Talking to Americans

Jonathan Lethem writes:

‘I lived for a time in Canada, and found myself fascinated by the slavish pride of a culture basking in a self-recriminating joke. “A lobsterman turned his back on three catches in an uncovered bucket. A bystander worried the lobsters would escape, but the lobsterman waved him off, saying, ‘No problem, these are Canadian lobsters. If one reaches the top the others will pull him back in.’” Yet who, lately, seeing how transparent the Internet-comments culture has made our vast leveling rage, our chortling conformism and anti-intellectualism, our scapegoat-readiness, could keep from thinking: “We’re all Canadian lobsters on this bus.”’

Are you having trouble understanding him?  That is probably because the internet has made you as stupid as a Canadian.  Let me summarize.  Canada is a slavish culture.  This means that when Canadians see someone striving for excellence, they drag him down.  In fact Canadians are so vulgar they tell a joke about their slavishness, making it a virtue.  America is getting slavish too because the internet gives a platform to hoi polloi, allowing the base to demand that the excellent conform to their standards.  Like Canadians, they now laugh — they chortle, to be precise — while they sacrifice virtue on the altar of vulgarity.  They are, as the line about the bus suggests, “bozos“– as Canadians always were.

But possibly you are still having trouble understanding.  Possibly you have heard this joke before, but told about crabs not lobsters, and about management not Canadians.  I’ve heard a dozen versions myself, none of which mentions lobsters, and none of which mentions Canada.  Which is not to say, of course, that Lethem wasn’t told the joke in Canada, by a Canadian, about other Canadians.  Anyone can say anything, and anyone else can believe it — and not just on the internet.  But the implication that it’s the national joke is simply wrong, and the implication that it represents Canadian culture is  both wrong and rude.  Lethem panders to the most vulgar American expectations of Caunckstan, of the socialists to the north who are forced, as a political principle, to deny excellence.

There is a relatively well-known Canadian joke about lobsters.  It goes like this.

In a small fishing village, a Newfoundlander was walking up the wharf carrying two three-pound live lobsters, one in each hand.  Whom should he meet at the end of the wharf but the Federal Fisheries Officer who, on viewing the wiggling lobsters, says: “Well me laddie I got you this time — with two live lobsters three weeks after the season closed!”  The Newfie says, “No, my son, you are wrong. These are two trained lobsters that I caught two weeks before the season ended.”  The Fisheries Officer says, ” Trained like how?”  “Well my son, each day I takes these two from my house down to the wharf and puts them in the water for a swim. While they swim I sits on the wharf and has me a smoke, or two. After about fifteen minutes I whistles and up comes me two lobsters, and I takes them home.”  “Likely story”, the Fisheries Officer says. “Lets take them on down the wharf and see if it’s true.”  So, the Newfie goes ahead of the Fisheries Officer to the end of the wharf where, under supervision, he gently lowers both lobsters into the water.  The Newfie sits on a wharf piling and lights up a smoke, then another.  After about fifteen minutes the Fisheries Officer says to the Newfie, “How about whistling?”  The Newfie says ” What for?”  The Fisheries Officer says, ” To call in the lobsters.”  The Newfie says, ” What lobsters?”

If this joke doesn’t say anything about the Canadian ethos, it probably does say something about the Newfies:  about their pluck, about their wiliness, and about their willingness, on a small scale, to defy authority.  It’s not, I admit, a paean to excellence.  But then that wouldn’t be funny.

Lethem’s comments aren’t funny either. This is, though.  At least, if you’re a Canadian.


(Lethem’s piece is here, and I took the pre-edited version of the real Canadian lobster joke from here.)


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