January 30, 2006

· Books · Sociology

I missed this over the weekend, but here’s Garrison Keillor tearing a strip off of Bernard-Henri Lévy and his book about America. (The San Francisco Chronicle liked it a bit better, but only a bit.) Based on Keillor’s review, it sounds like BHL has a case of the disease that Bruce McCall brilliantly parodied in his travelogue “In the New Canada, Living is a Way of Life.” That article (which I’ve talked about before) is written in the prose characteristic of the cultural tourist/feature writer touring around Russia, c.1982 for Readers Digest: serious, curious, with an outsider’s eye for paradox and an uncanny ability to miss the point altogether:

The cabin attendant on our Air Canada flight answers a request for the correct time in almost perfectly unaccented English. She will not be the last Canadian in this new Canada of hers to try meeting a question with an answer, to make her reply her way of dealing with a query… The plane approaches the airport runway cautiously, as if the Canadian pilot were unwilling to risk landing until his airspeed was throttled back to almost nothing and his wheels were fully down.

Everywhere the same gradations of blue and green and yellow and red and brown and orange and purple and taupe and mauve and pink and beige; city and countryside, summer and winter, in this new Canada, the only color is that of a single spectrum attempting to encompass all the hues of the rainbow…

In this land of the musk-ox, the beaver and the moose, there is no musk-ox or beaver or moose meat to be had. The man behind the counter at the meat store is little more than a butcher. The remains of cows and sheep and pigs are all he has to sell…

“They say we’ll get some rain today.” “They tell us you’re up here from the States, eh?” “They never let you park in that spot without a permit.” Who are “They,” who seem to know all, to control all, in this new Canada? The Canadian we ask blurts out the answer we expect. “I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about,” he sputters, careful to not look us straight in the eye.

The church, save for the minister, the choir, the sexton, and perhaps a hundred parishoners huddled in a space easily large enough to accommodate a hundred and thirty or more, is empty. The stone walls lack paint. Bits and pieces of colored glass serve as windows. Music is provided not by orchestra but by a lone pipe organ. Men shuffle among the worshippers solicting coins and paper currency—-anything anyone can afford to give. There is no talking, no playing checkers, no smoking allowed.

There are no schoolchildren with bouqets to see us of at the airport. Just as there had been no folk dancers to greet us when we arrived. This is the new Canada.

Tocqueville is a hard act to follow, and I can’t see BHL being up to the job.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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