She’s been a friend of many years,
loyal and steadfast almost to a fault,
but when the subject turns to Macedonia
and the faltering attempt to resolve
a lingering dispute about a country’s name
all measure disappears.

The Macedonians given half an inch
would soon claim the whole of northern Greece,
the Bulgarians would join in
gobbling up both bits
and only the greatest vigilance by patriotic Greeks
can forestall a catastrophe foretold.

Naively you had thought the Balkan Wars
had ended a century ago.

— Philip Resnick


Everywhere you look, they’re sprouting,
Shiites, Sunnis
rekindling the prophet’s spirit,
Orthodox in countries which had abjured religion
rediscovering connections long forgotten
which their autocratic rulers nourish,
retro-Catholics in Poland
merging the Black Virgin of Czestochowa
with intolerance for their opponents,
Hinduvistas dreaming of a purified  homeland,
Jewish zealots of a reconsecrated Temple Mount,
Buddhist incendiaries in Myanmar,
evangelicals in the New World,
a veritable smorgasbord of beliefs
which a scientific age
had prematurely dismissed.

The Minders

Her talk is fluid/fluent,
the ups and downs of relations between Europe and the Porte
over two centuries,
a Sultan journeying to the West,
wars, atrocities,
mirror images and stereotypes to this day.
And through it all
– though the speaker is careful
how she weaves her tale
to not dwell overtly on the new Sultan,
his prisons overflowing,
the bleak Islamic turn his regime now takes –
three figures in sober attire from the Consulate
noting carefully every word she states,
lest she cross the invisible boundary
that spells dissent.

One part of us knows all too well
the risks of doubling tanker traffic through the port
and what an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez
would represent.

The other part knows equally well
just how dependent we have all become
on the bloodstream of an industrial age
and how quickly we would feel the pinch
without a drop of oil.

The valiant and romantic part,
NIMBYish in its way,
dreams of a green-red pact, a pristine coast,
and unadulterated ocean views.

The pragmatic part
feels a larger national vision is at stake
and tradeoffs the price
of keeping two quarrelling provinces aligned.

And so the kettle-drums beat on,
waiting for a prince to lay down the law.


You would have been more acerbic
in your salad years,
convinced as you were back then
that our somnolent dominion of the north
had missed a historical beat or two,
spurning revolutions,
holding on for dear life to the apron-strings
of two empires in rapid succession,
our leaders always reaching for the middle,
no clear goals to lift the spirits
or excite the imagination.

Now that you’re a senior
and Canada’s even more so,
your former disdain has given way
to a spirit of reconciliation.
It isn’t easy managing a country
with awkward platelets that see themselves as distinct nations,
with far-flung regions
and a macédoine of peoples
which elsewhere might incite internecine hatreds.

We have fended off the worst traits
of the giant to the south,
while coexisting reasonably amicably beside it.
Our social compass resembles that of Europe,
and our vision of the world order
combines a Boy Scout’s earnestness for alliances
with peacekeeping missions and UN-sanctioned conventions.

We have had our share of failings
– the excessive influence of corporations, foreign and domestic,
politicians on the take,
policies which haven’t really helped to integrate First Nations,
closed doors to refugees fleeing Europe in the ’30s,
wartime deportation of innocent Japanese-Canadian civilians –
but in the larger scheme of things
we haven’t screwed up too badly,
neither plumbing the depths of failed or fragile states
nor suffering under despotic rulers,
though we’ve sometimes come quite close,
with autocratic Premiers and nepotistic tribal chiefs.

Still, you don’t feel out of place
lifting a glass to Canada’s sesquicentenary,
much as you might wish there was a bit more drama
to a country which has learned to live in peace.

On a passage in Kant

The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
— Kant

The stars with their pointillistic luminescence
dot the night sky over Damoukhari
underlying our glaring insignificance
in the cosmic scheme.
But what about the moral law within
which Kant extolled,
has it fared any better
in the two centuries that have elapsed
since he walked Königsberg’s tree-lined streets?
One contemplates the Anthropocene,
the deep inequities that continue to creep in,
a ruthless quest for ends over means,
a population bomb rivalling the ballistic ones,
our sapping the finite resources of Mother Earth,
and one wishes the stars above
would somehow wipe our muddied escutcheon clean.


You came to visit these royal tombs,
most probably those of Philip II of Macedon
and his consort,
and the wrought gold jewellery and silver vessels
are truly regal,
as are the size and scale of the portico
and columns where they lay buried.
Yet something rankles
in this glorification of Macedon,
of Philip and of Alexander
and of the Hellenistic age which was to follow.
No mention of the king’s archfoe, Demosthenes,
who had rightly seen in him the undoing of the polis,
and of the freedom which Athens had enjoyed
in the two centuries when the civilization
which we so venerate had flowered.
Instead, it is the force of arms,
the lust for power,
the perks and privileges of rulers,
that in this underground museum/mausoleum
are given the celebratory status
befitting tyrants.

The Demos

The demos can be so fickle,
excoriating the first honest politician they’ve ever seen
– an Alfonsin in Argentina,
a Gorbachev in the ex-USSR –
because economically times were tough,
or a rotten old regime had finally bitten the dust,
embracing the most loathsome and corrupt
– a Berlusconi or a Trump –
who know how to traffic notoriety and pilfered wealth
for naked power.
It makes one almost despair
of the larger creed we Westerners so earnestly profess,
forgetting how democracy among the ancients
had its share of assemblies easily swayed
by demagogues and knaves
for every Pericles or Demosthenes that came along.

Canada at 150

       We don’t need any kaiser.
       — Heinrich Heine, A Winter’s Tale

What courage, back in 1843,
for the bard to give voice
to what was still a faint stirring
somewhere in the forest depths
of a Germany still asleep
to the longing for a springtime of the people.
And we,
in this Dominion of the North,
who have been sleeping for a full 150 years,
putting up with regal flummery,
with all the trappings of Old World monarchy,
have yet to break the bonds of a mentality
that ties us to our colonial dregs.


Modernism came at a stroke
amidst the carnage and the cold
that swept muddy battlefields,
leaving the old order fractured in its wake.
Scales fell from a generation’s eyes,
becoming an atonal twelve,
bodies on canvases disengaged,
squares, cubes and asymmetric blobs
displacing classic harmony for good.
We were growing up,
or so it seemed,
learning to live with bold designs,
urban centrefolds that swelled until they reached the sky,
movement at a speed
foretelling the eclipse of linear time.
Some say the world has become a better place,
that the multitude has never thrived as it now does,
despite the lapses of major wars and minor ones,
and regimes no less repressive than those that came before.
Perhaps the data point to sunnier days,
but in our gut we kind of sense
the breakdown which the modernists sketched
has become the lethal norm.


Cementario del Norte – La Recoleta

July 26, 1991

Past chiselled tombs,
crypts of publishers, cardiologists and rectors
ministering to the soul or body,
along the alleyways of a deserted city,
no blade of grass to disturb the grey cement and marble,
you wander.
A cat or two has made a home
in amongst these necro-villas with their coffins,
guardians tending to the flowers and the dust,
sweeping the portals clean,
much as concierges might do in the world of the living.
Suddenly around the bend TV cameras whir,
a whole cortège of mourners
– wreaths of the finest roses, orchids, passion flowers at their feet –
has gathered around the Duarte tomb
to mark the 39th year since her passing.
A balding trumpeter, out of a’30s movie,
plays in her honour,
as a sea of hands, each with two fingers held aloft,
salutes to the cry “Viva Perón!” “Viva Eva Perón!” “Viva la patria!”
Many of the women are in furs,
a few in simpler cloth or woollens,
their eyes moistening to the power of a legend.
Which is the real Evita,
the stricken saint they mourn,
Madonna to the decamisados,
heroine of Broadway musicals?
Or the spider-lady behind a fickle venturer
who for decades kept a country in his thrall?

Making America Great Again

Once again the pollsters,
those diviners of auspices and entrails,
have been proven wrong,
and a wave of Nativist disenchantment
with the Beltway, the urbane elites,
the icons of Wall Street
rolls from the Deep South to the Rust Belt
and across the Plains,
upsetting the political applecart
and giving a new Magus carte blanche
to tear up trade deals
that hollow out factories and towns,
to keep foreign riffraff
from infiltrating liberty’s domain,
to turn the clock back to a time
when the Constitution in all its Second Amendment splendor
held full rein.
Where all this will end
only historians of the future will know,
but for the moment irresistible forces bubble up
from the subterranean layers
and ressentiment becomes the flavour of our era.

Europa after the rain

In its own inimitable way,
Europe undoes the stitches that bind its wounds,
north against south,
the frugal ones against the party-goers,
mistrust the flavour of the month,
disenchantment seeping through the corridors
where emissaries meet for negotiations without end,
Penelope’s thread unable to withstand
the constant fraying, the weatherbeaten elements,
for the continent has too many mountain ranges, verdant islands,
rivers pursing through its veins
to be a single integrated space,
and already the ghosts of Holy Roman Empires past,
Napoleonic conceits, and Congresses to spell an end to war
remind the chastened eavesdropper at the door
that dreams and nightmares are really twins
and fir trees and olive groves
splintered witnesses to all that came before.

Éric Zemmour, Le suicide français.
Paris: Albin Michel, 2014. 527 pages.

A significant shakeup in European politics is underway. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, parties of the populist right like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain made significant breakthroughs, with parties of the populist left like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece doing the same.

A lot of attention in recent months has been focused on Syriza, which won parliamentary elections in Greece in January 2015 with a strong anti-austerity program, setting off a new round of debate about an eventual Greek default on its international debts and/or withdrawal from the euro (Grexit). Of potentially greater significance, however, is the continuing ascension of Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the National Front. Though presidential elections are not due in France until 2017, François Hollande, the current incumbent, is terribly unpopular, as is the likely candidate of the centre-right, former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Public opinion polls show the National Front to be the leading party in France, and in regional and local elections it has been cutting deeply into traditional bastions of support of both the right and left.

Marine Le Pen has made clear her disdain for the course the European Union has been following and the loss of sovereignty France has experienced ever since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. She supports a French exit from the euro and increased state intervention to promote French jobs in an economy that has been buffeted by globalization. She has also made clear her opposition to what she sees as the Islamization of France and ongoing immigration from North Africa and beyond, a position rendered even more salient in the aftermath of the attacks by jihadi extremists on Charlie Hebdo and a Parisian kosher supermarket earlier this year. She has also expressed support for Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Crimea and Ukraine and for the Assad regime in Syria, breaking with the dominant Western position.

All this by way of introduction to Éric Zemmour’s Le suicide français, which has sold over 500,000 copies since publication in France and will be appearing in an English translation shortly. In it Zemmour, a well-known journalist and controversial public figure on the right, has chronicled more than 40 years of French political, cultural and social developments with the intensity of a surgeon honing in on a tumour in a stricken patient. Only the patient in this case is France, and the disease, according to its author, beyond remedy.

France has a long tradition of books chronicling the nation’s decline – Alain Peyrefitte’s Le mal français, published in 1976, comes to mind, as does Julien Benda’s La trahison des clercs of 1927. There is an even earlier history of authors on the right like Charles Maurras and the Action française around the turn of the 20th century or, a century before, Louis-Gabriel de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, monarchist opponents of the French Revolution, denouncing the decline of France’s traditional values. Their perceived sources of decline are “outsiders” – Jews at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, intellectuals of the Enlightenment (la faute à Voltaire et Rousseau) in the aftermath of 1789. The tone is strident and unforgiving.

17_General_charles_de_gaulle_visite_isles_sur_suippe_1963The same can be said of Zemmour’s book. He, however, has a more contemporary target. The student revolt of May 1968 opened the floodgates of social and political innovation, undoing the tightly knit fibre of French society that had allegedly existed until then. Like the Commandatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the ghost of Charles de Gaulle haunts Zemmour’s book, casting a disdainful look at his incompetent successors. For Zemmour, like many right-wing intellectuals, is a temporal irredentist, and the golden age for him lies in the heyday of Gaullist France.

What are some of his main beefs against post-1968 France? May ’68 unleashed societal impulses that could no longer be controlled. Feminism, largely imported from the United States, began to sap the foundations of the traditional family. Close behind came gays with their demands for equality of treatment, up to and including same-sex marriage. The discourse of human rights began to creep into French legislation and judicial proceedings, reinforced by the rulings of the European Court of Justice. France was becoming more individualistic, less republican, closer to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant model than to its earlier Catholic or Jacobin traditions.

Zemmour has it a bit too easy. In 1967, a year before May ’68, the Gaullist government legalized birth control pills. Was it simply aping the United States or was it reacting to the new reality the invention of the pill entailed? Did it take May ’68 for the hold of the Catholic Church to weaken or had the process begun well before then, given the wave of secularization sweeping through western Europe in the decades following World War II? As for human rights, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights dates from 1948 and many Western countries promulgated human rights legislation in the decades that followed. There was nothing uniquely French (or American) about this development, as Canadians certainly know. The same is true where gay rights are concerned.

One of the more controversial features of Zemmour’s book involves his recasting of the role of the Vichy government in the deportation of French Jews during World War II. For many decades, this sordid piece of French history got little play – much as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which ended toleration of the Huguenots, had little play in earlier French historiography. It took the publication in 1972 of a major study by an American historian, Robert Paxton, to cast a critical look at the complicity of the Vichy regime with the Nazi occupiers. Zemmour, himself of Jewish origin, goes out of his way to downplay Vichy’s responsibility, if not entirely exculpate the regime. He emphasizes the fact that it was mostly foreign-born, rather than French-born, Jews who were shipped off to the concentration camps by Vichy, and that its anti-Semitic policies were mild compared to those of Nazi Germany. And he spends many pages excoriating the attention that recent French presidents from Jacques Chirac to Sarkozy to Hollande have paid to Vichy’s policies, acknowledging France’s guilt in the process.

Here again he overplays his hand. Without the intervention of outside historians like Paxton, the reevaluation of Vichy’s role might never have taken place. To be sure Vichy France was not Nazi Germany, but it was a compliant ally, and many Jews, both foreign- and French-born, paid for it with their lives. This was not a little “detail” of France’s World War II history – as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s far more pugnacious and anti-Semitic father, would have put it – but an important one. Not the whole of what the Occupation, the Resistance and the eventual outcome of World War II were ultimately about. But all the more relevant given the tendency to ignore it in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Some of the other major developments that Zemmour castigates also have little to do with May ’68. One of these is globalization, the decline of French manufacturing and a new international division of labour with China a rising power. It is well and good to hold up the decade of the 1960s, with its dirigisme and protectionism, as a model. But how well would France have fared with such policies, even with de Gaulle at the helm, 50 years later?

What is interesting in Zemmour’s take on France’s economic evolution is that he is no neoliberal. His views are those of a more traditional European (in contrast to North American) conservative, sceptical of the blandishments of liberal capitalism. At times, his views are closer to those on the left in their critique of global capitalism; he is not unlike Marine Le Pen in this regard.

He is also close to Le Pen when it comes to Islam and the threat it poses for France. Too many of the new immigrants (many of whom, incidentally, predate May ’68) have not been prepared to integrate into the mainstream of French society as earlier waves of immigrants had done. With the concentration of Muslims in many of the banlieues surrounding French cities has come a wave of Islamization and the reduction of traditional republican authority figures such as magistrates, police and teachers to a vestigial role. Hence the pressure on Muslim women to wear the hijab, the demand for halal meals in French school cafeterias, insistence on segregation between men and women in athletic facilities, etc.

The debate has grown more intense in the aftermath of the jihadi attacks in Paris in January. But the muscular response of the French government, singling out Islamic radicalism as a direct threat to the Republic, and the huge subsequent demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere by defenders of republican values suggest that France is not quite ready to roll over and play dead when faced with jihadi extremism. Le suicide français – not quite!

One further aspect of Zemmour’s book that bears attention is his strongly anti-European stance and claim that Germany has emerged as the true master of continental Europe while the French foolishly have played along. Zemmour’s anti-German sentiment recalls the anti-Boche cries of an earlier era – a jarring and unpleasant note. The truth of the matter is that France played an equal, if not dominant, role in the French-German couple through the first decades of the European Economic Community, and that its weakness in recent decades owes far more to its weakened economic position relative to Germany than to anything else. Has Zemmour anything to propose to turn things around? Not really, other than pulling up the drawbridge and playing Asterix against the Romans.

On a positive note, Zemmour writes well and has a mordant sense of humour that can hit home. As an example, this passage on Oscar Wilde: “Poor Oscar Wilde. Condemned in Victorian England for his homosexuality, he is celebrated 100 years later for exactly the same reason, though he would be ostracized in our society for what would be called his misogyny.” Zemmour is an equal opportunity offender, putting the entire French political class, left and right, through his grinder. Some of his observations, on the downside of globalization, for example, or on the problems of Muslim integration in the banlieues, ring true.

On the other hand, he overwrites, to a point where the reader begins to pine for the brilliant French aphorists of yesteryear who could capture in one sentence what takes Zemmour page after page. He can be terribly unfair, as when he castigates Simone Veil, one of the more honourable French politicians of the last half century and a concentration camp survivor herself, for her “imaginary“ tears when invoking the Holocaust. And his commitment to French patriotism and great figures of the past like Napoleon or de Gaulle has a retro feeling to it two decades into the 21st century.

Though Zemmour is not a card-carrying member of the National Front, in more ways than one his views parallel Marine Le Pen’s and those of the millions of French, urban or rural, traditionalist or simply disenchanted, who are rallying to her camp. One can see Zemmour, in the Gramscian sense, as an organic intellectual for the National Front. And that makes his book important.

My own affinities – no surprise – are closer to intellectuals of the left like Pierre Bourdieu, Pierre Rosanvallon or Thomas Piketty. But I cannot deny that the populist right in France has found in Éric Zemmour a robust champion of its cause.

The Arab Spring, as the rapid-fire events that began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and have since engulfed Libya and much of the Middle East have come to be known, is a phenomenon of historic importance. Comparisons have been made, not unfairly, with 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of revolutions in eastern Europe, and with 1848, a year which saw revolutions sweep through much of continental Europe. It is far too early to tell where the process will lead, and whether some lasting form of representative democracy will take hold in the region. What is certain is that 2011 marks a turning point, and that there will be no easy going back to the old-style authoritarian regimes that had dominated the Arab world through modern times. Some like Tunisia or Egypt may have begun a serious transition; others like Morocco may slowly shift from an executive monarchy to a constitutional one, where parliament and political parties acquire greater power than before; and still others like Syria, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia may be the last to see major institutional change.

Libya has been something of a special case. In the beginning, Muammar Gaddafi was seen as an heir to the mantle of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader of post-1952 Egypt who nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Gaddafi did the same with the oil fields of his country. Subsequently, he was seen as a supporter of terrorist movements, culminating in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. Later he was a strong proponent of African unity, and still later, in his opposition to Al Qaeda, a welcome ally to the West and to a plethora of oil and other multinational corporations (including Canada’s SNC-Lavalin) that rushed to profit from the country’s wealth.

Through it all, however, the regime has been notable for its internal repression. Earlier uprisings in eastern Libya were put down ruthlessly. (This helps explain why the current insurrection against his rule has been most successful in that part of the country.) Nor was any opposition to the regime, however tame, tolerated. Gaddafi laid claim, interestingly enough, to having established a form of direct democracy in his country through a green revolution that had done away with the need for traditional political parties and elected institutions. Popular committees filled the void, controlled, to be sure, by regime loyalists, while Gaddafi himself, abjuring any formal office, exercised his authority as Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. An ubuesque world, made even more so by the ever-changing pronouncements and positions of the Brotherly Leader. Shades of Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and other regimes of a hard-line authoritarian bent.

In the evolution of the Libyan situation in recent years, high-profile Western intellectuals have had significant interaction with the regime. A number of these have been leading exponents of democratic theory and democratization in the English-speaking world − political theorists like Benjamin Barber and David Held, sociologists like Anthony Giddens.

The most serious form of engagement has been through the operations of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, and through ties with one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, an MA and PhD graduate of the London School of Economics. A gift of $2.5 million from the Gaddafi Foundation to the LSE for a Global Governance Institute followed the awarding of Saif’s PhD. The Monitor Group, an American consultancy firm in receipt of $3 million from the Libyan regime, has also played an important role in bringing well-known academics like Joseph Nye, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam to Libya. It is also widely suspected of having done a lot of the research for Saif’s PhD, now subject to examination as to its “academic authenticity” by an inquiry into the LSE-Libya connection headed by Lord Woolf.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi has come to world attention in recent months because of his very public role in defending his father’s regime in the face of popular revolt. It was not so long ago, however, that he was seen as a liberalizing bridge between his father’s old-style authoritarian regime and a more democratic Libya. One of his academic advisers at the LSE was David Held, author of such books as Models of Democracy and Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Reality; Saif’s PhD thesis was entitled The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions, a promising title for a would-be reforming figure. Saif was chosen to deliver the Ralph Miliband memorial lecture at the LSE in May 2010, in which he told his audience that democracy was the best way forward for the future of Libya; and until the Libyan uprising, Oxford University Press was on record as having offered Saif al-Islam Gaddafi a book deal for publication of his thesis.

The most sinister part of the story lies in the things some of the academics who visited Libya were to write about the country. The worst offender was Anthony Giddens, now Lord Giddens, a former director of the LSE, prominent adviser to Tony Blair and author of the idea of a third way between capitalism and socialism. Here are passages from what he wrote in the New Statesman and the Guardian about his meeting with Gaddafi in 2007:

Dressed in a brown-gold robe, he cuts an impressive figure.

You usually get about half an hour when meeting a political leader. My conversation with Gaddafi lasts for more than three. Gaddafi is relaxed and he clearly enjoys intellectual conversation. We sit close together and occasionally sip mint tea.

He likes the term “third way” because his own political philosophy, developed in the late 1960s, was a version of this idea.

Our conversation is wide-ranging and The Leader, as he is universally known in Libya, makes many intelligent and perceptive points. Over the past three or four years, Gaddafi has come in from the cold internationally.

Gaddafi’s “conversion” may have been driven partly by the wish to escape sanctions, but I get the strong sense that it is authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it. Saif Gaddafi is a driving force behind the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya.

As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gaddafi seems genuinely popular.

Will real progress be possible only when Gaddafi leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold.

My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking.

For those with historical memories, all this is reminiscent of starry-eyed Western intellectual pilgrims to Moscow in the 1930s, returning from meetings with Stalin and acolytes of the regime with accounts of having visited the promised land. Nor was Giddens the only one to be charmed by the Gaddafi magic. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, shortly after a 2007 visit to Libya, Benjamin Barber called Gaddafi “surprisingly flexible and pragmatic.” He said he was convinced Libya could become the first Arab state with “direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.”

It is no accident that until mid-February 2011, Barber was a board member of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. (Other board members have included Hernando de Soto, the neoconservative Peruvian economist. David Held had accepted an initial offer to be a board member in 2009, but backed off after the LSE suggested that there might be a conflict of interest because of the foundation’s grant to the Global Governance Institute which Held codirects.) For his part, Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School, another Libya visitor, in a piece he wrote for the New Republic, highlighted Gaddafi’s interest in discussing direct democracy with him.

When I first heard about these goings-on, I was shocked. Surely Western academics with a serious commitment to democratic principles could not be taken in by a Gaddafi, who had been running an authoritarian regime for decades. But then my shock was tempered by a realization that there was nothing all that surprising about what had transpired. Philosophers and political theorists through the ages have sought to change the world. And one of the surest – and undoubtedly most dangerous – ways is to try to convince rulers to follow their advice.

Plato deluded himself into thinking that the tyrant of Syracuse might follow some of his precepts about governing. For his pains, he found himself clapped into a dungeon, and was lucky to make it back to Athens alive. Aristotle no doubt had great hopes for the deeper principles he could instill into his pupil Alexander. Alexander had other worlds to conquer and did so. Seneca may have hoped to nurture Nero in the ways of philosophy. Suicide was his only recourse when Nero condemned his tutor, like so many others, to death. Voltaire may have flattered himself regarding the influence he had over Frederick the Great. Diderot conversed with Catherine the Great about the Enlightenment. But despots remain despots – enlightened or not.

So the LSE’s attempt to mould the son of a modern despot into a model liberal democrat builds on an earlier tradition. Many intellectuals love the lure of power, much as entrepreneurs revel in money, and the possibility of influencing a future leader is not one to be lightly spurned. Academics like Jeffrey Sachs acted as consultants to governments in post-1989 eastern Europe. Intellectuals entered politics actively in Latin America after its democratic turn in the 1980s and 1990s (Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and José Castañeda in Mexico come to mind), and have played an ongoing role as advisers or participants in the politics of Western liberal societies. The desire to translate theory into practice could have an elixir-like appeal to Western intellectuals of an overtly democratic persuasion. Who was to know that the call of family and tribe, the family business of ruling Libya, would win out in Saif al-Islam Gaddafi over the higher democratic principles that David Held or Anthony Giddens professed? Who was to know that the call of family and tribe, the family business of ruling Libya, would win out in Saif al-Islam Gaddafi over the higher democratic principles that David Held or Anthony Giddens professed?Or that in the world of Libyan realpolitik Benjamin Barber’s conceit about direct democracy would be just that, a conceit?

Have we learned anything from this disaster? The LSE, renamed by some wags the Libyan School of Economics, has lost a director, Howard Davies, and a good deal of its reputation. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s PhD thesis will shortly join that of ex-doctor and German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as a cause célèbre of academic plagiarism. The Gaddafi Foundation will enter the dustbin of history as a blatant front organization for a regime tainted with blood. And maybe, just maybe, a few of the figures who have burned their fingers badly in the recent conflagration will remember the old precept about needing a long spoon when supping with the devil.

More to the point, let us hope that the Arab Spring brings meaningful change to the Middle East, that autocrats cease to rule the roost, and that the peoples of the Middle East, the true repositories of any democratic aspirations, can actually see some of their dreams come to fruition. This is where Benjamin Barber, Anthony Giddens and David Held should have focused their attention, rather than on converting the Gaddafis to democratic ideals. But the Gaddafis had power, and the Arab street did not. And sadly intellectuals, even overtly democratic ones, are not to be trusted to speak truth to power, when those with power come calling for their advice.

It was the Spanish part of the invention of America that liberated Western man from the fetters of a prison-like conception of his physical world, and it was the English part that liberated him from subordination to a Europe-centred conception of his historical world. In these two great liberations lies the hidden and true significance of American history.

— Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America1

What exactly does it mean to be a North American? Europeans have been engaged in a long-running debate about the meaning and nature of Europe, not only in the last 50 or 60 years with the emergence of the European Union but for many centuries before. Does it make sense to engage similarly with the question of North America’s identity?

Globalization has spawned a series of continental economic blocs. The European Economic Community, from which the European Union has evolved, was the first to emerge. It has been followed by the ASEAN grouping in Southeast Asia; the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), subsequently extended to Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and Mercosur in the southern cone of South America.

The FTA and NAFTA have brought in their wake a strengthening of economic integration within North America. To be sure, American investment in both Canada and Mexico goes back to the second half of the 19th century. But capital flows – in some cases into as well as out of the United States – have grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. The movement of population, both across the U.S.’s border with Canada and much more strikingly across its border with Mexico, has catapulted dramatically. In the Canadian case, the main original influx of settlers on the English Canadian side came from inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies fleeing the American Revolution. Subsequently, the balance of population exchange has tended to favour the United States over Canada, but with significant numbers moving in each direction. In the Mexican case, growing migration to the United States, especially in recent decades, has helped fuel American economic prosperity while simultaneously provoking a polarizing debate about the consequences of that migration for American national identity.

At the same time, 9/11 and its aftermath have raised questions of security to a continent-wide level – as manifested, for example, in the Security and Prosperity Partnership first proposed by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in 2004 – while simultaneously provoking vigorous opposition from those concerned about both civil liberties and national sovereignty. Political leaders have paid greater symbolic attention to North America, with three-way summits and bilateral exchanges of visits (e.g., between Canadian and Mexican heads of government) happening far more frequently than before. This suggests the need to take North America seriously as a subject of reflection – and not only from the economic or security point of view.


Let me turn to the question of possible commonalities among the three North American countries. The question has been rarely posed in terms of North America per se, but it has been evoked on a number of occasions where the Americas as a whole are concerned. Back in 1932, Herbert Bolton gave his presidential address to the American Historical Association – meeting in Toronto, interestingly enough – on the topic, “Do the Americas Have a Common History?” The theme sparked a vigorous debate over the following two decades, with most commentators rejecting the argument that there was a common cultural, economic or political pattern to the development of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the Americas on the one hand and the largely English-speaking parts on the other.2

But this did not put paid to the discussion. In the 1990s, J.H. Elliott, a leading British scholar of Spain and the Spanish Empire, argued that despite obvious differences, there were certain commonalities to the New World societies that came to be created in the Americas in the aftermath of European conquest and settlement.3 I tend to agree with Elliott. But I am not interested in tackling as vast a subject as the Americas as a whole, and will confine myself instead to North America. What then might Mexico, the United States and Canada possibly have in common?

Geography is a point of departure. The most striking common characteristic of the three countries in this regard is that each spans the continent from sea to sea: Canada and the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Mexico from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The myth of western settlement and the western frontier looms large in both Canada and the United States. Mountain ranges give a common stamp to North America: the American cordillera chain, including the Rockies in Canada and the United States and the Sierra Madre in Mexico, runs down the western part of the continent, while in the east the Appalachians span the U.S.–Canada border and almost touch the mountains of the Canadian Shield.

Each country was originally populated by indigenous peoples, and in all three societies the coming of Europeans had a devastating impact on these peoples, who were wiped out or marginalized as the case might be. The colonies or states that sprang up on their soil were ruled either directly from Europe or, following the achievement of independence, by the European settlers who had been left behind. The Native presence may be particularly important in Mexico, with the notion of mestizaje and of the forging of a cosmic race, first advanced in the 1920s by José Vasconcelos, the well-known writer who was briefly Minister of Education.4 Native symbols and names may dot the landscape of North America, but in reality, indigenous peoples in all three countries have yet to come into their own.

Religion was also European in its origins – Christianity in its Protestant and Catholic variants. Yet something very peculiar has happened to Christianity in the New World, especially evident in the United States and Mexico. At the very beginning (1630) in Massachusetts, Governor John Winthrop saw America as a shining “city upon a hill,” creating the New Jerusalem that the Old World had shunned. There followed the Great Awakening of the early 18th century, the religiosity that accompanied the United States from its creation through the Civil War and beyond, the frequent innovation associated with new sects like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons, and the wholesale Americanization not only of Protestantism in its various guises but of Catholicism and Judaism as well. Well might de Tocqueville observe, “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.”5

In Mexico, the syncretism associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, first sighted in the 16th century by an indigenous inhabitant, would bear fruit through the centuries that followed so that various political movements would wrap themselves in her name. By the end of the 20th century her cult was so powerful that she was elevated to the status of the patron saint of all the Americas by Pope John Paul II. Old World religions, much like old wines, would come to assume somewhat altered identities in New World bottles.

The same was true for languages. In Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language, published a few decades after the American Revolution, the English of the old mother country gave way to a much simplified spelling and significant linguistic innovation. Canadian English, for its part, would be greatly influenced by northern American influence through the Loyalists who settled the eastern parts of the country and would be permanently marked by a combination of American and British features. Spanish in Mexico, as in the rest of Latin America, would become a more flexible language, in both vocabulary and pronunciation, than the one that had originated in Spain.

In New France, later Quebec, French also acquired a degree of informality – very North American in character – quite at odds with the spoken French of the former metropole. Gérard Bouchard, the well-known Quebec historian, writes about arriving in France for his doctoral studies in the late 1960s: “I discovered that various words and expressions that to me seemed perfectly French were only so for us Québécois. My way of speaking amused my Parisian friends. In the end, it annoyed me but I began to adopt the French accent so that they could understand me.”6 The flora, fauna and geological formations of the New World, interactions with indigenous peoples and languages, the hard realities of frontier existence far from Old World courts and the intermingling of immigrants from many different backgrounds were to alter the English, French and Spanish languages on the North American continent and give them a suppleness they had not known before.

Another common feature involves the importance of regions and regionalism in any larger sense of place. The different colonies had different histories of settlement behind them: New England as opposed to Virginia; Nova Scotia as opposed to Quebec. The frontier bred its own regional identities, in the American case first in the Appalachians, then along the Mississippi, then in the western plains and on the Pacific Coast. Regional divisions across the Mason-Dixon Line regarding slavery led to the Civil War of the early 1860s; as recently as the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the division between Democrats and Republicans could assume a regional character, so-called blue vs. red states.

Canada too has known its share of regional divisions. The most profound, of course, is that between Quebec and English-speaking Canada, taking on more the character of a national division. But the west has often felt alienated from the rest of Canada, and this alienation has found expression in support for political parties such as the Progressives, the CCF, Social Credit, the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance. Nor has Mexico been far behind. State and regional identities often trumped national ones through two centuries of Mexico’s post-independence existence. In the 2006 presidential elections, the northern half of the country, more industrialized and better integrated into NAFTA, voted for National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón, with the southern half of the country, poorer and more indigenous in character, voting for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Then there is the role that constitutions have come to play in cementing civic identity in the three countries. This has been most striking in the United States, where the Constitution has taken on an iconic character almost since its drafting in Philadelphia in 1787. As the embodiment of the revolutionary break with Britain and a new American identity, it provided a significant part of the political glue in building a new country, as the oath of allegiance to the Constitution recited by every newly naturalized American citizen demonstrates. To challenge the American Constitution in any significant way is beyond the pale of the national consensus, and would open one to the charge of being anti-American or un-American.

In Mexico, the constitution of 1917 is also the product of a revolution. It was arguably the most progressive document of its day, with clauses regarding the inalienability of the nation’s land and resources and the rights of labour. Not all the clauses, needless to say, were honoured in practice, and there have been significant amendments to the document over time. Yet even today, the 1917 constitution retains something of an iconic character in Mexican society and political actors must respect that fact.

In Canada, born of evolution rather than revolution, the constitution until recently was not a particularly venerated document. An act of the British Parliament, lacking evocative language and even an amending formula, the British North America Act of 1867 was primarily the plaything of federal and provincial politicians, concerned about the division of powers between them. In the early 1980s, toward the end of Pierre Trudeau’s prime ministership, all this changed drastically with the patriation battle and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Though only 25 years old, the Charter has attained a degree of iconic status – not least as a means of trying to consolidate a common civic identity in a country with important linguistic and cultural divisions. In short, in all three North American societies, written constitutions have come to play an important civic role. Is this surprising in New World societies with a great deal of population intermingling and little place for purely ethnic expressions of national identity?

One final point of commonality – a quite important one from the international relations point of view. North America, at least since the second half of the 19th century, and more especially since the second decade of the 20th, has known a Kantian peace. Kant’s dream of perpetual peace for a republican Europe would remain a pipedream until after World War II, and as the Balkan Wars of the 1990s remind us, it is still too utopian for parts of the old continent. In North America, with the signal exception of the Mexican-American War of 1848 and the short-lived American incursion into Mexico in 1914 at the height of that country’s revolution, the national borders between states have not been questioned through war.

This is not a trivial matter. North America has been a continent of international peace in a world that has been anything but peaceful. That too may help to forge a sense of a shared identity. Stéphane Roussel has made the argument for Canada,7 though it needs to be extended to Mexico. For example, Alan Riding notes that a not insignificant tradeoff for Mexico from its proximity to the United States has been the absence of a large military establishment – the bane of so many other Latin American republics in the 20th century.8


Let me highlight a few of the things that make the three states of North America so very different.

1. American exceptionalism vs. Canada’s role as a more European-influenced Atlanticist power and Mexico’s as a Latin American–oriented one

Deborah Madsen writes, “American exceptionalism permeates every period of American history and is the single most powerful agent … concerning the identity of America and Americans.” Michael Kammen asks, “How exceptional was (past tense) American exceptionalism? I will venture a one-word hunch: very.” There is no parallel notion of exceptionalism – of constituting a civilization or society apart from all others – in either Canada or Mexico. Moreover, the United States was the birthplace of Manifest Destiny, with statesmen like John Quincy Adams convinced that “the whole continent of North America was destined by Divine providence to be peopled by one nation … in one federal Union.” Though that aspiration has long since vanished, the United States has become a global and hegemonic power, with far greater influence over its two North American neighbours than the latter can ever hope to wield over it. As Carlos Fuentes put it recently, “In the world in which we live, Mexico will always have problems with the United States.”9 Most Canadians would not see things very differently.

2. The relationship between market and state

There has been a more untrammelled capitalism in the United States as opposed to a more sustained use of the state as an instrument of economic development and/or defensive nationalism in Canada and Mexico. As Alfred Chandler argued, “In the United States the base was designed, constructed, and operated almost wholly by private enterprise.” Economic individualism is deeply embedded in the American body politic, a byproduct in part of the deep religious individualism that characterizes that society. This economic individualism has historically been less characteristic of Canada, with its need to build basic infrastructure in a sparsely populated land, and of 20th-century Mexico. Governments in both countries have also been prepared to see culture as a legitimate sphere of state activity. The CBC, National Film Board and Canada Council come to mind in the Canadian case. As for Mexico, Néstor García Canclini writes, “It is logical that, among Latin American countries, Mexico, because of the nationalist orientation of its post-revolutionary policy, should be the one that has been most concerned with expanding visual culture, preserving its patrimony, and integrating it into a system of museums and archaeological and historical centers.” The same is not true for the United States, with its much more extensive system of private endowments. As Michael Kammen observed, “Why is the United States so distinctive in not having a ministry of culture? And why is that office comparatively non-controversial in some nations yet politically and ideologically problematic in others – above all, in our own?”10

3. Democratic institutions

These have been clearly embedded in the American system from the beginning. One thinks of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, of Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (“These States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality … the democratic-republican principle”11) and of Harold Laski’s mid-twentieth-century The American Democracy. In Canada, democracy has enjoyed a less mercurial development, more in the British mould, though with American features such as populist movements, especially in the west. In Mexico, democracy has proven a more uncertain characteristic, winning at moments in mid-19th century and after 1910, but going into long periods of eclipse the Porfirian dictatorship of the late 19th century and the 80 years of one-party domination by the PRI, which ended only in 2000.

4. Levels of development

Both the United States and Canada are first-world societies, members of the G-8, with high levels of GDP per capita ($41,890 in the U.S. and $33,375 in Canada in 2007–8), high levels of public education and literacy, social programs (albeit stronger in Canada than in the United States) and well-established bureaucratic and legal norms. On the negative side, racism has long undermined equal treatment where American blacks were concerned, and Native/Aboriginal peoples have been marginalized in both countries. Mexico, compared to its two North American neighbours, is a second-world society ($10,751 GDP per capita in 2007–8), with huge income gaps between the middle and upper middle classes and the lower classes, between north and south, between creoles and indigenas.12 The theme of Lesley Simpson’s book Many Mexicos,13 with its description of four or five distinct societies with gaps between them equivalent to the dimensions of India’s caste system, is almost as true today as it was 65 years ago. To this might be added the depredations of a narco-economy – the dirty money, corruption and violence it engenders.

5. A culture of exuberance vs. a culture of doubt

In the United States, a buoyant and extroverted tone has tended to dominate, exemplified in such figures as Herbert Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, in American cinema and in a good deal of American pop culture, from jazz to rock and roll. One of de Tocqueville’s more telling observations about American life notes, “They clutch everything and hold nothing fast.”14 As Max Lerner put it in arguing the case for America as a civilization,

Most Americans persisted in their image of America as an unfinished country in which history was the art of the possible, but in which the possible, by experience, seemed to stretch further than anywhere else … Since the beginning there have been two crucial images in the American mind. One is that of the self-reliant craftsman, whether pioneer, farmer, or mechanic … the second that of a vast continent to be discovered, explored, cleared … The American will not tolerate the fate of being boxed in like a trapped rat.15

In Canada, survival has been a more characteristic theme, accompanied by a degree of melancholy, especially in Quebec, reflective of the deeper ambiguity of a nationally divided country. In Mexico, there have been melancholic and self-destructive strains to its culture, reflecting in part the confused legacy of conqueror and conquered; the popular imagery of death associated with the celebration of the Día de los Muertos; and revolutionary art forms such as the mural paintings of Diego Rivera and others in the 1920s and 1930s.

The historical trajectories of the three North American countries have been different; their relative positions, both within North America and in the world at large, divergent; their physical characteristics – northern, temperate, semitropical – no less contrasting.

Long-term political implications

In an era marked by the globalization of investment and production, there has been a move to continental trading blocs. The primary motivation behind these developments has been economic, with multinational corporations and big business associations the key forces pushing governments toward freer trade. At the same time, a variety of nongovernmental actors have been engaging in activities beyond the level of the nation-state, around issues ranging from development to the environment to human rights. We may be witnessing the emergence of a more cosmopolitan type of consciousness, reinforced by the rapidity of communication in the world of the Internet. While I hold no illusions about a cosmopolitan identity coming to displace national ones, I can anticipate continental blocs constituting in time a stepping stone to a less narrowly national form of consciousness. At the normative level, this may be the most appealing feature of arrangements such as the European Union, and with time it may also come to mark developments in North America.

However, there are major differences between the EU model and anything that could happen in North America. The sheer size and power of the United States – culturally, demographically, economically, militarily, politically and technologically – make the idea of political integration a good deal less attractive to the two weaker, less populous North American states. It is one thing for the Netherlands or Denmark or Portugal to accept membership in a European Union in which no single larger power dominates. It would be quite a different story for Canadians and Mexicans to accept the prospect of North American political integration.

Nor are the Americans about to surrender sovereignty to a transcontinental political union. American public opinion is still predominantly given to thinking of the United States as a world unto itself, and American political leaders and commentators would not easily take to the notion of imitating the European Union, with its bureaucratic heaviness and recurring political disagreements. Moreover, critics would see any move to North American political integration as bypassing the American Constitution – a charge certain to doom it from the start. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, a weakening of American power in an increasingly polycentric world order may make American policymakers more open to the North American dimension of their international situation.

There may be something in earlier American history that could serve as a template for greater North American cooperation in the future. I am referring to the Articles of Confederation, which served as a de facto constitution for the Thirteen Colonies for eight years, until the current Constitution of the United States was enacted. The articles represented a confederal arrangement among the 13 states, with each retaining “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.”16 To be sure, Congress was vested with powers related to common defence and mutual and general welfare – something that would not transpire in any North American proposal. But the key analogy from my point of view lies in the confederal nature of the original Articles of Confederation.

This would come a lot closer to meeting the needs of the three North American states than a more integrated federal proposal. A loose confederal arrangement among the three North American states somewhere in the future would be building on practices of intergovernmental cooperation that have sprung up with NAFTA and might be extended from the strictly economic realm to other areas of continental concern. Any agreements would always be subject to the consent of the three governments in question. There would be no North American Political Union along EU lines.

The idea of North America is still at an embryonic stage when compared to the idea of Europe. There are multiple other identities, regional and national, to easily trump it in all three countries that make up this continent. Yet it is latent in each of them. With continental economic integration in an era of globalization a reality, and with migration and other ties among the three countries growing apace, the pressures for political collaboration at the North American level will not disappear. À suivre, as they would say in one of North America’s three official languages!

Continue reading “Thinking North America”