accurate. What it oddly overlooked, however, is that not only was Campbell voted out, but so were 153 other members of her party, leaving just two Conservative seats in Canada’s House of Commons. It is perhaps the most devastating defeat of a ruling party in the history of constitutional democracy. The Conservatives were in fifth place behind The New Democrats, the Reformers, the Bloc Quebecers, and the Liberals. Perhaps Jones thought he was airing on the side of politeness by this omission, but then why parade her on Comedy Central at her expense at all? More likely it was a matter of expediency. The broad concept would assuredly deliver. To Arizona State University, the bar for Canadian achievement was low; for The Daily Show, Canadian achievement in itself was cannon fodder.

Canada’s land area is some 3.8 million square miles holding over 30 million people compared to the 3.7 million square miles of the United States and its over 300 million people. I could spend an inordinate amount of time superficially comparing these countries. But our geographical and historical conjoining seems pointless to explore compared to the symbolic conjoining that entrances us far more so. Canada is vast, almost imposing over us, but Americans below see it in diminished terms. For most it is little pondered, a quiet house in the neighborhood occupied by quirky but friendly enough people who don’t call the police when our parties get out of hand. A dismissive attitude certainly but preferable compared to others who see Canada either as an empty cultural frontier in need of pioneering or as a safe house when the atmosphere in America becomes too suffocating.

If the former was evident on The Daily Show the latter was on full display, as it so often is, during election season, wherein a notably irksome office-seeker causes the citizens he or she irks to declare that they will “move to Canada” if he or she is elected. This happened in 2004 and 2008, but the desire in 2016 seemed so heated that Canada’s immigration website crashed as Donald Trump’s succession to Barack Obama became inescapable. Lena Dunham, Bryan Cranston, Chloe Sevigny, and others all pledged to emigrate north once that came to pass. Canadians themselves have been graciously affectionate in this ordeal, praising us for inventing the internet, our cultural contributions, our disability laws, and our apparent destiny to land humans on Mars. But to be the continuous butt of anxious jokes of a financially flush, globally active creative class seems an odd thing to tolerate. Perhaps they don’t need to hear it. Perhaps their knowing what Americans don’t about their country is enough to brush it off. Or most Americans anyway.

It is surely a source of great perplexity to those who maybe halfway know me that my knowledge of Canada is as wide—if not quite as deep—as it is. No less so to actual Canadians. And while all three of my brothers have been to Canada on separate occasions—one of them was even in a band that had moved to New Jersey from Vancouver—I have not set foot on its soil, and have no intention to (more on that later). My interest came from a few sources, but primarily from the 1993 edition World Book encyclopedia set my mom had given me, because I wouldn’t stop reading a 1975 edition at school (and that is why I still use Czechoslovakia). The set was likely meant for both sides of the 49th parallel, as it had detailed multipage entries on each Canadian Prime Minister, ending with Brian Mulroney, in a style similar to that of our Presidents, ending in Bill Clinton. It was probably the dichotomy it offered that spurred the interest on, mostly along political and historical lines. The internet only enabled it, particularly upon discovering that a lot of archived National Film Board and CBC material can be viewed online for free in the United States. And though my knowledge is imperfect, I offer this tribute to those aspects of Canada that most fascinate me.

Canada is a spiteful nation. For all of the similarities and familiar friendliness the United States and Canada share, there’s still the strange fact of Canada’s very existence. Indeed, its very identity is fortified in its continual rebuffs of America’s intentions for more than a century. Americans little remember the War of 1812, but it remains fresh for Canadians, particularly the finale in which they with British troops burned Washington DC. Confederation itself was spurred as John A. Macdonald and his Tories looked down in abject horror at our Civil War. John Diefenbaker feuded tensely with Kennedy over nuclear missile storage on Canadian soil, and George Grant’s Lament for a Nation bemoaned the encroaching liberal modernist influence of the United States on Canada. “We know what our rights are. We enjoy them. We don’t have to state them,” Manitoba Premier Sterling Lyon said of Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional reforms. “This rather American approach to it is really not ours. We don’t worry about things like that. We do what’s right.” This was put more neatly when, analyzing the “geopolitics of Girls,” Foreign Policy’s Daniel W. Drezner singled out the Canadian attributes of Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna as being “seemingly polite, but bubbling over with passive-aggressive insecurities.”

Canada is a divided nation. America’s assumption of a monopoly on internal existential strife is maybe the primary symbol of its self-centeredness. There have been many civil wars in the world since our own but ours somehow stands as the Pet Sounds of that style of conflict, and it infects our thinking today. But America’s social problems are more a hellish bacchanal of intersectional short-circuiting than a simple us versus them-ism. Canada may not be immune from such overlaps but its collection of neat binaries is impressive: indigenous versus settler; English versus Scottish; Anglophone versus Francophone; Tory versus Grit; provincialism versus federalism; eastern cities versus western prairies; the maritime versus everyone else. These conflicts exert themselves in different and comparably less dramatic ways than we are prone down here. Which is preferable seems like a matter of taste; if Canadians are subtler, Americans are more cathartic.

Canada is a changing nation. But also an orderly one. In some ways it is understandable how Canada can haunt us from above as it does. Our flair for the dramatic, our simultaneous pathological attachment to tradition and impulsive drive for pioneering has long left our social workings exhausted, confused, and constipated. Separation of powers becomes competition of powers. Fearful resistance to slight short-term change backfires into momentous, traumatic long-term revolution. Canada’s reputation of social maturity seems earned at least in part. It contains a healthy amount of legislative supremacy, it accommodates political diversity more ably, it is not as conflicted about socialism, its Supreme Court Justices are age-limited, provinces do not have apocalyptic shit fits whenever the federal government interferes in their interests. Its Senate is a laughingstock but you take the bad with the decent.

Canada is a strange nation. It is the land that gave us Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg (with public funding!), Black Christmas, Kids in the Hall, and Marshall McLuhan. It gave the Governor General’s Literary Award to a novel about a librarian who has sex with a bear. It is the land of yogic flying and William Lyon Mackenzie King’s dogs. Most confounding of all was when it treated The Tragically Hip’s final show earlier this year as if it was a state funeral. Canada’s strangeness is a refreshingly self-conscious and honest one. It seems at once unique to it while also being apart from it. Contrast this with the United States, which is not so much weird as it is authentic. And yet …

Canada is a lame nation. There’s no concealing it. Its history is drier and less mythical or epic. (Though Kate Beaton does her damnedest.) It propped up Stephen Harper for nearly a decade, and foisted Rush, Bryan Adams, Alanis Morissette, and Snow on everyone. In this regard I feel bad for Canada. In a perfect world, such things would not be embarrassments but simple broad entertainment sources. It would be a world without its southward neighbor, that is, whose cultural life is shaped almost entirely out of tragedy, conflict, and its incurable religious impulses. Canada is lame much in the same way that America is intense, and Americans wear their intensity about as boldly as they feel it. It is truly a complex I do not wish on friend and enemy alike.

But Canada is, after everything, a nation. It is not a massive heated blanket in which Americans can wrap themselves whenever they are frightful—and are they ever so.

With such a tribute it would seem all the more puzzling that I haven’t visited Canada. But as I see it, the longing is felt because rather than in spite of the fact that I will never see the nation with my own eyes. It is not so much my distaste for air travel or my aversion to cold weather, though they certainly play a part, but more crucially it runs counter to what makes me American. If there is an ideal relationship between Canada and America, it is that of Charlie Bucket staring at the titular chocolate factory from the gates, a place where “nobody ever goes in, nobody ever comes out.” America is my home and my tomb. It needs constant upkeep for the time when the mystic cord to which I and my fellow citizens are tied pulls me into the ground and puts me to my greatest use. I could never be wholly engaged with any foreign country, as I would be fretting over the mutations I am missing out on back in my own. Any citizen of a non-American country would see plainly how badly I mix in with them. I mean, I do not mix well with other Americans but then other Americans do not mix well with all other Americans.

The fact of the matter is, Canada does not need this heaped upon it. If it wants it in small doses I’m sure it will extend the invitation, and perhaps some of us would gladly accept, only to realize it may not be as it seemed. Fun and pleasure may be found for a time, but no amount of free healthcare can cure the sickness felt by a spirit when locked out of its sepulcher.

POLITICAL HEADCHEESE

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Announcer: Evening Information is brought to you in part by Blitz’d Coca Leaf Products. Bomb away with Blitz’d.

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This is Evening Information, a semi-weekly forum of the most interesting ideas and people of the day. Here is your host, Visiting Professor of Conceptual Theology at Bennington College, Greg J. Arvin.

Host: Good evening. Our guest tonight was extremely difficult to book. Though he is a prominent government official, he is a very peculiar kind. Christopher Morgan is the Secretary of Culture and Information for the Central Prairies Republic, one of the smallest of the new American nations created in the wake of the dissolution of the United States. It is also one of the most impenetrable, having little to no active relations with the surrounding nations, let alone any nation the world over. Its borders are rigidly protected, with few people going in or out, and needless to say it has long been a source of controversy and speculation. Secretary Morgan, it is a privilege to have you here.

Secretary: Thank you, Professor.

Host: So, how does it feel to be the Secretary of Information for a country of which there is very little of it?

Secretary: I wouldn’t say that there isn’t any information, only that the information is not usually requested.

Host: Do you deny the term “hermit kingdom”?

Secretary: That is associated with us?

Host: Generally, yes.

[pause]

Secretary: I suppose it’s preferable to “hipster kingdom,” which we heard a lot just after the founding.

Host: Yes, how did that come about?

Secretary: Well as you know the secessions and the expulsions that came one after the other created quite a mess.

Host: Certainly.

Secretary: A mess that required redrawing of borders based on new nonaggression treaties. California, Texas, the Midwestern Alliance all made separate pacts with the prairie regions after much of it had basically been blighted by all parties involved.

Host: Yes.

Secretary: And so out of that there was somehow a cluster of counties from South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming that were not included in the any treaty.

Host: So they were …

Secretary: Essentially just left there. But they were sort of no man’s lands, ghost towns, refugee camps, torched farms, and what have you. So the CPR wasn’t founded proper. It’s kind of a political headcheese. And it was a magnet for the cultural press. The overturned and smashed headstones VICE had dramatically shot were taken in our region. We’re in the process of repairing those.

Host: But that’s where the early reputation comes from?

Secretary: Somewhat. But I think disillusion generally had caused a migration of the young to places where they might not have considered going before. I mean, the young have always been moving west but seldom converging on this particular spot, let alone to try to make a life there. And it didn’t work for a while. People came in droves and set up camps, but the camps never became homes proper. There were a lot of experiments in living that kind of went nowhere; commune living, variations of organized anarchism that just gave way to disorganized anarchism. Many of them moved on, to God knows where.

Host: So what made you and others want to stay?

Secretary: I think there’s a difference between, say, those who see everything—including society-building—as an aesthetic experience and those who, having been adrift in the previous order and unsettled in the ensuing chaos, see this as an opportunity to create their own ideal of an improved order. So the Central Prairies Republic has settled into a modest population of a little over 300,000 people, with a median age of 36.

Host: Predominantly white?

Secretary: Yes, predominantly.

Host: But you’ve stabilized the country?

Secretary: No country, new or old, is ever truly stable. But yes, in a short span of time—some might say record time—we were able to put some sort of structure in place that would sort of streamline what needed to be done. No more shanty communes, no more debate club governance, no more artisanal economics. We operate simply: laws, rights, infrastructure, and rules of order. Fair, but ordered.

Host: How do you define your form of government?

Secretary: It’s in the name.

Host: Yes but, North Korea is a “Democratic Republic,” Congo is a “Democratic Republic,” so …

Secretary: We’re not a one-party state if that’s what you’re getting at.

Host: I wasn’t trying to insinu—

Secretary: I am a member of the Liberal Republican Party. We are the majority party in the National Council, which elects the Secretariat. The Presiding Secretary is a member of my party. However, we are coalesced with, in order of popularity, the Green Democrats, the Republican Front, and the Black Rose Party.

Host: What is the Black Rose Party?

Secretary: A demonstration of our tolerance.

Host: So what precisely does your party stand for?

Secretary: All parties broadly stand on the principles of dynamism at home and austerity abroad. The technical details get hashed out in committee sessions, which are not open to the public, and a good day is usually measured by how widely we can distribute the disappointment.

Host: Let’s talk about austerity abroad. The CPR has resisted involvement in the United Nations, and has been fingered by surrounding nations as a stumbling block towards a continental federation.

Secretary: Federated bodies do not interest us.

Host: But—

Secretary: As they clearly don’t interest most people in North America these days. Unless, perhaps, they’re Texas or California or any other “new country” that’s just a holding place for federal government apparatchiks looking to reconsolidate power in the wake of seismic shifts that weren’t in their favor. The only indication of Americanism in the CPR is its ambivalence with the metric system.

Host: You’ve also been hostile to human rights groups who want to assess your country.

Secretary: We haven’t been hostile to them, we just haven’t permitted them entry.

Host: Well—

Secretary: We get entreaties from these groups with some regularity; to which we reply uniformly that the Central Prairies Republic is a stable, just, and free society with regular elections and a robust but restrained majority female civil service, and they’re going to have to take our word for that.

Host: You don’t see how that dissatisfies these groups, and the world?

Secretary: Of course we see that, it just doesn’t particularly matter. I think we’re beyond that world where the ideas of rights and humanity are so consistent across the board that we need to preen ourselves for a stamp of approval.

Host: But it’s very clear that no one knows much about your country. You are its Secretary of Culture but we know nothing of its culture. We know you have a military because they guard your border fence. But we don’t know its wider capabilities, if any. We don’t know what resources you have, if any. There’s been testimony from original residents—

Secretary: The original residents left on their own cognizance and their understanding of the CPR is not informed by recent developments.

Host: Are they welcomed to return?

Secretary: Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t recognize their country.

Host: But immigration is …

Secretary: We don’t make that an appealing possibility.

Host: Are private citizens of the CPR welcomed to leave?

Secretary: Not presently.

Host: Are you in a state of emergency?

Secretary: We’re vigilant.

Host: You’re effective at cloaking your activities. Even your achievements aren’t known.

Secretary: We’re not obligated to boast.

Host: But the secrecy is … off-putting … to say the least.

Secretary: Secrecy is our policy and our right. And I believe it better assures stability within and without our borders as a landlocked region, a third of the size of Switzerland, surrounded by formerly belligerent behemoths. Look at the State of Jefferson. The human rights community seemed deeply concerned with its national health and character.

Host: I don’t understand; the war crimes in the State of Jefferson are well documented.

Secretary: Yes, I was being facetious, Greg.

Host: Oh.

Secretary: Mass grave, the whole lot of it.

Host: It’s unfortunate.

Secretary: Live-streamed for all to see.

Host: Yes, I understand, Secretary.

Secretary: I don’t think you do. We are living in inconvenient times; deeply fractured times. There’s no such thing as a big nation proper anymore, just a smattering of weak and strong small nations. If the weak small nations seem paranoid it is in some way related to the tendency of the strong small nations to be petulant. The Central Prairies Republic and its people would love—love—nothing more than to open its collective arms to an accepting world in which to share our culture, which exists, I assure you, under my stewardship. That world needs first to exist. And to say that it does when the opposite is more evident does not endear trust toward any decent nation.

Host: Well, if you’ve revealed one thing about your country, Secretary, it’s that you’re very good at watching the world around you as you conceal yourselves. That seems unfair.

Secretary: That kind of arrangement is supposed to be.

Host: You’re less of a hermit kingdom than a voyeur kingdom.

Secretary: It’s your show, Professor.

Host: And it’s a show that must end, alas. I’d like to thank Secretary Morgan once again for his forbearance and wish him safe travels.

Join us next week when James and Dave Franco talk about the documentary they directed of their attempt to attach Guillermo del Toro to their race-reversed sign language rendition of Othello.

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