BW Powe. Towards a Canada of Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2006.
I wrote this book to counter the mood in my country…the powerful feeling that, wrenching really, that there was a dead-end sign at the turn of what should have been a wide thoroughfare…that the circuits were being blocked when energy, a great free sweep, should have been flowing through, flowing on.
Thus, Canadian media theorist and poet BW Powe introduces his deeply insightful—and inspiring—meditation on Canada as a “communications state,” crackling with potential yet blocked and distracted by a failure of leadership and vision. Powe articulates the vision and the prayer, providing powerful inspiration and concrete direction for those of us close to despair at the sell-out of our potential contributions to the world. And this is not a vision for Canadians alone, but a kind of intimate manifesto and call to action for anyone who cherishes justice, freedom, and credibility. Towards a Canada of Light is a performance of propaganda at a high register of consciousness.
For it is a story about consciousness, how consciousness is extended and amplified by our electronic technologies. Our powers to communicate—essential to the creation of the Canadian nation, more intrinsic to us than trading natural resources and playing hockey—are given new potential and global reach by these new technologies…if only we have the vision.
Powe calls for an exuberant dialogue using visionary language—“Find the peak of your spiritual power in words, and you could begin to break through” (4)—yet remains aware that such visionary language often falls prey to “single vision,” the “imposition of one way of seeing things….If we succumb to single vision, so Blake said, to someone’s way of perceiving (forms of propaganda, whatever side delivers it), then we fall, and fall asleep, slaves then to whatever system sets the coordinates for the discussion” (5).
As I write this (on May 30, 2010), the Israeli armed forces have just intercepted a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, apparently killing at least 9, preventing media access to those captured in international waters, and quickly engaging the Israeli hasbara or public relations machine to set the news agenda. The coordinates of the discussion are being set and the corporate media are induced to repeat the official narrative.
In place of the single vision, Powe suggests “more of the mosaic…less of the melting pot: more of the plurality of peoples and languages and faiths and attitudes and conversations, and less assimilation” (5). He does not want to whitewash present challenges or past failures of Canada, but he does want us to get on with it and take advantage of our communications expertise: “Canada’s lightness of spirit means free play: a bearable lightness, agility in the changing currents, never to be loaded down by a past of racial hatred, by aggressive dogmatism, ancient acrimonies or grievances, the zealotry of an immutable idea of what a state should be” (6).
* * *
Towards a Canada of Light had two previous incarnations, published with a slightly different title in 1992 and 1996, and those earlier rehearsals have resulted in a book that is both deeper and wider in scope. BW Powe is both an incisive communications scholar and a poet, and he takes us to the roots and heights of language, asking his readers to relish the “elusive and fragmentary” because this is what we need to transcend the single vision.
Since the publication of the first two versions, “What has changed in a devastating way is our relationship to a militarized America.”
After 9/11, the Patriot Act, the advent of Homeland Security, the suspension of civil rights for suspected terrorists and non-combatants, the exporting of suspects without lawyer or trial to countries that sanction torture, Canada seems more like Athens , cerebral and contemplative, during the time of Sparta. It is as if our culture and politics have been reincarnated from the model of the chattering, philosophical state set alongside the society efficiently organized for action—one, and only one purpose: the idealized crusade of its wars. (9)
As a Canadian, I find this analogy provocative, though perhaps lacking in messy complexity—we have our own class of Spartan crusaders, and the U.S. has no shortage of chattering Athenian intellectuals and philosophers. Powe will later argue that Canada’s failure of vision and leadership has us significantly aligned with our Spartan neighbor. We have our own “hardness, coldness” openly expressed in the real politick of international affairs. The poet, however, uses analogies not to define a reality but to provoke healing vision: “the prizing of the original spark in each, keeping thought bold, our mental landscapes a frontier” (14).
BW Powe thus offers us a prayer, a most lyrical performance of propaganda:
One of the sparks is the place I want to evoke and summon in these pages: a Canada of light, a promise, a flash, an opportunity for reverie, a turning leaf, an opened door, a rendezvous of many cultures, a sometimes quieter street or pathway in the wailing world, an outpost, a DEW line, the least likely place to incite mass ethnic hatred, a glimpse, a turning away, a provocation to think beyond single vision, a drama of inwardness, a site for talk and contemplations, a celebration of solitudes, a generous spirit wrestling with the demon of closure and the shadow of uniformity, where the vision of the country remains, fortunately, always ahead of the politicians. Gather depth and expanse, and patiently come together in the night to know beauty. Deepen solitudes, and love the unsolved. Salute each other across the truest eternal borderline, which is not national, but human. (18-19)
Idealistic? Of course—this is a prayer and a vision meant to inspire in the face of deadening cynicism. And consider the purposes of propaganda—to motivate the people for a cause—and that all propaganda needs a vision and a definition of who we are, who we want to become. How do we define ourselves to the world, and is our definition credible to those who are not us? Are we deceiving ourselves and the world with a bankrupt self-definition? Perhaps that is a way we can distinguish ourselves from our Spartan neighbor, but we have some work to do.