Much Ado About Culture

Although this blog records my thoughts on the Canadian nonfiction I read in my spare time, the majority of books I read are academic works. Some of these might be worth discussing here.

Keith Acheson and Christopher Maule’s Much Ado About Culture was obsolete almost as soon as it came off the press. Focused on the cultural provisions in North American trade agreements, the book first appeared in 1999, just as the internet became more accessible. The academic reviews are unforgiving in pointing out that much of the author’s carefully constructed analysis was in the process of being upended by the new technology.

For this reason I’m reluctant to be too hard on Acheson and Maule’s book, as it remains one of the few monographs on the culture policies of North American trade agreements. The book assesses the cultural provisions in trade agreements like the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA) and its eventual replacement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Article 2005(1) and 2005(2) of CUSFTA are intended to protect the Canadian cultural industries from American hegemony by exempting them from the agreement, and these clauses were carried over verbatim into NAFTA.

Acheson and Maule are economists by discipline, and their arguments are somewhat predictably critical of Canadian cultural protectionism. The general suggestion is that Canadians would benefit more from market liberalization in the cultural industries than they stand to lose by competing unprotected against American cultural products. This argument is mostly unconvincing because the author’s analysis of the nature and importance of culture is not as adept as their insight into particular economic cases.

Although the book laudably attempts an account of what culture is near the beginning, the authors make much of the fact national cultures are internally diverse and that individuals have multiple, sometimes transnational, cultural allegiances. This truism is reflective of the multicultural character of the Canadian nation but overlooks how these differences are constitutive of the particular Canadian nation, rather than evidence that we should be sceptical of there being a specific Canadian identity. The effort to consider the nature of culture is praiseworthy, but there is no engagement with the theoretical work on culture, despite Canada having produced some of the world’s foremost cultural theorists. An economist would be justified in ridiculing any cultural theorists who made such sweeping comments about economics without consideration of economic literature. (And I’ll admit to having encountered those books too).

This loose analysis of culture leads to strange examples. Consider this list of “Canadian” children’s animation offered as an example of globally successful cultural products: Madeline, Babar, the Richard Scarrey Stories, TinTin, The Little Lulu Story, Bettlejuice, Paddington Bear, Rupert, and Franklin. Only one of the series are based on a Canadian intellectual property: Franklin. The rest are American, British, and French stories, but were produced by Canadian studios. This is a bad standard of Canadian content, since by this standard the recent Stephen King adaptation of It is Canadian since it was filmed in Toronto, Port Hope, and Belleville. This is why cultural subsidies distinguish between products “made in Canada” and those which actually were conceived by Canadians.

In fairness, the authors are generally aware of this phenomenon, and have some critical thoughts about the points system used to determine whether a work is Canadian content. Nonetheless, the authors are uncharitable with nationalists they characterize as saying a “100 percent market figure for the Canadian [book] market share is desirable.” I’ve never encountered a Canadian cultural or economic nationalist with such a ridiculous position. The authors note this would preclude classics of English and French literature. Yet they have nothing to say about the fact most classics of Canadian literature are simply out of print, in large part because companies which kept them on the shelves, like McClelland and Stewart (“The Canadian Publishers”), were bought by an American corporations.

Here is one reason Acheson and Maule’s arguments against cultural protectionism break down: they say it limits consumer choice, but Canadians can barely choose to read books by domestic authors. Two Solitudes is out of print, and books like Wacousta exist only in expensive, limited run academic editions. One might object that the situation of present authors is different, but simply perusing the local Chapters should be sufficient to dispel any illusions. When the authors argue “There is no justification for the government to influence the content menu” of cultural consumption, they ignore how American market power already does exactly this. Despite their argument culture is so fluid policies meant to protect it are misguided, their analysis of culture is too shallow to justify this claim.

Acheson and Maule’s book deserves a more thorough response than my rambling, broad strokes criticism, so as an apology for not providing that today, I’ll conclude with a couple compliments. Despite my lengthy reservations about the analysis of culture as a concept and Canadian culture in particular, the economic arguments in the book are prescient and challenging. I found the meticulous discussion of NAFTA’s cultural provisions to be immensely useful for a current term paper, so I owe them an academic debt. As an examination of the place of culture within the trade agreements and case studies, the book remains invaluable despite its age.

As best I can tell Keith Acheson continues to teach economics at Carleton University. Christopher Maule has since retired and periodically records his thoughts on his own blog: Christopher Maule’s Blog: Economics and International Affairs.