Richard Collins and the Debate on Culture and Polity

Paul Attallah (Carleton University)


Richard Collins' Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television will undoubtedly stir renewed debate on the nature of the link between culture and polity, particularly in Canada, and particularly at the present time. The interest should flow naturally from Collins' statement of his own argument:

The belief that cultural sovereignty and political sovereignty are mutually dependent is the core assumption on which Canadian broadcasting policy has been based. It is an assumption widely held outside Canada and restates one of the central stipulative precepts of nationalism--that polity and culture must be congruent. It is, I believe, a mistaken assumption, as careful examination of the Canadian case will demonstrate (Collins, 1990, p. 13)

Collins' central hypothesis -- the decoupling hypothesis -- holds that in Canada a weak symbolic system has not impaired the development of a viable political system. Indeed, in Collins' view, the weakness of Canada's symbolic culture -- the fact that Canadians share few meanings or symbols -- is the strength of its political culture as weak symbols have bred tolerance and a respect for diversity which are the envy of the world. The nationalism which argues in favour of a congruent polity and culture is, therefore, reactionary and dangerous, tending to eliminate tolerance in favour of old-fashioned identities. The distinction between polity and culture is also rendered in Collins as a distinction between symbolic culture -- the artefacts and symbols we manufacture and consume either as externalizations of ourselves or for purposes of gratification -- and anthropological culture--the set of institutions and practices making up everyday life and far outstripping the realm of aesthetic or artistic production. This distinction seems to suggest that anthropological culture draws upon resources of rationality since it involves questions of wilful allegiance to institutions whereas symbolic culture draws upon resources of emotionalism and expressivity since it involves questions of taste and gratification.

Nonetheless, as this is a book on broadcasting, Collins finds his evidence for the weakness of Canada's symbolic culture in the historic preference of Canadian television viewers for American content. This leads him to conclude that broadcasting policy, inasmuch as it has historically tended to protect the Canadian market for Canadian content which the vast majority of television viewers neither sought nor liked nor consumed, has in fact merely served to protect the interests of a nationalist class fraction. This, in turn, means that:

Canadian content is not representative of Canadian tastes but of a particular class interest;
American content is probably more representative of Canadian tastes, certainly if audience measurement techniques have any validity;
nationalist broadcasting policies are largely useless since they fail to connect a Canadian audience with a "Canadian" viewing pattern;
despite the failure of linking polity and culture -- by Canadian cultural nationalists whose efforts are rejected by the viewing public -- Canada as a political unit persists;
consequently, polity and culture need not be congruent; indeed, the effort to make them so merely imposes on people costs and burdens which they neither seek nor support.

Clearly, this is a bracing argument. It should give pause for reflection to those familiar not only with the debate on broadcasting but also, more broadly, on culture. It seems destined to be received either as a misguided provocation or as the first step towards a salutary corrective.

To date, only four critics2 have published responses to Collins. They are: Rowland Lorimer, Gaëtan Tremblay, Peter Harcourt, and Mary Jane Miller.3 Furthermore, the responses range from nationalist rejection (Lorimer, Harcourt) to more or less sympathetic interrogation (Tremblay, Miller). Yet all agree that "La publication de cet ouvrage entraînera certainement de vives réactions, en particulier chez les intellectuels nationalistes anglophones" (Tremblay, 1991).

Rowland Lorimer

Consequently, it is perhaps not surprising that the strongest condemnation of Collins should emanate from Lorimer, a leading intellectual of English-Canadian nationalism, who begins by questioning the author's fitness for the task:

the point is whether Richard Collins has made an error in judgement of his own breadth and depth of understanding. Does he have the knowledge to take on such an ambitious task....I believe he oversteps his knowledge in the very chapters that argue his thesis. He lacks a full enough background and appreciation for our situation in Canada for his thesis to be accepted as well argued. (Lorimer, 1991, p. 582)

More specifically, Lorimer objects to Collins on two counts:

  1. the outdated nature of his knowledge of Canada which in turn has consequences for the decoupling hypothesis;
  2. his flawed understanding of the political development and corresponding social projects of Canada and Quebec which in turn causes him to misdiagnose the meaning of nationalism and its attendant discourses.

On the first point, it is difficult to disagree with Lorimer. Collins does indeed appear to have assumed that the political situation he observed while conducting research in the early to mid-1980s would remain forever valid. However, as anyone even passingly familiar with the Canadian situation will know, the political landscape has changed dramatically. The political languor and business ethic of the mid-1980s have evaporated to the point that the discontinuance of Canada is now widely contemplated and that Quebec seems to have become de facto, if not de jure, a separate country. Furthermore, in the eyes of many, these political transformations are compounded and intensified by the Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) whose main consequences appear to be not only economic but also cultural. Indeed, on the cultural front, the FTA may seem to alter the economic infrastructure in such a way that certain long-held cultural or symbolic definitions of Canada's uniqueness -- a commitment to public health service, the acceptability of leftist discourse, the survival of the CBC, etc.-- are thrown into open question. On the economic front, the FTA may seem to link the economic infrastructure of Canada so closely to American interests as to imperil Canada's survival as a separate socio-cultural and economic entity. In an intermediary but no more comforting scenario, Canada would maintain nominal political sovereignty but lose all cultural or symbolic reason for existing.

Obviously, the current situation is no longer the one observed by Collins five years ago. Nor is it one in which Lorimer takes much comfort. As a result, Lorimer argues that, were Collins to apprise himself of these changes, he would certainly revise his central thesis which claims that Canada represents to the world an enviable model of the decoupling of culture and polity. Indeed, according to Lorimer, that decoupling is precisely the problem with Canada, not its promise:

Canada as we know it today is ending....Did our broadcasting system and, specifically, our mix of Canadian and US television programmes contribute to our current evolution? Of course it did ... with a combination of four channels of American programmes available to over 90 percent of the population, and separate English-language and French-language services on the CBC/Radio-Canada, it hardly could be said to have contributed to the evolution of shared myths. (Lorimer, 1991, p. 582)

In other words, it is precisely because culture and polity are decoupled, precisely because we have given ourselves unbridled access to American broadcasting, precisely because we have split broadcasting between English and French, that we are unable to generate the common symbols that would hold us together. However, one wonders what resonance Lorimer's argument may have even within Canada.

If Canada is indeed foundering as a result of the failure of its institutions to produce binding symbolic systems, the obvious corollary would appear to be the strengthening of our institutions. Strengthened institutions -- here, the CBC -- while not solving all the world's problems, would certainly set right much of what had gone wrong. And the main thing that has gone wrong, is our symbolic system, the fact that we are insufficiently united and Canadian. It seems, though, that there are many in Quebec who would argue that the institutional failure decried by Lorimer is actually felicitous since it releases Quebeckers from the domination of anglo-Canadian myths and ideologies, thereby allowing them to realize their own socio-cultural and national potential. If those who believe in the liberation of Quebec from such myths and ideologies are not to be excluded -- and presumably they would not be since they are part of the polity as it currently exists -- then one wonders just how the "national" institutions should be strengthened and if the incorporation of such diametrically opposite views would not tend precisely to confirm Collins' central hypothesis: that Canada operates not because of strong symbols but because of their accommodating weakness. The question of how to strengthen "national" institutions is well worth pondering for it invariably brings us face to face with questions of power: which institutions to strengthen, for whom?

Nonetheless, the diagnosis that the decoupling of culture and polity has already unfortunately occurred, is itself linked to Lorimer's second charge: that Collins misunderstands the differential political development of Canada and Quebec and, consequently, misrecognizes the meaning of nationalism. Why have polity and culture been decoupled in Canada? Because Canada and Quebec are at different stages of political evolution and therefore have "different central social, cultural and political tasks to confront" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 584). Specifically, Quebec is still in the process of becoming a democratic society whereas Canada has already attained that stage and has turned towards "ethnic and racial heterogeneity and the development of a society of hyphenated Canadians" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 584). If this is true, it becomes false to claim, as Collins does, that Canada somehow constitutes a future model of decoupling for the rest of the world. The decoupling is the result not of rational choice but of historical circumstance; its outcome is not tolerance and harmony but the difficulty "for either group to accept the central task of the other" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 584).

Furthermore, the differential political development of Canada and Quebec also founds Lorimer's rejection of Collins' claim that Canadians and Quebeckers "long for an old-fashioned nation-state where culture, language, religion, race, politics and economics are all congruent" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 584). Nothing, Lorimer says, could be further from the truth. What Canadians want is only "not to be deafened by the thunder of empire"; and Quebeckers want only "linguistic, cultural and political sovereignty" being quite happy "to embrace global trade because they feel no community vulnerability if they have complete political control" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 584). Neither, therefore, really longs for an old-fashioned nation-state.

Lorimer's rejection of Collins is, therefore, quite total. In his view, Collins has so dramatically misunderstood the real political situation of Canada as to misrecognize and misdiagnose entirely the origin and meaning of Canadian and Québécois nationalism. This, in turn, has allowed him to suggest "audaciously" that the decoupling of polity and culture in Canada may be safely and enthusiastically embraced by the rest of the world.

Finally, Lorimer does concede that Collins' book may possess one or two qualities. It does "provide a sense of the contrast between the Québécois and Canadian sensibility" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 582), something rarely done within Canada. Lorimer also praises Collins' knowledge of Canadian communication scholarship. However, there is one aspect of Lorimer's critique which I think is certain to raise objections elsewhere: it is the characterization of the difference between Canada and Quebec in terms of democratic lack or achievement. Is it an indispensable element of English-Canadian nationalism to characterize, however benignly, Quebec in terms of its collectivist project, and hence of democratic lack, and itself in terms of a fully realized individualist democratic project? Like all characterizations, it naturally contains an element of truth but it also naturally overlooks the other element of truth which could equally characterize it.

Gaëtan Tremblay

The other sustained engagement with Collins' work is provided by Gaëtan Tremblay. His overall reaction, though, could hardly be more different from Lorimer's: "C'est un livre comme je les aime: stimulant, rigoureusement construit, bien argumenté et provocateur. Et bien écrit de surcroît. Un ouvrage nourrissant, qui alimente la réflexion sur des questions fondamentales" (Tremblay, 1991).

Tremblay does, however, express two main reservations:

  1. the "radical" decoupling of polity and culture may be overstated and cause him to neglect other types of relationships;
  2. his reliance upon the "Trudeau vision" of Canada causes him to see nationalism as essentially reactionary.

On the first point, Tremblay agrees that the decoupling hypothesis is worth considering but wonders how resilient the evidence in support of it really is. For example, Collins' argument would appear to rest on the following evidence: although Canadians consume vast amounts of American culture, they nonetheless maintain their own political institutions. Here, Tremblay agrees with Collins' distinction between symbolic culture (American cultural products) and anthropological culture (political institutions). The problem with the distinction is that it fails to account for any relationships which may be established between the types of culture, and hence between culture and polity:

Son travail questionne fort à propos les liens de causalité unidirectionnels et simplistes trop souvent postulés entre la consommation d'émissions étrangères et les représentations, les attitudes et les comportements des téléspectateurs. Mais ... il serait hasardeux de conclure, dans l'état actuel de nos connaissances, qu'il n'y a aucun rapport entre un univers symbolique qui sacralise, par exemple, la liberté individuelle, la compétition, le sentiment de sa "manifest destiny" et l'attachement aux idéologies et aux institutions qui les supportent. (Tremblay, 1991)

Tremblay's objection, therefore, is fundamentally methodological. He rejects the "unidirectional" causality frequently postulated between consumer behaviour and political behaviour. However, he does not reject the possibility of bi- or multidirectional causality. As a direct consequence of this, Tremblay asks why Collins never refers to any studies on the impact of television on beliefs and attitudes, since these may contain evidence of bi- or multidirectional causality. Tremblay agrees with Collins that such studies are sorely lacking in Canada but draws a slightly different conclusion. The absence of such studies may certainly call into question the nationalist policies based upon them (since they possess no empirical foundation); however, it does not authorize the wholesale rejection of any links whatsoever between cultural identity and political sovereignty. It would perhaps not be unfair to say that Tremblay is here cognizant of the debates within Quebec on the linkage between culture and polity and is perhaps as convinced by them as Lorimer.

Tremblay's second major reservation concerns Collins' reliance upon the "Trudeau vision" of Canada. Under Pierre Trudeau, the federal government undertook policies whose effects were: (a) to make federal government services available throughout Canada in English and French and (b) to grant status to the various cultural groups which composed Canada. In Collins' view, these policies known respectively as bilingualism and multiculturalism, are the hallmarks of Canada's tolerance, the very proof that weak symbolic systems (two languages, many cultures) in no way impair the functioning of a viable polity (one Canada). Indeed, in return for bilingualism and multiculturalism, all Canadians, and especially Quebeckers, were to lend allegiance to common political institutions, further proof that one may possess a symbolic culture quite disconnected from one's anthropological culture (symbols decoupled from polity).

It has come to seem over time, however, that the aspiration of Quebeckers, to which bilingualism was to have been an answer, could not be satisfied in those terms. In other words, it seems that the link between culture and polity has tended to reassert itself. Nonetheless, Quebeckers came to resent the reduction of their aspirations in the rest of Canada to a demand for bilingualism which, having long been met, ultimately delegitimized any future demands; and Canadians resented either that the demands of Quebec were misrepresented to them or, that having demonstrated uncommon linguistic generosity, Quebeckers nonetheless persisted in having aspirations. Furthermore, bilingualism bred strong resentment in many outside Quebec who perceived it as a strategy to reserve key federal positions for bilinguals, that is to say for French-speakers (if not outrightly for Quebeckers).

Finally, many Canadians whose first language was neither French nor English, resented what they perceived to be the special attention paid French and French-speakers. After all, if Canada really were composed of numerous cultural communities, why should one in particular, French-speakers, be singled out for special consideration? In response to this, the federal policy of multiculturalism was instituted and subsequently perceived within Quebec as an attempt to devalorize and denigrate its own demands and aspirations. Why were Quebeckers reduced to the status of a cultural community ("une province comme les autres") when it was patently obvious that they were one of the "founding peoples" of Canada?

The "Trudeau vision," therefore, represents to many the willful misrepresentation or manipulation of the aspirations of each dominant language group to the other as well as an attempt to construct shared national symbols which failed to generate support because they failed to represent any recognizable aspirations. By constructing artificial symbols -- a bilingual and multicultural Canada--the "Trudeau vision" sought both to couple and to decouple polity and culture. It sought to decouple the Québécois polity from its own firmly rooted symbolic system which, because it bore the unmistakable traces of theocratic and xenophobic authoritarianism, was very easy to criticize; and it sought to couple a new pan-Canadian polity composed of French, English, and multicultural Canadians to a pan-Canadian symbolic system consisting of pride in the vastness, natural resources, and cultural pluralism of Canada. Neither dominant language group recognized itself fully in the new symbolism with the net result that the Trudeau vision is now widely repudiated in Quebec as an irrelevant vestige of the past; and seen in Canada, by different groups, either as the nirvana to which we must at all costs return, whatever the contradictions, or as a great political manipulation from which we have fortunately escaped.

Furthermore, in the 1980s, a series of well-known events eventually made disagreement over bilingualism look positively benign. These were the 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association, the Canada Act of 1982,4 and the rise and fall of the Meech Lake Accord (1986-1990). Opposition to the Accord was strongest outside Quebec where many argued not against the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society but against the conferal of additional rights by that recognition upon Quebec. It was feared that such recognition, by conferring additional rights, would allow Quebec to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and thereby give vent to its fundamentally anti-democratic urges. This opposition was received in Quebec as merely another example of English-Canadian fear, loathing, and bigotry. It is with the death of the Meech Lake Accord that the definitive psychological break with Canada seems to have occurred. The immediate consequences have been the rise of two new political parties both inside and outside Quebec. And while Canada is undergoing an obvious crisis of confidence in its political leadership, Quebec appears to be gaining confidence in itself.

In this context, anyone praising the "Trudeau vision" enters an obvious mine field. When Lorimer complains that "[i]t is rather audacious for an Englishman who has not lived for an extended period of time in Canada to feel he has the knowledge to write about so vast a topic as the culture of Canada" (Lorimer, 1991, p. 583), he is perhaps referring to this dimension of political reality which is so clearly lacking in the book. Indeed, the absence is so great as to risk vitiating the value of other observations. It may also explain the polite silence which has so far greeted the book. Normally, Canadians would be flattered beyond words to be taken as the object of a study of such scope and insight. The flattery, however, has turned to embarrassment.

It is against this specific background that Tremblay questions Collins' definition of nationalism. In Culture, Communication and National Identity, nationalism emerges unequivocally as a reactionary ideology: "une idéologie négative, passéiste, protectionniste et dépassée" (Tremblay, 1991). However, this characterization bears little or no resemblance to published work or political programs in Quebec which present "une conception du nationalisme dynamique, ouverte, tournée vers l'avenir" (Tremblay, 1991). Clearly, Collins shares the Trudeau view of nationalism. Consequently, Tremblay observes that Collins' characterization of Canadian intellectual life can hardly be accurate when he quotes so extensively from Pierre Trudeau, the leading denigrator of nationalism, but only once from René Lévesque, the leading exponent of modern Quebec nationalism. Indeed, is it not curious, Tremblay asks, at a time of nationalism's manifest return to the world stage, that it is most often European intellectuals from the former "great powers" and nation-states of France, Britain, Russia, etc., who find nationalism peculiarly troublesome and inexplicable:

On pourrait également se demander pourquoi les intellectuels de ces grandes puissances conçoivent si souvent le nationalisme comme une idéologie d'une autre époque et ont tant de mal à analyser "l'énigme de sa survivance," telle qu'elle se manifeste avec éclat dans l'actualité mondiale. (Tremblay, 1991)

Finally, Tremblay notes that Collins is really only espousing a brand of "political" nationalism:

Devant l'alternative d'un changement dans les institutions politiques pour les ajuster aux réalités culturelles et linguistiques, ou d'un changement dans les mentalités et les cultures pour les adapter aux institutions politiques existantes, Collins comme Trudeau, préfère la seconde option.... Il n'échappe pas, ce faisant, à un certain "nationalisme," un nationalisme politique qui privilégie l'intégrité des institutions plutôt que l'affirmation de l'identité culturelle. (Tremblay, 1991)

Clearly, Collins is operating within the context of assumptions appropriate to modern Europe and not of assumptions appropriate to Canada or perhaps to any other country tempted to use Canada as a model. It would seem that Collins is pursuing his own agenda in constructing a particular version of nationalism which does not begin to exhaust its reality in Canada, although it may be functional in light of anticipated European unification.

Mary Jane Miller

Mary Jane Miller shares Tremblay's sympathetic questioning but emphasizes quite different aspects of Collins' book. Like virtually all the other authors, Miller notes that Collins has been totally overtaken by events historical (the failure of the Meech Lake Accord), political (the resurgence of English-Canadian nationalism), and intellectual (the publication of books by Rutherford and Raboy; the appointment of Ivan Fecan to head CBC English-language drama).5 On balance, however, Miller has more good things than bad to say about Collins' book because her interest is less "political" than scholarly.

Without endorsing his criticisms, Miller nonetheless praises Collins for challenging some of the basic nationalist assumptions concerning television and for being "the first academic to attempt consistently to look at programmes, policies and critics in French and English" (Miller, forthcoming). She even finds some irony in Collins' decoupling hypothesis for in order to prove him wrong -- to prove that polity and culture cannot be decoupled -- Canada would have to fall apart. The dissolution would therefore prove that polity and culture must be congruent. However, since Canadian nationalists do not want it to fall apart, they must find a way of making the decoupling work, even though decoupling flies in the face of their most basic assumptions: "If he is right the steady erosion of all of our story-telling, symbol making institutions may not affect our political future. But in the months to come we may just break up the nation and thus, arguably, prove him wrong" (Miller, forthcoming).

Not surprisingly, though, given Miller's own extensive interest in the nature and texture of Canadian televised drama, the focus of her review lies with Collins' evaluation of Canadian drama. Miller finds that although Collins' scholarship is "daunting," he fails to provide "consistent information about writers, producers, directors or plots" (Miller, forthcoming). Nonetheless, "[w]hen he does engage at length with the television text, specifically in his chapter on the miniseries ... he is on solid ground--clear, detailed, precise and stimulating....The few factual mistakes are minor and inevitable in a book of this complexity" (Miller, forthcoming).

Consequently, although cognizant of the socio-cultural and political implications of Collins' argument, Miller chooses to give the book a more formal and scholarly reading than other critics. This is undoubtedly salutary for there is a risk in reducing it only to a debate on polity and culture whereas Collins has many useful observations to make about the history of Canadian broadcasting policy, the differential relations of French and English-speaking intellectuals to television, the role of audience measurement, etc.

Peter Harcourt

Peter Harcourt finally returns us to a position close to Lorimer's. Harcourt's response, however, occurs in an article in which he reviews not only Collins' book but also Marc Raboy's Missed Opportunities: The Story of Canada's Broadcasting Policy. Indeed, Harcourt uses Raboy against Collins, far preferring Raboy's "story" to Collins' "specious distinctions." However, even though Harcourt rejects Collins, he does not fall back onto a simple demand for "national" broadcasting in Canada. On the contrary, Harcourt's position is quite complex and recognizes that such a demand was flawed from the outset:

To write about broadcasting is, indeed, to write about the relationship of state to nation in Canada. It is both to adduce the mythological concept of communications systems as bonding agents and to critique this mythology in light of its political inadequacies for the present day. It is to examine how false formulations about the relationship between mythology and reality, between state and nation have diminished the potential richness of contemporary civil society. Like so many federal formulations throughout history ... federal cultural policies have been decided at the expense of the Canadian people in favour of corporate power within an increasingly international corporate state. (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28)

Harcourt, therefore, takes dead aim at the underpinnings of the decoupling hypothesis: the distinction between anthropological and symbolic culture. As we have seen, Collins argues that although Canada possesses distinctive anthropological traits (parliamentary government, no death penalty, health and welfare systems, progressive taxation) which distinguish it from the United States, it also possesses no symbolic culture (no story-telling institutions or public wishing to consume the stories of its institutions). Apparently, though, the absence of a symbolic culture has in no way prevented Canada from surviving for over a century.

To this, Harcourt objects that "our `anthropological' culture did not come about by chance"; it was rather the result of choice and "its ability to endure as a distinct way of life into the next century is in no way guaranteed" (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28). Indeed, Harcourt believes that "there can be no enduring anthropological culture without a symbolic culture to support it" (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28). This is, of course, the classical nationalist claim: the way of life is expressed in and sustained by representations of itself which themselves are rooted in and sustained by the way of life. Consequently, there must be representations of our way of life for without them, it will wither away and die. Harcourt, however, locates the representations in a region of life unconsidered by Collins:

In the past, our symbolic representations of ourselves were found less in our works of art than in the civic culture that surrounded us -- culture less imported from the United States than inherited from Europe. In English Canada, our architecture, our schools, our churches were largely Scottish in origin. Yet we knew we weren't Scottish and we certainly weren't American! But we had a symbolic culture -- a symbolic culture largely from our churches and our schools. (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28)

Hence, Harcourt introduces education and religion into the debate, noting that "neither education nor religion is mentioned at all in Richard Collins's book" (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28). Unfortunately, it would seem that in so doing, Harcourt is leaving himself open to a rather obvious criticism. In stating that anthropological culture "did not come about by chance," Harcourt is pointing to a volitional dimension, immediately linked to Scottish origins. This, in turn, raises numerous questions. For example, where should one locate all the Canadians of non-Scottish descent, origin, or heritage who presumably would have expected to see their "anthropological" origins represented in some "symbolic" system. What of all the Canadians of American origin, who were legion at the time of the American revolution, and who settled predominantly in Southern Ontario and South Eastern Quebec? What of native Canadians? Why should all the Canadians who do not revel in church, school, or Scottishness wish to agree with Harcourt? Indeed, could it be that a liking for American television is precisely the proof that the only consensual symbolic culture Canadians can agree upon is one which does not bear the evident marks of our own class and ethnic divisions? However, as stated above this is a very obvious objection which need not be belaboured. It is equally tempting to interpret Harcourt's "we" not as the nostalgic affirmation of a Canada that no longer exists, but rather as an appeal to the peer group to realize what it has wasted: "[p]ublic broadcasting advocates have invoked our national cultural mythology to mask the intricate political difficulties that lay ahead ... we have not argued our position with sufficient rigour to bestow upon it full intellectual respect" (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28).

Unlike Lorimer, then, Harcourt is not calling for strengthened institutions, but for the recognition that the debate has been miscast all along: "Whether as state or nation, Canada has been inadequately imagined. Our inherited mythology has been inadequate for the variety of changes that have taken place in Canada since the end of the Second World War -- changes that are simultaneously economic, demographic and ideological" (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28).

Nonetheless, the national symbolic culture began to erode with television: "It is only when broadcasting, especially television broadcasting, begins to be the chief carrier of national images and attitudes that our right to our own symbolic culture has been called into question" (ibid., p. 4).

Again, Harcourt draws the classic nationalist parallel between a way of life and its necessary expression: without expression the way of life dies, without a way of life there can be no expression, failure to be expressed or to take delight in the expression is attributable to external pressure. The pressure, in this case, is the strength of American broadcasting and scarcity of economic resources in Canada: "everybody knows that the struggle in this country between the concept of public versus private broadcasting has only partially been a struggle between European `elitist' systems of broadcasting and American `democratic' competitive systems. The struggle has really been about money" (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28).

The problem, then, according to Harcourt is really not with culture but with economics. Furthermore, had Collins concentrated on this unmistakable fact rather than on his "spurious distinction," he would not have looked so serenely upon the efforts of private broadcasters who oppose "any suggestion that broadcasting ... should be much more than ... `a licence to print money' " (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28). Indeed, Harcourt goes on to state:

Nowhere in Culture, Communication and National Identity does Collins address this matter ... of the control that has been relinquished, not to the people in the name of democracy, but to the private broadcasters and their advertisers in the name of money....Canadian institutions and government agencies are increasingly espousing the dominant American values of exponential growth and the maximization of profits which, finally, are based on an ideology of greed. (Harcourt, 1991, p. 28)

Clearly, then, Harcourt links nationalism not only with a defence of indigenous culture but also with opposition to American values. Ironically, Harcourt's is a nationalism of moral indignation perhaps tinged with nostalgia, as Collins says, "for the good old things" rather than the "bad new ones."

Concluding Remarks

Canadian cultural nationalists and Richard Collins are agreed on one point: the decoupling of polity and culture has indeed occurred. They disagree only on its evaluation. The cultural nationalists lament it as the end of Canada; Collins celebrates it as the promise of the future. However, a number of observations seem to be in order concerning the linking or unlinking of polity and culture.

In linking cultural consumption to political identity, the cultural nationalists are merely stating the flip side of Collins' argument. Collins would generalize the unlinking to all other political communities; Canadian cultural nationalists would immediately set about establishing a new linking or in breaking up the linking of the Canadian polity to American culture. Collins is undoubtedly optimistic in believing that Canada is a model of decoupled polity and culture but the cultural nationalists also appear to be committing an error in denouncing the decoupling as unreservedly bad.

What the nationalists fear beyond the decoupling is the linking of a Canadian polity with American culture. However, the Canadian polity has long been able to absorb American culture such that American culture is no longer strictly American but rather North American. Furthermore, the Canadian polity has also rejected a great deal of American culture. For example, Canadians have sharply different attitudes to gun ownership and control, public health care, public broadcasting, politics, etc. The point is that cultural consumption does not map political behaviour. On the contrary, cultural consumption itself appears to be at least partially determined by political beliefs. In that sense, then, culture and polity really are unlinked: one can consume American culture without becoming Americanized.

Collins celebrates the unlinking of the Canadian polity from culture. However, it is extremely unlikely that any polity can long survive without symbols or meta-social guarantors. Indeed, Collins seriously misrecognizes the extent to which the federal government has laboured to manufacture symbols and belief systems which would underwrite the polity and to which all Canadians would lend their allegiance. Furthermore, the federal government felt compelled to manufacture such symbols because without them individual Canadians would have no motivation to lend allegiance to one political structure, i.e., Canada, rather than another, i.e., an independent Quebec or the United States. In that sense, then, culture and polity are linked.

It would seem, then, that both Collins and the cultural nationalists hold surprisingly "total" views of the nature of the link between polity and culture. Collins sees it as unreservedly good and the nationalists as unreservedly bad. It seems more likely, though, that the nature of the linking is much more free floating and soft.

A polity needs a culture if only to provide citizens with motivational frameworks. This has been the experience of successive Canadian governments. However, one of the outstanding features of our polity is that it also incorporates notions of individualism and free will. This is significant because it changes dramatically the things we may wish to say about the nature of the link between polity and culture. For example, although it may be coherent and pertinent to say that in a feudal society culture and polity are un-mediately welded, it is the case in a modern system that they are linked only mediately. Clearly, a polity, by the very fact of providing a legal and practical framework for everyday life, will probably ultimately secrete its own culture. However, the modern culture of a modern polity will not overdetermine the polity. Indeed, the culture of the modern polity will be expressive of difference as much as of unity, of individual preference as much as of ideological coherence. Indeed, the price of unity and coherence in the modern State may well be the creation of spaces of divergence. After all, it has always been the dream of modernity to create a government which would not govern, social ties which would not bind, individualism which would not be individualistic.

Both Collins and the cultural nationalists seem to have overlooked this fact, to have forgotten that they are operating within a modern society in which the relation between polity and culture are at best free floating, moving sometimes toward strict congruence, sometimes toward weak linkage. Collins falls too far on the side of unlinking and decoupling, seeing them as the hope of the future while neglecting that total unlinking and decoupling lead only to anomie, the absence of motivational structures. The cultural nationalists fall too far on the side of linking and coupling, seeing them as the hope of coherence and identity while neglecting that the identity of modernity is precisely not to be tied too strongly to any one viewpoint.


Collins, Richard. (1991). Culture, communication and national identity: The case of Canadian television. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Harcourt, Peter. (1991, October). Canadian Forum, pp. 27-28.

Lorimer, Rowland. (1991). Media, Culture and Society, 13(4), 581-584.

Miller, Mary Jane. (forthcoming). Canadian Theatre Review.

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