Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Rahim Mohamed: What South Korea can teach Canada about soft power

Commentary

“Defund the CBC.”

It’s the one line that never fails to elicit applause in a room full of Conservative voters. And, for all the discord that’s marked the Conservative Party leadership race so far, it’s one thing that the contenders seem to agree on.

Pierre Poilievre regularly leads “defund the CBC” chants in his packed rallies; Leslyn Lewis has called CBC an “arm of the Liberal government”; and in the leadership debate Roman Baber went so far as to compare the national broadcaster to Soviet newspaper Pravda. Former party leader Andrew Scheer later riffed on Twitter that “[at least] Pravda never pretended to be independent”. 

Of course, these attacks refer to CBC News, just one of the national broadcaster’s many divisions, and its perceived pro-Liberal editorial bias. Nevertheless, by attempting to delegitimize one of Canada’s most venerable cultural institutions, leading Conservatives are turning a blind eye to the important historical role the CBC has played as a shaper of Canadian popular culture, an outlet for Canadian stories, and an incubator of some of the world’s most elite musical, theatrical, and behind-the-camera talent.

Thanks in no small part to the CBC and other publicly funded cultural organization, Canadians punch above their weight in virtually every facet of the entertainment industry. Three of the top ten most-streamed recording artists of the 2010s were Canadians.Canadian Invasion: Why Drake, The Weeknd And Justin Bieber Rule The Streaming World https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2017/06/14/canadian-invasion-drake-the-weeknd-and-justin-bieber-rule-the-streaming-world/?sh=648354d92408 CBC-produced sitcom Schitt’s Creek steadily grew into a global phenomenon over its six-season run, sweeping the comedy category at the 2020 Emmy Awards. Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who cut his teeth in Quebec’s heavily subsidized francophone film industry, landed one of Hollywood’s most sought-after projects when he was tapped to direct the latest adaptation of the classic science fiction novel Dune. The first installment of Villeneuve’s Dune saga, released last year, was one of the year’s biggest commercial and critical successes, despite the unwieldiness of its source material (some of Hollywood’s biggest directors have tried, and failed, to bring author Frank Herbert’s vision to the big screen over the years). These are just a few examples of how Canadians can be found at the highest echelons of global popular culture. 

Canadians love to rattle off the names of famous people who hail from the Great White North (just ask my long-suffering friends down here in the states), but we are less supportive of the cultural institutions that create opportunities for Canadian artists in the first place. A good number of Canada’s biggest global celebrities would still be toiling in obscurity in a world without the CBC

Insulated from the quarter-to-quarter financial pressures that face commercial broadcasters, the CBC can support projects that would never see the light of day in a free market. Again, take Schitt’s Creek, for example. What other television network would have green-lit an ostensible Arrested Development clone anchored by Eugene Levy, a sixty-something C-lister best known to American audiences as the dad who walked in on Jason Biggs violating the titular pastry in the 1999 teen sex romp American Pie? The series also took a few seasons to find its footing—time it likely would not have been granted from a commercial network.  

Of course, there’s no intrinsic reason for Canadians to care about the international success of Canadian entertainers and made-in-Canada TV shows, especially when their global visibility has no discernible effect on how Canada is perceived by other countries. Drake and Justin Bieber may be household names all over the world, but this doesn’t change the fact that Canada is less globally relevant today than its been at any point since the end of World War II. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is regularly greeted by half-empty rooms at the United Nations and is openly ignored by other world leaders. Canada badly lost its bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2020, despite shelling out more than $10 million in a futile attempt to buy votes. Just last year, Canada was left on the sidelines of a blockbuster security deal signed by the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Once a widely respected middle power, Canada has been reduced to a minnow in the global food chain. 

We have more than just national pride at stake; a Canada that’s out of sight on the world stage is also one that is out of mind. This is not a great place for us to be in an increasingly dangerous world. Russia has shown unequivocally (and violently) in recent years that it has no regard for the territorial integrity of its neighbouring countries. Putin’s next major play could be in the Arctic, a region where Russia has a number of unresolved territorial disputes with Canada. Even our “best friend” the United States will eventually look to the north once it starts to exhaust domestic reserves of oil, potable water, and other critical natural resources. Without a substantial reservoir of goodwill at its disposal, Canada will struggle to rally the global community to its side in a time of crisis. 

Fortunately, Canada can look to another country for guidance on how to use our abundant creative talent to raise our global profile: South Korea.

South Korea and Canada are similar in many respects. The two countries have comparable populations and almost identical GDPs.Country comparison Canada vs South Korea https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/canada/south-korea Much like Canada, South Korea is sandwiched between two Great Powers—it sits precariously between China and Japan and has a fraught history with both countries. Like Canada, South Korea would be badly outmanned and outgunned in the event of a conflict with one or both of its larger neighbors. 

But South Korea has one crucial advantage over Canada: it’s pound-for-pound the world’s biggest exporter of popular culture today.

K-Pop, a uniquely infectious mishmash of EDM, hip hop, and R&B, among other musical genres, is enjoyed by over 150 million listeners worldwide. Dystopian Korean drama Squid Game was the single most streamed series on Netflix last year. The equally bleak Parasite took home four awards at the 2020 Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture (it was the first non-English language film ever to win in the category). Korean popular culture is now a truly global phenomenon. 

And there’s a lot more to the story than the superficial glitz and glamour. South Korea has channeled the popularity of its cultural products into abundant soft power, which it now exerts at both a regional and global level. For instance, in the fall of 2020, Chinese state media unsuccessfully attempted to “cancel” Korean boy band BTS over the group’s omission of China’s contribution to World War II in a speech they made to the New York City-based Korea Society. The campaign was abandoned after only a few days, once it became clear that state propagandists were no match for the Mainland China division of the BTS ARMY (note to readers: the acronym ARMY, which officially stands for Adorable Representatives for M.C. Youth, refers to BTS’ global fanbase). This was a nontrivial setback for a state media apparatus that’s accustomed to exerting its will against major global brands like the NBA. (BTS accompanied South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the UN General Assembly this past fall). 

The so-called Korean Wave (Hallyu)“The Korean Wave (Hallyu) refers to the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural economy exporting pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas and movies. Hallyu is a Chinese term which, when translated, literally means ‘Korean Wave’. It is a collective term used to refer to the phenomenal growth of Korean culture and popular culture encompassing everything from music, movies, drama to online games and Korean cuisine just to name a few.” https://martinroll.com/resources/articles/asia/korean-wave-hallyu-the-rise-of-koreas-cultural-economy-pop-culture/#:~:text=The%20Korean%20Wave%20(Hallyu)%20refers,literally%20means%20%E2%80%9CKorean%20Wave%E2%80%9D. that’s now sweeping the world did not happen overnight, nor was it the product of spontaneous coordination among private market actors. On the contrary, Hallyu is the culmination of a decades-long strategic initiative to cultivate global influence through the appeal of South Korean popular culture. The state has played an important facilitating role in this process by making substantial investments in the promotion of culture in the arts. In 2020, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism received just under $5 billion USD from the government, a sum that amounted to nearly 10 percent of the annual budget.South Korea gets record-breaking culture budget https://www.internationalartsmanager.com/news/arts/south-korea-gets-record-breaking-culture-budget.html The Ministry houses a specialized Cultural Content Office, which oversees the development of K-Pop, fashion, televised entertainment, and other key cultural products.

By comparison, the $1.4 Billion that the CBC receives from Ottawa each year (0.3 percent of the last federal budget) is small potatoes. The Department of Canadian Heritage, which oversees the promotion of “Canadian identity and values” via the arts, claimed just over 1 percent of the federal budget last year. The Heritage portfolio has not been helped by a series of bumbling ministers who have repeatedly bungled important files like the regulation of internet content (under the Trudeau Government, the only two qualifications needed to become Heritage Minister appear to be a seat in Quebec and great hair).

By failing to adequately support our cultural institutions, we are squandering one of our best assets—the dominance of Canadian performers on the stage and screen (and in the recording studio). The rise of streaming services has greatly reduced barriers to the global dissemination of Canadian content. Audiences in the United States and beyond have shown a massive appetite for lighthearted Canadian sitcoms and Toronto’s Caribbean-infused brand of hip hop and R&B. South Korea provides us with a blueprint for how to parlay the appeal of these Canadian cultural products into global influence.

The first step is to change the conversation surrounding the CBC and other publicly funded cultural organizations. Rather than dismissing these entities as a waste of taxpayer dollars, we should acknowledge them as critical incubators of soft power—a currency that’s more powerful than ever before in a global landscape dominated by social media and streaming platforms. 

Rather than defunding the CBC, Canada should double down on supporting its cultural industries. We already have the creative talent to follow in South Korea’s footsteps; all that’s needed is stronger and more strategic support from the CBC, Heritage Canada, and other cultural agencies. Opening the public purse to channel the widespread appeal of Canadian cultural products into soft power would be one of the smartest and most cost-effective investments we could make in securing our place in the world.

Malcolm Jolley: On never knowing enough about the world of wine

Commentary

Don’t ask me what I’ll do when I retire because I never will. There will always be a new wine to try, even if all that’s changed is the vintage. There will always be a new wine region to find out about, even if it’s just a corner carved out of an old one. And there will always be something about wine to write, even if it’s just in the latest volume of my notebook and journal. There is no shortage in the supply of things to find out about wine. It is an ever-expanding universe that even the most learned expert can never hope to fully master.

There is also no prism of human discipline through which the wine world cannot be viewed. It encompasses everything from chemistry, to geology, to economics, to politics and history, and those are just some of the more obvious ones. The question then becomes, in light of this embarrassment of wine-factual riches, what’s important to know?

I have been thinking philosophically about wine knowledge lately because of two recent events. The first was the rewarding April trip to Loire Valley I wrote about in my last Hub column.Loire Valley wines to watch for this spring https://thehub.ca/2022-05-06/loire-valley-wines-to-watch-for-this-spring/ It engendered the second because it reminded me of France’s great culinary heritage and culture, of which wine is just a small, if very important, part. That sent me back to my bookshelves where I pulled out my long time neglected 1961 English language edition of the Larousse Gastronomique.“Since its first publication in 1938, Larousse Gastronomique has been an unparalleled resource. In one volume, it presents the history of foods, eating, and restaurants; cooking terms; techniques from elementary to advanced; a review of basic ingredients with advice on recognizing, buying, storing, and using them; biographies of important culinary figures; and recommendations for cooking nearly everything.” https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/815612.Larousse_Gastronomique

The Larousse Gastronomique was first published in Paris in 1938 under the authorship of Prosper Montagné, who was then France’s most famous chef. It is an encyclopedia of mostly French ingredients and culinary techniques. It was surfed by our forebear foodies the way we do the internet. Glancing through it for fun, I decided to look up the entry for “Wine”.

The first thing I saw pulled me back to the trip: a map of the Loire Valley.“The Loire Valley (French: Val de Loire, pronounced [val də lwaʁ]; Breton: Traoñ al Liger), spanning 280 kilometres (170 mi), is a valley located in the middle stretch of the Loire river in central France, in both the administrative regions Pays de la Loire and Centre-Val de Loire. The area of the Loire Valley comprises about 800 square kilometres (310 sq mi). It is referred to as the Cradle of the French and the Garden of France due to the abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards (such as cherries), and artichoke, and asparagus fields, which line the banks of the river.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loire_Valley Except it wasn’t labelled that. It was called “The Vineyards of Anjou” and so enjoyed an alphabetical prominence of place. The 1961 Larousse has a few colour plates of grand dishes in its middle, but the majority of its illustrations (when an entry is important enough to have one) are in black and white. The map of the western Loire Valley, stretching from just before Vouvray to the confluence of the Sèvre at Nantes, was just a simple line drawing with typeset labels. 

The map’s simplicity was arresting and helpful. Modern maps, like the ones that come up on a quick Google search, will often use a panoply of colours and shadings to show different regions and sub-regions. They will also often cram as many labeled features as they can in an array of different fonts down to the locations of famous vineyards and wineries. With its fine black lines, the older map made clear something that I had only dimly dawned on me on the trip. The Loire is more than the big river valley; it’s a system of tributaries that join it and affect the climate of each small region distinctly.

Detail of a map of The Valley of Anjou from the 1961 English language edition of the Larousse Gastronomique

There’s nothing wrong with the modern maps. For one thing, they’re good for finding out where wine is made if you wanted to visit, and once you identify what you’re looking for, provide as much information as possible. The older map, for instance, shows no roads. Without wine tourism, why would it? They also tend to be on a larger scale, showing a smaller geographic area, as the number of wine appellations grows and divides into sub-regions or “villages”. The 1961 Larousse, by contrast, only shows the top five French regions, including Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne on a relatively small, bird’s eye scale. Again, why would it? Since little fine wine was produced elsewhere and the number of producers, including representative “négotiants”, was small.

This is not to say the old Larousse was not full of information. The wine entry spans more than a dozen pages and includes illustrations, photographs, and tables, as well as the maps. It’s just that a lot of the information seems kind of odd by modern sensibilities because it’s quite technical. Contemporary wine reference books also include lots of information that’s technical, about everything from yeast strains to different bottle sizes. But the Larousse gets really into detail into things like what chemicals to use to create certain tastes in wine. I wonder if the book was used as a how-to in some French cellars, the way the rest of the book might be used in the kitchens of the Republic’s chefs.

In terms of advice to wine consumers, the old book provides a thoroughly prescriptive chart called: “TABLE SHOWING THE SERVING OF WINES”. It suggests pairing by course from soup to nuts, as it were. With the soup, one could choose from Madeira, Marsala, Port, Sherry, or Zucco. I had to look it up, and it turns out that Zucco was (is?) a sweet wine made in Sicily from just the Cattarato grape around a town of the same name near what is now the Palermo airport. Things get a lot more French after that, and the service of the “First Main Course” is a selection of Bordeaux Crus, while “With The Roast” is all red Burgundy. This seems to confirm the accounts I have read that until relatively recently, Bordeaux was considered lighter and more finessed than Burgundy. At some point their relative positions switched.

The next table is much bigger, taking up an entire page of the book, and it’s much more directed toward French wine chauvinism. The “TABLE RELATING WINES TO FOOD” flips the premise and suggests foods to pair with particular French wines. I noted with interest and pleasure that the 1961 Larousse suggests pairing Montrachet and Muscadet with foie gras and leaves Sauternes at dessert, as I prefer. The final table is a vintage chart for various French wine regions, ranking the years going back to 1917 on a four-star system. Was this the inspiration for Robert Parker’s 100-point scale system, invented 20 years later?“The 100-point scale for wine rating is common in North America and is analogous to school grades: Anything over 90 is excellent; 80 to 89 is above average, and so on. This system was made ubiquitous by American wine critic Robert Parker — he even trademarked the term “Parker Points.” This system is used by The Wine Advocate, the publication that Parker founded (and from which he officially retired in 2019, though the magazine continues to publish wine scores by its panel of critics).” https://edifyedmonton.com/food/drinks/the-basics-of-the-100-point-scale-for-wine-ratings/#:~:text=A%20wine%20that’s%20rated%2090,complex%20flavours%20and%20balanced%20structure.&text=The%20100%2Dpoint%20scale%20for%20wine%20rating%20is%20common%20in,above%20average%2C%20and%20so%20on.

The French have a saying that goes something like “A person must be of her time.” I have always taken it as both good advice and a statement of fact. There are all kinds of modern wine writing, conveying all sorts of varying information. Still most I read, and what I mostly write, includes some idea of what the wine itself tastes like and a description of the place it comes from and the people who made it. There is very little of this in the older book, and it makes me wonder if there will be in the wine books, or websites, or whatever form writing takes 50 or 60 years from now. I hope so.