Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dan Francis on Selling Canada

We're faster than the internet today. Yesterday's mail brought me a copy of Selling Canada, Daniel Francis's new book on "Three Propaganda Campaigns that Shaped the Nation."  I'm impressed to see it's not yet up on the handsome webpage of the book's publisher, Stanton Atkins & Dosil of Vancouver, so it feels like we are running at promotional lightspeed here.

Dan Francis (whom, full disclosure, I have known for years) is someone to be proud of.  Among "popular historians" and freelance writers on Canadian history, he's the one who most regularly takes a radical or critical stance. His most recent previous book, Seeing Reds, analyzed the suppression and delegitimization of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and earlier ones like National Dreams and The Imaginary Indian remain influential critiques of national "master narratives."  This new book is a gorgeous book of remarkable images, seemingly designed for browsing and holiday giving, and yet its theme is that we Canadians are hapless dupes whose ideas about the country are mostly the product of a manipulative conspiracy by government, corporations, and public relations consultants.
The ideal version of the country was flattering to Canadians but it was a false basis on which to build a national identity.... By creating a sense of the country that was misleading and exclusive, these advertising efforts saddled Canada with a set of stereotypes that survive to this day.
I'm not entirely bought into Dan's argument.  I probably take a more robust and maybe optimistic view of citizenship.  I'm not convinced that, for instance, Canadians who supported the First World War did so because of the media campaign Dan explores in this book.  But I'm damn glad that even our coffee-table books can challenge us with disquieting invitations to rethink national history, and that we still have public intellectuals and commercial publishers prospering in that good work.

Update, October 23:  Dan Francis checks in to point out, quite rightly, that "hapless dupes" and "manipulative conspiracy" are not his words.
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