Some Canadian reflections

by Garth Stevenson

Imagine the following scenario. The United States is bogged down in an inconclusive and unpopular war. The Republicans nominate an aging war hero as their presidential candidate. The Democrats select an eloquent and thoughtful man from Illinois who is loved by the liberal intelligentsia but seems to have some difficulty connecting with ordinary Americans. The Republican wins in a landslide.

The reference, of course, is to the first American election that I remember, now more than half a century past. I don’t remember it very well, since I was only nine years old, but the fact that the unlucky Democrat shared my family name did capture my attention. I won’t make any trite comment about history either repeating itself or not repeating itself, particularly as this is written in September. My point is merely that I have been interested in the United States for a very long time, and that makes me a fairly typical Canadian.

Banner Welcome: A sign welcomes returning soldiers at
Anchorage airport in Alaska. Taken on June 7, 2008,
months before Sarah Palin was introduced to the world as John McCain’s VP candidate at a rally in Dayton.

Canadian attitudes toward the United States have never been simple. Canada was literally founded on anti-Americanism, the one common bond between the American Loyalist refugees who came here after 1776, the Orangemen who arrived from northern Ireland a little later and the Catholic clergy in Quebec. General elections have been fought on anti-American platforms, although the last time this really worked was in 1911. Yet we have never been able to ignore the United States even if we wanted to, and our kind of anti-Americanism, unlike the more robust variety that exists in some European intellectual circles and in the Middle East, has almost always been mixed with fascination and even admiration. I find it significant that three of our best novels (Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh McLennan and St. Urbain’s Horseman by Mordecai Richler) are built around the lifelong relationship between a rather wimpy and introspective central character and a more aggressive, more adventurous and slightly older man whose colourful and exciting life is viewed from a distance. That is a perfect metaphor for the relationship between Canada and the United States.

My own life has been intertwined with the United States for as long as I can remember. The first books I recall were American: The Wizard of Oz and its many sequels and the wild animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess. My mother’s older brother moved to Illinois shortly before I was born, so I have always had American relatives. I have taken countless vacations in the United States, my doctorate was earned there, I have spent a sabbatical there and my first marriage took place there. It was in the United States that I first saw a diesel locomotive, first watched television, first used a push-button phone and first fed data into a computer (yes, we used them for computing in those days, before e-mail and the Internet existed). I have always preferred baseball to hockey, and no northern lake has ever appealed to me as much as the beaches and salt marshes of Cape Cod, which I visit every summer. At an early age I acquired an interest in American history (perhaps because we didn’t learn about it in school), particularly the history of the Civil War, and I have accumulated quite a library on the subject. Unlike most academics, I even drive an American car – built by the United Auto Workers in Kansas City.

Remembering: Viola Liuzzo, a white woman born in the south, was living in Detroit when she volunteered to help in the struggle for voting rights in 1965. She was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while driving her car near Selma, Alabama.

Over the course of my life I have visited all 50 of the United States, mainly by car although I have also crossed the country four times by rail and have landed at most of the major airports. I’ve walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and climbed the Pilgrims’ Monument at Provincetown, watched the Cubs at Wrigley Field and listened to jazz at Preservation Hall, visited Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park and the Everglades, Mount Vernon and Monticello, the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the battlefields where Grant won his victories, the church where Eamon de Valera was baptized, the cottage where Franklin Roosevelt died, the Texas School Book Depository and the grassy knoll, and the ballroom where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper gave their last concert. I’ve ridden the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward and the cog railways to the tops of both Pike’s Peak and Mount Washington, followed the trail of Martin Luther King from Atlanta to Montgomery to Selma to Memphis, and taken the boat excursion around Pearl Harbor, where the world changed forever on a Sunday morning in 1941. I could say of the United States what Dr. Johnson said of London: if you are tired of it, you are tired of life, for it contains everything that life provides.

Does all this make me a suitable target for investigation by the committee on un-Canadian activities, assuming the next Liberal government decides to establish one? I don’t think so. There are many things I deplore about the United States: capital punishment, the gun lobby, elected judges and prosecutors, the absurd system of tort law and the ambulance-chasing lawyers who feed off it, and the chaotic system of health insurance, to name only a few. I was shocked and repelled by the war in Vietnam (more so than I would have been if the Russians, the French or even the British had done it, since my expectations of the United States were higher) and by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. I needed no urging to return to Canada when I completed my graduate studies shortly after those events. I have read Lament for a Nation many times and am saddened that so few of my students nowadays have read it. And I still prefer Anglo-Canadian spelling to Noah Webster’s version.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, is where Martin Luther King Jr., was pastor in the 1950’s

For a decade or so after I returned from my years in the United States as a graduate student I was, or thought I was, anti-American, although never to the point of losing interest in what went on south of the border. But that sentiment gradually faded, and a few years ago, when a Liberal MP from Toronto said that she hated Americans, I was shocked. (How could she hate 300,000,000 people? I have difficulty hating even one at a time.) Furthermore, I find it ironic that the most anti-American Canadians today seem to be on the Trudeauvian wing of the Liberal Party. Ironic because the things they revere about Canada – judicial activism, the legalization of political discourse, the proliferation of state-funded special interest groups, and the obsession with gender, ethnicity and “race” – are all essentially American imports (the late Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out when the Charter was adopted that it was the greatest step Canada had ever taken toward Americanization). Even their rigid insistence on a perfectly symmetrical federalism, with no concessions to Quebec, is American, contrasting with the pragmatic British approach to minority nationalisms in Scotland and Wales.

Anti-Americanism will probably always be with us. But whether we like it or not, Canadians cannot ignore what happens south of the border, for the economic, social and cultural ties between our two countries are innumerable and inescapable. Our interest in American politics reaches its peak during presidential election campaigns, as interminable as they seem to have become in recent years. We tend to favour the Democrats over the Republicans, a preference that should discourage the Republicans from ever wanting to annex us. The roots of this attitude go back to the 19th-century Republicans’ anti-British sentiments (understandable given British sympathy for the South during the Civil War) and preference for high tariffs. It was also the Republicans who outflanked our young Dominion by purchasing Alaska in 1867, hoping that British Columbia would soon follow their new acquisition into the Union. The Democrats, on the other hand, entered two world wars as Britain’s and Canada’s ally and built the American welfare state, which was largely the prototype for the Canadian version. In recent years the Democrats have also been perceived as more socially liberal (which is true) and less militaristic (which is not so true) than their Republican rivals.

Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Where President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

So most Canadians, myself included, are cheering for Obama this year. However, some caveats are in order. First, as the base of the Republicans has shifted from north to south, they have ceased to be the protectionist party, and the Democrats, whose base has shifted in the opposite direction, have taken over that position. Second, the foreign policy differences between the two parties are not as great as we like to believe. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both supported the war against Iraq, and Bill Clinton’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999 was the prototype and precedent for that adventure. Unconditional support for Israel is of course a given in both parties, although Jimmy Carter did finally question it a quarter-century after he left office. Lyndon Johnson, a great liberal president in terms of his domestic policies, was mainly responsible for the disastrous war in Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower’s famous but often misinterpreted warning against the “military-industrial complex” was actually a warning that the Democrats would spend too much on defence. Eisenhower believed that excessive spending and public debt were greater threats to the United States than the Russians or the Chinese.

The third caveat is perhaps the most important. Canadians have a simplified view of American politics, derived from our own experience with a parliamentary system. The good guys win, take over the White House, and undo all the policies of the bad guys, or vice versa. But the American system does not work that way, and as James Madison explained in The Federalist Papers, it was deliberately designed not to work that way. When the president is elected, so are 435 representatives of congressional districts and one third of the 100 senators, who may or may not support the president on particular issues even if they belong to the same party. Policy, especially domestic policy, is made by bargaining between president, Senate and House of Representatives, as well as a plethora of organized interests, and its implementation is filtered through the 50 states, under the supervision of the courts. So every new policy or program is a compromise, and public policies change very slowly, if at all. Periods of major innovation, such as the Great Society programs of the 89th Congress (1965–67), are few and far between.

Election Night: This statue in Rapid City, South Dakota, depicts Harry Truman holding a Chicago Tribune with the headline announcing, erroneously, that he had lost the 1948 election. The elctoral college can make close electionsdifficult to predict, then as now.

So what does the future hold for our southern neighbour? Canadians have been predicting the doom of the United States for a long time. Twelve weeks before General Lee surrendered, the Montreal Gazette absurdly asserted that the Union was no closer than ever to winning the Civil War. Today some Canadians gleefully look forward to the day when China replaces the United States as the greatest power, although why that should be any cause for celebration certainly escapes my understanding.

But rumours of Uncle Sam’s death, as Mark Twain said of his own, are greatly exaggerated. The current financial crisis, the result of financial deregulation and of excessive lending in the form of residential mortgages, is admittedly serious, and may even provoke a global depression like the ones that began in 1929 and in 1873, but the United States survived those events and will undoubtedly survive the present one also. However, the massive bailout recently authorized by Congress will exacerbate the problem of chronic fiscal deficits, caused by the reluctance of Americans to pay taxes sufficient to support all the tasks performed by the federal government (Americans complain about their taxes as obsessively as Canadians complain about our weather, although with considerably less justification). That problem will continue until American politicians, particularly self-styled “conservatives,” develop the courage to tell American voters that the reckless expansion of the public debt cannot continue forever, and that cutting taxes while fighting two wars is ludicrously irresponsible.

The Minuteman statue at Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, where the first battle of the war of independence took place in April 1775.

On the other hand some things in the United States are good and getting better. Racism has greatly declined, and a large African-American middle class has emerged. The major cities, with the sad exception of Detroit, are much more lively, attractive and prosperous than they were a generation ago. The homicide rate has been declining for years, although one would never know it from watching television. The universities are by far the best on the planet. Immigration is at the highest level since before the First World War. The number of babies born in the United States in 2007 was the largest in any year since the 1960s, while Japan, Russia and much of Europe face demographic decline.

Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see,” was the refrain of a popular song in the 1950s. The ultimate destiny of the novus ordo seclorum proclaimed in 1776 is still unfolding and, as Zhou Enlai famously said about the consequences of another revolution, it’s too early to tell. Whatever happens, we Canadians will be right next door to watch the action up close, and for that we should probably be thankful. Nations have even less ability than homeowners to choose their neighbours, but ours could be a lot worse – and a lot less interesting.