Letter from Berlin: Kanada Week

By Stan Persky | May 26, 2003

For the last couple of years, the Canadian presence in Berlin has been mainly marked by a large hole in the ground. Not just any old hole in the ground, of course. It’s a rather swanky hole located at Leipziger Place, which is just to the east of the lately-erected bevy of glass and brick towers in Potsdamer Place, the new post-Wall commercial and entertainment centre of the city. The Canadian painter, Vincent Trasov, who lives here, showed me some photos he took last year of Prime Minister Jean Chretien turning a spade at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Canadian Embassy in Leipziger Place. This spring, there are three yellow cranes at the site, and the grey concrete infrastructural walls of what will be Canada’s diplomatic landmark in town are already three or four metres high.

Canada, the careful ditherer, is well behind most other embassy-building nations. The French Embassy opened recently in Pariser Platz, just behind the iconic Brandenburg Gate. The British Embassy, a few streets away, has been a going concern for a couple of years. Ditto for the acqua-green Scandinavian Embassies near the Tiergarten, the city’s central park, and a slew of other newly-constructed diplomatic fortresses are also in operation. We are ahead, however, of the major laggard in these matters, the U.S. Embassy-to-be, which has a choice piece of real estate just off the Brandenburg Gate on which the grass continues to grow. The current old American Embassy, also located in east Berlin, is behind coils of barbed wire, police guards, and some wall-like chunks of concrete. When American Secretary of State Colin Powell rolled into town the weekend before last, the U.S. bunker was under tight security and the surrounding streets were closed to traffic.

But in addition to the Canadian Embassy-in-progress, the True North, strong and not-quite-SARS-free, has launched a major cultural offensive in the German capital. There’s been a conference on German and Canadian relations with the U.S., an ongoing Thursday lecture series at Humboldt University about "Citizenship and Multiculturalism in Canada," a 4-day retrospective of the films of queer Toronto moviemaker Bruce LaBruce, and a "Kanada in Berlin" week of talks and theatre performances at the newly-opened Canadian Universities’ Centre as well as a lecture-reading tour by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson’s consort, political thinker John Ralston Saul. Most of this has been set in motion by Canada’s ambassador to Germany, Marie Bernard-Meunier, considered one of the better and least stuffy diplomats in the region, and her White Rabbit-like cultural attache, Jean Fredette, who has the ability to surface at several cultural events simultaneously on any given evening. I’m not sure how all this maple syrup is going down with Berliners, but if you’re a Canadian in Berlin, this is probably the best place in the world to think about the homeland.

That’s what Phil Resnick, a University of British Columbia political science professor, was thinking about at last week’s conference on how Canada and Germany can live with the George W. Bush version of The Empire Strikes First. The conference was held at an elegantly shabby little villa that houses the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations. I was held up for a few minutes on my way there because the police had the streets blocked off so that the black-limo cavalcade of visiting U.S. Secretary of State Powell could zoom through Berlin’s thoroughfares unimpeded. Even though commandeering the streets is standard operating procedure for visiting dignitaries, the backed-up traffic scene seemed to say as much about U.S. relations as any of the 30 or so professors at the conference were likely to offer.

The question of how anyone can relate to empire is answered in the punchline to that old gag about U.S.-Canadian relations: "How do you sleep with an elephant?"–"Very carefully." I don’t think there’s much to ponder about cross-border or transatlantic relations these days, sincere academic efforts notwithstanding. What subordinate countries do in the presence of empire is hem-and-haw, duck-and-weave, with the aim of trying to maintain whatever characteristics of independence the dependent possesses. Berliners I’ve talked to in the last weeks rate Prime Minister Chretien’s intentionally-dithering performance on the Iraq issue as pretty shrewd. All of which gives some point to Resnick’s talk, which is about delineating the differences between Canada and the U.S.

"Canadians, in general, have been worried by the tendency of the Bush administration in the post-Sept. 11 period to act as sheriff of a new world order," observed the UBC professor, who holds the visiting Canadian Studies chair at the University of Paris this year. Resnick adds, "Instinctively, Canadian public opinion, despite strident support from newspapers like those belonging to the Southam chain or from the business community support for the American position, has been closer to European public opinion."

Bush’s "drawing lines in the sand and asking countries to line up on one side or the other," Resnick says, raises "larger questions about how Canada situates itself with respect to the North American triangle." Rather than figuring out what to do about the empire–since there’s little to do except duck and weave–Resnick concentrates on reminding ourselves and the Europeans what distinguishes Canada from the U.S.

First, there’s the classic distinction between the U.S. "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" phraseology of the American Declaration of Independence and Canada’s more conservative "peace, order, and good government" values. It’s a contrast that shows up in everything from "the wild west of American legend" compared to the more sedate RCMP taming of the Canadian prairies, to contemporary differences in attitude toward guns and the culture of violence. Second, as Resnick notes, "there has historically been a different balance between state and market in Canada." As Canadian thinker Harold Innis argued more than a half century ago, conditions in Canada necessitate a more significant role for the state than in the U.S. Canada, almost by definition, rather than "political virtue, genetic predisposition or chemicals in our drinking water," is a social democratic society. This feature of the country shows up in Canada’s early adoption of welfare state policies, from health care to public broadcasting. Third, while "the appeal to patriotism in American politics is omnipresent, even embarrassing," by contrast, "the Canadian temperament is less given to patriotic excess," Resnick points out. "Canada, in practice, is a multinational state with fault-lines of language running down the middle. This leads to the elevation of compromise into a high political art domestically."

Underlying Resnick’s analysis of Canadian-U.S. differences is a plea to maintain them. Again citing Innis, he says we should heed the advice "about the need to resist American imperialism in all its attractive (and one might add, unattractive) guises." Canadian thinkers have been worrying way less about national identity in recent years than they did in the 1970s and 80s. "What differentiates Canadians from Americans," declares Resnick, "is the fact that Canadians remain a good deal more European in their sensibilities and will continue to be the more European part of North America in the foreseeable future." In short, two cheers for "old Europe." In practice, what this means is that a) Canadians are more sensitive to the historical past as compared to the U.S. desire to "escape from history"; b) culture is a crucial and necessarily state-supported area in preserving useful differences; c) Canadians are far less religious than fundamentalist America; and d) "Canadian political culture seeks to achieve through compromise and negotiation something that for so much of human history down to today has usually been achieved through force." If nothing else, Germans at the Council on Foreign Relations conference could take some comfort from Resnick’s description.

About a thousand conceptual kilometres away from the gathering of political scientists, down in the basement of Potsdamer Platz, the films of Bruce LaBruce were being shown at the Arsenal theatre, Berlin’s art-movie house, which moved from its run-down former digs to the steel-and-glass Sony Centre. If Canada is typically all about moderation, reticence and compromise, the Toronto filmmaker is all about homosexual excess. Oddly enough, his sexually extreme movies can be said to be fairly typical of Canadian cinema. Although LaBruce’s films intentionally verge on porn, deal with homosexual fascism, and graphically, as they say, feature full-frontal S&M sex, right-wing homo skinheads, and various other obsessions (about which you probably don’t want to know–unless you really do want to know), their preoccupations aren’t all that different from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Denys Arcard’s Love and Other Human Remains, John Grayson’s Lillies or Lynn Stopkowich’s Barbara Gowdy-inspired paean to necrophilia, Kissed. Canadian films have a tendency to be kinky and, in that sense, LaBruce is simply working in the tradition. Under all that "whoops, sorry" Canadian reticence, there’s a lot of extreme passion.

The LaBruce show offered screenings of Hustler White (1996), a study of gay Los Angeles street prostitution, Skin Flick (1999), a film about queer fascist skinheads, and a preview of LaBruce’s work-in-progress, The Strawberry Reich, a sexy send-up of left-wing terrorists. Director LaBruce was on hand to talk about it all with the audience. The Canadian government abetted this cultural exercise by providing a bit of post-screening plonk for the film-goers and the presence of its White Rabbit cultural attache, suitably garbed in a white suit amid all the cinematic muck.

I have to confess that I like LaBruce’s often grim investigations, especially his more recent work, which has become increasingly sophisticated cinematically and unexpectedly funny. LaBruce has learned how to mix slapstick and genitals-in-your-face sensuality. After one of his cute-but-klutzy skinhead protagonists masturbates onto a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he steps off the bed only to take a head-over-heels pratfall on the untied laces of his Doc Marten boots. In LaBruce’s films, passion is over-the-top or casual or menacing, but it’s also funny, something that Aristophanes pointed out a couple of thousand years ago.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all of this full-court-press Canadiana was the only thing going on in town. Between Canadian polisci, queer sex, and His excellent Excellency, Ralston Saul, there was the opening of the big summer archeological show, "Aztecs," at the Martin Gropius Museum. This is a presentation from the other U.S. neighbour, Mexico–about 300 objects from the remains of one of Latin America’s bloodier civilizations, the 16th century human-sacrificing Aztecs. Mexican president Vincente Fox was amid the 2,000 or so exhibit-opening guests crammed into the show, and so were a team of Mexican archeologists and their German political and cultural counterparts, starting with German head of state Johannes Rau. I was minding my own business, trying to squirm through the mob to getter a closer look at one of those stone receptacles the Aztecs used to contain blood-spurting freshly-carved-out human hearts when all of a sudden TV camera lights went on all around me and in front of my nose there appeared gay Social Democratic Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit. Like any strangers caught in the glare of the global headlights, we heartily shook hands for the camera. He probably thought I was a prominent Mexican archeologist rather than an obscure meandering Canadian.

A more notable nomadic Canadian, John Ralston Saul, vigorously toured the town last week, lecturing here and there on everything from globalization to civil society to the nature of the Canadian state. I’d better declare that I’m a Ralston Saul fan, both in his role as husband of Canada’s head of state (he and Adrienne Clarkson are the most intellectually distinguished couple to ever occupy the office), and as a public intellectual, author of The Unconscious Civilization and half a dozen other provocative books. I caught his morning seminar at the Free University of Berlin, where Canada was again the subject.

While Ralston Saul said a lot of the things that Phil Resnick said, he emphasized the non-monolithic, anti-heroic character of the Canadian state, as distinct from the U.S’s "monolithic view of national mythology"–the old "what it means to be an American" thump-de-thump. Ralston underscored the historical creation of modern Canada by mid-19th century figures like LaFontaine, Baldwin and then Governor-General Lord Elgin. While Europe was crushing the revolutions of 1848, Canada was taking a characteristic "weak approach to dissent" and cobbling together the liberal state. Ralston Saul’s account of the Canada duly nodded to the tri-partite Aboriginal, Anglo and French founding peoples–he even included a footnote of approval for historical inter-ethnic "sleeping together," which raised a seminar snicker–and then described the succeeding waves of immigrants. The successful "psychological trick" of Canada, he claimed, is to immediately "treat immigrants as citizens." The longer version of Ralston Saul’s conception of the country is available in his interesting (and in my opinion, under-read) Reflections of a Siamese Twin (Viking, 1997).

All in all, it was a pretty good couple of weeks of characteristically modest Canadian rah-rah. Aside from the standard self-deprecating tropes, I think there is something interesting about Canada as a political entity. Since this is the official Kanada Week in Berlin, I may as well throw in my two Euro-cents, now that Resnick, Ralston Saul, and company have donated to the cause.

What the Canadian experiment is all about, as I see it, is what Germany’s leading political philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, calls "constitutional patriotism," as the post-nationalist glue for contemporary nation-states. That term doesn’t mean genuflection before some document–although in Canada’s case, there is a document, thanks to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau–nor does it inspire national belligerence, but rather it calls for an attachment to the values and institutions of a society that spends a lot of its time attempting to accomodate its own diversity. I think the values and institutions are and ought to be social democratic in character, as opposed to what Ralston Saul describes as "the technocrats’ version of wild ‘n woolly economics," the system currently dubbed globalization.

Whereas in Germany, there’s a strong German character, Canada offers a decidedly weak national identity. It’s either riven by cultural and linguistic divides or it’s non-existent except for identification with values and institutions. That is, there’s a real sense in which there’s no such thing as a Canadian–unless you count toque-wearing, beer-swilling hoser comics on TV–but there are annually increasing numbers of citizens living in an entity called Canada.

One of the things that’s interesting about the Canadian experiment is that notwithstanding a quarter-million immigrants annually, lately of largely Asian origin, so far no one has gotten killed. Or at least, not a lot of people have gotten killed, knock on wood (even though the wood is unfairly taxed by the Americans). So far, the school system has succeeded in inculcating one of the two national languages and some idea of the values of the country. Canada has also turned to good account what Ralston Saul approvingly describes as the "tension of uncertainty." If you need a contrasting comparison to this situation, you have to look no further than Germany, which has a mess on its hands with some two million Turkish residents, who were brought into the country a generation ago as "guest-workers," but who were never integrated as citizens, and who remain as a large, awkward enclave.

Finally, globalization apart, there’s still the nation-state. In Canada and Germany, if not the U.S., it is an intentionally weaker nation-state than was conceived in the mid-19th century. Significant chunks of the nation-state’s autonomy are being delegated to larger federations like the European Union and the United Nations, and a good thing, too. Insofar as globalisation is negatively conceived as the new face of imperialism, which we need to resist, as Resnick says, "in all its attractive and unattractive guises," global citizens in modest nations may be the best way to duck and weave.

Berlin, May 26, 2003


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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