The Problem with Being Canadian
March 20, 2015 § 7 Comments
Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes. A brilliant mind, and a great writer, he was rare for an historian. An Englishman, he lived in New York and taught at New York University. The Guardian called him the ‘greatest mind in New York,’ which I always took as a play on the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Judt died of ALS in July 2010 at the age of 62, and I feel like we were robbed. I am currently reading his last work of non-fiction, Ill Fares the Land (a collaboration with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published in 2012).
In Ill Fares the Land, Judt takes on the growing meanness of our society and culture, on both sides of the Atlantic. He argues that we have lost our way in the blind pursuit of money and profit, signalling the 1980s as the period where Western culture shifted from one of trust and compassion for our fellow human beings to this individualistic focus on money. He criticizes us for having lost our way, for descending back into 19th century laissez-faire beliefs.
In one section, however, he focuses on the consensus that arose in Western society after the Second World War, when collectively we decided that we did not wish to experience the 1914-45 period ever again, and Europeans and North Americans began to build better societies, with a social safety net, seeking to eradicate the gross inequality of the 19th century, which led to the rise of dictatorships of both the left and the right in the 1920s and 30s.
Judt notes that trust is necessary to the proper functioning of society. And he is right. Trust is essential at all levels of society,and it is essential for the proper functioning of the capitalist system. Indeed, this was the trust violated in the 1980s, and again in the lead-up to the 2008 Recession: economic actors essentially got greedy and corrupt and brought us down with them. At any rate, Judt looks at what makes for a trusting society and, not surprisingly, he looks approvingly at the Scandinavian and Northern European countries. These are places where income inequality is almost (note, I said almost) non-existant, where education is free or close to it, and there is a common, collective belief in the common good, broadly defined.
What makes these societies work? What causes the trust to exist? Judt notes that Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are remarkably homogenous societies, in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc. (He also notes that Scandinavians are not so excited about the influx of impoverished refugees and immigrants in recent years, to be fair.) He then focuses on his two primary countries: The United States and the United Kingdom.
In the period of consensus from 1945 to the 1970s, both the US and the UK were a lot more homogenous than they are now. Both were majoritarian white, Anglo-Protestant nations, though with sizeable Catholic minorities. But, Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, of course. Today, however, both the US and the UK are larger, much more diverse nations. And so trust has broken down.
As a good Canadian, I was practically yelling “CANADA!” at this point of the book. To be fair to Judt, he DOES notice The Great White North. Frankly, it’s hard not to. It’s this big country just to the north of New York state. He writes:
The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.
But then he dismisses the Canadian crossover case because it’s not conducive to his argument. He immediately goes onto return to his arguments pertaining to the US and the UK. This makes no sense. Canada is a fine comparative point to both the US and the UK. It is geographically large, it has a sizeable population, it is incredibly diverse (more diverse, in fact, than either the US and the UK), and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers). And yet, “trust and its accompanying institutions” are deeply-embedded in the country, as our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (who is otherwise hell-bent on tearing down the Canada most Canadians want), has learned.
Judt’s myopia regarding Canada is nothing new, frankly. It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook the country. But that does not make it any less infuriating.
I am reminded of Trainspotting, and the rant of the central character, Mark Renton, on why it sucks being Scottish.