Monday, July 06, 2020

Independence/in dependence

When I was a five-year-old I wished our family was American.

I told my father. He said: “We are American — we’re North American!”

Hogwash. America had a beautiful flag. Ours was weird. The Maple Leaf? What was that supposed to mean to a kid parked in the butt-end of Manitoba? The only Maple we had was Manitoba Maple — a weed more than a tree, really.

America had a great national anthem. Canada’s paled in comparison. “With glowing hearts we see thee rise” — those words didn’t make a lick of sense to a five-year-old. “But the rocket’s red glare/The bombs bursting in air” — that was more like it!

Five-year-olds in 1970 were well aware that America had all the good television. Before we got to the spectacular razzle-dazzle of Sesame Street we had to sit though Chez Hélène, The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dressup. Canadian five-year-olds didn’t have to take a nap in the afternoon — we’d been snoozing all morning.

Even sliced bread was more interesting in America than Canada. They had Snoopy on the bag!
Now, more than ever.
And although I did not understand precisely how this could be the case, I knew the reason why America was so snazzy in contrast to pallid Canada — they’d declared independence from Britain. Canada hadn’t. In fact, it wasn’t clear just what Canada’s relationship to Britain was. Except it was weird. In a boring way.

In 1970 the Kindergarten half-day began with us singing “O Canada” and concluded with us singing “God Save The Queen.”

“Mom, why does the Queen need saving? Is she sick in the hospital?”

“Well, that’s not really what ‘save’ means in this context . . .”

“Is it dangerous for her to live in Canada?”

“The Queen doesn’t live in Canada. She lives in London, England.”

“Then how is she the Queen of Canada?”

“She’s not the Queen of Canada, she’s . . . it’s complicated. You’ll understand when you get older. Say, isn’t it almost time for Mr. Dressup?”

Complicated? Actually, it was just plain weird. That was Canada, all the way around — weird, in a boring way.

Fifty years later our nation’s relationship with “Mother England” is still weird, but the history of it makes damnable sense. In 1870 my forebears understood the British were the ones making Canadian soil available to them for our families and farms. When they sang “God Save The Queen” they meant it. But Mennonites also have a long history of being driven off land that’s suddenly valuable to people with armies. 150 years later we’re coming round to the realization that perhaps Britain’s claims on our behalf and benefit were just a touch presumptive.

Americans gained independence. That’s clear thinking. I envied that.

But what are we ever, finally, independent of? What does manifest independence even look like, except an open grave? To be alive at all is to be in dependence of a dynamic network vastly beyond our capacity to ever fully apprehend.

“The digital age is built on the backs of runaway systems” — Jazzman Ted Gioia reflects on the wisdom of Gregory Bateson, extoller of the feedback loop.


pdb said...

The Americans, caught up in a play of forces they couldn’t or wouldn’t see, claimed rather than gained independence, yeah.

Possibly a further post coming for me, here, some point soonish. (I note your noting of The Letter. Shits and giggles indeed!) Gioia’s piece is certainly fuel for this burn.

Smiled at that line about ‘grandma’s love beads.’ It would be my children, if I’d had any at the appropriate stage, whose grandparents on their father’s side are the flower-child generation. (Have nephews the age to be the expected reader, but they don’t read the LARB.) But there’s next to no memory of the counterculture in my family, at least in the way Gioia talks about it. The harder-edged religiosity my parents turned to from the harmless Main-St.-church Protestantism they’d been brought up in was counterculture too, in a sense, as I imagine Gioia would agree. Observing that kind of twist, together with what historiography showing the consolidating right to be the stronger movement of the period suggests in simple contradiction to the popular idea that the Boomers experienced a sort of uniform All You Need Is Love moment collectively, fleshes out what he describes as ‘ditching,’ failure to grasp the opportunity.

Whisky Prajer said...

Gioia is, I think, five years older than I, so there is a reflexive nostalgia for counter-cultural claims. And, yeah, I think he'd take your point. My pop's library signified considerable focus on the matter, the majority of it from evangelical thought-wrasslers like Os Guinness, Ron Sider, C. Norman Krause and, yes, Francis Schaeffer (though dad was a little cool toward the last guy. I should ask him about that sometime). The IVP set, mostly. Though this was a book pop recommended when I found myself anxiously saddled with a "theological book review" in my Grade 12 Bible class. Colin Morris advocating for violent change in Rhodesia, 1969. Not quite what IVP -- or the Mennonite church -- was peddling at the time.

Whisky Prajer said...

Should perhaps add that my grade 12 book review took place in the winter of '82-'83 -- the cusp of Reagan's "Good morning in America!" So nostalgia for ANY counter-cultural cache was already in full bloom for me.

pdb said...

My 12th-grade year included a class that was supposed to be a sort of social-studies seminar, called ‘Sociology,’ one full semester of which was devoted to Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? (Now imagine what we were doing for Bible class.) I asked for, and received, a full set of Schaeffer’s works as a graduation or Christmas gift sometime in there. Never made it through much of him, though, for all the zeal. He isn’t much to read, as I recall, and anyway you need at least a little coherent history & humanistic tradition — the very thing you might say that sort of Christian education was being developed around us to shield the young minds from — to get any clear sense of what a fellow like Schaeffer was on about.

The church where I later undertook to become a serious Calvinist (the one in the post with Ben Sasse) was pastored by a guy who’d lived at L’Abri with the Schaeffers for a while (and was buddies with Guinness, Ken Myers, others of the type (not Sider!)).

Anyway, I’d enjoy hearing what your dad has to say about him.

pdb said...

Knew nothing of Morris, by the way! Thanks for this.