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Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell Debate Canada as Nation or Notion
April 17, 2008 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Canadian-born New Yorkers Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell have an eloquent conversation (MP3) about the nature of our eternally under-confident country. Gladwell quips early on that "those of you who are familiar with my writing will know that this practice of talking about X by discussing Y is my only rhetorical move." Text (though not an exact transcript) is also available, as is a report.
posted by dbarefoot (27 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's the working link to the MP3.
posted by ferdydurke at 2:13 PM on April 17, 2008


These two guys are a large reason I stopped reading The New Yorker: I find them both to be overrated and cloying.
posted by ornate insect at 2:23 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Blame Canada!
posted by ericb at 2:25 PM on April 17, 2008


These two guys are a large reason I stopped reading The New Yorker

But what about George Packer, Calvin Trillin and Roger Angell? Tad Friend is also a great writer. And Anthony Lane! And James Surowiecki!!! Atul Gawande!!!

I still like Adam Gopnick, but realized that Gladwell was all smoke and mirrors after I read Blink.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:31 PM on April 17, 2008


I liked the point that Canada's nationalism remains positive because we're forced to contrast ourselves with Quebec.

I must not be a very deep thinker, because I pretty much nodded along with both of them. I didn't really see what they were saying as being that different.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:40 PM on April 17, 2008


kokuryo--some of those you list who I am familiar w/are indeed worth a read, but Surowieki is my least favorite of the lot: his economic "analysis" amounts to little more than WSJ-like patter, and unsurprisingly serves to mirror the egos of the moneyed elite and uphold the status quo of the wealth managers. Not that I would expect socialism from Conde Nast, but it's precisely the "aren't-we-hip," self-congratulatory tone of urbane bemusement that infests The New Yorker (and for that matter the New York Times) which bothers me. On the rare occasions when I still hit a decent magazine stand I stick to Harpers, the Nation, NYRB, etc. I guess I'm a curmudgeon.
posted by ornate insect at 3:01 PM on April 17, 2008


That or the Swimsuit Issue of Lapham's Quarterly, b/c the sight of Cynthia Ozick in a bikini or Wally Shawn in a leotard is so ephemeral and sublime.
posted by ornate insect at 3:05 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


There is something so very Canadian about turning to expats to define Canadian nationalism
posted by srboisvert at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


There is also video of their conversation.
posted by ornate insect at 3:21 PM on April 17, 2008


These two guys are a large reason I keep resubscribing to The New Yorker: I find them both to be excellent, thought-provoking writers.
posted by languagehat at 3:38 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


There is something so very Canadian about turning to expats to define Canadian nationalism

Seconded.

I don't think it's just that they're expats but more precisely that they're Big in New York. It's that maddeningly nagging virus of colonial inferiority, which in my experience infects the senior ranks of the Toronto-centred media much worse than most strata of polyglot Canadian society. See also the Globe's weekly arts-and-culture columns from New York and London, and compare and contrast with their non-existent counterparts in Calgary and Winnipeg and Montreal and Halifax. Etc., etc., ad nauseum. And if Pico Iyer says one more nice thing about Toronto, I'm fairly certain he'll get a statue in Nathan Phillips Square and a seat in the Senate.

I read the transcript of this talk in Maclean's (which gave it above-the-banner cover-page billing because look they're from New York and they're talking about little old US!), and was amazed at the academic distance and persistent lack of any direct connection to the country I've been living in and reporting on while they've been living large in Manhattan. They could've been talking about ancient Sumeria for all the concrete substance brought in to back up their rhetorical assertions.

Start instead with Noah Richler, who at least begins the debate with the right hypothesis, which I'd paraphrase thusly: Canada's strength, particularly in this hyper-connected polyglot era, resides in its ability to elude strict definitions of its identity.
posted by gompa at 3:42 PM on April 17, 2008


Listened to this on my walk today, since it was the latest item in the Ideas podcast. I think they were stressing superfluous points of difference to make it actually sound like a debate, since really their points need not be mutually exclusive. Canada, on the world stage, can act as a more bold and independent force than the US or the UK because it has fewer things forcing its hand in international affairs, but at the same time can be an accommodating soft little liberal democracy on the inside. We're the tootsie pop of the world.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:44 PM on April 17, 2008


I didn't know Malcolm Gladwell was Canadian. Makes sense though.

Mmm, tootsie pop.
posted by blacklite at 4:15 PM on April 17, 2008


Canada's strength, particularly in this hyper-connected polyglot era, resides in its ability to elude strict definitions of its identity.

As Canadian as... possible, under the circumstances.
posted by GuyZero at 4:33 PM on April 17, 2008


We're the tootsie pop of the world.

In this world, it's suck or be sucked.
posted by GuyZero at 4:34 PM on April 17, 2008


relative to America, Canada's strength is that its body politic never developed anything like the lethal parasite of our neocon complex; it was never overwhelmed by a bloated military budget or christofascist war profiteers looking to fight Vietnam ad nauseum; it makes some effort at maintaining a net of social services and general infrastructural upkeep that is just not found in the States (it invests more in the healthcare, welfare, well being and education of its citizens than we do), and my impression is that it is not burdened with anything like the same degree of systemic political corruption. Furthermore, its press is, while not without its problems, less bought out and spoken for than America's. Its stability and relative political quietism is refreshing when compared to the thundering inanity and corporate gigantism of American political life.
posted by ornate insect at 5:06 PM on April 17, 2008


The desperate search for Canadian identity has always seemed rather odd to me. I don't think we have any more or less identity than the US.

Both Canada and the US I guess have a political identity, in that they have certain reputations as to how their respective governments apply themselves on the international stage, and tendencies with respect to large scale domestic policy. Why this is is far less clear though. My own suspicions, based on the Americans and Canadians I've met over my time, is that the government level differences have more to do with the serious problems with the US democracy.

But these debates aren't asking about political identity - we want to know about cultural identity. But cultural identity has always been given far more intellectual capital then it really deserves. Are we looking for shared values across some arbitrarily defined state? Because the fact of the matter is, the urban/rural distinction tells you a hell of a lot more about a person than does the country they're from. Similarly with education and wealth.

The fact of the matter is is that cultural identity is about as profound as astrology. If you want to know what's going on, culturally, in some nation, there's no way to do it but to dive right in. For some reason, though, that's not good enough. So let's play a game.

I suppose the French have a strong identity, right? What is it? Oh hell, how about wine, cheese, and existentialism. The English? How about irony, monarchy, and boats. The Japanese? Collectivism, Samurai, and Kabuki. The US? Democracy, music, and capitalism.

And for Canada? How about hockey, politeness, and multiculturalism (at least in the big cities).

There. Are we done? Can we stop this game now? I really don't find it enlightening, and the concept still seems vacuous to me.
posted by Alex404 at 5:12 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


The desperate search for Canadian identity has always seemed rather odd to me.

Then get to know some Kiwis. You'll start understanding why pretty fast.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:34 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I hate to be that guy, but the link in the original post works for me.

Also, I wanted to correct myself. Gopnik was actually born in Philadelphia, but raised in Montreal. I can't say enough about his book Paris to the Moon. It's beautifully written.
posted by dbarefoot at 5:47 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


maybe canada could join (like voltron) with iceland, greenland and ireland and form, i dunno, something? [and scotland if they're willing :P lyonesse!]
posted by kliuless at 6:01 PM on April 17, 2008


First of all, I really loved Paris to the Moon. I had been living overseas for quite a while, and what he was writing about really resonated with me. I've never really thought of either Gopnick or Gladwell as being Canadian, because I think Canadians are typically parochial (Corner Gas, hockey and Sorel footwear tends to dominate our collective imagination) whereas Gopnik and Gladwell are definitely cosmopolitan. They're playing in the big leagues, whereas a writer for the Walrus or the G&M is really writing for the farm team.

Maybe it's because Gopnik is from Montreal (although his wife is from Winnipeg) and Gladwell's family is from the Caribbean, or maybe it's because writing for the New Yorker is kind of like ascending Mount Everest - you have to adapt your writing style for your target audience.

And then:

kokuryo--some of those you list who I am familiar w/are indeed worth a read, but Surowieki is my least favorite of the lot: his economic "analysis" amounts to little more than WSJ-like patter, and unsurprisingly serves to mirror the egos of the moneyed elite and uphold the status quo of the wealth managers. Not that I would expect socialism from Conde Nast, but it's precisely the "aren't-we-hip," self-congratulatory tone of urbane bemusement that infests The New Yorker (and for that matter the New York Times) which bothers me. On the rare occasions when I still hit a decent magazine stand I stick to Harpers, the Nation, NYRB, etc. I guess I'm a curmudgeon.

Point taken, in that I agree that Surowieki is writing for a very specific audience, but at the same time I totally disagree that this makes his analysis somehow wrong. Surowieki is a wonderful tonic to the doom-and-gloom "progressive" or "leftist" critiques produced by the other side, like, say, Democracy Now. Still, it's easy to forget that Remnick and the New Yorker supported the invasion of Iraq. It's startling to remember that the concept of Manifest Destiny is embraced by every American regardless of political persuasion: every country, including Iraq, should be just like America and have the opportunity to live in freedom.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:41 PM on April 17, 2008


It's startling to remember that the concept of Manifest Destiny is embraced by every American regardless of political persuasion: every country, including Iraq, should be just like America

Well I'm American, and I certainly don't subscribe to any such notion. Indeed, I regard just this kind of dogmatic uber-arrogance as ennabling much of what has gone wrong w/America: this has been the entirely b.s. propaganda for a war fought for the petro-industrial complex and the PNAC/AIPAC agenda. And the best critic of this failed policy, Naomi Klein, is a Canadian.
posted by ornate insect at 7:07 PM on April 17, 2008


A positive comment on the net about Naomi Klein??!!

*checks mirror for goatee*
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:23 PM on April 17, 2008


The thing I like about Malcolm Gladwell is that his book keeps my refrigerator level. Adam Gopnick, well ...
posted by R. Mutt at 7:26 PM on April 17, 2008


For Canadians or others who are interested in this kind of discussion about Canadian identity (and I haven't listened to the mp3 yet, but I will momentarily, but I assume there is much overlap here), I recommend John Ralston Saul's Reflection on a Siamese Twin, and all of his other non-fiction work, for that matter.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:31 PM on April 17, 2008


To be fair to the opinionated expats, it is difficult to see your country for what it is until you have lived in another one. Things like walking down the street every day, trying to get your utilities sorted, riding the bus, or even just trying to talk to people on the street reminds me everyday that the UK is a different culture from Canada in ways I would have never predicted. How can you know who you are when you don't really know who anybody else is?
posted by srboisvert at 5:28 AM on April 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


For an ex-pat, i guess it's not surprising that Gladwell gets one thing wrong -- that Canada stayed out of Iraq because we don't have the same historical baggage that say, the U.K. has. We stayed out of Iraq because the invasion happened while the Liberals were in power and they're ideologically not so hot on unilateral intervention. If Harper's Conservatives had been in power, we would have been much more likely to have signed up.

By lucky accident, Harper didn't get into power until after it was quite clear that the original justification for the invasion (WMDs) was a bust, and the situation was turning into a quagmire.
posted by storybored at 6:50 PM on April 18, 2008


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