Dr. Dawg

John A.'s fabulous birthday

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January 11th, 2015 will be the 200th birthday of John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of the assemblage known until recently as the Dominion of Canada. By coincidence, it is also the year in which our next federal election will take place. Be assured, therefore, that the Harper government will not lose the opportunity to batten on Sir John, insinuating itself into an unbroken—that is, constructed—triumphalist tradition.

But the tendency to memorialize goes well beyond Harper’s opportunism. A “Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission” has been set up to throw the dead Prime Minister one hell of a shindig next year. In fact the celebrations have already begun, a year early, if not without controversy: perhaps all this premature excitement can be seen as a form of beta-testing.

Remembering an historical event is one thing—the coming into being of Canada, for example, the end of World War Two, the promulgation of the War Measures Act, 9/11. But what possible significance does a dead person’s birthday have (setting aside Christmas)? Its celebration is almost comically ironic. And marking the centennial or sesquicentennial or bicentennial point is completely arbitrary as well. Why on earth do we do it?

To try to answer my own questions, let me suggest, first of all, that the observance impulse is not strictly historical, but hagiographical. Biographers, writing their own accounts, preserve the fiction of balance: the record is assessed, nuances are presented, and the “whole person” is allegedly put before us, warts and all. But in the case of these post-death birthday parties, there is no attempt to recall the bad with the good, as it were, any more than one would do when the birthday boy or girl is alive and handing you a piece of cake.

Those dead figures are thus rendered ahistorical. As such, they become ideological signifiers, the crystallization of hegemonic values. “Sir John A.” expresses achievement, mastery, (a certain type of) vision, the fons et origo of our society and its institutions as a whole. We are asked to imagine, fantastically, that the very act of his birth set in motion an inexorable chain of events.

We needn’t and shouldn’t look, then, for Sir John A. Macdonald himself in his hyperreal presentation. Hence, my friend Bernie Farber misses the point when he says “we ought to show more care to those we wish to put on a pedestal…that we want to idolize.” We simply can’t do both, and nor should we try.

What many are now saying, in effect, is just that: we should do away with pedestals altogether, and abandon the cultural imperative to idolize. That’s pretty easy to do in the case of Sir John A., as it turns out. The records show that his government committed genocide to clear the Western plains of their First Nations inhabitants, in order to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The so-called “National Dream,” in other words, was built upon the shattered dreams—and bodies—of countless aboriginal people, who were forced onto reserves by a deliberate policy of starvation that continued there as well. And the BC part of the CPR was constructed by grossly mistreated Chinese labourers: Sir John A. thanked them for their efforts by imposing a punitive head-tax to deter Chinese immigration, and denying Chinese-Canadian citizens the right to vote.

Let me go further, and never mind Godwin—here’s Sir John A., in 1885:

If you look around the world you will see that the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans and the Asiatics….It is not to be desired that they should come; that we should have a mongrel race; that the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed by a cross or crosses of that kind. …[T]he cross of those races, like the cross of a dog and a fox, is not successful.

The invidious notion of “Aryan” supremacy didn’t begin—or end—with Adolf Hitler. Folks can party hard next year if they so choose, cheering as though Sir John A. alone created our country (the product, in fact, of many actors and converging interests), and constructed the CPR with his own hands. But I’ll sit this one out, thanks: it’s all too much like celebrating der F├╝hrer’s birthday because he built the autobahn.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 18, 2014 3:24 PM.

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