A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The State of/and Canadian “Culture”

As a rule, professional sports players are not notable for their Ciceronian eloquence. They get paid to play a game of some kind, though a small part of their job does involve being able to construct the odd platitude for media consumption. Although there have been poets who wrote eloquently about sports (e.g. Hemingway), there are no great poets that I can think of who are also professional sports players, with the possible exception of Yogi Berra. But by far the least articulate athletes around have got to be hockey players.

My mother had an interesting theory about this. According to her, in most sports, players would compete for scholarships to some college or university, from which they would hope to be drafted into a professional league. They may not have been scholastically inclined, but they had to at least attend an institution of higher learning for some period of time, which also meant that they had to get accepted into one. If they were lucky, the rudiments of something resembling an education could be instilled into them, if only by accident. Hockey players on the other hand, could be drafted straight out of high school, before they even got their diplomas, so they were less likely to have two IQ points to rub together. And this, my mother thought, explains those moronic and utterly tautologous interview exchanges with hockey players that are completely devoid of content or basic intelligibility:

INTERVIEWER: So, you’re a goal ahead coming out of the first period. What’s the plan for the second period, Gordie? [Substitute Dougie, or Bobby, or Donnie, or other typically Canadian name]

HOCKEY PLAYER: Well, you know, uh, like, we’re gonna get out there and, you know, play, eh? We’ll just go out there and give ‘er, eh? We’re gonna, you know, like, skate down the ice, and shoot the puck, and score goals. And then, you know, if we do that more than the other guys out there, we should, like, be able to win this, eh?

(For those unfamiliar with its dubious charm, the “eh” sentence ending is common among poorly educated, mostly white, Canadians — as professional ice hockey players tend to be. It is not entirely clear whether this locution, when uttered, is intended to be declarative or interrogative, but the rising intonation makes it sound like the latter. It is a most unattractive Canadian linguistic marker. What I cannot reproduce in written form, however, is the distinctive sound made as these words pass through the sweating, bleeding, and largely toothless mouth of a hyperventilating hockey player.)

I think my mother’s theory had some merit when I was a kid, though I don’t know if her political economy of sports recruitment still holds water today. Perhaps hockey players are now drafted out of colleges and universities, and perhaps, though not obviously, hockey players are getting incrementally more intelligent over time. But I can tell you that their fans only seem to get stupider by the day. In support of this latter claim, and especially for the benefit of non-Canadian readers, allow me to produce Exhibit A: the appeal of Don Cherry.

Although Mr. Cherry is a Canadian institution (to our eternal shame), I honestly don’t know how to adequately describe what he is for the benefit of my non-Canadian readers. Nominally, he is a hockey announcer and colour commentator. But I suppose one could better think of him as a one-man “whiteface” minstrel show. He wears loud suits made from your great auntie’s curtains, complete with Edwardian collar. The ensemble is often accented by those wrap-around sunglasses so favoured among working class Canadian white men. The sunglasses are a wise choice, since they serve to shield his audience from his dull and brutish eyes, the low brows of which frequently furrow like a confused or enraged chimpanzee’s. He speaks (“tirades” would be a better word, if I could pass it off as a verb) in a bellowing cascade of monosyllables, interspersed with grunts, and accented by the chopping motion of his hands.

Inexplicably, Canadians of the lower orders cannot get enough of Mr. Cherry’s shtick. Traditionally, his cretinous minstrelsy has consisted largely of obnoxious shouting and misogynistic and homophobic railing against assorted wimps, pinkos, tree huggers, and the perceived effeminacy of the style of hockey supposedly favoured by European players (“ballet dancers” as he charmingly calls them). In Don Cherry's world, Europeans need to do less playing and more punching, slashing, and bludgeoning.

However, lately Mr. Cherry has added considerably to this limited repertoire. First, as Canada’s late military adventure in Afghanistan escalated, he took to maudlin displays of “sympathy for the troops”, replete with pre-game puck-dropping ceremonies involving much waving of flags and fawning over veterans of various wars.

To this new routine he added the role of comic political mascot to his growing curriculum vitae: having been invited for no apparent reason to the inauguration of Toronto’s mayor and council, he proceeded to denounce the various “pinkos” and their media who had opposed the mayor’s electoral bid. (Full disclosure: I too despise mayor’s “progressive” opponents and the well-organized media vendetta against him. But Cherry’s display was shameful and the occasion chosen was utterly tasteless.)

This foray into politics having gone so well, Mr. Cherry now feels himself qualified to enlighten the public with his views on Canadian foreign policy. In his opinion it is “nuts” that Canada has donated $50 million in aid to Haiti. The man is a true polymath, wise in hockey, wise in international relations. I see an ambassadorship to the UN in his future. Or at least a Senate seat.

In all seriousness though, there is a not-so-subtle melding of hockey, politics, and citizenship in Canada that I find disturbing. I watched television two nights ago (something I rarely do), and was treated to a commercial wherein it was more than implied that a “true Canadian” plays hockey. I wish this message was new to me. Unfortunately, I cannot count the number of times in a given week on the airwaves of the CBC — our nation’s once venerable public broadcaster — that I am glibly assured that all Canadians love hockey, that hockey is “what makes us Canadian”, that all Canadians yearn for an end to the NHL hockey lockout, that all Canadians spend every spare moment during our long winters on some backyard rink playing shinny, etc. etc.

Contrary to CBC and establishment mythology, the overwhelming majority of Canadians live in urban areas. Few of us have backyards big enough to contain a hockey rink. A sizable chunk of the Canadian population are immigrants, many of whom come from countries where a snowflake is about as common a sight as a unicorn. I was born in Canada, but I can barely skate, and I have not attempted to do so since sometime in the early 1990s. The simple fact is, more Canadians in my city (the largest in Canada) follow soccer than hockey. Last year one of our national newspapers, admittedly a relatively highbrow one, The Globe and Mail, conducted a poll. It was hardly scientific, and I conveniently can’t find it now. It asked readers how they felt about hockey, but it was clearly framed in such a way as to elicit answers favourable to hockey (e.g. asking “How often do you watch hockey?” without offering the option of answering “Never”). And yet, the long and short of the results was that more than two-thirds of readers actually couldn’t care less about hockey; they neither follow it, watch it, nor play it. This tallies with my suspicion that hockey spectatorship is largely the bastion of white, undereducated males, who find its goonery and insensate violence appealing, and who are not inclined to follow any sport or other event that involves too much strategic thought. Hockey is not a thinking man’s game. It is the sporting equivalent of a monster truck show.

(If you are reading this and you love hockey but don’t fit into that demographic because you are affluent, well-educated, well-spoken, you won’t get an apology or a retraction from me. I feel it my duty to tell you that you suffer from a condition known as localized stupidity, a form of mental retardation that only manifests itself in certain areas of one’s life. The good news is that everyone suffers from some form of this malady, so you are not alone. For example, localized stupidity is partly the explanation for my love of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The good news is that it can be cured. In your case, the first steps are to stop watching hockey and to stop spending time with people who watch it, especially if said people suffer from generalized stupidity. Generalized stupidity is indeed a terrible disease. It is highly contagious, and I understand that it has become endemic in rural areas of Canada.)

The equating of hockey with Canadian citizenship used to be something to chuckle at. It was a kind of joke we Canadians told ourselves, in our ongoing vain attempts to form a cohesive national identity. However, it is no longer amusing. It is pathological. Media propagated hockey-worship manages to alienate from their own national culture the two-thirds of Canadians who don’t care for hockey. Ironically, these very people whose claim to citizenship is called into question by their indifference to hockey are arguably better citizens precisely because they don’t care for the violence, gracelessness, and stupidity the sport epitomizes. And because of the constant harping on this myth that you are not a real Canadian if you don’t like hockey, some of us — some 66% of us, if the Globe and Mail poll is any indication — are learning to despise our putative Canadian identity because we are being taught to equate it with such a shameful and degrading spectacle.

The Three Pillars of Harperism

If fascism ever comes to Canada, it will come wrapped in a hockey jersey. I submit that we’re already nearly there. Ominously, the sport seems to have become one of the Three Pillars of the political philosophy (or iconography) of Harperism:

1. Military
2. Monarchy
3. Hockey

For years now, we have been given to believe that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is beavering away at a book about hockey. I doubt this, simply because I doubt that he has what it takes to write a book all by himself. We are, after all, talking about a man whose speeches are written for him by others or are plagiarized from former Australian Prime Ministers. We’re talking about a man who took nine years to finish a one-year Master’s degree in political science, but who gives it out to the media that it’s an economics degree so that they can refer to him as an economist — which he clearly is not. No, I don’t think we’ll see Harper’s Book of Homespun Hockey Wisdom in my lifetime, but it’s a convenient myth. To the hockey-loving plebeian class of Canada, it lends his carefully cultivated persona the right mixture of man-of-the-people and intellectual. But not too intellectual, mind, for that would be a sign of effeminacy his electoral base will not tolerate. You can almost see him there, by the quiet fireside of a winter’s eve, wearing his powder blue sweater vest, scribbling away after a long day spent protecting virtuous rural Canadians from the hordes of pot-smoking communists, urban tree huggers, and homosexual intellectuals waiting to steal their hard-earned paychecks to pay for subsidized heroin and free abortions for all.

The connection between Harperism’s Three Pillars of Military, Monarchy, and Hockey is patent. One need only begin by looking at the roundel of the Royal Canadian Air Force [Fig. 1], which has in the past couple of years been appearing inexplicably on winter coats across the land. It is obviously a military symbol (First Pillar). But less obvious is the fact that this roundel also invokes the Second Pillar of Harperism: Monarchy. You see, up until August 2011, Canada’s army, navy, and air force were part of the same umbrella military organization. Stephen Harper’s government separated the three branches and renamed them. Canada’s former Air Command was officially renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and the Maritime Command was renamed the Royal Canadian Navy. In case you dared forget that we are a proud quasi-independent subaltern of the British Crown, our military is royal and presumably at the Queen's disposal.

Now compare this RCAF roundel with the logo of Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada [Fig. 2]. There is obviously more than a passing resemblance, no?

Fig. 2
But perhaps more disturbing is the comparison between both of these figures and the two-year-old logo for the Winnipeg Jets hockey team [Fig. 3], which, incidentally, Harper is known to be inordinately fond of. Indeed, he likes it so much that a 25 cent piece has been issued by the Royal Canadian Mint and is in general circulation, so that each and every Canadian in this wide land can have her very own reminder of the Three Pillars of Harperism in her pocket or purse. It can be fondled, like a rosary. Or it can be spent on beer.

Fig. 3
Other nations, proud and great nations, put the faces of their founding fathers, national liberators, great writers, orators, or Nobel Prize winners on their currency. Canadians apparently prefer to put hockey players and team logos on theirs. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the current state of what passes for Canadian “culture” in the Year of Our Harper 2013.


  1. Ho ho, pretty strong meat here, Mr. Pratt. I'll have to digest this for a while, but I have to state that while there are many very intelligent (although not well-educated) hockey players, there is a darker truth to Don Cherry. His persona is, in my view, 100% affected. I have followed his career trajectory for some time now, and although he is definitely a very cranky old man now, possibly due to creeping brain encelopathy from his days on the ice, he used to much more mild and considered in speech. Also, he modeled his life on the works of Horatio Alger and Ernest Hemingway. That doesn't make him smart, but it does indicate that he's not the full Meat Head that he poses as. All in all, I agree 100% that he represents a sickness at the heart of the nation of incipient militarism. Nice to know that our public broadcaster can be relied upon to pump that filth into our homes!

  2. You might be on to something, Scoundrel. After all, it's no mean feat to become a national institution, as Mr. Cherry is, while at the same time being a COMPLETE cretin. There must be a functioning brain in there somewhere (or once was, as you posit). However, since I have no personal experience of the man, to me he exists only as his public persona, and that persona is none too flattering, either to himself or to the nation.

    It's funny that you say he modelled himself after Hemingway -- might account for the monosyllabism. I'm more a Fitzgerald man, myself.

  3. Hey Jamie, entertaining as always!

    I most definitely disagree with many things you write (today and other days), but I think your thoughtful articulation of small "c" conservative positions does the political discourse in this country a world of good. I'm more than happy to direct people who refer to conservatives as being uniformly stupid to your work. Please keep it up.

    And as for Mr. Cherry, how on earth did you spent enough time listening to him to form an opinion?

  4. Thanks for your words of encouragement, Kurt. I'm glad that you don't always agree with me -- I'm not necessarily out to convert anybody. Some of my positions are conservative, but in other cases I'm just playing devil's advocate, offering positions to shake up the received (e.g. CBC) wisdom in certain areas where I don't think the other side is being given a fair shake.

    As for your concluding question, I spend a lot of time in pubs (and I mean a lot), where it seems there is always more than one television showing hockey (sigh). So every time I look up from my beer or my companions I'm either presented with the spectacle of two troglodytes on skates bashing each other's brains out, or I'm watching Don Cherry peddling his dubious wares to the masses.

  5. Quote: " I spend a lot of time in pubs (and I mean a lot)". You're my hero, Spectacled Avenger!