Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: Yellow Ribbons

[A.L. McCready. Yellow Ribbons: The Militarization of National Identity in Canada. Halfiax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2013.]

The social shifts that this book describes enrage me. But the fact that this book describes them makes me very happy. There are a few key elements in what it does that I've felt for some time now need to be put front and centre in the conversations happening among folks working against war and empire in the Canadian context, and I think it's great that McCready has published a book that can contribute to making that happen.

Yellow Ribbons is a book that is very short and quite readable. It begins by situating Canadian nationalism and national identity in the post-9/11 world, with particular attention to the shift between the late 20th century liberal self-image of peacekeeping and multiculturalism to the more harshly neoliberal and militarist version that has at least partially displaced the former over the last decade. It follows this introductory chapter with two chapters of investigation, one looking at everyday practices emanating from various sources that have clearly been meant to propagate the militarization of Canadian culture, and the other looking at a range of media products that have contributed to the same phenomenon. The former focuses on the Yellow Ribbon campaign, the Red Fridays campaign, and the Highway of Heroes -- interestingly, the author says that she went into the research looking to find a significant autonomous, grassroots component to these campaigns for militarist patriotism, but in fact, though they certainly had some popular resonance, their driving impetus was much more closely tied to the Canadian state than she expected. The second investigative chapter talks about Canadian Forces recruiting ads, the CBC radio drama Afghanada, and Paul Gross' appalling but widely feted First World War flick Passchendale. There is then a short concluding chapter about "the new Canadian exceptionalism," which McCready defines as, "an emerging cultural and political idiom that defines and represents Canada (to itself and to the world) as unique and particularly well-suited to find its way in the 'post-9/11' global landscape by drawing on a perceived history of peacekeeping and multiculturalism to justify and legitimize neo-imperialism and racialized policing at home and abroad" (111).

To my knowledge, this is the third book to be published that is on the anti-war spectrum in terms of its politics, that critically examines the militarization of Canadian society since the turn of the century, and that connects it to questions of national identity -- the other two are Ian McKay and Jamie Swift's Warrior Nation, and Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War. All three of them trace certain aspects of the militarization of Canadian culture, and indeed each does things that the others do not, but I particularly like the way McCready's book lays groundwork for thinking about the change that is systematic and materialist and that hits a (to-me) sound political note in its framing (even if it does not necessarily build on that groundwork as much as it could, given the brevity of the book).

As well, in contrast to the other two -- and this is a point that I think is absolutely vital, and that anti-war and anti-empire organizers in this country have not done nearly enough to recognize and wrestle with -- this book centres the idea that these changes related to the militarization of culture (which I have come to think of as the militarist cultural offensive) are not merely about the military, but are in fact a mechanism through which the broader neoliberalization of everyday life and culture in Canada, and of the national self-imagining of many Canadians, is being pushed. I have myself witnessed numerous instances in which uncritically positive sentiment towards certain aspects of the military gets people who are otherwise progressive or apolitical to take stands with reactionary implications, often unrecognized, and I think this is something that is being deliberately cultivated by the state and the political right. And they are doing so not merely to transform our political culture around things military, but to enable all kinds of other changes that fall under the neoliberal banner.

And, finally, I was very happy to encounter a book that deals with this cultural transition in a way that pulls no critical punches in talking about the previously dominant liberal internationalist conensus -- something that, unfortunately, McKay and Swift do in a partial and tactical way and that Richler does in a more wholehearted and genuine way. The balance McCready strikes between recognizing that the change is real and that it matters while maintaining a critical stance towards the oft-romanticized "before" in the comparison is much more akin to how I would want to do it.

Of course, every book has limitations. Not that one book could ever hope to do it all, but length is certainly one of the limitations of this book, as I think there is a great deal more that needs to be done to explore how the militarist cultural offensive is happening and how it is impacting us. I think in particular there is more to be learned about how it is being co-ordinated, as the Canadian state has refused to release some key details of what has gone on. And I think there are many more strands to tease out in terms of how militarization has contributed to and interacted with neoliberalization. Some of that, though, is less about this book and more to do with the general limitations in the language and ideas we have for talking about culture in materialist ways. In particular, I think it is often hard to convincingly connect downstream material outcomes to specific upstream content and cultural production practices. And, finally, the book does not touch on the question of how those of us with anti-war and anti-empire politics can act against the militarist cultural offensive. That is a crucial question for us to be thinking, talking, and writing about, I think.

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