Monday, June 23, 2008

Irony, Goodnight (I Wish)

It's been bugging me for almost a week now, so it's time to blog. Tuesday of last week, one of our TV channels mysteriously disappeared for a few hours in the morning. I had to drink coffee and generally wake up (something that happens hours after I'm upright and mobile and otherwise feigning competence) to CBC radio.

The Current, a current affairs show, had a segment comparing Canada and the U.S. Naturally, I stayed tuned to hear it. Grr.

Unfortunately, the piece consisted of Sean Cole, an ironic thirtysomething American male, mostly interviewing his ironic thirtysomething Canadian friend Jonathan Goldstein who, a la NPR's Ira Glass, has his own ironic radio show on CBC. In fact, years ago both Cole and Goldstein applied for an internship with Ira Glass, and Goldstein won. In the interview, Goldstein says (among other things) that during the internship, his own personality quirks--such as his reticence in meetings or his lack of ability to share bold details of his personal life--were ascribed to his Canadian citizenship.

In the piece, Cole also highlights one sportscaster who used caution while calling the BoSox comeback during some recent World Series. He takes her caution as a telling sign of Canadian attitudes toward the Cinderella Story, the come-from-behind success. Okay.

Cole is described as someone who "wants to be Canadian," although he actually falls into the category of "an American knows where Canada is," admittedly a minority in the U.S. This man isn't interested in moving to Canada. If he were, he'd be here. It's not that hard. Trust me. He's actually just interested in getting pieces on CBC radio.

The best part of the piece was the interview with Anne Golden, head of the Conference Board of Canada. Its research indicates that in technological innovation, Canadians lag behind comparable countries. Golden could have expanded on several fascinating points raised in her interview--why are the Scandinavian countries so successful (per capita) at technological innovation, what exactly along the spectrum of basic research/applied research/commercialization/business growth and development is included in their measure, what kinds of barriers do successful examples of innovation (Research in Motion, makers of the Blackberry) face and overcome. Et cetera.

But the piece didn't ask real questions of interesting people who have information. It was simply a personal, ironic look at an entire country, generalized from a couple of personal experiences, on the part of a thirtysomething Boston male. Cole even showcased how he tried to charm Golden during their interview. Grr.

How irritating that CBC gives airtime to puff pieces like this on a current affairs show. Maybe I'm not familiar enough with the program to "get" the sensibility of this type of comparison. But it's of little value to me and I think to the bulk of their listeners.

And here's what I've been stewing about for the past week. Why do I think this perspective is of little value?

The answer I've come up with is that the perspective is extremely limited, which I know can't be helped in some ways, but still. The information itself is NOT limited--if Cole had looked at other Canadian sportscasters and how they called the games in this World Series, I would find his conclusions more interesting. Obviously, an in-depth interview with the Conference Board of Canada would be fascinating. More with Jonathan Goldstein--well, he's got his own show and I occasionally catch it when I'm in the car, and that's plennnnnty.

Cole also allows Golden to say interesting things about studying Canadian history vs. studying American history, but he never follows up on them. According to Golden, Canadian history is full of government, cooperation, and systems. American history is more the story of individuals fighting the system to achieve success. And here's a question that wasn't asked: is the difference in the actual history or in the way the history is written? Is the difference in actually what happened or in the stories the cultures tell themselves about their origins, their traditions, their values? Now THAT would have been an interesting interview.

So the limitations aren't in the information--they're in the presentation. And I know, ironic thirtysomething males are entitled to express their experiences of the differences between American and Canadian culture however they want. Just as I, an American fortysomething ALREADY LIVING IN CANADA INSTEAD OF JUST DRIVING THERE OCCASIONALLY female, have this forum, this one here, to express my own experiences of cultural differences.

But I don't pretend to be doing serious journalism. I don't even pretend that I'm doing any journalism at all. And neither should Sean Cole. What he's doing is ironic entertainment and I am not all that interested. (I also have no illusions that I'm particularly entertaining.)

Mostly, I find his perspective tiresome. I found it tiresome when Woody Allen movies were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s. I found Jerry Seinfeld's shows about nothing kind of funny for a little while but irrelevant now. Specifically, I find irony adolescent, not in the sense of "vulgar humor" that "adolescent" is often used to mean, but in the "I'm too cool for school" stage that teenagers go through.

Most of us go through that--it's not cool to like much of anything, to try particularly hard, to be seen as different unless you're gonna be wildly different--but most of us, eventually, emerge on the other side. We find something that we're sincerely passionate about--a career, a calling we don't ever make money at but can't live without, a baby, a life partner--and distance from the world becomes impossible. We plunge again into engagement.

As an aside, I also find Sean Cole's voice and manner particularly tiresome. He talks in the back of his throat, says "exactly" a lot instead of engaging in conversation with Anna Maria Tremonti (the adult host of The Current), and he has this fake-sounding laugh that he produces by exhaling through his nose--no vocal cord involvement. Grr.

It's not just the ironic perspective that is tiresome, and no, it has nothing to do with how I feel about Jews and Judaism. All those who hold up teeny tiny slices of cultural phenomena are, in the end, producing bits of "them." Even ostensibly "us" characterizations, from Garrison Keillor's Norwegian bachelor farmers who miraculously have above-average children to Jeff Foxworthy's rednecks in the mobile homes, are about eliciting laughter. And it's laugher "at," not laughter "with." They are convenient shorthand ways of "gee, look at them," not "gee, look at us, and look at us, and look at how we are over here, and we are this way too."

Mostly, all this is okay for entertainment purposes. I guess it's just not particularly entertaining to me. It's more like showing off.

And most of all, I don't think it fits in a program between examinations of Russian "oilygarchs" and the United Nation's Responsibility to Protect doctrine. But remember, "serious," "too serious," and even "humorless" are badges I wear, often with pride.