Saturday, October 5, 2013

Oh Canada: behave and make it bland!

So. . .

In the latest campaign against the inequalities of antiquity, certain luminaries of the Canadian intelligentsia, Margaret Atwood and Belinda Stronach chief among them, have set their sites on this country's national anthem. At issue would appear to be the out dated phrase "in all thy sons command", which would appear to exclude all thy daughters, also eager for command. Perhaps the lyrics should be rewritten, gender neutral.

Fortunate indeed our daughters if this is their most pressing issue.

Now, as a white man, I realize I am in a poor position to lecture other people about when they ought to feel excluded, and I realize it is not ultimately my decision what causes the oppressed multitudes ought to take up. But try as I might, I really cannot see the urgency here. I honestly can't. I don't see how the lyrics of the anthem affect anybody's life in any meaningful way, I don't see how the lyrics of the anthem prevent women from participating in Canadian society in any capacity they choose (whatever other barriers there may be) and I'm honestly not convinced anyone else really cares.

Last weekend I had the privilege of singing the anthem at a football game with my choir. The audience stood dutifully at attention and listened politely, but the producers still didn't see fit to televise our bit. It was only the anthem after all, who would care? Best to get in a few more advertising dollars. This is the degree to which "Oh Canada" is revered in our country, to whit: not at all. In school, we used to slouch behind our chairs and mumble the words while we waited to sit back down again (subsequent folk and hip-hop versions similarly failed to inspire us). We paid very little attention to what the words actually were. At sporting events, folk will stand crookedly with their hands in their pockets, sway to and fro and maybe hum along. God knows I am no fan of jingoistic displays of nationalism, and yet. . .well, I can lament this another time. Point being: very few people appear overtly inconvenienced by the words of "O Canada".

 When significant persons go after issues such as these, issues that have no immediate effect on anybody, they strike me as looking for itches to scratch. The campuses are full of such types, folk who need to prove themselves in the crowded world of academia by finding pots to stir and sacred cows to slaughter, at a time when there are very few left. Perhaps its a positive sign of a healthy society that we have to look this hard for things to be upset about, and maybe it's evidence of a truly free society that we need to look this hard for evidence of oppression.

Maybe. Perhaps. I'm a man, what do I know?

Going after the anthem bugs me for two reasons. One is the impoverishment of language, to be expected in a politician like Stronach, but disappointing in a writer like Atwood. The other is the lack of tolerance for earlier eras.

To cleanse language of terms which are not in the strictest sense considered "neutral", limits the language we have at our disposal. We suddenly have fewer ways to express ourselves. To find meaning. It would not be an exaggeration to say language is what sets us apart from animals: it is what allows us as a species to share knowledge and experience, and - crucially - give meaning to abstraction. It's quite extraordinary when you think about just how much is being expressed by simple words like "freedom" or "love". It's not just our ability to express concepts either, but to understand them. Our ability to understand any concept is largely dependant on our ability to describe it. For this, we need as extensive a vocabulary as possible.   Limiting this is not only incredibly petty but actually quite dangerous.

To be fair, no one is suggesting that phrase "at thy sons command" should be permanently removed from the English language, but they are suggesting we shouldn't be allowed to use it on this occasion. "It's exclusive; use something else". It's regulation of language by a small party, which I would never be in favour of.

Language is not only about the communication of meaning, but also the communication of, well, beauty (How's that for an abstraction). A poet's first concern when writing a piece is never "is this phrase inclusive enough" but "how does this phrase sound? Is it good enough?" The poet's first concern should always be with the quality of the work, and never to the needs of the state. Or anyone else for that matter. Is the phrase really the best for the task? Well the alternatives, "all our hearts command" or "everyone's command" are all bland as porridge by comparison. Cherry picking language for inclusive phrases rarely leads to great poetry.

Which indirectly leads me to my second objection. "All thy sons command" is a deliberate archaism, penned at a time when deliberate archaisms were fashionable. Having suffered through a creative writing course in the past, I know that deliberately archaic language is deeply unfashionable among today's literati, and can't help thinking that's what's driving this campaign as much as anything. "Make it modern! Make it relevant!" Indeed, why should the past be allowed to intrude upon our modern sensibilities? After all, isn't this the land where tax-payer dollars went to grafting a cancerous crystal carbuncle onto the Royal Ontario Museum?

Past? What past?
Monolith monsters devour Royal Ontario Museum.

Be that as it may, supposing Stronach and company really do feel put out by the lyrics of the national anthem? Should an old song (the English version was commissioned more than a hundred years ago, in 1905) reflecting old values and old aesthetics continue to represent the country today? Well, I would argue that if we're to have any pretentions of being a real culture with a real history, we cannot rewrite or whitewash that history, nor pretend that this society has always been what we would like it to be. If we go about retroactively rewriting old songs and stories that don't reflect our current values, we'll soon be left without any songs or stories. I suppose we could change the lyrics of "O Canada" and not be any worse (besides having a more boring anthem, which is not nothing), but then what? What else could we go after? The Merchant of Venice? "Farewell to Nova Scotia"? "Money for Nothing"? A culture cleansed of its tics and its heritage, eternally on eggshells, permanently terrified of someone else's toes. A culture sanitized to the point of banality.

Does anyone really want that?


  1. Provoked a response among certain friends of mine this one did. I may publish their comments later, if they allow. It's probably not a debate I can win, but in this, as in most things, I'll go with my gut. I'll never happily go along with the sanitization of culture.

  2. I've been too conciliatory. I've had several weeks to think about this, and my opinion is unchanged: changing the lyrics is unnecessary, and those calling for it really need to get a life.