The cliché “love-hate relationship” was not coined specifically for Canadians’ interaction with Americans or, to a much lesser degree, vice versa, but that relationship is certainly unique. One of the most famous quotes of Canada’s most famous prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, compared his country’s proximity to the US to a mouse “sleeping with an elephant.”
To be sure, the Canadian identity has often been defined as little more “not Americans” (sometimes beginning with the additional words “at least we’re”), but the more honest among us might admit that in the main, we are Americans, albeit distinguished by a decent health-care system, an indecent climate (“10 months’ winter and two months’ poor sledding”), Tim Hortons, Coffee Crisp, and the letter zed.
However, distance can sharpen one’s perspective, and it is in that sense, as a Canadian who has lived outside his homeland for 20 years, I will attempt to explain why I found the images coming out of Washington this week particularly distressing.
I moved to Asia in 2000, just before the startling Supreme Court-mandated installation of George Bush Jr into the White House and, not long afterward, the “war on terror” and consequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that reshaped – many would say distorted – Asian geopolitics thereafter.
Like many young Canadians in the 1970s, I opposed the Vietnam War, but was not sufficiently astute politically to understand how deeply war-making figured in the American psyche. And like many peaceniks of that era, I dared to hope that America’s humiliation in that conflict would force it to reinvent itself as a true City on the Hill, the “beacon of democracy” it had always claimed to be but, for much of its history, it was not.
But the “war on terror,” and especially the deafening drumbeat and cacophony of lies that culminated in the US attack on Iraq in 2003, was revealing in many ways. It put in focus the warlike nature of the American national psyche, and put in clearer contrast how that psyche differed from its Canadian counterpart.
Now, that is not to give comfort to those Canadians who refuse to see the hypocrisy that has dominated their country’s national identity for most of its history. It has always had, for example, a flourishing weapons industry that has grown fat on America’s wars. Its peace advocacy and diplomacy have nearly always been somewhat weaker than claimed, and far weaker than they could and should have been.
Its malignant behavior toward its non-white minorities, particularly its own aboriginal First Nations and ethnic Japanese during World War II, have mirrored and sometimes outdone the racism for which its southern neighbor is infamous.
However, I think it is fair to say that in Canadian society, to a degree not seen in the US for the most part, non-violence is the default stance, which I would argue has not only kept Canada out of most of America’s wars, has spilled over into domestic policies such as socialized health insurance, abolition of the death penalty, relatively low rates of violent crime, and rational gun laws. Canadians’ reputation as a people who relish peace at home and abroad is therefore largely valid and, in practice, deserved.
Why, then, would I be bothered by the sight of what happened in DC this week? Isn’t it par for the course?
Yes and no. Yes, American democracy has been in a perilous decline that began long before Donald Trump got it into his orange-hued head to move into the White House. But the fact that the American brand of politics exists at all is a remarkable feat, and so is how that system has been wielded across the globe to reshape world governance.
Some of the changes forced on the world, and the way it was done, are obviously regrettable, but many of them are not. On balance, the achievements of the American people have outstripped those of everyone else, in every field from technological innovation to medical breakthroughs to, yes, the furtherance of decent governance and human rights.
Brits, Chinese, and of course Canadians like to crow over the self-inflicted disasters Americans have endured especially since the mid-1940s when they imposed on the rest of us the post-World War II “world order” – low points such as the Red Scare, the civil-rights clashes, Watergate, the Vietnam and Iraq wars and, more recently, the reign of the military-industrial complex and consequent decay of the social contract.
But the ability of the Americans not only to survive such setbacks but to emerge the better for them is possibly the most admirable quality of all.
But now, we see those images. And we recognize how they are the inevitable culmination of the long decline of one of the greatest societies, maybe the greatest, in history. And we must ask, will they emerge victorious yet again, or is this really the end?
And if we ask that, we must go further, and ask what will come next.
Spengler reported on Asia Times on January 8 that “American democracy died on Capitol Hill,” but it can be credibly argued that it actually died, not just in the US but everywhere, long before that mob stormed the Capitol.
Indeed, the ease with which people either abandoned unquestioningly their right to resist draconian, ham-fisted and highly damaging government efforts to control a viral contagion or smeared and ridiculed those who did resist, and the coincident capitalization on the Covid-19 crisis by communist China, the most successful dictatorship since the Nazi era, are all the evidence we need.
Democracy was a worthy project, one that the Americans empowered more than any other society, and it accomplished many great things while it lasted. But it was always doomed; humans tell themselves they want to be their own bosses and not be pushed around, but they melt like Popsicles in the summer sun at the first sign of crisis and yearn to be told what to do.
And there is no shortage of Xi Jinpings and Narendra Modis and Rodrigo Dutertes, and “lockdown” fundamentalists and armchair virologists, who are happy to oblige.
And who will save the day? Us Canadians? I began this essay by suggesting that it is often easier to observe the developments of a national psyche from afar. So, what has happened in my homeland over the past two decades?
The rise of the nation’s first neoconservative prime minister, Stephen Harper; the unchecked dominance of a fossil-fuel industry condemned by environmentalists as the world’s filthiest; the decline of a once-influential labor movement and of the socialist New Democratic Party that during my youth served as the conscience of the centrist Liberal-Tory duopoly; the silencing of a once-noisy anti-war movement.
And today, a weak, faux “populist” regime under the son of the late, great Pierre Trudeau, kowtowing to the likes of Mike Pompeo, Eliot Abrams and Donald Trump himself, arresting the daughter of Huawei’s founder and imposing crippling sanctions on struggling Latin American countries, while the electorate utters not a peep of dissent (except when they are shocked, shocked to hear that Justin once attended a costume party in brownface).
This Canadian is old enough to remember a time when we marched in the streets against the wrongs and excesses of our American cousins, and of the Russians and the Chinese and apartheid South Africans and others, a time when we dared to believe democracy would win the day eventually.
Now we are content just to lie on the sofa sipping Tim Hortons, munching Coffee Crisp, watching Netflix, and badmouthing on our iPhone’s Facebook app those who dissent from official narratives.
David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.