Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The French Revolution and Canada -- laughable?

Last week I attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It's my favorite academic conference -- the very first conference I ever attended was an early iteration of what's often just called "Kalamazoo" and it rather spoiled me for other models. This year, despite the fact that my energy level is still not quite to previous levels, I had a very good time indeed.

I want to tell you about one incident that led me to reflect on my own historical values. On Sunday morning, the BABEL working group hosted a roundtable called, What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies? I hesitate to characterize the "presentism" discussed mostly approvingly, by the members of this roundtable, but a very simple definition might be that if you're a "presentist," you see present and past issues coming together and feel compelled to comment on them, perhaps in forms and in forums where past scholarly practice would not allow such comment.

The Roundtable began with a senior and rightfully admired scholar unsympathetic to this approach commenting upon it. I rather got the impression that she was calling for a circling up of the wagons in scholarship, so that serious issues rather than faddish ones get proper attention. This rather took some of the other participants back, but it did lead to some interesting discussion. Later, the same senior scholar told a story that I believe was meant to illustrate her rejection of trivialities. She told story of walking into her department in a prominent Canadian university, seeing a poster advertising a conference called The French Revolution and Canada and finding it hilarious. And finding it even more hilarious that no one else in the department thought it was funny at all. (One gathers from this anecdote that the senior professor is not originally from Canada.)

I think the anecdote passed over a lot of people's heads, but I've heard the like before. I'm not quite sure what the senior scholar meant, but two possibilities occur to me. The first is that Canada is an inherently humorous place, perhaps one that has no real reason to exist. The relationship between a world historical event like the French Revolution and Canada is absurd on the face of it simply because Canada is not important enough to be part of the discussion of the FR. And as for what people in Canada thought about French Revolution then or since, or whether Canadians might have a unique and interesting view of that revolution, well it's hardly worth considering. The second is that the senior scholar has run into the rather pathetic efforts of Canadian intellectuals to make themselves and their country relevant in situations where those Canadians don't really believe it themselves. This is an attitude I have run into, but more often in the 70s than in any more recent decade.

I hate to think that the senior scholar has been in Canada for decades and still has a condescending attitude towards the country's very existence, but it is one held by some people born and bred in Canada. Certain people, not necessarily important ones, feel that Canada's second- or third-ratedness (in their eyes) diminishes them, and they react by taking every opportunity to slight the country, especially if foreigners are around. They would be oh so much more happy if they were part of a first-rate world power. People with great ambitions sometimes have a very bad case of this desire to disassociate themselves from Podunk Canada. Consider the cases of Lords Beaverbrook, Thompson, and Black, who bought British newspapers specifically so they could someday be members of the House of Lords. Sometimes the Canada-bashers go so far as to become politically active and attempt to incorporate Canada and their own careers in some great imperial project. A truly despicable example of this took place in the fall and winter of 2001, when "conservative" commentators in Canada went on a tear, blaming September attacks on New York and Washington on softheaded Canadian liberalism and Canada's failings as a bad ally.

I think that I came to Canada from the same country and for much the same reasons as the senior scholar, but if I ever would have found the conference about the French Revolution and Canada funny, I can no longer remember feeling that way. It's not so much that I've become Canadian over the years -- though that's part of it clearly -- but more that I have developed a world historian's attitude even if I'm mainly a medievalist. No country, or no country's people, are more inherently humorous than anyone else. They get neither automatic contempt nor automatic admiration from me. You never know where some good idea is going to come from or from where some slimy practice will creep out. If you really want to understand the human condition, you can't start by excluding part of humanity from consideration. Maybe a few people in Bhutan aren't very significant in their current attempts to implement a humane democracy in the Himalayas. But who knows? Let's check back later and see how things actually work out.

Image: Inherently humorous Canadian money.

Update: Fixed some embarrassing errors produced by using dictation software and not checking closely enough afterwards.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a Canadianist, but it seems to me that a conference on the French Revolution and Canada could produce a lot of good papers. Lower Canada was cut off from France before 1789, but much of the French system of government and the social institutions remained intact, so it was a kind of alternate universe where the revolution never happened. Surely people could get some interesting material out of that.


6:16 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

I think Canadian money is inherently AWESOME. Way better than American money.

2:21 PM  

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