NEW YORK — This past week, Canadians displayed uncharacteristic intolerance in the wake of a sketch by US talk-show host Conan O'Brien in which Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a puppet, taunted French-speaking Quebeckers with lines like "You're in North America, learn the language!" and "So you're French and Canadian, yes? That means you're obnoxious and dull."
The usually easygoing Canadians responded with scorn and overblown accusations of racism and hatemongering, prompting many other Canadians - and surprised US media - to lament that Canucks seemed to have lost their famous sense of humor. But more than anything, this episode signals Canadians' rise in national self-esteem and their demand for international respect - in essence, they're becoming more American.
Spend any time with Canadians, and one quickly discovers that our national identity, to the extent it exists at all, is shaped mostly by the few differences between Canadian and American society - such as religiosity, the health-insurance system, attitudes toward gun control, drug-enforcement policies, and preferred candy bars. "National pride" - an American quality that Canadians have traditionally disparaged as blind self-love or jingoism - always makes that ever-shrinking list of differences. Canadians like to think of themselves as less patriotic and more prone to self-deprecation than their brash and earnest neighbors/neighbours. But today it is a false distinction. In fact, in both countries, satire is celebrated when it is homegrown, and charged as crude and culturally insensitive when it comes from abroad.
Canuck mockery may well be Canada's best-known export - the McKenzie Brothers being one of many examples. But the broad appeal of TV programs like "The Simpsons" and "The Daily Show" demonstrates that Americans, too, have a healthy appetite for self-criticism. And slightly less mainstream lampoons in the States, such as "South Park" and "The Onion," are laced with vicious satire of American life, leaving no sacred cow unskewered. In fact, the most widely read and appreciated Onion issue was its first post-9/11 issue, devoted entirely to the unmockable, and included the headlines "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake" and "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie." Rather than engendering contempt, these spoofs were praised for affording Americans a much-needed chuckle and providing hope that the seriousness of the event might eventually pass.
What Americans will not tolerate, however, is someone else pointing and laughing. Opposition to the war in Iraq is an example: While the US citizenry was deeply divided on the issue of invading Iraq, I found that Americans were almost unanimously irked by foreign political cartoons depicting US troops calling out, "We are here to liberate you" to wounded Iraqis cowering in their bombed-out homes.
Instead, such commentary was seen as a manifestation of jealousy and hostility toward US power (masked as condescension in France's advice on Arab diplomacy and naked hypocrisy in Germany's lecturing on pacifism). It seems even those Americans most critical of Bush policies cringe at the sound of their own thoughts when articulated in a European accent on the international stage.
Canadians' reaction to Conan's dog doesn't reveal a decline in sense of humor, but a rise in their sense of dignity. By allowing themselves to engage in the duplicity of liberal nationalism, they're experimenting with a proud belief long-held by Americans: Just because a criticism may be fair, doesn't mean it's OK for foreigners to make it about you.
It's about time, eh?
• Avi Gesser is a lawyer and a Canadian.