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.

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§ 7 Responses to The Problem with Being Canadian

  • roughghosts says:

    As a Canadian who has lived here since that age of 3 (over 50 years), I am deeply dismayed by the rapidly escalating racist sentiment (fueled in no small part by our government in this election year) not to mention our continued disregard for that fact we continue to neglect our aboriginal populations. More and more I am saddened by a country I used to hold to with pride.

    • I agree completely. I lived in Vancouver when this band of rednecks that form our current government came together as the Reform Party. They were a terrifying bunch of Know Nothings and rednecks then, nothing has changed now. As for the aboriginal populations, I went on a rant about that a few weeks ago here, 6-7 articles down if you scroll down. That is a situation that angers me.

      However, what is going on in Canada is nothing compared to the US and UK, in both of these countries, there has been a steadying decrease in trust in each other. I was listening to the Dead Kennedys today on my morning run, and the song “Kill the Poor” was on the playlist. The song is 30-or-so years old, written in the early 80s (1984, I think), and was a response to the rise of the right in that decade, Reagan, etc. And I thought how sadly true that this song was just as relevant today as it was 30+ years ago.

      • roughghosts says:

        True. Despite the government’s best efforts they have not dragged us down to the standards of the US or UK yet. As a dual citizen (born in the US) I will still take Canada in a heartbeat any day.

      • And, hopefully we can get rid of Harper this fall. Not that the options fill me with great excitement. I went the other way, I live in Boston now.

  • suchled says:

    …and as an Australian I said, “What about Australia?” ….. and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers) Actually I know Canada takes in more than Australia. But on a per capita basis Aust takes 3.4 to Canada’s 2.9. As you say, ‘It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook Canada. But that does not make it any less infuriating.’
    And I suppose I could say, ‘It is common for Americans and the British, but especially the Canadians to overlook the Australia. But that does not make it any less infuriating.

    • Alright, Australia has eclipsed Canada to take in the most immigrants per capita. And, yeah, you know, I was thinking about the exclusion of Australia and New Zealand from Anglo culture recently.

      I don’t know if you know the project ALT, by Andy White, Liam O’Maonlai, and Tim Finn back in the 90s. There is one song, where Finn sings of growing up in “the South Seas” and the alienation of that from the rest of the world and similar cultures.

      But, hey! You are separated from us by an entire world, Canada is just north from the US and directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Britain!

      But point taken.

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