Gerry Porter (one of Newfoundland’s great and undersung thinkers!) threw out a tweet earlier today that set the wheels in my head churning all morning. I started to respond to it but quickly realized that even a light answer would be too much for Twitter. So after filling the reply box with -2500 characters, I decided just to put it here instead. Consider it food for thought.
I’ve been thinking about this all morning. I think the operative word here is “modern.”
Arguably one of NL’s fundamental problems has been a preoccupation with ‘modernizing’ (political reform in the 19th century, Confederation in the 20th, etc) the country/province along schema of development that are ultimately unsuited to the real conditions of life on the island. Carson and friends wanted a bourgeois state for a colonial outpost. The madness of the 1920s (and, ultimately, Smallwood) were oriented around ideas of ‘modern’ industrial development that didn’t fit the political/geographic economy of the island. And even in the contemporary, enlightened era of late capitalism and Newfkult 2.0*, all our political thinking (and institutions) seem wedded to the idea that a ‘modern state’ is ‘Costco + medicare’, that “real cities” are all indistinguishable sprawls of big box stores surrounding a gentrified downtown core (see: Edmonton, AB, for the kind of nightmare aesthetic that road will bring you). Newfoundland’s metropolis also enjoys the bonus struggle in trying to make use of all the surplus labour scattered around a large swathe of forbidding geographical terrain in pre-industrial fishing settlements.
Patrick O’Flaherty once bemoaned Confederation as resulting in the “continual inrush of North American vulgarity” and while obviously the nationalist case is no better (and certainly no more immune to the fantasies of “North American vulgarity” already at work in Newfoundland irrespective of our constitutional arrangement to Britain or Canada), I think his blow does glance across the crux of the problem: all our models, all our thinking about how to live here together (politically, economically, culturally, even physically) are copied and pasted from somewhere else and they do not fit.
I have been thinking a lot about how colonialism involves an attempt to recreate conditions of the ‘old world’ (or wherever the imperial centre is) in a new and different space where it generally does not fit and which does violence to both the place and the people living there. The ongoing attempt to colonize Newfoundland is failing not only because all colonization is destined to fail in the long run (!), but because Newfoundland (through all the accumulated wreckage of its history) is particularly resistant to recreating the vulgar dream of mainstream, mainland North American life and the corresponding political economy needed to support it.
None of this actual answers any of Gerry’s questions, but there is a very compelling case to be made that there is no model that can support the mainland-imported dream of a ‘modern state’ that Newfoundland liberalism has been straining towards for the last 200 years. (Plus – what is a ‘state’? That’s a whole other quintal of fish.)
But I genuinely think that before we can reconsider our models of life and development, we should also start reconsidering our dreams.
* – ie a provincial state that will fund videos instructing Newfoundlanders how to speak Newfoundland English (gut-foundered!), that will instruct Newfoundlanders how to “practice being what they naturally are,” (as Robert Nutbeam put it in 1974), but will not fund any actual cultural production. Bless Ed Riche and the crew at The Overcast for continually hammering this last point home.