Adam Gopnik talks notions
Canada: Nation or notion? Or: lacklustre topic of debate?
But before the two transplanted Canadian intellectuals could even take the stage, Ken Whyte, editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, which sponsored the event, described the subject of the day’s debate as “not the freshest topic under the sun” in his opening remarks.
It turned out to be an accurate characterization. And the inherent obsoleteness of the topic nearly undercut the all-too-congenial back-and-forth between Gopnik and Gladwell.
With a subject of no consequence, it was a debate of no consequence. Neither speaker had much attachment to his respective argument, and it showed. They drew straws for sides of the debate, and once Gopnik even changed his argument in mid-sentence.
So for those interested in an intense tete-a-tete – something like Foucault vs Chomsky, Buckley vs Vidal – it was the furthest opposite. It was, perhaps on purpose, tailored more for debating nerds: the mechanics and style of high-minded arguments was on display, rather than an issue of substance.
But to that end, both speakers did not disappoint. With two lively, quick-on-their-feet thinkers behind the podiums, the debate was interesting even if the topic wasn’t.
Gopnik, a Montrealer-turned-New Yorker, was most astute – and most appreciated – with ideas of Canadian versus United States nationalism. He argued Canada occasionally gets together as a nation, such as in “civic humane ideas,” but is able to express itself a number of ways within itself. He called this “hope and holiday” nationalism. Americans, who huddle under a flag when there’s a threat to their nation, practice a “fear and flag” nationalism, he said. Evidence that being Canadian is more a notion.
Gladwell, who proudly displayed a poster of Ronald Regan on his dorm wall when he was a Trinity College, said Canada’s perceived weakness, it’s population size, is actually it’s strength. As a small nation, Canada is unencumbered and can take stands against other nations, whereas the United States and Britain cannot. Staying out of the Iraq war is one example of something Canada could do, but the Britain could not. Another example: requiring Korean airlines to conform to international safety standards.
The debate petered out toward the end, with moderator and Maclean’s national affairs columnist Andrew Coyne taking the place of the quieted-down Gladwell.
Before that happened, two highlights: Gladwell likened Canada to an ethnic Chinese immigrant. He likened an ethnic Chinese immigrant to a tough-minded, hard-working individual who collects debts. Little did he know (or did he know?!), an ethnic Chinese immigrant named Adrienne Clarkson was sitting in the audience, and rebuked Gladwell for his comments.
Then, in a fitting final moment, Gopnik wowed the crowd with a touching recollection of looking down Mount Royal at Montreal, with its mixture of ethnicities, cultures and hockey players, and how it perfectly encompasses his notion of Canada.
At the debate’s end, Coyne pulled out an applause-o-metre, asking the crowd to applaud the best argument, which was awarded to Gopnik.